By Air, Land and Sea

March 30, 2014

This post written from Phuket on March 25 before departing for three days on a live-aboard dive boat to the Similan Islands.

The plane lifted up from Suvarnibhumi airport in Bangkok and cut through the yellow smog that cast a veil over the Chao Phraya River. The Chao Phraya winds through Bangkok like a snake and slithers out to the Gulf of Thailand beyond Bangkok’s southern border. I had only slept four hours the night before so I reclined my exit row seat and closed my eyes for a short nap that would be limited by our one hour and twenty minute flight south to Thailand’s largest island, Phuket.

I was awakened by the flight attendant who placed a brightly colored box on my tray table and asked me if I would like something to drink.

“Nam soda, krup,” I replied. Soda water. I was discovering some of my Thai was returning. Not enough to have any semblance of a conversation, but enough to surprise the soup vendor on the street, or the tuk-tuk driver who no doubt rarely expected any farang (foreigner) to speak more than “Sawadee Krup” (Hello) and “Khap Khun Khrup” (Thank You). What is it about my brain that permits me to remember some words and phrases and not others? Yesterday I started counting in Thai in my head. What prompted it was one of the hotel clerks interpreting for the other who I asked for my room key.

“Room 234, please.”

The young clerk looked at me for a moment and the older woman sitting next to her quickly instructed her, “Sung Sam Si.”

She handed me my key. As I walked up the short flight of stairs to the second floor I started counting in Thai, “Nung, Sung, Sam, Si, Ha…”

I paused at six. “What’s six?” I thought to myself. I remembered and continued. “Eleven? Okay, got it.” I started counting by tens. Suddenly the word for one hundred came into my mind. That made me ask myself what the word for one thousand was. I remembered. I could remember how to reply, “Very expensive!” but I’ll be darned if I could remember how to say “I want to go to xy place”, “turn right here”, “go straight”. Maybe the numbers thing has something to do with the fact that I was always good at math. What’s going on inside this head? Hmmm, I shouldn’t have asked. Maybe it has something to do with my sister dropping me when I was an infant and bashing my head on the living room table. I have no memory of the incident, but I’ve been told as much. Maybe some things were twisted and turned at that moment. That’s it! Now I could point my finger at the source of my life’s perversions. If it could only be so easy… My sister’s off the hook.

I looked out the airplane window and saw below a memory from years before when I lived in the Solomon Islands in the Western Pacific Ocean. Thickly forested islands dotted an azure ocean. I thought of a trip I had once taken to the western Solomon’s to build a large cook stove at a Seventh Day Adventist secondary school. It was funded by the United Nations Pacific Energy Development Programme (UNPEDP). The one-week workshop was led by a giant of a Fijian man, the first Fijian I had met. My impression of Fijians was ever etched in my mind from his towering presence. It was sometime later – I don’t recall if it was weeks or months – when I watched a Fijian rugby team pound their way to victory against a Kiwi or South African team. They were all massive men playing a form of American football, I thought, with no protective gear, shoving, tackling, running, stomping, huddling, re-forming and bruising their way up and down the football field. I imagined my mangled body lying in a heap under these monsters, my 5 foot 10 inch 160 pound frame genetically designed more for tending a garden than trying to tackle a 6 foot 5 inch behemoth powered by kava, poi and taro.

The view below could have been the western Solomon Islands, but it was the western Gulf of Thailand around Ko Phang Nga, I thought. James Bond Island was down there somewhere, the place where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed. The stress and chaos of these past two months slowly evaporated. I could almost feel it washing away like the salty sweat washed from my body at the end of every humid, sticky, polluted day in Sittwe. Three days away from my computer, away from email and work, away from the flood of thoughts about how to accomplish my organization’s work under the responsibility I assumed as the head of our emergency response program in Rakhine State, Myanmar. I needed this break badly. It would be all too short a time before I returned to the demands of managing a humanitarian program in a maddening environment where racists abound and the undercurrent of hatred towards the international humanitarian community is ever-present.

(Note: Since I wrote this, violent protests have broken out in Sittwe against the international humanitarian community forcing most organizations and staff to evacuate to Yangon. Read posts The Best Laid Plans and Articles on the Recent Violence in Rakhine for more details)

At the Phuket airport I hopped in a taxi cab for a 30 kilometer drive to the southern part of the island. I threw my bags on one side of the back seat and hopped in on the other. While my taxi cab driver paid a parking fee I rolled a cigarette from my dwindling stash of organic American Spirit tobacco from the States. My taxi cab driver returned, saw me rolling a cigarette and told me to sit in the front with him. I thought why not, buckled myself in and off we sped down a pristine, clean and scenic well-maintained four-lane highway.

