From Koh Samui to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friends Barb and Christine arrived this week, fresh from an 8 day tour of Northern Thailand, to spend a couple of days with us at our house in Bang Po, located on Moo 6 in a lovely local community just one hundred meters across the road from our previous chalet. We spent three days exploring the beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Bang Po, as well as the town of Nathon and the Hin Lad waterfall and temple.

The day we spent on Chaweng, the longest and most upscale beach on Koh Samui, was a bit overcast at first and the waves were fabulous crashing rollers. We spent the afternoon on brightly coloured loungers for which we paid a pretty penny in food and drink from an indifferent restaurant staff. Later, after a Thai massage, we had a tasty Thai supper at the Infinity Restaurant on one of Chaweng’s side streets. The next morning, after negotiating a price for our own song thaew taxi, we hit the sights on the west coast.

After spending some time at the forested Hin Lad temple, and examining the elephants at the riverside trekking station, one of whom looked blind, Lamai Beach called to us and we enjoyed watching the beautiful red retriever dog fetch water bottles thrown in the waves from the sand in front of the Bikini Bar.

Thursday morning Ty and I were up early for our transfer to the airport, courtesy of Dave, and, rather than spend the night in Bangkok as we had originally planned, we decided just to keep on trucking, flying in to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after changing our airline ticket at the Bangkok Air counter in the Suvarnabhumi Airport. After a short forty minute flight, a line-up at the visa on arrival counter where a fleet of uniformed personnel passed our passports from hand to hand down the line, and a taxi ride of twenty minutes, we were ensconced at the Pool and Palm Villa just outside the downtown area of Siem Reap.

The hotel grounds have suffered from the recent floods, having lost much of their grass, trees and flowers to the waters that inundated Cambodia in the fall, but the place is very nice. Two wooden Kmer-style buildings, with very high ceilings and beautiful wooden furniture and fittings, accommodate guests, with a large pool and poolside restaurant on the back part of the property. Also a victim of the floods, the roadway into Siem Reap is badly chewn up, with enormous potholes that crews are in the middle of trying to repair. Some low-lying areas in the countryside here are still a bit flooded and only now starting to dry out.

The area around Siem Reap is very flat, with lots of cabbage palms and other deciduous trees interspersed with flat patches of yellow grazing land and brilliant green rice fields. Very bony cattle, lots of dogs and puppies, pigs, and chickens abound here.

The commercial buildings in this area are vibrantly coloured, with the newer hotels and villas reminding me of the ones I saw in Turkey. Downtown Siem Reap (the name meaning “Siam [Thailand] Defeated”) is lovely, with blocks of French Colonial architecture in multi-coloured hues, an Old Market, complete with chicken carcasses, fish, fruit, and multitudes of shoes, and a Pub Street, packed out at night with revelers and beautifully lit up, full of restaurants and bars. After a mediocre dinner at the Khmer Family Restaurant, we headed down the street to a bar with a nice outdoor seating area and met Dennis, a guy from Montana who’s here working on a project with a local school.

Our second day saw us up and out the door on a tuk-tuk bound for Beng Mealea, a jungle Hindu temple 60 kilometers east of Siem Reap. The tuk-tuks here have a different style than those in Thailand; here they look like 19th century horse carriages, with padded seats and sometimes luxurious fabrics, except instead of the horse, a guy on a moped pulls the carriage. Along the way we passed more road crews trying to fix things up post-flood, guys on mopeds with two live hogs tied to the back of their seats, houses on stilts (both shacks and fancy new digs), schoolgirls with long black hair and floppy wide-brimmed hats on old-fashioned one speed bikes, and tiny tractors with huge loads of logs. Two hours later we bounced in to the temple compound, paid our $5 US each for the entry tickets, tried to avoid the crowds of children scampering around our feet, and were swept into the orbit of a blue-suited, white-hatted one-legged land mine victim who became our guide through the ruin site (see next post for Beng Mealea). See more pics of Koh Samui and Siem Reap here and here.

