On a small island somewhere inside the Burma Sea, “freedom” can mean many things, but it always comes with a catch.
You are free to take whatever you want from the bar, a thatch-roofed counter of questionable stability and obvious weathering, as long as you marked your name down on the crumbled paper on the clipboard. You can climb the cliff face, karst formations that box in the island on all but one side, as long as it wasn’t in the vine-covered areas where the plants likely hid deadly snakes. And you could swim wherever you wanted along the coast, as long as it wasn’t at night, when pirates might be monitoring the scattered crumbs of nearby islands. Such pirates tend to shoot first and ask questions never, taking no chances that you might be a rival searching for the infamously lucrative bird nests that make expensive soup ingredients throughout Asia.
Four years ago, I had taken a week’s vacation to Thailand, taking advantage of a spring break to get my PADI scuba diver license. The process would take four days at least, but I wasn’t interested in the hyper-touristy areas of Koh Samui or Koh Phi Phi. I’m sure others enjoyed the freedom of scuba practice in the morning and nightclubs and drinks into early the next morning (even with the catch of early-morning dives with hangovers.) No, I was looking for a true getaway.
Surely, there would be places truly off the beaten track. What if I sought out some kind of national park, some kind of reserve area where lodging would be available. Thanks to a bit of Google-fu, eventually, I found it– Koh Lao Liang, a place so remote that it doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry, just a subtitle under the one for Mu Ko Phetra National Park. It was a place so small that you had to take two ferries to get there — a large one full of hardy partiers on their way to Koh Phi Phi and then a second one, transferring in the middle of the ocean into one of the native long-tail boats to take the remainder of the journey.
I was greeted by Paul, a lanky dreadlocked Australian, and several Thai attendants. Paul was the manager (for lack of a better term) of the resort (for lack of a better term), for what amounted to the 200 square foot stretch of beach cloistered by the high karst cliffs. He was the one who pointed out the bar and is policy and showed me the “rooms” on the other side of the beachhead. They were little more than deluxe-sized tents with zippable interiors to create anterooms or walls and electricity to power the fans inside. The dining hall? A series of tables under a tall canopy.
The guests were outnumbered by the Thai serving as support staff. In total, there was a German couple, fleeing the coldness of the mother country, a regular practice for these elderly retirees; a Japanese family of four, traveling from Osaka; and even two families of wealthy Thai nationals. There was one other single traveler, one who happened to be from San Diego, about as much as a neighbor as this Los Angelese guy could get. I was the only one to be undergoing the PADI course, which means the other couple on the island was my instructor, Ellen, and her significant other.
And with the very brief tour of the island over in all of two minutes, I was free to enjoy the rest of my time on Lao Liang. However, it quickly became apparent how much of a blessing and a curse it would be for me to be stranded on a deserted island. Apparently, I don’t relax well. After several minutes of laying in the sun, or several minutes of snorkeling in the shallow reefs, or several minutes of trying to free climb the lower section of cliffs, I would be at a loss of how the rest of my day should be fulfilled. Thank goodness for the requirements of PADI– there are actually tests involved! Apparently, I handle hammocks under a panoply of palm fronds much better when I can study texts and watch DVD training videos.
The true test of freedom came at the end of the week. I had learned much more than just the PADI skills– I also learned how it important formality and social hierarchy is for Thai people. All boats must display the yellow colors of the current regime, nearly as important as displaying the national flag itself, or risk symbolically criticizing the king. Pointing the feet to the head of anyone could be the biggest disrespect of all, and complaining is a big cultural taboo, since saving face is so important. I also learned that, however much freedom you may enjoy living on a remote island, it could be quite illusionary after all.
Koh Lao Liang, as a resort, existed because of a relationship between both private investors and the Thai government, a relationship that, because of that whole face-saving aspect of culture, had to be delicately maintained. Most recently, that had taken the form of a giant sign that now marred the view of an unspoiled beach. It was a necessary evil according to the government representatives, who determined such a sign was important to inform everyone that a siren would sound in order to inform everyone about an approaching tsunami, at which point everyone should move to higher ground.
At the end of my week’s stay, an official-looking long-tailed boat landed forcefully onto the beach in the afternoon. This one took the display of colors very seriously, perhaps trying to prove the strength of their political commitment by increased numbers of streamers and cloth and flags. The entourage included one very official-looking leader, despite his relatively lower height, and an entourage of a dozen others who formed a shell of importance around him.
