Koh Tao (The Bad and The Ugly)

I’ll apologize in advance for this entry being solely text-comprised. No photos were taken of the Bad and Ugly happenings on our last day on Koh Tao (and the getting home process), so time to slip on the ol’ reading glasses and bear with me!

As I mentioned in “The Good” entry, I’d decided to rent a bike to facilitate my passage back to Chalok Baan Kao from Sairee. As I also mentioned last entry, I did this in spite of the fact that I’d been taken for a bit of a ride (no pun intended, and to clarify: charged $50 for a microscopic scratch on a side panel) the last time I’d tried my hand at bike-renting on Koh Tao. To be extra cautious, I’d chatted and joked a bit with the man renting the bike in order to establish rapport, and Sam was clever enough to start snapping photos of all the small scratches already on the bike so that I wouldn’t get charged for someone else’s mistake. Mr. Rental Man kept laughing and assuring me that the small scratches are no problem, and that if I’m just honest with him we won’t have any issues. I handed over my passport (the universally required collateral on Koh Tao), and he handed me the keys. It seems significant in retrospect that in the process of doing this a guy walked up to us to warn us about this guy in particular because his friend had had issues before.

The fact of the matter is, as a few of us discussed upon my return to the dive shop, that people have had issues with every bike rental company on the island, because the companies very much survive off of the issues. Or, more specifically, the fines that the issues produce. Theses guys are renting brand-new bikes for the equivalent of $5 a day. Maybe $6 if the renter doesn’t have the heart or wits to bargain with them. This is not a sound business plan until they start bringing in the big bucks when people screw up. They not only want people to screw up; they need them to. And I did.

We’d considered the possibility of a joy ride around the island the next morning, but decided instead to buy our Chumphon-bound boat tickets at Mae Haad and then spend the day on the neighboring Sairee, where the bike needed to be returned anyway. Alas, three people and our luggage couldn’t fit on the bike, so I drove with Collette out to Mae Haad and we started searching around for the best option home. Suddenly she cried, “Oh my goodness! That’s Juan!” Juan was a Chilean guy she’d met in Laos whom she knew to be on the island, but as she had no way of contacting him she had lost hope of actually meeting up with him. What an amazing stroke of luck! What a delightfully small world! But Juan was not in the best shape. When asked, “So where are you heading now?” he responded, “To Kuala Lumpur. And I’m going to the hospital first thing!” It seems he had stepped on a nasty piece of coral, and was walking with a noticeable limp.

Upon buying the tickets Collette said they could just walk the 15 minute path to Sairee while I went to fetch Wayne, but being that Juan had a hospital-requiring hole in his foot I thought I might as well just drive them. Oh, and Sam thought maybe he’d left his vintage Oakley sunglasses at the bike shop and I said I’d check up on it for him, so I let them off riiiiight on our good friend Mr. Rental Man’s doorstep.

Mr. Rental Man was on the phone, so after sitting on the bike for half a minute to see if he’d wrap up, and then determining he wasn’t, I made to leave. But he motioned for me to stop, walked in his shop, and came back out with a piece of paper. “Oh God…” I thought to myself. “Did I fill it out to say I’d be back earlier? Is he going to try to slap me with a 1300 Baht late fee?”

Nope. His finger slid down to the bullet point on the contract stating, “ONLY 2 PERSONS ARE ALLOWED ON THE MOTORBIKE AT ANY TIME. IF 3 OR MORE PERSONS ARE SEEN RIDING THE RENTER WILL BE CHARGED A FINE OF 5000 BAHT.” $170. Way worse than a late fee. Way worse than anything, including replacing a passport, not that I really wanted to have to resort to that. I told him, “Oh no! I didn’t see… His foot was hurt… It was very short… I’m sorry I must go get my boyfriend… Be nice to me!”

I drove off with my heart in my mouth, trying to convince myself that he would indeed be nice; I’d explain, he’d respond to reason… But at the same time I just kept thinking of the conversation we’d had the day before… they want people to screw up. They need them to. And he had my passport… there was really nothing stopping him doing exactly what he’d indicated he would. When I got to Wayne he also tried to be reassuring. “Speak Thai to him. Tell him we’re teachers. Tell him what happened and that you can’t pay that much. Just stay cool.”

