Current Position: 07 46.57' N 98 18.00' E
There are some things that you must do at least once. That was our thought when we headed for Ao Patong for New Years. We had been warned about the crowds of tourist and the lack of any control whats-so-ever, but according to some friends it is the place to be in Thailand for New Year's, as it really goes off.
On first sight, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico was the first thought that crossed my mind. A huge cruise ship was anchored in the bay, with a few smaller cruise-charter ships nearby. The anchorage had at least 60 yachts anchored (with more yachts coming in behind us). Jet Skies, ferries, local long-tail boats, and seaplanes zoomed around coming and going in every direction. A few high-rise hotels loomed over the umbrella-clad beaches.
Ashore hordes of tourist swarmed, ate, sun bathed, and meandered. Skin, skin, and more skin glistened in the hot sun. It was as though there was a competition to see who could wear the least amount of clothing without being fully naked. The streets were lined with trinket shops, restaurants, bars, and more bars. You could get a knock-off for anything here, DVD's, clothing, sunglasses, handbags, and jewelry. As you walked locals thrust pamphlets at you, "good food, two for one drinks, need a suit?, you need tuk-tuk?, taxi-taxi, you want Rolex?, we give you good price, and so on. You couldn't walk more than two steps without someone trying to sell you something.
Of course the first place we hit wasn't a restaurant, shop, or bar. Oh no there was a much, much more exciting place for us cruisers. The Carrefour. A huge French supermarket. I was soooo excited when I heard there was a Carrefour within walking distance. As promised it was huge (and air-conditioned). But I wasn't ready for how crowded it was. Most our time was spent maneuvering around people and carts rather than shopping. One thing we have observed, especially in Singapore and Thailand, and I realize that this is a HUGE stereotype because of course the entire culture is not truly like this, is that in this region, locals seem to only be aware of their own space. They could care less if they park their cart in the middle of the isle blocking everyone and causing a huge pile up. They will cut you off, run into you, and cut in line, as though no one else exists. "Excuse me" doesn't seem to work, they either ignore you, or give you a small glance, then move an inch (not enough to actually allow you through), and then when you slightly bump them (as there is no other way to get by) they give you the evil eye, no matter how much you apologize. It is an experience, and one that really tries your patience. But what is truly ironic is that they are only like this in crowds (walking crowded streets, shopping, buses, trains, etc). When talking with them or alone they are the friendliest, most polite people I've ever met. I just don't get it.
Anyway, we managed to survive the grocery run and returned to Billabong for lunch. The anchorage was crazy. The pleasure boats used the yachts like a slalom course, weaving in and out. The boat rolled and rocked with each boat that passed, and you had to yell to be heard over the noise. After lunch we decided to head back in for some knock-off shopping and people gawking. Neither of us really enjoys the haggling and bargaining that must be done when shopping. It's a nuisance, and you know that no matter how low you get the price you are probably still getting screwed. I'd much prefer old fashioned, non-negotiable, price tags. That said, I do enjoy be able to afford Billabong clothing (even if they are knock-offs). After a couple of hours we decided we'd had enough haggling and needed to return to the boat for a rest if we were going to make it till midnight.
In order to save fuel and make our dinghy less desirable for theft, we tend to use our small 2-horse outboard engine when we don't have far to go or have to carry the dinghy up the beach a long ways. The downside is that we just putt-putt along and can't really get out of the way of anything very quickly. As we were making our way back to Billabong two jet skis came zooming around a yacht, weaving and laughing, and not paying attention. One of the guys was looking at his friend saying something and not looking at where he was going, which was right for us. Chris tried to turn away, but of course they were coming fast and we were barely moving. Luckily the guy's friend saw us and said something and at the last minute the jet skier turned right. He came within inches of hitting us, and sent a flood of water into the dinghy soaking us. As you can imagine neither of us were very pleased and a wee-bit of yelling took place. The jet skier did slow down and look at us before speeding away, continuing to weave and going entirely too fast for a crowded anchorage. He didn't even yell sorry, let alone come over to apologize. Chris would've gone after him, to what purpose who knows, but our little engine catching a jet ski would've been a joke. I understand the joy of a jet ski, heck I'll even go as far to say that I enjoy playing on one, but what I don't get is what about them turns reasonable people into thoughtless pricks. The bay we were in is HUGE; joy riders could easily go beyond the boats and then zoom around trying to kill each other to their hearts content. But within the anchorage there our local boats, people swimming, dinghies, and such chaos; why play there, endangering yourself and others??? Friends have actually seen a jet skier fly, out of control, into the side of a steel yacht, splitting his chest open in the process! I could go on and on about this, but what's the point, the important thing is that we weren't hit and thankfully all our bones remain whole and intact.
Around 8pm we headed ashore for dinner and the evening festivities. At night the main drag is closed off to cars. Already the streets were crowded. We found an out-of-the-way restaurant where we enjoyed (yet another) outstanding Thai meal. During dinner we people watched. The first thing you notice about the people in this area of Thailand is the number of white male - Thai woman couples. Especially younger women with older men. We had noticed it a bit in the islands, but in the Phuket province these mixed couples are everyone. There are a number of theories as to why the Thai women go for the older white male, everything from status to money to a preference in physique. The mixed couples aren't so surprising but the difference in age in some of the couples is shocking.
