Friday, 7 September 2012

The Beach (Krabi and Phuket)

"Trust me, it's paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven't tried before." - Alex Garland

We stuck our thumbs out just off of Khao San Road and hailed a taxi. We told the driver that we were heading to Hualamphong Station (Bangkok largest railway station) and he turned the meter on. Phew. He turned the meter on. This is a sign of a good Bangkok taxi driver, someone whose sole purpose isn't ripping you off. We were dropped off just outside the main terminal and we wandered inside. We were early. Our train didn't leave for another two and a half hours so we found a coffee shop and sat down. After a while a middle aged British 'bloke' from Bournemouth came and sat with us. This was his 11th time in Thailand and he had a lot of stories to tell and advice to give which whiled away the hours until it was time to board our train. It's been something of a frequent occurrence that we'll meet these really interesting and kindhearted people, talk to them for an hour and then leave them forever without even catching their names.

It was time to head South. Four nights was more than enough for Bangkok, we wanted freedom, we wanted peace, the sound of the ocean sweeping onto the shore. The train journey was about 12 hours, overnight, from Bangkok to a small city called Surat Thani, there are no trains that head directly to Krabi or Phuket the two most popular beach provinces in the South and our final destinations. The train was reminiscent of the bumpy Egyptian trains I had taken with my father the year before, we slept in a small bunk in a crowded second class compartment, the toilet was a squat, just a hole in the ground, and the ride was very rickety, surprisingly we both slept reasonably well and we finally got to Surat Thani at 7:30am.

Now, let me tell you young wannabee travelers a story. A story that will not only save you money, but time. Don't buy the combined train and bus ticket at Bangkok station. That's what we did. We thought it would be nice and easy, you buy a combined ticket, you get off at Surat Thani railway station, and then you wait to board a local public bus at Surat Thani to Krabi. Easy. No.

What happens is you get off the train and are pulled over by people the company  (listed on the ticket you bought), they put you on a bus (about an hour late) and ship you off to a travel agency. You'll stay at the travel agency for about 45 minutes whilst they try and sell you things you don't want for extortionate prices (preying on naive tourists), then they put you on another bus that takes you to a remote part of the town you're going to so you are forced to buy a taxi from them that will take you to your hotel instead of getting the local bus for 50 baht, you end up paying 400 baht for the taxi. There is a way around this. Don't buy the combo, arrive at Surat Thani, walk to the local public station and get a bus from there, it'll be cheaper and will probably take the same amount of time, and you won't have to talk to a travel agent.

I like to think I've become a bit of a pro at winding the travel agents up now. I knew what their game was the minute we got dropped off. I said, "they'll keep us here for an hour and try and sell everyone something." For us they wanted to help us get a mini-van from our hotel in Ao Nang (where we were heading to our next hotel in Phuket). I'm a master now. Conversations with Sean and travel agents go like this:

Travel agent: Where you going?
Sean: Karon Living Room hotel.
Travel agent: Oh, bad hotel, very far from beach.
Sean: Yes, I know.
Travel agent: You want change?
Sean: No.
Travel agent: How much?
Sean: What?
Travel agent: How much you pay at hotel per night?
Sean: I don't know.
Travel agent: You don't know?
Sean: Nope.
Travel agent: Where you go after?
Sean: I don't know.
Travel agent: You want to go to Phi Phi islands?
Sean: No, I don't.
Travel agent: Ok, Karon Living Room.
Sean: Thank you. Goodbye.

They'll try and sell you anything. I don't know, works. They can't sell you a mini-van transfer if you don't know where you're going next. They can't sell you a tour if you turn your nose up at all the places they suggest. I'm working on getting this down to a few questions and answers. I'll keep you posted.

So, after all the commotion with the travel agents we finally arrived at our hotel in Ao Nang. We didn't get ripped off too badly by the taxi so we got off lightly. The hostel we were staying at was amazing. We had a private room with a balcony, living space, en suite bathroom and giant bed for 250 baht a night. We were very impressed. The owners had two dogs 'Chilli' and 'Tata' who both became very friendly with us as we were practically the only people staying there. The place was run by a dutch guy and his Thai wife and they kept the place so clean and comfortable.

We got to the hotel at about 1pm so we had the rest of the day to explore. We headed down to the beach past all of the shops and Thai men trying to sell us suits (we were definitely in tourist town) and finally made it to the most beautiful beach. The sea was crystal clear, there were long-tail boats lined up on the shore and palm trees made shade on the edge of the beach. We strolled along letting the waves wash over our feet. This was the life. You swim, you laze around, everyone is so friendly. It's simple. No responsibilities.

Eventually we came across the monkey section of the beach. Natalie yelled, "there's a monkey!" I had no idea there were monkeys on the beach and I got very excited. They were everywhere! There were loads of babies who were so cute, and they were all just chilling out at the edge of the jungle, running around on the beach. They seemed pretty harmless and friendly so we walked through them into the jungle and over a cliff to a more secluded beach on the other side.

