The worst resort ever

Why is it you always vividly remember the stuff that goes horribly wrong?

In my two months in South East Asia I stayed in dozens of places but there’s only one I’m compelled to write about: Tohko Beach Resort on Koh Phi Phi.

You see we were after something a little bit fancy for our last three nights in Thailand, so a beachfront bungalow on a private beach, on the five-star resort side of the island (without the five-star price tag) sounded perfect.

As we longboat towards it I excitedly exclaim: “I think this will be the flashiest place we’ve stayed in.”

We pull in and a friendly cross-eyed resort worker with straggly rasta hair comes to meet us. The first thing that comes out of his mouth is: “power 6pm to 6am.”

Ok, didn’t see that in the hotel description.

We’re led to our bungalow.

There’s a large concrete pit outside that once might have been a jacuzzi.

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The bathroom is like stepping into a musty damp dungeon with the lack of electricity during the day.

The air-conditioning in the room is nothing more than three rusty fans.

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It’s more shanty than bungalow.

In fairness this place might have once been nice. Once being pre-2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. It feels like rather than cut their losses the owners just adopted a business as usual approach. Tsunami what tsunami?

We’re devastated as we’ve pre-paid for three nights here. We drown our sorrows with Chang and eat in their restaurant (there’s nowhere else to go) which also doubles as a hair salon.

The whole situation’s got me in a feral mood so I decide to hit the owner up about the false advertising. He seems surprised and shows me their website with photos airbrushed more than a model and asks “what’s not the same?” I feel like saying, “Um, it’s a shit hole.”

I bite my tongue and diplomatically argue that their written advertisement does not accurately reflect the situation we find ourselves in.

We book the first longboat out of here for the next morning and tell ourselves it’s just one night, how bad can it be?

It’s the longest night of my life. I don’t sleep. The wind from the creaking fan doesn’t reach my side of the bed. It’s filthy hot, especially after 6am when the electricity shuts down for the day. And worst of all this bed hides a nasty little secret.

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Bed bugs, which spend the night munching on my face and body.

I have never been so happy to leave a place in all my life and it seems I’m not the only one.

Although if you scroll down there are some raving reviews, I think the people must have been on mushy shakes when they wrote them.

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White sandy beach

If it wasn’t for Jenny’s diving course I would never have discovered my favourite place in Thailand.

It’s a little island called Koh Tao, but it should be renamed the Beautiful Island.

Everybody here is beautiful, so beautiful in fact, even the ugly people are beautiful.

Ok, that’s not entirely true, there were two ugly people who stuck out as much as someone not in costume at the Wellington 7s. The first was a really large woman in a really small blue bikini and the other was a blindingly pale guy wearing Teva sandals (I don’t know why but I’ve got a serious issue with Teva sandals).

But of all the beautiful people on Koh Tao, Suzanna is the most beautiful. She’s from India but has been living on Koh Tao for the past year. We meet her while swimming and spend the next hour gawking at her incredibly hot friends, all scuba instructors, with photoshopped abs and hawaiian tans.

Murphy’s Law, both Jenny and Bianca manage to be sick for the entire time we’re in Koh Tao so our yoga session, where our cute Scottish instructor basically dry humps the girl next to us to get her ‘deeper into the pose,’ is as close to the action as we get.

This place has me so at ease that I forget one of the golden rules of South East Asia: nothing is for free.

So when we decide to kayak to a nearby island not only do we get charged for sitting on the beach but so does our kayak.

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Although we only learn this after returning to our kayak to find that someone has stolen our oars. They’d call it confiscated for failing to pay an unpublicised landing fee, I call it stealing.

Next we head to Koh Phangan, where we hide ourselves on the quiet side of the island for a few days before the Half Moon Party.

Our resort manager is so lovely he even stands waiting for me on the beach one morning with a giant bottle of water to celebrate my first run in six weeks.

The only thing that seriously gets on my nerves here is the dogs.

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Yes they look cute but the novelty wears off when they’re under your legs when you’re trying to go for a run and all of a sudden next to you when you’re in the water doing a starfish.

