“Four Forty Five?”
“Your loom namba- One nine tree seero?”
“Okay goo-nye saah”
The confirmation for my 4:45am wake up call from the Guest Services operator at the Sheraton Royal Orchid Bangkok are the last words I hear on my last night in Thailand. And now it’s 12:45 am. That’s simple sleep mathematics: 4 hours of sleep tonight. Of course the only problem now is I have to write this damn blog entry, so I’ll have to deduct [time taken to write] from [sleep hours available] to leave [net sleep hours].
Wait, what?! I’m doing sleep mathematics?? That’s nuts! If you have a nut allergy, look away now!!
The last 8 days in Thailand have whizzed by faster than any 8 day period on this trip so far. Why? Because now that I have a travel partner in my friend Gerd, I have been in real travel mode; no time for “days off to stay in my hotel room” or “mornings in eating Aunty’s aloo paranthas”… No the last 8 days have been full of interesting and full days. So let me rewind for you and recap the adventure that has been Thailand:
My entry into Thailand was, as you’ll recall from the last post, by train. A nice slow train that would probably have lost a race against a pony with 3 legs carrying me, my luggage and a sack full of rice.
I could almost have forgiven the train for its sloth when my sleeper seat was converted into a bed soon after we crossed the border from Malaysia- the bed was so comfortable! But what a tease! No sooner had I lay down and really start to relax did the conductor come by to tell me my stop was coming “soon”. Of course I had no idea whether that meant 5 minutes or 35 minutes so relaxing in my bed became difficult as I started fearing I would fall asleep and miss my stop! I was glad to feel the train slowing down and my station being called out shortly after the beds were made, “Pattalung!! Pattalung”.
Gerd was there on the platform waiting for me. We spent the 45 minutes drive to the small town of Trang catching up on the last 10 years. Gerd’s been living in Fontana CA and has been to Asia 5 times- he loves Thailand and speaks near fluent Thai. Could I have asked for a better guide?! Is it any wonder then that I’ve left all the planning to him and I’m quite happy to put my maps and guide books away to sit back and enjoy the ride?! This has got to be the best way to travel!
We checked into the Thumrin Thana Hotel. This was obviously the Grand Dame of Trang at one point- circa 1987. Large swathes of pink and teal everywhere could only signify a return to the glorious 80s. The hallways smelled a bit like Listerine but it had very comfy beds. Either way it didn’t matter- I was out cold before I could even begin to ponder whether ‘Thai Iced Tea’ is just called ‘Iced Tea’ in Thailand? There would be plenty of time to find out.
We began the next day after breakfast with a minivan ride out to a lonely looking jetty where I saw my first Thai Longtail boat. Along with a couple of Swiss backpackers from Zurich, we climbed aboard for our journey to Ko Ngai Island.
It’s at this point I started to discover that there is an interesting side effect of not knowing where I’m going and that is, I don’t pay that much attention to place names. So I was in danger of describing the whole time in Thailand something like this, “So we went to this island and stayed at some hotel and did a bunch of stuff. It was really cool”. Hardly worthy commentary for my fellow travelers! I would have to try harder! Plan B is to just get Gerd to write my Thailand entry.
Yes I think that’s what I’ll do- I will recount my experiences and Gerd can recap all the places, later on.
So back to this boat ride- we soon found ourselves out in the open seas; the boat chopping along the water and weaving through small islets, each towering hundreds of feet up, faced with spectacular sheer cliffs of limestone.
The noise however was making conversation quite impossible. The unique feature of the boats is the car engine mounted on the long rudder. It’s ‘vector thrust’ in its rawest form. It’s amazing that these skippers aren’t all deaf by now- imagine having a Toyota truck engine with no muffler, just a foot away from your ear for hours at a time!
Ko Ngai island is an amazing place- it’s a small island with nothing but vegetation filling every square inch, leaving just enough room for beaches and a few beach hotels. There are no roads in the interior, just forest. Our hotel is the Thapwarin Resort and it sits at what I would call a ‘near-luxury’ level of accommodation. It’s got a very natural feel to it- the rooms are set out as thatched huts with no concrete or bricks anywhere in site- the huts themselves are very comfortable- ours had AC and an ensuite shower that was open to the elements, very ‘natury”.
Our next few days were spent relaxing to the max: the activities one can do on the island are limited to: sleeping, eating, drinking, reading, listening to music, walking on the beach or swimming in the ocean, and of course people watching. I did all of the above! Note to self- follow the Swedes! They are usually great travelers (think: quiet and not obnoxious).
Our 4 days of solitude on the small island were broken only with a half day excursion off the island in a private Longboat rental, where we discovered (after 300 other people that morning), Emerald Caves (or “Tham Morakot”, thanks Gerd!!).
Intermission: Please now go to www.images.google.com and search for Tham Morakot to see some pics!
Our Longboat moored next to 3 others like it and we donned life jackets and followed our skipper as he sploshed into the salty green sea. We started swimming, following our guide into the cave. Soon the only thing we could see was the fading light from his flashlight, leading us into an ever darkening void. It was a little claustrophobic but I was too excited to even stop and think for a minute about a surge of water or tsunami, coming into the cave and drowning me in an instant…instead I’m doing that now!
