Misadventure and delight in a sleepy fishing village
I stood waist-deep in the crystalline sea, my finger-tips slowly moving through the water. Across the horizon to my left and to my right, the soft curves of Ao Manao Bay’s rocky hills wrapped me in a gentle paradise.
I breathed deeply, floating on my back. What a peaceful presence Thailand had shown me for the past three weeks. This country, full of spices, stunning landscapes, and friendly people, had given me such a gift.
Often when I go abroad, I am inspired by the presence in which the people live their lives. I love how people live intentionally, slowly, focused on family, community and taking life one step at a time. I’m always in awe of the food they prepare, and how they clean their homes, and spend their days.
There is an ease, often in countries outside of the United States, of living in the moment, and focusing on the aspects of life that are the most important. I’ve found that when I travel, there is just less gunk in my mind. And more space for breezy explorations, for art, and appreciation for every new, vibrant moment.
I’ve always loved travel for this reason, and found it to be one of my most relaxing endeavours. I’ve been able to travel and live in countries throughout Europe, South America and East Africa. But I’d never been to Asia before 2016, and Thailand happened in a sudden burst of energy — a chance conference I leapt at the chance to attend.
Prachuap Khiri Khan, or PKK, is located in the center of the country, along the long narrow strait next to Myanmar and the Bay of Thailand. I decided to visit this out-of-the-way fishing village because the beaches looked amazing, it was only 4 hours from Surat Thani (where my conference was located), and because Lonely Planet gave it the “sleepy village” designation in terms of a party-location.
My intuition proved to be solid. PKK transfixed me the moment I stepped off the bright orange train.
Pong and Oy
Pong and Oy, a Thai couple in their 60s, run the Safehouse Hostel in PKK, my home-away-from home for 5 days. Oy runs hostel operations and speaks some English, and her husband helped out with chores and cultural excursions.
Oy, a petite, beautiful woman with strong cheekbones and a dignified yet accessible warmth, checked me into my room. Then she told me about Pong’s tours. At first I was wary — I’d been on a train all morning and wanted to walk around the village. But then she pointed to a scooter.
“You’d want to wear pants,” she said. Well! A scooter tour! I changed my mind. Many of my best days abroad had involved motorcycles or scooters.
An hour later I met Pong outside the hostel. He was casually sitting on a colorful scooter, wearing cargo shorts, a clean white hostel t-shirt, flip-flops and a pink helmet. He was smoking a cigarette.
As I walked over he handed me a helmet, then got out his phone, showing me photos of other hostel-guests at the sights we could visit. I saw a girl on a rope-swing, groups of young people on the beach, and a mountain trail overlooking a beautiful cove. Pong didn’t know any English and I don’t know Thai. The photos were not a bad way to communicate.
In Thailand, cars and scooters drive on the left, British, side of the road. It was jarring at first, but it did not take me long to relax, soaking in the remarkable landscape. PKK is situated along the Bay of Thailand. We followed the coast until reaching the countryside, where Pong took me to visit Wat Ao Noi. The remarkable temple itself was stunning, but afterward, Pong took me to a small mountain next to another bay with small fishing boats. He pointed up the trail, miming walking. I noticed two gold and red buildings about 50 meters above me. Pong lit a cigarette. I started my climb.
As sweat dripped from my face, I realized the epic staircase I was about to walk up. It was gold and silver, at about a 65 degree angle, leading to an area situated with two colorful mountain temples. Reaching the top, I marveled in the space. The same feelings I experienced when I’d visited a temple earlier in the week in Surat Thani returned. I felt present and grateful. What wisdom the builders of these Buddhist temples embodied, about energy and the way space makes us feel.
Beyond the temples, a trail led up into the mountain. At one point I looked down. I saw Pong gesture forward – keep walking!
Along the trail, I passed two other tourists, but otherwise it was empty. Shortly, I came upon the mouth of a cave. I guess this was where I was supposed to go. As I climbed through the rock, I remembered another cave I’d ventured into, many moons ago, while studying Spanish in Bolivia. That cave had been absolutely massive – it was some badass spelunking. This cave felt tiny and cute in comparison. After wandering for a few minutes, I noticed a gold figure ahead of me.
