A sleepless night spend on a rickety train from Bangkok to Chumphon. I arrived at 6 in the morning, physically exhausted but mentally fueled by the excitement of change. I had not decided to go to Thailand until three days before I left, when my sister saved me from the doldrums I was experiencing living a passive existence in Nerja, Spain, by inviting me to join her on her trip in Southeast Asia. When I arrived in Bangkok she had already decided our first days of the trip. She had bought train tickets to head down south to the islands to celebrate the full moon at a party famous among backpackers the world over. So the night after I landed in Bangkok we were boarding a train.
The journey did not end there. We were taken from the train station to the pier in the back of a covered pickup, its roof loaded down with our baggage and the bed stacked full of human cargo. I made the journey with my feet hanging out the back, watching as the town began to awaken. Young Thais in their school uniforms waited for other pickups to collect them. It was one of those surreal moments that no words or camera could preserve, but which always lingers on the edge like a taste the mind is always grasping to remember.
Sitting beside me was a Pole my age who was the picture perfect embodiment of the type of tourist that comes to the Thailand. He had been to the islands a handful of times before. He came to relax, to party, to live with reckless abandonment for just a few weeks a year. He drank the beers he had bought at the station while he told me the story of his last trip. He had been arrested for smoking a joint- a felony in this country. When he didn’t have the money to bribe the police he had to go to jail, where he spent a week calling relatives back home to wire him the money to bail him out. That’s the way it is here. The affluent come from all over the world to revel in the freedom that their money can buy them and the people who actually called this country their home either made their money off of them or are ignored by those who do.
The truck unloaded us at the pier and we boarded an overcrowded catamaran for the three hour voyage to the island of the Ko Tao. We sat on the floor of the deck, fighting for space with all the other backpackers our age. The people of the developed world were well represented- Americans, Poles, French, British, Argentines-all coming together in one place for cheap drinks and lodging. Tall swells rocked the boat. It listed from side to side as ocean spray showered the deck. I saw the same Pole from earlier with his head buried in a barrel, ingloriously spewing up the celebratory beers he had earlier drunk.
The boat let us off at Ko Tao but took about half of its human cargo on with it to Ko Phangan. We were planning on going to another island later that evening for the Full Moon Party, however, because we were late in deciding to go to the party the price of a place to stay on Ko Phangan was already far out of our price range. So my sister, Isabel, had booked us a place on Ko Tao and we would take the sunset ferry to Ko Phangan instead.
The island of Ko Tao was something right out of the brochure. A small island of lush palms climbing higher and higher to the mountain tops above. Boulders from millennium past had rolled down the slopes, laying however they had landed, right up to the pristine strip of sand that merged seamlessly with the cerulean sea. The bay harbored boats of all shapes and varieties, skinny water taxis with far-reaching outboard motors, high-bowed junks, flat bottomed ferries retrofitted with oxygen tanks and regulator racks for diving instruction. By some peoples’ definition Ko Tao has all the ingredients needed to make paradise, a heaven for those who preach relaxation as the pathway to bliss. After the frenzy of Bangkok, the serenity of this place was a welcome change.