Elephants, Monkeys and Monsoons... Oh my!

Trip Start Feb 12, 2006
Trip End Mar 02, 2007

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Being the over-organised and paranoid person I am, I tend to be obscenely prepared for any adventurous undertaking. I check my tickets, passport and money about a zillion times on the way to the airport, half a zillion times in the airport and maybe a few dozen zillion more times in between. As such, I never imagined I would be one of those people running through the airport to their departure gate like the hounds of hell were on their heels.
I will do the sensible thing and start at the beginning.
Erin, Gina and I all arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. We went to our rendez-vous point to meet the travel reps who gave us our tickets, goodie bags and sound advice. To Erin's pertinent question "Can I withdraw money from the other side of customs? I don't have any cash," the travel rep said, " Yesu, of course, no puloblem. Inside ATM for cashie." (Excuse my writing this in Konglish. It is done for literary effect.) "Fabulous" we chorus as we saunter off through customs and head towards duty free. Once past the hallowed gates and in that wonderful place where all things covetous are cheap, cheap, cheap, we took a collective deep breath and prepared ourselves for some hard-core girly behaviour. We did a pirouette to scope out the area and a quick search for the alleged ATM. "Oppso-yo" as we would say in Korea, "Nowhere to be found, not a whisper, not a mention, not a sign" as we would say in a calm kind of panic. We asked at information. "Where is the nearest ATM?"
"Oh, there aren't any ATMs on this side of the customs gates. You have to withdraw money in the check-in lounge."
Not the kind of information we wanted. I elected to stay with the baggage and gaze longingly into Chanel Duty-Free while Erin and Gina legged it back to customs where they were politely told that they couldn't go back through the gates unless they wanted to forfeit the holiday. Deciding that would defeat the purpose of withrawing cash in the first place we re-rendez-voused just in time to hear our boarding call. Hence, we were racing through the airport with our bags bouncing about behind us like water-skiiers on acid, our flip-flops flying off our feet in the most inconvenient fashion and our laughter holding us back even further.
We finally managed to get on the plane, albeit sweaty, puffing and for Erin - cashless, and slumped into our seats in a giggly mess. Much to our profound joy we had the front row seats, giving us ample leg room to kick about like morons when people passed by just to make them jealous. We were also given the emergeny exit responsibilities which we all agreed to eschew in case of an emergency in an effort to save ourselves first.
We passed our time by making up our own subtitles for the Emergency Procedure leaflet, such as "In case of an emergency put your head between your knees and kiss your arse goodbye," and "In case of an emergency, masks will drop from the ceiling. This will not save your life, but will get you high enough that you won't care if you die. Suck it up."
Fortunately we arrived without incident and without having to test our moral fibre. We met with a travel agent liason fella the airport - no hassles, piled into a mini van with eight other tourists, and drove... and drove and drove... "How long wil it take to get to our accommodation?" "Oh only maybe 40 minutes..."
We drove for another hour or so and arrived at a resort that was most definitely not ours. As we sat waiting in the outside foyer, slapping multitudes of mosquitoes, I looked up and saw my bad being carted away on a trolley. "Hey, ah sawadee ka. That's my bag."
"No. Not you."
"Yes. Me. My name. my luggage ID. Mine."
I had to forcibly yank it away from the zealous porter who looked more than a little put out. We watched our tour guide exacting some sort of dubious and shady transaction with the guy at reception which involved lots of money counting and devious whispers. This behaviour would have continued all night had I not stepped in saying "It's 3am Seoul time. I'm freaking exhausted. Haul your dodgy arse back to the van and take me to my hotel NOW."
So once again, we piled into the van and drove for, oh, I'd say another 2 hours. I got to see the entire fabulous scenery of Phuket from the back of a mini van in the middle of the night. Very glamorous and enlightening. We finally arrived at our Resort and mangaged a dinner of BBQ chips before flopping into our beds to die of exhaustion.
After half a year on a Korean bed which is as comfortable as unpolished concrete, sinking into the million thread count soft, squishy, cushiony bed I thought to myself "Bugger it all. I'm in heaven."
On waking up to a day of glorious sunshine (we missed our free breakfast) our first port of call was an authentic Thai feast. Right on the shores of Kata Beach we found a resturant that was to serve our every gastronomic need for the duration of our stay.
Let me tell you. You have never eaten Thai food until you have eaten it in Thaliand. And you can never eat it again afterwards without shedding a tear for all that it lacks. It was curry-licious, prawn-tastic and chickeneriffic. I've also learnt that it's completely unacceptable now to drink a Mai-Tai out of anything other than a pineapple. What have I been thinking all these years? Why didn't anyone tell me?
To all those readers out there (all four of you,) you don't have any excuse now. It's the law!
Strolling along the beach was rather bitter sweet for the three of us. While the natural beauty will be eternal in Phuket, you can't help but notice the ravages of the tsunami that claimed so much of the island. It was difficult to look at that immaculate sand and block out the images of bodies piled on top of each other. While the media assures us that the tourism industry is still doing well and that Thailand has recovered, the reality is quite different. Many shops and small homes show the scars of Boxing Day, and off the balcony in out resort we could see the outrigger of a small boat which had obviously been lodged there in the tremendous flow and no one had managed to get down. None-the-less, the spirit of these people is astoundingly bright and their smiles are genuine. The devastation of the tsunami has served them the rawest deal anyone could get, but they are incredibly resilient and have managed to salvage their homes, their livelihoods and their hope. Their optimism made me feel ashamed about my negative complaints in a world where I have everything I need.

