Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Langkawi day 1

[this is a work in progress]

We slept late, because we're lazy. Then we pottered about for a bit, went online to book our flights (we indulgently decided to fly from Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur, and directly on to Manila), then looked into renting a motorbike (there is no public transport on Langkawi and it's far too vast to explore on foot, so the only way of getting around is either by taxi or rented vehicle). But in contrast to Thailand, where they'll happily sit a twelve-year-old on a scooter and wish him luck, civilised Malaysia refused to rent us a motorbike because we don't have the necessary licences. So we rented a car. Sara drove our mean machine, a red Proton, while I navigated with the free tourist map. By “free” read “sponsored”, so it was peppered with red dots and blue dots and green dots labelled with the names of duty-free emporiums (Langkawi was declared a duty free zone in 1987), restaurants, resorts and craft centres – so densely in places that the dots and their labels virtually obliterated the roads.

And so we drove without aim, an island road trip. We stopped to get a drink; I bought a package of satay jellyfish because it sounded interesting. Small dried discs on long toothpick skewers. It tasted of corn syrup.

We muddled our way – eventually – to the Langkawi cable car, and bought two tickets. An attendant whose sole function was to tap people's tickets on the turnstile tapped our tickets on the turnstile, and we joined the queue to be transported up the side of a mountain in a small space pod suspended from creaking wire. Halfway up the mountain I remembered I'm scared of heights. This realisation usually hits me when I'm about to do something like jump out of a plane or zipline out of a 100-foot tree. You'd think I'd learn.

At top station (middle station was closed for works) we were offered a foot massage. Novel, but we declined. Instead we headed to the upper platform of the station, and took in the hazy views over mountains covered in thick green shagpile, and the blue beyond. We posed next to the sign informing us we were however many feet above sea level, then went down to the futuristic boardwalk promenade. [this will make more sense when I add photos]

[there's more to come - I've been too busy having fun to write!]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia

The best you could say about the room was that it's close to the beach. With décor in the style of the Tok's crack den school of interior design, it didn't exactly live up to Lonely Planet's “good value for money” review (I know LP can't help it when guesthouses change their tariffs after being featured, but it's annoying all the same). We politely handed the key back, and asked the man on the effnick jewellery stall to tell us more about his friend's resort with nice rooms for five ringgit more.

We had arrived by speedboat directly from Ko Lipe, where we'd had our passports stamped at the palm-thatched box on the beach which passes for an immigration station. The 45 minute speedboat ride brought us into a swish marina. Arriving in Langkawi is a return to civilisation – it's got real buildings and real tarmac roads with proper road signs, and petrol stations and everything! It doesn't even feel like an island – or at least not the islands we're used to.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ko Lipe

[working on it]

The label on my bag

A particularly endearing example of "Engrish":


Dress yourself in your own taste
without clinging to traditional ideas
We hope to always
have an open mind


Tomorrow will take care of itself
Dedicated to all nature lovers.
Moist a sail before the wind.
Make sure of this excellence in
tradition for yourself.


Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trang to Ko Lipe

The bus left at 10:15 (this didn't come as a surprise; we're used to Thai Time). From La Ngu we took motorbike taxis to the pier at Pak Bara, where we were greeted by a travel agent asking us to “buy ticket sa-peed bort, on-leee wan ow-were”. She hurried us, saying the boat would leave at 1:00. We dashed about, withdrawing money (there are no ATMs on Lipe), buying phone credit, visiting the ladies' room, and getting fruit and water for the journey. Then the departure was put back to 1:30, leaving us with half an hour to kill. We sat at a table and ate our fruit.

The boat left at 2:00 (Thai Time), and took an hour and a half. It slowly clouded over as we travelled, and by the time we arrived it was quite overcast, but even under the pale sky the water sparkled turquoise, and was so clear I found it hard to gauge its depth.

The beach has no pier, so the speedboat moored at a floating platform where we had to pay an exorbitant 50B for a longtail to shuttle us the 20 metres to shore. Grumpy at this extortion, I then got very, very cross when one of the boatmen carelessly set the boat rocking so violently it very nearly catapulted two bags (including mine) into the sea. I continued to sulk until all my bags were on dry land (the boatman having had another go at tipping me out by leaping from one side of the unstable longtail to the other, at precisely the moment I stood up to get out).

