Sawadee Part 2

     Two days later, kayaking through Phan Gna National Park on the gulf side of Thailand’s Southern peninsula, we meet a young Australian couple who are highly interested in our presidential election.
     They abashedly admit that all of Australia takes every chance it can get to poke fun at our president, through the media, conversation or any other means they can find.
     We reassure our new friends that the abundance of opportunity is astounding and continue talking politics. They are interested, concerned, enthralled and educated. More than can be said for many Americans.
     The conversation gets lively when the captain of the boat, a German expat, reveals a cooler full of ice-cold Chang beer for the two hour ride back. Like the Singhas I had been enjoying before, Chang is a potent brew and in the hot sun, they are smooth and refreshing, and go down too easily. After returning to shore, with the night running away from us on the heels of strong beer and little food, we turn in.
     We wake up and the new day greets us with the enticing sound of crashing waves on the beach outside of our hut, and it’s too much to resist. We skip breakfast and run into the sea to get tossed around for awhile in the six-foot swells, and find ourselves reluctant to leave, like children who’ve never seen the ocean before.
     That afternoon, tired but rejuvenated, we hop the ferry to Hat Rin on the island of Ko Phan Gnan, home of Thailand’s infamous full moon parties.
     By day we walk to town along the beach where more topless sunbathers offer the best and worst of their nations, though there are no elderly Europeans to be seen here.
     And though we missed the all-night rave on New Year’s Eve by a couple of days, the beach at night is nonetheless filled with partiers who buy buckets of liquor from the makeshift booths that line the beach.
     Stocked with whiskey, vodka and rum, and a variety of juices and sodas, we are free to create our own concoction for 150 Thai baht, a little under five US dollars.
     Katie and I opt for a few beers instead and sit down on the beach to watch fire dancers compete for the crowd’s approval and adoration while loud thumping music is drifting down from the outdoor club a few hundred yards away. As we walk back to our bungalow at the north end of the beach, late into the night, we can still hear the beat in the distance.
     The next morning, the journey to Bangkok is oppressive. A 6 a.m. taxi from Ko Phan Gnan drives us through the jungle high above to the port where we catch the 7 a.m. ferry to Don Sak on the East coast of the mainland. Two hours by bus through the Thai countryside and we arrive at Surat Thani’s quaint but well-traveled airport for a short 45-minute flight to Bangkok, followed by another hour’s ride into Bangkok city.
     We arrive in the afternoon at our hotel on a main avenue in the Banglamphu neighborhood of Bangkok, where we drop our backpacks off and fight our way down Khao San Road amidst a sea of backpackers, kiosks and food carts that sell delicious, made-to-order Pad Thai for 25 baht.
     There’s an energy here I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s youth, perhaps it’s freedom, perhaps it’s simply the unknown, but whatever it is, it’s everywhere as we roam the streets, haggling for t-shirts, post cards and hand bags.
     As night settles in, we find a bar where live music is bursting from a window upstairs. The place is crowded and beers are expensive, but we find a table, and with the band covering Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and John Denver, it feels like home, so we drink late into the night, singing along, and close down the bar.
     The following morning we battle through the suffocating smog and exhaust pouring from thousands of tuk tuks, long-tail boats, cars, buses and scooters motoring throughout the city.
     We visit sacred temples, where we are required to rent long pants for 75 baht and take our shoes off before entering, and must never point our feet in the direction of the Buddha.
     The immaculate surroundings are undergoing renovations and Thai women sit side-by-side touching up the gold-leaf paint and intricate inlaid tile and mirror on an imposing but spectacular holy building, chatting with one another and paying no attention to the hundreds of fascinated passersby surrounding them.
     We eat a late lunch at an outdoor market that carries with it the unmistakable scent of fresh fish baking in the sun, and as dusk creeps over the city, we stumble upon a massage parlor where Katie and I both treat ourselves to a perfectly G-rated full-body massage.
     Our flight out of Thailand is set to leave at two o’clock in the morning, so we return to our hotel and enjoy a few more evening refreshments while we wait for our bus to pick us up.
     On the way to the airport, we get one last look at the bustling streets of Bangkok as our driver slowly navigates winding, cobblestone alleyways, inching by pedestrians, parked cars and street vendors crowding the pass.
                We stop at a hotel where we pick up another Australian couple who seem to only be interested in politics and cocktails, a risky combination to be sure. The woman reveals her distrust in the current US administration, a resentment which is heightened by the size of President Bush’s ears, a clear sign of any scoundrel, she insists.
     At night, the airport is big and grey, and feels cold and empty inside despite countless travelers fighting their way through long lines and heavy foot traffic. Sitting at our gate in this behemoth structure built not too long ago in protest by those who prefer the charm and character of the smaller, slower airport that this one has replaced, we soak in the fluorescent glow of bright lights high above and have not yet accepted the finality of our circumstances.
     As we lift off, we bid farewell to the beautiful beaches and jungles that make Thailand so difficult to leave and the friendly strangers who make it so warm and inviting. When we touch down at home with another long journey behind us, we are left with only fond memories of a faraway land and a sad, strange feeling that maybe home is not where we want to be.

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