Island-hopping Thailand

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Where I stayed
Rubber Tree Bungalows, Koh Mook
Forest Resort, Ton Sai, Railay
Bamboo Bay Resort, Koh Lanta
Sawasdee Resort, Koh Mook
Le Dugong Libong Resort, Koh Libong

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

This part of our trip really epitomised the philosophy that travelling is not about the destination but about the journey, who you meet and what you do on the way. 

The Bangkok to Trang slow sleeper
After dinner and a Leo in Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station, during which we and everyone in the building stood for the regular dosage of the national anthem, we boarded our sleeper train for our 845 km journey into Thailand’s deep (but not deepest due to Malay-Thai tensions) south. We stared out of the windows watching a lively night-time Bangkok rumble by before we plunged into the darkness of the countryside and our own reflections grinned back at us. We were in a bright, sage-green carriage, the bunks folded up as seating for the day-time. A little later the attendant swept down the carriage deploying mattresses, pillows, sheets and curtains, assembling the bunks, making-up each bed and hooking up the red privacy-curtains with the swift assuredness of years of practice. We had two top bunks. Below me was an elderly Thai man travelling home to Surat Thani and below Phil was a wonderful mum with her terribly deformed baby boy with Crouzon Syndrome. Her journey was spent singing and playing with the little fella, feeding him through a tube in his tummy, applying eye drops to his bulging eyes, and always with a look of complete love and devotion. We couldn’t help but wonder whether the little boy’s deformities were a legacy of the Agent Orange/dioxin spraying, the defoliant used extensively by the USA during the Vietnam War; a ‘gift’ that keeps on giving irrespective of the passing of time. Despite the massive increase in birth defects across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,  it seems the only disease the US officially recognises as being a direct result of Agent Orange spraying is Spina-bifida.

We had the best nights sleep on any sleeper train so far and, waking around 7.30am, we discovered the reason why; the train had spent four hours at standstill due to an incident on the tracks. We sat and watched the rain cascade off the coach roof as the train crawled along the track, now out of kilter with the timetable and having to regularly stop and wait for the scheduled trains. Outside was a lush, steamy tropical scene of banana trees, coconut palms, rubber trees, tall flowering grasses, purple-flowering creepers and climbers, made all the more green by the deluge. Around 10am most passengers disembarked at Surat Thani for the Gulf coast islands of Koh Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, leaving only a handful of tourists and locals on board. Two small boys and a girl sped along on bikes beside the track, soaked and barefoot, splashing through deep, orange-brown puddles and waving at us. We eventually rolled into Trang station, six and a half hours late. The rain had finally stopped. On the platform we met a helpful young tourist agent who led us to her office across the street, laughing because she’d never known the train be so late. A week later she welcomed us back to her office and laughing again she said, ‘we’ve had really late trains this week due to big floods and one train even came off the track, but you still hold the record for the slowest train!’

Crashed out on Koh Libong
After months of feeling landlocked in Northern India and Nepal we were impatient to see the sea, so we were very excited when our agent managed to squeeze us into a local mini-van going to the mainland fishing village of Had Yao, and onto the last ferry of the day, a wooden long-tail, to the island of Koh Libong. Libong island is the largest in the Trang archipelago, but its appeal for us was it is one of the quietest for tourism. A rainbow arced high over the palm trees on the adjacent sandy shore. As we sped across the sea channel, the rugged limestone islets silhouetted by the setting sun,  the smell of sea air and the warm spray on our faces had us grinning at each other like idiots. Koh Libong’s taxi service comprised a lean, middle-aged man with a warm smile and the whitest teeth, a rusty 50cc moped and side-car bound together with flex. We puttered across the island under an incredible dark starry sky, pausing to wave at his toddler daughter who was looking out for him on their doorstep, to pick up a head-torch (we had no headlamp), some fuel (from a 1L coke bottle), a pack of cigarettes and a sack of vegetables (that we distributed along the way).  Our driver’s head-torch beam occasionally illuminated the road (a two-lane strip of paving stones that petered out to an orange-earth track), but spent more time illuminating the dense rubber plantations and jungle to our right and left, the twirling shapes of bats, and our faces, stripping us of our night-vision as he turned often to talk to us and laugh. We bounced and sploshed along the jungle track, wobbled over a bridge of slippery tree trunks, and spluttered through the quiet, manicured grounds of the Libong Beach Resort to our destination, the rustic, laid-back Le Dugong Libong resort; our retreat for the next four days The whole journey had been made all the more fun because Paul and Amanda from Waihiki, New Zealand had come along with us from Trang, spontaneously changing their plans. We had supper and a few Chang beers together and watched large hermit crabs, with their seashell homes, ambling around. Later we fell asleep in our bamboo bungalow to the sounds of a gentle ocean swell and the croaks and trills of a nocturnal jungle. Splashing about in the warm, turquoise Andaman Sea off the long, sandy beach the next morning was a definite high point. The next four days were magical and, after the rigours of our Everest trek, cathartic.

