You ever been so sick where the only thing you want to do is curl under the blankets in your temperature controlled bedroom. Where the slightest sound or touch send all your nerve ends in a spazmatic dance like grabbing both ends of a battery. You literally need to lock yourself in a sensory depredation chamber for fear of going mad. Well this is how I felt over the next week or so. There were bright spots, when I could taste food again, or where the sun shine felt warm and not like napalm dripping down my body, and even on occasion a bit of my old self would surface. But all in all, it was pure misery. I had no home to hide in, not even the comfort of staying in one place. As the saying goes, the dice were thrown weeks before, when we booked our flight out of Medan. Why we chose to fly such a short distance instead of going straight to Koh Sumai, only the gods know. More than likely we saved a few hundred dollars on tickets, and we never get past this romantic idea that going overland is the best way. We did not even want to fly out of Medan, but Air Asia used a bullying tactic of undercutting the cost of the ferry by half the price, thus putting the ferry out of business. Then once competition was gone, up the price three hundred fold, seeing how they were the only business in town. Sure there was one other ferry like nine-hour bus ride away, but even we were not in the mood for that. I will make the next four days as short and sweet as possible. It was all a blur to me anyway and like I said, the dice were thrown.
We got picked up at our lovely little lake house, and driven across the lake, but we missed our bus. No worries, we were quickly ushered into a car with a chain-smoking Sumatran who spoke little or no English. The cars’ interior was decorated in a skull motif that ran through out. Our other companions were two older Sumatran ladies who enjoyed eating corn and spraying the kernels all over the vehicle. Five hours of jerky driving through some of the nastiest diesel smoke and traffic in the world to Medan Airport. At the airport we dealt with a staff member that actually asked for tips for doing their job like printing boarding passes. The flight was delayed an hour or so, so we spent more time in my favorite city. Our flight was one of those where you go up and then you go down. It’s ten at night and we are in a torrential rain storm in Penang, Malaysia. This time I was loving the cultural shock of going from crappy Medan to the ultra modern, comfy metropolis of Georgetown. We took the public bus which was big, spacious and clean for a change. The bus driver told us when to get off and we caught a cab which took us to numerous hotels till we found one that had space.
The White House was an old colonial mansion that had been completely done over by painting everything, floor to ceiling, white. Well I told you I needed a sensory depredation chamber, and we had found one. It was weird but peaceful, and I was really sick, so we decided to stay another day. But NO, fully booked the man says. Off we go again, to catch a bus. While crossing the road a man drives right into me with his scooter. I grabbed both handlebars and he slammed his breaks, the wheel was between my legs and we could have kissed we were so close. But kissing was not what came out of his mouth, instead it was a lot of Malaysian profanity with a few English ones added in for my benefit. Ohh, I’m fine thanks for asking. Well from here we caught a massive ferry to the mainland and then the train to Thailand. The train we were on was not all that great, very Eastern Block feeling. I tried cleaning the windows but it really just smeared dirt around some more.
Sometimes you get on a train or bus, and it takes on a life of its own. This train did that. Even feeling like crap I still could not help but feel we were part of a special experience. Most everyone on the train was going to Bangkok, so for them it was a twenty hour journey, we were only going for six. There was a young British boy on the train, early twenties, by the name of Mark. He was incredibly enthusiastic about life and traveling, and was in the process of trying to go native, by wearing baggy pants with elephant prints. I did not have the heart to tell him he looked like every other tourist. He was traveling indefinitely with the goals of getting a job in Thailand, or Australia, or well, somewhere. But life was good. He was the only traveler not clutching his Lonely Planet guide, but instead he had a note pad with some hand drawn notes and maps from fellow travelers. No guidebook at all. He did not have a ticket to move forward but a guy on train helped him out. Otherwise he would probably be sleeping on our hotel floor.
Immigration on the Thai border was gritty and not very pleasant. The agents were gruff, yelling at you to stay back, then come forward, then get back. No pleasing them. Our first big mistake had already happened and we did not realize it, we were stamped with a fifteen day visa. If we had flown in we would have gotten a thirty-day visa, but because we did the longer, more romantic route of going overland, we were only allowed the shorter visa. No matter how much I argued, offered more money (shocked this didn’t work) and smiled pretty that’s all they would do. You see this was going to be our first big break, we had Yvonne’s sisters wedding in fourteen days and we were planning on spending heaps of time with her family. In addition to the wedding, the high season of travel was beginning and we wanted to hunker down till after New Years, get an apartment, cook our own food, work on my art, relax, and laugh at all the tourists going on vacation at the worst time ever!
With a grunt I was dismissed to go back to the train. Our British friend was taking an extra long to get back on the train so I went to check on him. He was having the same argument with customs, even sweetening the deal with a larger bribe, again all to no avail. The train turned its engines off and sat there like a broken toy, we were going nowhere fast. After gossiping with other passengers, I found out that the other train that we were connecting to had been in an accident so there was a massive delay. Our train was two cars long, but for the long trip up Thailand they were adding twenty more cars. So we waited, made friends, read, and eventually, fell asleep. We were jolted awake hours later by the linking of the two trains, and we lumbered forward. The passengers applauded, most of them looking forward to another fourteen hours to Bangkok. We on the other hand only had a few hours before we jumped off at a city called Hat Yai.
