Don't Eat the Massaman Curry at Cave Lodge: Stories from Thailand, Part 2
October 2, 2013
Most travelers in Thailand have a favorite: the mountains or the sea? There’s a sharp difference in culture, in costs, in tourist saturation. We found it much harder to grab our own piece of Thailand in the south; everyone offered some service to tourists, and every corner felt like someone had been there before. We loved the islands, but the north was our slice of paradise. Still, I wouldn’t trade the adventures we had while island hopping for anything. Here are our favorites:
Where is the F#$&ing Lagoon?
After leaving Pai, we faced a long trek to our first real island destination: Railay Beach. The travel included a van ride from Pai to Chaing Mai (during which we had to endure a poor Chinese guy vomiting for 40 minutes), then a flight to Bangkok, then a flight to Krabi, then an overnight in Krabi, then a motorboat ride to Railay. All told, two days. But good lord, was it worth it.
Railay is a tiny, thumb-shaped peninsula shooting into the sea from the Krabi province. When you picture Thailand beaches with impossibly huge rock cliffs, you’re picturing this part of the country. This is also where some of the best rock climbing in the world can be found. Railay is separated into three beaches: Railay West, Railay East and Ton Sai. Thing is, East and West are dominated by expensive resorts. The only deal to find is on Ton Sai, populated by just a few hostels. And what a deal we found! Walking on a jungle path, we asked some Brits where to check in.
“Paasook! It’s the cheapest!” they called.
Indeed it was. The owner, who had one arm and one eye, showed us what was available. For 200 Baht (or $6) a night, we got our own jungle villa! Without electricity! But including walls with red hand prints on them (Redrum, anybody?), a pungent smell of socks and a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. We agreed immediately. Who needs luxury? We travel on a budget.
We set out to explore right away. This is what we saw:
And also this:
That shit is beautiful! We were elated, and set out chasing monkeys and generally doing this all day:
Mid-afternoon, it was time for some peninsula exploring. Thing is, at high tide there are only two ways to get from Ton Sai to East or West: through the jungle, or by boat. A little jungle hike never scared us. We asked the owner of a jungle hut how far it was, and she said it’d be “a stroll.” An hour later, covered in sweat and jungle ants, we showed up in Railay West.
The vibe was completely different. Resort staff walked around in uniform, carrying trays of drinks. I’ll take a former crime scene for six bucks over a resort for 60 any day. We’d heard of a lagoon somewhere in the jungle near Railay East, so we began searching. A few signs and helpful island folk pointed us in the right direction; we followed the arrows until we saw one pointing to a sheer rock wall with two ropes hanging down. I saw Tal’s jaw drop in slow motion. The only way to the lagoon was straight up, with mud-covered ropes as our only assistance. I was gleeful; Tal was terrified. But she overcame fear and soon we were in the midst of a 30 minute, slippery climb to the top. It was certainly not a walk in the park.
She's thrilled, clearly.
As we climbed, several girls descended wearing just bathing suits and flip flops, having given up completely. I thought they, and possibly we, would surely die. Eventually, though, we made it to the top — the tree where the ropes had been tied. Whew! Now where’s the lagoon?
Our only answer was “Who knows?” We were high above the sea, but the jungle was as thick as anywhere. We chose left — it looked sorta like a path? — and soon came to this viewpoint. That’s both Railay East and West. Ton Sai is tucked away on the far left.
This is the highest we were the entire trip:
From there, the trail got less and less trail-y. Left? Right? Straight? We were clueless, and increasingly covered in mud.
“That might be a lagoon down there?” I said hopelessly as I slid down a mud slick on my back. It wasn’t. We both fell at once, grabbing vines and trees that surely saved our lives. Within minutes, we were cut up, completely muddied and Tal crying in pain, both emotional and physical. In a minute, the sky turned gray. It was about to rain, and the climb down would be impossible. What lagoon is worth such stress? Only a lagoon filled with angel tears and supplied with free beer and snacks. Defeated, we turned around. But we’d trekked far enough that the way back was also unclear. Way to go, us.
