12.03.2008 - 17.04.2008
Hope you're all well...here are some stories from Thailand..
Well, we (myself, Marcus and Dani and Simon (the South African couple from the Gibbon Experience)) arrived in Thailand at the border town of Chiang Khong on March 12th. We settled ourselves into a mosquito-infested guesthouse and had our first (of many for me) Pad Thai dinner...yummy... But, apart from the food and the fast internet connection, my first impressions of Thailand weren't very good to be honest. All the way up thro' Laos , whenever I'd been able to see Thailand accross the Mekong River , it had always looked very developed compared with Laos (not surprising in fairness). When I wandered around Chiang Khong I felt like I was in a western country...7-11s everywhere, lots of cars...I didn't really feel like hanging around. I know that this part of Thailand (the north) has lots to offer in terms of treks and local minority tribespeople not to mention ancient ruins and heaps of history, but I just felt it would all be more touristy, more expensive and less "authentic" than everything I'd done in SE Asia up until then. And so it was that I only spent about a week north of Bangkok .
I first headed to Chiang Rai (alone, Marcus went straight to Chiang Mai and the other pair flew to the south somewhere) to a hostel that sounded lovely in the guide book – situated on the banks of a river: perfect for just chilling out at. Unfortunately when I arrived it turned out that they were in the process of building a new bridge over the river right beside the hostel…hmm…not so quiet and relaxing then. Instead I decided to head to the hills about 25 km to the north west of the city to another guest house run by the same people (from the local Akha minority hilltribe - so all profits etc go straight back to the village and Akha people work in both guesthouses). The guesthouse in the hills was right in their village. It was lovely – nestled right at the top of a valley surrounded by trees and a waterfall. Very quiet – the road didn’t go any further than the village so no traffic passed thro’. I spent 3 nights there and pretty much did nothing apart from visit the waterfall (walked the height of it and “swam” in some of the larger pools) one of the days with a French-Thai guy called Wasan who was also staying there. There were only 3 guests there that day – lovely! Otherwise I just chilled out, ate lots (great food), drank a little, read lots and enjoyed the views from the comfort of the terrace of my bungalow
After that I headed to Chiang Mai for a few days. Again I did very little there. I was definitely feeling a little jaded from the traveling at that stage and that feeling wasn’t helped by the temperature which was creeping up day by day and sapping all the energy out of me! I did wander around the Sunday Walking Market – an evening market that takes over a lot of the streets in the city centre. Marcus was still in Chiang Mai when I arrived so I went out for pre-St. Patrick’s day drinks with him and Liam, an English guy we’d met in the Mekong Delta who’d been traveling with Marcus for a while in Laos . Unfortunately both of them were flying down to Bangkok the following day (Paddy’s Day) so I had nobody to celebrate the actual day with Apart from wandering around the city centre (Chiang Mai is Thailand ’s third city), I went for a foot massage at the local women’s prison. Prisoners learn trades when doing their sentences, and those with less than 6 months of a sentence left get to give massages to the public in order to save a bit of money for when they get released. These ladies aren’t hardened criminals - I’ve no idea what my lady was in for but I was dying to ask and maybe if there hadn’t been any other customers around I would have.. Anyways, it was a fantastic massage – almost full body. Another thing I did in Chiang Mai was a Thai cookery course – that was really great fun!! We started out in the morning at the local market buying our ingredients with the help of one of the ladies from the cookery school. Afterwards we headed out to the school itself, run by a celebrity Thai chef, and learned how to cook six dishes…and ate them all! The celebrity chef himself was our demonstrator for half of the courses – he had me in stitches laughing – a very funny man indeed with a very subtle sense of humour. The cooking bit was hilarious as well!! As soon as the gas was turned on under the woks it was like a race to get all the food into it in the right order without overcooking any of it…it was very funny but somehow we all managed to cook all our dishes and they were delicious!! I couldn’t believe I’d actually cooked them – I’m not the biggest fan of cooking! I went away from that day stuffed and with all the recipes of what I’d cooked and more – I’m not sure how easy it will be to get some of the ingredients outside of Thailand however… That was pretty much it for Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand – I flew down to Bangkok on March 19th.