We were waddling back to our room uner the collective weight of our brunch when a tiny woman jumped out of a closet sized room and asked if we had any plans for our vacation. We looked a little perplexed, ummed and ahhed.. "Well.... we thought it would be good if we... I dunno, we wanted to go to Phi Phi Island... and a spa! Yes a spa... and ride elephants... and stuff..."
It would appear she was accostomed to such indecisive babble, and proceeded to book an amazing array of activities for us at a ridiculously low price. She slotted it all in together, got us our own personal driver, and sent us off packing to a 3 hour spa session, where we were wrapped up like kimbap, smothered in cucumber, massaged from head to bum to toe and back up again and sent into a wonderful elysium-like state. Ah bliss.
One of the most enjoyable moments of the whole day was driving back to Kata Beach singing along with the 90's Hits casette the driver was playing. I don't think he's ever heard a Bryan Adams "All for Love" rendition quite like ours, but he made many noises of appreciation that we took as a cue to continue our caterwauling. Lucky fella.
The next day saw us getting up bright and early (we managed to get our free breakkie!) to catch a minibus to the west coast of the island where we were to go on our boat trip around the islands that surround Phuket.
You know those ads on TV where people are snorkelling and there are multitudes of rainbow fishies swimming around them so romantically it could have been choreographed? Well I did that. I chucked myself in the water of a tiny cove and submersed myself in a fish bath. The little buggers nibble your toes and everything.
Our tour guide dragged us reluctantly out of the water with promises of more to come. One of his most endearing catch-cries was the fabulous twist on our own exclamation "Oh my God!" Instead he would slap his forehead and cry out "Oh my Buddah!" It made us giggle every time - even when the boat threw me and Gina together with a bone-cracking smack involving my cranium and her cheek-bone. "Oh my Buddah! Put on some ice!"
"Ow... heeheeheee... ah, oooouchhhh heehee."
Our next port of call was Monkey Beach, aptly named for the monkeys that climbed about everywhere, shagging in front of us while staring us down in defiance as if snarling "You want some of this don't ya? Don't ya?!" I should never have worn a skirt with a yellow hem, as the evil shagging monkey thought I would be banana-licious and tried to take a chunk out of my leg. 
We made land at Phi Phi Island mere seconds before an incredible storm hit, practically throwing us out of our boat. We ran for cover yelping in the rain like puppies (even though we'd willingly jumped in the ocean not an hour earlier.) So it was that we found ourselves gazing out to the horizon as grey sheets of water bucketed down on the sea that had been so serene moments before. Coffee and soup were in great supply, which almost made up for the fact that our bodies and towels were soaked through with salty sea water making us very uncomfortable and sticky, and Erin tut-tutted and tisk tisked over her own spastic-ness when she dropped her camera case in the water after being startled by a particularly curious monkey.
A short break in the storm heralded our return to the boat, with our guide telling us we had to leave "Now!" or be stranded on Phi Phi all night. So we legged it back to the shore line and threw ourselves back into the already sloppy boat and headed out into the unsettled waves. 
It was just our luck that at the moment we completely lost sight of land the storm came back with a vengeance. We were tossed in the air so high that when we smacked back down on the waves you could heard the boat crack and feel your spine compress. We were up and down like a tiny cork in an enormous tea-cup and the guide looked very concerned indeed. The raindrops were like nothing I've ever seen before, rivalling six-stitch cricket balls in size and hitting just as hard. The water was rising around our feet and bruises were purpling our arms, legs and shoulders. People were grasping the hands of strangers and praying together... and Erin, Gina and I were having the time of our lives. While we were aware of how close to death we were being tossed, we vowed that we would hold hands and not let go, no matter who went under first
Being on what we thought was the brink of death throws many things into perspective. Having my head beaten against a boat motor and clinging to a flimsy fibreglass ledge made me feel more alive than I have in years. My adrenaline was thundering louder than the storm and my eyes were clearer despite the impassable wall of salt water. I didn't see my life flash before my eyes, but there is nothing to compare with a mortal slap in the face to wake you up to yourself. Life is for living. Stop being a lazy shit. So it was that when they storm slowly calmed and then disappeared as if it had never been there at all, the only evidence of my moment of profundity were the bruises on my body and the smile on my face.