Soon enough we returned to rope-tree. Another path veered right. Surely, that was the path to the lagoon. It was, we learned minutes later from two climber dudes who had just been down there.
“It was one of the hardest free climbs I ever did,” said one. If climber dude said it was hard, we deserved a pat on the back.
“Was it filled with angel tears? Were there free beers and snacks?” I asked.
“No. It was pretty nice, though.”
We quickly felt better, and climbed back down to earth. Now low tide, a third option existed to return to Ton Sai: walking. The beach was so flat for so long that low tide meant the water receded hundreds of yards. The path we walked was, only an hour earlier, navigable by boat alone.
Damn, nature is so cool. We left Ton Sai the next day. Ko Phi Phi came next before we landed on Koh Lanta, our favorite island of them all.
Do You Know How to Do the Wheel?
Our first few days on Koh Lanta were a bit prickly: our first night, that Cave Lodge bug got worse, and I woke up vomiting violently. Our attempt to get help from the hostel staff was a complete failure; they wouldn’t drive us to a hospital or doctor’s office, and somehow refused to tell us how to get there ourselves. We rented a motorbike and I, half dead, biked us around the island until we found a clinic, where we bought some cheap Thai drugs and began the road to recovery.
Once we were officially not sick, the island became our favorite place in the south. Koh Lanta is big for a Thai island — 30 kilometers long, and thick enough that traveling east to west can feel like two different places. All the tourist beaches are on the west side; the east side includes Old Town, a quaint strip of wooden stilt-houses built right on the water.
We rode into Old Town hoping to see a realer side of Thai island life. We got it. In the town square, a big volleyball tournament was going down, and competition was heated. Juice vendors were set up pressing fresh fruit for the crowd. It seemed like every local showed up to support their friends (it should be noted, most teams were made of different hotel staffs).
Lunch was found in wooden restaurant stocked with seafood, and we ate besides a team that’d just lost. I ordered Tom Yam Soup, a Thai staple, but lunch was cut short when Tal had to leave the table: shrimps served with the heads still on got this vegetarian a wee bit grossed out. But how good does this look?
No worries; a fresh coconut smoothie solved all problems, as it always does.
We biked around the rest of town, further from the volleyball extravaganza, until we came upon a small shack with a sign reading “Shanti Shanti.” We pulled over and walked inside.
There we met Rafael. He is a French, but his dad is a Tunisian Jew. Israel, then, was an interesting topic for him. We quickly learned what he was doing: an expat, he lived in Shanti Shanti and ran it as an imported goods store and a menu-less restaurant. When people showed up, he served food. When they didn’t he ate it himself. And his homemade ice cream was extraordinary. We made a plan to return the following night and began to bike back towards the western coast.
Tal and I are by no means motorbike experts. Before Thailand, we’d never even ridden one, and we certainly didn’t have a license. So when the bike began to sputter and bump down the road, we made nothing of it. Then we thought it could be the engine, which we decided could be about to explode. When a truckfull of Thai’s drove past us honking, pointing to the bike, we decided it was time to stop. Our back tire: completely flat, and scraping along the pavement.
We stopped a few passing cars, but none understood a word of English. Looked like it was time to wheel this thing home… about 6 miles away.
But no! Just then a truck pulled over and a small woman jumped out.
“Let me help you, there’s a shop up the road.”
And with that, she literally helped us lift a motorcycle into her truck and drove us down the road. Faith in humanity: restored. Maybe even improved! Twenty minutes of work and we were back on the road.
The best mechanic shop in all of Koh Lanta:
The following night, we made our return to Shanti Shanti. At 8 p.m., we were the only people there, and Rafael was our gracious host. The place was a wild, colorful mix of sea shells, photographs, paintings and a beautifully compact, efficient kitchen. His home doubled as a restaurant and an imported clothing shop; every inch counted.
