The Highs (and Lows) About Travel and Teaching
Without a doubt, Krabi falls somewhere between 1-5 on my own personal list of “most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life.” I spent the weekend there, and it didn’t feel a bit like the Thailand I’ve come to know. Instead, it felt every bit like the Thailand I’d imagined before coming here; the Thailand I’d envisioned when I’d found this Teach Abroad program in the first place. For the first time, Thailand surpassed all my expectations.
It also couldn’t have come at a better time. When I write these posts, I try not to include too much of the “bad,” because I don’t want to spend my time focusing on the negative, and plus, being here for such a short period of time, it feels a little silly for me to have any complaints (Like, “you’re complaining? Try being a local here—watching you jet off every weekend to places we’ll never be able to afford to visit; making a higher salary than all of us, because you’re not from here; leaving at the end of this trip to return to a country we’ll most likely never see, because the conversion from baht to U.S. dollar will swallow our savings whole, whereas your savings have quadrupled here in worth.”)
At the same time, I think I should at least mention the “bad,” partially for my own memory, and partially because if I don’t, all my high moments will just seem ordinary against the backdrop of other equally-high moments. If anything, everything I say will begin to sound false and fabricated, if all I ever do is cover my sunset/pina-colada moments and fail to record all the many ways this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
So here it is, a quick run-down: three days before Krabi, I wanted to quit this whole journey. Really. First of all, I’d been sick following my New Years adventures, and there is no lonelier feeling in the world than waking up in a small apartment feeling dizzy and nauseous and realizing, wait a minute, if I want a banana and a piece of toast, I will need to get on my own motorbike and travel to 7-11 in 100 degrees and hope I don’t faint on the ride over, because I have no one here to help me.
In itself, that isn’t true at all. I could have called my co-workers or the owner of my apartment building and I’m sure they would have been more than happy to help. But I didn’t want to inconvenience someone I didn’t know well, and besides, that wasn’t the part that was making me so sad. It was more that it hit me, all at once, how very on my own I am. When else in my life have I been this alone? I grew up with my family to take care of me, and when I went to college, I was surrounded by people who very quickly became my best friends. I’ve also never lived alone, and that’s a different thing entirely. So it wasn’t until I woke up sick that I realized the gravity of my situation in one panicked-filled instant: I have to take care of myself and figure out how to make myself feel better, because no one else is here to lessen the burden.
And then, besides being sick (or maybe because of it), I just felt ready to be done. I kept having these thoughts like, “Okay, so I did the whole ‘Eat-Pray-Love,’ thing, and let’s face it… I’m not a 28-year-old divorcee looking to find herself, and this was a silly and way-too-extreme idea to begin with, because I really didn’t need to rip myself away from all my family and all my friends to come explore a foreign country for this amount of time and live in this grungy apartment by myself with one spoon and one cup to my name; I probably should’ve just booked a 10-day vacation instead, and then I should have found a job in Boston or D.C. with friends and family, at the most, only a few hours away.”
Plus, the time difference is hard, because it means I haven’t talked to some of my family and friends since October 20th when I came here; I’m just on the opposite schedule of everyone else I’ve ever known. Every time I wake up, all of you are going to bed (unless you’re reading this from Thailand, in which case—thank god we wake up at the same time!), and every time I go to sleep, all of you are just beginning your days. So it’s hard not to feel even more isolated, given that I am literally living by a different sun and different moon (I mean, technically I know it’s still the same sun and same moon, but it doesn’t feel the same, when I see them at such drastically different times).
So that’s the “bad.”
And then I arrived, Friday night, in Ao Nang in Krabi.
My friend Devon and I went to Krabi with her brother, who was here visiting, and his girlfriend and their friend. This, in itself, was a blessing. It was so nice, for a weekend, to travel with three people who were seeing Thailand as I would see it, if I also only had ten days here: they had endless enthusiasm for the novelty of it all, and when they pointed out the oddity of this culture after I’ve learned to ignore or accept it, I could see it for it’s uniqueness all over again. Plus, they had a stricter time-table than I have, so our trip was anything but laid-back (in the best way possible): we fit in bar-hopping, clubbing, snorkeling, speed-boating, sunbathing, eating, socializing, dancing, shopping, and a million other highly-rewarding experiences, while limiting our sleep and down-time because who has time for that?
