Freesteel Blog » Thailand on the way


Thailand on the way — April 2005

Becka got a sabbatical again, which meant it was time for one of those long trips away from home. Last time it was to New Zealand. That experience was only a little spoilt by my having a job. Nowadays I work voluntarily, but my volunteering stuff involves a political website called Publicwhip, and the schedule coincided with the General Election. Bum. And we had to go away on an expedition to rural China with little prospect of an internet connection. Double bum. There aren’t many places left in the world that could be more inconvenient, but Becka managed to find one.

The underwater camera worked for one day before the software crashed a month beyond the warranty. I’m suspicious. Next time I won’t be programming in a date. This is a very spiky sea urchin. If you look carefully, you can see its pentagonal symmetry.

Another drawback of this plan was the air-travel. In the absence of any purveyors of fair-trade petroleum, you know your money is going towards political corruption, airport expansion, American state terrorism, and Myron Ebell.

There’s also the issue of global warming, and the fact that by flying one totally loses one’s moral credibility in being able to speak out against it, since by flying once in two years a distance that takes eight days to get to on the trans-siberian railway, one is just as bad as someone who jets to their holiday cottage in Vienna 30 times a year, or a businessman who goes to Japan for a day instead of using the telephone, doesn’t it? You’d think that the total amount of gratuitous air travel and fossil fuel consumption was what mattered, not who does it or who reminds you it’s wrong. But people are happy to use any argument whatsoever to overcome their conscience. In fact it’s a sign of childish immaturity, on par with being embarrassed about sex, to have a conscience and be troubled by it. It’s much more respectable not to have one at all.

So, feeling morally corrupt and dirty on the inside and out, we drifted through Bangkok airport and out onto the dusty train platform at night under the dim strip lights, trying not to trip over the noodle stalls. We dripped. The air felt like it had been breathed by dogs.

Tickets were easy to buy. When the train rolled in ten minutes later the platform guards, who were dressed like army sargents, shooed everyone off the tracks. Trains in Thailand seem to come in quick bursts at certain times of day, and then stop completely for a number of hours, so we were lucky. The trains south from Bangkok to Chumporn in the evenings are all sleepers, except the last one that leaves at ten pm, which only has seats. You take things as they are. We bagged a window seat on the way into Bangkok. Two girls threw buckets of water into the open window. Bliss. It’s something to do with their New Year celebration.

Hexagon grouper. The name works for me.

Twelve hours later, in Chumporn, I was completely out of it when we drifted onto a bus full of gringos and got driven to the ferry. The whole idea of this Bangkok diversion on the way to China was to do some diving to bribe me into putting up with a month of nasty caving. I chose the place to go diving — a small island called Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand — and was totally distracted from worrying about the Chinese caving. So that trick worked.

At 9:30am we arrived on the island after four hours of being hawked at by touts on the boat. We have a good tactic for dealing with touts: just play stupid. It’s really easy, and they get bored sooner than you do. We also have a good system for finding places to stay: just dump me in the shade with all the bags and send Becka off to hunt for somewhere. We were carrying about 30 kilos of junk each, the majority of which was worthless heavy caving gear (helmets, lights, chargers, boots), all of which we should have left in the left luggage at the Bangkok train station for the week.

One of the main difficulties with diving from Koh Tao is deciding how to pick which diving operation you’re going to pitch in with. They’re more undifferentiable and closely packed than nightclubs in Newcastle, and they all charge the same rate, having evidently got together and made an agreement not to undercut one another. The top prime diving site in the area is Sail Rock, which is 11 kms south and not commonly visited. We thought to check which one was going to visit there in the week, and that would determine the choice. The problem is, most outfits advertise a Sail Rock trip on their notice board, and cancel it on the last day because of not enough interest. One place advertized that they ran trips there for as few as two people at a reasonable rate, but when we checked them out they said they’d developed a hole in their boat which prevented them from going that far any more. They didn’t say whether the hole was accidental.

Koh Tao is a very steep island. After getting to the top we refrained from freewheeling down to one of the coves on the east side from which there is no easy escape.