Holy cow, it was a massive Buddah! And it was laying on its side, seemingly sleeping. What a delight. The cave stretched on and I soon entered another room, which was nearly pitch-black. In front of me, I caught another glint of gold. I took out my camera, and flashed a photo. The jarring flash revealed not only another giant sleeping Buddah, but also dozens of small Buddahs, sitting upright in formation. Magical.
Pong grinned as we saddled back up on his scooter. He could tell I was in awe.
The rest of the day went like that. We zoomed through fields of pineapple, visited a colorful fishing dock, and spent time at a farm where we picked a coconut off a tree and ate it shortly after. Then, Pong took me to the glorious Ao Manao beach, for my first of three visits.
The beach is located, strangely, within a Thai air force base, just outside of PKK. The base itself seemed innocuous, though at one point we had to cautiously cross a landing strip that cut across the road, and we had to go through casual military check-points as well.
We had a lovely visit at the beach, though I didn’t have my suit so I didn’t swim. On the way back to the hostel I felt familiar already with the area, and confident in my directional sense. I figured the next day I would be ok out on my own.
Sorry about that Mom
I’d seen other hostel guests casually rent scooters from Pong and Oy. I thought, well how hard can it be? So the second afternoon, Pong showed me how to start it up a scooter, and I took off on the left side of the road, cautiously zig-zagging between the small village streets until I found the road that led to the beach. Turning left proved difficult, and I was honked at a number of times.
Despite the badassness of the experience in general, driving a scooter myself turned out to be much more stressful than having Pong cart me around. I was extremely relieved when I parked the scooter by the beach.
Alas, I’d chosen a poor day for my excursion, and after about 30 minutes, it started to rain. This was not good timing, because I also only had about an hour left of daylight. I waited the rain out as long as I could, then finally sauntered back to my scooter, and put the key in. Nothing happened.
That’s how Pong had done it, right? . . . I realized I hadn’t paid attention to him starting up the thing. I actually didn’t know. I flagged down a young Thai man passing by. He helped me rev the engine, sheepishly acknowledging how clueless I was. Oh boy.
I steered the scooter back to where I’d come. I stopped at the military check -point on the way out. There were two roads I could go down. I thought both led to PKK. So I went straight. But it didn’t take long for me to realize I didn’t recognize anything. The signs around the base had been in both Thai and English, but after only a few kilometers they changed back to only being in Thai. I turned back to the check-point, and took the other road. I realized that this road, too, was unfamiliar. Then, I realized in horror that there were actually two separate entrances I’d gone through with Pong, and it wasn’t the one I’d come out of that evening.
It was getting dark. I maintained a death grip on the handle-bars as I passed sign after sign in Thai. I wondered how in the hell I managed to get myself lost at night in the rain riding a scooter I didn’t understand on the wrong side of the road in Thailand.
I stopped in a village.
“PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN?” I said to several people.
Two pointed in the same direction. I rolled on.
Eventually, I came to a sign in English that pointed in the direction of my temporary home. Navigating the small dark streets wasn’t easy but I knew I could find my way eventually in PKK, though I now admitted I didn’t know it so well after all.
Pong was pacing in front of the hostel when I arrived. He threw up his hands as I rolled up, muttering something in Thai. I bought a beer from their fridge and sat on the porch, waiting for my nerves to calm.
Oy walked out, a beer in her hand, bandana on her head. She sat down on another scooter and looked up at me, relaxing for the evening.
“See, it’s not so hard!” she said cheerfully.
That night I spent the evening chatting on the balcony, drinking Thai beer and playing cards with a few other hostel guests. I told them of my ill-fated scooter journey, and we laughed.
We closed out the evening around midnight, and as I tried to re-enter my private bedroom, I realized my key was inside the locked door. Pong and Oy had closed up the hostel already. They lived a few doors down and came to open and close the guesthouse every evening and morning. Nothing to do but stake out an open bed in another room.
I hunkered down on a mattress in an empty room with 6-beds with just a sheet, grateful for the warm Thai evening. I thought back to my many similar nights abroad, sleeping on night trains and friend’s floors, and huts under mosquito nets. Ah yes, I knew this feeling well.
I sent a message to my new boyfriend.
“I wish we could be snuggling,” I said to him.
“I can’t wait to hold you in my arms again,” he said.
I felt a rush, warmth spreading throughout my body. I have spent so many nights alone in unknown parts of the world. Sometimes my nights were present and peaceful amid my traveling friends. Other nights I would just pray for the oblivion of sleep. And other times, I let anxiety and loneliness consume me, wondering about my decision to leave home and live among the foreign, yet again.