But when we arrived Mr. Rental Man (henceforth known as Mr. Jerky Rental Man, or Mr. JRM) made it clear from the beginning he was going to make the “staying cool” part difficult. He made us wait for five minutes before even acknowledging us as he parked another bike, and blew off all of Wayne’s attempts to be friendly and joke with him about wanting to buy the bike. When I began explaining just what had happened and why I was driving three people, in Thai, he stopped me and told me to speak English to him. He explained that his boss had seen us on the bike, and it was his boss who was insisting that mistake or not, we’d made an agreement and I had to live up to the agreement. Wayne asked to speak to the boss, and Mr. JRM began scrolling through his phone. It was then that I realized, from the language his Contacts list was written in, that he was actually Burmese and not Thai (though I’d heard him speak Thai the day before).

It didn’t take long for him to become blatantly rude… really getting in our faces when talking, accusing Wayne of lying to him, just being really unpleasant. I mean, the other guy who swindled me two years ago was at least a bit jovial, and even offered me tissues when emotion took over and the tears came (ohhhh women…). This guy was just nasty. So Wayne said we were going to the police station. I went along with it, but at the same time was wondering what they’d really be able to do; the fact of the matter is that I had signed the contract, and I had been caught in violation of it.

Wayne made the valid point that we had some potentially vital connections: we’d taught the police in Thung Song, after all, and just generally work for the Municipality. That had to mean something, right? So we went, and this cop with wonderful English stepped up to ask what had happened. I gave him a much more concise version of the story I’ve just shared with you, and concluded that I’d be willing to part with some money on account of my offense, but that 5000 Baht was excessive. Then came the most wonderful words I think I’ve ever heard:

“Oh yes… I think these men are very bad. We have many problems. [Produces a stack of motorbike rental fine documents about an inch-and-a-half thick, the top one displaying a fine of 8000-some Baht.] You say you live in Thung Song? I am from Thung Song, just come here for Full Moon Party [presumably to beef up the police force during this time, not to actually attend the festivities, though who knows…]. It’s okay, you can leave today. Leave passport. I go tomorrow, I tell him a lie. I tell him the embassy call me and say I must take your passport. Then I bring it to you when I come back Thung Song, maybe next week.”

Mind you, Thung Song isn’t exactly one of the major Thai cities… this was a coincidence-and-a-half and the corners of my mouth had about reached my ears as he gave me this news. I agreed that this was a very, very good idea; we exchanged information and I let him speak with one of our police-officer friends just to make sure everyone was on the same page; then headed back to the bike shop to return the bike and its key to the man without putting up any more argument or fight concerning the matter. Later, when I began to worry that maybe Mr. JRM might just dispose of my passport for good measure and called Chet (our new copper friend) to see his thoughts on the matter, he assured me that if the passport had been thrown away he would “arrest him for sure.” I didn’t have much of a choice but to take his word for it.

At this point I’ll include that it didn’t take long for a bit of sympathy for Mr. JRM to creep into my little ol’ heart. To have a job that required such negative interactions with almost everyone he went into business with (or at least one a day, I would imagine), to have been presumably forced to come here and get into such business on account of the lack of options in his own country… I started to almost feel sorry for making any extra trouble for him, and to really hope for his own sake he’d just part with the passport peacefully.

After that, we didn’t really have time for lazing around on the beach at all. Instead we met up with a confused and borderline-concerned Collette and Juan for an excellent lunch at the yet-to-disappoint New Heaven Café, visited my old buddy Tu (to whom I’ve been paying a visit every time I go to Koh Tao after Laura and I enjoyed his company so much on our first visit, and who also lives just outside of Thung Song. So random.), and headed back to Mae Haad to start the journey home.

what do you know, i do have a photo from the last day. this is from the chumphon pier at around 6 o’clock. from here we expected it to be smooth sailing but… no… things got ugly.