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Curiously though, most of the dogs here look part sausage dog, with short legs and long bodies and I must admit I did enjoy watching dog versus crab.

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Crab won.

Next we head to Koh Phi Phi, where after a very rocky start at the world’s worst resort (so bad it will soon get its very own blog post) we find a great place on Long Beach.

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This time there’s a few too many cats for my liking.

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Around this island is great diving and it was a big moment to get Bianca, who’s petrified of the fact she shares the ocean with other things, to come snorkelling.

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Although I’m probably a bad best friend for forgetting to mention just before she got in the water that I saw a shark.

We lived.

We spend the last of our days in Thailand tanning ourselves, but thankfully not to the point of some of the other girls.

They’re so brown they’re starting to look like oompa loompas from the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie.

If I think they’re crazy, I hate to think what the locals think.

They cover their bodies and faces from the sun, wear foundation a hundred shades too light for them and apply whitening cream religiously.

I guess there really is some universality in the saying, ‘you always want what you don’t have.’

Acting my age

I’m in a funk.

I know my birthday resolution is to act my age but tonight I really can’t be bothered. But there’s no way out of it, tonight on Koh Phangan is the Half Moon Party, pretty much the entire reason we came here. It doesn’t help that Bianca’s incredibly excited, she’s even brought the world’s tiniest pair of red shorts to wear.

At dinner I find my good friend beer Chang, I can always count on him to work me out of a funk.

Before long, us three girls and our resort manager Mr Duck (yes that’s actually his name and when he introduces himself to you he says, “hello I’m Mr Duck as in quack quack”) are having photos on the bar.

Oh dear God, I’ve turned into one of those girls.

It’s here that Bianca’s red shorts catch the attention of this weird guy who everyone’s pretty sure lives on the beach. He approaches, tonight donning a ladies wig and asks, “Wanna see my half moon painting?” Bianca sceptically obliges. Soon after he starts yelling at her when she, without realising, stands on the so-called painting: a squiggle in the sand.

A few false starts later and we finally arrive at the jungle arena around midnight and head straight for the fluoro body painters. Jenny gets a flower chain which goes all the way up her arm and onto her face. Bianca gets a dragon. I somehow end up with a New Zealand flag on my arm and a love heart on my thigh. Great, now it looks like I’m a walking charade for: ‘From New Zealand, looking for love.’

One vodka sprite bucket later and I’m feeling a lot better about the situation. In fact, I actually start to enjoy myself. Who knew I liked trance music.

Now I’m on the dance floor. I’m cutting some sweet shapes. I catch the attention of a cute French guy. His sweet move is to play slap me in the face, followed by a play kick to the ribs. I respond with a sweet shunt across the other side of the dance floor. He looks shocked but seriously what did he think was going to happen?

By the time I extract myself from that situation Bianca’s got her mouth down some English lad’s throat (little does she know he’s 21 and a carrot top). This leaves his less fortunate looking friend in the corner doing the box step to trance music.

Bianca’s mouthing at me, “take the grenade, take the grenade.” If you don’t know what that means it’s from Jersey Shore.

I don’t, but I do make it my mission to teach this poor lad to dance.

“Surely you’ve got a signature move?” I ask.

He’s just stares back at me with a blank look on his face. But suddenly his face lights up and he agrees yes, yes yes he does. Before I get to that I must say, in my opinion, this move is one of the most under-utilised dance moves of our time: the roly poly. Turns out the roly poly is also a gateway move to the handstand and the backwards roll. Too many roly polies later Jenny and I find a quiet corner to sit down in, leaving Bianca to it.

All of a sudden there’s a cute Dutch creative type next to me (I need to be careful here as this boy is the first reader of my blog). I’ll play it cool, although I must say we got off to a rocky start when he paid me this backhanded compliment: “I like your legs, they’re a little on the short side, but I like them.”

We get home as the sun’s coming up and sleep for the rest of the day. When we awake my good friend Pad Thai is there to greet me for breakfast.

I’m in my happy place.

Same same

If there’s one saying which sums up South East Asia it has to be “same same but different,” particularly when it comes to shopping.

