25 May – 1 June 2015
The fifth entry in my Southeast Asia journal.
Siem Reap/Bangkok/Chumphon/Ko Tao – Day 48/49
Today was the start of an enormous journey down the subcontinent, and because the journey was so long and we basically pulled an all-nighter, I’ve listed both days 48 and 49 as one because, truth be told, I’m not quite sure where one ended and one began.
We woke up in our lovely Cambodian hotel and headed to the airport, to fly on an airline known as Cambodia Angkor Air. It’s the oldest looking plane I’ve ever seen and Sophie of course Googles the track safety record of similar airline models. Under the wings are little helicopter-blades in the place of the ‘normal’ engines we are accustomed to. It’s a short journey to Bangkok. There is some turbulence, but it’s not at all bad. It’s a strange sensation being back in the airport where we started, it all seemed so long ago now [and this is at the time of writing!]. We took the familiar taxi journey into the town and headed to the train station. There we booked tickets for a sleeper train down to Chumphon, the stop-off resort in south Thailand to make the island hop to Ko Tao. We got the tickets for really cheap, and were even allowed to store our luggage in the station’s office for free! With some time to kill we headed to the Paragon shopping center where we’d met Grant and Dawn, Sophie’s Dad and step-mother, last time around. I’m hangry and we eat junk food while Sophie leeches off of the Costa WiFi to look for accommodation on Ko Tao. Then the time comes for us to taxi back to the station. This time the sleeper train has plenty of westerners on, and a man has to come along and convert our chairs into beds. The train is also different from the others we’ve been on in that there are no rooms, just beds spanning down the length of the train. There’s a lovely Chinese man sleeping below us next to his wife. The journey on the train is nine hours in total, but the way it works out means we have to set our alarms for 4: 30am and get off at dusk. Strangely the lights don’t go out as one would expect, so we both starve of sleep. We got off the train and sat on the platform as the sun started to rise, waiting an hour for a bus to arrive and take us to the pier. We passed the time with a nice Geordie couple as the bus took us there. At the pier, we discovered that the boat to Ko Tao is actually three hours and not one hour in length. The sky is also overcast and it’s cold; on the horizon scores of fishing ships are trawling the sea. We sit and talk to our new friends, and an interesting in-boat movie starts for us to watch. But for whatever reason the film didn’t start playing until more than an hour in, meaning there wasn’t time to see the ending before docking. We’re hurried off the boat and, after we collect our bags, are then mobbed by taxi drivers and herds of tourists waiting to get on the boat and leave the island. It’s tourist central. Shops; 7-11s; info centers. There’s a part of me that now appreciates Koh Rong on a finer level. Koh Rong is often said to be similar to what Ko Tao and Ko Samui were like decades ago. Whereas Koh Rong barely had electricity, on these islands life was almost indistinguishable from the mainland. And Ko Tao is supposed to be the most recent of the famous Thai islands to be ‘discovered’, meaning Ko Tao is really the Koh Rong of Thailand.
We arrive at our destination, a place called Captain Nemo‘s, and the French owner browbeats us for misreading his email and tells us we must stay for two nights, and not the one night we wanted. This is because Ko Tao he says has to import water from the mainland, making it “90 times more expensive”. That’s why he’s so against one night stays and washing the bed sheets every day. We’re led up to our room, which is mediocre. After all that traveling, we’re starving for some real food, so we head to a place called Costa del Sol for food. Then the Frenchman’s (Thai) wife shows us a map and gives us a book of Ko Tao. I receive a strange WhatsApp from my Mum, asking me to call her. I do but my brother answers and talks about the news, and then the connection cuts out. We eat again at the end of the night, in a pleasant place as the sun sets called Prainees. You have to take your shoes off and walk across the wooden floor and sit on the cushion on the floor at the table to eat. I have Pad Thai, it’s delicious. We have a drink in a place called Reef bar and find a 7-11 for a late night toastie. 7-11s, the single greatest thing about Thailand, it’s good to be back!
