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Published: October 27th 2010
View from "The Beach"
OMG, Leonardo Di Caprio stood right here
Hitting Southern Thailand
Crossing the border into southern Thailand from Malaysia was a breeze after some of our recent border experiences on trains. About 5 minutes in total took us from leaving Malaysia to entering Thailand and being greeted by a smiling border official, followed by an exhilirating 2 minute ride, backpack and all, riding pillion on a motorbike-taxi, to get us to the bus stop where we could push on straight up to Krabi, on the Thai west coast.
Our first impressions of travelling through southern Thailand were of the large numbers of army checkpoints dotted along the roads, which became less common as we moved further north. Although we had been advised there can be some trouble with Muslim anti-Thai groups in the area, this large army presence did reassure us that things are currently under control. It was the only place during our travels in Thailand that we did see such a large army presence.
Krabi is the jumping off point to that most famous of Thai islands, Koh Phi Phi. More than that though, Krabi is also a very engaging little town, with a smattering of good little restaurants and bars and two
excellent night markets. We headed straight to the weekend night market, which was positively buzzing with atmosphere, not least due to the stage which had been set up for the entertainment for the evening, namely karaoke. This was highly appreciated by everyone, and all the efforts were highly amusing - including a rousing duet by a (rather the worse for wear) German girl and a Philipino guy, who were both actually really good! Although our particular favourite were 4 school kids who simply breakdanced for 10 minutes, while another kid walked around the audience with a hat, looking for donations (pocket money). Rory - you have Thai competition, they were good!
We were quickly struck by the loveliest thing about Thailand - the sweetness of the people. Having heard about it mostly as a destination for the least appealing kind of British tourism (indiscriminate package tourists looking for a cheap party, and sex tourists), we were perhaps expecting the people to be understandably cynical towards us. But, with the notable exception of Koh Tao (see below), the Thais still radiate the most natural warmth and charm, with genuine smiles and gentle, sing-song voices. It was a lovely reminder not
Koh Phi Phi from above
Worth the exhausting hike to admire the 2 beautiful crescent bays
to have any preconceptions about a country before you get there - we are constantly surprised and intrigued by the unexpected differences that we find on crossing any border from one country to another.
Koh Phi Phi Island
We left Krabi for a couple of days to check out Koh Phi Phi island. This is only a couple of hours boat ride away and we had heard how picturesque the island was. It certainly lived up to expectations. The main island is made up of 2 elongated limestone pinnacles which tower out of the sea, running parallel to each other. These two islands are then connected around half way along by a permanent spit of sand. It is on this connecting sand bridge that the majority of the development on the island has taken place.
Climbing up to a view point on one of the limestone pinnacles (a very sweaty 20 minute step ascent in the heat) afforded us a spectacular view of the island at sunset. It really is one of the most naturally beautiful islands either of us have ever been lucky enough to visit. The 2 perfect crescent bays almost mirror each other
across the spit of sand.
It is also from the viewpoint that we were able to appreciate the scale of one of Phi Phi's more recent events, the tsunami of December 2004. It absolutely devastated the island, hitting the developed sand spit in the middle with waves from both sides, flattening most of the buildings in the area.
The redevelopment on Phi Phi since this tragedy has been nothing short of incredible. To the casual observer, there is no evidence whatsoever of the destruction caused. The main town is now built almost entirely of concrete to help withstand such an event in the future. Although this has taken away from the feel of an ideallic beach hut island retreat, it should stand the islanders in good stead should a similar disaster befall them. The rebuilding of the island though has also resulted in the main town being very densely populated with shops, restaurants and hotels, all seemingly sitting right on top of one another.
We found Phi Phi to be a lot of fun for the few days we spent there. There are some excellent restaurants in the built up town area and plenty of other attractions
for us to spend our Thai Baht on. One especially memorable one was a visit to the Fish Doctor. This is billed as a natural way to clean your feet, and involves spending 10 minutes (or more, for those who really take to it!) with your feet submerged in a tank that is full of small doctor fish. These fish absolutely love to eat the dead skin off your feet. When presented with, for example, Mike's size 10's, dozens of them flock around in a feeding frenzy, nibbling away like crazy.
The feeling is hard to describe. It doesn't hurt but really feels like your feet are being tickled relentlessly from every angle. Particularly hard to take is when they get right in between your toes. Some people are supposed to really relax and enjoy it...we found it impossible to keep our feet submerged for more than a few seconds without yelping at first! Helen was beginning to relax a little towards the end, but I'm afraid I just couldn't handle it at all. Check out the video at the top of the blog to get the idea!
We also went snorkelling to the nearby smaller island, Phi
Phi Leh. This island, about 20 minutes by boat from the main island, is uninhabited and similarly beautiful to the main island. We were also constantly reminded during our visit here that the movie "The Beach" was filmed here. We spent a couple of hours on "The Beach" which really is in quite an awe- inspiring setting (as long as you can remove yourself from the hoardes of other tourists enjoying the same view!)
Thailand's Eastern Islands
Following our time in Krabi and Koh Phi Phi, we made the short hop across the Thai peninsula towards the islands off the east cost in the Gulf of Thailand. The main reason we came here was for Mike to complete his PADI open water scuba dive course on Koh Tao island, one of the most beautiful (and cheapest) places in the world to gain this certification.
However, before the hard work of learning to dive, we headed for a couple of days to the island of Koh Phangan. This island is famous the world over as the home of the Full Moon Party, a huge all-night beach party that takes place every month. The population of the island
Sunset over Koh Phangan
View from our balcony. What isn't apparent are the mosquitoes that were swarming around us at the time
swells for this one night by over 10,000 people (mostly foreigners) who cram onto one particular beach to party the night away.
