DAY 19 – Scuba Diving off the coast at Ao Nang

Ever the romantic, I got up at 5am this morning and left Hollie in bed.  I took a taxi from Krabi to the nearby resort town of Ao Nang, which dropped me outside Aqua Vision Diving Shop.  I paid 4300 baht (getting on for 100 quid), to go on two dives around the islands just off the coast of Ao Nang.  There were cheaper options available that provided the same dives, but the leaflets I looked at for the cheapest diving schools were written in really poor English.  Having dived in Menorca before with a Spanish guy who’s only English phrase was “Okay?” I decided it was worth the extra money to go with people who I could understand – although once you’re underwater I guess it doesn’t really matter what language you speak.

I was met at the shop by a Siberian lady called Rina, who kitted me out with my wetsuit and flippers and took me through the insurance form.  She asked me if I’d ever dived before, and I told her that I’d done one try dive in Menorca.  “Wow, the water is cold there!” she said, and I thought “You should try paddling on Skegness beach in November, love.”

After completing all of the formalities I joined a crowd of other people in the back of a songtheaw which took us a couple of kilometres up the road to the beach.  We transferred to a motorboat that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a James Bond movie, and sped over the silky waters to a rocky outcrop that jutted about twenty metres tall out of the sea.  The waves from the open sea broke either side of the rocks, and our boat anchored up in the calmer waters behind it.

The divers on the boat were a mixture of experience levels, and we were divided up between the professional divers who were to be our guides.  I was put in a group with a young girl who had never dived before and her smartarse boyfriend, who wanted to make everybody aware of the fact that he was an expert.  He talked loudly about how he’d been on “Over a hundred dives” and politely argued with our instructor about the best setup for his gear.  More offensive than his bravado though were his shamelessly tiny Speedos.  He pranced around on the deck resembling a pot-bellied peperami with a rubber band wrapped around it, whilst his girlfriend grew steadily more nervous.  Later when we got in the water and prepared to descend, the girl began crying and got back in the boat – I’m not entirely sure whether this was because she was afraid, or because she wanted some peace from the tiresome bleatings of Speedo man.

Our instructor was an American guy called James.  He was one of those extreme sports, all-action kind of guys who probably climbs a mountain and wrestles an alligator before breakfast.  James was an interesting geezer – he told me he’d worked as a “Reverse Osmosis Technician” in the Antarctic for eight years.  I have no idea what that means, but it sounded suitably impressive.  He was polite and patient with Speedo man’s incessant questions, whilst talking me through what I need to do – which was effectively nothing.  “I’m gonna do everything for you man – I’ll sort your oxygen, deflate your jacket and guide you round.  All I want you to do is breathe through the mask – and it’s in your interest to do that”.  I agreed with him.

We geared up – I slipped my arms into the “Bouyancy Compensator” – this is the jacket that you wear which can be inflated and deflated to move you up and down in the water.  Attached to the back of this is the oxygen tank, which is bloody heavy – it feels as if you have a small fridge attached to your back.  James then slid some weights onto the belt which you clip around your waist – the belt is to help you sink, then when you find the right depth you put some air into the buoyancy compensator to keep you steady at that level.  James picked out a mask for me that had a GoPro mount on the top of it, so that everything I looked at would be caught on camera.  He sprayed the goggles with de-mister and I donned my flippers and mounted the camera, and we were good to go.

The most nerve-racking part of diving for a novice is getting in the water.  You’re acutely aware of the fact that you have enough weight attached to you to ensure that you sleep with the fishes for a very long time, and you have to fight that instinct and remind yourself that once you jump in, you’ll float.  I was helped up to the side of the boat and I slid my bum backwards so that it hung over the edge of the water.  Then I was instructed to put one hand on my mask to stop the water pulling it off my head.  I put the regulator (the mouthpiece that allows you to breathe underwater) in my mouth, and allowed myself to fall backwards into the sea.  It’s the strangest feeling to drop under the water with your mouth still open – for a moment your brain tells you that you need to close it, but then you’ll take a breath of oxygen from the tank and gain the reassurance that you can still breathe.  After my head popped back up I bobbed around in the water next to the boat whilst James attempted to convince Speedo Man’s girlfriend to dive.  When he’d given up he jumped into the water and grabbed hold of my buoyancy compensator to release some air, and we began the descent.

