Monday, December 31, 2012

Fast taking on the dark side of Singaporeans

Singaporeans are complain kings, we all know that. In fact the whole South East Asia knows that. I think the whole world knows that, and maybe even the deities above also know. Instead of going on with our otherwise peaceful lives in a very safe and clean country, we Singaporeans will utilize every chance there is to complain about the smallest of things. We complain about bad food, we complain about bad services. We complain about that chipped edge in the cup we are served.

A neighbor hung out her huge underwear to dry, a piercing vision burned into the back of our eyes, we complained. Neighbors naked in their own apartment, we also complained. People smoked, we complained and now the smoking ban in public places. I stood too near to a table waiting for diners finish up in a hawker center, they complained I invaded their airspace. We complain about everything. We don’t just complain, we bring it up to the managers and even to the authorities. It just makes us happy that someone suffers because we complain. During the 17th century, Galileo discovered Earth revolves around the Sun. It’s the 21st century now and Singaporeans still thinks the universe revolves around oneself.

In the tight knit community of housing board development flats (HDB), we would call the police if our Indian neighbor cooks curry all the time. It had happened, a PRC* complained and surprisingly, the Indian household was told to stop cooking curry. Naturally, the social media flared up big with storms of more complains soon after, just as expected.
(*PRC - China immigrant commonly classified with a large dose of racism as Permanent Residence China)

We complain to police about drivers cutting into our lanes, video evidence provided by the in car camera so popular now. The bloke who got complained then receives a letter sent to his home, a huge fine he must pay. I used to have a car, exhaust note an anonymous neighbor thought too loud. Complained mystery neighbor did, magically I received a lovely summon for a fine. I had also to change my exhaust system.

Life is simple in Bangkok, well at least it used to be. Land of smiles, true. All are friendly, this no longer really true. Taught to be forgiving, taught to be compassionate by Buddha’s teaching. Taught to have a cool head and to take things lightly. I am starting to see the community losing her beauty. Just check out the social media, you could see aplenty of complaining. During the course of renovating my kitchen, I had changed the position of my ventilation fan to make way for a new kitchen hood. A day after I got a call from the developer, the household behind registered a huge complain. Complained he did that the vent will blow “bad smell” into his house. We explained that we had purchased a kitchen hood with its own independent odor removal system venting air out through the original position in which the ventilation fan was, directed away from his residence. The ventilation fan we moved serves to only vent warm air out. My nice neighbor complained back two folds. Ok, he have his reasons, I would complain too if I were him (especially since I am Singaporean). I will move the ventilation fan somewhere else as a complying gesture.

In the community I will soon live, they have a common Facebook page. It’s filled with a myriad of complains. So I suppose the neighbor behind voicing out his concerns in a large way was just the norm when compared to the list of Faceook entries. Gentle Thai people, what have become of you. Why the change over the years? Is it the economic progress, the brewing competitiveness resulting in change in behavioral patterns? Fast adopting a “my-one-must-be-bigger-than-yours” attitude many are becoming. And in the evolution towards a better quality of life, individual expectations of their surrounding intensified.

I was in a lift at work. There was a lady from the insurance company within. Another stranger entered and she was holding onto a queue card of some sort representing services required. The lady from the insurance company spotting that started to chat with the stranger first asking what she was visiting the company for. Then it grew into a conversation about the New Year holidays and their return to the provinces. Such warm friendliness, I wonder how long more will I see. Soon we will regress to become like Singapore, strangers remain strangers, arrogance will be the first stance, I am better off then you. It seems the more money we earn, bad social behavior we will see the emergence. The manners between Bangkokians and the laid back country folks then diverges as the gap between the rich and the poor widens. The latter being more pleasant.

I was at Starbucks blogging this entry. The seat opposite mine was unoccupied. Until the Chinamen came and without asking permission, sat. If I were still who I was, with an aggressive tone I would have voiced to him hostilely “ask me before you sit”. I had done this before to protect my airspace, several times in fact many years back. Now that I am drenched in Thai ethnicity, I let it be, no one was sitting there anyways, I was alone. I remained silent and continued this entry.

Singapore is now filling up to the brim with an influx of PRCs. We complain nonstop about it but for reasons. As different cultures mixed, conflicts are bound to occur. In MacDonald’s we Singaporeans queued orderly waiting our turns to order food. There was a case, a China women walked in and just cut right into the queue up front. The queue of Singaporeans, initially strangers, united as one and complained out loud and all gave the women a good scolding. She left. We protected our rights with our aggressiveness. There are many more cases where PRCs had been force into submission by our complaining nature. I was told Singapore is the only place where mainland Chinese nationals had learned to behave in their spreading migration across the world.

