« Pakarang Boat Project Photos | Main | Wet Paint. And Pants. »

April 01, 2005

Run for the border

(The satellite connection was whack this morning, so email and web posting were too frustrating to attempt until now.)

My friend Moira wants me to stick around for the Songkran Festival, or Water festival for the Thai New Year. I don’t know much about it except it’s a unique annual event, and involves throwing loads of water at anyone and everyone you see. Everyone is excited for it. (Except maybe for G. , as all it means for him is that I'll be home later than I keep saying. Again. Which has been a tough situation for me, as my heart is in one place and the rest of me wants to try some new things in the other for just a bit. How is it that even good things have so many challenges?)

The festival is April 14-15, a few days after my initial visa expires (they allow you to stay in Thailand one month visa free.) So in order to stay longer, I have to leave Thailand and come back again, thereby starting my one month over again.

And people being people, visa runs are big business.

In Phang Nga province, where Khao Lak is, the closest border is Burma, via Ranong – about a three hour drive. Tourist offices can arrange for a van to take you up to the border, get your exit visa, arrange the boat to the other side, and back again. These trips can cost something along the lines of 300bht and up, I understand. But yesterday the five of us, in the interest of saving money (remember, we are saving about $10 at the most), decide to try it on our own and hitch instead.

To Ranong. Three hours away.

To read the rest of this long adventure, please click continue below.

***The very first truck that stopped was willing to take us, but it turned out to be a good news/bad news deal. The good news: They were going all the way to Ranong! The bad news: They had just painted the entire bed of their pickup with TAR which was continuing to melt in the sun! We stuck to everything. Butts, shoes, bags, water bottles. Every time you moved, you had to unstick, then carefully reposition so you didn’t sit on anything that had stuck before. At Takua Pa, we stopped and found some newspapers to sit on, and alerted the driver that his paint job was all messed up. He and his friends laughed at us and our black butts.

So, so far, we saved 300 bht, but each of us is in for a new pair of pants (200bht+)—or "trousers" as Kate would say. Now might be a good time to mention that the bus from Takua Pa probably only would have cost about 50 bht ($1.25). But then, there probably wouldn’t have been a good story after that trip. So here we are.

After three hours in the back of the truck (wherein I sunburn my right ankle and left knee because I missed sunblock there trying to avoid the bandaids protecting various scrapes – so the sunburn has perfectly white bandaid-shaped no-sun areas now) we stop at a bus stop in Ranong. Through the valiant efforts of Tristan, his Thai phrase book and all five of us rubberstamping our left flat hands with our right fists (saying chai daan, chai dann, border border), we took serpentine songathew rides (like a tuk-tuk, but a little bigger) to the immigration office to stamp out.

Then, avoiding more songathews wanting to earn a fare, we walked four blocks to a longtail boat dock, and climbed in for the trip to Burma (150bht—usually less, but we were late and couldn’t wait to fill the whole boat). The wooden boat is long and well-worn, with a classic longtail motor. And for tourists, an awning.

The first stop is a house on stilts in the water, where one of the boatmen collects all the passports, hops up the stairs, then returns moments later with everyone’s passport stamped with a departure stamp. I’m not entirely sure how this differs from the departure stamps we got at immigration.

Then the long boat continues on. The boathand now collects five American dollars from each person on the boat, regardless of his nationality. Sarah, who is Australian, didn’t have five bucks American, so I paid for her and she paid me back in baht. This part apparently is the most essential, and least negotiable, part of the process. A guy told me a story about someone from the vol center who didn’t have five bucks, and the boathand made him wait six hours in Burma for his friends to go find five American bucks, and come back and get him.

So we motor on past a golden Buddha on an island wat, to Burma.

Only when we get “to Burma,” it’s still another house on stilts, where the passports are collected and stamped again, then we turn back around to go back to Thailand. None of us got out of the boat, except the guy who ran up to get our passports stamped. I thought we might have to spend an hour there or something, buy a Coke and let the vendors harass us into buying a snack or something. But – not necessary.

