5. Surat Thani
30/11/02: Minibus from Chumphon to Surat Thani; check in at the Muang Thai Hotel; arrange pending transport; check email; eat at faux Pizza Hut; go for a walk on the waterfront; get followed and retreat to hotel for early night.
Surat Thani is a fairly busy place, bringing to mind the calmer streets of Bangkok, but without the hedonism or as much pollution. Its only real use is as a stop-off point prior to getting the ferry to Koh Phangan or Koh Samui; you’d struggle to make a night of it in Surat Thani, such is the shortage of bars or suitably inspiring vistas. It does, however, lie upon a river, and the opposing bank seems to be made up off nothing but palm trees. This low rise scenery is actually rather pleasant and gives the impression that for about 1000 miles there is nothing at all but vegetation.
This is our first experience utilising the form of transport mostly employed by the traveller: the private VIP Bus. These heady sounding vehicles can come in many forms – on short hauls such as this, you’re looking at a minibus – but what distinguishes them from the cheaper, public single-decked coaches is the price (in the manner defined by the aforementioned qualifying adjective) and the fact it services destinations common to most travellers. By this I mean that, rather than dumping one on the side of the highway, the VIP Bus will drop you off pretty much anywhere you like, or at the very least a drop-off point more conducive to one’s needs. What is more, the rendezvous for boarding such a bus will normally be locally convenient, and if it is not then the agent you booked the bus with will arrange for it to pick you up from wherever it is you have been staying. Although more expensive than the Public Bus, it’s not so much so that it isn’t worth the indulgence. Indeed, one might break even if the cost of paying for any secondary taxi is taken into account.
Wealthier locals might also utilise these buses.
As we near Surat Thani, conveniently located accommodation is quickly sourced from the guidebook. Not really sure of either what we are doing or where we are going, we ape our fellow traveller-type passengers and disembark when they do, hoping that we’ve done the right thing – what a shower of clueless spanners we three are. It turns out to be the right move, although it takes about 20 minutes of walking up and down the same 50 metres of road before we finally nail our quarry.
Our chosen venue is much more substantial in both structure and amenity than we have grown accustomed too. It is more like the establishment my colleague and I stayed in on our first night in Bangkok, except without the plush atrium, or the buffet breakfast, and an even shabbier bathroom. This is not an act of deliberation; there just doesn’t seem to be much on offer for the weary traveller on a budget in Surat Thani. It sums the place up: a purgatorial town one passes through, offering no incentive to stay for any longer than is entirely necessary. But stay we do, if only because we still haven’t a clear idea as to how we are supposed to get to those islands. We could have sorted all this out in Chumphon or Hua Hin (it might have been a struggle in Prachuap Khiri Khan) but we’ve got months of this kind of stuff to get through, so what’s the rush?
We find a run-down travel agent not 30 metres or so from our hotel, all peeling walls and faded posters. The stickers plastered across the window reassure that they know their stuff, and if we’re still in doubt then the proprietor’s very decent command of English is enough to alleviate any residual fear. It turns out that ours is not an entirely unreasonable course of action. Ferries to the islands start plying their trade from an early hour, and what’s more the terminal we need to sail from is a 45 minutes’ drive out of town. The kindly, well-spoken Thai lady arranges tickets and tells us to rendezvous back here at 09.00 the next morning to board the relevant bus. We will then be presented with coloured stickers that we will attach to our chests to enable the staff at the port to guide us in the direction of our appropriate ferry, which will be the one leaving for Koh Phangan.
This all seems too easy. Why, every other journey we have undertaken up until now has involved making our own way to a remote terminal and then hanging around for an hour or so, sweating profusely in the process, anxiety building. Profoundly suspicious, but at the same time bursting with a sense of accomplishment, we think about what we might like for dinner.
After making a deliberate effort to go native these last few days, by gorging myself on fish, I really fancy a spot of western fare. It’s no fait accompli, but when we pass an establishment that has very obviously taken Pizza Hut as its template, I persuade my colleagues that it’s for the best. It goes down well, despite a certain oddness about the taste that I can’t quite put a finger on. An imbalance of herbs, perhaps? Too much oregano?
Post dinner, we take a stroll along the waterfront. It’s pretty hectic down there, but still a long way off the intensity one would be obliged to deal with in Bangkok. This is the weirdest place I have come across yet – not Chumphon, or Hua Hin, or even Prachuap Khiri Kan. Every time I think I’ve got this country nailed it throws me another curve ball. Look, there’s a department store on that shabby street, where vendors and beggars litter the pavements. We take a look inside. The place is surprisingly busy, really quite modern and the prices not much less than what you would expect to pay back home in England. I’d hoped I might find a Lacoste polo shirt at a significantly reduced price. I’d hoped that the lithe Thai physique would dictate a sizing more akin to my own. Nothing doing here.
