16 January, 2013

Thailand: New friends (Wednesday - Part 2)

When we arrived at the hotel, I decided to take a quick dip in the swimming pool, partly to unwind, but primarily to do a better job of getting all the salt off my body than would be possible in the shower (which was beyond weak - I forgot to mention that). This time, when I arrived at the pool, the Romanian guy was in the water again. He had an audience of about seven people, including the young American guy, and he was telling stories. Again, he was doing most of the talking, about the economy, European culture, blah, blah, blah. It became clear that he is a professor at McGill University, in Toronto (which, of course, according to him, is one of the top universities). Yes. That makes sense. He is a professor. Explains a lot.

I stayed in the water long enough to desalt myself (thanks Bruno, thanks Markus), and then went inside to take a real shower. By this point, it had become evident that the sunburn on the backs of my legs, and the backs of my upper arms (everywhere that was not covered by the wet suit) was quite significant. Not a little burn, but a lot of burn. The skin felt tight, and that was only a few hours after the exposure. Was thinking that it didn't bode well. The obvious culprit was "Thai SPF 50 Waterproof Sunblock." Do not believe anybody who tells you that they are waterproof, unless it's Banana Boat. You can believe them. Maybe the French dudes had been using Thai sunblock too? Who knows?

We showered, and started figuring out where we would have dinner. We knew that Wednesday was Thai Dinner Night with our hosts, so we had to get out of there as fast as possible, to avoid any potential awkwardness. I am exaggerating for dramatic effect. We didn't actually skulk about, but we did know that we'd not be dining at the resort. Trip Advisor had treated us well so far, so we did some research, and saw two restaurants in the Khao Lak area that had received ubiquitously positive reviews. One was named "Smile" and the other was "Blue Mist." After reading the reviews, we opted for the #2 rated restaurant, Blue Mist, because it actually looked more promising as an authentic Thai experience, rather than an all-purpose tourist restaurant (Smile had both a Thai and non-Thai menu, which seemed less promising, though the same was true at Green Pepper, which we liked). To get to Blue Mist, it was necessary to take a taxi, as it was about 5 miles up the road. This is where the currency/value of things in Thailand is odd. It cost us 300 BHT ($10) each way, to go 10 minutes in the taxi. But our entrees at dinner only cost 140 BHT, and even that was on the expensive side, because of the restaurant's proximity to upscale hotels and beach. It would be like taking an $80 taxi ride in Manhattan to order $35 entrees.

The taxi driver took us to the JW Hilton, which was the easiest landmark proximal to the hotel. I should mention that, when I say “taxi,” what I mean is a pickup truck with benches in the back and a covered bed. This was once again what my father would refer to as “not safe.” Despite that, we once again made it to our destination in one piece, though we were not really sure where our destination was. We assumed that the hotel would be able to tell us exactly where the restaurant was, but they weren’t sure. They told us to walk to the beach, and then look for it. Thanks. So we walked through the hotel, exited the back, and then began a long walk toward the beach. You would think that the hotel was “on the beach,” because it was shown on a map as being on the beach. But it turned out, the hotel was set back very far. Between the hotel and the beach was the hotel’s swimming pool, which went on forever and ever. It was shaped like what can only be described as a maze, with landscaping around it. Every time we turned a corner, there was more pool. All of it was contiguous, not separate pools. We walked, and walked, and walked. Eventually we reached the beach and turned right. It was a short walk from that point, and we discovered Blue Mist, which used to be called Blue Dolphin or Dolphin Bay, or Dolphin something else.

The restaurant was in a pair of thatched huts, raised on low stilts, about 5 feet off the ground, with wooden steps going up to each. There was a third thatched hut, set back farther, where the cooking took place. These buildings formed a U-shape, opening toward the ocean, and there were a few more tables in the open area of the “U.” It was so warm there, that even on the beach, at night, it was completely unnecessary to have any sort of protective clothing. We ordered our food. This, of course, included Panang Curry, and I think Melissa had a noodle dish, but neither us can remember what it was (because I have taken so long to write these entries… sigh). We also ordered a smoothie - I think it was banana, since those tend to be popular here. I am assuming that is just a function of being on a tropical resort, smoothies having become an automatic component of that experience.

The food was super-spicy, because I wielded the courage to order it 4 stars on the 4 star scale. It just seems like, when in Thailand, do as the Thai do. But it was absolutely amazing. The best Panang I have ever eaten (and I said that about 4 times on this trip). During dinner, the owner of the restaurant, Jakkie, came over to say hello to us. He was probably in his late 20s, or possibly early 30s. He spoke excellent English, probably the best of anyone we met during the trip. He chit-chatted with us about the food a bit, and we showered him with praises for how wonderful everything was. The meal was capped off with a mango sticky rice, which we had wisely mentioned at the beginning of our meal, because they managed to save their last order for us. 

When we were finishing up, Jakkie came over to talk to us some more, and told us that he wanted to send up a balloon for us. We didn't really know what he meant, but we figured it out, because we'd seen this before. It's a paper-like structure that has a candle or small lamp or something in the center of it. The wick is lit, and the heat eventually causes this object to rise and float away into the sky (probably collecting on some island in the South Pacific and causing endangered lizards to be strangled by it). the idea is that you release this balloon and you make a wish, and good luck will come to you. It felt like a special thing to be offered. Although a lot of these balloons were blowing into the night, it still is nice to be able to have that experience. Jakkie got the thing lit and then took a few photos of us with our phones, as we released it. I cannot remember what I wished for. We watched it rise into the sky. Then we talked with Jakkie some more. We didn't really want this experience to end, because it was the nicest of the whole trip. We talked about Thailand, and about the restaurant. Somehow, the subject moved to the tsunami that had severely hit this coast a few years earlier. When we asked Jakkie what he remembered about it, he told us that we had to talk to his friend, Nu, who was the tour booking guy who worked there. He called Nu over, who also spoke very good English, and was also in his mid 20s. And then an hour of our lives flew past us as we listened, rapt with interest, as Nu told us of his experience where he was nearly killed in the tsunami. He'd been working in the JW Hilton Hotel, which got belted, with no warning, by the full force of the tsunami, with water rising up to nearly the level of a three story building, before it began to recede. He was knocked unconscious, and cut severely all over his body by shattered glass (you could see the nick marks and scars on his body). He thought he was surely going to bleed to death. Many people were killed there. Many. And he was one of the luckier ones who was rushed to a hospital only because he had a friend who was able to get his care prioritized in terms of the very few vehicles that were able to get people in and out of there. He said he had been hospitalized for a month recovering after the tsunami. Nu was such a smiling, tall, handsome, mild-mannered guy, who told his story humbly, but without any hesitation about sharing. I felt so fortunate to be let into this truly personal experience of his life, that gave me such a deeper understanding for the culture and people. He said it took him a few years before he felt safe to be near the ocean again, but that he is now okay with it, obviously, being that he works right there on the beach again near the exact scene.

They called us a taxi back home at the end of the night. We rode back with what was either a German or Australian couple. I think she might have been German but living in Australia. But our minds were still spinning over the experience we'd just had.

Sleep came quickly.

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