We had a very short night in Kuala Lumpur on the way back from Tioman Island, with a lot less sleep than we anticipated (because of the much longer than expected bus ride), and continued on to the airport in the morning with a short flight north to Surat Thani in Southern Thailand, and finally on to Ko Samui. All in all, we took a car, a boat, a bus, a train, another train, a plane, a bus, a boat, followed by one more car to get from Tioman to Ko Samui in about a 36 hour period. Far too exhausting. Not to mention, we were both coming down with a cold at the time, so this was only exacerbating things.
The Chumphon Archipelago was not initially in our plans at all, but because Oona’s friend (and a friend of hers) was visiting the area on holiday from Finland, and it was a short hop from where we were, we figured we’d take a bit of a holiday from backpacking as well. Plus, Oona had never been to this part of Thailand, but has been to many of the other parts, so why not? We showed up just in time to celebrate Oona’s birthday, and hanging out with friends was a nice change of pace.
We finally showed up to the Airbnb place that we booked –far more lavish than our usual digs, but still surprisingly affordable split four ways– and were greeted by our friends, sunbathing by the pool.
We spent five days on Ko Samui, and spent most of our time relaxing. We rented some scooters from a shop down the street for a pittance (150฿, a little over $4 per day), and the four of us piled onto two of them for our transport around the island.
We ended up spending much time in Fisherman’s Village, not far from our accommodation, and ate and drank there on several occasions as well as perusing the night market on Monday. It rained torrentially for all the days we were on the island though, which made planning a bit difficult. There was a relatively permanent ~10cm deep puddle in the road to our accommodation, which we had to ford in the scooters dozens of times.
We also knew that Ian’s long lost uncle lives on Ko Samui, so we ventured to get in touch with him to catch up a bit. He’s not truly long lost, but he moved to Thailand almost five years ago, and nobody has seen or heard from him much since then. After a lot of shouted misunderstandings over a choppy cell connection we managed to make a rough plan, which inadvertently involved him and his girlfriend showing up while we were eating dinner at a somewhat fancy restaurant. We managed to stave them off for several minutes while we signed the check and met them at a bar down the street. We wished not to subject Oona’s friends to two hours of family-specific banter, so they wisely booked a massage for the same time. Everything has been good, as it turns out, and we discussed the happenings of the past five years over a couple beers and bade farewell.
The day before we left Ko Samui we made it a point to visit the Na Muang waterfalls. We were finally overcoming our colds, so we decided to hike all the way to the swimming pools at the top of the trail. It was some 1.7km up the trail, and quite a bit of elevation gain for such a short trail, coupled with the extreme heat and humidity, we were pouring sweat by the time we got to the top. There was a nice swimming spot in the river nestled into the rocks awaiting us though, so we promptly jumped in. The water was a bit murky, so we couldn’t see the bottom, but it was surprisingly quite far down there, and after an initial investigation, we were free to cannonball into the middle. On no such cannonball did any of us come close to feeling the bottom, so we’re not sure how far down it actually goes.
Unfortunately, we did not get under way in time, and the rain started coming down in sheets as we were on our way home. We couldn’t see anything at all with the rain lashing against our faces, so we pulled off at a small awning –with another handful of scooter drivers– to wait it out. It eventually let up a bit, but driving a scooter through anything more than very light rain is pretty miserable, so we ended up soaked to the bone, with reddened skin from the constant battering.
The next day we set off for the ferry terminal, and caught a boat over to the neighboring island of Ko Pha-Ngan.
Transport from the ferry terminal is downright extortionate, with shared vans and taxis charging 300฿ per person (more than $8.5!) for a ride across the island. With all our bags, we couldn’t really pile onto two scooters, but Oona’s friends ended up hopping in a shared van while Oona and Ian picked up the scooters near the port (since we’d be leaving from there anyway). After a fairly long ride across the island, on a nice, new highway to boot, we made it to our place, just outside of Thong Nai Pan.
Our new place was lovely, it was right up in the hills outside of Thong Nai Pan, and a short walk to the beach and town below. The town was just touristy enough to have the familiar amenities, but it was surprisingly relaxed, with a good amount of locals and foreigners walking up and down the main street. We identified a juice stand on the first day which we frequented on a regular basis thereafter, it was pretty amazing.
Again, our time on Ko Pha-Ngan was characterized by the mundane. We’d visit the juice shop, the girls would get massages, we’d walk down the beach, and we’d ponder what we were going to eat for our next meal.
