A Travellerspoint blog

All Aboard the Mystery Bus...

Bangkok bound

sunny 33 °C

15th February 2011

On a trip like ours there is always something to worry about. The worries can range from personal safety or leaving valuables in the room (especially when the hotel proprietors warn you not to!) to being on time for a flight or a tour. Usually, thankfully, the worry is unfounded, but, obviously, you don’t know that at the time. That constant, nagging voice in the back of your head telling you that you should not have done that makes you very uneasy and you think of little else until the outcome, good or bad, becomes apparent. Today we listened to someone’s instructions and acted on them without a second thought. Only when it was too late did we think about the possible consequences of our actions ...

Our final breakfast with George and Lyn was, as usual, at 9am. It was yet another beautiful, sun-filled morning sky as we ate our last decent breakfast for some while! Cannot imagine any hostel in Bangkok will be cooking up a feast like this in the mornings...! We had much to do, so, immediately after breakfast, we walked down the road in the incredible heat to book a taxi to take us to the Nathon ferry port at 12:45pm and while there availed ourselves of the nearby internet bar to book somewhere to stay in Bangkok. The office was like a sauna, devoid of air conditioning but had a very clever fan that just managed to rearrange the hot, stifling air in different places on your body without actually cooling any of it down! Lyn brought in some welcome cans of cold soft drink for us and we booked pretty much the first place we came to on the internet just so we could get out of there! Job done we walked the hill for the last time back to the hotel and told Lyn and George we would meet them at the bar after we’d packed the last of our things, checked the room and paid up. As we had originally booked and paid for five days here and had extended our stay to eight, we expected a fairly large bill. We also expected some bell boys to come and collect our bags but were disappointed when none arrived so had to carry our things up the many steps and steep slopes to the reception building, the reception staff horrified that we had to do so! We asked to check out and sat in front of the reception desk while one of the staff picked up a phone and dialled a number, muttering something like having to check the room (presumably so they didn’t miss out on making a profit in case we’d hit the mini bar!). We waited and waited and in the end told them we’d rather be spending our last minutes with Jen’s Mum and Dad than sitting waiting for the bill to be finalised so we walked down to the bar to find George and Lyn playing Jenga. We told them what had happened in the reception and Lyn looked at us disbelievingly and said to George “They’re just kidding”. We didn’t really understand what that meant so reiterated what we’d just said. Lyn looked at us and said “But we paid your bill for you this morning....”!! We were completely taken aback and just couldn’t believe what they had done! We didn’t know what to say, but it was now obvious to us why the reception staff were sandbagging! They clearly didn’t know whether or not to tell us! We spent the next half an hour playing dominoes and expressing our gratitude in equal measure until that time came when we would be saying goodbye not only to Paradise, but to George and Lyn once more, a moment that Jen had been dreading ever since greeting her Mum and Dad seven days earlier! We trudged back up to reception for the last time and waited for our taxi to arrive. It was late. Our ferry tickets had been pre-booked and paid for along with our train tickets and the ferry would be departing at 2pm, so we really did not want to be late! The sound of a car door closing had us standing up and Stew walked over to the driver now making his way up the steps, and asked if he was our taxi. The man said he was so Stew started piling our bags into the car while Jen started the tearful farewells. No sooner had he finished and said his goodbyes, Stew turned round to find our real taxi driver, whom we had spoken to earlier, pulling up behind the car our bags were sitting in, with a confused expression on her face that clearly matched our own! The car we had stowed our luggage in was indeed a taxi - just not ours! So we emptied it of our belongings and moved them to our bigger, much nicer vehicle! After a final round of goodbyes and thanks, we were whisked away to the ferry port where we found our ticket agent, handed him the receipt stating we had bought and paid for two ferry tickets to Donsak and two bus tickets to Suratthani train station and we watched as he muttered something and jumped on his scooter and disappeared! We were completely bemused and all sorts of things went through our minds! Thirty seconds later, however, he reappeared with a woman in tow and she walked over to us with tickets in hand. It was still some time before we were due to board the ferry so we sat for a little while until a big blue and white bus chugged past and the same woman who had given us our tickets beckoned to Jen, walked with her onto the pavement and explained that the bus that had just gone by was the one we needed to get on for the rest of the trip to Suratthani train station. Grabbing our things and hoisting them onto our backs, we started walking after the bus which was now on the move again. It stopped in a small parking area and we watched as passengers disembarked and a couple of Asian guys walking in front of us said something to the driver and he opened the rear of the bus for them to stow their luggage. The driver was standing in the doorway of the bus when we got to him and Stew asked him if this was indeed the bus to Phun Phin. He was greeted with a loud grunt and a hand signal that he didn’t understand! After asking again, Stew received a louder grunt and the same hand signal. Red rag to a bull.... After quite a few choice words from Stew which the driver clearly didn’t understand (probably a good job too!) the boot was opened for us and we placed our bags inside. After a few more grunts and some more kind words from Stew we made our way to the ferry and boarded. Taking a seat downstairs we sat talking and it slowly dawned on us that we had just left everything we owned on a bus heading for goodness knows where, simply on the word of a woman with really bad English! Worse still, we hadn’t even seen the bus drive onto the boat! Doubts crept in and in no time at all we were worried sick and on our way! We tried to allay one another’s fears by saying we were sure things would be ok, but deep down neither of us believed the other! To make us feel a little better we went up to the sun deck to watch Koh Samui shrinking behind us. Hanging over the back, Stew spied some cars a couple of floors below and decided he had to make sure the bus drove on! Going down a couple of floors he found the car deck and started walking between cars and trucks and vans before spying a similar bus in the far corner. He couldn’t be one hundred percent sure it was the one, but it gave him hope nonetheless! Buoyed by this he bought a cold drink on his way back up to Jen and gave her the reasonably good news!
An hour and half later we were walking down the gangway from the ferry keeping our eyes peeled for the bus that had all our belongings on it. Cars, trucks and vans streamed off and past us as we trudged onwards towards the exit gate, but we could not see the bus. We got more and more worried with each passing vehicle and our hearts sank when the last of them went by. We looked at one another and just did not know what we were going to do when the bus Stew had spotted suddenly appeared! Relief filled us – and then drained away just as quickly as the bus drove past us and kept going! We quickened our pace to a trot to try and keep the damn thing in sight as it passed buildings and turned corners out of view. We rounded a bend to see it suddenly slow to a halt about two hundred yards ahead of us! Determined not to let it get away we ran the rest of the distance and climbed on board panting with relief! The next hurdle was to make sure the bus was going to the correct destination and that meant having to try and talk to the grunting, miserable, sour-faced driver! Thankfully, though, he found us first and motioned to us to show him our tickets. Finally we could relax as he handed them back with a nod and shuffled off to bully someone else! The relief was immense and now all we had to think about was where to get off the bus at the other end...
The journey itself was uneventful and the scenery was a lovely distraction as we raced through small towns and pretty little villages on the way to the first stop of two – Suratthani – which we reached after around an hour of travelling. Thankfully we had done some research on the internet and, although the train station we needed was called Suratthani Railway Station it was actually around 30km from Suratthani, in a town called Phun Phin! A group of young travellers (either Swedish or German!) started grabbing their bags and filing off the bus, and Stew heard one of them mutter something about the train station. He mentioned to one of the group that the station itself wasn’t here but in Phun Phin and she told her fellow travellers the news. They all filed back on the bus and sat down again looking bemused and, as the bus pulled away once more, Stew began to wonder whether his information was correct and, if not, whether his death at the other end was to be quick or painful....!! He spent the rest of the journey hoping we’d done the right thing and the burden of being bludgeoned to death by a group of annoyed backpackers was lifted when we pulled up outside the small railway station another forty or so minutes later at around 17:30. Our train was sitting there waiting for us so we decided we’d waste no time in boarding it and finding our seats. We were quite surprised to find that, to get to our platform, we had to actually cross two sets of tracks! There aren’t any bridges there! Once safely ensconced on our train we opted to rig our bags with our lockable backpack covers so that we could padlock them to the luggage rack – we had already watched our luggage disappearing before our eyes once today, and we were determined not to have a repeat performance! The covers took a little while to put on (Jen is expert at this!) and Stew ran across the tracks once more to get some goodies for the long overnight trip ahead, returning with a booty of chocolate, crisps, biscuits and water. We were joined in the carriage by a couple of german surfer dudes grunged up to their peaked caps and they had trouble stowing their wakeboard as it was so big, but they managed to balance it (somewhat precariously) between their bags somehow. Soon we heard the whistle blow and the train clunked, creaked and groaned into motion and we were soon rocking our way towards Bangkok. To ease the boredom of the trip we pulled out our laptop and started watching some programmes we had downloaded earlier on our travels and it wasn’t too long before the guard was coming along pulling all the beds down and handing out the sheets, pillows and blankets. The beds were surprisingly big for a train bunk and we both lay together (somewhat awkwardly admittedly!) and watched some more TV before the laptop battery was as exhausted as us! Stew clambered across the gangway into his own bed and we both attempted sleeping while the rush of the outside world and the clickety clack of the track filled our heads. Sleep did not come at all easy.

