I didn’t get to climb a mountain but I did…
I’ve spent my first three weeks in Thailand in the south. For the most part I have been spending my time on some of Thailand’s islands. Every island is a bit different. So far I’ve been to Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao.
From Hat Yai to Koh Lanta
My start in Thailand had its share of bumps. From my proof of funds stuff up at the border to the literal bumpy drive from Palau Penang to Hat Yai. I had planned to make my first stop in Thailand Koh Lanta. But, after hearing that it takes 10 hours to get there I decided to spend a night in Hat Yai to recharge and split up the journey. That proved to be the right decision. The next day I embarked on what was meant to be a 5 hour trip. It ended up taking 9. I felt so sorry for the girl on my bus the day before that went straight on through to Lanta from Penang. I wouldn’t be surprised if she spent 16 hours in a cramped minibus that day.
My journey to Koh Lanta was one of the worst travel experiences I’ve had so far and it was also the first time I have been scammed. The trip was two parts. Hat Yai to Krabi and then Krabi to Koh Lanta. Well when I got to Krabi I had to buy an onward ticket which should have cost about 300 baht. I paid 600. When we arrived in Krabi the bus driver simply stopped by the side of the road and told me this was my stop. When I asked him how to get to Koh Lanta he made a call to one of his associates who promptly showed up on a scooter to take me to the shop to buy my ticket. After the terrifying experience of balancing on the back of a scooter with all my worldly possessions and weaving through thai traffic I was a little unsure of where I was and what was happening. I knew that I was being ripped off when the lady in the shop told me the price but I paid it anyway. As I found out shortly after I was actually at the Krabi bus terminal and could have gone elsewhere to buy a ticket. Live and learn.
I think that my view of Lanta was tainted by the experience of getting there. My initial impression was not so good. I was pretty underwhelmed. I had booked three nights on the island but instead of waiting until the last minute like I usually do I bought my ticket out of there on the first day. But, by the time I was due to leave I knew I had been too harsh and quick to judge. I think I was just unprepared for how big the island is. You need transport to get around and do anything. You have a couple of options. You can rent a scooter or take taxis everywhere. I refuse to hire a scooter.
a) travel insurance doesn’t cover it. While I was there another backpacker told me that his friend was currently in hospital after a bad crash and was now out a few thousand dollars on medical bills, not to mention having to pay back the cost of the damage to the bike.
b) One of the most common scams in Thailand is to claim that you have brought back the bike damaged and they will hold your passport to ransom until you pay several hundred dollars for the “damages”. I have met several people who have been through this.
c) You actually do need a Thai motorcycle license to drive one. They will rent to you without one of course but you may find yourself in a sticky situation if you crash or if the police happen to be checking.
d) Tourists get injured on those bikes a lot. It is one of the most common ways for a tourist to get hurt while they’re travelling in South East Asia.
e) The roads in most of Asia are pretty questionable and the traffic is downright scary.
Long story short. I just don’t think it’s worth the risk. So that left me with the option of taking taxis which gets pretty costly.
The main reason that I came to Koh Lanta was because of a hostel that I had heard of called the Clazy House. It is a bit of a hippy community and has been built over the years by the people staying there. I thought it sounded pretty cool. I decided to have a look before booking in to stay there. I’m very glad I did. I love the concept behind the place but the reality doesn’t live up to it. You sleep on thin mattresses on the floor of bamboo huts in a muddy swampy area. It is no wonder that the hostels in that area have a bad reputation for dengue fever. I decided to stick with the hostel I was in.
On my second day in Lanta I met a cool girl from the US and hung out with her for a couple of days. That night I tagged along with her to the next beach where she was meeting a friend before heading to a Jungle Moon Party. I must admit that I much preferred that beach over Long Beach. I wish I had stayed there instead. It was also there that I encountered the drug culture for the first time. Most of the bars actually sell Magic Mushroom shakes and joints as well. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m pretty straight edge when it comes to drugs so I didn’t try any of them. I did get to see one gentleman at the Jungle Moon Party tripping after a couple of shakes though. He was probably in his 50s and I don’t think he was in any state to mind us laughing at him. We didn’t stay too long, but it was still a fun night.
