Sunday, April 20, 2008

I crossed the border to Thailand on foot in the baking sun with an Irish couple and a Dutch guy I’d shared a cab with. We had about 15 mins to catch a train at the station 1km away, so all of us hopped on motorbikes and got to the station and jumped on just in time. My destination for the night was to be somewhere in the Tarutao National Park, so I had 4 hours to Hat Yai where I would move from train to bus. During that time the train filled up and I definitely was not in my seat. A local girl, probably around 16, appeared to have the seat beside me, but she just put her bag down and went, ostensibly, to sit with her friends. She didn’t say anything to me, but the Thai sitting across with whom we’d been chatting said that. Still, I’ve lived in western society long enough to be paranoid of unattended baggage, even if I’m aware that it is indeed paranoia. Whatsmore, with it placed beside me I was doubly worried that there may be something in it that I wouldn’t want someone to think was mine. The girl was nowhere to be seen, and the Irish couple was getting quite worried indeed and it was adding to my own concern. At our next stop we were evicted from our spots and all separated to our assigned seats, and the girl still hadn’t collected her bag. I was happy not to have it sitting beside me, and I kept my eye open for her as I worked my way backwards but I probably wouldn’t have recognized her anyway. The Irish girl did, however, and she did get up as I walked past and walk forward. So I made it to Hat Yai with only fear of an incident to show for it. Silly, no?

By the time I got to Hat Yai I decided to just stay there the night. Progress in Asia is slow, you take steps as far as you can and be prepared to make due however far you get. This seemed a lively enough place and it had already been a long day of travel. I ran into a couple while I was looking for a hotel and made a dinner date with them and then found a hotel. Next on the agenda was a phone card and money changing, then figuring out exactly where in this National Park I was to go. Everyone seemed to be headed to Ko Lipe, and the name rung a bell somewhere in the recesses of my mind, so I booked a trip there the next day and went for dinner. At last, Thai food. We ate at a small stall, some very nice and spicy Tom Yam soup. It was, well, nice and spicy and full of tasty ingredients. I talked with the couple about Malaysia and things to see and do, and they told me of Ko Lipe, and we went our separate ways. I ran into a Calgarian a little later and we sat chatting for a couple more hours until I couldn’t hold my head up anymore. I’d still wanted to use the night to catch up on my blog, but I didn’t have enough energy left to turn my lock. Sleep came quickly and was terminated in a similar manner.

8:30 that morning I was on a mini-bus for the port of Pok Bar just outside Satun, in the southwestern corner of Thailand. 200 baht national park fee, 650 baht ferry ticket, 30 baht minibus ride, and 50 baht island transfer and I was there (cost in dollars about $30). I’d traveled with some people from the same hotel I’d stayed at, a couple Irish women and an English chap, and we met two Dutch girls on the ferry over. The group of us was dropped unceremoniously at the opposite end of the island from everything and trekked for 15 minutes across towards the Porn Resort. Yes, you read that correctly; I’m not sure of the Thai meaning, but rest assured it’s not the same as in English. I checked. However, there were some similarities. The hotel was seedy, the rooms Spartan and dilapidated, and for 300 baht per night, I was going to take my chances looking for something better. I convinced the Dutch girls to come with me and we made our way through the jungle to the south side of Ko Lipe, Pattaya Beach. Here, we stumbled on Daya Resort, with much, much nicer rooms for 200 baht. Sold. The girls wanted to continue looking for something nicer, but by my standards, it was great. Tiled floors, clean, decent washroom, fans, mosquito nets intact, and 100 baht cheaper than that wreck they’re calling Porn Resort.

I did walk with them for a way after checking in, and we went for dinner whilst they were still undecided somehow. I’d had enough and they continued to look around while I returned to Craig’s place in Porn to grab my bags I’d left there. Leaving with my stuff, I took a wrong path and ended up in the middle of the jungle, coming across this remote temple and having to ask two monks for directions, which were most definitely not in English. I did, eventually, make it back just in time for sunset, but with all my bags loading me down and half an hour of walking. This meant it was time for a beer and I ran into the two Irish ladies and sat with them for the evening. After two days of exhausting travel, I was unable to even think about diving like I’d wanted to, so I went to sleep with no plans for the following day. That meant I was free to wake up whenever (which was beautiful), go for lunch, and run into the Dutch girls who had stayed, after all, in Porn resort that night. They were traumatized by rats scurrying all over their room, however, and had promptly joined me that morning in Daya along with Craig. I discovered I’d left my snorkel behind in Malaysia (Kristoffer is now taking care of it), but Craig let me borrow his and I snorkeled around for just over an hour seeing little but clown fish.

