Traveling on a tight budget bought handfuls of short-lived wonders. Knowing I’d crave more when it was over made everything a bit sweeter, saturating moments with nostalgia like honey soaking into soft bread.
On the shore of Railay Beach I rented a kayak, ready to venture out alone. After only fifteen minutes paddling away from the shore I was overwhelmingly nauseous, and quickly working my way through the water I’d brought with me. Early evening light bounced over the waves and teased my unruly stomach. I turned back toward the shore in hope of relief.
I’d been sick most of my time in Thailand – every kind of sick except throwing up. The diarrhea never stopped, I swallowed large tablets of Tiffy medicine a few times a day to keep from sneezing my eyes out through my nostrils, my ears never popped after my last flight, and a severe dry cough made my trachea felt like tissue paper. I could barely sleep with the pain in my throat and the sweltering heat in my bungalow. But no vomiting.
After returning my kayak I stopped at a touristy cafe near the beach for an iced mocha, thinking something familiar would soothe my stomach. I also needed food; I hadn’t eaten much that day.
I took a seat in the rooftop dining area at a restaurant across from the cafe, and requested a plate of fried rice (something easy to digest), and a bottle of water. As soon as the waitress left to put in the order my stomach started tightening again. I felt an upward pressure in my chest, and started salivating heavily. I downed water and considered puking over the railing into the brush below, but I desperately wanted the privacy of a toilet. I rushed to the first floor, nearly running into a couple coming up the stairs. Relief appeared in the form of a single bathroom near the bottom of the steps, unoccupied.
I stood over the toilet, my stomach unsure of what it wanted to do, when the nausea shifted downward. I dropped my shorts and took a seat. Nothing. As I sat with my head in my hands, the feeling lurched back into my throat. I jumped up, spun around, and vomited the entirety of a large iced mocha. Feeling better, I shamefully hosed down some stray vomit off of the toilet seat with the wall-mounted sprayer, then returned to my table, and asked the waitress to box up my rice without having touched it.
On the walk back to my bungalow I passed the tiny Reggae bar I’d been drinking at for the past few nights – JamRock. The bartender, named Oh, greeted me and asked about my day.
Oh was a soft-spoken man with kind features – a bit tall and lanky, with a rounded nose and cheeks that radiated warmth. A bit of stubble reminiscent of a beard softened the edges of his face. His shoulder length black hair had some natural curl to it, in addition to frizziness from the humidity that gave it shocking volume. The massive hair further softened his already gentle face, almost hiding his eyes at times. He dressed in baggy t-shirts and khaki shorts, accessorized with a few large rings on his fingers and an assortment of thin braided bracelets.
On my first day in Railay I lugged my suitcase and backpack along sandy footpaths that cut across the tiny beach town, then up the many steps to my cliffside room overlooking the Andaman Sea. After that I set out to find a spot for dinner. It was impossible to get to or from my bungalow without passing JamRock, as the only path leading to Railay Garden View Resort ran between it and the mangroves lining the shore on the Eastern side of Railay. As I passed the bar on that first day Oh called out “Hello! Where are you from, friend?” while handing me a glossy drink menu, as he did with all the tourists that passed by. It was still early in the evening, and I wasn’t ready for a drink, but I told him I’d come back to his bar after dinner.
I was the only customer there so early in the night, so he sat with me and asked me about my travels. I explained that I was traveling alone for the first time and I’d been to Thailand once before with my dad, but I’d wanted to experience more of the country and the culture on a second trip. I left out a chunk of my story about my failing relationship at home, the girlfriend I’d wanted to travel with, and the crushing weight of the unknown that I was failing to evade in a tropical paradise.
As we talked my eyes wandered the bar. The small open air space was walled on two of its four sides, and the entirety of its walls were covered in chalkboards cluttered with graffiti and art. In the center of the back wall “JamRock” was written in large squarish letters above a pot leaf, surrounded by smaller notes from tourists as well as an occasional painting of Bob Marley or something floral. On the left of the back wall was an acoustic guitar in pristine condition. Both walls were lined with wide benches and Thai-style throw pillows, as an alternative to the typical table seating in the rest of the bar.
Behind the bartop, painted bright yellow and well worn, the chalkboard had the words “welcome back” written across it with a few song lyrics and little drawings of mushrooms peeking out from between the shelves of liquor. The humid atmosphere was illuminated with purple and green hanging lamps, casting cozy light to soothe my eyes after a day under the hot sun.
