Copyright © 2004 by Matthew Ellks.
As the plane started descending for its landing at Bangkok Airport I couldn't help but notice the coastal resort of Pattaya. Being a surfer I constantly check coastlines from aircraft but this time instead of seeing swells I was looking at hotels spiraling into the sky like modern day pyramids. To an Aussie it resembled Surfers Paradise except highlighted between them were large patches of green vegetation which stretched back into a vast green jungle. Gazing through the clouds the structures seemed surreal. They evoked a contemplative almost subconscious state of mind although the in-flight beers probably contributed to that. The scene was surely a portrayal of East meets West. The plane landed on a tarmac steaming from the afternoon heat and I wondered how much the West had eaten into Thailand's cultural soul.
Passage through customs was fairly quick. After all no-one brings candy to a candy store. The airport had an air of bustle and confusion to it but changing a traveler's cheque for some Thai baht made me feel a bit more in control. At least I could now pay for a cabbie to get me out of there.
Khao San Road was my planned destination after a mate in Oz tuned me about its casual international vibe. After being told any taxi outside the airport rank was going to rip me off I took my chances as the cab line was three deep. I didn't care. I was hot and sweaty and keen to find a guest house of some description. The cab driver who picked me up had other ideas. He wanted to take me to a friend's hotel but I politely declined the offer. He then hit me up for a brothel tour which he highly recommended showing me a glossy color brochure of the ladies in waiting. Someone once said to me that a cabbie in any country is a good indication of what the place is like. I hoped I wasn't being too judgmental but I was losing a little faith in the guy.
Being my first adventure to this exotic country I was feeling a little vulnerable. I didn’t quite know what to expect. Not understanding a word of Thai didn’t help. After having to reiterate several times that I didn’t want to be taken anywhere except Khao San Road the cabbie got the shits. He dropped me off in the middle of Bangkok's chaotic peak hour traffic and as predicted charged more than what the meter read. According to his broken English my planned destination was just around the corner. After struggling for another 20 minutes in what seemed an alien environment I finally stumbled upon the street I was looking for. It was cut off to traffic as market stalls were setting up for the evening trade. Pasty skinned tourists littered the street seeking bargains from merchants selling fake designer products. Fortunately I didn’t get too harassed as I was sporting a partial tan, legacy of a month surfing Indonesia. As I walked along the street I was looking for a particular guest house named "Mamas". After doing a lap of the entire 1km stretch I was legless and none the wiser of where the joint was. I did another lap retracing my steps then somewhat threw the towel in and trudged into the entrance of the nearest lodging. On the desk was a short haired Thai lesbian accompanied by a bloke with boobs. One would have thought that his make-up and perm hair should have been enough to put him in touch with his feminine side. I thought the boobs were a little overboard but then again I don’t know much about guys with tits.
They showed me a room with a double bed on the fourth floor. There was a solitary fan in the middle of the ceiling which they turned on to show me it was working. The price was 300 Baht (AUD10) for the night so I took it. They left me in the room alone and the lady-boy winked at me as he closed the door. I placed my bag on the floor and lay back on the bed. What a small fucking effort to get to here I thought. How brilliant to throw yourself in at the deep end when it comes to traveling the world. As I looked up at the whirling fan the opening scene of Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen loses his mind crept into my thought. I was hoping I wasn’t going to suffer the same tropical insanity in this place.
I was stinking of sweat and needed a shower. I went downstairs to pay for the room and boob boy informed me I was sharing the fourth floor bathroom with 10 other people. I was exhausted and at this stage didn't care as long as he wasn't expecting to have a shower with me. I noticed a sign behind him on the wall stating that "No prostitutes or transsexuals were allowed back to the rooms." He caught me reading the notice and told me that he was the exception. Again I politely declined the offer.
After unpacking my toiletries I grabbed my towel and headed to clean myself up. The shower was no more than a tiled cubicle with a hose in it. Thank God there was a towel rack as the floor could have been carrying any disease. Closing the door I was greeted with an eyeful of anti-US graffiti. It revealed the resentment of the US invasion of Vietnam and the subsequent misery it had bestowed upon Cambodia. In addition it spelt out that Bush's actions in Iraq were the work of the devil. Whoever wrote it was obviously disenchanted with the American people. The irony was that the scribble was probably the work of a Westerner. I grimaced thinking of how our little Johnny Howard was fair up Mr. Bush's bum and therefore putting Australian travelers at risk. I had never before been ashamed of being an Aussie but our current government's actions had me questioning what we now stood for. The cold shower calmed my thoughts and saved me from ripping my heated skin off.
