February 12, 2017

Thailand, Part II

By the time we left Koh Tao, I'd fallen completely in love with Thailand.

So picturesque.

This surprised me.

Ordinarily, when I fall hard for a country, it's language, food, and culture -- in that order.  But in Thailand, first, I fell in love with culture, I had a strong liking for the food before arriving and found a few new things to adore while there (but I don't really like sweet things or coconut milk or fruit, so the food relationship would never be anything more).  After spending a bit of time in the country, I developed a little bit of a crush on the language, but truly, the unknown script, tones and loose consonants plus the ease of Tinglish meant that if I was honest, I really only liked the language (and the food), but I *loved* the culture.

This table on the beach is a restaurant. (There was one other one.)

I mean, these people are CHILL.

And the landscapes are gorgeous.  And the infrastructure and engineering is super pragmatic/hacked (see Long-tail boats).

The lifestyle in Phuket, Koh Samui, and Koh Tao are all focused and functional enough to feel like you could get most things done, eventually, and medical treatment if you needed it, but relaxed enough to feel like just about *anything* you wanted to do would be tolerated, so long as you were polite enough to find a place where it was not super conflict-causing.

Elephant Crossing.

On the laundry scale, Thailand was a place where it *should* always be very easy to get your laundry done because many people advertise the service and the prices are extremely reasonable (50 Bhat per kg).  We had our dive center do our laundry before we left Koh Tao and it was exemplary -- we handed it over and for $7 USD it came back in 24 hours, clean, dry, and folded.  Such Luxury!

This was our "road" for part of our bus ride from Phuket.
But, like most of Southeast Asia, laundry can often be more complex than you expected, so you should build in a day or two for delays, drying in the wet climate, etc. (in Phuket, during intermittent rainstorms, we couldn't get our laundry dried in the dryers as there was too long of a queue, so we carted damp laundry around for a few days, packing and unpacking and laying it out all over the furniture in the A/C or fans until it was finally dry).  On my scale of What Is Okay?, Thailand is likely in the top 75%.  Plumbing worked, most of the time, hot water was hot, most of the time, supply chains were happening all the time, in front of your face, via moto, tuk-tuk, truck and what not (serious JIT), and watching restaurants buy ingredients from the trucks passing by during the lunch rush, it felt like generally just about everything worked "most of the time." 

Thankfully, the hard rain was during a paved section of the bus ride.
This working most of the time with slack and forgiveness and relaxation (presumably due to occasional flooding, ferries canceled due to weather, mud slides, buddhist or lunar holidays, etc.) put the culture firmly in the relaxing (to me) side of Okay.

The seas were a bit rough on the ferry to Koh Samui.

In a perfect example of what I'm trying to explain -- there were *so* many travel agencies, all selling the same stuff.  At any given point, some number of them would be closed for smoke breaks, lunch, family business, etc.  But there were more than enough open at any point in time, and because they were in heavy competition, when we tried to book a ferry and overnight train to Bangkok, we got the best service packaged all-in-one with all transfers at the exact same price that everyone else dependable/reputable/recommended/English speaking was offering. 

Views from our Koh Samui guesthouse.
The train reminded me of my first travels by train in Europe in college. It was fine.  A little nostalgic, even, although there was no socializing due to a lack of closed sleeping compartments and for that I was supremely grateful -- I was tired and didn't want to chat with anyone other than with E to say goodnight after we finally boarded sometime after midnight.  The best thing it did was save money by combining transport and lodging (and it was at least 50% less than flying and roughly the same as a night of lodging).  I'm glad we did it.  But I wouldn't make a habit of it.  Also, the extra 2 hours of delay once we were within the city limits of Bangkok (so woken by the train attendant and forced to unmake the beds into seats long before we arrived) did not make E a happy morning co-traveler in the least.

CPX orange boat -- our main Bangkok transport.
Thankfully, after arrival, when we realized walking to our hotel from the train station wasn't gonna happen, we decided to negotiate with a slowing tuk-tuk to short cut the taxi line and get to our hotel.  After a brief negotiation including the obligatory motions of E walking away and me starting to follow him (settled on 2X Uber fare), we drove away from the train station a few hundred meters before the driver stopped and asked again where we were going.  E showed him on the phone.  This clearly wasn't working very well, but the tuk-tuk driver was game, so he drove off as E and I held on, amused at this ridiculous mode of transport and pleased to be getting some open air after 15+ hours in the closed train full of backpackers.  Eventually, it became apparent that our driver wasn't going the right way and I asked E if we should say anything.  This is when the driver (who had some English and had picked upon our concern) turned backwards (while driving) and said, "No problem.  I go wrong way.  1 minute."  And then he turned the wrong way down a one way street and negotiated a complex transaction where he slowly approached each vehicle facing us (all trucks!) and made some motions followed by a deep bowing wai and was allowed to pass.  Eventually, we were through and he triumphantly stopped, waiting for us to get out and pay.

Tuk-tuks in Bangkok.

After we got over how awesome the wrong way one-way trick was, we pointed out that this wasn't our hotel (the Sheraton).  Instead, he'd seen our backpacks and assumed we must need the hostel district.  Ooops.  Eventually, once he realized we needed to go somewhere else and couldn't seem to read our phone map (a super common issue in Southeast Asia, btw, handing someone a phone map with directions does not immediately solve the problem like you'd expect it to do).  Finally, E cut me off from trying to repeatedly say "Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel" and just kept saying "Sheraton"  "SHERaton" "SheraTON" until the driver's face lit up and he said, "OH, SHER-A-TON!  I KNOW!".  E's phone thought it was 6.1 Km to drive from where the driver understood to the hotel, but the tuk-tuk took us through some alleys and various "pedestrian" paths such that we were there in 1.5 Km.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is HUGE.
From this point on, E was a huge tuk-tuk advocate.  Sadly, for him, we were staying on the water in Bangkok, which meant that the CPX boat was usually our fastest mode of transport and we took it almost everywhere we needed to go. 

Khao San Road in a nutshell -- 7/11, massage and tattoos.
After 3 nights of decadence at the SHER-A-TON (yay complimentary happy hour with food and drinks + a wonderful pool), including visits to Bangkok Chinatown, What Pho, and an afternoon of people watching on Khaosan Road, we said goodbye to Thailand and flew to Ho Chi Minh City,

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