Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ranong, Thailand

City of Ranong from behind the Throne Hall
Resting for one day in Ranong and debating the merits of the Burma versus Malaysia border crossing. Already our visas expire after 30 days. Or really we have seven days left, but considering our pace it may take us that long to get to Malaysia. Burma is right here, but you can't travel from Kawthoung, the city on the other side, into Burma itself, and you only get fourteen days when you come back. Allegedly.

One of the things surprising about the tourist route is how difficult it is to get accurate information. We've heard the visa rule changed from 30 days back to fifteen, and then back again. I'm not even sure if the information on the government website is true, and I really think the only person who can tell you is the border agent sitting with a stamp and looking you in the face.

But Malaysia calls to me—the overnight train ride south will always be my first choice. Already I feel us becoming to comfortable in Ranong. It's so cheap here compared to the island. A 230B ($7) hotel room with a view. Forty-baht noodles at the day market, and today we found a curry vendor—30B a plate, just point and choose. We're eyeing the apartments on the upper balcony and contemplating prices.

A 230B hotel room.  The closest we've come to the opening scene of Apocalypse Now.
I wouldn't mind settling in one city for a while and getting to know people, immersing myself more in a real city's life. There are Thai lessons for 20B apiece once a week here, I learned from the Burmese teenager who mans the front desk. (And who does everything else around here, it seems. I saw him changing sheets today, and he works from dawn till all of the drunk farangs come home from the bars. They lock up the front at night, and ring to wake him up to get let in after 10pm.)

When we first got to town, sweaty and hot, I was carrying two backpacks, my big one and a daypack with my computer. I've since consolidated, because two backpacks is miserable, although everyone else seems to do it. I call it the “pregnant farang.” The technique of choice is to hoist the daypack over your shoulders but in front, like a Baby Bjorn, while you wear the big one in back. So we marched into Ranong, dodging the taxi touts with just a city map, while I did my best pregnant farang. We walked to the main guesthouse road, and by the time we deemed the first hotel unsafe we were snapping at each other. This hotel felt a relief, although mysteriously without amenities. I've since learned that it's normal for this tier of hotels to include no soap, no toilet paper, no shampoo, and a giant towel instead of a bedsheet or blanket with a night's stay. But at 230B for a fan room it's hard to go wrong. Ranong itself seemed grimy and loud—just a main street with narrow sidewalks and mysterious wares.

But I've since grown fond of it. Coming back from the island I breathed easier. Real Thailand again. Real noodle vendors and real shops with miniature yogurt drinks and red fanta. Real prices. Real people.

Real vegetables
Today it feels even more like that after an all-day trek around town. We ate in the market and then walked through its lower levels, where the massive bins of dried shrimp are, where the fresh fish market is, where Muslim ladies eyed my bare shoulders. Then we walked up the hill to the Throne Hall belonging to Rama V. After a walk through the gardens and up the stairs to the shrine above we finally found ourselves alone. Trails wound around the hills and through spirit trees to a water tower. Maybe getting off the tourist trail is as easy as stopping every once in a while. 

Gilded monks in a row (K's picture)
 More photographs on Flickr, again.


Ed said...

As an American, I'm always shocked at the prices in foreign lands, especially those with lots of poverty. The dollar goes a long ways in them.

Having to carry your own toilet paper would suck but I wouldn't mind the rest of the amenities. I like roughing it a bit.

Red Sonia said...

I am so hungry for stories so checking the site and getting 2 was such a gift. I really miss you! Today I thought about your timer and all the permissions you gave me as we hung out together doing yoga and writing. As much as I miss you, I am so glad to know you are once again living out a dream, a desire, a life that you have listened to and yearned for for what feels like forever. I do hope you find the bungle on the beach for almost nothing and continue to be in the midst of what feels like it will become family, once you can talk to people more! Thanks for sharing. I am so emotional about seeing and knowing where you are! God be with you! Also, when you have a way to get mail, let me know where and what you need, as I feel like sending you a package! Much love!

Peter said...

I like the real Thailand comment. A man in Ranong once told me that Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Pattaya were America, not Thailand at all.

Melissa Jenks said...

What's funny to me is that I'd already forgotten how this had been such a dream, something I'd yearned for for a decade or more. Now that I'm here it just feels normal, right, exactly as it should.

I also think Little America has spread--we were in Ko Phayam and it felt like Disneyland--Epcot, maybe, and authentic nonetheless because Thais actually use bamboo in construction and thatched roofs. But tourists outnumbered Thais, and I don't think that can ever be real Thailand.

Peter said...

The funny thing about this is that most tourists, by this way of reasoning, never actually get to "Thailand" at all...

Melissa Jenks said...

Do you agree with that line of reasoning? I think they see Thailand, parts of Thailand, but I'm not sure that's the same as experiencing it. I guess I'd feel the same about someone who visited Boston or NYC and spent all their time in a four-star hotel--never eating the city's real food, or meeting its everyday inhabitants, or experiencing its real culture, or running into grittier elements and frustration.