After a relaxing two weeks in Koh Phangan, I encountered a bit of a problem. My Thai visa was about to expire. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did. You see, when British citizens travel to Thailand we are given 30 day visas on arrival. However, this does not apply when you travel overland from a neighbouring country… like, say, Cambodia.
Vera and I looked at our options. We loved Koh Phangan and didn’t really want to leave, but I could either extend my visa or we both had to leave the country and go elsewhere. It would have been nice to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, or Cambodia… but travelling with a Chinese passport is rather difficult, and indeed expensive. It would also have taken time that we just didn’t have, given my own visa situation.
Looking at our options, the cheapest thing to do was to head from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui, where there is an immigration office in the town of Maenam. Vera’s visa was set to expire not long after mine, and we could extend both there, squeezing as much time out of our summer holiday as possible.
Soon, we hopped in a taxi to Haad Rin, at the southeastern end of Koh Phangan, and from there took the Haad Rin Queen ferry over to a place aptly called Big Buddha, on the northeastern end of Koh Samui. The journey took just 45 minutes and cost only 200 baht each.
Koh Samui was immediately very different from Koh Phangan – or, for that matter, from nearby Koh Tao. It is a lot bigger and much busier. Several planes zipped in low over our boat as we approached the harbour, and there was heavy traffic right outside the pier. We quickly felt regret at having left behind peaceful little Koh Phangan.
I had expected the immigration office to prove a tedious challenge, but in fact it was very simple. We filled in a set of quite basic forms, had our passports photocopied, and handed over a large amount of cash. I wasn’t too happy about the money, but it was cheaper than flying to another country. From various online sources, I got the impression that this might have taken up a whole day, but altogether it took less than an hour.
We found a little hotel five minutes’ walk uphill from the immigration office, on a quiet little dusty road. It was beautiful, if a tad expensive compared to what we were used to in Koh Phangan. “Oh well, we can stay one night and go somewhere cheaper,” we said.
In fact, the hotel was so comfortable, with such lovely staff and a nice 24-hour swimming pool, that we stayed a full week! The location wasn’t great (aside from the convenient proximity to the immigration office), but it certainly was quiet compared with most of the island.
At the hotel, we rented a little motorbike and set out to explore the island. First we headed counterclockwise to the town of Nathon, and inwards to the mountainous interior, where we found a stunning waterfall in the jungle. We had the place to ourselves for an hour, and spent that time swimming in the cool waters.
Next, we ventured clockwise through Chaweng to Lamai, in the southeast. Chaweng looked pretty awful – a big, busy tourist trap. However, Lamai was a little nicer, and we had a delicious meal at a Jamaican restaurant. Yes, that’s right – a Jamaican restaurant in Thailand. The food was very expensive by Southeast Asian standards, but still only totaled about $20 for an incredible meal with drinks. Not too bad, all things considered.
Our other ventures around the island took us up and over the middle, exploring dangerous little mountain roads on the trusty scooter. Some roads were so astoundingly steep that I was left genuinely baffled that the bike’s breaks managed to hold out, and on more than a few occasions it looked like the engine was going to die when hauling us both up rocky roads. We ran up hundreds of miles just zipping around, and found some more beautiful waterfalls and spectacular views out over the Gulf of Thailand.
Vera’s favourite part of the holiday, though, was the walking markets. In both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, we found ourselves spending our evenings eating at street food stalls where you could get food for two for just US$3, and it was fantastic! She became somewhat of a curry snob after consuming several dozen massaman curries. Our regular market was by the pier at Nathon, but the best was in China Town, where I had a wonderful mango cocktail for about $2, and a whole pizza for just $3. Bargain! (As an odd sidenote: China Town contains two Austrian restaurants, a Swiss restaurant, a Swedish restaurant, several French and Italians restaurants, and a host of others… but not a single Chinese one.)
Time flew by and soon it was time to leave Thailand. I had spent damn near an entire summer there – exploring Phuket, Krabi, Ao Nang, Chumporn, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui. All I am familiar with Thailand, these were all places I hadn’t really gotten to know until now, and I’m glad I did.
Our last day was spent on a series of ferries and buses headed back to Bangkok, and the next morning, at 3am, we were going to the airport to board a direct flight (thank god) to China.
As recounted in previous blog posts, I spent most of July and early August travelling alone through Thailand and Cambodia. However, after four or five weeks’ solo journeying, I undertook a long and painful bus ride to Thailand’s vast capital, Bangkok, to meet my girlfriend, Vera.
I arrived first, a day ahead of her. On my first visit, some weeks earlier, I stayed at the ultra-cheap Khaosan Art Hotel, but this time elected for the comparatively pricey Rambuttri Village Plaza, a place I’ve stayed before. I had a whole night and a day to wait for Vera, and as I’m not particularly fond of Bangkok – or cities in general, come to think of it – I chose a hotel with a rooftop pool so I could spend my time reading a book and soaking in the sun.
