Familie cu copil mic si buget pe muchie de cutit cautam un loc mai ieftin ca acasa in tarile calde.
Un reportaj publicat in numarul 9 (primavara 2011) al revistei National Geographic Traveler.
Descarca aici versiunea in romana layout Journey of a lifetime.
Sau citeste povestea in engleza mai jos.
Journey of a lifetime
Family with a small child, on a tight budget, looking for a tropical destination that’s cheaper than back home.
Text by Catalin Gruia
Photographs by Bogdan Croitoru, Adina Brânciulescu
The miracle occurred at sunrise: Vladimir tremblingly lifted his bottom and took his first steps on the Chaloklum beach in Koh Phangan, southern Thailand. The sea was still boiling after the previous night’s storm. The running track must have encouraged him: the water-impregnated sand was smooth and compressed like asphalt. Adina cheered him sobbingly. The small group of European yogis, who were doing their exercises nearby, remained absorbed in the Twister game. Here, on the Indian Ocean shore, everything seems easy, and happiness – within your grasp.
Stop. Rewind: 21 days
My heart was in my boots at the Otopeni airport check-in queue. And what if dad was right: “Are you crazy, how can you take Vladimir to Thailand? With that money you could buy a proper car…”
Or my sister, who accompanied us to the airport: “Leave the baby’s stroller with me, they won’t let you take it aboard”. Or the little devil of fear on my shoulder: “The powder formula that Adina measured out into the nursing bottle, you could swear it’s cocaine!”
So many worries for nothing! They took our stroller only at the air-stair. They gave us a crib, in which Vladimir slept like a prince, powder formula, hot water, baby food, a toy kit. We had priority in every queue. Vladimir proved to be the key to any door. (In case his picture doesn’t make it in the article, let me describe him to you: he’s a 9 month-old thick-browed little baboon weighing 20 pounds and he’s cheerful 9 hours a day – smiling at everything with his two front teeth. He’s the life of the party wherever we go. Although he doesn’t wear perfume, he always reeks of it when we get back from visits, from all the elegant girls that cuddle him.) He did his trick on the plane, too: the flight attendants were coming over every half hour to play with him. We felt as part of a Russian prince’ retinue.
Stop. Rewind: 120 days
Seven months ago we exchanged Bucharest for a village in Mure[ county. Our cottage – with a creek and an orchard, and deer coming under the window – belonged to Adina’s grandfather. It’s very beautiful, but old and dilapidated and would have required too many repairs for us to dare to spend a mountain winter there. I said to Adina: what if we go to a warm country for the winter, somewhere in Asia, and look for a place cheaper than home? The idea seized us like a fire.
We couldn’t have gone if, in a fit of venturousness, my mother hadn’t chipped in with a part of the travel expenses – thanks, mom!
We bought at Qatar Airlines roundtrip tickets from Bucharest to Phuket for two adults and one infant (2,100 Euros).
I convinced Adina that the flight was the main expense and living there will be next to free. I lied. But let’s keep counting:
Travel health insurance: 32 Euros per person. Vladimir’s passport: 78 Euros. Three tourist visas for Thailand: o Euros (caught a fee exemption period until March 31st, 2011; the usual price is 25 Euros per entry).