Craig and I had dinner, fresh BBQ fish, having given up waiting for the Dutch girls to join us. It was delicious though expensive. The Dutch girls did come by later having likewise given up on us and, as a result of being up all night with the rats, were getting some much needed sleep tonight. Craig and I had a couple drinks at the bar then and had a good chat before calling it a night relatively early. The next day, April 13, was Thai New Year and a festival they call Songkran. Essentially, they bathe all their Buddha statues in water to cleanse the evils of the prior year and this has extended into what is essentially the world’s largest waterfight. Everywhere you go, people are armed with buckets, gallons, supersoakers, all waiting to ‘purify’ you. Trucks have their decks filled with younguns splashing other vehicles and pedestrians. Motorcycles are driven in pairs, one to man the watergun, the other to drive. Roadblocks are set up where you are not likely to pass without slowing considerably and getting soaked by the 15-20 people there. And sometimes, it’s not just water. It’s food colouring and flour as well, making a sticky, colourful paste. I wanted to be on the mainland to see this festival. So I was leaving as quickly as I’d come, zipping back on the speedboat. Tickets for this, by the way, I was able to get for 450 baht. Prices aren’t so fixed as they appear.

The next morning I grabbed a longtail boat to catch the speed boat. I was supposed to do so at 8:15 and was there at 8:20, but I wasn’t too worried – yet – because the speed boat left at 9:00. Then, we pushed off and I saw him tinkering with the motor. He appeared to be changing the fuel filter and five minutes later, as the tension was growing, he replaced it. We might just make it to the other side of the island to catch the boat, I thought. Then he tried to start it. And tried again. And again. Nothing. It kept stalling. Precious time was diminishing. He called to land – as we’d drifted slightly – for help but nothing seemed to come of it. Another boat was anchored near where we were floating and he managed to get us alongside it, and we jumped ship and were off. It turned out that, unlike the ferry, the boat was right off our own beach, so the trip was a short 5 minutes and I was there with plenty of time to spare. We sped off on the speed boat and I was thankful for the big engines as I was trying to catch the 11:00 bus to Krabi. I decided to go here as it would have a lot of activity for the festival. We made one stop at Ko Tarutao to pick up a group, and they wound up being 30 minutes late which meant, I was annoyed to discover, I wouldn’t be catching the 11:00 bus - but I did get the photo you see on the right. We made landfall at 11:10 and I was told there was also an 11:30 bus and then after that the next was at 1:00, so I grabbed a taxi of sorts and made it to where the bus picks up at 11:35. It didn’t matter anyway, there was no 11:30 bus, so I waited around until 1:00.

There was no real urgency other than I wanted to get there and participate. It was perhaps foolish to travel with all my belongings on a day when people were soaking each other, but I was confident my bag’s rain fly could fend off most of the attack. But when I did finally board the bus, at 1:30 as it turns out, I soon discovered that the aforementioned roadblocks were everywhere and the four hour trip would take somewhat longer. I made it to Krabi, eventually, and decided since I was this far, I might as well get to Ton Sai, a beach in Krabi that could only be reached by boat or hike. I grabbed a taxi for 250 baht to the pier and had to wait as the sun sank in the sky until we had 8 people before the boat would go. I began to despair that no 8 people would come at this hour, that I would be good and stuck here, and that I should’ve just stayed in Krabi town. But a family did come and we were off, and all the patience and delays paid off big time. For, as it turned out, we were sailing out amongst the massive limestone pillars in what would be one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen. We made it to Railay West, and I had to walk across to the east and catch another boat before I’d be in Ton Sai. This boat again was waiting for 8 people though there was another boat going right by that was full. They just didn’t want to take me or the other guy.

He was exhausted and yelling, and it got him nowhere. He stormed back onto the beach and I asked the guy why he wouldn’t drop us there when it would mean more money for him? I never did get a good answer, but he just said, “Okay, come” and we were off. At last I was in Ton Sai, I eventually found a place up the path some ways for 300 baht. It’s expensive traveling along, I’m reminded. And then I went to the beach bar after a so-so dinner for the New Year Party. This was good fun, they’d brought in a band from Bangkok that was pretty good for being reggae, and I met a bunch of Canadians there. I took the next day off, that is April 14, to decide what exactly I was going to do here (and when) and just have a look around. Climbing, it seemed, was everywhere, and I booked myself a day of climbing for the 15th and continued looking around. Kayaking, snorkels and dives, all sorts of things to do. I had a relaxing day and met two sisters from Victoria that night. I had a very nice chat with Mel in particular and we agreed to go kayaking the day after my climb.