Posted by StewnJen 07:39 Archived in Thailand Comments (3)

Paradise Found

on beautiful koh samui

sunny 30 °C

7th February 2011

It was here. At long last, it was here. The day Jen had been waiting for had finally arrived. We were off to a place in Thailand where we had never been before, but had heard a lot about from friends who had holidayed there – Koh Samui. It is a small island just off the east coast of Thailand and is part of an area called Suratthani. But it wasn’t only the fact that we were off to sun-drenched, blue-skied, golden beached Koh Samui that had Jen so excited....

Jen was awake even before the 6:30am alarm sounded and she bounded out of bed as soon as the first shrill notes filled the early morning air. Our flight was at 9:45 and we were in our taxi and on our way at 7:30am, one of the workers at the guest house we had been staying in doubling as our driver! It was a fair trek to the airport and we arrived around 40 minutes later. There were no dramas at the airport and the flight was only an hour long with nothing of note happening. We did, however, spend the flight discussing what we were going to do once we had reached the hotel. We landed at the cute Koh Samui airport just before 11am, collected our luggage and walked the long walk to the taxi station where we were allocated a nine seater minivan for the two of us, with a female driver!
We arrived at our hotel, the Centara Villas, just before noon and were very pleasantly surprised by the open plan reception building and the warm welcome we received. We downed our welcome drinks and tried very hard to concentrate on what we were being told but it was difficult in the circumstances...
In the end we asked if we could just go to our room and were soon winding a labyrinthine path down steps and under arches, crossing bridges and down more steps to our wooden chalet style detached room. It was a lovely room and our luggage arrived soon after with two young guys sweating profusely in the heat of the day carrying our bags. I tell you, these youngsters just can’t cut it...! Having been shown the various items in the room we were left to our own devices so grabbed our cameras and went in search of what we had come for...
The place was enormous and it was very easy to get lost in there! Built on a steep hill, there were lots of steps down to the beach and we passed 3 large swimming pools on our way down. Finding room 346 empty, though, we decided the only place left was the beach and so followed the signs down and through the bar area. Sure enough there they were, the silver grey beacon revealing their whereabouts! We had sent Jen’s Mum and Dad, George and Lin, on holiday both as a 60th Birthday gift for George and also as a thank you to them both for lending us so much support for our trip, including giving us the use of an entire bedroom and half their attic space for us to store everything we own! And here they were, but they didn’t know we were coming to meet them... We could see George’s silver hair as he relaxed on his sunbed, with Lin fast asleep on her bed next to him. We crept over and Stew started the video camera rolling as Jen went to surprise her Dad. Stew bent down and kissed Lin’s forehead and she slowly woke, so he waved to her and she just waved back as though it was the most normal thing in the world to have a complete stranger stick a video camera in your face and wave at you! It took a while for her to recognise Jen and they were soon hugging one another as the penny finally dropped. It was a lovely moment, one Stew managed to miss with his useless video filming! We all retired to the bar for a celebratory cold drink and sat chatting for a long while. It didn’t take us very long to get into the swing of doing absolutely nothing but lying on the sundrenched sand, enjoying our idyllic surroundings and being in the company of familiar faces!

