Around The World 1998; Southern Thailand

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Kristina and David’s Round-The-World Journal
THAILAND: Southern Thailand and Islands

US$1=35.5 Baht 
Kristina’s Journal: 
November 2, 1998    Surat Thani, deepest pit in Hell, er…Thailand

I really wanted to love Thailand. And I expected to love Thailand after all I’d heard, read, and seen about it. In fact, before we left home, when people asked where was I  most looking forward to going, my reply was always “Thailand”. After our journey here from Penang, I came dangerously close to hating it. Thank God common sense and patience prevailed.

We bought our ticket for the train to Surat Thani from the small train office in the ferry station in Georgetown. Our goal was Ko Tao, smallest of the three islands off of Southeast Thailand. We had many options, take the train to Chumphon and spend the night, ferry the next morning straight to Ko Tao. Or, train to Surat Thani and desperately try to catch the night ferry to Ko Samui, Ko Phang An, and finally Ko Tao. We thought, well, let’s go for it! It was an eight hour trip from Butterworth to Surat Thani, and the only option was a 2nd class, non AC ticket. No 3rd class on the train, no, 1st class, and the only AC were the sleeper cars, and those were reserved for people traveling farther than us, all the way to Bangkok. Ticket cost 41RM each. We took the ferry over at noon to Butterworth and had a 2 and a half hour wait in its tiny station.

When we boarded the train, we realized that our car was not the nice new Malaysian train we had traveled on (and were shown a photo of in the ticket office), but a Thai train car attached to the back of 4 Malaysian sleeper cars. It was old, and a bit broken down, but really not so bad. It had ceiling fans, large windows that opened all the way, and padded seats in sets of two that you could rotate 180 degrees depending on the direction of the train. At the border, we had a relatively painless crossing where we had to take our luggage off, go through Malaysian customs and then Thai customs and immigration.

In Hat Yai Thailand they attached the food car to the back of the train and we wished we had ordered one of the meals that an attendant had tried to sell us. We assumed it would have been an airline-style meal like on the Malaysian train, but instead, the three-course meals were cooked right there in the “kitchen” on the train and delivered right to the seats. Mouth watering aromas wafted by as they brought to meals through our cabin and into the sleeper cars. Instead, we ate our cheese sandwiches and crackers. Oh well.

We arrived in Surat Thani late, only to learn we had missed the ferry and the last bus into town from the train station. There were some local guys offering taxi service in their souped-up cars and when we (David, Paul (a Brit we had met on the train), and I) asked how much they replied 40B each. We said this sounded steep and they guy started yelling at us and telling us to get in the car. At that point, I said I didn’t want to be yelled at by a stranger in the middle of the night so we walked away. 
There were no other taxis anywhere. There was really nowhere to stay and we wanted to get into town to take the early morning ferry. So we had to take “Asshole Bob” (as David had christened him) up on his offer. “A. Bob’s” friend drove the 15 k. into town in record time, all the while racing with the cars in the next lane (and losing I might add), barely swerving to avoid the dogs and cows in the road. When we got to town, were led directly of course to the “hotel” they worked for. At 1 AM who’s going to go in search of something different? Turns out, this place, the Ban Don, was listed in the Lonely Planet, but I would give it a miss unless you’re desperate. It was ok for the 6 hours we stayed there, but a rip off I’m sure at 250 B.

The next morning we had a plan: leave the hotel early in search of the main company that sells ferry tickets at the dock. Unfortunately, the day ferry does not leave from the main pier in town, only the night ferry, so we knew that once we bought a ticket we’d have to get to the ferry itself. As we stood on the street, trying to determine the direction to go, someone from the hotel said a “bus” was coming to take us and some other people to the ferry. We were skeptical and said the name of the company we wanted. We were assured this was where we were going. 

