The Birthday I Spent In The Back Of A Police Truck In Thailand

Ah, Koh Phayam. A perfect place to spend my birthday. This quite little island is the vacation/getaway spot for natives, expats, and tourists in the middle of Thailand, and just two hours away from Ranong by boat. If you know when the boat is leaving, that is. 

Ours adventure started at 9:20 Wednesday morning -- my birthday -- as we were dropped off at the dock, leaving a good 10 minutes before the ferry's scheduled departure. We'd checked the departure time with the travel agent the night before, and were plenty of people milling about. So we bid our driver adieu and approached the ferry ticket agent with cash in hand. You can imagine our confusion when he informed us that the boat wouldn't be leaving until 2:00pm that afternoon, some five and a half hours later. And it was already hot. Hell, this is Thailand. It's always hot.

"No, we want the 9:30 boat", I explained with slower and louder speech. Because that always helps.

"2:00," he insisted, clearly in full command of at least two language. Regardless of speed or volume.

"What about the 9:30 boat that leaves in 10 minutes?" I offered, pointing at the sign directly over his head that showed two departure times -- 9:30 and 2:00.

"It's already left. Next boat at 2:00."

In the tropics, you get used to things running a little late. But leaving early? Unheard of. But we didn't have much recourse, as there was little chance of the ferry turning around to get us, and our ride was no longer in sight, having been swallowed up by the hustle and bustle of a busy port. Resigned to our fate, we decided to do what we do best: wander around and see what interesting opportunities would present themselves to us.

But let me set the stage. If you're thinking busy port-of-call with accommodations, shops, and activities for passengers waiting on their ferry -- think again. Think working commercial docks, heavy on industry, shipping, and warehousing. Then pretend the calendar says 1900. And it's at low tide, with a veritable cornucopia of odors and scurrying things you might expect in a developing nation. Now picture two tragically European-looking people decked out in daypacks, seemingly oblivious that they had wandered afar from the one place it was safe to look like a tourist.

We must have looked out of place to the the police officers that stopped us in the middle of the street, not five minutes into our ill-fated walkabout. And by "police officers" I mean sidearm-toting members of the Royal Thai Police. Less Barney Fife. More military police.

"Get in the back of the truck," one officer said. When the military police officer asks nicely, you respond in kind. We were dangerously close to an international, incident, and wanted to stay well away from the line. That, and they had asked us to get in the back of the truck, rather than binding us with zip-ties and tossing us in the back of the truck. So get in the back of the truck we did.

The officers drove us a few blocks away to another dock. (News flash: there's more than one passenger ferry dock in town. Who knew?) Like that first dock, this one also seemed to be missing a boat, But there was a ticket counter, and the officers made it clear we needed to buy tickets. Now. They had guns. We had no set plan. So we bought the tickets. But to where? And when? We asked the nice lady who'd recently relieved us of ฿400, since she was the only one around who didn't seem flustered that two cops just dropped off two clearly-not-Thai people at her place of business.

"Leave at 10:00," she let us know. It was great to hear we'd not be waiting until 2:00. But I did mention the whole "no boat" thing, right? By now it was 9:45, and I was adding up the minutes a boat might need to not only show up, but also dock, unload its cargo or passengers, and doing whatever else needed to be done to make the turnaround to the island. My mental math was interrupted, however.

"Get in the back of the truck." It was one of the friendly (?) officers again, already with the tailgate down and looking a little hurried. If we've learned one thing in the week or so we've been here, it's that Thai people never look hurried. Back in the truck we go, setting off on a speedy-but-meandering journey, deeper and deeper into the docks of Ranong. We took side streets that resembled little more than alleyways and traversed puddles and potholes worthy of proper names. And all under the watchful gaze -- or baleful stare -- of the citizens of Ranong, wondering just what kind of trouble two Americans could have gotten themselves a good two hours before noon. On a Wednesday.

Ultimately, the truck stopped and we were assisted out of the bed to what I could only assume was the super top secret Royal Thai Police lair ... Where a ferry boat and dozen or so passengers waited.

We would not be going to jail after all, it seemed. As one officer let us out of the bed of the truck, the other approached the ferry manager, explaining our late arrival. She nodded, took the tickets we'd purchased earlier, and helped us aboard. The officers milled around with the other passengers, nodding in our direction more than once. As they passed out safety devices to the passengers. -- yes, the two officers from the Royal Thai Police issued a life vest to each and every passenger on a private ferry -- they shared a kind laugh, likely recounting the story of the two bumbling Americans who though the docks were and acceptable place to wander around for five hours. You know... to kill time.

Safely swaddled (?) in our life preservers, we reflected on our good fortune. Spending 15 minutes in a slightly uncomfortable position with the Royal Thai Police gave us a much better story to tell than the five miserable hours we'd have spent crawling the docks of Ranong. And what a great birthday present to me!

And yes, Koh Phayam was lovely. But that's a story for another day. Tomorrow, perhaps?