DAY 13 – Koh Jum

Today Hollie had Delhi belly and was incapacitated, whilst I broke a hammock, got caught in a rain storm and found out what “Hell’s Itch” is.

We were looking forward to a nice day on the beach, drinking Chang and reading. When the urge took us we’d have a paddle in the sea – maybe go kayaking, or rent a scooter and go for a ride. Shortly after breakfast however, Hollie became unwell and spent most of the rest of the day in the room. To cheer her up, I coaxed a kitten that was hanging around outside the bungalow in for Hollie to pet. This was a success, and she was able to briefly forget about her desperate plight by playing with it on the porch.

For the next part of the story to work properly, I am going to refer back to the events of the previous evening, when Hollie had enjoyed some time rocking gently back and forth in the hammock which was slung from the roof beams of our bungalow. As she fell to sleep in it, snoring delicately, it put me in mind of one of her favourite Disney characters…

I’d like to point out that Hollie approved of this comparison…

Later after she’d woken from her slumber, we facetimed Hollie’s family. We mentioned the hammock and I stated that I feared that it wouldn’t withstand the weight of my ample frame. Hollie’s Mum disagreed. “You’re always putting yourself down Tom!” she said.

Returning to the present, the hammock was unoccupied as Hollie was sat in the doorway, dangling the lace of one of my shoes in the cat’s mouth. With Hollie’s Mum’s words of consolation ringing in my ears, I thought to myself “You are always putting yourself down Tommy. If you want to lie in the hammock, you lie in the hammock.” I clambered in, and for ten minutes it was bliss. Hollie continued to play with the cat as I closed my eyes and swayed in the gentle breeze. I was roused from my snooze by a loud creaking. I sat up and looked at Hollie, who’s face was etched in terror – the cat had curled up and fallen asleep directly below the hammock. As I attempted to clamber out like a portly passenger tossing himself overboard from the Titanic, the rope snapped, the cat shat itself and ran into the bushes, and I landed on my arse.

Seconds before disaster.  Things could have been so much worse…

Arse intact but pride in tatters, I decided to go for a walk to locate Koh Jum diving centre. I’ve been planning to do some scuba diving whilst we’re on this trip, and I thought that Koh Jum would be a nice place to do it, far from the crowds of Phi Phi and Phuket. I set out along the road in blazing heat, stopping regularly in the shadey spots to take on water. At one point on the journey two Thai blokes who were pissed out of their faces at two in the afternoon beckoned over to me to join them on their porch. I sat down with them for a minute whilst they chuckled to themselves and nodded at me. The conversation wasn’t stimulating – in fact, they didn’t say anything, so after thirty seconds of awkward smilling and nodding, I stood up and said “Water?” and they pointed me to a shop across the road. Following my google maps, I arrived at the place where it claimed that the dive shop was, to find an empty garage. Unperturbed, I walked round that area for half an hour looking for the dive shop with no success. I was walking through a complex of swanky holiday homes when I spotted a big monitor lizard and stopped to film it.

As I took a picture I noticed a spot of rain fall on the screen. “Best get back before I get wet” I thought. Fifteen seconds later, I looked like I’d been thrown in the sea. There was no point in running as I was already sodden, so I abandoned my quest for the diving centre and squelched back up the road to the bungalow, holding my phone under my shirt to prevent it from getting soaked.

A diagram to demonstrate where I looked for the diving centre – the red cross marks where I eventually discovered that it was actually located.

Upon my return to the bungalow, I took advantage of a gap in Hollie’s use of the bathroom to have a shower. After completing my ablutions, I got out and dried my back with a towel. It was then that the burning, itching sensation started on my back. You’ll think I’m moaning (and I am), but I’ve never known anything like it. It wasn’t especially painful, but the itches were that bad that I couldn’t sit still – I had to run round the room, slapping my back with my hands and scraping myself against the wall like a bear. Hollie – herself an invalid for the day, applied aloe vera and aftersun, which worked for about thirty seconds before making it worse. I googled my symptoms to ensure that this wasn’t the first stage of some kind of apocalyptic plague virus, and confirmed that it was an irritation caused by the sunburn that I’d sustained the day before last. It was described on the internet as “Hell’s Itch”, which I think is a fairly accurate description – it felt like the Devil was tickling me with a yardbrush smeared with chilli peppers.

It’s safe to say that today won’t go down as one of the better days. I share my misfortunes with you so you can have a good chuckle at my expense, but my plight was nothing to that of Hollie’s – it’s torture being in one of the most beautiful places that you’ve ever been and being too ill to leave the hotel room.

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DAY 12 – Ferry from Koh Lanta to Koh Jum

After a slow start, we found things to like about Koh Lanta. In places it’s as stunning and wild as any of the other islands in this part of the Andaman sea, and aside from the odd tuk tuk hustler, the people are warm and friendly – although in our experience that comes as a given throughout Thailand. The problem I have with it is the same problem that I think that I’ll have with Koh Phi Phi when we visit later in the trip – the rapid overdevelopment. Once an island gets “discovered” more people come and more businesses set up to cater for them. The standards slip as the money rolls in, and the place gets cheaper and nastier. That said, it’s hard to find the balance between big and small. The smaller islands are generally more peaceful, but there’s less going on. You’re often stuck for choice of restaurants and partying opportunities, and there are often no supermarkets, ATMs, or even doctors.

We continued on our quest for the island with the perfect balance of the above. We were picked up and taken to Ban Saladan pier, where we’d caught the boat to Koh Rok the day before. We picked up the Koh Phi Phi – Krabi ferry, opting to sit below deck to avoid the unforgiving glare of the sun. It was a good journey. I used to think that the train was my favourite way to travel, but after this trip I’ve come to believe that cruising through the Andaman with a gentle breeze blowing through the window and islands all around us is the bees knees.

Whilst we were pootling along on the high seas, one of the crew members swung himself into the seat next to us and tried to sell us ferry tickets. “Where you go next?” he said. We explained that we thought we would go to Koh Yao Yai. He made some calculations before saying “I give you the best price. 2400 baht”. This is just over fifty quid, and equated to more than we’d paid for any journey so far. We were aware that we’d have to get a taxi from Krabi to another pier for this stage of our journey, but fifty quid seemed comparatively very steep. We dismissed his offer, but he countered with “Koh Jum is small island – you need to get a ticket before you get off the boat”. Having been witness to (and sometimes victim of) multiple scams in the past, his approach was ringing alarm bells. It sounded dodgy, but the bloke was like a dog with a bone. He kept going away and coming back, before trying to explain what he’d already told us. In the end we bought two open tickets to Krabi to shut him up. Later on Koh Jum, we would research the travel options for Koh Yao Yai and it would turn out that although his sales technique was dreadful, his price estimation wasn’t far off the mark. I felt slightly bad for having written the bloke off as a scam merchant, but many in our position would have done the same. He may well have had a heart of gold, but unfortunately for him he also had the face of a weasel.

Koh Jum doesn’t have a pier capable of taking on a boat as big as the Krabi-Phi Phi ferry, so a more creative approach has to be taken. When we arrived off the coast of Koh Jum, a flotilla of longtail boats were launched from the beach. As they sped towards our ferry, I wondered aloud to Hollie whether we were about to be boarded by pirates.

