The Paradise Island Controversy

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The past five days we’ve been on an island that at first glance felt like one of those paradise islands you see on TV or in travel magazines: coconut trees, bright blue ocean and drinks at the sand beach.

When we came here, I was ready to relax by the sea after exploring the north of Thailand.

So, we booked an Airbnb-apartment owned by a lovely retired French couple who fixed us up with a scooter and gave us recommendations on the best beaches and restaurants.

The first day, we took the scooter up the steep hills to a place called The Jungle Club and sat there for three hours just taking in the view. I even cried a little, to be honest, because the view over the sea was so beautiful and I felt so relaxed after the 28-hour-long bus journey from Chiang Rai to Koh Samui.

But after a day or so, the paradise island began to feel like there was something wrong. In a way, at first, we were seeing this one side of the island but then starting to realize the other side of it – like two sides of a coin. One side of it was the perfect beach days and drinks at sunset, while the other side of the coin was a modern colony.

It sounds harsh, I know, but I’ll try to explain why this feeling came to me.

The Expat and Tourist Island

Koh Samui is an island in Southern Thailand with a population of over 63,000. It’s one of the more popular tourist resorts of the country but in addition to a great amount of tourists even in the off-season (as the rainy months are rolling in), there are many expats who live on Koh Samui year-round.

The active expat life is clearly visible on the island.

While driving around the island with the scooter (I was the one sitting in the back and in charge of navigating so I had time to look around while my partner focused on driving alongside all the other vehicles), I could spot French boulangeries, English and Irish pubs, restaurants serving French food or the German currywurst.

The Thai culture, however, shined with its absence in many parts of the island – at least that’s what it felt like while we explored the island.

Of course, there are many local restaurants owned by Thai people and in many of the restaurants, hotels and spas the workers are Thai – but they are all there to serve the tourists, to make them feel comfortable. This is done by serving the food the tourists know and like, and by having the menus in foreign languages the westerners are familiar with.

Or if they are not the ones in charge of the usually small family businesses, they are the ones to do the service work for the westerners. They drive the car, clean the house and the pool, cook the food or provide other necessary services. The Thai people just as the rest of us need to make their living – and the rich westerners are there to give it to them.

In one way, there’s nothing wrong with this. But the thing is, it comes with a cost.

Oh, The Controversies

Koh Samui is a paradise – if you have the right kind of house, scooter and car for it. All around the island we could see new construction building up these houses that are advertised as luxury pool villas. The houses with many bedrooms are built out of concrete painted white, a terrace looking over the view and a pool to swim in.

But oh, the controversies in this perfect picture.

Water is regarded as something precious here and tourists are asked to save water whenever possible – but the villas need to have their pools to be attractive to those with the money to buy them.

Concrete is far from the more environment-friendly building materials – but it’s cheap to use for building and the demand for villas is growing.

The main source of income for the island is tourism and the streets are filled with small food stalls selling fresh fruit shakes, pork and chicken on a stick and coconut water – but there is nowhere else to put the plastic trash than on the ground. The amount of trash in this country is shocking.

It’s like the westerners have taken over the island and they do it at whatever cost on the environment and the local culture as long as they get their paradise.

Missing the Local Culture

The tourism and the expat life on this island are the ones that make it thrive, yes, but at the same time they are the ones killing the island, slowly but surely. During our first two weeks of travel, I had gotten used to the northern cities where it was often a struggle to find a way of communicating with the locals, where in many restaurants the menus were primarily in Thai and the city was about their own culture. I can’t say they have the same here – and it makes me sad.

It even feels a bit wrong to be here, to support the very western culture of this island and I can’t help but wonder how the local Thai people feel about the development. Are they truly okay with working for the westerners? Are they aware of the environmental damage this kind of tourism is doing to their beautiful island?

As we are leaving the country to the next (hello, Malaysia!), I’m left with mixed feelings about the South. I loved the Thai food here, the ocean and the amazing landscape, but the enjoyment comes with a cost – even I, a westerner, am adding to by being here.

The Great Thing About Traveling Slowly

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We’ve been on the road for almost two weeks now. It isn’t a very long time, for sure, but it feels like we are now getting into the groove of traveling. We are finding our routines, figuring out how we want to spend our days on the road.

In the mornings, I write. It’s been relatively easy to get going with my morning routine of writing although I’m no fan of writing before I’ve had breakfast and a cup of coffee. However, nothing beats the feel-good after a rewarding writing session.

(Lately, I’ve been practicing writing adventure/action scenes – it’s tough because I’m more for the relaxed or deep-talk-kind-of scenes.)

After I’m done writing, the rest of the day is free for whatever activities we feel like doing. For the most part, we do what tourists do: walk around, say “no thanks!” to tuk-tuk drivers and when the heat of the midday gets unbearable, we step into one of the many 7/11 –shops with the greatest air conditioning, pick an ice cream flavor we haven’t tried before and eat it outside the shop before walking on. We visit temples, try new fruits like mangosteen and sometimes exchange a few words with other backpackers.

A New Perspective on Traveling

However, as we have travel plans into October which means we’ll be on the road for a few months more, the perspective on traveling changes. The days aren’t about wake up as early as possible to see as much as possible like they usually are on short city holidays because we have time. We have days upon days! We’ve been in Thailand for two weeks now and we still have 1,5 week to go before we hop on another plane. That means we can stay a few nights longer in every city we visit and take the time we need to get to know places.

In other words, we are in no hurry. And because we don’t have to count every hour of the day, we really get to see what we want to see.

