There are three sections to our Thailand diary.
Part One covers our trip up from Malaysia, our first time in Bangkok, our journey to the Laos border, and Chiang Mai.
Part Two covers our week of filming with the BBC Holiday programme in Bangkok, and our journey to the Cambodian border.
This chapter covers three weeks in the South of Thailand, on the islands and beaches.
Monday, March 29, 2004
On the rails again
After a day of 'hanging around' the pool at the guest house, we took another sleeper train down to Surat Thani, in southern Thailand. Our desination is Koh Samui, an island off the East coast, where we're due to meet up with our friends from home - Caroline and Peter, and Charlotte and Emily's best friends, Oliver and Rachel. When we'd left home 9 months ago, we'd all said we'd meet up somewhere on the trip, for them to fly out for a two week beach holiday. And finally, after a huge wait, the time's arrived! Although we're already in Thailand, we've still got a longer journey than they will have from England. We've got a 12-hour train trip, followed by a two hour bus, a four hour ferry, and finally a bus on the island, which should see us there in 19 hours. They have a long-flight from England, followed by a plane change in Singapore for the hop up to Thailand. If we were both leaving at the same time, they'd arrive at the hotel about an hour earlier, despite the fact that they're travelling 8,000 kilometres further!
Tuesday, March 30, 2004
Arriving in Koh Samui
Our arrival in Samui was fairly easy - the bus and boat connection was dead easy - but once we were on the island, we were in the hands of the local transport mafia. Transport in Samui is notoriously expensive for foreigners, and the minibus operators and taxi drivers were asking 2-3 times what you'd expect to pay on the mainland. Eventually we got into a taxi to take us to our guest house - but unfortunately the driver had no idea where our guest house was in the town of Mae Nam (a beach strip about a mile long). We didn't know either, but as it was directly on the beach, we thought that it couldn't be that difficult to miss! After driving us right along the main road, the driver then asked for more money if we wanted him to find it! We said that the 200 Baht should get us to our guest house directly, and that perhaps he could ask somebody where it was. He clearly wasn't in the slightest bit bothered about where he dropped us, and in the end he dumped us on the main road, a mile from the centre of town. After a debate about money (I wasn't going to pay for a taxi ride to nowhere, and to be dumped on the street with no idea where we were), he roared off without his money, and we were completely bewildered and lost. (Tired and irritable after a 19 hour journey? Hmm, what do you think?). So we just crossed the road and had a soft drink in a small shop. Fortunately, the owner knew exactly where we wanted to go, and got his son to drive us there in his pickup (it turned out the taxi driver had driven straight past our guest house, and had dumped us a mile away). What a fantastic bit of hospitality, and what a relief!
We'd booked The Florist guest house over the Internet 6 months ago, so that we could make our joint arrangements with Caroline and Peter. It was a little tricky finding the right kind of place, as we were looking for somewhere economical (ie cheap!) and they were looking for somewhere suitable for a two-week holiday from England. We were all flexible, and had all agreed that we would all want a swimming pool and air-conditioning as a minimum. In Bangkok we'd got exactly that for 960 Baht a night, but on Koh Samui we'd ended up looking for ages, as few places with a pool were affordable for us.
When we arrived, we discovered that it wasn't as beautiful as the photographs showed - the approach to the hotel was literally through a half-demolished garage, and between two bungalows - although the rooms were as good as they looked on the website. Panicking that our friends would hate it, we hired a jeep and scoured the island from top to bottom to find an alternative. We got back to the hotel at 8 o'clock exhausted and disappointed. We'd seen a few lovely places (Zazen Bungalows, for instance, were just beautiful), but most were well outside our (desperately-extended) budget - most were around 50 Pounds a night. We'd found just two suitable places, but neither were tropical paradises. We went to bed feeling grim and hoping things would be better in the morning.
