Between May 17 and June 7th I visited Thailand again and took more pictures! This time we toured Pattaya, Koh Chang, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, and Krabi.
We took a taxi to Ekamai, a bus depot. Upon arrival, but prior to finding a proper discharging and payment location, the door swung of our ride open and a woman begain interrogating us about our destination. The response that our trip was to Pattaya set in motion a flurry of activity that included her grabbing our bags and running towards a bus. After quickly paying the taxi driver, we followed her to the bus. She explained that it is leaving immediately and we should get on board right now. It would take three hours and cost 180 baht per person. There was no chance to barter the price down, or even to stop for a breath and consider alternative busses. Under such pressure we forked over the meager cash and climbed aboard the lightly-populated bus.
Some of the seats had their plastic covers cut and foam from underneath exposed. The passengers were mostly local Thais. From our (uncut) seats near the middle of the bus I glanced periodically down the isle to the front where our luggage had been placed. On its right was the driver, and on its left was the door open to the terminal. The interrogating woman who ushered us aboard had remained with us long enough for us to settle into our seats, but disappeared thereafter. Eventually her voice was heard outside and new passengers wandered in to find seating. This process repeated several times.
For 15 or 20 minutes we warmed up in the hot stagnant bus after our cool air conditioned taxi ride, and watched as half a dozen passengers settled in nearby seats. Finally we started to slowly roll out of the stall and merge into the herd of other busses. Some 30 minutes after climbing aboard, we exited the depot and oozed into the congealed afternoon traffic of Bangkok's streets. And thus, our journey to Pattaya began.
Luckily for us, the air conditioning in this bus was turned on and producing a jet of air that was somewhat cooler than the ambient temerature. But it was not fantastic. Soon we had to stop at something that resembled a bus stop. The interrogating woman jumped out to help more travellers get on board, and we continued rolling down the street. This was not a fast drive, like one might expect from a 150 km route. We remained in densly populated areas for quite a while.
The driver blared his horn with troubling frequency, as one might do out of frustration in a traffic jam. Except there was no traffic jam of any significance on these roads. Soon it became evident that a trio was running this bus operation: the interrogating woman we met earlier, the driver (who seemed to lack the feelings for making the ride comfortable), and a faceless loud voice that sat near the front and called monotinically to pedestrians. Infrequently, the yelling and honking resulted in our bus stopping to pick up a pedestrian-turned-passenger. Often, such a passenger would walk the isle looking for a seat without success, turn around, and tell the interrogating woman that the promised seats were not there. The response, as sly as ever, was something like "oh, yeah some people will get off soon and you'll have a seat, it won't be long".
As we bounced down the streets and passengers accumulated, the interrogating woman authoritatively asked us to close the window shades to prevent sunshine from further heating our bus. That request seemed reasonable, except the sun was on one side and we closed the shades on both sides.
Eventually, after almost 4 hours of trolling around the streets, the passengers-turned-sardines arrived in Pattaya. We landed near one of the main streets and made our way to the hotel. After our return to Bangkok a few days later, I read this inset in my Lonely Planet book:
"Private buses that leave from nonstandard locations (ie not a government bus terminal) generally spend time cruising the city for passengers, so they rarely leave at the advertised departure time. It's actually illegal for buses to do this, which is why the bus attendants often pull the curtains while driving around the city (so that police can't see that they're carrying passengers)." - p.752, Lonely Planet's Thailand, 11th edition)
We secured a room in a hotel in Koh Chang and wanted to arrive on schedule, but our departure from Pattaya was marred by laziness about leaving on time. Koh Chang is part of the Trat province and a ferry has to be taken from the mainland to the island. So our journey was technically to the pier in Trat. We had two options: wait until early morning the next day and get a minibus to Trat with other travellers, or take a taxi. The former option was out of consideration due to our schedule, and frankly Pattaya isn't really a fabulous place to spend yet another night in. So, the taxi option it was.
We were told that such a ride might cost 3700-4000 Baht. Trat is 315 km from Bangkok, and a 100 USD pricetag for such a lengthy taxi ride is not at all unreasonable by US standards. In fact, it is dirt cheap.
According to this map, it is not easy to measure how far Pattaya is from Trat, but if the 3-334-5 route from Bangkok to Trat is 315 km, then the 3 route from Pattaya to Trat is of an approximately similar distance. When we found a taxi driver willing to go the distance (it wasn't hard, our song-teaw driver happily delivered us to his business that conveniently had just such a willing driver), the cost was 3000 baht. For $75, such a ride was a bargain. We decided to go for it, and left at about one o'clock in the afternoon.
The entire ride took four or five hours. We got to listen to stories, ride comfortably with pleasant air conditioning, and even take a nap. Midway we got to stop at a 7/11 for refreshments. Should a quantitative measure for this exist, the quality of this ride was an order of magnitude better than the shorter (distance- and time- wise) bus ride. The driver delivered us to the pier and we made it to catch the last ferry leaving Trat for Koh Chang.