In Thailand, the land of compassion. We are kind mostly, but not of lately. Being kind has its weaknesses. It had opened the avenue for others to take advantage of us. It had happened in business, Thais dealing with foreigners. Until this day, for some reasons Thais still perceive foreigners, especially Caucasians, to be the almighty and trust them totally. A Thai trusted a foreigner with his good speech, “you do business with me, I fair fair, you can trust me I am good businessman”. As a result after delivering of goods, beyond the 90 days credit terms normally not given to first time deals, not a single cent collected. It’s been more than 180 days, the Thai company had been swindled. It is fortunate that over the course of time, Thais had awoken and learned to protect themselves. It is the wise thing to do in the cycle of development. In social circles, Thais are also wising up, not to be taken advantage of they have learned, they have their rights and complain they will if their turn. With progression comes the intensification of societal imperfection, we cannot avoid that. The renowned Thai friendliness written in books shall only remain in books. Thais taking on the complaining side of Singaporeans is not all that bad, really it has it good points certain ways. But with it comes the conduct I so tired of, a life years ago I abandoned.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Tak and Mae Sot I was In

What do you get when you light a candle in the dark of night? Moths. What do you get when you turn down the temperatures in the north? Thais, and me. December, Thais flock to north in greater numbers than migratory insects. News channels actively encouraged viewers to head there in order to experience the drop in temperatures, Thais chasing winter. Again I have to mention how Thais like to overdress in just moderate temperatures of 18 degrees. I saw people with mink earmuffs on, proof that Thais favor fashion instead of sensibility. This is the reason why if you visit the far northern mountains in December, you think you are in Alaska.

Getting to the Forgotten Land

Instead of heading so far north into Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, there is a province called Mae Sot which I headed to. It’s about 500 km away from Bangkok. I had spoken to a colleague and he told me Mae Sot is a place where Thais had forgotten. Most folks would give this middle earth a miss as it is not on the way en-route over to the far north.

We went on a long weekend, started our journey in the dawn hours when the skies was still dark and blurry, only to realize the blurriness was due to my lack of sleep. Well if you could, go on weekdays in order to avoid the migratory traffic, but I ain’t one of those lucky lot who do not need to worry and work for a living. The drive to Mae Sot was an eternal journey on AH1 (Asian Highway 1) that passed Nakon Sawan before heading west on approach to Tak. I would not recommend one to drive in the dark because of the road conditions around Kamphaeng Phet between Nakon Sawan and Tak. I believe that area is where military tanks are manufactured and does their suspension and terrain track testing. We had to drive slow, I saw inexperience (or stupid) drivers going at ridiculous speeds almost losing grip when their wheels engaged long stretches of trench on the tarmac. Hope the governor there does something to the roads unless his intention is to have his own version of Kamphaeng Grand Canyon Phet. AH1 is the main artery to the north, be advice readers, parts of it is in bad shape so exercise caution.

Now, the fun really begins after Tak towards Mae Sot. Ever watched rally on TV? Well over there you will be in one really. A suitable small to medium size car that allows you to shift gears will be a good idea, unless you want molten brake discs as part of your cars’ permanent feature. Never ending bends, climbs and dips. On third using engine brakes, on fourth cruising and on second overtaking that two carriage truck overloaded with cows on the uphill. I had never heard my 1.5 liter of a Jazz screamed, pleaded for mercy like in Tak before. My seventeen inch rubbers took the brunt of the cornering ordeal, lost a few millimeters they did. The balancing liquid within my ears were stuck to the sides of my brain. The fuel gauge lowered at an incredible rate and I truly regretted not filling up before reaching Tak. Some distance after Kamphaeng Phet, the next petrol station will be in Mae Sot.

Mok Fah Sai

Mok Fah Sai resort is in between Tak and Mae Sot in a village called Mae Lamao. That’s where I stayed. Definitely not a spot well know by foreigners for the two nights there I no see Englishmen speaking the English. There are not many decent resorts in this region for one to choose from and Mok Fah Sai has got to be one of the best. The resort comprises of seventeen units set in an abundance of greenery. It is cozily nestled in the shadows of a great valley. Some of them are well equipped tents with air conditioning and TV that lined along the ever flowing stream. This period of December, waking early to have breakfast among the sea of fog and just enjoying the coolness was itself a remarkable experience. The blanket of fog will rise and reveal the clear blue skies free from pollution after ten in the morning. Unfortunately, that’s when it got really hot. Our room was located up on a hill, right at the fringe of the compound. My waking early to have breakfast at misty dawn of six was partially due to the erroneous roosters that did their constant cock-a-doodle-doo that started at 2 am instead of dawn. Oh so angry… so want to unplug log from house and throw at roosters in the dark.

