I had no plans to visit Koh Samui, and after three days on the island, I knew exactly why I had been avoiding it like the plague. However, this wasn’t a sightseeing trip or a bit of beach time – it was more of a mercy dash for a stricken friend.
You may remember Dirk, the German guy from my tour around Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. He of the Vietnamese mafia fame, who got chased on motorbikes after having his camera stolen and paying a wedge of cash to get it back. He who then had said camera knocked clean out of his hand and into the tubing river in Laos – and then having to pay another wedge of cash for divers to retrieve it. He who then lost his treasured hat to some driver who gave it to a street kid in Luang Prabang.
Yep, you get the picture. Poor Dirk hadn’t had a great deal of luck during his few weeks in southeast Asia. We loved him for it on the tour though, and he was a great guy to travel around with.
Unfortunately, just before Christmas, and in the middle of his Padi diving course in Koh Tao, he broke his leg. Twice.
He’d been stuck in hospital on Koh Samui ever since, and while a few others from the tour had visited, I was now the only one left in this part of the world from the tour, as everyone else had either moved on to Australia or gone home. Well, I was the only one who still had the use of both legs…
With Samui on the horizon from the beach at Koh Phangan, I felt it was my duty to go and see him and try to lift his spirits a little.
I caught an afternoon sailing from Haad Rin to the island, the largest of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, and after the storms of recent days, there was a huge swell in the sea.
We bobbed our way for an hour across the crystal clear turquoise blue water, which offered us some stunning views or the immaculate beaches on both islands, before heading to Chaweng Beach, quite near the Bangkok Hospital on Samui. And yes, having a hospital with another city name is incredibly confusing.
After the excesses of New Year, I’d set aside this week as a ‘cheap week’, skimping on a few areas like decent accommodation, food, drinks – you know, the stuff you normally take for granted – but with depleting funds, it’s a necessary step as a backpacker.
With many places full, the rooms I could find were starting at about 800 Baht a night. I feared the worst. It works out to be £16 a night, well out of my price range. Its one of the downsides of travelling alone, that everything is done on a room rate here, rather than by person. My luck changed a little when a guy approached me in the street for Ali Baba’s restaurant. There were rooms available, so I agreed to check them out.
Hmmm. It was fan cooled, so pretty stuffy. The sheets had stains and fag burns on them. The mosquito covering over the window was pointless, as there were some weird building tiles that let what little air there was into the room – as well as every insect known to the Thai islands. The toilet was a non-flush bucket version, the water out of the taps was brown, the electrics looked shocking (pun intended)…but I got it down to 350 Baht a night.
“I’ll take it,” I said, taking a deep breath and telling myself I won’t be in it much.
If anything, it meant I could get my heavy bags off my back.
I walked out onto the street.
“Sexxy masssaaaaaaage,” said a gaggle of girls in skimpy skirts near the doorway.
Head down. Walk on.
The beach wasn’t anything spectacular, despite what the Lonely Planet described as ‘one of the best on the island’. It was marred with rubbish, washed up weed and too many tattoed skin-headed blokes getting beered up for two weeks.
Above all, there was a perculiar atmosphere, one of tourists, holidaymakers, families and backpackers all trying to mix together. Nobody seemed to want to talk or get to know one another. Most were in couples or groups. I knew I wasn’t going to like it here.
However, I wasn’t here for ‘me’ I was here for Dirk, and that night, unannounced, I made my way to the hospital he’s spent just over two weeks in. It was only a couple of miles away, but taxis wanted a standard 300 Baht for the trip – £6 for a journey that would cost pennies in Bangkok.
In the end I found a motorbike taxi for 80 Baht and made my way to the particularly plush hotel, sorry, hospital that Dirk was being cared for in. I found my way to his ward, and asked the nurse if he was awake. She looked at the cctv monitor and nodded, pointing towards his door. I knocked.
“Jaaaa, come,” came a familiar voice.