The “bus” arrived, actually the back of a friend’s pick up truck (not even a covered local songthaw) and took us to an unnamed travel agent/breakfast place, not at the pier. There we were told it would cost us 750B each to get to Ko Tao. This price seemed extremely inflated to us given the cost to Ko Samui (250B), but we were assured that this was because it was an express boat, not the car ferry.
We were told that there was no night ferry because it had sunk two weeks ago!
So we thought ok, inflation etc., no time to go anywhere else to verify, and we bought the ticket. We were then ushered again into the back of the pickup truck, told we were taking a different boat than everybody else and rushed off at a high speed to meet the express ferry. When we got there it was the main office of the company we wanted in the first place! 
   
We were given another set of tickets by the driver and off he went. When we got to the counter we were told that the express boat was broken, that we’d have to take the car ferry to Ko Samui, then Ko Phang An with everybody else, and switch boats there. But first, we’d have to take a bus an hour and a half to get to the car ferry. And oh, by the way, we would miss the boat to Ko Tao for the day and have to spend the night in Ko Phang An. And, we had been overcharged by about 300 B.!
The ticket agent had to have known that the direct boat was not running because otherwise, the driver would not have given us the car ferry tickets at the last minute. 

I was so furious that I wanted to go back into town and find the tourist police and complain. But we had no idea where her shop was located. Just then a minivan pulled up and out got all the people that had been waiting with us at her shop. We asked the driver the name of the shop and there was none, only a phone number. At this point I felt so ripped off and frustrated that I just wanted to cry, chuck it all and go home.

So, we got on the bus, got on the boat, and went out to Koh Phangan.    Everything was better once we got there. Even the touts were more laid back. We picked one and went out to the Loy An bungalows where we got a bungalow on the beach for 200 B a night with a fantastic view of the ocean, the islands and a small fishing village next right down the beach. That afternoon we hired a longtail boat with another couple and went out for a snorkel. Visibility was only so-so and not too many fish. However, there was this one long silver fish with a flat head that kept trying to get to know us intimately if you know what I mean. We think it was some sort of cleaner fish that is used to swimming with big fish because it kept nibbling at the backs of our legs.

Koh Phangan

David’s Diary: 
November 5, 1998

 I am starting to get over being ripped off, and beginning to really enjoy the islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  There are more than one can possibly count, mostly uninhabited. They stick up out of the water like giant green bananas submerged two-thirds of the way in the ocean.  If you have ever seen the James Bond movie, “The Man With The Golden Gun”, you know what these islands look like. Although those specific islands are actually located on the west coast of the Thai isthmus, in the Andaman sea near Koh Phi Phi, these isles are quite similar. 

We are going to skip the biggest of the three developed islands, Koh Samui, in favor of some relative peace and quiet on the other two.  We spent one night on Koh Phang-an, not by choice, but for reasons that Kristina explained above.  It turned out to be a little blessing in disguise, however, as our brief visit to this island proved to be most enjoyable.  We arrived at the port town, the only town to speak of on the island, and were truly unimpressed by the single dirt road village, although we took notice of several email/ internet cafes- always a good sign.  No sign of a hotel in the immediate vicinity, so we found one of the really polite touts who had approached us on the boat and asked him to take us to his establishment.  We chose him for two reasons: one, his demeanor, and two, the fact that his bungalows advertised 24-hour electricity- a rare commodity in island accommodations.  Most of the jungle/ beach bungalows run off a shared generator or two and tend to shut down from midnight to six am. 

The Loy An Sea View Bungalows lived up to their names.  After a wild and bumpy ride in the back of a truck, we arrived atop a cliff looking out over a beautiful seascape.  In the distance, the islands of the Ang Thong National Marine Park dotted the horizon like so many banana tips. Just below us was a small fishing village, with an even tinier harbor (see above photo) full of local fishing boats. Very nice. 

The bungalows snaked down the cliffside to a private beach with coral reefs and clear water.  The electric wiring was obviously homemade, with wires stretching from hut to hut, wrapped around trees, lying on the ground, connected with twist ties and electrical tape.  Even in Mexico (no offense, I love Mexico) they try to make it look more professional.  At first, nothing worked in any of the huts, so we sat down in the restaurant, which had power, and waited for the “electrician” (our tout’s grandfather) to sort out the problem, while we ate a delicious  Thai Curry and had a few Singha beers.  We were waiting with another couple, who had arrived in the same pick-up truck with us, Tim and Ying. Tim was British, an engineer for an oil company and Ying was Thai.  They were from Bangkok, here for the Full Moon Party the following night, an annual event on this island. We shared a longtail boat from the private beach and ventured north for some snorkeling on the local reefs, accompanied by a beautiful sunset. 