The resort offered activities such as Jet Ski and ATV. They have a track within for us to stir up a storm of dirt in the petrol driven terrain vehicle. As for jet skiing, I was told we had to embark on a short journey to some pond within the surrounding village. Rafting was also available but December was dry, not much of white water. If one chooses to just relax and laze in the afternoon, one would be indoors with air conditioning on as the temperatures soared to over 30s. And since the nearest Seven Eleven will be 25 km away in Mae Sot, do stock up on snacks and drinks to get the afternoon hours by.

The temperatures started to drop again after four when the sun turned a golden glow. The valley unwound into the shadows of the mountains soon after before the finale of purple twilight with stars flickering on. Those hours were the best times for our massage by the stream, muscles stretched, the soothing sound of water, the gentle conversation so Thai between the masseuses and the patrons. Dinner followed in open air, candle lit tables and the sound of cutlery. Excellent Thai food served, river fish on both dinner nights. The air got heavier as the night grew darker. Smiled, getting cold, the gentle draft present, diners strolled back to their teak bungalows to retire. My hot after dinner coffee bellowed steam, up above the endless void of stars that gleamed.

Things to Do

There is a reason why there is not much of a crowd over in this region. There is simply nothing much to do. Most Thais will head over to Umphang passing Mae Sot to where the majestic Ti Lo Su waterfall is. Done massive research on Google and spoken a plenty to the locals, we drove towards north of Mae Sot to Mae Kasa Hot Springs. The mountain ranges that divided Myanmar and Thailand stretching North to South are bubbling with natural hot springs. Wherever there are hot springs, Thais will boil eggs. This association had been imprinted into their DNA. So like any tourist would, we bought three and slurped them soft boiled eggs dashed with soy sauce after dipping them in the hot water for a few minutes. When the weather is cold, everything will taste great. The steam churned from the hot fountain, the natural streams flowing emitted gentle plumes amidst the cold morning air. For most of our time there, we were just alone and could be doing brave acts such as defecating into the hot springs with no one bothering.

Just driving around among hilly roads we discovered scenic spots. We stepped out to inhale the fresh air and gazed out beyond the massive countryside. On one such spot we did, a truck pulled up next to us. A gentle elderly man thought we were the land buyers he was to meet that day. Found that that we were city folks strange to flowers that grew on sugarcanes, he told us stories of the land. Five years ago a rai would exchange hands for a mere 30,000 Baht. Now it cost half a million. The boom happened within the past two years and plans for resorts were drawn for here and everywhere. He himself, his parcels of land already given some to his three grandsons, was planning for one such on his remaining plots of pristine pastures now sprouting with low income earning sugarcanes. The countryside will change, for better or for worse he will not know.

It was difficult to find a good place to eat, for there was simply none around. We found one just after Mae Sot towards Tak, lurched on high hills next to the main road overlooking the landscape below. At a distance the hazy mountains, in between the farmlands and housing a few. We had Kentucky Fried Fish as recommended, fillets of white river meat. Only the sound of gentle conversation, traffic and exhaust notes not present. A good meal of four dishes for less than 500 Baht.

There are a few hill tribe markets and I think I visited them all. Easily spotted along the roads, they are decorated in bright colored umbrellas sheltering the many peddlers within. Fresh produce from the surrounding at incredibly cheap prices. One could stock up a whole year of salad and fruits. I ain’t no health freak, I prefer the home made thin cut potatoes chips - Lays’ of the hill tribes sprinkled with seaweed, not bad at all.

Mae Sot is the bordering town next to Myanmar, there is a market next to the Friendship Bridge. FYI, all bridges that connect to neighboring countries here in Thailand seemed to be all called Friendship bridges because they are suppose to be friend friend. If Thailand don’t friend one of these countries then maybe they will change name till they friend friend each other again. The friends from friend friend land you can find them in the market selling woodcrafts and jewelries. Some not so pleasant ones operated outside the market will try to friend friend you into buying Viagra, sex toys and “tax exempted” tobacco. Avoid.

