The Yin and Yang of Koh Pha Ngan (Or, Yes Virginia, There Really Are People Who Suck)

For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

We often share stories of ordinary people who humble us by showing resilience and kindness in the face of challenges. In doing so, we highlight the positive — so much so that you might be thinking: “Do these guys only run into good people on their travels? Is the world really like that? Are all people around the world really that good?

Not always. Sometimes you meet people who grind you to the edge.

And then, you must find your way back.

In the Lion’s Den

From the moment we met the woman running our guest house at Haad Yao beach on Koh Pha Ngan island in Thailand, we felt like an inconvenience. Her uncle owned the resort and it seemed as though whenever her office had customers in it, her face would find itself caught in a tug-of-war between anger and disgust.

When I encounter someone who takes to life with such a negative tack, I can’t help but think: “Maybe she’s had a rough day or perhaps even a rough life.” Or in this case, “Maybe she just can’t bear the weight of her privilege, her family’s success, her good fortune.”

Towards the end of our stay, the internet went out. After six hours and exhausting all possibilities that it might be due to something we had done, I decided to pay a visit to the office. Maybe she could help.

“The internet doesn’t seem to be working,” I tried. Uncertainty is diplomatic, right?

“It works for everyone else. You the problem.”

The conversation continued like this for the next ten minutes, until I decided that even the world’s highest bandwidth connection wouldn’t be worth a shower of excuses and abuse.

Audrey’s Turn

I often joke that Audrey is the one we send out to meet and greet people. If you’ve ever met her, maybe you’ll understand the sentiment. Regardless of where I stand on the affability continuum, she’s easily a few clicks further in the direction of the smiley face.

The next morning, the internet was still down. “I’m not sure whose day it is today, but I know it’s your turn to deal with this.” Maybe Audrey could be today’s magic dust.

We walked into the office. I hovered by the door.

“Hello,” Audrey tried to break the ice while petting the dog.

I have to tell you there is no misery like that drawn on the woman’s face.

“The internet is not working today. Is it possible to call someone to check on it?” Audrey asked.

“Sometimes it doesn’t work. You leave Tuesday. It won’t work before then.”

Then a deluge of excuses: “My brother is on the other side of the island. He was at the restaurant until 4 AM. Auntie is at the temple.”

“Internet is not included. You get for free. You Americans. You come here because it’s cheap. You should go back home.”

She was like one of those automated tennis ball machines.

I tried to help: “We don’t mean disrespect. We just asked about the internet. And now you are yelling at us. I don’t understand.”

Audrey made one last attempt to extract something productive from the conversation: “Can we have the password for the other network?”

“You can use it there,” she pointed to the next room.

Then she yelled at Audrey, “Get out. I don’t want to see your face.”

Stepping Back and Reflecting

We emerged feeling a little agitated. Puzzled, too.

Justifications and rationalizations circulated between us about how something as insignificant as internet access could have precipitated such anger.

There’s the situational: this is a tourist area and she probably has to deal with her share of tourists – not all of them pleasant and respectful — day in and day out.

The linguistic: she doesn’t possess the range of English vocabulary to explain herself fully; worse yet, we don’t speak her language.

And finally, the cultural: confrontation in Asian cultures is a no-no, saving face is the goal.

But then I stopped.

Sure, all those things might be valid. But they don’t excuse how she behaved. We’ve known countless interactions saddled with similar challenges that never yielded disrespect or venom. In fact, it’s heartening how pleasant most of our interactions are on the road.

And to think, this was something as insignificant as a problematic internet connection. Heaven forbid it had been something serious.

When we encounter someone like this, our approach: let it roll off our backs so as to not let the anger seep in and then extricate ourselves from the situation as quickly as possible.

Then we move on.

The Flip Side: Kindness Without an Angle

Later that day, we took a stroll up the street to our favorite little restaurant, a makeshift kitchen in a thatch hut with a few tables outside. Not only was it the best Thai food around, but the woman who served it up: sweetness incarnate. Her kindness was like sunshine, so broad you sometimes wondered what you’d done to deserve it.

And to the skeptical, her kindness was not just because she runs a restaurant and wants our money. We’ve been on the road long enough to recognize perfunctory and strategic kindness, the sort that spills out as a method of doing business.

Nope. Hers was a kindness without an angle.

She emerged from the kitchen, apron on, and gave us a big smile and a warm “Hello!!”

Damn, I wanted to give her a big hug. The warmth of her greeting brought us home for the moment — no matter how far away from home we might have been.

Dan with Tao, the Cook at our Favorite Place at Haad Yao - Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand
Dan with Tao from Haad Yao, a warm greeting.

