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The Island

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Let me take you to the island. It’s not easy to reach. But paradise shouldn’t be.

There’s an overnight sleeper train, Bangkok to the southern peninsula. Hours pass, climates change, landscapes shift from buildings to palms. Ground transport across the peninsula, taxi or bus, budget permitting. Then a ferry, then a tuk-tuk. At first the island doesn’t seem like anything too special. Some hills, some beaches, one main road, hotels. You drop your bags off in one. Walk to the beach. Nice, clean, covered in coral fragments. Feet in the water. Soft, gentle, a warm bath prepared before your arrival. To the left and right, but not too far in either direction, a stretch of beach bars, restaurants, and massage huts, all bamboo platforms with bamboo roofs and no walls, hammocks lazing, reggae flowing. In front, aqua Andaman waters. Behind, natural lawns, not too perfect, not too messy, leading to the beachside bungalows.

The restaurants on the ocean are surprisingly good. Fresh Thai and western fare, about $3-4 US per dish. Coconut shakes (when available – only when the fruits are fresh) are $1.50 – $2. After one or two of these meals you decide to try the local stops. You rent a motorbike on the main road, and the saleswoman is cooking a curry. “I’ll have one of those.” It costs $2. It might be the best dish you’ve had from 4 weeks in Thailand. You go there 7 times over the next 10 days, working your way through the menu. Barbecued squid, pad thai, pad see ew, massaman curry, beef salad, red curry, watermelon shakes, coconut shakes, surprise fruit platters for being regulars. Splurging on a meal here with multiple dishes and drinks, with tip, costs $10 for two people.

On the motorbikes, you ride nearly all the sealed roads of the island. 10 miles down to the southern tip. Park off the pavement, walk a steep path to a secluded beach. The only development here is a tiny shack. “Welcome to the beach” reads the sign. You drop your helmet under one of the umbrellas stuck in the sand in front of the shack, which seems to be selling juices, but no one mans the bar. Glide in the water. Perfection. The beach is yours. The water is yours. There is no undertow, no pounding waves, just gentle ripples, sun tempered by fluffy clouds, a semicircle of trees protecting the beach. You noticed snorkels hanging at the beach shack. After a while, you wander up the sand, find a sleepy local, inquire, “Do you have snorkels?” “Yea,” he says, and starts handing over masks to choose from. “How much?” “Free.” Free? Free is a novelty, a cherished gift, a question mark; will we be expected to buy from his bar? No, it’s really free, in the true meaning of the word. Free with no qualifications. Just as his umbrellas and mats on the sand are free to use, no worries man, enjoy the beach, see you tomorrow!

Swimming and snorkeling and lazing fulfilled for the moment, hop back on the scooter, up through a few small tourist areas: just big enough to provide fun food & drink options, just small enough to breeze through with no annoyances. Ride back to your beachside bungalow. Wander to the bar on the right, order up a coconut shake. Enjoy with the smooth afternoon sun. Float to the massage bungalow. Sawatdee kah! the girls call out. You want massage? Of course we do, yes, for $10/hour, yes please, kop kuhn kah! Hardest decision of the day: oil massage, Thai massage, aloe vera massage, back, shoulder and head massage, facial, foot massage… don’t think too hard. They’re all amazing. Relax and soak it in as the late rays stretch across the sea, through the hut, over your body, to Pear, your masseuse.

It’s New Year’s Eve tonight. You met a Dutch girl, traveling alone, and she finds you and your companions along the beach. It’s that kind of place. You don’t need to make plans. You bought paper lanterns in “town,” the settlement by the pier, and with the aid of your friends at the massage hut, light the ring in the lantern’s base and send it off in the sky, following its flight as long as you can. Someone decides it’s midnight. Fireworks, sporadic the whole night long, take off in ear-ringing chunks, lit meters away by the beach bungalow boys, exploding directly overhead, over the sparkling sea, over the coral beach. Pow after POW! You walk along the beach, looking for the action. “Hello!!” you hear from the sand. It’s the massage ladies, on the beach, circling a picnic. “Come join our party!” calls out Pear, the best English speaker of the bunch. Of course, exactly, this is the party you were looking for. The girls squeeze around the mat to make room, you plop down, they pour you some of their beer, offer you their food. Spring rolls, larb, noodles, rice, whatever they have, they insist on sharing.

