Post-tsunami Thailand: The New Year's Mission

Bangkok Travel Blog

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The plan: get to the fabled island playland Ko Phangan by new year's without the benefit of making any reservations beforehand.

After waking up late in the hot Bangkok day, I went to the first travel agency I found- next door. Being so close to new year's already, all the trains were booked, all the local flights involving the route to Ko Phangan were full, and I wasn't about to ask about anything smaller than a jet. The only thing left was the 12 hour overnight bus ride from Bangkok to Surat Thani, connecting to a 4 hour boat ride up to the island. Fuckin hell, 12 hours on a bus!  ...booked it.

The tour book recommended getting lockers at the train station in the middle of Bangkok if you had excess baggage you wanted to store, because it was cheaper than the airport, if not a little less secure. I went down there and found out it's because the train lockers are merely cubby holes that are monitered by video camera! Anyhow, I rented a cubby hole for 11 days and dropped some stuff to lighten my backpack.

Came back and had lunch on Khaosan Rd. and I noticed that the guy sitting next to me had a brand new tattoo on the underside of his wrist, so I asked him about it. Nervously, and in haulting english, he said it was "the sea" written in sanskrit. In fact, he was so shaky (his eyes were wide with big pupils and would drift, like they were seeing something not there, and his manner reminded me of a dog that's been beat and is slow to come up to a stranger) that I almost turned back to my meal to leave him alone- but he seemed to want to talk, so I struck up some small talk and before long, he was telling me his incredible story of survival:

Turns out he was a Czech named Paul (go fig) who had been on Ko Phi Phi when the tidal wave hit. He was playing guitar in his room when he notice water sloshing on his window, so he went to open it and look out when the wave poured in, along with people, dead and alive, and other debris... he swam and fought his way outside - fortunately his hotel was somewhat inland - and up the hill just in time before the entire island was flooded. He waited almost 2 days on the hill without food before getting the courage to come down to look for his friend whom he was traveling with. When he did, he said there were no buildings and bodies everywhere - the mosquitos were the size of pencil erasers, so full of blood. The sea, still sloshing around what used to be the city, was red. Finally rescue boats arrived and gave him passage to Bangkok, where he wandered around in a daze, replaying the memory of the tidal wave in his head over and over like a movie. And then, he ran into his friend, who it turned out had a similar escape story as his. They got piss drunk and decided to get the tattoos together to honor their survival.

After finishing his story, he seemed relieved. I asked him where he was going now and he told me he was leaving on the first plane back to the Czech Republic tomorrow. We said cheers with our beers and I let him finish his meal in peace. I looked around and noticed perhaps for the first time that there were people limping or walking with crutches, people with bandages on their limbs all around me. The images I had been seeing on TV... the "death toll" number that had increased by thousands every day... the proximity of the devastation, it all finally sunk home. This tragedy was very real. I decided to kill the rest of
my wait time in a used book shop.

The Thai travel agents were less than communicative about where the hell we were spose to catch the bus and we almost missed it. On the bus, I took the last seat available next to this Australian chick and struck up a conversation right away... which was pretty cool, until about half way through she was still talking to me and I realized that she was going to talk the entire ride down. Mercifully, with three hours left in the ride, she fell asleep.

Rumor was that all the guesthouses on Ko Phangan were completely booked due to the disaster at Phuket and Phi Phi Island. I heard many travelers talking about changing their destination to Ko Samui (the larger, more commercial and expensive island) instead. But I suspected that this was nonsense... after meeting Paul, I knew most of the survivors were going the fuck home, not to Ko Phangan- and any travelers who were bound for Phuket on new years would sooner go to Ko Samui for the resorts.

On to Ko Phangan.

By the time I was on the boat to the islands, I was delerious from being in a state of constant motion and constant lack of sleep for the last 12 hours, and my two traveling companions and I weren't speaking much to each other (more from running out of things to say than anything else). The sea air felt nice and I took a space up on the front deck next to these two Japanese girls to see if my Japanese still worked... and I was tired of talking in English anyways... and they were both cute. So we talked for about a half hour in Japanese, but the girls were from the Tokyo area, which is a different dialect than what I'm used to hearing, so eventually I had to switch back to English. One of the girls kept turning to her friend and giggling hasukashi, which means shy, everytime I joked around with her. Ah, Japanese girls. We made tenative plans to find each other on the beach on New Year's Eve, which is supposed to swell up with maybe 10,000 people for the big party... riiiiiiiight.

I said my goodbyes on the dock and suddenly realized I was standing on Ko Phangan. I had made it, now all I needed was a place to store my bag, because worse came to worst, I could always sleep on the beach, but I didn't want to worry about my stuff while partying. I didn't know where to look for lodging first. I knew Hat Rin Nok, the beach that everyone was going to go to for the big party, would be the most desired place to be, but probably completely full already. I decided to try the north part of the island first, but accidentally got on the wrong bus to Hat Rin Nok.

Fate, iIguess. Might as well look around... and what do I find at the first guest house I check? A room with two beds. Since there were three of us and we had found an empty room so quickly, we decided to try looking at other guest houses, but ended up running back to the first when the following three guest houses (which weren't even as nice as the 1st) were booked solid. I knew I was dooming myself, but I offered to find a single room elsewhere and let my friends have this prime location, but my friend Steve was itching to go off on his own and volunteered.

So there I was, staring at perfect torquoise waters and white sand beaches, and here I am, a day later, already spending entirely too much time in the internet cafe, trying to write about things that are better left a mystery... Ahh!

(This is a journal entry from the time I spent in Asia, early 2005)
anacattan says:
really interesting to read ur blog, i feel like i'm reading a book and i don't want it to end .. like i'm expecting all the time what it's going to happen from one situation to another ... so cool!
Posted on: Jul 24, 2007
londonbella says:
I completely understand about long bus rides.... I took a 15 hour one (3 of which were on a ferry) from London to Dublin. Never again! it was the longest 15 hours of my life, to turn around not even 24 hours later and return....
Posted on: Jul 14, 2007
pinchora says:
truly amazing!
Posted on: Jul 09, 2007
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