During our three months of travel in Thailand, we were set on finding a place to settle for one of those three months. Continuous travel, especially with young kids, can be exhausting. Our goal in establishing a base for a month was to give ourselves a break from the frantic pace of travel and to be one place long enough to move beyond being just another tourist. After a week in Bangkok, we were at the airport to fly to Surat Thani where we could get a ferry to the island of Koh Samui. We got talking with an Italian ex-pat with a young child. He told us to skip Koh Samui and go to Khanom.
So we did. We ate the cost of our already paid for ferry tickets to Koh Samui and at the Surat Thani airport found someone to give us a ride about 100 kilometers to the small coastal town of Khanom. We got a hotel, checked out the beach and the town, and decided to look for a house to rent. We found a house, signed a lease, and just like that, we had begun the process of settling in this town that just a few days earlier we had never heard of.
It’s been a few weeks since we left Khanom. Since we left, we’ve been to the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Tao, then to Chumphon, and then traveled by train to Penang, Malaysia. As we’ve traveled to these new places, I have not been able to stop asking myself…. “Should we have settled here instead?” I think, “Would a month on Koh Samui (or Tao, or Chumphon or Penang) have been better than a month in Khanom?”
This is, or course, a futile question. We spent a month in Khanom, and the universe maintains a strict no refund policy on time. Still, I can’t keep myself from asking the question.
The beaches in Khanom are beautiful and deserted. Most days when we went to the beach we were the only people in sight. We found great restaurants and street food and great markets. It was also a great jumping off point for Kho Sak National Park, riding elephants, and visiting the monkey college in Surat Thani.
Still, was it the best choice?
Could we have done better?
Would we have been happier somewhere else?
These are the types of questions I am continuously asking myself, in all areas of life. I call it “constructive discontentedness.”
I can’t know if there was a better place out there. I’ll say that I’m glad we chose Khanom over any of the places we have traveled since, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what exactly made this place so special. Beautiful beaches and fresh markets are a dime a dozen in Thailand. There had to be something more to Khanom. What was it?
No convenient tourist track…
I have a lot of friends who have a lot of experience traveling in Thailand, and nobody has ever heard of Khanom. From the beach at Khanom we could look our and see Koh Samui, one of the most popular island destinations in all of Southeast Asia. I have scores of friends who’ve been there, and still, nobody has heard of Khanom. Even once we were outside of the Surat Thani region of Thailand, nobody has heard of Khanom.
In places like Koh Samui and Koh Tao, or Phuket on the other side of Thailand, there are loads of Western tourists coming through, and if you go to those places there’s a convenient tourist track for you to hop on. Go here to rent your motorbike, go here to find a furnished apartment for a week or month or longer. There’s a whole industry that markets to you and caters to you. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with those places. It was just that in Khanom, we were forced to dig deeper. People didn’t know what to do with us. People don’t come to Khanom for a month. People from Southeast Asia don’t come to Khanom for a month and Western tourists certainly don’t come to Khanom for a month.
That meant that figuring out how to get settled in Khanom took longer than it probably would have taken elsewhere. It was more complicated, and there was some cost to us associated with this learning curve. What we got, though, was a completely unique experience.
No anonymity (and I mean that in a good way)…
When we left Khanom we headed to Koh Samui for a few days. One afternoon I got a massage at a place across the street from our hotel. The next day, I walked out of my hotel and gave a wave to the person who had given me my massage and it was clear she did not remember me. And why should she? On Koh Samui I was just one of millions of people who come through each year. In Khanom, it was impossible to go anywhere and not establish connections. People wanted to talk with us, they wanted to know where we were staying, how long we would be in Khanom, and where we were going from there. They wanted to know about our work and our family and about our home back in the United States.
It was a small enough town, and we were there long enough, that you would see people and say hello when they were outside their place of work. I’d run into the girl from CC’s Beach Bar at 7-Eleven or see the owner of Khanom Espresso cruising by our house on his motor bike and we’d give each other a wave.
One of the last nights we were in Khanom, we were at home and I was in the bedroom with the kids and Monica was sitting at our kitchen table talking with a woman she’d met. We became friends on Facebook with people from Khanom.
On Kho Tao, I walked into the 7-Eleven a few doors down from our hotel and stood in a line of obnoxious tourists. It came my turn to pay and the clerk rang me up and I was out the door. It didn’t work that way in Khanom. In Khanom the people working at 7-Eleven remembered me and said hello.
In a month we established a few markets and cafes and restaurants we frequented. A day or so before leaving I began telling the shopkeepers, “We’re leaving on Tuesday….” There were goodbyes and hugs and warm feelings. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that happens as frequently in places that are on the well worn path.
We got to Khanom by hiring a driver. When it came time for us to leave, a friend gave us a ride to the pier to catch our ferry.
When we said goodbye to our friend Sopha before getting on our ferry at Don Sak, there was a tinge of sadness. We were saying goodbye to someone who really had become a friend. During our month in Khanom, we had actually settled in this little town. We’d done more than just pass through.