I was very spoilt this Christmas, I was treated to a visit from Nolan, a real life South African friend of mine! Who I didn’t have to speak slowly or carefully to, who I didn’t have to censor my language so that it eliminated South African phrases which nobody understands and more importantly it was someone I could share Thailand with. Nolan’s only request was that we visit the island of Phi Phi, an island made famous a few years back by Leonardo DiCaprio’s, ‘The Beach‘. Apart from this, he had no preference of where we were going to go or do. So I decided we should visit the island of Phan Gan (North East of Phuket) of the coast of Surat Thani. I thought we could go from Phuket to Ko Phi Phi (Ko means Island in Thai), Spend a night there, from Ko Phi Phi to Krabi because I had enjoyed it so much there last time and from Krabi to Surat Thani where we’d catch a ferry to Ko Phan Gan and then back to Phuket.
Nolan arrived in Phuket International Airport on Christmas day. We had a lot of catching up to do as far as work, family, friends and all sorts of news between us. In the afternoon, I tried to show Nolan a bit of Phuket Town and took him to a restaurant and the market, where he tasted his first coconut (a young coconut that is chopped open and a straw thrust into it – you drink the juice that’s inside) and had bright yellow curry spilt on his shoes…ew. To celebrate Christmas (with the only family we had) Ella, Sophie (Ella’s sister), Nolan and I went to an upmarket Italian restaurant in Phuket Town. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and went to a local bar afterwards to try and show Nolan a little of Phuket town.
Ko Phi Phi
On the morning of the 26th, we were supposed to be collected at am by the company we were travelling to Ko Phi Phi with, however there were all sorts of complications and delays and when I called the tour guide for the hundredth time that morning, I discovered that their driver had had an accident on his way to collect us and we had to get to the port NOW because the ferry was leaving. My heart sank at the thought of having to now find a taxi who wouldn’t rip us off (it was high season, I’m blonde and we had a massive backpack of our things – yes, we looked very much like tourists and we seemed to be asking to be ripped off by anyone who didn’t know us.) Luckily, however, the hotel’s taxi driver was around and I managed to bargain a reasonable price for the two of us. I had to laugh when Nolan took one look at his little motorbike and said, “Both…, all of us…are getting…on….there??!” Yes…all of us got on the bike – backpacks and all and managed to get to the ferry on time. So it was a rather stressful start but we made it, in the nick of time!
Ko Phi Phi is made up of two islands, Ko Phi Phi Lay, where the movie The Beach was filmed and no one is allowed to stay on overnight (you have to live aboard) and Ko Phi Phi Don, a close neighbouring island where we would be staying. We were lucky enough to get a peek at Ko Phi Phi Lay on our way to Ko Phi Phi Don. As soon as we arrived at Phi Phi we had to march, heads down, through the hordes of people selling accommodation, “Where you stay? Where you stay?”, “Taxi? Taxi?”, “Long boat, taxi, where you go?” There is actually a T-shirt for tourists that reads, NO, I don’t want a f*&/@*^# taxi, suit or tuk-tuk thank you!!!! We wondered through a little paved street of shops when I thought Nolan had been in Thailand far too long without having a Thai Pancake. A Thai pancake is a ritual I do not know if I will ever tire of watching. The Thai’s who make these ‘roadside’ pancakes drive around in three wheeler motorbikes with a portable restaurant attached, made of stainless steel. Once they have parked, the stainless steel becomes the work surface. When you order a pancake, you decide on your filling from banana, honey, peanut butter, Nutella, lemon to mince, chicken egg and other savoury fillings or a combination of ingredients. A thick, flat piece of dough the size of an apple comes out and they ‘slap’ it onto the counter, rotate it and slap the next part on, basically it thins out the dough until it’s thinner than paper and bigger than the pan. This is placed on the pan with sizzling butter. The pancake is then folded in from the outside over the filling into the shape of a square. This is flipped and fried and then chopped up into little squares with a butcher’s knife way too big for this delicate pancake and you eat the little squares with a skewer stick. This is one of my favourite things about Thailand. Eating our Thai pancakes we entered into a piece of heaven as we walked onto the beach. Sparkling waters, gentle waves lapping the shore that was gently embraced on either side of the bay by warm, towering limestone cliffs.
