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Tentative in Thailand


“So what do you think?” I probed my boyfriend Tom in the usual New Year search for some light at the end of the wintry tunnel. It was time to start budgeting for next summer’s trip. It was decided; it was going to be 2003’s flavour of the month, the student’s favourite, cheap and cheerful, Thailand: A cultured beach holiday.

Hmm, cheerful… I pondered that idea. England with all its nobleness and stout character stands tall with no threats from natural disasters or killer creatures – not even a rabid dog, God forbid. But Thailand, tropical, tantalising, treacherous, this is a land where hundreds of people die every year from falling coconuts. A land crawling with brazen bugs, they have no shame, I read it in the Lonely Planet.

Thailand’s east coast stood apart, idealised by Alex Garland’s The Beach. But as I was about to discover this wasn’t just a world visited by tourists and patrolled by corrupt maniacs, oh no, the real ruler and creator of this paradise is nature. These creepers would be much more real than any mad gun-clad Thai and definitely more real than meeting with anyone as dashingly handsome as Leonardo DiCaprio.

Potential visitors beware; this predator has no boundaries or secrets. It was time to take the bull by the horns, metaphorically of course. It was time to not only experience local cultures, and consequently local diarrhoea, but to become at one with the world around me like a hardened traveller and embrace nature.

Six months later, equipped with sarong, hat, sun cream, books, water, flippers, mask and snorkel we were ready for any occasion and we embarked on the five-minute stroll from our hut to the edge of the lapping Gulf of Thailand. Struggling to get our amenities and ourselves through the shiny razor like palms we gave one final push and bundled out in a heap onto a picture perfect beach.

Standing awed under the cool protection of the deceptively dangerous trees, I wondered if every picture I had seen would be so authentic. The sun was beaming relentlessly, radiating on everything in its reach, everything in its kingdom. The world’s response was a happy one; the sand blazed with a silver hue complemented by the glistening threads that ran through the water in time with its seductive shimmies. Perhaps Garland hadn’t idealised this tropical land, perhaps it was an ideal in itself, with or without Leo.

From the retreat of the shadows the contrast of the sun-filled world was so great that you could watch mesmerised and enchanted as though sitting in a dark cinema, watching distant people in far-off lands. But this was no British city retreat, this was a real life paradise that we’d been saving for for months. Savouring that thought, we ventured out; we had to get our money’s worth.

The white floor was like velvet and the warm touch of the sun was inspiring – it must have been the vitamin E and I looked forward to a better complexion and a higher sex drive in the weeks to come. We were at the quieter end of the bay, or the cheaper end as some people referred to it, and as we eagerly strode closer to the water’s edge I squinted (I’d forgotten my sunglasses) and partially focused on the more affluent side.
The blurry beachgoers gave the impression of any Costa but the main giveaway of location was the constant traffic of locals sporting wide-brimmed pointed hats – a definite No No on the Costa Brava. They persistently paraded in the spray offering coconuts, massage, hammocks, jewellery, and occasionally the local herb also marketed by Garland’s novel.

My eyes were distracted as my soles met with something slimy. It seemed the picture perfect beach wasn’t so idealistic anymore and the reasons for the economical zone became clear. The powdery floor had ended and white sludge remained. Momentarily put out, we undertook the less sturdy terrain like Brits, unstoppable on our mission to swim. Finally the hypnotic boundary arrived and we found a slime-free spot on an isthmus. We dumped our supplies and surveyed the dazzling turquoise panorama.

Thigh high in water I let myself fall backwards. My head contracted and everything seemed much clearer, precise to the point of magnification – partially helped by the misleading lens of my mask. My body shuddered with excitement and realisation, and with a gasping breath I broke through the swaying cover above me and returned to the world above. “Lets go!” I hardly needed to encourage, and with snorkels in place we glided across the shallow waters in search of life.

Colourful masses lulled a metre below my tingling flesh and small fish darted from bush to bush like people in a storm without umbrellas. It was a whole new world in the words of Aladdin. One that I would never be part of and could only ever be an observer and so I hovered and gazed.

It was then when I saw it, pushing its head out of a crevice like a gargoyle on Notre Damme. A Moray Eel, I contemplated it for a couple of seconds trying to relate to it, but it wasn’t happening and I turned and as quickly as I could, disturbing everything under me, made a dash to a clearer area where I signalled Tom.