The next morning heralded one of the most exciting days of my life. We bounced out of bed bright and early, still aching all over from our battle with the sea the day before, ate our free breakfast and jumped into the van with our 'driver' and wended our way throught the country-side to our Elephant Safari.
Thailand is a country of dichotomies. Our 'Elephant Safari' was founded on poverty and tackied up for the sake of tourists who are accostomed to more lavish grandeur. They make their bucks with the side-show tricks; feeding the baby elephant, hanging out with the monkeys, and the mahoot has "TIPS PLEASE" written in big black marker across the back of his hat so you can't help but stare at it whenever your eyes are open. So you know, always. 
 Despite the garish tourism inspired junk, actually stepping onto the elephant's back and having him lumber away through the jungle while sitting astride his neck with my feet feet tickling his ears was a breath-taking experience. Watching the other mahoot standing on his elephant's head and sliding down her trunk whilst going about all manner of elephant maintainance was a little nerve racking, but watching the loose, fluid way he moved his body and his sure-footedness that held no fear, I felt confident he had been doing this all his life. One of the highlights of the entire elephant ride was watching Gina hang on for dear life as her mount stopped to scratch his bum against a rock face. A Mastercard moment: Priceless.
Our 'driver' picked us up and took us back to our hotel, where we sadly packed our salty belongings and bade a farwell to our beds.
He drove us into Phuket Town, where we began what would become a five hour shopping trip.
Our driver was amazing. He took us to all sorts of shopping hot spots, from palatial duty free stores to tiny local markets. (I was completely stoked to find my first Paddle Pop in six months.) He was completely at peace sitting round making sure no one knicked our luggage, waiting for us to haul our arses back to the car whenever we saw fit. Every time we wanted to move we would head in the general direction of our last drop-off point and he would materialise out of nowhere with a big grin on his face and a "Where to now Misses?"
As the evening slowly arrived on our final day in Phuket, he took us to a lookout at the top of Phuket Town where we watched the sun melt into the ocean, turning the island a magic shade of gold before it sank completely into the water. As the turquoise water trembled into a darker aquamarine we dragged ourselves away from the view and said farewell to our last whole glimpse of Phuket.
With the summer heat still hanging heavy in the air, we were driven right to the centre of the island to a vast market that seemed to spring out of the middle of an unassuming field. We grab plates and joined in an enormous buffet with hundreds of Thai people who all looked at us with a "how did you find this place?" look on their faces. We ate large, we ate hearty, we ate knowing it would be our last meal on the island.
The trip to the airport was a sad one. We spent the journey trying to come up with excuses for stranding ourselves and never returning to work.
The airport confronted us with the reality of what we would face when we got back to Korea. I was almost beaten black and blue by everyone's bags as they battled to view the Duty Free goods.
The one saving glory was finding Cadbury Chocolate and stocking up for weeks to come.
The trip home was bumpy and uncomfortable.
We arrived back in Korea feeling nauseous after six and a half hours of turbulence.
But nothing could wipe the smiles off our faces as we dragged our aching bodies back through customs and into the wretched humidity of Seoul. Phuket was all it promised to be and will remain three of the best days I've ever spent. Amazing sights, foods, experiences, and best of all, two amazing friends who found joy in every moment and managed to squeeze so much fun into so small a time.
Our next adventure is the Philippines for Christmas and New Year.
What will we get up to this time round?

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