Lost in Thailand

Ditch the tourist stuff.

GETTING LOST IN THAILAND was the best thing I did there. The second best was eating the food at the night market — fried noodles, mango smoothies, coconut flakes mixed with mochi in green banana leaves stapled into the shape of a little bowl. But wandering through the backcountry hills of Koh Samui tested me in a new way. Who knew what kinds of people we would meet? Where our dry and pitted path would lead? Whose kindness we would have to invariably depend on? I wanted, more than anything on this trip, an authentic connection with Thai culture, with Thai people. I wanted to be part of a story that you couldn’t buy in a tourist package. Hiking in foreign lands was a surefire spark to some spontaneous combustion of a million possibilities for adventure, whatever it would be. This would be my souvenir.

WHEN WE ORIGINALLY started hiking, Karman and I thought we were prepared. We had a map, plenty of water, and an almighty mosquito repellent. The map was a bit shoddy, sure. We had grabbed it from the hotel lobby after our boat tour to Koh Tai got canceled and we needed a plan B. There! Karman had said, pointing to a dot. We would go there, to the place that had been recommended by fellow tourists online. We would just have to follow some thin squiggly lines from Bophut Beach to Route 4 in Maenam, ascend 1,000 feet to a viewpoint at the peak of the hill and then trek this way, that way, and another way switchbacking several crossroads to the magic secret garden.

Getting to the first viewpoint was easy. We walked in the hot humidity past a Buddhist monastery and homes guarded by 5-foot-high pedestaled shrines up to the pinnacle, wheezing a bit from the climb. We felt like badass queens, conquering the hike on our own two feet when other tourists drove four-by-four trucks. A group of tourists had just roared away on their ATVs, leaving behind heaps of plates on the tables and lychee shells picked clean. I stumbled over to a row of canopied tables while Karman bought an ice-cold bottle of water. The view was gorgeous. Tropical forests silhouetted by skinny palm trees sloped down to a white sandy rim that was being licked by calm, turquoise waters.

We pushed on. A Frenchman who looked to be in his 60s had pointed in the direction we should be heading, nodding as we jabbed at our map. “Merci beaucoup!” I burst out in my excitement. “Ah, you speak French?” he called back. I laughed and shook my head, no, not really. We hastened the pace. About 20 minutes later, two safari trucks wobbled around the corner, bouncing up and down over the fissures and hardened bumps in the road. Groups of foreigners who looked like they were in college or just fresh out of college swayed up and down on a platform built on top of the vehicle, laughing into view. They sounded like Americans, and a bit drunk. One of the trucks slowed down. The driver offered us a ride, but we politely shook our head no thanks, we would hoof it from here. “Wow, you’re brave!” one of the girls yelled. I threw up the peace sign and the boys whooped as they bounced away up the hill. We were again alone.

KARMAN AND I walked for another hour mostly in silence, the air growing thicker, the heat intensifying. I had folded and unfolded the map so many times the creases were starting to tear. Few signs marked the backroads, so I counted the number of forks in the road on the map that we had to pass before making a turn and hoped they corresponded faithfully to reality. I traced and retraced the lines on the map, rotating between confidence and doubt. We hadn’t passed a single person so far. Karman cheerily pressed forward, more hopeful than me. We made a few wrong turns that looped into a dead-end or that winded around shabby homes with muddy yards. Our path widened and flattened and was sometimes paved in two parallel columns for tire marks, other times just pebbly dirt, and soon I couldn’t scratch this itchy feeling that began to fester.

When we rounded a bend to a wide main road, the first sign in English appeared. 360 degree viewpoint, it said. It wasn’t on the map, but it was civilization. We trudged onto the grounds, picnic tables on our right and an open kitchen up ahead, feeling like trespassers until we crept forward and saw a slim teenage girl frying meat in a small pool of oil. She looked up. A large poker-faced woman came out from behind. We pulled out our crinkled map. Where are we? Karman and I poked our fingers at the garden that we had circled. Are we close to here? Gar-den? Se-cret Gar-den? The large woman looked at us. This is 360 viewpoint. We know, we said, exasperated. But, how far is the garden? The large woman didn’t answer, but dialed a number on her flip phone. Karman spoke in English to some guy, then handed the phone back to the lady. She nodded, spoke Thai, nodded some more, like there was a communication breakthrough. She snapped her phone shut. You’re at 360 viewpoint. I groaned.

