Paradise is bliss, so they say. That is, if getting to paradise doesn’t involve risking your life. So far it’s been a bumpy journey. My stomach is in knots as the apprehension swirls the Thai pancake I had for breakfast in my stomach like a tumble dryer. My eyes do a quick scan and I realize we’re the only two left on the small decrepit public bus. The last forty minutes have been spent winding along the rain-flooded roads of Thailand’s southwest coast. The bus pulls to the curb; the driver opens the door and simply blurts out “Ao Nang”.
Not sure what our next move should be we approach the ticket vendor in a mini toll-booth and inquisitively ask if this is where we catch the boat to Railay Beach – the secluded peninsula known for towering limestone cliffs, a climbers paradise, yet scarcely touched by the masses of tourists. We’re given no departure time and no ticket. After handing over the 300 Baht (about 9 USD) fare, the stout Thai man thrusts his fingers in the direction of the dark, monstrous ocean. One foot forward, splashing in puddles so deep my flip flop unlocks from my big toe, we quickly take cover from the rain under a thatched-roof pavilion.
Huddled over wooden picnic tables are the handful of backpackers making the same journey. What a relief it is to see them. The yellow sticker on their shirt tells us they took an alternative route to get here, the 15 hour ferry to bus passage from the island Koh Samui on Thailand’s east coast. Mike’s a firefighter from San Francisco whose traveling companions ditched him for Australians they shacked up with two days ago at the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. We too are still recovering from the 24-hour beach rave. There are also the brothers from Philly doing the typical SE Asia circuit, a young English couple accompanied by their parents, two young men celebrating their discharge from mandatory duty in the Israeli Army and then there is us, the American chicks from New York City on a two week holiday escaping the realities of our daily life.
As we swap travel stories it becomes apparent that no one knows what exactly we are waiting for. One boat a day leaves Ao Nang for the isolated beaches in Railay and that boat only leaves when its full, no exceptions. After a 30 minute wait, a petite Thai man gives a wave in our direction and points to the vast ocean where the waves crash heavily against the sand.
Although Railay is part of the mainland, there’s only one way on and off Railay Beach – long tail. This is due to the large limestone formations that prohibit roads being built. Wooden beams create a canoe-shaped boat with a small engine typically recycled from old car parts and a thin canopy protects from harsh weather – perfect for traveling on a day like ours. The red, blue, and yellow rags, once vibrant and new are hung over the mast, now faded by sea salt and sun, to distinguish each driver’s long tail from another.
The twelve of us tie on our backpacks and haul through the thin sand toward the unwieldy ocean. There is no dock. “See that boat out there? That’s where we’re headed.” The Israeli tells us as we stare unbelievingly at the long tail anchored about 30 feet from the sand. Our driver wades out into the ocean as waves bully him around while he attempts to board his boat. He’s fought this battle many times. We shrug our shoulders, lift our packs over our heads, now feeling the weight of that extra pair of socks, and battle our way out to the boat. We’re all a team now. No man left behind, keeping close, hands pulling each other up and over the rungs onto the boat as pellets of rain drill into our heads like a showerhead on steroids. Close to our chests and high above our heads are the treasured souvenirs that can only be found in the rural huts of Chang Mai or from a vendor in a back alley off of Khao San Rd in Bangkok.
I don’t have a good feeling about this. My stomach starts to cramp and the sweat begins to seep into my sea-sodden peasant dress. The driver revs the engine as he uses the giant metal pole (hence the name long tail) to push us farther out into the black abyss of the Andaman Sea.
I grip my friends arm tightly and there is no doubt she senses the fear. I can’t help but watch the waves smash themselves against the rocks on the mainland like a football player making a winning tackle. There are only five or so life-jackets tucked haphazardly into the crevices of our long tail, the neon orange is faded but I doubt they’ve been worn much. That’s because if this bad boy goes under there is a very small likelihood that any of us will be coming back up. I don’t find the jokes of our survival funny but the others refuse to let the wildly Andaman get the best of them.
Luckily the journey is quick, only about 15 minutes to Phra Nang Bay and we pass the time listening to the drum of the engine and whispers from the English couple seated up front as they argue over whether they should have just waited out the storm. I gain hope as we near the island and spot lights ashore, a recent privilege to the villagers who only received power a few years ago.
I’m already wet so as the boat rocks its way closer to the shore I jump over, throw my luggage back over my head and fight the waves to the shore. We’ve made it. We will run into others over the next few days while sitting under thatched roof huts on the beach sipping Chang and laughing about that time we nearly died getting here.