Thailand has something for everyone. Anything from wild parties to natural solace. Somewhere in this spectrum lies the line dividing the Tourist’s version of Thailand that only exists with their influence, and the Local’s version of Thailand that has avoided mass crowds of “farangs” (the Thai word for guava, which they call tourists because most of us are white).
This weekend I set out to find the real Thailand, the local Thailand. After all I am here to see Thailand, not tourists.
I arrived in Bang Saphan Yai at 03:00 in the morning from the 3rd class train. The lights are constantly on in the train, and if you are lucky you can get a meter long bench seat to your self. A group of younger Thai’s were drinking and making a fuss the entire time, so there wasn’t much sleep to be had. The ride cost 214 BHT (6 USD), one California Burrito for 366 kilometers.
I got to the beach after a 3 km walk and short motor bike ride, and quickly found a spot to string up my hammok and take the few hours of sleep that I could get.
Bang Saphan Yai is a fishing village, and a major exporter of squid. The green lights from the fishermens’ boats lined the horizon.
When it was light I started walking for a smaller village up the coast. I stopped and talked to a few people along the way, and on the way back I was invited to sit with a store owner and rest. He spoke very little english and I speak very little Thai, so the conversation was limited and in a strange Thai-English pidgin. He taught me Thai words and I taught him English words. Only a minute or two down the road I stopped for lunch and was warmly greeted and given free watermelon. Older Thai women have a fondness for handing out food.
I bagan walking again, this time heading towards an open air market in town. In less than five minutes I came across someone who offered to give me a ride to the market. I soon learned that getting free rides in this town is as easy as asking for directions. After the market I was given a ride by a police officer whom I asked directions from. The police officer was surprised that I had even heard of Bang Saphan Yai.
My reason for traveling there, appart from finding Local Thailand, was to explore a cave.
So I followed the sign.
And hiding directly behind the Buddha.
The cave had at least 7 large rooms, with multiple passage ways.
There was only one light every 50 meters or so, which created many dark crevices and hallways.
Buddha statues were everywhere. Even hidden in dark pockets deep in the cave.
The cave is not incredibly long, but it is spread wide, branching out. It took about an hour for me to see all of the rooms, with the exception of the lightless void in the very deepest part of the cave.
Some of the initial rooms were 15 meters tall with bats chattering and squeaking their distain for the lights being on.
I ventured into the void room last. I did not take a picture because my flash would not have worked. The entrance was about twice the size of a door way, and immediately upon entering the ceiling vaulted up past sight, and the floor dropped down as a steep ramp, also past what I could see. The string of lights lead into this room. but there was only a dim glow of a broken light in the corner, and the string arched down with the floor into the dark.
The room was more conical than dome shaped, and I could see the middle of the far wall. With my headlamp I could just make out the top of the pointed ceiling, and I could visualize my path down to the floor of the room. And at the floor there was another dark entrance.
I started down the ramp, looking back occasionally I was surprised at how quickly the glow of my exit rose above me. By the time I got to the bottom I had gone down 10 or more meters in a horizontal distance of 5. And I could see that the ceiling of this cave must have been the same distance upwards, if not more.
Near the base, in a nook sat a lone Buddha statue, as if it was hidden away.
I then faced the dark entrance at the base of the now conquered void room. This hallway was much narrower than any other part of the cave. It reminded me of the Anza Borrego mud caves. I passed two lights on the way in, which were both broken. And in the end, the final wall of the cave, I was unhappy to find that the cave continued through a crawl space. Caves are naturally eerie places, no matter how many Buddha statues you have to give you good spiritual guidance.
The cave had a final, unsatisfying end. If I was less warn down from my descent deep into the cave, I would have been able to climb up a short section of limestone, and possibly ventured on. But I was satisfied, and ready to retreat into the light.
I was given a ride back into town, and when I asked a local for directions to the bus station she took me to the train station. I was happy with my adventures in Bang Saphan Yai, and bought my ticket south on the spot.
I took a two hour and 20 BHT (0.66 USD) train ride to Chumphon. This is a busy city where many tourists pass through on their way to the northernmost southern islands of Thailand. It did not take me long to dislike the busyness of the city, and I quickly bought the first ticket out, and further south. Much further south than I initially planned on going. I had heard about the Trang coast and it’s islands, but I did not gather much information on this area because I figured I would see it on some later trip. But the train arrived there at 08:00 in the morning as opposed 02:00 in the morning at my intended destinations.
