15 January, 2013

Thailand: From Insanity to Tranquility (Tuesday)

Our flight was scheduled for noon, which set us up for a reasonably leisurely morning, though there was not a lot of time to spare, since they recommended leaving for the airport 2.5 hours before scheduled flight time, just in case traffic was bad. This turned out, in every case, to be a gross overestimation of required time, but I imagine the hotels would never want to give a bad suggestion in this area, leading to a guest missing a flight, so they err on extreme side of caution.

When we awoke, there was a note under our door, indicating we had a missed call/message the previous day. The call was apparently from our good friend, the tailor. First off, I didn’t want to deal with it right now. Second, I didn’t want to deal with it right now. So I didn’t. I figured I would call him back later, perhaps when we got to Khao Lak. Perhaps when we got back to Bangkok. Perhaps never?

It was a relief that our taxi driver seemed to be on the up-and-up, turning on his meter, no obvious shenanigans. Though, we were confused on the ride there because the highway system is extremely difficult to comprehend. First of all, the fact that cars drive on the opposite side of the road is endlessly disorienting to us. For instance, when you are in the far right lane, you are in the passing lane. I don’t think we would ever get used to that. In fact, we both commented to each other several times that we could not have imagined needing to drive in Bangkok. Forget it. The other big challenge, of course, is the fact that the road signs are almost entirely in Thai. This will be punctuated, occasionally, with maybe one sign that is in English, for the extremely urgent pieces of information, like “AIRPORT.” But my guess is that, if we were actually driving, those few messages would be insufficient to help one be in the correct lane to make such exits. When he finally took the exit for the airport, which, paradoxically seemed to be the exit toward the direction that did not say “Airport,” we drove for quite a ways on increasingly industrial, progressively more vacant roadways. Of course, we’re starting to wonder where the heck we are going. We knew that Don Mueang was “The Old Airport,” but not “The Abandoned Airport.” After about 5 more minutes, we are clearly in the vicinity of the airport, because there are parking garages, and signs for departures and arrivals, but no cars. The road continues all the way past and around the real estate that seemed like it might be the airport, then loops back and winds its way up some roads that were clearly designed by crazy people, illogical, inefficient. Finally, we emerge from this maze at the departures terminal, where there are suddenly lots of cars. Perhaps we were taken on the long way around to run up a little more meter? Who knows. It was only about 200 BHT to get there, so we weren’t going to sweat it. There is no other way to describe the inside of this airport than “clusterfuck.” There was a very short line, immediately upon entering, where your bag was x-rayed. This created the illusion of a streamlined process. But what really happens is that we were then dumped into a free-for-all long, winding, line, without any signs indicating where the end of the line was, for checking in to AirAsia.com. As an aside, I will note that, for some reason, it makes me uneasy that an airline has “.com” as part of its official name, actually painted on the side of the airplanes. Call me crazy, but I prefer that companies that fly airplanes have a foremost presence of the “physical world” and that their online presence is merely a supporting aspect. Seeing “.com” on the airplane somehow makes me think that maybe they hired the pilots via online signups. Like I said… call me crazy.

After standing in the insane line for 5 minutes, we realized we were not at the start of the insane line, and wandered and wove our way back to the real end of the line, which had probably doubled in its tail since we were standing in the wrong place. Others had to follow us, having made the same error. The only consolation was the fact that we were two hours early for the flight. We made it through security, and were happy to discover a Starbucks in the terminal. I think I have noted elsewhere that, while Starbucks may be a corporate evil of some form, they are also an oasis when traveling in remote places like Bangkok or Minneapolis, when you need coffee. It seems like we must have also hunted for some type of food, and I remember wandering around trying to find snacks. But I’m not sure we found anything. At the gate, with lots of time to spare, we were momentarily excited to discover that the terminal had “free wireless” internet. But, it turned out, the only people who could use it were those who were traveling on “Nok Airlines.” This airline paints their planes so they actually look like cartoon ducks, including a beak on the front of the aircraft. It’s not an actual beak protruding past the front of the aircraft, but a likeness of a beak on the existing nose of the aircraft. This instills even less confidence than having “.com” on the side of the plane, but maybe I’m crazy. I just want my aircraft to be taking itself seriously. So we had no internet. The airplane itself was quite nice, and not uncomfortable. Considering that Asians tend to be smaller than Westerners, it really says something that AirAsia(.com) provides more legroom than United Airlines. The recorded flight safety instructions were delivered in two voices: one was a very formal British sounding man. The other was a woman’s voice that kept wavering between sounding Australian and German (South African?). Odd. I don’t know. Why am I telling you this?