 

Koh Samui West Coast Day Trip: temples, waterfall, rocks, sand, and shopping

Temples, waterfalls, rocks, sand, mummy monks – the west coast of Koh Samui!

Ty, Maggie, and I were once more whisked off in Mai’s taxi down the west coast of the island to explore, cameras in hand. Our first stop, just past the “downtown” area of Nathon, the main administrative centre of Koh Samui and where the ferry boats from the mainland arrive, was Wat Chaeng, the elephant temple.

No elephants were in sight (perhaps the name is a throwback to the long lost days when there actually were wild elephants roaming in this area), but a large pack of temple dogs was.

As Maggie and I were wandering around the front of one of the temple buildings, we heard a huge hue and cry of barking and realised that the dogs were greeting Ty as he wandered out back.

These beasts, about twenty of them small and large, followed Ty as he explored the cemetery area behind the main building. While we were marvelling at the architecture, Mai took the opportunity to make an offering in the new white and gold temple. Wat Chaeng’s main function now appears to be as a school for elementary-aged children.

Further south along the main ring road, then a turn inland towards the mountain, through a residential area, found us at the Hin Lad waterfall and temple site, nestled in a forested area up against the hill.

Walking along a small bridge crossing the Hin Lad stream, we found a stark white temple building – very modern – and, behind it, the monk’s compound, a series of huts scattered throughout the forest.

Along with these dwellings are quite a few painted tile signs with various pithy sayings and proverbs hanging from the tree branches.

The only other place I’ve seen these before is the small temple on Koh Lipe, where hand-written wooden signs with similar injunctions were dispayed.

After a quick stop at Wat Khunaram for Maggie to check out the sun-glassed mummy monk and me to collect tamarind seed pods, we drove to the south coast to the extreme west end of Lamai Beach to see Hin Ta and Hin Yai, Grandfather and Grandmother rocks, so-called because they are the shape, respectively, of male and female genitalia. They’re part of a cluster of large rounded granite and feldspar boulders (so Maggie told me) that hug the edge of the south shoreline.

Read more about these rocks here.

Mai dropped us off at Lamai Beach and we made our way across the sand to the Bikini Bar for a feast of Jamaica jerk ribs (!) and then a little rest on the loungers next door.

The weather was changeable, though, and a couple of showers chased us under the grass palapas before we decided to head back north on a passing song thaew. The town of Nathon was the end of the line for that particular driver and we were deposited at the pier, from where we explored what turned out to be quite a nice little town.

Strangely, on a side street perpendicular to the pier, we found a shop selling all sorts of North American Indian paraphernalia, including carved wooden Indian heads, dolls with teepees, and a huge feather headdress.

It also sold alligator and snakeskin purses which were quite repulsive. Along the main drag here many of the shops have red Chinese lanterns hung out front, and golden Buddha replicas for sale, giving a really attractive look to the storefronts. We bought a couple of items, including some apples (which are very hard to find here), and rolled back to the ranch very satisfied with the day.

See more pics here.

Ladyboys and Temples on Koh Samui

Our next-door neighbours in Bang Po, David and Janet, had recommended a Ladyboy Cabaret in Chaweng and, when visiting friend Maggie expressed interest in checking it out, Friday night we were off down the road on a crowded Song Thouw shared pickup truck taxi to Chaweng, east coast party central on Koh Samui.

After a circuitous ride through the small crowded bustling streets of Chaweng, buzzed by the usual thousands of motorbikes ridden by bare-headed maniacs, we spotted the Burger King landmark (!) and hopped off and into the downtown beachside throng.

Although we were looking for Starz Cabaret, said to be next door to said Burger King, we didn’t see it and instead, after being encouraged by the gang of ladies outside, Maggie and I headed in to the Moulin Rouge Cabaret which was indeed next door.

We caught the last twenty minutes of the first show and the full second show, an extravaganza of high octane dancing, lip-synching, lights, and pulsing sound in a somewhat seedy down-market Vegas-like venue. Transformed by the glitter and lights, though, the stage looked good and the show was great.