Koh Tao has two main beaches, a large west beach called Sairee, which is the most developed with bars etc, and a smaller south beach, called San Jao. Leaving our stuff in our room, we strolled over the hill to the south beach, turning down all offers of lifts from trucks, cars and scooters on the way. For a route of 3 kms between two places that have nothing beyond them except the sea, there’s a phenomenal amount of motorized traffic, not all of it gringos buzzing about the place like they were trying to go somewhere. It was well into the afternoon before we saw our first bicycle… on a rack with five others that a shop at the far end of the beach seemed to be having trouble hiring out at about 90% the cost of a day’s motor scooter rental. We took two. We’ve never used a motorbike, they’re noisy, and bad for you, and Becka had noticed quite a number of gringos wandering around on crutches with broken legs.

The south beach is itself divided by a cliff with an awkward-to-climb-round skirt of granite boulders. We found a reasonable looking hut on stilts — what’s called a bungalow — for rent on the other side, and booked ourselves in to the dive operation on the site. Then we brought our enormous luggage over in two loads in the morning because we couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of negotiating a taxi. This probably looked very decadent to the locals, who can’t comprehend anyone not using petrol powered transport out of choice.

The cycling was pretty good, when you rode fast enough to outrun the yellow cloud of swelter that surrounds your body like an an astral aura of horribleness. When you stop, it feels as if an unrefreshing hot blanket has been thrown over your head. It began to rain when we were at the far end of the island. Halfway back and fully drenched we felt cold, and made an effort to savour the sensation.

There are lots of loose dogs wandering around. I’ve never saw any of them being fed, so I don’t know what they eat. They keep pestering you until you shout back at them: “I’m not your friend!”, because rabies is endemic in Thailand. There are very few loose dogs in China because they’re on the menu.

We experimented with lunch at the restaurant that owned the bungalows next to the dive shop, but it wasn’t very good. After three days in Thailand we’d still not had an excellent meal, which must be a record. We read from the guidebook that some people get chucked out of their room for not buying enough at the associated restaurant, but this didn’t happen even though we never ate there again, and always clambered across the rocks to find somewhere different. Becka became obsessed with a small family restaurant called “Famous House” up the road where the short sighted grandfather was sent out to take the orders until it got too difficult. This place was only open in the evenings, or we would have gone there for every lunch as well as dinner. Becka planned the dishes we were going to have two days in advance.

The diving was okay. We did Chumporn Pinnacle and Twins on day one, Southwest Pinnacle and Shark Island on day two, and then exactly the same on day three except we also tried a night dive. Some of the sites were extraordinarily crowded, and getting lead in a PADI gaggle was easy to accept. At this point you know for sure that diving is no longer an “extreme” sport, and is now about as on the edge as driving a minibus. Twins was the best dive because I saw most of the stuff I hadn’t seen before. On the pinnacles there were huge carpets of floppy doormat style anemones, but no coral. Coral is better for life because the tiny fish can swim into the crevasses and avoid getting eaten by the bigger fish. They can’t do that with an anemone because the anemones eat them, unless they are an anemone fish, in which case they are immune and like to swim among the tentacles, supposedly to attract other, non-immune fish. This makes no sense whatsoever because fish either follow food or fish of the same kind, so the only fish they could attract would be too big for the anemone to eat, or just other anemone fish, neither of which are good for the anemone. In other parts the rocks were totally bare from having been grazed by massive numbers of spiny sea urchins.

We found barrel sponges, cucumbers, blue spotted rays, bat fish, and got attention from a ramora suckerfish who was a bit lonely without its shark and tried to ride my knee. At Shark Island, the corals were feeding, although this didn’t seem to impress anyone except me. With UK diving you learn not to pay much attention to the fish, which are usually not there or beyond the limit of visibility. The stuck-on life doesn’t get away and you can get close up for a good view in spite of the murk. There’s something magnificant about the way hard coral is like rock when it’s asleep, but grows all fleshy when it’s out. I kept waving water at it to make the flesh go back into the rock to check it was real and not just an ugly anemone. Never touch live coral with your bare hands because you can infect their protective mucus layer with bacteria from your skin.

The water, at 31 degrees centigrade, was very toasty, so you were comfortable wearing practically nothing. The instructors, however, tended to weat full length wetsuits on account of the random stings you get from invisible things in the open water. This would get on your nerves after a few weeks.

anem xtreewor
Here’s a picture of one of those ugly anemones. This is not an anemone fish. On thr right is a close-up of some Christmas tree worms. They pop their furry heads down when you touch them. The underwater camera was dead for the rest of the week, so all I have now are my memories.

