Beach Life (Xmas 2009)
We didn’t quite fit in with the other passengers. The average patron of the VET 7:15AM “Luxury/VIP” bus to Koh Chang isn’t concerned about whether he/she packed enough liquid butane. Nor are they clutching a tent and three bottles of wine. Well, occasionally you will get a fifty-something greasy man sipping a large bottle of Angkor beer and thumbing through “After Dark in Pattaya” or another high-class pamphlet.
You can usually learn all you need to know about their travel plans just by glancing at their crumpled yellow ticket: Depart Phnom Penh and arrive in Koh Chang approximately 8-15 hours later. While there is a bit of a spread in there to provide opportunities for adventure and intrigue, Marlow’s journey up the Congo River this is not. With a bit of creativity, though, the bus does have one key attraction for male riders: the cargo-hold bathroom ride. Drop your trousers, grab the massive metal bar above the toilet for some lateral stability, and ride the bronco at 70 miles/hour.
Our trip began on my computer one over-caffeinated Monday morning at the office:
Beach AND Camping AND Thailand AND Island. Search. Skim. After twelve pages of results, I came upon the one little tidbit I needed to know – yes, you can camp on the beach of some isolated island somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand. We didn’t really have any details of where to go or how to do it, but we have one secluded webpage written in crude Engrish with confirmation it was indeed possible. To be fair (if I am considering Heart of Darkness as a benchmark for independent travel), Marlow didn’t rely on Google – but, given the opportunity, I am positive he would have plugged in a few searches for Kurtz’s blog or at least reviewed the most recent satellite imagery of the region.
Jessie and I sipped an iced coffee at a café beside the bus station and studied my map of the Gulf of Thailand to establish our final destination. There were plenty of islands to choose from – but the most likely candidate to accept our humble tent for a few days was a tiny dot without a name off the coast of a slightly larger lung-shaped blob called Koh Mak. We’d just get to the coast and then figure it out from there.
We arrived in the coastal town of Trat in Thailand just as the sun was setting and the ubiquitous banana roti street vendors were heating up their woks. Most travelers forgo Trat in favor of heading straight to the islands – we would have done the same had we arrived earlier in the day. Attempting to negotiate and catch a boat to Koh Mak at that hour wasn’t feasible (financially), so we wandered the tiny alleyways of the old town. I was completely taken by the charming town. It reminded me of the beautiful old villages I wandered through in the mountains of Japan with its assortment of old wooden shops and cafes, as well a bustling night market where one can sample an array of delicious dishes. In a country where most of its soul has been sucked out due to mass tourism, Trat was a refreshing escape and an interesting look at the intersection of traditional and modern life in Thailand.
We caught a boat to Koh Mak early the next morning and our relationship with the tiny isle immediately got off to poor start. The pier was adorned with a silver 20-foot Christmas tree that was probably purchased on Ebay from the set of “Christmas Vacation.” My preference would be for one or two strands of Christmas lights strung over a palm tree on the edge of the beach, as featured in the Corona commercials of my childhood.
We splurged and checked into one of Koh Mak Resort’s “lonely bungalows with gorgeous views of the Gulf.” In typical SE Asian fashion, we were taken to a set of four bungalows that were no more than two meters apart from each other. I guess as a unit they were lonely, but I could still probably throw a rock at the next set of bungalows up the beach. Unfortunately the view wasn’t much better since the bungalows faced each other. The curtains on the large glass windows didn’t quite close all the way, affording guests pleasant views of other self-conscious guests changing clothes behind large pieces of furniture or taking advantage of the free wifi to find another hotel.
Thankfully, Koh Mak Resort had a wonderful concierge, Nick, who helped us get one step closer to our final objective. Despite an initial breakdown in communication (“What? Why do you want to go there? There is nothing to do there.”), Nick booked us a boat to a nearby island where we could connect with yet another boat to take us to our dot. He also helped us to acquire a 20L jug of water since, as our helpful concierge pointed out, “you can’t drink sea water there.”
The next island, Koh Rayang, proved more depressing than the first and I had serious doubts about our trip. I don’t have high standards for accommodations – its Asia – but if I am paying $90/night, I expect at least a bed that can comfortably fit two persons and perhaps a free stiff welcome drink upon arrival to take that “we are ripping you off because we own this little island, can charge what we want, and love posting doctored pictures on our website” taste out of your mouth. The only plus was the availability of sea kayaks (for an outrageous $5/hour), which Jessie and I rented for a morning to explore nearby secluded islands. We ate a humble Christmas dinner at a small family-owned Thai BBQ restaurant back on the main island, where a tiny newborn child with an adorable (and gravity-defying) 7-inch Mohawk beguiled passing tourists and enticed them to eat at the restaurant. You cannot turn down a kid like that on Christmas and business was bustling for the small kebab shack.