We all come to the North for one amazing feature during winter, that is to witness the fog sea they call. One would however do know where to go in order to appreciate the sight. Towards Mae Sot would be the flats. Natural forest had made way for farmlands and fogs do not like them. The fog builds and rises only in the hilly regions towards Tak from Mae Sot. Some driving of 20 km required from our resort in order to reach heights that brought us above the mist to witness the fluffy spectacle of nature. There, sipping espresso at a view point located next to the road, the panoramic sight at eight in the morning I was. Then now in contemplation, if only I had knew of the two nature reserve earlier.

There are two nature reserves further towards Tak. Taksin Maharat National Park would come first. With my lousy Thai I managed to pass of as Thai thus paying the Thai entrance fee, we transverse narrow bridges and roads passed friendly English signs that indicated scenic routes here and there. I was late there in the reserve, no sea of fog. So we decided to visit the famous big tree. 400 meters the sign stated at the parking lot, now how hard can that be. Steep slopes and dangerous stairs all the way down. Finally in the valley we looked up upon a seven hundred year old tree so wide and tall, her name Ton Ka Bak. A small stream flowed nearby, the water crystal clear. The rangers told we can drink from there for it is the source of the rivers, the ground water emanate from underneath, never ending throughout the year. The journey back up, 400 meters in my mind, how hard can that be. My heart pumped more times in that uphill leg compared to what it did in the entire year. Finally in my three days in Mae Sot I broke a sweat… correction, buckets of sweat. Sprawled on the public bench like a dead squid, I would gladly donate money if there is a project there for escalators in nature.

After resurrecting me form the dead squid state, we came out of the park drove a further few kilometers towards the east. Lansang National Park was next. Plenty of waterfalls, plenty of trekking trails. But since my legs were still tentacles attached to my testicles, I had no intention of dissolving them further. We choose the easiest of treks, 150 meters to Lansang Waterfall from the parking lot. Compared to the ordeal before, it was a breeze. We came to the sight of a three level cascades and a small group of teenage youngsters disrupting into all my photographs. Fortunately, they left after a while. Again, we had the whole place to ourselves and we could do brave acts such defecating onto the side rocks beside the falls. Most places of alike I had been, I seen crowds massing in the brown cloudy waters in what appears to be spawning season. But the falls in Tak region are mostly isolated and features amazing water clarity. It’s a place I could gladly swim.

Here I shall end my blog of the Mae Sot experience. Cold winter oh so short they are. The climate is changing, the cold from the north does not descend down into Bangkok as often as it did years back. We need to chase them north.

Bestof2Worlds shares the winter experience in the north east. Read all about it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Renewing Thai Driving License for Foreigners

It does not really matter if one drives around with an expired license here, because it does not really matter at all. But being a most of the time law abiding citizen, I choose to renew mine. It’s already a linguistic challenge to get license renewed at the nearest land transport authority just hunting for the right building and the right counters. With the recent change in regulation, it became a treasure hunt like experience for us foreigners.

Thai regulation changes at a rate the mood of the person sitting on top of authority swings. Driving license used to be lifetime but some years ago, we new license holders will have to renew ours once every five years. Renewing it used to be just going to the nearest Land Transport Authority and getting it done after taking a picture, printing a new card and paying a fee. This year, someone decided to add a battery of reflex test and a mandatory one hour refresher video session to it.

Again, back in Chatuchuk Land Transport Authority I was. Be advice, do not drive there for errands which had to be done there. There is simply not enough parking. Take the BTS to Chatuchuk. It will be wise. All signs are in Thai and technology advances had not produced glasses that do automatic word recognition that infused Google translation. Fortunately, memory served me well and I remembered where Building Four was. I reached Building Four just like how birds followed the Earth’s magnetic fields to their nesting grounds.

Went to the second floor, told them I am foreigner and asked for “foreigner service”. Queued at the counter, the not so friendly staff spent excess time filling Thai forms which I could never. Was then told to approach the “foreigner counters” 17 and 18. Normally, these counters will be very free and things are done in a matter of minutes overtaking the nominal long queues at the sixteen other Thai counters with their crowd. But that day, there were ten of us or so. After having the staffs checked the forms and scribbling more Thai scripts onto them, I was told to sign Thai forms which could as well be donating both my kidneys when I am still alive. They took my passport and I never knew when I will be getting it back.