For a while there was nothing but murky blue, and it felt as if I was floating to the bottom of a snow globe.  James was above me, grabbing on to my tank.  He kept making the “OK” sign with his fingers, to ask me if I was okay.  I returned the “OK” sign and we went deeper.  There’s an important difference between the “OK” sign and the usual thumbs up that you’d use on the surface to indicate that you’re happy.  In diving semaphore, a thumbs up means “I need to go back up to the surface” – it’s all very confusing.  As we got deeper the pressure filled up in my ears, and I pinched my nose and blew to get rid of it.  As we neared the bottom it felt as if I was adjusting the focus on a pair of binoculars – everything became sharper, more defined, and I was able to make out fish, and coral, and the scrawny form of Speedo Man who was swimming below us.

When we were just a couple of feet above the coral, James put some air in my jacket and I levelled out. We began to skirt over the top of the reef, being careful not to touch it – the oil on a human hand is enough to kill a piece of coral.  There were clownfish poking their heads gingerly out of anenomes and disappearing back into the tendrils when our shadows swept over them.  Parrotfish, all kinds of Groupers, and Pastel Green Wrasse weaved their way through the coral whilst schools of Crocodile Needlefish (long, thin little fellas) meandered overhead.  I saw more kinds of fish than I’ve ever seen before, and the names I list above are just a few that I was able to remember and identify when I got back above the water.

We moved over the last of the coral and floated about ten feet over the sea bottom, following a wall of rock where greasy grouper fish lay in the cracks, pouting at us.  Greasy grouper fish live near the seabed and look like they’re permanently fuming at the world around them.  They have a similar, bottom lip out expression to the one that I pull when Derby County lose.  The sea got murky as we moved out of the shelter of the island.  James spotted something on the seabed which looked to me like sand.  He kept his finger pointed and I stared for ages before my eyes were able to define what he’d seen.  Half submerged in the sand was a stingray with an electric blue tail.  It lingered for a while before sweeping off into the deeper ocean like some kind of cloaked phantom.  As we moved on we saw another one, gliding across the bottom like a stealth bomber.  They’re beautiful creatures to look at, but I wouldn’t like to poke one – a giant stingray is what did for Steve Irwin, although he did apparently try to ride it before it stung him.

After three quarters of an hour or so James indicated to me that we were going up.  He took a luminous orange bag out of his dive belt then took his regulator out of his mouth and filled the bottom of the bag with air.  It shot up to the surface to warn any passing speedboats of our imminent plan to come up.  James stuck some air in my jacket and together we slowly came up from the depths.

The boat took us further out to another group of rocks.  Before we got back in the water, James briefed me on the plan.  “Listen man, you need to kick your legs less or we won’t get all the way round these rocks and we’ll have to come up.  The more you kick, the more oxygen you’re going to use and the shorter the dive will be”.  I didn’t realise that I’d been doing it – maybe it was the adrenaline – but I’d been thrashing my legs behind me like one of those wind-up bath toys.

I dropped backwards off the boat again and held on to a rope that was trailing from the back of the boat so that the current didn’t carry me away.  James attempted to get Speedo Man’s girlfriend into the water again without success, before we submerged and went to the bottom.  I tried to kick my flippers less, but every time I saw something cool I got excited and started thrashing my legs again.

The fish were much bigger here – I saw a puffer fish the size of a football, and in the distance to my left there was a Titan Triggerfish the size of a small wardrobe.  We rounded the edge of the rocks and came upon the school of baby barracuda that James had told me about before we got in the water – he estimated that there were literally a million of them.  At first I was sceptical, but once we’d swam into the middle I could definitely believe it.  Everything else disappeared, and all I could see were barracuda in every direction.  Each one was about seven or eight inches long, and they glinted in the submerged sunlight whilst performing a colossal conga trail all around us.

