Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Koh Jum, Thailand

Landing at Moo Too Pier, Kho Jum
4 February – 12 February 

Making it to Kho Jum, I find it is just as crowded as the rest of Thailand. This island K. found online before we left Maine, an island not in Lonely Planet, with 150B bungalows, allegedly off of the beaten track. And then in Bangkok, during our first week, we met a Finn engaged to a Thai who lived on Kho Jum. We made plans to meet. We got our hopes up—authentic Thailand. Markets and street food and long stretches of empty beach.

Our Finnish friend told us that locals don't take the ferry, they take the taxi boat, so we knew that one existed and managed to get from Phun Phin all the way to Kho Jum in less than twelve hours—and all the way from Georgetown to Kho Jum in less than 24—a traveler's feat I remain proud of. We checked out of our hotel at eleven, had a leisurely breakfast of curry and fish, caught the local bus, and pulled into the bus station the minute before the government bus to Krabi was pulling out, just by luck, and took its last two places. Standing room only, at the front. The bus left within seconds, and we looked back to see the whole back half stuffed full of farangs, heading to Kho Phi Phi or Lanta or another island for their vacation. As, incidentally, are we.

What did one tourist say to the other tourist?

“Man, there are so many tourists here.”

Sometimes I feel like I am just a hypocrite, complaining about all of the travelers while being one myself. The fact remained that we were the last two farangs on a bus full of them, one of whom was hogging an entire seat with his baby backpack, the daypack that he wears on front like a Baby Bjorn while walking around town. I shot daggers and bad karma at him with my eyes. For a while I sat on the floor among the giant backpacks below knee level of standing and swaying Thai girls, the ones just going halfway, fanning their sweating foreheads as I tried to catch the breeze.

But unlike many travelers, we try to be respectful. We attempt to speak Thai and act and dress respectfully, failing often. Unlike the Italians at the back of the bus who started taking off their shirts (most were wearing bikinis beneath) and yelling at each other about how much Thailand sucked in Italian. A German in Kho Phayam told me, authoritatively, that Italian was the most beautiful language, and when I suggested Thai, he dismissed it as guttural and awful. I hear it as music. Anyone who thinks Italian is the most beautiful language should hear hungover college-age Italians yelling about how horrible Thailand is while standing in a 100-degree (38-degree Celsius) bus.

We took a sohngtaeuo to the taxi boat, effortlessly but expensively, catching what I thought was the last boat at 5:30pm. The guy at the bus station had told us 5. It's the boat our Finn friend told us the locals took, a boat with no farangs on it. The island appeared, dusty and numinous at sunset. We're the only travelers on the pier, and on the dusty taxi drive to our friend's restaurant we imagine we've finally found paradise. The restaurant I picture as a small local one, with a glass case and plastic chairs and cousins and nephews hanging around. I imagine I can learn Thai here, study.

Then we arrive and already elderly British and German couples are filling the place with $7-schnitzel orders. The island is full, we are informed. No bungalows anywhere. Even the mythical 150B and 200B ones, which exist on this island, are full. We taxi to one bungalow where she offers to let us sleep on the floor in her restaurant. We go to another and wake up the owner. He shows us a beautiful villa, made of bamboo and teak, up on the hill—but on the other side of the road from the beach. We take it, for 500B.

We ended up staying a week. I loved it—the teak bench on the bamboo porch, surrounded by rubber trees and garden and hibiscus. Although we are twelve minutes from the beach, and don't even get there every day, don't even swim every day. When we first arrived at Kho Phayam, our last island, we scoffed at Lonely Planet, which said the days of 200B beachfront bungalows are over. Already we'd found a 600B one, only three rows back, and 300B cheapies behind us. But the cheapies are always booked, and when they're not, they're concrete bunkers by the generator, facing away from the ocean. It's possible to stay for 200B on a Thai island, but you may be on the other side of the road.

I'm still complaining about expense. The fact is that many things here are more expensive now that in the States. Coffee, for one. Drinks. $1 in the US gets you a 20-ounce soda and free ice, or a bottomless soda at McDonald's. Here you pay $1 for a bottle and extra for ice. Water. For a while we were spending 160B a day on bottled water, because we can't drink tap water.

Maybe we could just be cutting back in Thailand on things like coffee and three meals a day, but instead it's increasingly clear that Thailand is no longer on the hippie trail. Seven-dollar meals are cheap for Danish pensioners or French retirees or Dutch families on a package tour. But for us, with no car, no fridge, no access to a market, and no cooking facilities—we find ourselves stranded. And also, while complaining about costs, I realize how cheap so many things still are. Why can't I just allow myself to enjoy the time?

We do, as much as possible. Long mornings laying in the hammock on the porch. Long walks on the beach after dark—better than taking the road. Finding a restaurant (even if farangified) that makes us khao dtom goong (rice soup with shrimp) and puts an egg in it, poached in broth. I'm trying to let costs go, as much as possible, not let it gnaw at me. Maybe it's the primary response of people returning to their homeland, shock at how much prices have gone up.

