Friday, 5 March 2010

Thailand - The first Thai mafia encounter

Hello everyone!

Monday turned out to be a day of bliss. I slept until 2pm. Checkout was at midday, but the incredibly relaxed nature of the hostel meant that the owners weren't at all perturbed by this. I then stayed at the hostel chatting to other travellers for a while, and sampled the Thai version of macaroni cheese from a restaurant-cum-house nextdoor. Very good stuff. I wanted to wash the plate as a thank you, but Boy was resolute in his refusal.

Kelly got back sometime around 4, and we soon said our goodbyes and flagged down a taxi. Our destination was the Southern bus terminal, which was a reasonable distance away, and it would be a long journey in Bangkok's rush hour. We forgot about that. It wasn't until the third taxi that a driver actually understood where we wanted to go, and we asked him to put on the meter. He said no, which didn't please us, but we ended up fixing a price of 200 baht before he left.

The guy was mental. He started asking me about ladyboys, and was very leery and patriarchal in his attitude, so conversation soon died on its feet. Whenever Kelly and I tried to talk, he would interrupt or put the radio on very loud, so silence soon reigned supreme. As a result of this uncomfortable atmosphere of silence, we began to notice the sheer volume of traffic. We were on the same road for over 20 minutes, during which time our driver became increasingly agitated. He also realised how stupid he had been in refusing to put on the meter. He turns to me. 'OK we use meter now?' he says. Funny man. We politely declined, and repeated 200 baht until he got the message. He was a bit put out by this. He started wailing for a while, and then he became slightly more aggressive. His English was below poor, but he knew one word very well. Let's play charades. 4 letters. First letter - F...

An hour passed. At this point we didn't know when the buses were leaving. Our plan was to get a night bus to Krabi, and we really really wanted to be leaving that evening. I like Bangkok, but we came for the islands and relaxation, not to be irritated by taxi drivers. We eventually arrived, and gave him his 200 baht. He looked like he was going to cry. Serves him right. I think we would have ran out of money if he had put the meter on. We went into the bus terminal and were looking for buses to Krabi when some music started playing. I kept walking, and then a woman in a booth started waving at me. A big smile appeared on my face, and I started to walk over to her, until I realised she looked very cross. And wasn't really waving me over. She was waving for me to stop moving. Why? Because that music was in fact the sacred Thai national anthem, during which you are supposed to stay still and be silent. Whoops!

We got on a bus at 6.30, which was due to get to Krabi at 5.30 the next morning. At this point I was having major issues with my mosquito bites. In my drunken stupor the previous night I must have started stratching them. All of them had broken, and a combination of blood and pus was consistently oozing out of them. Lovely. My parents had reminded me of the state of the Thai roads - we had quite the trip getting from Bangkok to Pattaya last time out - but they weren't so bad on this route. The journey was uneventful, save for the complimentary drink that was given to us. It was a carton with a picture of sweetcorn on it. They weren't kidding. I'm glad that it isn't popular in Korea.

We arrived closer to 5am, and were immediately approached by two men offering us a taxi ride. The master plan we concocted was along these lines: Bangkok - Krabi, specifically Ao Nang beach - longtail boat to Railay beach - ferry to Ko Lanta. Get your google maps out. Basically we were going to an island called Lanta (Ko being Thai for island, but you knew that, right?), but via Railay beach for a few hours, because many people told us that it was spectacular. The taxi guys said 500 to get us to Ao Nang, and it seemed a long way on the map, so we were about to agree to it. He then led us over to his taxi. I say taxi: what we saw was an unmarked people carrier. Umm...noooo. On our way the travel agency opened, so I walked straight past his car to the shop and asked them for help. The Thai-Dutch couple who owned the place were fantastic, and gave us so much help. They even booked our ferry ticket to Ko Lanta for us. It turns out that the men wielding people carriers were the taxi drivers (get a sign, guys), and we were taken for 400 baht. Always good to get a second opinion.

The only part of our journey not sorted now was getting from Ao Nang to Railay beach. The two are connected, but the latter is inaccessible by land due to large cliffs and whatnot. We were dropped at Ao Nang at around 6am, so had plenty of time to get to Railay for what we were sure would be a wonderful sunrise (and also the only one I would ever be awake for). Within seconds we were approached by the men owning the longtails. As they came closer, we saw a sign that said 80 baht each.