While the diving may have been a bit murky, the snorkeling at certain points around the island was top class. There’s an especially curious spot in Shark Bay where there are a lot of sharks. To get there you have to swim out across jagged coral for about a hundred metres in water that’s little more than ankle deep till you find the shelf that slopes down to two metres. The sea bed there is plastered with dead staghorn coral. Loads of it. It looks like a pit of deer antlers covered by rotting moss. Nothing much happens for five minutes, and then a grey shark the length of your body swims past you six metres away. You try to follow, but its sideways flapping tail recedes into the gloom as quickly as if you weren’t swimming at all. You turn round and there are three more grey sharks cruising past in different directions, all looking like they are on their way to somewhere important to attend a business meeting. They’re not. They’re swimming past to check you out. They’re like pedestrians who turn down a side street to check out a car accident there while pretending that they are just passing by.

You can see as many sharks as you like in Shark Bay, but they are only to be found in one part of the bay. When we turned back to the beach the tide had gone down a bit further. We had to hold our breaths in in order to float high enough not to scrape our bellies on the shallow coral. There are little black fish who try to defend their miniscule territories as you intrude. Every three metres a new one swims up and collides with your mask before it can tell how big you are.

For the real snorkeling experience it’s best to hire a kayak and paddle round the island. We only went up the east coast to Ao Hinwong bay and back again because it looked like the best side, being mostly steep slopes and jungle, away from the development and boring beaches. There are three coves that have huts in them. We stopped at the middle one, Ao Ta Note, and had a big breakfast after peeling off all our clothes and drying ourselves in the sun.

kayakc map
We wore all our clothes to go kayaking because of the sun. Unfortunately, Becka discovered she was carrying the map of the island in her pocket when we stopped for breakfast.

There are round-island snorkeling trips for sale that take you by “long-tail” boat rather than canoe. The long-tail is a style of outboard engine pivoted on the stern with a long propeller shaft that goes at a gentle angle into the water. It’s more like an egg-beater than the “normal” outboard engine, which is mushroom shaped with a vertical drive shaft and lots of complicated gears at the bottom to drive the propeller. Long-tails look like they’ve been kitted together from old car engines. Anyway, we watched where the snorkeling boats parked and went roughly to the same places. Our kayak had a tether line which was awfully useful for towing it while swimming, although it stops you from going around all the rocks and through the tight gaps chasing the dense clouds of silver minnows boiling near the surface.

On the north side of Ao Ta Note I saw seven sharks patrolling a bed of dead staghorn. Later on I saw a big painted map of Koh Tao peeling off the wall of one of the dive operations, and this spot, and the spot in Shark Bay, were marked as “Shark Points”. What’s the meaning of these gatherings? Why do the sharks meet there every day rather than once a week? Why don’t they move to a more interesting place? Do they have no chairman who can take the decision?

A couple of kilometres north of this cove is Ao Ta Note, which doesn’t have a beach. The south arm of this bay had many snorkellers, some even wearing lifejackets in spite of the fact that the sea is so warm and salty that it feels you could float rocks on it. Here the hard corals are alive and in perfect condition. It’s like chinaware. Everywhere you could see the huge velvety luscious lips of giant clams embedded in the coral heads. They quivered but were too chunky to shut when you got near to them.

Me uglifying the view on a lookout point a short walk from our hut in Taa Toh, which was the brown one above the tree with the blue door at the top of this page. That’s Shark Island in the background. This spot was mentioned in the guidebook as a good place to see the sunset. It was a very good guidebook, linked to at the bottom of this page.

We docked our kayak on the jetty and sat in a very quiet laid-back restaurant having lunch and avoiding the white hot midday sun. I didn’t want to move on, but we had to get the kayak and the fins returned, and get cleaned up to go to the “Famous House” for dinner.