Standouts for me were the Cher-alike, the gorgeous LB in blue glitter gown and peacock feathers,

the top-hatted person in silver (with a body that I would have sworn was female, unlike almost all the others who didn’t really pass),

and the full-bodied comic with a rose between her butt-cheeks, favouring a few select men in the audience with the pleasure of her buttock caresses.

The five male backup dancers were also great, especially one with an enormous smile who really seemed to be enjoying himself. The various takes on femininity were fascinating, ranging from LBs with very full breasts to those with none and from those with angular tall frames to those very petite. Because it was so kinetic and psychedelic, it was very difficult to get decent pictures of the show. See a few more here.

Saturday morning saw Maggie and I up and on the road with taxi driver Mai on a north island temple trip, taking in four of the Wats along the north coast from Mae Nam to Choeng Mon. Our first stop was Wat Na Phra Lan, a seaside temple complex at the east end of Mae Nam beach.

It had a beautiful elaborately decorated golden roof on one elevated platform, along with the usual assortment of temple buildings, and was deserted of visitors.

We saw only one orange-robed monk cutting the grass to the accompaniment of recorded chant music.

Next, still in Mae Nam, but on the far side of the Ring Road, on the hillside, was Wat Phukhao Thong, a temple and cemetery complex with, in addition to the usual, a highly decorated crematorium surrounded by burial chedis.

Being elevated, the site was shady and breezy and a pleasure to walk through. We also saw, on one of the elevated platforms, another decorated Buddha Footprint, this one about one tenth the size of the big one Ty and I had seen down south. This site was also bereft of visitors, with the exception of a local family picnicing under the gigantic shade trees and a crazy guy rolling in the dirt.

From Mae Nam we drove east to the most famous temple site on Koh Samui, the “Big Buddha” at Choeng Mon. Situated on small peninsula whose edges are eroding, the Big Buddha site contains what look like gigantic Hindu sculptures at the water’s edge,

as well as the Big Buddha and many, many smaller Buddhas, including one round smiling one (the “Fat Buddha”, a type I hadn’t seen in temples here before).

This place was surrounded with shops and small restaurants and had quite a few visitors, although not as many as I had expected to see, given its fame. The Big Buddha sits in state on a big lotus blossom at the top of a set of stairs and commands a beautiful panoramic view out over the Bo Phut Bay and the islands beyond.

Our final stop was the Wat Plai Laem, inland on a manufactured lake nearby. This place was almost hallucinogenic, with a giant fat Buddha

and a huge white Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion with nine sets of arms,

both occupying their own tiled platforms jutting out into the lake, along with other temple buildings on other platforms.

I felt like a cartoon character with eyes popping out of their stalks – the glitter, the gold, the mosaic, the tiles, the glass, all glinting in the hot Thai sun was finally too much and we called it a wrap, rolling back to Bang Po to rest our eyes.

Read more about the Big Buddha here.

Read more about Wat Plai Laem here.

See more pictures here.

 

 

 

Happy New Year from Bang Po, Thailand!

Bang Po! We are here on the north coast of Koh Samui, the exact opposite point of the island from Promtsuk Buri – just about at the extreme north west corner. This part of the island is relatively undeveloped compared with the rest of the island; there are a few resorts and bungalow operations on the beach, as well as lots of small and large holiday homes, but compared with the east and south coasts, it’s very quiet – no girlie bars, no night clubs, just small local Thai and seafood restaurants and a few shops.

However, that’s not to say that the beach is deserted – the holiday homes and bungalows take up almost every square inch of beachside land. Bang Po beach is a strip about 4 kilometers long; compared with Lamai, say, it’s not as nice; lots of seaweed and crap is thrown up by the waves onto the sand. The downside of living local is that the beach is not groomed. At Promtsuk Buri, the workers were out every morning about 7:30 am with their rakes and garbage bins picking up all the junk that had rolled up onto the beach over night. Here, only a few people bother to rake the beach in front of their homes – I guess they think it’s pretty much a losing proposition, given the strong waves this time of year.

