Published: April 5th 2012April 4th 2012
Having visited many places in Thailand over the years and having watched most of these succumb to mass tourism, this time we were merely passing through. Free fifteen day visas are granted to most European nationals at land-crossings, thirty days if you fly in, or sixty (for a price) if gained at an embassy pre-arrival. With the ever increasing openness between ASEAN countries and the ready availability of inter-country buses (these may be minibuses or coaches) there is nothing to be gained these days (save the kudos and the small joys of roughing it with the locals) from complex multi-bus journeys that actually work out to be more expensive as well as massively more time consuming. So, it’s simply a case of source the cheapest bus and ride from one country to the next. The only saving grace is that many Asians are also riding these routes.
Thus, in less than six hours after departing Siem Reap and Cambodia we rolled into Bangkok, a city that many have never liked but one that holds fond memories for us. In the past it has been a much used travel hub on various trips and was, in pre-internet days, dearly
loved as our post-restante location of choice. Ahhh, the anticipation, like children on Christmas Eve, as we bused and walked the long drag up to the main post office… Would anyone have written? And yes, sure enough, there was always a pile of mail waiting for us that was duly lingered over, accompanied by the odd bottle of Singha beer or Mekong whisky (sadly, the latter nolonger exists whilst the former has now largely been usurped by the admittedly superior Chang).
Bangkok has always been hot; it is hot, humid and sticky. It has always had traffic, smog and people, lots of people. It also had a vibrancy, atmosphere and an exotic edge. Khao San road, the backpackers’ Mecca, was cheap, trashy, and yet welcoming: the food was pretty authentic and the clientele reassuringly similar to yourself – long-term travelers seeking budget accommodation and like-minded company. The scene was laidback; the locals were business people looking for sales or patrons, but they were competitive and friendly; they were grateful for your custom. Twenty–odd years ago there was one Khao San, ten years later there were two, now the name merely equates to a maze of touristic ghetto
spreading over countless streets. It no longer has soul. One in three people is wheeling a suitcase, the food is expensive and blandly generic, the guesthouse prices fixed and the proprietors indifferent if not blatantly rude. One old traveller, a rather eccentric French man, commented that these days “we are merely cash cows to be milked”. This iconic location has spawned numerous namesakes worldwide: just in this neck of the woods it exists in Yangshou, China and Vang Vieng in Laos. These hangouts are inevitably, inexorably, headed the same way but the original Khao San, Bangkok, is dead.
As I said, this time we were merely passing through Thailand en-route to Malaysia (neglected somewhat on previous visits) and our only targeted destination was to be the small west coast island of Koh Phayam situated close to the Burmese border. Previously unknown to us, Phayam came recommended by a middle-aged Dutch hippy we met in Laos (we promised to keep it to ourselves…). It is, he assured us, much as Samui and Phangan were back in the eighties: no cars, no resorts, huts on the beach, frequented by beach bums and hosted by delightful (as yet un-jaded) Thais.
And indeed it is largely as he stated. The lethargic ferry docks at the north east of the tranquil green isle and the two main beaches lay a dusty three mile walk (or motorcycle ride) to the south through rubber and cashew plantations and avenues of blood-red hibiscus. With regards the cashew: I will never again moan about their extortionate cost as I had no idea of the time and energy required to amass even a single bag of edible cashews (they’re poisonous until roasted), nor indeed did I know that the single nut (often spoilt on cracking the shell) jutted-out from beneath the fruit (fermented here to make toddy).
Phayam is unspoiled and idyllic; long beach is a great scimitar of white sand bordered by palms with discrete wooden huts and eateries nestling within the vegetation. There is hardly anyone (visibly) here. That said, whilst Phayam is still off most people's radar (we didn’t hear of another beach-bound soul in Bangkok headed this way: Samui, Phangan, east coast Chang and still – bizarrely - Phuket for the party animals, Tao for the divers and Phi Phi and Lantau for families) it has been entertaining intrepid backpackers
for almost a decade. Nevertheless, it appears that there is no such thing as a budget island in Thailand anymore: the standard of huts is well above basic and the prices match. We were very fortunate to run into a charming - and it has to be said, rather attractive - American girl whilst riding the ferry and she rang the two cheapest accommodation options on the island for us. One did indeed have a hut, it always does: a notorious shack named “Batman”. Why it is so named remains a mystery (no other hut even has a name), but it is the most basic (derelict) on the island, and as such is much unloved; yet everyone we met knew of it. Situated half way up a hill, looking out through palm tops to the ocean, we thought it perfect (at the price) and took it immediately. It has no electricity, fine (other huts get six hours via generators); a sloping bed and floor – the slopes confusingly not quite in the same planes, novel; whilst the door and wooden shutters acting as windows don’t close, but hey, security isn’t a big issue here. Batman is clean, it has a
bathroom - of sorts (mega bonus, especially when there’s water), a mosquito net, and a large rickety balcony with seats, if not a table; it even comes (came) equipped – see photo – with its own amphibian mosquito-muncher, although he slept mostly. And that’s my point; there is nothing seriously wrong with it, it is two thirds of the price of the next cheapest hut (still not a bargain at 200 baht = $7) and none of today’s flashpackers will entertain it. Consequently basic accommodation is constantly being replaced with upmarket gaffs that people – supposed backpackers - seem happy to pay for.
