Diving, sunsets and massages - Now we're talking!
Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand
Vern: A two-hour ferry brought us to backpacker mecca, Ko Pha-Ngan with it's internationally renowned parties, beaches and beach shacks. A German girl, we'd met in the ferry queue, had recommended a fishing port called Chaloklum on the island's north coast as a charming blend of beach and village life, so we caught a taxi straight there. A few small buildings, mostly convenience stores and restaurants, huddled on a strip of seeled road around the pier, but our driver pulled off onto a dirt track which rambled under a canopy of palm leaves until he pulled up to an assemblage of wooden huts. We moved into an empty one, ate some curry for lunch and spent the late afternoon on the beach. The sand is white and fine, but it looks like the sea is swallowing it up, as most of the beachfront businesses have built up defences with rocks, concrete or piles of sandbags and a big yellow digger is on full-time duty shuffling sand around.
In the evening, we walked the length of the beach and visited a resort advertising significantly discounted rooms at the far end of the bay. Here it turned out that mudflats filled with debris replaced the white beach sand. We figured that the ugly shore was the reason for the resort's promotional prices and were toying with booking a night there anyway. A deranged man in a candy-striper shirt and a bow-tie was making a racket at the bar and yelling at us about a "sea view" as we walked in. He turned out to be the hotelier, rather than an inebriated guest which I'd originally assumed, and he had no intention of honouring the bargain room rate printed on his flyer, "No, that is low season price. Now more expensive, bungalow with sea view." We squinted at the sea which the tide had pulled back virtually to the horizon.
"What sea view?! I can't see the sea, all I see is mud," Andrea challenged him. The fiery proprietor balked and walked off indignantly, flailing his arms about, not willing to acknowledge the failings of his resort nor to address our complaints about his false advertising.
After dark, the sea horizon began to systematically light up like a city powering up after a power cut. Incandescent rectangles appeared in pairs or trios, lights large enough to light stadiums. And apparently bright enough to attract thousands of squid to the surface to be scooped up in nets. We didn't need much more inspiration than that, so for dinner at a seafood restaurant close to the pier we tucked into squid done two ways, deep fried, and fried in lemon pepper.
Several eruptions of fire crackers broke in the new day. Every boat captain wrapped the bow of his craft in tom-thumbs and lit the fuse. The ratta-tat-tat is supposed to appease the gods and grant the vessels safe voyage. I can't tell you if the gods were appeased, but they certainly were awake!
The following day we dived Sail Rock, supposedly the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand. The pinnacle is shaped like a soft-serve twirl. The point, above the surface, looks like a small sharp cluster of rocks, but it plunges 40m down to the sea bed. Covered in coral it attracts massive shoals of hungry fish from the miles of surrounding deep open water. There were thousands of fish. Everywhere we paddled, we were disrupting schools of travelli, barracuda and other reef fish. Some large bat fish, angel fish, banner fish and giant grouper were beautiful, slow moving and hard to miss. Hermit crabs, other crustaceans, and eels weren't as easy to find. A stratum of white solubles formed around one edge of the rock like an underwater fog and we scanned it hopefully for whale sharks but to no avail.
After two dives, the dive boat headed back to Chaloklum and after an hour tied up there to the pier betwixt the colourful squid trawlers. As we disembarked, we noticed a potent fishy odour hanging in the air. We didn't have to guess its source; thousands of fish and shrimp were being dried on racks leaning against the small barriers on sides of the pier. Once cured, these are bagged up and sold elsewhere on the island or on the mainland. Other than the dried shrimp, which is tossed into papaya salad, I have no idea what it's all used for, but there is lots of room for strong flavours in Thai cooking so somewhere its all certainly being mixed into something surprisingly delicious.
Feeling peckish, we topped up with fruit shakes and a taste of breakfast in the afternoon. Andrea had a big bowl of porridge, and I enjoyed what was described on the menu as a 'pain pancake' and which was lot less excruciating than it sounds. After an afternoon on the beach, dinner later was more squid, and chunks of barracuda stir-fried with pumpkin, and another dish with pineapple. We walked back to the guesthouse on poorly lit roads, thoroughly enjoying breathing up the warm salty air.
We decided to spend our last day on the islands somewhere different, so in the morning we caught a taxi to Haad Mae Haad on the north-west corner of the isalnd. It's a beautiful bay with a sandbar leading out of its middle to a small mound of palm trees, dividing the sparkling sea. Snorkelling was rewarding though unless one swims out to the reef via a clear channel, getting there requires swimming through belly-scratching sea plants, sort of like drifting over an enchanted forest in Narnia.
On a little bamboo platform on the beach, I submitted myself to the hands and knees of a stocky woman for a traditional Thai massage. To start, she crawled all over me, bent my knees up and dug her elbows into the soles of my feet. Later she gouged between my ribs like she was mining for gold, and near the end she tried posture correction the hard way; through sheer force. All the while, she was kneading Tiger Balm into my skin, so after it was all over, my epidermis was in flame. Coupled with the red curry still simmering in my belly after lunch, I felt like I was about to spotaneously combust. I'm not sure one deserves a massage to relieve the stresses of being on holiday for a year, but I definitely enjoyed it.
Supple and shook up, I joined Andrea on the beach (she'd opted out of the massage as her leg was still feeling tender) and we watched a big pink sun spill into the ocean to the sound of nineties music playing from other people's iPods.
The dinner menu, like several before, featured No name chicken, No name squid, No name fish and other no name meats, which obviously looks like a generic store-brand food, and which would be a surprisingly honest menu listing. Imagine seeing Tesco Value Chicken on the menu at The Gordon Ramsay! As it turned out, No name is a Thai phrase and is a dish similar to tempura but the little crispy parcels include pieces of meat and vegetables.
Our week on the islands was amazing, and gave us some perfect closure to our adventure, and the next morning it was tough to leave. Though not as tough as for a young man who was being disallowed onto the ferry because, it seemed, he had an unsettled bill with a hooker, who was yanking at his backpack yelling, "You stay with me, have good time. You no pay me moneeey!" Yikes.