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Waking up in The Florist
Fortunately for us, the guest house seemed better when we woke up. After a filling breakfast, we cast a critical eye over it, and tried to see if our friends would like it. In the end, we decided that with a few finishing touches, and a couple of sneaky tricks, it would be okay - but we were still worried. The Florist's owner was being very helpful, because he risked losing his two most expensive rooms at a time when business was looking quiet - the fan-cooled bungalows only rent for 400 Baht a night, and our room plus Peter and Caroline's suite combined comes to over 4,000 Baht a night. There was a bomb-blast on the mainland at the weekend that had worried all of the hoteliers here on the island (some Malaysian tourists were injured, and the Malaysian government has warned their tourists to beware). Although the news of that hasn't featured internationally, there is a real risk that the continuing violence in the Southern provinces of Thailand could create a Bali-type effect for Thailand's tourist industry - an impact that Bali still hasn't recovered from.
By mid-afternoon, the hotel was decked with flowers, and Peter and Caroline's suite was looking just like the photos, after the most amazingly intensive spring clean. We'd also decided that instead of coming in through the crumbling garage, we'd walk them the 20 metres along the beach when they arrived - a much better first impression.
By the time we met their flight at 10pm, we were feeling much happier about the guest house (who knows, perhaps after a night of bad sleep and a 6am start, and the experience in the taxi, we'd have been disappointed with whatever we'd seen yesterday) and it was absolutely great to see them stepping off the plane. We all travelled back to the guest house, the children all had a midnight swim, and then settled into bed. We sat on their balcony with a drink, overlooking the sea, with the breeze blowing through the palm trees and suddenly it all seemed okay!
Thursday, April 01, 2004
The Florist - the real guest house
Peter and Caroline's flight arrived in Koh Samui at 10pm last night, after leaving England the evening before, and having a short stopover in Singapore. They were exhausted, and hot, but we all had big welcome hugs at the airport (well, not Peter and I, but who'd want to hug a big, sweaty bloke?). The girls were very excited, after all they'd been looking forward to the moment for 9 months - and they showed no sign of the fact that it was well past a normal bedtime! We walked everybody down the beach to the guest house, and everybody had a cooling dip and a drink, before it was then bedtime for everybody (apart, of course, from Caroline and Sarah who sat up gossiping to the early hours).
The Florist definitely has a 'split personality' - from the beach itís a wonderful wooden building, with a balcony cafť to catch the breeze, and with a quiet private balcony outside of Peter and Caroline's suite. But from the main road, it's a different thing altogether. After driving down an alleyway through building sites, you then turn into the guest house through the ruined garage (above right). Fancy spending so much money on a beachfront plot, a modern building, and then not bothering to spend a penny on an entranceway?
The guest house has changed a bit since the photographs were taken for the website and brochure. The picture on the left was taken before the construction of the covered area, on the right. Although it's entirely practical (who wants to sit under an sunshade when it's raining) it changes the look of it. And because the guest house is quite small, there's no other space to escape to in the rain, unless it's your room.
Friday, April 02, 2004
Enjoying the holiday a bit more...
Life's getting better. The children all love the guest house, especially the pool slap bang in the middle of the decking. It's great for us too - we can watch them swim, while we read our books, or enjoy a drink. And as the rooms are right next door too, it means that the children can be put to bed in the evening, and we can enjoy a dinner as adults together, while they're within ear shot if anybody wakes up. Although it didn't meet our expectations at first (whoever wrote "the most romantic hideaway on Mae Nam Beach" in their brochure had obviously never been here!), it is practical for us all, making it easy with the children. And it is a lot cheaper than the alternatives, and a lot more personal.
Saturday, April 03, 2004
Life on a beach
It's tough, but somebody's got to do it. After all, somebody gets up early to put those beach umbrellas and deck chairs there - it would be terrible if nobody used them. And so Caroline and Sarah have taken to them like sand to a beach picnic. From early morning to late in the afternoon, the children get to play on the beach or in the pool, watched by an assortment of grown-ups. After 9 months with mostly just the four of us, its fantastic to have some time where Emily's happy playing with Rachel, and Charlotte's happily playing with Oliver. It gives the occasional moment of respite from 24 hour alertness for the children.
Monday, April 05, 2004
Life's a beach
Apart from Christmas, this is the longest we've stayed in one place since we started travelling - and we've got another 10 days to go! Its glorious not having to pack up our rucksacks and move on, and we're quickly slipping into 'holiday' mode. We've even managed to loosen the purse-strings a little bit, to allow us to splash out on a cocktails and beers for sunset. Koh Samui is much more expensive than other parts of Thailand, for food, drink and accommodation, but for two weeks we're converting everything in our heads back into Pounds - it certainly seems much cheaper that way!