It took a few minutes to clear the barracuda and be able to see fully in front of us again.  James then took us down to the bottom and asked me to lie on the sand and wait for him, as if he was just popping off to the shops.  I had no plans to go anywhere, and I sat on the bottom of the sea humming the Beatles song “I’d like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, in the shade”, whilst James disappeared for a minute.  He reappeared and beckoned me to follow him, which I did.  He pointed to a pipefish which was chilling on a sandbank.  Pipefish are a kind of seahorse and have similar heads, but their bodies are long and pipe-like.

We resurfaced after about forty minutes – I’d obviously managed to conserve my oxygen okay because we popped back up in the same place that we’d started.  As I was waiting to climb the ladder to get back on the boat there was a commotion in the sky above, and I looked up to see what was happening.  An eagle was hovering in the air with a sea snake in it’s mouth, wrestling to keep it in it’s talons.  It felt good to finally be able to say “It’s a f****g snake!” and be correct about it.  I bobbed in the water watching the airborne struggle, hoping that the eagle didn’t drop it’s prey on my head.  After getting the snake under control, the eagle flew up onto the rocks to devour it’s feast, and James said “You just caught all that on GoPro!” and I felt dead cool.  James identified the snake as a banded sea krait that had probably come up to the surface to hunt – before it became the hunted.  Interesting fact – a sea snake’s venom is just as deadly as any land-going snake, but the poison is contained in their rear fangs, so you’d pretty much have to shove your finger down one’s throat to be killed.

The entire adventure I’ve just described took place in about five hours.  After climbing back on board the boat we were taken back to Ao Nang and dropped off at the dive shop – I looked at my phone expecting it to be mid-afternoon, and it was 11:30am.  I stopped off at a bar for a celebratory Chang then paid over the odds for a songtheaw driver to take me back to Krabi Town.  When I got back to the hotel room and saw Hollie I felt like a kid that’d just been on a daytrip out to the zoo, and spent the afternoon boring her with my tales.

Later in the evening we went to Bistro Monaco for tea, which was a complete mish-mash of culinary influences.  The owners were a German bloke and his Thai wife, and the menu contained Thai, French, German and Italian dishes.  I doubt there are many other places in the world where you could have pad thai washed down with a stein of weissbier! I had smoked salmon ravioli and Hollie went for chicken in mushroom sauce.  It was excellent if slightly extravagant snap, and it capped off an amazing day.

Advertisements

DAYS 17 AND 18 – Ferry from Koh Yao Yai to Thalane pier, taxi to Krabi Town

We were up before dawn so that we could make the 7:40am ferry. We paid our host 500 baht to drive us across the island to the port, then we sat in the morning sun watching the tide roll in over the mud flats. Halfway down the pier a longtail was filling up with schoolkids in identical school uniforms – I assume the school must have been on a neighbouring island. As the boat was pulling away the class rebel came legging it up the jetty and leapt on to the boat.

When it was time to board the ferry we tucked ourselves away under the covers to escape from the heat. The return to Thalane was as spectacular as our outbound journey had been, as we passed within feet of collosal karst cliffs and watched baby barracuda launching themselves out of the water in pursuit of smaller fish.

Taxis were easy to come by in Thalane, and we settled on 500 baht for the journey to Krabi town. Our driver was a football fan, and I had the standard conversation that I have with most football-loving Thais who speak little English:

“Where you from?”
“England.”
“Ah! London?”
“No, middle – near Manchester.”
“Ah! Manchester United! My team. You like?”
“No. I like Derby County!”
“Durrby Canty?”
“Yes, have you heard of them?”
“I like Manchester United”
“Okay, nevermind.”

We were dropped off in the centre of Krabi town and we called in at a coffee shop for some much-needed hydration before heading to our accommodation. Sleep Whale Express Hotel is a typically bizarrely named place, but it was probably the best that we stayed in on this trip – with the obvious exception of the 5 star Chatrium in Bangkok. For just over twenty quid/1000 baht a night it was clean, comfy and the aircon was so effective that on our first night there I woke up freezing and wondered whether I was back at home suffering a British winter – what a relief to step out onto the balcony at midnight and be hit by a blast of hot Andaman air!