Oona and Ian went diving one day, and Oona’s friends joined on the boat for a bit of snorkeling. It turns out that Ian is actually a certified diver, by mandate of ANMP (some relatively unknown French dive certification company), and with enough badgering and supplementing of paperwork, the dive shop recognized it and let him join for the normal fun dive price. The dives were pretty low visibility, and when you could see more than five meters, all you could see was either a giant whale shark gliding by or a dozen other divers trying to get a picture of said whale shark. The whale sharks were certainly beautiful and majestic, but the setting, replete with dozens of other dive boats, was less than ideal. On the second dive we got the rare chance of swimming alongside a whale shark, which was certainly an experience worth remembering. There happened to be a Greenlander on the dive boat with us, which we concluded is an extremely rare occurrence. Ian talked with him of his time in Greenland, and we reiterated the fact that we would love to visit his land again, in particular, the west coast, where he was from. Finally, Ian showed his tattoo in Greenlandic, much to the total discombobulation of their new friend, who insisted on taking a picture of it, for such a story would surely be unbelievable to his friends back home.
We spent another day exploring the island by scooter. We visited a handful of other beaches around the island, and concluded with relative certainty that our beach, in Thong Nai Pan, was the best on the island. The others were strewn with plastic bottles and comprised mostly of coral or an extremely shallow bank stretching for a hundred or so meters out into the water. At any rate, we thumbed our noses at the second rate beaches, jaded from our frolicking on some of the world’s best in the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, and that’s not including Samoa or the Maldives. Oh, and we forgot about Fiji and Okinawa too. OK, we’ve been to some pretty spectacular beaches, to the point of not even including Hawaii or Indonesia in our list of best beaches. Anyway, we weren’t super impressed, but our local beach at Thong Nai Pan was definitely the best we had seen on the island.
One particularly auspicious night happened to be the half moon. Now, we’re well aware that half moons happen twice a month. When added to the already present full moon parties for which the island is well-known, the per month party count is at least three, which we feel devalues the idea of the party at least a bit. We’re pretty sure the half moon parties just began as an excuse to party more, but whatever the case, the half moon spurred a bit of restlessness in us, and the girls ended up heading down to Haad Rin for some drinks. They avoided the half moon party itself, as they weren’t interested in that intense of a party, and instead opted for the more relaxed surroundings of a nearby beach bar. Drinks and a good time were had, but they turned in long before the half moon party wound to an end.
After a good five days of mostly relaxing, with a bit of scooter riding and diving on the side, we headed back to the port on the south side of the island for our trip to Ko Tao, our third and final island to visit in the Samui Archipelago.
We knew immediately when we got to shore in Ko Tao that it wouldn’t be our favorite. The throngs of other tourists, all rushing out onto the tiny street, were a pretty good indicator, as were the other telltale signs of overwhelming tourism like the constant stench of sewage and the countless touts and merchants shouting for your attention in shockingly proficient English, interspersed with words or even entire sentences in the language of the country that they’re guessing you’re from.
We followed our hotel pickup down the street, which was surely populated by more westerners than locals, and eventually arrived at a packed parking lot, replete with double parked trucks, all at the pier picking up their newly-arrived guests. We were stuck behind a parked truck for 10 minutes or so until the driver came with his catch. We sped off down the main street, past craft beer bar and nightclub and western breakfast spot, eventually arriving at our hotel. Our hotel was mercifully isolated, despite being just next to a main intersection, largely thanks to the big interior courtyard/garden. Either way, we were glad that we had only booked five nights.
Our time was mostly spent around Sairee Beach, which was surely our first mistake. Had we gone farther out, we probably could have gotten a taste for the idyllic Ko Tao that people often rave about. But we were pretty over it all, and had little motivation to do so. Ian was planning on getting his PADI OWD certification while here, so we concluded that we’d spend most of our time underwater anyway, paying little attention to the atrocities back on shore.
After surveying the huge multitude of dive shops (there are more than 80 on the island, which is little more than 20km²), we settled on one that seemed good enough, with an attractive price tag. The diving here, while unspectacular compared to French Polynesia and Indonesia, is some of the cheapest in the world, so it’s not a bad place to get certified. This is probably the reason that foreigners from all over the world flock here to do so, and it’s also the reason that navigating the dive sites is reminiscent of walking down a crowded street in Shanghai. As it turns out, the diving that Ian did in Rangiroa did certify him at the basic ANMP (a French diving certification organization) level. This meant that he could go straight for his PADI (much more widely-recognized than ANMP) Advanced Open Water Diver certification, allowing him to inch closer to the depths that Oona is certified to, and indeed making diving in the future easier for both of us.
