Photos from India

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Riding Scooters to the beaches of Phuket

Motor scooters are by far the most popular way to travel throughout most places in Southeast Asia. Having met a Vietnamese couple named Lamb and Mimi at the guest house the night before, we all decided to set out early the next morning and take our chances of navigating the busy roads of Phuket by motor scooter. After paying 150 baht (about five U.S. Dollars) for a couple of beat up little motor scooters, we eased out into the traffic of the main town on the island with hopes that the streets would be a bit quieter and safer once we arrived at all of the world renowned beaches that Phuket is so famous for.

Even though I have been riding motorcycles for the past sixteen years, I was terrified about riding this tiny little scooter on the busy roads filled with motor scooters, cars and trucks all ignoring the stripes on the highway and the other vehicles surrounding them. Hugging the side of the road as cars passed by, I gradually got the feel of the scooter and realized that the brakes weren't much better than just dragging my feet along the asphalt in an attempt to stop. After finally making it out of town, the traffic died down and we began winding our way around the steep coastline of the island. We stopped at a couple of decent but dirty beaches on the south end of the island,snapped a few pictures and made our way up the coast to the first of a series of beaches that are supposed to be absolutely amazing.

In a crowded little beach town, Lamb, Mimi and I parked our scooters amongst about five hundred others and ventured down to the sand for a little time in the sun as well as a swim in the clear waters. As we penetrated the barrier of beach umbrellas and found one of the few bits of remaining sand that we could see, we found a place to set our towels and bags down and attempted to relax on the beach for a couple of hours. While Lamb went into the water, I grabbed my camera and took a walk down the coast to photograph a few of the traditional Thai long tail boats that were sitting along the shore. Navigating my way through the crowded beach, I realized that most everyone there was not only old, but extremely overweight as well. Most of them appeared to be European couples but mixed in with the vacationing retired couples were a series of white men toting one or two young Thai girls. I had seen this plenty of times in Bangkok, but I just figured they were with them for the night or whatever. Here, it is apparently pretty popular for men to come over and pay a couple of girls to spend the week with them and fulfill their every desire.

After taking a couple of photos and becoming more and more disgusted with the crowded beach, Lamb, Mimi and I grabbed some lunch and headed to the next beach in hopes of finding something a little more peaceful. As we approached the next beach up the coast, the brightly colored umbrellas were seemingly endless. Thousands of sunburned faces walked the streets while I couldn't even see the water through the endless sea of people who were swarming in every dircection on the beach. Without even slowing down, we passed the beach by and kept on moving North.

We went over a couple of more hills and made our way further North to the last of the beaches that had not been taken over by massive private beach resorts. Hoping to find something a little quieter and less crowded, we were again disappointed to find the same thing. I couldn't imagine all of these European tourists coming this far to packed into a small beach with thousands of other people all burning in the tropical heat. There has to be closer places that are even more beautiful than the beaches I have found on this island. When I had set out in the morning, my original plan had been to explore the different beaches for the day and decide which one to stay at for a few more. With our beach circuit complete, the plan had now changed. I was going to return my scooter and by a ticket for a boat the next morning to take me as far away from this island as I could!

A night bus to Phuket

Often finding the need to travel across vast distances in order to reach a new destination, I have always found so many advantages in taking a night bus to get there. There is of course the obvious benefit that you don't have to pay for a place to stay that night offsetting the cost of a room with the cost of the bus ticket from your daily budget. Also, it gives you the ability to be transported between one place and the next from the comfort of your sleep giving you more time to do and see the things you want while not taking up daylight hours with a seemingly endless journey. Lastly and probably the most important benefit is that you can't see where the bus is going. You close the shades, turn on your ipod and fall fast asleep in hopes that the driver will manage to keep the bus on the road and you won't wake up tumbling down the side of a cliff or drowning in the bottom of a lake.

I decided to travel to Phuket, an Island off the West coast of Thailand after getting tired of the smog filled air of Bangkok. After purchasing a ticket and getting my things together, I arrived at a small tourist agency where I was to wait for the bus. Two hours later and several miles of walking around town with the bus operator myself and about forty other backpackers, we finally boarded a brightly colored double decker bus that would take us on our journey South throughout the rest of the night. Almost everyone was heading to different places which meant that there would be several stops throughout the night to interrupt my sleep on board. I was still half awake when I heard the familiar Thai accent of the bus driver shouting the name of our first stop. Shouting out the strange name of a city I had never heard of he walked up and down the aisle startling everyone on board. After quickly rushing a few passengers off to their stop, the lights went off and the bus started off again while I laid back down to try and get some more sleep.