I’ve blended two days in to one for this blog entry because we had a slow, chilled start to our time in Krabi and that doesn’t make for a very interesting read. Krabi is a wealthy town with everything you need within walking distance – we really liked the vibe here after spendng time on relatively remote islands. It put us in mind of the old town area of Chiang Mai up in the north of Thailand that we’d taken to our hearts when we visited last year – the big difference being that Chiang Mai is landlocked, whereas Krabi is built on an inlet from the sea.

The view from Krabi pier

Ferries from destinations all over the Andaman dock on the outskirts of town, and a strip of park follows the edge of the river. We walked down this path several times and spotted all kinds of creatures – at low tide mud-skipper fish were everywhere, sliding along on top of the filth like alien ice-skaters from another dimension. Tiny crabs with one underdeveloped pincer and one that was double the size of their body scuttled in and out of holes in the sand. There were thousands of these little creatures, each one looking like walking wounded who’s larger arm had been placed in a sling. In addition to the more unusual life forms the estuary was alive with all kinds of fish, jumping clean out the water to catch mosquitoes on the surface or to try and eat each other.

 

We also checked out a plush Buddhist Temple set on a hill in the centre of town – Wat Kaewkorawaram. This temple was only built about six years ago – another symbol of the wealth that’s come in to Krabi from tourism and shipping. The walls were a brilliant white and in appearance it put us in mind of the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Inside were the usual array of golden statues of the Buddha and intricate paintings on the wall depicting scenes from the lifetime of Buddha. Considering that Buddhism is founded on the principle of detachment from material things, it always confuses me that the temples are filled with more bling than your average Kanye West music video. Nonetheless, there’s always something very tranquil and exotic about them, and Wat Kaewkorawaram was well worth a visit – and the time that it’s just taken me to type the name twice in this paragraph without making a spelling error.

My favourite thing about Krabi town was the markets. Krabi has three permanent markets and whilst we were there another huge “Walking Street” market had been set up in the centre of the town. If you’re into your food (as I most definitely am), there’s no better way to sample Thai cuisine than to weave your way through narrow lanes with a couple of hundred baht in your pocket. You might see things that you don’t like the look of. You might see things that you don’t even recognise as food. You might even see things that make you physically wretch, but if you ask me it’s all worth it for the adventure, and for the times that you take a tentative bite and introduce your tastebuds to something tear-inducingly exquisite.

Over the course of our first two nights in Krabi, we tried some real treats, the best of which I’ll attempt to describe to you.

Fish curry – a potent package of white fish in green curry sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf. This little gem set me back 20 baht (or about 40-50p).

Quail eggs – These are sold on markets all over Thailand. The chef will crack the tiny eggs into a heated tray which looks like the kind of thing that you’d use to bake mini-muffins. You get half a dozen or so per portion, and they taste amazing with a splash of soy sauce.

Chicken satay – Is EVERYWHERE. every roadside stand in Thailand seems to have a ready supply of marinated poultry on sticks ready to go. The taste is usually very sweet but not as peanutty as you might get in a Chinese restaurant in the UK.

Sai Oua – is basically sausage, Thai-style. It comes heavily spiced, sometimes sweet and sometimes sour with a hint of kaffir lime – a greasy treat on a stick!

Enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon – Are just as delicious as they sound! I think they should be marketed as a kind of canape for the fry-up loving Brit abroad…

And after grazing on various delights, we filled up with curry and rice for 50 baht from this place…

We whiled away the best part of two days in the markets and cafes of Krabi, enjoying the hustle and bustle that had evaded us on the more tranquil islands. The next day would be slightly more active though, as I booked to go scuba diving in the nearby resort of Ao Nang.

DAY 16 – Koh Yao Yai

Somehow Hollie slept like a log last night, whilst I struggled to switch myself off from the noises outside. First there was a storm, then the storm passed and the sounds of insects, lizards and other unidentifiable animals started up. At one point the noise was so loud that I became obsessed with the idea that something had gotten into the room, and I wandered round with the light on my phone attempting to locate it. After a fruitless search I got back under the mosquito net and finally managed to drift off for a couple of hours.

