Part II: July 15th, 2014
Every day, we are fed at the school with a wonderful lunch. In the small community in which we live, every house has a child, and the likelihood is that we are teaching or looking after one of their kids. There are tens of cafes down the road, as well as laundry services and shops, and all of them know who we are. They also know that we are teaching at the school for no pay, and that is what amazes them the most. The people here are incredibly grateful and are absolutely lovely to us. I purchased a six pack of large water bottles from the 7-11 down the road. It was about half a mile walk back to the house, and they were heavy without a bag. An old man was riding his scooter the opposite way to me. He saw me struggling, stopped, turned his scooter around, and drove me half a mile to the house. I thanked him profusely, and he said in broken English, “No worry. You teach my grandkid English. He teach me some too, so thank you.” He smiled, turned his scooter around and drove off again. I was astonished. If that had happened in the UK, I would have thought, “Damn, Jesus must have come back.”
I’m told that in this country, people operate on a binary switch. That is to say, they will be as kind and polite and humble as it’s possible to be to you, but if you insult them, they’ll spin on a dime. I’ve been told a story by a friend of mine here: He was in Bangkok, in a club and he met some Thai guys, and they were having drinks and swapping stories. By the end of the night, they were best mates. Later on, a girl walked in, and my friend began to chat her up. Eventually they started to make out. What he didn’t know is that the girl was of the guys’ sisters. He doesn’t remember the moment, but according to his friends, they hit him in the back of the head with a glass bottle and then chased him from the club, quite literally half way across Bangkok. At one point, he hit a dead end and climbed over a wall, only to fall into the sewage canal that ran through the centre of the city. He swam across it, drunk and bleeding, with glass in his head, and woke up in hospital the next morning having been taken there by a kind old Thai man who found him. He would take a picture the next morning of himself with the man and the hospital director of himself in a wheelchair and bandages on his face, with the caption “Good morning, Thailand.” It’s quite a story, and there are similar tales from others, though none quite as mortifying.
There are other cultural aspects I’ve discovered about this place. They are incredibly loyal and reverent towards their King, who, like our Queen, has places on all the coins and notes. In the UK, if a note flies out of your hand in wind and falls on the floor, the easiest thing to do is step on it to stop it moving. No such action is allowed with Thai notes. To do so is to lay the lowest part of your body on the King’s face, which is an incredible insult. If you sent a letter from Thailand, be sure never to lick the stamp. You may as well have just slobbered on the King. The respect they have for their King is slightly unnerving in some respects. There is always a large picture of the King in most rooms, and at least once in a building. This gives me chills, but only because it reminds me of the custom in North Korea, where every room has framed portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (their “Dear Leaders”). Obviously the degree of this is not the same as in North Korea, but it is too similar. Other quirks include the exchanges between older and younger people. In Thailand, you are not allowed to touch an older person on the head, as an adult might do to a child. It’s an insult to their age, and I kind of understand it: it would feel as if a child is patronising you. A slightly strange one for me is that men are allowed to look monks in the eye, but women are not. Apparently it’s due to temptation. Has there never been a gay monk?
I discovered all of this in the first week, one which was fairly tranquil and routine. The weekend was anything but. Because it was Buddha day, school was off on Friday. So at about midday, we took a ferry from Koh Samui to a neighbouring island called Koh Phangan (pronounced Koh Pan Yang). Koh Phangan is famous for its nightlife – specifically the Full Moon Party, the monthly (moon cycle) party that happens on the beach near the port. Full Moon has such a reputation here now that the party mostly consists of tourists, which outnumber locals by a factor of twenty. It also comes with its own merchandise, like headbands and T-shirts and body paints (a feature of Full Moon which few other events use). Because of the number of thieves, they also provide bum bags, which you’re supposed to tuck into your shorts so that no one can steal them.
Full Moon usually happens on the Friday night. But Buddha day took priority, so it was on Sunday night. This had the benefit of two days of pre-parties which lead up to the final night. Friday night saw perhaps a thousand people on that beach. Saturday came to around fifteen thousand, and all thirty thousand turned up in one go on the Sunday night, dancing to Thai rap and hip hop, drinking horrendous amounts of alcohol, along with mushroom shakes, weed, cigarettes and laughing gas.