Arriving in Trang I found a tourist information shop and learned how to get to one of the islands. Ko Libong, the person helping me said, would not have many tourists. My destination was set.
I took a van down to the pier and was directed away from the main tourist pier and to an alley way that emptied to the sea, equipped with a few traditional long tail boats. I was the only foreigner, and the locals tried to speak in Thai with me. I told them the few well rehearsed lines that I spat out to anyone who tried to speak to me in Thai. ”I speak little Thai” “Me student at Mohidol University” and “Amareecaa.”
As I wait an older Thai lady hands me food and a few other’s ask me if I want to eat. I reply no. So naturally they ask me again. As mentioned before, most of my interactions with older Thai women follow the same pattern.
The boat ride (50 BHT, 1.66 USD) is quick, and I arrive on a wooden pier lined with houses on stilts. I have arrived at my destination, and now I do not know where to go, so I begin to walk. A moto taxi driver asks me where I am going, and we talk for a few moments. I tell him that I don’t want a taxi, so he waves down one of the passing locals with a box style side car. This local, I will later find out, is Reed. Reed takes me to his village (one of four villages on the island, and one of two large enough to be put on the map). I tell him that I want to camp somewhere, and after some searching and mention of rain he offers for me to stay in his house.
I was naturally hesitant, and I agreed, but still carried my stuff with me as I explored the beach and village deciding that if I found a place to camp I would stay there instead.
I was the only westerner in the tiny, one road village, so I became known very quickly. Returning from walking down the beach I had lunch at the only food stand in the village, which Reed cooked at along with his wife, who I then met. I also was introduced to his son (~8 years old) and his daughter (~10 years old).
There was only one lady in the village who could hold an adequate conversation in english, so she translated for me.
Meeting Reed’s family and seeing this as I entered the house made me much more comfortable with staying in their home.
I had a traditional Thai breakfast of purple sticky rice served in a banana leaf, fried banana, and Muslim style rice with pork and chicken. We sat on the floor despite there being two benches beside us. Reed then told me that I could take their motorbike around the island to go “look.”
It had rained the night before, and the motorbike’s tires were worn well past their expiration. This only added to the adventure. I zipped around on the two brick roads on the island, and cautiously slid up and down the dirt roads, caking mud on my shoes and on the tires. I explored every drivable nook of the island, and found many abandoned beaches and orchards of rubber trees. After adding a bit more petrol into the bike, and removing most of the mud, I returned. Sunburnt.
This is the “shower.” You use bowls to scoop water out of the tub and over your self.
Just off of the coast, or connected to the village by a land bridge (depending on the tide) there is a green hill, dense with jungle. The tide was down so I walked through the shallow water to the hill and circumnavigated it, twice stopping under a tree and then in a cave to wait for rain showers to pass. Around the hill, in the tide pools, locals picked at shellfish that were fixed to the rocks with metal picks. And on the way back I stopped to watch a younger Thai stick a metal wire in the sand and pull up a skewered crab.
I told the Thai translator lady that I would be leaving the next day, and she said that that is a shame because Reed was planning on taking me to catch squid. They said that I should return, and I intend to.
I had breakfast with the family. It was raining that morning, and in typical Thai fashion that meant that we were to lounge around on the floor and watch Thai soap operas. Reed told me a few times that they would eat and then take me, so to not have to ride in the rain. And a few times he requested that I leave the next day.
We had a feast of a lunch with the family and Reed’s parents came over along with several of the local children. The children enjoyed watching the strange foreigner, and I could understand enough Thai to tell that the adults were talking about me. I would pick out “University Mahidol” and “Amareecaa” and “..can speak a little Thai.” All of my trademark phrases. I felt slightly jealous, now I was left with no more points of conversation. I was left with “thank you” and “fried rice with pork” as my few statements that could validate that I can in fact “speak little Thai.”
Directly before leaving I was told that I should come back, and I look forward to when I do. I succeeded in making it to Local Thailand, and the people I found there greatly surpassed the hospitality and kindness that I expected. I have never known people more welcoming to strangers.