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The Thai Road Less Travelled

As the songthaew, basically a pick up truck with benches, stopped at the light all the Thai women and myself smoothed our hair. Good to know woman’s vanity is universal. Not that smoothing my hair did too much good. At this point, Keith and I were in our 14th hour of transportation from Bangkok to Phuket. We were going to Phuket for a week of relaxation on the beach before continuing our “go go go” exploration of Thailand.

The journey from Bangkok to Phuket started out smoothly. For only 30 baht (75 US cents), we rode the local buses from our guesthouse in Bangkok to the Bangkok Southern bus station. We bought bus tickets to Phuket for 400 Baht per person, as opposed to 4000 Baht for airplane tickets. Keith found the government bus to Phuket by taking our tickets up to every bus that was going to Phuket (we saw at least 4). Once he found the right one, we boarded with only our daypacks and were actually given a claim for our big packs. As we boarded, a beautiful Thai woman in a sleek business like uniform showed us to our seats – a bus stewardess, something I never saw before! As we sat, I thought that the seats were quite comfortable. This journey would be a piece of cake.

In the next 5 minutes the man in front of me reclined his seat. My non-Thai legs (I am 5 ’10) were then crunched up to my body. That, combined with the fact my daypack was in my lap (my non-Thai day back is apparently larger than the normal Thai carry on and would not fit in the overhead) made for an uncomfortable seat.

About this time, the driver revved up the bus. The stewardess pulled out a microphone and spoke for 10 minutes. I waited for an English translation – there was none. I hoped her introduction did not include all of those safety instructions you get on an airplane. Curiously, she then walked up and down the aisle and passed us each a muffin and bottled water (my only food for the entire ride as somehow our croissants – which did fit in the overhead – were cleaned out by the bus attendant). After this the stewardess went to sit below with the driver and that was the last I saw of her.

During the first 15 minutes of the ride, Keith intently watched the traffic and the driver. Every minute he said to me, “There is no way he can turn with all those vehicles onto that road/highway/expressway.” And every time, the bus driver would honk and push his way in (NYC drivers would be proud.).

Then a video was popped into the tv/vcr at the front of the bus. The credits began to play and I realized the words “directed by” and “produced by” were in English. I thought, “Am I so lucky that they will play an English movie with Thai subtitles?” No. The movie, Keeping the Faith , with Ed Norton and Ben Stiller, started but out of their mouths came Thai. Still, the movie was slapstick so I watched for a while and laughed (I was the only one as everyone else seemed to stare silently at the movie) at the physical comedy parts. When this movie ended, another started – Gladiator. Having seen it a week ago, I realized the video was starting in the middle of the movie. No one else seemed to care. It ended 15 minutes after it began and the VCR was turned off.

By now it was getting dark. Keith and I had armed our daypacks with books, chess and crossword puzzles to keep us busy. We both hit the lights above us so we could read.

Nothing happened. We tried again. Nothing. I looked around – no one else had a light on or seemed to care. Everyone was sleeping, eating (sipping soup from straws out of plastic bags) or staring straight ahead. There was no talking or reading. Keith and I realized these were our only options for the next 12 hours.

Miraculously, we fell asleep. This did not last. At midnight every light flashed on and loud Thai music blasted from the speakers. No one else looked surprised (perhaps this was reviewed during that 10 minute intro by the stewardess). An attendant, not the stewardess, then came around with hot towels for us to wipe our hands and face. “Could we be here already?” I thought hopefully. No. We were stopping at an Esson (equivalent to an Exxon) where everyone stepped out to use the facilities and stock up on food. The Tiger Mart was stocked with much more interesting foods – steamed noodles, fresh pineapples and coconuts, red bean pastries – than its US counterpart.

The ride began again. For the rest of the bus journey, the lights would sporadically flash and the Thai music would play. Normally, this meant someone was getting off the bus. Apparently, along government bus routes you can let the driver know where you want to get off, and he will stop.

We pulled into the Phuket town bus station at 5:30 am. We arrived 2 hours early! Normally, I would be happy with such efficiency, but as a backpacker with no idea how to get from the bus station to our beach, over an hour away, the dark morning arrival was not welcome. Keith and I climbed off the bus, and immediately tuk tuk drivers besieged us with “Where to?” I consulted our trusty old Lonely Planet which told me we could take the local public transportation, a songthaew, for 40 baht, as opposed to a tuk tuk for 400 Baht. Then I read that songthaews do not start running until 0730. So we sat in the bus station until light. At 0700 we strapped on the packs and I navigated us to where the songthaew station was supposed to be, according to my Lonely Planet map. We both looked around and realized we were standing amongst fruit and vegetable stands – we saw nothing resembling a station.

Finally, a few nice vendors motioned to us where we were trying to go. After saying “Bang Tao”one man pointed to the corner we were standing on. We looked around again, and, at first, only saw bananas, oranges and lettuce being sold. Then Keith saw a couple of pick up trucks with wooden roofs covering the back. He said “Bang Tao” to a guy standing next to one and the guy nodded. Within minutes we, our packs, and a Thai woman with a basket of peanuts were off.

Neither of us had any clue exactly where Bang Tao was nor where in Bang Tao we were going. We only knew we were located on the beach. We drove across Phuket Island, picking up and dropping off Thai passengers along the way. 30 minutes later we were still driving through mountains, with no beach in sight. We had no choice but to trust the driver and enjoy the windy ride.

Suddenly, the Andaman Sea appeared out of the midst of trees and mountains. I saw a sign for “Bang Tao Beach Bungalows” – our place. From motions of the others, I knew to hit the buzzer above my head to get the driver to stop. As Keith pushed the bags out to the ground, I waded through wet dewy grass on the roadside to pay the driver. He told me “50 Baht” and, although it seemed the Thai passengers only paid 20 Baht per person, I was not about to argue. We were here…my week of relaxation.

Or so I thought. As soon as we walked closer to the sign, and the songthaew flew off, I read “Bang Tao Beach Bungalows 1800 m” and realized, we would now use the most basic form of transportation – our legs. So sweating in the now hot sun, we trudged through mud and hills to our lodging. Along the way, we met many Thai Muslims, which is surprising in a 95% Buddhist country. Their children would run out of the homes and wave “hello” as we walked by. Their greetings made me smile and I realized, despite the allure of a luxurious, quick plane ride and taxi service to the door, I was happier to have taken the “road less traveled” and experienced a little bit more.

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