Bangkok to Koh Tao to Koh Samui to Koh Lanta to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore (Day 169 to 195)
We last left you some three weeks ago as we were due to depart Bangkok for Koh Tao on the Gulf of Thailand. The longer gap in updating the blog can only be excused by much needed relaxing and down time, and therefore, a relative lack of events. I think the last six months' hecticness had started to get to us, so a few weeks on low-season Thai Islands were just what the doctor ordered. The journey definitely rubber stamped that claim. On one of our last nights in Bangkok, we headed to the rail station in order to get joint train and ferry tickets to the island. After locating a tourist-helpy-helper guy, we were told that train tickets were fully booked for up to 6 days due to it being 'high' season; he even took us to a 'ticket office' where we were even shown the information on the computer screen, so who were we to dispute this claim?! We were then advised that bus and ferry tickets were readily available and we were quickly escorted to the booking office. Despite being a third of the price, we really didn't fancy the night-bus journey as it consisted of a 8 and a half hour bus journey from 19:30 to 04:00 and then we were to wait for the ferry to arrive at 07:30; a gruelling night for even the most seasoned of travellers. However, with no alternatives we signed up and just went with it; it was a long night. We arrived at the port at 02:30 (coincidentally, the only time a bus in SE Asia has been early for us) but this meant a five hour wait until the ferry departed. As we sat there debating what to do with ourselves, I picked up a magazine and a print-out inserted in there fell out. Funny enough, the content was all about warnings of Bangkok scams and number two on the list was the 'Will-tell-you-that-train-tickets-are-full-in-order-to-sell-you-the-coach-tickets-with-higher-commission'. This was it, the first time we'd been had (or at least to our knowledge). We thought that we'd be able to spot a scam a mile off and we did have our suspicions when he said it was high season (it clearly wasn't). Shaun said he hopes that he choked to death on the Chang beer which we'd paid for. Bit harsh if you ask me. After this bombshell, we both decided that sleep was out of the question and so went until finding our hostel at 11am without any kip, however, Shaun stayed awake until 10pm that evening as he 'went past the tired stage'. Maniac.
On Koh Tao, we treated ourselves to a nice cool air-conditioned room on the top end of Sairee Beach and went off in the usual business of exploring our new surroundings. The island is very popular with divers searching for cheap(ish) and supposedly amazing diving sites (which were still unfortunately beyond our traveller's budget), so the crowd and the vibe mainly consisted of your 18-30 party- and dive -hard dudes and gals, mainly western restaurants and a good handful of beach-front drinking establishments offering the obligatory Samsong-whiskey buckets cheap enough to get everyone drunk by 9pm. The beach wasn't much, but then after Koh Rong in Cambodia, we had become very picky on that front. We went about our time by enjoying some nice meals and drinks, walks on the shallow waters of the beach, one very late night watching (me half snoozing) Man City's win over Man United, as well as reflecting on the experiences of our travels so far. On what was meant to be our last night on the island, we bumped into a lovely couple, Jules and Tomek from Salford, and ended up chatting for hours and got ourselves well 'hydrated' in one of the aforementioned establishments before finally stumbling back around 3am. Needless to say, my condition in the morning meant that we stayed for another day so I could recover. We met with Jules and Tomek again that night for a lovely sea-front dinner of freshly caught red snapper and a selection of thai curries, thankfully by which time I had got my appetite back. We'd started to think about our options for the next islands, but until I had done enough research, Shaun figured our best option in the mean time was to get ourselves closer to the mainland, and so the following morning we took a short boat ride and found ourselves on Koh Samui.
Koh Samui was never really on my list of 'must see' Thai islands as it has become one of the most developed and touristy islands, sadly at the cost of the local environment. As if to prove my point, as we arrived on the main town pier we saw huge passenger planes landing one after another on the close-by airport, so we quickly jumped into a taxi and asked to be driven to one of the further away beaches, called Mae Nam. We found a nice and cheap guesthouse right by the beach run by a friendly (and quoting Shaun 'as camp as Christmas') Thai chap called Mickey, who recommended a night market which was to take place just around the corner that evening. We took the afternoon easy by swimming and enjoying the beach views. As the darkness descended, we filled our empty bellies with street food galore, got merrily tipsy on lethally strong streetside pop-up-bar mojitos and found ourselves truly enjoying the evening and the atmosphere at the night market. Unfortunately the next morning we'd missed the sunny weather of the day and the low season rain clouds were already drifting our way. We stuffed ourselves with huge sandwiches and a potato rosti the size of a pizza plate at a Swiss cafe nearby and just missed the torrential rains as we hurried back to our bungalow. That night we had a tasty Thai meal at the next door beach cafe before wandering back to the village streets and stumbling upon a bar run by a extremely welcoming and genuine Mancunian called Stuart (not that Mancunians generally aren't!). We ended up playing several games of pool chatting to him and a crazy Icelandic/Danish guy called Paul, who seemed determined to get Shaun as drunk as possible, evidenced with the 4 shots of Jager just as we tried to walk out of the door.
