Its 11:05am, and I’ve just ordered poached eggs on toast for breakfast. While its being prepared I head back to my dorm and finish packing my bags. Then the door opens – it’s the owner, and my bus has arrived 25 minutes early.
And so the Thai travelling experience begins. In a mad scramble, I finish off stuffing my bag, take them out to the minibus and then remember I was going to send an email to my next accommodation, the diving school, to confirm my place on a course and a pick-up time from the pier.
I’m travelling from Koh Lanta, just off the south west coast in the Andaman Sea, northwards and over the mainland to another island in the Gulf of Thailand called Koh Tao, a divers’ paradise where I will hopefully become a qualified diver. It’s a journey of some 400km, give or take, and a huge chunk of the route back towards Bangkok – and ultimately, my flight out of the country. Most journeys end up being an experience though, so I’m writing this as I go along to give a flavour of what happens and some of the people I meet.
I’m soon getting scowls from the driver who is waiting for me to get onto the silver minibus. I’m giving him equally big internal scowls while searching for my laptop and pointing to my watch to tell him he’s the one who’s early. He points to a nearby bungalow resort and says he’ll return. I hope so – my backpack is now in his possession!
By the time I’d said goodbye to Luke and his family at the Sonya guesthouse and restaurant, grabbed some biscuits and a bottle of water for the journey, sent an email and swapped Man United’s De Gea out of my fantasy football team (highly important), the minibus had arrived back.
I clamber inside and take up position on one of the single seats by the window. After three months of roaming around southeast Asia in transport like this, you quickly learn which are the best seats. I lucked out on my journey to Koh Lanta and got wedged into the back with a mute French guy and about fifteen bags and suitcases. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had.
“Gosh its so cold back home right now,” broadcasts a Canadian at the front, preaching to a Norwegian couple. I knew she was Canadian because she took great pleasure in dropping it into conversation in every other sentence.
“Canada is so big I can get to Europe quicker than flying to the west coast…”
“Travel really is good, you learn so much from it…”
“Have you been to Cambodia? You really should, its fascinating.”
“Did you see that cruise liner that sank. The captain took a wrong turn.”
“I miss snow. I miss home cooking. Don’t you miss home cooking?”
“I’ve been travelling for two whole months can you believe,”
“I’m taking two tours and travelling independently in between…
And so the verbal assault went on, with the poor couple wistfully nodding and humouring their new friend at the front, who seemed to be suffering from a severe case of the tongue trots.
“Is this going to go on for the whole three hours to Krabi,” a fellow traveller rolls her eyes and smiles at me in the back.
“Hey, you know what, the aircon in these minivans helps soooo much, doesn’t it,” comes a Canadian voice, bang on cue.
“I think so,” I ruefully reply back, reaching for my netbook to write this very post and take my mind off the older north American’s travel memoirs in front of me.
Gradually the minibus fills up as we head north through the island and towards the first boat crossing of the day. There are 13 of us inside, each seat taken, and the air conditioning was actually pretty ineffective. The first boat takes us across to another small island, where there’s a short 20 minute journey to yet another pier and another boat to take us to the mainland.
Having missed breakfast, I bought some pineapple from one of the street hawkers on the boat, who had a tray full of fresh fruit. I don’t eat a great deal of fruit back home, but if it was anywhere near as juicy and as tasty as it is over here, I would eat a heck of a lot more.
It makes you realise how the transportation to Europe really does take the freshness out of it – and my family and close friends would, I’m sure, be surprised to know I’m regularly buying fruit here (My good friend Siobhan’s recent quote was ‘Norton you monkey, you think one of your five a day is a portion of chips…guilty as charged!)
Its just so much nicer here – the bananas have none of that ‘chalky’ feel about them, the pineapple is sweet and juicy, melons are so tasty. But bizarrely, my pineapple came with a little bag of a white substance hidden beneath a particularly large chunk of the fruit. I’ve heard all about drug mules in Thailand, but the little old lady who sold me it hardly looked like she was about to get me banged up in a Thai slammer. I put if down as sugar – or so I thought. To be safe, I waited until the last two chunks and then poured it on to see the difference it would make.
Turned out it made a huge difference, mainly because it was salt and chilli –very hot chilli – but amazingly, it works! It was a bit like sweet and sour in one easy step. Try it, you’ll be surprised!