It’s a short flight. Barely an hour, so we were there quite quickly. The approach into Phuket International Airport was kind of pretty. The plane crosses over water first, the Gulf of Thailand. Then it crosses land, and eventually shoots out to the Andaman Sea to make a turn and come back in for landing. We could see the beautiful turquoise water below, while approaching the shoreline. Finding a taxi to Khao Lak, which is over an hour drive, was no problem. Though, once again, I made the foolish mistake of not having come equipped with an address for the driver (what made me think these drivers would know where everything was located). They don’t have GPS, usually, so the chances of them finding anything they don’t already know about is very slim. Our driver was a very friendly young guy, who knew quite a bit of English, and he stopped at a gas station part way there and called a friend who gave him directions to the hotel we were staying at, the Khao Lak Riverside Resort and Spa. The ride north from the airport took almost an hour and a half. He did drive fast, and reasonably recklessly. But, compared to Bangkok standards, and with the much sparser traffic in this area, the ride was relaxing and safe. Compared to Bangkok, again, the scenery was completely different. We passed fields, followed by forest, rural scenery, occasional small towns with shops and restaurants, animals in the fields. A much different view of Thailand than what we’d seen in the city. It was really like two separate vacations.

As we got nearer to our destination, it became evident that “Khao Lak” is spread out across a few separate towns over about an 8-10 mile span of the highway. All three of these towns will refer to themselves as Khao Lak, when it comes to tourist information you’ll find online. But only one of the three is Khao Lak proper (the southern-most one, I believe). There’s not much of a consequence of this, other than it means one needs to take a taxi for about 300 BHT ($10) if you want to visit either of the other two Khao Laks.
After branching off the highway (which is really just a 2-lane road) down a narrow side street, we started to feel like we were likely to get lost, but somehow the driver got us to our destination, stopping briefly to ask out the window to someone for further direction. We arrived at Khao Lak Riverside resort, and it was just like the pictures on Trip Advisor. A very European-style establishment, with a main building containing a common dining area, in an open-air environment, and then a separate building that contained what must have been maybe 16 units? I really have to share a picture with you, because I don’t think it will be possible to appreciate the place without seeing it.

We were greeted by one of the hosts, Markus, a German man who looked to be in his late 50s or early 60s, with a gray pony tail. I might as well show you a picture of him too.

He welcomed us, formally, and asked us the standard check-in questions, and where are we from, etc. When we told him, he noted that there were an unusually high number of Americans staying there at this time. It seems, from our subsequent info, that it was mostly Europeans staying there. Without much ado, he led us back to our room, and gave us a tour of the room and its amenities, including some suggestions and guidelines. Very formal. The room had lots of dark wood, which really was reminiscent of places I stayed in Germany. The doors were narrow, tall wooden doors, with small dark metal knobs. The “king-size” bed actually is comprised of two double beds adjacent within a single large frame. That was standard protocol in all the hotels I visited in Germany. We would repeatedly joke that we weren’t even staying in Thailand. We were staying in a German outpost on a Thai beach.

Markus also introduced us to his colleague, Bruno, another German. He was a little more laid back than Markus, but still I must say that I felt immediately slightly uneasy around both of them. For kicks, here’s a photo of Bruno, since I have decided now’s the time for photos of everyone (I’m just snatching these from the internet, violating all sorts of copyrights).

During check-in, we asked Markus if there were any restaurants he could recommend. This was the first of the strange awkwardness that would ultimately color our impression of the experience. His response was that he wasn’t really familiar with any of the restaurants in the area, except for what his guests tell him, but that he could recommend his wife’s Thai restaurant on the beach about 10 minutes away, and that they would happily take us there in their own private Tuk Tuk. So, there were two pieces of this which were strange. First, how can someone live in a small “village” and have no familiarity with the restaurants in the area? Second, although he said the only info he had was from his guests, he did not even hint at being willing to offer that information which his guests apparently give him. In other words, he wants his guests to eat at his wife’s restaurant. Seemed weird and rigid, but we actually decided to take him up on the offer, if for no other reason than it might have actually been great, as had all of our prior dining experiences. So we said yes and, after settling in with our bags briefly, we headed to the lobby and they arranged a ride up the road for us to the restaurant.

