New post by Mila —
With some trepidation, we boarded our catamaran style speed boat from Koh Tao back to the Thai mainland. This was the same style boat we had taken before and had gotten so motion sick upon. This time, the waters were clear and still, resulting in an easy, breezy ride, landing us in Chumpon in perfect balance and good spirits.
The city was abuzz and it didn’t take long for us to realize that a big event was about to take place. It turned out there were actually two highly anticipated, upcoming events. We arrived one day before the king’s birthday, known in Thailand as “Father’s Day” which would be followed a few days later with “Bike for Dad“, a cycling event which also honored the king. Everyone was either wearing or selling gold “Bike for Dad” shirts which contributed to a festive atmosphere. Thais love and respect their king and wearing a gold shirt seemed to be an important symbolic gesture for many.
Chumpon was decorated with banners and to our delight, it turned out that there was even a small fireworks display on the evening of the king’s birthday. A surprising number of Christmas decorations were also popular throughout town.
These gift baskets were being sold everywhere. We have no idea what all those little bottles contain.
Known widely as a stopover, Chumpon was a pleasant surprise to us. We found a nice hotel room, an excellent restaurant just down the street and a lively street market each evening. People seemed genuinely pleasant and relaxed, and we found that unlike other tourist-heavy cities, general pricing of goods and services quoted to us was much nearer to the price “local” Thais pay. Even when we were charged “tourist” prices, they were still much less heavily inflated. We spent two nights and three days exploring.
Our favorite restaurant in town was extremely simple, like most family-operated Thai restaurants.
One of the aspects of Southeast Asia that we appreciate is the simplicity of local businesses. Many are family run, whether they are automotive part companies, steel fabrication shops, carpentry shops, restaurants, laundries, etc. We are always amazed at how minimally businesses appear to operate. There are certainly a number of glossy modern shops that look more to our eyes, like those we are accustomed to, but more often, operations are fully exposed and hide very little. A perfect example was this bakery where there was a glass display case with cellophane packed cookies and cakes, but inside, it was quite simple. There were some folding tables where cakes were cooling under an oscillating fan and packaging materials sat in stacks. There were a few photos of the king and queen, some religious hangings and that’s about it. Notice how the office/desk is in the back, which means one has to walk past the exposed work areas to pay. This truthful nature is very typical and we find it refreshing.
There was a small shop near the train station that featured some vintage western wear and handmade leather goods. The owner and leather craftsman gifted Jette one of his miniature leather vest keychains!
One of our travel bags is a backpack that Waco carried twenty-one years ago when he explored Southeast Asia. It is also the same Jansport bag he carried when he and I spent a month together in India seventeen years ago. After being a trusty and dependable piece of luggage for so many years, we decided to treat the bag to a bit of a fix. I found a small streetside sewing group and asked them to add a few stitches to the bag where it had started to unravel. With warm smiles, about five minutes of work and a bit of joking around, I was handed the fixed bag, given a thumbs up, asked for 60 baht (the equivalent of $1.66) and sent on my merry way. I think we were all happy campers.
As I walked along, I happened upon a local kitchen goods shop. It was quite large and felt like a place that needed to be explored a bit. After walking each aisle, my eyes fell on some traditional Lampang rooster-themed ceramics. I had seen this irresistibly charming style of hand-painted ceramics at a cafe in Chiang Kong, a northern Thai city we visited just before crossing into Laos. Now, happily, these two small bowls would be coming home with me. The painting on each was unique. These two were the only ones that did not feature an overly folksy floral in addition to the rooster, or else I would have needed a forklift for a full dining set!
We sampled the wares at Cafe Amazon, found some (hard-to-find) unsweetened bottles of brewed tea at one of Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens and even found a passable mini cheese pizza for Jette.
We experienced one of the heaviest monsoon rains in Chumpon, too. This was a heavy, all day pour!
Our random traveller tale for Chumpon occurred when we met a Canadian couple in our hotel lobby. They had accidentally left their ipad on a bus that had dropped them off in Chumpon. The bus left before they realized their problem, but they immediately went searching for (and found) the police station. They figured out how to file a police report and many hours of confusing half-translations later, this Thai policeman showed up at the hotel with the missing ipad. There were cheers, handshakes and photographs made of the successful recovery. The couple was thrilled and the police officer appeared very proud of a job well done.
After a few days, it was time to book an overnight train back to Bangkok. Chumpon was a great segue from Koh Tao island life to the bustle of mega-city Bangkok. We left feeling satisfied that we’d spent a bit of time in an authentic Thai town, embracing only the aspects of modern life they deemed important, maintaining a bit of a sleepy feel. Most importantly, we felt Chumpon wasn’t trying too hard to cater to tourism, which seems to have only preserved its charms.