9. Mae Nam
18/12/02: Move on to Mae Nam; more rain; book into Anong Villas; dinner and a few drinks at a bar on the beach served by a young Thai gentleman who’s been to Doncaster.
Mae Nam – the place that makes a visit to Koh Samui worth one’s while. Here and there, one finds undisturbed pockets of vegetation, one in particular being vaguely reminiscent of Isaac Levitan’s realist masterpiece Deep Waters, restricted from development, as it is, by a network of streams. It may actually be the case that there are plenty of equally honourable coves dotted around Samui, although I have heard no rumours to suggest that this is so.
The middle point of the beach is more typically furnished with the staple palm tree, and plays host to a smattering of pleasant bars and eateries facing north towards Koh Phangan. Lorries hurl along the main drag at break-neck speed, shedding light on a statistical analysis that informs us that Samui’s road are the most potentially fatal in the whole of Thailand.
In spite of this, Mae Nam is a delightful place with only the perfunctory facets of the commercialism that mar the remainder of the island. The residents are welcoming and possess a playful sense of humour that offers relief from the understandable cynicism often found on display elsewhere.
I love the postcard. My favourites are those depicting antiquated coastal vistas, faded in the light, drained of the overly rich colours that spoil more recent pressings. The postcard succeeds where other forms of communication cannot in establishing a tangible link between sender and recipient, and the journey that the laminate must undertake is an adventure of Odyssean magnitude.
When we were researching into our travels, it was discovered that the rainy season (ruedu fon) in Thailand normally begins in June/July, and hangs in the air until October/November. It was now mid-December and yet we were still being subjected to intense downpours interrupted by random bouts of sunshine, rather than the other way around, which had been the state of play on our arrival. I don’t think the south of Thailand ever really completely frees itself from the clutches of these south-western monsoons.
Mae Nam was to be Samui’s saving grace. Our last roll of the dice, we couldn’t get out of Chaweng quick enough. It was a bit of a gamble, and suffered the most inauspicious of beginnings.
I am up early and, whilst my companion readies herself, I’m going to try and acquire a small ‘man bag’ for my belongings. Up until now, I’ve been wearing a ‘body wallet’ with my passport, money and other particulars contained therein, and my passport is beginning to suffer the consequences of being moulded around my waste on a daily basis (our guidebook encourages not to leave valuables in one’s room – especially on the islands – and I’ve followed that advice religiously). On top of that, I’ve had a camera to carry around with me, and sometimes keys. It’s been far from ideal.
I’ve decided to lump everything together in some sort of bag, as small as possible and in a colour befitting a man who used to serve in the Air Training Corp. Such is the profusion of stalls selling this sort of tat, I don’t expect to pay a huge amount of money for the privilege, but I do anticipate having to haggle for it.
Initially I’m being asked for 850 baht (about £12 at the time) for a satchel no larger than a 1kg bag of sugar. I consider this excessive. Please bear in mind that I am on a budget and that this bag has been knocked up for next to nothing with the specific intention of being sold to farang at an artificially inflated price – they’ve even gone to the trouble of attaching a fake brand-name to the thing. Some friendly to-ing and fro-ing ensues and we’re quickly down to 500 baht, which pretty much justifies my position on the matter. I’ve entered into this whole process hoping to pay around 350 baht, but I am beginning to sense that I have pushed him almost as far as he is prepared to go. The bag has a number of external pockets, an adjustable strap and is coloured battleship grey. What’s more, our hustling has been carried out in the most civil of manners, my interlocutor smiling and laughing the whole time. I hand over the 500 baht, he shakes my hand, and I feel all warm inside.
Songthaews are the primary means by which one gets around Koh Samui and they often run fixed routes, just like any regular bus would. This can lead to some confusion. Songthaews aren’t numbered and there aren’t visible designated stops per se, so you need to tell the driver or his ‘assistant’ where it is you would like to go and you’ll either be waved away or told to jump on, regardless of whether the vehicle has any obvious free capacity.
We find ourselves a songthaew with ease and are instructed to get in, although there seems to be an element of ambiguity to our exchange. After about half a mile, our songthaew intercepts another travelling in the other direction and enters into a discourse with the driver. An exchange of hostages then takes place, of which we are involved. This makes complete sense now, because we were driving in the wrong direction: south, back towards Lamai, when we needed to be headed north, towards Mae Nam. Really, we’d been waiting on the wrong side of the road.
We’re the only farang sitting in the back of our new songthaew. This isn’t a problem in itself, but we’ve become accustomed to aping what other travellers do in order to get where it is we want to be. Now it’s left to me to interpret our rudimentary map, and because of the speed at which we’re travelling – fast – I am finding it difficult to discern where it is we should alight. Also, we are not familiar with the protocol here: did our original driver explain where it was we were supposed to be going, or merely convey our general direction? Are we expected to bang on the separating window when we want to get off – the only obvious means of communication between driver and passenger – or is there a more subtle means of information exchange that I’ve missed?
Eventually, fairly certain that we can afford to travel no further, we gesticulate in random directions that we would like to disembark NOW. Our fellow passengers get the message and bang on the window to alert the driver and he drops off at the nearest roadside café, the only sign of life in the immediate, foliage based vicinity. I am not concerned because I know we’re somewhere along the 4169 and that if we move north we’ll hit the coast in next to no time. Safe in the knowledge that we’re not completely lost, we decide to take this opportunity to pause for a spot of lunch. Judging by the number of chickens wandering around it’s going to be fresh stuff.