8th February – 14th February 2011

Spending the last seven days in the company of Lin and George and recharging our body batteries on the beautiful island of Koh Samui has been wonderful, and we have thoroughly enjoyed every waking minute. Every morning we would meet them at 9am for a large, delicious breakfast and watch in a kind of disgusted awe as Jen devoured a huge bowl full of strawberry yoghurt and then wash down her eggs with a glass of cold chocolate milk! After filling our ever growing bellies, we would spend our days going for long walks along the golden sands and climbing the rocks nearby, or playing football in the sea or snorkel in the clear waters.

The golden beach outside our hotel in Koh Samui

The golden beach outside our hotel in Koh Samui

A Koh Samui sunset - a thing of real beauty!

A Koh Samui sunset - a thing of real beauty!

When that felt too much like hard work we would lay on our sunbeds soaking up the sun while chatting or listening to music. We also found time to play lots of games together including jenga and dominoes at the poolside bar or boules and badminton on the beach. At around six o’clock we would all head back to our rooms to get ready for our buffet style dinner. The food was excellent with plenty of dishes to choose from. On a number of nights we were serenaded by two musicians playing guitars and singing. They were always well received even though, at times, it sounded as though they were strangling a cat! We had a couple of themed nights which included a traditional Thai dancing show with the dancers dressed up in their colourful silk costumes together with the musicians playing drums and traditional instruments. On Valentine’s night we had dinner sitting on huge, red cushions placed directly on the sand around a small table. It was lovely sitting on the beach in the balmy night air with the brilliant stars above us while being serenaded by the local duo and the waves against the shore! It really was quite surreal! It didn’t take us very long at all to find a good local bar where we could go and play a game of pool or sit together and play cards while listening to some good music and drinking cheap beer! This became our regular haunt and we spent most of our evenings here, the only problems being the sheer number of annoying mozzies and the steep hill we had to climb when walking back to the hotel in the pitch black! One night, after sinking a few balls and beers, we walked in the black of night to the supermarket up the road, about a twenty minute walk away, with Lin and Jen extremely paranoid about the local stray dogs everywhere, a few of which decided to bark and snarl at us as we walked by them. Jen’s first reaction was to push Stew in front of the dogs, an act of great courage on her part! After reloading our wallets from the supermarket ATM we ran the gauntlet of angry dogs once more, Jen taking no chances this time and picking up a rock just in case! We got a few more barks and snarls but nothing more and made it back unscathed.
But it wasn’t all lazing around, however! One day we decided to take the hotel shuttle bus (for a small charge of course!) to the nearby beach town of Chaweng to look around the shops and while we were there we booked a boat trip to the Angthong National Marine Park for the day after next. After a little spot of shopping and stopping off for a huge milkshake each, we met the shuttle bus at the sister hotel to ours and drove back just in time for dinner. As the beer prices at this hotel were ridiculously expensive, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the supermarket the next day and stock up with some cans of cheap beer and some nibbles and have a card night at Stew and Jen’s place in the evening. This would not only keep the cost down but make sure we got an early night in readiness for our boat trip in the morning as we were being picked up at 8am outside the hotel.
We were a little unlucky with the weather on the morning of our boat trip as it was grey and overcast, but it was still extremely hot and we were very thankful of the air conditioning in the comfortable minibus that came to pick us up. We were a little disappointed when we first saw our boat as it was much larger than we had anticipated, and there were lots of people on board. A photographer snapped us as we stepped on board, and we grabbed ourselves a free coffee and croissant each and sat down on one of the available bench seats. More and more people came aboard and it was a while before the boat was set on its way. Our first stop was to be the Viewpoint, a small island with a stunning view across the bay and a turquoise lagoon that backed onto the island. After a lengthy and arduous climb up many steep and precarious metal and wooden steps that resembled poor scaffolding, we were rewarded with some breathtaking vistas of limestone karsts jutting out of the sea and the emerald waters of the lagoon. As it was such a grey, overcast day the views were a little less spectacular but beautiful nonetheless. Lin wasn’t overly impressed with the climb up or down but she made it, her preferred choice of descent being backwards and on all fours, much to our amusement! Once safely back on sand, we were herded onto a small landing craft and taken back to our boat before sailing to a beautiful sandy beach to squeeze into some two-person kayaks – Jen and Stew in one and Lin and George in another. We raced each other round the limestone rocks that jutted out of the sea, George complaining that he had to do the work of two people! Once we had got our breaths back we had a half hour of snorkelling in the murky waters before we showered ourselves off and went for a stroll around the park until it was time to clamber back aboard the landing craft and make the short journey back to our mother ship for a buffet lunch. The sail back was even more enjoyable than the morning one with the sun now out and temperatures back to roasting normality. Jen and Lin found a good seat on top of a huge ice box where they were able to dangle their legs over the side of the boat and natter all the way back! Some of the other passengers followed suit and sat on the side with their feet dangling over the edge too. Disembarking from the boat, we all filed past a table of ceramic plates that had been erected on the quay. In the centre of the plates were the somewhat startled faces of the passengers, including ours, from the morning’s photographs taken as we stepped aboard! We decided they hadn’t got our best sides so gave them a miss! All in all it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable trip.