One by one, they moored up alongside our ferry. We went up to the top deck and found ourselves in a crush of people getting on and off various boats. The weasel from the previous paragraph asked us where we were staying. We told him Jungle Hill bungalows, and he then gestured to two barefooted longtail boatsmen, who picked up our backpacks and threw them to some other blokes, who again threw them to some other blokes, who then plonked them unceremoniously into the bottom of the longtail boat which was furthest away from us. We climbed down from the ferry into the first longtail, before hopping the gap on to the next one. The transaction complete, we unmoored from the other boats that were bobbing around and sailed off to the beach.

The boat was run gently aground on the beach and we waded up through lapping waves. The two boatsmen took our backpacks and gestured for us to follow them. I’m not usually keen on this kind of subservience and i quickened my pace to try and take my bag back off him, but just as I’d caught up with him he began climbing a long flight of steep stairs, and I thought “You go ahead, son”.

Within ten minutes we were sat on the balcony of a large stilted hut built onto the side of the hill, eating breakfast and admiring the view of the ocean and Koh Phi Phi beyond. The Jungle Hill bungalows site is a labyrinth of stilted houses, wooden walkways and bamboo steps built around tall tropical trees. For all those sci-fi geeks out there, it put me in mind of the houses that the Ewoks live in in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. After checking in and having breakfast we were shown to our accommodation – a basic little bungalow on top of the hill.

After chillaxing in the room for a bit, we hired a moped for 250 baht. Hollie got on the back, but had to immediately get off again whilst I negotiated the mud track that lead down to the main road. The frequent rainstorms had turned it into a Motocross track, and I had to keep revving the engine whilst keeping both feet on the ground, allowing it to drag me along through the mud.

Once we were motoring, we followed the road past a long stretch of beach, through an avenue of rubber trees, all the way down to a pretty little fishing town called Ban Koh Jum. Every house was open to the street, and the various residents called out in chirpy greeting to us as they passed the hottest part of the day on their porches. Following this we went the other way back past Jungle Hill. Whilst on this route a dog ran out from one of the houses without warning and it nearly ended up under the front wheel. We followed the road as far north as we could, but without warning the concrete ended and it became a rocky deathtrap. We turned back and visited Ban Ko Pu – another lovely little town where it appears the main source of income is catching fish and leaving them all to dry in the sun to make a kind of snack which is popular all over Thailand. As readers will be aware, I am something of a culinary adventurer, but I wouldn’t touch dried fish with a bargepole. I mean no disrespect to the people who obviously feel that this is a tasty snack, but for me the smell alone is enough to make me heave.

Whilst Thailand is 95% Buddhist, most of the islands off the Andaman coast are Muslim – I think this is because a lot of the residents are of Malaysian ancestry. Each town we passed had a tiny Mosque and many of the women here wear hijabs. The food as well, is subtly different to mainland Thailand. Being on an island seafood is a speciality as you’d expect, but there also seems to be a greater emphasis on using dried spices in the curries here. As I’ve mentioned before, one of Hollie and I’s all-time faves is massaman curry, which is heavy on the cinnamon and doesn’t rely so heavily on the kaffir lime that gives a lot of Thai dishes such as green curry their distinctive flavour. Massaman is apparently an old word which means “Muslim”, so I guess it makes sense that the menu reflects the dominant culture of the island.

We went back along the main road towards Jungle Hill. At the same point as before, the exact same black dog came running out at us and was almost crushed under the front wheel. I don’t think it was a stray, which begs the question, what are the owners teaching it? Maybe they’ve already been run over in previous incidents and the dog is all that remains of the household.
We returned to the balcony restaurant at Jungle Hill. I had laab chicken – an extreeemely firey dish of minced chicken and red chillis, which made my mouth tingle for about ten minutes after finishing. Hollie had a chicken burger as she was feeling slightly dodgy – it wasn’t their speciality and left her feeling even more dodgy. After this we retreated to the room to kip.

DAY 11 – November 14th. Snorkel trip from Koh Lanta to Koh Rok island

We were picked up bright and breezy by a songtheaw and taken up the coast to Ban Saladan, a fishing village at the top of Koh Lanta. We were two of about twenty tourists ushered aboard a pretty rad lookin’ speedboat. Our guide invited us to indulge in water and coke from the fridge in the middle of the deck, or magnesium tablets if any of us suffer from seasickness. We then caned it out of the tiny port at a serious rate of knots, churning up waves that hit the sandbanks and sent tiny hermit crabs scuttling off in every direction. When we were clear of the various hazards and we hit the open ocean, our capitan pulled the throttle right back and I briefly wondered if we were going to take off. The bow of the boat rose in the water and all on board were hit with refreshing specks of spray from the ocean. We continued like this for about forty minutes, with the wind taking the heat of the sun off our skin – but not the burn, as we would discover later in the day.

We arrived at our destination – a channel of deep, crystal clear water in between two picturesque tropical islands. Ko Rok Nai and Ko Rok Nok are seperated by about 250 metres, and inbetween, sheltered from the open sea, are all kinds of weird and wonderful life forms. But enough about me and Hollie. We took our first dip in the waters off Ko Rok Nai, plunging from the back of the boat into the welcoming warmth, before ducking under a rope to snorkel in the designated area. Since I first snorkelled in the Med about seven years ago, I’ve always loved the weird escapism that’s to be gained by simply bobbing your head under the water. It really is a window into another world, but I think it’s safe to say that the reefs we explored off Ko Rok are on a completely different level to the Mediteranean.

Every rock for as far as the eye could see was covered in coral – an alien landscape of colour and texture. Clownfish – of Finding Nemo fame – were everywhere, floating nervously up from sea anenomes, before retreating back inside at the first sign of danger. Angelfish (also featured in Finding Nemo) were plentiful, travelling in pairs with an effortless air which suggested that they thought they were the sexiest thing in the ocean. Clams as big as dinner plates lay ajar, sending bubbles up to the surface and tickling the schools of tigerfish that outnumbered everything else in the sea by ten to one. And among all this was a group of about twenty snorkellers, cramming around the guide as he swam down to point things out at the bottom, and kicking each other as they tried to tread the same bit of water – things got a bit crowded at times.

After jumping back on the boat and having another snorkelling sesh off the beach of the other island, the boat took us over to Ko Rok Nai and had lunch. Massaman curry and chicken wings washed down with coke, sprite and fresh fruit. We had an hour to wander round the island before the boat set sail again, so Hollie and I went for a wander down a nature trail trying to catch a glimpse of one of the “metre long” monitor lizards that were mentioned on Travelfish’s review of the island. The forest floor was alive with something, but it wasn’t lizards. It took us a while to figure it out, but the source of the rustling of dry leaves coming from all around us were a thousand little hermit crabs. Before getting on the boat I went to the gents. As I stood at the urinal in the open toilet complex, I saw a monitor lizard scuttling through the bushes. It wasn’t a metre long (the lizard I mean), but it was an impressive sight all the same. Some of the greatest things I’ve seen in nature have been whilst I’ve been having a wee in the wilderness.

We re-boarded the boat by hopping our way up a floating plastic causeway which lead out to sea. The hopping was not through choice – the heat of the sun on the plastic pontoons had made each one hotter than the base of a frying pan, meaning that to put one’s bare foot down for more than a second resulted in blistering pain to the base of the foot. For each foot placed on the plastic we gave out an “Oooh!” or an “Argh!” If any monkeys were watching this spectacle from the trees of Koh Rok they would have suspected that we were taking the piss out of them.