On the cruise back we beached on Shark Island, opposite Shark Bay, and scraped some long slivers of plastic off the bottom of the canoe while pulling it onto the rocks over the clams. The diving is always done on the east side where it’s deeper, but the west is left to snorkel tours and there’s a plateau about ten metres deep. I spotted a Zebra Shark with its spotted elephant ear fins just within view. We swam down to goggle it repeatedly until I got a headache from holding my breath too long.

Becka dropped me off at on Taa Toh Beach with our bungalows and dive operation, and I got a slight ticking off for not hiring their canoe for our trip. So it goes. Later that evening we booked our tickets back to Bangkok — the ferry, bus, and overnight train ride in an airconditioned sleeper (all the cheaper seats were taken) — from a shop near the internet cafe. Then we noticed that Taa Toh also acted as a travel agent for the same. There goes our free lift over the hill back to the ferry. Rather than hire bikes and do two heavy trips with all things again, we hired the canoe on the last day (after getting told off for shredding all that plastic) and towed it round with all our bags loaded on it. Then we checked out some of the snorkeling on the east side, but it was very broken up. There had been a bad storm some years ago from that direction. We were hoping to see a turtle, but I think they’re cleverer than sharks and only hang out where the food is.

Back at the mainline station in Chumporn all the trains pass through in a few hours in the evening, so the food sellers on the platform can have all their meals hot and fresh to sell to people through the windows when it pulls in. It’s quite a sight and the food looks far tastier than those stale plastic products you can buy from the trolley on a British train. This is what “free enterprise” looks like, not the sorry excuse for it that you get served in the “developed” world, where such a market is limited to billion dollar corporations with billion dollar distribution networks, and everything else, including Mr Wong’s homegrown sugared pig fat with pepper on top the Houping valley, is excluded from consideration. However, you’ll find that “professional” economists can write vast treatises explaining why the latter, total corporate-ownership of the food chain, is the more enlightened state of being. This is mainly because economists take their art seriously: economic theory itself is marketized, and Nestle pays them for their services from their Public Relations account in the way that ten million Mr Wongs never could be organized enough to do.

shake dragfru
Becka was addicted to fruit shakes and ordered one at every street corner until she observed how little fruit they put into them. They’re mostly padded out with sugar water and condensed milk (3% milk solids). They didn’t taste so good after that. On the right is me eating a Dragon Fruit, which I had been looking forward to doing since my trip to Vietnam six years ago when I became addicted to dragon fruit shakes. Indeed. The dragon fruit turned out not to be very interesting, like a stale melon. There was not enough sugar and condensed milk in it. Durians, however, are worth having.

But there was more going on down in town. The night market was like a festival that lined the main street for over a mile of pavement noodle soup stalls, fruit sellers, and mangled squid mongers. We feasted our eyes for a whole hour before choosing one at random. The lady working the pots wore blocks of wood on her feet to make herself tall enough to work.

After a freezing cold night in a cage with the lights on the whole time, we stumbled back into Bangkok. We fought our way past the taxi touts to the new underground metro station across the busy road. After five stops we changed to the new sky train which is at about the level of a three story building. That’s a lot of exercise. Then we walked for another three kilometres with our 30 kilogram packs of caving gear to find the “Atlanta Hotel”, a famous 1950s style joint for travelers in the know. As usual, it was Becka’s parents who were in the know. You get cheap prices, actual character, the best vegetarian food in Thailand, and lots of signs and ranty posters entitled: “Sex Tourists Not Welcome!”

They were fully booked. We’d neglected to phone ahead. We ordered a pancake breakfast to cheer ourselves up and they let us leave the bags behind the counter while we went touristing in case they got any checkouts during the day.

The most exciting way to cross Bangkok is on a canal boat. This is a long eight person wide power boat that takes up most of the width of the canal, with ticket collectors stand on the running boards and wear hard hats. They know all the bridges and can hinge the boat canopy down to get it under the low ones. Everyone ducks.

A mini model of Ankor Wat, among the stupas and prongs of the palace. We’d visited the real thing in Cambodia years ago.

It took around four hours to tick off the important tourist sights, the palace and the national museum. On the way you have to dodge the very convincing touts who strike up a conversation and tell you that those places are closed to foreigners for the morning because of a Buddhist holiday — in the meantime why don’t you go to this other place by taxi where there’s a standing Buddha statue and other things? We actually believed them for a moment, but this didn’t change our course, probably because we’re used to doing things we don’t believe in. Anyway, we had the Book, and it didn’t mention anything about any holidays or foreigner exclusions. Once we got there and rumbled it, I was dying to mention our discovery to the next tout who hassled us, and ask him about this habit in Thailand where friendly people strike up conversations with you and tell you lies.