As I look back on the weekend, I still think, It has to be one of the best weekends of my life. First, Saturday morning at 9 o’clock, we were picked up at our hostel for a full-day speedboat ride to lagoons, various islands, and snorkeling spots around Krabi. This cost us roughly $90.
We took a speedboat to our first location, a low-key spot with only a few other boats, where we could jump into the warm light-blue water to snorkel. The fish were outrageously colorful—I mean, even just one fish might be purple and neon green and pink and blue spotted, at all once.
Then our tour guide, a guy named Sunny (who spoke English incredibly well), and his boat crew (who could not speak English at all), took us to Maya bay. He offered to take us to the beach where The Beach movie, with Leonardo Dicaprio, was filmed, but since it was 400 baht and literally crawling with tourists with no more than a foot or two free-space in between them, we declined. We stayed in Maya bay (I think), but he took us to a quieter beach he knew of, a small strip of sand maybe 30 feet long with only a few other boats and maybe 20 other tourists, a big improvement. The boat beside us, actually, had three Russian men and 15 Russian models (we assumed the men were paying, since they were older and fatter and the girls were young and stick-thin and spent their time taking hundreds of Victoria Secret Swimsuit-Edition-inspired pictures in the water and on the sand). And then the other boat carried three Americans from Chicago (all average looking, so I’m assuming no one was paying).
We lay on the sand for an hour and walked around our small secluded/Photo-shoot beach, taking pictures (not quite as impressively as the models) and swimming in the warm, salty Andaman Sea. I did not forget my luck that I was floating in this warm water with the sun beating down while most of my family and friends are freezing back home in Massachusetts. Isolation has its perks.
Then Sunny brought out some fruit, rice, vegetable stir-fry, chicken wings, and curry that he’d prepared personally for us. He kept us well fed and well hydrated during the day with a cooler in the back of the boat. He even risked his life cutting the fruit with a very large knife while our boat slammed up and down at high speed on the waves.
After we ate, Sunny began telling me a little bit about his life here. Krabi, he explained, wasn’t always this tourist hot-spot. When he was younger he went out on the ocean every day with his father, a fisherman, to catch fish which they could trade in their village for other things they needed, like rice and clothing. “It’s not like that anymore,” he said, smiling, “I can’t trade my fish for anything anymore. Everything is too expensive now to do that.”
I asked him if he still fishes, and he said, “Only if the tourists want to, but most of them don’t. Sometimes people from China or Japan want to fish, and then I fish with them.”
Hearing that most of his day was crafted for the whim of a tourist, I said, “When you were younger, was Krabi like this? Filled with tourists, I mean?”
“No,” he shook his head, smiling. “When I was younger it wasn’t like this. I used to go out on the boat with my dad. We would sometimes come to these beaches together. He doesn’t come out here much anymore—he’s weaker now. A couple years ago I stopped being a fisherman, and now I do this, because this is where the money is. In the last twenty years, I’ve had to learn a lot of English… I try to learn one word a day. My English isn’t that good. But I need to know it.”
Doing my own research, I’ve read that there were 336,000 foreigners and 54,000 GIs here in Thailand during the peak of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, around the late 1960s. In 2015 alone, there were over 29 million international guests. Assuming Sunny is in his 50s, this makes sense. He most likely grew up during the initial tourism boom in the 1960s, when Thailand became a destination for R & R visits of American GIs:
These visits were significant not only in terms of the increase in numbers of foreign visitors, but also as a principal factor of change of the touristic image of Thailand, and of the kinds of tourists which began to be attracted to the country from the mid-1960s onward. In the past, the image of Thailand in the eyes of Western visitors was that of an exotic, enchanted kingdom in the Orient. The arrival of American servicemen on R & R visits, compounded by the stationing of about 40,000 U.S. military personnel in bases in Thailand, shifted the emphasis in the tourist sector from sightseeing of cultural attractions, reflecting the earlier image, to more mundane pursuits, primarily sex and recreational activities. (http://thaiworld.50webs.com/travel.html).
