South-East-Asia Part 4: Last of Thailand

By this time it had been one of the most jam-packed weeks of my life. The five of us had somehow traversed a great deal of Southern Thailand without getting lost, eaten, or starting World War III; several close-calls though.

We were either starting to get used to it, growing bored, or actually improving and becoming wiser individuals. Either way, we still found ourselves learning new things about ourselves, the Thai culture, and also each other, whether we liked it or not. Sometimes we learnt a bit too much about each other.

Sleeping; a past-time for any-time

One thing that started happening around this time was a constant desire to sleep. And also the ability to sleep almost anywhere, and anytime. Now, I'm not usually a good sleeper, but whether it was a twenty minute drive in the back of some bus, or an hour-and-a-half boat ride to Phi Phi islands, somehow I managed to conk out every single spare moment. No matter how bad the traffic, how hot the weather, or how rocky the boat, we all manage to get some shut-eye, and by gosh, we needed it. A week of slight-sleep-deprivation and walking kilometre after kilometre left us all exhausted and needing some recharge time.

Decorations on Phi Phi Island

A pinch of courage takes you a long way

Phi Phi islands are a big tourist attraction (more on this later). The entire island thrives on its daily supply of fresh Europeans, Americans, Chinese, and other tourists from all over the globe. Including five Australians from Sydney.

Some of the accommodation huts that were available, that we had deemed 'too pricey' initially.
Except, unlike the vast majority, we were... low on funds. We're University students, cut us some slack. So when planning this trip, we decide to opt for a semi-questionable accommodation called 'Gypsy House'.

We arrive, and realise it's a good kilometre inland, away from the bustling island life and also the nightlife on the other side of the island. Well, dang. Take it from me, dragging a suitcase through crowded streets of loud noises with a humidity that would make the ocean jealous is not comfortable. Weaving through the back-streets of the island, we find ourselves among the locals -- that is, no fancy hotels, motels, or backpackers', but rather face-to-face with young Thai children playing high-jump volleyball, and sitting around chatting away.

In hindsight, I'm rather quite glad we picked this accommodation. As exhausting as it was, the refreshment of seeing the island-life away from the heavy commercialisation, and being among the locals was much more interesting, and I appreciate it a whole lot more in hindsight.

Also, we got lost. (Typical). Turns out, the grandious 'Gypsy Hotel' is not what we booked, but rather, the little small lodgings around the corner were ours instead. They were decent, though! And the hospitality was wonderful. We also received complimentary soap and bug-free beds, which was a change!

Eating was another aspect where I was proud of our courage as a solid-squad of five.

Rather than forking out >100 Baht per dish at a spotless, English-menu'd restaurant, with waiters and waitresses who were able to communicate with us, we decided to hit up the local spots. I.e., a small little food-supplier ('restaurant' is pushing it) with non-English speaking workers. Well, I mean, they could say words like 'pork', or 'fish', which was already a blessing in our books.

Yes, there was must confusion, slight frustration, and starving bellies. But, in the end, we snagged ourselves a cheap-eat that made our stomachs sing with joy, so I'm not complaining.
I've said it before but I can't emphasise the feeling of accomplishment when you get to have a taste of genuine cuisine in a local setting. Yes, perhaps we struggle, and perhaps we sit on wooden stools with no table cloth, but as long as you're careful and wary then I think it can really work to your advantage.

Tourism Hub; What country am I in again?

Walking down the street with five stray felines coming up to greet you is not something I anticipated to experience in Thailand. Perhaps Phi Phi Island isn't an accurate representation of the rest of the country (it by far isn't, but it does show a side of things that is unique to the place).

Phi Phi Islands is one place which makes you wonder where in the world you are.

If it weren't for the mass of Thai flags and flags of the King draped around the streets then it would be easy to forget we were still in Thailand.

In particular, as we roamed the Island Nightlife on the beaches, filled with bars and tourists, it didn't quite seem like Thailand at all. All around me were Europeans and a vast array of English-speaking tourists, all with a beer or cocktail in their hands, playing beer pong or dancing to hit pop-songs of the Western world.

