|Final Statistics: Alex & Maz||Total distance: 93,550km|
|Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ||Now settled in Sydney, Australia|
|Final Statistics: Martin||Total distance: 79,698km|
|Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia||Now settled in Bristol, UK|
My name is Bond, Brooke Bond
Thailand, Country 19 (of 21 so far), Diary entry 6th-10th June 2006, Total distance in Thailand: 4226km+2665km
The drive from Chumphon to Krabi took us through mostly flat farmland and was much shorter than I'd expected thanks to the upgrading of the road system in the time since my maps were published. As we approached Krabi we entered the karst limestone formations with stacks appearing from nowhere with caves disappearing inside. It is thanks to this landscape that Krabi owes a lot of its tourist industry, as apart from looking nice it is apparently one of the world's top rock-climbing destinations.
Krabi itself though is a bit of a dump, so we discovered when we got there, and with rain threatening we didn't explore too much, we decided just to book our tickets to our next destination - another of the more famous and popular of Thailand's islands, Koh Phi Phi, about two hours away by boat. We left the car in a secure car park and took the boat out to spend one night on the island.
Actually Koh Phi Phi is really two islands joined by an isthmus of sand, with a long curving beach along each edge and a massive amount of tourist development in the middle. The island was devastated by the December 2004 tsunami which washed over the sand area completely, destroying everything in its path. Of course it is tragic that many people lost their lives, their relatives or their livelihoods in this natural disaster but it is widely agreed that the tsunami actually improved this and others of the neighbouring islands by giving them a well-overdue flush. The locals were not deterred by this improvement though and have nearly finished returning the area to its pre-tsunami overdeveloped state.
It's not all bad though, because the waters are crystal clear and warm, the rocks forming the two islands are sculpted limestone making the place a rock-climber's dream. The beaches are pretty good and clean too, and there are plenty of diving operators there to take your pick from. We opted not to dive due to restrictions in both time and budget but instead hired snorkelling gear from one of the many shops and inspected the coral and fish life that way instead.
In the evening we went out looking for a lively bar but were disappointed. One bar we tried had the usual Thai tourist bar clientele of older western guys with Thai girlfriends, most of the others were empty or even closed but finally we found a bar in a Thai boxing arena that had a few other people in. They were offering free buckets of booze to anyone willing to enter the ring for a mock fight - no chance I thought so we just watched, the highlight being a 6 foot Scottish lass beating the crap out of a 5 foot Scandinavian-looking girl. Not sure why she volunteered for that.
The following morning we climbed the path to the top of the larger island from where the view is simply excellent - even the overdeveloped parts start to disappear in amongst the coconut palms leaving the opposite island, beaches and turquoise waters to speak for themselves. We then returned into the throng of souvenir merchants and took the boat back to the mainland.
On our way into Krabi we had seen a number of signposts for the gastropod fossils, and since neither of us knew what a gastropod fossil was we decided to go and have a look. I can tell you - the gastropod was a prehistoric creepy crawly seashell thing and there must have been millions of the things here as we found large slabs of rock which on closer inspection were composed of nothing but shell fossils. We walked along the beach from one viewing point to the next, and when we arrived there were lots of signs saying don't walk on the beach! Oops, but how were we to know? So we discreetly ducked under the rope and took more photos before casually strolling out of the exit, but there was nobody around to see us. Actually nobody was there to take our money either, which was good because it was not certainly not worth the posted admission fee.
Our plan was to stop the night in the seaside town of Ao Nang, but when we got there and drove through looking for a place to stay, there were no obvious positive features and we decided to press on to Phang Nga which is closer to the piers from where the boat tours to the islands depart, and hopefully a little less crap than Ao Nang. We were fortunate... we found a cheap but clean hotel room and a tour agency with whom we bartered a good deal on the boat trip. The rain was still falling so we didn't explore the town too much. There didn't seem to be too much to see anyway but we found another little night market and fed ourselves on the standard market fare - pad thai and assorted deep-fried skewers with red hot chilli sauce.
The following morning we joined a French girl called Sophie at early o'clock to meet the high tide allowing our boat trip to take us out through the mangrove forests towards the Phang Nga Bay, home to a number of remarkably scenic islands. The formations here are impressive jungle-covered karst formations with sheer limestone cliffs towering out of the sea and weathered over the ages to form caves, arches and stalactites. The boat ride took us past several islands including one called Dog Island - and guess what - it actually looked like a dog!!! But the highlight was the small island called Ko Phing Kan, which is better-known to most visitors as James Bond Island as it was used as the secret lair of the triple-nippled villain Scaramanga in The Man With The Golden Gun. Nowadays the island is covered in tourist tat shops but these are concentrated in the middle of the island making them less intrusive than they might have been as one walks along the paths around the edge of the island, and the views of Ko Tapu, the free-standing limestone stack in the middle of the small bay, are as untouched as in Roger Moore's James Bond era or many years before.
With the tide having fallen since our start, as we returned back towards the mainland there were many more caves and arches visible in the bases of the cliffs. They are much too small for our long-tail boat to pass through so we traded down for sea kayaks. It wasn't clear to me when booking but the kayaks were actually paddled by a guide rather than by ourselves, making it a relaxing experience but I did feel I'd have preferred to do it myself. Following our kayaking experiences in Slovenia where I ended up with a black eye, it was probably for the best anyway though. The kayaks took us through some arches so low we had to lie fully back in the kayaks and into some beautiful secluded lagoons which were completely surrounded by rock making them eerily silent and trapping the heat and moisture inside so they were covered in some bright lush green ferns and other plants. Our kayak ride lasted about an hour taking us through many pitch-black passageways and back out into the bright sunshine to return to our long-tail boat.