Of course, I did manage to fit in a little sightseeing:
Vera’s flight was meant to arrive around 8pm but it was delayed and she didn’t arrive until after midnight. That gave us about three hours’ sleep before we had to get up and hit the road, as I had booked bus tickets with Lomphraya for the following morning. Alas, bleary-eyed, we ventured out into the darkness before sunrise and off on a day-long journey to Koh Phangan.
The journey was actually not bad, as we were so tired we slept through most of it. By early afternoon our bus had decanted us at the Chumporn ferryport and we were soon skipping across the pristine blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, headed for a tropical paradise.
When we arrived, I walked about looking for a hotel, and stumbled upon the oddly-named but rather pleasant Lime ‘n’ Soda, where we spent a few pleasant days. After that, we moved to the nearby Hacienda, to a much cheaper but much better room.
Our time on Koh Phangan was spent mostly on the southern coast, looking out at Koh Samui to the south. We awoke each morning to stunning views over the waters, and long walks on the empty beaches. There were a few kitesurfers on the waters but it was exceptionally quiet.
Sometimes we rented a motorcycle and ventured to other parts of the island, but nothing really matched the loveliness of the area we had randomly stumbled upon that first day. The hilly roads provided an amusing bike ride with stunning views, but we didn’t venture off the main roads onto the rather intimidating-looking dirt roads leading to remote waterfalls and other sights. Instead, we went to little beach areas in the northwest and northeast, including Haad Mae Haad and Haad Yao.
After almost two weeks on Koh Phangan, it was time to leave. My visa expired and the immigration office was on nearby Koh Samui. I had never really wanted to visit Samui, but it seemed like the thing to do – a quick jaunt across the water and then a day at the immigration office, followed by some time exploring the largest of the three main islands in the Thai Gulf.
Well, that’s where I am as I write this… I’ll post more next week.
After visiting Phuket Island, Krabi Town, and Ao Nang, I decided to head on over to the other side of Thailand – the east coast. I have been to Koh Tao several times and each time I passed through a place called Chumpon, which always looked really attractive from the bus and ferry. From what I had seen, it was just long stretches of white sand beaches with no one around. All the tourists just passed through without stopping.
I bought a bus ticket in Ao Nang and got up early next morning for my pick-up. I was crammed in the back of a tiny mini bus which drove to Krabi. From there, I was put on another mini bus to Surat Thani, and then on another mini bus north to Chumpon. The total distance between Krabi/Ao Nang and Chumpon is only about 270 kilometers, yet the journey took nearly a whole day. I was exhausted by the time I arrived, although conveniently the bus stopped only 50 meters from my hostel.
The next day, I rented a motorbike from my hostel and asked the owner for tips on finding a good beach. He wrote down several places on a map, each of them about 40km north of Chumphon. He called them “real secret” beaches that no tourists no about.
I was delighted, and jumped on the bike, zipping off north past the airport and along the coast. It was a long drive but a pleasant one, as the roads were not particularly busy. I stopped off along the way at one random beach, which was completely deserted, but didn’t stop. Instead, I pushed on in search of my “secret” beach.
In the end, I only found one of the beaches because they were incredibly hard to get to. I support that’s what made them so secret. I followed a series of small roads and then footpaths to come to a small bay with nothing there except perfect white sand, clear blue seas, and coconut trees lining the beach. It was everything the guy had told me.
I was about to jump in the water for a swim when a dark cloud suddenly appeared and almost immediately it began to rain. Another cloud joined it, and another… and another… and soon it was pouring with rain and the sky was black. I hid in a cave at one end of the bay, and read my book.
An hour passed.
And then another hour.
Eventually, the rain slowed somewhat, but the skies were still ominous and no longer felt like swimming. It was actually a little chilly with the wind, and I didn’t fancy getting out of the water and not being able to dry off before a long drive back to town.
Instead, I gave up and headed back towards the main road. Along the way, I found that the storm had blown a tree down across one of the footpaths. I had to drag it out of the way, hoping that it had no venomous snakes or spiders hidden in its leaves and branches.
At the main road, instead of giving up entirely and going back to Chumphon, I headed further north in search of another beach. This was not one of the “secret” beaches that the hostel owner had listed, but instead a small, remote public beach. I found it easily and just as I stepped onto the sand, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part.
The water was impossibly still – not even a ripple on the surface – and the beach was just about perfect. There was no one about here, either.
I hopped in the water and then lay on the beach for an hour, reading my book. A few people came and went but it was very quiet and pleasant. When I finally drove back to Chumphon as darkness began to fall, I was pretty satisfied with the results of my day. It had been an adventure of sorts, and pleasant in spite of it not going exactly to plan.
That night, I realized the sand flies had got me. On the second beach, I had noticed maybe a dozen of them and brushed them away, but evidently they hadn’t gotten a good few bites in first – maybe a few hundred, in fact. I was covered in what looked like giant mosquito bites.
Mosquitoes don’t generally bother me. They bite me, sure, but if I ignore the itch for a few hours, it goes away entirely. Sand flies, however, will cause itching that is 10x worse and lasts for days and days and days.