But there, in Thailand, I was pleasantly surprised in the comfort that came from knowing I had a strong, sweet man to come home to.
I relaxed, and slept a few hours.
Around 6 a.m. Pong and Oy arrived to unlock the hostel. I came down as soon as I heard them.
“I locked myself out,” I said. “Do you have an extra key?”
Oy rummaged around her desk. After a few minutes she paused. “Hum . . . I don’t know if there is one.” She paused. “How about a coffee?”
She left for a few minutes, then arrived with an Americano, made from an espresso machine in the building where she and Pong lived. I paid her, then sat outside.
I sipped the coffee in the warm morning air, observing the neighborhood coming to life. A little while later Pong came to me, and tugged on my arm. I followed him up the stairs to my room. He led me to the balcony where I’d been the night before, and pointed to my window. He jimmied it open, and I climbed into my room.
“Well I’m glad you got back in style!” my boyfriend wrote.
We all laughed. I went back to sleep.
Inside the tiny, beautiful village, there is a large protruding hill with a temple at the top and a winding staircase filled with monkeys. I knew the views would be spectacular, so one afternoon I set off to climb it.
Now, I’ve had a number of experiences with monkeys, most notably, in Bolivia, when one stole the only water bottle we had in the jungle. But in Thailand so far, the monkeys had been ever-present but calm. So even though there were monkeys jumping in and out of my path up the hill, I continued trudging along, marveling at the lovely views of the bay.
Suddenly, a monkey charged at me, leapt on my arm and grabbed the bracelet I’d bought at a temple in Surat Thani.
Clear blue beads bounced around my feet while half a dozen monkeys dashed around catching the beads, and popping them in their mouths.
I backed away and sped down the hill.
A trip to the local market
When I returned, Oy was bustling about. I told her about the monkeys. She expressed concern but didn’t look too surprised.
“I want to take you to a market. Do you have plans tonight?” she asked.
I told her I’d love to. I’d been to a weekly night market along the coast on my first night, which was remarkable. But this one, Oy said, was every day, and even more local.
A few hours later, I met Pong and Oy, both on separate scooters, in front of the hostel. On Oy’s scooter, her 5-year old grandson stood in front of her. I hopped behind Pong. None of them were wearing helmets, so I didn’t either.
The market was beautiful, full of local fruit, delicious fried seafood, and many items I could not identify. Oy guided me, pointing out foods especially I should try. I can’t remember why I asked her to pose holding the dragonfruit, but somehow it fits her, and the moment perfectly.
When we returned to the hostel, another guest was eating in a main room so I joined her with my fresh market finds. Oy, seeing us sitting together, turned away, and I called after her.
“Thank you SO much for taking me there. Do you want to eat with us?” Her eyes brightened, a bubbling grin emerged.
“Oh, no no, but I am so glad you enjoyed!”
Mossimo and Ping
The food in Thailand was, of course, a dream. But I was a little ready for some variety by my last week, and the first day in PKK happened upon two spots that I would visit every day. One was a cafe run by an Italian named Mossimo, who made excellent coffee and croissants.
The other was a tiny pizza place along the coast run by a man named Ping. He served wine, so most evenings I would come for a cup of red wine, which wasn’t too easy to find in Thailand.
Sipping wine at Ping’s pizza place, I would watch the lights on small squid boats ficker amid the dark sea. I loved this setting, where I could chat with other locals and visitors, relaxing from my adventuresome days.
Prachuap Khiri Khan was so small that I ran into both Ping and Mossimo around town during the five days I was there. Their presence added to the dreamy-ness of this sweet fishing village, where after less than a week, I felt at home.
After my scooter-driving escapade, I decided to spend my last day in Thailand on another Pong-led tour. Letting him steer the scooter as I soaked in the scenery on the back was much more fun. By then, we were like old friends, communicating through pointing, photos and laughter.
Of course we had to visit Ao Manao beach one last time. Before going swimming, we stopped near the beach at a temple I hadn’t seen before.
This temple was very small and open-air. Pong showed me how to buy flowers to place on the Buddahs, to light incense and pray.
He knelt in front of the altar and beckoned me to join. I perched beside him and closed my eyes, the sea breeze lightly flowing around us.
I thanked God to just be there in that magical place, experiencing the eternal in one soft moment.
