Southern Thailand...or bust!
Trip Start Sep 15, 2009
10Trip End Ongoing
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So needless to say, our introduction to Thailand was impressively bad. Our travel plan was to get from the island of Langkawi (on the west coast of Northern Malaysia) to the island of Koh Phangan (on the east coast of Southern Thailand). Our itinerary went something like this - (each part with a quick summary of our experience):
1) mini van from hotel to ferry (confusion)
2) ferry from Langkawi Malaysia to Satun Thailand (inappropriate entertainment, and seats made for little people)
3) Immigration from Malaysia to Thailand (wrong information)
4) car from port to bus terminal (more confusion)
5) mini van to Hat Yai (cramped, hot as hell)
6) wait in Hat Yai mini-van terminal (hurry up and wait)
7) mini van to Surat Thani Thailand (darker deeper hotter scarier hell)
8) walk to ferry (scam artist with a smile)
9) overnight slow ferry to Koh Phangan (crowded smelly slow painful hell)
10) pick up truck to hotel (thank god he showed up)
We traveled on October 31st... Halloween back in the United States. As our travel debacle got more and more ridiculous, I couldn't help but think that this was all a BIG TRICK with NO TREAT in sight.
So after a confusing start due to the typical traveler's language barrier issues, we embarked upon an "entertaining" ferry ride from Langkawi Malaysia to Satun Thailand. For our viewing pleasure, the featured presentation shown in the middle of the day with families on board contained mostly scenes where women were abducted/drugged/forced into prostitution/raped repeatedly by their father/later murdering their father. (This would be an appropriate moment to mention that kissing is considered to be too scandalous to be shown on Malaysian television due to immorality issues!) In addition to our mental discomfort, was our physical discomfort. The ferry seating lacked adequate distance between rows of seats for anyone with remotely average sized legs...we could not actually sit in the seat unless we moved our knees at an angle to consume our neighbors' leg space.
After we arrived at the port, we went through immigration, and that's where we were hit with the news. Rather than receiving the 30 day visa-on-arrival at the Malaysian-Thai border that we expected, we could only receive a 14 day visa-on-arrival (our official information was obtained from supposedly "reliable" sources). Crap! We would have to do some creative thinking....we now saw a "visa run" looming in our future, which meant in less than 14 days we had to cross into neighboring country and and then return to Thailand to receive another 14 day visa so we could LEGALLY stay in the country until our plane left Bangkok for Japan 30 days later. Our other less attractive option was to stay in Thailand and overextend our visas by two weeks and pay $600 or so in fines, which just might piss off the immigration official enough that he blacklists us from ever returning to Thailand again. We decided we had to solve our visa crisis at a later time, and pushed on through our next round of confusing language barrier issues to locate our correct transport to the van terminal.
We boarded our first mini van from hell which consisted of 13 travelers in an 11 passenger van + all the backpacks + weak A/C. This equated to three long hot hours of travel to get only halfway across the Thai peninsula to Hat Yai. When we finally arrived in Hat Yai we found ourselves in a tiny waiting room where we witnessed a high turnover of travelers, but yet the staff could not tell us exactly when OUR transportation would depart from this location. So we made the best of what turned into 90 minutes, scoring some food next door.
Then the real hell began as we boarded another min-van for a 4 hour journey on to Surat Thani. Not surprisingly, soon after we started rolling down the highway, our
second overstuffed mini-van exploded at the seams and the back door went
flying open, releasing all of our backpacks to go rolling down the
highway behind us. We screamed for the driver to stop, and a couple of
us went running down the highway to retrieve our backpacks.
Incredibly, when we returned with our items (sans the help of our
lovely driver), he was actually mad with us, snapping at us in broken
English, trying to just jam the backpacks back in. At that point, Keith
who was trying to help him strategically repack the backpacks, had to
yell back. Whether or not our driver understood the EXACT translation
of what Keith was saying we will never know, but the tone in Keith's
voice made it clear- "A#$%&*!!?!!" (If our mini-van had one of those bumper stickers that ask you to report a driver, I would have used it!) Then things somehow took a turn for the worse...a couple of hours later our driver got out of the mini-van, and a new driver took over. After our first driver's performance you would think this would be a change in the right direction. But in a NUT shell, the second driver of this mini-van was definitely CRAZY. And it wasn't just the crazy look in his eyes, or crazy mean face that earned him the CrAzY title. As we slowly approached our destination, he stopped the van multiple times to jump out and 1) have multiple cigarette breaks 2) urinate on the side of the road 3) order food 4) get a drink 5) gamble 6) converse with friends, strangers, space aliens... and let's not forget the one that clinched his "CRAZY" title --> 6) converse with himself. He actually argued with himself a couple of times and won the argument. When we finally got to Surat Thani, we were all clawing our way out of that van with our tread-marked backpacks.