The clouds had yet again taken over the early morning's sunshine by the time we got ourselves out of the bungalow and much of the day went by with little effort. I think the only sweat I managed to get myself in was over the question of 'where to next'. There were so many islands to choose from, yet so little time left before our flight to Australia. I think for both of us the priority was to get even slightly off the tourist trail; if that was possible in Thailand. But as the weather got worse, we quickly realised that getting too far into the undeveloped might in fact mean completely desolate at this time of year and so over the two days we had left on Koh Samui we ended up choosing Koh Lanta as our final Thai island. The last day on Samui Shaun spent in fits of nerves over the night's Man City game against Newcastle, which was a must-win and they didn't disappoint. A victorious night for the blues meant we were in bed at around 1am, nicely set for a restful sleep ahead of the 5.30am wake-up call for our minibus journey to Koh Lanta...
As we boarded our first minibus early the next morning, little did we know what was ahead of us; a day of unaccountable transport changes and a ton of what we have learnt to take as 'sheep hoarding' - all in all perhaps a fitting end to the shambles that is public transport in South East Asia. After 6 buses/minibuses and 3 ferries, lots of shoving and pushing the crowds into the right waiting areas or vehicles (baa, baa, baa!), we finally arrived in Koh Lanta at 8.30pm, a mere 5 hours later than what we were advised. In fact Shaun has now developed a fool proof formula on how to predict how long a bus journey will realistically take in South East Asia; allow 'x' to be the advised journey time given by travel agent/guesthouse staff and 'y' is the actual journey time, then: x + (x/2) = y. With many long bus journeys behind, we arrived at our hostel relatively unfazed by the delay, dropped our luggage in our nice room (well discounted due to the low season) and seeked out a cheap Thai Red Curry for dinner before getting our heads down for the night. The next five days at our bungalow by Long Beach we went about exploring the area, we booked our onward travel to Singapore via Hat Yai and Kuala Lumpur and seeked out possible activities around Koh Lanta. The stretch of road which at peak season must be a buzzing centre for locals and tourists alike was now little shy of a ghost town; there was hardly anyone around. Most of the restaurants, bars and resorts were closed, along with the tour operators to much of our disappointment, as it meant there was little chance of getting anywhere outside of the island. Nonetheless, we found the beach quite nice and quiet, enjoyed a beautiful sunset, several tasty dinners at the small restaurants that remained open (including more Larb, a delicious dish we discovered in Laos) and a few drunken nights spent playing pool with a Thai lady who owned the small cocktail bar and her Swedish boyfriend. The only thing that drove us to change the beach and our bungalow was the fact that the pool which on the brochures looked ever so inviting was now a cloudy swamp, with a number of dead insects and amphibians floating about. We felt a little guilty leaving over a swimming pool, so we quickly climbed into the free pick-up taxi and 10 minutes later arrived at the northern Klang Dao beach and our new resort, the very first one built on the island back in 1986. The place was much nicer and the area seemed a little livelier. We walked to town for lunch along the sheltered beach and later back at the hotel made full use of the much bigger and cleaner swimming pool.