We had heard about the full moon party from many people and were quite certain that we wanted nothing to with it.  Although, on the surface, it sounds quite fun- thousands of westerners, or Farang  (literally translated: non-Thai) as they are called in Thailand,  all partying together ’til dawn at one massive beach party.  Maybe its because I come from a Southern California beach town and have done plenty of beach partying, or perhaps I am just getting old, but the thought of this party just did not appeal to either myself or my wife. 

We had a good plan, however.  Given all the people coming to Koh Phang-an from the other islands, including Koh Tao, we figured the timing would be ideal for going to Koh Tao in a relative vacuum of tourists.  And we were right.  we boarded our ferry the next day, hundreds of backpack laden Farang were getting off several ferries that had just arrived, and there were only two other westerners waiting to board the boat to Koh Tao.   Sometimes it pays off to go against the flow of the backpacker crowds.

Once in Koh Tao, which was practically deserted, albeit in the middle of low season, we discovered that our strategy of party avoidance was to pay off double.  It so happened that this year’s water festival, Loi Krathong, which occurs on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month of each year, was to take place on the same night as the full moon party, which usually happens in November, but not always coinciding with the water festival.  This would give us the opportunity to observe a significant ritual with reasonably few Farang around. 

There seems to be some debate as to the exact origin of the festival, whether its roots are in Hindu or Buddhist mythology, or in some historic fusion of the two.  Regardless of its past, this festival is one of the big ones for Thai people and is also a part of Burmese, Laotian, and Cambodian tradition.  The ceremonial aspect of Loi Krathong involves each participant setting an ornate leaf and flower float, with a lit candle and often some burning incense, upon a body of water to drift away.  Usually performed at midnight, on a river or in the ocean, the candle-lit floats make their way downstream, or out to sea, in a beautiful parade of lights.  There are fireworks and music and food and drinking to accompany the evening festivities. 

This festival on Koh Tao was all of that, but with the local flavor befitting a tiny island with no internet access.  In what can only be called the town square, for lack of a better description, there was a huge stage, with an admirable sound system- complete with a stack of amps and speakers that any band would envy.  Several long tables were set up with hundreds of pink and blue floats of all different sizes, for sale to those who were unable to make their own. Food stalls were all around, and the adjacent  bars were brimming with more locals than Farang.  The stage show began much like a school assembly, with the town children performing an awkward song and dance routine that had obviously been practiced over and over at school.  There was just enough intimidation mixed with excitement on the faces of the children to show me that they were nervous, but thrilled to be a part of such a big deal.  As with any school recital, the ages of the performers increased as the hours got later, and the routines became more polished and rehearsed.  It was a big town gathering, and it appeared that the entire island was present to take part. 

When midnight finally arrived, there were more drunken Thais than I have seen in our entire trip.  There were also many families, with bleary-eyed kids who were up long past their bedtimes in anticipation of the floating ceremony.  There was a mass migration to the beach and as people dug into their pockets for matches or a lighter, or bummed a light from a neighbor, the lanterns began to set out to sea.  I had been told that the Thais believe that floating the lantern was a way of asking the “Mother-of-Waters” for forgiveness-“for having polluted the water during the year” and also as a way of absolution from the sins of the year.  You put the collection of bad karma, thoughtless acts, and sins into the raft and sail it away, never to return.  I was also told that it is considered bad luck if the lantern comes back to you or doesn’t float away,signifying no forgiveness that year.   All the more reason to set your raft afloat on a river and not on the ocean- no tidal swing!  As it happened, however, all the lanterns caught a mild outflowing current and formed a beautiful glowing chain of candlelights stretching out to sea, past the boats in the harbor.  It was quite stunning and worth waiting up to see.