We anchored the boat in deeper waters and went for one last dip. We saw a lot of the same stuff that we’d seen before, and in addition we saw two Moray eels. Moray eels are evil looking things that hide under rocks at the bottom. They don’t often stray too far out of their hiding places, but if you were to swim under and accidentally put your hand on one it could bite your fingers clean off. I’m quite partial to my fingers, so when the guide swam down to one and beckoned me to follow, I pretended that I was cleaning my mask. We climbed back onboard and Hollie attempted to open the toilet cabin. Upon finding it locked she asked “Is the toilet free?” to which a crew member shouted “The sea is free!” and laughed so hard he nearly fell off the boat. I then tried to convince Hollie to go and have a wee in the sea but she refused, partly because everyone on board would know exactly what she’s doing, and partly because she is a lady of class and breeding.

We motored back to Koh Lanta. We were dropped back at the hotel by songtheaw and we returned to to the room to get ready to go out for tea. As we passed the friendly girl on reception she asked “Did you find Nemo?” to which we replied many, many Nemos. It was only after returning to the room and getting changed that we discovered how badly burnt we were. The breeze and being in the water had kept the worst of the heat off us throughout the day, and though we’d reapplied sun cream several times, we’d still been floating in the water with our backs to the sky for hours. The back of me resembled the flag of Austria, with my arse and upper legs the only part to have been spared.

After applying copious amounts of aftersun we ventured out for tea. We located a place called Galaxy, and ended up wishing we’d found it on our first night so that we could have returned again and again. Climbing steps up from the street and settling into cushioned bamboo benches, we were surrounded by flowers and colourful lanterns and the smell of incense. We had shrimpcakes, spring rolls and red curry with rice whilst an eclectic mix of french and spanish folk tunes played on the soundsystem – I have no idea what they were singing about but the music seemed to fit the vibe of the place perfectly. Then knackered and probably suffering slightly from heatstroke, we returned to Lom La Lanta hotel for the last time. Tomorrow we’d be taking the ferry to Koh Jum.

DAY 10 – Scooter around Koh Lanta, getting lost before exploring the National Park

We woke and went down for breakfast. This was the only hotel we’d stopped in so far that didn’t have a restaurant – it was no Chatrium breakfast buffet, but free tea and toast can’t be sniffed at. We booked a snorkelling trip to Koh Rok for the following day with the lady on reception – the warmest and friendliest of all our hosts so far, which is saying something. I rented a scooter for 250 baht (around a fiver) for the day. My driving licence wasn’t requested. Before our trip I paid a fiver at the Post Office for an international driving licence – this is compulsory for driving in Thailand, but I’d bet 9/10 backpackers don’t get it. It’s all fun and games, but if you did meet with an accident and require medical treatment I’d rather not give the travel insurers an excuse to refuse to pay out.

Did I sound like a responsible adult in that last paragraph? If so, prepare to have this illusion shattered. After mounting the scooter, it took me a full five minutes to get the bloody thing started. I turned the key in the ignition and tried every single combination of button that was possible, including the horn, which brought me to the attention of some passing Thai drivers, who must have thought I was a right muppet. Eventually I managed to spark it into life (for future reference: keys in, switch ignition to on, hold the back brake on with your left hand and touch the starter button on the right handlebar). I saw Hollie, who had silently watched this performance, gulp as she shuffled herself onto the back of the bike.

As I said in yesterday’s entry, there are only two main roads on Koh Lanta, connected together by a few smaller roads that run through the hilly centre of the island. You might think that with so few directions to have to follow, it would be difficult to get lost – not so. Our intended destination was the National Park on the southern tip of the island. According to the cheap map provided by a random hostel we’d never heard of, all we had to do was drive south until the road stopped, and we’d be at the National Park. We set off along the road, doing a steady 40k and pulling in to the gutter each time a truck wanted to pass us. The journey was relatively comfortable until the potholes began to appear. I say “potholes”, but really what I mean is “giant craters”. Most of these were either avoidable, or traversed easily by slowing down to a walking pace. Every now and again though, one would surprise us, and this would be like jumping into water – you hold your breath and wait to bob up on the other side. We followed the road up into hills lined with dense jungle, past an elephant camp and an orchard of fruit trees.

The climb was a lot to handle for our underpowered bike, and it got to the point that Hollie could have hopped off and run past me. Then the gradients switched and I took my foot off the gas and applied all of the back and some of the front brake, as we weaved our way down the mountain through tight corners and narrowing lanes. There were far too many twists and turns for this to be the road that we were supposed to be following, but we were committed to the descent now and it would have been dodgier to stop and turn round. At long last we came to a crossroads, which confirmed that we’d gone wrong somewhere along the way as there were no junctions on the road that we were supposed to be following.

I pulled over and turned the gas off whilst Hollie studied the map. Whilst we were standing at the side of the road, two Ozzies came down on scooters and asked us for directions. I responded by saying “Don’t ask us, we’re farang” to which they chuckled and drove off. A quick look at our map confirmed both that we’d come about 5km in the wrong direction, and that the map was shit. I struggled to restart the bike again – I was about to wheel it to a nearby garage when I realised that the stand was down. Once I’d flicked it back up the bike started first time, and we began our slow climb back the way we came. We found where we’d gone wrong – we’d followed the road round to the left, when actually we should have turned off onto a road directly ahead of us, which looked like a straight road on the map. Please be assured though, it was the map’s fault, and not the farang who was following it.

The journey to the park was spectacular. The road became hilly and twisty-turny again, but as we headed further south the resorts and developments tailed off and we were left with beautiful vistas across the sea. We passed the odd hippy cafe along the way with signs outside offering things like “Jungle Party” and “Spliff”. We passed through a sleepy town which had a massage parlour called “Wee Massage” – whether this was a Scottish expat branching out into the spa industry, or some kind of urine therapy, we didn’t stop to find out. After a sequence of hairpins and ascents that wouldn’t have been out of place in an advert for the latest model of land rover, we arrived at the park entrance. Hollie got off to buy the tickets, and I stayed with the bike as I didn’t trust the stand to hold it steady on the steep hill we’d come down to get here. As she made the transaction with a park ranger in a little-tin-roofed hut at the side of the road, I watched as half a dozen monkeys leapt off the roof and chased a backpacker who was riding uphill out of the park. Another remained on the roof, scratching his balls just a couple of feet above the spot where Hollie stood oblivious, with a handful of cash. I mentally prepared myself for the prospect of having to defend my fair maiden by punching the monkey in the face, but fortunately this intervention wasn’t required.

We wheeled down into the park and left the scooter. There was a footpath to follow which we ambled along, taking photos of weird plants and keeping a beady eye on the monkeys that watched us from the trees. I snapped a photo of a monkey sitting on a scooter – which was funny, but put me on edge slightly. I wouldn’t put it past a gang of determined monkeys to figure out how to succeed where I’d failed in turning the ignition on. My imagination ran away with itself as I daydreamed of the monkeys forming vigilante scooter gangs and carrying out highway robberies on unsuspecting drivers.