Most of the properties along the beach are raised slightly, with either rock or cement walls to keep the land from being inundated. However, the tides have been high and the weather stormy this past month and as a result, the waves have broken over many of these barriers. Several of the less well-kept places on the beach have been smashed. All of the beachside restaurants have sandbag perimeters but it’s clear that, with the rising waters of global weather change, many of these places will be flooded in the not too distant future.

Every morning there’s a constant parade of people walking up and back along the length of Bang Po Beach; I joined them yesterday and met a couple of people. One, Jeanette from Sheffield, has lived here for five years and runs a book exchange in Bophut. As we were walking along talking, we came upon a guy washing his water buffalo in the ocean – just another walk on the beach! Later that morning, in the heat of the day, I took another walk, this time almost right to the far end of the beach where it meets the next town, Mae Nam. During this excursion I met Ken and Donna, originally from Florida, now resident in one of the beachside bungalow compounds for the last three years. With them was a beautiful brightly coloured small parrot. Donna is the “Hoop Goddess”; she hoola-hoops on the beach most afternoons, teaches hooping, and sells goddess wear. I will go back one of these days and join her in a hooping session with lights and music.

We have a small wooden chalet on the beach, consisting of one largish bedroom and a tiny kitchen and bathroom. It has a deck with outdoor dining area, a small garden with sun loungers, and is right on the beach. Next to us are our hosts Dave and Janet from the UK who have lived on Koh Samui for a year. Along with them are two cats and a maltese puppy dog named Maisie. It’s nice to be able to enjoy the company of beasts again! On the other side of us is Dr Yai from Bangkok, here for a few days, who invited us to join him at his daughter’s restaurant before he leaves, passes us baked goodies over the fence, and serenades us with old rock tunes played on what sounds like a grand piano.

A few doors down is a very local restaurant in a family’s front yard, with a few tables and chairs and a white squirrel named Spunky in a cage. As we walked by, the family flagged us down, presenting us with drinks and many good wishes for the New Year. There, also, we met Roland, a Swiss guy formerly in the army who has lived in Thailand for the past 12 years.

Other than that, both of us are getting over head colds and taking it pretty easy. We’re enjoying meeting the local people and love our little chalet; it reminds me of my aunt Ingrid’s summer place on the water near Pender Harbour which my family used to visit when I was a child.

ps again this morning a water buffalo appeared, this time strolling on the beach right in front of our place.

 

Koh Samui: South Island Temple Tour

It’s temple time here on Koh Samui. Some may say that if you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all, but I beg to differ – I just can’t get enough of them! Each temple seems to have its own personality and I’d like to get to know all of them; however, Koh Samui has about fifty so that’s not likely to happen … Anyway, after the cynicism of my last post, a response to the over-built and over-heated atmosphere of the Lamai Beach area, it was time to get off the strip and out into the real Koh Samui beyond the tourist traps of the south-east and east coasts. We flagged down a passing cab and hired Mai, the only female taxi driver I’ve ever seen here in South East Asia, to drive us around some of the temples on Koh Samui’s south and west coasts.

Our first stop was Wat Sila Ngu, a temple dedicated to snakes (Sila Ngu means golden snake), right on the water near the Muslim fishing town of Hua Thanon on the south coast. The gilded pagoda (chedi) which we saw upon entering has apparently been used many times in films and TV as a set. Luckily, there were no actual snakes there to greet us, just the sculptural kind …

This temple was founded in 1935 and is supposed to house a relic of the Buddha in its beachfront golden chedi, the stairs of which accommodate two gigantic cobra snake sculptures. A big new temple building the colour of Samui’s red clay soil is also being built on this site and it was interesting to see a Thai temple before its exterior paintings and finishing touches were added.

Once south past Lamai, the feverish over-development of the east coast thankfully abruptly ceases, and after the village of Hua Thanon we encountered beautiful green hills, water buffaloes grazing by the roadside, and small home cafes selling locals simple Thai food.

