Saturday, 26 May 2012

Island Hopping in Thailand

Finding Nemo, snorkelling in Thailand

My reunion with Harriet after 3 weeks apart was not quite as I had planned. I arrived in Phuket, Thailand, from the UK after a relatively easy journey involving one train, two planes, a bus and a taxi, in a little over 24 hours. I passed the time waiting for Harriet by lazing on the beach and snorkelling just off it. Harriet's journey on the other hand covered a much shorter distance than mine, but in a similar amount of time, and without any food or sleep. So by the time she arrived at our beach side bungalow, she was looking forward to food, beer and rest. Unfortunately she wasn't going to get any of these, as literally the minute that she turned up, rucksack still on and before we'd even seen each other, the tsunami warning sirens started to sound. A large earthquake in Indonesia had just occurred, and a tsunami alert had been issued for the entire Indian Ocean. She didn't know any of this- just that the staff were running around frantically, too busy emptying the cash register and running up the hill to answer her questions as to what was going on. We found each other and hastily followed the example of the staff in retreating to high ground. 

So our first evening reunited was spent on a headland overlooking the ocean, waiting for an '8 metre wave' that might not even appear. We were unsure if this was a common occurrence or how serious it might be, although later found out it was only the second warning the system had ever issued, set up after the devastating tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. In the end, the wave arriving at the coast of Thailand was officially measured to be 5cm high and thus lost in the chop. However, it did bring home to us the vulnerability of this part of the world, and it was reassuring to know that a working warning system was in place.

With Bill and Sengduan in Phuket
We chose to meet up again in Phuket as it was easy for us both to get to, and had the added bonus of being where Harriet's uncle lives. Having only met Bill once or twice as a child it was nice for Harriet (and myself) to establish some connections with distant family. Bill and his wife Sengduan took us out to lunch, put us up in one of the apartments that they own, and even loaned us a motorbike for our time in Phuket. Phuket is a large island adjacent to the Thai mainland, blessed with something like 17 golden sand beaches. But the curse of Phuket is that the powers that be have selected it as Thailand's premier tourist destination, and construction and development has run rampant, entirely uncontrolled, and spoiled the very reason people would want to come here in the first place. Every bay along the west coast is surrounded by condominiums and resorts, over-run with jet skis and inflatable sausage rides, and defaced by endless lines of plastic sunbeds bearing speedo clad russians. However, with access to our own transport, we spent a day driving the back roads that link each of the bays, and were pleasantly surprised to find some less developed beaches and villages.

A young girl outsized by her super soaker
Our time in Phuket coincided with the Thai New Year celebrations of Songkran, which is best described as a national water fight, with a motto this year of "the wetter the better".0Families set up camp outside their houses with every water container they have, and proceed to soak anyone and everyone passing by. Pick-up trucks cruise the streets loaded with water filled barrels and gangs of youths armed with super soakers. Anyone is a fair target, even policemen.

Joining in with Songkran on Phuket
We joined in with gusto, being a bit shy at first in attacking complete and innocent strangers, but soon getting into the swing of things - I found that small children made slow moving and easy (but perfectly legitimate) targets!

After a few days in Phuket we were more than ready to leave and head to Railay, a dramatic headland with cliff-backed beaches accessible only by boat, which happens to be the sports climbing capital of Thailand and was much more our scene than Phuket! The landscape in this part of Thailand consists of vertical limestone buttresses shooting up out of beautiful blue ocean and fringed in thick green jungle. The setting is truly amazing, right out of 'The Beach'. We rented a kayak and spent a day exploring the indented coastline and offshore islands, finding a couple of hidden beaches along the way and some overhanging cliffs to have a go at deep water soloing. We were also able to hire climbing gear, to tick off some of the rock routes. The climbs were typically very steep and at a rather hard grade, and the intense heat just sapped our energy, but we managed an afternoon at a couple of different crags with stupendous views, and got a feel for the climbing on offer here. Despite our exertions there, Railay was a nice place to chill out, and we would have stayed longer had Harriet's visa not been fast running out.
Climbing in Railay- the view wasn't bad

The secret world through the Emerald Cave
So we left Railay to island hop down the Andaman coast towards Malaysia. A very memorable highlight was our visit to the magical Emerald Cave on the island of Ko Muk. We rented kayaks from our beachside accommodation, and paddled the 30 minutes along the coast to the entrance, which was very well hidden- a low roofed cave beneath a massive limestone cliff that didn't give any clues as to what lay inside. We edged slowly into the darkness in our kayak, taking care not to bump our heads and having to don headtorches as the cave became deeper and darker. About 20 foot wide, the cave went back atleast 50 metres, eventually tapering down to a dead end at a tiny little beach. A side passage about half way in showed daylight, so we paddled down here to explore. The light grew and grew, and all of a sudden the tunnel opened out into this enormous bowl carved out of the landscape, with vertical cliffs towering a hundred meters all around us. This little sea cave tunnel was the only way in or out of this secret world. We were both struck silent in amazement. It felt like we were in the land time forgot, and I half expected to see teradactyles flying overhead. We stood there with our necks craned upwards, trying to find words to describe our amazement. Neither words not pictures could every really do the place justice.

