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A Day Late and a Dollar Short

By Cynthia Barnes

Lomprayah Catamaran, Gulf of Thailand Tuesday, September 7, 2004—If 40 is not too old to travel as a backpacker, it may well be too old to begin traveling like one. I came to Thailand last year on a luxury junket, four stars and orchids all the way. I am returning to scout honeymoon locations for a bridal magazine and for a story in Hua Hin, the coastal resort town favored by the Thai royal family. This time I'm on my own, $12 guesthouses and my eternally overpacked suitcase.

My assignment for Slate is to cover an elephant polo tournament, a preposterous-sounding pastime that raises money for elephant conservation. Hosted by the Anantara Resort and Spa, the tournament is in Hua Hin. But I’ve heard that there’s good diving on the island of Koh Tao, so arrive early for two days of scuba. A mix-up in Bangkok – “You must transfer and go through immigration at Samui.” “You must NOT get on this flight until you have been through immigration here.” – has cost me almost an extra day. I’m behind before I even begin.

Koh Tao is lovely, a rocky turtle (for which it is named) floating in an aqua sea. My first guesthouse is surrounded by breeze-stifling greenery and ventilated with many holes, conveniently sized for the tree vipers that populate the island. After one night I flee to a second-story cinderblock room in “the city” of Mae Haad Village. I tell myself that snakes do not climb.

The diving is good—not incredible, but inexpensive and relaxing—and Mira, Lou and Jeff from Aquademia Dive Center adopt me and my fellow divers. Karen and her daughter Nicola are here to celebrate N’s 21st birthday. JJ is about my age, “taking his retirement” for a few years before returning to Holland to put in his time behind a desk. “What can I do at 70?” he says. “Maybe a nice little jaunt to Spain? I’ll do what I want now.”

I adapt quickly, buying hippie jewelry and slamming Singhas in palm-thatched bars. But my feet give me away as a backpacker imposter. Shoes must be removed before entering many Thai establishments, and I have stupidly worn high-end super sandals. “Those will be taken in about five minutes,” warns Mira. The cheap flip-flops bought as replacements blister and chafe. I wear them anyway.

First time backpackers make mistakes, and I make an expensive one. On my third (and last) night on Koh Tao, the crew goes out for “buckets.” These are potent pails of sangsom – lethal Thai whiskey – mixed with Sprite or Red Bull. Monday is two-for-one night. We are only a few meters from our bags, playing in the surf, when it happens. The robbery is executed with the grace that is typical of most things Thai. Three thousand baht – about $70 US – is removed from my wallet, which is then neatly rezipped. My mobile phone and overpriced digital camera go along for the ride. My camera contains a group shot with my new friends that is unusually flattering. This I will mourn the most. In America the thief would have taken and discarded our bags instead of leaving them neatly stripped. It is unlikely that he will burn the images onto a CD or upload them to my Shutterfly account … but it would be a nice touch.

Jeff’s camera meets the same fate but his expensive dive computer is spared or, more likely, overlooked. Adding insult to injury, a portion of our earlier bucket-fueled conversation has been devoted to sighing over the naivete of college students who come to nearby Koh Phangan for full moon parties, drugging and dancing only to awake with empty pockets. Karma comes swiftly in Thailand.

We file a report in the morning, more to assimilate the loss than from any hopes of recovery. Koh Tao’s police station has a small concrete holding cell. The bars are painted a festive pink. The chief and deputy wear t-shirts and baggy shorts, but an official hat with an ornate silver badge hangs in a place of honor next to photos of the king and queen. (Thailand is plastered, wallpapered, with photos of the king and queen. Those of the king are mostly contemporary, but there seems to be a marked preference for images of Her Majesty from a more slender era. I sense a fat Elvis/young Elvis duality here.) The cops have the bushy moustaches that are mandatory for law enforcement officers everywhere. The chief’s is luxuriant; the deputy sports a sparser version. In the back, a thin man wrapped only in a thinner towel paces back and forth. On the desk there’s an orange toy gun, the only visible firearm.

Thirty minutes of repeating ourselves later, I have missed the first ferry to Chumpon. The late boat and a three-hour bus ride will get me to Hua Hin around 11:00 p.m., two days into the week-long tournament. I have been assured that there will be taxis (there won’t be) and that my guesthouse will have someone to let me in late (there will be). If not, I’ll be begging a bed at the Anantara, sunburned and broke in my flip-flops and garish batik skirt.

The ferry is a miniature EU. I fall in with a friendly group of Dutch and German girls, who share banana chips and babysit each other’s bags. The girls are almost uniformly pretty, sunning and smoking with the abandon that comes from believing one’s fair unlined skin will be so forever. Tastefully, no one mentions my obviously blistered feet. The ferry lurches and I give thanks. My empty purse is proof that sometimes you get what you deserve. But I am suffering from neither jet lag, motion sickness nor hangover, which by all rights I also deserve. In Thailand, the land of a thousand smiles, sometimes the gods smile, too.

copyright 2004 Cynthia Barnes all rights reserved

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