In the morning we were served breakfast by our host and his family in the closed restaurant. The food was good, but the cups of tea took ages to arrive and were not up to our exacting British standards. Hollie reminded me that for once, our room had a kettle in it and that we could make a better brew when we returned there. After breakfast we went back to the room to find that whilst there were teabags, coffee sachets and sugar, there was no kettle. We both began to question whether we’d imagined it all along – maybe we’d had some kind of tea withdrawal fantasy because we’d gone so long without a decent cuppa. Then I remembered that when we’d ordered tea at breakfast there had been a lengthy delay before our host’s son had come through to the restaurant with a kettle in his hand. There was no other conclusion to draw – the bastards had nicked it out of our room!

We arranged to go kayaking through mangroves with our host’s son – the kettle thief of the previous paragraph. He was a warm, shy lad who spoke very little English. When I shook his hand and told him my name, he declined to tell me his. This was either because he did not understand, or because he was concerned that I would take his name to the police and have him arrested for kettle theft. Hollie and I got in the sidecar of his motorbike and we drove half a kilometre or so to an inland dock situated on a bend in the river. A group of Thai men worked on welding something to the engine of a longtail, bantering away with each other whilst the mooring ropes of boats creaked and the birds in the trees chirped. We boarded a fishing boat that was next to the dock and then climbed down from the far side onto a kayak that our guide had brought round for us. The kayak was plastic and more or less unsinkable, but it certainly wasn’t un-capsizable. Stepping down onto it without flipping over and ending up in the drink was quite a delicate operation for a man of my size and lack of grace.

Once we were settled in the kayak we set off from the dock. The gentle current took us the way we needed to go, and it was up to us to plonk a paddle in the water now and again just to avoid drifting into the gnarled tendrils of foliage that overhung both sides of the river. It was a serene way to begin the day, dabbing our way through the channels and looking deep into the mangrove marshes for signs of life. Apart from a bird which was silvery in colour and kept swooping low over the water like a kingfisher, we didn’t really see any wildlife. Hollie and me are both obsessed with catching a glimpse of a snake, but they’re shy and subtle creatures. Last year we saw a collosal Burmese python gliding through the darkness of a canal in Chiang Mai, but we weren’t really looking for it – since we’ve been actively looking for them we’ve had no joy. We came round a bend to another docks where the river narrowed to the width of a stream. We turned round in the narrowest part and almost ended up being clothes-lined by a mangrove branch, but this was the only drama. We had to paddle a little harder to get back up the river, but we were back where we’d started in no time.

We took a scooter out in the early afternoon. It was 250 baht for the day but the tank was empty, so it was more like 300 by the time I’d filled it up – a travesty! We were quite low on cash at this point, having spent a long time on Koh Jum where no ATMs were available. We drove a few kilometres inland to the island’s only 7/11 store – a beacon of shiny commercialism in the wilderness. We tried three cashpoints near the 7/11, all of which were out of order. We called off the search and instead purchased a bizarre confectionary treat – a kind of sweet butter toastie which the staff heated up in the microwave for us, before providing us with condensed milk and chocolate sprinkles to scatter all over it. We ate outside on the front step and left before the ants converged on us.

In the afternoon we decided to hit the beach. We parked the scooter up at the swanky Glow Elixir resort and walked through the grounds to get to Loh Jark beach – a sliver of white sand arcing round a bay. There were few people around and we had a great time chilling on the sand until ants joined the party and forced us to jump in the sea to wash them off. We snorkelled for a while and generally larked about, but as I was wading through the water with Hollie on my back the fun was abruptly ended by a foreign object in the water. There, just a few yards in front of us, was an enormous human turd bobbing around in the surf. We feared a repeat of the “Floater” incident in the film Kevin and Perry Go Large – where Harry Enfield accidentally ingests a log on an Ibiza beach – and so we departed the ocean immediately, screaming “FLOATERRRRR!” as a warning to other beachgoers. There are few crimes for which I’d advocate the use of the death penalty, but surely anyone who is unhinged enough to drop their load in the sea next to a public beach should be considered for it!

