DAY 21 – Climbing up to the Tiger Cave Temple near Krabi Town

Today was one of monks, monkeys and mountains.  Monks and mountains are two of my favourite things about Thailand – monkeys are not.

Any intrepid mountaineer will tell you that a hearty breakfast is essential to maintain the energy required for the ascent, so we went to May and Mark’s House café around the corner from our hotel and I conquered the Full English.  As ever Hollie went for a more modest selection, opting for the omelette – which she’d come to regret later in the day when it failed to provide the calorific content to get her to the top of the mountain.

After stocking up we wandered the streets and quickly located a songtheaw with the words “Tiger Cave Temple” emblazoned on the side.  The songtheaw was being driven by a beaming old man who charged us 100 baht – he took the note from my hand and passed it to his Mrs, who was sat in the passenger seat preparing various fruits for their lunch.  They were both well into their seventies and appeared to be very happy with their lot in life, and in a way I envied the chilled out lifestyle that they’d carved out for themselves, cruising around Krabi with the windows down, taking 100 baht here and there for making journeys that they’d probably make anyway just for the pleasure of it.  We climbed into the back and they drove us out through the suburbs towards a formation of karst mountains that loomed large in the distance beyond Krabi.  As we passed a posh-looking gated house, a stray dog with teets the size of udders was barking at someone’s pampered pet pooch which lazed around on the driveway behind the gate.  I imagine their conversation went something like this:

“OI! OI! OI! OI! OI….OI! OI! OI!………………………………OI!”

“WHAT?”

“You wanna go out? I’ve found a pile of bones behind the butchers that we can share…”

“No thanks, my owners feed me.”

“Daddy’s boy.”

“Tramp.”

“OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI! OI!”

We turned off the main road through a golden arch and stopped in a car park next to some souvenir shops that sold little statues of the Buddha – something which is technically illegal in Thailand, but happens absolutely everywhere.  We agreed to meet our driver back at the car park at 3pm – something which took some time to communicate.  After a couple of minutes of him speaking to us in Thai and us smiling politely without understanding a word, our driver got out the van and pretended to be a giant clock, using his arms as the hands, before raising three fingers.  We nodded our agreement and shook his hand to seal the deal.

The wealth of the Buddhist religious establishment in Thailand can’t be understated.  Buddhists can make merit and secure themselves a superior reincarnation in their next lives, or even achieve enlightenment (liberation from the cycle of life and death), by being a giving and generous person.  As a result, vast sums of money are donated to temples and monks.  Some of this untraceable cash seems to go in to funding the decadent lifestyles of rogue monks, but equally vast sums go in to building elaborate new temples.  The cynic in me feels that the money would be better off going in to building schools and hospitals, but there’s no denying the beauty of the temples that they build.  Before getting to the Tiger Temple itself, we craned our necks to look up at a huge tower which is under construction in the grounds.  Whilst the ferocious tiger statues that guarded the front gate had been painted, much of the shopping mall-sized temple was still a concrete skeleton with construction workers crawling around in it’s ribcage.  It looked like a giant airfix model, half-painted and half put together.

We walked on and caught today’s first glimpse of monkeys.  A gang of them had surrounded a little girl with an ice cream and proceeded to circle her until her Dad picked her up and carried her inside a café.  We took our shoes off at the entrance to the Tiger Cave Temple, placing them in a rack and wondering if we’d ever see them again.  The temple was dimly lit with candles and the aroma of incense hung heavy in the air.  We allowed an elderly lady with a shaved head to place a cotton bracelet on our wrists in return for a donation.  I didn’t have much change, and as her arthiritic hands struggled to tie off the knot I felt increasingly guilty that I could only shove 20 baht in her tin.  Across the room, on a platform in front of a sheer rock face, four monks sat in silent judgement.

The Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea) is so called because it is built around the entrance to a cave in which a tiger used to live.  In 1975 a wandering monk went in the cave to meditate and found that he was surrounded by tigers.  Rather than running away screaming never to return, he decided to build a temple on the site.  The tigers haven’t been seen for decades, and the only evidence that they ever existed there is the footprint of a tiger which seems to have become something of a holy relic.  We climbed some steps into the heart of the cave and peered through some bars into a shadowy corner, where we squinted to make out the print of a tiger’s paw.  Out of the hundreds of temples that we’ve visited in Thailand, I have to say it was up there with the best in terms of atmospheric, spiritual vibes.

