Island hopping in Southern Thailand and New Year's in Bangkok


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January 1st 2015
Published: January 8th 2015
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After a few happy days of pancakes, curries and jungle walks to the beach, we left the island of Penang in Malaysia via a short ferry to the mainland town of Butterworth. We'd decided to head straight for Thailand, so boarded the one train a day that heads north towards the border from the very new and spacious train station. Unfortunately the train itself was anything but new and spacious, with only two carriages and a huge number of passengers, we spent the next three or four hours squashed up to a window with a family of four squeezed into the booth with us and various children's drinks, mainly chocolate milk, being spilt periodically down Liz's legs.

On arriving at the Thai border, we had the option of remaining on the train for a further three hours to get to the Thai city of Hat Yai, or leaving the train and catching a bus to the same city. Not fancying anymore time packed onto the train like sardines, we left the family to spread out over the entire booth and headed for immigration and the bus.

Crossing the border and catching the bus to Hat Yai was not however quite as easy as it sounded. After finally working out where to officially exit Malaysia, we had to walk along a road definitely not designed for pedestrians for fifteen minutes to reach the entry point for Thailand, before dodging vehicles to get to the immigration desk. After a few minutes of trying to explain to Thai border officials that we were travelling around Thailand and therefore would have no fixed residence, we finally received our entry stamp for Thailand.

Officially in Thailand, our next challenge was to find the bus we had been told we could catch to Hat Yai. So far, our travels in Asia had been really easy as almost everyone in Singapore and Malaysia spoke English, however, at this slightly obscure border town in Thailand, this certainly wasn't the case. After much sign language and with the combined effort of an Australian/British family crossing the border at the same time as us, we eventually found out there was a bus to Hat Yai that we could flag down from across the road. Fortunately the bus turned up within about 15 minutes and then, after the bus drove around dropping off and picking up various big containers and touting for customers (it really felt as if we were back in Bolivia or Peru), we were on our way. Eventually we arrived in Hat Yai at more or less the same time as the train would have arrived, but we'd certainly had more fun getting there!

Having been dropped off by the bus in the centre of town, we quickly found a guesthouse, with the help of a passing Frenchman who seemed to have tried out most of the budget accommodation in town and settled in to our very basic room with ensuite "bathroom" facilities (squat toilet and cold water pipe to shower under). This room was a good indication of the type of accommodation a couple of pounds could get you in Thailand and it was perfectly fine for one night (although Ross likened it to what he imagined a Siberian prison would be like). That night we explored the bustling city and ate two delicious Pad Thai noodle dinners for eighty pence each. Sitting on the street having dinner, we realised that in the few hours we'd been in Thailand, we'd heard the beep of more car horns than we had heard throughout the whole of very calm Malaysia.

Our next destination was the small city of Trang, however, getting to the bus station in Hat Yai to catch a bus there, was a challenge. We agreed a reasonable price with a Tuk-Tuk driver, who started to take us to the bus station but then reconsidered and took us to his mate's travel agency instead. After both of them insisting that this was the bus station for quite some time and just as we were about to get out and walk off without paying anything, the Tuk-Tuk driver gave in and took us to the actual bus station for the agreed price, where we easily caught a bus to Trang.

Trang is mainly just a jumping off point to visit the islands of the west coast of Thailand, however, as we had time to spare, we decided to spend a night there. We wandered around the small town and gorged ourselves on the night market food for dinner (although a very salty orange juice didn't go down so well), whilst planning our next steps in Thailand.

From Trang we decided to visit one of the Trang islands, which are smaller and generally less developed than the islands further north. We chose Koh Ngai, mainly because we worked out how to get there and we could find some budget accommodation, so the next day we were on a boat to the island.

Koh Ngai is really beautiful, with a lovely golden sand beach and a view of a limestone karst over turquoise warm water and long tail boats, however, there isn't a lot to do and getting there can be fun/soggy (there's no pier so you have to climb off the long tail boat into the water, which was waist height when we arrived). We didn't realise that there aren't any roads on the island and no village, so literally there is just the beach and about a dozen bungalow resorts. Used to going out and exploring everyday, it took us a while to get used to just relaxing on the island, however, before long, we were pros (Ross in particular took to lazy island days very well). We had rented a little bamboo bungalow which, although inhabited by a bit more wildlife than most people would like, was right on the beach and had a wonderful view out to sea and of toucans in the trees.