Wednesday, April 07, 2004
Sightseeing on Koh Samui
For a few days we've hired a couple of jeeps to explore the island. Yesterday we drove up the hills in the middle of the island - despite the absence of proper roads, which made it much more interesting! The children loved it all - especially the bumpiest bits, where we were getting the jeeps to clamber over rocks right in the middle of the track. Sadly, I didn't take any photos to show you, as my hands didn't leave the wheel. Nor did I record the various screams of excitement from the back seat. We then had lunch at the Laem Set Inn, on the south of the island, where lunch-goers get to use the swimming pool and lounge around the beach of this boutique-style hotel.
And today we headed to the woods, to ride elephants. Rather than sitting in the proper seat, Charlotte got to sit on the neck, holding on to the driver. But then Sarah dropped her water bottle, and the driver jumped down the collect it - which left Charlotte in the driving seat for the rest of the half-hour! Apparently, all you need to do to drive an elephant is to rest your hands on its head, and it will do the rest. I'm not sure how useful that information will be when Charlotte gets home, but its got to go down as one of the key memories of our trip.
Then it was time for all of the children to feed the elephants with bananas. Elephants always look big in photos, but they seem even bigger when they are right in front of your. And even bigger still when their trunk is trying to reach over to grab a banana from behind your back!
Friday, April 09, 2004
Around Koh Samui
Sightseeing around Koh Samui isn't all elephants, jungle and beach. There's only one main road which goes right around the island, and all of the main businesses are lined up along it. Which is handy when it's hot and dry, and you want to stop for a drink and an ice-cream. In Asia you're never far away from someone selling cold drinks, and we've noticed that ice-cream is much more available than ten years ago - I guess that electricity supplies have become a lot more stable than they used to be. On Chaweng Beach there are also hawkers coming along every five minutes, selling donuts, henna tattoos and ice-creams from cool boxes (who knows how many times they thaw'n'freeze before they're finally sold).
Saturday, April 10, 2004
Tripping to Koh Pha-Ngan
Just across the bay from Mae Nam beach lies the island of Koh Pha-Ngan. It is a quieter island than Koh Samui - less developed, less roads and less expensive. It's famous for the full moon parties held on the main beach at Haad Rin - tens of thousands of backpackers flock there for the all-night party held every month. Although it's something institutionalised now, with much more organisation to it, there's still a wild side to it - every month the hospital on the island has a flood of psychiatric cases caused by drug use, and this month's party ended with three shot and two dead. Hmm, maybe not a family party!
Fortunately, away from Haad Rin, the island is just a laid back, peaceful, tropical paradise. Which is why we thought we should make a short trip over. Mind you, it didn't seem short, after we'd spent two hours on a small boat, bumping up and down on a mildly choppy sea. As the ferry went up the east coast of the island, we passed bay after bay, with crescent-shaped white beaches and rustic bungalows on the shore. We finally pulled in to Ao Thang Nai Pan, a small bay with two beaches extending out either side of the rocks in the middle. As it was low tide, we had to wade to shore in thigh-deep water, carrying Emily and Rachel, and up onto the powdery sand beach. We'd bought an overnight bag, so while the children had a drink and lunch, Peter and I wandered along the beach to find some accommodation.
Behind the beach there are a number of bungalow operators, from rustic bamboo shacks to brand-new concrete bungalows, spread out on small plots leading back from the sand. In the end we chose Ao Thang Nai Pan Resort & Spa (well, it will be a 'spa' once the pool is finished - today it's a concrete patch in the ground!). For 12 Pounds we got a brand new three-bedded bungalow without air-con, while Peter and Caroline splashed out the full 20 Pounds to get the air-con version in the photo (the one on the left - the right hand building is the 'rustic' restaurant). And there was nothing more to do than sit on the beach and build sandcastles.