We returned squinting into the daylight and were delighted to discover that our shoes hadn’t been nicked by thieving little tree-dwellers, which was good because we were going to need them for the hike that followed.  Above the Tiger Cave and up a flight of 1,237 steps, perched on the top of a caast cliff, is a second temple.  The quoted figure of 1,237 is probably an accurate figure – my brain became starved of oxygen and I stopped counting after about 200 – but what’s not taken into account is the varying height of the steps.  Some of them were bordering on 3 feet high and not deep enough for you to place your foot on.  Even as we climbed up into the shade of the jungle canopy, the sweat was running down my forehead into my eyes.

After about 200 steps Hollie stopped and announced that this was ridiculous.  She was still recovering from earlier poorliness, and the calories from the morning’s omelette were running out – she should have had the full English, but I didn’t tell her that because it seemed inappropriate.  “Okay love” I said.  “But I cannot let the mountain beat me.  I’ll be up there in ten and back in twenty.”  Then I leaned on the railings and watched her, wondering whether other husbands abandon their wives on their honeymoon to go mountaineering.

I pressed on to the 800th step.  The sweat was starting to drip off me as I walked, and wiping my eyes with my t-shirt became impossible because that was soaked too.  I paused on a ledge for a breather and tried to spot Hollie.  I could see tall, multi-coloured dots surrounded by tiny brown dots on the concrete, but I couldn’t make her out.  I hoped that she hadn’t been taken by the monkeys.

As I climbed to the top of another staircase the path evened out for a few metres.  There were a couple of German lads leaning on the railings.  Not wanting to show weakness I decided to soldier on past them so that I was out of sight when I collapsed in a heap for a breather.  As I put my foot on the first step of the next flight one of the Germans shouted “Monkeys on ze path!”  and I froze.  The steps clung to a cliff on the left hand side and fell away to a sheer drop on the right.  Sat sunning themselves in the middle of the 2 foot wide walkway were a dozen or so monkeys.  I considered turning back – I was almost at step 1000 now and that was a pretty good effort in the heat.  But the belligerent bastard in my head said “No.  You’ve flown halfway across the world for those little knobheads to stop you doing what you want? You’re not going to take it Tommy.”  Another more sensible voice in my head said “You’re more use to Hollie without rabies”, but the belligerent voice replied “You’ve had your jabs – bring them on.”

I flipped my backpack from my shoulder and removed anything remotely nick-able from my pockets, zipping them into the bag.  Then, standing as tall as I could I marched up the steps with purpose.  The monkeys didn’t move.  I came to within three steps of them and they remained impassive – it became clear that I’d have to pass within biting distance of the lot of them if I wanted to continue.  Not wanting to show weakness, I planted my foot on the step next to the biggest and powered past it – it watched me nonchalantly then returned to picking parasites out of it’s fur.  I climbed on past the rest – big, shifty-looking blokes with balls like ping-pong balls.  I held my breath and tensed for the attack, but none of them moved.  I passed the last of the group and unclenched my buttocks, but the relief was short-lived.  As I tried to put some distance between myself and the monkeys I heard the pitter-patter of tiny feet on the steps.  I turned round just in time to see a baby monkey slap me on my calf with it’s toddler-like hand.  I did a little girlish yelp and leapt on to the next step, raising my fist.  The baby stood up and pushed it’s chin forward – it was offering me out for a fight.  I stared at it intently, then glanced briefly at the sheer drop beyond the path.  My aim was to communicate the message “Touch me again, and there will be one less monkey on the mountain” to it.  After a staring contest that seemed to last an ice age, it turned it’s back on me and returned to the group.  Resisting the urge to fling a boot at it, I carried on up the steps.

At step 1,200, I was near enough hallucinating.  Every rustle of a bush was a king cobra, or a monkey come to implant the rage virus in my neck with it’s rancid fangs.  I felt a bit like Frodo Baggins as he climbs to the summit of Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.  As I leaned on the railings to catch my breath before the final push, a stocky Thai gentleman from Bangkok engaged me in a conversation about weight-lifting.  He asked me what I could lift, and I said “Well I’ve managed to move fifteen stone up this mountain” but he didn’t understand.  I let him take my spot on the railings, and climbed the final set of steps.  Setting foot on the threshold of the temple was a definite Rocky moment, but there were a few people around and I didn’t want to throw my arms in the air incase I looked daft.