We decided to leave the beach – it was idyllic, but the floater incident had put a dampener on the afternoon. As we walked back across the sand carrying our shoes and socks, we spotted a crab about as big as my hand that was on it’s back, struggling to right itself. Inexplicably, Hollie offered the crab her sock to grab on to. Just as you might expect, the crab took Hollie’s sock in it’s pincers and refused to return it when she politely asked for it back. In the end she managed to regain it by grabbing the end that wasn’t in the crab’s pincers with one hand, whilst gently pushing the crab with her shoe. She then flipped the crab back onto it’s feet before we walked off. We walked about three paces before the crab was on it’s back again with it’s spindly legs scuttling against the sky. I dutifully bent down and put the crab back on it’s feet. We walked on again, but I couldn’t resist one last look before leaving the beach. It had flipped itself over again – there’s just no helping some people. Hollie was all for returning to the crab and helping it again, but I decided to take the Darwinian approach.

We decided to eat at the elite Glow Elixir resort for tea. This was more because the wi-fi was down at Activities Resort and we needed to book our next night’s accommodation than anything else. We sat ignoring each other with our phones out for a while before eating pizza, just like all backpackers do. We booked accommodation in Krabi for the next few days – Krabi Town is a gateway port to the islands and many travellers pass through without giving it much of a look, but we thought that it would make a good base of operations. Being on the mainland would also mean that we had access to amenities like supermarkets and doctors – Hollie still wasn’t 100% and heading out to another remote island didn’t seem like a wise idea. As we ate our meal a thunderstorm raged overhead, filling the sky with sheet lightning and briefly illuminating the islands that lay on the horizon. After the storm had passed we mounted the scooter, which had been thoroughly soaked, and returned to our accommodation with soggy derrieres.

DAY 15 – Ferry to Krabi, Taxi to Thalane Pier, “Ferry” to Koh Yao Yai

After checking out and having a final breakfast on the terrace overlooking the sea, we were helped with our bags down to the beach, where we waited for a longtail boat to pick us up. Our bags were hoisted and we clambered aboard (there’s little dignity in a 15 stone man getting into a bobbing boat) and we were taken out to sea. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and as the engines were cut and we sat floating listlessly on the ocean, I wondered whether this was what it might feel like to be the survivors of a shipwreck. There was some serious heat beaming down on us, and we were starting to get into sunburn territory before the ferry appeared on the horizon. Along with several other longtails, we made a beeline for the ferry and moored up alongside it just as we had done when we’d arrived. The transfer of bags was made and we climbed the steps onto the ship. Being below deck out of the glare of the sun was a welcome relief after half an hour with no cover.

It took an hour to get into Krabi. We came in up the mouth of an estuary lined with mangrove forests and the ramshackle huts of fishermen. Longtails and half-sunken trawlers bobbed around in the bay, and fish jumped out of the water and skimmed across the surface.  There was the usual scramble to get off the boat – a deck full of backpackers locating their backpacks before struggling to hop down the gangway onto the dock. I’ve been trying to learn a few new Thai words on this trip, and my new favourite is “Laa Gon Kap” – goodbye. I’m not quite sure on the pronunciation, but I tried it out all the same on one of the crew members that helped me off the boat. He smiled at me before raising an eyebrow at his mate as if to say “Did he just call me a banana?”

We’d already pre-booked a taxi to take us to Thalane pier – a 30km trip by road. When we walked out of the ferry port we were met by a young lad holding up a sign that said “Hooie”. After confirming that he meant us, Hooie and I got in his taxi. We sped through the suburbs of Krabi and followed roads that were overshadowed by giant limestone cliffs on either side. These cliffs are everywhere on the Andaman coast – they call them “karst” and they were formed from coral reefs millions of years ago that were pushed up out of the ground by the shifting of the Earth’s plates. After half an hour or so the road came out of the jungle and clung to the coastline, giving us spectacular views over the bay.

We arrived at Thalane pier and bought our tickets for the ferry, which was due in an hour. Thalane is a pretty beautiful place to kill some time in, so we were happy just to sit down by the water and chill for a while. It was after lunchtime and we were both a bit hungry, so we popped out the Pringles. Within seconds, monkeys appeared at the end of the jetty and made their way towards us – it’s almost as if they heard us popping the tube open and thought “MMM PRINGLES!” Hollie was in possession of the tube at the time, and became panicked by the proximity of a particularly sly-looking primate. As it moved towards her she threw a Pringle to distract it. It took the Pringle and attempted to crunch on it, struggling with the shape – for a brief moment it looked as if it may choke on the crisp, before managing to crunch it down. The monkey looked at Hollie as if to say “You tryna’ kill me woman?” Before moving on to a couple sat further up the dock from us who were rustling around in their own crisps. For the record, the other couple were eating Lays (the foreign brand name for Walkers) – which answers the age old question, what’s a monkey’s favourite brand of crisps?