Sunday, April 11, 2004
Koh Pha-Ngan again
Waking up on the beach is quite a wonderful experience - as long as it's not literally on the beach (well, even that would have been great when we were younger). But today, stepping out of the bungalow onto the sand path and then wandering down to the beach was pretty fantastic. And the beach looked better in the morning light than it did last night. In fact, on the WSM scale it rates a '20'. WSM scale? Well, that's Caroline's inadvertent invention. As a child of Weston-Super-Mare, every bit of coastline is compared to the beach there. We twigged early on, when Caroline exclaimed "Well, that's a bit better than W-S-M" at the sight of Mae Nam beach. And then Nathon "The sea goes out a long way - a bit like W-S-M". And so we've invented the WSM scale, to bring to beaches the same kind of star rating you get at hotels. And Ao Thang Nai Pan Noi beach qualifies as a 20 (the baseline point is W-S-M, worth 10 points). It scored highly on every category except "Easy to pronounce name". (We're rapidly going through our memories to rate every beach we're ever visited on the W-S-M scale - soon to be a blockbusting website/book/movie/calendar)
As the afternoon arrived, so came the time to leave the beach, and as the ferry was only once a day from the beach, it meant a trip across the island to the main port of Tong Sala. Koh Pha-Ngan isn't well-endowed with roads, so we all had to pile in the back of a pickup (called a 'private taxi' on the advertising board) and endured a 30 minute trip on dirt tracks across the hills. Samui calls itself 'the Green Island', but its not a patch on Pha-Ngan, which still has tall native trees in the middle, rather than Samui's omni-present coconut plantations. Then it was fast catamaran across the bay to Samui, continuing our story of returning from somewhere in half the time it took to get there in the first place. It's not been a holiday of all sunbeds and cocktails for our friends - they've suffered their fair share of rough alongside the smooth and travelled off the well-beaten track during this holiday (and even managed to smile their way through it!). In return we've all enjoyed a great time, and seen a fair few sights in the ten days.
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Happy New Year!
Thailand doesn't run it's calendar in the same way that we do in Europe. For a start, today is New Years Day, called Songkran - I'll explain a bit more about that in a minute. The other thing that is curious about the Thai calendar, from our perspective at least, is that it is 544 years ahead of us. While the western world is happily ticking along in 2004, Thailand has just moved from 2547 to 2548. It looks weird at first, to see announcements for events to be on '3rd March 2547' or whatever, and I thought at first that tax discs on Thai cars would last well beyond the cars! However, I have found a silver lining to this confusion. My passport says I was born in 1965. So now, in Thailand, I'm officially 583 years old - I'm less worried about having a bit of grey hair now!
Anyway, Songkran, the Thai name for New Year. Every Songkran, Thailand goes mad. The traditional way to greet/bless somebody for new year is to sprinkle them with a little bit of water while you're wishing them a Happy New Year. But tradition doesn't stand still in the face of progress, and now everybody tries to cover as many people with as much water as possible. It started with the waiter dousing the cook with a bucket of water at breakfast, and quickly escalated to the cook throwing the guest house manager in the pool. When we went out, the street was in full-on-Songkran mode. Every few yards somebody was standing beside the road with a barrel of water, and something to throw it or shoot it with. Hosepipes, water pistols, buckets, even squeezy bottles are legitimate weapons. Having been in Thailand for Songkran before, we knew to arm the children with water pistols and swimming costumes - and they joined in the festivities like everybody else. (I also knew to cover the camera with four plastic bags, because I didn't escape the water for a minute. But I did find the safety of a shop doorway to take a few snaps of the mayhem.
Since last time we saw it, Songkran has also invented a knew WMD (Weapon of Mass Drowning) in the form of pickup trucks, loaded with a barrel or two of water, and as many revellers as you can get in. They drive around the roads, splashing everybody on the roadside, as well as every vehicle going the other way or overtaking. As this is one of the hottest times of the year in Thailand, it's quite refreshing once you get over the initial shock. But another new tactic was really shocking - the addition of tons of ice cubes to the barrel, to add a icy shock to the water. The fun goes on all day, with most Thais boozing through the day too, on their own local brand of whiskey being the favourite drink. This results in Songkran getting rowdier, and wetter, and the roads end up totally disrupted by water-whacking-roadblocks, and frequent accidents. Most of them are either caused by drink-driving, or riders being washed off mopeds!
