Malay Peninsula, Post Script: Airports, Visas & Life Lessons

Although the adventure in the Malay Peninsula was finished, I had one more obstacle to overcome before I could return home. Vietnam. In this tragic comedy of errors, I learned about the only airport in the world that doesn’t have a fly through policy, and I managed to check one more item off my bucket list. Never underestimate the stopping power of Communist bureaucracy or the healing power of pho. Don’t want to read about airports? Check out the end for some heartwarming life lessons about challenge and gratitude.


The Airports

Normally, I would not write about an airport, but it seemed that Thailand just could not let me go without a fight. Surat Thani was no trouble. A giant double decker plush AC bus (the kind I wish I’d been in on every other occasion in Thailand) pulled up to the hotel at 11am to whisk me off to the airport for a small fee. The airport was miniscule, but the staff were helpful. Nothing was labeled, but it was small enough that didn’t matter. Instead of posting about delays, they just told us.

I met a fun person in the airport, because I magnetize them to me. After our introductions, she gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten: “You’re way more interesting than looking at my phone!” So we pocketed our devices and talked until the late plane arrived to take us to Bangkok. And so it was, in this pleasant lackadaisical mood that I arrived in Bangkok with a several hour layover and plans to do some last minute shopping and get a nice meal.

I wandered out of domestic and over to the international terminal with only a mild case of being lost twice, and finally found my check in counter amid the totally not at all labeled rows of counters by the simple expedient of going up to a person and asking. However, here’s where the regular international airport challenges start to level up. While going through the check in process, I was informed that I cannot be issued my boarding pass without a visa. I don’t need a visa, I tell her, I have a residence card, showing my Korean ID. No, she says, for Vietnam.

You Need A Visa to Get In

Now, my flight, which I booked on the amazing and cheap website kiwi.com, took me from Surat Thani, through Bangkok, through Hanoi, and finally to Busan (where I live). In normal reality, catching a connecting flight in a country does not require a visa unless  you plan to leave the airport for some layover sightseeing. This is standard operating procedure around the world. China (which up until recently had a monstrously complicated tourist visa application with huge fees and wait times) has lots of people fly through without visas. Even Saudi Arabia which does not issue tourist visas will let people catch connecting flights in Jeddah on their way to some more touristy section of the Gulf. You don’t need visas to catch connecting flights. It’s like an immutable law of reality.

“I’m not going to Vietnam, I’m just catching a connecting flight.”, I say. “I don’t need a visa because I’m not leaving the airport.”

“No,” she says. “You need a visa. I can’t give you a boarding pass without a visa.”

Call Your Embassy

I search the internet frantically looking for supporting documentation, and while it is true that every single web search I get back tells me this immutable fact over and over, they do not care. They will not issue me a boarding pass without a visa. I’m having nightmare flashes of being stranded in Thailand, of missing work, of non-refundable tickets I’ve paid for… Unable to find anything on the US State Department travel site OR the Vietnam Embassy sight about airport transit, I finally called the US Embassy to see if they could confirm or deny this situation and maybe point me at some official document that supported my not needing a visa. The on call staffer at the Embassy agreed, this is bizarre, and he’s never heard of an airport where you need a visa to change planes, but they are also unable to find any official statements anywhere online. Then I run out of minutes and the call is disconnected.

I try to talk to the airline to see if I can get the flight changed, but that’s going to take a day or more because there are no flights that day with room. The Vietnam Embassy website has an online visa application, but it takes 5 days. Expidited forms won’t load on my phone, I need a real computer. I’m losing my mind. The check in counter staff show me a website that’s a private business (vietnam e-visa) who I can pay to get my visa quickly, but my flight is in less than 2 hours now. 30 minutes, they promise. The fee for the visa was only 19$ US, BUT, since I needed it in 30 minutes, and it was a Sunday, AND it was Tet (the very famous Vietnamese holiday that is in literally every Vietnam war movie), it was going to cost me an extra 190$ in processing fees. Before plunking down 200$ on a visa, I wanted to vet the website, and found that there are apparently a large number of fraudulent websites that advertise Vietnamese visas and don’t deliver. Finally, I found a traveler who had used the site I was on and had reported success, but advised us all to spring for the “airport fast check in” option for an extra 25$. Her story of waiting around the airport for hours to get approval was convincing, and so it came to pass that I paid 234 American dollars to buy a visa into Vietnam for the privilege of changing planes in the Hanoi airport also known as “the Story of the Most Expensive Bowl of Pho Ever”.

Getting to Hanoi

I didn’t have time to eat or shop. I managed to buy an overpriced sandwich from a cafe by the gate before boarding because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at my hotel and it was now after 6pm. Between the delayed flight in Surat Thani and the visa ordeal, I had used up all my layover hours. I got several emails from the visa service with instructions, very dire and specific instructions, as well as a pdf of a letter of visa application (not even a real visa yet).