The large lady walked through a side door. When she returned, a stocky guy with a round belly trailed in. He tried to strike us a deal. For 200 baht a ride, he could shuttle each of us, one at a time, to the garden, 15 minutes away on his motorbike. I looked at Karman. No way we were getting separated in the backcountry of Thailand. Neither of us had cell service, we didn’t have flashlights, and the sun was starting to set. I imagined the worst. I thanked the guy, stretched my ankles and steeled myself for a pitiful walk back the way we came. It turned out, thanks to this guy’s explanation, that we were way, way off course, and we would have to retrace our path back along several switchbacks. I was about ready to ditch the stupid garden and just make a beeline for the ocean, where I knew there would be a town. But then another guy came out. He was more athletic, his eyes of a narrower look. He didn’t say much. New deal. They would each take a girl on a motorbike to the garden. I looked at Karman again, the answer already in my eyes. Should we do it?

FIVE MINUTES LATER, I was soaring on a Kawasaki. I wasn’t wearing a helmet but my rider, the large guy with kind eyes, was twice the width of me. I felt safe even as we tipped over hills and dipped into the rain-eroded grooves of the road, each pitch forward a terrifying test of his skill. I smushed my tote bag under my armpit, worried that the next big bump would fling all my belongings — ID, all the cash I had, work iPhone, water — into the nether land. I loosely gripped his waist and peeked around his frame. We were surging in a tunnel of wind up steep inclines and lurching over rocks and whizzing around corners past durian tree groves darkened in the dusk. My driver turned his head as he felt my hand press into his back. He laughed. I was taking video from an iPhone balanced in one hand.

The guys didn’t tell us about one surprise. Karman and her rider suddenly veered to the left while we cut a long curve up to a small clearing with a shop selling convenience goods, a museum and one of the island’s best vantage points. The guys waited by their bikes, nodded us off in the direction of the golden statue. We stuffed a donation into the postbox, slipped off our sneakers, slid forward on the tiles in our socks. We were the only ones there. The brightness of the afternoon sun deepened the shadow of the idol that stretched two stories high, and just beyond the railing of the rectangular platform that jutted out from the forest like a landing strip into the sky, lay Thailand like an entire kingdom below our feet.

ANOTHER BUMPY RIDE later, we found it. The magic secret garden. We didn’t expect the guys to stay after we paid them but they insisted on taking us back to our hotel. They popped open beers as we paid for our tickets to a sleepy lady in a small booth. We walked down stone steps into a lair of mossy stone animals and stone people and abandoned homes that looked like they came from an Indiana Jones movie set. I crossed the stream that cut through the garden, hopping from stone turtle to stone turtle. Vines thick as firehoses roped around tree trunks and hung in “U” shapes like natural swings. To my left, rays of sun blurred my glance at rows of stone people looking like garden guardians.

On the long ride back to Bophut Beach, I learned his name. I yelled mine into his right ear. Geh, my driver, was from Bangkok, but had recently moved to Koh Samui. Why, he didn’t say, but I assumed it was for a job or for family. I asked him if he liked Koh Samui better than Bangkok, but he shook his head. He didn’t know the English. I felt embarrassed I didn’t know any Thai. “Where are you from?” he asked. I paused. I’ve lived in so many different places since I’ve left my parents’ home, where exactly is my home? I settled on one he’d know. “Hong Kong.” “Ahh, Hong Kong,” he said, as we burst from a thicket of trees onto a main road, the sky morphing blue to purple. We braked at a red light, then jerked forward into a race against traffic, swerving around cars and other impatient motorbikes on long stretches of boulevard framed by open-air markets, street food stands, western restaurants, motorbike repair shops and laundromats. We charged 40 miles an hour west toward the setting sun with the wind in my mouth, the throttle of the engine beneath me and the warmth of his back in front me, experiencing his world for the first time — look! there goes his family’s home — and feeling like nothing could stop us.

When we pulled into the parking lot of our hotel Samui Palm Beach Resort and I swung my sore thighs off the motorbike, I wondered if we should invite the guys for drinks. They lingered, we laughed and obliged a few selfies with them. I shyly handed over several hundred Thai bills as a tip.

“No, no,” Geh said, shaking his head.

He threw up his hands and refused the money, his round face crinkling into a smile.

“Welcome to Thailand.”