My trip to Thailand held a similar surprise. I was there for a research trip, and had planned to trek around on my own for a couple of weeks tacked on at the end. I was headed to Koh Tao for some diving. A ferry would drop me on Koh Phangan overnight first. I chose a little inn using my trusty Lonely Planet.
Up to this point, I’d been with two professors and a translator. Transport and accommodation had been prearranged. The translator took care of the language barrier, and my hand was, effectively, held. But now I was on my own. I was supposed to call the inn from the ferry dock, and they would come and get me. This was accomplished through an odd, very loud conversation, where a woman was yelling “dock! dock!” into the phone, and I was yelling “yes! yes!” back. About an hour later, I was still sitting on the dock, and it had begun to rain.
Finally, a pickup truck with about 5 people in the cab pulled up. A middle-aged woman yelled at me and waved her arms, indicating I should get in. I tossed my suitcase in the back of the truck and realized that, like any proper commodity, the tourist was riding steerage, too.
Mind you, I’d selected this place to stay because (like the parador in Puerto Rico) it was “centrally located.” (Side note: I still have trust issues with this phrase.) Since I was only there for one night, and wanted to explore the little port town, location had been my main selection criteria.
Twenty long, damp minutes later, we arrived at the end of a dirt road, far from a town, a store, a restaurant. I was stranded again. I was hungry. I was thirsty AND out of bottled water. I figured I’d get cleaned up, then walk down the highway until I found something to eat and drink. It was dark, and the inn was deserted.
I went to my room, which was filthy. Sand was everywhere. The bed was unmade (and clearly used); there was no goddamn toilet paper. The place smelled like a small animal or large crustacean had died in it.
I had had enough of this rude, yelling bitch and her shitty inn. I went to find her.
I found the office and said my room was out of toilet paper. She unceremoniously handed me a roll. I spotted a padlocked refrigerator, and asked if I could buy a couple of bottles of water. And a beer. Please, god, anything slightly numbing at this point would be welcome.
She was actually warming up. I dared to ask where I could walk to for some food. She broke into a broad smile.
“Food! We have food here!”
I recoiled in horror, of course.
She yelled down the muddy road, toward some outbuildings. Then hopped up and opened a door that led to a small kitchen, with a room of tables beyond. She switched on the lights and propped open several shutters to let the night breeze in. She pointed me, and my beer and water and roll of toilet paper, to a table in the empty room.
Awesome. Solo, miserable dinner with food poisoning for dessert.
A chubby, kindly looking Thai woman arrived and began bustling about in the kitchen, pans clattering, gas burners lighting, oils sizzling. So far, no one had asked what I wanted to eat, but delicious smells start coming out of the kitchen. Now I’m feeling guilty that they’ve opened the restaurant…just for me?
The owner brings over another beer, on the house. Her English magically improves and decreases in volume–she’s suddenly friendly and chatty.
A group of Brits, hungry and damp, arrive and tell me they haven’t seen this place open in the 3 days they’ve been here. Some Americans trickle in. Someone fires up the karaoke machine, and suddenly we have a party. It’s warm, filled with good smells and the camaraderie of travelers. It’s…magic. It’s that moment every sodden, bedraggled, cranky, hungry, achy traveler lives for. I sneak the roll of toilet paper back to my room, and quickly return to the little restaurant.
The food emerges from the kitchen–plates and plates of it. Steaming hot, smelling so good I want to cry. It is the most delicious cooking I had in Thailand. The Brits and Yanks entertained each other with awful renditions of 80s pop songs for several hours.
The owner of the inn took me to the dock in the morning, and gave me a big hug before she left. I got on the ferry slightly dazed and somewhat hungover, but at least not hungry.