When I got to Hanoi, the staff from the visa company was thankfully waiting for me with a sign. She ushered me into a waiting area and took my letter and passport away for processing. I was expecting to have to take some passport sized photos there for the paperwork, but I guess somehow they copied the photo from my actual passport instead and used that. Less than 15 minutes later she came back and handed me my passport with Vietnamese visa inside, while other people were still standing in line at the visa counter. At least that “fast check in” option paid off.

From there, I was able to go through immigration. For reasons unknown to any but the arcane inner circle of the Vietnamese bureaucracy, there is not an international waiting area. I’m told that if you’re travelling through Hanoi with both flights on the same airline, that it is possible to bypass the visa and customs rigamarole, but since many ticket sellers and even airlines use partners to get you from one leg of your journey to the next, buying your ticket from one place, doesn’t guarantee all your flights are on the same airline.

The Most Expensive Bowl of Pho

I had to go through customs and immigration. There was no need for me to leave the airport, mind you, since once through immigration, I could simply turn around and re-enter the security screening and boarding areas. But, since I’d spent so much on a visa, I did step outside and breathe the external Vietnamese air, just to say I did. I also fulfilled one of my long time bucket list items, to eat pho in Vietnam.

If you don’t know pho, you are missing out. This magical Vietnamese noodle soup took Seattle by storm more than a decade ago and it’s a staple cheap and delicious food for all occasions. Sick? Eat pho. Celebrating? Eat pho. Too busy to cook? Eat pho. Having a first date? Than Brothers it is. I even had my grad school graduation dinner there. You can get a fairly large bowl of it for 5-6$ which is dirt cheap when you realize that it’s actually good homemade food and not the McProcessed value menu. I love pho. I idolize pho. And typically, when people ask me what food I miss from America the most, I answer pho, because even though it’s not “American” that’s often the only country I can find it in with regularity. So of course, being in Asia is a big opportunity to have pho in the land of it’s origin. Bucket list, check.

The moral of the story is, if you have a connecting flight in Vietnam, call the airlines, ask, and even if they say you don’t need a visa, it might be worth it to drop the 20$ a week before your flight and get that paperwork rolling. Otherwise you could end up with a very expensive bowl of pho, too.

The Lesson of the Malay Adventure

This vacation was very different from what I have experienced recently and from what I expected. In many ways, I am grateful that my boundaries were pushed and my comfort zone was challenged. It’s easy to fall into a “new normal” and for me that meant more travel, more maps and trekking and becoming comfortable with navigating new cities, new modes of transportation and multiple languages. Which used to be challenging and exciting and even a little scary, but has become normal. It never ceases to amaze me what the human mind can adapt to.

I learned some very practical lessons about the balance between knowing your limits and being confined by them. I spent so long learning how to say “yes, I can do that” that I kind of forgot how or when to say, “no, that’s too much”. Plus, those goalposts move throughout our lives. As a teenager, staying up for 3 days and sleeping in a car on a road trip was fine. And no matter how many people told me that my body would not let me do those things as I got older, it’s hard to accept being “older”. The list of things I have to do with modification is getting longer, and my ability to function on less than 8 solid hours of sleep is greatly diminished.

Part of me wishes for every holiday to be as perfect as the New Zealand holiday, but there are two reasons I am glad they aren’t. One, I don’t want perfect to ever be my “new normal”. I would stop appreciating it if there were nothing to contrast it with. I would no longer feel the same amount of joy and gratitude for amazing things if they were regular. And two, I think we need adversity to know ourselves and to grow. I never want to stop growing and learning, so I need obstacles and challenges to help me achieve that. I don’t want to live in a constant state of challenge, I like it when my day to day life is quiet and enjoyable, but I value being pushed beyond my “normal”. I value expanding my comfort zone. I even value learning there’s a place my comfort zone is never going be.

Finally, every time we overcome, we become more capable. With each obstacle conquered, we look at lesser challenges more serenely. In 2012, I climbed a huge mountain in China. We were fat, out of shape Americans, and even though we took the bus and gondola as high up as we could, we still climbed stairs for 7.5 hours to get to the top. I’m sure fit people do it faster, but it wasn’t a race or even a comparison. It was about us, in our state at that time conquering something that many people (probably even ourselves) would have considered too hard for us. We made it to the top, we slept up there overnight and we watched the sunrise because that’s what you do on this particular mountain. And for years afterward, when one of us was struggling with something in life, we said, ‘remember the mountain’.  

Something was harder than I thought, but I did it anyway. That’s what builds confidence, what encourages healthy risk taking, and ultimately those lead to a more interesting and more fulfilling life. So keep it up world. Bring me your stunning beaches and awe-inspiring caves. Bring me your mind-mindbogglingly beautiful flowers and butterflies. Bring me your humans full of welcoming and their delicious food. But don’t let me leave behind your scungy alleyways, or your hotel invading rats, or your foot scarring coral reefs. I’ll take the whole package deal and know that each new wonder or obstacle lives with me forever, shaping the person I will be tomorrow.

