Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | South Thailand – A new country and a boat
The last week or so has seen me cross over the border into Thailand, spend 2 days riding for too long, on too boring of roads followed by a jump to the tourist destination of Phuket and five days sailing in the Andaman sea around the remote Similian Islands for some excellent diving.
Crossing the Border
The plan from Kota Bharu in Malaysia, was to cross the border by river ferry and head to the first major town in Thailand, Pattani. According to the distances on my German produced map this was supposed to be 97km from the border. Including the 20km from the town to the border the total day should not have exceeded 120km. As it turned out the the German map makers obviously got a little confused between kilometers and nautical miles or some other measurement and once into Thailand it was 150km to Pattani, and by the end of a very long day I had completed 120 miles.
I was fortunate that the road was flat and for the afternoon at least I had a strong tailwind which kept my average speed at 18mph for the day. (interesting fact number 1)
One thing that seems to have changed since my last big trip is the comfort factor of modern bike seat design. I would have assumed that after a 1,000 kilometers riding either my rear end or my saddle would have molded to the shape of the other. I don’t really mind whether this be me or my seat but at this stage neither have and after about 120 km (75 miles) on the bike I reach a pain barrier that takes the pleasure out of sitting down, let alone cycling. From some extra curricular reading I have learnt that professional cyclists apply liberal amounts of savlon to their behind to ensure a reasonable level of comfort , but then professional cyclist also shave their legs and don’t always bother stopping when they need to relieve themselves so it may be a dangerous role model to follow for only a 3 month trip!
The Southern part of Thailand has culturally more to do with Malaysia than the rest of Buddhist Thailand. It appeared to be predominantly Muslim and from the Islamic museum I visited in Kota Bharu this region was visited by Mohammed a few years back. Southern Thai Muslims still attend religious schools in Northern Malaysia (Interesting fact number 2)
One thing that was different was the language and more importantly the script. When I arrived in Pattani, I was exhausted, hot and wanted to be in a shower as quickly as possible. I arrived at what appeared to be rush hour and I had no idea what the Thai word for ‘hotel’ looked like. I could vaguely pronounce the word but cycling around I could see nothing that resembled a hotel shaped building. After stopping and trying to ask a local travel agency they pointed me in the right direction (I assumed) and off I went.
The town seemed to get bigger and bigger and the road stretched out into the distance. Needing to rest my behind and to re practice my thai word for hotel I stopped at an intersection to sit down. There was a picture of the greatly revered King of Thailand. I had read that you were to mock him at you peril but there was a local kneeling in front of the poster praying to this mammoth hoarding. All the motor bikes riders that went passed thought this extremely funny and were passing comments among themselves at to this situation. On retrospect it was probably a mistake to take directions from this man as he may well have not been the most well adjusted members of Pattani society but I did and after him sending me off in the wrong direction I had to procure a cavalcade of scooter riders to escort me to the ‘My Garden’ luxury hotel (very nice for $10 – if you happen to be in Pattani)just before night fall.
After a long lie down on my bed I managed to get up and search the streets for food. A popular way to eat in this region are night food markets. I had come across them in most towns. You walk around at a bunch of different stalls selling every type of food, from curry to fried chicken. They wrap it up then you go to a table where you buy a drink and they provide a fork and spoon, very cheap and very civilized.
Bus to Phuket
The following day I had to cycle to Hat Rai, a major transport hub to pick up the first available bus to Phuket, some 5 hours by bus away. I had originally planned to cycle but I’d booked myself on a dive trip leaving the following evening. I had little choice but to catch the bus so I didn’t miss the boat (literally).
Taking a bus is an odd way to travel once you have got used to the pleasure and pain of cycling. You zoom through the countryside in air conditioned comfort, watching the towns and villages disappear behind you. You end up popping out at another town, it could be 5 miles or 500 miles away. Invariably with a group of other travelers all relying on their guide book to know which one of the hotels is ‘their’ hotel in this lonely planet recommended hub.
I arrived in Phuket ‘Thailand’s premier resort destination’ about 11pm. Having cycled 120km and been chauffeured 300km. I found a hotel, had a late night call with Amex in NY to transfer some cash to pay for my dive trip (thanks Martin & co.), then slept.
The boat left the following evening from Patong beach. ‘Phukets premier beach resort’. It was supposed to be an easy 15km glide into the town, but I had not factored in a 800ft climb over the hills into the town. A busy road that had already seen one runaway truck that morning!
The trip I had arranged was a 5 day/ 5 night live-a-board to the Similain Islands I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of a dive trip but as the name indicates you live on the boat for most of this time, thus maximsing the amount of diving you can do in a day and also giving you the oppurtunity to travel further off shore.
The trip consisted of 3 three core elements that were interchanged with minimum effort; sleeping (air conditioned cabins, wind cooled sun-decks), eating (quality Thai cooks providing 4 meals a day) and of course diving (from 7am to 7pm)- definitely the way to dive.
The group I was with was a broad mix of Swiss, American, Taiwanese, Australian and a wealthy young Thai group from Bangkok. Some were on Vacation, others finishing off muli- year world trips. It was a good way to compare notes on where to go, what to see and other such inane banter that makes the travelling experience just that; an experience.
The diving was amazing, the islands are still relatively untouched and due to the remote location it is only divers and the odd luxury yacht that makes it out there. The visibility was excellent and the marine life out of this world. Just when you thought you’d seen it all a shoal of couple of thousand tuna would swim into view. Sharks and Manta-rays put in an appearance, Turtles and Dolphins popped up to the ship, quite spectacular.
We managed an hour on the shores of one of the islands just to remind ourselves what solid land felt like and we ended the trip with our Dive leader almost getting into an under water fight with a boat owner who had dropped anchor into a coral field. There were under water hand signals that are most definitely not in the divers handbook!.
Patong Night Life
We arrived back in Patong early evening and not in a rush to cross back over the hills I stayed in the town for the night. Rolf and Didi stayed also and a long evening (for some of us harder eggs!) ensued.
Patong was my first experience of the infamous Thai sex industry and although I don’t fully comprehend it all yet it has a very distasteful air. The stereo type of old, fat German men on the beach with young thai women was there but what surprised me was younger British and Americans all doing the same.
Likewise in the evening the bars are crawling with women, they initially hassle you until you show no interest and then they leave you alone. My hotel charged an on the spot 100 baht ($2) if you bought a girl back.
After the bars closed Rolf and I found ourselves sitting on a street corner getting language lessons from some of the local ladies. After a while I got to discussing their attitude to their job. Phang, a 30 year old who spoke excellent English, said that working in Patong was safer than Bangkok and other more sex oriented towns and her goal was to bring up her young son (her husband was dead). She had control over who she went with and who she didn’t. As I say I haven’t formed any opinion other than the obvious, but you do notice that all the girls all seem happy and safe and enter into everything with a level of fun that underlies the fundamental of all Thai culture. It appears that way anyway. I am sure as I travel though the region, my education and opinions may become more developed.
After sleeping off a hangover, said my farewells to Didi, then Rolf I was on my way heading east towards Surat Thani probably ending up on the beaches of Ko Samui archipeligo. Between here and there I aim to visit Phang Nga bay and spend a few days hiking in Khoa Sok national park.