That night was literally a nightmare. I had watched the brutal Hollywood movie Wonderland a couple of weeks prior at a surf camp in Sumbawa. Throughout the night savage scenes identical to the movie plagued my sleep. I received countless blows to the head issued by the same blunt instrument used to kill several people. The enforcer was no other than my friend boob boy. Adding to my jaded slumber the tropical humidity had done a good job of turning the room into a sauna. Beads of sweat stuck the thin sheet to my itchy skin whilst pigeon feathers settled on top of my face compliments of the nest outside my window. Needless to say it wasn't the best of sleeps.
Next morning I decided it might be best if I find some alternative accommodation. At least until I had worked out some plan of attack in seeing Thailand the way I wanted. The two things I definitely wanted to do was attend the full moon party at Koh Pan-Ngan and go surfing with my Bondi mate Brucey in Phuket.
On the street below I sat down to an early American breakfast and watched the fallout from the night before pass by. Girls with make-up smeared over their faces and guys with eyeballs popping out of their heads. It was just as seedy as anywhere in the world. Street sweepers soon cleared away the trash.
Later that morning I found a better guest house with a toilet and shower. As I moved into the second floor room I knew that things were on the way up. I washed and put on some clean clothes then ventured down into the street below. Von Dutch was everywhere. I could only think this latest hip label originated in the Netherlands. The street was a huge bazaar stocked with clothing stalls, electronic shops, Thai carving demos, international eateries, street vendors of all sorts, gold and silver jeweler shops, beauty parlours with massage services and the list goes on. I found it slightly overwhelming and wasn’t interested in buying anything except a GMS Sim card for my mobile. After accomplishing that I then bought a train ticket to take me to Koh Samui the next day. I was now on a roll. I could now send text messages to friends and loved ones. I knew no-one in Bangkok but I now felt I was not alone.
Buying the train ticket had also raised my spirits. I knew that it was only a matter of time till I was bopping with the best of them at the full moon party. As I walked the street I happened to be passing a bar with a huge digital screen. The All Blacks were playing the Wallabies and the first half had just started. I sat down at a table bordering the street and ordered a Singa beer off a cute Thai barmaid. Being a patriot when it comes to sport I became absorbed in the game immediately hoping to connect with any other Aussies in the crowded bar. As I cheered every Wallaby advance there was no backup from anywhere. The heat of the day made the second beer hit my head a lot quicker than usual and I loosened up considerably. By half time everyone knew I was Australian. The second half see-sawed until we finally held them out and won by the barest of margins. Why wasn't George Gregan our Prime Minister? The win reinstalled my Aussie pride that had never really been the same since little Johnny came into power. Thank God for Australian sportsmen.
Over the next day Khao San Road grew on me a bit but I was happy to arrive at Bangkok train station around 6pm. I had been told Samui was a beautiful island and I boarded the train with excitement. I hadn’t been on a sleeper train for years and was curious of how comfortable my bed would be. The train motored through the guts of the city and I saw the squalor equaled to any third world country. Shanty towns displaying washing and corrugated iron lined the tracks. The sun set as we left the city lights for the dark jungle night. At each stop sellers would jump the train brandishing their wares. I bought another longneck and started reading some Timothy Leary. The ticket master came by with a helper who was unfolding the bunks from each side of the cabin. I had the bottom bunk and was surprised how comfortable the mattress was. My cabin was full of tourists heading for the same party. There were a few locals who seemed to share each bunk with several family members. As I sipped on my longneck I noticed two beautiful European girls towards the front of the cabin. They had some keen attention happening from several of the tourist males inside the cabin. Being young, friendly and adventurous they were into meeting new people. My eyes grew heavy and I fell asleep to the sound of the tracks. I became friends with the English and French girl on the connecting ferry from Surat Thani to Samui. The ferry took about an hour and once we arrived we engaged the services of a local Tuk-Tuk driver to transport us to Bo-Phut beach which was on the other side of the island. The girls had pre-booked accommodation so I just followed their lead and arrived at a cozy bungalow resort named "Calm Beach". The landscape exemplified the name. The bar and restaurant were situated on a white sandy beach and in the distance was the island of Koh Pan-Ngan. We bought our tickets soon after from the manager of the resort. As there wasn't a spare bungalow till the morning I put my bag in the girl's room as we wouldn’t be arriving home till after the party in the morning anyway.
