"Thailan'...Me Love You Long Time"

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April 22nd 2007
Published: August 7th 2007
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Spirit FlagsSpirit FlagsSpirit Flags

Adorn the prow of a boat offshore from the island of Koh Pha-Ngan. © L. Birch 2007
It was mid-March. Despite the fact that the hot season had begun, heralding what was usually a slump in visitor numbers, the "Gecko Bar" was full. Only one table remained so we grabbed it, the five of us pulling up plastic chairs as we noisily staked our claim.

Ordinarily, whenever Viv and I were in Bangkok we headed for the "Gecko Bar" as soon as it became too hot to do anything else. Pulling up chairs at a street-side table, we would share a cold bottle of Chang Beer as we watched passers-by and discussed wild schemes to visit Nepal, India or China. But this time it was different.

We had been back from Myanmar four days and had been joined by our three girls - Annie, Kya and Jess - fresh out from England and white as alabaster. There had been a joyous reunion at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport followed, after a brief rest, by an obligatory spot of shopping and sight seeing. It had been delightful to rediscover Bangkok through new eyes. Rarely in travel, do you have the opportunity to recapture those magical first moments; your first walk down the Khao San Road, your first Thai cop
Wat Pho, BangkokWat Pho, BangkokWat Pho, Bangkok

A spot of almost obligatory sight-seeing, included the magnificent 'hall of chedis' at Wat Pho. © L. Birch 2007
with mirror shades and hand gun, first tuk-tuk, first temple, first spicy meal, first beggar. Through the girls, we could live vicariously and re-experience Thailand all over again. Even the sight of a gecko - something we had come to take for granted - became an event.

The "Gecko Bar" of course, had several resident geckos and once the excitement of seeing one capture and eat a moth had subsided, we turned back to the table. Bob Marley was singing, "I Shot the Sheriff" over the bar's sound system as Annie leaned forward and said, "Right. What's the plan?"

The Beach

In his book, "The Beach", Alex Garland describes a secret island where an elite band of travellers live out their own version of a utopian paradise, far from Thailand's tourist crowds. The fictional story is set among the "real life" islands of the Samui and Ang Thong archipelago's off Thailand's south east coast. It was there that we planned to go. More specifically, we had decided that the island of Koh Pha-Ngan looked the most promising for our needs so we drew up our plans.

Getting there was easy, we did it like this.
"A Turquoise Sea.... "A Turquoise Sea.... "A Turquoise Sea....

Glimpsed Through Palms", provided our first, tantalising sight of the beach. © L. Birch 2007
Overnight bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani. A boat from Surat's Ban Don pier to Koh Pha-Ngan followed by a share taxi to the island's NW corner once we arrived. We had no accommodation booked and only a rough idea of where we wanted to be but even this wasn't a problem. On the 3 hour boat trip, a Thai commission tout - one of many working the crowds at Ban Don - buttonholed us with offers of cheap rooms starting at around B250 (about 3.70 GBP). He had long black hair pulled back in a pony tail and - uncharacteristically for a Thai - kept patting me on the back and calling me "bro" or "man" as if we had known each other for years. As off-putting as I found this, the bungalow outfit he was touting for was close to where we had hoped to stay. What finally clinched it was the offer of a free taxi ride to the resort. If we didn't like the place, we reasoned, we could always move on after a night or two.

However, we were probably sold the moment our free ride in the back of a pick-up, topped the
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Looked out from the headland of the secluded bay we chose to call 'home' for a few days. © L. Birch 2007
final headland and we had our first glimpse of a turquoise sea, framed by palm trees in the bay below. The bay was only big enough for one bungalow outfit, a low key affair consisting mainly of bamboo and palm thatch huts - set back from a beach of ground up coral fragments. It was gorgeous, and best of all, there was no mention of it in Annie's Lonely Planet book.

Hammering out a deal on a large, airy room that could accommodate all 5 of us proved less difficult than we had anticipated since there were hardly any other travellers around. By the time we had dropped our packs and checked out the room's open-air bathroom, we knew we were going to stay. 10 year-old Jess particularly liked the bathroom - a toilet and shower combo - that was open to the sky. It was filled with plants and built hard up against huge granite boulders over which, the grasping roots of a forest tree looped and coiled - like something from the ruins of an Angkorian temple. With its complement of lizards, big red ants and purple land crabs, it soon became known as "The Jungle Bathroom".
The Jungle BathroomThe Jungle BathroomThe Jungle Bathroom

Open to the sky, our bathroom was shared with a number of other residents including lizards and land crabs. © L. Birch 2007

After a quick look around, our first priority was not a rest after our long, 15hr journey nor even something to eat - it was to shed our clothes, grab mask and snorkels, and head out for a swim. Out beyond the beach and the daily swing of the tides, a magnificent coral garden waited to be explored. For the girls, this was yet another new experience as we dropped into warm water from the edge of a rickety pier and swam out over stagshorn and plate corals, marvelling at their shapes and colours. The corals were fantastic but it was the other denizens of this watery wonderworld that really stole the show - from the tiniest electric blue fishes to 15in long rainbow wrasse and accompanying 'flocks' of parrot fish, aptly named for their beak-like mouths and gaudy 'plumage'; turquoise, red, yellow and ultramarine. There were barracuda-like pipefish, shoals of damsel and zebra fish, brightly coloured angelfish and a host of others we couldn't name.