It was a 5 minute ride down a quiet, tree-lined road. We were greeted by two friendly dogs who ran out to the street, excited to see us. They were followed by a Thai woman, calling after the dogs, and apologizing to us for their behavior, which wasn’t really a problem at all. We deduced that this must be Markus’s wife. She brought us in to her restaurant, which consisted of a covered porch for dining, facing the beach, but set back quite a distance from the water. There was a main building where I guess the cooking took place. Almost immediately upon arrival, we noticed a tiny creature on the ground, against the wall of the house. At first it looked like a kitten, but it turned out to be a puppy, clearly from one of the dogs who greeted us. It was extremely young, maybe 6 weeks or so, and it could barely walk. There would be petting, but not yet. Must resist for now.

Having been in Thailand for a whopping 72 hours without getting ill, we both ordered Thai iced coffee. Still I don’t know why we were so confident. We also ordered Fried Spring Rolls, Red Curry, and Tom Ka Gai. The coffee arrived, and it was horrible. I most certainly could not be classified as “Thai” iced coffee. It could best be described as weak coffee ice, and a small amount of milk. Not a good sign. Next came the spring rolls which, you’ll be surprised to hear, were probably the best spring rolls I had eaten in my entire life, up to that point. So, at that point, we were in a state of mixed reviews, and unclear expectation of what would come next. Sure enough, what came next were two dishes that looked identical: (1) a bowl of orange, soup-like substance, the Tom Ka Gai, and (2) a bowl of orange, soup-like substance, the Red Curry. They both looked identical and had the exact same consistency. I have had curries in the past which have been on the “soupier” side. And those tend to be at places that don’t serve good curries. I thought it was acceptable, but if you went to a hospital cafeteria and received this, you’d probably have said “It’s pretty good for a hospital cafeteria.” I didn’t try the soup, but word on the street is that it was “not good.” I believe the exact quote was “This is not good.”

While we were eating, a group of four Americans, in their late 50s (or early 60s?) also arrived at the restaurant (they were sent here by Markus, too, of course). They were very friendly, and introduced themselves, and we chatted quite a bit. I think at least two of them were from Minneapolis. Apparently, this was their second time at the restaurant, because they’d been the previous day, and they absolutely loved it. Of course, our interpretation of that was “Minnesotans wouldn’t know good Thai food if they were being cooked into the dishes themselves.” One of the women, the friendliest one, acquired the puppy and was holding it for a good part of the meal. The puppy was just lying there in her arms sleeping. Eventually, she put the puppy down, at which time, I decided to take a turn with the puppy. It was so tiny, and it had clearly been weaned too soon, because it was attempting to suck on my finger. A good time was had by all.
One of the adult dogs started barking for whatever reason, the way dogs sometimes get the idea in their head that they must bark. Markus’s wife ran over and chastised the dog in a lengthy discussion in Thai. She made several mock-threatening gestures while yelling, playfully, at the dog, who had collapsed into the sand and was acting completely submissive. Everyone at the restaurant and the neighboring massage stand was laughing, because it was rather entertaining.

Eventually it became time to go. There was an option of walking back along the beach, which was tempting, but the tide was in pretty far, and we weren’t dressed for going waist deep, at that point. So we opted to walk along the road a little way, after which we identified another opportunity to go down toward the beach, which we took. We walked into the water, and it was like a bathtub. It had to have been around 82-84 degrees. It is said that the water in the Andaman doesn’t go much above 84 degrees, so this had to be that. I have not experienced ocean water warmer than this. Our trek back was through the hot sun. We may or may not have put on any sunblock, so we were walking back consciously aware that we didn’t want to spend too much time in the hot sun. There were people playing in the water, and lying on the sand. There were massage stands with people being massaged in the shade. There were beachfront cafes and bars with a few people here and there. After walking a little while, we started to realize that we didn’t really know where the turn was to head away from the beach to our hotel. It was set back from the shore quite a distance, and everything along the entire beach looked the same. As we wandered aimlessly, we passed by a massage stand, in thatched huts, and they called out to us “You want massage?!” What the hell… yes, we do. We requested, once again, the 30 minutes of foot/leg plus 30 minutes of shoulder and back. These massages were not as good as the ones in Bangkok, but you can never really complain about having someone massage you for roughly $10 an hour.

The sun was just beginning its earnest descent, as we were finishing up the massage. There was probably still another hour or so of light, but the clouds to the west made for early colors in the sky. We could see the light through the trees inland, and figured out where our hotel was. But it was not a straight shot to get there, because there were all sorts of obstacles: a dirt parking lot with motorbikes, a fence, a river, capsized boats, etc. We finally figured out where the actual path was, and then it was an easy enough 3 minute walk to the back of the hotel grounds.