If it wasn't so malicious. I was proud of our 24-hour travel day until I realized we were over charged every step of it—5B on the local bus, 30B on the government bus, 40B by the sohngtaeuo, 20B by the boat, 20B by the taxi. Maybe not much, but it adds up--$4 a day. The farang tax, we call it. The consistent over-charging by Thais for travelers. We see things printed on menus in English, other listings in Thai. We watch the price paid by a Thai and then paid by a westerner. Often, as my Thai improves, I hear that the prices given in Thai are less.

I made friends with one restaurant owner here who is scrupulous in her prices to us, and we keep coming back to her, although her prices are also high. I ask her why so many people do it. Our Finnish friend sometimes thinks it's gouging, charging 65B for a coffee because one can. And then there's the contrast with the poverty. Why should I begrudge a coffee that costs $2.50 if the person making it is only making 500B a day? But it doesn't seem fair. I feel angry when I go to Starbucks at a service plaza in the States and buy an overpriced coffee, because it's overpriced. But it's fair. The price listed is charged to everyone, regardless of race. Taxes are the same.

It just doesn't feel like the Thailand of my youth. People have hardened, grown calloused against farangs. Have grown calloused to our money. It's not a surprise, considering how little respect we have, in general, towards Thai culture. It's like I want to convince Thai people I can be a human being.

I said, on our first night in Kho Jum: “I don't know if it's because my parents spoke better Thai, or because there were fewer farangs, or because it was fifteen years ago, but I don't remember being overcharged like this.”

K. said: “Probably all of those.”

It just leaves a sour taste in your mouth, like you're made constantly to feel stupid. This country is beautiful, its language, culture, food, and people exquisite—and instead of the “radiant hospitality” promised by guidebooks, the hospitality I remember—I feel this simmering racism.

It's hard to explain, because then it can seem like the entire experience has been negative. This exists, but these other layers exist, too, of beauty and kindness and generosity. I am as in love with the Thai language as ever, maybe more so. I learn something new from every Thai conversation. The landscape here is the one I belong in. The culture is alien and confusing, but almost all Thais are gracious, wonderful people.

The hardest ones are those we have to deal with most often, the ones directly on the tourist trail, bus drivers and boat drivers and guesthouse owners and travel agents. And understandably so, based on the farang behavior we've seen. In Bangkok a French couple yelled at the guesthouse owner for two hours because they'd taken a 200B taxi to his place for a reservation that didn't exist. He paid for their cab. The cleaning lady, gentle and kind, who did our laundry for almost nothing—stood by the desk, horrified. In Surat Thai, in the middle of the night, a British girl yelled at the entire railway station staff for a full hour, in English and incomprehensible Thai. “I want my f***ing bonnets!” she said. Evidently someone at the station had taken her motorcycle helmets, or she'd left them—it wasn't clear. He came back with them, eventually. On Kho Phayam, a French woman left a restaurant—little more than a streetside stand—when her green papaya salad didn't come soon enough. “I wait, and wait, and wait...” This at a stand where they had the cheapest food on the island, the entire place packed, and one person cooking.

It's incomprehensible to me. I feel a constant consciousness of being in a foreign culture, and attempt to act respectfully, knowing that all the while I'm trampling restrictions I know nothing about. So the least I can do is be polite.

Maybe the best part of Kho Jum was its limited internet access. Finally, a place free of wifi. Not exactly free, because the nicer resorts did have it, at glacial speeds, and there was one internet cafe in town. But I spent a week not worrying about it, lounging in the hammock, taking a break from the road. We thought about finding another bungalow, closer to the beach—one of the mythical 200B ones is opening up. But I think we'll leave. Maybe we're done with the islands. As much as I love the beach, I'm ready to go to the farthest corner of Thailand to see if there's any place left away from the crowd.


Ed said...

Once our planet became a truly global world with cheap travel, traveling changed for better or for worse. The world you describe is unfortunately not coming back.

When traveling was expensive, those that could travel were generally those who truly wanted to experience another culture and respected it. When it became cheap, everyone could travel and not everyone is respectful of other cultures.

I have seen this phenomenon where ever I have gone. Usually I find myself embarrassed by Americans in other countries for loud and obnoxious behavior. I have to battle my mind when this happens. Half wants them to be over charged for being so obnoxious but the other half realizes that I in turn will also be over charged because I'm guilty of being a foreigner too.

In the end, I just try to minimize the overcharging and understand that a poor Thai (in your case) will be eating well tonight and that is not necessarily all bad.

Melissa Jenks said...

I agree--I also think that part of the problem is over-population, and increasing wealth throughout the world. There are more people traveling, and there are people traveling from countries that didn't have the chance before--from Croatia, the Ukraine, Russia. Which, of course, is good for them and bad for me, who used to have the lonely planet to myself. I cannot say that the increase in the Thai standard of living or in Thai wealth is a bad thing, and increasingly I realize that I must just accept the influx of foreigners and tolerate it, as do most Thais.

Peter said...

One other thing: the fact that you're on these islands in the middle of February can't help! The popular beaches are still a bit crowded in the (N. Hemisphere) summer, but it's not as hard to find a place to stay.