And then came our treasure, a shaft of light meant we were close to the mouth of the cave on the other side, and I swam frantically to see what my reward was. As I came out of the mouth of the cave, I was in a small lagoon, with a beach of pure white sand, surrounded by cliffs on all sides towering above us for hundreds of feet; It’s not often that one has the sensation of being surrounded on 360 degrees by a wall of rock; it’s both surreal and comforting at the same time- like a limestone cocoon with a bed of sugary sand and your own personal size swimming pool at the bottom. It was a miniature slice of paradise that only pirates and swallows had known about for hundreds of years. I could have stayed all day except for the lack of anything to do or facilities or food!
Could there be hidden treasure still buried there? Maybe next time I’ll bring a metal detector and a spade to find out. Oh and water and some snacks so I can stay longer!
As we had hired a private boat, we veered off the tourist track and found ourselves an empty beach on Koh Muk. It was so amazing to just run up and down the empty beach like a kid and pretend that I had discovered new land. I wondered if Columbus got hysterical like this, every time he discovered uncharted land?! I took some video of myself “hereby taking possession of this land in the name of Her Majesty!”. (Yeah right- perhaps if she gives the Koh-i-Noor diamond back to Punjab!).
Ko Ngai had been an amazing first taste of the more remote islands of Thailand. There are hundreds of them, all with unique environments and offering various levels of luxury in accommodation. The waters are clean and clear, the hues of blues and greens are so relaxing to be surrounded by, and the people (most Thai but some Burmese too) are warm and welcoming. I can start to see why Thailand has been a travelers paradise for decades.
But now it was back to Trang for one more night before heading up for the ‘city’ part of the trip: Bangkok. Miraculously we got the same room at the Thumrin; 1111, on the same floor. It was Listerine-scented déjà vu, before our early morning flight to Bangkok on Nok (“Bird”) Air.
Our next 3 nights were in Bangkok. A few words seemed to be consistent adjectives for this city when talking to fellow travelers like, “dirty” and “boring”. I am here to disagree wholeheartedly- Bangkok is a dynamic city with lots to keep the traveler entertained! Perhaps it was just the fact that I had a great guide who knew a few non-touristy places to take me that made the experience richer; Gerd’s intimate knowledge of Bangkok impressed me from the start. We landed on his birthday and for a special treat he wanted his favorite, Duck noodles. We went to a well known little hole in the wall joint run by an old couple in a narrow street, in the ‘motor repair” district. Opposite said Duck-joint, there are workshops with a stack of truck axles and engine blocks piled up in front of their door. These are the kinds of experiences that are not in the Lonely Planet guide. Oh wait, actually the noodle place is! Damn Tour books!!
Nonetheless, I urge you to seek out alleyways when visiting Bangkok; you never know what amazing new eatery is yet to be discovered!
Other amazing experiences I had:
Visiting the crowded markets of Chinatown, seeing Buddhas Galore- one giant reclining, and the other in 500 tons of solid gold! Visiting the Backpacker mecca of Khao San Road, eating new and exotic fresh fruits (and juices) from the street vendors, enjoying amazing views from the Sirocco Bar at the Lebua Hotel, wandering the stores in Siam Square, pigging out on satay at the mega food court in Siam Paragon, eating free samples from the massive Tesco Lotus supermarket, and riding the very cool Skytrain around the town. We were lucky enough to meet up with a friend of a friend, Kiran, who’s a local, on our last day. She took us to the Silom Food Court where we had a feast of Thai delights, including shredded fried Catfish, Sweet and Sour Duck and Pineapple fried rice. I could easily eat my way through Bangkok for another few weeks!
But alas, all we had was 3 nights to sample Bangkok; the rest of the goodies will have to wait for me to discover on a future trip.
Perhaps reading this, you will now understand better when I said how 8 nights whizzed by so fast?! Thailand has worked a certain spell on me that has left me yearning for more- I can see why Gerd is yet to be satisfied that he really knows this place yet, despite this being his 5th trip. I don’t want to play favorites but Thailand has got to be one of the most enchanting countries I’ve visited so far.
Can Cambodia top it?! Gerd decides that a grueling 3-mode of transport, 10 hour overland journey is the best way to start my trip. My suggestion that we charter a helicopter was met with a disapproving stare.
So we will take a train to the border town of Aranyaprathet, travelling 3rd class of course! The train leaves at 5:55 am. Then from the border town, we will take a Tuk-Tuk to the border, followed by a 3 hour taxi ride to Siem Reap.
Gerd’s convinced that being exposed to a slightly um, rougher journey will not only be a good test of our worldly travel experience but will also make us appreciate the luxury accommodation that awaits. I have booked us in for 3 nights at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor, a 5 star French Colonial Hotel from 1929. Some things are better left to me!
So back to my wake up call. It’s now 4.44am so I have one minute to sleep before we begin the next phase of the trip…Cambodia!