30 January 2011

Pristine

(23 October 2010)

Thailand is a land of escapism.  It is beaches of heartbreaking beauty, mist shrouded mountains, spicy food, cocktails served in sandcastle buckets and hedonism in all its forms.  In the most visited areas of Thailand, Bangkok in particular it is possible to obtain anything in this world.  I have a friend who once bought a baby flying squirrel no bigger than your pinkie from a Bangkok street vendor.  He named it Mowgli.  He fed Mowgli milk from a soda bottle cap and let him ride in warmth and comfort in his pockets.  If he wasn’t in the mood to play he would gently toss Mowgli into the air and watch him slow float to safety.  He was always careful to check any room for open windows and walls with holes, but despite his best efforts Mowgli wandered out through a tiny crawl space in a Bangkok guesthouse.  To this day whenever my friend visits the big city he looks to the rooftops and clicks and coos the way he used to hoping Mowgli will float home.

I missed this crazy place--this beautiful woman I covet despite her cracks and flaws.  After nearly two months of traveling alone I needed the comfort of familiarity.  I scrapped my plan to go to Sumatra and instead hitched a ride on a bus bound for Krabi.  Krabi is a province off the Andaman Coast and home to some of the most stunning beaches in Southeast Asia.  There is no place in the Andaman Sea more beautiful than the Phi Phi islands.  The Phi Phi Islands are impossible.  Drops of jagged limestone and tangled flora on blue green seas, the islands make you feel as though you are charting the undiscovered, stepping into beauty never before seen.  This makes absolutely no sense because Phi Phi is full of tourists.  But, that is the power of its beauty.  It is so overwhelming it makes you want to sip your fruit shake, tap the tourist on the chair beside you and say, “Look what I found.”    

On Phi Phi Island I saw familiar faces.  Three Canadian faces to be exact.  I had been on the island no more than 30 minutes when I ran into Leslie, Lisa and Andrea, three hard-charging Canadian girls I met tubing in Laos.  “We’re going on a booze cruise!” they said.  “Of course you are,” I said.  “The Captain’s name is Bob.  He’s Canadian!” they said.  “Of course he is,” I said.  Captain Bob has a good-looking boat that he sailed out of the Vancouver B.C. harbor a decade ago and never turned back.  Along the way he made stops both short and long in Mexico, Central America, Tahiti and Fiji.  “You’ve been to a lot of beautiful places, what made you decide to settle in Phi Phi? I asked.  “Dead broke.  Needed to work,” replied the good natured but quiet Captain Bob.  The cruise was excellent.  We cliff jumped, snorkeled, and swam in the warm waters of Maya Bay.  We also drank a lot of Chang beer.  So much Chang beer that as Captain Bob steered us into the harbor with the sun setting in the distance everyone in the boat sang loudly and in unison “Sex on Fire” by The Kings of Leon and I thought, “Hey!  We sound pretty good!” 

I know what you’re thinking, “Look at these pictures!  It really is beautiful!”  These pictures suck.  They look like some asshole hired the DMV to be Phi Phi’s official photographer.  Every time you take a picture of the islands you look down at the display screen on your camera and think, “No! No!  That isn’t it at all!”  The island’s have a beauty that can only be captured by experience.  If you have any interest in stunning vistas and beaches too beautiful to be believed, any interest in nights spent dancing in revelry on floors-of-sand while sipping cocktails the size of your face, then you need to add the Phi Phi islands to your bucket list.

Before my travels all I knew about Phuket was that it was a famous place.  Well, that and my good friend Chris Kelly told me I had to do John Gray’s Sea Canoe tour.  Since, Chris has impeccable taste (with the exception of always ordering the grossest thing off of any menu) I took this as a sign that all of Phuket would be great.  But, the closer I got to sailing from Phi Phi to Phuket the more I started to wonder what kind of paradise I was stepping into.  First Diana at Viking Scuba Tours told me, “Don’t spend more than a day there its nothing but lady boys and neon.”  And then an Englishman named Dave I met on Captain Bob’s Booze Cruise told me that he had been to Phuket and that it was “Mad.  A massive party.  Full of lady boys though.”  I said, “Again with the lady boys?  The way people talk I’m half expecting every woman on the island to be square jawed.”  What I wanted to hear from Dave was, “Don’t worry Mate, plenty of lovely girls as well.”  What I got was, “Me and my mates met this lady boy at one of the bars.  She was piss drunk right.  Starts telling us how she had the full snip-and-tuck, the whole deal.  And we was like ‘show us then, let us have a look, yea.’  She did!  She showed us!  And mate…listen…it was…PRISTINE.”

Overly Descriptive Dave unknowingly summed up Phuket perfectly; sure parts of it are pristine, but do you really want to see it?  Travelers are always in search of the undiscovered because they know that eventually tourism is going to take a giant steaming neon dump on the places they love.  I’m sure Patong Beach was beautiful once, but to quote Army of Darkness, “Baby you got real ugly.”  In its current form Patong is traffic and noise and crowds and massage parlors and go-go bars and every other kind of tourist vomit imaginable. Including guys trying to sell you suits, “Hey man, you come inside, take a look at my shop, I make good price.”  Listen Suit Seller Guy, I am wearing nothing but board shorts and sunglasses.  There is a book in my left hand and a fruit shake in my right.  What makes you think I want to go into your f----g shop and talk about fabrics and buttons and shit?  I’m going to the beach man.  When I need a suit I will come find you.  Suits are not on a whim purchases.  Light-up whirly things maybe, 8-inch Zippo lighters sure, but not suits!  Have you ever heard anyone say, 'I got so wasted last night I ended up at the tailor.'  Of course not.  That would be ridiculous!  Go inside.  Go inside and play with your buttons.  And if you try to pretend like you don’t remember me when I walk by again, if you try to push me into your shop I swear I will beat you with a cummerbund."