I really enjoyed the four days I spent in Bangkok . I met up with Marcus again and we had the great fortune of being put up by two of our friends that we’d met on the Halong Bay trip in north Vietnam (thanks again guys – very much appreciated). That meant that I didn’t see the infamous Khao San Road where most backpackers end up staying… probably a good thing! I didn’t do a whole lot of anything in Bangkok either – we (myself, Marcus, Cayla and JJ) just hung out in the evenings cycling around their neighbourhood to good local restaurants and bars. On March 21st Marcus was flying home to England , so the previous night we bade him farewell with a few drinks…it was sad to see him go even tho’ I hadn’t really been traveling with him for the month prior to that. I wandered around the city a little organizing stuff (posting stuff home, getting a visa extension and other boring stuff..). I didn’t see a single tourist site apart from what I wandered past accidentally. Cayla took me to her hairdresser and I had a very much needed hair cut - the first since leaving Ireland . There were internet facilities at the hairdressers for customers to use when waiting!! I also had my first (and only to date) bottle of wine since leaving Ireland while in Bangkok – they just don’t do wine properly in this part of the world! I hung out with Wasan (the French-Thai guy I’d first met in the Akha village up north) a little bit too while I was there… We went to the weekend market at Chatuchak one morning – that was really interesting, full of some crazy stuff. I felt so sorry for all the animals tho’ – all of them were dehydrated and dying for a drink. What else did I do there….? Really not much…I was still not really feeling like doing touristy things, just wanted to chill out. I did enjoy taking all the local transportation around the city (I really love big cities!), my favourite was the river boats that went along the canal just behind Cayla and JJ’s apartment block… Anyways, enough waffling about Bangkok..
So for me, Thailand really started when I headed south of Bangkok to the islands, beaches and dive sites!! It was the perfect antidote to the jadedness that had come over me from the heat and from having seen too many temples, waterfalls, jungles etc etc… As soon as I arrived at Koh Tao – my first destination – I felt revived and ready to go again.. Koh Tao is the smallest of the three main islands that make up the Samui Archipelago on the east coast of Thailand (i.e. in the Gulf of Thailand ). I stayed at a beach in a bay on the south west of the island. It was lovely – not as busy as the main beach on the island but enough people and bars to keep me happy. Koh Tao is full of dive centres – about 50 I think on the island- it’s a factory for PADI open-water courses and churns out an incredible number of PADI certs each year – apparently only Cairns in Australia issues more annually! I dived with a crew called Buddha View who were great: very friendly, welcoming and professional. My first dive with them was a night dive the night I arrived…it was a pretty amazing start to diving in Thailand – I saw three turtles (had never seen one while diving before), three blue-spotted sting rays (hadn’t seen them either) and three octopus as well as lots of other stuff…it was great dive! I ended up diving a fair bit with them while I was on Koh Tao. It was morning dives mostly and the afternoons I spent on the beach or wandering around the bay – I didn’t actually leave the bay area at all while I was there! Wasan, the same French-Thai guy from the Akha village and Bangkok , came down to Koh Tao while I was there so I spent some time with him too. Unfortunately, on the day I was going to leave Koh Tao I got food poisoning somehow – still not sure what it was – but it meant I spent 2 nights in hospital on a drip feeling pretty crap on the first night. The second night was better – I was able to appreciate the air con room, watch films on tv and generally be thankful that my travel insurance was coughing up for the whole thing! So anyways, finally, a week after I arrived on the island I took the night ferry to Surat Thani and made my way to Khao Sok National Park .
