You sure can cover a lot of ground in a week! After departing the wintry mountains of the north, we headed to the still-sweltering city of Bangkok, then found ourselves sailing to Kawthoung, Burma (a town that foreigners can enter, but cannot leave), where we stayed just long enough to hand over a perfectly crisp $10 bill to immigration, get a stamp in, buy a Myanmar Beer (betcha can’t find that at your local gourmet beverage store!) and get a stamp out. By lunchtime we were once more legal in Thailand and boarded a bus to Khao Lak, the first of our beach stops and the quintessential environment for what we have dubbed “TWTs.”
A TWT is a Two Week Tourist. There is nothing wrong with these people, so no one take offense, but we couldn’t resist compiling a list of the vast differences between vacationers (ie TWTs) and travellers like ourselves. Khao Lak is beautiful, there is no denying that, and was actually the hardest hit area in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami. As such, it has been rebuilt from the ground up, full of places perfect for the package tourist families and those in search of a “getaway.” It was tough to find a room within our budget, but we managed (back to cold water!) and before too long found ourselves looking for some dinner.
Khao Lak is one long strip of a road lined with the following: guesthouses, gourmet “supermarkets,” shiny pharmacies, internet cafes, dive shops, bathing suit shops, sunglasses shops, souvenior shops, hemp jewelry shops, handbag shops, more bathing suit shops, 7-eleven, banana pancake stands, pizza-pasta-hamburger restaurants, seafood-rest of world food restaurants, Irish pubs and authentic Thai food restaurants.
Rule number one: If a restaurant has to tell you that it serves “authentic Thai food,” it isn’t a Thai restaurant, it’s a farang restaurant with some unspicy Thai-ish dishes (such as fried rice). Rule number two: If there are no Thais eating there, it isn’t a Thai restaurant. Rule number three: If the condiments on the table include ketchup, salt and pepper, it isn’t a Thai restaurant!
We walked up and down that strip, determined to find one single place that could call itself Thai. It wasn’t the higher costs that put us off, as we’ll certainly pay a bit more for good restaurant food, it was the fact that we’d be paying more for food that was dumbed down, cheating us out of Thailand’s culinary greatness! As it was, we ended up settling for a place that was completely indistinguishable from all the others; the food was fine, but it was the entertainment that made it worth a stop!
We’d been in Khao Lak for 5 hours at this point and had barely seen a single Thai person. We’d seen white people of all shapes, sizes and nationalities, but not a single Thai aside from those serving our food and manning the swimsuit shops. As we watched the masses of big, sunburnt people stroll by, pay far too much for knockoff swimwear (bargaining? what?), eat banana pancakes from “street vendors” with English menus and English prices, and head back towards their cozy resort rooms, we coined the TWT term.
These people were all enjoying a nice holiday, no doubt about that. What struck us, in light of all we’ve seen and done, is that not one of these people were experiencing Thailand! They will all return home in two weeks with a nice tan and a bag full of souveniors and claim that they’ve been to Thailand, when in fact they haven’t had so much as a glimpse! Khao Lak could be any beach resort town in any country in any part of the world; there is no reason (and actually it’s quite difficult in this place) to learn a word of Thai, interact with any Thai people or eat any Thai food. It’s like a giant playpen for foreigners.
These observations aren’t meant to insult, they just struck us in a particular way and made us feel sorry for the TWTs. There are so many rich experiences to be had, so close by, if people would just dig a bit and get out of that comfort zone!
During my morning run I discovered a cluster of local eateries and takeaway stalls, merely a ten minute walk away. We beelined it there for breakfast and enjoyed our meal in a bright bustling restaurant, full of Thais and amazing curries and conversation for a fraction of what the standard “toast and jam” would cost down the road- the smiles on the cooks’ faces told us that not too many farang make it down that way.
Lunch was a similar experience; the somtum lady was tickled pink not only that we stopped by for some takeaway, but that we managed to order it all in Thai. It was one of the best beach picnics ever! We did the same for all of our meals, as the generic establishments lining the main strip were too bland, too mindnumbing to be worth our time – we can visit places like that at home!
Lunch on day two was the highlight of it all. I’d gotten more somtum, but Gabe was after something a bit heartier, so we stepped into a spotless little place with chicken and pork hanging in the display case. The man in charge greeted us with a huge smile and absolutely lit up when Gabe ordered khao moo daang. As he prepared the dish, he talked to us excitedly in rapid-fire Thai; we hung in there as best we could, responding when we got something, smiling and shrugging when it went over our heads. It was no matter to him; after he figured out that we were headed to Phuket soon, he interrupted his task to draw us a little map, indicating that he has another restaurant there, near the roundabout, that serves khao mein gai. He would be going there on Sunday for holiday and was very excited!
His enthusiasm was contagious and we were grinning ear to ear even before he placed the most well-presented (and best-tasting) plate of roasted red pork and rice that we’ve ever seen on the table. The standard bowl of soup (sort of a palate cleanser) appeared next, followed by a second for me so that I wouldn’t have to sit without refreshments. He continued to smile and talk to us, soon placing a bowl of oily rice (from the khao mein gai dish) on the table for sampling. After we’d each tried a bite, he topped it with delicious, moist chicken, delighted at our delight! When we finally finished we felt as if we had a new friend; we paid the measely 30baht (around 90 cents) that he charged us and promised to be back for breakfast – you can bet that we kept that promise!
Something as simple as running was equally rewarding. I run early and I run on the road, because that’s what I enjoy and, well, beach running is horrendous for you. When I’d head out at 5:30, I would find myself sharing the roads with a crowd of Thai runners, returning their enthusiastic hellos and enjoying that bond that crosses all cultural boundaries. I didn’t see any foreigners, and later saw why; they all run right out of their resorts and onto the beach with all of the other foreigners. Again, nothing wrong with this – but you can’t learn things about a culture by staying in your comfort zone, it’s the people who step out that leave with the real memories.
The TWTs are missing out, and they don’t even know it! I’m generalizing of course, but the exceptions seem to be rare. On our final night, while sitting at a noodle stand, an older foreign couple approached the stand cautiously, peering at what was going on inside. It made us smile and admire their initiative; it was without a doubt their first “street food” experience, and while it was tame for us (english sign), I’m sure it was somewhat daunting for them. They hung around nervously, trying to figure out how to order food, and were eventually rescued by the friendly cook who asked them what sort of meat they’d like and invited them to have a seat. They did so and soon had steaming bowls in front of them; we giggled a bit at their attempts to bypass chopsticks and eat the noodles with spoons, but we definitely gave them credit – they escaped the playpen!
These experiences are repeated again and again for us because we do take the time to walk away from the “playpen,” follow the locals, search for the restaurant that is filled with Asians, not the one with the English menu. These people will always work with you; sure, you’ll make a fool of yourself at times, but that’s part of the fun! Why travel if you aren’t going to experience and learn and take something away from it all? You can be sure that tshirts and handicrafts are faaar from the most important things we’ll be bringing home!
*On a side note: The diving didn’t happen (yet) because we came across the deal of a lifetime once we actually arrived in Khao Lak. Due to the tourism crisis that Thailand is currently facing (one dive company said that they didn’t have a single booking for the month of December, typically the peak of the peak season), companies need to fill their boats. As such, we are going to return at the end of February and join a four day/four night liveaboard trip to the Similan/Surin Islands and each get our respective certifications onboard during the trip. For my open water certification plus an incredible, all inclusive liveaboard trip, I’m paying just over $600; the normal price is nearly double that. It’s pretty much one of the best deals in the world, for one of the best dive sites in the world. More to come in February!
Tags: Beach, Diving, food, Khao Lak, thailand