Stop. Rewind: 20 days
Finally, in Thailand. After some 12 hours of flying and waiting around in airports in Bucharest, Doha, Kuala Lumpur, here we are in Phuket, healthy, but not too cheerful. On landing, we couldn’t find our checked luggage. All we had was the carry-on: laptop, camera, wallet and three diapers. The first money spent on Thai land: taxi from the airport to the hotel (5,8 Euros per person). (Too make your life easier – all the prices listed here were converted into Euros). We checked in at Patong Longe, a three- star hotel (91 Euros a night, in high season), quite nice, but we took a room in the cheapest wing – with a view to the air conditioning machines and with a cat caterwauling in the hallway. The next morning we realized we had no more
diapers, formula, and no clean clothes. I withdrew 10,000 THB (230 Euro) from an ATM (there is a 3,5 Euros fee for each withdrawal, regardless of amount, so it pays to withdraw the maximum amount). Then we went shopping in a hotel car (free ride) at a mall located within a 10 minute drive. We bought most of the stuff from Carrefour: bread, a box of formula, baby sunscreen, some fruit, a roast chicken, detergent, jars of baby food. From a clothing stall: a T-shirt and swimwear for each one. And from a pharmacy: vitamin D syrup, five diapers, a tube of bepanthene. In the evening our lost luggage arrived; but we had already spent about 115 Euro, around 6 times more than the originally estimated daily budget (apart from accommodation). Well, maybe Phuket is out of our league. We count our pennies and, out of necessity, we are more tight-fisted than some French misers. After only three days, it’s impossible to know what Phuket is actually like. But it seems to me that, in this great tourist aquarium, goldfish come to spawn here, and the locals have learned to cook them in wallet sauce, in all kinds of ways. A Thai friend, Aek (meaning “Number 1”), who is a guide here, told us that Phuket is the most expensive place in South-East Asia, with prices at least twice higher than anywhere else in the area and that locals, too, have a hard time coping with prices that keep being pushed up by the influx of tourists. As I don’t like being the goldfish caught several times a day by tricksters who want to take even your last scale, we’ll fly away as soon as possible; round-trip tickets to Koh Samui from Bangkok Airways, 2 adults + 1 infant: 343 euros.
Stop. Rewind: 17 days
Ever since landing I realized our luck had changed. Samui has the most beautiful airport I’ve ever seen: small, stylish, in open air. In addition: the island was shrouded in clouds. It was drizzling when we got off the plane. Bye bye, sunstroke. At the airport exit we received a free local SIM card (True Move). A local call costs 0,03 Euro/minute. Incoming calls from anywhere: Free.
We checked in at Samui Island Resort, a hotel located within a 5 minute drive from the airport. A three-star hotel as well, but a few ranks above the one in Phuket. The room (75 Euros a night – spacious, with a nice design: white walls, contrasting with the furniture’s black lacquer, and bamboo floors. They even brought us a crib for Vladimir. The porch, over 215 square feet, has a deck chair and table and chairs. The view is not dreamy, but the beach is only 72 steps away. We checked in at 11 a.m. and took a nap until the evening.
After we woke up, we went out to a local restaurant nearby, with its tables facing the street – The Dusk. We ordered: two orange fresh drinks, one banana, kiwi and pineapple shake for Vladimir, two shrimp cocktail-salads, very rich rice with seafood. Dessert: slices of watermelon and pineapple. All very good. The bill: 14 Euro.
We got Internet access (7 Euros per 10 hours) and rented a scooter (11,5 Euros for 2 days). Normally, it costs 3,5 Euros a day, but a friend from Samui recommended these guys: they don’t hold your passport as security, they have better scooters, they won’t burn you if you fall and ruin their machinery… A Frenchman I just met told me he had a small accident the other day – and had to pay an additional charge of 200 Euro.
A fuel refill costs about 2,3 Euros and is enough for a tour and a half of the island. Gasoline is sold in bottles, at roadside stalls, like juice. I took a tour of Chawang. On the way back, I was caught in a downpour. How good it is to race on the scooter through rain drops as large as coffee beans!
Stop. Rewind: 15 days
Ning came to pick us up at The Hot Pan (Bo Phut Moo Krata). She looked like a woman now – she didn’t resemble the little girl I said goodbye to on the Samui airport two years ago. At The Hot Pan you can literally fill yourself up for only 2,5 Euros; drinks are paid separately. Almost all customers are Thai.
It’s a sort of cafeteria without walls, covered with tin, with red plastic tables and chairs and a few bamboo booths, with shiny concrete tables and chairs. Scooters and cars are parked by the tables. Waiters bring you a deep pan with coal underneath. You take from the buffet as many meats, vegetables and fruit you like, (just like at SpringTime, only here it’s unlimited, you can refill as many times as you like) and you cook them in your pan. We accumulated about eight large plates with shrimp, scallops, calamari, fish, hearts, liver, ham, fruit, rice, even French fries + three clean plates to eat from + three bowls of soup + a coconut for me + water + ice cream, at the end. It was a delicious feast that lasted around three hours, with good conversation, laughter, all for only 11 euro.