It was difficult to get a clear report from Paul, from Ellen, or from anyone, really. Were they here to check on the tsunami sign? To search for illegal activity? To make sure that the resort was running efficiently? The only thing that was clear was that things were being kept purposefully vague. Ultimately, the official asked Paul to return with him to the mainland to review some paperwork. Obviously, Paul agreed. He left my instructor, her boyfriend, and myself, standing on the beach as the official’s boat roared its unmuffled motor out into the ocean.
Would he be back, I asked, by tomorrow? After all, I needed to leave at that point, and I was looking forward to Paul’s help to coordinate my connection to the ferry that would be crossing our paths on its way back from Koh Phi Phi somewhere to our west. No problem, they assured me, as Ellen and her friend would be needing to return as well. Paul left in the resplendent long-tail boat, a parade of one, the roar of its outboard motor following after it into the distance.
I tried to enjoy the remainder of the time on my last day, which was a bit more difficult in that the demographics of the island had changed a few times in the course of the week, and the only tourists left were a different Thai family and another Japanese single traveler. Ellen helped arrange one of the Thai staff to give me a massage on the beach, but since I don’t like to be touched as well as the fact that a traditional Thai massage uses a lot of brute strength and pointy elbows, was not as calming as it was supposed to be. Her boyfriend offered to share a toke from some weed he had kept in stash, making his earlier nervousness with the officials a bit more understandable, but I wasn’t interested in mind-altering substances at this point of uncertainty. Dinner came, but there was still no word. After dusk truly fell, we learned via cell phone that Paul could not satisfy the Thai police questions and needed to return to the island to get more paperwork. However, since this would be after business hours, Paul would be held in a holding cell on the mainland and would return tomorrow.
“So,” I asked, “for all intents and purposes, right this moment I am stranded off the coast of Thailand?” Well, came the answer, *technically.*
They didn’t seem as concerned as I. But this may be since they lived in Thailand, making this event have the same weight as a traffic jam on the way back from visiting the folks might have for someone in California. Or encountering (surprise, surprise) a line at the DMV.
I kept receiving assurances that all would be well, that this is just a show of force by officials who have nothing better to do than to rattle some sabers. It was a constant performance of face and they tended to be as aggressive as they could get away with. Still, they would laugh and admit that “anything’s possible!” and share stories of other “farang” who ran afoul of Thai officials. I admit to being caught between two emotions myself. On one hand, how cool would it be to miss a flight back to work because I was stuck on a tropical island? On the other hand, how boring would that be? It was a whole “blessing and curse” thing. How much freedom can you get before it’s no longer a good thing?
The next day came, sure enough. Early in the morning, almost immediately after breakfast, the familiar roar of a long-tail boat came in with the tides. Paul was aboard, along with the boat driver and a conspicuous absence of government officials. Paul was all smiles, the kind that appeared hesitant due to the clouds behind his eyes, and told us he was let go from the holding cell since it was simply a matter of getting some visa papers which were left in his residence (for lack of a better term) on the island. He was returning immediately to the mainland, with the help of the driver, his boss and one of the private investors to the resort. With only the staff and the few guests remaining behind, all the farang got onto the boat to return to their respective lives. The investor helped the SCUBA instructors unload their equipment, then personally drove me to the airport in a bumpy, speed limit-defying rush through the jungly suburbs.
I suppose the better story would be if I actually did get to become stranded on a tropical island, and looking back I’m sure there’s even a “real” story somewhere behind these details. Maybe I was too young, too world-unwise, to see more in those vague answers I was given. That’s the problem with freedom. When you have it, you don’t wonder why it exists, nor do you wonder as to what is happening behind the scenes to allow it to exist.
In scuba diving itself, there is a freedom in swimming, a range of movement unbound by gravity and a glimpse into a strange alien world. But that freedom is tempered by the unspoken and necessary reliance on your air supply, your gear, your buddy, and even the countless years of countless people enjoying and studying the hobby. That’s not really what you think about, as awesome and overwhelming as it is, because you get caught up in the beauty and strangeness of the moment. True freedom, then, for me is when I don’t have to think about the whys, the whos, and the hows.
Freedom is a “haikyu moment,” a snapshot of poetry you experience as you swing in a hammock on the beach of Koh Lao Liang, closing your eyes against the setting sun. If you can find those kinds of moments, you can really be free indeed, and they’re always worth the cost.