One thing in particular that surprised me about Phi Phi Islands was how completely different it was from the rest of Thailand. There were live musicians playing acoustic covers of songs from the Western world, there were a vast array of drinks and food (pizza, fries, even an Italian restaurant) that really didn't seem to fit with all the Lucky Thai Massage parlors dotted throughout the island. 

But I guess Thailand-tourism is still a part of what the Thai culture has become, at least on this little plot of land.

A view from the island

Nightlife, over-stimulation, deer caught in the headlights

The nightlife on Phi Phi Island was one thing (fire shows, alcohol, and drunk tourists? Somehow I don't think that's a good mix...), visiting the red-light district in Patong was a completely different story.

Really, the entire place was an insult to all the senses. In particular: the bright and flashing lights, and the loud sounds and megaphones as each club and bar tried to gather as much attention it could, competing against its neighbours in a high-bid screeching battle. Top that off with trying to weave your way through a crowd and holding onto all your possessions, and it's a journey tough-enough for the greatest of all heroes.

A sign seen on Phi Phi island
Very soon we learned that the best way to make it through this street with minimal interference was to keep walking at a face pace and to make minimal eye-contact. (The slow and the weak are left behind.) Barely-covered ladies would roam the streets, eye-balling anyone who looked their way and sometimes literally dragging you into their show-rooms (literally), or extremely persistent Thai women would approach you with laminated signs advertising their ping-pong shows, or various other shows that I don't even want to know about (there was a so called 'f*cking show', and by golly, I personally do not even want to know what was in that one).

The red-light district was an entirely different experience that I never knew existed in real life, nor did I think I would ever come across. It seemed like something out of the movies, especially as I wondered about the health and protection of these workers, the laws of the country, and also the effect this had on the children that sat around the bars playing connect-four (they were only seven or eight years of age!). It made me think a lot and thus on top of all the physical insults the environment brought, I was well and surely overwhelmed and exhausted.

Heavy Commercialism

The entire experience of Phi Phi Island and Patong Beach (with the red-light district) seemed unbelievably commercialised, quite beyond belief. Everyone seemed to be banking on tourists with cashed-up credit cards and a willingness for hedonistic expenditure that seems to only affect those who are travelling. 

But, alas, us five little University students do not have the funds to live such a lavish lifestyle. So, we opt for the cheaper alternatives. In other words, often we slum it. The disaster bus ride (from my last SEA post) and our accommodation at D's corner (choosing unwisely to by-pass the 8 Baht fee for air-con) are plain examples of this. We justify it in hindsight by saying "It wasn't so bad... And it was... cultural. A genuine experience!" but really, it was just a decision we made and committed to.

There's nothing wrong, I believe, in picking the path that we did. There's also nothing wrong in paying a few more hundred Baht for a more comfortable stay. Either way, if you pay less, be prepared to accept the result, and we did.

Another thing that really placed strain on the situation was the constant, endless haggling of prices. To anyone who's been to an Industrialising Asian economy, this will be something you're familiar with. I've been to many Asian countries before, ever since I was a young child, and haggling and bargaining is something that I'm prepared to do, though admittedly I'm not the most competitive or aggressive shopper (I say this disappointingly, despite the negative connotations of 'aggressive').

It's obvious we're tourists. And thus, obviously, the shop prices are sky-rocketed into the air. At one point we were offered Thai pants for $6 USD and we followed through by asking for TWO pairs, for $5. Doesn't make sense, huh? But we got it in the end. It says a lot, doesn't it?

There's some conflict inside of me. Yes, sure, I'm from a well-off country. My family's income is reasonable to support us and $8-9 for a pair of Thai pants is, perhaps, slightly overpriced (for their sheet-thin quality) but affordable. Yet, at the same time, people here are paying $2-3 for that same pair of pants. I'm torn between equality, equity, justice, and charity. And it's hard and exhausting.

