Drifting through Koh Chang

Thai blue

Thai blue

There are two separate words for the color blue in Thai. Travel to one of the many coconut tree-lined islands that have made Thailand a premier tourist destination and you’ll catch a glimpse why.

When I’m asked “Why do you like Thailand?” an answer usually follows supporting these picturesque places brochures are made of. A country full of blue skies and yet bluer seas, flavorful food, and locals that only get friendlier with every visit.

What I often omit is the evolving impression I receive from revisiting this turbulent, tropical land year after year. To me, time, like sandpaper, has the ability to peel away layers of a place making it smoother to the senses every scrap of the way.

This is what I felt when I returned to Koh Chang (elephant island in Thai) four years after my last visit. Dangling off the Cambodian border on the eastern coast of Thailand, the island retains much of its natural beauty despite the conspicuous development taking place which has become a ubiquitous theme of island life throughout Thailand.

Returning to Lonely Beach in the southwest of Koh Chang this time around was a far from lonely experience, and I imagine the beach will only get farther away from the synonymous origin of its name every year. The bungalows I stayed at last time, Nature Beach Resort, had a new bar added on to it where straight lines of palm trees zipping across the beach front could once been scene. Renovation is a term that has now entered the island patois. But this is all to be expected. More resorts, more infrastructure, and, most of all, more people means more business for the Thais — essentially a good thing.

While on my last trip to the island I was traveling with classmates and friends from Chulalongkorn University. This time, I decided to make the journey solo; although, when traveling in Southeast Asia, you’re never really alone unless you choose to be.

Early morning on Lonely Beach

Early morning on Lonely Beach

Coming off of Khao San Road that morning, the smell of spilled beer still permeating the air, I bumped into a group of Rastafarian French backpackers on their way to Cambodia via Koh Chang. No other cross section of travelers could better define complete listlessness like this gaggle of 20-somethings. Whether I was walking too quickly, or them too slowly, they invariably ended up keeping a step or three behind me throughout our acquaintance, their dreadlocks swaying to the tempo of some internal metronome trained to ignore outside interference.

Khao San, known as the gateway to Southeast Asia, is exactly the kind of place you can find this lot hanging about half stoned and half drunk before they jump into their several-month budget tour of the region. Clever touters have even taken notice of the trend, selling a menagerie of comfy-looking hipster clothes and offering to do up dreadlocks right on the street.

The French Rastas on the run from Babylon, and me at their side. They had come to Thailand to feel out of place and by chance I had gotten the same experience by being imbedded within their ranks for the next day; the guy who “looks like he is good at math” and the professional loafers — well, not quite.

Cambodia will not be their final destination on this trip. Last year, Max, the tallest of the three, with dreadlocks lengthy enough to match his slim stature, spent about 10 months picking crabs in Queensland for $18AUD an hour.

Like a sea turtle coming up for air, Max briefly left his life in Australia for a hiatus in Southeast Asia. “Why Australia?” you wonder. In times of economic uncertainty, Australia was one of the first countries to come out of the global recession. Those looking for jobs in the service sector will find a near zero unemployment rate in Australia and an endless demand in the nursing, mining and construction industries.

25-year-old Max, like many Europeans his age, are coming out of university to a bleak job market. The similar culture, appealing weather and promise of jobs has looped Australia in as part of many travelers’ Southeast Asia tour.

Chatting with a pair of well-fed Irish girls that night, I find a similar story. With what savings they have scrounged together, the pair are planning to live it on the cheap for a month or two before heading down under for employment which they haven’t even secured yet. But no worries. According to Max, the guarantee of work is a matter of showing up.

Even now his wispy French accent takes some time to decipher. When he first moved to Australia he admits it was quite the mission to communicate, especially in rural Queensland. Living out of a van he bought, Max traveled up the coast from Sydney until he found a place he deemed suitable to set up a stable camp. He then approached a burly bogan, or red neck in Australian slang, outside of Townsville. After conventional exchange of small talk got the two nowhere, Max’s new boss grabbed him by his arm towards his task without much further explanation.

Whereas teaching English has granted work abroad opportunities for native English speakers, Australia has garnered up an equal reputation among the rest of the world for its trove of treasures balanced by a promising financial landscape. Swedes, French, Austrians, Chileans and Irish: I met people from each of these countries drifting through Koh Chang on their way to Australia. But you can be sure there are countless others with the same idea in mind.

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