The food is good – proper grilled street food for next to nothing. This remote, decrepit shack isn’t set up for tourists; this is a service-station for the locals. Now for the small matter of finding our resort.
Over there, down that dusty back-road. It takes us through a wood and brings us out at the dog-end of a long beach – presumably the right one. As we amble back along the shore, stumbling over driftwood and flotsam, the monsoon decides that we’ve had enough sunshine for one day. My colleagues – my companion in particular – are losing patience. Acknowledging no responsibility whatsoever for our predicament (I didn’t see anybody else reading a map) I volunteer to scout on ahead, leaving my friends under something resembling a bandstand to shelter from the rain.
It’s immediately evident that Mae Nam is trying to cater for a different kind of tourist, although there’s little sign of life here. I suspect that a lot of these substantial guesthouses are new and that the whole area might be sort of up-and-coming. I’m surprised, then, that when I do find more modest accommodation it’s priced as high as it is – more expensive than Lamai but with so little on show to justify this. I also find the eight foot concrete pillars on which most of these bungalows sit a little disconcerting. All the cabins we’ve stayed in so far have been raised a few feet on the ground – to discourage insects, I presume – but this seems extravagantly high.
I report back to my colleagues, explain the situation and they’re content to pay the going rate. Anong Villas will do for now. Maybe we will move on in a few days’ time?
19/12/02: No rain and very hot; pop into town with S to look for a post office and an internet connection; discover a nice bar run by another young Thai gentleman; back to villas; eat on a restaurant on the beach; find another nice bar – Café Tatay – staffed by two young Thai gentlemen.
20/12/02: Another dry, hot day; breakfast at Mummy’s down some dirt-track; beach; eat at restaurant on beach again; find another bar, this time set back from the shore where yet another pleasant Thai gentleman plays us his guitar; return to Café Tatay.
21/12/02: To the post office with my companion; have food at our resort followed by a beer appetizer on our veranda; eat at Mai Nang; try out Gypsy Pub but it was rubbish, so returned to Café Tatay and got drunk with a middle-aged German couple.
22/12/02: Lunch at Angies, where the Samui-renowned pies disappoint; follow this up with some terribly bland fodder at Mummy’s; return to Café Tatay to bid out farewells to our friends – the German couple, too. Leave my group to watch Liverpool and Everton play out a bore draw at a bar called New Wave.
Separating the shore from the main drag (if you could call it that) is a myriad of bungalows, back roads and diminutive plantations. Take a left and suddenly you’re surrounded by woodland. Turn another corner and you stumble upon some tropical newsagent selling Pringles, suntan lotion and tins of Beer Chang, having passed a few grazing water buffalo along the way.
Back in the other direction – slowly, you’re finding your feet – and you’ll chance upon a typical outdoor Thai bar. Stop for a quick beer, maybe something light to eat, and then head on your way. You’ve hit the main road now, but you won’t find much along there, save for the odd internet café and a modest 7-Eleven. What a curious micro-environment. It’s almost like a village, Mae Nam, or it seems to have a village mentality. There aren’t any girly bars or establishments showing pirated films on rotation, and not a Bucket of Joy in sight. There are many places to drink, however, and they’re decent establishments too – there just doesn’t seem to be anybody in them. This breeds the perfect environment for getting to know the locals, and it is at Café Tatay that we spend an inordinate amount of time chatting to a long haired Thai guy called Samiya (sic). He is typical of the look a lot of young Thai men go for on the island – sort of late 70s rock – and he is as friendly as most of them tend to be too.
He has a child, who his parents help him to raise because the mother isn’t around, and he tells this in the strictest confidence, almost as if we might want nothing more to do with him having found this out. They’re likes the Victorians, the Thais, except without the sense of cultural superiority, puritanical flagellation and ethnocentric prejudice that was rife amongst my people up until [insert timescale here]. Indeed, in every bar we frequent there seems to be some unassuming Thai chap in his early twenties keen to interact with his Western guests and serve them beer for as long as they want it.
The German visitors on our fourth evening provide the stark contrast. The guy’s as loud as hell, although his wife comes across as almost apologetic for it. Jerry loves Thailand and its people, but he very much likes the English as well, and especially their sense of humour. His favourite film is The Plank, an almost silent film starring Eric Sykes – who authored and directed the thing – and a young Tommy Cooper. It’s not my cup of tea, The Plank, but I actually like this German guy, despite his misplaced comical allegiance, and a good time is had by the six of us.
We spent five very relaxing nights in Mai Nam, sleeping, watching MTV at Anong Villas, eating fish on the beach, wandering around in our own private jungle, and drinking at Café Tatay, mostly. It was a good place to mentally regroup, even if we were still getting drunk, to at least some degree, pretty much every night. The place wasn’t overrun with farang and in-between the serious showers the weather was pretty good. In fact, I’d noticed it starting to get even hotter.
But five nights is five nights and we couldn’t see any point in stretching our stay on this damned island any longer, for the percentages suggested that we’d been lucky in finding Mae Nam at all. For Christmas, at least, we wanted to be where the action was, so, for better or for worse, we decided to head back to Haad Rin.