We sat together, enjoyed lunch and chatted about her nephew who was about to become a monk in a ceremony the following day.

We savored that moment, and in that moment, we relished the simplicity of being with kind people.

And it’s for them, I’d like to believe, the world turns.

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Comments

  1. says

    Well done on not letting the woman get you down, I know how hard that is. When you are travelling you are constantly relying on other people for accommodation, food, internet access etc and it can be really upsetting when someone treats you that way. Glad you found someone at the opposite end of the scale though – a friendly welcome can make all the difference.

  2. says

    I believe that our impression of a city or town depends largely upon the people we meet and interact with there. It is amazing how moments of kindness can make our faces light up for years when we speak about a particular place. On the flip side, moments of ugliness can make us shake our heads and launch into stories that begin, “Remember when that man/woman . . . . “ You captured beautifully the “excuses” that run through my own head when I encounter a crusty soul while traveling.

    As always, I appreciate your humor, your positive perspective, and your ability to remember the smiles that you shared with people during your journeys.

  3. says

    The way she treated you was so harsh as to be almost funny. Almost, because I know how honestly sweet and unrude you were to her about the internet, and almost because she has to wake up with that kind of frustration and anger every day. Imagine that! ick.

    Glad you had a good meal with a kind soul who took care of you inside and out. Hope you have a lovely holiday with your peeps.

  4. says

    I often find that I have to just let these situations go otherwise they just eat at you and in the end you are the only one who loses.

    I say that after harbouring anger for many people who were rude to me like that, it got me no where.

  5. says

    Wow- you guys held restraint! I would have been like you, just shaking my head in disbelief that someone was yelling over a simple request and question! Serious props for not letting it get to you… Good to hear you met someone who was nice and positive and didn’t view the world in such a negative gross way!

  6. says

    wow! so impressed with how you handled that situation! when met with that level of unmerited “venom” as you so aptly put it, it’s SO hard not to retaliate! i try to remember 2 things in those moments. 1. if i strongly dislike this person’s behavior, why on earth would i emulate it? 2. as i learned from (coincidently!) some friends in thailand, losing your temper is the ultimate failure. i love your quote at the start of this post and now that’ll be #3 for me when met with these situations. why let someone who’s unhappy, steal a moment of your happiness, right? glad you found someone so soon after that cheered you. love this post :)

  7. says

    That reminds me of a hotel owner who insisted that he wouldn’t help me connect to the internet until I turned my AirPort off, as he was convinced that I must have it off to connect to the wireless router.

    Sometimes, there are no excuses for people. Some people just suck. Luckily, there aren’t too many people like that and that there are others to balance out that negativity.

  8. says

    its really difficult to deal with difficult people :( sometimes i couldnt even ignore their angst… but you’re right… just let it roll of f your back and not let it affect the whole day…

  9. says

    “Her kindness was like sunshine, so broad you sometimes wondered what you’d done to deserve it.”

    I am so pleased you were able to experience this kind of grace after your unpleasant interactions earlier. Yesterday, I was walking to my car in the parking lot of a store when I witnessed the ugliness of an encounter when neither of the people involved could let it go. The situation was basically trivial–someone was backing out of a parking space, someone was walking behind the car. The car stopped; the pedestrian was not harmed. They then spent 5 minutes shouting increasingly vile epithets at one another.

    That kind of ugliness can leave a stain on you, even if you’re not involved in the incident. I spent a minute or two in my car just breathing quietly and reminding myself that there are alternatives.

    I don’t often stop to comment, but know that I read your blog, always.

    Best for the New Year,
    Lisa

  10. Dee says

    Good for you guys!! Glad to hear someone wasn’t nice. Reminds me of
    the time the clerk wouldn’t give me the key to the restroom in the
    gas station near Allentown!! I fooled her — put a quarter in and held the door open for the next person who held it open for the one after that!!

  11. says

    The Internet on Koh Phan Gan definitely comes and goes.

    At our place, it would basically stop any time there was significant rain.

    Very annoying, but something I learned to live with in the end :)

  12. says

    I try to do the same thing you do by thinking of reasons for people’s behavior, although I would definitely not say I’m anywhere near as positive as you guys are. I find I have to do it for my sanity–If I can see things from their perspective, I won’t be as angry, and that’s helpful for me. Sometimes, though, to echo what you said, I find there are sometimes reasons, but not excuses. She might have had all the reasons in the world to be angry, but it wasn’t an excuse for her behavior.