Hidden costs: taxi (roundtrip from the hotel) 14 euro. If Vladimir hadn’t been with us, we’d have spent 1 Euro on gasoline for the motorbike.
I asked Ning about her daily budget. She doesn’t spend more than 3,5 Euros a day – this amount includes everything – three meals, rent, utilities, clothing, gasoline. She always eats out. That’s the accomplishment I want to reach for this article. (I leave Adina and Vladimir out of my Spartan plan.) But Ning tells me that on her favorite island nearby, Koh Phangan, everything is even cheaper, because it’s less touristic. We suddenly decide to go there. Ferry tickets: 11,5 Euros for two adults. Vladimir doesn’t pay. Crossing: 20 minutes.
Stop. Rewind: 14 days
When we packed (again) for leaving Samui, I had a small epiphany: we are still some famished European whales, who grab more than they can chew. We are programmed to waste. It’s time to change my life philosophy and become a Thai dolphin. We abandoned in the room: three jars of food for Vladimir (the equivalent of 4 Euros), bought from Billa Romania – which I presumed had gone bad; a large box of powder formula (13 Euros, bought in Phuket) – Adina thought it was suspiciously foamy; a bag of grapefruit (4,5 Euros) – I had eaten so many that they literally set my teeth on edge. Only now do I realize that “garbage” is money. I suddenly remembered that we order more than we can eat as well; true, we don’t know the size of the serving, but there’s a third left over every time – a toll on ignorance and greed. I want to set myself on an islander philosophy: don’t throw anything away, take only you need, when you need it…
Stop. Rewind: 13 day
Okay, we settled into our new home in Koh Phangan. It’s small, perched on stilts, surrounded by jungle and facing a paved road; it has a bedroom, a living room, fully equipped kitchen, a porch as big as the house, where I put up a big black hammock, like a pirate flag (7,5 Euros); cable Internet (non-stop and included in the price, not by hour, or minute, as we had previously paid.) Rent costs 280 Euros a month – three nights at our hotel in Phuket. The compound is called Jungle House, on the outskirts of Chaloklum village. The houses, far apart from one another, are hidden by vegetation and give you a feeling of privacy. After helping unpack, I ran to the village. First, I rented a motorbike for 2,3 Euros a day from a specialized service (Autain, 66-077.37.42.96). Then a scouting tour of the village in order to find the ATM, the supermarket, the mini-markets, the beaches, the laundromat (0,7 Euros per load), massage places (7 Euros an hour), restaurants.
Chaloklum is a village of former fishermen who ended up earning their living through tourism. The locals have built beautiful houses and bungalows, which they rent out to Farangs (as the Thai call tourists; farang means stranger), while they live in huts; they learned European-style cooking, but they continue eating plain rice with soup; they opened massage parlors for farangs (where they don’t set foot) and also for farangs, calamari fishing expeditions and elephant-back trekking. Chaloklum has one main street lined with houses and shops. In the morning, shutters are closed over windows and doors, and the place looks like a town from a western movie.
Stop. Rewind: 8 days
We were robbed. Twice in four days. Someone breaks into our house and steals our money. Someone has the key… First time, 100 Euros, now – another 140 Euros well hidden among Vladimir’s clothes. They left on the table: the laptop, the camera, the iPod and the voice recorder.
We called the police. Then we went down nextdoor, to the owner, to tell her what happened. Mrs. Jin said “I’m sorry” and shrugged naively. Here is the village policeman: a devil in flowered tights! At first I thought he wanted to sell us something; he look around, smiled and he, too, said he was sorry. I asked him to take fingerprints, but he replied that only the police in the island’s big city, Thong Sala, is capable of such feat. So we went to Thong Sala. We came back with a unit of two – in uniform, this time. One with a gun, the other with a pen and a notebook. They looked around the house, then told us to go back to the station for statements (they didn’t speak English). They drove off with their jeep, fat as a bumblebee, we followed on our scooters, like some wasps. When we arrived, one of the cops was playing backgammon, the other had take off his uniform and was playing soccer with other colleagues on the field in front of the police station. They were playing with such eagerness, that I would have liked to join in. I told the English interpreter what had happened, while he was taking notes in Thai with an amazing handwriting. We didn’t achieve much: they couldn’t take fingerprints either, but someone would come from the Suratthani police.