The children loved the day, once they got over their initial hesitation to cover people with water, and the highlight for them was soaking two policemen on a motorbike (Thai policemen are usually very aloof and unapproachable, so it was a bit of surprise to see a couple of them getting into the spirit of things).
Thursday, April 15, 2004
Another day of travel - leaving Koh Samui
Well, all good things come to an end, and that includes our fortnight of R&R on Koh Samui. After two weeks of beach and sunshine, its now time to move on to other parts of Thailand. Our original plan was to head north, straight to Bangkok to catch a flight to Vietnam, but we've decided instead to go to the west coast of Thailand, and visit the Krabi coastline, which we've not seen before. Although it's only a few hundred kilometres, in typical Asian style it turned out to be a full day of travelling. We started at 7am with a lift in the pickup truck to the ferry dock, then two hours on the car ferry to the mainland, and then into a coach to Surat Thani, the nearest city. After a short wait, we joined another coach direct to Krabi. By the time we arrive in Krabi it was2 o'clock in the afternoon - 7 hours and less than 120 miles later!
The final part of the trip, to East Rai Leh beach, is by boat, as the beach is cut off from the mainland by a line of sheer limestone cliffs. This meant loading ourselves and our backpacks into a long-tail boat, and setting out to sea. At first it was fun, with the boat speeding through shallow mangrove beaches and bouncing on small waves. But once we were on the open sea, it got a bit rougher, and the spray from the waves on the bow ended up soaking us all through to the skin. After 45 minutes of this, at least we didn't feel too hot any more! The final soaking was when we arrived - because of the low tide we had to wade 50m through knee-deep water (carrying the rucksacks and Emily) and then across another 50m of mud flat to reach the beach.
When we got to the beach we checked out the accommodation - the impressive West beach has 3 expensive resorts on it (£40 and up), while the muddy East beach has all the backpacker accommodation (£4 and up). We ended up in the Viewpoint backpacker resort, with a pool, and paying £20 for an air-conditioned room with two double beds. We were surprised by how expensive Rai Leh beach is compared to other places in Thailand, and decided that rather than spending the planned week here, we'd move on once we'd seen the sights. It's not just the accommodation, but everything from bottles of water to meals. It's over twice the price of Bangkok.
Friday, April 16, 2004
Rai Leh and Tham Phra Nang Beach
What a tough way to spend a Friday! In the morning we swam in the pool, then after lunch we walked to Tham Phra Nang beach, one of the three on the Rai Leh peninsula. Although all of the frontage is owned by the Rayavadee Resort, there is a footpath to it for the general public (fortunately Thailand doesn't have private beaches), which allowed us to get on and doubtless spoil the view from the $500 a night suites. While the beach was fantastically beautiful, with super soft white sand and turquoise sea, it was spoiled by the hordes of long-tail boats pulled up on the beach, carrying visitors from the nearby town of Ao Nang. From 9 in the morning until 5 in the evening, there are between 20 and 40 boats all crowded together on the 200m beach, along with bigger boats moored right off the beach. We'd always looked with envy at the Rayavadee in brochures, waiting for the day when it was on special offer, but now that we've seen what the beach looks like on a normal day, the spell's been broken!
Later in the day we went to West Rai Leh beach for the sunset, although at 2 Pounds a bottle, we didn't have a beer in our hands! Unlike the east beach, which is very small, and has a 100m of mud flats at low tide, the west beach is just flat powdery white sand. No wonder the more expensive resorts were built on this side (more expensive than we could afford, but still pretty good value considering the setting). The day was capped off by a good sunset, as it dropped into the shadow of Phuket island.
Saturday, April 17, 2004
By long-tail around Krabi
Krabi province is basically a coastal bay, filled with 200 tiny islands. Although some of these, like Koh Phi-Phi are big enough to have accommodation on them, the majority are small uninhabited lumps of rock and beach, dotted around the bay. Whenever you see pictures of Phuket, you will spot three or four pictures of Krabi beaches in there, despite the fact that they're a day-trip away (I don't think I've ever seen a advert for Phuket that didn't include a picture of Phi-Phi Leh island, which is 2 hours away by boat!). So the way to see the real beauty of the area is to go on a boat trip. The trip cost us £5 each, which includes a pre-packaged lunch of fried rice, and was one of the few 'good value' things here.