After an itchy night, I moved over from my cheap hostel to a less cheap hotel along the road. It was about $22 per night, which I suppose makes it cheap in the grand scheme, but it was more than double what I usually pay in Thailand. The reason I chose this place was because it had a pool, albeit a tiny one:
I didn’t feel like driving for an hour back up the coast and risking getting caught in more heavy rain, and then getting a few hundred more sand fly bites. Instead, I’d just sit by the pool and sip on a cold beer.
The Retro Box Hotel actually turned out to be very pleasant. It is a bizarre design – the whole hotel is made out of shipping containers that have been fitted out as hotel rooms. It sounds awful, but is actually very funky-looking and comfortable.
I explored the town one last time. Chumphon is really not a very interesting place at all, and is only worth visiting if you can get a bike and head out to the beaches. The beaches are all, I believe, utterly stunning. However, the town is a bit drab and boring. On my walk about town, I booked another bus ticket – this time to Bangkok.
The next morning, I hopped on big, air-conditioned bus towards the capital. Again, it was a short ride, but again it took an astonishingly long time. The total was, I think, 9 or 10 hours! Much of that was spent battling traffic in Bangkok itself.
Pretty soon I was back on old Khao San Road – the backpacker heaven (or hell) at the heart of Southeast Asia travel. I have always sort of detested it, but this time I finally admitted it wasn’t so bad. It was cheaper than I remember, for one thing. In fact, food and beer were cheaper than any place I’d been in Thailand. Funny, you wouldn’t expect that in the capital city, and I certainly don’t recall it from previous visits…
I spent one night in a tiny hotel room (for just $3) and then hopped a bus to Cambodia then next morning. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours but took 14. By the time we arrived in Siem Reap, I was thinking I’d be happy to never take another bus again in my life.
After a week in Phuket, I hopped on a bus east to Krabi. Krabi is a town and a province, but it is also the name incorrectly given to another place – the popular tourist destination, Ao Nang. Where I was headed was Krabi Town, a sleepy little town slightly up river and away from the coast.
It was raining all through my bus journey and so I couldn’t really see the scenery. In fact, I couldn’t see the edge of the road, and I just hoped that the bus driver could see where he was going. When we arrived in Krabi, I walked through the driving rain to my guesthouse, thankfully only 5 minutes away from the center.
It rained on-and-off during my three days in Krabi but that was ok. I spent my time wandering about, avoiding the rain as much as possible, but also used the lightning fast wifi at my guesthouse to catch up on some important work I had hoped to do while travelling. (You didn’t think it was all beer and beaches, did you?)
Krabi is a pleasant enough town, but there isn’t a whole lot to see. It is ideal for a day or two (or three, if you have stuff to do online, like me) but you’d get bored if you stayed much longer.
I explored the mangroves to the north and then Wat Kaew in the center of town, as well as walking all the waterfront and exploring the night markets.
After a few days in Krabi Town, I felt it was time to hit the beach and do some hiking. Krabi Town might make a good base if you had a motorbike, but in terms of just walking, it’s not that great.
I hopped a little white pickup-bus hybrid (which I think is called a songthew, or something like that) and for just 50 baht it took me all the way to a small beach-side town called Ao Nang. Ao Nang is what many people think of when they hear the word “Krabi,” and I guess some people actually refer to it by that name.
It’s not hard to see why people flock to Ao Nang. It is simply stunning. Surrounded by vast jagged limestone karsts and long white sand beaches, this little town may well be have been called Paradise City. Off shore are dozens of picture-perfect islands jutting out of the turquoise waters.
On my first day, I just walked back and forth along the sea, clocking up about 15km as I meandered along the beautiful shore. These pictures really don’t do it justice:
The next day, I hired a motorbike and headed west to Hang Nak Mountain, where I embarked on a long hike to the top. It actually wasn’t that bad of a climb, although the humidity made it rather challenging. Along the way, the forest was alive with the noise of various animals – bugs, birds, monkeys – although I didn’t actually see anything except lizards.
Again, the photos hardly do it justice:
Well, it has taken me an age to upload these photos using the painfully slow WiFi at my hostel. Too much time spent indoors. It’s time to get back out and explore, as I’m off to another part of Thailand tomorrow.
Followers of this blog, or, for that matter, my Facebook and Instagram, will know that I often come to Thailand. It’s one of my favourite countries in the world, and it’s only a short hop away from China, where I live and work.
I’ve been to Thailand about once a year since 2011, most recently visiting Koh Tao and Bangkok in 2017. A year before that, I explored Chiang Mai in the north, and I’ve also seen various other places around the country.
This time, I came to visit some old friends who live in Phuket. Phuket has never been of great interest to me because it’s rather touristy for my taste. I once spent a night here on my way to Koh Lanta, and didn’t much care for the traffic. It tends to draw vast numbers of Chinese group tours and drunk English idiots. None of that at all appeals to me.
Still, I flew over from Hefei last week and spent 6 days catching up with some old friends, bitching about our days in China and soaking up some sun. They showed me around some fantastic restaurants, where we sampled local food as well as some international cuisine.