Thankfully, we were greeted at the van depot with a welcome sight- the receptionist's smile appeared warm, and well...normal. We breathed a sigh of relief that this stop was promising to be better. She prepared our tickets for the overnight ferry to Koh Phangan, and said that when her office closed at 9:00pm one of her staff members would walk with us to the ferry terminal to point us to the correct 11:00 pm ferry. Lastly, since it was an overnight ferry, we would need to "upgrade" if we wanted a bed instead of a seat for an extra 200 Baht each ($6 American) in addition to the ticket that we had already purchased at the travel agency in Malaysia. Keith and I quickly decided that we wanted to arrive to Koh Phangan with enough rest to enjoy our day, and for just $6 each a bed sounded like a worthy investment. When the office closed at 9pm we were dropped off at the port. When we got to the ferry entrance, we were assigned a bed number, AS WELL AS the backpacker in our group who decided to NOT go for the "upgrade" to a bed. Hmmm, interesting. Of course, once we boarded we quickly realized that there was no such thing as an "upgrade". The only thing you could get was a bed since there were no seats to be found on this overnight ferry. Realizing that we had just been scammed (yes I know- it is "only" $6- but it is the PRINCIPLE), the boys ran back to the office to recover our unnecessary "upgrade" payment. But of course by now the office was locked up and the staff was long gone. And finally, the overnight ferry proved to be an adventure in its own right. The ferry appeared to me like what I imagine might have originally been a cargo ship, modified to an overnight ferry by placing sheets of plywood in the middle, and numbers painted a slim 12" apart to represent each person's "bed" space. And no comment on the bathroom amenities. The ferry was packed tight with sweaty travelers and their backpacks and locals. Exhausted from the day, we both actually fell asleep for most of the boat ride.
When we arrived at the port, we were SO HAPPY to see that our guesthouse's transport was actually there to pick us up. I had emailed the guesthouse multiple times, each time with a new "corrected" pick-up time... every time we asked a travel rep along the way as to exactly what time our ferry would arrive in Koh Phangan we got a different answer. **Side Note**: For the record, when we purchased this entire trip from a travel agency in Langkawi (as did all the other backpackers on this journey), we did so because several sources indicated that using a mini-van rather than train for this particular itinerary was the better, faster method of transportation, but we quickly learned that this was not the case.
**********************OK....my travel rant is over! Thanks for sticking with me through all that...*******************************************
After ALL that, boy was it worth it! Koh Phangan was beautiful! The place where we stayed (Sabai Beach) was a big splurge on our part...since we were splitting the room with our friends Fabian and Julia, it worked out to be $30 a night for us. (Most of the places we have stayed are $10-$15 a night.)
Putting our travel tragedies behind us, Fabian, Keith and I rented mopeds to tour Koh Phangan to check out the northern beaches. Since that night was going to be the full moon, the high tide engulfed the beaches, not leaving too much room to lounge on the beach.
After a great day, we were ready for a great night...that night was the legendary Full Moon Party.
For the next couple of days, it got a little "monsoony" as the rain would not let up. But this didn't deter us from checking out our first Muai Thai Boxing match. Muai Thai Boxing is like traditional American Boxing, but add in some flying fancy footwork and karate-style kicks. I remember watching a TV special on kids training to become Muai Thai Boxers and how they would kick tree trunks to toughen their shins.
Off the southeast coast of Thailand is a cluster of islands, three of them well known to backpackers: Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, and Koh Samui. Fabian and Julia caught a boat next day to Koh Samui, where Keith and I would be meeting up with them in several days. But first, we wanted to check out Koh Tao so we decided to part ways for a little while and catch our own boat to Koh Tao. Here's a little advice for the weak of stomach- do NOT go on a boat from Koh Phangan to Koh Tao right after a full moon and several days of storms. When our boat hit the open sea, conditions got scary. You know things are not good when people are sobbing, one girl had a freak-out "we are going to die out here on this ocean", and the crew starts handing out life jackets and vomit bags, and *literally* every other person around you is vomiting. The sights, smells, and sounds made for almost two hours of hell. I told Keith that they are going to have to helicopter my dead body off of Koh Tao island if we are ever leaving Thailand. I had never actually seen a person use a vomit bag before, and now I was surrounded by dozens of people with their faces buried in a bag. My saving grace was that I had taken some anti-nausea medication...which unfortunately put me to sleep for the rest of the day.
So our Koh Tao experience can be summarized in one word: RAIN. We were somewhat bummed because it limited our ability to experience the beautiful beaches on this island.
Courtesy of the relentless rain, Keith and I got a little bored. As Keith's chin hair grew longer, I kept joking with him that our travel adventure was an opportunity to go funky and sport a mohawk to match his wacky beard. Finally, Keith conceded and said Why Not? With our electric clippers in one hand, and my fingers crossed on my other hand, I started to buzz up the sides of his hair.
So my rockstar husband and I decided to escape from the rain in Koh Tao and take the quickest speed boat we could find to Koh Samui on the next fair weather, *calm* water day. I took my last anti-nausea medicine anticipating the worst.
One day Keith, Fab, Julia, another traveler Catherine, and I rented a car and driver for the day to check out the island ($9 each for the entire day!).
Keith and I decided to make our "visa run" by spending a week in Cambodia, since we couldn't legally stay in Thailand until our departing flight to Japan at the end of the month. We had heard so many great things about Cambodia from other travelers along the way that it was an easy decision to go there. After our challenging journey from Malaysia to Thailand, we decided to cut out the joys of land and water travel for this particular leg of our trip, and fly to Cambodia. Our flight from Koh Samui, connecting through Bangkok, and onto Phomn Penh Cambodia left at 6:00 am, so I set our alarm clock for 3:00 am. THANK GOD Keith gave our pre-arranged taxi driver our room number. I did a slick move with the alarm clock that I haven't done since my college years...I set the time, but then self-sabotaged those efforts by forgetting to actually turn the alarm on. (Impressively smart move, I know!) So at 4:00 am we were woken up to loud banging on our door...we jumped out of bed like it was on fire, shoved our stuff into our backpacks in record time, and ran out the door for our next adventure.