Another couple of stops and I finally had the opportunity to fall fast asleep. Dreaming of the beautiful beaches that I was heading for, I was suddenly awoken by people shouting in a language that I didn't understand. An endless series of shouts from a couple of loud and angry Thai men came flooding up the stairs from down below. At first, I thought it was two passengers arguing amongst one another but I quickly realized that it was actually the bus driver and the other man that was working on board organizing our luggage and letting everyone know when their stop had arrived. As the shouting continued, I could only imagine what it was they were fighting over as we barreled down the highway at two o' clock in the morning. With everyone now awake and a bit afraid that a fight was going to break out causing our bus to careen off the highway, we all fearfully listened to a series of angry words that we couldn't understand.

A half hour after it began, the shouting stopped just as fast as it started. While finding it strange to be on this bus here in Thailand and wondering what the fight could have been over, I realized the strangest thing about the whole situation was the fact that the two men who were arguing never attempted to speak over the other one. It was almost as if the whole act had been practiced and rehearsed for a scene in a movie. Each man would stay quiet until the rantings and ravings of the other one had finished. It was almost as if it was a crime punishable by death to attempt to shout over the voice of another while you were in an argument with a man driving a bus.

Around five in the morning, the lights flicked on and one of the men who had been arguing came yelling throughout the bus that it was time for everyone to get off. “Quickly, Quickly, everyone off!” he yelled as we all, still half asleep, attempted to gather up our belongings and evacuate the bus. Sitting at a small roadside cafe with the twilight of dawn in the sky above, we were all unsure of where we actually were or how we would make it to our various destinations. The drivers assistant told us in his broken English that we would be taking small pickup truck like taxis to a different place where we would then board mini buses to take us to our final destinations. We had a couple of hours to wait in between so we had time to order food if we wanted.

A girl sitting nearby me decided she would have something to eat and started digging in her backpack that had been stored down below on our journey down. Looking in her bag, she realized that someone had gone through it. The small amount of money she had in her bag was gone and everything had been moved around. At the same time, I overheard a couple of guys nearby saying that someone had gone in their bags and one of them was missing a watch. Not really concerned about my bag as I don't keep much of anything in it, I took a closer look and found that my zippers were fastened in a completely different manner than the way I had left them. Other people discovered the small padlocks that they had on their bags had been broken off. It was pretty apparent now what the argument that we heard the night before was about, who was getting what and how much of all of our stuff!

Unable to confront someone who doesn't speak much English in a semi delirious and extremely tired state on the side of the road somewhere unknown in Southern Thailand, we ignored the petty theft of the driver and his companion and boarded our small trucks to our various destinations. Six hours later and another ten stops riding in the back of a cramped mini van and I was finally in Phuket. Tired but alive, I was happy to be there. A miserable experience of a journey and knowing that someone had attempted to rob me but couldn't find anything worth taking out of my back pack, I have definitely learned my lesson about the do's and don'ts for future night bus journeys in Thailand.

The Sreets of Bangkok

A couple of days before leaving for this leg of my journey I finally took a minute to review my flight itinerary. As I glanced through the cities, Dallas, Tokyo and finally arriving in Bangkok, I realized that I didn't arrive until sometime around midnight. Without a place to stay in such a chaotic city, I was definitely feeling a bit overwhelmed with the thought of riding around in a taxi during the middle of the night and trying to find a hostel that would be acceptable to stay at for a few days. The biggest fear was not so much the ride or dealing with a taxi driver that did not speak English, but of the encounter I might have if I found the hostel I chose to get dropped off at without space, leaving me to walk to streets of such a foreign place with everything I own within ten thousand miles strapped to my back.

I arrived at the front of a small alley and the taxi driver pointed down the way saying that my hostel was down that way. The first thing I noticed was that even though it was now almost two in the morning, the streets were alive with people walking around, eating, drinking and laughing. Not to say that this is by any means more comforting to me, I mean who knows what kind of people these are on the streets? Maybe they hate Americans? Maybe I am in an area which is known for violent crimes? I really wasn't sure what to expect.

As I made my way down the alley, I was followed into the hostel by another backpacker who had just flown in as well. I told the woman at the desk that I needed a room as did the other guy standing next to me. With fate on my side having walked in the door just moments before the other backpacker, I managed to get the last room the hostel had to offer! As I watched the other guy turn away and walk to another hostel across the street only to be denied a room there as well, I was thankful to have the opportunity to lie down after such a long day of traveling.

After a couple of days of exploring Bangkok I realized that all my fears and worries on the night of my arrival were all in my head. The Koh San road area that I am staying in is an oasis of white faces amongst an overpopulated city of Southeast Asians. At all hours of the day, people are walking the streets going from one place to the next. Vendors line the sidewalks selling everything from fake student cards (I am now a 21 year old student at Auburn University) to roasted insects in a variety of flavors. While motorcycle taxis follow you around offering to show you the city, women bombard you from their storefronts with offers of cheap massages and at night, men approach you holding cards with pictures of half dressed women saying “You want to see ping pong show?” You can use your imagination to figure that one out! Bangkok is an amazing spectacle to see. It is filled with the incredible excitement and chaos that I expected from a world renowned city that caters to travelers providing them with cheap hotels, cheap food and most importantly cheap beer!