Our boat and the bay from the Lookout in Angthong National Park

Our boat and the bay from the Lookout in Angthong National Park

The Angthong National Marine Park

The Angthong National Marine Park

The emerald green lagoon of Angthong National Marine Park

The emerald green lagoon of Angthong National Marine Park

Kayaks on the Angthong National Marine Park beach

Kayaks on the Angthong National Marine Park beach

A fishing boat silhouetted against the diamond seas near Angthong

A fishing boat silhouetted against the diamond seas near Angthong

We also hired a car for one of the days and paid a visit to the Big Buddha, a massive golden Buddha image that can be seen from miles away. We had chosen another red hot day for our drive and were extremely thankful for the air conditioning in the brand new, unused car we had just picked up. It didn’t take very long for us to get there as the island is very small and we found a spot to park the car (not really knowing if we could park there or not!) and walked the short distance to the base of the massive structure. The first thing we came to was a row of shops and we visited a few of them before entering the monastery area where we walked around the base of the statue taking photographs of the monastic buildings and some smaller statues and watched an orange-robed monk carefully restoring a Buddha image with gold paint. We started the climb up the steps to the massive statue and were thankfully spared the bare feet rule as the pavement was too hot to walk on. Once at the top we took some photos of the Buddha, the surrounding bay and each other before finally succumbing to the heat and taking refuge in a nearby cafe at the bottom of the steps.

The huge, golden Big Buddha statue on Koh Samui

The huge, golden Big Buddha statue on Koh Samui

Say BIG BUDDHA !!

Say BIG BUDDHA !!

After a final few snaps and quick visits into shops we were back in the car (which hadn’t been towed away!) and went in search of Waterfall Number 2 (yes, that is what the road signs say!), a less than impressive waterfall that appears to be completely manmade! We really shouldn’t have bothered! It was not particularly nice to look at, but was a popular place for youngsters with some of them using the pools as baths, lathering their hair, bodies and the rock they were sitting on and then using the flat rocks as water slides! It looked painful as they slid down them on their feet and backsides before hitting the water with a slap! George and Stew climbed the rocks as far as it was possible to go, up to the source of the falls, before climbing over the wall and walking back through a nearby temple and monastery, with Stew making a new furry friend on the way! While Stew snapped away at his new found buddy, George, Lin and Jen watched the locals feeding the massive numbers of huge catfish in the river at the base of the waterfall.

The Monastery next to Waterfall Number 2 !!

The Monastery next to Waterfall Number 2 !!

Now, will he squeeze into my backpack.....?!!

Now, will he squeeze into my backpack.....?!!

We decided that while we had the use of a car, it would be a good idea to drive back into town and book our train tickets for our onward journey to Bangkok in a couple of days time so hit the road once more, parked up and found a travel agency. With tickets on order, we headed back to our hotel for a later than usual dinner.

Posted by StewnJen 11:52 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

You put your Backpack in, your Backpack out...

There is always someone worse off than you!!

sunny 30 °C

5th February 2011

Right back where we started! Our cynicism returns twofold as we hit Phuket. Maybe for every act of decency and compassion there is a corresponding act of impiety and badness...