Did you know that Connect Four is an aphrodisiac?  Yeah, neither did I.  On my one night stop-over in Krabi I decided to grab a beer at a bar near my hotel.  It was early so the only people in the joint were two couples, me, and a call girl.  How did I know she was a call girl?  Big hair, bigger heals, a dress short enough to reveal the gecko tattoo on her thigh, all signs point to…  She was sitting next to me before I had finished sitting down.  She asked a few “Where are you from,” types of questions that I one word answered.  Then she asked me if I wanted to play a game.  “Ha! Game” I shook my head in decline.  She held up the wait-a-minute finger and soon returned with Connect Four.  “Oh, that kind of game” I thought, “Why not, that’s harmless enough.”  So, for the length of a beer I played Connect Four with a call girl in an empty Thai bar.  I thought of it as a funny quirk of solo travel and nothing more.  Then I got to Phuket.  On Patong Beach I saw several pretty young things playing Connect Four with lonely types.  It may not have been their go to move, but it was definitely a move.  If Milton Bradley knew that after a certain age Connect Four became the Viagra of board games we would see much different kind of packaging back home.  God forbid these wayward women ever discover Candyland.

There is no form of hedonism in Thailand that draws more ire than the sex tourists.  Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, but illegal like jaywalking a country road in Kansas is illegal.  Older men come here without shame or concern to consort with beautiful Thai girls decades their junior.  Even without girls by their sides it’s easy to spot these men.  They don’t come in handsome well-adjusted packages, they come dressed in head-to-toe creepy.  It is nature’s way of making them own their perversion.  It also makes for really interesting people watching.  You can sit on a beach looking at the passersby and if your inner monologue sounds anything like mine think, “Oh there’s one!  Sexual predator!” 

Speaking of which, I met this guy on a snorkel cruise, Mr. ----- from America.  Mr. ----- from America was 64 years old and took a liking to me because he had a son about my age that lived in Hermosa.  Mr. ----- from America started talking about his girlfriend and how he comes out here every eight weeks or so to see her.  He decided he wanted me to meet her, he was clearly proud of his lady love.  He sent someone down to get her and up walked a 23 year-old local girl.  Did I think, “Oh this must be his lady’s lovely daughter?”  No, this is Southeast Asia, I thought, “Sexual predator!”  I would assume that most SP’s are cagey about their nefarious activities.  But, this SP liked me.  This SP trusted me.  This was my chance to find out, what's up with that?  I asked as casually as I could, “So how did you two meet?”  Mr. ----- from America was more than willing to talk.  “Well” he said, “I’m not much for the bars, but I was walking by the bar she was working at and I was just taken by her.  Let me tell you something about this girl’s life.  She has never met her father.  Her mother had boyfriends in and out of the house.  At 14 she was forced to get married because her mother could no longer take care of her.  Her husband beat her, so at 15 she ran away and started working.  Doing laundry, dishes that sort of thing and ended up as a bar girl because that’s where the money is.  I went into the bar and of course had to pay.  The next day I walked right back there and bought out her contract, it was nothing $300 or something.  This was three years ago.  I’ve been coming back ever since.  I put her through school.  Bought her a house.  Cost me three grand.  Her brothers showed a lot of promise so I sent them both to private school as well.  My only rule is I don’t want her mother’s ex-boyfriend in the house.  As soon as he found about the rich American boyfriend he was trying to weasel his way back in.  I’d really fly off the handle if I found out that guy was in the house.  She is a great girl.  We have a lot of fun together.”  I took a moment to let it all sink in and then said something completely asinine like, “I’m sure your support has gone a long way.”  But, what I was thinking was, “Jesus Christ!  I have gone to extraordinary lengths to get laid, but I have never supported a village!  Make better decisions!” 

Mr. ----- from America is an easy man to judge.  But, his openness gave me a unique opportunity to see the depths of the denial, the grandeur of the delusion.  “I could never bring her to America” Mr. ----- from America said, “Here it is accepted, there too many people would judge.”  “No!” I lied, “Bring her.  You’re in love!”  And the wrath of American women sounded in the far far distance.  

At its heart Thailand is a country of kind, free-spirited people living mostly rural lives. But, in its most visited areas it has created fantasies both light and dark that captivate the world.  “Oh you’re going to Thailand,” people say, their words dripping with subtext.  There are visitors who come to this country seeking the extremes of light and dark, but most I think are like myself, people looking to escape into a world between. 

The Thailand I know and love can be found in places like Railay Beach where I am typing these final lines.  Hidden off the coast of Krabi in the Andaman Sea, Railay Beach can only be reached by longtail boat.  It is low season now and there are more Thai people here than tourists.  It is quiet and slow and beautiful beyond words.  Surrounded by limestone cliffs, dense jungles, and seas of the deepest blue, Railay is a dream made real.  Days here are spent rock climbing, scuba diving, hiking and relaxing on hidden beaches.  At night there is dancing and drinking and fire shows, but is done at bars with wooden floors that stop at the edge of the sea.  Railay is my fantasy.  My perfect escape.  And that is the mystery and allure of Thailand; somehow they knew.