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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 8 – Exploring the Emerald Cave on Koh Muk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 7 – November 10th. Ko Muk

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

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

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

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

This is how you harvest rubber from a rubber tree

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

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

Steamed duck in soy sauce

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AAAAARGH!!!

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

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

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

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


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

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