From second floor I was told vaguely to go to the third floor. Looking silly standing lost, I was guided to join the queue of Thais for what could be entering the gas chamber. There we took a number, was handed my passport back together with more forms, and was asked to watch a Thai video with no English subtitles. But I could understand Thai fortunately so I got to know the sequence of test that I will have to undergo that followed. There were four tests.

We were asked to move into a room in batches of twenty following our queue numbers. Test 1, shouted out the color of the lights, red yellow or green, as they were flashed. Test 2, used a controller, moved a stick in a box some distance away forward and back till it looked like it is next to the other. Test 3, stepped on the brake in time when the light turned red. Test 4, positioned head on strange apparatus and shout the color of lights that appeared at the sides, looking forward all the time. There were people who were color blind I could tell. They kept getting the color wrong and gotten a scolding. There were people who did not brake when the light turned red. They were re-queued and re-tested until they passed.

And then I needed instinct to know I need next to go onto the fourth floor. There, I had to endure a one hour educational video. It was not all that bad. The first ten minutes or so of the video was the most interesting take awoken everyone from our dull transition from counters to counters. They showed a program “Reality via TV” (loosely translated) which featured horrific accidents of motorcyclist with their pillions crashing into speeding vehicles at traffic junctions. Oh man, there was one case where the riders flew so high towards the traffic cameras after the smash. The rest of the session was about watching how Khun Amnat was such a bad driver in contrast to his traffic law abiding perfect neighbor. Khun Amnat was in a wheelchair at the end of the show, his son became a comatose. You could well predict what was in between without me blogging.

After one hour getting to know Khun Amnat, back to “foreigner counter” 17 and 18. Took my picture, printed me card and paid 605 Bath. And so they had changed the rules recently and force drivers to so call undergo a “refresher” course by watching a B grade movie every five years. This is not a bad thing considering the colossal number of bad drivers out there. But still they do not teach Thai drivers about the most basic things such as right of way, how to negotiate a circle and that we should let pedestrians cross at zebra crossings, not run them over. And what about the remainder of the drivers who are holding on the lifetime licenses? Done, till five years later falling on my birthday. Thai licenses are set to expire on birthdays so that one could easily remember.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Koh Lipe 2012, The Southern Experience

And so I had yet conquered another island in the sea of many surrounding Thailand, now back to working life in Bangkok. Looking forward to yet another, plans drawn for months ahead in 2013. Such is life in Thailand, where there are always places to go to, places to explore, places to dip in tranquility where there are crystal clear seas. A life that stand out against those of folks back home, where casinos and vibrant lights permeates their souls, where their existence had infused with the city and the life-blood of all is just money.

Now one thing I liked about my trip to Koh Lipe was how systematic the boat ride was organized. Think of Thailand and the word chaos will naturally come into mind. Well not always as I had experience. On arrival at the operator, I was handed a card with a number on it. Number 1. I arrived two hours early. At the pier we left for Koh Lipe, a number of food outlets serving roti and the morning coffee. So that occupied our time till eleven when the boat was scheduled to leave. No hording mad tourist pushing their way onto the boat, no screaming kids falling into the sea. We were lined up according to our numbers and I was able to pick the best seat up front. So, do arrive early to board first I highly recommend.

There are two main beaches on Lipe. Waters will be clam depends on the season and the winds. October, Sunset beach was churning most of the time and therefore the waters a haze of sandy brown and green. There were however periods of calmness in-between offering postcard perfect scenes of glassy waters set against dark blue skies. The breeze was on strong, though marring the waters, was actually a welcome in contrast to just the blazing heat scorching our salt marinated skin wet with perspiration, typical of any island holidays. Before the occasional downpour, seen at a distance before they dark clouds encroached onto land, their million fine tentacles of rain. The draft turned chilly and the distinct refreshing smell of ozone accompanied the prelude of rain. The sight was dramatic, of darkness far back, of sunny brightness and shimmering pearls the foreground.

Idyllic resort is set on the far southern tip of the island. That’s where I stayed. It is reputed to be the best on the island. Further proof of this reputation denoted by the Malaysian wedding held while I was there. Lipe is popular with Malaysians, many have been there since it is not too far away from the border, offering them a change in cultural diversity as a holiday destination. Most of the resort's rooms had been taken up by the forty or so wedding guest chatting away in Chinese dialects and Singlish like English. Not only is the place great with weddings, but also great for affairs - matured Malaysian men with pretty young things will be a common sight. Idyllic offers several styles of accommodations to choose from, give their website a go and discover. Amenities were up kept and beach up front was pleasantly clean. They have a pool but disappointingly the water was murky. Sipping beer by the pool bar sprawled on the ledge of the infinity pool would have been great but I gave that a miss. The wedding party goers however did not seem to mind as they jumped into the pool after a few rounds of beer, their laughter pierce the clear night skies dotted by glittering stars.