Kristina’s Journal: 
November 5, 1998 

The next morning on Ko Phang An we were up and out to go back into town and catch the slow ferry over to Koh Tao. Again, we were supposed to have tickets on the fast ferry, but even those were incorrect. We spent the morning in town and found a shop with email and internet to send word home that we were still alive. We thought we’d have access from Koh Tao as well, but this turned out to be unavailable. As of right now, there is no internet on the island. 

When we got to our boat, we were one of only two western couples on the boat. There was a faster boat, and it probably had more people on it, but most were headed toward Ko Phangan, for its monthly full moon party. This is an all-night party/rave held on a beach and supposedly gets quite wild. We decided to avoid it. We sat on the top deck of the boat, unlike the locals who wisely took shelter from the sun below deck, and unknowingly got severely sunburned. Ouch!

When we docked, we were faced with a multitude of choices of where to stay. Because the basis of tourism here is connected to diving, most of the dive companies run their own resorts with discounted accommodations for the divers. We decided to go with Ban Dive Resort because it’s a PADI five star resort and the three British girls we met in Penang had just come from there and recommended it. We walked into their office at the end of the pier, checked the prices (about the same everywhere), and were brought out to the resort on the west side of the island by taxi/pick-up truck. We chose a bungalow in the garden with 24-hour power (a rarity on the island) for 200 B a night (which we later had reduced to 150 B). Most bungalows on the island have power from 6 PM to 12 AM only, but this means that the fan, a necessity, does not run at night or during the day when you might be trying to have a nap. 

Ban’s Dive Resort

Another rarity apparently is the flush toilet. We have a toilet with a seat (luxury!) but it must be flushed with the bucket method. Our shower is just a nozzle coming out of the wall and pretty much covers the entire room which is what about 90% of the places we have stayed in have had. Our sink doesn’t even have a pipe leading to the drain, it just spews directly onto the floor from the basin. Needless to say everything smells mostly of mildew and this is supposed to be one of the nicer places on the island. At US$ 5.00 a night, you get what you pay for. There are places here that go for as low as 50B a night as well. 
We are here in what turns out to be the tail end of the low season so the weather can be quite unpredictable, but there are also very few tourists. We are the only Americans at this resort, filled mostly with Europeans, and have only met 3 others since we’ve been here. When we went on our first dive there were only ten of us on the boat and we’re told in high season that pack as many as 60 people aboard.

Ban’s Dive Resort

At this resort, diving is set up on a fairly structured basis. The boat goes out in the morning and goes to two different dive locations. These dives are for “fun divers”, those who are already certified, only. In the afternoon, the boat goes out to two different, usually more shallow, locations, with the students and the fun divers can go along on those as well. The cost for diving decreases the more dives you do; 1 for 800B, 2 for 1400B, 6 for 3600B, and 10 for 5400B, all gear included, less if you have your own. Sign up the night before and they pack the bags with all the gear for you. 
Our first dive was to a location called Chumphon Pinnacle, the most famous spot here on the island. It starts at 14 meters and goes down to about 32 meters. At first, we were nervous because we had been told that as open water divers we were only allowed to go down as far as 18 meters but then it was explained to us that this is a PADI recommendation for divers diving alone. Since we would be in a group along with a dive master guiding us, going down to 30 meters would be OK as long as we didn’t stay there too long. 

The water was as warm as it was in Australia, but the visibility was not nearly as good. We saw some good sized batfish and angelfish as well as some interesting coral that looked like jelly. We did not see the elusive whale shark that supposedly lives near the pinnacle. On our second dive, we went to Green Rock where the visibly was even poorer. There, however, we did a challenging (for us) swim through which went well. 
Our first night here there was a big festival in town, one that happens only once a year. A stage was erected and small children performed song and dance to help raise money for the school. Then the singing and dancing began for the adults which lasted hours. At midnight, everyone went down to the water’s edge where they set afloat beautiful little rafts they have constructed out of palm fronds, and flowers, incense, and candles. Prayers were said, and the worries of the year were cast adrift with the floats out onto the ocean. It was quite beautiful watching the hundred of candles float out to sea by the light of the full moon. See David’s more detailed account above.