  13. says

    We just never know what makes people tick the way they do. I’ve encountered both extremes in so many ways and isolating the behavior from the person has always worked for me.

    People like the superkind lady are who keep the balance going. I once had a rude lady chase me out of her store and told me to look in from the window because I was black. The other customers were shocked and when I left, one of them chased after me to apologize on behalf of the rude shopkeeper.

    Again, balancing it all out.

  14. says

    A very happy holidays to you all.

    @Erin: I hear you. But I’ll go one further: it can be upsetting when someone treats you that way, regardless of the circumstance. In the end, the friendly welcome makes the difference.

    @Kathy: Agreed. The people make all the difference. Actually, for me, they’ve become the main event of our travel experiences.

    “Crusty souls” — I like that.

    @Eileen: Her treatment of us (and others) was so extreme it was almost absurd. It might have even been mental.

    Imaging her waking up does not unfortunately help me any.

    Inside and out. Wow, that recurring theme is so constantly relevant as to almost frighten me.

    Thanks for the holiday wishes.

    @Ayngelina: Absolutely. No reason to give your energy away.

    @Jade: We were in disbelief. But these things happen. The upside: there’s usually someone around the corner to help put things in perspective.

    @Lorna: It is difficult not to retaliate, but retaliation almost never goes anywhere useful.

    Terrific point: Why emulate someone’s awful behavior? That’s an instructive way to think about situations like this.

    @Natalie: True, but I doubt she ever will — unless something even easier and more lucrative comes along.

    @Kyle: The hotel owner sounds a bit, um, confused.

    Agreed: by a wide margin, there are more people inclined to the good than to the ill.

    @flip: Yep. There’s always going to be angst. Over that, we have no control. But our reaction to it we control entirely.

    @Lisa: It’s great to hear from you.

    With situations like you describe, it becomes not about the issue at hand, but about the anger. And that’s when it really begins to feel awful, and unnecessary. And, as you suggested, it leaves a stain. Well said.

    I’ll keep in mind to breathe quietly. Excellent advice.

    All the best to you in 2011.

    @Dee: I had you in mind when writing this piece, by the way.

    And good for you :) Nothing better than a free pee.

    @Jason: We understood going in that the internet could be spotty and dealt with that during the first couple weeks of our stay, no problem.

    I think the point of the piece was that the internet connection issue was incidental. It was about the woman’s approach, the anger. It could well have been about anything.

    @Matt: I wouldn’t even expect this at the Full Moon Party. After all, isn’t the idea to have fun?

    @Megan: To take a walk in the other person’s shoes definitely helps to gain some perspective. But sometimes, the shoes just don’t fit.

    @Lola: Isolating or depersonalizing is a good approach.

    I have no interest in focusing or harping on the fact that people can be unkind. But I think it’s important to shed light on it from time to time because it’s a reality.

    What the shopkeeper said to you is beyond terrible, but that someone was appalled — and so much so that he ran to apologize to you for someone else’s behavior — aids in processing the situation.

  15. says

    Some people just don’t understand the concept of a service business. She may or may not have been able to get the internet working, but she could definitely had it checked.

    Best,

    Chuck

  16. says

    @Chuck: Absolutely. The result wasn’t the issue. Internet problems on the island are to be expected. It was all about the attitude with which she approached the situation (and all situations, in fact).

  17. janie says

    Do you still recommend Seaboard Bungalows on Koh Pha Ngan (Thailand) and is this the place referred to in your article yin-yang people-who-suck?? Since that was 2010, maybe she’s gone by now…..

  18. says

    @janie: This episode did not happen at Seaboard. It happened down Haad Yao beach at another set of apartments. I’m not sure if the woman is still there or not, but I hope wherever she is, she’s somehow found some more happiness in her life.

  19. janie says

    Thanks for the clarification so I can still consider Seaboard. My family is coming in July and we can only visit the beaches for a few days….Some sources say Railay and Krabi is more beautiful, etc. than Phuket, etc. If you go back, where will you go?

  20. says

    @janie: Our pleasure. Depending on your situation and your willingness to be flexible, you might be best served by booking your first night or two, then walking around to see if there’s a property that’s even better. That’s usually the way we travel in Thailand.

    Krabi is great, but it’s more a town than a beach/resort sort of place. Our favorite on the Andaman side of Thailand is probably Koh Lanta. Pretty laid back. Having said that, Railay is beautiful too, probably just busier and more developed.

  21. says

    @Lauren: We’d so often been asked “Is everyone you meet as great as you say they are?” Yes, for the most part. But this story was a tiny glimpse into the other side. The trick: not to get wound up. Easier said than done sometimes.

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