On the way back, racing in the sun, I was thinking that in a place where things are inherently peaceful and work by themselves, police is automatically a thoughtless force.
Here, if you drop your wallet, there’s always someone to run after you with it. Four times we’ve tried to abandon in a hidden corner Vladimir’s winter clothes that we had brought from Romania: every time someone brought them back to us in the last minute. Who could be our thief? Maybe a farang who ran out of drug money or a local with a drinking problem. I have no idea. Tomorrow we’ll change the locks. Today there’s no time, we must hurry: free singing jam night starts at Omega bar.
Stop. Rewind: 6 days
It was already 5 o’clock when we all got on the motorbike to go to dinner. Sandwiched between me and Adina, tightly held in arms, Vladimir behaved insanely on his first motorbike ride: he stood up to look over my shoulder, laughed out loud, we thought he’d knock us down. Unlike the rides in Samui, we drove very slowly, beyond any caution – because we had Vladimir with us, as well as because I was told that any fall, any scratch to the motorbike would cost a pile of money (and no room for maneuvers, as the man who gives you the bike holds your passports as security…).
“The restaurant” – at a stone’s throw from the sea and a seven- minute motorbike ride from home – is actually a sort of shed with a few tables in it, and a makeshift kitchen in the back. But the food is absolutely delicious. And we, in our turn, are food for the mosquitoes that started to pester us at dusk… I ordered fried rice with seafood, Adina – grilled chicken with a delicious sauce, Vladimir – vegetables au gratin with chicken; in addition, two cans of Pepsi and a glass of water. No dish – from soup to barbecue – costs over 1,15 Euros (about half or even a third of the usual price in Samui; not to mention Phuket…). And even I feel satiated with a single serving… Noi, the cook, is the owner of the place, and on Mondays she gives Thai cooking lessons for farangs.
Stop. Rewind: 4 days
On this island there are a handful of Europeans who built themselves businesses and never left. I don’t think they want profit, but to be able to live here. There are some Swedes, with a small restaurant where the coffee is good, a fascinating Italian with a pizzeria and a bar open on Wednesdays, the Germans with the children’s area and some Frenchmen who own a bakery. I still prefer to frequent the Thai. We already have friends at the North Beach Thai restaurant. Adina made friends with the women at Natty’s massage parlor, where she goes about three times a week (7 Euros an hour). Thai massage is not a massage at all: it’s more like stretching: a woman climbs on top of you (literally) and stretches you out. The owner, Natty, a nice girl with bottom-length hair, was a lady boy until last year (now, after a series of surgeries, she’s all woman). She’s in love with vampires. I showed her pictures from Romania. She asked how come I’m not a vampire if I live in Transylvania. “Vampires are so sexy.” Her dream is to be bitten by a vampire. I promised her that if I ever met one, I’d give him her card.
PS: As I was leaving the house this afternoon, I saw the biggest snake in my entire life. It was basking in the sun, on the door sill, coiled on my slippers. I rushed to take a picture of it to remind me every day that we still live in a jungle.
Stop. Rewind: 3 days
Last night we shared our favorite table at the North Beach restaurant with a Russian woman in her early thirties – very beautiful and speaking a surprisingly rich and elegant English, ennobled by a very sexy Slavic accent. Vladimir picked her up. She had so much generosity and openness – both in her cleavage and her soul – that, for different reasons, both Adina and I liked her. When she found out we were staying at the Jungle House, she exclaimed with horror: How can you? The owner gets into your room and steal money! Everybody knows this.“ As we got talking, we discovered she had been living in the same house, before she moved away…
In the following days, making courtesy calls to our neighbors in Jungle House, we discovered that all the tenants had been ripped off by Mr. Pam… Our landlord is a congenial alcoholic who honorably breeds quails and catfish in his backyard. One afternoon he told me the story of his life. Allegedly he built all the houses in this compound, then he had some trouble, I couldn’t understand what kind, and he started drinking.
Secretly, the nice Mr. Pam treats his guests like a bed of vegetables: he picks a tomato here, a pepper there. Probably few of them notice.