Despite some minor confusion (“What? Why do you want us to drop you off there? I’ve never heard of someone staying there.”), we were able to hitch a ride on a diving boat the next day to Koh Rung, a small island in Koh Chang National Park. After enjoying a bit of snorkeling on the other side of the island, the boat dropped Jessie and I off at the ranger station.
As we unloaded our supplies and walked toward the Thai rangers, there was a moment of fear. What if we were wrong and couldn’t stay here? With of a record of 0-for-2 thus far in the island hopping game, a miscalculation on this island would spell disaster for the trip.
The whirl of the diving boat’s engine roused one of the rangers from his afternoon nap on the beach. He took a look the two stranded farang on his island and yelled, “Hello! You go anywhere, no problem!” And then he went back to sleep. That qualified as a positive response in my book and erased any lingering doubts. We celebrated our luck and set up camp under a lovely weeping willow tree at the far end of the beach.
Koh Rung is one of the smaller islands in Koh Chang National Park, but is one of the few with well-preserved corals and an abundance of sea life. As such, it’s a popular day trip for those staying on nearby islands. The average traveler only visits Koh Rung in the morning for a bit of snorkeling or diving. Those few who stick around after the day-trippers have left are in for a treat.
The Thai government has gone to great lengths to preserve the area and promote responsible travel, a welcome departure from the Cambodian government’s view that every island should have at least two casinos. Ten rangers live full-time on the island with their families to enforce anchoring regulations, monitor wildlife numbers, catch poachers, and develop new eco-tourism activities.
The rangers have cut 5km of trekking trails through dense jungle and over sizable mountains all around the island. If hiking isn’t your style, you can borrow a snorkel and wade out in one of the numerous crystal clear bays to check out the abundant fish life and corals. Or maybe you’re more of the hunter/gatherer type – the rangers live off the land and are more than eager to show visitors a thing or two about fishing. By the time you read this, the rangers will have probably finished their latest project: a pair of eco-friendly bungalows, making the park a bit more accessible to those without their own provisions.
I had romantic dreams of being on a secluded island. Besides a few monkey friends, exotic birds, and an “Other”- hopefully Ecko or Charlie – it would be more or less a peaceful Robinson Crusoe experience with a pre-defined exit strategy. Though Koh Rung had some of the comforts of civilization (bio-toilets, a few ranger huts, a nifty floating plastic jetty), it was more than suitable for a few days of beach camping.
I enjoy setting up living spaces. It’s probably why I’ve had seven apartments in the past three years. The BBQ fire pit, clothes line, eating area, elevated food storage… all needed to be created with whatever was readily available. I am always pleasantly surprised about how little is necessary to create a comfortable space and accomplish the same basic daily routines. It takes a bit of getting used to (Jess refused to stand closer than 10 feet away during my first few attempts at lighting the camping stove), but after a day or so it is second nature.
There’s quite a bit of internal satisfaction in having no other task one late afternoon than to walk on a hiking trail and find wood for that night’s campfire. Or to watch the sunrise on a cool morning while you wait for a pot of tea to come to a boil. I’ll admit that it’s not exactly the most relaxing beach holiday, since you have to manage cooking, cleaning, small mammal attacks, etc. But there’s something about the routine in that kind of surrounding that is satisfying… Plus it gives me the chance to use the skills I learned from watching Man vs. Wild and Macgyver, such as building a fish trap or using charred clothing to carry embers or using a stick of gum and the moon’s gravitational pull to… well ya know.
Our first evening on the island, Jessie and I sat around our little bonfire (honestly, my primary reason for wishing to camp on the beach) and enjoyed a bottle of wine. Dung, one of the rangers, walked over and invited us to join them for dinner. Earlier in the day I had watched in amusement as he ran down the pier to show us his bounty: a few crab traps, two buckets full of fish, and some squid. I am not a big fan of seafood, but you just can’t decline BBQ fish on a tropical island – particularly if this man offering has been living in relatively solitude there for a long time and the only extra stimulation he gets is from the occasional strange, smelly foreign who decide to set up camp.
We wandered up the beach and into the small valley where the rangers live. All of the Thai rangers, save for one tough looking tattooed guy sharpening a knife, were visibly excited by our participation in the big dinner. An older woman – and you always know you’re in for a treat when a well-rounded older Thai woman is cooking – was managing a series of BBQs, each setup for a specific entree: BBQ crab with pepper sauce, steamed crab in a pot, grilled squid, scallops, and grilled fish with ginger.