On an unmarked side street somewhere off route 4170 we turned into the small parking lot for the Buddha’s Footprint site. I wasn’t able to find out much about this place so I don’t know whether the Buddha was actually supposed to have stayed here or not. However, the place is in a state of disrepair, looking as if, at one time, monks actually lived and worshipped here but now their huts and altars have fallen into ruin.

In a rather decrepit small building accessed after walking 150 steps up a steep hill we found four enormous cement foot-prints, superimposed on one another. Each one is engraved with symbols and runic alphabets. From the shrine there is a great view across the plains to the mountains opposite, and, over the tree tops, to the ocean.

Next on the temple tour … At the most southerly part of the island lies Wat Laem Sor, a temple apparently constructed in the shape of a boat (a design which can only be seen from the hills beyond). It’s a kilometer or so off the main 4170 road but once again not well-marked so I’m not sure whether we’d have found it on our own.

As we pulled up to Bang Kao beach, on the temple grounds we saw an ornately designed chedi sitting at the rocky water’s edge. Covered in thousands and thousands of small yellow tiles, it appears golden when viewed from a short distance. To the west of the chedi is what appears to be a lake with mangrove trees and, with global warming, and the rising seas, it looks as though the shore here is being significantly eroded.

A few metres to the east of the chedi we saw a low glass-fronted building, the Boat Hall. Inside the hall is a wooden boat and on the boat a glass case containing the mummified body of Pho Luang Dang, the monk who built the chedi.

Famed for his meditation skills, he liked nothing better than to take a boat and visit one of the small islands offshore and spend some time there meditating. The Boat Hall was built after his death and in it are, in addition to the large boat, dozens of small models of boats.

Apparently people pray to the monk and if their wishes are granted they purchase a model boat and place it in the Boat Hall as a gesture of thanks. We tried the doors but unfortunately they were locked so we could only gaze on this panorama from outside the glass.

Also in the Wat Laem Sor grounds, but a bit of a distance away, lies the Khao (mountain) Chedi. Apparently until recently this site was a ruin but it is now being rehabilitated. A fairly steep concrete road, which our taxi driver decided was too steep for her vehicle, travels up a small mountain, at the top of which can be reached stone stairs; at the top of these lies the temple chedi (Jay Dee) site.

A graceful white pagoda, surrounded with many white and gold Buddhas, a large white boy-Buddha, and several shrines, including a large bell, beneath which a tableau of Buddhas being watched by Bambi was installed, greet the visitor.

From the top, the panorama of Laem Sor Bay and the nearby islands is beautiful.

Both chedis, the beachside golden one and the mountain top white one, are said to contain “bone-chips” of the Buddha in their foundations. The hill-top pagoda, built in 1903, was struck by lightning so many times that the monks decided in 1968 to build the new pagoda on the beach where presumably it was more resistant to the elements, taking the bone-chip with them, after which time the old chedi fell into disrepair. Later, when the hilltop ruins were refurbished, a new Buddha bone-chip was brought from Bangkok to replace the one removed to the beachside chedi.

Our final stop on the southern temple tour was Wat Kiri Wongkaram, home to yet another mummified monk, this one Loung Por Ruam, who was installed in yet another glass case upon his death in 1976.

This temple, while not in a particularly attractive setting, is an active community site containing several buildings and shrines (while we were there a funeral was going on). It’s located on Samui’s west side near Five Islands Beach. Before heading back the three of us stopped at a roadside eatery for some fried rice, cooked and served up hot as we waited, for not much money ($6.70 for three meals, a beer, and four waters) – local price.

My impression of Koh Samui from this tour was much more positive than it has been to date. Away from tourist central the island is laid back and beautiful.

See more pictures here.


Koh Samui: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

We’re not actually staying at Lamai but at a small beach around the corner from it on the south east coast of the island, called something like Ton Thieng. The day after our arrival we grabbed a cab and visited the Wat Khunaram temple whose claim to fame is the body of Koh Samui’s most famous (there are others) mummified monk sitting in orange-robed and sun-glassed splendour.

