I wrote the following for a travel writing competition that I didn't enter. The reasons why I didn't send this off are too long and uninteresting for today but I feel the story may still be worth telling.
It's a true story...
Don't judge a long-tail boat by its driver...
Idyllic Thailand: long white beaches, warm blue sea, Mai Tai cocktails for breakfast?
Nope, not even close. Railay Beach has off-white yellowing sand, murky green sea with backpackers washing in it. Furthermore the majority of the beachfront resorts are Muslim owned so are as dry as a bone, all day long. Especially at breakfast. Throw in an outdated air conditioner unit that sounds like an Airbus taking off in our hotel room all night, every night and some constantly near-naked Norwegian neighbours, and unsurprisingly we decided to cut our stay in our Railay hotel short in favour for rediscovering the peaceful Thailand we’d originally fallen for at the beginning of our six-week tour of the country’s Andaman coast.
Bags packed and our next destination meticulously picked using the unfold map, cover eyes and point method we assessed our transport options; get the passenger ferry for two hours to Krabi and a one hour taxi to our chosen beach or get a long-tail boat, a fraction more expensive, but half the time. We were really gasping for a beer at this point and after seeing long tail boats transporting animals, motorbikes and furniture, we felt we deserved a similar high quality service so we approached the beach's Godfather of long-tail boats to negotiate.
Price agreed upon and our destination pointed out on the map, we are approached by a young Thai man who takes one of our bags and leads us to the shoreline, where he effortlessly plopped one of our cases - hopefully not the one with the camera and laptop in - over the side of a long tail-boat. We risk hernias lugging our other bags into the front of the boat and we climb aboard after him as elegantly as elephants. At the back of the boat our driver who seems to have a constant smile has tied up his packed lunch in a plastic bag to a raft in the boat and is pointing to where we should sit at the very front of the boat. He literally kicks the engine into action and I consider if the engine was a Toyota or a Hyundai in its past life. After a quick check that I have all four bags and one boyfriend on board - in that order - I finally sit down with a much anticipated plan to enjoy the journey, reassured by the way our driver confidently steers us out of a snug queue of boats and away from the overpriced, alcohol-free abyss.
As is always the case with travel once your bags are packed and your fate lies in someone else's hands, you can bizarrely can allow yourself to relax and I do. I start to feel real excitement about rediscovering the Thailand that I'd fallen in love with on the island of Koh Lanta. An even bigger grin weaves its way across my face when I notice my boyfriend look at his phone and tut “Ah shit, I’ve run out of credit on my Thai Sim,” Ha! Now he'll have to talk to me...
“Not to worry. Relax. Worse things have happened at sea,” I squeezed his hand.
I couldn’t have been more right.
With Railay’s admittedly stunning limestone cliffs out of sight behind us and our destination, the near empty beaches north of Krabi, still a sketchy line in the horizon, our long-tail boat driver calls out to us. I turn my head to hear better. He shouts out again and though it's in very in broken English, it’s clear what he is asking. “Where we go?”
“Where you go?”
“Oh my God, he doesn’t know where he’s taking us,” I whisper to NewMan or anyone who'll hear me and I feel small seeds of panic are sewn and pulled tight across my chest.
Conversely, NewMan leaps into action taking our now rat-eared map to the back of the boat. I strain to follow their stilted conversation and come close to convincing myself that the driver now knows precisely where to take us. And then NewMan has returned to the front of the boat to present his findings to me; “Yeah, he hasn’t got a fucking clue,”
“Oh my G-“
“Get your phone out, we need the data so I can find out where we are,”
“But it's my UK SIM? That will mean roaming and it will cost a bomb!” I protested instinctively. Five months of saving and budgeting for travel hadn't yet been knocked out of me.
“Fine. I’ll do it on mine,” he stomps back to our lost driver and I know immediately that I am in a lot of trouble. I release a weighty sigh and wonder silently to myself. What else can go wrong?
A slap of thunder interrupts my thoughts and I look skywards to see a growing black cloud roll towards us. Moments later it has begun to spit cool drops of rain down on us and the fold out map, upon which so much rests is now drooping pathetically in the middle, put upon by the weight of the raindrops and our desperation.
I consider commenting on the fact that it's raining to NewMan in a typically British fashion, but I realise he's already well aware of this as he uses his hand to shelter the screen on his phone while finding our location on Google Maps at the cost of £1.00 a second. He shows the screen to the driver and more half sentences and over elaborate gestures follow. I am perturbed to see our driver is only half-heartedly listening to NewMan but is still putting a lot of effort and sparkle into his smile which has very quickly gone from polite and friendly to frustratingly misleading. He spots me looking at me and only beams brighter at me, in direct spite of me. He smiles and nods and smiles obliviously at us both, as we potter along to nowhere.
Pathetically sheltering under the soaking sarong I hold above my head, I scan the horizon for landmarks in a place I've never been to. If I can just spot Krabi then we have some point of reference and we will be ok. But I have no idea what Krabi looks like on dry land let alone from what feels like the middle of the ocean. And this is when I start to notice the ocean isn’t very ocean like. In fact the bottom of the seabed is clearly visible and our boat is jolting awkwardly into a slower pace.
The tide has gone out and we’re stuck with it, still over a kilometer away from the shore.
At least our driver has clearly noticed this too as I watch him survey his surroundings and the shine in his smile dulls a little as he pulls out a phone. With my boyfriend not talking to me, our driver letting his Mum know he won’t be back for dinner and my clothes already sodden, I weigh up how easy it would be to swim to shore with three suitcases and a laptop bag. Defeated by the impossibility of this I then start to do a mental stock take of what food and water we may have should this become a wait it out situation; I come to the conclusion that there is bugger all apart from our poor driver's packed lunch which still dangles by his feet.
NewMan returns to sit next to me.
“Darling…” I begin.
“Shut up,” I’m told.
And I do and so does the boat as t he driver cuts the engine but continues to talk into his phone loudly. The louder he talks the more I am aggravated I am that I don't understand.
NewMan and I sit side by side, soaking and in silence, each wondering how this will end…
To be continued... Read Part Two here.
Frances M. Thompson
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