We arrived around a week after the last full moon party, and the place had a distinct morning-after pace to it. The majority of partiers had shipped out, on to the next party I guess, leaving only those who were still too worse for wear to drag themselves away from the island after the last party. There were huge bars that look like they often do a roaring trade, sitting almost empty except for a couple of tables filled. Not slow to milk the theme however, there are now also Half-Moon parties, pre-Full Moon parties etc. So when you head to the beach after hours, you suddenly find there still seem to be enough people around to amount to a pretty buzzing atmosphere, and basically the party never quite seems to end.
Bars and cafes show movies on their large screen TV's through the day so the biggest complication to a day was planning the order to visit places so we could watch all the best movies on offer, a welcome escape from the heat. (People
Neat tricks with fire and a stick
Probably best not to try it out in the front room though
at work - just remember it's tough trying to plan whole days in these places, have sympathy!)
At night, one of the bars on the beach put on a fantastic fire twirling display (don't know if that's the official name for it). One of the highlights of the full moon parties are sticks and balls of fire being twirled and thrown around by people on the beach in seemingly impossible moves, creating a continuous trail of fire that is hypnotic to watch as it swirls around. This seems to have become quite a skill for some of the locals who come to basically show off for the ladies every evening on the beach. It really is fantastic to watch though, as hopefully the video at the top of the blog shows. And we didn't see anybody set themselves on fire either, quite a accomplishment!
Bucket drinking - the next level!
Following on from our experience of drinking from buckets in Malaysia, Thailand seems to have taken this to a whole new level. Whereas in Malaysia there was a choice of one (Monkey juice our avid readers will remember!), in Thailand, and particularly on Koh Phangan, they
For when a glass simply isn't big enough
A bucket of G&T.....useful for making sandcastles when done also
have taken the concept of drinking from buckets right to their hearts. Buckets of anything can be bought here, vodka, Thai whiskey, malibu, rum, all topped up with a soft drink and energy drink it seems.
A long line of bucket stalls is spread along the full moon beach, all trying in their own unique way to entice punters over for their "best bucket". They sit on their huts, shouting at people to come over to try their buckets of cheap booze, offering necklaces and rings made of drinking straws, anything to entice you over. The names of all the stalls are also pretty entertaining, we have a few pictures of a couple of these up here (Parentals - please avert your eyes, we don't want you having heart attacks!)
Diving into a whole new world
We moved on after a couple of days to the island of Koh Tao. This is a much smaller island than Koh Phangan and is a bit of a diving mecca - it gives out the second highest number of PADI certificates in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef. As well as the cheap diving courses, it does also
have some great dive sites within close proximity to the shore, in beautifully warm waters. All in all, not a bad place to learn to dive.
So as Mike completed his 3 day open water dive course, Helen took on a refresher course for her now 8 year old qualification, so we were both up to the same diving competency. This allowed us, by the end of our stay, to both dive in open water to 18m depth. Although I had a few fears before my first dive, I have to say that I really did love the liberating experience of being able to swim with the fishes. Helen and I went on a few dives together at the end of the course and it was really beautiful swimming around the submerged pinnacles and checking out the reefs and aquatic life down there. We do hope to be able to go diving again at future points in this trip and we are now all set up to do that.
For our final dive, a camera man accompanied us from the dive school to capture the moment. As is usually the case with these videos, it was then shown
Beach on Koh Tao
The view out from the front of the dive school
to us in the bar that evening and the offer to buy the DVD came up. The movie looked pretty good, and after a few drinks, we thought it would make a fun memento. However, the difficulty of having to keep up with now our 6th different currency had caught up with us -it was only after we had handed over our money to the guy that we realised we had made a critical error in our hasty mental conversion. The disc that we thought we had bought for £5, turned out to have cost us £50 instead!
The horror of realisation gave way to having to accept it as it was too late to go back on the deal. Therefore, we are pleased to announce that regular showings will be taking place once we are back in the UK to anyone who comes to visit us, for a small fee. It's a damn fine video, trust us ;-) We'll even include additional commentary, not on the original movie, and a selection of photographs will be available for sale!
Neither of us being beach bunnies, the south of Thailand, and therefore its beaches, were really
a diversion on our way north. It was interesting though to note the difference in the islands - Koh Phi Phi was really friendly and had a happy vibe with smiley, helpful people. Koh Phangan however, we found hard-edged and spoiled by the worst aspects of mass tourism. Koh Tao, meanwhile, feels like it's been overun with Brits. There are more of us than any other nationality, including Thais, and it has not had a happy effect on the locals - there is barely a smile to be had from anyone, quite something from possibly the smiliest people we have ever met.
Following the diving on Koh Tao, we moved back over to the Thai mainland and onto the overnight train north to Bangkok. It was an uneventful journey where we both slept well, Thai trains comparing favourably to those we had travelled on so far. Bangkok was only a short visit for us this time of 2 days. We spent a lot of the time stocking up on new clothes to replace some of those that hadn't held up so well to date, in addition to indulging in lots more great Thai food before we left.
after all too short a time, we were at Bangkok airport, waiting to board our flight to Delhi and the next stage of our adventure. We have really enjoyed Malaysia and southern Thailand during the first part of our SE Asian trip. We now head to India and Nepal to make the most of the good weather window for trekking in the Himalayas, but we will be back in a few months to explore more of SE Asia. It's a richly varied region to travel around and certainly much easier on the mind and body than China was. It interested us probably more than we had initially anticipated, in particular from a culinary sense. It is with great excitement and a little bit of apprehension that we approach the next stage. We have heard so many extreme stories about travelling in India that we really can't wait to try it out for ouselves. Bring it on!
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