The day of climbing was excellent. It started a little slow, I have to say, but before midday I and the other English girl who were students had both climbed 30m to a small cave for some nice shots of West Railay. We had lunch, she being finished her half day and me joining Mike, an Irish guy I could hardly understand, for the second half of the day. We did some really challenging climbs and I ‘fell’ for the first time on one of them. Then we clambered through the dark into a cave and climbed up and up in the cave to a beautiful view looking over East Railay and Ton Sai, then abseiled down to the forest floor. From here we did a couple more climbs. One was really challenging but in the end I made it to the top and got treated to a beautiful view, high enough up to see both sides of the peninsula, and it was all worth it. We were back in time for sunset but it seemed like a night when I wasn’t going to meet anybody and indeed it was. I sat watching a guy at One More Bar doing a pretty nice job playing acoustic guitar and harmonica with just a few locals, but that was about it. And I had, for dinner, my first Pad Thai in Thailand, but it wasn’t anything special, not surprising given the last time I’d eaten at that restaurant it was poor as well. I would try again.

On the topic of foods, I had had some beautiful green curry in Ko Lipe, and become somewhat addicted to Mango Sticky Rice (with coconut milk) here in Ton Sai. And I had a warm banana coconut milk almost-soup as a delectable dessert. I’d been recommended by an Israeli guy I’d met here in Ton Sai while having a BBQ chicken leg to try the papaya salad and I did so on the morning of April 16. That, however, wasn’t really anything to write home about. I ran into Mel and her brother Nate eating breakfast and they sat with me and we all had Thai pancakes as well. We were to go kayaking today but Nate wasn’t feeling great so we put it off another day. Instead, I thought I’d take the afternoon snorkel trip to the nearby islands (Chicken Island, etc). I went back to my bungalow to get my stuff and as I was walking back to the snorkel place I heard, “Hello, stranger!” from my left and turning, there were Carrie and Lori, friends from Saskatoon. I’d actually been expecting to run into them somewhere in the next few days, but as far as I knew they were still in Bangkok; I’d just emailed Carrie the night before with information on flying from Bangkok to Krabi.

So it was, you might say, a big surprise to have them walking down the pathway in the ‘resort’ I was staying at. I dropped the snorkel trip and instead we went down to the beach. The beach at Ton Sai isn’t anything special – in fact at low tide it’s pretty much a long shallow rock pool – so we went over to East Railay and then continued on to Phranang. We’d run into Mel and Nate again and they were doing the same thing, so the four of us set up shop on the beach together. It was a hot one, alright, and the water was hardly what you’d call refreshing at 30 degrees, but it was still nice to relax and hang around. We made our way back and split from Mel then went for BBQ fish at the Dream Valley restaurant, not worth the money, and then had drinks up at the Kasbah. Ismail, a guy I’d met when I was hanging out with Mel a few nights back, came up and said hello again and seemed quite enamoured with Lori. We hung out with him for the evening and tried our hand at tightrope walking before going home.

The next day we were up early, I had some more mango sticky rice, and the girls had Thai pancakes. The three of us rented a couple kayaks and snorkel gear for 1000 baht altogether and kayaked out to the islands. 8km, I’d heard, was supposed to take about an hour. Well, we reached the first island, a little clump in the sea thinking we were right around the corner from the others. Coming around the corner – and looking for somewhere to do some cliff jumping – we saw that wasn’t the case. The next island was quite some distance again. An hour later, we were pulling our kayaks onto the sands of Poda Island. Here is where some of the best snorkeling is meant to be and we set out to explore the underwater world. Unfortunately, even with five masks (I’d told him I didn’t think his masks were very watertight) most of the masks leaked at least somewhat, as did the snorkels. I had to breathe out sharply every breath to expel the water. Also, the mask I ended up with had a solid nose, so I couldn’t equalize properly, and it had a ‘nose vent’ for some reason which was letting in a bit of water too. The girls had similar problems or worse, though I’d tried to take the worst equipment for myself.