This is a tiny island. There are no roads (there are no cars), just one concrete cross-island path connecting the two main beaches, and a few crisscrossing sandy tracks through the jungle leading to the third beach and the local Chao Leh village.

We pottered along the main thoroughfare, past a large, new-looking billboard bearing the hand-wringing inscription in Thai and (sort of) English:

  • Broken Family
  • Hazardous Drug
  • drug addiclang Pusher illegally
  • wasting life and Social danger

The sign stood with absolutely no apparent context, between a fairly inoffensive-looking bungalow establishment and a shop selling sarongs and cold drinks.

Duly warned, we avoided any illegally-looking Pushers of drug addiclang or Social danger, and found a room at Pooh's Bungalows, a jack-of-all-trades resort with a restaurant, barbecue, internet café, dive shop, bakery, bar, and lounge with movie screen and scattered triangle cushions. We got something to eat, wandered along the island's busier beach, then got a massage at a shack on the cross-island path.

Oddbods & Misfits

Next day we trundled to the bus station and located the Satun-bound bus. The conductor indicated on his watch that the bus would leave at 9:45 (it was 9:30). As we ate our breakfast I idly eavesdropped on an English bloke, about 40 years old, talking to a Thai he appeared to have cornered. He spoke stilted, basic Thai, using volume to compensate for fluency in the way of people who have only a passing acquaintance with the language they're speaking but wish to be seen to be Down With The Natives. I speculated on his story. He'd obviously been in Thailand a while: he had the squint and slight sway of long-term alcoholism; he'd managed to pick up a few words of Thai, but certainly didn't have the attitude of an enthusiastic backpacker. He must be an expat.

He kept glancing over. Eventually he spoke, “You guys been travelling long?” Definitely an expat: he's itching to tell us how long he's been in the country. We tell him we left Bangkok a few days ago. “Ah right.” He paused. “I've lived here 17 years.” Seventeen years?! I spoke more Thai than him by the time I'd lived here a month! He used to teach diving on Ko Phi Phi when he first arrived, and like everyone who saw Thailand back in the early days of the tourist industry laments its development. “Haven't been back since. Lived there for a year, but haven't been back.” Now he runs a resort on Ko Lanta.

“You go Ko Lipe?” He spoke pidgin English with an affected Thai accent, both as a means of emphasising his expat status and by way of substitute for actually learning the language. We said that yes, we were going to Lipe. He was on his way there for the first time, to open a resort with his Thai companion, to whom he would occasionally turn and with exaggerated casualness confirm in Thai something he'd just said. As long as what he'd just said involved numbers from 1-100, since that seemed to be about the extent of his vocabulary.

Because Thailand is such an accepting place, it becomes a haven for oddbods and misfits like this, who find refuge here from the harsh judgement of the western world. They tend to congregate around the southern islands and Pattaya, places where the booze and girls are cheap and plentiful. Samet, too, has seen its share of these men (it's usually men) who came, and just stayed. Like Geoff, a Hulk Hogan lookalike who played the harmonica and called himself a mercenary. He was an ex-squaddie (fought in the first Gulf War, he said), and he had “Soldier of Fortune” tattooed on his arm, alongside a faded mermaid. He used to leap about the dancefloor in kung-fu poses. In between playing the harmonica. And Garry, a scrawny, concave-chested man with a severely sloping shoulder and a jerky limp, the results of some dreadful childhood disease. Pointy faced, with a prominent Adam's apple and a high pitched voice, he'd obviously gone through life completely mystified by women, and found the eager attentions of Thai ladies no less bewildering.

These two came to Samet, found a kindred spirit in one another, and became inseparable. And it seemed that everywhere they went, misfortune found them. They were a walking tale of woe – they got robbed, they crashed their motorbike into a fence (Geoff's wounds became infected and for weeks he went around with a swollen foot, hobbling about with a walking stick until he finally laid off the alcohol and let the antibiotics work), and they had constant trouble with women. When they went to Bangkok and got parts as extras in the same movie as I did, a stunt man fell on them. You'd ask Garry how things were going, and his reply would always start with “it's been a nightmare”. They just weren't life's winners.

