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Buddha in a tuk-tuk


An enormous golden statue of Buddha sat gleaming in the late morning sun. His sleepy face calmly gazed toward the Koh Samui airport in Thailand. My girlfriend Alisabeth and I sat at an outdoor café near the beach with a handful of other travelers, waiting for the ferry. The sky was bright white. Nobody talked, it was too hot. I bought a giant beer and gazed at the Buddha across the water.

Rippling heat waves made it look like he was levitating. The air was too still. I hot-footed it across the sand, then waded into the flat South China Sea. A huge tan dog emerged from the shade of the café steps, and moving slowly, joined me for a dip. We surveyed the horizon. Finally the ferry appeared, a white speck in the distance. And suddenly the wood dock was full of noise and people—tourists carrying enormous backpacks, locals carrying bags and boxes.

Three days earlier, after thirteen hours of air travel from San Francisco California, we arrived at Kao San Road in Bangkok. Kao San is famous for its five dollar hotels, pirated CDs and fiery chicken curry. It’s an open-air market until late at night, and human activity presses in at you from all sides. The loud mass of street vendors sell everything from fake press badges to bright beetles pinned in wood boxes. Over-stimulated tourists fight the heat, noise, and stink. The sellers push their wares into your hands and start haggling immediately—
“Good price for you! Very cheap! You buy now!”
Some engage in calculated histrionics; a vendor shows a wounded offence that a tourist isn’t buying an item, but the act is diminished by quick smiles to his friends.

It was time to stop shopping and find a giant Buddha. Eventually, we found two: a giant standing Buddha, where you can look up and stare deep into Buddha nostrils; and a giant Buddha reclining inside a temple, still serene in the constant strobe of flashing cameras. We planned to travel to the temples by tuktuk. The brightly painted three-wheeled motorized rickshaws are named for the sound of their diesel engines. After settling on a price, we hired a driver. The diesel fumes and chaos of Bangkok’s traffic were offset by the breeze and the novelty. Soon the driver insisted, in broken English, that we stop and shop at a suit store. We agreed and went in for a quick look. After getting back in, he became upset, and insisted that we go back in and buy something. We ended our ride, opting for the bland efficiency of a taxi.

It was time to relax. We’d seen a sign for a spa, and decided to try a Thai massage. A tiny woman led us into a long low room with ten thin mattresses on the floor. You take your shoes off and lay down on your back. The masseuse proceeds to manipulate your body as if you were a marionette. They don’t rub you, they stretch you. And they are not gentle. Form the rear of the room came the hearty laughter of a young American man trying not to cry out in pain. Inadvertently, we had hired silent strangers to do violent yoga with our bodies. Sore in strange places, we were happy to escape back into the street. After another day of ferreting through sarongs, software, and switchblade combs, we were ready to escape Bangkok.

Now after a fast taxi and a quick commuter flight, we had almost made it. Koh Samui is the southernmost of three larger inhabited islands in a loose chain in the Bay of Thailand. It is the most populated and urbanized of the three, housing an increasing number of pricey resorts catering primarily to English and German tourists. But we had come all the way from crowded, fogbound San Francisco to get away from civilization. And so we were continuing on to Koh Phangan, the next island north in the archipelago.

Koh Phangan hosts the Full Moon rave—an internationally famous dance party that frequently lasts for days. We were told that police stop and search everyone along the main roads during the rave and if you are found with a small portion of marijuana—the local drug of choice–they require the immediate payment of a hefty fine. We had come mid-moon though, and were happy to have missed it. After a leisurely float, our ferry pulled in to the town near Haad Rin Nai beach. Dirt motorcycle tracks wound between concrete shops and tin shacks where a woman chopped greens and fish for dinner. A chicken circled under the table. Three children sat hunched in front of a television playing video games. They wore the same slack-jawed, glaze-eyed look so popular in the west.

We took a walk around the dock, fending off a crowd of hotel touts trying to lure us with gaudy pictures and one-sided haggling. We walked up the hill to a compound with a red pitched roof that I’d noticed from the ferry. Unexpectedly, it had cold air-conditioning and a slate shower— although at fifteen dollars a night, it was on the high side. But American dollars still go far in Thailand, and we were glad to find a place so easily.

The next morning we packed early, rubbing our tender backs from the iron-hard bed. We studied our guidebook while eating the Thai version of a western breakfast: eggs are fine, coffee is strong instant, and the square white toast is baked into a flavorless crouton. After, we shared a taxi-truck with a Dutch family to Thong Nai Pan yai—two beaches on the east side of the Island split by an overgrown promontory. For miles, we bounced in the back of the truck along narrow red earth roads winding through steep jungle hills and down to a long, curving white sand beach. We’d made it. It had an unreal, manufactured-looking beauty—like a page from a glossy magazine selling paradise.

