After a 12-hour overnight train, 1-hour bus ride (where we found great real estate on the floor), and a 3-hour ferry, we finally made it to the beautiful island of Koh Phangan. One of the greatest things about transportation in Thailand is that you can always count on the fact that there will be someone to take you where you need to go next. So naturally, when we exited the ferry, we were greeted by a flurry of taxi drivers screaming in Thai and trying to usher us into their trucks. We had done a little bit of research on the island and knew we wanted to stay in Baan Tai, so we had the driver drop us off at the Seagate Bungalows (someone recommended it, although I can’t remember whom). We were greeted by Kao (pronounced cow), a Thai man with decent English who showed us a bungalow that was clean and cost $13 bucks a night. The fact that we were right on the beach was enough of a selling point so we took it. Little did we know we had actually chosen what many referred to as the “hippie bungalows.” More on that later.
Overlooking the ocean was the “Idol Bar,” which little more than a wooden terrace with a roof. We spent a lot of our lazy days here, napping on hammocks and watching people play Poi. The Idol Bar was a great hangout spot and the place where we met most of our new friends in Koh Phangan.
A Tour of Koh Phangan Via Motorbike
On our first full day, we decided to take Ivo’s advice and rent motorbikes to explore the island. Kao and Al, who both used to do tours of the island, volunteered to come with us and show us the sights. We happily accepted, assuming the locals could take us where we wanted to go faster than we could with our sloppy motorbike skills.
Pause. I know what you’re thinking: “Are you crazy?? You just jumped onto motorbikes with random locals you didn’t know?? You could have been captured!!” No, I wasn’t worried about it. They were official tour guides touring in an unofficial capacity. Plus, they worked at the bungalows, so they weren’t COMPLETELY random. Now you’re thinking: “They could have lied to you! Maybe this is all part of the trick!” Touche. But I still say you’re being overly paranoid. I felt safer in Thailand than I do in many big cities in the US. So there. Now I’m done justifying my decisions.
Play. Kao and Al were great tour guides! Just as we’d hoped, we got to see a beautiful waterfall, elephants, monkeys and a Chinese temple — all with a little local flair. One of the coolest things was the Chinese temple. It was a beautiful, intricate temple that sat awkwardly on the side of a road at the end of a corroded drive. It was hidden by a cluster of trees and you would probably never notice it unless you saw the small sign that indicated a sharp left turn to reach it. Near the temple was a large gong – if you don’t know what I mean by gong, think of those big circle metal things on the Disney movie Mulan. I’m not sure if that’s what it’s really called, but you get the picture. According to Al, you have to hit it three times – once for good fortune for yourself, once for friends and family, and once for the world. A lot of tourists make the mistake of hitting it only once, which makes them appear selfish. Immediately after Al told us this, a woman behind us did just that. We laughed and were silently thankful to have Kao and Al so we weren’t those guys. We were the cultured tourists who knew how to conduct themselves properly in temples… Ha. Cultured tourists. I laughed just reading that.
Lunch with an Escaped Convict
We bought Kao and Al lunch to thank them for taking their day off to show us the island. It was then that we found out this was their first day off work since last February. Holy Kao! (Pun intended). Neither of them seemed too upset about it – then again, I wouldn’t mind it either if I worked on a beach in Thailand. I wondered if I would get bored living on an island but it seemed like Kao and Al did a lot to entertain themselves. Kao practiced Poi – we later found out he is one of the best in Thailand! And Al was learning Thai, which is very difficult since the language is 40 characters. They both knew so much about the world – religions, animals, herbs, the body – I felt like I learned more from them than I did in some semester-long classes. At some point during the conversation, we learned that Al was some sort of escaped felon from Switzerland. Yep, you read that right. He moved to Koh Phangan to turn his life around and is now working at the bungalows. I have to say I was actually pretty fond of the guy and if I gave him a superlative it would be Most Interesting Man of the Trip.
Lesson Learned: Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Had I known Al’s past before spending the day with him, I probably would have written him off. He was actually a really intelligent guy and I learned a lot from him.