Meals in the hotel was eating art, they were all well presented and the price tag matches the serenity of the settings and the well mannered, very friendly and smiling staffs. Fortunately they do not employ neighboring foreign workers and so there were no linguistic challenges when ordering our food. The staffs were walking information centers and they could tell you heaps of what to do on the island. One even shared his life story with us, mentioned that he had fallen in love with working on this gem of an island and can never adjust to life back in Bangkok. Breakfast was perfect and with the breeze going on, it was just so flawless with the postcard spectacle of long tail boats moored on the white sands, the rocky outcrop of an island set against clear blue skies just opposite the resort.

There are canoes for the guest to explore the surrounding islands. The waiter said he once had to rescue and hull back tourists who ventured too far out. During certain times of the year, the currents would be too strong. So make sure you are physically fit before trying to impress your sweet young thing with testosterone driven acts of heroic “i-strong-can-paddle-round-the-island” display that could turn out to be alpha lion in distress. They have snorkeling gears for rental at very cheap rates if you want to waddle the waters when it is clear and clam. Just watch out for that sea urchin. A bikini clad guest learned that sea urchins are not hairy, they have hard spikes. The hotel staffs were busy performing first aid on her foot, bashing the spot with beer bottle so as to disintegrate the fragments of spikes lodged stubbornly in her sole. I however was just a witness drooling at her bikini lines.

The long tails boats operated by the sea gypsies can be for rent at below 2000 Baht. They could take on six guests. We went on one, joined another three Thai guests from different resorts. Depending on the season, depending on the currents, they will bring you to different islands and snorkeling spots. The sea of Andaman is definitely better then in Ao Thai. Visibility was excellent and I could see a group cuttlefish about five meters down displaying their kaleidoscope of color changes. Some of the snorkeling spots however can get quite crowded. It was an out crop of undersea corals in the middle of nowhere we were dropped. The current was too strong so we had to hold on to ropes. It was a disaster as the many streams of ropes from the many anchored boats let off their many guest of all ages that trashed about the water. It was sort of like the movie Titanic, minus the iceberg. After the ordeal, our guide told us he promised to take us to places where we will see more fish then feet, we were relieved. And true enough every other location burned into his mental map he took us matched his promise. We had the included lunch on Koh Ra Wi that was abundant with food robbing aggressive monkeys. Walking around with plastic bags of food was a bad idea, the monkeys attacked the tourist attempting snatch robberies. Even the dogs on the island were afraid of them tree climbing thieves.

We spent the third day in the resort. Early morning, watching sunrise from the hidden beach further west of the resort was just such a captivating experience. There was a small trail that leaded me past the home of natives and onto the very private beach next to Serendipity resort erected on rocky hills. Taking the wooden weathered stairs up into the resort and just sitting on the viewpoint platforms or the restaurant overhanging the cliffs offered breathtaking moments where I awe in admiration of nature. Serendipity was under renovation, we had the whole place to ourselves during dawn.

Deckchairs sprawled the shoreline front of Idyllic, we sun tanned throughout the day and the few Caucasians downed beer, read books and let their kids loose terrorizing hermit crabs and small fishes in the water. Zanom restaurant, a few resorts away, was a perfect place for dinner during sunset, lobster dinner at reasonable prices. We had them tasty crustaceans to accompany the dusky skies, we sat on the upper deck. In the night, the street that leads to Pattaya beach on the other side of the island was an abundance of activities. Shops and restaurants, you will be spoilt for choice. And there was a good restaurant popular with many which I could not remember the name. It had good seafood that you get to pick fresh from the ice laden tray, which then you tell them how you wanted your pickings cooked. This place offered amazing Thai food as well. To get there, from Sunset beach, you will have to travel up the slopes. On the downhill of that street towards Pattaya, the restaurant will be on the right. It should be filled with many customers, both locals and foreign, during dinner times. It’s famous, the price reasonable. The only thing I could not understand was that those common roundish white clams were five times more expensive then in Bangkok. I asked the locals and it seemed ironically, there were no clams to harvest on the island shores. Do beware however, pick the wrong restaurant without many patrons and you will be dining on chemicals. The BBQ fish we had on one of the not so lucky nights was so heavily soaked in formalin I could distinctly taste it.