Here are a handful of stories and photos:-
One morning, as my friends were both working, I took a walk up Monkey Hill. It was a hot and humid morning and the steep path up the hill wound on for two long kilometers. As the name suggests, there was an abundance of monkeys:
(Note: I don’t know why, but almost all my photos from that morning are out of focus and barely worth looking at. I’ll just post this one of the monkeys, which isn’t entirely bad.)
In addition to monkeys, there were many lovely birds, some interesting lizards, and even a family of wild boar!
I was thoroughly pleased by the outing.
Later, we hit the beaches, first heading south to Nai Harn and then north to Bang Tao. At Nai Harn we had hoped to go snorkelling, but the waves were massive that day. Still, we had a pleasant day by the beach and then watched the World Cup 3rd place playoff at Sunshine Bar in Rawai. Sunshine is a ladyboy bar, making for a very interesting evening. Almost a dozen ladyboys danced constantly for several hours as two old ladies screamed commentary in broken English into a microphones. It was, amazingly enough, a great evening!
(The above post is from my Instagram, which you can follow if you like random travel stuff and stupid pictures of Chinese menus….)
Next, we spent a day at Bang Tao beach in the northwest of the island. It’s a long, very pleasant strip of sand, although there’s not much there. It’s low season at the moment, which means even the few bars and restaurants that you’d normally find are now closed.
Near the beach is a small island. My friend and I foolishly attempted to reach it in spite of strong currents. We made it to the island, but in breaking free from the current, I swung my foot up from a deep channel, catching a sharp piece of rock or coral, and sliced my big toe open in the three places. It bled profusely and soon began to hurt. I hopped around in pain, landing my other foot on a sharp spike of coral with my full body weight, causing it, too, to hurt and bleed.
Well, folks, I can’t complain too much about any of that. It was sheer stupidity. I was lucky to swim back to the beach and have another friend waiting with a first aid kit. Annoyingly, after a few painful days, I found there was a few sharp pieces of coral actually broken off in my foot. They had to be removed, which was not fun at all.
Anyway… it was a lovely beach:
After the island hopping, we wandered up to a swanky resort located not far away. It is the sort of place where celebrity DJs play to billionaires in a pool with a swim-up bar. It is the sort of places where ESL teachers like myself are certainly not seen.
Did I mention it is low season?
Thankfully for me and my two friends, with no other customers the resort was more than happy to let us plebs inside. More than that, they were willing to waive the $150 entrance fee (!!!!) and also offer us ludicrously cheap drinks. Needless to say, much tipsiness ensued. It’s odd how easy a drink goes down when you’re floating in a pool with your own private DJ and a team of bartenders and waitresses who normally serve the super rich….
With an obscene amount of alcohol consumed, in the most luxurious environment I will probably ever know, it was time to head off and watch the World Cup final. What with the sunburn, blood loss, and a half dozen pina coladas (don’t judge me; it’s the tropics) and an equal number of beers, it was a small miracle that I managed to stay up.
On the way to the bar, I did see another unusual sight:
Yeah, that’s right. It’s a stupid little cat playing with a very, very large spider. I filmed this two minutes before the beginning of the match and ran off midway through the fight, so I don’t know who actually won. My money’s on the spider, but then I also thought Croatia would win….
This morn I took off for Krabi. I’ll hopefully get more chance to take photos in the coming days and post them soon. Stay tuned.
Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.
Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.
Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.
The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:
In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.
Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.
I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:
Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.
And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.
Yesterday, on a windy but warm summer day, I walked from the little harbour town of Elie to another little harbour town called St. Monans with my mum. The coast of Fife – and indeed much of Scotland – is dotted with these little picturesque fishing towns comprised of old stone houses that are often painted in bright colours, narrow winding roads, and flower pots dotted around. In the harbour itself there are invariably boats either bobbing in the water or resting on the sand.
We arrived to a busy car park and headed out into the cold, but soon after starting out the coast cut off the worst of the wind, and in the sunshine it was actually quite warm. The walk along the beach was pleasant, and soon we moved up onto the little path, passing by many others who’d spotted a good opportunity for a Sunday walk.
The pleasant scenery made for a good day taking photos:
My favourite, however, was a shot I took of St. Monans harbour:
On my ninth day in Sri Lanka, I set out from the Guillet Beach Homestay, heading for the Matara bus station. It was a long, dusty walk in a blazing hot sun, but I soon arrived and people pointed me to my bus. In Sri Lanka, people are usually shy but very, very helpful. Some old men told me I could get a bus directly to Hikkaduwa, but after asking a few of the bus drivers, it seemed I would have to change buses at Galle instead.
The ride along the coast was beautiful, and more than a few times I regretted taking the bus straight to Hikkaduwa, thinking instead that I should stop off at the little fishing villages and port towns along the way. But it was a relatively short hop from one place to the next, and I knew I could always take a bus back down the coast if Hikkaduwa proved to be unpleasant.