Local Food is Best Food, but take it with a grain of salt (and caution, and lots and lots of hand-sanitiser) 

Sometimes you see amazing meals for great prices.

Take this pig trotter meal with rice -- one of the most delicious dishes the entire trip, found at a street market.
Local food is best food. I'm going to stick with that statement. The experience of their cuisine, of their prices, of their flavours, and of all the interesting and unique tastes that simply aren't available back at home to the same quality, is one of my favourite reasons for travelling to a completely different cultural context. One of the most memorable things about this entire South-East-Asia trip was the food journey that we took, especially in Thailand and in Vietnam.

At this street food market you could purchase a fish and they would grill it in front of you immediately.

Now, take it with a grain of salt, because local food can also mean lower standards of cleanliness and hygiene. And I can understand -- these are industrialising nations, some still developing. Laws of hygiene and OHS are non-existent, for they have far more pressing matters to address first.

But, all in all, if you're careful and cautious, things usually pass with no real disasters. Ensuring that food you consume is freshly heated and made, or being aware of any lurking flies or insects (covered food is best food) is usually enough to stop any dangerous stomach bugs. Additionally, resist the ice cubes, which I admit we didn't exactly follow, and about two weeks into the trip this caught up with us -- I escaped rather lightly and easily, but the same can't be said about some of my friends, so heed this warning.

One particular street vendor that I remember we visited was on the side of Patong Beach. We deemed it 'clean enough' after some observation, and thus decided to purchase some meals. I went for a grilled piece of chicken that I requested to be reheated on the flames, which they were happy to do, and by gosh, it was one of the BEST pieces of chicken I have ever had. I'm soft serving it.

Some of my friends decided to go for a Papaya salad, which looked absolutely enticing, whilst another went for noodles. So far so good, the salad was being made just fine, noodles were being boiled... But in the corner of our eyes we spot a little brown chocolate slip into the crack of the food cart. By 'little brown chocolate' I mean a cockroach. Oh boy. Yessiree. A cockroach. Actually, I lied. Many of them, in fact, not just 'a'.

Ehhhhhhh but they were just on the cart. No harm in that, yeah? Oh hey, she's mixing and crushing the Papaya salad for someone who ordered before us. Mmm-- t-the cockroach is crawling into the bowl!! A-- ... Did she just crush the cockroach on the side of the bowl with her fingers?!

Ehhhhhhh but at least it wasn't the Papaya salad for us, yeah? Oh hey, there's the pot of boiling water for noodles. Wait, is tha-- there's a dead cockroach floating around the pot of water, like it's doing somersaults or water polo or whatever cockroaches do in water. Yep. That's a cockroach. 

Ehhhhhhh at least they've changed the water now. Fresh batch. Let's just try not to think about fact that five seconds ago there was a dead cockroach soup brewing away in that same pot. 

Yes, at this point, we had already paid and committed. In the end, we walked out of that experience just fine, but we were perhaps one of the lucky ones. (Though, I feel I should defend ourselves and say that >90% of the meals we had did not have any issues -- this was just an isolated instance)

Drag yourself out of bed

After an exhausting week travelling all through Thailand's beaches, oceans, rainforests, and nightlife, we found ourselves back in the city and absolutely worn-out.

With a final day before we hit Bangkok. I won't even talk about the troubles and stresses at the airport with car pick-up, finding our backpacker's hostel, luggage being overweight, etc., etc., blah blah. At this point, we were all absolutely exhausted, running low on funds, our phone chargers were breaking, I lost my lens cap (though, later I found it in my pants' pocket) -- we were tired.

Despite that, the next morning, three of us decided to drag ourselves out of our deep slumber and trek our way across the city of Bangkok to reach the Grand Palace (Wat Pho) to see the Reclining Buddha.

We decided to take a shot and catch a bus there, which is always something that requires a leap of faith. ("What bus number are we looking for?" "Squiggly line 48"). We boarded, confused, and unsure about the price of the ticket or how things worked ("Where's the tap-on?!") so we dealt with it by shoving her money and hoping it was enough for the ticket.