Whilst I’m on a rant – several cans of SKOL (30p / can - Langkawi prices, see later) have been consumed (and, I might add, a far superior beverage it is now than the watery pish the Danes used to export to Britain back in the 1970s)… Years ago on our first super-tight-budget travels we survived for a week in New Orleans on a single shared daily pot of chilli con carne reconstituted from the day-old unsold burgers of a cheap diner (we lost loads of weight). Later, touring Australia by car, we lived
off a loaf of bread and a tub of Philadelphia cheese per day (we put on shed loads of weight). So what, I hear you say… I mention these culinary delights to emphasise our frugality on the food front; yet whenever we were beachside we were always able to afford delicious whole fresh fish. This is certainly not the case anymore in Thailand where even a fish steak threatens the daily budget... One morning on Phayam we were admiring the huge barracudas that had been caught by the owner of our guesthouse. No, they weren’t for eating today as he was going to steak and then marinade them overnight. The next day we assured him that we were up for fish tonight. Dinner time arrived and we enquired how much the fish steak, salad and rice would be… “Two hundred baht a person” we were told. My riposte of “I don’t want the whole fish” was met with “Ok, for you, 180”. Totally Pad Thaied-out and desperate for fish we reluctantly agreed, but we were aggrieved; dinner for two costing almost double your night’s accommodation, on an island, surrounded by sea literally swimming with fish: really, that is outrageous.
Phayam (Long beach at least) also has a very peculiar – friendly, but strange - clientele; many have been returning for the best part of ten years and stay for months each visit. Typically they are German, in their 50s, and spend their days on their (grand) balconies in a green fug: everyone on this island smokes. Many operations here are run by westerners who got in early. They, however, are already considering their next move (to the even quieter neighbouring Koh Chang) as it is rumoured that the arrival of electricity on Phayam is imminent.
Malaysia-bound we caught the ferry back to Ranong where we had a nine hour wait for our night bus to Hat Yai. Ali’s stomach suddenly went awry and after the first five visits to the bus station’s toilets she was told that the fee for their use was no longer required. Still, she braved the local overnighter without a safety net (immodium) and fortunately things settled for the journey and the following six hour wait at Hat Yai. Then, once again, it was an inter-country minibus that would take us through to Penang in Malaysia. Arriving at the border
the driver informed us all that today was a holiday and that there was a payment due to the border guards. Pointing to a calendar (that he had carelessly left hanging in the back) showing that said holiday was actually two days away we informed him that we wouldn’t be paying. This he considered whilst he gathered money from the unwitting Vietnamese and Cambodians aboard; a French couple followed our lead and also refused to cough-up. His next ploy was that we’d overstayed our visas; we smiled, shook our heads, gathered our packs and walked off to immigration. Once over the border everyone piled back into the minibus (except for two Vietnamese who were delayed/detained for uncertain reasons at immigration/customs and for whom he wasn’t prepared to wait). The issue of additional payments was never mentioned again and there were obviously no hard feelings as he even dropped us on the precise road we requested in Georgetown, Penang; nice try though.
Like Bangkok we’ve always had a soft spot for Georgetown. Is there a “but” coming? No. The old quarters of China Town and Little India seem to have changed little in twenty years. Also, since we
were here last, Georgetown has gained UNESCO World Heritage status and well deserved it is too.