We started off visiting two different rocky islands, for a spot of snorkelling. Charlotte was soon splashing around like a seal in her flippers, whizzing all over the area to see what she could find. She was particularly fascinated by the sea cucumbers, as she'd heard they were the only animals which breathe through their bottoms. She'd not swum with flippers before, but found them great fun. Emily couldn't get her snorkel mask to work, but used her goggles instead, and enjoyed everything until the moment she was surrounded by clouds of fish eating the rice that the boatman had thrown in. Both of the girls were in the water for over an hour, and came out looking like prunes.
After using all their energy on snorkelling, it was nice to end up on a beach at Poda Island, where we ate lunch, built sandcastles, and lounged in the warm water. The sea here is so warm that it doesn't cool you down as much as you'd want - its like sitting in a warm bath. Life's tough isn't it!
Sunday, April 18, 2004
Moving on to Koh Lanta
After just two days on Rai Leh, we decided to move on to Koh Lanta, an island with another beautiful beach, two hours south by boat. Luckily, although the first part of the trip was in a long-tail, this was only out into the bay, to board a bigger boat waiting to take us to Koh Lanta. The two hour part of the trip was spent sitting in comfortable seats and relaxing in the air-conditioning. Bliss!
The spell was broken when we arrived at the pier in Koh Lanta. On boat trips, all of the rucksacks get piled up on the top deck, and when we came to collect ours back together, Charlotte's was missing. We couldn't see it anywhere, and the helpful staff couldn't shed any light on it at all. Our only hope was that it might have been left in the long-tail we'd transferred on - we couldn't be sure, because the boat staff had transferred all of the luggage while we'd been taking care of ourselves. After a few phone calls there was no sign of it, but we were told to call back later in the day, "just in case".
Charlotte only has the dress she's wearing, and a swimming costume that had been packed into Sarah's rucksack! Still it made the walk down the beach to our accommodation easier. We'd got a lift to one set of beach bungalows, where we had lunch, and then we walked down the beach for 15 minutes, checking out the different options. In the end we found a self-contained air-conditioned bungalow called Sandy Beach for 700 Baht (£10), with a mattress on the floor for the girls.
At 5 o'clock we called the ferry company, and they'd found the missing rucksack. Hurrah! By the time we'd called we'd managed to convince ourselves that some other backpacker had walked off the boat with it, so it was a huge relief that we hadn't lost all of Charlotte's clothes. We would have had to wait five days until we get to Bangkok to replace them. So the day finished on a high note, as we sat on the beach with a drink and dinner, watching the sunset, and reflecting on our good luck.
Monday, April 19, 2004
After we'd been travelling a while, days of the week started to become the same. At home, we'd all looked forward to the weekends, and equally we'd all felt a bit down on Sunday night when it meant tomorrow was Monday morning. But while we're travelling, 'weekends' and 'weekdays' only matter because of what everybody else does. Last weekend was a good example, as the Songkran holiday meant there were more Thai tourists on the beaches for the whole of last weekend. But now, on Monday, we've got the beaches to ourselves again. So I thought I'd share what this Monday looked like for me.
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Koh Lanta - laid-back and blissful
Koh Lanta is an island down towards the south of Thailand, on the west coast. Standing on the beach, you can see the silhouette of Koh Phi-Phi (made famous by the film "The Beach") and other smaller islands rising in the distance. It is almost exclusively a backpackers place, with few tourist-style resorts. The main beach is occupied by a succession of beach huts and palm-fronded bars - and apart from a few ticket offices to book ferries off the island, that's it! During the high season it's full, with every hut occupied by a hammock-swinging backpacker, and the bars packed all night long with heavy drinking, heavily tanned Europeans. We've noticed the trait of backpackers to always make sure that they're in range of a bar for the evening, despite the fact that drinking is one of the more expensive things to do in Thailand. A bungalow, like in the picture above, costs from 200 - 400 Baht (£3-6) and main meals cost around 80 baht (£1). But beer costs 100 Baht (£1.50) for a 700ml bottle, and cocktails on the beach in Koh Lanta cost 140 Baht (£2). Although it doesn't seem like a huge amount of money from a UK perspective, a few drinks a night easily costs more than your room and food together.