He reluctantly bumbled over. “An eel” I said flustered.

“Ooh, where?” He replied as I tried to overlook his enthusiasm. I cautiously stuck my masked head under the water to gesture the right path but my overactive eyes were drawn to its mate lurking under a rock by my feet.

“Ah! Another one,” I cried and fled another few metres towards land leaving Tom’s voice trailing,
“Where? I can’t see it, where?” I turned to him and glared, he wisely wandered over.
“I think I’ll go and read for a bit,” I suggested, “Oh, what’s that?” Why did I keep asking myself these questions?
“What?” And why was Tom so unobservant?
“That,” I confirmed as we both leaned under the water to observe the oddly placed rock.

We looked at each other and straightened up to allow clearer conversing. “It’s a Stone Fish,” I knowledgably informed as I’d studied these killers in the Lonely Planet and was ready to wee on any related sting. Despite being deadly to the point of disaster I was surprisingly calm, as this beast would only attack if we were to accidentally squash it and I had no intention of any such act.

“Better stay away from it,” Tom wisely advised.

“Hey look!” I enthused, once again distracted, “this fish likes me.” It was one of those small, slender black and white ones that tail sharks. It was slick and darted around me like it was looking for something. Its intent started to unnerve me and it suddenly seemed bigger. “It won’t go away,” I mused and moved to be thigh high in this precarious water, but there it was weaving in and out of my legs. What did it want from me?

I tried to shoo it away like a wasp, but as with a wasp it didn’t work. I upped my pace and trying not to look putout I ran further towards the shore. It’s gone I thought. I was wrong, now it pursued my shins. I couldn’t take it any more, maybe there was a shark near by and this was its scout or maybe this fish was a deceptive killer. I suddenly became more vocal and drawing the attention of everyone around I ran like a slow motion Pammy desperately grabbing at the fluid mass around me and finally made it to dry land.

Avoiding all eye contact, I wearily arranged my sarong sat down. I quickly dried off and started to laden myself in more factor 30 before I dosed off.
“Hammock?” I heard as I was sceptically examining my left breast for premature sunburn. I looked up. Silhouetted against the glowing sky I saw a short bony figure with a triangular head.

“What?” I really shouldn’t have asked but I was caught off guard.
“You want hammock?”
“I’ve got one.” I politely replied.
“Is very good, look.”
“Mine’s very good,” I said defending my choice of goods.
“I got blue, very beautiful”
“I don’t want one,” I insisted.
“Very cheap”
“No!” Didn’t this man know that I’d just had a near-death experience?

“Ooh” he mused as a slender finger pointed to my chest and with that he was gone.

At first I thought maybe he was referring to my amble bosom but soon realised his articulation had been in reference to my reddening skin and I quickly returned to greasing myself up.

Soon it was time to leave Ko Samui and venture to less westernised Ko Pha-Ngan or land of reptiles, as it should be better known. It had been a powerfully wet first day, which we’d spent most of within the sea’s protection having our senses massaged. Heavy warm drops pelted our faces as our eardrums were mesmerized by the gentle high-pitched tinkle caused by water strumming water.

As the day progressed heavy clouds accumulated and the atmosphere rose for the final of Euro 2000. Following others along the soggy sand we arrived at a beach bar on stilts and fought for a space on the wooden floor. Watching a small TV on a bedside table, covered only by a dried palm-leaf roof, I struggled to focus on the western wars as flashes of meaningful lightening reflected on the screen and thunderous cracks filled the air around us.

It had been a night to remember loaded with atmosphere both human and natural in a harmonising unity. I felt electrically alive as we buzzed along the beach back home hardly acknowledging the snake trails up the beach catching in the torch’s beam. Keen to get into bed and revel in my day’s experiences I ushered Tom up the hut steps.

“Snake!”
“Where?” I cried.
“Just there.”
Peevishly I peered around Tom and followed the line of the artificial light. There it was, two paces in front of Tom’s bare feet, looking at us. “What are we going to do?”

It twirled itself around the pillar like a decoration in a temple and then coiled itself on one of the rafters. “We can’t leave it there, it might fall on us in the night.” I imagined it bouncing off the mossie net to land and get comfy next to the bed.

“No it won’t,” Tom guessed.
“How do you know?”
“Just ignore it,” He said, like I was going to do that.

“I’m going to see what the Germans think.” – Our neighbour Germans who knew as much about snakes as British people.

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