They were fixtures on Samet for maybe six months, perhaps longer. And then one time I went they weren't there any more. Their departure, pretty much like their presence, went unremarked.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Phang Nga to Trang

We boarded a bus to Trang, where we planned to catch a Satun-bound bus (Lonely Planet assures us of “frequent” departures) onward to Pak Bara, for the boat to Ko Lipe. When we arrived in Trang the conductor notified us and unloaded our luggage. He looked mystified when we tried to ask him where we might get the Satun bus, then put us back on the bus and told us to get out when we were a little further down the road. He pointed across the road where there was a cafe, and told us “taxi”. I said I don't want a taxi, I want a bus. “Yes, yes,” he said, smiling encouragingly, and with that hopped back on the bus and disappeared with it into the night.

Enquiries at the café established that the only bus to Satun would come through at half past midnight, and get to Pak Bara at about three in the morning. We decided to spend the night in Trang. With the help of the café staff we acquired a bargain 250B room for the night. It had a carparking space in front, so should we be seized by a sudden urge to go out in the middle of the night and buy a car, we would have somewhere to put it.

Phang Nga Bay

[I'm still working on it]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Phang Nga

We caught the 9:00 bus out of Khao Lak, and attempted to doze while a succession of doomed love stories (Thai music videos rarely have a happy ending) played out on the TV above our heads, accompanied by the split-octave sounds of Thai country music, and subtitled with the lyrics. We arrived in Phang Nga late in the morning (as the desperately sobbing young man on the karaoke VCD bewailed the loss of his girlfriend to an arranged marriage), and booked an excursion into the bay. Phang Nga bay is famous for its fantastical limestone karst scenery, and in particular one island that was used as the villain's secret hideaway in “The Man with the Golden Gun” and is now generally known as James Bond Island. The trip (with an overnight homestay in a Muslim fishing village) didn't depart until four in the afternoon, so we attempted to find some diversion in the town of Phang Nga in the meantime. First we explored the park. It didn't take long. We had lunch, then went to the internet cafe, and eventually it was time to leave.

A songtaew took us to the pier, and from there we went by longtail boat to Panyi island. The village is built entirely on stilts in the sea, butting up against the gigantic, looming presence of Panyi rock (the “Tsunami Evacuation Route” signs helpfully point up the vertical cliff face). There's very little to do in Panyi village, so we went for a wander around along concrete walkways-on-stilts, stopped by the school-on-stilts (complete with playground-on-stilts), and further along came to the mosque-on-stilts. The village is home to about 2,000 people, most of whom seem to be involved in selling tat to tourists. The walkways are lined with stall after stall selling exactly the same selection of souvenir keyrings, pearl jewellery, shell trinkets and printed batik sarongs, and at each a headscarfed Muslim lady greeted us with “hello-madam-you-lookiiiing”

We resisted, and returned empty-handed to the restaurant, where a somewhat over-friendly local joined us. By way of conversation, he pointed out at the stilt-houses and said “bungalow,” with that uncanny Thai knack for stating the obvious. Then he asked if he could sleep with us. We politely refused, so he invited us to go dancing with him in Phuket. We declined, and having established he was getting nowhere, he lost interest and wandered off.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Similan Islands

Left by songtaew at 8am to go to the pier, where we were issued with snorkel masks and fins. Tea, coffee and fluorescent green pandan cakes were laid on, which we ate at a table opposite an Italian girl with Barbie-bouffant hair and a bright red lipstick pout (how long do you think that's going to last in the sea, eh?). An excessively chirpy lady on the tannoy offered seasickness pills and warned us not to try and catch any fish or turtles.

It's about an hour's journey by speedboat to the Similan Island group, about 70 kilometres offshore. The sea was pancake flat for the entire journey. We moored at Island 9 first (there are nine islands, and although they do apparently have names, they're usually referred to by their numbers) and one by one descended into crystal-clear (yes it's a cliché, but it really was!) azure water.

