Moving slowly through Thailand seems right. It’s too darn hot to move at any other pace. But a slow pace also seems to blend well with the culture. Based on my limited personal experience Thai people walk, move and speak more slowly than than most Americans. And they speak in a sing-song fashion emphasizing the final syllable and ignoring the h’s that chase the p’s in words like ‘Lamphang’. The Thai pronounce it ‘Lampong’, at least they do in Bangkok and knowing that can be helpful if you’re asking a taxi driver to take you there.
Before boarding the night train for Chumphon I wandered the platform with my camera looking for something. Like my travels I’m not sure what I’m looking for but somehow if I wander long enough and slow enough I tend to find it. I guess ‘it’ is a connection to or understanding of the people or place.
When taking street photos in America the most common gesture I receive is the middle finger, the bird. The subject is not upset and often it’s followed by a laugh or smile but is that the best option? Photographing in Thailand I was either flashed a thumbs up or a peace sign. And that was always accompanied by a smile. It’s not surprising Thailand is known as “The land of smiles”.
I splurged on a 2nd class ticket with air conditioning but the sleeping arrangements were still basic. The facing seats folded down into a bed for one passenger while the other climbs up into a bunk that’s pulled out of the ceiling. It was like a scene from an old black and white movie.
At the early stops touts jumped on board and walked threw the cars selling rice dishes then hopped off just before the train pulled out. One entrepreneur with a mischievous smile asked if I wanted a curry.
“No thanks”, I said.
Then he leaned in closer and while scanning the car fore and aft for train staff whispered, “Beer?”.
A cold beer sounded much better than a hot curry.
“Sure, I’ll take a beer”.
The travel agency I purchased the ticket from had a large hand written sign above the desk that read, ‘No outside food or drink on the train.’ The train had a dining car.
Then the man leaned in even closer and started stuffing beers into my shoulder bag. In a few seconds he had slipped 4 cold beers in.
“How much?”, I asked.
Of course he was in a hurry to get off the train and I was not interested in four beers nor his inflated price of 620 baht. We had a lively bartering match for a minute or two before agreeing on 500 baht for all four, $1.25 a beer. It was still high but they were icy cold and he deserved a delivery charge.
During the bartering the seats had not yet been converted into a bed and the female physician whom I knocked knees with and spoke in a Queenly British accent said, “Well, that was full on.”
Not exactly sure what she meant I said, “Would you like a beer?”
“I’ve never developed a taste for beer”, she said. “But I’m sure my husband would.”
Her husband was a pleasant chap with more humble Manchester roots and was happy to join me in a beer. So was the British grad student across from me who was studying bioengineering with an emphasis on neurological rehab. He took one then and another a little later. All us lads sipped our cold beers on the sly while the stewards converted the seats around us into beds and dropped down the bunks from the ceiling. I slept well.
The train delivered us to a bus which drove us to a pier where we picked up the boat to Koh Tao. Koh Tao is a small island in the south of Thailand that has a SCUBA shop every few yards for miles. Many of those shops also have their own bar, hostel and dive boat. The island is listed as one the cheapest places in the world to obtain a diving certificate and classes are taught in French, Norwegian, Chinese, Dutch and more. Plus 365 days a year you dive in warm water. In February I dove off the Washington coast in 44 degree water with two layers of neoprene, gloves, booties and a hood and between dives I poured hot water down my back and into my gloves and booties. To counter the buoyancy of all that neoprene I strapped on a crushing thirty-some pounds of lead. In Koh Tao the water was 86 degrees, I wore a 3 mil shorty wet suit and secured only 15 pounds to my weight belt. The diving was effortless with good visibility and plenty of marine life and the boat rides to the dive sites were short.
I took my first SCUBA class in 1978 shortly after I was born. (That statement’s only half true.) Actually I have been out of the SCUBA diving world more than I’ve been in it over the years so instead of just doing fun dives I decided to do one of those advance courses that gives you a taste of different types of diving. Buoyancy and compass navigation is always a good starting point and that consumed the first two tanks of air. Of course if you want to get down to where wrecks are you need to do a deep dive, about 90 feet. I was concerned about my ears equalizing considering my recent cold water experience but in the warm water I had no trouble. I also loved the view looking up from deep below the surface. Above me were layers of divers and fishes circling and armies of bubbles racing to the surface. The bright sunlight was split into hazy shalfs of gray as it struggled to go deeper. Looking up at the circus above me was like watching a mesmerizing dance. And after the deep dive I was ready to make a visit down to a World War II ship. It was a brief non-technical dive but it was still fun to swim along side the old warship and inspect the rusting gun mounted on her bow.
A few hours after the deep dive, when the sun had set and the water was ink black we dove again to around 24 feet. There we saw white eyed moray eels, a sting ray, more fish and a collection of reef creatures with their tentacles wiggling searching for food. Night diving is like walking through a dark tunnel. You can only see what is in your beam of light which makes it a little eerie and raises your heartbeat a few clicks. Before returning to the surface the instructor, myself and my partner huddled together with our knees resting on the sandy bottom. Then we turned off our lights and started flapping our arms like birds. That stirred up the bioluminescent in the water which flickered to life like static electricity or lightening bugs in summer.
As I said there are more dive shops on Koh Tao than I could count and just by luck I fell in with a great team at SCUBA Club Koh Tao. My instructor was an energetic precise German named Kia and his assistant Sandy was a Thai woman who was a delight to work with. Together they made the course a ton of fun. And I’m saying this only because it’s true and they deserve the compliment.
The other thing about Koh Tao is it has great snorkeling which I enjoy as much as the diving. And if the water’s clear and flush with marine life I enjoy snorkeling more than diving. It’s the freedom of swimming’s with minimal gear for hours that gives snorkeling the edge. The only down side is after 5 hours of facedown snorkeling I had an awful sunburn on the back of my legs and neck. Nonetheless while I was simmering I saw a black tipped shark, beautiful coral, a rainbow of fishes and three sea turtles. One turtle was at least half as big as me.
Of course there’s a lot more to do on Koh Tao than swim. You can get a tattoo via the traditional bamboo needle technique, or you can rent a scooter and tour the island, or crash a scooter and limp around all bandaged up for the balance of your holiday, or you can learn how to make pad Thai. I only did the last one but I did witness a lot of youthful skin being inked and noticed a number of lads with fresh bandages and a limp heading for happy hour.
To make things more interesting I decided to take a bus not the train back to Bangkok. It didn’t go as planned. But this post is too long already. I’ll save that for next time.