Sun, Sand and Lady-Boys – Koh Tao
So after two long hard half-days of orienteering we 5 teachers were feeling definitely in need of some r and r and decided to head to the island paradise of Koh Tao to unwind for 5 days before the start of the new school year. After a bus to Bangkok and an 8 hour overnight bus to Chumporn we were nearly there, standing on the banks of the ocean awaiting the high speed catamaran that was to take us to our final destination. I was quietly enjoying myself taking pictures of the sun rising slowly over the lightening waters when I realised that when on the banks of the sea; with the dawn come the mosquitoes. At this point there were already whole areas of my body where you literally couldn’t put a pin between the bites and barely 3 square inches anywhere that wasn’t bitten anyway. I couldn’t bear the idea of getting more as the endless itching was driving me to distraction and I developed my first case of hysterical bug paranoia. The sea cat was docked at the end of the long jetty and it looked like the most appealing vehicle I’d ever seen; out on deep water there’d be no mozzies. Hysterical bug paranoia manifested itself in the sensation of my skin being crawling with beasties so that, regardless of there being any there or not, I was continuously slapping at myself and jumping about in a panic to escape. At just about the point where I was considering bribing the official a large amount of money to let me go up the jetty and on to the boat early he called us up anyway. Any longer and I’d have started screeching too!
Once on the sea cat all was right with the world again. We sat on deck and watched the waves fly by beneath us, silver-blue flying fish springing out of our wake in surprise and soaring 100 yards away across the tips of the breakers. Pulling in to Koh Tao was wonderful, it was such a beautiful place, a real little patch of paradise and I’m told its one of the least spoilt of the islands by tourism, although areas of it did still unfortunately smack of the Magaluf/Ibiza (Ibeefa) culture with which we Brits have ruined half the med and increasingly large chunks of other sunny seaside spots. The first day we lounged and caught up with our bus-broken sleep on the beach and Katie and I, the pastiest of the group, managed to burn ourselves almost straight away. Before I left home I decided that I wasn’t going to tan and that I was going to do my utmost to stay pale. My reasoning is that I’ve spent my life living in a country where people value tans and consider my pasty hide to be unattractive. Why then would I move to a country where they think my full moon face is the best thing since sliced bread and try to change it? However, Rachel has been rapidly catching up with me in the bite stakes but because of her California tan they don’t show up nearly so much as mine which are like blood splatters on snow. I decided I’d try and get a bit of a bronze on because of this and went straight to crispy bacon rasher in about 15 minutes. I think my skin went into a state of shock; it hasn’t seen the sun except through layers of clothing and 8-8 cloud cover in years! It’s worth pointing out that I’m now doing the true Brit thing and shedding skin like a snake but I have to say that the stuff underneath looks an teensy bit brown so hurrah.
That first night the guys and Katie joined the Koh Tao pub crawl but Rachel and I weren’t really feeling it so we decided to take in some local culture at the lady-boy cabaret. I have to take a moment here to say wow re. the lady-boys; as a general rule on Koh Tao, the more glamorous and beautiful the Thai lady; the less likely that she was born a lady. Man are they convincing though; I’d kill for their figures (minus the spare parts). I suppose I went in with my cultural heritage of the great British pub drag act in mind and was amazed at what turned out to be stunningly beautiful women (for the most part) with genuine talent singing and dancing – the voices on some of them took my breath away! Rachel and I befriended one of the waiter(/resses) and since ordering cocktails in Bangkok had resulted in getting fruit smoothies with a pipette, or possibly no, alcohol in them for twice the price of a beer we tipped our friendly server generously in order to wangle extra Sangsom in our bucket (n.b. if you leave the calm of the beach bars in Koh Tao drinks are generally served in buckets). Turns out in Koh Tao you don’t need to be extra generous to get some booze in your drink; they’re pretty strong already. As a result, when we left I was slaloming quite dramatically down the path. Not until after some very fine performances and Rachel almost tearing up with excitement over Lady (boy) GaGa though. The last act of the night was a bizarre-looking display; a Thai man came out dressed up as a lady-boy complete with foam boobs and manhood, a pink wig and some very disturbing clown make-up and sang I Will Survive whilst pulling random men onto the stage to dance with him. That was when it was time to cut and run.
We ended up sitting on a beach watching the fire dancers which are also exceptionally impressive although I would council against sitting too close. For one thing the heat and petrol fumes that come off them are amazing, how the guys that spin them don’t pass out I’ll never know; they must have hands made of asbestos. The other reason is that, incredible as they are at spinning them round their necks, launching them into the air and catching them etcetera; accidents do happen and a burning staff landing in Rachel and I’s laps was definitely disconcerting, although thankfully no harm done.
The following day saw us all feeling sorry for ourselves; James had managed to break a rib play-fighting with Rachel which is unsurprisingly still causing him grief and one of our number, who shall remain nameless, had found himself lured on to the beach by the charms of a pretty Thai lady promising him favours. She’d then asked for money which he refused but she decided to carry on anyway. She’d then revealed that she was also not exclusively female but by that point who cared? A certain person will not live this down for some time!
I did hear something rather disturbing re. the lady-boys however. Like most people I just assumed that Thailand for some reason has a much larger than average percentage of men who want to be women and that as a nation they’re pretty expert at making this happen. This is not necessarily always the case however; a lot of the time the lady-boys start out as young poverty-stricken Cambodian boys who are cherry-picked by gangsters as the prettiest and then sex-trafficked to Thailand and groomed to be transsexuals, raised as girls and taught from a young age how to move and dress etc; hence how mind-bogglingly convincing they are. That definitely puts a downer on things although I wouldn’t consider boycotting their cabarets etc as a good means of protesting this as for the most part it is their greatest means of earning an income outside of prostitution.
I felt awful the next day; more than hung-over, I seemed to have developed my first case of what travellers affectionately refer to as Delhi-belly and I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. After 24 hours of sweatily trying to sleep under the sluggish spin of the room fan I decided I was going to get up early and do my own thing and caught a sea taxi out to the tiny island of Koh Nang Yuong. The ride in itself was a joy in one of the tiny wooden crafts, the bow strung with Buddhist prayer flags and flowers and the waves slapping the sides and shooting spray up to cool your hot face. I snorkelled in Koh Nang Yuong but I don’t think I picked the greatest spot as the coral was largely dead; there were some wonderful iridescent parrot fish about though.
One day I will return to Koh Tao and spend more time exploring the island off Sairee Beach, I’m going to get a PADI certificate once I’ve finished my placement and Koh Tao seems like a great place to do it. I want to see whale sharks and turtles and the other things the surrounding ocean has to offer. I’d also love to bring my brother here and spend the evenings lounging on cushions on the beach drinking beer by the light of the fire dancers and catching up when he comes to visit. I might also see if I can get him to take the zip wire between islands with me! On Koh Tao I experienced my first moment of existential bliss on this trip; one of those moments when you think ‘wow, I live in this country, I am truly lucky.’ I thought it as I kicked my sunburnt feet through the waters lapping the shore as the sun set on Sairee beach.