First Day in Hikkaduwa
After a brief stop in Galle, I arrived in Hikkaduwa and made my way to my next accommodation – Chami’s Place. It’s a small hostel in the middle of town, near the railway tracks, which had high scores on all the booking sites. I tried to check in but there was some confusion. The staff were incredibly friendly, and eventually I ended up sleeping in the shared staff room with an English bargirl and two Sri Lankan kitchen porters.
I set out to explore the town, walking up and down the beach and the main road that cut through the middle of Hikkaduwa. Oddly, everywhere I went there were Russian people and signs all in Russian. Big fat, classless, red Russian men and busty Russian women crowded the beaches at certain places. I’d seen this throughout Southeast Asia – they all tend to visit the same one destination in a country or province, and there congregate at the one or two restaurants or bars tailored to Russian customers. These places are, generally, well-worth avoiding.
Walking south, making my way between the sea and a wall, I was hit by a huge freak wave and totally soaked. Actually, the wave only got the bottom of my shorts, but it hit the wall and exploded back, covering me quite literally from head to toe in salty water. Thankfully, my camera was in a somewhat waterproof bag, and I was able to yank my phone from my pocket and add it to the camera bag before the water soaked through. But otherwise, I was drenched.
I hobbled to a nearby bar and sat drinking the local beer until I’d dried out sufficiently to walk back home. In the evening I ventured out and explored the nightlife a little, delighted to find that here in Hikkaduwa, there was no shortage of alcohol, unlike all the other towns I’d visited on my journey. It was a tad pricy, but it was plentiful, and that’s all that mattered.
Snorkelling on Hikkaduwa Reef
When I awoke in the morning, I was completely covered in mosquito bites. It had been a bad night’s sleep anyway, as the staff had woken me up inadvertently when they finished their shifts at the bar, but also there had been a swarm of mozzies chewing away at my flesh for some seven hours. Annoyingly, there was a mosquito net over my bed, but when I went to sleep I really didn’t think there were any mozzies in the room, and it seemed so unnecessary that I hadn’t bothered unravelling it.
I checked out and walked to the nearest ATM that would accept my Chinese bank card, and withdrew more money. I wasn’t sure if I’d need it, but on holiday it’s best not to worry about these things. Then I hiked down the road a kilometer to my new accommodation – Surfing Beach Hotel. This was a little guesthouse on a beach that has grown very popular with surfers due to its huge waves. I checked in and was greeted by a big, friendly shirtless man. He only had two or three misshapen teeth, and his brown belly protruded enormously. He bore more than a passing resemblance to a walrus. He showed me to my room – an old, utterly filthy place where I knew I couldn’t spend more than one night. I actually enjoy bad hotels because they have so much character, and I love travelling around places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos seeing the old French colonial buildings that haven’t been cleaned since the fifties, yet somehow maintain their antique charm. This place really lacked any such redeeming qualities. I noted the following in my travel journal after arriving:
An unsteady ceiling fan circulates warm air in a dingy, dirty hotel room. Two small beds have been placed side-by-side and advertised as a double. The walls are thinly painted and plaster seals big cracks in the concrete. Makeshift metal and plastic and scrap-wood furniture litters the room haphazardly. Everything is brown and yellow with dirt. The towels and bedsheets are the only items that seem to have been washed, and even then not thoroughly… and they are riddled with holes. The ancient windows are hard to open, and look out on construction work in the next door building, spilling dust into the room. The bathroom… you don’t even want to know about the bathroom.
After checking in, I immediately set out to find the next day’s accommodation so that I wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck at Surfing Beach Hotel any longer than necessary. Fortunately, I did, only three hundred meters down the road at Sunny’s Guest House. It was a far superior room.
In the afternoon, I went snorkeling on the Hikkaduwa coral reef. This required a long walk up the beach because the seas were too choppy at Surfing Beach. At barely more than ankle depth there were already large fish swimming around, and by the time I was knee-deep, I was surrounded with brightly-coloured sea life. Sadly, however, all the coral was more or less dead. But that is true for most of the world and in a few years we’ll be lucky if there’s anything left anywhere on this doomed planet.
I swam about in the warm waters, but it was a little difficult. No matter where you go, the waves are strong and the tides push and pull you. When hovering over coral, that’s less than ideal. I didn’t want to damage the coral, and I certainly did want the coral to damage me. I spent two hours swimming around, and saw a whip-tailed stingray and some other interesting life. However, at a certain point the waves were churning up so much sand that visibility was terrible. I wanted to swim out and find sharks or other large animals, but I knew I would never see them.
Despite the poor visibility, however, I managed to spot a few large turtles grazing on sea grass. It was difficult to get any useable photos, even though they were docile enough to swim beside me for a good twenty minutes.
Lots of fish
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
Snorkelling Hikkaduwa Reef
I went out snorkeling again the following day, with the same results – some interesting fish but an overall unsatisfactory experience due to the poor visibility. I saw more turtles and stingrays, but I couldn’t enjoy it while being thrown about on the waves, coming perilously close to being ripped apart on the corals.
