Andaman Sea, Thailand. Tourists from all over the world have not thought twice: they take a vacation and come to dock en masse on this idyllic Asian coast. Nothing rare. The beaches here are among the most beautiful in the world, the cost of living among the lowest and, whether monks, harlots or matriarchs, the subjects of King Bhumibol Adulyadej form a unique landscape to be observed. They call the region paradise, where sin is allowed to exist. Parties filled with Sang Som (the local rum) cross the nights and, on the drunken face of young foreigners, an exclamation point: “it’s good to be away from home”.
So much excitement makes the place feel like a theme park, but still, life here can be as beautiful and simple as a bungalow on the sand. Waking up at seven in the morning because your room has turned into a sauna (the heat is infernal and the fan can barely do its job) will no longer be a problem. Wondering why Thais use buckets of water for flushing will no longer be an anguish. In the kingdom of Thailand, after all, becoming a sea gypsy is possible. The ocean that bathes the southwest coast of the country is filled with majestic islands. Moving between them will give tourists many nautical miles and the certainty that sailing is necessary and living to see such beauty, even more.
Warit is a humble boatman on the Andaman Sea and I imagine he has one of the best jobs in the world (the boy must also imagine, as he is all smiles). Its function is to transport tourists between Phi Phi Don Island and Phi Phi Leh Island, two monuments that nature decided to build in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Both involve emerald green water bays between their limestone walls, in a great environment for diving and contemplating marine life.
Maya Bay in Phi Phi Leh, for its natural perfection, was the setting for the film “The Beach”, in which three travelers —Leonardo DiCaprio among them— leave the chaotic Khao San Street (the backpacker center of Bangkok) in search of a utopian paradise. The bay is prettier live than on screen. The large influx of tourists, however, added to the negligence of the Thais, generate scenes that would fit better in apocalypse movies. Cigarette butts can be found in the sand, and I was unlucky enough to witness an American sitting in the shallows, wielding a toothbrush and (that’s what you’re thinking) taking care of his oral hygiene right there. Honestly, neither the Phi Phi Islands nor I needed this one.
The southwest coast of Thailand, however, has already suffered greater damage. The region was one of the areas devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Visitors have, for a time, dwindled, and natives are still afraid that further disasters could occur. Warit, the happy boatman, is a survivor. His work saved your life. He says that on the morning of December 26, 2004, he was at sea with a group of tourists when huge waves lifted his boat.
Nothing happened to him or his passengers, but that doesn’t mean that his account is shocking. Driven by an earthquake under the Sumatran Sea, a thousand kilometers from here, the tsunami would wipe the village of Warit off the map. “I went back to Phi Phi Don and everything was destroyed. People were dead and I could only tremble,” he says. His family, luckily, survived, and Warit confirms what others have already told me: despite fears of new disasters, he doesn’t think about leaving the Phi Phi Islands. “I like it here,” he says, before breaking into an obvious smile.
It is not only on islands, however, that the beauty of the Thai coast takes refuge. Many beaches on the mainland have extraordinary beauty. On the Railay peninsula, caves are adjacent to the sea and it is possible to enter the water and swim under stalactites. The peninsula’s limestone cliffs provide challenging climbs and are an invitation readily accepted by lovers of extreme sports.
Railay is endowed with three beaches and, in the most interesting of them —the photogenic Phra Nang— there is a curious temple. Inlaid in a cave and dedicated to the deity Sri Kunlathewi (legend has it that she was an Indian princess who, in the 3rd century BC, was shipwrecked in these parts), the place is filled with statues and phallic drawings. Fishermen bring such works to the deity when they have good luck at sea.
Red light, orange robe
Monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, the revered king of Thailand, welcomes me when I arrive in Phuket, the country’s most touristy island. His serious, professorial face, stamped on a large scale on the road, seems to say to passersby: “Behave yourselves, boys.” Phuket has beautiful beaches and numerous family-friendly resorts, but alongside its bohemian neighbourhoods, Rua Augusta (a traditional haven for little inferninhos in São Paulo) would gain the atmosphere of a monastery.
Patong is the most festive of these neighborhoods and here you can see the synthesis of all the permissiveness that Thailand offers its visitors. Its main street becomes, almost every night, a human labyrinth dimly lit by neon signs. Prostitutes share the sidewalk with lady boys (Thai transsexuals) and both try with equal effort to catch the drunken attention of foreigners.
I am stopped several times by the promoters of the dance clubs who, on a menu, show me all the objects —and animals— with which the girls penetrate themselves during their performances. Options range from ping-pong balls to clipped-wing canaries. To complete the circus, some Thais walk through the crowd with huge lizards on their shoulders and, for a few baht, let tourists take pictures with the reptiles on their heads. But here, nothing is taken too seriously. Dads take their kids out on Patong nights and husbands take their wives to ping pong shows. And everyone seems pretty happy with the entertainment.
Phuket, however, in addition to neon lights, also offers spiritual lighting. Architecturally crafted Buddhist temples can be found on the island. At Wat Chalong, it is possible to contemplate monks in their orange robes, see the faithful in their prayers or admire, in the surroundings, carefree matches of takraw, a kind of volleyball played by Thais with their feet. Here, behaving is a way of life.
Island side B
“There’s no one in this place,” a South African backpacker tells me when I arrive on Phayam Island, close to the Myanmar border. After two weeks of seeing more tourists than Thais, it’s a joy to know that I’ve found a place outside the fun map. And, in fact, Phayam would make a better backdrop for “Lost” than for Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach.” The island’s shore is not so beautiful, but its interior, hidden in the shadows of rubber trees, has a wild atmosphere.
The forgotten place aspect of Phayam starts already in Ranong, the city on the mainland from which boats depart for the island. It is a muddy port and, with me on the boat, there are only two dozen Thais and three foreigners in their forties with a hippie look.
Phayam already has a few inns dotted around its beaches, but as my South African friend said, the place is almost uninhabited. Its population is approximately 500 people and foreigners on the island are mostly Myanmar workers who, with cheap labor, come here to labor in rubber extraction and harvesting satoh, a legume used in Thai cuisine.
A piece of advice: if you want to feel like you’re on a desert island, visit Phayam in the off-season (April to October). The beach in front of your bungalow will be empty, the great Thai cooks will be devoted only to your stomach, and the living beings you’ll see most will be your lizard neighbors. A delightfully distant world.