Sundowners To Sundowners
Twenty-Four Hours on Koh Samui

John Hellner

© Copyright 2003 by John Hellner

Photo of John and lady bargaining using calculators.

Sometimes the best travel days are the ones you never planned.  Here is a sketch of twenty-four hours, from sundown to sundown, spent on the island of Koh Samui, off the southern coast of Thailand.  Unplanned and full on, it ranks as one of my most memorable travel days.  I certainly deserved my
"Sundowner" at the end of the twenty-four hours.

I slumped in my chair.  My legs stretched out, resting on the balcony rail.  The condensation drops from the sides of a tall gin and tonic crawled off the bottom of the glass and into the three small folds of ‘padding’ crisscrossing my belly.

Kerry called from the room behind me, “Ready to go?”

My eyes stalked the leggy, bronzed, blonde, bikini-clad German emerging from her room across the courtyard.  Every day, while I had my “sundowners” on the balcony, she went for a swim.  “That’s what I miss about being old enough to be her father,” I thought.  I pinched the folds where the condensation had collected.

“Let’s eat?” Kerry asked.

The day had cooled with the setting sun, but the humidity remained.  About this time of day, ‘street life’ at Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui, Thailand becomes tolerable.  It’s true…”only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”

We had made two decisions about dinner while we stayed on Koh Samui.  We would eat Thai, instead of Western food.  After all, we were in Thailand, we loved the food, and, it was a lot cheaper than eating Western.  Secondly, we agreed to seek out less well-patronized restaurants, looking for the small, cozy, and candlelit places;  More romantic, and equally tasty food.

Good Kiwi logic.

Hundreds of restaurants compete for your custom on Koh Samui.  We sauntered down Chaweng Beach Rd, reading the menus, checking the ambience, examining the freshly iced seafood displays set up on the street to lure hungry customers.

We found the likely spot.  Secluded, upstairs, open air, palm shrouded, bamboo décor, candle lit.  Perfect, and no one there.

I basically “throw a dart” at the menu.  I love the lot.  I came up with a green curry, which isn’t hard to do.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out rice is carbohydrate staple served with most meals.  It comes in many variations with a myriad of ingredients.  Coconut milk or cream is applied generously to local dishes.  (“Samui” means coconut.  “Koh” means island.)  Sauces and soups have a creamy texture and rich flavors.

Kerry, a food technology teacher in New Zealand, is a bit more discerning, knowing the fundamentals of Asian food and cooking techniques.

Too full for desert, we exit to the street for shopping.  Chaweng Beach Rd. is a cacophony of sights and sounds, typical of an Asian Street.  Motor bikes buzz, careening from side to side of the road to avoid a pedestrian or another vehicle. Signs, poles, wires, squalor, litter, ‘hawkers and dogs compete for space on the constricted pathways. Strangely, a paucity of dog droppings and female dogs.  We often step into the street to avoid obstacles or oncoming people.

Stall vendors hawk their goods and haggle over prices, ‘very nice…special to you.’  Masseurs intone ‘you masssaaat?’ (You want massage?)  Cheeky, cheerful ‘bargirls’ catcall and giggle from their stools at open air bars.  Public address systems, mounted on the back of utility vehicles, blare invitations to pedestrians to attend a ‘beach party’ or a Thai Boxing match.

Even at midnight, you can’t swing a cat by the tail without conking someone on the head.  The humidity sits on us like a hot towel.  The ‘action’ starts late.   Too hot, too humid otherwise. It is early late in Chaweng Beach.

Stalls, bars, restaurants, massage parlors, cubbyhole banks, currency exchanges, tailoring and jewelry shops beckon. The stalls look like a flea market up and down the street.  An endless variety of watches, clothing, soap carvings, sunglasses, T-shirts, hats, belts, fabrics, CD’s, bags, shoes and more rest on tables, poke out of baskets, dangle from the ceilings and clutter the floors.

All in all it is a vast and picturesque collage of color and activity not unlike a hybrid cross between “Marvel Comics” and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

If you know the rules of shopping, you have a good chance to score some bargains.  Rolex, Gucci, Versace, Chanel, Oakley, Quicksilver and Ralph Lauren labels abound.  No one pretends they are real.  But well made and at a fraction of the price, who cares?

I haggle for label T-shirts to give as presents to my son.  He has an insatiable appetite, like a “black hole,” for label T-shirts.

We dropped off the shopping at the resort.  The receptionist gave us directions to the Thai Boxing stadium, “You walk, very nearby.” “Very dangerous, very serious, big sport in Thailand,” he adds.