I like snorkelling – you get the impression of having the entire ocean to yourself. With your ears submerged you can't hear anything but the metallic tinkle of the water and the sound of your own Darth Vader breathing, and looking straight down you're not really aware of the other swimmers (until you kick each other), so you can pretend you're not sharing the water with 75 other tourists.

I did have a panic moment when I realised that I'd forgotten to check the eco-credentials of the tour company we were using, but swimming under the boats I saw that they were moored to a buoy tied to a rock, and not anchored on the coral as Lonely Planet sternly warns that “some unscrupulous operators” do.

And the fish! There were yellow-and-black striped fish, darting schools of silver-blue fish, electric blue fish like Dory in Finding Nemo. My personal favourite was a huge thing – must have been easily a metre – with a jade and indigo harlequin patterned body, and neon orange and pink fins and tail. It went around nibbling at the coral.

I'd got out of the water and was enjoying slices of watermelon and pineapple cookies when one of the guides called out that he'd seen a turtle. I grabbed the camera and snapped a few pictures, then jumped back in to have a swim with it.

Next stop was Island 8, for lunch and “lilleck” (Thais use the word “relax” a lot, especially considering how hard it is for them to pronounce). Honestly, I thought that having spent so much time on the squeaky-soft, white sand beaches of Samet, it'd be hard to impress me, but stepping off the boat in the Similans, it was like walking on cornflour.

Barbie laid out her sarong in the sun. The Korean ladies scurried up the beach under umbrellas, and positioned themselves in the shade (they were later seen swimming in full-length leggings, jackets and those peculiar ultra-wide silver sun visors only worn by Asian tourists).

Lunch was fantastic. I'm used to “lunch included” consisting of a wax paper parcel of fried rice, but here we had a veritable feast of massaman curry, stir-fried vegetables, fried red snapper, tom yum gung, and of course fruit to finish.

Afterwards I left Sara sunbathing on the beach, and headed for the “Viewpoint”. Our shoes having been taken away from us at the pier, this meant a barefoot scramble over steep granite rocks, along crude wooden plank bridges, and up a dusty jungle path which was crisscrossed by tree roots, all polished to a light sheen by thousands of feet. Then more rocks, more plank walkways, hang onto a rope to skirt an overhang whilst not slipping down the rounded slope, round a rock, and the view...

Another snorkel stop, at Island 7, and then we headed to our last stop of the afternoon, the caster-sugar beach of Island 4. I doodled hearts in the sand, humming Pat Boone to myself as I always do when I doodle hearts in the sand. I'd been trying to photograph my footprints at the tide line, when Barbie's boyfriend dashed up and said could I please take their photograph, because I looked so professional.

Reluctantly we allowed ourselves to be herded back onto the boat, and started back to the mainland. I half-dozed, until I was roused by a commotion on board. People were standing on the seats and craning their necks to look out of the speedboat. “Dolphin,” a guide told us, so we scrambled to look too. And so there were dolphins, frolicking about and occasionally leaping. I took a lot of photos of splashes, and two or three of dolphins.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Don't believe everything you read

We went to 7-eleven for a little smackerel of something to keep us going until dinner, and I was enticed by a ham-cheese sandwich with a label promising “This sandwich is delicious. We want you to try this sandwich”. I tried it. It wasn't delicious.


We arrived in Suratthani two hours late, predictably, after a restless night (Sara slept fine, but the stopping-and-starting of the train, and the squeaky revolving fan whining and chirruping in the ceiling next to me irritated me so much I couldn't get to sleep). We'd decided on the journey that we didn't want to go to Phuket as originally planned, but rather to Khao Lak, from where we could do a trip to the Similan Islands. We explained this to the staff of the waiting joint-ticket buses (Bangkok travel agents arrange onward transport from the train). “Wait here,” he told us, and immediately turned to a more straightforward passenger. We tried another member of staff. “Ah, you have to go to office, maybee you have to pay money more”. So we got on the bus to go to the office, and on the way explained a further three times that we had tickets to Phuket but wished to change them.