Stew woke with a start in the early hours of the morning with a sudden thought that came from nowhere! We are now in a different country and was there a time difference between Thailand and Malaysia?! He woke Jen in his sudden panic and we turned on the TV looking for a local news channel that would give us the answer. Unable to find anything, Stew pulled on his clothes and went downstairs to reception to get the time! Creeping through the dark and silent lobby, he could see nobody around until he found a sleeping figure tucked up on an uncomfortable looking chair covered in a blanket. Obviously sensing someone was there, the figure rose suddenly and looked at Stew, clearly startled. Stew asked the time, but she didn’t know what the hell he was talking about until he pointed to his watch and she pointed to the enormous grandfather clock directly behind him! The time was a quarter past 4 in the morning, a full hour less than the quarter past five his watch was showing! Thanking the lady and apologising for waking her (she didn’t understand a word he’d said though!) he went back to bed, resetting the alarm and thankful of the extra hour sleep we had just gained!
It lasted a minute it seemed and the alarm was soon waking us for real. We showered and headed down for breakfast along with what seemed half the population of Hat Yai! The place was heaving and we struggled to find a free table at which to sit. With time not on our side, we opted for a simple breakfast of toast and jam with coffee, threw it down our necks very quickly and went to get our luggage from the room. When we got outside, our Tuk-Tuk driver was nowhere in sight! Luckily across the road was another one who was more than willing to take us to the bus station where we would need to catch a bus to Phuket about 7 hours away! We piled our stuff into his vehicle and we set off on the short journey to the terminal, and managed to find the correct berth straight away and loaded our backpacks into the luggage hold. We had just enough time to buy some all important snacks (yes, more food!) for the long, arduous, boring journey ahead before the doors were being closed, the annoying Thai music was being pumped out of the overworked speakers above our heads and the aging bus was chugging its way out of the terminal and onto the main streets of Hat Yai. The music was beginning to addle our already fuzzy brains so there was nothing else for it but to have our own music belting out to cover the noise so we both stuffed our iPod earphones into our ears and endured the trip.
When we had actually entered Phuket some 8 hours later, we were worried about where the bus would actually drop us off so Stew went to ask the driver whereabouts in relation to our hotel in Karon would the bus actually stop. The driver just gestured to him as though to say he would tell us. Not long after, we were pulling into a bus station and the driver, in his best possible English (which was almost nil) pointed to a gap ahead and said “Tuk-Tuk”! Clearly we were going no further so grabbed our luggage and trudged in the oppressive heat through the aforementioned gap and onto a small street, heading straight for the Tuk-Tuk we were pointed to! Unfortunately the driver was nowhere to be seen, but a shout from behind alerted us to a nearby taxi office and we were asked, again in very bad English, “Where you go?” Jen presented him with the address in the form of a small handwritten note which was as much use as a chocolate teapot as he couldn’t speak let alone read English! We read it out to him and there was a part of the address, the main road, which he knew but the worrying thing was that he went from person to person along the street, calling all of them “My friend” and asking them where the Jinta Andaman guest house was! We kept asking him if he knew where he was going and we got the same reply each time – Yes! It turned out to be a fair drive away, but as soon as we hit the Patak Road (the only part of the address he knew!) we were soon driving aimlessly up and down, into and out of side streets, stopping at various places while he got out and asked for directions. It became abundantly clear that he didn’t have a clue where to take us! We even got him to stop outside some establishments that offered free WiFi services just so that we could look at the email we had been sent and get the telephone number from it. Unfortunately we were unable to connect to any of them! After half an hour or so of aimless driving he began making overtures about us getting out of his car. We responded rather loudly and rudely that there was no way we were going to do that, so he made it clear that, as we couldn’t find the guest house, he was going to take us back to the taxi office! Things started getting quite heated in the car and in the end we told him to stop the car so we could get out. He did so and we removed our luggage from the boot. He stood there waiting for payment but we refused to pay. He got very angry at this and grabbed our luggage and started putting it back in the boot saying “No pay, back to office”. A comedy sketch then ensued as Stew removed the luggage from the boot, the driver put something else back in. Our bags were going in and out more times than the Hokey Cokey! Things were getting silly so in the end Stew cried enough and paid half the fare, calling him all the names under the sun as he did so! We were both so angry it wasn’t funny as we found ourselves dumped in the middle of nowhere without a clue where to go and no means of getting anywhere either! It just so happens, though, that we had been left outside a tour office so Jen went and asked the proprietor if she had an internet connection we could use to get the phone number of our guest house (something we had stupidly neglected to write down – it would not happen again!). She said she didn’t have internet access, but asked what guest house we were looking for. She hadn’t heard of it herself but phoned a friend who told exactly where it was and how to get there. Not only that but she phoned a taxi for us which arrived five minutes later and took us straight there! If we were to have been dumped, we couldn’t have been dumped in a better place, right outside someone who was not only willing to help us, but was genuinely appalled that we had been left in that position by one of her fellow countrymen. What made things even better was the fact that the guest house we had chosen was brand new and was really nice, and was run by a lovely lady who couldn’t have been more helpful.
After our evening’s ordeal we decided to go out with Jen wanting to stroll along the beach in the moonlight. We had been warned, however, that walking along the beach in Phuket at night is not a good idea as attacks on unwary tourists were not unheard of, so we opted for a walk around the loud, buzzing, over-the-top town instead. We spent the next hour or so looking in some of the tacky as well as the more tasteful souvenir shops, dodging the tailors with smarmy salesmen that offered their hands for a friendly handshake before gripping tightly and pulling you towards their shop, (until you had to literally prise their fingers from yours to get away!), while giving the “massage” parlours a wide berth before settling on a decent looking bar in which a lone woman was sitting, smoking a cigarette. Behind the bar was a young guy who so clearly a lady-boy! We ordered a couple of drinks and stroked the three dogs that came to greet us as we sat down, and then got chatting to the woman who introduced herself as Sandy. We were asked the normal questions like how long have you been here etc., and we told her that we were on a world trip for a year. She said that was great and asked where we had been. When we asked the same of her, we were not ready for the answer! It made our trip look like a run to the shops! Her and her husband had bought a yacht and had decided to sail around the world in it, and had left Blighty five years ago! They had to come to Thailand in order to raise some funds so they could repair their boat that was in dock. They had parts of their engine and gearbox all over the place being repaired so she had sought work in the bar, offering to cook food. She had been there two weeks already and hadn’t even got as far as talking about money with the owner! She told us some of the things that had happened to them, such as being conned into paying higher mooring fees in various places, as well as hitting a huge storm where the waves were higher than the mast, and the seas were so rough that they actually went below deck and said goodbye to one another because they didn’t think they were going to come through it! The waves knocked her under a table and she had badly cut and bruised shins where she slid underneath. She said the most frightening thing, though, was sailing through ‘pirate alley’ off the Horn of Africa, having to turn all the lights and the radio off at night so they wouldn’t be detected by any Somali Pirates! It sounded very scary and she didn’t know what they were going to do next, and it may be that that they would have to sail to Langkawi in Malaysia using wind power alone in order to find a cheaper place to get the engine and gearbox fixed. By the time she had finished telling us her maladies, we felt so sorry for her and, suddenly, what we had been through over the last couple of days just paled into insignificance! We briefly met the owner, a young American guy, before finishing our drinks and stepping out into the balmy night air and strolling back to our comfortable guest house and our comfy bed, extremely relieved to have made it to Phuket not only in one piece, but with time to spare in order to catch our flight to Koh Samui in two days time!