We cracked a beer with him, and he set to work preparing our dinner: a fresh rice salad for Tal, curried shrimp for me. The blend of professionalism with ‘Hey, come hang out,’ was often funny: while he cooked, he offered us some chips; while we ate, he was half at the table talking with us and half giving us some space.
So how did a French half-Jew end up in a stilt-shack in the south of Thailand?
As he told us, he traveled to India four years back. The country, the culture, the crowds, the curries and the spirituality turned his brain into mush; when he returned to France, he simply couldn’t function. He began hallucinating (“Because you took drugs?” “No! Because India made me see things!”) He couldn’t return to Western, middle class life after experiencing the sheer intensity of India’s insular universe. But he couldn’t live in India forever; small trips was all his brain could handle.
So Thailand was a compromise — close to India, certainly less structured than France, and cheap. He spoke quickly, softly, with a thick French accent and his eyes were constantly lit up. He ended almost every sentence with, “You know, bro?” We didn’t always know (there’s a lot to know about India, and we’re total noobs), but we wanted to. He showed us pictures of his Indian gurus, of the chai shops where he sat and drank tea, of the Hindu ceremonies he’d attended with tens of thousands of Indians. The notion of getting lost amongst India’s billion or so people — so far away from everything you know — captivated me, like floating in a vast ocean simply too big to grasp.
His relationship with India was complicated, but beautiful: India was his lover that he was afraid to love. Its power over him was too intense, and he could never truly own it.
Though we couldn’t totally relate, we tried. Tal’s new-ish interest in Indian doshas (or element-based body composition) and our yoga practicing were easy jump-off points. Thing is, what we know of Indian culture is through an Anglicized, Western lens, and Rafael knew it straight from the source.
So when Rafael spoke of his back pain, and Tal asked “Do you know how to do the wheel?” he was baffled.
“It’s a yoga pose; it’s great for your back.”
A second later, Tal was doing a backbend on the floor of Shanti Shanti’s kitchen as psychedelic Indian chanting played in the background. The whole situation was wonderfully absurd, and funny, and totally beautiful.
We left Shanti Shanti inspired to travel more, to find our own places to get lost and drift out to sea. But not before I asked to photograph Rafael — an ever mysterious guy.
See you next time, bro...
An Easy Swim out to Emerald Cave
A snorkeling trip was to be our third, and final, ‘tourist trip.’
On Koh Lanta, the name of the game is the ‘Four Island Tour,’ which changes based on the weather, but generally includes two snorkeling islands, a beautiful beach island and a swim to Emerald Cave, which we understood to be a beach inside a cave.
We were picked up by a truck and joined a group of Australian dudes, a French/Turkish couple and a Spanish couple as we drove back to Old Town, where a boat would take us to paradise. ‘Boat’ in Southern Thailand usually means a longtail boat, or a huge canoe with a propeller motor on the back. This propeller is at the end of a long, metal pole, which the driver usually squeezes between his legs to steer. A high-tech operation, no doubt. But the rickety nature of it all makes it entirely more fun.
A longtail boat: everywhere you want to be...
Our first stop was a shallow cove next to this hunk of rock:
Everyone grabbed a snorkel and a mask and jumped overboard. The rainy season meant the water was murkier than usual, but the fish were chillin’ there, being fish and doing their thing.
Next up was Emerald Cave. As the boat approached a similar rock cliff, the driver slowed down. The water was way choppier than the calm cove where we’d snorkeled, and the boat rocked drastically once we’d stopped. We were floating a few hundred meters from the cliff. Right there, our boat guy jumped overboard, motioning for the rest of us to follow suit.
Everyone on board looked at each other with a “Like hell” face — brow scrunched, lips curled — and so I jumped off the boat. Somebody had to get things started. One by one, everyone followed suit. It was immediately clear that this was no kiddie pool; the waves were high enough that you couldn’t see the rest of the group when one surged in front of you. High enough that I lost Tal for a few moments.
