Koh Lanta, Thailand: A Tepid Saga

Part 1: Arrival

Sierra & I board a ferry leaving the famous party island Koh Phi Phi Don. We are happy to find a quiet place, hoping Koh Lanta offers a bit of peace and relaxation. 

On the ferry, us tourists are put below-deck in an air-conditioned room where taxi drivers solicit for rides. It’s a one-way-in and one-way-out sort of scheme. At first, I reject the rides thinking we’ll take a local bus. When I learn there isn’t a bus, I am more open to a taxi.

Our private bungalow hostel is already booked. It’s quite far from the pier. I get a few quotes on taxis and they’re steep. A Thai man with nice clothes sits down next to Sierra and asks where we’re going. He quotes us a steep price. I nicely tell him, 

“That’s too expensive for us.”

He likes my demeanor and offers me a significantly better deal. It’s contingent upon the available spaces in his vehicle. He tells me,

“You keep talking nice like we talking here, and I take care of you.”

He asks me if I want to come share a cigarette on the deck. I join him and we chat a bit. He asks why we’re going to the other side of the island, showing me a map. He indicates the lack of nearby beaches. The side we chose is mostly marsh and jungle. He gives us a pamphlet for the hotel he works at and writes his number down with some prices to consider.

I meet some tourists who are using an app called Grab. It’s a taxi app for Southeast Asia similar to Lyft or Uber. The price is very fair, but they’re going a different way from us and we don’t have a working phone for Thailand. I resolve to buy a cheap smartphone soon.

The ferry docks and we file out, meeting our new friend, Mr. Dam, by his fancy Toyota pickup. The extended cab is full so we hop into the bed with the baggage and a German couple. They are having the same dilemma as us: unknowingly pre-booked on the wrong side of the island.

Mr. Dam makes his stops and offers some different room prices to the couple. The German couple is tense, not concealing their mutual frustration. The man begins to raise his voice toward the woman. Mr. Dam tells them to relax. They complain that the prices are too high, so he takes them elsewhere.

We stop at another hotel, this one called “Sky View Mansion.” The couple gets out and looks at a room. They reject the price again. I get out to see what the deal is. Mr. Dam whispers to me behind the couple, 

“I charge you much less than them if you want the room.” He makes me an offer I can’t refuse.

Sierra & I look at the room. It’s clean and spacious with a big bed. There is AC, a mini fridge, a love seat, and a flatscreen tv. This looks more like an apartment than a hotel room, and it’s coming at the same price as a beach bungalow. Not to mention, we have swimming pool, beach, and pier access nearby.

Mr. Dam tells us his best friend runs the place. We pay for three nights up front and make nice with everyone. I say goodbye as 

Mr. Dam takes the German couple onward. We settle into our cozy room.

Sierra and I spend a week resting, writing, & enjoying cheap local food. We wander the beaches, savoring each and every sunset, enjoying the tranquil beach bars with occasional fire shows. 

The soundtrack of Koh Lanta is very much Jimmy Buffet & John Denver, with the occasional Bob Marley song wafting our from the beach bars. It’s a welcome contrast to the techno-fueled crowds of the previous island.

Part 2: Tourist Politics & Fish Dinner


Tuna Tonight!

Only a few days left on Koh Lanta. Our hosts at the Sky View Mansion have been great. We are refining our understanding of the host-tourist relationship. Business seems to be the foundation of our newfound friendship.

The way we see it, a tourist is a mother cow to the business-minded Thais. Everyone wants to give us a squeeze. We only have so many utters capable of so much milk. They are forward, persistent, and generally polite.

As the new kids in town, we are treated to generous plates of food and delicious small talk from locals. Some of these exchanges are genuine acts, while the rest were either vague or blatant attempts at winning our money over for their company.

Most of the Thais we’ve encountered here are very business-minded. They have their hands in a little bit of everything and will cater to the tourists so long as the tourists continue paying. 

To quote a Thai friend,

“If you have money in Thailand, you can do anything.”

We find ourselves a part of a local clique. We genuinely like them and we suspect they like us at least as much as our money. 

The Thais appreciate customer loyalty, giving us discount prices without having to haggle. During our days, we attract plenty of outside offers for rentals, shuttles, and taxis, giving us an opportunity to initiate small bidding wars. As patrons of the tourist racket, the best we can do is improve our odds. Generally, our hosts offer the best deals.