Posted by StewnJen 23:27 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Broke for the border!

Into Thailand

sunny 32 °C

4th February 2011

Travelling as we are through so many countries, it is easy to become cynical. You make a judgement on something and it stays with you. In our case, we believed that everyone was out to screw us over, to take us for a ride and were out to make as much money from us as they could make. In short, we felt as though we were just two walking currency symbols and became very wary of anyone asking us anything. However, occasionally something happens that makes you question that cynicism and forces you to think again....

Being worried about whether or not we were going to be able to catch our flight to Koh Samui in two days time weighed heavily on us and once again we struggled to sleep, despite not having to get up too early in the morning. We were packed and ready early, wanting to give ourselves every opportunity we could to be on the 14:20 train to Hat Yai. We still had to get back to Butterworth station on the mainland but first we had to get to the ferry station so, a lot earlier than needed, we checked out and walked out of the hotel into brilliant sunshine and searing heat, to hail a taxi for the short ride to the Georgetown ferry station. Stew turned back into a pathetic schoolboy for a moment and just had to take a photo of a sign above a shop that had him giggling like a 10 year old!

We didn't like to ask what this shop sold but it looked like the business was on it's knees......

We didn't like to ask what this shop sold but it looked like the business was on it's knees......

Ten minutes later we were running the gauntlet of stall owners amid shouts of “You wunt sumsing?” and “cold drink?” while pushing our way through throngs of people milling around the gangway and up to the ticket station. A sign above our heads informed us that the return journey to the mainland was free – always a bonus when travelling on a budget – and we joined the short queue of people waiting to board. The ferry had already docked and was ridding itself of its previous cargo of people and cars so we didn’t have long to wait for our turn to walk aboard. The ferry itself was just one huge open deck with a roof covering rows and rows of old wooden benches fixed to the floor, with a single stall in the middle providing nibbles and drinks, manned by a sullen, unsmiling woman who seemed to bark instead of talk! Walking quickly and as far up the front as we could manage, we plonked ourselves down on one of the green wooden benches and pulled the heavy lumps off our backs. Jen went and tested the goodie-seller’s patience and came back with some nibbles for the train ride ahead. Before we knew it we were docking at Butterworth station and we disembarked, looking for the trains. Having taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way, we somehow ended up at the bus station and had to climb a flight of stairs, fully laden, before being pointed in the right direction to the ticket booth. It was a little walk away but we got there eventually, entered the ticket office with more than a little trepidation and asked for two tickets to Hat Yai, the pair of us holding our breaths for the answer. To our immense relief, the ticket operator gave us the solid gold tickets and told us that we needed to get off the train at Pedang Besar, go through Malaysian immigration to get our visas stamped for exit, go through Thailand immigration to get our entry visas, buy tickets for the journey from Pedang Besar to Hat Yai and then get back on the same train for the rest of the journey! We entered the waiting room with a huge weight off our shoulders (and backs!) and Stew thought it would be a good idea to get some Thai currency so we emptied our pockets and he went to the Money Exchange to change up our remaining Malaysian Ringgits. Cheekily, we unplugged their (not in use) TVs and plugged our iPods in to charge them, Stew watching over them like a hawk in case they disappeared! There was a small, curious railway exhibit in the corner of the waiting room that showed the station as it was many years ago, with a few original items and pieces of track together with old black and white photos pinned up above it. A train was already sitting and waiting on the platform, and had the cleaners and maintenance men rushing around it at a snail’s pace, doing their stuff in their languid, laid back way, so Stew went to see if the train was ours and when we could board it. It was the correct train and we were told we could board it in five minutes so gathered all our stuff up and went to choose a prime seat! We stowed our stuff and asked a fellow traveller if this was indeed the train to Hat Yai. He showed us his ticket as if to say if it isn’t then I’m on the wrong train too! Stew got curious, it being a sleeper train and all, how the beds worked and had a go at putting one up, much to the chagrin of a train guard who huffed and puffed and sighed and shook his head before saying something almost positively rude in Malay and putting the seats back together again!
The train finally clunked and jerked into motion and we settled in for the long haul, the buildings taking a long time to disappear before the concrete grey slowly changed to emerald green and the rows and rows of fields started zipping by us. We had only travelled two stops before the train slowed to a halt and a large party of oriental men boarded and we were summarily ejected from our comfy seats by the surly guard after one of the party had shown us his ticket which clearly showed the seat number we were sitting in! Jen was not too happy about this and made her feelings known but it made no difference so we had to pull our luggage out from underneath the seats and find somewhere else to sit. This confused us no end because we were told that this was a free seat train where there were no reservations. We later found out that the men were travelling all the way to Bangkok and would be sleeping on it overnight. However, at the time we still didn’t know whether we were going to be thrown out of the new seats we had found! We soon set off once more and the train stopped many times, quickly filling up with people and luggage and each time we expected someone to tell us we were in their seat but thankfully we made it all the way to Pedang Besar without having to move again.
Once at Pedang Besar, we thought it would be a good idea, just in case, if we took all our luggage off with us to join the queue for immigration, even though we were getting back on the same train once we had cleared immigration and got our new tickets. We followed the crowd to the Malaysian Immigration kiosk to get our visas stamped for exit and joined the line for Thai Immigration to obtain our entry visas for Thailand. While standing in the queue we read a very interesting plaque that listed rules of entry into Thailand that were definitely anti-hippie! The rules read exactly as follows:..