The first time it really hit me was when our bus stopped on a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere in Laos to buy tangerines (note to self: don’t call them mandarins, taken as badly as when Inuits found out New Zealanders’ eat lollies called Eskimos).

Again I digress.

When we get off the bus all I can see is tangerines.

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They’re all the same, they’re all the same price, and clearly, they’re all from the same place. It’s here I have an epiphany. What if you gave one of the vendors a juicer? Then he could sell tangerine juice, thus having a point of difference amid all the same same. But then I realise they’d all get a blender and they’d all sell tangerine juice. It’s a bitter cycle.

Later down the road we find same same with fish.

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But perhaps the most extreme example of same same is Hoi An in Vietnam. I don’t know quite when it started but someone set up a tailors. Tourists lapped it up. As a result there’s now more than 400 tailors in this tiny town. I went here with the aim of getting a few things made but I ended up getting so overwhelmed, particularly after a lady grabbed me and literally dragged me into her shop, that I just found a Vietnamese coffee shop to hide in. Yes I know I’m supposed to be dairy-free, but seriously, whoever thought of serving what New Zealanders’ would call a short black with condensed milk was a genius.

Big BBQ

In Laos animals seem to be called one of three things: small BBQ (eg: cat also known as small tiger), medium BBQ (eg: dog), and big BBQ (eg: water buffalo).

In fairness, I never did see cat or dog on the menu but I’m told it does still happen.

I did however indulge in a feast of big BBQ, even though later in the trip I lived to regret it after taking a rather pleasant ride on one.

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I have to say I was slightly disappointed. I was expecting water buffalo to taste exotic. It just tastes like beef, only difference being it likes to spent its living days hanging out in the water.

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By the time we get to Vietnam I decide the best way to immerse myself in their food is to attend a cooking class.

Our instructor is a touch crazy. Every ingredient we use she introduces to us as if it’s a person.

I’m made to say hello to papaya, “hello papaya.”

Then rice, “hello rice.”

Then chilli, “hello chilli.”

Then carrot, “hello carrot.”

I could go on but you get the point.

She also likes to burst into random fits of song. So as we’re turning our spring rolls in the wok of oil she’s busting out Tina Turner’s “Rolling on a River,” while I’m thinking to myself is this woman for real.

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When we’re talking about what kind of pepper to use it’s Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” and when she’s describing the hotness of chillis it’s the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire.”

She’s clearly got a thing for the English lad in our class too. Every time she asks him to do something she calls him “hot Simon” and when we go to pay in Vietnamese Dong she suggests he could pay her with his “ding dong.”

Seriously everyone’s getting action on this tour except me. In fact, the closest I get is in Hanoi where I have a plate of stir-fried morning glory for lunch, a ‘Fanny’ ice-cream for afternoon tea and dinner at a restaurant called 69.

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I’ll get back to the food.

It’s not until Cambodia that I experience the best meal of my two months here. It’s called Lok Lak, a marinated beef dish served on a bed of rice with hot pepper sauce on the side and a sunny side up egg on top.

It’s also in Cambodia that I corrupt my palate with the worst dish of my travels to date: fried tarantula.

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Ok, I’ll admit I was a wuss and only ate a leg, but that was quite enough to tell me that it tasted remarkably similar to a slightly soggy BBQ potato chip.

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Drive it like you stole it

I’m really grateful I don’t suffer from motion sickness. It means I don’t have to sit at the front of the bus.

You see, what I’ve found is that in South East Asia it’s better for your health if you can’t see the driving, best described by a bumper sticker I saw in Chiang Mai: “drive it like you stole it.”

Because I’m always at the back of the vehicle I’m oblivious to the fact that on-route to the border of Thailand and Laos our driver is talking on the car phone at the same time as overtaking on blind corners. It gets so bad that my roommate, sitting at the front of the minivan, turns around and with a look of sheer pandemonium on her face proclaims: “we’re all going to die.”

It’s not until later that day we find out that the two minivan drivers were actually talking to each other on the phone about when it was ok to overtake.

By the time we get to Vietnam the cars have been replaced with motorbikes, nine million of them. It blows my mind to think that in Saigon alone there’s more motorbikes than New Zealand has people.

