Jul/Aug 2007   Travel

Getting to Koh Phanang

by Sam Byfield

Photography by Kawika Chetron

You wake after your third consecutive night of less than three hours sleep, in the sort of dirty, cramped hotel room used only by travelers who have just crawled off unpleasant train rides and are desperately tired, and realize that the wake-up call you requested was not made and you now have fifteen minutes to be on another train. You bolt from the room, over the stray dogs that have barricaded the hotel and leap aboard the train just as it is pulling out.

Surprisingly, breakfast and lunch are provided. Unsurprisingly, the combination of said food and the water you used to brush your teeth receives a less than hospitable welcome from your stomach. Pain spreads gradually over the course of the nine hour train trip, and by mid afternoon fire pulses in your stomach and chest and the whole concept of going anywhere seems distinctly overrated.

The train is an hour late, and you arrive in an ugly port town three minutes before the last bus leaves to take you to the ferry, which in turn will take you to an island. You're not sure which island, but at this point anywhere is better than the train or the ugly port town. People clamber into the back of a vehicle which you are confident carried soldiers in the First World War, and being the last one aboard, you sit on the edge, where the door would normally be. The road flashes beneath you and your life flashes before you. Of course, the skinny local kid who helps with luggage and tickets stands with you at the back, holding on with one hand, using his other hand to indicate to the driver exactly where the road and other traffic is, which of course the driver cannot see himself because of the luggage piled up around his ears. The kid looks for all the world like the brightly-clad gymnasts you saw only weeks before in Shanghai, and enjoys every minute of the ride, most of all the frequent looks of horror and audible gasps of the passengers.

For reasons unknown you are forced to change buses. And the second bus runs out of petrol, 300 meters from a service station, on a steep hillside. The driver races up the hill, comes back with a can of petrol, and the problem is solved, but not before the bus has rolled part way back down the hill, under the groaning weight of the hand break. And it's now that the sun sets, through scattered clouds and dangerous mountains, and it's a sunset to die for, and for a moment all your problems are forgotten. But only a short moment.

The truck is 35 minutes late, and you arrive at the port three minutes before the ferry is due to depart. It's now that your stomach and chest really start to cause problems. You tell yourself it's just heartburn. This confidence departs as the bile arrives. You get off the truck, and it's good that the first building on your left is the toilet. Your friend walks in before you, announces that it's the worst toilet he's ever seen and that he won't sit on it, moments before you race in, stick you head down the hole, and proceed to lose three kilograms in as many minutes.

You buy water, which helps get rid of the taste and the chunks that have taken up residence in your nasal passages. You are the last person in the ferry line, and you discover that at some point in the toilet ordeal you managed to misplace your ferry ticket. You try talking to the ticket inspector, but he's not much of a conversationalist, and despite the protestations of your friends it appears you may in fact be spending the night on a bench, outside a toilet, at a port near an ugly port town, with nothing but 47 stray Thai dogs and a mountain of vomit to keep you company. At the last minute you see your ticket sitting on the ground, glare at the inspector and board the ferry, just as it starts floating away from the port.

On the ferry you feel very, very bad. People offer you support, advice, and less helpfully in a country where they still have the death penalty for such things, illicit drugs. You try lying down on the floor, and one of the guards needs to be convinced that you haven't already taken said drugs. But horizontal is good, you tell yourself, very good. You roll onto your side, which proves disastrous. You gesture to your friend, who has already carried out toilet reconnaissance, and he informs you that this is surely the second worst toilet in the world, and that the window is a better option. You lean out, and along with global warming, wipe out several small villages. People on the deck below mistake all this for rain, and stick their heads quizzically out the window, and that is the last we will say about that.

You pull into the island and can barely carry your backpack, let alone deal with the Rubix Cube of cords that have become tangled, forcing your bag into an unreasonable angle across your back, and nearly throwing you into the ocean ten meters below, which people inform you is infested with very large-toothed fish. Having long ago delegated responsibility for group movement and accommodation to other people, you crawl into another rickety truck, at which point you fall swiftly asleep.

You wake four hours later with little recollection of the previous night's events, having sweated out any remaining fluids beneath a sudden tropical sun, only to be informed that you had in fact made it onto the wrong island and would be getting the first ferry off it.

By now, with the help of anti-nausea pills, you are feeling a little better. Very sub-optimal. Fifteen percent self. But alive. You think. You get back on the ferry, and arrive a few hours later at the right island. A local gives you a resort brochure, which looks good, especially when you see a truckload of attractive and assumedly libidinous women heading in the same direction. As it turns out, the resort is on the other side of the island, and the island, apart from its beach borders, is in fact a series of tropical mountains. Three of you hold on for dear life on the back of a truck, dodging pot holes, landslides and stoned motor-bike riders. And there are a lot of trees, and they are nice, but they are not beach.

But then you rise over another volcanic mountain, to a paradise of such magnificence that you have no words. You understand why the brochure said this was where in ancient times kings of Siam used to holiday and frolic with concubines. There are shades of blue and green here you didn't know existed, and your arrival is met by a thousand birdcalls and a sudden blush of butterflies. It's worth the trip.


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