Although the Vietnam War is a big factor, tourism also boomed in Thailand during the 1960s and 70s due to the “rising standard of living, more people acquiring more free time, and improvements in technology, making it possible to travel further, faster, cheaper and in greater numbers… Thailand was one of the first players in Asia to capitalize on this then-new trend”(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism_in_Thailand).
Today, tourism accounts for 10% of Thailand’s GDP and supports 2.2 million jobs, with around 30 million people visiting each year. I assume, on the basis of my own guess for Sunny’s age, that this is why things looked so different for him when he was young; but this is my own assumption.
After lunch, Sunny cleaned up our dishes and trash and said, “Okay, now I will take you to Phi Phi Don. You can stay for an hour there.” Phi Phi Don is one of the more popular tourist-destinations in Krabi. I hadn’t done much research prior to visiting Krabi, so I only knew this from Devon’s brother, who was surprised upon arriving that the beach was “less packed” than he’d expected, although it was still well populated with people sunbathing and drinking and swimming, as well as shops and restaurants and resorts which are, apparently, at least $100 per night and out of our price range (to put this in perspective, we paid $60 for an entire weekend in our hostel).
My group agreed that they were slightly unimpressed with this beach, after all the hype. We preferred the more private beach we’d been taken to earlier. We also greatly preferred the lagoon Sunny took us to after Phi Phi Don. The lagoon was light blue and surrounded on three sides by high limestone rock and dark green trees; a few other boats were anchored in the lagoon, and people were casually jumping off the sides of their boats, like we were, and floating in the lagoon. There was a light mist coming off of the water (I still can’t believe how blue the water was). Floating in the water and looking up at these limestone “walls” had to be one of my favorite highlights of the weekend.
Then Sunny took us to another area, Bamboo island, although we never stepped foot on the island. We jumped off the side of the boat and then snorkeled for another hour. He came with us and pointed to little reefs filled with Nemo look-a-likes, all identical to Nemo and coming out of the coral and going back into hiding just like Nemo does in the movie (I didn’t know they do that in real life!). There were so many different kinds of fish here, so I just spent the hour with my head underwater, watching them all in their quiet little paradise.
Afterwards, Sunny drove us past a cave called Viking cave with egg nests that are apparently sold to eat in places around Thailand and Asia (side note: bird saliva is also sold and eaten in Asia, because it has health/spiritual benefits). Then he took us near Chicken Head Island so we could take some pictures. We drove back to dock the boat around 4 p.m. We showered quickly and ate dinner on Ao Nang beach, only 100 feet or so from our hostel, to watch the sunset. Then we walked around and went to some low-key bars before falling asleep around midnight.
The next morning, we got breakfast at Café 8.98 (I googled “Breakfast in Krabi” and it was the first result with 5 stars. The website said, “New York in Thailand.” It was delicious. I had an avocado and blueberry smoothie—I didn’t know they had avocado in Thailand!—and an omelet with real cheese and real tomatoes and no rice).
Then we took a long-tail boat to Railay beach. The boat gets its name from the engine-design—a long wooden stick hanging off the back with a motor attached to the end, which the boat driver has to navigate by pushing the motor to one side or the other depending on which direction he wants to turn us, all the while carefully balancing on the opposite side so as not to fall into the water. It cost us about 200 baht, or $6, round-trip.
In the airport on the way to Krabi we met a fellow American backpacker named Brenden who told us, “Don’t just go to Railay… there’s a cooler beach called Ton Sai right on the other side. Walk all the way to the end of Railay and find a path through the jungle to the other side. It’s much less populated and so beautiful; plus, you can rock-climb there.”
“Oh! Can anyone rock climb? Like, could I?” I asked him, picturing Dick’s Sporting Goods’ man-made 10-foot rock-climbing wall.
He shrugged, putting way too much faith in my athletic abilities, and said, “You might be able to. It’s tough, but maybe.”
So as soon as we set foot on Railay, Devon and I led the group to the left side of the beach to find this hidden path. We finally located it—around the corner of a cliff, just a short path through the waist-high ocean. A few shirtless rock-climbers with ropes tied around their waists verified for me that, if we walked the path, we’d find a beach on the other side.