Settling into our new environment, the days took on a natural rhythm governed by the tides and the rising and setting of the sun. Evenings were the time to socialise with others
A Nasty Dose of CrabsA Nasty Dose of CrabsA Nasty Dose of Crabs

Various forms of wildlife shared our island setting including hermit crabs, big enough to inflict a painful nip if you got too close to their powerful claws. © L. Birch 2007
in a restaurant faced with driftwood and set back under palm trees. At night, the lights of squid boats lay strung out across the bay like pearls while the jagged outlines of distant islands were illuminated in the brief, stroboscopic flashes of monsoon lightening. Each day brought something new, even if it was only the sight of a white-bellied sea eagle, glimpsed through half closed eyes as it soared lazily on outstretched wings above the bay. We hired bikes and kayaks, explored jungle covered hills where monitor lizards stalked the undergrowth and monkeys ruled the treetops. We visited a local village and an elephant camp where the girls undertook treks on elephant back, their eyes shining with excitement as they later told us what they had seen.

And most days we went swimming, often going further and staying much longer in the tepid water than we had intended. Kya and I became adept at spotting octopus, despite their chameleon-like ability to change colour and blend in with their surroundings. Once aware that we had seen through their camouflage, they would swim off with a curious jet propelled motion, their tentacles trailing behind them as they searched for somewhere else
Another SunsetAnother SunsetAnother Sunset

A cold bottle of Beer Chang and a picture postcard sunset... is there a better way to end another perfect day? © L. Birch 2007
to hide. One day, Kya spotted a large fish lurking beneath a coral shelf but all we could see of it was its head. Swimming back to shore, I returned a few minutes later with a long stick and gently 'coaxed' our find out into the open. It was an ugly brute, easily 2ft long with big bulging eyes and a head that seemed too big for its body. It was a giant puffer or boxfish, covered in purple spots against an ochre coloured background. At the time, we didn't know what it was and it gave us a bit of a fright when it reluctantly moved out from beneath the ledge.... and swam straight toward us! That'll teach us to poke ugly fish with pointy sticks, I thought as I swallowed a half pint of seawater.

Beware the Full Moon

Aside from the beaches, the sunsets and laid-back island living, Koh Pha-Ngan's biggest claim to fame were its full moon parties. For more than 20 years, these parties have been a legendary part of the south East Asian overland scene. Travellers came from all points of the compass to attend them, lured here by stories of drug
Beware the Full Moon!Beware the Full Moon!Beware the Full Moon!

Giving it "Large" at the full moon party... just to prove we were actually there! © L. Birch 2007
fuelled, all night raves. It was once said that barrow-loads of drugs were wheeled among the revellers and that anything from Hed-Chi Qwai - an extremely potent hallucinogenic mushroom - to Opium and Ecstasy was freely available. Was this still the way of things now? We seriously doubted it. In recent years, the Thai government has been keen to clean up a number of drug related problems in order to improve its international standing, but whatever the situation, now was our chance to go and find out for ourselves.

An earlier outing on a hired motorbike, when Viv and I were pulled over and subjected to a thorough search for drugs, set the scene. Neither of us had anything to fear and we happily submitted to the search but my heart skipped a beat when the police officer was going through my bag and found a small cylinder of a dodgy looking brown substance wrapped up in cellophane. "What this?" The officer demanded gruffly. For a moment I was nonplussed, wondering how an illegal substance could possibly have ended up in my bag before I realised it was a homemade candy sweet that I had picked up in Myanmar.
The BeachThe BeachThe Beach

It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. © L. Birch 2007
The officer seemed almost disappointed when I broke it open for him to inspect and a sweet, sugary smell wafted out. If this experience was anything to go by, I concluded, the old stories could not possibly be true.