Oh told me he appreciated me stopping by after dinner like I’d said I would, and that most tourists brush him off with excuses as to why they can’t stay for a drink. Some people ignored him altogether. In a tourist hotspot it’s easy to pass by all the people who want you to stop at their bar, eat at their restaurant, or buy their skirts, and let them fall into the background. For many travelers he was just part of the scenery. I wanted Oh to know that I saw him, and I cared. Feeling raw, lovesick, and just plain sick, I would show him all the kindness I craved.
We bonded over a game of Jenga and a fruity cocktail that he’d invented. I decided not to tell him how sick I was, although I suspect he knew something was wrong. He only charged me for one of my three drinks that evening.
The next night I left JamRock after just a couple of drinks, saying goodnight to Oh before walking out in the direction of my bungalow. I stopped and squatted in front of the vacant restaurant next door to say hello to a gaggle of stray kittens that hung out there. I hand fed them little pieces of my leftover yogurt-marinated chicken from the dinner I’d barely eaten at an Indian restaurant. Oh startled me when he appeared from around the corner and asked “Lois, is something wrong? You are leaving early?”
“Yeah, no I’m ok, thank you for asking. I’m just tired.” If I shared all my troubles with him it would make leaving in a couple days all the more difficult.
The following night I approached the bar after my puking ordeal and was greeted by Oh, his older brother, and their friend who played guitar there regularly. After having spent a couple of evenings at JamRock I was familiar with Beka, the guitarist. He was another soft looking man who contributed to the vibe. Oh’s older brother also worked the bar most nights; I didn’t catch his name the first time we met and had reached the point of being too embarrassed to ask. They welcomed me to stay and hang out, but it was still early in the evening, and I still needed to eat my fried rice to replace the mocha I’d just thrown up. I promised them I’d come to the bar that night after I’d gotten some rest back at my room.
Later in the evening, with food sitting comfortably in my belly and a fresh dose of medicine clearing my sinuses, I felt surprisingly ok. Despite the constant heat and humidity that the fan in my bungalow failed to cut through, I adored the place. An assortment of geckos, snakes, and ants that I shared my space with added their own strange charm. Railay Garden View Resort was a cluster of small bamboo and wood crafted bungalows with corrugated metal roofs built against the gently sloping side of a cliff. Between the bungalows, a network of stone paved paths and stairs intersected each other and led to the main walkway below, winding through a wild garden full of coconut trees and native foliage. Behind the topmost bungalows, mine included, dense jungle blanketed the cliffside. Chirps of geckos and screams of cicadas resonated through lush greenery. Walking out onto my wood plank porch, I could see over the coconut trees and rooftops to the Andaman Sea, dotted with longtail boats traveling to and from Railay. In the morning one of those boats would take me back to the mainland.
I returned to Jamrock to find that they’d drawn in a few more customers and Beka was preparing to begin his performance. At the moment Bob Marley was playing over the speakers as usual, blending with the sound of soft waves lapping through mangrove roots in the fading light, and tipsy chatter within the glow of the bar. I sat at the counter and ordered a mojito.
After a bit of catching up about my day, Oh introduced me to another traveler, Emma, from Australia. He’d made a habit of introducing me to other English speaking people who were drinking alone, encouraging me to socialize. He would seat us next to each other, start a game of Jenga and a conversation between us, and leave us to get to know each other. My first night at the bar I spent most of my time sitting at an empty table with a stray cat on my lap, so I appreciated his help.
Emma was already a bit drunk and conversation came easy. We talked about our travels, what we’d been up to in Railay so far, and a bit of life back home. She told me she had a rule of never being the most drunk person in a bar, but that was probably out the window.
After a couple games of Jenga she grabbed a plastic crocodile head toy off the bartop, and showed me that you push the teeth down and one of those pushes causes the mouth to snap shut on your hand. She quickly invented a version of truth or dare that she called “truth or crocodile.” The rules were simple: one person asks the other a question, and they can either answer honestly or push in a tooth and risk getting bitten.
Oh checked in on us from time to time and periodically brought us shots of Thai Redbull with Saeng Som rum. After a round of shots we got onto the subject of the Chicken Dance, and subsequently the fact that I didn’t know the dance or the song. Emma saw a teaching opportunity, and soon we were both on our feet singing “I don’t wanna be a chicken, I don’t wanna be a duck, I just wanna shake my butt,” complete with the butt wiggle and all.