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Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

Given the events leading up to my final day in Thailand, it could easily have been a wash, however, the small non-tourist town of Surat Thani still had some surprises up it’s sleeve, and I managed to end this holiday on a beautiful high note. It’s my goal to publish all the stories from one holiday before I take another, and I’m barely achieving that by finishing off this post with three days to spare before I hop on a plane to visit the US for the first time in 18 months. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey as much as I enjoyed writing about it.


Adventure Hangover

Although the Wangtai had transport out to Khao Sok, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking again in only 6 hours and vowed to sleep until about an hour before breakfast ended, then eat and sleep some more. It was sad to give up on my elephant excursion, but when I woke up the next morning I realized how important that decision really was. I felt weak, as though I had just come through a severe illness or fever. My limbs shook as I walked and even as I held my phone. I had no strength and no speed, but found my way down to the breakfast buffet where I positively stuffed my face after days of light or missed meals.

Mentally, I felt clearer for the sleep and food and I began to realize based on the way my body felt that I had pushed myself a good deal farther than I had known. It was likely not any one thing, but a combination of poor sleep, poor diet, excessive heat, lack of water, physical exertion and the coral injury (which can be known to cause fatigue and other symptoms). I had hoped that I could make it just one more day, just one more activity and then sleep on the plane and of course back in my flat in Korea, but my body was just finished. If I’d tried to force myself to rise early and head to the elephant, I would likely not have had a pleasant day, but only another day of crammed vans, heat, dirt, hunger and dehydration, worried about what standing around in muddy water with an elephant was going to do to the probably already infected open wound on my foot.

Instead, I slept some more, watched some movies, ate lunch, admired the view of the river, took a nap, and read up more on Thai culture.

Spirit Houses

20170125_150240Since arriving in Thailand via Koh Lipe I had seen these tiny ornate houses on posts everywhere. I saw them on the remote islands around Lipe, near the caves of Bor Tor, in the cities, at gas stations, and in the front yard of homes we passed on the road. Some were simple, others like miniature mansions. Some had tiny model occupants while others were uninhabited. Nearly all of them had offerings of food, sweets, alcohol, or incense.

The houses are a throwback to Thai folk beliefs in spirits of nature and the land. The tiny houses are built to be homes for these spirits. They may be built near special trees, bodies of water, mountains or natural formations to house the spirits of the land. And they may be built by homes to attract spirits who will inhabit the house and aid the family in exchange for lodgings and gifts.

I have seen similar spirit houses in Japan, but at the time I completely failed to make the connection because the architecture is so different.

Night Market

The clerk who had checked me in the night before had mentioned the floating market was within walking distance, and I had also read online that one of the few cool things worth doing in Surat Thani was the firefly boat ride. Around 5pm, I set out on the short walk down to the river where the maps indicated I would find the market and the boat rides.

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The river front park is small, however there is a large island in the middle of the river called Ko Lamphu that does not allow cars past the carpark near the bridge. Under better circumstances, I would have loved to explore it, but I was still a bit woozy wobbly and didn’t want to push myself into illness or another breakdown, so I stayed on the near bank and enjoyed the small corniche.

I read some articles about the floating market that seemed to indicate it was only open on Sundays. Surat Thani is not a tourism hub, so there is a limited amount of information, but what I can gather is that there is a night market more often than a “floating market”. The floating part is supposed to be where some pontoons are set up on the quay side and vendors sell wares on these ersatz rafts. When I went, nothing was on the water, but there were plenty of stalls selling all kinds of tasty treats and some live music at the far end. If you’re in Surat Thani and Google says the floating market is closed, ask a local about it because there’s nice stuff in Si Tapi Park.

Street Food

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I first browsed the whole selection of stalls, checking out the food on offer. I passed a woman making fresh juice (very common in Thailand), and at first thought she was using limes because the peels were so green, but the juice was a bright almost neon orange! I don’t mean like a little tinge of green that you get on your organic oranges, seriously lime green. It turns out that this is what oranges look like in Thailand and Vietnam. And a glass of that fresh squeezed neon was a delicious treat. I passed some foods I was familiar with and others I was not. I was briefly tempted by a stall selling horseshoe crabs, but in the end I chickened out and got a serving of pad thai served up fresh on a banana leaf.

There were carpeted areas with low tables where people could doff their shoes and sit down on a clean patch of ground to eat. To westerners it’s a picnic style, but sitting on the floor is common all over Asia. I had a great view of the river and the large island park. And although the sunset was a little obscured, it was still a beautiful night.

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OK That’s Creepy

One especially strange thing that happened while I was wandering around: there was a PA system that had been piping out a low volume background music. This is not too weird because it’s nice for public gardens or parks to have a little ambient music and I hadn’t been paying too much attention to what was playing because it was in Thai and low key. Then suddenly as I was walking back toward the food stalls from the far end of the park, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and not moving. Up until now, the park had been a bustling active place with people strolling along, taking selfies with the statues, kids running around and everyone munching on snacks. Now, it was like some kind of internal evil robot switch was activated and the whole human population stopped and stood straight, staring ahead, gazes fixed but not on anything. I drifted to a halt as I realized I was the only one moving, not wanting to cause offense but also deeply creeped out.