Other things I noticed on this bus ride was the astounding traffic (it took is 1.5 hours to return back in the afternoon) and congestion of Bangkok streets (full of motorcycles like ants), as well as the lack of singlets (i.e., conservative, shoulder-covering clothing) -- it made me stick out like a thin piece of wood that has fallen or been cut off a tree (i.e., a stick). Also, we observed that you can alight and board the buses at almost any place along the road!

Taken from a cross-bridge in Bangkok

Traffic or vehicle safety is a foreign concept in many Asian countries, I feel. There are such a huge number of people that it remains almost impossible to have an effective road-system.

Half the time this means traffic doesn't travel more than 50km/hr and, consequently, seat-belts are not necessarily a requirement. Though, despite this, as you traverse up steep cliffs on a huge bus, winding around curved roads, you really start to wish you had a seatbelt to use (this happened many times on our bus-trip to Khao Sok National Park), but with a population so vast it almost seems like the death or injury of fifty or so people doesn't seem to matter so much.

Before arriving at the Palace we were almost scammed by a convincing Tuk-tuk driver that seemed suspiciously kind to us, and insistent that we take a 15 Baht Tuk-tuk ride and catch a 900 Baht long-boat, because the palace was closed this morning for praying. He even drew us a map and everything, and was ultimately far too cheery and willing to help us out, to the extent that it made us uncomfortable. (Guess what, as soon as we said 'No', his face turned sour and he turned around without saying another word. The temple was also open.)

Increased Awareness; perhaps it will translate

As a tourist I think you become a whole lot more observant. I think you begin to notice things that you really failed to appreciate in your home country on a daily basis.

At one point, on the beach in Patong, I realised how I would make the most of every single moment in Thailand, trying to capture it all, experience it all, and pay attention to every little detail and enrich my understanding. Back home, in Sydney, this wasn't the case. It took me a trip far away, for three weeks, to realise how much I had took for granted back home.

The amount of detail that went into these statues was incredible, and something I really learnt to admire. Hopefully this translates to greater appreciation back in Sydney.
A few other things that we discussed and realised at this point, was what seemed to characterise a tourist. It's always fun to reflect a bit on our own experience and how we stick out like sore thumbs.
    1. Speak slowly in your native tongue, and hope they understand you, even though you're a visitor in a foreign country and technically you should be expected to speak their language -- really, the audacity we have to arrive and assume it's their responsibility to speak English! 
    2. Take photos of seemingly ordinary things, such as traffic signs, 'take off your shoes' signs. Excuse: "I'm taking in the culture"
    3. Doing things even when you're unsure if you're allowed to (which is often the case due to lack of literacy of the local language), with the justification "If it's not allowed, someone will stop me." (Though, in hindsight, this kind of applies to every day life, even back home).
    4. Doing a multitude of things incorrectly or stupidly and whipping out the excuse of being a tourist (we're trying our best, I promise!).

At Wat Pho Temple; one restored statue next to one that has yet to be restored.

And here ends our leg through Thailand. This was the hardest part of the entire trip because we were fresh off the plane, with peaking levels of confusion, and had yet to adjust to the new environment. We were lost, overwhelmed, and had a jam-packed schedule, and inevitably we crossed many obstacles and disasters and unexpected turns throughout our first one and a half weeks in South-East Asia.

Ultimately though, we learned a lot. An incredible amount. Far more than I could ever have expected or anticipated, and it was nice to know that the next leg would be a tour that would mostly require less work, and more kick-back relaxing times.

Part 5 coming soon.


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Hello! I'm a student from Australia. I like photography, am aspiring to be a Doctor, have fallen in love with many things that life has to offer, and hope to see more of it. I've been blogging for a while and over the years what it means to me has changed. Currently still trying to figure that out, but here I am in a weird hybridisation of photography, film, blogging, and the confusion of a young adult, you'll find me here writing about my experiences and life. Or whatever tickles my fancy. Whether that's entertaining or not is yours to decide. Stay hydrated, kids.