Monday, October 20, 2008

Final Field Trip

Monday, October 20, 2008

This phase of our Cruise to Cambodia is almost done. We took our final field trip today with Ed, Roxanne, Russ and Patti, a tour of Ko Samui [Koh Sa-moo-ee], Thailand.

This is our first tender port; the harbor is too shallow for the ship to dock, so passengers have to take the lifeboats from the Amsterdam to shore. The six of us met at 8:15 in the usual place, then waited in the theater until we could board the tender. We reached shore after an uneventful trip almost on the dot of 9 o’clock. As we exited the tender, we could see a mere slip of a girl holding up the sign for our group.

Our first stop today was the Big Buddha. It could have been called the Really Big Buddha without exaggeration. It had been built about a half hour out of what passed for the town and stood on the crest of a hill overlooking the water. The men all ditched their shoes and climbed to the top of the hill to take pictures – if there is no photo, we weren’t there. There were several families there, too, enjoying the view as well as practicing a little Buddhism.

As we drove to the Buddha, we marveled at how much Ko Samui resembled Bali. The several towns we passed through were all crowded with businesses catering to tourists and there was much more English visible on signs than in other ports we have visited. We saw extensive and elaborate resorts next to tin shacks, even a Starbucks which we hadn’t seen in Bangkok although we are sure there are some there. Storefront business and markets lined the streets and motorcycles were numerous. Out of the towns, there was obviously less development and roadside “stores” were aimed at a more local market. Still, it all felt familiar in a good way.

The weather gods had blessed us today with tropic heat and humidity, bright sunshine and a threat of afternoon showers. Once we had cooled off, we climbed into the van and headed to a “Kodak moment” overlook from which we could once again gaze at the tropical blue waters; the blue was a pleasant change from the muddy brown river water we had seen the past several days. If we squinted a bit, we could even see the Big Buddha on its distant hilltop. Fortunately for us, Lexi, today’s guide, had brought ice cold bottled water and disposable towels which she had kept in the cooler with the water. They were even more welcome and refreshing than the “welcome home” towels HAL has been providing at the gangway in the afternoon. We drank eagerly and toweled off before once again getting in the van.

We stopped next at the Hin Ta and Hin Yai rock formations. Since Ko Samui is built on a volcanic base, these were lava outcroppings which had flowed into the cool water and solidified. Hin Ta and Hin Yai are the Grandmother and Grandfather rocks. Grandfather is a vertical formation at the shoreline which is overtly phallic; when the lava hardened, it really hardened. Grandmother is a collection of three rocks in the water about 30 yards off shore. Ed and I found another lava flow which looked more anatomically female, but that wasn’t grandma.

When we had parked at this stop, we had walked through a little market area replete with food stalls and souvenir shops. Lexi took us to one where women were preparing coconut sugar candy. Molten coconut sugar is spooned into plastic squares and tied off leaving a sweet tasting confection with a consistency a little stiffer than molasses. On the way back to the car, we made a special stop at that same stall to purchase some to take with us. It shouldn’t be refrigerated and should stay fresh for 2 weeks, so it will last through the rest of the trip; we think Briton and The Boys will like it.

We made a stop at a monkey exhibition, too. Yesterday, MA and Roxanne had seen a monkey show which exploited the monkeys, but today we saw a monkey trained to climb a coconut palm and harvest the coconuts. This is a less labor intensive way for the local growers to harvest the coconuts because the monkeys can climb the trees more easily than men and can work faster once they have reached the top. The monkeys also are more agile since they can use their tails to hold on or for balance. We tasted fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut before taking our leave and driving to a nearby waterfall.

Roxanne and MA stayed at the top of the hill which overlooked the falls. There was little to see from the top through the tree cover, so Ed, Russ, Patti and D climbed down the rock-and-root footpath to the bottom of the falls to take pictures [of course]. There were local kids swimming in the pool at the bottom and several were jumping into the pool from a rock outcropping next to the pool. While we were at the bottom of the hill, Roxanne and MA made an executive decision: it was time for lunch.

We returned to town and stopped near the dock. Lexi escorted us in an made sure we were comfortable but declined the invitation to eat with us. Most of the guides have left us to our own devices; only in Shanghai did a paid guide lunch with us. We ordered a variety of dishes. Ma had an Indian curry and D had pad thai noodles. No Coca Cola was available so we settled for Seven-Up and Russ had a large beer. The bill for six of us came to 560 bahts, about $17 USD. D had exactly 560 bahts and paid the check in an effort to get rid of them, but the others paid him bahts so he had gained no advantage and had to exchange them for dollars when he returned to the ship.

The tender trip back to the ship was interesting, too. After Lexi left us at the dock, we waited for the HAL tender but were told to board a rust bucket instead. Once aboard, though, we had to wait for several bus-loads of passengers who were returning from their tours. As we waited, we could see the afternoon storm approaching, low lying clouds gradually obscuring the hills outside of town. By the time we started to move, it was raining hard. Russ, Patti and Ed remained outside on the top deck; D went to the lower deck; and MA and Roxanne stayed under cover in the top-deck passenger area. D was the only one who was dry by the time we transferred to the Amsterdam because Roxanne and MA got wet not only from rain coming in the windows but also from a leaking roof. The three who stayed outside, of course, were soaked.

Once on board, we returned briefly to the room before adjourning to the Ocean Bar for the requisite post-trip Coca Cola, then checked e-mail. MA returned to the room for a nap and D joined Russ for trivia. After trivia, D finally finished reading World Without End, all 1000 pages of it. From there to dinner, the journal, the casino, the end.

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