I was snapped out of my daydream by the scaley form of a creature that made my heart leap. In the garden of one of the warden’s houses I saw what looked to me like the hood of a cobra. I made Hollie aware of this by exclaiming HOLLIE IT’S A COBRA, A F*****G COBRA! It wasn’t a cobra. It was a monitor lizard that for a split second looked like a cobra, but – all the same – I thought it was a good spot.

We followed the nature trail for a bit, but it was all wonky uphill steps – the view of the sea was spectacular to our right hand side, but the sun was intense and we couldn’t be arsed to carry on climbing. Instead we found the cafe and went for an ice cream. We sat down at a table to eat them, but found ourselves acosted by monkeys. We were about to get up and take our ice creams elsewhere, when the lady from the cafe came over to us and gave Hollie a slingshot, saying “Pull and it scares them”. I sat back down and enjoyed my cornetto, flinching at the occasional “THWOCK” of the slingshot when a monkey got too close for comfort – I think Hollie enjoyed being in this position of power.

The National Park was well worth a visit – the beach is beautiful and the wildlife is plentiful, and it helped us to see Koh Lanta in a much more favourable light than when we first arrived.

After an hour or two of exploring we set off back towards our hostel. One of the conditions of hiring a scooter is that you leave as much petrol in the tank as when you started, so I decided to fill her up before we got onto the busier roads. In South-East Asia, many houses that line the roads offer their own gasoline to scooter drivers that pass by. I have no idea how pure this product is – whether it’s been bought from a reputable gas station, or whether it’s a mix of cooking oil, ox piss and whiskey. All I know is 40 baht to fill your tank up is pretty reasonable, and that when in Rome, you should do as the Romans do. We stopped off at a house in the middle of nowhere, and an old lady used a funnel to decant a whiskey bottle full of the irn bru-coloured liquid into the tank. I find this practice of amateur gas stations quite funny. I wonder what would happen if anybody ever lit a fag up near one, and what effect the sun has on this flammable liquid contained in glass. I also find it hilarious that nine times out of ten, the gasoline is contained in a whiskey bottle, prompting serious questions over the quality of Thai whiskey. The most popular brand for recycling as a gas canister appears to be “Hong Thong”.

We made it back to the hostel – whatever the lady put in our tank was sufficient to see us home. We went for tea at a place called “Sweet and Sour” and had tom kha gai soup and mackerel in penang curry sauce – Hollie’s tom kha gai was spot on, whereas my mackerel was lacking the quantity of sauce required to soak up the rice – poor selection from Tommy. We washed them down with an iced tea each, before we had dessert. I had banana in coconut milk – a delicious Thai standard, with the heated coconut milk sweetened by sugarcane. Hollie, maverick that she is, opted for fried ice cream. The phrase “always try everything once” is especially relevant to her selection – try fried ice cream more than once and you’re likely to need a trip to the hospital to unblock your arteries! Hollie enjoyed this culinary adventure, and I must say the bit that she allowed me to sample was perverse, but tasty. I couldn’t help feeling though, that it looked exactly like a scotch egg….

We returned to Lom La Lanta to catch up on kip – tomorrow we would be snorkelling the coral reefs around Koh Rok.

DAY 9 – Ferry from Koh Muk to Koh Lanta pier, then songtheaw to Phrae Ae Beach

Another early start.  We awoke and went outside to find a cat sprawled out on one of the chairs on the porch outside our bungalow.

Once I’d managed to prize Hollie away one of the lads from Mookies took us down to the dock in a motorbike and sidecar, driving right out over the glittering water to the end of the pier.  Towards the top end of the pier a motorbike came speeding at us and I thought that we might end up in the drink, but somehow both vehicles managed to pass each other on the narrow causeway.  We boarded the 9am ferry to Koh Lanta – a significant upgrade on the rickety chug-chugger that delivered us here from the mainland.

This boat was rapid once it got out to sea, with the bow rising full out of the water and slapping down on top of the waves, sending spray flying all over the place.  Shortly after leaving Koh Muk we made our first stop on Koh Kradan to drop a couple of people off.  Koh Kradan is tiny and doesn’t have a port, so instead they ran the boat up onto the beach, holding it steady enough to allow the passengers off before pushing off again and continuing the voyage.  It was a pretty big boat to be running it up the beach, but it’s obviously something they do on a regular basis.  In fact, I wished they’d have run it up a bit further and into the hotel beyond it, where it looked like an al fresco buffet breakfast in full swing.

We made another dropoff at Koh Ngai, which was good because we’d considered spending a couple of nights there, but having seen it up close it didn’t look like much was happening.  After this we sailed on another forty minutes to Koh Lanta.

When we arrived at the jetty a herd of backpackers were waiting to be allowed on the boat, which was bound for Krabi after Lanta.  Whilst we waited on the quayside for our transfer we watched as people were crammed into the downstairs seating area of the boat, before it reached capacity and passengers began spilling out onto the top deck.  The exposure to the sun on that top deck must be intense, and I imagine that some of the paler ones will have been frazzled by the time they reached Krabi.  After a short while Hollie and I were crammed in to the back of a songtheaw with some of the other new arrivals.  Several bags including my own were placed upon the roof in a shallow cage – it’s never happened to us before, but I’ve read stories of people’s bags falling off the roof of speeding songtheaws and into the road.  Luckily on this occasion there were no such incidents, and we were dropped off at Lom La Lanta, the accommodation we’d booked near Phrae Ae beach.

First impressions of the island weren’t great.  There are only two main roads on Koh Lanta, running along the east and west coast.  Phrae Ae is on the west coast, which has a beach running along much of the length of it, and consequently the majority of tourist resorts and guesthouses can be found here.  Though there are only two main roads, the volume of traffic along them is pretty high as the island continues to grow in popularity.  Having just come from the chilled out vibe of Koh Muk, the Lanta traffic felt like being in downtown Bangkok.  As we walked out along the filthy gutter of the road looking for a place to have breakfast, we were hassled by tuk tuk drivers doing their old “Hello my friend! you want tuk tuk?” routine – harmless but annoying.  Over the next couple of days we were to find that Koh Lanta is still beautiful and unspoilt in parts, but at this point we were ready for catching the next boat out of there.  Breakfast had become lunch by the time we sat down to eat, and we both had a croque monsieur and fries in some French cafe along the strip.  We then attempted to locate the beach without success – though it was only a few hundred yards away, a wall of souvenir shops, restaurants and resorts prevented us from getting to it.  Hot and bothered from the mid-afternoon sun, we threw our toys out the pram and retreated to the hotel to sulk in our air-conditioned room.

I watched a lot of Thai TV that afternoon – I love watching telly in foriegn countries and trying to figure out what they’re all on about.  I watched some kind of soap about cowboys in Thailand – it was low in budget but high in drama, containing a marriage proposal, a fight between two alpha males during a fishing trip, and a poorly choreographed shootout between a bearded hermit and a dozen or so police officers, all within the space of 45 minutes.