I walked in, Dirk looked around and then cheered at the top of his voice. A huge smile lit up his face and he grabbed me for a manly hug. I could see he was so pleased to see a familiar face.
Then I looked at his leg – out stretched and covered in bandages and dressings where a series of metal pins and plates have been inserted during surgery.
“Its getting better – now I can move my toes a little,” he said.
I was gutted for him. Dirk was always one of the ‘cwazy’ ones in the group (as he says) giving us all a laugh, daring to be different, and nobody deserves to spend Christmas or New Year in hospital alone, thousands of miles away from family and friends back home, knowing that your dream trip around the world was at an end.
For the first time, Dirk told me exactly how he got such a terrible injury. Its still subject of an insurance claim, but what I can say is that it happened on a beach. After the first break was done to his shin bone, he tried to stand up and then broke the fibula, the calf bone behind it.
“I looked down and my foot and lower leg was at right angles to the rest of my leg,” he said.
“The pain..oh the pain,” he grimaced, covering his head as he relived the moment.
It was one of those horror breaks that you see footballers, boxers and other sportsmen do every now and again, usually with a story about how it ended a career. For Dirk, it was the start of an agonising 20 hours before he got to a specialist hospital. At first there was no pain relief given until insurance formalities had been completed. His leg was manipulated into the right sort of position, and then strapped onto a wooden plank to give it support.
At this point, you have to remember Koh Tao’s roads are basic to say the least, bumpy, pot holed and rutted. There was no ambulance at this point – his journey to the boat was in the back of a pick up truck.
“I felt every rock on that ground, every hole in the road. Man, it was so painful I was screaming,” he said.
Then it was onto a boat to Koh Samui, rocking on heavy seas, and finally to a hospital.
“I have never known pain like it,” he said
“It was like something else.”
Some serious surgery followed, and a specialist had to be flown over from Germany to keep an eye on the injury. There were some huge complications too – compartment syndrome set in at one point, where the lower half of his right leg effectively began to shut down as pressure built up, cutting off blood. He told me he came within a few hours of losing his leg completely. A terrifying prospect.
Dirk had left Germany a week or so after I left the UK. Our paths met in Bangkok in November, and at the end of our tour I didn’t expect to see him again. While he was also travelling to Australia, he was then to go on to travel across South America, taking a completely different way home to me. He was due to return back home around June.
“I will be back,” he says, defiantly.
“This is just God’s way of saying I need to be home for a party in Germany. This is all part of my journey.
“Once I get the use of my leg back, I will fly out to Australia and complete my trip. Whether that’s in three months, six months or a year, I will do it.”
His determination is heart warming. With his constant laughing and joking, and the overall way he’s dealing with it, I admire him. Every day he’s having intensive physiotherapy to try to rebuild muscles which have been destroyed and to get his leg and foot functioning again.
I stayed until 11pm, and then walked slowly with him around the hospital ward as a last bit of exercise before he goes to bed. He is to fly back to Germany in a couple of days, and I promise to return the following night.
That night, I hardly slept. The room was hot, the mosquitos were biting – despite me taking refuge in my sleeping bag – and I appeared to have booked a room right between two huge outdoor nightclubs. LMFAO’s Party Rock song – you know, the ‘everybody’s shuffling’ song, must have played about eight times before I managed to grab some kip. I woke up in the morning with it still shuffling around in my head.
I walked outside through the gaggle of skimpily dressed massage girls again. By now I’d have thought they’d have got the message that I was staying in the adjoining hotel. Instead, they tried to grab me like I was a regular customer. I smiled, put my head down and walked on to the beach.
I found it to be a huge problem on the island. While Thai massage is a huge part of life, and the culture, of Thailand, these massage parlours seemed to be of a seedy variety offering anything but a traditional massage. And there were lots of them – flyers and massage girls are in your face almost everywhere you go. While some parts of Thailand do suffer with that sleazy image – and indeed benefit from it – I didn’t know Koh Samui, or this resort, was heading such a way. They were harmless, but it got so annoying everytime I went back to my room!