When the song came to an end, everyone began going about their business once again, resuming their casual chats and picnic dinners. I realize of course that robot overlords is not the real story, but it was very eerie. I’d been in Thailand for a few days and hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Language Barrier

I spend most of my time living, working and traveling in countries where English is not the native language. I’m used to working through a language barrier, but Thailand was the most challenging linguistic obstacle I have ever faced. (That includes Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, and Czech). The rest of the Malay Peninsula had been far easier for me to manage. In Singapore, everyone speaks English (national education tests are administered in English). In Malaysia, most people spoke English or Chinese (which I’m not fluent in, but can get around). Nearly everyone there is bi- or tri-lingual, speaking their native Malay and at least one of the other two. Plus, even though I can’t speak Malay, it’s written using the Roman alphabet (the one we use in English), so I could sound things out, and got good at recognizing the words for “bathroom” and “coffee” (priorities). However, Thai is written in it’s own special alphabet. It’s beautiful. It’s arcing graceful curves and swirls. But it has 6 different letters for the sound //, and I can’t read it.

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I imagined as I wandered around the less touristy parts of Thailand that this must be how my friends felt exploring China with me, or how the teachers here in Korea who can’t read Hangul must feel every day. It also makes me appreciate how much of a difference having even a tiny understanding of the language can make.

Firefly Boat

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As the sun went down, the sign I’d been looking for appeared. Near a tiny dock, a young lady set up a folding table and a cute sign advertising for the firefly boat tours. If you have read my blog up till now you will know that I am a sucker for glowing lifeforms, so the idea of taking a nice riverboat trip and watching the fireflies was enticing, especially at the bargain price of 50 Baht (less than 2$ US). The boats don’t leave on a schedule, they leave when they have enough people, so I did my best to express my desire to go to the ticket seller, and then pulled up a nearby bench to wait.

After a number of people wandered over to look at the sign and wandered away, a group in matching t-shirts expressed some interest and stood off to one side while a single member of the group approached the ticket seller. This looked hopeful to me, because they were obviously a group, and after some back and forth, they decided to go, at which point the ticket seller gestured to me and made sure that I could take my trip with them. One of the group, the designated talker, happened to speak excellent English, so we were able to chat along the way. She told me she was from Surat Thani, but now lived in Phuket and had come back to see her family (the other members of the group).

As the longtail boat pulled away from the dock, we sped down the river passing the buildings of the city and toward a forested area of the delta. Looking at a map of Surat Thani, you can see that the city is built along the main part of the Ta Pi river. Just east of the dock, there is a little fork in the river and while the main branch continues along the urban areas, the side branch goes off into a green and verdant delta.

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Local Knowledge

Along the way, as I was chatting with the English speaking girl who asked me to call her Monica, I ventured to explore the bizzare robot occurance I’d seen earlier in the evening. Trying my best to be tactful and circumspect, I described what I had seen without the cyberman elements, and she told me that it had been the national anthem playing. Is that something that happens often or is today some kind of holiday? (It was Lunar New Year, but I understand that’s not often celebrated in Thailand outside of Chinatowns). She told me that it happens every day, twice at day at 8am and 6pm.

I thought about the ostentatious displays of portraits of the recently deceased king that I had seen around town. In Koh Lipe and Krabi, I had seen these only in government buildings, like the immigration office and police stations. But in Surat Thani, they were everywhere. And more than just paintings, they were like shrines with ornate decoration, bunting, flowers and other accouterments of borderline worship. Even taking into account that the mourning period for his death will extend until October of 2017, there was a marked difference in the way that residents of Surat Thani were carrying out that mourning from how the more tourist oriented towns I had seen before were.

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

Thailand was a military dictatorship with a figurehead monarch, but the late king was instrumental in moving the country into a constitutional monarchy (some say democracy, but … king, so I disagree). It’s been shaky, but he was enormously popular, and has apparently left in his wake a movement of “ultra-royalists” and there is some concern that populist nationalism / military dictatorship will return (which is funny cause you’d think the ultra-royalists would respect the king’s wishes to create a constitutionally run society, but hey). This political struggle will never be in the western news because Thailand is poor and can’t really impact life and economics in the West. *sigh.

My best guess is that tourist towns tone it down to protect the revenue stream, and that there is almost surely a regional difference in how much the population supports royalism or democracy. Surat Thani is clearly royalist. It probably also explains why in place of a Gideon Bible, my hotel had this book of Buddhist teachings in the night stand.

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Magic on the River

Once we turned away from the main river course, it didn’t take long for the lights of the city to fade behind us and for me to start feeling like I’d stepped into a ride at Disneyland. The river was wide and slow running. The night air was a perfect temperature that could not have been achieved better with climate control. We passed by some houses on stilts that was surely the Surat Thani version of the suburbs, but they were so picturesque with bright lanterns hanging from the porches and architectural flourishes on the rooftops, they looked like life-sized versions of the spirit houses. Don’t get me wrong, reality is often an amazing place and I will take the real thing to a theme park replica any day, but this boat ride was so perfect that it seemed like there must be a secret team of imaginieers behind the scenes making it work.