The thunder started rolling in halfway back, and the rain started blowing in. It didn’t really pour until we got back to the dock. We walked back the four blocks in the rain to arrive, dripping, at Immigration. The officer in the uniform sort of scowled at us, and handed me a roll of toilet paper to dry off a bit. (Aside – they use toilet paper for everything here in Thailand except the toilet. Napkins at a restaurant are generally thin squares, or are a toilet roll that allows you to use as many squares as you need. In the bathroom they have a shower sprayer instead of TP, but that’s a story for a different day.)

Now, fully stamped and legal for four more weeks, we take a songathew to the bus station to find a ride home. We grab a quick dinner in a typical Thai home-restaurant, near the baby in the playpen in the livingroom. Everything is fried fresh in a wok, you have the usual choice of Coke, green/orange Fanta or Sprite or water, and they even have ice.

One guy tells us the bus leaves in a half hour, which is perfect. At 6:30, we go to the bus area, and they tell us it’s not coming until 6:30 tomorrow. Uh Oh....

But there is another bus station around the corner. They say there is a bus coming at 7:30, in an hour. Tristan has had enough of tar trips on the gunwhales of a speeding pickup, and wants to wait for the bus. His sister and the other girls take off to hitch.

It takes us a while to find a ride (including getting into a truck with a strange guy who seemed perhaps palsied in some way, and wanted another woman on a scooter to drive us for a fee – he was a crappy driver and a poor negotiator, so we left him at the side of the road). A truck with tall rails on the side stopped, and the driver apologized repeatedly that the bed had sand in it. All of our clothes were ruined already, so we told him not to worry about it.

He stopped for gas, then pulled into the convenience store. When he came out, he had a bag full of water bottles – one for each of us.

He doesn’t speak any English.

We had negotiated a ride to Takua Pa – it seemed that’s where he was going – which is about 40 minutes from Khao Lak, maybe less. Even though we would arrive late in Takua Pa, we figured we could get a hitch the rest of the way, especially since they were having a special night market there these days. Maybe.

The driver traveled slowly and carefully, and we traveled under the usual heat lightning that we see nearly every night. The lightning that preceeds the sudden rainshowers. Good news/bad news…

We made it to Kura Buri, where I discovered I really needed to use the restroom. Too much water. And Kura Buri is a real hike from Takua Pa. I held on, and about 30 minutes later…the rain came, pouring, soaking. I was glad I’d had my longsleeve Capilene shirt on for a little warmth over my thin cotton tank top. We all were soaked to the bone, and I was shivering in the breeze (and I really had to go now – but there was no way to talk to the driver). But within 20 minutes or so the storm stopped and we began to dry off. Sort of. The sand in the truck bed was now mud, and stuck to everything.

Just when I didn’t think I was going to make it another minute, the driver pulled into a PTT gas station and drove right up to the bathrooms. What a mindreader! I thanked him over and over, and gave him Wai.

A few minutes later, we were in Takua Pa, and he pulled over again to where a group of locals were hanging out. They came up to us: “Where you go?” We said, we’re headed to Khao Lak.

They talked to our driver in Thai. “OK.” Would he take us? Was he really going that far? They seemed unable to answer our questions, but it was looking good.

We drove a little farther, and the driver stopped again, to pick up another volunteer who was checking out the Takua Pa night market. He was headed to Khao Lak as well, and I think was lucky to get a hitch at 10:30pm.

The last few kilometers went quickly. When we stopped in Khao Lak center, we thanked the driver several times, and gave him Wai. He absolutely refused to take any money. He tried to explain to us why, but we didn’t understand his Thai. Maybe he lost someone important. Maybe it just was his way to help. He repeated his story, but we didn’t understand.

We agreed that he was about the nicest person we’ve met in Thailand. And, interestingly, we never were passed by the bus — so I wonder if we even would have been able to get home that way after all?

Posted by sedda at April 1, 2005 03:03 PM