The highs of our stay here: the sunsets, our bungalow with its ‘sexy’ (outside) bathroom for US$8 a night, fellow travellers (Paul & Amanda and Mike & Stella, a couple relocating to NZ from Bristol, UK), the amazing food at the Libong Beach Resort (particularly the whole, grilled  noquad and cinequin with lashings of lemongrass, chili and lime), friendliness of the local people, exploring the island by moped and discovering the small Muslim fishing communities, the hermit crabs, geckos and the big monitor lizard that paid us a visit, the laid-back ambience of the resort. The lows: none.  Why did we leave?

Koh Mook
Our departure from Koh Libong was a reciprocal of our arrival, except that we travelled in daylight, and under a low, overcast sky. We were headed now for the little island of Koh Mook to the north of Koh Libong. Back on the mainland we caught a public mini-van around the coast, passing regimented rows of deep green rubber trees, to the peaceful quay at Kuantungku. The sun came out as we waited for our long-tail, watching two fisher-women who’s quiet chatting was broken with hoots of laughter.

After a short moto ride across Koh Mook along a concrete causeway through woodlands and mangroves and down a muddy track, we pulled into Sawasdee Resort. In a prime location, set back just 5m from the beautiful Had Farang beach behind a tangle of mangrove trees, it was so laid back we weren’t sure whether it was actually open. We spent two nights here in a simple, raised bungalow, but we found it difficult to sleep with the waves pounding a nearby reef (its great when that’s all you’re worried about!), so we moved inland by 200m to Rubber Tree Bungalows, a working rubber plantation with clean, concrete bungalows and a really helpful, funny manager. We found ourselves neighbours to Sara and Fredrik, a lovely Swedish couple on honeymoon who were delighting in the fact that Sweden was enduring temperatures of -15’C while they were enjoying the 30’s plus.

Had Farang beach is dominated by the large, upmarket Charlie Beach Resort so we decided we’d support the other small businesses around such as Mayow Thai Kitchen and the Chill-Out Dive Bar where we met Alex, Richard, Pauline. We couldn’t afford a dive, but we drank beer and listened enviously to punters’ tales of spell-binding dives with rays, sharks and beautiful fish. Our sojourn on Koh Mook was dampened by the rain (yet another umbrella had to be purchased). We did snatch an hour or two on the beach between the downpours and we snorkelled over some reefs in the bay, sadly very sick reefs thanks, we believe, to Charlie Beach Resort‘s injudicious use of concrete. We swam in the rain with the big shoal of silver fish that inhabits the bay, and had a fun afternoon kayaking along the coast with Shem and Ruth to the Emerald Cave; a breathtaking site that feels as though you’ve gone back to the Jurassic. We kayaked through the cave, through complete darkness for 10m or so, and popped out onto a golden beach backed by a jungle of giant cheese-plants, tree-ferns, dragon-trees and palm, and enclosed 360 degrees by towering cliffs. A magical place, especially if you can time it right with the tide and the multitude of trip boats as we did.

Tsunami evacuation signs, posted every 10m or so along Koh Libong and Koh Mook’s inhabited coastline, were a constant reminder of the devastation wrought by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, of our vulnerability against the power of the ocean unleashed and the importance of the coast‘s natural sea defences, the mangroves. Investment in tsunami warning and evacuation was very much in evidence. In 2005 the Sustainable Development Foundation Thailand reported that, “Trang Province was affected moderately by the tsunami, except Muuk [Mook] and Libong Island where the destruction of boats and houses was considerable….865 small-scale fishing boats,126 houses were destroyed.” We didn’t know about lives lost and eventually plucked up the courage to ask a local, our friendly resort manager on Koh Mook, who told us that no lives had been lost on his island, but his characteristic smile disappeared for a moment as the memories came back to him. On both Koh Libong and Koh Mook we wandered through relocated communities that had received funding via the Save Andaman Network and the local fisherfolk organization called Trang Small-Scale Fisherfolk Society (source: These communities have the necessary utilities, they lack the personality of the traditional coastal villages, but they are safer by a mile. During our 40 minute boat-ride across the choppy channel to Koh Mook we saw the wreckage of bungalows and the carcasses of uprooted palms and mangrove. The resort on the sandy peninsula adjacent to Koh Mook’s harbour, now a very smart fiver-star affair, had been completely erased.