Dinner on the sea and goodbyes
On the last night of my stay in PKK, Oy invited me out to dinner with her family. I sensed a new dynamic in the invitation. When we met, I noticed Pong and Oy were dressed up. We were going out someplace special, and I was their guest.
I’d bought a bottle of wine for us to drink, and we opened it at the hostel. For the first time, we all drove together in a car. Oy and their grandson sat in the backseat. Pong drove, and sipped a small glass of the wine I’d bought, holding it in the center coaster. I sat in the front, left passenger side.
As we drove, I asked Oy more questions about her life. She told me that she had learned English on the air force base, when Americans had been in the military there. I realized only then that she struggled with my language more than I had realized. But of course, dinner conversation was much more complicated than the day-to-day of hostel life.
As we drove through a nearby village, I realized I recognized some buildings. It was the same road I’d taken when I’d gotten lost on the scooter, days before.
We arrived at the restaurant at dusk. I could just make out the shape of large rocks jutting near the sea. The restaurant was outdoors, and it reminded me of another time I’d eaten seafood next to the sea–though that time it was in Arica, Chile, after a precarious trip across the border of Peru. I had always remembered the dinner in Arica as one of the top meals of my life. As a Nebraska native, fresh seafood is always a specialty I do not take for granted.
The Thai seafood I ate with Pong and Oy that night was spectacular. The restaurant was full of only locals, and I realized the genuine specialty of the evening. I couldn’t believe that I suddenly had become Pong and Oy’s special guest. We ordered so many fabulous dishes to share. I remember especially the tempura vegetables and shrimp, and a glorious spicy fish soup in particular. After dinner, Pong bought his grandson and I ice cream. He also insisted on paying for the meal.
The next morning, I collected my bags, and met my friends in the front of the hostel. “I’m going to get a coffee,” I said.
“You should take her,” Oy said. She was right, we didn’t have much time before we needed to be at the bus station. I hopped on the back on Pong’s scooter as we zoomed over to the Italian cafe.
Mossimo knew I was in a hurry and comically bustled around the cafe, making a double-cappuccino to go. I ordered two pieces of a banana creme torte as well. When we returned, I handed a slice to Oy. She wrote down her email address. I gave her a hug.
Since I had my suitcase, we took the car to the bus station. I was so grateful to have Pong with me. The station was tiny, and though the attendants were very friendly and semi-English speaking, I still needed help understanding why my bus to Phuket was so late, and where it would pick me up. After two hours, finally, the bus arrived, stopping for only about 20 seconds.
The bus driver and attendant grabbed my suitcase and backpack, and threw them onto a seat on the top of the bus. I was in such a rush I nearly forgot to tell Pong goodbye. I stepped off the bus parked on the side of the highway. Pong grinned, the classic Pong grin. I gave him a quick, cheerful hug, not knowing whether it was appropriate or not, and felt the bus lurch ahead, the moment my feet were both inside.
I figured my 8-hour bus to the Phuket airport would be my final adventure in that delightful trip. But, it turned out, the bus was letting me off a few kilometers from the airport. When I arrived at the bus stop, I asked for a cab to the airport. A man walked out to the highway, and flagged down a woman on a scooter. At first I didn’t understand. I had a suitcase, after all. The bus attendant picked up my suitcase and tried to place it on the scooter, in front of the woman. It wouldn’t fit.
“You carry,” he said to me.
So, flying down the dark highway sans helmet, with one hand clinging to the seat and the other holding the suitcase on my lap, I closed my eyes and prayed hard that I hadn’t made a terrible mistake.
But as with all other semi close-calls, I arrived at the airport just fine. I had a few hours to spare, so I drank a beer, reclined in the balmy open-air bar outside the airport. I sent a message to my boyfriend, whose arms I was indeed ready be wrapped up in.
I thought back to the day at Ao Manao, standing in that sea, so at peace. I knew why this trip had been different than the others. Finally, even though I was still traveling by myself, I wasn’t alone. I had a new life ahead of me, and I knew it even then, so early in our relationship.
I did not dread the long flights before me. I was to go home to a man who, I was beginning to realize, I was falling in love with. Thailand enveloped me in gratitude, to experience love of solo travel and sweet friends, and to return home, with so much more life to be lived.
My world was opening anew, moment by peaceful moment.
Guest blogger Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.