At the palace you get your fill of Prongs and Stupas and several fancy Buddhas, like the jade and the indoor gold recliner. We spent half an hour soaking up the air conditioning trying to be interested in the coin collection. I went to the museum determined to get the answer to the question: How did Thialand avoid becoming part of the European empires of the ninteenth century? It seems that they did it by having got lots of war practice on their neighbours during the previous 500 years, and having a navy, and by diligently ceding territory to the French in Cambodia to the east, and the British in Burma to the west. Today Cambodia is run like a colony of the UN after some dreadful recent episodes in the 1970s, and Burma has its military junta.

Thailand, on the other hand, has a constitutional monarchy, a parliament, and an unwritten constitution, just like Britain. Funny that. There’s a grotesque “democracy monument” on the main parade that the skytrain has to do a huge circuit round on the way towards the airport. Nearby is a “democracy memorial” to the three hundred students who were gunned down by the police in the vicinity of the former where they were holding some sort of Tiananmen Square style “riots” in October 1975. Their demands: That there be a written constitution.

A rare example of a statue in Thailand that isn’t of the Buddha: a half man half chicken. Not quite as sexy as a centaur, but a good effort.


I haven’t been able to do any proper research yet, but it appears that the authorities gave into their demands, and said it’ll take about three years to get one together. That’s not good enough, the students said. How about one year? the message came back. It was enough for the politicians to tell all the country that they have agreed to every demand made by the students, so why don’t they bloody well go home and stop clogging up the streets with their silly protests? When problems erupted again three years later in 1978, the government was properly prepared for it, and was able to put it down without any need for negotiation.

The clear lesson from this is: You can only catch a government off balance once in a generation, so you must be prepared to take the opportunity. Just as the government has a whole tranche of crappy laws locked in their files, ready to be rolled out at an opportune moment, like the USA Patriot Act in America or the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act in Britain just after 9/11, we the people should have our own documents prepared.

Never demand that the government writes a constitution for itself. Write the damn constitution first, and then demand that they adopt it. Even better, pick the best working one from among the hundred or so countries that have one, and change all the names to fit your own circumstances. They’re all designed to solve exactly the same problem. Then, when the authorities lie and accuse you of being too naive and inexperienced to write a functioning constitution, you point out that it seems to have worked for the Australians for the past 150 years; are we less civilized than they are? When they say that it will upset the delicate political order of the country if they adopted that, you say, that is the whole point; if it didn’t change anything we wouldn’t be wanting it, would we? Then you have your riots, and you don’t stand for any time wasting that gives them room to load guns and formulate lies.

Back at the museum, we hit the Thailand historical art rooms. Ten thousand sculptors over the ages stared at their blocks of stone and said, What this world needs is yet another statue of the Buddha, either sitting, standing, or — and this was a touch unique to Thailand — taking a step forward. Now, I like Buddhism. I respect it more than most other religions. But there has got to be something else to carve. Even a lotus flower. Or a fish. This was duller than the coin collection.

We luckily got our room in the Atlanta and ate too much of the best food ever, under the stern eyes of the elderly waitress. You could tell this place was run like a co-op. Then we went outside for a walk. There were all these ugly old white men sweating and wandering around with small good looking Thai girls. Hmm. These must be the “Sex-pats” all the signs in the hotel were warning about. One of the rants on the subject, printed in the restaurant menu, mentioned that it was a hang-over from the Vietnam days when the American GIs were flown to Bangkok for some genuine soldierly R&R, and it’s become established as a sort of world red-light district for white guys. In Liverpool we live one street away from curb crawler’s area, where it has remained long since the place has been gentrified. It’s fascinating. These meeting points don’t exist except as a diffused set of rumours and heresay that create their own concentrations for the activity. They take generations to shift, like the meeting points for sharks. Of course, they’d soon disappear if a fishing boat pitched up and pulled them all out of the sea.


JJJJJulian Todd 2005-05-01