Hat Sai Khao, Ko Chang, Thailand
I've finally cracked Thai pronunciation. The tones they use don't match the ones in the phrasebook. But I can hear them now, and I can mostly speak them.
Here's the secret: as an English speaker, you're already used to producing tones, but you use them for emotion, not meaning. So map the meanings onto emotions:
You do* have to get it right, or you *won't be understood, even if it would seem possible to deduce the meaning from the context. I asked a songtaw driver for a lift to "hat sai khao" and he looked at me blankly until I translated to "white sand beach". But it turns out I'd actually asked for "white knee beach", which may be just as descriptive, but isn't on the map.
Speaking Thai really does open secret doors here. Order "coconut soup with chicken" and you'll get a rather bland, but pleasant, meal. Order "tom kha gai" and you'll be asked "bpet?" - "spicy?". Say yes to this and you're in for an experience.
The motorcycles we hired for 150 baht each can best be described as "working". Or at least "running". Mine came with "stomp gears" - I had to really kick the hell out of the gear selector to get it to change. This made it tricky to kickstart, because it would claim to be in neutral when it wasn't. Every single time I needed to start it, though, a helpful local would wander over and do it for me. I guess they're used to people with even less motorcycle experience than me.
They must be, because the process of checking my qualifications was to gesture vaguely at the gears and say "You can?" I'm not carrying an international licence, only an Australian one, so it's just as well.
In Cambodia, it's slightly different: they rent you the licence at the same time as the bike. I'm not sure if that's better or worse.
We spent most of the first night at our guesthouse fighting off ants. I shouldn't have been surprised; the place was pretty basic. They'd answered my question about hot water with "No have. Hot coffee, have." In the morning, Lyn took out our roll-on insect repellant to find an ant crawling across the surface.
We also have a very small and very expensive bottle of 100% DEET. It works. The only problem is that it'll kill you faster than malaria.
Still, it could've been worse. A very drunk man at the bar next door said that he'd returned to his room one night to find a snake in it. No worries for your average Aussie, but "a snake" around here means a King Cobra - you're pretty much dead before you reach the floor, let alone a Bangkok hospital. If I'd met one, I'd be drunk too.
I've made tissue-paper hot air balloons, propelled by cotton wool soaked in methylated spirits, before. They're beautiful, even more so when they're floating three at a time above the beach like orange stars. But back in New Zealand, we didn't quick-launch them with firework rockets.
Actually, the whole beach has an obsession with fire. Every bar has a fire show - with the times staggered so the same crew can work many of them - and many of the kids we saw practice during the day with sticks, or coke bottles on string.
Yes, we had cocktails on the beach. It's a long time between drinks. But I've had my "week on the beach" now, more or less. I found that I never spent quite as much time actually lazing around on the beach or the water as I thought I'd want to - an hour or two a day at most. And after a few days, I was picking up new projects, like learning Thai, or Khmer, or excessive exercise.
Lyn has even less ability to idle than I do. This is it. We don't get any slower.