This morning we were scheduled to go diving again, but I woke up at 5AM with a horrible stomach ache and we canceled. We were glad we did because as soon as the boat left it began to rain heavily and many of the people on the boat got seasick. We walked back into the main town by the port today, Mae Hat, had lunch, and walked around. There is not much to it at all. All the restaurants seem top have the same menu, catering to tourists, with western food done not very well, and Thai food done only slightly better. It’s also more expensive here than we anticipated, we hope due more to the fact that we are on an island, than to all of Thailand in general.

We made great friends with a young couple from Sweden, Marlene and Martin. We were very impressed with their maturity and experience for such a young age, 19. They were both very experienced divers (Martin was an instructor) who were used to diving in the frigid waters of Sweden. They both attended “high school” away from home, specializing in Marine Biology and knew quite a bit about the ocean. Both spoke English very well and we had fun discussing the differences between American and Swedish culture over dinner.

The Swedes…

All in all, the diving on Koh Tao was not very good, though I think it’s mostly the weather to blame. We went out one more time and the seas were so rough everyone was seasick. It was better to be in the water than on the boat. Unfortunately, we had to swim through heavy surface current and high swell just to get to the dive site from the boat. Then there was virtually no visibility under water and a hard swim back to the boat. I decided to sit out the next dive with our new friends and of course, everyone said the second dive was better!

November 11, 1998    
Koh Tao to Bangkok

 We haven’t been able to write for over a week now. This is because the power at the guest house in Koh Tao was run by a generator and so unstable (blackouts and power surges) that we were afraid to plug in the computer even to charge it. So I’ll have to play catch up now.

Because the weather was so bad, we actually had a hard time leaving the island. The boats only run sporadically and we had to check every day to see which one was going. On the day we left, we had hoped to catch a speed boat to Chumphong which would have only taken 2 hours. It wasn’t running, only the slow boat (5 and 1/2 hours). So we took it, not knowing when we’d have another chance. The boat was an old fashioned fishing vessel, not a ferry. The upper deck is used forpassengers and is covered , leaving only about 4 feet of head room, not enough space to stand up. People are expected to sit or lie on mats during the journey. We got on early and watched as the crew continued to pack  people on, leaving no room to walk, and barely enough room to sit. Just before we pulled away from port Marlene and Martin jumped on, having decided to leave at the last minute, and we shared our mats with them. Everyone spent most of the journey lying on their back, trying to avoid being seasick. The boat was rocking and rolling through the swell so much that people were hanging out the windows, vomiting. The boat pitched so far from side to side that I thought we might tip over and I was happy that I was sitting by the door with the life vests.

On the ferry from Hell.

Once we got to the port in Chumphon we had a few options on how to get to Bangkok. Right from the port, there are minibusses that take 6 hours and go directly to Bangkok for 300 B. These arrive at 10 PM. There are taxi pickups that go to the train and bus stations in town for 20 B. We decided we wanted to take a sleeper train, arriving at 6 AM in Bangkok, giving us more time to find a place to stay. When we got to the train station at 4 PM we discovered that the 8 PM train only had 3rd class seats and arrived at 6 AM, or we could wait for the 9:30 train and get sleepers. Lower berth sleepers cost slightly more than upper berths, but they are also slightly larger. These cars are air-conditioned and bunks come with sheet, pillow, and blanket and even nicer than the Malaysian trains. This trip cost us about 550 B per person. If we had taken the 3rd class seats we would have had to sit up all night, but it would have only cost about 180 B.  This train actually arrived after us because it had more stops.

Onward to Bangkok in the next post…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh what a nightmare! I went to Koh Tao in 1996 for the first time and the journey there and my first experience of a Thai island was amazing. Sorry your trip was such a rip off. Great that you have you’re memories in long form. I only kept scattered notes in a small diary.

    1. Ultimately it was fine, only the process of getting there which was a struggle! 🙂

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