Paradise found and paradise lost... (pt. 2)

Phuket Travel Blog

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Our journey to Ko Naga began on Sunday afternoon when we were met by a couple of longboats just outside of Phuket.  The boats had arrived to take us on the 20 minute sea journey to the island where we would be spending the night with a group of Muslim villagers who earned their living by fishing and crabbing off the shores of the island.  As we coasted up to Ko Naga in the small fishing boats we were rather surprised by the sight we saw.  As expected there was a simple and tiny village set in the center of the island with a number of fishing boats tied up next to a long, concrete jetty that extended out into the waves.  However, what we did not expect to find was the multi-million dollar houses that dotted the beaches on either side of the village and the construction of a huge resort that was nearing completion on the opposite side of the island from the village.  Even Jim was surprised by the new development that was occuring on the island because he told us when he was there only a year ago with another group of UW students there had been nothing on Ko Naga but the village.  It was actually somewhat disappointing to see these structures on the horizon as we were very much looking forward to getting away from the technological conveniences of modern life and see what it is like to live only off of what you have around you.  I suppose it is sadly just another one of the many things that are destroying the unique cultures that can be found through out the world today.

When we arrived on the island we were greeted with amazing hospitality.  Snacks and drink had been prepared for us as were places where we could "shower" and rinse ourselves off from the hot, humid journey.  After we had some time to relax for about an hour we hopped back on the longboats and went out to sea with some of the fishermen.  They took us out to where they had laid nets earlier in the day and showed us how they collected them up with the fish that they use for their primary food supply and source of income.  They let us on the boat which was pulling up the nets in small groups at a time, and let us help sort the fish that they caught.  The haul that afternoon wasn't very good, but we were told that they had laid the nets out especially for us and that most of the fish are caught early in the morning.

The boats then took us to the back side of the island, just down the beach from where the new resort was being built where we spent the next few hours swiming in the Gulf of Thailand and playing on the beaches.  We tossed around a frisbee with our tour guides and hosts, collected sea shells along the waters edge and had an opportunity to talk to some of the Swedish, British and Aussie tourists among other things.  While it was a great deal of fun it also provided another sad reminder of how commercialized the world is becoming as we saw a number of sun chairs and umbrellas lined up along the beach for rent and a little stand selling snacks, sodas, and beer (on a Muslim island of all places) to the tourists that were pulling up in their yachts, and tour boats.  I suppose my group didn't help the situation any as a number of us (including myself) supported the business by purchasing the beers which ultimately ended up being something that I regretted doing shortly after returning to the village and realizing just how much that our hosts had done for us. 

After a few hours in the sun we split off into different groups and each took a different path back to the village.  A few of the girls hopped back on the longboat, Jim took a small group along the beaches and I hiked through the jungle with two of our hosts and a couple of the girls.  After getting into the middle of the brush and away from some of the more modern things we had be seeing, I had a short glimpse of just how beautiful and serene Ko Naga must have been before the development began on the island.  Aside from a small path that was trodden on by feet and the occasionial dirt bike, the jungle was untouched and gorgeous with the light of the setting sun breaking through the trees.

Upon returning to the village we split off into our separate houses for dinner.  Me, Tom, Jim and our tour guide Wilson in one house and the girls separated between three others.  Our hosts had prepared an incredible meal of fresh seafood and other wonderful, homemade southern Thai cuisine for us and treated us as though we were honored guests.  Later on that night we gathered together again on the pier and watched the full moon rise over the sea and the lights from Phuket glimmering off the water in the distance.  We chatted with each other about our experiences to that point and talked some with our host about life on the island and the changes that they had been going through with the development that was occurring in recent years. 

Maria, the representative for our hosts, told Tom and myself that it was becoming harder and harder to live the traditional life as fishermen that they had in the past.  This wasn't for lack of wanting to remain true to the old ways, but because the invasion of modern life was making it more expensive to live and more necessary to move into the mainstream Thai world in order to make enought to survive.  She said that many of the villagers were being bought off their land by those wanting to build vacation homes on the Island.  The price of around 80,000 bhat was a small fortune for most of the them since it was nearly twice their yearly income, but it was also definitely a exploitative bargain for the western developers at a mere $2,500 American Dollars.  Sadly though, many of them were accepting and moving to Phuket Island to find work in factories, and other low level positions that they could qualify for and the native population of the island of Ko Naga was slowly diminishing with each passing generation.  However, there are still a few that are attemping to hang on to the old ways of life at all costs, like Maria.  While she, her husband and her children have already moved onto Phuket, she still owns her family's original plot of land on Ko Naga and despite numerous offers to sell she has held onto the land because of the memories and tradition that it holds.