It took about 20 minutes to cross the stretch of water separating the Koh Lanta islands from the mainland. Among the vehicles on the strange floating platform of a boat were lorries full of bottles for recycling, dozens of minibuses full of people like me heading all over Thailand, and an ambulance with its lights flashing, not that it was going anywhere fast as it drifted across the murky water.
Back on the minibus, the Canadian woman had moved to the front seat for some reason. She’s going to Bangkok – again, I know this because she mentions it every few minutes. I manage to keep her out of earshot by nodding off, only waking up when we arrive at a travel agent shop in Krabi.
This is the point where we all change over into another bus – a familiar arrangement for anyone who’s travelled around this wonderful country. It gets a bit annoying sometimes – and some of the changeover points can be nothing more than a shed in the middle of nowhere – but with this being the only effective way to travel around, they are the equivalent of changing trains at a railway station back home.
It was a two hour wait for my next bus, but thankfully there was wifi so caught up with a few people from home and cleared some of my ever expanding inboxes that needed a reply.
“You’d better move that bag before someone trips,” says the Canadian to a guy sat nearby. The bearded, cap-wearing chap obliges, not that it was causing much of a problem, but he joined the ever expanding group of people who were rolling their eyes more and more frequently at her inane comments.
At 4pm, the next minibus arrived, and we were driven around Krabi picking up passengers from a variety of different travel shops in the city, thankfully without the Bangkok-bound Canadian motormouth. By the third stop, we were almost full – with a warning that there were five more still to get on. Worried looks were flashed between us. This might get a bit full!
As well as being full, it was quite stuffy and hot inside too. I asked three Canadian girls behind me if they were hot too, and they encouraged me to turn the air-con up on a dial in the roof. I did – and it was promptly turned down again by the driver.
“You don’t need, you only hot because you been walking around, you will cool down in 10 minutes,” the driver says.
I held off from saying that I’d actually been sat down on Facebook for the last two hours, but was still hot. The girls behind me looked disappointed.
Then we stopped and picked up the remaining five passengers – and there were some familiar faces. It was a group of girls from Brighton who I had travelled over from Koh Phangan on the overnight ferry with earlier in the month. We all asked how our stays had been, and then I warned them it might be a cramped journey.
Low and behold, it was – especially for one of the girls who got stuck with the front seat, complete with everyone’s bags. Not that this is unusual – most buses ive been on have been like this.
With the music on though, everyone was in a good mood and talking about various mishaps and adventures along the way, from someone being arrested in Bangkok for knocking over a beer dispenser, to some getting drunken tattoos – including one that looked more like a safety pin – to mascots called Stuart, and of course there was much passing on of tips, like the 7-Eleven bar crawl and how you would get to Pai from Chiang Mai.
The journey to Surat Thani took about two and a half hours, including a delay while three of the girls stopped for a comfort break in a bush.
It turns out most of them had done a summer season together in European holiday resorts, which is how they knew each other. They were great fun, and the journey passed quickly.
Next, four of us were unceremoniously dropped off at an office in a quiet residential street in the city. We got some drinks from the chiller and began talking. There was Justin and Liam, a couple of guys from Nottingham who were travelling the world together, and Jamie, a lifestyle or health coach from New York.
Some menus were thrown on the tables in front of us, and the woman behind the desk was obviously waiting patiently for us to order some dinner. We thought we were waiting for more people or another minibus to take us to the pier, but instead, her patience for us to order something obviously ran out and she appeared at the front of the office in a pick up truck.
This was to form our next mode of transport, and is nothing unusual in Thailand. In vehicles which are normally used on farms or for moving bricks and sand around building sites back home, here they are used to move people – and its actually quite fun. I now think nothing of clambering into the back, making a makeshift seat out of a backpack, and relaxing in the fresh air watching the traffic and the world passing by.
Justin and Liam were in the back with me, and it turns out they too had travelled to Asia by using the trans-Siberian railway, but instead of stopping, had done it all in one go for six days. We reminisced about our time and experiences of Russia and the rail journey for a while before arriving at our next mode of transport, the night ferry.
It leaves at 11pm, giving us three hours to occupy ourselves. As is often the case on journeys, the main way to do that was by drinking Chang and eating something.