Locals walked the streets selling trinkets and some funky colorful hats. I thought it would be fun to have one (kind of like a souvenir for later) and Chris was sport enough to actually wear it; even after I couldn't stop laughing! We tried to ask if they had any special meaning, but we know no Thai and the locals only spoke a word or two of English, so all we learned is that they come from northern Thailand, and are funny-looking hats!!! We call it the Thai Happy Hat.
After dinner we hooked up with friends at an Irish bar, and then made our way to the Tiger Bar. The Tiger Bar is a huge long room with multiple bars. In the back girls dance on the bars and around poles. It is considered a 'girlie bar', but not like what you would find in the States for two reasons. First, it's against the law to strip or go naked, so all the girls are covered (although just barely). Secondly, there is a very, very large chance that the girl you might be checking out is actually a male (or girl-boy as they are called here). And no, you probably can't tell!!! It is hugely entertaining trying to decide who is female and who is male, and even more entertaining watching the male patrons goggle over the dancers; especially the ones that you know are girl-boys. There was one dancer at our bar that we just couldn't decide, the vote amongst our group was split 50-50 between female and girl-boy. Larger hands and feet leaned towards girl-boy. But the narrow waist with perfectly curved hips made us think pure girl. The face was hard because some features seemed pure female while others made you think girl-boy. Chris was convinced girl-boy but I was convinced girl-girl; at least until right as we were getting ready to leave. A group of young men came in and ordered drinks. The main goal of the dancers is to get you to buy more drinks (including drinks for them) and to stay longer. So, when fresh meat enters, the dancers swarm over to flirt, talk, and show some skin. Our dancer-in-question went over and sat on one of the guy's lap. They talked and flirted and at some point they kissed, full on major make-out. When the man was looking away the dancer looked at me and put her finger to her lips in an 'shhhh' motion, and then winked. My guess at the meaning was "hee hee you know, but he doesn't don't give away my secret another clueless tourist hooked!!!" The really funny thing about all this is that anyone who visits Thailand, and especially Patong, has to know that girl-boys are a HUGE thing and that they are everywhere. Even Lonely Planet mentions it. So when you enter a girlie bar you know that at least 50%, if not more, of the women are really girl-boys. That being said, you'd think you'd be a bit more careful about whom you went around making out with!
As midnight approached we made our way through the crowded streets to the beach. It was crazy .. thousands of people everywhere. And thousands of traditional lanterns floated in the sky, mesmerizing us. It was as though a new galaxy had been created. The lanterns are about waist or chest high - thin paper shaped with wire over a ring that is lit on fire. The air beneath the paper canopy heats, and the lantern soars into the sky. Once in the sky they are a sight to be seen, but it's not as easy, or safe as it sounds. Thousands upon thousands of people line the beaches, and at least a hundred of these are trying to send up a lantern, a flaming torch. And it is not always successful. First you have to have a bit of patience, waiting for the air to become sufficiently hot. Second, you need to wait for a lull in the wind so that the lantern has a chance to rise a bit before the wind takes it sideways. More than one lantern came blowing over the tops of people's heads, sometimes catching the paper on fire - creating a flaming ball that bumped from person to person! Usually some drunkard, chasing it down, trying to catch it before it caught something or someone on fire, followed it! Chris and I tried to launch two, but both of ours ended up falling into the surf (at least we didn't catch anyone of fire)! The lanterns are supposed to be good luck (you make a wish as you send it off), so it's hard to not be discouraged when your good luck lantern goes plummeting into the sea, but Chris and I took it well and aren't reading too much into our lack of success.
On top of watching your back for wayward lanterns you also have to keep a keen eye out for rogue fireworks. There are no laws about fireworks here, anyone and everyone can buy them and set them off. Not only that but most of the drunkards were going for maximum startle effect, meaning setting them off near the crowds so they could watch everyone jump! In addition to random, private fireworks, at midnight a firework show went off. There was no coordination, no theme, no real rhyme or reason to anything, but it was amazing nonetheless, especially with the thousands of lit lanterns floating in the background. There was something about the unorganized feel, the chaotic energy, and the lack of rules that made the firework show amazing. More than once, Chris and I have said to each other, "Can you imagine this being allowed in the States?" New Year's in Patong was another such event.
We ended our evening with Nutella Crepes from a street vendor, and called it a relatively early night (compared to the masses that continued to party). Throughout the night we'd hear an occasional firework go off. Even the next morning, when Chris went in to get us McDonald's for breakfast, a few stragglers were still setting off fireworks! And the most amazing thing, by 9 am the streets had already been swept clean - you'd never know the madness that had gone on the night before.
Hectic. Crazy. Crowded. Pure Madness; and one of our best New Year's aboard Billabong!