Here’s some information about it:

Koh Samui’s Mummified Monk at Wat Khunaram is an unusual sight yet it offers a unique insight into Buddhist and Thai culture. The monk Luong Pordaeng died in 1973 in a seated meditative position, and ever since his body has been on display in an upright glass case at the temple. Remarkably, even more than 30 years on the monk’s body shows little sign of decay. For some visitors, having a dead man in full view might be a shocking sight, but for Thais it is something to reflect upon and revere.

Far from being frightened by death, most Buddhist Thais are highly accepting of the end of life as the natural order of things and they view death as an opportunity to be reborn into a better place, one step closer to nirvana. There are other mummy monks on Samui and throughout Thailand, but Loung Pordang is among the most highly revered.

Loung Pordang is said to have told his followers shortly before his death that if his body were to decompose he should be cremated, but if not then he wanted to be put on display as a visual reminder of the Buddha’s teachings. For Thais, both the life and death of Loung Pordang serves as an inspiration to follow the Buddhist precepts and walk the middle path.

History, Highlights and Features

Loung Pordang was born as Dang Piyasilo on Koh Samui in 1894 to a prominent family within the tight-knit island community. Like many Thai Buddhist men, Khun Dang ordained as a monk in his early 20s, where he spent two years at Wat Samret before disrobing and marrying a local woman, with whom he had six children. Later on in life after his children were grown he returned to the monastic life, where he immersed himself into studying Buddhist texts and meditation. The name given to him as a monk was Phra Khru Samathakittikhun.

After spending some time in Bangkok, he returned to Koh Samui where it is believed that he did an intensive meditation session in Tham Yai (Big Cave), and lived out his days as a highly respected monk and abbot. In the week before his death, Loung Pordang, aged 79, stopped eating and speaking, and sat in a deep meditative state before his life slipped away. It is believed that his simple life, healthy diet and long meditation sessions contributed both to his long life and to his body’s amazing preservation after death. The only noticeable change to the body has been the disintegration of the eyes, which have now been respectfully covered by sunglasses.

Aside from the Mummy Monk, Wat Khunaram is a fairly typical Buddhist temple, where local people come daily to make merit and pray. Amulets and other Buddhist artefacts may be bought, and visitors are welcome to join or observe the daily rituals and have a look around.

(http://www.kosamui.com/lamai-beach/wat-khunaram.htm)

Although we had beautiful weather the day after we got here, since then it’s been cloudy and sometimes stormy, with incredible high surf and waves up to eight feet high. On Christmas Day both the tide and surf were super high and waves were crashing over the sand bags onto the lawn and terraces of neighbouring resorts. The day reminded both of us of storm watching on the west coast of Vancouver Island, except instead of cold weather and a fire burning in the fireplace, it’s warm and we turn on the air conditioner at night.

There’s not much right around the Promtsuk Buri, just a few shops (although it does have one sad little “Single Bar” with almost never any customers). In the evening we’ve headed out to Lamai Beach, party central on this part of the island, for dinner and a few drinks at the Barrio Latino and Aussie Bar & Grill, the latter where we also shot a few games of pool (with me defeating Ty once – huzzah!).

The good:

Christmas Day saw us strolling along what was left of the beach, given the high water which had washed away much of the beach furniture and massage apparatus left out overnight. Sometimes the waves came up so high and with such force that, even though I ran away from them, the water wooshed up to my butt and soaked my pants. It was great fun watching the few souls brave enough to enter the water jumping waves, diving through the huge ones, and, unfortunately, getting pounded into the sand by others. Luckily no-one seemed hurt and all were having a good time frolicking. We had a very tasty Christmas Lunch of cheeseburger (Ty) and Jamaica Jerk Chicken (Lisa) that was almost like turkey at the crowded beachfront Bikini Bar and consumed several Christmas beverages at Chillin’ right on the beach not too far away. While there, we watched Thai kids open their presents and listened to loud Christmas carols blasting out over the water.