Hat Yai was not your normal tourist spot, in fact, there were no tourist there at all. The train station was gritty, but we were informed that there was plenty of accommodations a few blocks up, so we just started walking. There were all kinds of buildings everywhere, set up in neat rows, it was a proper city. Not much was moving where we were except some of the biggest rats I had seen thus far. Gnarly looking beasts that would practically run over your feet in their mad dashes here or there. About three blocks in we came upon the King hotel, a 14 story business hotel, and we were able to get a room for twenty bucks. That night I got the most pleasant surprise, as I huddled under the blankets miserable, I turned the TV on and what comes on, none other than the movie The Beach. First day in Thailand, and the movie that most represents backpackers in Thailand comes on. Rob Steiger lent me the book twelve years before and I couldn’t put it down. It’s about a backpacker who finds a secret small utopian beach community that is hidden from the world but soon everything goes wrong. The movie is great except one segment where Leonardo DiCaprio is loosing it so he becomes a video game character, breaking the reality of the movie. Ignore that part and its a real tense Lord of the Flies type story. This was a perfect welcome to our sixth country, Thailand.
Yvonne went and got her breakfast the next morning while I slept, than we both grabbed our bags and headed down to catch our bus to Koh Lanta island. There was a very cranky driver yelling at us and a lot of people jammed in looking like sardines in a can. Yvonne had seen the bus while she was eating breakfast, but no one in the hotel said it was for us. They had waited for a half hour while we dilly dallied, oops! Well we were shoved in, Yvonne in front, me in the middle. I was feeling really bad this day, so I put my headphones on, watched Moonrise Kingdom on my ipad, a great movie, and tried to forget I was alive. There were ferries, island hopping, and according to Yvonne, an Elephant in the jungle, but I did not see anything. I was thrilled when we finally arrived in Koh Lanta.
I suppose a little back history on Yvonne and her family is necessary, before things get really confusing. You see, she is one of seven kids from Carlow, Ireland. Now if I had seven kids, I probably would not even remember all their names, and probably just make them wear numbers. Yvonne went traveling for an entire year through the Americas back in 2001, and her sister Elaine joined her for a big chunk of it. So they were really tight and already used to all the eccentricities that traveling brings out in people. I had the privilege of meeting up with Elaine and her fiancé, Derek, in Yellowstone National Park the previous year when we were out there for my sister Sherrie’s wedding. We camped for four days under constant threat of being eaten by bears, stampeded by bison, or catching hypothermia in summer. So it was a bonding experience for all of us. When the two sisters get together it’s like a marathon that no one else was told about. You would think the geysers were the only thing smoking in the park, but I swear every time those two were together all I saw was a puff of smoke and they were gone. They would be done with the entire hike when Derek and I were still just looking at the entrance board. Now Derek on the other hand is the most laid back guy I know, and I can always count on an interesting conversation while the sisters ran loops around us. Derek is from Canada, and has hunted and farmed the land out there for his entire life, and is a great storyteller. Stories like packs of coyotes killing dogs to how quickly a guys car could get flipped because the idiot was trying to get a picture of his kid with the bison. So needless to say we all had a great time exploring Yellowstone. So we were really looking forward to catching up in Koh Lanta.
They had already been there a few days, so they had a great beach picked out to stay on at a place called Somewhere Else. They had a weaved bungalow with a hammock on the porch facing the water. There were probably twenty of these bungalows lined up, and a large open restaurant with a thatched roof next to the beach. The bungalows were sold out but we found a nice place directly behind them with air conditioning, a necessity with me being so sick. It was so much fun for all of us to catch up that I kinda forgot how sick I was. We all sat in a raised thatched platform on the beach drinking beer and having good craic. (That’s talk in Irish). The moon was way up in the sky before we went to sleep that night.
Koh Lanta is one of Thailands’ famous beach islands, with miles of sand and palm trees. There is not too much elevation here except in the north part of the island, where a large hill rises up. There’s one major town where we met up with them, and it is mainly geared to tourists, with restaurants, souvenir shops, and dive shops. You don’t come here if you are looking for anything crazy happening, but if you want a great place to relax, float on the waves, and get some sun you are in the right spot.
Over the next few days, I either slept on the thatched platform, or in my room. I was way too sick and feverish to do much else. Every one sent me to the doctor. A good call on their part because I was only getting worse. I was going on three weeks of being sick. Well I lucked out because there was a really good clinic on the island, with English-speaking doctor. The waiting room was all in white with a pile of flip-flops at the entrance. There were a few other people waiting ahead of me so I broke out my book and started reading. A little blond boy went in ahead of me looking a little teary eyed. Ten minutes later I hear the Doctor telling his mom that he was to stay out of the sun, no swimming, and no fun. Jeese, that sucks. Sun, fun, and beach is all there is out here.
Well my turn came and I had all the normal tests Doctors like to do, and then she tells me the same thing she told the kid. Of course I nod my head, but no way I was hiding all the time. Turns out there was a lot of fluid in my lungs and a high temperature. I had a severe case of bronchitis and possibly walking pneumonia. Great! Well too serious for me to totally ignore. She put me on a better set of antibiotics then the ones the monkey tried to steal, and I went home to bed. Everyone delayed their trip to let me get healthy, even with all my protests for them to move on. I was to get another check up in three days and if there was still a lot of fluid in my lungs I would have to check into the hospital.
Well it was hard to be good, but I did last a few days with minimum swimming and fun. The last day when everyone went on a snorkeling trip I visited the Doctor again and she said it had improved so I did not need to go to hospital. To celebrate I decided to ride the scooter around the island. There was a national park with a two-hour caving tour and it was torture for me to not go, but I decided it was in my best interest to not go. So instead I found a great overlook cafe and sketched. Everyone returned from their trip raving about crazy fish, caves they swam through, and dragons too I’m sure. So it was a good day for all.
Now there have been some rumors floating around that I might have been a bit moody and even down right cranky. I know that this is hard to believe because I am usually a ray of sunshine in everyone’s life. So let me lay this one to rest, I am sorry if I might have sounded a bit testy, but I have no memory so it was probably some other guy. Lets just blame it on the drugs, fever, and chills that had come over me. The good thing is I am back to being my cheerful old self.