At 6pm every TV channel in Thailand plays the national anthem whilst the camera pans over various Thais of different occupations sing along heartily.  Images of missiles, warships and soldiers are shown, before the anthem ends with images of the royal family, including the recently deceased King.  The Thais are very patriotic, but there’s something a little bit sinister about this display.  Thailand’s military took over the country in a coup in 2014, and they’ve yet to let anybody know when they plan to hold elections again.  It strikes me that the Thais have some issues with democracy – although that’s been their official form of government since 1932, only one prime minister has ever managed to complete a full four-year term in office.  His name was Thaksin Shinawatra, and he went on to buy Man City football club.  Probably the most bizarre ousting of a prime minister occurred in 2008, when the leader of the country was forced to step down because he’d hosted a TV cooking show whilst in office, which was considered to be a conflict of interest.

Our evening outing was more successful.  We went for food at Beachcombers restaurant – a posh place situated in the grounds of a swanky holiday resort.  In finding this restaurant we also located that elusive beach, and we sipped cocktails and ate from a TexMex menu as the sun went down over the ocean and lightning flashed on the horizon.  After Hollie put her drink down to eat her enchiladas, a giant moth swooped down and landed on her straw.  It looked like a high-class decoration – perhaps the moths here have evolved to avoid detection by blending in to backpacker’s cocktails.

We returned to our room to catch some Z’s, still uncertain about what to make of Koh Lanta.

DAY 8 – Exploring the Emerald Cave on Koh Muk

We woke up early, having booked a longtail boat the previous day to take us to the Emerald Cave. Emerald Cave is Koh Muk’s premier attraction – a hidden beach completely surrounded by jungle-clad cliffs, which can only be accessed by swimming through a pitch-black cave at low tide. If it sounds like the kind of thing that only a pirate would do, you’d be right. Back in the swashbuckling olden days local pirates used to hide their treasure in there until the authorities had stopped sniffing around, then they’d come back and collect it and go and spend it on rum and eye patches, or whatever else pirates liked to buy.

We met our guide at one of the restaurants near where we were staying. Many Thai businesses, especially on the islands, are multi-purpose. In most of the places that we’ve stayed we’ve been able to get a room, eat in the restaurant, hire a scooter and book a tour, all under one rickety bamboo roof. Our guide was Mong (of Mong Bar and restaurant fame), and he was typical of the Thai islanders that we’ve met so far – shy, smiley and completely dedicated to looking after you whilst you’re in their hands.

We waded out through warm water to a longtail boat that had come out to meet us. Longtail boats are wooden, about ten metres long, and look a bit like Viking longships. I’m assuming that they’re called longtail because of the way that they’re powered and steered. At the back (or the stern, if you want to be nautical) of the boat, the captain is in charge of what looks like an oversized garden strimmer with a propeller on the end, which he dips in the water at whatever angle he needs to direct the boat. I said to Hollie that if I was able to use a strimmer like that in our garden back home, I could clear the weeds in no time – although I’d probably end up chopping my arm off in the process. It looks quite dodgy, and I reckon to the uninitiated driver it probably is, but to the islanders who have been doing it all their lives it’s second nature. After we were safely in the boat, he attempted to start up the engine, which spluttered and died. After several attempts we began to wonder whether we were marooned, but finally it stuttered into life. The boatman dipped the strimmer and we scythed away through clear turquoise water.

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The cave is popular, and even before 9am there were boats bobbing around at the entrance. We moored alongside another longtail and having donned life jackets, followed Mong in jumping into the sea. There’s something quite anxiety-inducing about swimming into a pitch-black cave, and my heart beat a little faster as we passed under the arch and into shadow. Mong turned on his headtorch, and pointed at various stalagtites on the ceiling as we drifted through, soundtracked by the lapping of water on the side of the cave, and the occasional “Wooo!” from grown adults (myself included), pretending to be ghosts.

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There was light at the end of the tunnel, and we waded out of the cave through the leafy shallows into a shaded clearing. There was a crescent of beach and a bit of jungle behind it, then steep cliffs on all sides rising 100 metres or so. The call of hornbills echoed all around the walls, and a gentle breeze rocked the palm trees from side to side. There wasn’t much to do there, but we could happily have done nothing there all day.

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We swam back through the cave and got in the boat. We paid 600 baht (or about 12 quid) for the trip, and we would have been satisfied at this point, but Mong insisted on taking us snorkeling. We anchored up near one of the reefs just round the corner from Haad Farang beach, and spent half an hour following him round through the coral. He swam down to the seabed and flapped his hand over sea anenomes to reveal families of clownfish living within. We saw sea cucumbers and angelfish and various other kinds of flora and fauna. After a second snorkelling stop, he dropped us back on the beach and we tipped him for what had possibly been the best morning of our trip so far.

We missed breakfast at Mookies, so we opted for a chicken burger instead – the odd western meal doesn’t go amiss every now and again if you’re out here for a while. Thai food is beautiful, but it’s all very healthy – sometimes pigging out on a good burger is just the ticket.

We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling, before heading out to Ko Yao Viewpoint restaurant for our last supper in Muk. Ko Yao is a set of wooden terraces built on stilts into the rocks above Haad Farang beach. It offers amazing views of other islands across the bay, and we ate Massaman and red curry, washed down with fanta and chang, whilst the sun set over the sea. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, tiny orange specks of light twinkled from the shores of other islands – they looked like campfires on the beaches. The food was amazing and the view was stunning, and we both felt slightly sad to be leaving Koh Muk. I think we’d done the majority of things that there were to do on the island though, and we looked forward to moving on to Koh Lanta in the morning. We walked back up the hill, calling in at Ting Tong’s for a swift Chang before turning in for the night.

DAY 7 – November 10th. Ko Muk

We are in the jungle.  We couldn’t be more in the jungle if we drank Um Bongo whilst listening to Jungle music and watching the Jungle Book.  We discovered just how in the jungle we are when we tried to sleep last night – after drifting off post-meal, we were awoken by a cacophony of sounds in the small hours.  After the storm of the previous evening had passed so began the cicadas, crickets, lizards, birds, monkeys, and the tapping together of bamboo stalks in the wind.  This is not the same kind of nuisance noise of engines and scooter horns that drives you up the wall in the city.  It’s an exciting, natural kind of din that makes the hairs on the back of your neck tingle when you consider what bizarre creature might be lurking just outside your front door.  In the morning the noises change but they never stop – the jungle is always living, breathing.

Before making the trip to the islands, I had this romantic notion in my head that I was going to go for a run on the beach every morning.  This morning was my first and possibly only attempt.  It was half seven and the sun was already high in the sky, but I attempted it all the same, with Hollie in tow.  We got quizzical looks from the locals as we came bounding down the mud track onto the beach, and they had a point – what kind of cretin runs in this heat? Instead of doing a couple of miles up and down the beach, we ran directly into the sea and just splashed about a bit, like the amateur athletes that we are.

We had french toast with honey and some kind of Thai broth for breakfast.  If you have a sweet tooth and ever get the chance to try Thai iced tea I recommend it – as far as I can tell the main difference is that they pour a tinful of condensed milk into each glass, which makes it the ideal breakfast drink for someone who, like myself, aspires to morbid obesity.  The Thais are a bit obsessed with condensed milk, and many of their more decadent drinks and desserts seem to contain at least a litre of the stuff.  Apparently the American soldiers who were based in Thailand to fight the Vietnam war brought it over, and the Thais took it to their hearts (and their arteries).