Another ranger walked over and, with a beaming face, pounded a bottle of Johnny Walker down on the table. I was impressed – Blue Label. Viewing my distorted expression after taking a swig, the ranger admitted that the bottle was full of homemade whiskey he bought off some guy on another island for 40 baht (about a dollar). Visions popped into my head of BBC articles describing the deaths of dozens of Africans after drinking homemade alcohol laced with chemicals, but I didn’t want to be a poor guest. Nor did I have any excuse to offer since 1) I am a foreign male in Asia and thus compelled by every Asian male to out-drink them, 2) it was 530PM and too early to pretend to go to sleep in my tent, and 3) you can’t really hide on a tiny island (though it’d be hilarious to walk away and hide behind a nearby bush for the rest of the night).
Dung pulled out a guitar and, upon learning I play a tiny bit, handed over for me to entertain the group. In these situations, I will usually (crudely) run through the two Beatles songs I know and the crowd will be delighted. Unfortunately, this group had more discerning tastes and my short set was met with silence and awkward gazes at the ground. Dung took the guitar back, asked me if I knew of a man named Pink Floyd, and ripped through some finger bending runs from Dark Side of the Moon. I decided to keep my hands on my tin cup of whiskey instead of the guitar the rest of the night.
We feasted on a delicious feast of fresh seafood, most of which I typically despise but for whatever reason had a completely different taste that night. The digestif was a hand-rolled cigarette of the strongest tobacco and herbs that have ever crossed my path (which is admittedly exceptionally low). Unable to function after the combination of strange stimulants, we bade good night to our kind hosts and retreated to our humble tent.
We both got little sleep that night. I thought sleeping on sand would be comfy, like slowly crafting a your own butt groove on a brand new sofa. To my surprise, though, it felt a bit more like how I imagine permafrost must feel. I was relieved when my clock finally displayed an acceptable hour – 500AM – to officially wake up and leave the tent to make a pot of green tea. Unfortunately my cheap camping stove decided it that it had enough of this “Quiet hot blue flame!” nonsense advertised on the box and really wanted to be a jet engine. No need for a caffeine infusion in the morning when the adrenaline is pumping and you’re trying to prevent brush fires or butane bottle explosions.
A bit after sunrise Dung offered to take me to the bay on the other side of the island, where I could do a bit of snorkeling and then hike 3km back over the mountains to our camping spot. We set off on his small dingy and I thought of how Bear Grylls would narrate the scene (all in screams over the whirl of a propeller): “Now I am in Thailand, a land ravaged by tsunamis and new age hippies! I am going to be on a remote island surrounded by packs of painful urchins and slimy eels! I will be battling against the seas! It is going to test every ounce of my survival knowledge to show you how to make it out alive!” Unfortunately, the group of diving boats we had to weave around and the “Welcome to Koh Rung!” sign on the beach ruined the fantasy.
As it was early in the morning, there were no day trippers yet and I had the beautiful beach to myself. Since landing on the island, I had wanted to test out something I had seen on the Lord of the Flies episode of the Simpsons as a child. I immediately put my goggles on, grabbed the largest rock I could find, and shuffled into the water until I was completely submerged. I am not sure what I was expecting, but holding a rock while under water does indeed make you sink to the bottom and affords lovely views for about thirty seconds. I repeated this dive/submerge exercise around the bay for an hour and each time the fish went through the same stages: surprise, acceptance, curiosity, horror. Quite entertaining and probably something that is only humane with fish.
The hike back was relatively tough due to the jungle’s ability to take a pleasant day and make it stifling. Tack on the prevalence of insects ala Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and add a dash of poor trail signage, and you might have a potential survival situation for dummies. Fortunately, I made it out just fine and didn’t even have to drink my own bodily fluids. Later the rangers would make a perplexing statement that the trail contains tiny pinky-sized snakes and one-meter long spiders. I confirmed at least ten times that this wasn’t the other way around.
Back on my beach I uncovered another mystery of the island. At dinner one of the rangers had exclaimed with unusual pride, “I have a little pork!” But he wasn’t eating or intending to eat pork. Walking by his room, I nearly squashed the poor little squealing pork tied to a leash to his railing.
We left the island early the next morning after a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes on the campfire and promises to our new friends to return. One of the rangers was kind enough to drive us to a nearby island, where we connected back to the mainland. It wasn’t the secluded island paradise we were hoping for, but I suppose the holidays are best shared with others.