THE MINISTER OF INTERIOR ISSUES THE FOLLOWING ORDER TO IDENTIFY AN ALIEN WITH “HIPPY” CHARACTERISTIC.
1. A PERSON WHO WEARS JUST A SINGLET OR WAITCOAT WITHOUT INNER WEAR.
2. A PERSON WHO WEARS SHORTS WHICH ARE NOT RESPECTABLE.
3. A PERSON WHO WEARS ANY TYPE OF SLIPPER OR WOODEN SANDALS, EXCEPT WHEN THESE ARE PART OF NATIONAL COSTUME.
4. A PERSON WHO WEARS SILK PANTS THAT DO NOT LOOK RESPECTABLE.
5. A PERSON WHO HAS LONG HAIR THAT APPEARS UNTIDY AND DIRTY.
6. A PERSON WHO IS DRESSED IN IMPOLITE AND DIRTY-LOOKING MANNER.
AN ALIEN WITH SUCH CHARACTERISTICS WILL BE PROHIBITED FROM ENTERING THE KINGDOM. IF AN ALIEN HAS THE ABOVE CHARACTERISTICS AFTER ENTERING THE KINGDOM HE WILL BE IMMEDIATELY DEPORT.

We both found the notice very amusing and it helped pass the time while standing in the queue! We got through immigration with no problems and went in search of the ticket booth to buy our onward journey tickets to Hat Yai. We ended up in a big office and there were a couple of people in front of us. Jen pointed out the hand written notice on the wall that stated the price of the tickets. When we got to the front and asked for two tickets to Hat Yai, the guard confirmed the price and we counted out the Thai Baht we had in our pockets. It was nowhere near enough, so, undaunted, we handed over our credit card. No credit cards are taken at this station. Stew asked if there was an ATM near here. There wasn’t an ATM in the entire town let alone the station! Panic started to creep in... Stew asked if there was a money exchange in the station. Yes! Yes! He ran up the platform with relief spreading all around him and found the guy just locking his door! Phew! “Can you change some money for me” Stew asked as the man retook his seat. “Yes” he said, without looking Stew’s way. As Stew handed him the credit card he took one look and said “Not on credit card, not authorised”! While Stew was gone, Jen asked if there were any other trains today if we were to miss this one. The guard simply said no! Real panic was setting in now as we could not afford to miss this train. We just did not know what to do. Stew came running back into the office and told the guards that we did not have the funds for our tickets and told them we didn’t know what we could do. We were just laughed at which inflamed the situation. Suddenly the whistle blew for the train to depart and at this exact moment Stew remembered we had some US Dollars put aside for emergencies such as this! In pure panic Stew ran out of the door and begged the guard to hold the train until he had run back to the money exchange but, quite incredibly, the guard came over to him and told him to get on the train for free! There would be no charge for us! Gobsmacked and in a daze Stew walked back into the office and told Jen to get on the train as they wouldn’t be charging us. In our panic to get on, we almost left a bag behind so Stew had to dash back in to get it while a guard helped Jen climb aboard. We were so grateful and in a state of utter disbelief! Can you imagine British Rail doing such a thing...?! We worked out the ticket should have cost us around ten pounds. Admittedly we were still in a state of shock blended with confusion, relief and gratitude (with just a hint of panic left!) but this was nothing compared to the sheer fear we felt when two ARMED ticket inspectors came walking down the car demanding to see everyone’s tickets! We just did not know what to do at this point. It wasn’t long before they reached our seats and neither of us knew what to do or say. One of the inspectors turned to the other one and said “These two are ok”, smiled at us, nodded and they walked past! Fear turned to utter relief and for the first time in an hour we were able to relax and every time we saw the inspector we smiled and said thank you! A full hour and a half later we were pulling into Hat Yai station and we disembarked with all our gear in search of the exit. Our kind inspector came over to Stew and shook his hand! We felt so humbled and thanked him for the millionth time before we headed outside and, ironically, the first thing we saw was an ATM just off the platform! We got some money out and were immediately shadowed by a Tuk-Tuk driver who had trouble reading the address of our hotel we’d written on a piece of paper, trying to study it by the headlight of his vehicle. We were worried that he didn’t know where to go despite his insistence that he did, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt and threw our heavy bags into the back of his tiny vehicle before it chugged into life and we were winding our way down the dark, busy streets of Hat Yai. The journey lasted barely ten minutes before we were pulling up to the front of the huge hotel we had booked for the night. We paid, thanked and bid our driver goodnight before suddenly realising we needed a ride in the morning to the bus terminal and so arranged for him to collect us at 7:30am the next day. He eagerly accepted our offer and said he would see us in the morning. We checked in, soon realising that the reception staff spoke very little English, and went to dump our bags in our room. It was a busy, noisy place and we were surprised to see that the swimming pool was still packed with kids, even though it was dark outside. We were hungry and thirsty so went for a walk along the main street in search of sustenance, quite happy to find a local restaurant to try their fare. However, when we saw the local restaurants we soon changed our minds! They were all on the edge of the street and were mostly serving seafood dishes. What made this worse for us was the stench of sewage every now and then from the drains! It really did turn our stomachs and made the decision for not eating out in the streets an easy one! Unfortunately, though, we couldn’t find a restaurant that looked half decent so we shamelessly opted for a hot dog and tuna sandwich from the local 7-11 store instead! We are so pathetic at this eating local dishes lark! Reasonably sated, we headed back to our noisy hotel in the hope that the swimming pool had been vacated and the decibel levels had dropped, and were amazed to find that we had to pay to use the internet in our room! As we had nowhere to stay in Phuket, our next destination, we had no option but to pay for the overpriced service. It turned out to be one of the slowest connections so far but we managed to book a guest house (and, to make sure we got our money’s worth, downloaded a movie too!) before tiredness overtook us and we settled down for some much needed sleep.

