Saturday, January 10

Sun & Surf in Thailand

After a lay-over in the Bangkok Airport – home to the recent political protests – we reached the beautiful beaches of Thailand.  We would spend our enrichment week relaxing on a small island in the south called Koh Tao, becoming certified to scuba dive.  We stayed at a little dive resort right on the beach, nestled in a beautiful cove, in bungalows overlooking the ocean. A bit isolated from the heart of the town, it was a very serene location, with plenty of hammocks to kick back in. 

According to the 2005 version of Lonely Planet, Koh Tao is a gem precisely because locals don’t spend their time catering to tourists, and even electricity hasn’t reached the island. It’s amazing how much a place can change in just four years: now, I’d say 95% of the island’s economy is tourism-based, the place is covered in resorts, restaurants, and adventure sports outfitters.  And as for the electricity – it’s everywhere. 

The scuba course was four days long, and began with a number of boring instructional videos.  The first two days we also did foolish bubble-blowing activities in shallow water.  So when it came to day three, I was numbed into expecting very little from diving, and it came as a pleasant surprise when all of a sudden I found myself at the bottom of a beautiful coral reef, freed from gravity’s constraint, and able to navigate a National Geographic setting myself.  We made it on four dives, each about forty minutes, to a maximum of fifteen meters. What I never realized about diving is that you have to pretty consciously control your buoyancy – each inhalation and exhalation changes the volume of your lungs, and sends you up or down.  After a couple of minutes with the bizarre sensation, you get used to it and buoyancy maneuvering becomes second-nature.  It truly was the coolest experience – we got up-close and personal with the most bizarre neon fish, did back-flips on the sandy bottom, and had an underwater dance party.   We saw stingrays and barracudas, not to mention sea cucumbers galore. 

    We were lucky to have beautiful weather, and we’re leaving Koh Tao with healthy tans (or some of us – there’s a good amount of burn, too).  Besides scuba diving, we rented kayaks, indulged into cheap Thai massages, and enjoyed amazing cuisine.  The pad thai and curries are delicious.  I’ve been missing out on pad thai all my life; when we ordered it at home, it always came with shrimp, so I just never bothered to try it.  It is so, so not bad.  I also love the eating culture here – at local restaurants, and most shops, too, you take your shoes off before entering, and meals are eaten around low tables on lounging cushions. 

            In transit we spent a night on a larger island, Koh Samui, where I had a pretty striking experience walking back to our hotel through the red light district (safely, with Sandy).  Tiny little open-air bars lined the main street, competing music blaring from the speakers, and prostitutes blatantly promoting their bars.  Thailand had a large stake in the sex-tourism industry, and though it’s illegal, it’s also largely overlooked.  I looked up the issue online, and learned that in Koh Samui, a small little beach town, there are more than 10,000 prostitutes.  Having just read a book on modern-day slavery (A Crime So Monstrous, by Benjamin Skinner) the walk through the bar neighborhood was particularly unsettling.  I have no idea what proportion of those girls were coerced into their positions, but I also sense that women with economic options choose to go into the business.  So far we’ve also seen a couple of lady-men, whose presence is proportionally high in Thailand because it’s culturally acceptable for men to transform themselves into women. 

We’ve been pretty cloistered away on a touristy island, so it makes sense that I haven’t seen any indication of the recent political unrest.  I wonder how much evidence of it we’ll see later on in the trip, when we go north to study sustainable agriculture in rural homestays. 

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