The Long Road Home
I am finding it higly disconcerting to have travelled so quickly between Koh Tao and Chumphon. Geographically they are no more than a tumb’s breadth apart, but culturally? Koh Tao could not be more un-Malaysia if it was in the Carribean. Western food, western toilets, western clothes – Koh Tao to me is pork and bikinis. Chumphon, on the other hand, might as well be Malaysia.
With it’s green pandan cakes, head scarves and over-use of fermented fish, Chumphon reminds me a lot of Mersing, the town I call home. Culinary and religious comparisons aside, Chumphon and Mersing both have in common that they are border towns. Not the border between two countries, per se, but the border between what is for tourists and what is not: Tioman and Koh Tao cater to Westerners, and rural Thailand and Malaysia do not.
Chumphon and Mersing are their go-betweens, containing the elements of both. For Chumphon, this means a traditional night market no more than five minutes walk away from a slightly seedy bar; the kind of Bob Marley-playing poorly lit place that backpackers such as myself feel at home in. It is here that I might my Thai counterparts: a group of English teachers working in the secondary schools of Chumphon. They are lovely people, and within minutes we feel like old friends. The few glossy hours I spend in their company are a booster shot for what is to come, because Chumphon is only the beginning of the long road home.
The morning sunshine is blinding inside the aluminum train carriage, and I experience my usual anxiety that I’ve forgotten to get off. As always, it is not me who is late but the train, and by the time we reach Hat Yai we are already three hours late. Thankfully, I’ve got a cushion in my schedule, and I have time for a late train and a forty minute tuk tuk ride to the airport. These blurred scenes give me plenty to think about on the flight to KL, and then again on the train to the bus station, and the bus to Mersing. When I finally reach home the 36 hours since I left have turned Koh Tao into only a fuzzy, sun-lit memory.