In our case, it was helping ourselves to street food on sale at the night market that surrounds the quayside in Surat Thani. We walked around first, and found an amazing sight – hundreds and hundreds of chickens and ducks, all boiled and hanging from hooks or piled waist high in huge vats.
Its an odd sight, particularly because they all still have their heads attached, but they were selling well, and the smell drifting through the air wasn’t a bad one. Its possibly a big thing because of the forthcoming Chinese New Year.
We continued our walk through the noisy market, passing tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables, old ladies snipping the ends off thousands of tiny chillis, coconuts being trimmed and prepared, people shouting and gesturing to one another. It’s a busy market, and cheap too. Coconuts and whole pineapples sell for 10 Baht each – 20p – and they are as fresh as you’d ever find them.
We sat by the river and took it in turns to guard our bags while we raided the street stalls. First up for me was some marinated barbecue chicken, which while tasty, was tricky to eat because of the bones still running through it. Jamie had a delicious looking platter of duck, chicken and pork on rice, with a deadly portion of chilli dip. The lads from Nottingham had some large Singha beers.
Still hungry, I then went for some Pad Thai, freshly made by a pretty girl on one of the stalls. She was joking with me about what noodles I wanted, and I told her to surprise me. I got yellow ones. The meat looked like it was festering in its juices out in the open, and with an overnight boat journey I didn’t want to tempt fate, so went for a vegetable version of the dish. To see how it was all whipped together so quickly – the egg, the spices, the green vegetables (no idea what they’re called!) the noodles and then blasted together in a wok on a gas bottle burner is always an experience, and it amazes me every time just how good their simple dish tastes.
Still not finished with the stalls, I went for a banana and chocolate roti, a special Thai style pancake, and an iced coffee. All in it cost about £3.50 for the whole lot, and I was stuffed for the journey ahead!
Now the boat, yet again, is an experience. It’s a wooded thing with low ceilings, so not the most comfortable thing when you’re six foot tall. It’s like one giant sleep-over inside, with narrow mattresses and small pillows laid on the floor. Each ticket is numbered with your mattress. It certainly means you become friendlier with those around you – the distance between each passenger borders on the personal space boundary.
However, in overnight boat terms, I’d known the guys I’m with for a few hours so we were effectively family, and I settled down for the night sandwiched between Justin and Jamie. With the ropes cast off, we drifted away from the quay and all the hustle and bustle of the night market, and after just a few hours on the mainland, I was heading for another island once again.
I actually slept really well, despite the constant noise of fans and the boat engine droning away all through the night. Justin was the first to say good morning as he saw me trying to prise my eyes open just after 7am. I looked outside to see Koh Tao in view ahead of us. I decided to make my way downstairs and look out the back of the boat, when I saw the sun beginning to break above the horizon. When it’s a crystal clear day, its amazing how quickly the sun starts to rise above the waves – especially when its one of the best sunrises you’ll probably ever see and your camera battery dies after one shot. Typical!
After a brief power charge in a socket I found onboard, we were already pulling into our berth just as the overnight rustbucket of a ferry from Chumphon to the north also vied with us for a space at the pier.
We shuffled our way out, dodged our way through the taxi touts and made our way to our onward transport. I said goodbye to my final travel companions of the journey as they headed off in their taxi to Sairee Beach, while I found a driver willing to take me to Chalok Bay to the south.
In another pick up truck, I made my way through the dusty streets to my final destination, stopping every now and again as strips of firecrackers were let off to mark the Chinese New Year in front of us. There were huge smiles and cheers from the locals, some with huge ducks laid out on tables in front of their homes and businesses.
Just after 8am I walked through the grounds of Sunshine Divers resort, a beautiful setting by a quiet bay, with only the sound of waves gently lapping onto the shore breaking the silence.
“You must be Phil. I’m Natalie, great to meet you,” said a tall, tanned smiley woman near an office.
It was Natalie who runs the centre, and who I had been in email contact with regarding my diving course, who gave me such a warm welcome. Its always nice after such a long journey to find a friendly face at the end of it.
And what a journey – 21 hours, two minibuses, three boats, two pick-up trucks and a whole lot of brilliant people on the way. It might be long, and it might be uncomfortable at times, but taking a journey across Thailand is always guaranteed to be an experience to remember!