Thailand: Escape from Paradise – Part One

Planning for my trip to Thailand began in November 2010. The vast options for quiet beaches on small islands seemed daunting, but after a few hours of research I had narrowed my choices down pretty easily. I settled on an island in the south called Koh Pha Ngan. It is just north of the larger island Koh Samui, which is a more popular and easily reached destination. Koh Pha Ngan is famous for its Full Moon Party that occurs every month on the full moon. It is a very large gathering of travelers from around the world who are looking for a crazy beach party. I was looking for something much quieter and more secluded, so I settled on a small beach on the northwest side of the island called Haad Salad. Boasting idyllic images of white sand beaches and turquoise water, it seemed perfect for a relaxing week of sun and adventure. I booked a week at Asia Bungalows, which are situated in the middle of the beach. They are a very clean and well-kept group of bungalows that I would recommend to anybody looking for a place to stay on this beach. They don’t offer all of the amenities that the other business do, but they are very well priced, and everything on the beach is within a three minutes’ walk from anything else. I’d like to spend some time talking about the gear I brought, but I’m going to leave that until the end.

I left on Friday and arrived in Bangkok on Sunday because of the time difference. From Bangkok, it’s a 45 minute flight to Koh Samui airport. From the airport, a short ride in a cab gets you to Big Buddha pier, where the ferry to Koh Pha Ngan is a 30 minute jaunt across the sea. When I arrived in Thongsala, the pier on Koh Pha Ngan, it was raining a little but the sun was trying to come out and I was optimistic about the weather for my time there. I took a taxi to my bungalow and set about unpacking and trying to unwind to enjoy the vacation. In the spirit of vacation, I quickly changed into my swimming attire and jumped in the ocean. After a quick rinse, I walked down the beach and found a restaurant that was grilling fresh seafood. A filling meal of grilled king prawn and Thai beer finished my evening and I headed back to the bungalow.

March 28th – The next morning I awoke to heavy rain and wind, and a high tide that was breaking against the wall at the edge of our bungalow complex. I was surprised at the weather, but I managed to get dressed and head to one of the other restaurants that had breakfast and an internet connection, so I could eat and update my friends and family on my location. I tried to resist the urge to check the weather forecast but I quickly gave in to temptation, and after a little searching (reliable weather forecasts in Thailand are hard to find), I found a radar image that was quite alarming. A very large tropical depression had moved in over most of southern Thailand and was moving VERY slowly to the north. I grew up in North Carolina so I have been through my share of hurricanes and bad weather. Unfortunately, had not packed for bad weather and I started to get worried.

I headed quickly back to my bungalow, where I began packing and heading for the pier at Thongsala. I ran into the proprietor of the bungalows, who let me know that the sea was very rough and all of the ferries for that day had been canceled. This meant that I would be on our island for at least one more day but, taking a deep breath, I tried to take a positive attitude and realized that being stuck on an island in Thailand could be a pretty good place to get stuck. I set out to make the best of the day. I found a Thai Massage house set on the beach and had a fantastic one-hour massage. After lunch and a nap, I went back to try to send out another round of emails when the main power for the island went out. I decided to have an early dinner that night and headed to bed, hoping that the next day would be better.

March 29th – I woke up around 2 AM to the sound of very heavy wind and rain. I ventured onto the porch of my bungalow and was immediately struck with the spray of a wave breaking over the wall on the beach. Bad timing had allowed the storm surge to arrive near high tide. The wall stood about 4.5′ tall over the sand and the bungalows are on stilts another 3′ over the ground. My bungalow was one unit and about 20′ back from the wall. Needless to say, this was a big wave. The bungalows in the front were only about 5′ back from the wall and were being hit directly by the waves. After retreating back inside, I could feel the bungalow shake as more waves found their way over the wall. I tried to get back to sleep but after a few hours I went outside for a look. I was able to snap a few pictures with my phone, but I was not brave enough to bring out the camera. These shots were captured as I ran to and from the edge of the wall between the larger waves.