On my last day I decided to head down to the beach for dinner. It was raining which was annoying but I was still rewarded with a pretty sunset. There is a paved walkway from the main road that comes out around the middle of the beach. Since it had been raining for the last couple of hours a river of the runoff had formed through the sand out to sea. I spent some time snapping photos before heading to the closest restaurant for dinner. It was a nice spot right on the beach and they had little cabanas to sit it out of the rain. I decided on the vegetable pad thai since it was a pretty innocuous dish for someone new to Thai cuisine.
I don’t think I have ever had a better meal in my life. I still dream of that pad thai. The rice noodles weren’t rubbery like most places. The flavours blended perfectly. I loved that they served the crushed peanuts and chilli flakes on the side so that you can add them yourself as you desire. And I now know that pad thai should be served with lime, it really enhances the flavour and adds another dimension. I am tempted to go back to Lanta purely so I can have it again because it has ruined every other pad thai for me. I didn’t take notice of the name of the restaurant but after searching online I’m fairly certain it was the Thai Cat restaurant. It’s right next to that walkway to the beach anyway. Bamboo cabanas. Can’t miss it.
Koh Phi Phi
Being a native english speaker I always assumed the ‘ph’ made the same sound as an F. I have since learned that in Thailand the H is silent. I probably should have known. I mean, I know how to say Phuket and it definitely doesn’t start with an F sound…
It’s pretty easy to get from Lanta to the Phi Phi Islands. There are two ferries each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It takes about an hour and costs 250 baht. There is only really one word for Phi Phi Don as you see it for the first time and that word is: Beautiful. Once you get onto the island though that word becomes: Tourists. Koh Phi Phi is absolutely gorgeous with it’s white sand beaches and stunning turquoise waters which is of course a big draw. Tourism is what the place runs on. But, that’s why I went there. I wanted to go somewhere where it would be easy to meet people. So I booked into a couple of hostels that were very popular and right on the beach where the action is. Not only is Phi Phi a tourist island it is also a party island. Every night sees raves on the beach and they do get a bit wild.
My first night on the beach was my first experience with the infamous buckets. I had run into the girl I met on Lanta who had made her way to Phi Phi as well. She was hanging out with some people she had met at her hostel and invited me along to party with them for the night. I started the night slowly with a couple of disgustingly sweet happy hour cocktails while relaxing on the beach. Then one of the guys insisted on buying a couple of rounds of tequila shots. With a mild buzz going we headed up the beach to watch the end of the fire show at one of the clubs. After the fire show they set up a limbo competition. Everyone that goes under the bar gets a free shot. I had a couple of turns. For the more daring souls there was the opportunity to get free buckets. I saw a few people take up the offer.
Before you ask, no that’s not how I obtained a bucket. I bought one. Unbeknownst to me those buckets contain up to ten standard drinks each depending on the bartender. I finished mine in less than 20 minutes… That was a really bad move. It didn’t take too long for the alcohol to really hit me. I even fell over a couple of times before calling it quits and making my way back to the hostel. For the first time in my life I had made myself sick by drinking. The next day was awful. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve had a hangover and that one was intense. I didn’t fully recover until about 7pm that night. Now that I know how potent those buckets are I’m handling them with caution. I never want to feel like that again.
I went easy on the alcohol for the rest of my time in Phi Phi. I occupied my time with other things, like snorkelling. There are a number of tour options on Phi Phi. I decided to go with Adventure Club since they had decent reviews online and they offered a shark spotting snorkelling trip. Unfortunately while I was there they weren’t running the shark trip because the sharks were in a different area at the time. I was told there was a good chance of seeing them on the Phi Phi Ley snorkel safari tour. I was pretty keen to see the sharks so I signed up for it. Another thing I liked about the tours with Adventure Club is that they only have a maximum of seven spots per group because they use long tail boats. I saw big catamarans from Phuket offloading scores of snorkelers into Maya Bay while we were on the tour and it just didn’t seem like value for money doing it that way. Maya Bay is “The Beach” from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie by the way. It is very pretty but it is crawling with tourists and you have to pay a 200baht fee if you want to actually step foot onto the beach. Personally, unless you’re doing the camping tour or a sunrise tour when there are less people, I don’t think Maya Bay is worth the visit. Maya Bay is the spot where we were hoping to see black tip reef sharks. But, within 10 minutes of being in the water our guide had turned us back. The visibility was awful and it was really rough. I have a feeling that had something to do with the large number of boats ferrying tourists on to and off the beach. I was very disappointed. I was still a good day. We saw lots of fish, a big moray eel and a turtle plus we spent some time swimming in the lagoon on the eastern side of the island. The lagoon alone is worth a visit to Phi Phi Ley.