In fact, we overheard a typical exchange on the beach this afternoon, with one female backpacker complaining that it was too hot to sleep at night, so she'd have to switch to an air-conditioned bungalow. "It will cost me more, but I'm just not going to eat in the evening. As long as I don't have to give up my beer and cigarettes, it'll be okay."
Reading all of that back it seems as if I'm describing some Ibiza-style drinking binge, which it certainly is not! During the day everybody just lazes on the wide beach, topping up their tans, and reading books. And in the evening, they move up the beach to the cushions and hammocks laid out above the high-tide mark by the bars. Itís a very easy-going lifestyle, and it is easy to imagine getting 'trapped' on the island! As it is coming into the monsoon season shortly, the island is moving into 'off season mode', and many of the businesses will close down for three months until the drier weather comes along again. This makes the accommodation even more of a bargain, but few will stay on the island, when the other coast of Thailand is now in the dry season.
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Still chillin' on a tropical island
Koh Lanta is such a relaxing place, that for a moment it is possible to forget that you're in Asia - one of the world's most hectic places! Instead of noise, hustle and hassle, we're in an oasis of peace and quiet. The children have met some others their own age, and have played cards, colouring and all kinds of beach games. But if I have to play another game of Bamse, the Swedish Happy Families, I think I could go mad...to imagine it, try saying this 100 times with the accent of the Swedish chef from the muppet show "Has anybody got Katten Jansen". Anyway, back to beach idyll. The food here on Lanta is a mix of Thai and Indian, with the usual European Breakfasts thrown in, and the standard of cooking at all of the beach bars is very good - curiously they make Indian food with exactly the same tastes as English-Indian meals - and nothing like real Indian cooking!
But perhaps the nicest aspect of Koh Lanta is the people that visit it - we met some great travellers, who had interesting stories and were good company during the day and in the evenings (and in a "itís a small world" twist, met Dixie who knew our friend Nick from when they both lived in Sweden).
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Heading back to Bangkok
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. Itís 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?"
Sunday, April 25, 2004
Heading back to Cambodia - the easy way
Well, last time we went from Bangkok to Siem Reap, we bought a ticket right through from a Khao San Road travel agent. And while it did get us all the way, it was deliberately slowed down, so that you could be overcharged along the way for your Cambodia Visa, and for your food and drink stops, and ultimately so that you arrived in Siem Reap after dark, so that you would stay at the Guest House they dropped you at. In our case, having left Bangkok at 7am, we arrived at 11pm - a 16 hour journey!
This time, with the benefit of more knowledge, we exactly the same journey a much smarter way. We got a minibus from Bangkok to the border at Aranyaprathet (6am to 10:30 am), which dropped us at a tour company office (they wanted to sell us visas at inflated prices, and onward tickets in minibuses and buses at even more inflated prices). Knowing how much they should cost, we negotiated everything down to the correct price (1,000 Baht for the visa, which is what it costs if you but it directly at the border; and $30 for the taxi direct to Siem Reap). The benefit of doing it like that, and insisting we go straight away, was that we jumped straight into the minibus, and left everyone else who travelled from Bangkok sitting waiting to know what happened next. 30 minutes later we were at the border, visas stamped in our passports, and going through immigration. The immigration and form filling turned out to be really slow, but eventually by 12:00 we were all done, and sitting in the taxi, on the road to Siem Reap. We arrived at 2.45pm - 8 hours after we'd left Bangkok, and half the time it took us last time. And the cost? Well, it cost us 2,100 Baht, the same as we'd paid for 4 slow bus tickets last time. (Next day we met some people who'd been in the minibus with us - they'd ended up sitting at the tour office for 3 hours, for no apparent reason, and then paying over the odds for the visa and the taxi - they arrived 4 hours later than us, despite getting to the border town in the same minibus).