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As Long as We Remember...

July 15, 2009

Travel Tales

Tom McLaughlin

Phuket Island Thailand – Every week I play a game I call “Air Asia” roulette. The local price buster airline offers weekly sales well below any advertised price. When I say “well below,” I mean deep ocean discounts where sometimes one can fly paying only the airport tax.


For example, in today’s Borneo Post (29 June) one can journey from Kuching (where I live) to Kuala Lumpur for $10.87 US, and then from there to Singapore ($$19.42 US), Bangkok, Jakarta ($16.57 US) Hong Kong, Trichy, Bali ($33.71 US) or Macau ($39.42 US).


These fabulous deals, not refundable, must be booked between June 29 and July 5 for travel between October 1 and April 30, 2010. The return trip costs more, usually not that much more, well within the ridiculously affordable range.


I try to take a trip each month for a week by booking one of these flights. Usually I seek a place I have never been – or heard of. I am either an adventurer or damn fool depending on your perspective.


June was Banda Ache. This small town located in North Sumatra, Indonesia, was devastated by the tsunami of four years ago. I wasn’t going for that particular reason; but because I had read so much about the piracy in the region, I thought I would try my hand at capturing ships in the Straits of Melaka.


I also wanted to compare the Borneo orangutans with their Sumatra counterparts. My genealogy efforts had ground to a halt in southern Pennsylvania in the 1860s, so I thought I would start from the other direction, the very beginning. There had to be an ape someplace in the sequence as I am an original throw back, mentally that is.


I boarded the aircraft in Kuching and had a connecting flight in Kuala Lumpur. However, the plane was very late departing and I would just make my connecting flight. Informing the stewardess, she escorted me to a front seat. Upon landing, she made sure I was the first off. Of course, the plane had parked in the last possible dock from my gate. I had to run in an “S” shape with my heavy backpack pulling me backward.


“What do you mean Americans can’t go to Banda Ache,” I asked incredulously to the guy checking passports. The very few webs sites, maybe three, had not informed that Americans were not wanted. “We have had this problem before and they will just send you right back,” he informed. I wasn’t too upset as I had paid nothing for the seat plus a minor airport tax. This is also the Orient where the unexpected must be expected.


Packed and ready to go someplace, I scanned the departure board. China, no! I would need a visa. Singapore, no! Too expensive. Phuket Island, Thailand? Why not? I had been there before and remembered the great times. Yes, I am very lucky to be able to look at a list and then decide where to go on the spur of the moment. The combination of very cheap flights plus time affords this luxury.


It was the low season and I stayed in a four star hotel, two swimming pools near the beach for 150 US for seven days. I resided at a different section of the island than last time, and it was like little Sweden. Blonde, blued-eyed families were everywhere speaking their wonderful sing-songy lilt.


The Western food was excellent and very inexpensive. There is a Swedish restaurant, and I decided to try the original meatballs or so I thought. They were like biting into salt water, totally inedible. I asked a Swedish couple if that was what they were supposed to taste like and they assured me it wasn’t.


The Thai cuisine was cheaper, but I looked at it warily because of the reputation of it being mouth numbing, eye watering, nose discharging and ear ringing hot with chili peppers. The satay was excellent.


I visited a gibbon rehab center (that’s another column), a gem and jewelry concern plus a place that processed cashew nuts. I purchased some bracelets for my daughters and some nuts for myself. I didn’t buy an ape.


Days were spent snorkeling the waters off the various islands that dotted the coast in the Andaman Sea, strolling the beaches and searching for very rich, very old ladies who wanted a husband. No success on the matrimony front. They were clustered in small groups and if I decided a spontaneous proposal to one, I would have had to marry all three. That is possible here.


Since I didn’t speak Thai or Swedish, and since I got tired of talking to myself, I wandered to the one place where most people spoke English and that was the lady bars occupied by the hookers.


These drinking establishments are located along a section of the main drag. Patios usually fronted small three or four stool bars with the same number of tables in front. The ladies would wave and call out to the guys who were usually with girlfriends. The dates would give the ladies dirty looks while the guys would offer big grins. I also would join in waving. The prostitutes thought this was hilarious.


Once we got the crudities out of the way and they realized I was not buying anything, we were able to sit down and have a conversation. Physically they are South Pacific gorgeous, a western guys dream and fantasy. They have their stories, just like you and me, only harsher and sometimes filled with woe. To others, it was just a job like any other. Sometimes they were there by choice, sometimes not.


Like all of God’s children, I treated them with respect and love. Why? Because the Bible told me so.


Life is good.


P.S. On the menu at Natalie’s Restaurant and Bar, Kata Beach, Phuket Island Thailand. Word for word as written. Remember, English is a second language.


Deep Fried Maryland Chicken Breast crumbs and banana fritters fried egg and bacon served with french fries and tartar sauce.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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