A strange event occurred, too – at about 5 pm, while we were still sipping our beer, a 40ish tourist man – possibly Russian – in a speedo and nothing else appeared. He had a drink and a meal, then opened a jar of Vaseline and anointed his skin, waited for an opportune moment, and dove into the waves. Swimming on his back with a very odd stroke, he headed out past the huge waves into deeper, and yet deeper waters, swimming so far out that we could no longer see the splash of his arms. We were still on the beach for probably 20 minutes after he left and there was still no sign of him. We wondered whether someone would actually intend to swim out to his death in that way, one last supper, a swim while day was ending – it was very disconcerting. Others at the bar had seen him leave, too, but with no lifeguards, no life-saving kit, and no-one who spoke enough English to understand, there was nothing we could do, had there been something that needed to be done …

In the tourist areas here there are the following:

1)    Five hundred and sixty seven massage parlours: people seem to have believed that if one massage parlour was good, 567 of them in the same two mile strip was better – not.

2)    Five hundred and sixty seven 7/11 and Family Mart stores – ditto.

3)    Five hundred and sixty seven small boutiques selling the same sarongs, bikinis, board shorts, flip-flops – ditto.

4)    Five hundred and sixty seven taxis

5)    Many, many tiny pharmacies, sometimes with only a couple of things on the shelves, whose sole purpose must be to dispense erectile disfunction drugs like candy without prescriptions (see below – the ugly).

What there are not:

Bookstores, cultural centres/art galleries (other than those selling the same reproductions of photographs of women’s eyes, Bob Marley, palm trees etc), theatres, hardware stores …

It does not seem to be possible to meet local people living regular lives; in the tourist areas there’s no “middle-class” life to speak of – at least, we haven’t been able to find any evidence of it.

The bad and the ugly:

1) Motorcycle riding: To ride a motorcycle or scooter in Thailand is to have a death-wish. Depending upon which account one reads, either 28 or 37 people a day die in motorcycle accidents here; hundreds of thousands each year are seriously injured and maimed, including vast numbers of tourists. Of course, these stats aren’t publicised by the tourism industry but are easy enough to find online. I am amazed to see tourists here doing things they would never, ever, consider doing back home, one of the most prominent being the riding of motorcycles without helmets, wearing only shorts and flip-flops. Many of these folks have never ridden motorbikes before – WTF? Why would you ever consider riding here if you weren’t an experienced rider? And why would you ever ride a motorcycle without a helmet? The cement roads, curbs, and tree trunks aren’t any softer or more forgiving here than they are wherever you come from … It really gives me the creeps to see everyone riding around here bare-headed – unbelievable. (And motorcyclists seem to thing they have a god-given right to ride down a one-way street in the wrong direction; in fact, there’s often as much traffic going the wrong way down a one-way street as the right way.)

2) Sex trade: The last time I was in Thailand we stayed mostly on out-of-the-way islands where the main source of income is fishing or rubber (not the condom kind) production, so I didn’t have the dubious pleasure of seeing the Thai sex tourist trade in all its glory. In Ao Nang there were a few bar streets with “hostesses” looking for and finding customers, but we didn’t frequent them; however, sometimes in restaurants we’d see an uncomfortable-looking western man sitting in silence with his new Thai “girlfriend” before or after their assignation. The Sabai Mansion allowed unregistered guests to stay over, and almost every morning we’d see a trickle and sometimes a parade of Thai women out the door in the morning after an evening’s entertainment with western men. Here on Koh Samui at Lamai Beach there are “girlie bars” galore, ranging from tiny two table establishments to more elaborate set-ups such as the Lady Boxing bars along the main shopping drag. Extrapolating from the number of old men with young Thai women I’ve seen here, I guess the availability of erectile disfunction drugs has really increased the number of sex tourists in Thailand. The services provided include so-called P4P (pay for play) and GFE (the girl friend experience) – could it get more sleazy?

However, the beaches are beautiful, the food is good, most of the people are lovely, and Bang Po, the area in the northwest of the island where we’re going next, is mercifully free of girlie bars.

See more pics here.