At dinner time, Sierra and I wander the side streets looking for a menu that suits us. Everybody is welcoming us in, telling us to have a seat. Our feet remain anchored to the ground until we decide the menu suits our stomachs. 

Since it’s one of our last nights by the sea, we decide to eat fish. We pass a wide smile from a jolly Thai man with a round belly. He’s barbecuing a mackerel, a few tuna, and a huge barracuda.

We take a seat and order a plate to share. They give us a large portion of stir-fried veggies cooked with a healthy portion of barbecued barracuda and a side of steamed rice. It comes with a complimentary plate of pineapple, cucumber, and bean curds. 
The stir-fry sauce is sweet and tangy like Asian barbecue sauce. The dipping sauce is a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, Thai chilis, lime juice, & lime leaves. Very spicy!

It’s a great meal for a great price; plenty to feed the both of us. The wife cooks in the back while her husband barbecues out front.

Near the end of our meal, the wife sits down with us and asks how the food is. We grin with thumbs up. She smiles and begins to lament over the high-end tourists who pass her up. She says they will pay one thousand baht for the same food she’s selling for one hundred and fifty. 

I try to explain (mostly with my hands) that people pay a lot for presentation. Whether it’s through advertising or atmosphere, comfortability is what the sheltered patrons subscribe to.

Her restaurant looks humble in comparison with the resort-style dining options. In front, her husband grills over two rusty steel drums filled with cinders. Her cart rests under a tent with a large display window. She cooks on a large wok over propane burners. The overhang reminds us of camping. 

For most of the resort patrons, this small tent & truck kitchen might be a “daring dine”.

The cook changes the subject, asking us,

“Where are you going from here?”

We tell her of our plans to fly from Krabi airport to Chiang Mai.

“How are you getting there? My friend has a transport company.”

They catch fish while we catch sales pitch. Her friend, a Muslim Thai wearing black shawl & all, comes over to greet us on queue.
She pitches some low numbers. We say thanks and we’ll think about it. They tell us to come back and eat at their restaurant. We just might.

Part 3: Laanta Lanta Festival & the Mystery of the Missing Wallet

The next evening, our hosts push us to hire their taxi service to attend the locally famous “Laanta Lanta Festival”. It’s a big festival celebrating the end of the tourist high season. They pitch us a price: two-hundred baht per person, one way. (Two hundred baht = ~$6)

We kindly decline the event in favor of a mellow evening on the beach. They oblige and we part ways. 

The following night, we are propositioned again for the taxi service. This time the price is four-hundred baht per person. It’s round trip & “me look for you to bring you home” retrieval service.

We consider the offer but again decline. Neither of us has much interest in spending money to buy stuff we don’t want to carry while navigating a loud, crowded environment. That is the exact reason we left the city to be here. 

After turning them down for the second shuttle offer, they invite us to share a few cups of their jungle juice cocktail. I can’t say exactly what was in it but it worked. Not too strong, not too weak. It tastes bitter and sweet, kind of like bubble gum tea with a hint of Coca Cola.

A few cups later, the hosts sober girlfriend drives us all over to the festival, free of charge. There is loud music and a lot of people. 

Our main host Sen, buys us beer and food throughout the night. We are very grateful. His girlfriend and friends laugh at the way I dance with Sierra, calling me a “monkey man”. 

Sen and his friends relax on a blanket & cushions around a small table drinking beers. He is small and kind with a wide grin. His eyes are constantly shifting around, catching all the action, always paying attention. He knows bits and pieces of English, enough for us to communicate. 

His girlfriend wears white makeup and has a gold-colored band across her teeth, maybe braces or a retainer. Sen is in his early thirties. His girlfriend is in her late twenties.

We get along well and stay out late, joking and smoking little hand-rolled Thai cigarettes. I’m starting to get pretty good at rolling these numbers. If I understand correctly, they papers are cut from from pieces of young palm fronds. Sometimes I still cheat and use a regular rolling paper.

We get home without any trouble and Sen offers to take us on a tour around the island the next morning, for free. We take him up on the offer and get to bed sometime after three am.

The next morning I can’t find my passport wallet. I left it on the night stand while we were gone, I think. I also remember having the thought to hide is somewhere safe, but I can’t remember.