We doggie-paddled towards the rock cliff, following boat guy’s lead. The closer we got, the more terrified everyone became. Half way to the cliff, we could see the waves exploding on the rocks, water shooting 20 feet into the air. I found Tal; she was swimming hard, but totally freaked out. I held her hand and we kicked towards boat guy, who was bobbing with a small red cone held above the water to let us know where he was.
Between the waves, though, could’ve been a mile away.
The entrance to the cave was 50 feet ahead of him and he was staring at it, thinking, as everyone struggled not to scream like a small girl. He was thinking, of course, as to whether it’d be suicide to enter the cave. You see, the entrance was only visible every few seconds. Otherwise, it was completely underwater, waves pummeling the rocks surrounding this small opening to the cave. I’d swallowed a Big Gulp’s worth of sea water when he waved his arm and yelled “Back to boat!”
I think I was the only one bummed out by this announcement; everyone else turned right away and began sprint-swimming back to the longtail. I’m also an idiot who would’ve tried my luck in the cave, so take that for what it’s worth. As we approached the boat, I kissed Tal and our hands squeezed underwater. Felt like we’d just survived something together.
Back on the boat, the group looked like we’d just made it out of a street fight. The Spanish girl had a malfunctioning pacemaker and couldn’t breathe. One of the Aussies couldn’t swim; he laid like a lifeless doll on the floor of the boat, exhausted. Everyone else sat, their heads tilted back, breathing like they’d just finished a marathon.
“Sorry!” said boat guy. “Water too high today!” and the boat turned around towards island number three, which was a lot like island number one.
Half of the group was too exhausted and/or traumatized to even strap on a snorkle.
But it was impossible to be too bummed, because island number four looked like this:
The whole group bonded over nearly being smashed into a huge cliff by a monster wave, and on island four we all hung out, laughed and made fun of one of the Aussies who professed his love of Nickelback.
The boat ride back to Koh Lanta was great; the four Aussies, three cousins and a best friend, all sang Disney songs and pop hits in the back of the boat at the top of their lungs, loud enough that you only felt dumb if you didn’t sing along. There are few better feelings than shouting “I Want it That Way” on a boat in the Andaman Sea, the sun shining down, the islands zipping by and the satisfaction in knowing we’d just seen the beach of a lifetime.
Jesus, That’s a Cool Mall
I’ll keep this brief.
Bangkok is a lot of things: a congested, dirty metropolis where people are stacked on each other like LEGO blocks; a hub of prostitution and sex trafficking so out in the open it’s hard not to see; a clusterfuck of every type of street food you could possibly want, at half the price; and easily the wildest shopping experience I’ve ever encountered.
Malls in Bangkok make malls in America look like doll houses. And in our last two days in Thailand, we stayed in the center of the consumer madness: Siam Square, which houses four of the biggest malls around. Here are some of my favorite shots.
The display of some super hip shoe store that definitely did not sell televisions.
In the Siam Paragon Mall, we came upon a Muay Thai fight. Nothing like a little Mixed Martial Arts with your new handbag.
Escalators in the Mahboonkrong, or MBK, a mall with eight floors and 2,000 shops. For real.
The day of our flight back to Tel Aviv, we metro’d across town to see the Chatuchak Weekend Market, supposedly the biggest outdoor market in Asia, and maybe the world. Huge is an understatement. We spent over seven hours walking through it, and covered maybe a third. You could buy clothes, food, fruit, flowers, religious icons, pets, spices, crafts and more. We saw one guy selling squirrels and chipmunks on leashes. There are over 15,000 stalls in this place; it could drive a man insane.
Imagine 14,996 more of these stores, and you've got Chatuchak Weekend Market. This went on forever..
How did I cope with such sensory overload? I just ate a ton of soup to calm me down. Seriously, like five bowls.
And there you have it. A month in Thailand. Nine different stops, 14 different hostels, three flights, about 1,000 bowls of delicious noodle soup and enough good stories for three more blog posts. But I gotta keep some up my sleeve in case you ever take me up on that drink.