Beka began strumming his guitar, and Oh decided that she and I should perform a song for the bar. I was hesitant, but Emma pointed out that “one of the best things about traveling is you’re never going to see these people again! Who cares if you look like an idiot, it’ll be such a fun memory!” Between the medicine, cocktails, and Redbull shots I was feeling pretty carefree and agreed to give it a try. After the chicken dance I couldn’t really embarrass myself more.
Beka kept a thin book of song lyrics next to him while he played. Flipping through the lyric book we found that we didn’t know most of the songs, except for REM’s “Losing My Religion”. We crowded around Beka and read the lyrics off of his songbook as he played the intro. He let us do all the singing, and we quickly realized we didn’t know the song as well as we thought we did, tripping over the lyrics trying to stay in rhythm with him, both of us out of key and stifling laughter. I pitied all the customers who had to tolerate us, but after powering through the whole song I turned to Emma with a proud “Ayy, we did it!”
Not long after our musical debut, Emma told me she should be getting back to her friend at a guesthouse up the footpath. We said our goodbyes and added each other on Snapchat, and after she left I continued talking to Oh as usual. I excused myself to go use the restroom – a separate open-air cement building behind the bar with a couple of damp stalls and a sink mounted to the outside wall that drained into the dirt below. Oh wandered over from the bar while I washed my hands. He gestured to his t-shirt and asked me if I knew what it meant, because other tourists had commented on it before. It was a gray graphic tee with a design and the name “Modest Mouse” printed on the front. I told him that Modest Mouse was an American band, and that I knew some of their music but they weren’t one of my favorites. I don’t think my explanation clarified anything for him.
It wasn’t particularly late, but I was exhausted from my day and would need to wake up early to catch the boat to Ao Nang, then a taxi to the Krabi airport. I told Oh I’d be heading back to my room soon, and he protested, “Stay for one more drink! If you have one more, I give you my shirt.”
I laughed, “Ok, ok. You don’t have to give me your shirt, but yeah I’ll have another drink I guess.”
“Yes! And I give the shirt, this is a deal!”
“Fine, if you want to, but you don’t have to,” I faked reluctance to be polite, but loved the idea of keeping his shirt as a souvenir. As he mixed a new cocktail for me, I took a few hundred baht out of my purse and jammed it into the neck of an empty liquor bottle that served as a tip jar. I knew he’d probably only charge me for one of my drinks and at that point I must have owed a fair amount of money.
Fresh drink in hand, I was introduced to another solo traveler and Oh set up a game of Jenga between us. She told me she’s from Israel, and we went through the routine getting-to-know-you questions. She was a bit more quiet and reserved than Emma, and I was tired, so we had a relatively subdued conversation. A few minutes into Jenga, Oh reappeared from the bar with a lit joint that he’d just rolled and handed it to us to share, then left us to our game.
I took a few hits and finished my final drink, then said goodbye to the girl from Israel and walked over to the bartop to say goodnight to Oh, his brother, and Beka. They each individually wished me well on the rest of my travels, and Oh raised his hand for a soft goodbye high-five, which was a new concept to me. Then, rather than saying goodbye, he confidently said “see you next time” with a warm smile. A powerful surge of loneliness crashed over me.
On the walk back to my bungalow I passed a much larger bar with a boxing ring in the center of its patio seating area. I’d never stopped to drink there because it seemed too hectic for me. Keeping with their flashy style, there was a fire juggler in front on the main path that evening.
Small and alone in the night, I passed between the fire juggler and the drop off at the edge of the path into the sea. The air was clear and warm, and waves of low tide lapped over wet sand to my right. I drew the sea air into my lungs, watching warm light dance in the darkness. I quietly observed drunk friends and lovers celebrating life to its fullest in the bustling bar, then heard their voices fade as I carried on to my room at the end of the beach. I would rather be part of soft waves and moonlight weaving through the cathedral-like arches of mangrove roots. There was holy calm held within their wild structure, and I longed to be soothed.
As I climbed the many steps through the cliffside gardens up to my bungalow I kept thinking about what Oh said – “see you next time.” I found comfort in its lack of finality. Letting go of things wasn’t a skill I’d ever learned.
I stepped into my bamboo-walled room, turned on the light, and shut the door behind me. A realization hit me: I was promised a shirt. Damp with sweat, I debated turning around and returning to JamRock.
I felt the pang of two imminent separations – leaving Railay and my girlfriend at home.
