Monday, January 13, 2014

Chumphon, Thailand

The guesthouse in Chumphon.  We're not staying in the thatch-roofed bungalow (although I wish we were).
After a week we moved from Bangkok to Hua Hin, four hours south by train. We rode third class on the ordinary train with Thais, going to have a good time for the weekend. We arrived without any place to stay although we'd heard the town was packed. Planning is not our forte, and besides which I have an idyllic belief in showing up to a place and going to the cheapest guesthouse listed in the Lonely Planet, a belief that so far has not paid off.

Hua Hin beach, with kites, beach umbrellas, and Thai flag--the horses are the same, though.  They had horses here when I was a kid.
So we wandered around the streets for a while, pouring sweat, carting backpacks that are far too heavy, and looking for one of the guesthouses that we'd seen online or in the Lonely Planet, or maybe one of the ones listed in the tourist map we got from the train station, or advertised on street corners. The dilemma with this method is that we almost always end up at whatever place we first stop. By the time I use my childish Thai to ask how much and trek upstairs to check the bedroom for bugs we're generally sold. So in Hua Hin we ended up at a colorless a/c hotel with a tiny balcony and free wifi.

Not so bad, really. One hotel room was pretty much the same as another, and we could see the Hilton and the ocean from our miniscule balcony. Hua Hin itself is a shock. I wanted to go there not just because of the romantic train journey from Bangkok but also because it's where I used to vacation with my family as a child—we stayed at a missionary guesthouse two miles south of town. We spent I-don't-know-how-many Christmases here, holidays, spring breaks. I almost had my sweet sixteen kiss on the beach here. Almost. The guidebook says it's popular with Thais who like to swim fully clothed, as it was once upon a time. That it's the “elegant alternative to seedy Pattaya.”

So I was shocked not just by the highrises and the streets thronged with farangs, but also the bars. At first I just thought it was spillover from Bangkok and the rest of the Thai island party scene, the frat-boy ethos we're trying to get away from. But then K. pointed out that every single bar had a girl draped over a couch in front of it, and I noticed that the vast majority of tourists were older European men with much younger beautiful Thai women.

So this is the Thailand of sex tourism, the Thailand of reputation, the Thailand that I hate that everyone knows, and I've never seen it demonstrated to me quite so dramatically. One night we went out for tom yum and the creepy old guy behind us was filming every move his (gorgeous, much younger, Thai) date made. They didn't talk. She looked at her cell phone. He kept filming her.

One night K. went out by himself and had a girl grab his wrist. She came down in price to 300 baht (we imagine because he's highly preferable to a fat octogenarian German). She said: “I give you all of me.” I even tried to talk to them in Thai when we went out, hoping that the cute girls behind the bar were just bartenders and nothing more. They said, rather ambiguously: “we come to Hua Hin for work.” What exactly does that mean?

After three days we'd finally started to find the Thai markets and street corners where Thais themselves go for their dinner—not the over-priced seafood restaurants marketed to foreigners—and we found the same 40-baht noodles from Bangkok. But Hua Hin itself was an education. Not the sleepy Thai town of my youth. I keep wanting to believe that it is something other than it seems: maybe both parties are just in need of companionship, a better life. Who am I to judge? But I know the stories—the northern villages where buyers troll for young Thai girls, convincing them to come to the city for a better life, where all they'll have to do is sell makeup, and send back money to their families. I want it not to be true, but there it is, laid out in front of me.

Thai vendor who cooked us our dinner this evening
So after three days we left. Another slow third-class train to another town farther south—Chumphon. The same sweaty trek from the train station towards an unknown destination. This time we ended at a homestay with a Thai artist who speaks English, found from a road sign, in a teak house on a quiet soi right down from the night market. Much more to our liking. At least the European men and their bargirls keep themselves to their own tourist ghettoes—but I'll keep remembering those girls. Beautiful, kind, gracious. I just keep asking myself: why? 
Pad Thai with fresh shrimp from a street vendor in Chumphon--40 baht ($1.21)


Ed said...

I'm guessing those girls do that for the same reason they do in the Philippines when I visit there. Mind numbing poverty. It is so sad and one of the reasons I try to avoid traveling along the beaten path.

By the way, found your blog last week and thoroughly enjoy reading it.

Sam and Mom said...

Hey Melissa- This is Caitlin (Wald) Littleton (Erica's friend from Wheaton). I just wanted to say that John and I live in Chiang Mai and would be happy to have you stay with us or meet up for a meal if you make it up here. Email me at if you're interested.

Melissa Jenks said...

It's so hard to believe in mind-numbing poverty when the quality of life in Thailand seems so high--but I'm sure you're correct. It's easy to become blase about the poverty when surrounded by the tourist architecture.

And Caitlin--I'd love to get in touch when we're farther north! I've loved getting to know your mom after meeting at the Calvin Festival, and Erica had given me your Facebook information for when we head up country. Right now the beach is seducing me, though... I'll let you know when we get closer.