Our final stop on the tour was to Ko Panyee. This is an island where some fishing communities decided to establish a village. Consisting of a large limestone rock at the north and a mud-flat area to the south only exposed at low tide, the village itself consists of a ramshackle arrangement of houses built on stilts with a large mosque dominating the centre of the village. The village has seen its share of tourism as well though, and lining the main waterway were large restaurants all offering the same food as any other place in Thailand but at a shocking 5x the price... we can accept a price differential due to such an inaccessible and interesting location but we felt this was taking the p*** so we walked away into the depths of the village and after shaking off the pack of postcard-selling children we found a small restaurant where we could have a very tasty bowl of noodle soup without the tourist surroundings and price-hike. After a quick look at the mosque (walking past only, as we were all wearing shorts) we headed back to the boat and after waiting about 45 minutes for our driver to show up from wherever he'd buggered off to, we boarded and headed back to the mainland.
Unfortunately the rainy season has hit this side of the coast with a vengeance and half way back we drove into torrential rain. The boat had a canvas roof but this was little use against the horizontal rain and we returned to shore thoroughly soaked through, cold and a little bit miserable. We decided not to hang around and pressed on for Phuket, our final destination in Thailand as Charbel's flight home was arranged for Phuket the following day.
The rain had stopped by the time we arrived in Phuket and we found a cheap guesthouse not too close to the noisy bars but in the end it turned out this was an easy task that particular night. Basically, the whole country was closed for the night in honour of the king's 60th anniversary of taking the throne. The king is absolutely adored by the vast majority of the population (presumably he has not embarrassed his nation with messy divorces or shagging around) and locals were all dressed in their yellow T-shirts and crowded round the TVs with candles watching the ceremonies taking place in Bangkok. The bars were not permitted to open, so there we were on a Friday night in one of the party spots of Thailand with nowhere to go! We did manage to find a couple of places that were open and we guessed that they had probably paid a large enough bribe to the police to turn a blind eye, but still it was a bit of a disappointment that out of the gazillion bars in Phuket we'd seen on our previous visit some weeks before, only a couple were open and those seemed to be frequented by western men and local whores.
The next day was Charbel's last and we spent the day doing the last couple of things he wanted to do before leaving...
1. Eating as much Thai food as possible. 2. Visiting the local mall to look at underwater camera housings - we each want to get one but they're not cheap so it'll have to wait for another day. 3. Shopping for Thai ingredients to take home (such exotic stuff may be commonplace in Tesco's these days but they are yet to make it to the "Cuisine du Monde" shelf in the French supermarkets). 4. Oil massage.
The oil massage was quite a traumatic experience. I normally prefer to get to know a girl by sharing at least a beer or two with her before she tells me to strip off but no such good old British restraint permitted here! Behind the curtain separating me from the other customers, and with only a small towel separating me from the masseuse I was coated in oil and rubbed all over. Apologies to anyone eating at this point. The masseuse was obviously an expert in flicking the towel out of the way from where she was working but ONLY JUST leaving my modesty intact, and every time she did it my heart skipped a beat, so though the massage itself was a lot more pleasurable than the Thai-style massage we'd had before, the embarrassment factor cancelled out any good it did and I left the place more stressed than I went in. Even Charbel came out looking pale.
We went to the airport and found a bar there to hopefully watch the first of England's World Cup matches (vs. Paraguay) but again the king was hogging all the airwaves. On every channel was the same coverage of the continued ceremonies and I ended up bidding farewell to Charbel and heading to a nearby bar where it was same same, until finally the channel that had promised to show the football actually started showing it, 25 minutes into the match. Anyone who cares about the football already knows how well we did so I don't need to repeat it, and I ended up camping on the beach not far away. It was my first night camping for a long time and it was nice to be in the middle of nowhere, but it was so hot I slept really badly.
On my own again for the first time in many weeks, the world was my oyster, at least for the next few days anyway. My next commitment was to meet Lara, my next visitor in Penang in about a week. I drove back across to the east coast and got the ferry to Koh Samui, where I left the car and got a speedboat across to Koh Phangan in time for one of the world's most famous full-moon parties on Hat Rin beach. There I met Uschi the vet from Koh Tao, only a short boat ride away, and we both decided that although we were pleased to see what all the fuss was about, it wasn't our thing at all so far from partying until dawn we found a place to hide out until morning when the boats started running again and we could escape Koh Phangan.
A couple of days R&R later I took the ferry back to the mainland and drove to Hat Yai, which is the biggest city in the south of Thailand with a very mixed Thai-Muslim and Chinese feel. There's not much to see there, it's just a travellers' hub, but I decided to take a cheap room in a guesthouse rather than camping in the countryside as it was the day of England's second World Cup match (vs. Trinidad and Tobago) and in any case it was just too hot and humid for camping. I found a bar with a big screen and enjoyed the match in the company of a group of Thais who were all supporting England, used internet for a bit then the following morning got up early to escape the city and head further south towards the Malaysian border and country number 22...
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