We walked along the beach and decided we should really find somewhere to stay and get straight back to the beach. As we began sifting through the expensive, on-the-beach accommodation, looking for where the plebs stay when it began to pour with the vengeance of a tiger! We eventually settled with a barber’s shop that had a sign outside ‘Room for Rent B500’. The accommodation was made of little woven straw walls and a communal bathroom. It was quaint and special. So, now on a mission for food – we set about in the pouring rain in search of a restaurant. We ate a delicious meal at a Thai restaurant called ‘Thank you’s’ and decided to explore the island. The island is a delightful place to explore because the only traffic it has is long boats, bicycles and people. I think a lot of people come to Thailand not expecting rain at all because it is so hot, but it is obviously something that goes hand in hand with island living. We were actually quiet relieved from the heat when the rain came down so we just carried on walking as usual enjoying the refreshing shower after the heat and the clear streets, as most other people took cover. As we were walking along the pathway near the port and being harassed by “Taxi, long boat? Where you go? Where you go?” We passed a South African guy who cried out, “I wanna go where the sun shines!” This cracked us up for pretty much the rest of the day! The island is made up of wealthy condos and apartments, restaurants, a Japanese garden that serves as some kind of a water storage system, the squalors of the island’s residents and, of course, a wealth of tattoo and piercing parlours – Nolan says he’s never seen so many tattoos in his life and I suppose that’s something I’ve just adjusted to seeing.
Enough of this, it was time for the beach! So, down we headed down to the beach and we did the touristy thing by hiring a sea kayak and paddled about a kilometre out past the rocks that hugged the beach and found a nice, fairly quiet little area among the rocks where we had spotted some coral below. We tied the boat to some rocks and snorkelled around the surrounding area. I enjoyed this coral so much more than the snorkelling that we did off Krabi, because these fish and this coral seemed untouched by humans. The intense colours and abundance of texture in the coral was nothing short of breath-taking. We also went and explored a nearby cave before heading back to shore and very soon after that we watched the last few rays of light leave the island in a rich sunset.
We visited an incredible place called Hippies bar which was having a memorial marking the anniversary of the 2004 Tsunami by lighting over 1 000 candles and we were told by everyone who had been to Phi Phi that we had to go there – so it seemed almost compulsory and rightly so as it since has become my favourite bar in the whole world. Hippies bar is literally RIGHT on the beach, on the sand with a bar, restaurant tables and low coffee tables that you sit at with little grass mats and gas candles. There is live music ranging from the 80’s to present day and the whole atmosphere was just very relaxed and laid back…so my style 😉 At around 10:30 everyone got given a candle – there were SO many people there – I don’t know where they came from! All the lights were put out and we stood amongst the thousand candles, overlooking the sea with the moonlight gently playing on the water, in three minutes of silence and remembered some 3 000 people, 70 % who were foreigners, who lost their lives to the Tsunami. The moment was very hard to describe and will always be very special in my life. It was consumed with revered heart-felt and emotionally-charged silence in remembrance of these people who were simply living their lives or having a holiday when the disaster struck but there was a certain eeriness that came with the vulnerability to those few minutes – as we stood like many of them had before in awe of nature’s pure raw beauty and yet we were at her mercy too. When the 3 minutes was over, the DJ played “In the arms of an angel” while one by one, we placed the candles in a formation in the sand. With so many people there we had to find a place to stand in the sea and I think we got the best view. The candles in the sand cast a golden glow on the wet sand as the waves gently eased in and out. Everyone was deeply moved as we gathered around the candles and gazed at the scene with colourful lanterns of the bar in the background. The strangely nostalgic beauty of this moment was both spiritual and humbly glorious and it was an honour to be a part of it.
As some of you may remember from my earlier post, I had yet to sample a true Thai whiskey…so we decided to order a Thai whiskey bucket. This is a concoction of pure Red bull and Thai whiskey which is a cane-based whiskey which is served in what I can only describe as a play-dough bucket! I was carrying Nolan home while going on another tour of the island as I struggled to find the way back through the maze of the island in the dark.
Our boat from Phi Phi to Krabi at 9am was delayed only slightly by the police confronting a passenger regarding his imprisoned friend. He tried to convince them, with “but he’s a really good person” efforts, however he landed up having to pay them off. Unfortunately our boat departing coincided with the start of the not-so-great weather. When I bought the ticket to Krabi I failed to specify which port I wished to be delivered to and I only realized this when we headed off-course from where our previous boat to Krabi had gone. I knew the ride to Ao Nang would be far and expensive from where we were and we set about looking for a bus and dodging taxi and tuk-tuk drivers as soon as we arrived at the port. However, Tuk-tuk drivers are like sand on the beach – pretty much unavoidable! The Tuk-tuk driver who spotted us, kindly offered his best rip-off price and promptly informed us that there was no bus to Ao Nang today…we would simply HAVE to take his 300 Baht Tuk-tuk. Me being the stubborn girl on a budget that I am, found the bus that “wasn’t going to Ao Nang” and paid 30 Baht for our trip there.
