Thursday, June 14, 2007

Motel Hell

Ko Lanta, Thailand, is a district of 52 island in the Andaman Sea. The islands are lush, the waters clear and fine, the beaches white and wide. The land supplies rubber, cashews and bananas, the sea provides fish. But the main cash crop is tourism.

The west coast of Ko Lanta Yai is lined with beaches, with accommodation for every budget, from backpacker novels to luxury resorts. This is not a party island, like Ko Samui, and doesn’t draw the package-holiday crowds you will find in Phuket. It’s laid back. Perhaps this is because in a country that is 95 percent Buddhist, Ko Lanta is 95 percent Muslim.

There are a lot of beaches of southern Thailand and I pulled Ko Lanta out of a hat, more a choice of its convenient location than anything else. All you need to lounge on the beach is sand and surf, right? The next hurdle was deciding where to stay.

On the ride out of Hat Yai, I met a British man, mid-40s, who runs a dive shop in Phuket. I asked if he had any recommendations on Ko Lanta and he mentioned a place on a hillside, across from a five-star resort. He didn’t know the name but with the help of a guidebook we pinpointed its location. My destination was now a place called Lanta Marine Park View Resort. (Resort can mean anything in Southeast Asia – from Club Med-style digs in a private compound to a collection of tattered huts on a scabby beach.)

At the ferry terminal on Ko Lanta Yai, I was told it would cost 500 Baht to take a taxi to the resort. I balked at the price, having just paid 450 Baht for the six-hour journey from Hat Yai. I told a travel agent that I wanted to go to Lanta Marine Park View and she called the resort. A ride would be there in 30 minutes to take me 30 kilometers south.

Thirty minutes later a truck pulled up and a shaggy-haired twenty-something Thai motioned for me to hop in. George introduced himself then started talking about smoking weed and how much he loved Neil Young. But George was friendly and gregarious and I was getting a free ride. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and offered to play him some Neil Young bootlegs off my iPod.

I was shown a bungalow overlooking a beautiful crescent of white sand backed by lush forest. The five-star Pimalai Resort & Spa covered a large chunk of real estate on the opposite hill. The room was clean and neat, the view spectacular and the low-season rate reasonable at US$17 a night.

View From Bungalow A-10

The staff was entirely young and Thai. They seemed slow and stoned, and not entirely interested in or accustomed to providing hospitality or comfort to their guests. I’d seen this before in Asia and wasn’t very concerned. Give me the room and I’ll take care of myself.

I drank a few Singha beers at the bar, ate a delicious dinner – prawns covered in a very spicy sauce of basil and chilies, fragrant jasmine rice on the side – then retired to my room to clean up from the long day of travel. I flipped on the lights, locked the sliding doors behind me and moved into the large tiled bathroom.

Refreshed and clean, I returned to the bedroom to find dozens of inch-long flying insects swirling through the air and converging at the light above the bed’s headboard. They were termites with wings, or a gargantuan flying ant. They swarmed, fighting to get as close as possible to the bright light. Severed wings littered the pillows; bugs that had lost their wings crawled over the bedsheets. I’d closed the door! How could this happen?

I moved to the door and looked down at a scene out of a horror movie. There were more insects crawling through a small crack between the floor and the bottom of the doors, armies of them in formation, a never-ending stream of pests come to conquer corner of Ko Lanta. I shoved a small rug into the crack but they just squeezed through. I had visions of “Night of the Living Dead,” of zombies packing into a doorway of a remote farmhouse, intent on wreaking havoc on the innocents inside. Cinematic visions of bugs large and small, real and imagined came to mind.

I need a plan, and quick. Light! They like light. If I turned off the lights inside the room and turned on the patio light they would make a U-Turn and head outside. I’d worry about the crack in the door later.

The door wouldn’t open. The lock wouldn’t budge. I turned the latch through one revolution, two, five, ten. Nothing! I was trapped with the swarm. They were landing on my head and shoulders; there was nothing I could do to keep them off me.

Could I spend a night in this room, locked in with the swarm? Could I wait for someone to notice the guest in A-10 is missing? They seemed more concerned about getting high and hanging out than the welfare of the guests. I could last a day or two with the supplies on hand, a water and half a package of chocolate wafer cookies. It would take the staff a lot longer than a day or two to find me.

Perhaps I could call the front desk. My cell phone was getting reception and I still had credit from Malaysia. I tried the resort’s number and heard various recordings in Thai, none of them intelligible to me. I swatted bugs off my head and crunched them underfoot.

Help!

I don’t know how it happened, but I tried the latch again and the lock clicked. I threw open the doors and flicked the switch for the patio light. Dead. Dark. Damn!

But I have a nifty headlamp. I set it out on the patio and the bugs flew out of the room en masse. I swept out the carcasses from the bedroom, washed down the drain the ones stuck to the wet bathroom floor.

I marched to reception and started yammering to the first person I saw, a young woman with an expression halfway between boredom and coma.

“Do you understand there are hundreds of flying insects in bungalow A-10?,” I said.

I was met with slack-jawed indifference.

“They are coming in through a crack in the door! There’s nothing I can do to stop them.”

“Insects?”

“Yes, thousands of them.”

"Do you want to change rooms?”

I noticed that other bungalows had lights on, with no swarms around them. A-10 must have been the exception to the rule. I moved to A-7, a beautiful bungalow that would fetch several hundred dollars a night in the west. It’s got an unobstructed view of the beach and I slept on clean, cotton sheets with fluffy pillows. Yes, the bugs must have been an anomaly.

I think the root of the problem is in the staffing, a group of young Thais, none of them trained in running a hotel and few of them able to communicate with the English-speaking clientele. Forget about room service or getting your room cleaned during the day.

I read online that a European company recently bought the place. I think they are cutting corners, catering to the mass market but offering a product that’s really only attractive to backpackers Yes, Lanta Marine Park View turned out to be a gussied up youth hostel with a full bar and beach access. At US$17 a night I had to take what I could get, warts and all. If I wanted more, there was the Pimalai Resort for US$500 a night.

Lanta Marine Park View Resort

I awoke this morning refreshed and ready for a day at the beach. A quick pee and then I would grab a quick breakfast. I flushed and somewhere in the back of my mind registered the weak flow in the bowl. I turned on the faucet to wash my hands and nothing came out. The shower was also dry.

I marched back to reception, to the same woman from the night before.

“There’s no water in my room.” I said.

Her eyes glazed over. “Maybe later," she said. "Maybe tomorrow."

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2 Comments:

Blogger Sandy J said...

“Do you understand there are hundreds of flying insects in bungalow A-10?,” I said.

I was met with slack-jawed indifference..."

...how will you win Survivor, Matt? come on, toughen up. and maybe it's about time you slept with a prostitute.

This makes me think we should pitch a Lonely Planet version of Survivor that involves navigating bugs, filth, scams, touts, thai prostitutes and general ripoffs because those are much harder to survive!!! let's make a show. copyright 2007 Sandy J. and Matt K.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Sandy J said...

hmmm, also, I just realized I've never commented to your blog and it looks like i'm not alone. come one, people! say hi to matt! don't be afraid to POST A COMMENT, it's fun! (I say that now that I've done it)

also, matt, i want to tell you that there's a brand-spankin-new Crackberry in Venice -- it's out of control! and suddenly new stores everywhere. you don't even have to wait in line. mmm good

1:38 PM  

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