So anyways, Khao Sok National Park is a really old native rainforest area on the Thai peninsula. It would have been lovely to visit for a day or two if I hadn’t spent time in hospital on Koh Tao – but time was precious and I wanted to get on to the Andaman coast on the west, so I only ended up stopping for one night here. I was still feeling pretty tired and not so full of energy after the whole food poisoning episode, so I didn’t go into the national park at all altho’ reports from other backpackers were that it was brilliant… Anyways, at Khao Sok I saw my first real rain in a very long time – perfectly timed on April 1st, the first day of the low season! It was great to sit and watch the rain. It was a real torrential “rainy season” type downpour and it brought out all the colours in the landscape… Little did I know as I sat there watching it that it would be a fairly common occurrence from that point on on my trip! I’m afraid I got a bit carried away with the rain and its effects…
So, the first stop for me on the Andaman coast was Ton Sai Beach . It’s located on this tiny isthmus to the west of Krabi and you can only get to it by boat from Ao Nang as it’s “blocked in” by high limestone cliffs. Most people who visit this area do so for the rock climbing. On the way from Khao Sok I’d met a lovely American girl called Katy, so we shared a room while we were there. The beach at Ton Sai itself wasn’t that nice. But it was next door to a fantastic beach called Railay West (where accommodation is beyond the budget of most backpackers!). While I was at Ton Sai I did a half day rock climbing course that was great fun. I also hired a kayak and mask and snorkel and kayaked around the area stopping every so often to snorkel. The area is all limestone – large rocky islands – think the James Bond movie ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’… It’s a beautiful area. For two of the three days I spent there there were heavy downpours in the late afternoon. This wasn’t so good for sunset-spotting (the Lonely Planet had described sunsets from Railay West as being psychedelic and orgasmic..!), but fortunately my last day there was gorgeous so after a morning hanging off the rock faces, I found the best tree on the beach to sit under (I’ve gotten pretty good at finding spots out of the sun…hence the almost still as pale as when I left complexion…well, shade and factor 50 suncream!) and read until the sun began to do its thing. It was lovely and relaxing… I love beaches
From Ton Sai I took a ferry to Koh Lanta with Ben, an English guy that was staying in the bungalow opposite ours at Ton Sai. For me, Koh Lanta was all about the diving. I’d been recommended a few dive sites worth visiting by a guy who worked in Budda View on Koh Tao and the first of them is closest to Koh Lanta. It’s a pinnacle (well, there are two of them) called Hin Deang. Hin Muang is the other. They’re both the only pinnacles in an otherwise fairly deep blue area of the sea so they attract a lot of big fish life. They’re most famous for manta rays – usually seen on at least 50% of dives there, but it was just about the end of the season when I was there and the mantas were nowhere to be seen. It was an amazing dive site tho’ – I could have stayed there all day! I went there on the poshest dive boat I’ve ever been on!! The previous day, I dived another great site called Koh Ha. The visibility on the day I was there was fantastic and the rock formations were amazing – lots of swim-thro’s including one called the chimney. I’d love to have had an underwater camera there…and on Hin Daeng too. Beautiful I didn’t do anything else on Koh Lanta. It was a fairly quiet island, not one of the most impressive in my opinion but anyone I’ve met who’s been there loved it. I think because it’s quieter than the more touristy islands. We were treated to yet more storms, but some were way off in the ocean and the lightening was amazing!! I’ve never seen such lightening as I have out here over the past few weeks… Our accommodation on Koh Lanta was perfectly situated right on the beach and right beside a dive centre/bar/restaurant – we didn’t need to walk very far for anything!