The journey back to mainland for many of us would begin sadly in the early morning hours, our trip was 9 am. For many locals who came from Bangkok, our flight from Hat Yai to Bangkok would be in the afternoon. We need to have ample time for travel in order to make for our flights. Booking a flight that leaves around 3 pm would be perfect timing. After the self controlled do-not-eat-too-much breakfast, we again headed early for the departure point located quite a distance away. I got the queue number card 1 again, oh yeah, best seat on the boat again we choose. By evening of the same day I was in my apartment allowing for ample rest to ready for work the next day. Dozing off watching television, my mind was still set to the vision and pace of Koh Lipe, an island endorsed by me worth a next visit again in time to come. I shall visit Koh Lipe next on a low season as recommended by the island folks, where hotels are cheaper, the crowd a minimal and to different sheltered spots of islands I shall be dipping.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Getting to Koh Lipe

Sitting cross legged on a white weathered chair, the reverberating sound of sea breeze accompanied by soothing Thai melodies in the morning salty air. There I sat blogging in the yellow glow of the morning sun, looking out to distance Langkawi, the dark blue skies dotted by the occasional sea bird that soared high. It was just after my morning sunrise shoot, I sat sipping hot instant coffee, my laptop laid on the breakfast table, Marlboro smoke bellowed from my mouth. At times like theses, grinning from cheek to cheek broader then Joker’s smile, I wished time would crawl.

Koh Lipe is considered one of the more difficult islands to reach. Firstly it is located far down south next to the border of Malaysia. Driving there from Bangkok will be too time consuming and so the journey would start with a budget plane ride to Hat Yai that took us an hour more or less. From Hat Yai to the pier in Satun leaving for Koh Lipe was another two hours by van and a speed boat ride with very limited schedules that departed in the morning. The sea crossing took us another one and a half hours or so. Because the first ferry this October season was 11am in the morning, we had to arrive in Hat Yai the night before on a Friday and stayed a night there.

Nasty Hat Yai Experience

On arrival in Hat Yai, the cheapest way to get to our hotel would be to know the place first and catch a cheap ride for 50 Baht or so in what Bangkokians call two-row trucks. The price varies and could go as high as 100 Baht per head if one were to arrive late after dark where the frequency of such service dwindles. The hunt for the trucks, yes the hunt, requires one to walk out into the parking lot and spot them parking alongside the roads. If none are around, wait a while and there should be one soon pulling up letting off passengers. They would stop there for an hour or more, depending, so that they could be filled before leaving for reasons of economics. We spotted some locals sitting on the grass having beer next to one such truck, we spoke and asked about getting to town and the guy downing the bottles of Leo said he would leave in a moment after the next flight arrives. He was the driver.

You need to know which vicinity your hotel is located in. Find a hotel near popular markets such as Santisuk or Kim Yong. Why? Because that’s the only way to tell the driver where to go. If your hotel ain’t one of the big names recognized, they will not know where to drop you. Maybe they will say yes they know, but when they let you off, you will be in for an adventure. But not to worry if this happens. Well, it happened to us. Hat Yai is crawling with mini Tuk-Tuks. These are small little red or blue Daihatsu pick-ups with chairs and a roof bolted on. It’s like a mini version of the tow-rows. These are the in-town taxis and they will likely know where your hotel is. Cheap 20 to 30 Baht ride. They seemed honest, we picked up a few Caucasians along the way and they were charged the same rate as local folks there.

River Grand Hotel, the thought of it makes me fuming mad. I don’t know to be mad at Agoda or to be mad at the hotel itself. When we arrived late, they said they had no more rooms even though we had the booking papers from Agoda. We called Agoda, they said it’s the hotel’s fault but never offered any resolution on where we were to stay then. The hotel staffs blamed Agoda back, stating they did not receive the booking orders. To add to the complication, they had hordes of Malaysians by the tour bus loads arriving that day and the hotel then twisted the story to say they overlooked our booking because we arrived late. That was utter rubbish hotel management. They then gave the next excuse that their telephone system was down and that they could not check emails. Another guest that arrived the same time as we did had our similar problems. That made two fuming mad guest which the reception tried to brush aside as best as she could with constantly changing reasons.