Pear has a boyfriend in London. She just spent 2 months with him, is thinking of moving there. It took her 6 months to get a tourist visa. That’s typical for most Thais. It’s hard to get visas, harder still to get the money for international flights. “They think maybe we will stay, not come back,” she said, rattling off the paperwork required. You look at the island, at the sea, wonder how cold London would feel to Pear, if she would miss this paradise after some time, or embrace the modernity of that northern island. Earlier she asked, as you paused the massage to take a picture of the setting sun, “Do you have this in your country?” “Sunsets?” you ask. “Yes, like this?” “No, not like this. Some places. But not really. Not like this. Not these colors.” How do you describe that, a sunset in your country? How do you describe that your country is so big, you have millions of kinds of sunsets, but yet not one is quite like this? Not one involves a coral beach, a warm aqua sea, reggae and coconut milk wafting on the wind, a longtail ready to take you to explore further islands. Don’t even mention Florida. Not even the Keys. It’s not close at all.

Back to the party. The ladies tell you their stories. They all share one room, 5 ladies to one room, 5 ladies on one bed on the floor. “Here we all sleep on the floor. But in our homes” – she means, where we come from, our villages – “…we sleep on beds.” They come seasonally, work as much as possible during the tourist rush, some working for over 30 days straight before taking one day off and starting all over again. How many massages is a good day for you? “Eight massages is good. But eight massages, seven days a week – that would be hard.” Most days they get 3, 4. Do you like living on the island? Pear smiles, yes, and sweeps her arm towards the sea. “It’s holiday and work at the same time!”

It’s late, especially on this island, where normally most lights don’t stay up much later than the sun. Around 2am you bid your goodbyes, effusively thank your hosts, “Sawatdee pi mai!” Walk the few meters to your bungalow. Fan on, lights out, fall asleep with the sound of the waves.

It’s the happiest you’ve been in a long time. The happiest you’ve been on this trip, which is saying a great deal, considering this trip brought you the highs of Machu Picchu, African safaris, Himalayan peaks. But you can’t remember the last time joy flowed through you so freely from one moment to the next, from sunrise – tourists practicing yoga in bamboo huts as the rays sparkle on the sea – to sundown, when the warmth from our star penetrates every cell in your body and causes it to call out, “this is it, this is the best, this place, this time, this moment, these people, this place, this life, this is it.”

 ________________________________________________

 You don’t want to leave. You don’t know how long you could stay. But you are not ready to go, not yet, not tomorrow, not the day after. You inquire about rooms for next year. You take notice of homes for rent, motorbike purchase prices, long-term volunteer possibilities. You would never have guessed that the tropics would suit you so well, you of the northern lands, you who loves – loves! – winter, ice, trees laden with snow, cozying up next to a fire on a frozen, dark eve. But it does, it does, and you don’t want to go, can’t go, won’t go, won’t go without promising your cells that you will be back, soon, very soon! Otherwise they’d revolt, refuse to go, propose preposterous plans like a visa run to Penang or Singapore, letting your husband fly off to take care of business, remaining for just a little bit longer, just a little bit… But you will be back. Have to be back. Must be back.

  ________________________________________________

 Visa rules are funny things, though. Seemingly arbitrary dates set by governments, regardless of personal situations. Irrespective of just how much you love their land, of just how right it feels, of how you need just a few more days, I swear… Against your will, you find yourself thousands of miles away from your island, a victim of visa deadlines and steep renewal fees and inertia and denial of just how much your body will revolt at the removal. On another island, same-same but different, watching a film on US soldiers’ actions in the Pacific Front of WWII, a movie seen long ago – eons ago? – in a middle school classroom in a cold land floats to mind, and a haunting tune surfaces: “Bali hai may call you, any night, any day… in your heart you’ll hear it call you, come away, come away…”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Briel K. permalink
    Tuesday, January 10, 2012 9:32 pm

    Wow Kristen, you make it sound so amazing there! I’ve never once thought I’d like to visit Thailand but your writing is making me think that I ought to!

    • Kristen permalink*
      Wednesday, January 11, 2012 2:33 pm

      Briel, Thailand was one of our favorite countries that we visited! The whole place is wonderful, from modern Bangkok to artsy Chiang Mai to the gorgeous southern islands. Great food, great people, great prices and easy to travel around. Definitely recommend it!

  2. Marina permalink
    Tuesday, January 10, 2012 9:47 pm

    Great post. Glad Your trip ended on a high note! Makes me want to move to Thailand!

    • Kristen permalink*
      Wednesday, January 11, 2012 2:33 pm

      We’ll join you there!

  3. Slavo permalink
    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 8:38 am

    great write-up –

  4. Wednesday, January 11, 2012 1:38 pm

    You had me at quoting from a musical. lol
    It sounds dreamy!

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