As we approached the first firefly spot, the guide slowed the boat down and directed our attention to a shadow just ahead. I did not know what to expect. I had read blogs that touted the tour as amazing, and seen about a hundred descriptions of the experience as being “like Christmas lights”. As a child, in Maryland, the fireflies came out on summer nights and let us chase them around the yard, and put them in jars for an hour or so before going on their merry way. My childhood may have been excessively Norman Rockwell from time to time. Nevertheless, my image of fireflies is a couple dozen in a field or meadow flying around and looking for a mate. I imagined something similar, but on the banks of the river amid the dark sillhouettes of the brush and trees. Nope.

I don’t know if it happens elsewhere, or to what degree, but in Surat Thani, the river fireflies occupy trees.

As we drew closer to the shadow our guide was pointing to, the shape of the tree became more distinct and just after, the glow from hundreds of fireflies reached my eyes. Although every bush and tree around it was dark, this one tree was home to a firefly colony of massive proportions. I didn’t even know fireflies lived in colonies. But I now know that the berembang (also known as the mangrove apple, or crabapple mangrove) is a big hit with the firefly population. Because the delta near Surat Thani is abundant in these trees, they get more than their fair share of firefly light shows.

There is no hope of a photo or a video. The light emitted by these little bugs is just too faint. But to the naked eye, far from the city lights, the twinkling of hundreds of little bodies against the lacy black outline of the tree is a sublime experience. I could understand why so many people described the flashing as Christmas lights, becuase in addition to their huge numbers and single tree occupation, the fireflies blinked in unison. Ok, not every single one, but I’d say 65-75% of a tree would blink on and off together in perfect synchonicity. I was able to find a few more examples of species that do that, but not a single explaination for the behavior. I had always been taught that the light show was a mating display, and it seems counterintuitive to blend in with the crowd when trying to get a potential mate to notice you. Whatever their evolutionary imperitive, the synchronized twinkling was amazing to watch.

And it was not just one tree. Our boat was out for around an hour, and close to 40 minutes of that was spent in the dark mangroves drifting along from apple to apple, each tree laden with it’s own colony and sparkling like a glitter bomb under a disco ball. We passed tree after tree of glowing glimmering lights, up one side of the river banks and back down the other and I will never get tired of looking at that. No one goes to Surat Thani except to go somewhere else, and I very much understand why, because the town is not a tourist easy place, but if you find yourself there, take a night out to do this tour.

Let the Good Things Happen

Despite the fact that the night before I had been at the lowest imaginable point in this trip, the fact is, I had a lovely and unique experience on Saturday. I rested, gave myself permission to “miss out” on the elephant, and found a small local activity that was suited to my tastes and my energy level. Bad things happen on holidays. People get sick or injured or run into culture shock mood swings, but it’s important not to let it ruin everything. I’ll say it over and over, the key to maximizing a good vacation is to do something great at the beginning and the end, and I’m glad that my final memory of Thailand was something so beautiful.

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And so ends my final day of this all too brief foray into the three countries of the Malay Peninsula. Will I go back? Well, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Koh Lipe, and I still have some ethically treated elephants to visit, so I’m sure I’ll go back one day. On top of that, I think Singapore will make a great destination to bring my niblings to get them adjusted to traveling abroad. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Instagram and Facebook for daily slices of the life of a Gallivantrix. ❤

Malay Peninsula 15: “The Worst Day” or “How I Lost My Cool”

Sometimes vacations go awry. Sometimes it’s not fun anymore. And sometimes it gets so bad you feel like that toddler in the grocery store who just can’t take it anymore and has a critical meltdown in the aisle. For me, it was the second half of my 11th day. The combination of physical exertion, dehydration, low blood sugar, frustration, culture shock, and physical discomfort from overheating and actual injuries came together in a perfect storm. The story of how things went wrong is one I hope I can look back on with humor someday, but it is also one I know I can learn from. Not only can I see where my limits are so as to better respect them in the future, I can see where my resilience is strongest and nurture that in times of strife.


When last we saw our intrepid traveler, she was crammed in the back of yet another Thai “bus” (overstuffed minivan) on her way back to her hotel in Krabi, running only an hour or more behind schedule in hopes of catching the last bus out of town across the peninsula to Surat Thani. In addition to the delay in schedule, our heroine is suffering from a wounded foot, the result of a coral scrape now chaffed by sandal straps, beaten by sunshine, splashed with mangrove water and stepped in bat guano. This is where it gets bad. If you want to preserve the illusion that my travels are all magical adventures, skip the rest of this day.

Thai “Taxi”

Luckily, it seemed my guide had mentioned my predicament to the driver, because even though I was jammed in the back of the van, they stopped at my hotel first. With about an hour to catch the bus, I collected my luggage from the storage room and asked if they hotel could call a taxi to take me to the bus station. They could, of course, but were planning to charge an outrageous fee. Taking in my disheveled state and lone backpack as luggage, I think the clerk realized I was not a luxury tourist and kindly gave me directions to the nearest taxi stand where I could catch a local taxi for much less.