That evening there was a succession of marine craft heading to the island. We took the slow ferry from a nearby wharf and the girls immediately found international drinking partners on both lower and upper decks. Earlier we had bought several bottles of the infamous Sam Son whisky. The girls could sure drink. They were on holidays after working a year in the land of the rising sun and were ready to release what claustrophobic memories living in a place like Japan can give you.
Departing the ferry I couldn't quite grasp what was going on. We had landed next to a beach but there wasn't any sign of some huge party that thousands of people from around the planet converge on. It was dark so it was hard to distinguish the islands geography. Everyone started to head through a small town with narrow streets. Bars, restaurants and small hotels lined the cobbled lit road. The old Asian architecture made me feel like I was in some kind of 19th Century Japanese samurai movie. A few convenient and internet stores looked completely out of place. We kept following the procession of people moving through what seemed a town built within a narrow ravine that had cut deep into the island's mountains. The international crowd grew thicker. Hoards of people were now passing through the village en-route to wherever this party was. We didn't know where but we pressed on like loyal party people do. All of a sudden the mountain passage gave way to an extravaganza. I stumbled forward in amazement at the sight of 10,000 raving lunatics like myself partying to the various beats on a secluded beach. Bars aligned the beach each with their own DJs promoting their own wicked sounds designed to seduce the crowd. Every individual dance floor was packed with bodies harmonizing to their different beats. As we walked along the sand the sound of the base was going right through me Hardcore techno followed by tantalizing house, break beats, Hip Hop, RnB, and Reggae all blended into each other as we passed the various bars. The place was going crazy with revelers taking up every inch of the 1.5 kilometer beach. People were cooling off in the shallows and yachts moored just off the beach had their own private parties happening.
I found the enchanted mushroom castle at the Northern end of the beach. The building was sculptured into the overhanging limestone cliffs and was lit with Technicolor fairy lights. It provided three levels of chill out rooms overlooking the spectacle. Fireworks were being shot into the night sky accompanied by laser lights and as I guzzled my mushy juice I thought I was further up the river in my favourite movie Apocalypse Now. For a moment I thought I heard choppers from the movie arriving but then realized it was only a ceiling fan above my head. I liked the castle and stayed awhile. Looking down on the scene seemed to stir my wildest emotions which became even wilder as the night moved on. I kept moving from podium to podium throughout the night with legs that couldn't keep still. The pandemonium was trance like and the music seemed to lift the crowd into states of hysteria.
The ferry back the next morning was full of casualties looking slightly shell shocked. The event had drawn people from all over the globe but everyone on the boat now existed in the same planetary space. There were few words spoken as everyone seemed to be tired and sharing the same satisfied consciousness. It took a day for me to come good then I was ready to do some island exploring. After hiring a motorbike I headed south and came across Chaweng. It was a beach that had become the tourist Mecca on Samui. It had a lot of tourist hotels and bars with all the shopping a girl could want. I saw a surfboard in the back of a truck so I ran down to a vantage spot to check the lineup. There was a one foot wave breaking and a local told me it was pumping. I didn’t want to disappoint him so I didn't tell him about the Superbank in Queensland. Obviously people didn’t travel to Koh Samui for the surf. Back at the bungalows the girls were doing their thing and I teamed up with a local larrikin named Johnny. He was a local scammer who I clicked with straight away. He reminded me of some of my mates back in Bondi. He worked the local bars and I got to know some of the local girls who he used to work with. He used to pull beers at the infamous Reggae Bar and pretty much knew every working girl in town. Using a bit of charm and a bit of cash I experienced a new found popularity that I hadn’t felt since my younger years. I felt invigorated and after a few nights of getting intoxicated I found myself a little Thai princess. My liver was feeling the pinch so I decided to get off Samui and find my Bondi mate Brucey over at Phuket. I had been in Thailand a week and was really dying to go surf. I persuaded my princess to accompany me for the 6 hour Ferry and bus journey and before long we said goodbye to Samui and were on or way to Phuket. The trip was a landscape of rubber trees and limestone extrusions with thick jungle undergrowth overhanging wherever it could. I was a little sick in the stomach and was quite anxious to get there.