So nearly 1800 words into this post and we’ve only gotten through “The Bad.” I’ll be more brief with “The Ugly.”

Whereas we took a train to get to Chumphon on the way to Koh Tao, Collette remembered that she’d had more comfort and success with buses for the return journey. We had the boat-company-provided-taxi drop us at a bus station after leaving everyone else at the train station. We were informed by the ticket counter that the only bus to Thung Song was full just in time to watch the taxi that had dropped us off turn a corner and roll out of our lives forever. Collette was sure that wasn’t the bus station she’d left from before, but the ladies inside offered only blank stares when we asked where the other station was. Luckily a motorbike taxi driver outside knew of one, and said it was a mere half-kilometer down the road. He was also sure there was a bus leaving for Thung Song at 8 o’clock.

But he was wrong. So after walking to that station we had no choice but to head back to the train station, which we also did by foot. There we bought 150 Baht tickets for the train departing at 9 o’clock that would apparently move at the pace of an injured snail in order to get us to Thung Song at 3 in the morning. As we all had to teach at 8 the next morning this wasn’t the most appealing of options, but it seemed we had no choice. That is, until our waitress at dinner became savvy to our situation and offered the good news that there was a bus station just outside of town and she was sure there was a bus that left at around 9 and only took three hours to get to Thung Song! We let her make some phone calls just to be sure, and she came back offering all the same information. Yeah, we’d only get a 50% refund on the train tickets we just bought, and the bus would be slightly more expensive, and we’d need to take a 200 Baht taxi to get us to the station, but for added comfort and a few hours’ more sleep it seemed worth it.

And I’m sure it would have been, had there actually been buses. A bit of insecurity with the whole “plan” set in as soon as we pulled up to the bus station: our “taxi” driver asked if we were going to Phuket or Bangkok. It didn’t sit well that he had no idea what we were doing. Then the man at the first ticket counter looked really confused when we said the words “Thung Song” to him, saying he only sold tickets to Trang. After pressing him a bit his eyes lit up and he pointed to the ticket counter on the other side of the station, saying they had a bus to Thung Song but they didn’t serve food on it. As if this mattered to us at that time of night. So we crossed the station only to be told that that bus too was full. We asked the taxi driver if he knew the woman from the restaurant, and could he get her on the phone? Surely she’d talked to these people, even reserved tickets for us… Otherwise what were the phone calls for?! Why had we cancelled our for-sure tickets if there was a chance there were no seats on the bus?! He said the woman was his sister (of course she was), but getting her on the phone did no good. The bus was full.

In a last ditch attempt I went back to the original man to ask if his buses to Trang stopped in Thung Song. He responded, very enthusiastically, that they did, and also that there were tickets! Then Wayne showed up and asked the same questions and suddenly the answer was that there were no tickets. We were fed up. It was back to the train station, but by this time the original train we were booked on was also full. So we were forced to buy 300 Baht tickets on the 10:45 train that was scheduled to arrive in Thung Song at 4 am. In good Thai fashion, it was actually just after 5 when we finally set foot on the platform. Motorbike taxi home, the most solid and well-deserved 2 hours of sleep ever, and zombie-mode for the entirety of last Monday.

Worth it? Totally.

(Oh, and the conclusion of my passport fiasco: Called Chet on Tuesday to ask about the status of things. He seemed confused as to who I was at first, which was worrisome. Then he figured it out and told me that he already had my passport. Excellent news! Then Thursday, in the middle of my last class before my lunch break, my phone rang and Chet informed me he was in Thung Song and could I meet him at Sahathai that minute. To the kids’ eternal delight they got an early lunch and I ran off to fetch my passport. Chet earned himself a bottle of whisky, which he acted reluctant to accept in the middle of a department store, but I hope he enjoys it thoroughly, as he really did me just about the biggest favor imaginable. The end!)

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One thought on “Koh Tao (The Bad and The Ugly)

  1. Pingback: Getting To and Around Koh Tao | …still having the THAIme of my life

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