The view from the summit was mind-boggling.  I took my shoes off and climbed up a little set of steps that led to a platform.  A huge golden Buddha sat surveying the land, and I decided to stand in front of him and look out to see what all the fuss was about.  Thick jungle surrounding the mountain gave way to a patchwork of paddy fields and perfectly square forests of rubber trees.  I could see the river widening into an estuary, and Krabi Town nestled in the armpit of land between the river and the sea.

As I watched, a shadow began sweeping in from the sea and over the land.  The wind whipped up prayer flags and rang bells all around me, and it became obvious that a storm was approaching.  It was an ominous, anxious feeling to be watching the sky on the move.  As amazing as it was to see the clouds chasing shadows towards the mountain, it dawned on me that I was at the highest point for miles around, and that lightning tends to find the quickest path to the ground.  I filmed the storm approaching until the rain drove into my face, then legged it down the steps to take cover.  There was no lightning, but the storm drove in at right angles and soaked anyone who went close to the edge of the roof.

Getting down was less of a physical effort, although I don’t recommend that kind of steep descent for anyone with dodgy knees.  The monkeys were nowhere to be seen – perhaps driven under cover by the storm – there was a tense moment when an extremely rabid-looking dog came running up the steps towards me, but it passed without trying to bite or lick me.

When I reached the bottom I was a sweaty mess, but Hollie took a photo of me next to the “1,237 steps” sign so that I can add it to my scrapbook of “Achievements that mean a lot to me but would actually be a simple task to anybody who exercises and doesn’t drink too much”.  We sat in the shade with a coke and gazed upon the religious trinket shops that seem to pop up on the perimeter of any significant holy site in Thailand.

True to his word, our driver arrived to pick us up at three, and we were back in Krabi Town for half past.

To finish the day we had an early tea in a restaurant across the road from the river front.  I ordered the biggest tiger prawns I’ve ever consumed and immediately regretted the decision – they stared up at me with throughout my attempts to cut in to them with a knife and fork, and I finished the meal feeling guilty and hungry.  Hollie went for chicken with cashews – always a winner.  The ambience was spoiled not only by the busy main road that the restaurant was situated on, but also by an over-zealous traffic cop who enjoyed blowing his whistle at the passing public and placing traffic cones in an apparently random order.  We ended the evening by taking a turn around the market before walking back to the hotel with a chocolate crepe each.

Tomorrow we’d be heading to Koh Phi Phi to explore the island on which a certain Leonardo Di Caprio film was shot…

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DAY 20 – Sunning it up on Railay Beach

Railay beach is picture postcard stunning.  A wide stretch of sun-kissed sand juts out from the jungle to meet the sea, overlooked by jagged limestone cliffs that surround it on all sides and prevent it being accessed by road – for this reason it remains relatively unspoiled.

Before we went there though, there was the essential matter of breakfast to attend to.  We walked to the Maharaj Market – the biggest in Krabi town, opening at 3 in the morning.  We didn’t get there until 10am, by which time some stalls were already closing up, but there was still enough hustle and bustle to make it twice as big as any British market I’ve ever been to.  We walked through lanes and lanes of weird and wonderful vegetables and had a look round the seafood section.  I love looking at the fishmonger’s counter – this goes back to when I was a kid and I went on holiday with my family to France.  I used to spend ages gawping at the live crabs and lobsters scuttling around in tanks at the supermarket – I remember being bollocked by a French fishmonger once for poking his prize lobster.  I managed to keep my hands to myself on this occasion as we walked past giant tiger prawns, octopi, grouper and tuna chilling in the ice.  A metre-long barracuda glared up at us from another counter whilst live spider crabs crawled all over each other and catfish swam around in a tank as big as a skip.  I don’t know how sustainable Thai fishing is – I’d suspect that it isn’t really, since nothing ever is these days – but a walk through the Maharaj market is a reminder of the incredible wealth and diversity of life that exists in these Andaman waters.

The food joints were closing up by the time we’d finished gawping at grouper.  We had to move quickly, and we bought a bagful of honey glazed roast pork with crackling.  We sat with a cocktail stick each, picking at this bizarre, gluttonous breakfast until we began to feel slightly sick, as if we’d sat picking at the leftovers of Xmas dinner – only in 30 degree heat.