Drifting around Koh Lanta
We departed Had Farang beach, wading out to a long-tail, which transferred us to our ferry, a Tigerline, waiting out in the bay. Usually completely relaxed onboard boats, we were on our toes today as we’d heard first-hand from Mike and Stella how, just a week ago, their long-tail had stopped to fish people and luggage from the sea after a ferry, a Tigerline, had gone down. Mike told us, “there was no sign of the ferry, sunk without trace, just heads and luggage bobbing about in the middle of the sea. Most people were quiet with shock, a couple were hysterical. But the craziest thing was, loads of people on our boat weren’t bothered. They didn’t help to pull people in, they just sat there listening to their ipods. Their indifference shocked me more than the ferry sinking!” Hearing this we invested in a waterproof bag to keep our travel essentials safe and made sure we knew where the lifejackets were stored. Two hours into the journey north I was just saying to Phil, ‘the chances of anything happening to us…’ when there was an almighty ‘bang!’ The skipper turned off the engine and disappeared down below. Phil was up on his feet saying ‘Get ready, we might need to abandon ship!’ Thankfully, we’d not been breached, but pretty fatally our prop-shaft had sheared and we weren’t going anywhere, except with the current. We were drifting west over a 60m deep channel with Koh Lanta in the distance. The crew were professional and upbeat, calling quickly for rescue and lengthening the anchor and managing to get that to hold. After two hours of bobbing mid-channel, the three long-tails bearing down on us from various directions was a welcome sight. They pulled up alongside and the families, elderly and single women jumped-ship first, followed by the couples and single men. Our long-tail skipper, a man weathered beyond his years by a life on the sea with salt-encrusted clothes and bare-feet, was evidently pleased to be our knight in shining armour as he grinned at us from the stern. He ferried us to the nearest jetty on Koh Lanta’s east coast and with a cheery wave he sped off back to his island.

As recompense the ferry company had agreed to taxi all passengers to their resorts….that is everyone except us. True to form we’d decided to go ‘off the beaten track’, literally, booking into Bamboo Bay Resort, the most southerly resort on the island. Clearly our taxi driver didn‘t want to deal with us. He dropped us off saying simply ‘wait’ and pointed at the dusty roadside. We ate fresh pineapple from a little stall and waited. Fifteen minutes later a huge, gleaming black truck pulled up, heavily tinted windows, jacked-up suspension and massive alloys. Out of it stepped a tiny Thai man dressed in a black, sporting red velvet trilby. He threw our backpacks onto the flatbed and looked at us expectantly as we looked back baffled. All I could muster was “Bamboo Bay?’ He responded ‘Yes, yes, Bamboo Bay. In!’ and off we sped.  Yikes! Had we mistakenly booked some dodgy, pay by the hour-type resort and hence the taxi drivers’ disdain? Thankfully all our fears were allayed as we rounded the crest of a hill and Bamboo Bay panned out before us.

The resort was beautiful and, after we’d settled into our wooden bungalow perched high on the hillside above the sea, we sat on our veranda and toasted our crazy day with a Sang-Som and coke, or two. The next four days we spent just drifting (metaphorically this time), delighting in the palm-lined golden beach, the delicious Thai food in the seaside restaurant festooned with orchids growing out of mossy coconut shells, and the laid-back bar with hammocks, bean-bags and chilled tunes. We shared our bungalow with a variety of wildlife including a big funky-coloured barking gecko and, in our bathroom, a big green-white crab. Before we knew it, it was time to move on again.

Climbers Mecca, Railay
Red Trilby delivered us, in his pimp-mobile, to Koh Lanta’s harbour. Our ferry journey to the mainland, and Railay went without a glitch. Railay is described in Lonely Planet as being that place that everybody dreams about when they think of Thailand, so we just had to go and check it out. It comprises three beaches with associated resorts/bars/restaurants - West Railay, East Railay and Ton Sai. We plumped for the latter as it had the most budget-mid-range accommodation and eateries. Our raised expectations were given a bit of a slap-back as we climbed off our long-tail transfer onto Ton Sai beach and wandered through the village. It’s a lovely setting in dense jungle between beach and towering cliffs and completely chilled-out, but the village felt dingy and the smell of sewerage often permeated through the trees. It’s designed to meet, almost exclusively, the needs and whims of climbers, and there were climbers everywhere, swinging above your head, belaying from behind a tree, bouldering just behind you as you lay on the beach. Long-haired, dreadlocked, shaved-headed, tattooed, tanned, muscular and lean, generally really young, testing their mettle on the innumerable pitches around Railay and looking laid-back and cool in the various bars and eateries. It was a great place for people watching and some of the climbing feats were seriously impressive, but after a couple of days we’d decided it was time to move on. And sadly it was time to say goodbye to Thailand’s islands and coast and head back to Bangkok for the next leg of our S.E Asia circuit. Vietnam beckoned…

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