I should make a note here: In Thailand, alcohol is not served in glasses. No, they are too small. Instead, alcohol comes in buckets. I’ll estimate a bucket to be about the same volume as a 1.5 L bottle, and you usually have vodka mixed with something else. If you have a sip and say it’s not strong enough, they’ll take the vodka bottle and pour it into your drink until you’re happy, and it would be the same price. That’s a distinction between Thai and British alcohol venders: In Britain, they try and be conservative. Here, they just want you to be drunk as hell. The net result is absolute carnage. Approaching 2 am, people were in the shallow waters, whilst couples were doing it in the water shamelessly. People who’d had mushroom shakes were sitting on the sand at the waters’ edge, staring aimlessly into the abyss (it didn’t look back; it was also high). As the sunrise approached, which you’re supposed to be awake to see in order for you to say you’ve had a successful Full Moon, there were hundreds of people asleep on the sand, some passed out, and some drunk. Others had fallen asleep on rocks at low tide, and were still asleep on them when the high tide rolled in. No one died, but a few people had to be rescued with boats.
But the one thing that distinguishes Full Moon from every other beach party is what happens at the end. The announcers turned off the music at about six in the morning, just for ten minutes, and said to the beach, “Everyone turn to watch the sunrise.” We did. It was beautiful. But what was more beautiful was the fact that it was being seen by thirty thousand people who were still drunk. There’s no other party like it. The music turned back on shortly afterwards, and it went on until eight in the morning. A friend and me were the only ones from our group of eighteen to make it to this point. The others had either gotten tired, or more commonly, passed out because they didn’t pace themselves with the buckets. As soon as the sun rose and the day was light, we went back up to our hotel and had breakfast at the pool. A week later, I’m still recovering from the sleep deficit.
And then we went back to school. With kids, and teachers, and lunch at 10:30 am, with cleaning up little scratches on the playground and tidying up pens and paper from the floors where they would write (there are no tables, but the floor does very well for one).
It’s a wonderful contrast. It amazes me how real teachers do it, to move from the simplicity and complexity of their job to the nightlife. I’m imagining telling my pupils the things that happened at Full Moon, with all the grown up nights and the grown up problems like money and alcohol. They aren’t plagued by all these issues, and won’t be for a long time. They have their own fair share though – there are two “special needs” children in my class. Both act up, refuse to talk and make eye contact, and will scream if they register any kind of physical contact. It’s clear to the westerners that these kids are both severely autistic and need one on one training. To the other teachers in the school, these are the kids to be ignored, and hopefully the “dark spirits will leave them with age.” We’ve spoken to our supervisor, Millie, about using Gap360 to potentially support a one on one expert to work with these kids, and she knows how necessary it is. She’s going to try, but all she can do for now is educate the teachers in the school that their behaviour is not a result of “dark spirits.” It is sad to watch, and we try and help them wherever we can, but there’s little we can do.
Koh Samui has two major centres. One is Lamai, which is the shopping district. All the best markets are here. The other is Chaweng, which is near the Big Buddha port, one of the two ports which let you on to the island. Chaweng is famous for its backpacker hostels (Some of the best in Thailand), and for it’s nightlife. There is a thriving night market here, but all the major clubs are here, as well as the restaurants and the cabaret shows. At the request of a friend who really wanted to see a cabaret, or “lady-boy”, show before she left for Vietnam, we stepped into one. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I was notably uncomfortable at first, which is why I think it was me who they asked to get up on stage. I did so (Ah, screw it. What’s the worst that could happen? was my thought process), and they got me to do the Cha Cha Slide with them. They were perfectly decent to me, and at the end, I got a free drink for being a good sport. All I have to do now is make sure that the pictures of me dancing don’t end up on Facebook for my family to see. My parents are pretty liberal, but I think that this goes, for them, too far. I would have felt the same way a year or so ago. But in the last year, the best revelation I’ve come to is this: I may feel stupid, but if I’d watched someone else do it, I’d have laughed along and patted them on the back at the end. Human minds, as different as they are, find union in this emotion. That night was one of the funniest and the saddest of my life, for at the end of it, that friend who had dragged us to the cabaret show got in a cab to her hostel, to begin her next journey to Vietnam.