When we got to the office, we were issued new tickets, and told to wait. A songtaew arrived and took us into the town, to another office, where we waited 40 minutes. Then a public bus arrived... and drove us back to the train station, two hours after we'd left! From there we were finally on our way to Khao Lak.

Khao Lak was virtually flattened in the Tsunami (though it seems to have recovered well), and as we near the town we pass blue signs showing a huge wave poised to engulf a running stick figure, with the words TSUNAMI EVACUATION ROUTE.

We checked into a room at Banana Bunglalows, and finally relaxed. 22 hours of travel is tiring.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

From Bangkok to the South

We find our places on the train, and after a dinner of sushi and a blueberry muffin (I'm all for multiculturalism) we're on our way! I watch the trackside slums slip past: women hang out laundry, children pile stones on top of each other, and men sit about drinking, all just inches from the rails (or casually wandering across them, in some cases!). Couldn't happen in England.

Sara and I both had upper berths, which means our seats were on opposite sides of the aisle. I switched to the seat facing hers, hoping that whoever was meant to be sitting there would be accommodating. At Bang Sue station, the intended occupants or our corresponding lowers duly arrived. Thais: a man, a particularly vast woman, and two children, a boy and a girl, aged seven or eight. I managed to indicate that I was just taking the seat to sit with my friend, but would not try to usurp the bottom bunk. We pondered how these four would fit into two berths. Luckily the kids were small.

The eager attendant deemed it bedtime at about 7:30, and came through the carriage efficiently setting up the beds (the upper bunks fold up for the day and pull down at night, while the seats ingeniously convert into the lower beds with a satisfying ker-chunk, ker-chunk). For some reason we couldn't quite determine, he started with ours, in the middle of the carriage. Thai logic.

The attendant ker-chunked his way through the rest of the carriage, and we obediently took our places. Read for a while, studied the Philippines Lonely Planet in preparation for that leg of our trip. I looked down to see, through the half-closed curtain, the belly of the fat woman (whose shirt had ridden up) spilling over the edge of the bunk, while the small girl curled up in one corner.

My sushi-and-muffin supper didn't fill me up for long. At 11 o'clock, with sleep not presenting itself, I headed in search of sustenance. I tottered down (or is it up?) the carriage, skirting the anklet-ed leg of a backpacker dangling through the curtain of an upper berth (all backpackers choose top bunks, because they're cheaper), past the tin toilets (squat-style, of course, with a short funnel that deposits waste directly onto the track beneath. I try to avoid using them), past the train doors, open to the night. The next carriage was seating class, where dozing passengers contort into bizarre sleeping positions in the stiff chairs, their heads bandaged with sweaters against the brightly blazing fluorescent lights (which aren't switched off for the entire trip).

In the buffet car a group of Thais crowded around one table with the remains of a feast of mango and sticky rice, and a gang of western lads drank cans of Singha beer and reminisced noisily about their adventures thus far.

I asked for a menu, and the lady pulled a fried rice ready meal from a coolbox. “Don't you have anything else?” I asked, and she nodded enthusiastically, and started unwrapping it. I asked again, in Thai, and she indicated a trayful of polystyrene dishes. “Chick-ken.” It was pork kapow with fried egg. I took one, even though I don't really like kapow, or fried eggs, but since ready-meal fried rice invariably tastes like cardboard, I judged it the lesser of two evils.

The Beginning

I pull on my rucksack and make a face at myself in the mirror. I've become what I hate, that dreaded breed of westerner known as The Backpacker.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Inane Conversations

It's amazing what people feel free to say when they think you can't understand them. From "oh, big boobs" to "oh look, a foreigner".

  • She's very beautiful. (normally I smile and thank them at this point, but I couldn't be bothered to have the "oh, you speak Thai" conversation)
  • Yes, beautiful.
  • She likes the colour red. (granted, I was wearing a red dress, and a cherry-print sweater)
  • Yes, she likes red.
  • Beautiful.
  • Very beautiful.

At least it's better than "well she's not even going to fit into the large size"...