We recall diligently locking the door. Everything else in the room is well intact. My other wallet still has a few hundred US dollars in it. We rule out a thief for now, as I begin to retrace my steps. 

The wallet contains nine-thousand baht (roughly $270), a debit card, and my passport in the wallet.

I toss the room a few times, rearranging all the furniture. My pack has been gutted, all it’s contents spilled onto the bed and floor. Sierra does the same. Nothing turns up. Sierra helps me to remember where I may have lost it.

I check the nearby beaches and restaurants we visited. I leave my contact information behind. It takes a while of probing my memory but I grow certain of when and where it disappeared. It’s on the beach near a resort.

I tell Sen what happened. He calls his friends in the area. He tells me not to worry. I’m feeling pretty stupid as most of the day slips away in the frenzied pursuit. Our flight leaves to Chiang Mai tomorrow night.
In the late afternoon, Sen reassures me that we’ll find it. He tells us not to worry and to come with him to a barbecue. Sierra and 

I grab a few loose things and get outside to the street. Sen is sitting on his motorbike. He motions for us to jump on behind him.

Neither Sierra nor I have ever ridden with multiple people on a moped. Sierra is in the middle of me and Sen, me being the tallest and heaviest of the three holding down the weight on the tail. I scramble to grab something as we take off, hitching my legs carefully away from the exhaust.

A few times, I accidentally gran Sen’s waist and he giggles. I’m a bit nervous to be riding three-deep on a moped through five pm traffic, and it takes me a bit to establish my balance. The whole time I’m repeating “perfect balance” in my head to keep from thinking of how bad it’d be if we spill.

We ride for a few minutes across town and he drops us off at a house with two elephants outside. It costs one hundred baht for an elephant ride. 

We sit and watch the beautiful creatures from the porch while Sen goes off somewhere for a few minutes. We wonder if this is our destination. We observe the domesticated elephant and wonder if it’s happy…

Sen is back shortly so we hop back on. He says we’re going to the other side of the island and I’m pretty sure he’s joking. I really hope he is.

We cut to the right, entering a dirt road. We continue uphill awhile until the road gets too rough to ride with three people. Sierra and I hop off to find ourselves in a large rubber tree plantation.

Up the hill is small platform with a metal roof. Next to it is a fire with a few panfish roasting on sticks. We are introduced to a group of locals. One of them speaks fluid English, so we enjoy a more complete conversation.

He shows us how they score the rubber trees to collect sap.

 

He tells us the price has been steadily dropping per kilogram and it’s not even half as profitable as it was a few years ago.

We talk about Northern Thailand, where he’s from, and about the hill tribes who exist without major interference from the local government. I am happy to know the ancient way of life is still somewhat intact in this country.

There is a good variety of fish for dinner, caught with a net by one of their friends.

 

We drink Coca-Cola and eat fish with our hands, spooning sauce and rice onto paper plates.

The sun is low, glowing like copper while we chat and eat together. Sen tells us that when it gets dark, we’ll head to the last night of the festival. Mr. Dom shows up in his new Toyota pickup.

We go out to pick up ingredients for the jungle juice at a local shop and mix some more cocktails back at the rubber grove. 
We listen to a bit of Thai music and they request that we put on some California music. I play on David Grisman (fiddle player from Mill Valley) but they don’t seem to jive with it. They call it hillbilly music, which is basically correct. I try some Grateful Dead, which is met with lukewarm reception. Next, I try Del & Hieroglyphics (Oakland) before finishing off with Gorillaz reggae covers. Tough crowd, but the reggae seems to soothe everyone’s ears.

For every island I’ve been on, there is reggae music to compliment the scenery.

Sierra and I hike up the plantation hill to catch sunset through the trees, watching the ocean fade into a dusky glow. We’re thankful to be here, grateful not to be bothered about taxis, tours, and money.

Sen tells me a friend near the resort found a wallet on the beach but there’s no money in it. I ask him to send a picture of the passport but he tells me we’ll get it in the morning. 

I desperately want to be at ease and know whether it’s mine or not but I take the queue to remain patient. It’s dark out now and the plantation workers are making their rounds with headlamps in the cool night air. We finish off jungle juice before we load up to enjoy the festival.

