Surat Thani is a world away from the backpacker hangouts on Khao San Road. Just as well. My three hours there this morning were more than enough to remind me of why hanging out there is a chore rather than a delight. Being hassled, harrassed and harranged is hard enough at the best of times, but far worse on little sleep just before dawn. Obviously I should have realised that my job was to buy the tours, eat the pancakes, hire the prostitutes, give money to the indigent and shut up about it. More fool me.
Here you don’t get hassled. Here you get helped. By the people who tell you which songthaew to catch and when to get off. By the people who smile and help you with your bags, even when you stupidly sit far from the exit and your bags are big. By the people who tell you the ferry timetable and offer you alternatives when the ferry you want is not going tonight. And when you are not being helped (and smiling at the change) you can wander around the night vegetable market and wonder at all the things you have never eaten and can not even identify, at the smells of spices mingling with the scent of the water and the pungent odours of yesterday’s vegetables, and at the groups of people doing aerobics or line dancing or break dancing down by the sea.
Thailand is, I think, the world’s best tourist shop, in some sense at least. This is because they know what tourists want in all their diversity and depravity, and they know how to deliver those things without ever really seeming to be affected by it. West meets East, in a way, but East seems in control. I can see what Pico Iyer means (read “Video Night in Kathmandu” if you care to). I sometimes get the impression that the banana pancake sellers must be thinking “ohmigod” (or perhaps “oh great buddha”), “why are these people so poorly dressed and stupidly hairy and noisy, and why do they like pan-fried flour and water served with bananas so much” even as they serve up pancake number sixty thousand and three. There is a smile on every face but what is behind the eyes?
This is the slow overnight boat to Ko Samui. Tomorrow I can catch a boat from there to Ko Phangan. The top covered deck has mattresses and pillows laid out along both walls. Kinda like in a marae I guess, except that the mattresses are numbered. If the current state of my eyelids is any indication, I will be asleep before we leave. No bad thing at all.