And don’t come back!

The vista from Thalane pier

At 1pm we boarded the ferry, which was more A+E than P&O. We sat on wooden boards that ran the width of the boat inside a dingy cabin. A boat of similar proportions left just before us and as it chugged into the distance the exhaust fumes behind it became so dense and black that we wondered whether it might have caught fire.

After this reassuring start, the journey out to Koh Yao Yai was spectacular. We weaved our way through huge kast rock formations that rose a hundred metres out of the sea, passing within metres of some of them. Many of these islands are uninhabited by humans, and all kinds of animal life must cling to the jungled slopes.

We arrived at Koh Yao Yai in about forty minutes and took a songtheaw for 600 baht – it sounds comparatively steep but Yao Yai is a bigger island than Koh Muk and our accommodation was on the far side. We drove along the pier, which was surrounded by mud flats at low tide, before climbing into the jungle in the middle of the island. We were followed for a while by three kids on a scooter who appeared to have a combined age of twelve, before they revved past us and disappeared round a bend. The journey was rocky – at one point a stretch of the road had been taken up and we braced ourselves in the back of the songtheaw as it bounced it’s way through a construction site, before we eventually arrived at Activities Resort.

Activities Resort is an eccentric kind of place. The owner was a lovely bloke, greeting us with a beaming smile, before informing us that the restaurant was closed. He showed us to our room – a stilted wooden bungalow which was all very rustic and charming, until Hollie discovered that the bathroom had no roof. I’m not sure if I’ve gone into this before, but Hollie has quite a serious phobia of bugs. Being in the middle of the jungle, the bathrom contained more bugs than you’d expect to see in your average hotel room. We were alerted to the presence of the bugs when our host walked through to the bathroom and told us “Wait a minute” before we heard him slap something on the wall with a towel. After he’d left us to it, a brief honeymoon conference was called, where both marital parties sat and discussed our options. Hollie made it clear to me in diplomatic language that the only option was for us to move to a room with a covered bathroom, or get the hell out of there. To be fair to my wife, she has impressed this holiday with her unusually high tolerance level for creepie crawlies, and I have to say I didn’t fancy a midnight trip to the lav wondering what unspeakable creatures were watching me from the walls.

Our host was completely understanding when I explained, and took me on a tour of the other available accommodation. The first bungalow he showed me had two single beds, one of which had a cat shit on it. He apologised for this and showed me another option, which mercifully contained no cat shit and had a rudimentary bathroom roof, which I accepted.
After moving our stuff in and securing any potential bug entrances with mosquito repellant, we walked down the road and found a restaurant for tea. I had chicken with green papaya, and Hollie and her newfound cat companion had deep fried chicken cakes.

We returned to the bungalow and battoned down the hatches before crawling under the mosquito net to sleep – which with the noises of creatures tip-toing over the flimsy roof, was quite a challenge.

DAY 14 – Koh Jum

Things were still a bit dicey for Hollie in the morning, so I ventured out on my quest to find the dive shop again. I walked the same route, passing the two blokes sat on a porch drinking, past a long stretch of beach and a meticulously planted forest of rubber trees. I came on the same empty garage as before, only this time there was a sign outside saying “Koh Jum Diving – out now, back this afternoon”. They didn’t strike me as a particularly professional outfit, so I thought I might give it a miss and find a dive shop on one of the bigger islands.