My foot had not fared well that day. Despite the sunscreen, I picked up my only sunburn of the holiday (mild pink, not serious). The area around my coral scrape was red and inflamed and I was sure it was getting infected. The brackish water and barefoot cave mud could not have helped (hopefully my mother skips this blog entry, I haven’t told her how dumb I was about that cut). I managed to arrange my shoe so that it dragged less on the skin, but I had to shuffle walk.

The taxi stand was a couple blocks away and around a corner, near a landmark hotel. I found the corner and the hotel, but nothing that looked like a taxi or a stand. Thailand has a serious problem translating transportation devices into English. First “bus”, and now “taxi”. As I stood there looking white, lost, and confused, searching for anything that looked like a taxi and wishing I’d taken some time to learn the Thai alphabet, an old man approached me and with the universal sign language of charades, inquired as to my dilemma. This took a moment, because we then said “what” at each other about 4 times before I finally said I wanted to go to the bus station, in English, because I did not know what else to try. It worked however, because he nodded and gestured for me to follow him… back to a little truck, the bed of which had been kitted out with benches and a sort of hard awning top.

There comes a moment in an adventure where you are so far out of your element you can’t see it with a telescope. Trusting in the goodness of humans, I hopped in the back of the truck. As we drove along, we picked up more passengers, and dropped off a couple too, who would stop by the cab window to pay the driver. I watched one passenger push a little button on the roof I hadn’t noticed before and realized it was like the bus stop button to let the driver know to pull over. It turns out “taxi” in Thai is like a tiny truck bus/ rideshare thing that doesn’t have a set route or fare. I watched my GPS and saw we were indeed headed to the bus station, and when we arrived, about half the passengers disembarked with me, so I had some time to find my money. The trip cost me less than 1$. I accidentally tried to hand the money to the passenger in the cab before realizing he was a monk! I guess ride-sharing taxis is efficient, but it sure was confusing for a newcomer.

I made it to the bus station with a little time to spare and headed over to the ticket counters to secure passage. I bought my ticket, hit the bathroom, and bought some water before sitting down next to the number where I was told my bus would arrive. I watched large buses come and go, unsurprised that my bus was not on time. I should have known not to expect anything so comfortable as a real bus. Shortly, a battered gray minivan pulled up and an old man hopped out and gestured for myself and the other lady waiting in the seats there to get in. There were no markings, not even a sign in the window. He did not ask for our tickets. The inside of the van was crammed as full as can be. I think they may have actually installed an extra row of seats. I perched on the edge (all of what was left) of one bench next to a rather large man, struggling to stuff my bag in the tiny space between my seat and the seat in front, my legs out in the space that would be called an aisle.

In this cramped and hot conveyance, I sat for nearly 3 hours to get to Surat Thani. All the research I did on Surat Thani was basically a litany of warnings: don’t go here it is not a tourist town it has no attractions. I couldn’t imagine that. In my experience, most towns have something, but regardless, I wasn’t planning to see Surat Thani, I had come because it was supposed to be the easier route to Khao Sok and because my plane back to Korea would depart from the Surat Thani airport.

Rip Off

When the van arrived, I was shuffled over to a travel agency where absolutely no one was interested in talking to me about my need to get out to Khao Sok the next day. I did manage to get someone to call me a taxi that wanted to charge me 150 Baht to take me to my hotel (for comparison, the taxi in Krabi had been 30 Baht and my minivan from Krabi clear across the peninsula to Surat Thani was 180). I felt massively exploited – white person just arrived in town, let’s rip her off – so I threw a bit of a fit. They told me it was because the hotel was so far away, and I pulled up Google Maps to show them it was less than 3km. I could have walked if my foot were not throbbing and raw from the coral injury. I finally agreed to 100 Baht, and sat with bad grace in the back of another truck taxi while the driver picked up and dropped off other passengers along the way.

The hotel may have only been 3km away, but it was quite isolated. When I selected it based on the map location, it seemed so close to the city center, however that was without any context for the city of Surat Thani. The many internet articles that advised how not-tourist friendly this town is were not kidding. The city is not pedestrian friendly, and lacks sufficient taxis, so if you want to get around, be prepared to pay an arm an a leg or rent a motorbike. But I was tired, hungry, hot, dirty. I had spent the beginning of my day in cramped minivans and the end of my day in cramped minivans, and however lovely the kayaking in the middle was, I had a seriously long day and was ready for a shower and a bed.

ST street view 1

the isolated side street where my hotel was, via Google street view

Travel Arrangements

My plans for the next day were to go to a family farm near to but not actually in Khao Sok, where a retired trekking elephant was cared for and had visits from the public by appointment. I had done lots of research on ethical elephant interaction in Thailand and discovered that there isn’t much of it in the south. There was a well regarded luxury elephant resort, but it was going to run about 450$ for two days and one night. The other place I found was this family farm, which seemed to be legit and well reviewed. I had been in contact with them via email and they seemed to think it would be very easy for me to get from Surat Thani to their farm on any of the vans going to Khao Sok. All I had to do was give their phone number to the driver to get directions. Since the farm was literally on the road to the park, the vans would pass it on the way.