P.S. Put in a tight corner, Mrs. Jin agreed to pay the piper for her husband. In a few days she would give our money back (she can’t get it now: 230 Euros is the average salary for two months in Thailand). Fat chance…
Stop. Rewind: 2 days
They won’t last long… my shoes, I mean. They’re tattered. Once they are broken completely I’ll walk barefoot. It’s much more pleasant to feel the sand under your feet.
I gave up the motorbike (saving 3,5 Euros per day, gas included). It takes us 10 minutes at most to the nearest beach, slowly pushing Vladimir’s stroller. I also gave up massage (swimming can be equally relaxing.)
At about 200 m above our house there is a waterfall, with whirlpools and chutes more complete than the entire aqua spa at Radisson Bucharest. I don’t even use the village laundromat anymore (0,7 Euros per load). My three t-shirts can be rinsed in the sink as well…
We eat only in restaurants on the beach, where I can swim for 20 minutes before the food arrives. I don’t read the menu anymore; I know what I want: a bowl of fried rice (or noodles in soy sauce, for some variety) with shrimp (1,1-1,6 Euro), other times seafood coconut soup or chicken and rice soup. Coconut is my favorite (0,7 Euros on the street or 1,5 Euros in restaurants): after you finish sipping the juice, the white pulp inside keeps you busy scooping for another 10 minutes. At the roadside grill-booths that sell anything – from mixed grill with seafood/pork/chicken/fish to fried rice or banana pancakes – food is twice as cheap as in restaurants (however gluttons I may be, it’s impossible to eat more than 1,6 Euros worth of food). A small banana leaf box with six fried quail eggs costs 0,2 Euro.
It’s even cheaper if you home cook. For example, no restaurant has a serving of calamari with pepper and fried garlic below 4,6 Euro. With that money, you can buy from the market, or even better, directly from the fishermen, about 9 lbs of calamari. This means – if you know how to buy/clean/wash and most of all, cook it – about 37 servings like the ones at the restaurant. If you fish by yourself, from the dock (angling), it’s free. Just like the beach, the sun, the sea, the rain and shade of the palm trees.
The stuff that is imported for tourists – bread, alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, toilet paper, French fries or beef – are 2-3 times more expensive than back home. Everything local – seafood, fish, rice, tropical fruit – is 2-3 times cheaper. I gave up everything not Thai, but I still haven’t managed to reach below 4,9 Euros per day. I stop here. Pushing the boundaries of the game would be breaking Vladimir’s fourth law (see below). Vladimir is way ahead of me; everyone is crazy about him. In Romania, in 9 months he hadn’t been held not even by a quarter of all the people who held him in Thailand in almost three weeks (79 counted to date). He ended up eating for free, straight from the kitchens of beach restaurants (especially the lady owners steal him and take him there…; they try to teach him the Thai language firsthand and so I pick up something, too). But I’m already used to living in the shadow of his cuteness…
Stop. Rewind: 1 day
The continuous buzz of the surrounding jungle is interrupted only by the pattering of the rain. The people here are distraught by how much it has rained this week. The locals are worried: it’s abnormal for this period and bad for business. But we like the fog that has shrouded the island. In Phuket, Adina had a terrible sunstroke, with shivers and a sleepless night, after only a few minutes’ walk under the sun. In the morning we went to the beach. Vladimir started to pound on the beach as if he had laid claim on it.
We wouldn’t leave Phuket…
The journey of our life didn’t prove to be a great adventure; it’s something normal. It’s full of children around here: Russian, German, English, Italian, Nordic… It’s a provincial fear, if not stupid, not to travel with a small child. You have only advantages. And Thailand is perhaps the country that loves children the most. I saw with my own eyes how Vladimir the White was a little star everywhere we went. Japanese women stopped him on the street to take a picture with him. Old Thai ladies sneaked closer to touch him, to bring them luck. Waiters went haywire, hiding behind tables and chairs, competing in making elaborate sounds to entertain Vladimir.