Krabi, unfortunately was not as magical as last time. I think the rush of the end of term had finally caught up with me and Nolan’s jet lag with him – the weather seemed to echo our drained moods. So we took the time to re-coup and rest and decided to pep ourselves up a bit, we’d treat ourselves to a Thai Massage. A Thai massage is best
described as a combination of a massage and a visit to the chiropractor. They bend and twist you, stand on you and pull you in ways you never would’ve thought possible until you find yourself lying on your stomach with your fingers at your feet. We both really enjoyed it – Nolan actually became somewhat addicted to them. At every spare hour we had – this was how he suggested we spend our time!
The next day we spent the morning on the beach and shortly after this we missioned from Ao Nang to Nopparat Thara – the next beach to get to the meeting point for our pick up that would take us to meet the bus at Surat Thani. The van landed up driving us straight back to the hotel we started at before driving the 45 minutes to the port we’d been at the day before!
For the most part, we were travelling blind – this is very unlike me Miss I-like-to-have-everything-organised-before-I-go. From what I’d read it was a 6 hour bus ride from Phuket to Surat Thani and a four hour ferry ride from Surat Thani to Ko Phan Gan. The bus trip was comfortable and I think it was five hours until we had a stopover at a restaurant. There’s often chaos and confusion at these stops – each of us are ‘branded’ with these colour-coded stickers and a series of codes that mean nothing to anyone except the bus drivers who only speak Thai and, for the most part, chooses to ignore you. So I will choose to blame the chaos and confusion of jumping on and off the bus on somehow managing to leave my precious new camera on the bus that my Mum bought me for Christmas before I left. Luckily, with all the wheeling and dealing of the tour organizer we’d been passed onto, Nolan managed to get it back safe and sound. We then had an hour or so to wait at a restaurant, another hour or two’s drive before we were left at a desolate shelter in the wind and rain for our ferry. I think I was hyped up more by the fact that I spent that hour staring at a rusty pile of tin’s excuse for a ‘boat’ wondering if it would be better to send a message to Mum saying ‘Goodbye’ now and stress her out or should I save her the worry until she gets a call from the authorities…? I was dubious of the ability of the boat to stay afloat…the fact that the wind and rain created overcast, stormy sea conditions did not help my terror! Luckily at around 5:45, the creaking pile of nuts and bolts moved off and was replaced with a boat that I believe only have expired around 1980. Thank goodness!
Ko Phan Gan
Clearly we did survive and when we arrived we had to wade through the jungle of taxi, Tuk-tuk and accommodation offers, until we found the driver for Bottle Beach, our resort. We then travelled the hour-long drive which covered the length of the island until we reached the North. The longer we travelled, the loser the gravel on the roads became , the steeper the hills got and the more eroded the hills and roads became until we were damn-near vertical, heading down a seemingly endless hill of gravel, erosion and unreal gradient until we eventually reached our quaint destination of Bottle Beach around 10pm. The chef was kind enough to make me dinner at this late hour and I ate this just 2 or 3 meters away from the waves at their restaurant.
The next day we explored Bottle Beach, which was surrounded by lush bush and rocks that framed the beach on either side and the neighbouring resorts. We chilled, swam and generally took it easy. The following day we went into town to hire a motorbike because lifts with the hotel were proving very expensive. We tried to rent an off-road bike but none were left as more than 90% of the island’s accommodation was full due to the world-famous party held at one of the beaches, so we duly warned our renters where we stayed and they promised us, with raised eyebrows, that we’d make it. So we hired a little 125 scooter, which later became affectionately known as ‘The Red Dragon’. The Red Dragon was not my favourite piece of equipment on that day, it had the signs of a worn bike with brakes that were barely existent and sticky gears but it did the job…along with Nolan wearing out the underside of his shoes to compensate for the lack of brakes a lot of the time! In retrospect, I think the other scooters parked at the top of the hill that descended down to Bottle beach, should have been a warning to us, however we managed to stop the bike after we thought we may just go hurtling into the oblivion of the jungle from the hill’s crazy gradient. We walked down the hill and I was not
looking forward to trying to get down again!
Two days later we got a lift to a beach at the bottom of the Island called Had Rin for the New Year’s Party. Had Rin is a beach made famous for its Full Moon Parties which began in the 80’s by a group of backpackers. There were over 30 000 people who attended the beach party complete with fire dancers, towering fire signs saying ‘Welcome to Thailand’, luminous multi-coloured paint and skipping ropes. These skipping ropes were quiet something to watch! They are 6 or 7 meter ropes that have been dipped in petrol and lit…yes, lit – so it’s on fire! Two Thai guys each stand on a platform and swing this rope for skipping. Crowds (that have to be intoxicated both with drugs and drink – I’m sure) run and jump this rope of fire. I think it’s a true case of Dutch courage! We were amused for hours and the funny part is that as the fire began to burn out – the more people that jumped the rope!
