Once on or around peninsula Malaysia you are on the traveller superhighway
which runs from Singapore to Bangkok and is absolutely chokka with
beaded, bearded bedredded types who are 'doing' Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
and Vietnam. They bear some similarity to their counterparts in Goa
(willingless to co-opt clothing styles the locals ditched the 1930s,
desire to find self, etc.) but they are generally a bit better scrubbed,
younger and look less likely to have a dog on a rope back home. This
is traveller central, straight from the pages of 'The Beach.' Southern
Thailand is an unchallenging a destination as you could wish for,
which is perhaps why so many apparently challenged people go there.
With pretty beaches, low prices, easily available drugs, pirated movies
every night, plentiful banana pancakes, and very little in the way
of mentally stimulating cultural attractions or physically difficult
geography, Southern Thailand is the perfect place to vegetate for
a few days; it's a very passive kind of place, The thing is there
are a lot of people who will happily spend four or five months here.
I'd started noticing this while still on Parenthian Kecil. There I
bumped into a bloke we'd me in India. 'Wow,' he said, 'Didn't I meet
you in Darjeeling? That's really amazing isn't it?' I lazily agreed
that it was - although as he and I had BA/Quantas tickets and were
staying a well-known, really cute island, I'd have described our second
meeting as a low-grade, vaguely unwanted coincience. Later, back at
the hut, I struck up a conversation with my neighbour and his girlfriend.
He was slightly older, had been something in IT and obviously missed
computers. He said he'd been out here for three weeks. 'Oh' I replied,
'I guess you must have seen a lot of Malaysia then.' No', he said,
what he meant was he'd been here on the island for three weeks. I
looked at him a little strangely: Parenthian Kecil is about five square
kilometers and has three beaches, one hill and a bit of diving; beer
is ruinously expensive and they behead drug traffickers. What the
hell had he been doing for three weeks? I should have known the answer:
'It's just a really great place to chill.'
Spurred by this fellow's remarkable fecklessness, we left the Parenthians,
but instead of high-tailing it away from all this languor, we headed
into the thick of it, up to the Thai border. Not because we're especially
interested in hanging around with people who spend months looking
for the perfect beach, but because we'd agreed to meet my brother
Grant in Krabi. En route, we stopped in Hat Yak, the major southern
city, where we encountered a man who made our earlier languid fellow
look positively dynamic. He'd been traveling for almost three years
and although they say travel broadens the mind, its most noticeable
effect on him was a shrinking of the vocabulary. With Eric, the usual
(and unusually tedious) exchange of places we'd been all the more
so as the only adjective he had at his disposal was 'amazing.' Though
he did sometimes alleviate this descriptive monotony by using 'amazings'
best known modifier, 'really' and occasionally he would raise his
game with complex constructions such as 'really amazing, really.'
Moreover, he had an apparent inability to differentiate between places
he had been and places that (doubtless 'amazing') people he'd met
had been; he'd gush about a destination for ages before revealing
that he hadn't in fact been there. Did he ever think about moving
back to the UK, I asked. Not really, he said - these days home was
just 'another destination', somewhere he occasionally went to earn
a bit of money (while staying rent-free with his folks). I asked him
where he was going next; he wasn't sure. I was on the brink of suggesting
he might find it rewarding to visit an unfashionable place called
the full time job market when our bus arrived.
Why Street Meat is hard to Beat
From Hat Yai we drove through more miles of jungle and tree plantations
to Krabi which is the jumping off point for any number of islands
that dot the Andaman Sea. In spite of its reputation as a staging
post Krabi is a pleasant interesting little town in its own right.
And the food is extraordinary. The Lonely Planet says 'Thai food is
like Chinese with a sting.' This is a bit like saying Italian food
is like French with tomatoes and evidences an ignorance so deep it
borders on profundity. The best food in Krabi comes from the street
vendors on the waterfront; for about 60 pence they will prepare incredibly
fresh, fiery citrussy dishes in front of you. Our notion that street
meat is hard to beat was confirmed by a Malaysian chef called Johnny
we met one evening. He looked about 38, was in fact about 55 and was
traveling around south east Asia before heading off to Europe. Taking
us under his wing, he ordered a fantastic selection of soups and curries,
telling us that the kind of turmeric we were eating was one of 25
varieties and explaining the difference between the four varieties
of basil and the innumerable types of ginger. When Jane told him she'd
worked in development for Pizza Hut, he said 'Ah - vacuum packed'
- a term people in real food reserve for its fast cousin. Despite
this stinging rebuff to the Hut we agreed that Johnny was exactly
the sort of person you hope to meet (and so rarely do) traveling.