Our hut at Ko Bulon Leh
Harriet was now down to only a few days left on her Thailand visa, so we had to limit our remaining time to just one place. We had read about a wonderfully undeveloped island called Ko Bulon Leh, and were desperate to visit. As it was late in the season direct ferry services had stopped, making it a fairly long and complicated journey, so we were in two minds as to whether it was worth it. Thankfully we decided it was. The final part of the journey was by longtail boat from the mainland, and even from a few kilometres away, we could see the white sand of Ko Bulon Leh. We jumped from the boat into azure coloured water, and carried our bags ashore. A series of tasteful beachfront bungalows was the only development on this side of the tiny island. Normally these would have been outside of our budget, but with the end of the season came reduced rates, and we managed to get a wonderful little hut in the shade of some pines trees, but still only 10 seconds walk from the water. There were only half a dozen other people at the resort, so it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Sunset at Ko Bulon Leh
This was a great place to do nothing. Our few days there consisted of reading, swimming and snorkelling, retreating to the restaurant for banana pancakes, or strolling along the pure white sand beach. And as the sun went down, it set fire to the dark brooding clouds, creating some unforgettable colours. At night thunderstorms would provide a sound and light show for us. So comfortable was the place that we considered it worthwhile for Harriet to overstay her visa for a couple of days, and incur the fine that involved - the best £20 we ever spent.

With some difficulty we pulled ourselves away from Ko Bulon Leh, and made the overnight transfer down to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Here we stayed in Chinatown, catching up on our email and booking our onward flights. The huge air conditioned shopping malls (complete with M&S) were a surreal change, and the mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures gave KL an interesting feel, but we didn't stick around as we knew more adventures awaited in our next destination – Indonesia.


Monday, 21 May 2012

Into the Big Blue

Diving and Relaxing in Thailand with Emma

The golden reclining Buddha
Arriving in Thailand the contrast with India was immediate. Flying over a grid of fields and busy highways to land at the sleek and modern airport at Bangkok felt as many miles as it was from the mosquitoes and madness of Mumbai. The streets were clean, the buildings were shiny, and our budget guesthouse was so spotless you could go into the shared bathrooms barefoot! I had met my friend Emma at the airport for two weeks in Thailand, while Karl returned to the UK to help his mum move house. Neither I nor Emma had been to South East Asia before so we were both forming our first impressions as we wandered the streets of the district of Banglamphu where we were staying. The first thing we noticed was how much people smiled, with broad grins aimed at us. A Thai lady stopped just to tell us I was 'short like Thai people, same colour like Thai people, I think you in Thailand long time?'! Even the infamous Ko San road, although touristy and tacky, was much nicer than we expected, and had as many young Thai people there for an night out on buckets of cocktails as it did backpackers. The temples and palaces of Bangkok were beautiful, ornate and jewel encrusted, buddha statues everywhere ranging from 20 metres long to a tiny emerald buddha dressed in solid gold in his own massive temple. Everything in the city was pretty easy, from negotiating the fast new sky train that traverses over highways and past mirrored skyscrapers, to hailing a bright pink taxi that put on the meter without being asked- no arguments or haggling required. This was a holiday, and sometimes you need a holiday even when you're travelling!

Backpackers on the jetty at Ko Tao
We journeyed by minibus up to the overly touristy town of Kanachaburi, next to the famous Bridge Over The River Kwai. The area has some very interesting second world war history, but it is marred by all the hotels, restaurants and souvenir stands selling the usual tourist tat ('Same same but different' t-shirt anyone?). I was beginning to wonder whether it was possible to get away from this scene in a country as established on the backpacker trail as Thailand. The average age of travellers here seemed to be about twelve (okay, maybe they were 18, just), in a standard dress of fluorescent singlets advertising a pub crawl or the notorious full moon party, plus baseball caps for the boys, and baggy brightly coloured fisherman pants for the girls. Transport is organised through travel agents with 'joint tickets' taking you from backpacker minibus to backpacker boat, and it's hard to meet any Thai people this way or really get to know the country. Emma and I decided to just go with the flow, accept it was going to be touristy and enjoy the places we were going to for what they were. And we went to some very nice places, ate some delicious food, drank plenty of Chang and Mai Tai and had a fantastic time! 

On the dive boat with Big Blue
The focus and highlight of the holiday was Ko Tao, one of the gulf islands and Thailand's most popular diving destination. We were initially sceptical about diving with a big summer-camp style dive school buzzing with people, but we can't fault our dive centre Big Blue- we loved it there and ended up doing ten dives including our first ever night dive (the trip budget is not really supposed to allow things like that- but at £16 a dive it's easy to justify another, and then another!). After a full morning diving we'd have beach time in the afternoon and then spend the evenings watching fire twirling while relaxing with a Chang on cushions on the beach. It's an addictive lifestyle, and I definitely understand why people get stuck here and turn into dive masters- we were both tempted!

Our dive school accommodation- not bad for £2 a night!

Heading out on our first night dive

Relaxing at Aow Leuk on the quiet side of the island
It was also lovely to escape the dive scene and cross to the other side of the island, a completely different coastline of little bays between rocky headlands. We had a very cute little hut here, complete with driftwood furniture, up on a headland with first class views of two bays. We explored the coast by kayak and the snorkelling was brilliant. Most memorable were crocodile needle fish hunting, diving into a shoal causing it to twist and contort, cuttlefish darting away into the blue, and best of all the three black tip sharks that cruised past. 

One very impressive gecko!
After Emma sadly had to return to England and normal life, I stayed on this coast in my own little wooden hut by the beach, complete with a huge gecko room mate and frangipani flowers overhanging my verandah. It was actually very nice to be a hermit for a few days, swimming, snorkelling and reading, before hauling on my backpack again and travelling by night boat and bus (one of those backpacker 'joint tickets') to meet up with Karl and resume our trip together.