A Test of Spirit

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Worn by walking in the 100 plus heat, the “air-con” pleasantly wrapped around my face as I opened the guesthouse door. I wasn’t even finished enjoying the cool blessing when I saw our driver standing in the lobby. He was 45 minutes early, and the taxi running outside was evidently ours. Stacey and I raced to gather out things from the smallest room I’ve ever stayed in, where the bed touches three walls, and the shower sprayed the toilet.

During our long ride through midday traffic to the travel agency, I sat with my head-cold, noticing how it had moved from my throat to the back of my nose and was now running out the front into the hard-to-find tissues I’d gathered and stuffed in my pocket.

We were dropped at the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) where we booked our next travels. Inside we met with Nikki, a travel agent I met while he was beating up a tuk-tuk driver on the sidewalk this past summer, when I was in Thailand with Eric. He was hard to find this time, because since I saw him last he’d been fired and was now at a new location. Evidently during his exit he challenged his old boss some co-workers to a fight, but they all declined. He did however succeed in beating up a Thai government official and his now x-best friend.

This guy is about 5’7” and 120 pounds, but he grew up training as a Muay Thai fighter in the hills of Thailand. Last summer he showed Eric and me the strength of his shins by repeatedly smashing a glass ashtray into them.

You may wonder why I went back to Nikki. Well, last time the stuff he sold us worked out pretty well and in the Thai sea of scam artists and corrupt officials, it’s nice when you find someone you can trust…even a little bit. Nikki’s got a crazy smile, a spastic humor and broken English learned entirely from American movie quotes.

We had already paid for our trip the day before, but our tickets wouldn’t be ready for a few hours. We ate some awesome fried rice and chicken, cooked by Nikki’s dirty work gang of guys and girls, who if they aren’t making his food or running his errands, just stand around waiting for orders from their little boss.

After eating, we headed to the Cambodian embassy, figuring we’d get our Visa’s then, instead of waiting a few hours at the Cambodian border. After a hot and exhaust engulfed tuk-tuk ride, we walked back the two blocks we’d passed before we realized our driver didn’t know where he was going.

The Lonely Planet guide said the Cambodian embassy should be right here, but all we found was a small alley. A woman sweeping outside her door yelled to us and pointed onward, smiling. I was sure she didn’t know what we were looking for, but we couldn’t exactly communicate with her, so we continued on. Ahead stood a cinderblock wall with a white steal door just tall enough for the average of Asian’s to fit through. As we approached, discussing our wrong turn, a smiling face popped into a tiny barred window in the door. “Embassy closed today! Come back tomorrow!” the guard said smiling at his remembering the English and having an answer for us all at once. The guidebook Stacey was holding said the Embassy was open until 4pm, but neither the guard nor the gate seemed to understand, never mind care.

On the way back down the alley and up the stairs to the Monorail, I walked with my head-cold, noticing how it’d been joined by a throbbing headache, as if the congestion and spending last night on the toilet weren’t enough unrelated symptoms for one day.

The monorail was clean, fast, and modern and we took it straight into the Bangkok’s most giant mall. A few hours of this was a quick and pleasant vacation into the western world.

By 5pm, we were back at the TAT, looking forward to our promised shower and air conditioned nap. Nikki went through our itinerary with us and handed over all the documents, and then he rushed upstairs to clean a room for us. I opened our info to recheck the 7:50 train departure and good thing I did, because the tickets actually said 6:20.
Nikki came running down the stairs holding a clean shirt and bar of deodorant for me, smiling as wide as he could. We stood with our bags on our shoulders. “Nikki, our train is leaving in 30 minutes” I said. “Oh my Buddha! No time for shower! No time for nap! You go now!” he yelped in response. I walked into the connecting store to buy some snacks and he followed me running around grabbing chips and drinks, then throwing them all on the counter, he yells “I pay! I pay!” We probably took three breaths before he was hugging us goodbye in the sidewalk and sending us across the street to the train station with a bag full of free groceries.