For a lot of the night we ‘people watched’ as we would only be collected at 6am – and of course – no taxi would take us there. So, we were glad that we went and experienced this crazy party, we were offered drugs and saw some extremely promiscuous things going on in public – we even saw a guy in a Borat costume wondering aimlessly around the beach! However, my absolute highlight was in the wee hours of the morning. In Thailand, there is a well-known saying, “Mai pen rai” which loosely translates to “No worries” or “Never mind” and it gets used a lot! So as people were wearily making their way up the beach after a long night of partying, they were being inundated with offers for taxis. However, the taxi drivers had also had a long night, so they were offering taxis in an uncharacteristically lethargic manner. So when they got no response from the tourists for rides in their taxis, they’d respond in turn with “Mai pen rai”. One chap reached the top of the beach with several “Mai pen rai’s” and turned to his still very drunken friend and said. “Dude, I wanna go to Mai pen rai! Everyone’s talking about it!” I collapsed in a heap of laughter!
Before Nolan came here, he asked me if there was anything that he could bring for me from South Africa, I asked him for the thing that I missed most after my loved ones, South African wine! Wine is incredibly expensive here and he treated me to a bottle of Nederburg which we enjoyed on the beach. I believe it was around this time that Nolan began talk of getting into politics to become president. This, as you can imagine sent me into fits of laughter and I told him the only thing he could be president of was Ko Phan Gan. He agreed to this position and decided that as soon as everyone arrived on the island by ferry they would have to jump a rope of fire before they were allowed on! Later that evening we enjoyed our dinner at a neighbouring resort, Smile bungalows which had a wonderful relaxed atmosphere with cushions and coffee tables to recline at. After dinner we played a game of chess which I lost horribly at. After dinner Nolan wanted to set his ‘Wish balloon’ off. Nolan had been intrigued watching a young girl set her Wish balloon off at the New Years eve party and she had put on a display of pure innocent joy and hope after having much difficulty getting the balloon to go off that he’d decided that he had to let one off before he left. I think it was probably THE windiest night we were there, we had severe difficulty lighting this balloon but somehow managed to light it and by some miracle it managed to miss the trees and the bungalows lining the beach and set off into the night. So, thankfully, the president of Ko Phan Gan got to set his wish balloon off without burning down the island.
We departed Ko Phan Gan on January 2nd, with the Red Dragon loaded with all our bags and boarded our boat to Surat Thani. From Surat Thani we were headed onto an overloaded bus and driven to this place…I have no idea how to describe it – the middle of nowhere doesn’t even do it justice…it was like this thatched shelter on an empty field-like space with a bunch of electrical towers, busses and Tuk-tuks. We went over to the counter where we had to ‘reconfirm our tickets’ these sorts of things always make me nervous! We were soon packed up in a Tuk-tuk with our luggage packed onto the roof (SA Taxi style!) and shipped off to another spot in the middle of nowhere, where we arrived at around 4pm. Funnily enough these places all have restaurants – what makes you think this is a family business…? As is so typical in Thailand we were told to sit down, relax, have something to eat and when we asked when our bus would collect us we were told “Soon”. Yeah right! We landed up waiting three hours before we left. The tour company was trying to get two guys to pay an additional 300 Baht for his ticket to Phuket that he’d already paid for, when he refused to he yelled at him “Give me your money, you stupid man!”. So tempers were running thin before we left and our trip back wasn’t pleasant. We drove around Surat Thani for the sum total of one hour – we visited the garage to fill up – fair enough, another bus terminal where the driver chatted to a friend there and filled out some paper work, a seven-eleven to get a drink and one or two other places I can’t remember but I was ready to lose it as we’d been travelling since 9am that morning. We had someone get sick on the bus – probably due to the awful jerky driving and we had two very close encounters on the roads. We arrived back at around 1am after even further delays, a guy singing along to his guitar in the middle of nowhere “Welcome to Phuket” – it was SO good to finally be home!
For Nolan’s last day here, I took him to Karon beach, where we probably got our first day of sun since Krabi and enjoyed another Thai massage – I told you he was addicted! That evening, I took him to the Phuket Night market that I’ve told you about before and he went nothing short of stark raving mad! He couldn’t believe the cheapness of the clothes and did all his shopping for his family and himself there. The following day he had to leave as I began work the following day but I found it very interesting listening to the things he’d picked up on that I’d clearly become accustomed to without realizing it, for example, the numerous tattoos around, he said it smelt different from SA and he was of course crazy about the food – by this stage – I feel like I don’t want to see another grain of rice or noodle in my life! It was great to have a piece of home here for Christmas and New Year and I think the thing I enjoyed the most was not having to think and do everything for myself – the trouble of taxis, tickets and accommodation was halved and, of course, the company was great.