A plan was hatched over breakfast to walk the width of the island back to the dock that we had arrived on the previous day, taking in the sights of the jungle and the Chao Lae fishing village.  The distance couldn’t have been more than two miles and we took a bottle of water each, but the sun was intense.  The first half a mile or so was splendid, walking under the forest canopy and pausing regularly to examine weird plants at the side of the road.  By the time we reached the Chao Lae village, the tree cover was gone and we were melting into the pavement.  This taught me two valuable lessons: 1. Always factor in the heat when planning a country stroll, and 2. Rent a moped, you cheapskate.  The walk was made worthwhile though, by an encounter with a monster.  As we paused for a drinks break I looked into the hedgerow, and noticed that I was being stared at by an absolute tank of a lizard.  As we fumbled with the camera to try and get a snap, it marched back into the undergrowth.  You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that this creature was about the size and build of a British Bulldog.

This is how you harvest rubber from a rubber tree

We polished the drinking water and felt forced to stop off in the first open air cafe that we saw.  We each had a honey and ginger ice shake whilst flies buzzed all around us and the crazy cat lady owner told us how she had chopped one of her many cat’s tails off to prevent it being eaten by insects – we moved on shortly after this.  We wandered through the town near the pier, which was interesting to look at what with all the fishing gear and longtail boats under construction, but everything was closed.  We bought some snorkel gear from the only shop that was open, then got a motorbike taxi back to Mookies, where we sat on our porch and watched monkies causing carnage in the trees.

In the evening we grabbed some food at Hilltop Restaurant just up the road from where we were staying.  I had steamed duck in soy sauce and a couple of Changs, and Hollie had pork stir-fried in brandy – one of the madcap creations of the owner, but having tried the sauce I reckon it could catch on.

Steamed duck in soy sauce

To round off the evening we walked down the hill to “Ting Tong” bar.  Ting Tong seems to have several meanings in Thai, including “crazy”,”idiot”, and a slang term for a cow’s knob.  We were served by a German guy who explained that the only beer they sold was Chang, so I requested a Chang.  It turned out that the German gent was staying over at the bar and helping out the owner – a young Thai man called Om.  Om turned out to be something of a legend – an amiable people lover who collects friends from all over the world as they come to booze in his bar.  Within a few minutes of arriving, Om was sat down at our table with us, telling us stories about his life as an islander.  He was born and raised in the town on the mainland where we’d got the ferry to Koh Muk from, and he’d married a girl on the island.   He then went on to tell us a story about when he and his friends caught a baby python in the jungle, which Om intended to keep as a pet.  One of his mates suggested he give the python a cigarette, as it would make it “go to sleep”.  Om put a fag in the snake’s mouth, and it went to sleep and didn’t wake up – apparently snakes are allergic to tobacco.  Om was clearly gutted that his pet had died, but I had to stop myself from laughing at the image in my head of a snake with a fag on.

Aside from making snakes smoke and running a bar, Om is also a pyromaniac.  At half past nine every night he performs a fire show for the customers of his bar.  This involves him pouring flammable liquid on some chains and swinging them round his head.  As dangerous as this sounds, the guy has some serious talent.  He danced around to music like a swirling dervish, setting the night alight with his moves.  The finale involved him bringing the flaming chains inside his dry bamboo bar and performing a forward roll acros the dry, wooden floor.  As the applause died down and he sat back at our table with a whiskey and coke on the rocks, I asked him how long his bar had been standing.  “Eight years” was his response.  Skilled as the guy was, I reckon it’s 50/50 as to whether the same bar will be standing if we come back to see him in another eight years.  Minds suitably blown, we tipped Om for the show and went back up the hill to bed.

 

Om in action – excellent bartender, lovely bloke.  Not the kind of guy you’d trust to house-sit for you though.

DAY 6 – November 9th. Minibus to the pier then ferry to Koh Muk

We woke early, checked out and had breakfast in the hostel cafe whilst we talked about where to go next.  We settled on Koh Muk (pronounced Mook, not muck) which is located just a few miles off the coast near Trang. Muk is a tiny island of about four miles long and half as wide, and the write-ups in Lonely Planet and on the Travelfish website were complimentary about it’s beauty, hospitality and 24 hour electricity – something that’s not always a given on the smaller islands.  There are travel agencies in just about every town in Thailand that arrange transport and tours to local sights, and we located one immediately next door to the hostel that provided a minibus and ferry package to Koh Mook for 600 baht.

We were picked up from outside the travel agents within ten minutes by a minibus which had stickers on the window that advertised the following onboard facilities:

I could see the benefit in providing entertainment on the bus by way of a dvd player and even a karaoke machine, but what does that scantily clad woman bending over represent? There was no woman matching the physicality of the one on the sticker present when we got on the bus, so as far as I can tell it wasn’t advertising the services of anyone in particular.  Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.

We sped through winding country lanes past lumpy, mishapen cows and dense jungle vegetation until we arrived at a concrete jetty overlooking a wide river mouth. Mangrove marshes grew gnarled and twisted along the far banks of the river, and I wondered what animals might be lurking in the murky green depths.  The jetty was a hive of activity as scrawny Thai lads dragged huge plastic crates of chilled food to the end of the jetty, before dumping them unceremoniously onto the deck of a clapped out wooden boat.  “I wonder where the ferry is then” I said to Hollie, before one of the Thai lads who had been shifting the crates wiped the sweat from his brow and requested our tickets.  Sure enough, the clapped out wooden boat was our ferry.

All aboard… Next stop, the bottom of the ocean.

We took our place in the boat and continued to watch it get lower in the water as more crates were loaded on.  One of the crew opened up a crate and buried a bag of meat in crushed ice – I guess this is the only way of getting chilled goods onto the island, and to meet the demands of the various resorts and guesthouses, each ferry crossing must be loaded with more cargo than passengers.  We shunted off from the dock, only to return immediately to pick up a man and his motorcycle – we were only a few yards from the pier, and if he’d have been a more adventurous sort he could’ve revved the engine and jumped onto the boat in the style of Steve Mcqueen.

Once we were underway again the journey was swift and exhilerating. The sea air was cool and kept the full heat of the sun off us.  As the mainland got smaller various islands appeared on the horizon in every direction – huge limestone cliffs covered in lush green jungle rising out of the sea.

When we arrived at the pier in Ko Muk we were met by a lad from the hotel in a motorbike and sidecar, and he ferried us back to the resort free of charge.  There are no cars in Ko Muk, and the road is only just wide enough to allow two motorbikes with sidecars to pass in opposite directions.  Our driver drove us down the long and narrow pier, before stopping to refuel.  The petrol station was essentially a handpump with a coin slot in.  He shoved about 50 baht’s worth of loose change in the machine and put the prepaid amount in the fuel tank – on a tiny island like this, I suppose a quid’s worth of fuel will last you a fair while.

Not the kind of petrol station where you can pick up a Ginsters pasty and a bottle of anti-freeze…

We turned inland and passed a village of stilted houses belonging to the Chao Lae or “Sea gypsies” who live on many of the Thai islands.  The Chao Lae make their living from fishing and harvesting rubber trees, and many have their own unique religions and languages.  In 2004 the tsunami hit Ko Muk at a height of 2.5 metres and wiped out much of the original housing – these days there are alarms sounded and an evacuation route to higher ground has been put in place incase the same thing ever happens again.