Along the main drag there are all sorts of strange boutiques. I suppose it offers an insight into what a lot of suburban Thailand is all about, and it’s putting me back on edge. This last week has been good for my state of mind – despite the fairly heavy drinking – but now I swear we’re being followed and I don’t feel very comfortable in my new environment. To be fair, it’s quite plausible that we are being followed, although not necessarily for the nefarious reasons that spring to my mind (robbery, extortion, murder). We don’t hang about, then, and could do with an early night regardless, so we each grab a solitary can of random beer from the nearest 7-Eleven, pull back to our hotel and watch Thai television (which is an experience in itself). We have to be up early for our bus, after all.
01/12/02: Get the bus to port and then the ferry to Koh Phangan; check emails on arrival so as to establish the position of M; get songthaew (pick-up trucks that have been converted into taxis by installing a bench on either side in the back and covered with a canopy) to Haad Rin and find M and crew; eat, go to bar and watch Liverpool 1 Manchester Utd. 2; go to beach and drink at The Drop In(n); free booze, very drunk.
Refreshed after our quiet night in, we comfortably make our 09:00 rendezvous with the bus, which looks like something Disney might have thrown together had they been asked to make a movie about travelling in South East Asia: an preponderance of polished chrome inside, and sprayed-painted cartoon characters out. Westerners who had previously been conspicuous by their absence now account for the majority of our company. Who knows where they’ve all sprung from, because they weren’t out and about in Surat Thani last night. (It was later discovered that most people purchase a ticket that covers an overnight VIP bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani and transfer from there to the port, dispensing with the strange public-transport orientated charade in which we chose to indulge ourselves.)
The ferry terminal is a hub of Caucasian activity. Without realising it, I am beginning to develop a weird suspicion of my own race and do not feel comfortable surrounded by so many of them here. Maybe it’s the collective shrill that emanates from us, and such stridency is not appreciated amongst our hosts. On top of that, I don’t like what most people are wearing: lairy traveller fatigues, which may well serve some sort of practical purpose but are intended, I suspect, to convey an air of insouciance and/or familiarity with this whole travelling business. Thais don’t tend to wear their hair in dreads or cornrows, or sport over-sized tie-dyed trousers, finished off with a conglomerate of accessories. They wear trainers, T-shirts and denim, just like the rest of us more normally do.
Such nascent cynicism is soon brushed aside when I lay my optics on what I can only assume is our ferry. This rusting hulk of a vessel looks like it’s not been serviced in decades, if at all, and the sea is pretty damn choppy to boot. It is now raining, in fact, which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned, adding to a sense of nervous drama that I am beginning to feed off. We hang around in a surprisingly modern waiting room, with a ‘who’s who’ of world nationalities, until our boat is ready to depart.
In the meantime, last night’s temperance has confused my digestive system and I am forced to utilise a squat toilet for the first time. These resemble our own western toilets in shape, except they are countersunk into the ground, which means they are only approachable from a squatted position – hence the name. There is no cistern either, just a bucket to the side, which does the job surprisingly well. I am not squeamish but it is all a bit hands-on, so to speak, and a portent of things to come, because outside of the towns almost all toilets are built like this.
Once on the ferry I spend most of my time perched on the gallery watching the wake emanate from our boat’s rear end, drinking coffee and chatting to some young Thai lad. He is a taxi-driver on the island but had some business on the mainland – I cannot recall what – but his confidence puts me on my guard.
The journey takes well over three hours and it rains pretty much the whole way. J and H were right: the rainy season lingers down south.
Thailand offers a dichotomy: the people are extremely warm and friendly and yet persistently try to sell you things, be it cheap jewellery or a lift on the back of their scooter. Unfortunately, this duality manifests itself into one actually distrusting everything they say. Walking through a rural area of Koh Phangan, it began to rain and a lady kindly offered her porch as refuge. I was warmed by the sentiment but politely declined. However, I could not help thinking that had I accepted her offer she would have almost certainly embarked on a long and convoluted attempt to sell me her daughter’s hand in marriage, or maybe cattle. I was probably wrong but, sadly, the seeds of suspicion had long been sown. At least they’re pretty up-front about their intentions most of the time.