That done, we sailed around Poda island to Chicken Island, which was a much better experience. It is so named because there is a large vertical karst that looks like a long neck with a head atop it. We arrived at low tide to find a long thin strand of beach connecting it with Tum Island, which was beautiful. And, at last, we grabbed some lunch and energy from a restaurant there. The food was good if overpriced. We didn’t see the chicken head immediately, but after a short walk it came into view watching over the island like a hungry dinosaur. And then it was time to go back. The girls were sunburned and without adequate protection from the sun, it was a daunting 2 hours back to look at, we were all tired, and, well, it occurred to me that we might not have enough in us to get back. Of course we would make it happen, but that the thought crossed my mind at all was worrying. It was a tough slough back, complicated by some larger waves which, though pushing us along (thank goodness) were making the girls seasick. Slowly the beach receded behind us and even more slowly did Ton Sai grow in front of us. The last kilometre was the worst, it felt like we were getting nowhere and breaking every two to three minutes. Finally, we could see huts on the island, then boats, and now, at last, people. I think we burst into absurd laughter when we finally jumped out of the kayak onto land. We wouldn’t do that again anytime soon.

The next day we were meant to do some climbing, but we were all too tired – everywhere – to consider anything of the sort. The girls being sunburned limited options, too, and so we split. Sort of. We both wound up on the beach relaxing a couple hundred meters from each other though we didn’t discover this until the end of the day. I split with them to climb to the lagoon just before sunset (I was hoping to catch the tide up somewhat) and then met up with them for dinner back in Ton Sai at Mambo’s. Afterwards, of course, we went up to the Kasbah and had a great send off before we headed off to the island of Phi Phi the next morning. And we did indeed set off for Ko Phi Phi in what was to be an ill-fated journey. First of all, the weather deteriorated – not badly, but it was gray and overcast which was in stark contrast to the weather of the previous, well, month. The island was also really developed and this wasn’t exactly desirable compared with a place like Ton Sai. Finally, everyone talks about this being the most beautiful place on earth, and it is beautiful, but it’s really not all that much different than where we already were.

We found a place to stay the night and booked ourselves into a sunset snorkel cruise. Two snorkel stops turned into one. A stop along Monkey Beach turned into, well, no stop along a beach that had no monkeys on it. We didn’t cruise down a few canals because of the low tide, but we did finally stop and do a bit of snorkeling and it was pretty nice. Lion fish and everything just below the surface, and lots of needlenose fish too (they look like small swordfish). Then we got off and trekked across the smaller, uninhabited Phi Phi island to Maya Bay, THE Beach beach. The trek there was without camera but plenty of mosquitoes to make up for it. And our arrival at Maya Beach was cluttered with boats in the bay and it had none of the magical look we’d been expecting. I felt especially bad for Lori – whom I’d warned – because her expectations had been so high going into it. I mean, it’s not a horrible place, if you use your imagination to wipe the boats and ropes and signs of tourism gone mad from the scene. It was taxing on my imagination though, and I think mine is still pretty powerful. It did get a bit better as the day waned, but really, how was it going to top the beaches of Phranang and Railay near our home-base of Ton Sai. We sailed home in what was a remarkable sunset only because there was no sign whatsoever that the sun was up, down, or anywhere near a transition. It just slowly got darker. The land that orange forgot. We went to go out that night as well and, at 11 PM, everything was closed. We stopped for a smoothie and I was attacked by a cockroach looking to nest in my hair. Thus ended our stay in Phi Phi.

The next morning, I woke up feeling really sore all over, but I wanted to get up to the viewpoint before leaving the island that morning. I also checked the internet and discovered that Kristoffer was in Krabi so that made the decision for me between Krabi and Phuket. Hiking up to the top was arduous to say the least, though I couldn’t help feeling that I was sweating more than I should be. At the top, I just couldn’t cool down, however much I drank, but I did get a few nice photos from up there. Back down I went, and I tried to have a bagel for breakfast but it took all my energy and focus to stomach the entire thing, nevermind holding my head up. It was then that I realized I was still burning up and had a headache. Great. I was sick and I had a fever, pretty much the one sign that you’re in deep trouble in the tropics. Malaria, dengue, name a tropical disease and they all have one thing in common: fever. The boat ride back to Krabi (I missed the girls and didn’t get to say a proper ‘bye’) only served to confirm that I was sicker than a dog, and hauling my backpack off the boat and negotiating a ride into the city and a hotel was almost more than I could stand. But I did get myself into an air conditioned hotel, and I did get myself to a hospital, and, well, my friends, that story will have to continue next time. But rest assured I’m alive and, so far as I can tell, well, though I can (and will) tell you it was a miserable two weeks…

Thaisland Photos

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