All good things come to an end, and so does our Thailand visa. We’re heading north now, back to Bangkok, where we’re going to head off to Cambodia (again) and Vietnam. And as usual, it’s a multi-part journey which seems to go on forever. We start at 7:30am in the back of a pickup, to catch the 8:00am ferry from Koh Lanta to Krabi. At Krabi pier, after a while of waiting around, we change to a smaller bus, which takes us a whole mile to the ‘PP Family’ Bus Terminal – which is a small restaurant and waiting area. There we’re equipped with our stickers (in Thailand, they swap your tickets for a coloured sticker, which makes it easy to sort passengers onto the correct buses – its quite clever, but your only proof of having bought a ticket is the sticker, which normally manages to drop-off at a crucial moment). Anyway, after another hour of waiting, the coach for Surat Thani arrives – only an hour late, not bad by Asian standards, but poor by Thai standards (as is the bus – the air-conditioning appears to have no effect at all, so we all swelter all the way across the peninsula). The ‘PP Family’ are obviously not highly geared towards customer service – the four best seats in the bus, at the front, are reserved for the coach drivers’ ten-year old son to lie across all four, while we’re all crammed in the back, boiling. (Later we worked out that the reason the aircon wasn’t having any effect was that it was all coming out the ‘modified’ vents at the front of the bus, and the rest of the vents were blocked off!)
Just when we thought we couldn’t stand the heat any longer, the bus stopped on the highway and those of us going to Surat Thani were transferred into the back of a pickup truck. This was driven by Michael Schumacher’s sister, who drove it at breakneck speed into the city – and dumped us in the office of ‘Freedom Travel’, in the middle of nowhere. There were 8 of us at this point, all expecting to get to the railway station. In fact, we’d all had tickets which said “Surat Thani Railway Station” (had being the right word now, as all we had were stickers saying “Surat Thani”). PP Family Travel had obviously ‘sold’ us to Freedom Travel, as they then asked for 150 Baht each to take us to the station, 14 kilometres away on the other side of the city. In context, we’d just travelled 140 kilometres for 100 Baht, so they were asking for more than 10 times more to complete the last leg of our journey! After a lot of debate (Us: “So if we complained to the Thai Tourism Authority, you don’t care that people would have a bad impression of your company” Them: “No we don’t care if people think we are a bad company. We just want your money”) we ended up walking out onto the road and waving down a small minibus, which took us for 25 Baht each.
Once we’d arrived at Surat Thani railway station, things got better – the railway staff couldn’t have been more helpful, storing our luggage while we went off for lunch, and helping us with finding the right spot to wait for our specific carriage of the train. It’s important to remind yourself that in Thailand, most travel is easy, and most Thais are incredibly helpful and friendly. Its just unfortunate that some of those involved with the tourist trade simply look for a fast buck. And although some of the transport is unconventional (like the monk-mobile on the left), it all adds to the fun of getting around.
Selling passengers is something that happens all over Asia to backpackers. Basically the bus company will run a coachload of backpackers to somewhere that could be called the destination, and then gets $1 or $2 from another company to drop them in a specific place. We were lucky – at least other transport came past the road we were on. On our bus to Cambodia, we were ‘sold’ to a guest house, who hoped that the late hour (11pm) and the location (in the middle of nowhere) would deter us from searching elsewhere. One of the worst cons happens on the buses to the northern city of Chiang Mai, where buses frequently stop on the outer ring road, in the middle of nowhere, and the only option is to go the one of the expensive guest houses who have their pickup trucks waiting there, or to pay a fortune to the taxis who are all in on the deal. It’s a bit like me selling you a ticket to London, and then dropping you on the M25, where the only option to get anywhere is my mate’s special price taxi. And if you complain? “Well, the M25’s in London innit? What are you complaining about?”