Entry costs 500 Baht ($25 NZD) to 1000 Baht.  Every seat has a good view of the spectacle.  We headed for a roped off ringside block of seats. A local man with a fist full of money waved us away.  He was bookmaking.  Expansive gestures, expressions and yelling animated the action.  Plenty of money changed hands.  Westerners dominated the crowd, but were not welcome to those seats.

Eight fights of five, three-minute rounds were on the card.  Traditional, rhythmic music and rituals accompanied the fighting.  Genuflecting to the audience opened each fight.  The musical tempo quickened as the bout preceded, as much a part of the event as the fight itself.

Lean, young, tough and agile fighters showcased grace, speed, discipline and endurance.  They deliver breathtaking, knee kicks to the ribs and punches to the head and body.  The referee is involved.  He saves the fighters from falling and falls a couple of times himself.

Like any fight crowd, a flurry of punching and kicking solicits widespread vocal participation.

“Cruel,” says Kerry.

“Maybe only to a Western mind.  Maybe we should look at it…” I started to reason.  She wasn’t listening.  I stopped.

The fighters prostrate themselves on hands and knees to the referee at the fight’s end.

Kerry and I run the gauntlet of bars on the way ‘home.’ The bargirls call out an obscenity to us.  Kerry smiles, I wave and the girls laugh, not sluttish, not intimidating, but a bit bawdy.

A sumptuous, poolside ‘American Breakfast’ began the morning.  A charming host seats us and hovers nearby with a pot of coffee throughout our meal.

Display counters and warming cabinets, adorned with fresh fruit carvings, brim with a variety of breads, rolls, croissants, juices, cereals, local fruits, watermelon, pineapple, yogurt, salamis, cheeses, green salads, dim sings, potatoes, fried rice, ham, sausages, bacon, and eggs cooked to your specification.  I wondered how many people ate green salads and salami for breakfast.  We ate enough breakfast to keep us going till late in the evening.

By 8:30 we had climbed into the back of a songthaew and were headed 10 kilometres south to the next town, Lamai.  Songthaews, converted pick up trucks, serve as the island’s taxis.  We checked the price first, 50 Baht each ($2.50 NZD), and jumped in the back.

Already warm, we swam at Lamai Beach, explored the town centre, bought a plaster for Kerry’s toe blister, and spent another 30 Baht ($1.50 NZD) to songthaew three more kilometers to the Muslim fishing village of Hua Thannon.

We walked the waterfront.  The uniquely colorful Thai fishing crafts, designed to off load their catches in shallow water, were beached at low tide.
The fishermen slept in their squalid, ramshackle shacks and shanties constructed from palms, coconut timber, corrugated iron, plastic bags and whatever flotsam and jetsam the tide washed in.  Some jerry-built pole construction allowed huts to hang precariously over the beach.

We tip toed our way through fish heads, sea weed, broken bottles, discarded litter, stones and scum. Occasionally, a fisherman roused himself to cast a curious glance our way.  They waved and gave us a toothless smile.

Into the village, we stroll down dirt roads past more dilapidated and rickety dwellings. Televisions flicker inside.  We peek inside the Mosque.  I feel I am an intruder.  We continued on to the village market place.

Vegetables, fish, shellfish, meat, fruit, nuts, berries, herbs and spices cram the wooden display benches.  Flies buzz.  A rat peeks out at me from some vegetables.  A barefoot vendor squats on the table, separating nuts from the shell.  Some meat and fish rest on packing ice.  A lot doesn’t.

Always the food technology teacher, Kerry leans close and whispers, “The Health department at home wouldn’t let this place last long.”

“We’d last about as long as an ice cube in your armpit, if we were in a comparable neighborhood back home. Someone would mug us.” I whispered back.  “Why are we whispering?”

Squalor, litter, dust and heat.  Picturesque, but not for the squeamish.

Ironically, our label gear, our western well being, our eagerness to photograph the ‘real’ Thailand, doesn’t seem to arouse resentment.

Just past Hua Thannon, Highway 4170 intersects 4169.  We sat under the veranda of a shop, resting, making a decision.

From across the street, from a cluster of Thais sitting at a table in the front of a small grocery, we hear, “Hallo.  Sawadee krap.  You okay?”

We crossed the street.  “Try decide if we go to Snake House, Tigers and Aquarium,” I said, pointing at the map and then down Highway 4169.  “Or songthaew to next place.” I pointed down Highway 4170.  Somehow, leaving out words in my English speech makes me think I am more understandable to Thais.

Smiling and jaunty a man steps forward from the group.  “I am ‘Wit.’  Snake House, Aquarium very good.”  His English is very clear.  Maybe he thinks leaving words out will help me to understand him better.  “I take you?”