So there it was, we spent a lot of time at the dive shop and on the dive boat, and also under water, and after a few days of doing this Ian was a newly-certified AOWD, and Oona notched yet more dives to her already 100+ tally. On our way to and from the dive shop, we avoided the invitations into bars and nightclubs; the offers of free shots doing little for us. Perhaps the pinnacle of feeling out of our element was when a young, well-groomed western guy approached us outside the Seven Eleven –flyers for some night club in hand–, he asked if we were going out tonight. We responded with a fairly resolute “nah”. He looked dazed –utter bewilderment at our response– hardly able to croak out a “why not?” At this point, there was nothing we could do to salvage the correspondence; we concluded that we simply occupied different worlds. we stepped over a creek of sewage flowing across the road as we headed back to our hotel.
Of the three islands that we visited, Ko Pha-Ngan was the clear favorite. Getting away from tourism in the Thailand of today is a difficult task, and nearly impossible in the southern islands, but Ko Pha-Ngan (especially the north side) offered a degree of solitude in addition to the luxuries of well-touristed places.
It was eventually time to say goodbye, and we headed back to the mainland by ferry. We parted ways with our friends from Finland, with them heading north towards Bangkok and us heading south towards Ranong. It was amazing how quickly we got off the tourist trail (the vast majority of people getting off the ferry were following transport in a northerly direction), the woman ushering people this way or that motioned us in the direction of a waiting van. We piled in, along with a handful of locals, and were on our way to Chumphon. Eventually, the driver dropped us off on a random side street in Chumphon, behind another waiting van, “Ranong!”, he said, pointing to the other van. We bought tickets from the makeshift office in one of the storefronts, and left several minutes later.
After a few hours in the van, we made it to Ranong, right on the border with Burma, and set off to find our hotel for the night. We walked through the town, which was extremely quiet, nary an open storefront in sight, with only the occasional motorbike roaring by. We pondered what could be the occasion, but couldn’t figure it out. Ramadan had started only a few days prior, but we didn’t think there were that many muslims here.
We had a booking at the Luang Poj Boutique Hostel, but you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of the lady at the front desk. Her very limited English was another sign that we were not in a heavily-touristed section of Thailand any more. We eventually conveyed our point, and she showed us to our room, which was evidently the only occupied one in the whole building.
We went out to explore the town a bit later, this time a young man was at the front desk. As we were leaving he called us over and showed his computer desktop, Google Translate was open with a sentence from Thai reading “The hotel closes at 10:30.”
The town is a bit of a paradox, with a main street of sorts with a handful of super hip looking bars and restaurants. Most of these places sat nearly empty with the exception of a live musician and the staff hanging around waiting for something to happen. We visited one such establishment, joining a crooning guitarist and one other occupied table. A beer bar of sorts, we ordered a couple bottles of craft beer from local(ish) breweries. To finish it off, we ordered a laab salad and panang curry-like affair. No question in advance of how spicy we would like it, which we had become accustomed to answering on the islands –another indicator that few tourists visit this place. The food came, and was extraordinarily spicy. This is coming from people who have a fairly high threshold for that sort of thing, too. By the end of it, fluid was running from all facial orifices, our red faces and sweaty palms demanded several more bottles of water. The food was fantastic, and the euphoric after-effects were relaxing, but the process itself was a bit challenging.
Nevertheless, we were quite taken with Ranong. It was a lovely town, and a wonderful respite from the crowded Ko Tao. The locals were happy again, and they were interested and friendly. People would randomly stop on their bikes to say hi and ask where we were from, the kids would smile and wave and say whatever English words they knew.
The following morning we headed down to the pier to make our way to Burma. We stopped off at the immigration desk next to the jetty and got our passports stamped out of Thailand. A handful of long tail drivers called out to us, trying to get us to pay for the whole boat and leave immediately. Many offered 500฿, we insisted on 100฿ per person (assuming this would be in a boat with other people). A driver finally conceded, but drove us across alone, so apparently we got the whole boat for 200฿.
The long tail sputtered its way to life, and we joined the throngs of boats already plying the muddy waterway. We cruised among them for a period, and eventually came to a building on an island of sorts where we were to hand in copies of our passports (be sure to bring a copy with you). After a brief wait, we were underway again. After the largest section of the crossing, we came to another building on another island of sorts, this time we were told to put our life jackets on. As we approached, the various long tail drivers slowed and held up their fingers, indicating how many passengers they had aboard. We were evidently not required to stop.
We approached a third building on a third island, but the very unofficial looking occupants waved us on, with a hand motion resembling a passport stamp. We finally arrived on the Burmese side, palpably different from Thailand from the outset. We made our way to the immigration office at the end of the pier and were released out into the bustling streets of Kawthaung.