I wanted to check out the swimming pool before commencing our evening activities, whatever those would turn out to be. The water in this pool was extremely warm, because it was fully exposed to the sunlight, and positioned in such a way that it would virtually never be in shadow of anything. I’m not sure it was as warm as the ocean, surprisingly, but it was more than warm enough. There were only two other people in the pool. One was an American in his twenties. The other was a middle-aged European man with a barrel chest, and scraggly hair. I couldn’t place his accent. It was something eastern. Romanian? Greek? Russian? Polish? I wasn’t really sure. He was telling stories, and the American was mostly listening. He was talking about the old days. Something about a rock club, and a DJ, and a sound system, and technical problems. And then it moved to discussing unemployment in Europe. And then it moved to discussing people and culture in general in Europe. He was doing 99% of the talking, and you could tell he enjoyed listening to himself pontificate. He spent a fair amount of time disparaging upon Romania, which threw me off a bit, because I think he may have actually been Romanian, and was trash-talking his own country. Otherwise, he was pretty racist.

After swimming around for a while, I got out. I think Melissa had been showering, or maybe she was by the pool watching it all. Yes, I think that’s what it was. But I don’t recall if she got in the pool this time or not. We took some pictures of the sunset, which I think I posted on Facebook, so I won’t post them again here. Apologies to the few random readers who stumble upon this and don’t have the photos available. Then I took some time-lapse photos of myself while waiting for her to shower. This is what weird people do when they have free time.

At some point that day, I can’t remember when, we had “Weird Encounter #2” with Markus. We went to the lobby and asked him if we could please have the English version of the hotel pamphlet with the guest information, since our room had been stocked with the German version. And there was some other issue that arose, where we needed to ask for Bruno’s help figuring out how to do something in the room, which ended up being obvious, and I think we figured it out. I don’t know. I pretty much just felt like an idiot every time I spoke with them. Asking for the English version of the info resulted in us getting a look like we are stupid, pain-in-the-neck Americans.

During whatever interactions we had, it was also mentioned that on a couple of nights, the hotel hosts a Thai dinner, for something like 500 BHT per person, or maybe even more. Might have been 650 BHT. That might not sound like much ($15-20) but it was wildly out of whack with the price of food at any or all restaurants we’d seen during our entire trip. Given that Markus had already, in a sense, “tourist-trapped” us into his wife’s crappy restaurant, we pretty much decided that we were not going to get “on board” with any more of his “recommendations.” I suspect that our avoidance of these dinners contributed to the generally cold reception we received from him, progressively more so each day.

So, for dinner, we wandered on foot into the nearest portion of the town, about a 10 minute walk along a couple of quiet roads. It was dark, but there were a fair number of streetlights. I think we’d brought a flashlight in case, but it wasn’t really required. As we passed by various shops, particularly the “fashion tailors,” we were accosted, albeit in friendly fashion, with the various shop owners beseeching us to come and let them fit us for something. Nope. Not gonna happen. We’d read online about the various restaurant options, and one that had sounded pretty good was called “Green Pepper,” so we sought it out, and found it without too much difficulty. It was another open-air restaurant with a large thatched roof. There was mostly covered dining, but some uncovered tables as well. It was crowded, which seemed to be a good sign.
We ordered our meals, which included some type of apple salad, Panang curry (of course), and I think she had some type of noodle dish. There were many different servers, and two of them had badges that said “trainee.” One of the trainees was a young girl who was probably only 14 or 15 years old. She was mostly wandering around cluelessly, and not really helping anyone. She smiled a lot, made mistakes, dropped things, and followed other servers around. After we ordered, about ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Then thirty. Nobody was coming to our table, and no food was arriving. The problem was there was a table of about 20 people, with 16 children, who had arrived probably just before us, and the kitchen was completely overwhelmed with their order. We (and others) had to wait until that entire party was served before any of our meals would be prepared. When it got to be close to 45 minutes, I guess enough of the staff had noticed that it was getting awkward. One of the servers who seemed to be in charge came over and apologized, and promised us rather frantically that our food would be coming very soon. We didn’t really care that much about the wait, other than because we were hungry. But it’s not like we were in a hurry to be anywhere.
After a little more delay, the food finally arrived, and it was, once again, amazing. We had half expected it to be mediocre, given the fact that they seemed to also cater to non-Thai cuisines (the menu was about 50% Thai dishes, and 50% more Western or German themed items like schnitzel). But it was really good and everyone there was extremely nice.

After dinner, we wandered around a tiny bit, part of the way along the section of road we hadn’t yet visited to see if there were any interesting shops. There really weren’t. Just a few quiet touristy stands selling the standard clothing, t-shirts, trinkets. We were tired and eventually walked back to the hotel.
I don’t even know if I stayed awake for 10 minutes before I was unconscious.

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