We hired our own vehicle for the evening and set off for Had Rin beach around 9.45pm. By the time we arrived, shortly after 10.15, the party was already in full swing. The entire 2km beach strip was thronged with revellers, Thais selling 'glo' sticks and jugglers twirling lighted firebrands weaving among them. Plain clothes and uniform police were very much in evidence but the drugs - which were probably still there - were nowhere to be seen. Sound stages set up at intervals along the beach, blasted out a mix of rave, house, techno, R & B and ambient, while above it all, hung a bright, silvery full moon. The first casualties began to appear before midnight - revellers intoxicated, not with chemicals, but copious quantities of Thai whiskey and cheap vodka. It was an indication of the kind of crowd that frequented these parties now. Where once the beach would have been packed with hard-core travellers in ethnic
Sign of the TimesSign of the TimesSign of the Times

A new sign warns of the possibility of tsunami on Thailand's wild west coast. © L. Birch 2007
clothes and dreads - fresh from the beaches of Goa or the ashrams of northern India - a different type of traveller now partied. Cheap flights from Europe had put Thailand in reach of the 'Costa crowd', fortnighters whose sole cultural experience would be cheap booze, electronic music and a hangover the next day. Shortly after 12.30, our curiousity satisfied, we returned to our part of the island. We were glad to have finally experienced a full moon party but I for one was not sorry that we hadn't stayed 'til the bitter end. The beach already looked like a war zone, my only regret was that I wouldn't be around to assist with the clear up of the not inconsiderable aftermath.

Andaman Adventures

For the most part, our time on Koh Ph-Ngan was characterised by blue skies, but dark shapes cruised beneath the calm surface of our lives, like sharks glimpsed dimly in deep water. Perhaps the saddest and most disconcerting news arrived by email from the UK, informing us that Viv's eldest brother had died. Shocked by a number of such body blows, we considered cutting our journey short and returning home. In the end, and
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During one memorable night, we woke to find 6 tree frogs 'serenading' us noisily from the bathroom. © L. Birch 2007
after much soul searching, it was decided that little would be gained from doing so and we dealt with changing circumstances as best we could from distant shores. As it was, we rather had our hands full. Bad news often comes when you least expect it or when you are least able to deal with it in the manner you would prefer.

Returning to the mainland, we crossed the Thai peninsula to compare life on the Andaman coast with that on the Gulf coast. Muslim communities are more prevalent in the west and physically; the landscape becomes more dramatic with the sudden appearance of limestone karst formations, rearing up like dragon's teeth from the heavily forested landscape. The most significant event to have occurred here in recent years was the catastrophic tsunami that swept the western coastline on Boxing Day 2004. Koh Phi Phi, Phuket and Khao Lak were some of the most badly affected areas but many less well-known places were equally devastated, luckier perhaps, because there were fewer (reported) fatalities. Travelling through a string of forested islands on the fringes of the Laem Son national park, we ended up staying on a remote island where damage wrought
End GameEnd GameEnd Game

The islands of Ang Thong, silhouetted against a monsoon sky. © L. Birch 2007
by the tsunami was still evident in the form of a coastal 'dead zone'. In this area, the boughs of dead trees raked at the sky like skeletal fingers and the sandy soils are still so encrusted with salt that even grass will not grow. Lessons have been learned and there is now an early warning and evacuation procedure in place, it was just a pity that so many lost their lives before it could happen.

Our stay on the Andaman coast islands was even more of a 'wilderness' experience than that on Koh Pha-Ngan had been. Bird watching was a favourite activity and one we enjoyed with the girls and visiting friends from Bristol in England, racking up sightings of blue-rumped parrot, scarlet minivet, Philippine glossy starling, hill mynah, large-tailed nightjar and - most spectacularly - Asian pied hornbill. Along with monkeys and various kinds of lizard, the day shift was pretty exciting but Viv found the nightlife a little hard to tolerate. Geckos were one thing, but treefrogs and toads in the bedroom were quite another. At night they made the most appalling racket and every morning, returned to their hiding places like warty Cinderellas, waiting for Viv to discover them (usually with a shriek) as they lurked behind bags or hopped out unexpectedly from beneath the bed.

All too soon it was time to return to Bangkok and go our separate ways; back to the UK for the girls, somewhere quite different for us. Malaysia? China? The Philippines perhaps? At the time of writing..... even we couldn't answer that question.


This entry is principally dedicated to Viv's brother Arthur, who died on the 16th March 2007. We felt that he was with us the day we undertook our little ceremony on Koh Pha-Ngan, and that wherever he is now, he would have approved, saying with a grin - in his smoke thickened voice - "You pair. What are you like?"

I would also like to thank Liz and Sean who paid for a night for us in a swanky hotel for our wedding anniversary, and send apologies to Katie R, who has probably been waiting for this entry since we left the UK in October 2006.

And Finally

For those curious souls who might be wondering.... the title for this entry was inspired by a range of cheap souvenirs at a Khao San Road stall. They ranged from key fobs in the shape of a love heart, to t-shirts, each inscribed with the legend - "Thailan'... Me Love U Long Time".


6th May 2007

The jungle toilet is fab. Will write very soon! Love you both, L & B.

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