We left the market and took a taxi to Ao Nang resort, where my scuba diving adventure had begun the previous day.  After being dropped off at the beach, we queued up for a ticket for the longtail boat taxi service, then sat on a bench for all of thirty seconds before we were called.  We were beckoned over by a scrawny Thai boatman (I’ve yet to meet any other kind), who attempted to hold the boat steady whilst a man three times his weight waded out and plonked himself onto the deck.  They crammed as many beach bums as they could fit into the boat, and it was pretty low in the water by the time he spun her round and plopped the longtail motor into the water.  Our helmsman made no attempt to compensate for the weight in the boat, and proceeded at full throttle towards the group of rocks that hid Railay beach from view.  Longtails are very graceful boats, until you overfill them.  Rather than carving through the water like a knife through butter, we smashed our way through it like an angry fat man in a football crowd.  The spray was everywhere, and by the time we rounded the rocks and the beach came in to full view we were absolutely soaked.  I tried to protect the backpack containing our phones and other electronic gadgetry, but it seemed as if nowhere on the boat was safe from the onslaught of spray.

We jumped out in the shallows and picked a spot on the beach.  It was busy, but the space was so vast that we were able to stretch out comfortably.  We lay down to sunbathe – something that I can generally stand for all of about ten minutes before I get hyperactive and have to go for a walk.  I managed my usual ten minutes then got up and walked to the shops to buy two fresh coconuts.  I returned to Hollie with (if you’ll pardon the Carry On film style innuendo), the two biggest coconuts you could ever hope to see.

As we sat draining these massive vats of coconut milk, we were approached by a short Thai lady with a sheet of laminated paper.  “You want massage? You need massage!” She waved the list of prices at us.  “I am Zayah! You want massage, you come to me!” Zayah then stretched out her hand to me and I shook it.  It was a soft, caressing kind of handshake, and I decided that they were the kind of hands that would provide a tender service.  I said “Okay, I’ll come to you later” and she seemed pleased with this.  She pointed to the number 21 that was sewn into the fabric of her t-shirt – “You come to 21! Zayah!” she walked off to drum up more punters.  A few seconds later, a different masseuse lady with the number 19 sewn onto her shirt came up to me and mimed massaging my feet.  “You want massage?” I explained that I had already agreed to go with Zayah, 21, and she moved on to the next tourists.  As soon as number 19 had turned our back on us, Zayah popped up out of nowhere and whispered in a slightly threatening manner: “Zayah, 21.  You come to me!” then disappeared again as stealthily as she’d appeared.

We went for a swim, picking our way between paddle boards and bikini clad girls taking selfies to find our own stretch of clear water.  In spite of the many longtails moving around on the other side of a safety rope the water was clean and clear – there were no repeats of the condom or turdgate incidents that curtailed previous forays into the sea.

When we got out again I dried off and went in search of Zayah to fulfil my promise.  I found her at the end of a row of masseuses, working the knots out of a girl’s back.  I sat in the shade of a tree until she’d finished then stretched out on the mat that she’d laid on the sand.  She was pushy in a charming way – trying for a good while to coax the full body massage out of me, before finally accepting that I wanted a foot massage and no more.  For a fraction of the price that we’d paid at the 5-star spa in Bangkok, Zayah worked miracles on my poor, crippled feet.  I sat resting my chin on my hands, looking out to sea whilst she worked the dead skin away before rubbing in aromatherapy oil.  After half an hour I paid my way, tipping her handsomely for her troubles.  For the next day or two I felt like I was walking on air, until the combination of cheap rubber shoes and hot, hard pavements took their toll on my pins again.

We took a longtail back to Ao Nang.  This time the boat was half as full and the tide was in our favour, so we managed to land at the beach more or less dry.  We were pretty hungry at this point, with the weird roast pork breakfast now a distant memory.  Ao Nang doesn’t want for restaurants, but I’d bet that a lot of them are overpriced and underwhelming.  We picked Tandoori Nights Indian restaurant – it was a shot in the dark which worked out very well.  We paid similar to what we’d pay in England for a curry, but it was delicious and hearty, and I managed to avoid getting too hot by washing it down with a few Changs.  I had a chicken tawa and keema nan whilst Hollie opted for the paneer korma with peshwari nan.

We took a taxi back to Krabi Town and chilled at the hotel, before taking an evening turn around the walking market, grazing on shrimp dumplings and crepes to tide us over until the morning.

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.

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.