“How much?” I ask.

“300 Baht.” ($15 NZD)

Kerry and I confer quietly, trying to appear like seasoned hagglers.  “Seems pretty cheap,” we agree.  “Let’s clarify the deal.”

“You drive to Snake House.  Wait for us.  Then to Aquarium.  Wait for us.  Return to Chaweng Beach?  300 Baht?”

“It good deal,” Wit said, nodding his head ‘yes.’

It was a good deal.  What we didn’t know was how interesting and informed ‘Wit’ was about local life, history and customs.  His command of detail and his ability to generalize and conceptualize those details reflected his keen intelligence.  What we didn’t know was how valuable his role as interpreter and guide would be.

Decision made, we needed to hurry to catch the two o’clock show at the Snake House.

Operating under the principle of ‘face what you fear,’ I was determined to see the Snake Show.  For $12.50 NZD, I had my fill of Cobras, Pythons, scorpions, centipedes and fighting cocks.

Snakes teased into striking, snakes lulled to sleep, snakes stuffed into pants, snakes around tourist necks (not mine), scorpions and centipedes in mouths and faces, strutting cocks the show features interaction with the audience, hands on participation, fun, humor and plenty of photo opportunities.  Fangs and feathers; claws and pincers.

The show is conducted in a small amphitheatre surrounding the ‘pit.’ Only 30 people in the audience allows for an intimacy to develop between the mischievous handlers, the creatures and us. The handler pretended to loose the snake in the audience.  He fooled me. I jumped out of my seat. The narrator sings lullabies while the handler lures a snake to sleep.  Aaaaahhhhh!  One of the handlers, working behind the audience, has thrown a rope among us.  It looked and felt like a snake.

Four o’clock and the heat had drained us.  We start to think about ‘sundowners.’  But first, the aquarium and the tigers and the birds.  For some reason, somebody sees the logic in combining fish and tigers and birds, as part of a resort, into one attraction.   Having successfully managed to lose a couple of hundred thousand dollars in business ventures, I never judge anyone anymore.

The darkened aquarium gives us the chance to view what must be a thousand different species of turtles, tropical fish, crabs, shellfish and what all.  ‘What all,’ includes sharks, with teeth and bodies designed to rip, saw and tear its prey apart.  Fearsome to me…lots of ‘confronting fears’ going on today.

Cool, deserted, quiet, dark, we wandered, as we liked.

The aquarium flows seamlessly to the tiger enclosure.  Several tigers prowl their cages, almost within touching distance.  Big, strong and smelly.  Confronting another fear.  Whose idea is this ‘confronting your fears’ stuff?  I’d rather not.

As we leave, we pass through an aviary housing exotic birds including a macaw; cockatoos, parrots and others.  At last, a ‘no fear’ zone.

‘Wit’ waits for us as we emerge from the maze of fins, fangs and feathers.  He leans against his car smoking a ‘Marlboro Light.’  “Okay?” he asks.

As we drive back through Hua Thannon, ‘Wit’ spies his grandmother.  She operates a noodle lunch bar.  She lives on site.  No sign, just a place the locals know about.

Further along, ‘Wit’ points to a hillside house under construction.  “German man owns.  Wife leave and house not finished.  He goes back to Germany.”  ‘Wit’ smiles.

Likewise, we pass a resort half way completed, but construction at a halt.  ‘Wit’ says, ‘Rich Thais from Bangkok and Australian build.  Many many tourist come to Koh Samui, but they run out of money.  To own land must have Thai partner.”  ‘Wit’ smiles.

He pauses, “Koh Samui grow very big since few years.” He gestures with hands to signal an explosion.  He is speaking about the rapid growth of tourism and influx of European settlers and property owners.  “Hard for government to keep up.”  He didn’t smile.

‘Wit’ stops at a scenic outlook.  We take photos of ‘Wit’ and us, and us with each other.  Entering Chaweng Beach Road ‘Wit’ suggests, “You stop at ‘Seven Elephant’ (Thai pronunciation of ‘Seven Eleven’ convenience stories) for drink.  Cheaper than mini bar in room.’ He shakes his head in disapproval of mini bar prices.  He drops us off and we leave ‘Wit.’

At the resort, we turn on the air conditioning to cool the room while we go for a swim.  After a shower, I slump in my deck chair.  My legs stretch out, resting on the balcony rail.  Condensation rolls off my Gin and Tonic.

My eyes stalk the leggy German on her way to the pool.

“Well babe,” I call over my shoulder to the room, “what should we do tomorrow?”

“Maybe we should rent a vehicle and go right around the island.”

It’s nice to have a brave and clever partner, who knows what you like.

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