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Thailand’s image needs all the help it can get right now. Last month’s dramatic footage of bomb sites and gun fights across Bangkok played out internationally and many countries have yet to lift their travel warnings to the erstwhile Land of Smiles.
For sure, confidence has been rocked, and even beyond the photos of war on the streets, the reputation of Thai people as gentle, benevolent Buddhists has been tarnished by displays of downright ugly behaviour during such fractious times.
Whether the protesters promising – and almost succeeding – to turn Bangkok into a “sea of fire”, or their opponents cheering and swearing as the death toll neared a hundred, there was precious little positive humanity on display.
I reported on what happened as the army dispersed the Red Shirts last month and, as the situation has calmed, have wondered what I should write about next. I wanted to find something positive to say because, for all the bad news, there are still a lot of good reasons to be here.
But, with the deaths and the gunshots and the smoke still so fresh in the memory, and the vicious verbal invective – likely to, and perhaps designed to, widen the social divisions even further – still being spouted from both sides, what could I say to help restore some dignity to this scarred nation?
Well, travel remains a true pleasure in Thailand, and you’re never far away from tranquil countryside, rich historical sites, pretty coasts or fun smaller cities. Even when the Bangkok crisis peaked on May 19, with dozens of buildings set ablaze and an 8pm curfew locking down the capital, it only took a couple of hours’ drive to Hua Hin and a few days of safety, calm and natural beauty.
Another, less famous, seaside escape within reach of Bangkok is Ko Sichang. I visited there last weekend with my girlfriend, Waew, and it was here that we were reminded of the inherently good nature of Thai people, away from politically volatile Bangkok and the money-hungry types of the famous resort towns.
I had visited Ko Sichang once before, over a year ago, and loved its unspoilt, rural atmosphere. True, the primarily rocky island only has one beach of note, and that is average in Thai terms (although clean and safe), but it is the look and feel of Ko Sichang which encouraged me to return.
The majority of shops and businesses here are family-run, independent affairs. There are no chain hotels, no fast-food joints, no condominiums, no go-go bars, and only one 7-Eleven. It may be too sleepy for some, but sometimes you want a quiet retreat. The houses are old-fashioned and colourful. The people are relaxed. The barnacle-clad port creaks both with age and character and children leap from its heights into the aquamarine depths all day long. Wild goats roam the island, chewing between the rocks, unperturbed by the occasional passing vehicle.
A drive of an hour or so south-east of Bangkok, towards Pattaya, brings you to the town of Sri Racha, from where you catch a boat to Ko Sichang. The ferry ride takes 40 or 50 minutes but is not particularly attractive. Sri Racha is a major industrial town and this, combined with its proximity to Pattaya, makes it a major shipping lane, so the ride to Ko Sichang goes past innumerable rusting old cargo vessels.
However, on disembarkation at the island, its charms become immediately evident. I’d recommend doing as I did and hiring a motorbike if there is only one or two of you. There are tuk-tuks available for transport between port, beach, town and hotels, but no one spot on Ko Sichang is big or developed enough to be worth spending the majority of your time, so riding around and finding your own little places of interest is the order of the day.
Riding off on our newly-commandeered motorbike, we proceeded through narrow streets crammed with shaded old shophouses, into the town area which one could best describe as “Isaan-on-sea”, up the hill which forms the centre of the island, and down towards the opposite coast which is more picturesque and hosts the sole significant beach.
Approaching the beach at Ao Atsadang, a sweeping view of the Gulf of Thailand, unspoilt by the ships and urban landscape facing the other side, is afforded, and as you drive along with barely another vehicle in sight, swathes of greenery uninterrupted by buildings, and the occasional impassive goat, it’s hard to conceive the major urban centres of Bangkok and Pattaya are so close by.
A word of warning: while Ko Sichang is small, and relatively undiscovered, consequently it doesn’t have many choices of accommodation. For sure you won’t be left stranded, but the primest options – beachside at Hat Thampang Bungalows, clifftop at Paree Hut, or the converted palatial ruins at Malee Blue – tend to be fully booked at weekends. We stayed instead at Benz Bungalows in town, which was basic but acceptable, and within walking distance of the deservedly popular Pan & David Restaurant.
A day is plenty to take in the main attractions of the island – the Rama V palace, a temple or three, a Chinese monastery, and a swim – at a leisurely pace, stopping as you please to imbibe the tranquility all around.
Waew and I did just that, ate delicious seafood salad at the beach, and watched the sunset from the western rocks. Well, one thing we didn’t do was swim at Ao Atsadang – at lunchtime, the water was as clean as usual, but when we returned in the late afternoon, it has turned to a dark green sludge. The reason, according to a bartender, was that a whale in the vicinity had suffered an upset stomach!
Already the day had been charming enough – whale diarrhoea or not – but it was the events of the night which would do so much to restore my faith in the Thai character. This country’s natural attractions endure, but a reminder of the qualities of its people was timely.
After dinner, Waew and I went for a stroll through the sleepy town. It was nearing 11pm on a Saturday night but even so, was very quiet. We attracted the attentions of a barking pack of dogs and unfortunately one of them bit Waew. It was just a “warning” bite rather than an all-out attack, but even so, it drew blood and of course was a distressing moment for Waew.
We dashed across the road to a small seafood eatery which was still open, just to ask to use their bathroom so we could clean the wound and then consider what to do next. But they had seen what had happened and no sooner had we crossed over to them than we were piled on to a motorbike with sidecar and whisked immediately to the hospital.
Waew had her wound cleaned and dressed, received rabies shots and was given a course of antibiotics and, some minor pain aside, she was no worse for wear. While she was being attended to, our emergency-response driver, a friendly middle-aged guy called Somphit, kept me company. Between his limited English and my limited Thai, we made a decent-enough fist of it.
When Waew checked out of the ER, Somphit tried to pay the 580-baht bill. Of course, I would not allow it – he had already been such a help in driving us to the hospital and waiting until Waew had finished there. Now he wanted to pay for the treatment too – unbelievable!
Somphit then ran us back to where we had met him and invited us to join him and his friend for beer and grilled crab. The crab was delicious and the beer quickly dispensed with, at which point Somphit dashed off on his motorbike for more.
When that, too, was finished, Somphit said he’d love to stay up later but he had work in the morning, so gave us another ride, back to our hotel. He had refused to take any money for the beer run, so in thanking him I hid a “tip” in my handshake. I at least wanted to show my gratitude not only for the sustenance and the petrol but also for his time and companionship, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “I did it for friendship, not money,” he said, on the verge of taking offence.
Earlier, Somphit had told us he worked as an ice delivery man. That must pay minimum wage, or close to it, and that’s not much in Thailand. He probably takes home a tenth of my salary, and I say that not to boast about myself (indeed, my salary here is some way short of what I’d command in the UK), but to show what a fiscal gap there is between the Thai working and middle classes. He must know this too, and knew of my job, and yet he was willing to pay the hospital bill of a stranger and flat-out refusing any form of recompense for his time and expenditure.
I was so touched, and I couldn’t help but feel that if only the rest of Thailand – and certainly the majority of people in Bangkok – could show such unconditional empathy for their fellow human beings, this country would not be in the mess it is in today.
So, to Ko Sichang, to rural Thailand, and to Somphit – whether he accepts it or not – I toast the kindness of strangers. May such powerful qualities triumph over the negative traits which have hurt Thailand so much in recent months.
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