The low season quietness meant that we could not get any boat trips out of Koh Lanta, so sadly missed Koh Phi Phi and that beach from The Beach. 'Stuck' on Lanta we decided to finally attend a Thai cooking class with Time for Lime, which was a great choice, not only for the cooking, but also for their charitable causes, all profits went to a animal shelter on the island. The cooking course was exceptionally good and we learnt a great deal about Thai cuisine; much of the information we could have done with a long time ago, and avoided munching into huge chunks of lemongrass and chilli for example - they chop things differently, to indicate if they are meant to be eaten or simply to add favour - clever, huh?! We were also exceptionally full afterwards, so headed for a big lie-down. With plenty of free time on our hands, we decided to visit the Animal Welfare Centre too and spent 3 hours walking two dogs called Pepsi and Stripey and helped by deboning boiled fish to feed the 30 or so dogs and 20 or so cats they had at that time. We would have gladly stayed longer and spent more time with the cats and dogs and a little kitten called Sunshine (to say I love cats is an understatement) but we had to leave and get ready for a night that was to be a night of legends. Why, you ask? Manchester City were to win the Premier League by scoring two goals deep in injury time. Shaun's state of euphoria, and mine to my surprise, was something hard to put into words, but by the time we'd finished our last drink and got ourselves back to the hotel in a tuk-tuk driven by a ladyboy named Natalie (Jeff) we both slept soundly, Shaun no doubt dreaming of being there at Etihad Stadium in person; one thing he had to miss in order to travel the world. While I slept off my hangover, Shaun carried on the celebrations the next day late into the afternoon to the amusement of the resort staff and other guests. Unfortunately for me, I only managed a quick swim in the pool that day and a dinner at the resort restaurant, so my last day on Koh Lanta was a bit of a write-off.
At 12pm we climbed on what was our penultimate minibus of South East Asia, so truly a joyous moment. The first leg of the journey went quickly chatting to a couple from Manchester called Annie and Andy and we arrived in Trang bus station a few hours later. We were pointed to the right minibus (yes the very last one!) and after a couple of hours of snoozing as we drove relatively smoothly southwards, we arrived in Hat Yai. Hat Yai isn't really your tourist hot-spot of Thailand, and being in close proximity to the volatile 'Deep South' of Thailand, it is listed as 'avoid all but necessary travel' by the UK foreign office - clearly not the place to be, considering there was a bombing at a international hotel as recently as March this year, in which 13 people died. It was quite ironic actually as Shaun had picked up a book by his favourite comedian Dom Joly called 'The Dark Tourist', where Dom travels to sites across the globe generally associated with death or suffering such as The Killing Fields in Cambodia or just plainly bizarre like skiing in Iran. This place wouldn't go amiss for the sequel, should there be one. We located a quiet looking hotel with cheap, clean rooms and headed out for a good old KFC for dinner before returning and locking the 4 locks/hooks/safety locks of our door and making camp in front of the TV for the night. With a few hours to spare before our train to Kuala Lumpur the next day, we decided to wander around a little and actually happened to stumble upon the bombing site. Although it looked like just a building site, it was harrowing to see knowing what had happened. Dark Tourism indeed. We arrived at the train station with plenty of time, way too early in fact, as the train was to leave 4pm Thai time, not Malay time as we had thought. So sat there at the station being weighed up by some rather hostile looking locals, I can firmly report that Hat Yai is not first on the list of places to revisit in Thailand. We boarded our train as soon as we were allowed and had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren't dreaming; it wasn't a bus!
The train journey went smoothly with a quick stop-over at the Thai and Malay immigration offices at around 6pm, after which we settled into playing cards and Angry Birds on our new tablet. Unfortunately neither of us got much sleep that night, which is a bit of a shame as the beds were comfy and the train rocked on gently, but I guess the looming 5am wake up call was niggling at the back of our minds. We arrived in Kuala Lumpur an hour behind schedule. Out of the train windows the city looked big and maybe a little more 'cosmopolitan' than Bangkok. The hostel was located without any problems, but another early arrival meant we had to wait around for hours before much needed rest on a proper bed. We took our first day in the city pretty easy, with a lunch in Nando's (which I had promised for Shaun back in Hat Yai), a couple of beers over excitingly discussing campervan options in Australia and a late-night dash to Subway, which resulted in Shaun stepping one leg into a manhole which was covered in splintered and rotted planks of wood - thank god for the tetanus jabs!
Full of energy after a good night's sleep, we decided to explore more of Kuala Lumpur and walked in the searing heat to and around the pretty Botanical Gardens. The multicultural feel of the city became apparent with the prayer calls from the mosques, which made the empty gardens feel almost mystical. Hoping for a more of a birds eye view of the city we walked along and found the monorail station to take us to the KL Tower, or the telecommunications tower, which we eventually located after a little side tour. The views were nice (especially after Shaun realised he could spy on girls sunbathing at hotel roof top swimming pools), but we couldn't be bothered to wait for the sunset and so we headed back to grab some Malaysian delights at the food market close to our hostel.