The train was straight out of a Vietnam War movie and just like the one I had ridden to Chaing Mai with Eric last summer. The only airflow would be the giant open windows, so as we sat at the station waiting for departure and entertained by our iPods, we cooked in the stale humid air.

Finally the train jerked and rolled. She clanked and moaned and creaked and squeaked every inch and minute from Bangkok to Surat Thanai. Not every car on this train was for sleeping, so at every station we stopped to load and unload night workers and early risers from those cars filled with regular seats. Her brakes screamed and whistle blew us from slumber at every stop, so between were the only times we slept. I lay with my headache; pleased my congestion was finally fading and fought to ignore the gas pains that had now filled my chest.

At 5am the sun brought more heat and the train attendant walked the aisles. He woke up the French guy Stacey traded beds with, who wasn’t too pleased since his stop wasn’t for a couple hours still; the he offered us tea or coffee. I grunted and noticed that although deliriously tired, all my sick symptoms were gone with the night.

However, now my allergies were acting up. My throat was clogged and I thought about the fresh air in all the fields we’d passed through. Funny how the dirty Bangkok air was easier to breathe.

From the late arriving train we rushed onto a more modern air conditioned bus. Thirty minutes more and we were at the pier joining the largest group of backpackers I’ve ever seen. With the popularity of budget travel guidebooks, I suppose the unbeaten path is very well worn these days. It was a scene straight out of the movie “The Beach”. Sweaty, dirty twenty-something’s hunched over picnic tables and reclining on steps. Their piles of backpacks looked like trash before closer inspection. French girls smoked and stared, Australian guys laughed and drank cheap beer, lonely Germans and Canadians sat introspecting that what they were doing had purpose, and a bunch of Thai bus drivers, ticket sellers, pier workers and food sellers scurried about completely un-phased by the still growing heat. The ferry came and we found comfortable seats in a high up air conditioned room. As we pulled away from the pier, the captain came in to collect extra monies for the seats we were in. He spoke first in Thai and the instant he repeated in English, his entire “first class” room emptied out into the now pleasant Pacific air. We found a seat on the bow and looked out at the islands spotting the horizon ahead. We guessed and agreed the most distant island was likely our destination. Forty five minutes later we’d passed them all and headed straight for the open ocean. A quick calculation from the distance in my travel guide and I guessed we had over two more hours in the sun.

I’ve still never learned the sunburn lesson. I’m lazy with the sunscreen and hardly ever trade the pleasure of rays for the safety of shade. We stayed with everyone else and let the sun paint pain into our evening skin.

Finally we reached the Island and were greeted by our pickup. All this picking-up sounds awfully expensive, but a 40 minute taxi ride costs less than US$3.

A tuk-tuk, monorail, train, bus, ferry, and two cars later, tired and sunburned, but safe and finally healthy, we arrive at “Munchies Beachfront Resort” on Koh Samui Island in Thailand.

Pleased again with Nikki’s service, I’m writing this while sitting on the deck of our private bungalow, watching the waves roll off a sun set lit Pacific. The trip here was a test of spirit, but the trade off in cost for a place like this make’s it worthwhile. We’re paying more than a hostel here, but still much less than a cheap Motel in the states.

Since I left home I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of budget travel, what it means, and what it means to me.
The painful trip from Bangkok to here, and especially sitting with a hundred other backpackers, all supposedly doing something different, has given me still more to think about. I don’t question the value in hostelling or truly traveling off the beaten path. I love meeting other like and open-minded travelers and I’ve found some of my favorite places where the least tourism is. But I have started to question where I spend money and were I don’t. I know I could stretch my travels further and longer by doing everything as cheap as possible, but I’m realizing it may not be in my best interest, never-mind necessary for achieving my goals.

I suppose I’m just figuring out what type of travel works for me. And I guess that’s the point.

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