We are in foodie heaven which is a damn good thing as we’ve both shed about a stone in the last three months and are on fatten-up campaigns. There are few finer places in the world to do this than Georgetown. Breakfast has to be risen for because rotis and dozas are only made until 11 a.m. For those heathens not familiar with the god of breakfasts, the roti is a large elastic, ultra-thin, Asian bread that is folded upon itself until it forms an 8” square of four layers. This is then cooked on a hot plate until it puffs-up, it is then flipped over until both sides are a golden brown. The air is then slapped from the bread leaving it flakey yet still elastic. You rip the hot roti into bite-sized pieces and dip them into – what else could it be for breakfast – curry sauce (roti cenai). They are calories on a plate and, at something like 10 pence a shot, dangerous to the waistline. If it were possible to get tired of roti cenai, or
one was mad enough to think curry unsuitable for breakfast, then why not accompany your breads with condensed milk (roti meethi: calories and calcium) or have them stuffed with banana (roti pisang: calories and vitamins). Equally tempting though are the dozas: the thinnest, crispiest, meltiest-in-the-mouth pancakes that are rolled or folded (before setting to crispy perfection) around – in the case of a masala doza - moist, aromatically spiced, chopped potato. Then you have to select a beverage. Do you go for a mango lassi or a masala tea? And all these decisions are just for an Indian breakfast. Deciding between Malay, Chinese or Indian for dinner is a salivatory nightmare. Some recent experimentations have included Penang Laksa (a thick fish broth soup with wide rice noodles: too fishy for Als) and Chicken kethi roll capathi (a new favourite of an egg-infused chapatti that is rolled burrito-like to enclose chicken pieces in a rich sauce and served with a cooling riata.
Today in Thailand the price of alcohol is almost prohibitive (7-eleven for carry-outs is your best option). On mainland Malaysia there is no maybe about it: for us it is dry; our livers adore the place.
Alcohol is widely available here but it comes with a serious sin tax attached. Seems the slim Muslim majority of the populace still has a firm grip on government and taxation laws. Actually, it was pointed out to me that when this part of S. E. Asia was being divvied up into countries the only reason Singapore wasn’t added as part of Malaysia was because it would have tipped the religious balance away from a Muslim majority and hence they didn’t want it. Expensive choice!
Malaysia kindly lets us Brits stay for free for 90 days which is handy as our first job here was to obtain a new passport (no I didn’t go swimming with it again; this time it is almost full). Less than two years ago this procedure would have entailed a trip down to the local British Embassy, now it is a 4-6 week leap-of-faith with your passport winging its way from Malaysia-Hong Kong-UK-Malaysia. Consequently we were going to be in Malaysia for some time. And so this brings us to the tax-free haven that is the island of Langkawi where we have been languishing for the last three weeks: six weeks dry
was never an option. Langkawi supports a mish-mash of tourism: popular with Malaysian Indians (cheap whisky), ex-pats (cheap beer) and Malay Muslims (evening promenading and burka-clad bathing) alike, all popping over from the mainland for the weekend; holiday makers – mainly eastern Europeans, Russians and Arabs; plus backpackers, with young Swedes being particularly numerous. Accommodation here is not cheap with anything on Cenang beach costing upwards of $30 a night. We’re – obviously – not on the beach, but found a reasonable chalet-style room for $12 at Amzar Guesthouse (cheaper than anything geared towards backpackers). Guests are typically short-stay locals (backpackers quickly switch to something more salubrious) and the friendly Muslim staff seem amazed in equal measure by our longevity here (we had no qualms with nightly murine visits, but did switch rooms when the sewage system backed-up into our bathroom) and the fact that we do our own washing and sweep our own room. Ali and the ladies are as thick as thieves; one day Als will pass out biscuits and the next day we are plied with local cakes. Room rates aside LK is extremely cheap, especially if you stick to the local cuisine and buy off-sales rather
than use the bars. Thus the weeks passed with long walks, eight novels and countless curries devoured, the future of the SKOL brewery assured, all 126 two-letter scrabble words firmly implanted in both our minds, bodies bronzed and Frisbees thrown. We occasionally hung at the chilled Rahsia’s, met up with our old pal Mark, made some new local friends and spent some time (though not enough, due to her partying and us conserving money) with a delightful Swedish girl, Karin (an individual even more accident prone post-alcohol than myself). Indeed it is the longest we have ever stayed in any one place whilst travelling and after the initial itchy-feet phase passed we found ourselves rather institutionalized. Nevertheless, leave we finally did and in a day or so we will hit the road again: first stop the Cameron Highlands before a meander down the East coast.
Finally, our apologies for the lack of exciting/pretty photos, it has not been a photogenic month; even the normally reliable Langkawi let us down in terms of sunsets…
There are more photos below