After a hour or so of conversation and as the moon rose higher in the sky, our group gradually broke off to rest after the days excitement.  Jim, Tom, Wilson, Shannon, Suzy and I asked our hosts if they would mind if we slept out on the pier under the stars that night, and despite the fact that they had already set up beds for us in their homes, they were gracious enought to help move the mats and pads out to the dock for the night.  The six of us stayed up and talked for a little while longer and then gradually fell asleep to the sound of the waves crashing against the dock and the distant purr of motorboats laying nets for the next morning's catch.

Monday morning we awoke before the sun to hop onto another longboat and head back out to sea, this time to gather crabs out of the nets that were laid while we slept.  We spent about an hour on the sea this time and each of us had an opportunity to get a crab or two out of the nets as they were drawn from the water.  Shortly after, we said goodbye to our hosts and headed back to Phuket to go and check into the hotel that we would be staying at for the next couple of nights.

Once again, Jim had surprised us with some beautiful accomodations at the Indigo Pearl just north of Phuket Town.  The rest of the day on Monday was free so we spent the day exploring around our new surroundings, biking on the beach, swimming, and relaxing again.  It was a strange feeling moving from such simple living the night before, back to the cushy surroundings of the Pearl, but I think it was once again a subtle way for Jim to remind us how well we have it in life compared to some others.  That night we went out as a group to some of the bars along the beach and talked with other travelers from all over the world including Italy, Germany, Canada, Australia, Jamaica and Sweden.  I spent most of the evening talking to an Australian woman named Emma who had been spending the last 10 years working in Alaska and her boyfriend David who was a pilot for Quantus.  For the next few hours that night had quite an intense conversation about politics, business, culture, religion, and relationships and got to know each other quite well for having just met earlier that night.  They told me if I was ever in Sydney to look them up and I mentioned the same if they ever found themselves in Seattle.

This morning we hopped into the vans and headed into Phuket to visit the first of the charity organizations that we would be seeing on this trip, The Life Home Project in Phuket.  The Life Home Project is a home for women and children who are infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS.  All of the women living at the home are HIV Positive and the kids in the home are either infected as well, or the children of infected women who live there.  The organization resembles a small gated community on the surface with dorms and apartments for the women and kids, a school, cafeteria, an office and a bakery and workshops where the women make the goods that they sell to help support themselves and the organization.  However, inside is a safe haven from the physical and emotional abuse that these women receive from their families, and the mainstream community who view them as social outcasts and a burden on the population.  Because of their condition, the odds of these women getting jobs outside of the walls of the organization are slim to none because a lack of proper education about HIV/AIDS in Thailand has led to fear and discrimination of those infected.  Here the women can make money, the children can attend school and all have a place for support, and medical attention without hassle. 

During our stay some of the girls took the opportunity to help the women with their handicrafts while we were told about the functioning of the organization and the problems of HIV/AIDS in Thailand.  The down side to our trip was that we were expecting to be able to spend some time playing and talking to the kids, but unfortunately we only had an opportunity to meet with some of the youngest children (4 and under) very briefly as the older students were away at class.  However, we did leave behind a number of healthy snacks for when they returned and provided the organization with a donation of 30,000 baht (about $1,000) from the funds that we raised before we left.

This afternoon a few of the girls remained behind to help out at the organization for a while while the rest of us traveled to Patong Beach on the east side of Phuket Island.  Jim took us there to see an example of how toursim was changing the resort towns of Thailand, and sent us on a mission to wander around and determine for ourselves whether we thought the change was for the better.  Tom and I only spent about an hour wandering around the town before we decided that in this particular instance, tourism was destroying something that at one time appeared to be very beautiful.  The streets were dirty, smelly and crowded, with mostly bars, massage parlors, souvenir shops and hotels stacked along their sides.  The white sandy beach was covered with chairs for rent and stands selling alcohol and other trivialities, carts blaring loud music and a number of tour boats cruising back and forth along the shore.  The experience was topped as we were walking down one of the sois towards the beach and the two of us were quite literally molested by a number of girls that worked in the "massage parlors" who were trying to encourage us to stop in for a while to receive their services.  I think we got stopped and gropped at least a dozen times each down a stretch of road about two city blocks long.

After all of that we decided we had enough and went to go sit and sip on iced coffee in an air conditioned shopping mall for the next two hours until it was time to meet up with the rest of the group again.  On the van ride down to Patong Jim had told us to picture a place as quiet and laid back as Khao Lak that we had visited only a few days before with one main road, a few quaint bars and restaurants and some comfortable resorts dotting the beaches.  This, he said, was what Patong was 20 years ago and this is unfortunatley the direction that small towns like Khao Lak are headed as big commercial businesses move in and take over while the land is still cheap and up for grabs...

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photo by: Aclay01