Ah, Samui

Trip Start Mar 02, 2004
Trip End Apr 02, 2005

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Tuesday, January 4, 2005

The morning after the Full Moon party I'm up early enough to catch the dregs at the breakfast buffet and the first footage coming out of tsunami. Between bites of greasy eggs and bacon, I watch the TV with sidewards glances at a nearby table, a middle-aged couple and their three nubile daughters. Samui is full of daughters.

I take another run at the surf and fare much better than my first attempt, though a few minutes in the water still leaves me breathless. Next to the hotel is a trio of Thai masseuses, and I have time to pencil in a rubdown before meeting Jay and the girls in town.

The ladies--one of whom is rather less lady-like--read the paper and chatter about the tsunami, gesturing in the sky in an effort to conceive of the wave that decimated the other side of the country. It's not the first or last time I hear people make light of the situation, but at the time it still hasn't sunk in for most of us.

The massage is over an hour of pure pleasure, and my masseuse even takes time to work on my feet, ravaged from the rough sand on the beach and walking around Lamai barefoot. When I finally stroll back to my room I'm a quivering jellyfish.

I meet the Seoul crew at the Starbucks in Chaweng, the main tourist drag on Samui. It seems a little preposterous, ordering a short house blend at a Starbucks in Thailand, but then these places are everywhere now, just part of life under globalization. In front of the MacDonalds in Thailand, the statues of Ronald MacDonald are posed in the Thai greeting of hands pressed together in prayer. It's actually pretty cool. But there's more than one McDonalds on Samui, so at the very least Starbucks makes for a good meeting place.

One of the most wonderful things about touring in a place like Thailand is how friendly the local people are. After Korea, Japan and Taiwan, Thailand is the first place I've been in Asia where strangers smile at you with genuine warmth and welcome. The cabbie who takes me to Chaweng gives me his card and offers cut-rate deals on fishing expeditions and guided tours of the island. There's always a pitch, but here it comes with grace and friendliness.

Pong is 34 and has lived on Samui all his life. He's affable and speaks relatively good English, and after cruising round Chaweng waiting for my call-back, picks us up for the ride back to Lamai. At the Golden Sands, where I stayed the first night, we get a couple rooms for the night, all of us planning to move on the next day. Despite having similar travel plans we're orbiting round each other rather than touring en masse, and it promises to work out well. The girls have gone wild in bangkok and have the luggage to show for it.

At the desk there is a young couple pleading for a room, fresh from Koh Phi Phi, and the first "refugees" I see coming over from the Andaman coast, lucky in more than one way to find a room on Samui. It's a little hard to believe that Phi Phi, the island where they filmed "The Beach", and what my friend, Karen, described as pristine and advised me to visit has been ravaged by a giant wave. Bungalows, resorts, palm trees, people, everything I see around me washed away. Pong talks about a surge of tourist traffic coming in from the coast, and all over the island tourists who can afford it have redirected their flights away from the devastation.There's a feeling that it's time to get out, and Koh Pha Ngan is calling.

But a night in Lamai shows promise, and the night before, coming home from the Full Moon party, the Lamai strip was still pulsing at four in the morning. Lamai is the second-string beach on Samui, with rougher sand and surf than it's northern neighbour, Chaweng. The old A-frame bungalows that once dotted Chaweng can now only be found on Lamai, but even then, the influx of tourists has generated a sort of "urbanization" on the beach, where 4 and 5 star resorts are popping up, and the sound of chainsaws is everywhere.

After a day of lounging on the beach, we get ready for a night out on the town. The girls have a charming and already inebriated Brit neighbour named Ray, a brick layer by trade, on an extended solo vacation in Thailand. But the man can hold his liquor, and the five of us head out hit a place Ray knows well enough to get his order without asking.

Fireworks explode over the street while prepubescent girls run through the bars selling garlands of orchids and beads. They remind me of my students in Seoul, and I'm hard pressed to imagine what some of them go through. But then, these kids are tough, expert hawkers. In a few seconds Tonia and Selena have flowers draped around their necks, but that's the last I see of them. The boys stick around, putting back more Singha beer than I care to think about. When drinking with a Brit it's next to impossible to say "No".

When we finally leave the bar we pass a nearby ladyboy bar just as the show is getting started. Ladyboys are a fixture in Thailand, both culturally and as a major part of the sex industry. I don't know how it all goes down, these issues seeming to be academic when actually faced with the reality of this third sex.

I've known transsexuals before, having worked closely with Karen, a man-to-women tranny, in Ottawa when I worked a high school co-op placement at Capital Xtra, the local queer newspaper. I learned to call them women when they're in drag, because that's how they feel, and essential to understanding where they come from emotionally.

That said, the MC is hideously turned out in half-man, half-women drag, literally split in half in a disturbing combination of makeup and costume. All burlesque inflexions, she runs the show with expertise and vigour, introducing the girls as the drop down from the floor above on a mechanized swing. After a few minutes Jay has had enough and wanders off to find a burger. Ray and I are content to see how things play out.

If the MC is hideous, Prair, one of the stars of the show, is not. Some of these 'women' are prettier than their real-life counterparts, and in a full, mixed room, Prair fixes her eyes on me. It's a little hypnotic, and not at all disturbing. It's flattering, actually, and when the show is over and she asks me to play pool with her I hardly hesitate.

The scene is a funny one, though, a little like wandering down the wrong garden path and encountering the Tea Party in drag. I am Alice, only slightly disoriented. Prair is an awful pool player, and I'm not exactly a shark, so we talk, mostly about her life and her sisters, many of whom have saved up the money to get "changed".

I cover the drinks, but she does offer to drive me home on her scooter. Jay and Ray are no where to be found, so I accept her offer, despite my hesitation, not of her but of riding on the back of a bike without a helmet. Seeing a dead guy sprawled out on the road is a whole lot more disturbing than being hit on by a man in drag.

At the hotel the late night concierge gives me a suspicious look as Prair rides away, but then, his opinion is the last thing that concerns me after having such a unique experience.
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