The ferry wasn't very crowded (actually, it was pretty empty) and the island in the distance gave me a bit of a Jurassic Park feeling, actually.
Upon arrival on shore nighttime had set and I took no pictures. We disembarked into the darkness and found a song-teaw with several passengers. We told the driver the name of our resort, which he recognized, and then climbed aboard and waited for it to drive away. Eventually it did drive but stopped at another pier. The driver announced that we need more people on board for it to be worth his time to drive. One party climbed out of another song-teaw and into ours, saying that they'd been waiting for 30 minutes for another ferry so their driver would go. Finally another person joined us and the drive around the island began.
For context, Koh Chang is populated around the shore and not inland. It is the second largest island of Thailand, and is mostly covered by trees and mountainous terrain. Our hotel, Ramayana Resort, was located on the western side, and our entry pier was on the northern tip.
When we arrived at our hotel, the clerk guessed who we were -- no others were destined to arrive that night -- and we were delivered to our cabin in the comfort of an electric vehicle. Here are daytime pictures of the view of the balcony and the surrounding area:
The serpentine roads of Koh Chang proved to be more challenging than I had expected. First, driving in Thailand happens on the "other" side of the road relative to what I'm used to. Second, I have never driven a motorbike before. The road to which the Ramayana resort is attached is straight and surrounded by fields or forests, with minor turns and slopes. The resort offered us a bike rental for 200 baht per day, and that included a helmet. We got one bike each and went around the area to explore. I got an automatic bike, and riding it was pretty easy. I quickly got the hang of it. The first stop was a local market where food was sold. We pulled up and parked our bikes and got some chicken, beef and rice to eat by a lake.
On the way back, I fired up my bike and started to head out. This is when I learned of the difference between the left handlebar and the right handlebar. Each has a metal finger grip that corresponds to the front and back wheels. The back wheel's brake is on the left handle and the front wheel's brake is on the right handle. The gas is also on the right handle and operated by twisting the rubber handle. As I was pulling out, I was also trying to brake with my right hand. This meant I had to extend my fingers to reach the metal grip. But, in doing so, I also rotated the rubber handle such that it applied gas to the engine. Quickly I would reach for the brake and apply it. The front brake is much stronger than the rear brake (maybe because it is used less worn out?) so the jerk was pretty strong. This happened a handful of times (yeah I know, bad pun...) and I came very close (centimeters!) from scratching a parked car as I was trying to turn and drive and brake at the same timein the gravel. The lesson was that I should use the left handlebar for brake and the right handlebar for gas. From there on out things went a lot more smoothly. Of course, the front brake is important too, but then you have to consider the inclination of the road on which you are brake . If it is downhill, the result can be catastrophic -- I know that much from riding a bicycle.
On the second day we rented the bikes again and decided to travel to the southern part of the island. Along the way the roads are very twisty and the weather was questionable -- it was sunny one minute and raining the next. Typical for the rainy season, actually. We saw many things, most of which I could not capture because I was busy steering. But when we did get out I captured these:
A nice beach, completely unoccupied. We parked our vehicles on what looked like private beachfront property, but when asked the owners said it was okay. I enjoyed wiggling my feet.
Another place afforded us a view of nearby islands.
There were kittens by the fisherman's dock.
Back to the topic of catastrophies, on our way back, Som's bike slipped. It was on a downhill slope that was turning and had gravel on it. She fell under the bike and scratched both knees, the right ankle and right elbow. I have no pictures of the accident itself, for obvious reasons. Immediately, what seemed like from the bushes, emerged a police officer on a bike. Actually he was a regular citizen driving by with a police badge under his shirt which he produced along with a whistle. He began directing traffic around the scene and helped me move the bikes to the side. Som called our hotel on her cell phone, explained the situation and they came in a truck to pick her up. After the call I got back on my bike and drove to the nearest store to buy tissue and water. When I returned the Ramayana truck pulled up and Som got in the passanger's seat. One Ramayana's staff drove her bike behind the truck and I drove behind them. They drove to the emergency clinic and Som got her wounds cleaned up and taken care of very quickly. It was also very cheap -- 80 baht for an inspection, cleaning, gauze application and a small bag of pain-killer and anti-inflamatory pills. Needless to say, the rest of our trip was affected by this incident because Som could not swim or go into the salty water of the sea.
Ironically because our departure was happening during daytime hours, I finally saw the welcome sign to the island.
We travelled by ferry to the main land of the province Trat and got a van to the airport in that province. The airport was a very quiet and small place. The weather was warm and the atmosphere very sleepy -- they even played music box melodies from a CD! We waited for maybe 45 minutes before our colorful plane arrived.
To be continued...
Flight to Phuket
Ferry ride to Koh Phi Phi Don
Phi Phi Don sunset
Phi Phi Don to Lanta
Krabi Batik center
Wax MuseumKoh Lanta:
http://michal.guerquin.com/photo/thailand/may2006/index.html, updated 2006-08-16 17:41 EDT