It’s here in Hanoi on a wet and bleak-looking Valentines Day that I confront my first major road to cross.

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Truth be told I’ve been scared shitless of crossing roads ever since my friend got hit crossing the street (on a green walky man I might add).

Around the same time as I’m procrastinating by taking photos of the task ahead, a story from The Bible pops into my mind (don’t ask me why).

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“Moses held out his hand over the sea and the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind… The water was divided and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with walls of water on both sides.”

So from then on in every time I go to cross the road in Vietnam I pretend I’m Moses. I hold out my hand. I walk with authority. I do not run. Miraculously the walls of motorbikes part around me.

But to be honest the number one thing that has me on edge about the driving in Vietnam is that everyone toots. Even when there’s nothing or no-one to toot at, they toot.

Back home you only toot if you want to get someone’s attention, if you’re really pissed off at some driving manoeuvre another vehicle has just pulled, or if you’re about to crash.

But in Vietnam, apparently if they don’t toot and they hit someone they get in a lot more trouble than if they do toot. So they just toot all the time.

The other thing that strikes me is that the Vietnamese use motorbikes like we’d use cars. I once saw a family of five on one, the mum breast-feeding her youngest while the dad drove. I also saw a lady driving a cage full of cats to the border of China. They will be dinner. Unfortunately, I was too slow to get both instances on camera.

I did however manage to capture the worst parking manoeuvre I’ve ever seen.

It occurred in Pak Beng in Laos, a must-stop town when you’re doing a leisurely two day cruise down the Mekong.

It all began when our slowboat arrived around sunset to find a dozen or so other boats already moored up for the night. Instead of tacking onto the end of the line, our slowboat driver decides he wants to be right in the middle of the action (apparently next to his relatives).

So as our tour leader’s shouting at us to keep our bodily parts inside the boat, out driver begins the process of barging right on in up there. The boat’s moaning from the stress. It’s making a sound like when you put a walnut in a walnut cracker.

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It’s fair to say once we moor we’re all in need of some shots.

We each have a swig of Lao Lao, a Laotian rice whiskey so strong it causes one of the ladies on our tour to vomit. It just causes me to have this look on my face, which is strangely similar to the look I was sporting when the parking manoeuvre got underway.

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A happy ending?

It’s not until Hue in Vietnam that I feel I’ve truly earned a massage.

I’ve just spent my birthday on an overnight train where I slept (and I know I’ve mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating) on a bed which bore some previous traveller’s pubic hair.

To make it worse the morning after we’re forced to traipse around yet another temple, in the rain, by an incredibly arrogant local guide with a severe case of little man syndrome.

I swear in the next two days all I do is try and keep my pack dry and all I get is incredibly wet.

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And, to top it off all I learn is that monks eat tofu because the oestrogen in it suppresses their sexual urges.

Yes, I’ve truly earned this traditional Vietnamese massage.

I excitedly strip off and lie on the table. The masseuse starts. I’m in my happy place.

But then I hear another woman entering the room and they start giggling hysterically. Is it me? I tense up. I’m feeling naked and vulnerable.The laughing finally stops, the woman leaves, and the massage continues.

I relax into it again as she does my legs, then my arms, then my back, then my lower back, then the top of my bum, then my cheeks (I go with it), then the skin between my cheeks…

It’s about now I involuntarily tense up. She’s getting dangerously close to my lady bits. Dangerously close.

My mind is racing. Have I paid for a happy ending massage? What the hell is a traditional Vietnamese massage anyway?

Five minutes later I’m pleased to learn that a traditional Vietnamese massage does not come with a happy ending.

To finish off this incredibly awkward hour the lady asks me to sit up while she massages my shoulders.

For the first time in an hour she speaks to me. I interpret it as, “my, how long your hair.”

I reply: “thanks, yeah, I’m growing it out.”

She repeats her question and me my answer. This goes in for a while until I realise she’s in fact asking, “how long you here?” As in how long you in Hue.

I say “just the night,” to which she replies “you beautiful.”

It remains to be seen whether she was in fact saying “you beautiful” or “Hue beautiful.”