While checking in, I noticed that the hotel offered rides to Khao Sok so I tried to ask about what it would take to get dropped off at my destination. This proved challenging as there was only one person on staff who spoke English, and he kept leaving. Protip: not everyone who advertises on Booking.com as speaking English actually does.

At first the hotel said they could not drop me off. Then they made some calls, had me call the farm itself so they could talk to them about the location and finally said ok. Wouldn’t it be a nice story if this were the end?

Cash Only

The hotel didn’t accept credit cards, and I was running low on cash. I hadn’t seen an ATM anywhere. I didn’t worry about it when I first arrived in Surat Thani because I figured there would be one near my hotel. It turned out the nearest ATM was about 1km up the rural road where it intersected the main road. I had no choice but to walk…reversing 1km of the 3km I had overpaid to be driven down… and back again, on my torn up foot. That’s right. I paid 100 baht to avoid walking 3km and ended up having to walk 2 anyway.

The heat of the day had thankfully faded, and I was allowed to leave my bag in the lobby. It was not possible for me to walk quickly. Even when not injured, my feet swell in heat and during long rides, but the coral scrape had become increasingly red and painful throughout the day. I set out on dusty road, passing half a dozen stray dogs, heaps of garbage and flies, derelict buildings filled with so much rubbish they may have well been dumping grounds. The whole thing belied the beautiful photos of the hotel, strategically taken to show none of the surrounding area. I passed the bloated corpse of a dog on the side of the road and tried hard to bite down on my disgust and judgement, reflecting that my pain, hunger and weariness were making me less tolerant, but it was hard going. I didn’t have the energy to take pics of trash and dog corpses, so these are from Google street view. They’re from February of 2016 and look a bit cleaner than the day I was there.

I made it up to the main road. The distance was not so great, but anyone whose had to walk on a foot injury knows how little that matters, and walking through trash and decay did not make the experience any easier. I found the ATM and got some money, then looked around for any sign of a restaurant, finding none. Again, I had expected a hotel to be near amenities and was sadly mistaken. I couldn’t bear to wander aimlessly around anymore, so I went into a corner store and picked up some food there: yogurt, a sandwich, a banana and a candy bar. I limped my way back to the hotel in the dark, and back to the desk to finally check in.

Change of Plans

While paying for my room and van ride, the girl at the desk who spoke only a few words of English, started giving me different information about the van ride than what I’d agreed to before going to the ATM. Something had changed in my absence, but she couldn’t explain it, so the English speaker had to be summoned once more. They weren’t going to take me to the farm, but instead their driver would take me to a travel agent in town where I would wait around for an hour or more then be taken maybe to another place where I might need to wait some more, and I could get to my location at like 10-11am. But still wake up and leave the hotel at 6am. To get to a place that was an hour away.

This was me summoning every moment I’ve ever worked in service to remind myself not to yell at anyone. I took deep breaths and tears came to the corner of my eyes. I can’t do that, I told them. My appointment is at 9am, so if you can’t take me to the farm, just take me to the park entrance where everyone else is dropped off and I’ll get farm folks to pick me up. This sounds simple, but it was more than 20 minutes of broken English, confused explanations, and me walking away to count backwards from 10 repeatedly.

Emotional Overload

I got to my room and cried. I cried about every difficult thing that I’d encountered on the holiday. I cried about every obstacle, every pain, every disappointment. Then I had a shower and ate some food and talked to a friend online. I didn’t really feel better, but I hoped that sleep would help and I was determined to make the most of my final day on holiday and visit the elephant ethically. I fell asleep around 8pm.

At about 10:30pm I was woken up by barking. Frantic get out of my house barking. I tried turning up the volume on my headphones. I tried folding the pillow over my ears to muffle the sounds. I hoped that whatever was bothering the dog would go away, but it didn’t stop. The hotel was made of shipping containers. The insides were quite adorable and well constructed, but not especially soundproof. On top of this, my window faced the street. I looked out the window and saw that a dog in one of the fenced in yards was barking it’s head off at the dogs on the street who did not give a shit. The barking dog’s owners just as clearly didn’t give a shit because he’d been barking for about half an hour by this time.

ST street view 4

This photo is also from Google street view, hence the daylight. I stayed in one of these container rooms. The dogs are not “cute” to me anymore.


I snapped.

Yes, somewhere in the world, there are people who have had it worse. I’m not looking for pity or comparing my experience to yours or, for example, a soldier’s or refugee’s. But I was on holiday. I hadn’t slept well for several nights, and hadn’t eaten well for all but maybe 2 of the 11 days. I had a foot injury that was starting to look infected, and I had trudged in this state passed heaps of trash and a dead dog carcass. I was so far out of spoons that I had sobbed my eyes out before falling asleep, and now after a mere 2 hours of rest, I was woken up with no sign of being able to sleep again and an alarm set for 6 am.