It’s a full truck on the way to the other side of the island, we’re carrying a few ladies, a few gentlemen, and a monkey-man.
Entering the festival, we see the usual night-market scenery. Plenty of vending booths selling little bits of everything. We wind our way through the crowds to find a comfortable restaurant by the pier. They have the usual blankets and cushions spread across the ground.

We have a few beers and a few cigarettes, listening to live music from multiple stages. It’s mostly cover songs, the same soundtrack we’ve been hearing for days on end: Country Road (Take Me Home), Hotel California, a few Toots & the Maytals songs…

We’re right in the middle of several speakers blaring so we get a cacophony soundtrack. The jungle juice and beers has dulled my senses enough so I don’t mind. We watch some fire spinning for a while. 


The bands come back on stage and I lay back on the cushion and relax. 

At some point I hear everyone laughing. Sierra gently prods me and I open my eyes. A bit groggy, I realize I dozed off. Everyone finds it amusing. I shake it off and sit upright.

We pay our tabs and make our way out of the festival, grabbing a couple banana milkshakes for the road.

Mr. Dam drops us off at Skyview and we sleep off another late night.

The next morning, I wake with a jolt. Our plane leaves in the evening. Our shuttle to the airport leaves at one o’clock.

I make my way out to the street and begin checking all the usual places for my passport. I run the marathon with no results. The morning sun grows increasingly hot with each footstep.

I try the local police station but there is nobody home. I check back in an hour to find it vacant still.

I can replace my passport at the embassy in Chiang Mai. It will cost me just under two hundred dollars. I am supposed to file a police report and bring a copy of it to the embassy.

Back at the mansion, I see Sen and ask him if he heard anything. It’s still too early, he tells me. I walk down the other way and check a few restaurants.

On my way down the road, a Thai woman wearing a shawl stops to talk with me. It’s the Muslim Thai woman with the shuttle tickets, still trying to close a deal. I tell her about losing my wallet, and where I stay. She knows Skyview and the owners, but I can’t read if this is a common occurrence or not.

She asks me where I’m going. I tell her and she motions me to hop on the back of her moped. We took off from the local gas station, leaving a trail of dust behind us.

I jump on and nearly pull us to the ground as we take off. Thankfully, we correct and I keep chanting my balance mantra. She drops me off near the 7-11 and I thank her.

I ask around but still no wallet. I accept that it’s gone and that I’ll have to cancel my debit card. My head hangs low as I march back to Skyview Mansion. 

Maybe I’ll just live on Koh Lanta and open a cheap bed and breakfast somewhere in the woods.

1 star accommodations, 5 star bugs. BYOS: Bring Your Own Sheets

Sierra is finished with her morning yoga by this time. We go across the street together for a round of banana coffee milkshakes.

Most of our things are packed and our shuttle should arrive in just over hour. I hope the plane will let me board without a passport.

I go down to see Sen and pay him for our shuttle. He tells me to wait a moment while he goes into the back room. When he comes out, he’s holding a tan wallet that looks just like mine. He brushes some dirt and moss off it and hands it to me. I check the passport- it’s mine. The debit card it there as well and the cash is gone.
Sen tells me it was very difficult for him to track down. I thank him again and again, grateful to avoid the replacement fees.

Sierra and I make a mission to an ATM, passing the Muslim Thai ticket saleswoman on our way. Even though her prices are a few dollars less, I reluctantly inform her that we’ve booked through our guesthouse.

I am very suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of my wallet but there is nothing more I can do about it. I give Sen a reward as I’d promised, and thank him for tracking it down. He is dressed in his temple attire, off for some Friday worship. I give him a hug and wish him well.

Our shuttle shows up late and the driver won’t let us on. Thankfully, Sen comes back as if on queue, and sorts it out for us. The driver seems frustrated as he loads our bags in.

It’s all Sabai-Sabai  and que sera sera from here on out. No more pre-booking hostels for us. Koh Lanta has been good to us and we give thanks to our new friends and the Skyview Mansion.

We say goodbye to Koh Lanta and its wonderful advertisements.

It’s a lazy afternoon ride to the Krabi airport. We have a few hours of downtime before our flight which we spend in an air-conditioned restaurant.

The flight is quick and painless. Goodbye to the islands of Southern Thailand and hello to the mountains of the north!

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