I had already made contact with Brucey and he was expecting us both. After we arrived in Phuket town and jumped in a taxi I wondered if I was ever going to find any surf whilst holidaying in Thailand. I was engrossed in the culture around me although something was irritating me and it wasn't just my sickness. Deliriously I questioned whether I really needed to surf? The nightlife, the beer, the whiskey, the girls, the food, and the Thai boxing all touched my senses but I knew better. Of course I needed to fucking surf! The exotic culture was fun but this fish needed to get in the water.
Brucey was a Thai veteran living with his local girl at nearby Karong beach. Knowing I was coming he had bumped an old friend of mine from my surf shop days in Bondi named Cosmic Nic who had a lovely house situated in the Patong foothills. He made it available to me as he was heading to Indo for a two week surfing stint. Surrounded by jungle gardens and with a view overlooking all of Patong and the ocean it was a truly magnificent location. It was a traditional Thai house built of wood and home to a couple of local rats. It had cable TV and a motorbike thrown in with the deal which made the price I paid an absolute bargain. Nic was a spiritual kind of guy and his house instantly had a serene affect upon me.
He had left me one of his mate’s surfboards to fix. To my surprise it was an old 80’s 6'2" Dahlberg. The foam had turned slightly brown and the rocker was nearly as flat as an ironing board. I have always loved riding Mr. Dahlberg's shapes and was stoked to have this one land in my lap. All I needed was Brucey to turn me on to where the waves were. I made up a hot batch and remodeled the nose and tail in earnest that Brucey would turn up and take me surfing that afternoon. As I finished sanding Brucey arrived amped to show me a local right hand reef. We buzzed off following a road which hugged the rugged coastline till we pulled up at a rocky reef displaying 2 to 3 feet onshore waves. A couple of Brucey's Muslim mates were out there making the most of it. I hurriedly wax combed my surfboard and hit the water. The lumpy swell proved a great escape from my indulgent landlocked lifestyle. The reef shape provided excellent re-entry sections and the Dahlberg was rocketing over any dead section that reared its ugly head. The water was an onshore shade of murky green and the afternoon sun glowed through the feathering lips to change it into a piss trough yellow. As I sat waiting for another set Brucey was firing my imagination by describing a 6 foot swell that pumped through last year and how it ran along the reef for several 100 meters. It was easy to picture. You could tell if there was any sizeable swell it would hug the reef along the coastline. I looked up at the big hotels built into the cliffs and thought about how good their vantage point of the break was. If the wind wasn’t predominatantly onshore and the swell was more frequent I wouldn’t leave the place. I was finally in the water and I was stoked on the feeling again.
Surfing always cleared the senses and as I walked up the sandy beach to the car park I felt I was in my element again. The overall adventure had taken a few twists and turns but my surfing instinct had eventually proved its radar worthy and found some waves. Veiled Muslim girls on the beach selling drinks and pancakes instilled the unique Thai surfing experience. The local Muslim surfers were so inquisitive and friendly one had to wonder why George Bush wanted to taint them all with the one brush. These Muslim boys were just like you and I. They had formed a local boardriders club and were only interested in what the surf was doing.
I had a list of duties and informative suggestions left behind by Nic. One tip was to turn the Discovery TV channel on every morning at 7.30am as I would be bound to catch the Surfers Journal series. For my entire 2 week stay I religiously made the effort to arise early enough to where I could make a cup of coffee and sit back to take the program in. Each day was a descriptive piece of surf journalism depicting characters and events that have shaped the surfing world. BK, Lopez, Bertleman, MR, Rabbit, MP, Shaun Tomson and my old Bondi mate Cheyne Horan all graced the screen. Brilliant footage from Bruce Brown and other legendary filmmakers brought the surfing past back to life. It was surfing evolution made with integrity and respect. I sat in Nic's house on top of the Phuket hill and couldn’t help feel an affinity with Gerry Lopez's life. The quest to travel, surf and meet cultures that inspire you to continue this lifestyle is something any real surfer can relate to. Thailand had been another one of those experiences. It had issued its fair share of trials but every journey wouldn't be fun unless they weren’t part of the package. I had been enveloped by Thailand’s charisma but it wasn’t until I found the waves did I feel truly comfortable. I was now basking in all its comforts. Lopez, the Zen master, summed it all up when he said "Surfing is a state of mind, a state of being!"