Then we went back to our hotel and drank beer with a bloke wearing
a t-shirt saying 'I don't do Mingers'.
The following day we met up with Grant (who has developed an impressive
inertia) and his girlfriend Charity before heading out to Raily beach.
This is near where they filmed Dr No and, although the film is over
40 years old, there is still a thriving James Bond industry. Somehow,
somehow, I managed to resist taking an overpriced boat to a once beautiful
island which is now full of stallholders selling tatty Sean Connery
memorabilia. Still, the limestone formations which undoubtedly attracted
the film-makers in the first place are impressive and surreal. But
where Raily scores on scenery it fails on food. The various eateries
in Raily all cook what they think the tourists want and the end result
is a bland, overpriced mess where everything has a faintly ketchupy
aftertaste. In fact by far the best food we had was when grant and
I snorkeled out to a cave. There we sat in the sea and ate the oysters
a local fisherman was hacking off a rock with a screwdriver. In fact
they tasted much like rather warm British oysters, but we felt as
if we were keeping it real. And I tried not to think too much about
the time I ate a bad oyster and spent a week in bed.
A few days later we ferried over to Ko Lanta, an island without the
scenery but with noticeably better food. Eavesdropping as a group
of Americans on the table next to me ordered, I soon realised that
the chefs in Raily may well have been on to something with their Pot-Noodlesque
creations. A woman was enunciating to our waiter in the manner of
one addressing a backward child: 'And can I have it with none of that
fish sauce, none of the dried shrimp and no chilli.' Plain rice then;
please, please, next time take your vacation in Florida. Speaking
of Americans, I managed to clear up a small but enduring mystery.
I'd noticed that there are quite a few Canadians about the place and
that a high proportion of them seem to sport maple leaf patches on
their backpacks. This struck me as funny as I'd never thought of Canadians
as flag waving types. So, curious, I asked one such woman why this
was: 'Oh' she replied, 'We hate being mistaken for Americans.'
This is an interesting point. For while many American travelers are
ignorant to the point of caricature and deserving of any iniquities
fate places in their path, some are inevitably decent, interesting
people. But no matter what cloth they're cut from it's pretty difficult
for an American (whatever their politics) to open their mouth in right-on
travelersville without someone else telling them how much they hate
George W and then diving straight into a simplistic rant about how
the US is responsible for all global warming/ globalisation/ global
whatever. It must be terribly wearing in these parts to be an American
who voted for Al Gore.
Crushing and Crashing
We had arrived in Ko Lanta as the season ended and, as they say we
had to make our own fun. Jane had a massage and in mid-crick managed
to fall over backwards on her masseur. This must have been frightfully
eventful for the poor woman as while by European standards her height
is medium and her build slim, in Thai terms she is a strapping Amazon.
While Jane was crushing Thais, I busied myself crashing motorbikes.
My crash, it must be said was hardly premier stuff: more falling over
at about 5 kph. Still, it was leant a certain drama as I had Charity
on the back, who managed to skin her knee impressively as well as
cutting her leg and elbow. To her immense credit, rather than cry
like a girl (as I would have done) she got up and with blood streaming
down her leg, asked me if I was OK. What made this doubly impressive
is that a week early she'd had a near indentical accident with Grant
But however hard you try Southern Thailand is a surprisingly unengaging
place. The Thais are pleasant enough, but the travellers you meet
are the polar opposite of those on the Everest trek. They want to
have amazing experiences but fail to realise that amazing experiences
are few and far between when all you do is drift from one cute beach
to another. What is worse, with my itchy feet and desire to actually
do stuff, they started to make me feel like an over-achiever. Still
there is a certain, definite mindset here: while I don't think 'The
Beach' is a towering literary achievement, Alex Garland ceratinly
hit on something very in tune with the current zeitgeist. A lot of
people in Southern Thailand really do seem to be looking for some
sort of quintessential beach experience. And, as in the book, I could
see myself going mad and killing a load of my fellow travellers. Though
I suspect it would be more out of boredom than anything else.