We climbed higher as the forest closed in on the bike and the leaves of freakishly large plants brushed against our faces.  Moths and butterflies as big as birds fluttered across the path, and all around the squawks of unknown animals could be heard over the hum of the engine. After only a few minutes we arrived at our accommodation. Mookies is a collection of huts set in a clearing hacked out of the dense jungle that covers anywhere on the island that it is allowed to grow. Even our hut seemed ready to be reclaimed by the jungle within a matter of days – though the vent holes in the bathroom were covered by mosquito netting, we were visited by at least a dozen tiny lizards during our stay – the little critters climbing up the damp interior walls to escape the heat of the day.

Koh Muk taxi service

Our palace awaits (as do the lizards…)

We were already pretty sold on Koh Muk, but we fell for it completely about ten minutes after throwing our stuff in the room and legging it down to the beach.  Haad Faraang  means “White Beach” in Thai – which is funny because the word that Thais universally use to describe backpacking foriegners is also “farang”!  I am pretty pale, but the sand on Haad Faraang was paler – fine white grains that melt between your toes and leave you feeling like you’re walking on air.  I did the typical Brit abroad charge into the sea – let’s call it the “Farang Frollick”, and was relieved to find that the water was warm enough to do your dishes in!  We splashed around in the sea on the near-deserted beach with the imposing limestone hills as a backdrop.

Just when I was asking myself if this is what paradise felt like, a pink jonny floated past my ear like some kind of contraceptive jellyfish, and we quickly vacated the ocean.  I have to point out that this was an isolated incident, and that having been in the sea several times since there have been no more unwanted objects in the water.

You’d make this face too if a pink condom had just floated past you...

You’d make this face too if a pink condom had just sailed past your head.

We returned to Mookies for tea.  I had a massaman curry – the second of the trip between us and neither have been as good as the one that Hollie makes with extra peanut butter.  Hollie had beef in oyster sauce which she reports was not just good, but goooood. As we were polishing our food off the heavens opened, monsoon style.  The paths and the road beyond turned into rivers of gushing water, and puddles the size of ponds began to form on the ground.  We’d been seeing the flashes of lightning for some time before the rain began, and as the thunder passed overhead it sounded like the sky was splitting in two.  We finished our food and paid the bill, and made ready to leg it back to the hut before one of the waitresses came to our rescue with a couple of umbrellas.  We made the short dash back up the hill, but by the time we were under cover again our shoes and legs were soaked.

A mosquito net was fitted above our bed, and as we were more or less in the jungle we thought we better use it.  Sleeping under a mosquito net is quite fun at first, and reminds me of when I was a kid and my sister and I used to build tents in the house.  It’s not as much fun if you get tangled in it during the night and end up flailing around like a fish in a trawler’s net.  We sat cocooned in the net, listening to the rain rattling on the roof until we fell asleep.

DAY 5 – Taxi to Hua Hin, then bus to Trang via Chumphon

Today we spent 9 hours on a bus with a belching monk and a window full of cockroaches.

We woke up having no idea where we were going next.  We’d planned on getting the train down to Surat Thani and then bussing it to Krabi from there – Krabi is a coastal town which is quieter and less developed than the city of Phuket.  The vast majority of backpackers heading down to the islands pick between one of these two places as their springboard.  We checked online the day before and found that all of the trains to Surat Thani were fully booked.  The Thai railways aren’t that extensive – they don’t appear to be able to run enough trains to cope with the demand, and the line doesn’t even run to Phuket or Krabi.

In the absence of a plan B we decided to taxi it to the main bus station in Hua Hin, hop on a bus heading south and then get a room for the night in whatever town we ended up in – it didn’t matter much as long as we were heading south.  We got to the bus stand for 9 and decided to get a 9:30am bus that was heading down to a place called Satun, which I’d never heard of.  We planned to get off the bus at a place called Chumphon and spend the night there before finding onward travel to Krabi the next day.

The 9:30am bus arrived at 10, and we took our seats at the second row from the back.  Sat behind us was a buddhist monk dressed in the traditional orange robes of their faith. There are over 600,000 buddhist monks in Thailand so it’s not at all unusual to see them out and about in the town, blessing people at public events, or even riding on the back of scooters with their robes flapping in the breeze.  Naturally, a great level of respect is given to the monks by the Thai people.  Women are not allowed to touch or sit next to monks, and men must bow their heads when passing them.  Conscious of these customs we were prepared for a long and solemn journey where we’d need to be on our best behaviour.  As the journey commenced though, the monk began to exhibit many examples of what I would describe as “Un-monkish behaviour”.  The first thing we noticed was the belching.  Every ten minutes or so he would emit a loud belch, making us jump at it’s ferocity.  Around every half hour or so, he would receive a mobile phone call.  It seems strange enough for a monk to own a mobile, but stranger still for him to have a jazzy polyphonic ringtone which plays at a deafening level of decibels.  Each time he picked up the phone, we would hear him say “KARP KARP KARP KARP KARP KARP KARP!” (Karp, krap or kap depending on where you are in the country is a word which is used by thai men to mean “yes” or “no problem”).  The monk seemed to get increasingly irritated with these phonecalls, and allowed the phone to ring out for longer and longer before taking the call, until finally he just let it ring and ignored it – which again seems like a very unmonkish thing to do.

We arrived in Chumphon after about five hour’s travel through monsoon conditions.  During the first leg of our journey it occurred to us that after Chumphon our bus was scheduled to stop in Trang – a lesser known town near the Andaman coast which also provides ferry crossings to the islands.  Due to the belching monk and the general tedium of travel, we were a bit fed up of being on the bus, but decided that it was better to bite the bullet and continue our journey towards the islands, rather than spend a night in Chumphon and have to take another long bus journey the following day.  I tried explaining to the bus conductor that we wanted to extend our journey to Trang, but he had no idea what I was on about – I only know four Thai phrases – “Hello”, “Thankyou”, “Yes” and “No”.  Instead, when we arrived in Chumphon bus terminal, Hollie stood in the doorway of the bus with one leg on the tarmac so that it couldn’t drive off, whilst I legged it to the ticket office and bought tickets for the onward journey.  This confused the bus conductor and the other passengers no end, but they just smiled in that shy, friendly way that Thai people do, and we continued on our merry way.

Hollie and I have an agreement when we go on holiday – I have the window seat whenever we fly, and she has the window on bus and train journeys.  This is because I’m still a very nervous flyer, and I demand to look out the window whenever the plane wobbles so that I can reassure myself that we aren’t plummeting towards our deaths.  As the agreements allows, Hollie had sat looking out the window for the duration of the journey.  She surrendered her seat very quickly though, about an hour before we got into Trang.  The reason for this was not generosity, but the fact that three cockroaches suddenly climbed out of the window seal and began scuttling across the pane.  I’ve never seen her move so quick!

We arrived in Trang about 8pm and jumped in a tuk tuk to the Sri Trang hotel, chancing our arm on them having empty rooms with it still being early in the season.  The tuk tuks in Trang are an upgrade on the ones that buzz around Bangkok – rather than being a glorified tin shack on top of a motorbike, the ones here are a glorified tin shack on top of a motorbike engine with a steering wheel, instead of handlebars.  They also take you where you ask to be taken, rather than a cheap tailor’s or jewellery shop, as is the norm for tuk tuks in Bangkok.

