Koh Tao 2: Tattoos and White-Knuckle Trips

Trip Start Mar 01, 2005
Trip End May 20, 2005

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Friday, March 25, 2005

A rough, winding stretch of sometimes paved, sometimes dirt road connects the outposts of Koh Tao and allows the adventurous to explore the island. The apparent dangers of driving these roads are underlined in the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, but something is obviously lost in the translation to farang (what Thais call westerners) because most people try their luck and a number of them pay for that decision.
The islands in the Gulf of Thailand (Samui, Phangang and Tao) are notorious for leaving tourists with mementos tattooed on their bodies. Sometimes they're of the ink variety, but more often than not they're singed into the skin with heat or scraped into the body with gravel as the result of scooter or motorcycle accidents. They are commonly, and lovingly, referred to as "Island Tattoos" and I have one because it wouldn't be a trip without it, right? In truth, Erin and I are sorta the lucky ones, as she came out unscathed in the wipe outs and we managed to towel down the bike and have it pass the renter's inspection without having to pay any ridiculous fees for scratching it up a little.
It's necessary to describe the driving conditions on the islands and in Thailand in general before anyone makes any rash judgements that I'm a bad driver -- which couldn't be further from the truth. Thailand has an extremely high traffic accident/death ratio that ranks it among the tops in the world, or number one. I can't remember exactly right now, but trust me on this. Leading the way within the country is Koh Samui, one of the islands in the gulf that we skipped, but which managed to bang up a couple of our friends in vehicle accidents. Koh Tao and Koh Phangang can't be far behind. The traffic rules are generally stay to the left (which is the opposite for us), honk whenever possible (unnerving and annoying), and try to avoid being hit or going into a ditch or off a cliff (sometimes the only three options available to you). It's really quite basic and they're open to interpretation at any point in time by whoever's behind the wheel of the bigger vehicle. There are no centre lines, so passing and cutting corners are frequent practices. Traffic signs are few and far between and lights are non-existent, so you kinda have to guess what's right and go as fast as you dare -- or as fast as a rumbling taxi pick-up on your butt is making you go. Despite all this, drivers are extremely aggressive and fast since taxis are usually trying to show you they can get you there fast or return for another fare, and the locals know the roads inside out. Oh, and if you're looking for seatbelts or helmets, they're apparently both rare species around here.
The rockiness of the islands combined with little to no apparent blasting makes for steep, treacherous roads in many spots. These "roads" fade in and out from one lane to two lanes for whatever reason and never have sidewalks, though Koh Tao actually has the nicer roadways of the islands we saw and has an inner concrete pathway along the two major beaches that provide some chances to travel by foot. Even on this nice little boardwalk though (which is lined by great shops, stores, restaurants and views), all manner of scooters, motorcycles, pick-ups and mobile pancake vendors try to zoom along it, forcing pedestrians onto the grass and creating close calls and an air of unsettling discomfort as you look for the next motorized weapon to come screaming by. The worst stretch of road is, by far, from the pier in Thongsala to the main beach of Hat Rin on Koh Phangnag, which is oddly the most important stretch of road. To avoid the noise of Hat Rin (legendary for the full moon parties they host which were just days away), we decided to stay closer to the pier on a secluded beach. Very nice, but nothing to do. We took the taxi to Hat Rin and back every day, screaming up inclines, taking sharp corners and white-knuckling the roll bars in the back of the taxi. We would hug cliffs and almost scrape hillsides as we did this drive about 10-12 times. I'm glad I'll likely never have to do it again, but it was quite an experience.
(That description is for those who may complain about the safety of the Malahat, Coquihalla, the 401 or HWY 17. Those roads are like driving on pillows and marshmallows compared to here.)
That brings us back to our little scooter escapade. On the last morning we had our scooter (which cost roughly $6 a day), we decided to throw caution to the wind and explore the eastern side of Koh Tao, which is connected by rarely used and poorly maintained roads. The trip to Aow Leuk, a gorgeous bay with rougher waters and great character, went smoothly enough. The last descent to the bay was down a 45 degree slope of rocks and loose gravel, so we parked the bike near the top and walked the 20 minutes or so to the beach. Only when we tried to leave did the problems begin. I turned the bike around before letting Erin on, but the wheels still spun in the gravel and the bike almost lunged into the ditch. Regrouping, we got back to concrete before heading more cautiously on our way. However, the road splits into a maze of jagged rocks at one point and despite trying to navigate it slowly, one sucked us in and spit us out towards yet another ditch. Again, no problems. But this scooter rookie tried to pull the bike back to the road by tugging on its "handlebars" (ahem... throttle), the bike lunged forward and the exhaust pipe kissed my shin. The only other incident we had was a sunken section of road that we hit, causing our backpack to tumble out of the front basket on the bike at a high speed. Luckily we carabeenered it in, so it just dangled beside our wheel instead of falling under it and causing more problems.
The doctors' offices, nurses' stations and mechanics likely make a killing off of tourists like us, but they weren't able to score any of our baht this time around. That's a good thing, because the way Erin spends the Thai money (note her slogan of "I couldn't go broke in Thailand if I tried!") we can't afford any unexpected expenses.... hahaha.

Cheers from Thailand,
Scott and Erin
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