Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ko Phangan

After nearly 12 hours in sub-zero temperatures with a pair of Finnish knees in my back, on a seat constructed of cardboard and spare parts, we stopped for a second time and the driver silently dismounted. Knowing we weren't due on the island until 11:30 (which in Thai time means about lunchtime), and it still being pitch dark outside, we assumed it was another rest stop – until we realised they were taking everyone's bags off. So we dragged ourselves off the bus and down to the pier, where we waited, bleary-eyed from our restless night (and still wrapped in a towel), for nearly two hours, as the sun rose and the pier took shape around us.

We got on board the ferry and were finally underway at 8:00 am. We had been warned of large waves on the crossing, so am amused to note that what passes for heavy seas in the Gulf of Thailand appears to be approximately equivalent to what passes for the proverbial “milk-pond” in the Firth of Clyde.

An hour later we realised we didn't know the name of the place PK had booked for us. A scan of the guide booklet tossed up a phone number I recognised (“I remember it had lots of sevens in”), and a text to Jess confirmed we were to stay at Coco Garden bungalows. A quick call to the resort followed:

Catz: “hello, yes, we'd like to confirm our reservation”
Resort: “sorry, we fool”
Catz: “yes, but we have a reservation”
Resort: “no, we fool”
Catz: “no, we already have a reservation”
Resort: “sorry, we fool”
Catz: “we – already – have – a reservation”
Resort: “okehh”
Catz: “okay”

On the island

A pretty picture of fishing boats lined up at Tong Sala pier on Ko Phangan.

When finally we docked at Thong Sala pier, we clambered ashore to be greeted with the bustle and clamour of taxi drivers and tour reps. “Where you go!” “where you go!” “what resort!”. We knew our place was close to the pier, so when one taxi asked for 100bt each we gave him a disgusted look and started to walk away. “How much you pay,” he asks, so we settled for 50bt each. “You wait here,” he tells us, and disappears.

The thing about taxis in tourist resorts (we've found so far), is that meter taxis of the kind we know in Bangkok don't exist. Instead there are ranks of songtao-style converted pick-ups, who set a price before leaving and charge per person, not per trip. For this reason taxis try and pack in as many people as possible. Three girls waiting nearby said their driver had left twenty minutes before to find more people. Well we weren't hanging around. We asked in the tourist information for directions, and she pointed up the road, “that way along beach”. So off we went.

We detoured off the main road when it left the coast, and ended up following a dirt track through a coconut palm jungle. We came upon a resort, so we asked about Coco Garden. “That way, two hundred”. Er, 200 what? Metres? Miles? Baht taxi ride? But at least we knew we were on the right track, so we kept going.

The road got narrower and dustier, the jungle thinned out, and ditches appeared on either side filled with brackish water (I've no idea what brackish even means, but water in ditches of this sort is always described as brackish). Then, out of the corner of our eye we noticed a dark shape emerge from the water. The shape turns into a great big water buffalo with great big water buffalo horns. It was so surreal that for one bizarre and insane micro-second I assumed it was some sort of cardboard cutout, until logic caught up with me and pointed out the utter ridiculousness of such a thought. And then, to prove logic right and press the point home beyond doubt, he lumbered out of the water and into the middle of the road. (Just to add to the general absurdity at this point, I have to tell you that whenever I type “water” my word processor keeps trying to autocomplete it into “watermelon”, so now I have images in my head of the watermelon buffalo emerging from the brackish watermelon, and then climbing out of the watermelon onto the path).

Okay, so he doesn't look in any particular great hurry to do anything, but facing horns that size, wouldn't you be cautious? Catz hung back and gestured “after you,” magnanimously. Okay, I can do this. I put on my best non-threatening look and edge around Mr. Buffalo, reasoning that even if he does take offence, with that rope through his nose there's no way he can chase me any distance. Er, right?

Finally we make it to the resort – to be told, “sorry, we fool”. But we have a reservation. No, apparently they tried to ring PK, couldn't get through, and so cancelled the reservation. The owner tries a helpless look, but we're not having it. Look matey, we've travelled 18 hours, suffered frostbite-inducing air conditioning, argued with a taxi driver, trekked a dirt road and faced down a buffalo to get here. You're finding us a room.

So he does. At the next door resort, for 1000bt a night – yikes! – but it does have separate beds, a proper flush toilet (an exciting novelty in beach resorts), and aircon (which of course we have no intention of using). He promises us a (cheaper) room back at his resort for subsequent nights. So we accepted the deal (what else could we do?) and got ourselves some lunch. The place does a great pad thai (fried noodle dish with ground peanuts – not one for Joanna), and the menu proudly tells us that “the most vegetable are bio and coming from our own garden”, which pleases me.

The trail north

And then we decide to go and visit Jess and PK at their resort at the north of the island. So we trek back to the pier (it only takes about 10 or 15 minutes) and start negotiating with taxi drivers. 200 baht each? No way! Okay, 100. And it was shortly after that that we discovered how big and high and rough and rugged this island actually is, as we careered along narrow, rutted, sandy dirt roads with cavernous ditches on either side, scaled insanely steep mountain trails that showed signs of having very recently been cascading waterfalls (it's rained quite heavily here during the last week or so), tracked through gullies cut in the mud by monsoon rains with enormous boulders protruding from the walls, skirted a capacious pond in the middle of the road, and finally again hit a potholed-but-paved road as we re-emerged into what on Phangan passes for civilisation. Alright, now we see why it was worth 100 baht.

So we meet up with Jess and PK, drink Sang Som & coke on the beach, get a fantastic barbecued tuna with them and generally hang out for a few hours. At one point we're suddenly plunged into inky darkness, which gives you an idea of the state of the electricity on Ko Phangan. Eventually we figure it's time to start thinking about heading back, so we enquire at reception where they're staying about getting a taxi. “No taxi now. Only taxi 800 baht”. Or, they tell us, we can take a room there for 300. Well, you do the maths. So we never did get to sleep in our separate beds!

1 Comments:

At 12:43 pm, Anonymous Dddy said...

Brackish is between salt and fresh watermelon. Watermelon buffalo looks very placid and loveable. You must be getting good at bargaining with taxi drivers. Try it again in London. Dddy

 

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