Whale Watching from Mirissa
At 5am on the twelfth day of my trip, I was picked up by a tuk-tuk driver outside Sunny’s and driven south to Mirissa. It was a long, cold ride and again I had to wear my winter clothes that I’d brought over from China. It was just getting light as we arrived at the harbor and I was shepherded onto a boat with lots of people of various nationalities, including many Chinese – who were already hiding beneath giant sun hats. As we departed around 7am, the guide informed us that they’d seen blue whales on the previous thirteen consecutive days, so we had “a 90% chance” of seeing one today.
I was excited as the boat chugged out of the harbor and into the Indian Ocean. I’d wanted to see a blue whale for as long as I could remember. Of all the amazing animals I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my life, no whale was among them. I snuck up to the bow and stood there for the entire journey, being hit in the face by waves every minute or so. The seas were typically choppy and people were being violently sick back inside the boat. I was determined to keep my eyes fixed on the waters to get that first glimpse of a whale… but also I knew that looking out at the sea would prevent me, too, from getting seasick.
It was after about an hour when the call went out. One of the guides on the boat had spotted a water spout and, although it took a while for my eyes to pick between waves and waterspouts, I also found it. I couldn’t tell you the distance as I’m not familiar with doing such things at sea, but it wasn’t terribly far away. A dark shape would emerge briefly from the water and a huge white explosion of water would dissipate in the air, and then nothing as it slipped quietly back under. This happened several times before the grand finale as it raised its mighty tail up into the sky and then went down into the deep.
A great roar went up from the deck of the boat as we saw very clearly that iconic image of a whale’s tail above the surface of the water. Of course, I had my camera, but I was too mesmerized by what I saw to even bother taking it from its bag. I just stared stupidly at the ocean, where the whale had been.
This happened again and again. Incredibly, we saw the whale (or other whales – I don’t really know) six or seven times. Sometimes we’d just see a tiny flicker of a tail as it suck down into the ocean, and sometimes its tail would seem to hang there in the sky between huge waves, lingering before it disappeared. The image was burned into my consciousness, but although I eventually pulled my camera out and started shooting (which wasn’t easy with the giant waves and rocking of the boat) I never did get a good picture.
On the way back to harbor, we passed a whale shark. I’ve wanted to see one of these animals for many years, and been to many places where I expected to see one, but this was the first time I had. From a distance all we could see was a seemingly black fin protruding above the surface, very much like an orca, but as we got close we could see the unmistakable colours and pattern – the pink and purple and blue of its mighty back. This would have probably been a more forgettable experience had we not just seen a blue whale – one of only a handful of creatures from the entire history of this planet that could dwarf a giant whale shark! Again, although I could see the animal clearly, I could not get a single decent photograph. And, again, I didn’t care. My apologies to readers of this blog for not better illustrating what I saw, but on personally level I was just delighted to see these amazing animals. I will make sure to get better photos next time.
Then, as we approached the harbor, another cry went out. What was it this time – an orca, a dolphin, another whale or whale shark?
It was something else that I had never seen before – two large sea turtles mating. I’ve seen more than 100 sea turtles in this past year alone, but never have I seen them copulating. The boat drifted alongside them as they awkwardly propagated their species, before eventually the dozens of voyeurs made them uncomfortable enough to stop, and they went their separate ways off into the dark waters.
Final Days in Hikkaduwa
Later that day, as I sat having lunch, I met a middle-aged English man whom I’d encountered the previous day. He had a strong accent and kept referring to the country as “Sreeee Lankaaaar,” and told me he’d been coming here every year since 1992. In fact, he wouldn’t shut up – a common trait among bored alcoholics who spend their holidays in Asia.
After that annoying lunch, I went out snorkeling on Surfing Beach. It was to be a stupid mistake that put an end to my snorkeling for the holiday. I quickly realized as I got into the water that I was being pulled out to sea, albeit not very fast. I had been caught in a riptide in Mozambique a year before, and this was not as terrifying, but it was disconcerting. The tide pulled me out some distance and then seemed to more or less stop. However, when I tried to swim back to shore, I couldn’t. I tried not to panic, and instead made a continual effort to get back to shore, but it was futile. The more I tried, the more I became exhausted.
Eventually, looking at the surfers and trying to figure it out logically, I came to the conclusion that I should use the waves to get back and save my strength. However, the waves seemed to pull me almost as far as far as they pushed me, and soon they were holding me under water to almost the limit of my lungs, and I began to fear that I would drown. As things began to get dangerous, a huge wave caught me and threw me deep under water, ripping my snorkel and mask off my face, though at the time I barely noticed. Fortunately, my GoPro was tied to my wrist and impossible to lose.
With a great deal of effort, I managed to get myself back to the beach and collapsed on the sand. I was angry with myself for having gone snorkeling somewhere that I knew was not suitable, and annoyed that I had lost my snorkel gear – which I’d only used three times since buying. I had another day and a half in Sri Lanka, but my snorkeling time had drawn to a violent end.