My Mum phones twice at 7am, and I get a horrible feeling something terrible has happened, especially with that weird message the previous day. I answered, and my Mum told me that the family stayed up late together, so they could phone me in the morning. My Grandma had died. I couldn’t believe it at first. I said something along the lines of, “Are you kidding. That’s my worst nightmare”. It was indeed my biggest fear of going away for so long, though I never expected it would actually happen. It was one of the darkest and most difficult moments of my entire life. The phone call ended and obviously I couldn’t sleep any longer, so we dragged ourselves up while I tried to comprehend what I’d just heard. We decided to take a walk to a beach the Frenchman told us about, a seemingly gorgeous beach “like a postcard”, that not many people know about. Despite my mood, I couldn’t help but take in the beautiful scenery as we walked on a public footpath under the fringes of jungle, with the ocean on the other side. It’s hot and laborious, though. We saw a large lizard that I initially thought was a snake, and big millipedes on the path. After about half an hour’s walk we reached the beach, and it does look just like something you’d find on a postcard or a desktop screensaver. There are palm trees on the beach, but the sand is not like the flour we had on Koh Rong, this time it was pebbles and shells that make for uncomfortable – even painful walking barefoot. I left Sophie to sunbathe, needing some time on my own, and found a place between some rocks where the water lapped the shore. Large black crabs scuttled about on the rocks, going about their business. The water itself was scalding hot and shallow, stepping in was not comfortable, and you couldn’t see the sharp pebbles to avoid them. We also saw what looked like water balloons washing up in large numbers, with little black dots in the center. It was really weird. One tourist dropped a rock on one to smash it open. I didn’t try to touch them, thinking they were some sort of jellyfish (a little research later revealed them to be ‘sea gooseberries’). Really strange. We left the beach before sundown to have food and a drink before bed.
The Frenchman insists snorkeling is the best way to see the island, the cheapest and the most fun, so we do it. A boat takes us from the pier and circles the island, making numerous stops on each side to drop anchor and see what little fish are there. Without any advice, or even asking if I’d snorkeled before, I’m given my gear and our group jumps in. I hated it at first, and was completely surprised/disappointed by how much of a shit bag I was. I was so confident going in, and this was snorkeling – I wanted to go diving! I take a lot of water in my mask and have to readjust it constantly, all using up energy and while I’m floating in the open sea! I tried to use flippers but they were too big, and I barely saw a fish. Two stops later I started getting used to it. I relaxed to the idea of ‘breathing’ under water and though I still take on a little in my mask, I’m much more confident. There’s coral around the coast, and it’s more pronounced at this stop. The coral itself looks not of this earth; some of it resembles human brain, in my opinion. Others looked like giant flat mushrooms or lily-pads, others popped up like tendrils. I spot a long fish that I thought was an eel, I didn’t see another one like it. Sophie and I then spotted a shiny fish, a bit like a holographic baseball card. Suddenly fish were everywhere: little blue ones, yellow and black stripey ones, all sorts. Then the crew of the boat started feeding the fish with fruit and rice, and so many rushed toward the food that I could not move my limbs to swim without bumping into dozens of them. I took a piece of food in my hand and the fish nibbled at it gingerly through my fingers, and as soon as I let it go they swarmed it. One of the crewmen captured a fish in a bag and gave it to me to put it back in the water, and one of the westerners snorkeling with us had a scab on her leg ripped off an eaten by a daring fish. We completely circle the island, reaching Nangyuan: a chain of three little islands joined by a sand bar and apparently considered one of the most beautiful on earth. If the name is not clear enough, the sand bar is just a strip of sand that joins the islands like a bridge, there is water on both sides of it. Although it looks stunning, the sand is still rocky and the water unpleasantly hot. We have two hours to enjoy before the boat takes us back to the Ko Tao pier. We take a stroll along Sairee beach in the night, which is the popular strip on the island, and Sophie and I talk emotionally about life and death over cocktails. We then play pool to take our minds off of the subject.
Addendum: There was a humorous hoarding on the stroll to Sairee beach with the image of a backpacker on it. It said, “I may look farang, but my wallet is not farang”. “Farang” being a racial term to describe white Europeans. Presumably this refers to the juxtaposition of the relatively wealthy whites who holiday in Thailand, to the niggardly student-like reputation of backpackers who probably aren’t as generous with their tips.