I knew that a taxi was leaving at 10AM that day for the pier, and I desperately want to be in it. I decided to brave the beach and try to get to the meet-up point. Most of the businesses had a wall similar to the one at my bungalow. That meant that I would be trying to hold my own between the wall and the breaking waves. I packed my bags assuming I would get very wet and headed out. I very quickly knew that I had made a bad decision. I was being beaten against the wall in one second and violently being pulled out to sea in the next. After about 30′ of travel, I gave up and hopped back on the wall and made my way up to the bungalow there. Lucky for me, the woman who had given me the massage the previous day was there and she showed me how to get back to my bungalow via the confusing maze of roads behind the beach.

I reached the bungalow soaking wet and drained both physically and emotionally, knowing that there would be no escape that day. I did my best to start trying to dry off and clean up and I unpacked again to let my bags start to dry out. After a cold shower and a long nap, I went out and had a meal. Tonight’s meal was deep fried shrimp in a sweet/spicy Thai chili sauce. It was fantastic and very welcome after the day’s events. I retired early that night and hoped that the morning would bring better weather and luck.

March 30th – I woke up and found that the sea, while very rough, was calmer than the day before. The wind had also changed direction, which told me that we were on the other side of the storm. I hung my hopes on these thoughts and went to the office area of the bungalows to see if they knew if there would be any boats that day. “No Boat” was about all of the English they knew to tell me about what was going on, but it was enough to get the message across: no rescue today. As I was heading back to my bungalow, I saw a few other people loading into a taxi and I walked over to see where they were heading to. They said they were going to the pier to try to find more information and possibly catch a boat later that day. I asked if I could ride with them and quickly ran back to get my stuff and hopped in. They were two couples from Germany, and we quickly bonded over our shared experience.

We got to the pier where the Thai officials were making lists of who was there and where we were trying to go. There were three options: Bangkok, Koh Samui, or an undetermined destination on the mainland to the east. We got on the Koh Samui list since that was where our flights were leaving from and found seats to wait. Shortly after we arrived, Neil from the British embassy, arrived and starting giving out more information. The news that day was that the Thai navy was in route and would be rescuing us! Not realizing that things were quite that bad, it was both good news and a little sobering that conditions were that bad. Neil told us that the island to the north, Koh Tao, was in much worse shape than we were, but the boat could not dock there so it was coming for us first. The boat had around 1000 seats and would be able to accommodate everybody who was presently at the pier. Once we boarded, however, we would not know where we were heading. The news was that conditions on Samui were worse: No power, no water, and the airport was closed. The tentative plan was to sail north to an area of the mainland that was in good enough condition to bus us the rest of the way to Bangkok. Evidently, conditions due west on the mainland were very bad. Most of the roads were washed out and even the train could not get through due to missing pieces of the rail line.

Several hours went by and Neil came to us with more information. The Navy vessel had continued on to Koh Tao and was shuttling people to the boat via smaller vessels. They would be returning past our island, but there were only 150 seats on the boat so we would not all be able to leave. Before the words were out of his mouth, several hundred people were pushing toward the chair Neil was on to get on the list, which meant we would not. In hindsight, it was very lucky that we did not get on that boat. We waited the rest of that day at the pier, hoping that the news would change again, but around 5 pm we gave up and went back to Asia Bungalows. We felt defeated for the day but we were hopeful that the next day would be better. We all had dinner together, another fabulous meal. I feasted on a whole Red Snapper that was deep fried and swimming in a chili sauce. The evening went well. After several beverages, I was even convinced by my new friends to eat the eye of the snapper. I’m not easily persuaded into trying strange things and, in retrospect, I’m not quite sure how that conversation went. But you only live once, and the eye was essentially tasteless. What was alarming was the crunch that I was not expecting. Who would have guessed that a fried fish eye would crunch? We decided to meet again early the next morning and to try to be at the pier before anybody else.

Look for Part 2 of Thailand: Escape from Paradise later this week to see how Richard got off the island and back to Summit Hut!

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