Posted by StewnJen 21:15 Archived in Malaysia Comments (4)

Exquisitely bored in Penang

The wrong time to be here?

overcast 30 °C

31st January 2011

We had already packed all our stuff the night before so were up, showered, dressed and out the door in no time at all this morning. We hailed a taxi to take us to KL Sentral station and arrived there at 7:15am, with plenty of time to spare. As there was nowhere to sit on the platform itself we parked ourselves upstairs on some seats next to the platform entrance. It was already very busy and there weren’t many seats left. Stew went in search of life-giving coffee, which he found in a just opened Dunkin’ Donuts shop, and we went to the platform when we heard our train called a little while later. Heaving our heavy bags into the racks above our seats we settled in for the journey to Georgetown in Penang, watching, but not understanding, a cartoon that was on the TV in the carriage! We were very soon saying goodbye to KL.
A short while into the journey Stew noticed a little pedal to the side of his seat. Turning into Dougal from Father Ted, he just had to know what it was for so stood on it. Nothing happened until he stood on it again but pulled the seat forward at the same time. Both seats swivelled round so that we were facing the window, watching the scenery zip by like on some huge TV screen! Within minutes nearly everyone in the carriage was doing the same thing! Putting the seat back in its original position we wrote some blog and listened to our iPods while enjoying the scenery outside. We arrived at Butterworth Station at around 14:00 and, after dodging all the touts (an activity we are becoming quite skilled in!), walked the short distance to the ferry terminal. The ride over to Georgetown was only 15 minutes and cost 1.20RM return (about 25p)! We walked out to a very busy bus terminal and looked around for someone to ask if we could catch a bus to our hotel, the Royal Penang. We also noticed the distinct lack of taxis in the area too! Stew found an information kiosk and asked how far it was to our hotel, but it would be a long walk, especially in that heat, carrying all we had to carry. The bus wasn’t due for another fifty minutes either, so we opted to stand by the side of the road and hail a taxi which was easier said than done.
Arriving at our huge hotel, we were pleasantly surprised with our room and had a nice view of the city (directly opposite the nicest KFC we’ve ever seen, set in an old colonial mansion!) and spent the next five days exploring. There wasn’t a great deal to see, to be honest. Our first stop was Fort Cornwallis, a small, star shaped fort built in the 18th century by Sir Francis Light and named after the Governor General of Bengal, Charles Cornwallis. Sir Francis Light conned the Sultan of Kedah into giving Britain Penang, a strategic port in the Indian spice trade, by promising troops to help the Sultan repel attacks from Thailand. When the British government refused to send troops to help, the Sultan became angry and threatened to attack Penang to get it back. Britain struck first, though, and attacked Kedah Fort in 1791, defeating the Sultan. Fort Cornwallis was built to protect the harbour and was upgraded over the years, but never actually saw any form of combat and became an administrative centre. It is nothing much to look at, but is decorated with many different types of cannon which were either gifts from different countries or taken from captured ships, including the large Seri Rambai cannon which was a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan of Johore in 1606 that did the rounds of a few countries before being grabbed by the British and placed in the fort in 1871. Stew also tried to climb the rope ladder to the top of the lighthouse, but it was closed as was the case with many other attractions we wanted to see in Georgetown due to the Chinese New Year celebrations. We entered Penang at exactly the wrong time it seemed. We filled our days with visiting the local shopping malls, Little India (a region of the city dedicated to all things Indian), and the obligatory Chinatown. We were very disappointed in not being able to see any of the fabled Chinese New Year celebrations as everywhere just seemed to be quiet! The Chinese contingent seem to celebrate at home with their families instead of throwing street parties for all and sundry, although we did catch the backend of a small Lion Dance performance in the street from our bedroom window along with a few small firework displays that started very late and went on into the early hours of the morning. Also due to the Year of the Rabbit, we had to change hotels for the last two days of our stay as the Royal Penang could only accommodate us for three days. We managed to get a room at the Bayview Hotel and, to save some money, we decided to walk in the searing heat to our new home, about 20 minutes away. On our penultimate day we went to visit the War Museum and waited at the bus station, only to be told by the driver when boarding the bus that it had already closed due to New Year! As our next destination was to be Thailand we thought it would be prudent to go to the train station and arrange our tickets to Surat Thani, where we would need to board a bus to get to Phuket, from where we were flying to Koh Samui! It was such a hot, sunny day we decided to walk the mile or so to the station, but wished we’d taken a taxi it was so hot. The sweat was cascading down us by the time we reached the station, and we were soon sweating even more when we asked to book seats on the train to Surat Thani and were told by the lady behind the counter that the train was full and the next one wasn’t until the 6th February! We were both horrified as we were due to be in Koh Samui on the 7th! She said the only thing we could do was to get a standing ticket to Padang Besar and then, after going through immigration, purchase a ticket to Hat Yai and from there get a bus to Phuket. What made it worse was the fact that we couldn’t book the tickets in advance but would have to gamble on getting them on the day and hoping there would be a seat available for us! After hearing this, we were both more than a little concerned that we weren’t going to make it to Phuket on time, but all we could do was wait.

The lovely Georgetown Town Hall, Penang

The lovely Georgetown Town Hall, Penang

The rope ladder up to the Penang lighthouse

The rope ladder up to the Penang lighthouse

Penang_canon_1.jpg
The Seri Rambai cannon in Fort Cornwallis, Georgetown, Penang

The Seri Rambai cannon in Fort Cornwallis, Georgetown, Penang

Posted by StewnJen 23:52 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

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