I still had some control over my parting with Oh, so I made up my mind to remind him of the shirt I was owed. My own harshest critic, I saw myself as a desperate beggar grasping for a tangible memory as I headed back down the stairs and toward the bar. I found Oh right where I’d left him. I grinned stupidly, “You told me that if I stayed for another drink, you’d give me your shirt.” He smiled and took a moment to think it over.
“Yes, tomorrow morning I can give my shirt. Not tonight. What time do you leave?”
“I have to head out really early to catch my flight, my boat leaves at six-thirty.”
“Ok, you get my shirt in the morning.”
“No no, you don’t have to get up early for that, it’s really ok, you can keep it,” I told him, feeling heartbroken as I let the opportunity go, but knowing it would be unfair to expect him to go out of his way. I felt bashful having returned to demand his clothing.
He firmly assured me that I would get his shirt in the morning before I left, and that I didn’t need to worry about it. We parted ways again, but that time I returned to my room feeling slightly less helpless against the passage of time. I would check the bar as I walked past it to the dock the next day, and maybe I’d find a shirt with a note attached waiting for me on the bartop. The story didn’t need to end just yet.
I woke up early, brushed my teeth, and finished packing up my suitcase. Having been sick the whole time in Railay and battling the heat and ants in my room, I was ready to move on to a guest house in a big city with air conditioning. That being said, I knew that the past few days would linger in the forefront of my memory long after I left. I’d miss the limestone cliffs with lush foliage creeping on every livable surface, the torrential downpours in the late hours of each night, and the longtail boats bobbing along the shore. At the aching heart of that memory would be Oh in his tiny bar by the mangroves.
I rolled my suitcase noisily along the paved path by the water towards the dock, and paused at JamRock. I quickly scanned the bartop for anything left for me, and leaned over to peek behind the bar – nothing. I noticed a man sleeping under a blanket on the bench at the back of the bar, facing away from me. I couldn’t tell with certainty whether it was Oh, so I hesitated while I considered whether or not I should approach him. If it wasn’t Oh, I didn’t want to wake up a stranger who passed out at the bar last night. If it was Oh he’d probably be exhausted from working all night and it still felt rude to wake him. Maybe he’d intended to be up to meet me but just needed rest. I had to make a choice quickly or risk missing my boat – and subsequently my flight to Chiang Mai. Frustrated at my own indecision, I told myself the kindest thing to do would be not to disturb the sleeping man, whether it was Oh or not. I resumed a brisk walk to catch my boat.
There was a small crowd of people waiting near the floating dock, and I tried to enjoy my last few minutes by the sea in the soft warmth of the rising sun. The boat hadn’t arrived yet, it’d probably be another ten minutes or so before it docked and we’d be able to board. As I waited I felt regret spreading from my chest into my limbs like a chill. If I left my suitcase behind I might have had time to go back to the bar, but there’d be no telling whether my belongings would still be there when I got back. If I tried to lug it along with me that would slow me down and I’d risk missing the boat.
So I just stood there, glancing occasionally back in the direction of the bar and fighting a surge of self loathing for my poor choice.
The boat arrived and I boarded with the group, taking a seat on one of the wood plank benches along the side near the front, facing the stern. We pushed away from the dock and the engine kicked on to a higher RPM as we distanced ourselves from the shore, clipping over short waves as we went. The tiny buildings of Railay and its surrounding cliffs faded off to my right. I fought back tears as swells of regret and appreciation pummeled me. I pulled my eyes off the receding sight of Railay and looked towards the sky. To the South over the stern, a rainbow glistened in wispy morning clouds. Everybody else was looking ahead, so only I saw it. I considered turning to the stranger next to me and pointing it out, but couldn’t bring myself to share the moment.
I kept my eyes fixed on the sky behind us, and kept it for myself. I felt certain that it was Oh sleeping on the bench at JamRock – who else would it have been? I didn’t need the shirt to remember him, I only wanted the comfort of something to hold, something more than just a memory to keep me company.
No matter how long I labor over a memory, it won’t be resurrected – that’s why every goodbye is shrouded in fear. Despite my best efforts I’ll cling to something because I’m incapable of willing myself to let it go, and unwilling to relegate it to memory. All moments must dwell in purgatory while I exhaust myself trying to breathe life back into them.
I did my best to set aside that entangled mass of emotion. I’d keep it safely tucked away and check in on it from time to time just to make sure it was still there – it would be my souvenir from Railay. I hoped Oh slept well. I’d see him next time.
Lois Rustenholtz is a queer woman in her mid-twenties working to balance a full-time job as a mechanic with her passions for travel and writing.