From Koh Lanta, myself and Ben took another ferry, this time bound for the gorgeous Koh Phi Phi Don. We stayed at Long Beach , which proved to be a great choice during the day but dead at night. Most people stay in the main town on the island. This is Thailand tourism at its worst. I mean it’s absolutely stunningly beautiful, but it’s jam packed with tourists and apparently is worse than ever after the tsunami hit – as in, they didn’t rebuild things to blend in with the natural surroundings or anything.. But it was well worth a quick visit – too expensive relatively speaking to stay very long. Accomodation was expensive given what you were getting relative to other islands. We spent one day on a day boat trip around the islands of Phi Phi (there are a few but only Koh Phi Phi Don is full of resorts – the rest are uninhabited). Koh Phi Phi Leh has one particularly famous beach on it – Maya Beach , where the film ‘The Beach’ was set. I’ve never seen the film (surprise surprise), but the beach is gorgeous. Again overrun with tourists and boats bringing snorkellers, but that’s what you have to put up with there unfortunately. Our trip also took us around a few other islands, the nicest being Bamboo Island – white sand like I’ve never seen before and turquoise seas (all the beaches along the Andaman coast had turquoise blue seas – like picture postcards!!). It was stunning. That was a day of snorkeling, kayaking and hanging out in the shade on the boat…a lovely day – pity bout the number of other tourists! Oh, and we got to snorkel with black tip reef sharks – another first for me And that pretty much was Koh Phi Phi. Really all along this coast it was much more diving/chilling out than doing stuff all the time…much more a holiday feeling than a traveling/backpacking feeling…
So after Koh Phi Phi I left Ben behind and took a ferry to Phuket town on Phuket Island . This was a one night stopover on my way north to Khao Lak where I’d to meet a diving boat for a 4 day and night liveaboard. As luck would have it, as I was looking for accomodation in Phuket town I met a lovely Italian guy called Ivan who was going on the same liveaboard as me. So we shared a room that night (I could count on one hand the number of nights I’ve had a room to myself since Bangkok , or even since Marcus and I went our separate ways – it’s makes things so much cheaper to share..). It was fortunate that I met Ivan as he had the low down on our liveaboard, like that the company would collect us in Phuket town – I was going to make my own way up.. So the following day we were picked up outside our guest house (which incidentally was also used in the film ‘The Beach’) and driven up to Khao Lak for the beginning of 4 great days…. Another small world story as only Irish people seem to experience here – while being kitted out with gear at the dive centre before getting on board I bumped into a girl from home whom I hadn’t seen for at least 10 years – remember Melanie Kocher girls? Anyways, she hasn’t changed a bit!! Unfortunately tho’, the company we were going out with had two boats departing that evening and she and I weren’t on the same one…so it was a fairly fleeting reunion!
The liveaboard itself was absolutely brilliant!! I loved every minute of it. Surprisingly there wasn’t much drinking on board at all – I was one of the last to go to bed every night – and that was at like 10 pm having tried to persuade people to stay up…! The diving was fab. We were treated to three manta rays (or the same one came up to us three times maybe?) on Koh Bon (reknowned for mantas). Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any whale sharks. But the rest of the life was amazing too. Lots of turtles, some leopard sharks, amazing fish and invertebrate life... Oh yeah, the liveaboard trip was to the Similan Islands Marine Park area but we went up north as far as Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock and I think one of our dives may have been at Surin Islands Marine Park. This area is very close to the Burmese border. I hired an underwater camera for the whole trip and had a great time taking pics of all the beautiful life in the area. Some of the tropical relatives of our Irish marine life are so feckin’ class!! I could certainly get used to this tropical water diving lark!!
The day we got back to shore a few of us stayed at Khao Lak and pretty much made up for all the lack of drinking over the previous four days…Emilio’s (an English guy) idea of whiskey and coke on the beach aprés-pub unfortunately took hold, altho’ we never actually made it to the beach as we stumbled upon a private swimming pool in some resort instead and stayed there until the wee hours drinking and swimming…not a wise idea at all for me as I had a long long drive south to the Malaysian border the following day with an early start!! I slept most of that day, only waking up to change mini-bus in different places.. I spent that night in Satun, a town right down close to Malaysia . The following day (April 17th) I took a ferry to Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia – I was very sad to say good bye to Thailand and would have loved more time there exploring the coastline and the beaches and island, and of course more dive sites…but time was pushing on and my budget was starting to feel the pinch of all the diving and of 5 weeks spent in the most expensive country I’d visited to date…still way cheaper than home of course, but it all gets relative out here..
Some pics from Thailand:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157633168587429/
And some pics from the Similan Islands:http://www.flickr.com/photos/niscratz/sets/72157627523581449/
Anyways, I think that’s all for now… Will tell ye bout Malaysia soon enough
Take care xx