We both woke up very tired at 6am the next day and travelled on the metro to the famous Petronas Twin Towers to queue for tickets, which opened for sales at 8.30, but according to the hostel staff, we'd need to be there at 7.30 the latest. We arrived and found a queue had formed already as well the fact that what we thought were free tickets, now cost around £10. The towers were too good to miss and so we waited for an hour and a half an finally got our tickets for the evening, to get the night shots of the city we'd missed at the TV tower. We spent the day shopping for necessary clothes for cooler southern Australia and at 6.30pm we were ready and waiting for our 45min time slot at the bottom of the towers. The skybridge between the two was the first stop at the 41st floor with nice views of the setting sun and afterwards we were whisked up almost to the top of one of the towers at the 86th floor viewing deck. The views were breathtaking with the lit-up twin of the two towers right next to us - definitely worth the price and waiting. The 83-floor trip down to ground level took 1.15min; earpopping speeds and enough to get anyone's legs turn jelly. Safely on firm ground we took a few more shots of the beautifully lit up towers before heading back to the hostel to pack up and catch some sleep ahead of our last stop of this leg of our journey; Singapore.
Bizarrely enough, the train to Singapore that morning was the first day train since Munich, and as is tradition here in South East Asia the train was delayed. That aside, the immigration procedures were quickly sorted and we were setting our feet on Singaporean soil. It was a long metro ride from the Woodlands metro station to our hostel in China Town, but we found the hostel and area really nice and after settling in, went about finding food. Amongst a huge selection of Chinese and various seafood restaurants we found a small place, and although a little pricey, it seemed promising with offerings such as pigs ears and chicken intestines. We opted for a more usual affair of noodles and beef with greens, but worth a paragraph of its own would be the pork dumplings, that took us back like a time machine, to the streets of Shanghai. Munching on the dumplings we talked about returning one day; China was awesome. Confident after our trip down memory lane we attempted to impress the waiting staff with our skills of Mandarin Chinese by saying 'delicious', pronounced something like 'how chi' or more like 'how cheyuw'. Think we need a little more practice, needless to say. After a few beers it was time to call it a night, we'd be meeting up with Atiqah next day, a girl we met back in Bangkok. As a local, Atiqah had promised to show us different sides to Singapore along with some cheap delicious local foods - and she didn't disappoint. It was great to meet up with her after over a month and she truly took us under her wing in the big city. The first day she took us for lunch in a food hawker market place, and we enjoyed Indian style noodle soup and fried noodles (sorry Atiqah, I should have wrote the names of the dishes down!), deliciously full, we rolled ourselves to a nearby shopping centre in search of Adidas Classics trainers for Shaun (search which proved fruitless after two days) and picked up a few more new clothes to replace the old tattered ones. Shaun had heard about a toboggan ride on Sentosa Island and Atiqah not only kindly agreed to take us there, but also waited with our bags while we zoomed down the tracks three times (it was more value for money, honest). Suitably thrilled out, we finished our day with tasty chicken and rice at another food stall and a few beers by Clarke Quay river front afterwards, a fitting end to a lovely day. As the day of departure arrived, we had the whole day to spare before our flight at 10pm that evening, so Atiqah took us around for another afternoon of Singapore sights. We enjoyed a third delicious meal in shape of Chinese noodle soup and carried on the day with a little more shopping (Shaun had started raising suspicions that Atiqah was on commission with the shop vendors and making me 'need' things...). We realised she had left the best for last as after a short metro ride and a few 'shortcuts' we stood somewhere across from Marina Sands admiring an amazing view of Singapore skyline on a hot sunny day; it was stunning. We enjoyed one last meal together with Atiqah via a quick trip across the Helix Bridge and a short visit to the million dollar Marina Sands Bay shopping/hotel/casino/god-knows-what-else complex. Arndale Centre who? Quick showers and a repack of bags, Atiqah kindly saw us to the airport and we arrived in time to enjoy a few beers together before waving goodbyes at the departure gates. It was sad to say goodbyes but we'll make sure we'll meet up again soon.
Waiting for that flight was an unreal moment, the first flight since leaving Manchester. We realised how long we'd spent in Asia, 5 months almost, and it was odd to be leaving and entering what would be truly a different world. Surely it would be a culture shock as we had grown accustomed to the food, our new 'lifestyle' and most definitely the prices, not forgetting the many amazing experiences out here, getting through the bizarre, amazing & tough times. We had definitely changed and if possible, grown as people because of all that. They say that travel broadens the mind and they weren't wrong, whoever 'they' are. Although flying wasn't the intended mode of transport and knowing that we'd miss the continent which had been our home for over a third of the year, we were still stupidly excited about getting to Australia and the new adventures that await us. Could we survive back in the western world though? Time will tell...