The heat was intense, but I thought that I’d have a wander into Ban Koh Jum town and pick up some Pringles for Hollie. In my opinion, the Original flavour Pringle is the best fodder for testing the water after having a dicky tummy – maybe there’s a marketing idea for them there. I wasn’t much further along the road when a bloke on a moped pulled over. “Hey hey hey! Where you going?!” We were on a straight road with only one remaining destination at the end of it, but I told him anyway that I was going into town. “Get on back, I give you a ride!” He beckoned me over whilst rebalancing a bag of freshly caught fish on his handlebars. Now, if in England a strange man offered me a ride on the back of his motorbike, I’d assume he was a serial killer. This was a tiny island off the coast of Thailand though, and I decided that the probability of there being a serial killer within a population of 4000 people was unlikely – there might be a one-off, accidentally ran his mate over with a longtail boat kind of killer, but nothing more sinister than that. I got on the back of the bike.

On that short trip into the town I gained an appreciation for Hollie’s plight as the perpetual passenger on our scooter journeys. Every bump in the road causes you to slide slightly back on the bike, meaning that you either have to “hop” yourself back into position, or pull yourself forward by grabbing the driver in the midriff. Although I was confident at this point that my driver was not a serial killer, I didn’t really want to grab his paunch, incase he saw this as some kind of advance. Fortunately the journey didn’t last very long before he pulled over between some houses in the town. I got my wallet out and offered him 20 baht for his troubles, but he smiled and shook his head. He pointed to one of the buildings and said “My name is Pha Pha Din. This is my restaurant. Good seafood here – come see me!” Then he walked in under the corrugated roof and sat next to his wife. She was a big lady with a sharp tongue – she appeared to be giving him a dressing down, possibly for picking up random farang on the back of his bike.

I bought some Pringles and went for a wander round the town – a really pretty, traditional place full of old wooden houses.

I knew that I’d have to walk back past Pha Pha Din’s place in order to get back, and I’d have felt bad passing it by without giving them some custom, so I stopped in for a Chang. Pha Pha Din greeted me like an old friend, and although I wasn’t hungry his Mrs persuaded me into having a prawn curry – the threat of her disapproval was more frightening than the indigestion. Somehow I found some room, and I was glad I did. It was one of the best curries I’ve had in Thailand – a yellow sauce with onion and green beans and prawns as big as dumplings swimming in it.

When I was done, Pha Pha Din offered to take me back to Jungle Hill for 50 baht, which I accepted. I hopped in his sidecar and tried to ignore the murderous-looking implement which was lying on the floor.

After tipping Pha Pha Din for his troubles I walked back up the hill to chill on the balcony for a bit. The hammock had now been fixed, so Hollie swayed around in it for a couple of hours eating Pringles, before declaring herself fit enough to venture out for tea! We went to a place called Hong Yog restaurant, owned by Rosa – I know this because on the front of the menu it said “Welcome to Hong Yog restaurant, Your host, chef and occasional entertainer Rosa.” it was certainly an interesting set-up. When we arrived Rosa and her family were watching a Thai soap on telly. When we’d placed our food order she walked over to the other side of the room, where a kitchen had been set up, and started preparing it with one beady eye on the soap. As the aromas in the room got steadily more delicious we watched lizards climb the walls whilst Rosa danced around her kitchen. In ten minutes she’d whipped up a massaman for me and a spaghetti carbonara for Hollie – two totally different cuisines, cooked to perfection in the time that it’d take me to chop the onions. This is the magic of Thai food – there must be 30 million chefs in the country operating in roadside cafes, resorts and restaurants. Everywhere you go there will be slight twists on the same dish depending on the preference of the cook and the ingredients that are in stock, but it’s almost always incredible, and you’re barely ever waiting longer than fifteen minutes. The massaman was excellent, and the carbonara was the best we’ve ever had – I say “we” because I finished the last half of Hollie’s as well. As I shovelled the spaghetti into my gob I saw Rosa hold her belly and laugh like Santa Claus. When we came to pay the bill, I joked with her that Hollie had eaten all of her food – she pointed at Hollie then at me and said “She is skinny because the food goes in your belly!” A perceptive lady, to go along with her cooking and entertaining skills.

We went back to the bungalow to kip. Tomorrow we would be heading to Koh Yao Yai. We weren’t able to spend the time that we’d have liked exploring Koh Jum, but it was good to have Hollie back on form. From what I’ve seen, Koh Jum is a beautiful island full of lovely people and I’d recommend it to anyone who has the luxury of exploring these shores.

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.

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.