I spent the day on the beach, setting up camp outside the Ark Bar and making full use of its free wifi for the price of a solitary Coke. I made sure the password was kept safe for future visits!
I didn’t speak to one person properly all day, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. When you travel alone on a backpacker circuit, you get used to rocking up next to someone and just starting to chat. Its easy, its fun and you meet so many different people with different stories. Here, there was almost a snobby attitude – that I was some sort of outcast for being here on my own. The majority of people in the resort were Australians on their annual summer holiday, either as a group or couples on a two-week package tour. I felt uncomfortable at times. It’s quite a lonely feeling.
I was glad to return to see Dirk that night, but I had the sad job of helping him pack his bags. Its difficult for him to move around with his crutches, so I spent half an hour walking around, collecting some of his belongings and helping him to get them inside his packed rucksack.
The sweetener for Dirk is that he’s being flown home to Cologne in style – he has to keep his leg straight to help it heal, and the only way he can do that on his Lufthansa flight home is to fly in the First Class compartment. With a doctor from his homeland to accompany him too, I can see exactly how his insurance bill is already running into tens of thousands of pounds.
One of the items he packed was his X-Ray taken just after the accident, showing just how badly his leg was broken. It was a clean break, and I’m sure his X- Ray will one day be an infamous trophy from his time in Thailand.
I left him that night with a handshake, a pat on the back and a promise that somewhere, one day, we would meet again. For now, his travels were over and he is heading back to Europe. A reminder to me, and to any backpacker, just how quickly your fortunes can change. Yes, its an amazing experience being in far flung parts of the world, doing things that you would never do back home. Yes, travelling around clinging to the back of pick ups or on tuk tuks is fun. And yes, if you’re so inclined, the fire shows, fire rings and burning skipping ropes on the beach at night can be an exciting thing to get involved with after a bucket.
But suddenly, with one error of judgement, or an accident caused by someone else, you can find yourself back on a plane and heading to the colder climes of home for a potentially long and tough recovery.
I have to pay tribute to Dirk. If the same had happened to me, I’d be beside myself. I can’t think of anything more depressing than being sat in that room with a shattered leg while the rest of the world is celebrating Christmas and New Year outside, and your family are thousands of miles away back home.
Yet, throughout his entire ordeal, Dirk has remained strong, in good spirits, laughing and joking with everyone involved in his recovery. Not once have I heard him moan or get angry about what happened. Instead, he looks for the positives – choosing to look on the bright side of life.
“It could have been worse – a lot worse,” he says.
“I might have gone back to Germany without a leg. Me? Without a leg? I can’t imagine it.
“This is just part of my story, part of my travels, a story for my blog. I will go home, I will get better, learn to walk on it and I will start again.”
Dirk, from me, our tour mates, from our tour leader Fon and from all the other backpackers who I have told your sorry tale to in recent weeks – we salute you.
Get well soon buddy. Your world awaits.
Aw this is a lovely post, Phil! Gosh i remember that hospital so well! I was also in Koh Tao when i almost died of dehydration and spent three days in intensive care in Koh Samui. At least it’s a 5* hospital!!! Hope Dirk feels better soon. Take good care of yourself! X Cami
Aww, lovely reading Phil, regards and get well wishes to Dirk too.
Onwards + upwards. travel safe bud x
Wow, what a nice report!!!
Being Dirks Scuba Diving Instructor i witnessed the accident and just felt myself being set bac k in time – set back on that Pick-up truck with Dirk screaming an pain but trying to be cheerful and singing traditional cologne songs at the same time.
A situation and mentality never to be forgotten.
I feel glad to have met such an unbreakable positive thinking person like Dirk and look forward to see him again … to have the honour to finally continue with his diving training 😉
Hi Alex, what a lovely comment and totally agree! I was his friend who was in touch with you regarding the possibility of learning with you – at the last minute, two friends arrived on the island and so I ended up learning with them. Brilliant island and experience, hope all is well and that Dirk manages to get over there and meet with you again soon!