Leaving Sri Lanka
Instead of snorkeling for my last few days at Hikkaduwa, I drank beer on the beach, read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, watched the surfers, and saw the sunset over the Indian Ocean for the final time.
Snorkelling had been a big part of my plan for the holiday, but even without the unfortunate end to that, conditions had not been ideal. I was probably not going to see my shark. And besides, I could not complain about a lack of exciting wildlife. I had seen a blue whale and a whale shark! I was never going to get better than that.
Reflecting upon my time in Sri Lanka, I concluded that it had been a thoroughly successful holiday. Most importantly, after a long and tiring semester’s teaching, not to mention numerous writing and editing projects on the side, I had managed to relax and avoid doing anything resembling work. I had seen a new country, eaten new food, met lots of new people, experienced a new culture, gotten out into nature, done lots of hiking, taken some great photos, seen leopards, elephants, crocodiles, whales, and whale sharks.
After a long night’s sleep, mercifully under a mosquito net, as Katharagama is blanketed by bugs at nighttime, I walked to the bus station and looked for a bus to Matara. It didn’t take long to find one, but once I was on the bus, it certainly took its time in getting on the road. I sat in the overcrowded vehicle for more than half an hour, waiting to get going.
Eventually, we did get moving and the bus took off on a long, winding journey along the coast, occasionally moving inland to visit small villages, before returning to the “highway” that leads past white sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages. The bus seemed to stop at every tiny settlement along the way, picking up old women and monks and schoolgirls in their all-white uniforms, so that the bus was never less than entirely crowded. Occasionally, men with tambourines would get on and the blaring rhythmic music from the speakers would cease as the men droned ancient songs for the passengers. At one point it stopped parallel to another bus down a dusty back alley and all the passengers got off and settled into the new bus, which looked almost exactly the same. With no ability to speak the local language, I was left baffled and frustrated.
Some three hours after leaving Katharagama, the bus stopped in Matara and I struggled to get off through the densely packed aisle, practically falling into the bus station. The journey had not been pleasant, and as I stepped out into the heat, I knew I had to choose between a long walk to my next homestay, or else an expensive tuk-tuk ride. I suspected that, as the homestay was in a fairly isolated area, I would be heavily gouged for the ride, so I decided to walk it in spite of the heat and the distance. Annoyingly, the bus had driven right past the street on which my homestay is located some five minutes before reaching the bus station.
I made my way along the waterfront, which was pleasant enough. The beach was very quiet, whereas in town it had seemed rather busy. A number of tuk-tuks stopped to offer me a ride, but I waved them away. After Yala, I needed a few cheap days at the beach to balance my budget. I stopped halfway at a little tea shop and had a sandwich and a pot of tea, which thankfully cost just $0.50 altogether, and then set back out on my long walk. I tried following the beach but it came to a rocky outcrop which, without bags would’ve been possible to climb, but with my luggage was certainly impassable. Instead, I followed a busy road with no pavement up a long, steep hill, with cars and tuk-tuks throwing up dirt and dust.
Finally, exhausted and sweaty, I arrived on a long, narrow street that led down to a white beach. The street had a few hotels and restaurants, but not much else. It seemed like a sleepy suburb that had been half taken over by surfers. Most of the businesses had “surf” in the name, although my destination was called Guillet Beach Homestay. The few people walking up and down the road all held surfboards under their arms, except for one lonely tuk-tuk driver who just grinned stupidly at everyone who passed him.
As with previous accommodations, this was a pleasant little house run by a local family. The chief English speaker was the young daughter, probably about twelve years old, who would talk endlessly whenever prompted. She attended school each day, but in the mornings and evenings she would talk with guests and, as a result, her English was excellent. The rest of the family were friendly but quiet and the father, a tuk-tuk driver called Lucky, was apparently in Colombo for the week. At the house there was a polite young English couple, and a large group of Swedish girls who spent nearly every waking moment on their surfboards.
I spent the late afternoon and early evening walking about the local area. There wasn’t much to see except for the beach, which was clearly the big attraction for the area. The horseshoe bay was beautiful and also funneled waves in constantly at a medium size, making it perfect for surfing. In fact, walking around, I found myself about the only person who didn’t have a surfboard. I sat and watched the sun go down as the stars popped out and began to move across the sky. The waters emptied first and then the beach, and soon it was perfectly quiet.
Walking Around Matara
The following day, after yet another giant Sri Lankan breakfast, this time eaten in a surprisingly English dining room, covered in floral patterns and dolls, I set off for a walk back into town. This time I intended to follow the coastline all the way around, rather than taking the unpleasant road route. I set off early and clambered over hot, sharp rocks, but enjoyed the peace that came being between the town and the surfers’ beach, completely alone. Even without bags I ended up with bloody hands and knees from the challenging climb.
I walked around the bustling little town, admiring the Dutch colonial architecture as it clashed with modern shop fronts, but there really wasn’t much of any interest to see there. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t particularly exciting, and so after a visit to the Star Fort and taking a few photos of the Buddhist island temple, I walked back along the beach to my part of town, getting back by 1pm. I’d expected the trip to take up a whole day.
