It was low season when I went to Koh Lanta in Thailand’s southern Krabi province. Some of the islands were closed. The usual four-island hop was reduced to just one: Koh Ngai. I had no complaints. I was there for a hotel review and the hotel, fearing that I had nothing to do, booked the tour for me.
By virtue of my grandfather’s surname, which I inherited, I was grouped with the mainland Chinese during the pick-up from the hotel. It was my first time on a songthaew, the pick-up truck with seats at the back, which was the main form of shared transport on the island. The driver got a metal stool and placed it on the ground for me to use to climb up the back of the songthaew. He then passed around a clipboard for me and the other passengers to sign and fill in with our details. Travel insurance, he said.
My companions were two couples and a young family with a daughter who must’ve been around 3 years old. They were all from large cities and could communicate in English.
“Where are you from?” the mother asked me.
“Philippines,” I replied.
“There are beautiful beaches in Philippines. Why are you here?”
“This is for work.” I smiled. I was happy that they knew about our islands. And I hoped it wasn’t only because China was building bases on contested territory.
We alighted at the island’s old town, at a pier that stretched far over the water. It was more like a single-lane road that ended in a covered shed where the longtail boats were parked. Our driver, realising that I didn’t speak Chinese, pointed me to the other groups.
Apparently there were only two: you were either with the Chinese or with everyone else. And so I joined everyone else: the ethnic Indian mom and her two grown-up children with Australian accents, the two Filipinas who were English teachers in Thailand, the man from Singapore whose race I couldn’t determine, the elderly British couple, the Indonesian Chinese mother and daughter, and the European couple whose citizenship and relationship to each other were unclear.
Rainclouds were threatening to ruin our day out and we could see the rain blurring our view of the horizon, but we managed to avoid rain, settling instead for a light drizzle.
After a few rounds of snorkelling, two beaches and a simple lunch, we headed back to the pier. I had to wait a little longer for the Chinese boats to return before I could go back on the same songthaew that had fetched me earlier.
After I alighted from the songthaew, the mother who had talked to me earlier bid me goodbye. I thought it was nice of her to do so. I wished her and her family a pleasant stay.
Give it a few more years and there probably won’t be a distinction anymore between the Chinese and everyone else. Or maybe not. But they are world travellers, too, and for all the flak they get, there are also those among them who know that elsewhere isn’t the same as home.