The Sri Trang Hotel is basically a huge corrugated warehouse, under the roof of which three concrete floors of hostel rooms have been built.  It’s an old-fashioned, family-run place which claims it’s heritage back to 1952 – long before the backpacker generation began.  We were famished having only been able to grab a couple of snacks since breakfast, so after checking in we headed straight out on the hunt for nourishment.

During the long bus journey I read in Lonely Planet that Trang has “The best night market on the Andaman coast”.  It may very well do, but it closes at 9pm, and when we arrived everybody was shutting up shop.  We ended up settling for one of the only joints that appeared to be open, but we were glad that we did.  The owners were Chinese and didn’t speak much English, but he gave us his iphone and asked us to scroll through the various pictures of food that he had saved on there to select what we wanted.  This is a much more complicated method than pointing to things on a menu, but it worked out okay.  Between us we ordered a load of pork in a savoury, gravy-like broth, and a gigantic plate of seafood in holy basil sauce.  This was hotter than anything Hollie had ever eaten, so she concentrated on the pork whilst I struggled through the sumptuous but scorching plate of squid, shrimp, and octopus.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t what we ordered, but it was really tasty, after I regained the feeling in my mouth.  To top off the feast we went to the 7/11 and bought a load of random Thai chocolate, which we tucked into back at the room.

Today is a great example of the freedom and flexibility you get by not planning your travels too far ahead.  Sometimes it works out for the best, and sometimes every guesthouse is full and you end up sleeping in a park with a stray dog as your pillow.  Fortunately on this occasion, it worked out great.

Tomorrow we hope to get a boat out to our first island – we’re not sure which one yet.  There are just so many to choose from…

DAY 4 – November 7th. Exploring Phraya Nakhon Cave in Sam Roi Yot National Park

There was one place on the mainland that we definitely wanted to visit before heading down to the islands. Phraya Nakhon Cave is the reason that we’ve braved monsoon season on the east coast to come and stay near Pranburi, and after today’s experience we’re so pleased that we did. Phraya Nakhon is one of those images used over and over again by the Thai tourist board. It’s a huge collapsed cave buried in the side of one of the many limestone hills that dominate the landscape around here. Since the roof collapsed thousands of years ago, a small forest has grown up in the parts of the cave where the sunlight shines through. If nature made the cake, the Thai King put the cherry on top in the 19th century by having a pretty little temple built on a raised spot where the shafts of sunlight are the brightest. The result is one of the most breathtaking places that we’ve ever had the good fortune to visit.
First we had to get there, though. The most common way of making the journey from our resort is to pay for a boat to take you there by sea. One look at the ocean confirmed that this wouldn’t be possible – it was blowing a gale out there already, with thunderstorms predicted from 3pm onwards. We chose to hire a scooter and go by road to the national park entrance, where we’d have to hike 3-4km to get there. My only experience of driving a scooter was on our previous trip to Thailand last year, where we’d used one to buzz around the highways and byways of Pai. It’s fair to say that I’m not a natural – we spent most of our time trundling along in the gutter at 20kph whilst lorries and old lady scooter drivers flew past us. I’m also completely incapable of looking cool whilst using this method of transport – I have a big head, and I’m therefore usually lumbered with a helmet that resembles an upturned bucket, which tends to catch in the breeze and make me wobble if I try to look left or right. The journey to the park entrance got increasingly scenic as we got closer, with limestone cliffs rising up all around us as we drove through a basin full of paddy fields and swampland. We parked the scooter up in front of a cafe and entrusted the bloke who owned it with our helmets, on the understanding that we dined at his place upon our return.
The first part of the path climbed up and up along the edge of a cliff, offering increasingly spectacular vistas of the bay and the sea beyond. A few minutes into our journey Hollie screeched and leapt back, and I prepared myself as the alpha male that I am to do battle with a venomous snake. It wasn’t a snake, but it was a bloody big centipede – the biggest I’ve ever seen at about 30cm long. Just when we were starting to get knackered the path began to go down again, and we came out on the level to find ourselves walking through a grove of palm trees next to a beach. The respite was short-lived. The path began to climb again, steeper than it had before. We overtook couples who were pausing at the side of the path for a breather, only to be overtaken again when we got out of breath ourselves. We climbed a good 500 metres until we saw a gateway in the path, and quite unexpectedly we found ourselves in the first chamber of the cave.

AAAAARGH!!!

There were shrines to the Buddha balanced on rocks as we descended down rickety stone steps. The first cave contained a massive “dry waterfall” formed from the dripping of stalactites over the millenia. Since the roof of the cave collapsed the dripping has stopped, and consequently the falls are preserved in stone.

We continued downwards through darkness, travelling through a part of the cave which still had a roof, before coming out into a clearing filled with brilliant shafts of light that kaleidescoped down onto the pagoda roof of a temple. As we got closer to the light our necks craned higher and higher to look at the sheer walls of the cave, until finally we were able to see clear daylight through the tree-lined hole at the top. We recognised this as being Phra Nakhon from the photos, but no picture can do justice to the sheer scale of the cave.

We went into full-on tourist mode, staring at everything with our gobs wide open, before photographing the cave and temple from every angle. With it being out of season there were very few tourists around, and there was an eerie silence around the place, broken only by the calls of tropical birds in the forest above.

We left the cave after about an hour and began to walk back. We were completely alone on the path when we heard the snapping of branches in the forest canopy above.  We looked up to see a family of monkeys making their way across the top of the treeline.  My past experience with monekys have been mixed.  In Mumbai I had to leg it from a particularly savage looking primate that wanted to nick my water bottle. I’ve been woken by them bouncing on the corrugated roofs of buildings, and I’ve laughed as they’ve tried to bite overfamiliar Chinese tourists.  I’m happy to say that this particular enounter was an absolute privilege. We watched in Attenborough-esque awe as they swung gracefully from branch to branch with no interest in us whatsoever.  When we got to the bottom of the hill we saw a tourist information sign advising us of the presence of dusky langurs –  a shy and endangered species that are easily distinguishable from other primates due to the white rings around their eyes.


We were aware of the storm approaching that afternoon and didn’t fancy being blown sideways into a swamp whilst riding back on the scooter. With this in mind we bid the monkeys farewell and hiked quickly back to the park entrance, which was a lot easier having covered most of the uphills on the way to the cave.

We had pork in holy basil and tom kha kai soup in the ramshackle cafe that I’d parked up in front of, after which our helmets were returned. I can’t rave enough about holy basil by the way – it’s a hot, slightly bitter herb which grows around most parts of Asia. Stir-fried with chicken or pork and chilli it makes a stunning meal, with a sauce that tastes a bit like a spicy gravy. I’ve looked all round Asian food shops in Britain for it, but apart from dried leaves that fall to bits and go all gritty when you cook them, I’ve had no joy in locating anything like the real thing.
We managed to drive back to the hotel without being blown into a ditch, which was nice. The storm we were promised never really set in, and we enjoyed a few beers with a massaman curry in the evening in the hotel bar, which had filled up with a group of noisy teenage schoolkids. I overheard the teacher, who was English, negotiating with the hotel receptionist. He wanted to have the staff remove all the alcohol from the minibars in the rooms occupied by the schoolkids, which made me chuckle – no wonder they were all so rowdy.
Tomorrow we continue the journey down south towards the islands.