Bangkok was a letdown. A tent-city now, occupied by people whose adorned Thai flags and semantics make it difficult to construe which side they’re actually fighting for. Filled with rats the size of small cats and sex sold on every corner – cheaply or nor, depending on where you look – Bangkok has, I think, a very specific niche. By day: history; but the history closes at 4:00. By night: debauchery. “Ping pong” shows and self-proclaimed Lady Boys and as many shades of bawdiness as you can think of. The older white men in business suits and younger white men in trendy fashions are nearly countless. And Bangkok knows exactly what they’re buying.
But a 12-hour train ride and a four-hour bus/mini-van ride later, we landed in nothing short of paradise. Here, monkeys big and small – some friendly, some rather aggressive and demanding – roam the white sand beaches. Touristic, yes, but amazingly still unsullied. If Phuket is the Jersey Shore, Ao Nang is Old Orchard, quaint, quieter, and charming.
On our first day, surviving on two or so hours of poor train sleep, we walked into town. Typical, I would say, of a beach town, with restaurants and shops selling towels and hats and sun cream everywhere you look. People bronzed to perfection and others reddening, searching desperately for shade under the relative shade of a coconut tree. And suddenly, there was no more town, but sprawling in front of us was sapphire and turquoise and the kinds of ocean you only ogle in someone’s Facebook photos. (Please feel free to ogle ours.)
On our second day, we woke to a late breakfast of boiled beef and garlic for Jake and flat noodles in a thick vegetable and seafood sauce for me, washed down with iced tea and coffee, then spent eight hours exploring the unbelievably remarkable islands just off Ao Nang.
Piled on a long boat with about 30 people, we crashed through the calm surf. In some areas the water was so clear that we could see straight to the bottom. The first beach, Railay, is fabled for its natural beauty and with good reason. High, white cliffs, soft, white sands, and turquoise water that seems too perfect to be true. Then to Poda Island, where we snorkeled. Below us, coral reefs that boasted dark, purple plant life, and schools of Admiral fish that swarmed us for pineapple, and the amazing Parrot fish whose scales flash pinks, purples, blues, and yellows, and whose lips are pouty and pursed moreso than any model’s. Then to the Seven Islands, where we swam through a natural hollowing of one of the islands, which is really more like a big ocean rock, which is not to make it sound any less incredible. Then, we went to Chicken Island – named for its natural shape, aptly, a chicken’s head – where we did more snorkeling in waters so unbelievably clear that we could see patterns in the coral even as the waves rippled, and finally we landed on Tup Island where we had our sunset barbecue.
I’m fairly certain I’m correct in saying that, as long as you like beaches and oceans and boats, our tour guide has the best job in the world. Every day he gets to motor around what I think is easily one of the most picturesque places in the world – every view is a postcard – then he gets to eat barbecued chicken and seafood that tastes distinctly like peace and sun and joy, then watch the sunset. Now, this is not any normal sunset: this is a sunset in paradise. The sky itself is smeared with precision in hues of fiery oranges, calming violets, bright blues, and hazy pinks better than even the finest roses. The sun hangs proud and heavy as day dies over Thailand, watching its reflection in the rippling ocean, narcissistic and vain, but undeniably beautiful.
I stood in the water as the tide was rising in juxtaposition to the sun. The soft sand swallowed my feet as the water lapped at my toes, then my ankles, then pooled around my calves. I looked up at the one solitary star in the sky – bright, but lonely – and then another appeared. One by one they emerged in the sky, the eyes of gods and wisdom, until the sky was a smattering of shimmering jewels. There was no moon – the stars had the whole sky as their own personal playground. At that point nothing, nothing could be more beautiful.
Night fully surfaced and the tour guides swirled fire batons deftly and lit cigarettes on their ashes with just as much precision. Their fire blurred the sky, but was only a tease for the light that would come next.
Back on the boat, the land air warm behind us and the cooler sea breeze gnarling or hair, we headed back towards Ao Nang, but not before stopping a few beaches down from Railay for one of the most amazing experiences available on Earth. There in the water – blue-green by day, but pitch black by night – swirled schools of bioluminescent plankton who would illuminate the water like a million tiny flashlights every time I swirled my hands or feet. I haven’t been so fascinated by my own hands and feet since infanthood. It was like natural magic emerging from your own body and coming into the world as unsurpassed, mesmerizing beauty. When I looked up, stars twinkled magnificently over white cliffs. When I looked down, the water sang light.