I Snapped

I packed my things and dressed, heading to the lobby to see if I could get a different room, away from the dogs, but the only person there was not the English speaker. She understood that my issue was with the dogs, but she tried to explain she couldn’t do anything about it because they didn’t belong to the hotel.

This conversation was nearly impossible. I was so tired I could barely express myself and she barely spoke English. I know she could tell I was upset, because I started crying again, but there was nothing we could do. Eventually I decided to change hotels.
“I’ll check out”, I said, “Call me a taxi”. But she said I couldn’t check out until I cancelled on the booking.com website. Using my phone and slow data, I managed to cancel my reservation and to book myself a room in the fanciest hotel in Surat Thani (less than 2km away).

She hadn’t called a taxi. I asked again. “What hotel?”, she asked. “Wangtai”, I said. She looked totally perplexed. Bear in mind, this is the biggest, poshest hotel in the city, and she’s looking like she’s never heard of it. I showed her the name in Thai and a look of instant recognition crosses her face. Oh, Wangtai, of course. We went through the rigmarole of refunds. I had quite honestly expected to pay for one night since I had occupied the room, but they refunded my entire amount, including the now cancelled ride to Khao Sok in the morning. It sounds simple, but everything had to be done in exaggerated sign language and triplicate forms, so it took over an hour from the time I came in with my bags to the time I got my refund. “A taxi?”, I repeated and she finally called, but by that time the taxis were “closed”.

Nuclear Meltdown

I may have turned into the worst kind of tourist here. Even writing it, it’s hard for me to convey the situation and it seems like I’m overreacting. I mean, I wasn’t quite at the awful tourist level of yelling at a coffee shop for not having a flat white, but I was loosing my mind from pain, exhaustion, culture shock and serious struggles. I’m fairly sure I raised my voice and uttered unflattering things about the city of Surat Thani and it’s taxis. I cried. I stomped. I huffed. I cursed. And while I tried to direct my rage at anyplace other than the girl behind the counter who was doing her best to help me, I am ashamed to say, I was not a nice person.

I could not bear the notion of trying to return to my room. I could hear the dogs from the lobby, though not as loudly, enough to know they were still at it. Plus, I’d already checked out. I thought about walking the distance on my burning foot with all my things. I turned once more to Google to see if there was any option, perhaps to have the other hotel come and fetch me or any kind of private transportation service.

Redemption

Suddenly, the girl at the desk said that her friend would drive me there on her motorbike. I almost collapsed in gratitude. I tried my best to apologize for my outbursts and to thank them for helping me. It’s still hard for me to believe how much they did to try and help me despite the fact that I was being a total brat.

 I had never ridden on a motorcycle before. I had my backpack, day bag, and bag of snacks and no time to rearrange my belongings. She didn’t have a spare helmet, and all I could think as I sat on the back of the bike, one hand on her shoulder and the other holding bag number 3, was “please don’t let my mom freak out about this”. I decided to close my eyes so I couldn’t see passing traffic. I thought of the things I’d read about being a motorcycle passenger, how to lean into turns and help the driver balance. The night air was soft and cool compared with the heat of the day and the ride was smooth and uneventful. When we arrived, I thanked her several more times before heading inside.

Spend the Money

The Wangtai is the swankiest hotel in Surat Thani. It’s in a reasonable location, and has a cafe, convenience store, and restaurant in the lobby, along with a massage parlor and spa and swimming pool (closed for renovations when I went ). The lobby was staffed with well dressed people who spoke excellent English even at midnight. I got checked in and settled in my suite with vouchers for breakfast and the sauna. And all of this was about 40$ US a night.

Thailand is cheap. In Europe and New Zealand things are pricier. I stayed in shared dorms that were almost the same price as the Wangtai. I traveled like a poor uni student on gap year, and I thought I should do the same thing in Thailand.  With very few exceptions (the hotel in Krabi) it’s just asking for suffering. My first hotel in Surat Thani was 11$ a night for a private room, while the most expensive hotel in town was only 40$ a night. The minivan from Krabi to Surat Thani was 6$ where a private car would have been about 45$. The point is, you can only choose 2: money, time, or comfort. If you have lots of time, then taking those 6$ minivans is great because you can recover in between adventures. But if you’re on a short trip to Thailand, I recommend to spend the money. Being comfortable can make all the difference between an awesome experience and an epic meltdown.


It’s now July and we’re finally almost to the end of my winter holidays 2017. Although I didn’t get to visit the elephant, I did have at least one more magical experience before leaving Thailand, so I hope you’ll come back to see the rewards of getting back on the horse after a fall.

Here in Korea, I’m working my way through the worst root canal ever, creating the materials for summer camp, getting ready for Seoul Pride and counting down to a brief return to the states. I’ll do my best to get everything online before stepping out, but if not, I hope you’ll be patient until my return. Don’t forget to see the holiday albums on Facebook and (almost) daily photo updates on Instagram! Thanks!