Mid October every year, there will be this traditional Taoist religious festival going on where Malaysians flock to Hat Yai in the thousands and all hotels will be fully booked. The receptionist of River Grand, low IQ and IT illiterate, no checking email system. What the f...! And so after heated debate and teaching the receptionist some manners and how she should handle the situation, we got ferried around in a blue Daihatsu tuk-tuk to another two hotels belonging to the same chain. The other guest checked in un-happily to the only room left in one and we had to move on to the other hotel in the vicinity. For some lucky reasons, we met the owner of the chains and he offered to open a suit room for us, without extra charges back in the hotel which we booked. That doused my flame fortunately. He mentioned his receptionist was new and did not know how to handle situations like these, his receptionist should have offered us the suit in the beginning instead of wasting our two hours looking for rooms elsewhere. It was only later on, when we shared our experience with other Thais, that we found out Hat Yai is notorious, very well known in fact, for lousy hotel services. They said with a tint of racism that Malaysians however do not mind such crap because the rates are just too cheap anyways. Cheap it was really, my room cost 600 Baht, so I should just shut up and stop whining.

It was the night 19 of October, the festival was in full swing. The streets were filled with Hokkien speaking crowd from Penang. It felt like back home in Singapore, army days, Hokkien words and swears filled the air. Food everywhere and so dinner was not a problem. By the streets we sat and ate our Mee-Goreng. It was packed shoulders to shoulders. Folks lined the streets to receive the good luck that emits out from deities rocking the religious chairs as they paraded down the road. Pickpockets grinning and spotting easy targets operated among the festivities. It was like Singapore decades back but the only difference was they had loud firecrackers to accompany the jumble of gongs pulsating effortlessly through our skulls. Our hotel was near and we had a nice stroll back. As we did, we chatted about the other guest who checked into the only last room left in the hotel they were sent. See, in Asian beliefs, there will always be one room in any hotels that remains out of bounds to guest. It’s for the nasty ghost to reside in so that paying customers will not be “disturb”. They will sometimes use that room under “crisis” situations. A colleague of mine had one such encounter sometime back in a hotel fully booked at Saraburi. He felt his hair stood on ends in the room, something felt oddly strange as he lay on the bed. So he looked under his bed to find an altar. He slept in the lobby as a result.

Getting to the Pier

The trip to Pak Bara pier started in the early morning. We took a Tuk Tuk to the Kaset bus terminal. Lined up in the shades the white vans sat. We booked two tickets which cost 90 Baht each. There were no schedules, they left as and when they felt the vans were economically filled. The distance to Pak Bara was long but the journey was short at the same time. We sat in the vans so notorious for life terminating accidents widely reported in news. We made it anyhow after just one and a half hours in the hands of the race driver and no we did not shit in our pants. And there at Pak Bara, we waited for the speed boat that left at 11am. That was a cheap ride from Hat Yai to Pak Bara, in contrast to the 300 Baht per head ride in alternative pre-arranged packages provided. That was cheap also, compared to the 2000 over Baht taxi service from Hat Yai airport.

The drone of three diesel fueled Yamaha engines vibrated through every bone of every passenger as the vessel sliced through swelling ocean waves. There were times of calmness as the boat navigated in-between the shielded waters of Koh Tarutao. Beyond that large land mass, swelling deep blue oceans, the whoosh of air under the white canopy and the never ending reverberation of the Yamahas. Over crest and into the trough, the hull slammed the deep dark blue, the sensation of an out of sync galloping horse jumping over high fences. It was difficult to keep the remarkable sight at a distance, the curvature of mother Earth, in focus. This reason, one should not have a big breakfast before embarking on the crossing. If one had not already puked one’s meal out in the previous formula one van trip from Hat Yai to Pak Bara, the marine ordeal is a guarantee for one to regurgitate with the capacity of an ostrich with gastro-intestinal problems.

Koh Lipe will appear in the horizon floating on huge welcoming sheet of shaded jade. As the throttle was pulled back, the drone settled into a whirr. The overriding ring in the ear would however still fill out every void of your senses. It took sometime for me to register the gentle splashes of shimmering green. Looking over the starboard side, my eyelids raised more then what they normally should. There I was in Sunset Bay, the spirits of all on board came together and escalated into pure awe. Clicks of the cameras heard, passengers stood and moved. The boat rocked side to side as the captain challenged to counter steer and balance. In the midst of it all, I sat silent on the high chairs up front in a state of ecstatic trance, taking in full breaths of pristine clear waters with the white gleaming coast where long tail boats of sea gypsies lined. The bustling trees so green against the backdrop of cotton candy clouds on sky clean blue. Elation, just elation. That was how I arrived.