We shuffled our gear over the sand to the northern end of the beach and rented a beachfront cottage. Our nine dollar room sat on stilts. It had glass doors facing the water, a ceiling fan and a hot water bathroom. The place is called Candle Hut, and is run, along with the best restaurant on the beach, by a gentle, smiling family where even the grandmother takes her turn sweeping the sand off the steps. Minutes from our arrival we were floating in the small, protected bay. There were only a few scattered tourists. One lady sat in the shallows, the water up to her neck, reading a book. A good sign.

I waded in up to my chest, and felt a small, quick pain on my leg. I looked down, but the water was churned with sand. Then another sting on my back. I swiped at it, then saw it—a foot long black-and-white suckerfish. It kept darting around my body looking for a hold. Inanely, as it attacked I remember thinking that it was beautiful. I thought a couple of swats would send it away. Instead, it went in my shorts and I stopped smiling. After fifty feet of trying to look suave while surging through the water, I made it to the beach. Thankfully, the fish abandoned its temporary home. It left red oval marks where it tried to attach. I was ready for another beer.

I began exploring the tiny village around the beach, and found a motorcycle shop. Ten years earlier I’d briefly owned a motorcycle, and decided to rent one and remember how to ride. A boy that could barely hold the machine up prepped an off-road Yamaha for me. I paid four dollars and signed a poorly translated contract. He checked the bike over carefully, noting scratches and dents, then filled it with fuel and handed it over. I got on and immediately over-revved, then almost dumped it over before remembering the clutch. I stopped, and looked back with what I hoped was a easy smile. His eyebrows were arched over a disbelieving grin, but he looked, at least, confident that I could pay for a broken motorcycle. There was only one short, paved street through town. I practiced, then picked up Alisabeth for a ride. We drove up the muddy hill out of town, happy in the freedom of movement. We followed a sign toward a small beach. Braking down a steep hill, the back wheel slipped and we started to go over. I released the brake, and we began flying down the hill. A truck started driving up from the bottom. I was getting ready to abandon the road for the jungle, when the wheel finally hit some sand and we could stop. The driver scowled at us, and I tried to look repentant instead of happy. Later, after less than five minutes of instruction, Alisabeth took off on her own. She’d never driven before, but managed it with the infuriating ease of a born athlete.

On the south side of the island, the jungle is held back with machetes. When you’re not looking, it will creep in and swallow your house. A small Buddhist temple was tucked a block behind our room. Near it was a perfectly camouflaged house. Vines had swallowed the structure. It was a large green bump with a little bit of roof sticking out. Many of the locals seem eager for civilization—more roads, more commerce. But the tourists come because there aren’t many roads. They come because only one 7-11 convenience store has managed to pop up on this isolated beach. It makes for a difficult problem. How do you keep tourists coming and keep increasing the tourist-based economy? Prices can only go so high, development can only go so far before a point of diminishing returns is found. Koh Samui is what happens when the coast is overbuilt. More and more people leave, searching for an unspoiled beach, a raw jungle.

Candle hut…

Ready to explore, I found a path to the next beach over, but It quickly faded away. Determined not to backtrack, I kept going. I climbed up to a dirt track. Workmen were using hand tools to cover it with a thick layer of concrete. I asked permission to cross with my eyebrows. The hard-eyed foreman nodded ok. The road wound through manicured gardens to a hilltop resort. The main structure was a large round room with a 180 degree view of the ocean. Prices were $125.00 a night—a big difference from our nine dollar bungalow below.

The neighboring beach was covered with tan Europeans stretched in the sand. After the last few days, it felt like entering a metropolis. Televisions blared from bars. Motorcycles roared down the paths between buildings. Walking back along the inland road, I passed a connected row of tin hovels that appeared to be housing for the hotel workers. Each room was the size of a large trash dumpster. It was the ugly backside of a paradise that only foreigners could afford. On an island where you can rent a passable room for 2 dollars a night, these people were living in open metal boxes. It tempered my view, reminding me how very lucky tourists are. Uneasy, I continued up the road, suddenly too aware of the supreme luxury of our room.

A few days later, we caught another truck taxi and rode back over the hills to the northern tip of the island. In a short trip we moved from a place of great natural beauty to what can charitably be described as the work-in-progress of civilization. The last few miles were on a road lined with half-completed concrete buildings. There were no trees. In a few years Thong Nai Pan yai may become another casualty of success. But until then, the warm water, cold beer, and black-and-white suckerfish awaits.

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