The path in itself is a great deterrence for less-motivated tourists. It was difficult and steep and sometimes terrifying, especially in my Jack Roger sandals. There was a rope we needed to hold onto just to keep from falling, and by the time we reached the other side, we were dripping in sweat.
Once we touched foot on the other side, I saw immediately that my friend Brenden had generously overestimated my previous rock-climbing experience (which consists of a few experiences tackling the man-made wall in Dicks Sporting Goods and struggling, with my limited arm strength, to pull myself up the 10-feet to the top, at which point you hit a bell for succeeding in the ‘feat’).
Apparently, rock climbing at Railay beach is a very popular activity for well-seasoned rock climbers around the world who don’t mind risking their lives. The people who were rock-climbing had “Rock-Climbing in Thailand” travel books on their towels and were climbing hundreds of feet in the area, looking for places to put their hands and feet on real rock—there were no red and green plastic “rocks” sticking out of the limestone for them, like what I’d expected—these people weren’t messing around.
We spent the day on the beach here. Right behind us we had a jungle with palm trees and wild monkeys with white-rimmed eyes and slightly crazed expressions. A little to the left, we had two limestone rocks with a wild green mess of trees and bushes in between. As the tide went out, many of the old boats became locked on shore, sunken into the sand.
I can’t think of a more beautiful view, in all my time in Thailand; it’s hard to think of many more beautiful views, actually, in all my life.
The tide was out around 5 p.m., so we were able to wade back over the rocks and through the ocean to Railay beach (the tide was so low, actually, that I said to Devon nervously—“is this low tide or the beginning of a tsunami?”)
I took hundreds of pictures over the weekend (the views were too beautiful to resist), but I put my phone away for an hour so I could enjoy the sunset with Devon as we sat on the sand in the water, which was up to our necks and still not cooling us off enough. I could’ve sat there for longer, but the last boat back was at 6.
When we docked back at Ao Nang, we ran to 7-11 and grabbed bottles of wine (300 baht for a full bottle--$9; or less than $1 for two mini bottles, which I bought), which we carried with us back to Ao Nang beach to watch the end of the sunset. Then we got Mexican food for dinner and asked our waitress if there were any clubs in the area or, at the very least, places open past midnight.
“Go to the Burger King down the street and take a right,” she instructed. “Chang bar.” We’d already heard about this bar, because it was really the only place open past midnight. So we ventured there and had an incredibly fun last night, playing pool with boys from Switzerland and dancing with Argentinians to American music and watching Lady Boys parade around the street and boys in wheelchairs spinning sticks on fire in the air. We had so much fun that we didn’t leave Chang until 4 in the morning.
The next morning we shopped around and returned to Café 8.98 before leaving this little piece of heaven. I boarded a plane to return to Sakon Nakhon, which was hard to do. Part of me wished I was travelling like Devon’s brother, his girlfriend, and their friend—short-term and filling my days with only the best parts of Thailand, the parts that look like the travel brochures and the Google images. But I know my time will come soon enough, and I will have more of it, courtesy of the money I’m saving up working here first. Beginning in March, I can travel to see only the best places.
Plus, there’s something to be said for this kind of “travel.” Some days, when I'm feeling especially homesick and wishing I was home, and even (at my lowest points), regretting my decision to come here, I think of the alternative: imagine if, all my life, I’d never lived in Sakon Nakhon and had never met students like Oom and Fluke and Folk, their eyes bright every Monday morning when I walk into the classroom, always eager to offer me half of their morning breakfast and intensely interested in my weekend travels because they want to learn about the places in their country they might never see; imagine if I’d never met my travel friends, who are sharing all of these highs and lows with me; and imagine if, all my life, I’d never felt this kind of loneliness, this kind of sadness, that, by contrast, make weekend trips to Krabi feel like a unique kind of euphoria, because I’d gone a little while without it.
Never in my life will I regret giving myself the opportunity to live alone in a foreign country; but I know, without a doubt, that I would have had plenty of regrets if I'd chosen not to teach in Thailand because I was afraid.