What made me think of this was an evening a few days ago when we were still in Chiang Mai. We decided to visit one of the many temples of the city, a temple called Wat Chedi Luang. We went to the area, paid 40 Baht as a supporting fee to the temple and started walking around the area.

First we visited one of the viharns, assembly halls, which are usually the golden, colorful, pompous even, buildings – but which I rarely find fascinating. The reason to this is that the viharns are very often built in the 20th century which makes them very new and fresh and I am more for the old buildings and ruins.

Therefore, as visiting the viharn with all the other tourists was a small disappointment, I was beyond excited (I might even say I was momentarily breathless) when I saw the real thing. The Wat Chedi Luang.

Taking In The Quiet, The Calm

It was already in the evening and the sun was about to start setting when we came to the old temple. The ancient layers of stone, the carvings, the details put into the chedi were all beautiful – partly because it was well done, partly because the evening sun gave it a wonderful color and partly because I was awestruck by the fact that this temple was built in the 14th or 15th century.

Many of the tourists who also found their way to the chedi, were happy to just walk around it once, take a photo of it and then leave. We, however, decided to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet of the temple area – we had the time.

An hour flew by as we sat on the white bench, watching other tourists walk by, take a selfie with the chedi and then leave. We also saw a young man sit down with his sketchpad to draw Wat Chedi Luang (he also took almost an hour to draw the temple), some stray dogs and many of the monks go on about their daily business.

We took in the quiet, the setting sun and the beautiful warm color of the chedi as the sun shined on it. As we sat there, it felt as if I could feel the temple, the serenity of it.

There were so few who took the time to actually sit down and look at the building, to take in every detail of it, I really wonder what they can remember of it. Of course, they have the photo to remind them of the temple – but can they feel it as I do even after days of seeing it? I wonder how many historical buildings, artefacts and paintings I’ve looked at (probably numerous) without really seeing them.

It’s time to change that.

As there is slow-food, there is also slow-traveling. It’s about getting into the groove, about feeling things rather than only looking – it’s almost like mindfulness, finding yourself in the moment of now.

 

The First Week of Travel – Heat, Traffic Jams and Empty Pages

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As I’m writing this, heavy raindrops beat the roof of our guesthouse room on an otherwise silent street. It’s the first proper rain we’ve had during this first week in Thailand – and I welcome every drop of it because rain helps calm things down: the traffic, the people, the mind.

Thanks to the weather, this is the first time I actually find the time and place to sit down and write how my traveling life has come to a start.

First Reactions to Bangkok

We arrived in Bangkok almost a week ago. The city was hectic. As a citizen of Finland, leaving a country of five million people to enter a city of eight million is somewhat of a shock. Especially the traffic jams felt insane: the way drivers have the courage to switch lanes although there’s no guarantee it’ll work out (but it always does), and how the scooters and motorbikes crisscross through the endless lines of cars…

It’s a lot to take in.

In addition to getting used to the traffic and the number of people, the heat has taken a great deal of energy. I know this kind of weather (the tropical heat of 35 degrees Celsius) is normal in Asia, but in Finland, it’s nothing we are used to. Therefore, dealing with the amount of sweat and the liquefied feeling of one’s body and mind has taken some time as well.

But even a Finn gets by in Bangkok. One simply needs a great deal of patience and the ability to stay calm in the heavy masses of people.

Finding Time To Write

So, I’ve become used to all of this: the people, the traffic, the heat, the way Thailand works and functions. But what I haven’t become used to, is writing while traveling.

Honestly, it’s been difficult to get any writing done. It’s a shame as I have been hoping to be able to record the whole journey in my diary and in these blog posts, maybe even let the experiences give some color to the stories I’m planning on writing. However, the pages have stayed empty.

During the few weeks of sailing, I was able to write during the windy and rainy days when we stayed in harbor. Here however, a little rain or wind doesn’t stop us from stepping to the streets and finding a nice café to order an iced latte from or find our way to a local restaurant. We’ve been active most part of the day – in other words, there hasn’t been any particular time of the day (or weather) that would have suited as writing time.

It’s been difficult. So many thoughts, vivid pictures of events, feelings and ideas that have been going through my head and nothing has been recorded – not properly. And that’s why I’ve realized that if I want to write, I simply need to decide when and where I want to write – and also what I want to write.

(It may sound obvious to someone but for me, it has clearly taken some time for the thought to become something worth to think about.)

Writing Routine for Traveling

So.

During this year of blogging, I’ve been an active advocate of routines as a skill for time management and efficiency. And I believe in those same routines even when I’m abroad.

If I want to stay in touch with my writing, I need to hold on to my writing routines. It was already difficult to get started with this blog post because it’s been over a week since I last opened a Word-file. For me, it’s a long time.

Writing is about routines, about persistence and continuity, and taking a week of from writing can be good but it can also be bad. Therefore, if I want to be a writer, I need to hold on to my writing routines and keep my ‘creative muscles’ active.

For me, it probably means writing in the morning either before or after breakfast but before we get going on our day and leave the guesthouse we are staying at. I will try to go for my usual 1,000 words per day five days a week and hopefully, in a few weeks, this has become a simple routine for me even though the cities, villages and countries will change every few days or so.

Dedicating a few hours five days a week to writing instead of exploring the cities we visit is a trade-off I’m willing to make, easily. This way I’ll keep up with my writing and let the travels influence my writing, something I’ll most likely value in a few years.

We’ll see how my plan works out. It’s a good thing I already have routine from the past year – now I simply need to learn a new twist to it: how to keep up with my writing routines while traveling.