From Koh Ngai we took a ferry over to the much bigger and more developed island of Koh Lanta. After one night in the middle of the west coast of the island in a very rustic bungalow, which had too much wildlife than we wanted to put up with, we moved to the much quieter, friendlier and more relaxed Koh Lanta Old Town on the west of the island and stayed in a guesthouse right above the water on stilts. When the tide was in, the sea would occasionally splash up through the floorboards of the ground floor and we could hear it sloshing around beneath us as we slept. We hired a scooter and had a great time buzzing all over the island for four days, finding some lovely less developed beaches in the south of the island.

Our next stop was the island of Koh Jum, where we planned to spend Christmas. We boarded a boat early in the morning and after an hour, we were met by a number of long tail boats in the middle of the sea. This was apparently our stop, so we climbed off the ferry and into the long tail boat that would take us to Koh Jum.

Koh Jum is a less developed and much more low key island, home to a very friendly, mainly Muslim population, who don't want to see their island become a party destination like others have nearby. Here we rented a new bungalow with a wonderful view overlooking the mangroves and to the sea in the distance and quickly got into a morning routine of heading to Koh Jum village on our rented scooter for a banana and pineapple pancake breakfast, a walk and swim on the beach, and a Chang (Thai beer) on the balcony or beach in the evening. Fortunately the only uninvited guests we had in this bungalow were lizards and two tree frogs climbing up our mosquito net on Christmas morning.

Having spent around two weeks on Thai islands by now, we were happy to head back to the mainland after our stay on Koh Jum and arrived in the town of Krabi on the morning ferry, where we spent two nights before heading to Bangkok for New Year's Eve. As much as we both loved staying in beach bungalows on the islands, we were both pretty pleased to be sleeping in a basic but clean guesthouse, where you don't have to worry about lizards pooing on your head, rats peeping at you from your roof, cockroaches leaping at you from your backpack and waking up to a snake hugging your toilet (the last one didn't happen to us personally, thankfully, but was apparently not uncommon)!

We spent our one full day in the town of Krabi visiting local sites, such as the "history wall" and the "painting wall" (these are exactly what they sound like, walls with local history and paintings on them) and the out of town tiger cave temple, which involved climbing 1297 very steep steps up to a small temple and budda on top of a limestone outcrop. The view from the top over towards the islands was incredible and we had a whole three seconds to appreciate it before a thunderstorm rumbled in, covering us and the view in cloud (hence no photos of the view).

After a very quiet and relaxed Christmas on Koh Jum, we decided to head for Bangkok for a completely different experience for New Year's Eve, so jumped on the 12 hour bus to Bangkok. On arrival, we took almost all means of Bangkok public transport to get to our hostel (Ross insisting that only wimps take taxis) and an hour and a half after our bus arrived in Bangkok, we finally checked into our very nice hotel-like hostel.

After hearing mixed opinions on Thailand's capital, we weren't sure what to expect, but after exploring for a day or two, we found Bangkok to be a great place to visit with lots of weird and wonderful things to see and places to visit. Chinatown was pretty hectic, as was the backpacker centre of Khao San Road, but outside of these two areas we felt we could be in any modern city. We spent New Year's Eve watching the countdown and fireworks at Bangkok's Central World Plaza with thousands of other revellers and getting a glimpse of chanting Buddhist monks connected to worshippers by string - a great way welcome in 2015.

So far in Thailand we have learnt the following things:

- It's worth paying a bit more for your bungalow on a Thai island. The budget options are really just sheds and you never know what you might wake up to...

- Travelling on the canal boat public transport service in Bangkok was the first time we were pleased to have had all our travel vaccinations, as the water did not smell good and passengers were occasionally splashed by passing boats. Ross in particular got a good dousing on one trip, which served him right for claiming nice, dry, air conditioned taxis are for wimps!

- Pad Thai is addictive. Liz has just eaten it for dinner four nights in a row.

- Make sure you have enough petrol in your scooter to get back to your bungalow... Scooters are quite hard to push on dirt roads.






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