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.

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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.