I myself wish I could be more like him. Carefully observing him, I think I have become a better traveler. Now I’m trying to apply his teachings: 1. Don’t worry, no matter what (lost luggage, no internet connection, etc. – it all sorts itself out somehow). 2. Wherever you are – airport, train station, train, boat – sleep when sleepy. 3. Eat when hungry. 4. Do everything for fun; don’t linger, don’t rush. 5. Smile at people and be friendly to anyone. 6. If something doesn’t suit you, scream!
I hope that one day, if I follow his example, Japanese girls will stop me, too, on the streets…
P.S. I can finally hand over to Adina the key to our treasury. The pinchpenny tallier experience taken on for this article has exhausted me. (In everyday life I prefer to be kept, not knowing how much our troubles and joys cost). But I’m glad I guessed right: such a journey is not only possible, but even easy; you need more courage (to resist the dissuading choir of those who know what’s best for you) than dough. Quod erat demonstrandum.
The members of a European family observe the shores of Koh Phangan from the deck of the boat that connects Koh Samui and Koh Tao. Every winter, hundreds of thousands of chilly families from all over the world migrate to southern Thailand’s islands.
Islands of lofty rocks cut through the waves of Andaman Sea, signaling the proximity of the exotic Koh Phi Phi Leh and Koh Pi Pi Don in Phuket district – the most expensive place in South-East Asia, with prices at least twice as high as anywhere else in the area.
Callout pag 35
In this great tourist aquarium, goldfish come to spawn here, and the locals cook them in wallet sauce.
Sunset on Chaloklum beach, Koh Phangan, interrupts me and Vladimir from our swim. Finally, Adina agreed: it’s more fun eating on the floor, in an ocean-shore restaurant (right).
Box pag 38
Things to know before departure
1 Euros = approximately 43 THB.
Tourist visas for Romanians are valid for 60 days.
You receive a free local SIM card on landing at Samui airport.
To make a call to Romania, first dial 006040.
Put your clock ahead by 5 hours.
ATM withdrawal fee is 3,5 Euro.
Qatar Airlines is the only airline company with flights from Bucharest to Phuket.
For more information: www.thailanda.ro
Regular trips on the fast Lomprayah catamarans between the islands of the Gulf of Thailand offer short getaways, even for a day, for which you don’t need more that a backpack with the bare necessities.
Attached to the docks in Koh Nangyuan, a small boat used for shorter distances is awaiting its passengers for Koh Tao – a well-known attraction for divers. Nangyuan is made up of three small islands connected by a long strip of sand.
Callout pag 42
At the roadside stalls, food is at least twice as cheap than at any restaurant.
Vladimir watches with great interest two girls selling souvenirs in Thong Sala, the capital of Koh Phangan. Every Saturday afternoon, you can find anything here: on a pedestrian street, until late in the evening, there are long rows of tables filled with food, fruit, sweets, but also clothing, souvenirs and kitsch objects.
A Thai boy is fishing by diving with a stick into a river in the region of Suratthani (above). A little girl playing with her grandmother’s dog; the lady is from Holland, and now living in Samui (right).
Knead by skillful hands, tourists enjoy the famous Thai massage in the shade of trees on the beach (left). In Thailand, massage is a science and an art practiced in specialized centers, but also on every street. A child prepares for snorkeling in the crystal clear waters surrounding Koh Nangyuan (above).
Callout pag 47
She asked how come I’m not a vampire if I live in Transylvania. “Vampires are so sexy.”
Box pag 47
Patong Lodge Hotel 284 / 1 Kalim Road. Mu 5 Patong Beach, Kathu Phuket 83150; phone: (66-76) 341020-4, email@example.com
Samui Island Resort, Chaweng Beach, Koh Samui, Suratthani 84320, phone: (66-077) 231782-2, www.samuiislandresort.com.
The Dusk, 9/9 Moo 2, Bophut, Koh Samui, Suratthani, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bo Phut Moo Krata, 126/8 Moo1, Bo Phut, Koh Samui Suratthani, 84320, opposite Bo Phut Temple.
Jurgen (motobike rent), Samui, 0898837490.
Service Motobike Autain (077.37.42.96), Chaloklum, Koh Phangan.
Jungle House, 085.8856393, Chaloklum, Koh Phangan.
Noi’s Restaurant, Chaloklum, Koh Phangan.
Natty Massage, 113/2, M7, Chaloklum, Koh Phangan.