'Where you go'. Railay west, we say. 'OK, 300 baht'. Bit of a difference in the figures. We pointed out the sign, and his justification was that the boat needed 8 people in it for that price. There aren't exactly many people wishing to get a boat at six in the morning, so we had a problem, but surely nothing that a spot of bartering couldn't fix. '150'. The guy stared, and responded '300'. '200 is a good price'. Again, that stare. '300'. Basic supply and demand theory meant that we weren't in a strong bargaining position here, so we eventually agreed to 300 baht. Maybe this was karma for the previous afternoon's taxi or something.

It was at this point that an overweight, balding, very drunk Westerner sporting a goatee stumbled along and sat down on a nearby bench. The longtailers attempted to ask him but he responded with a string of profanities. Best to get away from this guy, we think, so we get out 300.

Then the twist. '300 each'. Oh dear. That was just extortionate. We start arguing, and more longtailers arrive on the scene. Are they trying to intimidate us? I don't sleep on public transport, so was very tired and cranky at this point. The Westerner, swigging his bottle of beer, comes over and starts talking to us, with the longtailers moving back. Something else we soon find out about this guy; very racist, and hates Thai people. He talks to us for a while, and we soon get him in more general conversation. He is Canadian, and actually lives in Thailand. He told us that the longtailers were trying to mess us around, but that we shouldn't do anything about it. He pulls out a phone, and speaks to someone for a little while. A longtailer storms up to him and starts being a wee bit hostile, to which the Canadian responds in kind. And then some.

He was on the blower to a man he referred to as the 'Lieutenant Colonel', and said that he would try to get us over to Railay. Do we trust this guy? Not a chance. His claim that he was going aboard a friend's yacht also suggested he may not be a shining beacon of truth. As was his claim that he was an actor in a famous Thai karaoke video. But what choice did we have? Our boat to Ko Lanta left from Railay, so we had to get there.

Time passes, the sky becomes slightly lighter, and the longtailers are becoming agitated with our lack of action. Suddenly, what looks like a small speedboat approaches the shore. It is low tide, so when it stops it is still quite far away. The Canadian motions for us to follow. At this point I lost just about all of my inhibitions (and possibly sense), and followed, so Kelly was forced to follow suit. We get near the boat, where the Canadian starts to talk to the Thai man on the boat. He points to the beach, and we see the Thai longtailers running down to the water. Trouble brewing in the not-so-murky seas? Yes actually, but I'll explain why later.

The Thai man says he cannot take us, so the Canadian says sorry and hops aboard. It's not a speedboat. It is a dinghy with an engine. There's no other way to describe it. We turn back and wade through the water towards the beach, and the longtailers also retreat. We are about 20 metres away from the dinghy when the Canadian shouts, 'Hey'. We turn. 'Get in', he says. I look at Kelly, who is a picture of concern. In spite of this, remembering I possess a pair of cojones and no common sense, I head back to the dinghy, and throw our bags on. We hop on, and see the longtailers again coming down the beach. No change of plan this time, though. The engine revs, and we zoom away.

On the 15 minute journey over the Canadian, whose name turns out to be Joe, informs us that the longtailers are part of the Thai mafia, and are actively involved in numerous illegal shenanigans. Including murder. I doubted this coming from Mr. Karaoke, but have since had this verified by several sober and trustworthy people. They own that area, and can set whatever prices they feel like. The Thai dinghy-owner had essentially just risked his life in taking us to our next location. I do hope he's alright.

I did become a bit concerned as we were motoring along, specifically when we found out the occupation of our Canadian helper. It was a long-winded explanation, but the words 'illegal', 'gem', and 'dealer' were used in very close proximity to one another. The word 'drugs' also surfaced more than once. Still, he ultimately was fantastic for it, so in that sense I am glad that my naivety of getting in a dinghy with a drunken racist stranger who was bigger than me paid off. I probably shouldn't prejudge people with extravagant stories in future, either. Though yet to find that karaoke video on youtube...

So we made it to Railay just as the sun was rising from the other side of the beach. Beautiful. And, quite frankly, a fairly epic tale to boot.

Love you all


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