As Indonesia drew closer, it seemed wise to spend some time saving up money before arriving, so that we could focus entirely on music once we were in Solo. And what better place to do so than a little island paradise in laidback Thailand? At random (well, with a little help from the Lonely Planet) we chose Koh Jum, off the west coast of Thailand, quieter and less developed than the nearby dive destination Koh Lanta, and not far from the luscious islet of Koh Phi Phi Ley, the only true superstar (despite Leonardo di Caprio’s presence) in the irritating movie of the irritating book The Beach.
And so, after a night camped out in the local police station (see previous post), we hopped on a little skiff, squeezing our bikes in between sacks of ice and boxes of bottled water (already a testimony to the impact of tourism on these islands), and set sail for our little idyll.
Perhaps because after our long road into the centre of the Eurasian continent and out again, the sea was still a refreshing novelty, or perhaps because I hadn’t been on an actual beach holiday since mum and dad loaded us into the VW Combie for our annual 3 weeks in rainy Wales, I found myself quite excited by the prospect of lounging around on white sand beaches and snorkeling with the little fishies. After all, this is the dream, isn’t it? You know, the usual one. Not the one where you slog up mountains with 40kg of luggage strapped to a bike, or the one where you spend hundreds of kilometers cowering along the edge of motorways trying not to scream as trucks hurtle past your ear. Just sun, sea and sand.
We’d booked into a resort just back from the beach, run by a young German guy and his “island-law” wife, a local girl from the village, whose tempestuous relationship provided more drama than the entire population of Albert Square over the month we were there. They were also hosting volunteers, mostly from Europe, Australia and Latin America, who were busy painting, building, gardening and beach scavenging for whimsical bits of flotsam to transform the place from a bland, concrete budget resort into a bohemian beachside dream.
We arrived on a volunteer’s birthday, so were treated to the first of many beach barbecues on our first night.
And towards the end of our stay, as various dramas unfolded with the management, local staff deserted, the German guy disappeared off to the mainland with no word of when he’d be back, and his wife abandoned the hotel and went back to her parents’ house, volunteers and guests alike were left to fend for themselves, so we took the opportunity to get in the kitchen and – yep, you guessed it – cook curry for our friends!
This was peak tourist season, but it never felt too crowded, and there was a healthy music community, with local musicians supplemented by longer-term visitors, many of whom had been taking refuge on Koh Jum from northern winters and Chrismas hells for years. On New Year’s Eve we went roaming with our instruments, winding up at one of the posher resorts where a local reggae band was playing, with guest flautist, Annie, from the UK. Having never been able to figure out any worthwhile contribution a violin can make to reggae, I left the stage and the appreciative crowds to John.
And plenty of other jam sessions, informal gigs, and even one off-island invitation for John made a nice change after a year on the move.
Generally, though, we were pretty content just staying on our little island, rather appropriately working our way proofreading through a massive 3-volume tome on South African decapods (crabs, shrimp and lobsters), and encountering many such critters every day and night on the beach – especially crabs, whose antics were a constant source of puzzlement and amusement, and hermit crabs, which it turns out are less like crabs and more like air-breathing soft-shelled shrimp that live in scavenged shells. Daily swims up and down the coast with a snorkel revealed a rich underwater life, despite the obvious effects of coral bleaching. Night swims set off clouds of phosphorescent green glitter and, when the moon was full, specks of bright diode-blue plankton dotted the sand. I was amazed to discover a freshwater well in the sea on a wide, shallow bay in the north of the island. A little cylinder of concrete embedded in the sand marked the spot, and once the tide dropped below the edge of the rim you could stand knee deep in seawater, supping sweet fresh water from the well.
But the strangest moment of our stay arose from my spontaneous decision to do my PADI diving certificate whist there. I met the diving instructor, Graham, a couple of times first to discuss the programme, and had even bumped into him at a jam session where John and I were playing (though I hadn’t introduced them), but it wasn’t until I turned up on my bicycle, with a pannier, for my first lesson, that the penny dropped – for him. “I know you…” he said.
I looked hard at him – forty-something, ponytail, seemed conceivable we might have met back in the day at some squat party or festival, but nothing rang a bell. “You’re riding a bike to Indonesia, you’re a musician, you’re travelling with your boyfriend, John. I know who you are.”
“I used to have an outdoor activities business with Simon Buttars [see Episode__]. I’ve actually known your boyfriend, John, for years…”
And so we spent plenty of time the rest of the month hanging out with Graham and his partner Gemma, also a dive master, who regaled us with tales of her incredible talent for attracting dangerous animals – nearly dying after stepping on a jellyfish, finding herself in a bathroom full of snakes after going to the loo at night with the light off, and frequently attracting the attention of poisonous lionfish on dives.
The PADI course was fantastic – and as a “friend of the family”, I got to go on the odd extra dive. The seascape is dominated by dramatic karst limestone scenery, and despite heavy coral bleaching, there was a wondrous diversity of sealife to be enjoyed in the national park waters. Not having a waterproof camera, I’ve had to steal all these pictures from the interweb, but they are of the places I dived and a couple of the fish I saw:
Having rather insulted the literary quality of The Beach above, I have to say that on reflection, it does capture something quite true about this part of Thailand. At the same time as enjoying the sun and the white sand from our gently and lovingly hippyfied surroundings, the sense of something a bit rotten under the surface couldn’t be completely thrown off. The news story about two Burmese workers being framed for the rape and murder of a female tourist was grinding on (they were eventually sentenced to death), and more locally, Graham told us about how he’d fished an unconscious Burmese worker from the sea on the way to a dive. The guy had been working on a resort in neighbouring Koh Lanta, and had the temerity to demand the pay he was owed, for which he was knocked over the head and dumped at sea.
The military junta were continuing to extend their powers as the king neared death (he died last year), protests in Bangkok were being crushed, citizens were being prosecuted for private Facebook posts (see previous episode). A “Tiger Temple” we’d passed (and avoided) in Kanchiburi, advertising the dubious-sounding experience of petting docile tigers, was now in the news for its role in the illegal wildlife trade with China; freezers had been found stuffed with baby tigers and parts of other protected species. Tales of exploitation, dishonesty and corruption swirled around beneath the picture-perfect surface being presented to its touristic visitors.
Koh Jum tourists seemed to be a chilled bunch: no all night raves, no in-your-face drug use, no alcohol-fueled rowdiness, lots of families. But with more tourists than islanders at this time of year, you could feel the strain on resources, especially on water, sewage, rubbish management and infrastructure, as well as the recent shift in culture as everyone’s main concern became trying to work out how to carve out their own little slice of the pie, while most of the big bucks were going to high-end resorts owned by outside investors.
But as a little island paradise, Koh Jum measured up pretty well, and we were of course sad to leave, especially to part, yet again, with new and old friends. But now, merely a hop, skip and jump from Indonesia, it was time to begin the last stage, to Malaysia.