We book more nights at Captain Nemo‘s which in hindsight was not a good idea because every time I stepped into it my heart sank, thinking back to that phone conversation with my Mum. We got a taxi to a gorgeous looking beach we spotted snorkeling the previous day. It’s called Freedom Beach. It’s beautiful but again with an unpleasant water temperature and sharp pebbles. Amazingly we run into Schnibs and Rach who we had met up with in Chiang Mai nearly two months ago. Schnibs can’t help but laugh hysterically at the absurd coincidence. The only problem is I’m not really in the right frame of mind to laugh and joke. Sophie and I head to a beach side restaurant, leaving Schnibs and Rach with their friends, wading through a stretch of shallow sea into another bay to get there. The restaurant has a refreshing pool to jump in. It’s here I realise that I need to stop wallowing around in self-pity and actually take the steps to get home for my Grandma’s funeral. This was a heartbreaking decision for me to make, because selfishly I was thinking about this grand adventure that Sophie and I were having – the time of my life, and at the time there was no certainty at all that Sophie would have her sabbatical extended, or that we would be able to afford to come back out. So I thought this was it. I couldn’t miss my Grandma’s funeral, but I also couldn’t believe that this trip, that I had quit my job and saved up so much for, was going to end so tragically and abruptly. We waded back to Freedom Beach and the crabs scuttled on the rocks away from us as we passed. They freaked Soph out a bit because they essentially look like over-sized spiders, and entire rocks seemed to be alive with them. We taxied back to the hotel. After showering and grabbing lunch I then phoned Mum and my brother. We then emailed STA travel, telling them we needed to re-route and change the dates of our return flights to match an early departure from Thailand. Luckily we had insurance in this case, so the flights were changed at no extra cost.
Ko Tao/Ko Pha Ngan – Day 53
We checked out from Captain Nemo‘s and waited in the hot sun with our bags for a boat off the island. Our boat is for Ko Pha Ngan, a bigger, more tourist-ey island to the south of us. Our original plan had been to island hop southward, back to the mainland and eventually into Malaysia, but with what happened we’re left with two days on Ko Pha Ngan and then back to England. (It took STA up to 48 hours to alter our flights.) The boat journey is smooth, one hour, and we slept the entire way. Immediately I felt, the place had a better vibe than Ko Tao. It’s bigger, more built-up, and has good infrastructure. (Ko Tao in comparison had poor roads often impassable without a 4v4.) For 100 baht each a group of us are taken into the back of a truck and driven to our hotels. It turns out its three days before the Full Moon Party so the tourists are alive with anticipation. It makes me feel even shittier hearing a Dutch girl telling some new friends that she’ll “See [them] at Full Moon”. The island has some gorgeous beaches from the view of the truck, as expected. We reached Milky Bay, the name of our resort (yes, this time we stayed in a resort) and our ‘room’ was actually a hut/bungalow near the beach and pool. Although it undeniably was nice and the staff were lovely, Soph enjoyed it more than I did. We spent the day organizing our journey home, which was very stressful, and we lay by the pool to relax. In the night we ate good, cheap, rice (59 baht) and played pool.
Most of this day was spent securing our trip home and brainstorming ideas about getting back out to Asia. We played by the pool and I took long walks on the beach to clear my head. The resort was actually really quiet, and we’re often left alone (the summer months are considered out of season). It wasn’t until 8pm that everything was sorted, though, and we could finally enjoy ourselves knowing I would be home in time for the funeral. Sophie managed to get her sabbatical extended, and we booked flights back out after a week at home. Although this severely damaged our budget, we were confident we could sort something for the next leg, even if it meant sacrificing a meal a day and staying in even cheaper accommodation. I ordered food from the restaurant and when they gave me it, it was covered with ants. I complained and they just removed the ants and gave it back to me again but I demanded my money back. Our last night in Thailand, we went to the 59 baht restaurant and played pool. Most of the people in the bars were actually prostitutes, and we even played a game of pool with one.
Ko Pha Ngan/Surat Thani/Bangkok/Dubai – Day 55
An intimidating start to a miserable journey, but weeks of slow boats and coaches have made for good practice. It goes smoothly, starting with a boat departing from Ko Pha Ngan to Surat Thani on the mainland. We got an early boat because the weather was good, and we didn’t want to chance a turn in fortune that would have us miss our flight. It lasts an hour and a half. From there another hour and a half journey on a bus to the airport. Then five hours until we can check-in. I remember watching the sun set from the airport, it sets remarkably fast near the equator. I suppose that should be obvious but I had never noticed it before. The flight from Surat Thani airport to Bangkok was one hour, we could have taken the sleeper train but absolutely did not want to risk it. Then in Bangkok airport we waited another five hours to board our Emirates flight for another eight hours of travel to Dubai. In Dubai we sat around for another three and a half hours before jumping on another plane for another eight hours, and after that I had to take the train from Birmingham to Liverpool, approximately an hour and a half…
This was the end of part one of our journey, but it was not the end.