By the time we were walking back, the sun was going down and we hung out with the monkeys some more. We watched all the tourists still trying to catch a tan on the beach and we felt empowered that we weren't doing the same thing. Despite being unbelievably beautiful and tranquil this entire area: both Krabi and Phuket provinces, have been ripped apart by tourism. By the package holiday tourist. By irresponsible westerners with no care for the environment or for cultural heritage. Ao Nang luckily still retains its natural beauty and its very clean compared to Phuket (which I'll get to shortly) but most tourists in Ao Nang seemed to be bringing all their baggage with them, intent on holidaying in Thailand without having to learn any Thai, eat any Thai food or in fact do anything remotely cultural. I don't want to sound snobbish but if a Thai person bows to you, the least you could do is smile, you could at least learn the word thank you in Thai, that's one word, its not a lot, I think the world would be a better place if people showed a little more empathy, a little more human decency and kindness. It's a real shame. I'm proud to say I've only eaten Thai food, I bow when I'm bowed to, sometimes even when I'm not, and I've learnt some Thai. I'm only rude to travel agents. I promise.

Anyway, that night we had a lovely Thai dinner and we walked back down to the beach in the dark. By the time we got back to the hostel we were knackered. Time for bed. We played with Chilli for a while. She's the cutest puppy ever, and then...

Then the unthinkable happened.

Of all the things that could have happened. Not this. I saw Chilli's ball sitting below the steps into the hostel. I put one foot onto the step and pulled the other one forward to lean down and pick up the ball. Click. I let out the most awful cry as I grabbed a hold of my knee. It had dislodged itself and clicked itself back into place again. Luckily it didn't fully dislocate and a hospital was definitely not needed so it could have been worse, but now as I write this four days later I'm only just nearly fully recovered.

The next day I limped down to the beach, lucky I could walk at all I suppose, it didn't feel too bad, it was puffed up a little but we took it pretty easy, went swimming in the sea, played with more monkeys, Natalie got a Thai massage, and we relaxed, that day of relaxation certainly  helped my knee out as every day since it has gotten better and better. I can walk normally now, and I can bend my knee all the way. It was still frustrating that it happened during the trip, but its a relief that it happened when we were on the beaches, not doing as whole lot.

The next day we got a long-tail boat to Railey a remote set of beaches cut off from the Thai mainland by huge granite cliffs. This beach was even more perfect and reminded me of 'The Beach'. In-fact the movie was indeed filmed on these beaches but the bulk of it, including THE beach was filmed on Phi Phi island and because of that, getting a boat to Phi Phi is an expensive affair so we opted for Railey and it was perfect. The caves, cliffs and jungles all hung over the beach, the sea was so clear that you could see fishes swimming about beneath the surface. We were very lucky with the weather, despite being monsoon season it didn't rain once whilst we were in Ao Nang, but the boat back to the mainland was a little choppy, it was very much worth it to spend some time relaxing on the most perfect beach, which hardly had anybody on it.

That night we ate at the restaurant next to the hotel and stayed up talking to the dutch owner for a while. We played with the dogs whilst he told us about the tuk-tuk mafia of Phuket and how they have to charge high prices else they'll get beaten up by other tuk-tuk drivers. Savage.

We enjoyed our time in Ao Nang very much and in the morning we got another stupid travel agency mini-van from Ao nang to Karon in Phuket, a very different kind of beach town. We just played the flat fare for the mini-van and didn't fall into any of their sneaky little traps, we talked to an English teacher from Korea who was vacationing here and we finally arrived in Karon at about 4pm. We were very hungry so had an early dinner near the hotel and settled in for the night.

Phuket is a town that really has been consumed by tourism. It's like a Spanish resort, shops selling cheap gifts, hats and sunglasses, overpriced restaurants, western food chains, everything you'd expect from a seaside town in England is here. The beach is still wide, long and beautiful but the weather hasn't been as beautiful as it was in Ao Nang so we've taken it pretty easy. We watched the sea-life on the beach, we've gone for plenty of walks and we've eaten some very tasty Thai food.

We much preferred Ao Nang to Karon. Ao Nang is everything you'd expect from a tropical beach, and I can't describe how picture perfect it was, it was also easy to vagabond there and live very cheaply whilst still having a great time. That's a little tougher in Karon, a place that caters to the resort tourist, we have managed to eat really well and have a good time, we also gave into the tourist tat and played a round of mini-golf. We are pretty beached out after 6 days down here in the south and we're looking forward to heading north tomorrow. We can't believe we're already nearly two weeks into this trip. Time is going fast. We're enjoying it. We're soaking everything up. We're living for the moment. We're trying not to be walking cliches.

I look out of the window at the coconut trees, I squint at the sun, I can hear the sea, and the cars and scooters speeding by on the road below and I still can't believe I'm finally here.

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