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Published: August 26th 2008
Fantasies of a Thai beach holiday have no doubt sustained countless people through months of mind-numbing workplace drudgery. Mine got me through a long Korean winter spent shivering in unheated classrooms. Admittedly I felt slightly less deserving of a holiday after being more or less entirely hammock-bound during our time in Laos, but landlocked Laos is no substitute for the idyllic Thai islands. So we had a little holiday. In fact it was quite a large holiday where the rigours of travel were replaced by lazing on the beach, relaxing by the pool, swimming, snorkelling, and long lie-ins. The lack of actual travelling means this will be short and a departure from my usual adjective-laden twaddle.
Chris and Lou (Paul’s friends from uni, who whether they like it or not are now my friends too😊 came out for a long-overdue meet up and a three week holiday. Reunions with university friends normally involve a few beverages and our non-drinking cultured ways were swiftly corrupted in quite legendary style. We partook mainly in the cheapest of the local beers ‘Chang’ and normally super-sized it and went ‘Chang large’ - or ‘Chang Yai’ for those who like to think they’re pretty smooth
in Thai after a couple of Changs (me). After a few too many we experienced the joys of being ‘Chang-ed’ and then the subsequent day’s pain of a ‘Chang-over.’ And yes the humble beer does have a whole lexicon of its own and so should any beer of 6.4%.
Another favoured drink was the ‘bucket’ (bare with me, it’s not all about alcohol). A classic bucket contains a hip-flask bottle of Sangsom (Thai whiskey), with a can of coke, a can of red bull and a multitude of straws (perhaps a hint that it’s meant to be shared, although if you didn’t already gather that from the fact you’re drinking out of bucket then there really is no hope). In the notorious bucket-drinking areas such as Hat Rin (home to the Full Moon Party and most likely the birthplace of the bucket) stalls and shops are crammed full of multi-coloured vessels (I really can’t keep using the word bucket) each with a bottle of Sangsom or Vodka and cans of mixers displayed inside - just pour and add ice. It really does look very attractive sitting there all neatly packaged, that is until it's mixed and three-quarters finished and
then it shows its true colours and becomes a bucket of death. Of course, as is true to our mature natures, our buckets were enjoyed responsibly (I say that entirely for our parents’ benefit) and we came out the other side with only minor injuries and our respective dignities pretty much intact.
Despite our night-time activities - which I shall mention no more due to fear of cementing international stereotypes - we did a fair bit of beach/island hopping. Bottle Beach on Koh Phan Ngan won the battle of the beaches for me, with its stylish entry requirement of a longtail boat (there’s no road in) and its charismatic residents, namely James Dean a.k.a ‘The Guitar King.’ Actually a waiter at a local restaurant, he had enough charisma and cool to be a king (if those are qualities one looks for in a king). He’d travelled from Bangkok as a teenager and made the beach his home, working at one of the guesthouses and epitomizing the Thai cultural ideal of ‘sanuk’
(every single activity, work or otherwise, should be made fun). If you’re going to Bottle Beach stay at the Haad Khaad Resort (it’s not actually a resort, it’s
just following the current Thai marketing trend of defining a resort as: bungalows + restaurant = resort). James Dean aside (which if you knew the guy you'd realise isn't actually possible) Bottle Beach fulfils the Thai beach fantasy with ease.
But for really clear water (Thai beach connoisseurs that we are) you need to go to Koh Tao. We stayed on beautiful Hat Sai Ri, got a longtail around the island (or half-way round, it was too rough to go to the other side) and went snorkelling. Wow! The water was clear in the extreme, with decent coral and more fish than we knew what to do with (so we just looked at them, or in Lou's case screamed at them because fish can be scary😊. We were inspired to go SCUBA diving. Paul completed his PADI Open Water and Advanced so that we could buddy up and see what was happening down there. We went out to Chumporn Pinnacle and dropped down to 30m only to be greeted by three bull sharks hanging out down there - quite a surprise! We were also accompanied on our dives by butterflyfish, angelfish, yellow boxfish, moray eels, sea snakes, blue-spotted stingrays,
batfish, titan triggerfish, bannerfish… and lots more tropical beauties in aquarium-like visibility. The diving was fantastic and made even better by going with what is surely the best dive operator on Koh Tao, Seashell Divers. An altogether smaller, friendlier and more professional operation than a lot of the big, brash ‘check me out... I’m a diver’
We found that it was more than worth the money, and with that attitude, hopefully we’ll be donning fins and checking out Sipidan (Borneo) in the not-too-distant future!
There was a downside to Koh Tao though, and one which the guidebooks can be pretty misleading on. It’s not a backpackers’ haven, nor is it A-frame huts and simple Thai restaurants. It is developed beyond most people’s warped Leonardo DiCaprio vision, and if you visit it in August (you poor teacher/parent/fool) then you will wonder where all the backpackers have gone. I have my suspicions that come August, backpackers are refused boarding at the airports in favour of people with matching suitcases and meatier wallets. ‘Good God! What is that you’re carrying on your back? A bag! Does it not have wheels? Back of the queue please and get a
haircut while you’re at it!’
Bitter? Yeah ok, a little. It's a strange experience to be on an island a couple of hours boat ride from the nearest airport and for it to be full of Louis Vuitton luggage and people with a different outfit for every night of their holiday. It is near impossible not to be a little bitter to discover that backpackers have been ousted from the good beaches by resorts and people with more money than cultural sensitivity (and we’re talking resorts in the normal sense of the word and about the kind of people who go topless in Thailand). Eeeee it ain’t what it used to be. Rant over.
So yes, don’t visit in July/August if you can avoid it, or go to the ‘wrong’ side if you are brave enough to risk a bit of rain (Thailand’s monsoon very conveniently comes to the east and west coast at different times of the year - a travel agent couldn't have planned it better). We came over to the Andaman coast (I’m writing this from Krabi, on our last day in Thailand - for once the blog is current!) where we have been lucky
not to get any rain and a slightly more ‘normal’ Thailand where our baht has gone a little further and backpacks are the norm. We’ve stayed around the Krabi region which is a really stunning part of Thailand (the most beautiful according to the Lonely Planet) and slept in a jungle hut sheltered under a looming karst peak. Unfortunately our Thai visas are up and it’s time to move on.
Time for the travelling to recommence… heading south.
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