Friday, 11 September 2009

Thailand, down south: Bang Saphan

We hadn’t been on a beach since Mozambique – nearly 2 whole months!! - and were craving some beach action, which is what the south of Thailand does best. A friendly Canadian guy in Bangkok had recommended Bang Saphan as quietly and lovely so we decided to check it out. We’d mainly avoided the rain in Africa, but when we arrived at Bang Saphan’s deserted train station, the only tourists to alight, it was chucking it down. There’s something fascinating about beaches in Thailand’s windless rain. It hammers out the reflections on the water, creating a weirdly flat and matt surface, and transfers them to the saturated sand in a strange negative of its usual appearance. Actually, being in the sea at Bang Saphan is terrifying. It’s a thick, brown colour and disconcertingly warm, providing favourable living conditions for who knows what. Anything dipped below the surface disappears in the murk. I got in as far as my knees and freaked out when a shark (for all I know) brushed against my legs. Alex diligently had a dip every morning, the madman.   

We did find the farangs; they were all next door to our hut in Montri Libre’s Coco Bar– “the best bar in Thailand, sometimes” – all regular visitors to Bang Saphan over many years. Ray was an ex-Hell’s Angel from Newcastle whose fighting days, he assured us repeatedly, were over. He had stopped drinking, but had just started again for two weeks to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Alan, Pete, Steve and Gareth were from Australia and had decided to drink even more than usual to celebrate Alan and Gareth’s fiftieth birthday. Derek and Sarah were from the UK and were still some way from fifty but determined to be last under the table. No one was remotely bothered about the colour of the sea or the rain lashing onto it. Montri, the barman, had seen it all a million times before and listened quietly with an expression of bemused amusement, pouring out more salted, freshly roasted peanuts whenever a plate approached empty. He invited us over for coffee one morning and showed us the photos of the Bang Saphan Olympics he’d arranged (and won by a clear margin) as we tried to find an artist he didn’t have in his CD collection. He wouldn’t let us pay for coffee.   

Without even realising it, we stayed a week. On our last night, we were invited to yet another fiftieth birthday party, Pete, another farang long-termer. Arriving at the bar, we saw a Thai cliché lining the bar: large, white, ageing men with hairpieces punching above their considerable weight with the Thai ladies accompanying them. But far from being the seedy arrangement one might have originally imagined, they were husbands and wives of twenty of thirty years with beautiful children that switched between Thai and English as easily as tunes on their iPod, with the beauty and culture of Thailand and the economic advantages of the UK to call their own.   

Perhaps, when the rain has stopped in Bang Spahan, the sea turns from impenetrable brown to something bluer. Perhaps it is possible to see the bottom. Otherwise, it’s more of a travelling destination than a holiday one, when you have just two or three weeks to cram in a year’s worth of blue sea and white sand. But if you are travelling and have the luxury of time, go to Bang Saphan, tell us what colour the sea is and, most importantly, say hello to Montri from us.

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