I decided to avoid the main tourist trail in Phuket. I was hoping for a couple of days to recover from the four nights of almost no sleep on Phi Phi so I picked a place to stay in Phuket Town, away from the beaches and the night life. I only spent two nights in Phuket because I was on a deadline to get to Koh Pha-Ngan for the full moon party and I wanted to visit Khao Sok on the way across. There was an Indy Night Market just behind where I was staying that was kinda cool. Lots of trinkets to buy and street food to try. Because Phuket Town isn’t such a touristy part of the island there is more of a language barrier. You won’t see english translations on the street food stalls there. I stuck to mini pancakes since they looked safe for vegetarians. The night market is on every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
It was a long day of travel to get to Koh Pha-Ngan. When I finally arrived I was a little bit apprehensive. I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to my hostel and a lot of the info on the net told me that taxis are pretty expensive. I followed everyone else down the pier to where the taxis were waiting. The standard fare is 100baht each from the pier to Haad Rin. Getting a taxi was, for once, an easy affair. Once I made it to Haad Rin, or Full Moon Beach, I had a little bit of confusion with finding my hostel. A lot of the accommodation have their own restaurants. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re next to each other. I ended up at one of the restaurants and had to get directions from there.
Haad Rin is definitely the party area of the island. There are a lot of bars around and of course it is the location of the Full Moon Party. You can find a party every night, regardless of the cycle of the moon. I was actually surprised by the quality of the beach. I guess I expected it to be dirtier considering that between 10 and 40 thousand people descend on this area each month for nights of frivolity and debauchery. The locals do a pretty good job of keeping it clean. That being said. I still wouldn’t walk around barefoot. You never know if there is a broken bottle lurking under the sand. I spent 4 nights in Haad Rin over the full moon period before moving to the other side of the island.
Chaloklum bay is vastly different from Haad Rin. It is a quiet little fishing village with not much going on. It’s the perfect antidote to the busy, party area of the island. Koh Pha-Ngan has split personalities and it’s worth seeing more than just one side of the island so that you can appreciate it. I spent my time in Chaloklum bay chilling in a hammock on the porch of my bungalow giving lots of attention to a stray cat that hung around the resort. It was a very relaxed few days to round out my week on Koh Pha-Ngan.
I think Koh Tao was my favourite of the islands. It had a good mixture of party and laid back. I think it probably helped that I met some people in the hostel as well. Instead of being a loner like I usually am I spent my four days there hanging out with them. They encouraged me to embrace the island and tourist lifestyle of sleeping in, swimming and lazing on the beach with cocktails. I even had my first ever massage while I was on Koh Tao. It was an interesting experience to say the least. I went with a full body oil massage which meant I had to get down to my underwear. In an open plan room with lots of other people… But the discomfort of that didn’t last long once the massage started. Though the discomfort returned when I found out that the only parts of you that remain untouched are your breasts and genitals. Even your ass gets massaged (over the towel at least). The massage was painful at times but mostly it felt good and the oil they used left my skin so soft once it had absorbed. I’m actually looking into massage courses so that I can learn the technique. In Thai oil massage they don’t just use their hands, they use their forearms and elbows too. I think it would be interesting to learn.
Koh Tao is a big spot for divers, especially newbies. When I was planning my trip originally I had planned to learn to dive on Koh Tao. Unfortunately because of my last experience I am not allowed to dive again for a while. So I missed out on that. It is not significantly cheaper to learn to dive there so I may do my open water some other time and place. I had wanted to do a snorkel trip while I was staying on Tao but the weather wasn’t in my favour while I was there.