I thought to myself that I needed to see more of Myanmar. Roads like this don’t exist in Rakhine State. There’s one well-paved road through the center of Sittwe town, but even that road is wrought with workers pounding out 10 foot square holes by hand where jack hammers and hydraulic equipment do the same in the States. I haven’t yet figured out what they’re doing. The road seems perfectly fine to me, by Rakhine standards, but for some reason they are compelled to hammer away at it. They don’t even get much below the road’s sub-surface before they’re repaving. Traffic slows and jams up around these small construction sites, but scooters, trishaws, trucks and loud contraptions of a form I’ve never seen elsewhere still converge in a mass of chaos where free-for-all traffic patterns and a damn-the-torpedoes perspective makes me wince at the number of near misses that I can’t understand never turn into a mass of bloody bodies and mangled machines.

I’ve seen clean and neatly maintained roads around Yangon, but I found myself wondering if Myanmar’s infrastructure through its Burmese divisions and ethnic states could compare to Thailand’s infrastructure. I have my doubts. I asked myself if Thailand’s roadways and infrastructure were like this in the early 2000’s when I lived here, or if by coming from Myanmar I’m seeing it in a different light. I concluded it’s the former and not the latter, although living in Myanmar these past two and a half months has made me pay more attention to Thailand’s very different context.

I was smoking my American Spirit with the window down. The taxi cab driver joked to me, “500 baht more for smoking in the car.” He smiled. I grinned back, flicked my ashes out the window and uttered a bemused groan. When he approached me at the airport I asked him how much. He gave me his price. I didn’t barter. That was enough to tell me he was getting more than enough for this ride. When he pulled out his own cigarette rolled with what looked like pandanus leaf and asked for my lighter I smiled a toothy grin and relaxed in my seat.

He held out his left hand and offered me his cigarette. “Marijuana!” He gesticulated again, pushed it closer and looked at me through the side of his eyes while the car leaned heavily to the right as he accelerated around a tight curve through a small mountain pass. I smiled.

At the dive shop all the arrangements were made for my trip.

Similan Islands

Similan Pro Dive

They took me to my hotel in a small hamlet a couple miles inland from the beach. I checked into my room and immediately took a nap to shake off the cobwebs from my four hours of sleep the night before. At first I wasn’t sure where I was when I awoke. It had grown dark outside. I switched on the bed stand light and surveyed my room. A moment later I got my bearings, dressed and walked down the street to the night market.

Night Market

This is one of my favorite times of the day in Asia. The heat is less oppressive and somehow the evening softens and invites the chaos of traffic, blaring horns, pedestrians and busy night markets that can overwhelm me at times under the intense sun and heavy, humid air. It’s when all the noodle stands and food vendors are serving all sorts of concoctions in seasoned broths and dense curries on tables and carts by the side of the road and in brightly lit markets. Tables abound with brightly colored fruits, pungent herbs and homemade sweets. Street-side tables are set up with baskets of chopsticks, spoons, a variety of chili sauces and toilet paper napkins encased in circular plastic containers with a hole at the top where the toilet paper is dispensed. I was in heaven.


I found a worn metal table with plastic stools by the road, sat down and was tended by a young husband and wife who served noodle soup with your choice of fish balls, pork or chicken. I slurped my soup and removed the chicken from the bone with my chopsticks and spoon while I watched the night go by on scooters, carts and a line of nicely maintained cars. It seemed like everyone in town was out doing something – eating, shopping, visiting, or maybe just cruising, I thought, as I saw young couples and pairs of men zipping by on their scooters.

Noodles by the Road

I called for my bill. “Check bin, krup.”

The young man came to my table. “Tao lai mai krup?” I asked (How much?)

“50 baht,” he said in English.

“Ha sip,” I replied. (50 baht said in Thai)

“Phut pasat Thai?” He smiled and chuckled. (You speak Thai?)

“Mai dai.” (I cannot)

“Dai, dai!” (You can!)

We exchanged money and a smile before I turned back towards my hotel. How nice it was to be greeted with a smile accompanied by some friendly chatter. It’s not a daily occurrence in Rakhine, just the opposite. Some weeks ago I was riding my bicycle to the office. A man on a bicycle peddling towards me on the other side of the road started to veer into my side of the road. I thought I recognized a semblance of a smile on his face. He yelled out to me in the typical way I’m accustomed to being greeted by the casual passerby on the street, “Hey you!”

He was getting closer. I replied with a reserved, “Hello.”

Just as he got up to me, now more on my side of the road than his, he shoved his arm into the air and stuck out his middle finger. His face transformed into a horrible sneer and with hatred in his eyes he yelled, “FUCK YOU!”

As I passed by I looked back several times before I turned the corner. I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to turn around and follow me. Just another day in Rakhine…

It’s an early wake-up call tomorrow morning – 5:50 AM departure for the Similan Islands. Thailand’s my sort of place.


Coming soon – stories and pictures from the Similan Islands

 Aqua Velva

Clown fish and Sea Anemone

Sunrise in the Similan's


Blessings, Steve



All content Copyrighted © Stephen Tavella







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