Parallel U
pt. I

Number 4–Shoestring Paradise

Next stop, I'm sitting at the bar – circular, straw-roofed, open air building – at Porn's (Porn, common name in Thailand) Bungalows on Koh Chang, Thailand's second largest island. Laura, English woman, comes up to get some beers for friends, and volunteers, “Peace on earth, huh.” ... about sums it up. She was referring to the mellow music, the gentle background drone of six inch surf, the cool people – local and traveler – and general vibe. She goes on, “I came with friends who'd been here before, I had no idea.” ‘Here’ I take to mean any one of dozens of Thai beach resort islands designed to be cheap and dreamy and laid-back personified.

I had to walk all the way to the end of the beach to find my hut, which at $3.50 night is about as cheap as you can find here. Up till five years ago the only way to get to this beach was by boat, obviously even much quieter then, and everything was cheap. But now every time they build new bungalows they get nicer (by some standards, not mine) and more expensive. Right next door you can spend $30 a night; for that you get air-con and your own bathroom. Needless to say I prefer my almost totally indigenous straw hut. It's actually second generation and quite spacious compared to the original ones which are just big enough for a double bed and a narrow aisle on the side. It’s more spacious but still only includes a fan in addition to the bed, and a plastic chair on the porch.

The structural wood is about 1” x 3” (actually metric dimensions so I'm just guessing) coconut studs. Coconut is ubiquitous and clearly not subject to logging prohibitions. It doesn't last long, but that isn’t a problem in a straw building. The walls are straw mat, preserved and glossy with some type of shellac and I have screened windows on three sides with a totally green view. My bungalow is all the way in back, up a gentle rise and perfect for me because it allows for dense greenery. It's about 100 meters from the water – right close to the water they get really cheek by jowl. The roof is coconut leaf woven together and overlapped about every four inches. However, those types of roofs only last 7 to 10 years so when it came time to replace these they took the easy way out and placed a metal roof on top – at least it still looks indigenous from inside.

Electricity is provided by a single wire stapled to a wood post which runs two bare 10 watt light bulbs, one for the porch and one for the room. It also has one outlet for the fan. One minute the lights are so dim you barely know they're on then suddenly they get really bright. All electricity is produced by small generators. New clearly superior utility poles, not yet strung, line the main road so service will soon be much improved. The wires that serve each bungalow are laid on the ground in plastic pipe. Sometimes there's just a bare wire across the path; partly from the pipes decaying from being placed in the sun, partly from getting stepped on.

The toilet-shower facilities are in a group of four in a concrete building. There are two toilets that also include a shower and two shower only stalls. The toilets are squat type and are raised a few inches off the floor. Included is a reservoir holding about fifteen gallons of water which comes equipped with a scoop you use to flush it with. Many of the guesthouses are moving to sit down toilets but many compromise with a sit down that still needs to be flushed manually, which is really no trouble. They include a shower head on a flexible hose and everything below about two feet is finished in ceramic tile. And of course, like all Asian toilets, there’s a drain hole in the center and everything is designed to get wet.

My hut is far enough back and secluded enough so that I just pee over the railing, especially at night. It wouldn't be good if everybody did that since there's not going to be enough rain to wash it away for months, but a little? Nothing to worry about.

The restaurant is half under roof, half outdoors – rainy season is pretty slow, don't need all the space. The outdoor area, which is built right into the beach sand, has a split bamboo floor – gotta be careful how you walk – and the seating is all on cushions on the floor with low bamboo tables. Way cool and all with a perfect sunset view.

Typical day: wake up at eight or so, eat some fruit, walk down the beach to get a real cup of coffee, head back to the compound to do my morning thing, spend a little time in the hammock, take a short walk out to the main road to get a bowl of local soup, take a little more time in the hammock and whoa, it's 1.30 and time for a nap. Ease very slowly out of bed after an hour or two and time to put on my swimsuit for my daily dip. The water, at about 80 degrees, is just a touch cool when it first hits your skin but once in there's no time limit to how long you can stay. In the hot season it gets above 90 degrees. A little more time in the hammock and it's already dark and 6 pm and time for a beer. And so it went for 6 days, I think, the number of days that is, it’s easy to loose track.

I did read two newspapers during that time, mostly didn't care much for news; and I'm generally a news junkie. A headline in the business section read, "Retailers slash prices to draw shoppers" It was a story about the US and included a picture of three beaming women out at 7 am to catch the best bargains. It was only three months after 9-11. By golly, I thought, the American people are really coming through on the terrorism thing, just like Georgie asked. They sure weren't going to let a dastardly, cowardly terrorist act hamper their hallowed way of life, no way.

What a relief to be able to escape another Christmas of consumer hype, this time cloaked in patriotism, no less.