Finding myself back by lunchtime, I ventured next door to a small restaurant called “Chillz” and, after ordering some reasonably cheap food, I enquired as to whether there was any beer available off the menu… The owner smiled and said, “Yes, today we have.” I was beginning to realize that beer is heavily taxed in Sri Lanka and most businesses simply don’t advertise that they have it in order to avoid certain legal requirements. It had been about five days since I last had a beer and even though this one, called Lion, tasted like crap, it was cold and alcoholic – good enough for me.
After lunch I walked along to a quiet part of the beach (not that any part was particularly busy) where the waves were slightly smaller than elsewhere and swam for an hour or two, soaking up a bit of sun. It had been a long time since I’d swam in the sea. The last time had been in Indonesia during the summer. A few small groups of Sri Lankan men walked by, always friendly, shouting, “Hello, sir, how are you today?”
I returned to Chillz for more cheap food (a roti sandwich) and beer, and then sat on the sand watching the stars until the sandflies drove me to return to the homestay, where I taught Hironi, the little girl, English until her bedtime.
Matara had proven a nice place to spend a day, but it wasn’t someplace I wanted to stay much longer. Unless I learned to surf, there wasn’t much for me to do. With so much coastline, I figured that there would be better places for me to spend my last week in the country, so I picked a destination and planned on going there the next morning: Hikkaduwa.
The sun has set over the distant figure of the island of Bali, appearing like an eruption of molten rock from the top of Mount Kintamani, and soon the sky is lit instead by the luminous full moon in the east, which comes up over the horizon bright yellow and then moves across the sky an almost blinding white, illuminating the little fishing boats bobbing on the sea, the faint spectre of Gili Meno, and another volcano – Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok, which is always partially enveloped by thick white clouds.
From La Moomba, a little restaurant on the northeastern curve of the Gili Trawangan (pronounced “tra-WANG-an”) seashore – which stretches, unbroken around the whole of the little island – I take in the stars and the smattering of twinkling lights on the water and the nearby islands. It is quiet except for the lapping of the sea on the beach, and the ever-present Jack Johnson and Bob Marley records that ring out from beach bars the world over.
A day earlier, I arrived on Gili Trawangan – the largest of three tiny islands off the northwestern shore of Lombok, which itself lies to the east of Bali, on the Indonesian archipelago. I stayed the first night in a quite comfortable but crowded little hostel, called La Boheme, in the middle of the town, but it was fully booked on my second night, and so I wandered around, looking at the “no vacancy” signs for an hour. Although the island was undoubtedly beautiful, surrounded on all sides by white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and coral reef, with volcanoes and flawless blue skies in the distance, I didn’t feel happy here. I’d been looking forward to visiting for nearly ten years, but I’d naively expected a relatively untouched paradise island, or at least a basic backpacker destination.
Instead, it was fully developed and packed beyond capacity with tourists from around the globe. It seemed almost the entire island was covered in hotels and restaurants. Everything was expensive and gaudy, and the tourists were mostly middle- and upper-class families and honeymooning couples. I wondered why all these resorts needed swimming pools when there were calm sea waters on all sides. Eventually I found Alex’s Homestay in the north of the island, rather tucked away from everything else. Luckily, Alex had a bungalow for me, and it only cost $18/night, compared to the $50+ that seemed to be the going rate elsewhere else. My bungalow was basic but had everything I needed, and was set in a small village, surrounded on all sides by trees and roaming buffalo. Alex, the talkative and affable proprietor, leant me his bicycle so I could pick my bags up from the La Boheme.
Suddenly, I felt quite positive about the island, having been rather depressed for the first 24 hours. I sat and talked to Alex for an hour on his little property, surrounded by trees and cats and chickens, and then went to find lunch. I stopped in at a small beach bar on Turtle Beach and befriended the quiet owner, who told me it was safe to leave my phone, camera, and bag on the beach as I swam. I could barely believe it, but when put to the test it turned out to be true – nothing was stolen. I spent six hours sipping cold Bintang beers and chatting with the owner and his friends, who all reckoned they could do a Scottish accent. It seemed they had Scotland confused with London, however, and instead put on some impressive Cockney accents. Mostly, though, I spent the day in the water.
On the northeastern shore of Gili Trawangan, the aforementioned “Turtle Beach” area, the snorkelling is fantastic. Although it can be difficult to get over the sharp coral at low tide, in the morning, when the water is high, it is extremely accessible and there are always several turtles swimming around, munching on the corals. There is a peaceful atmosphere here that is lacking in the crowded south, or on the snooty, rich western beaches. I spent the whole day drinking beer, reading Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt (a fitting title), and swimming with turtles, until the tide was so low that it became impossible to swim. Around this time I began to realize that I was rather sunburned, too, and decided to retire to my bungalow for the evening.
Every place is, to some extent, what you make of it. My disappointment at the gap between what I’d expected of Gili Trawangan and what I’d actually found had darkened my view of this place, but during a happy day spent meeting nice, friendly locals and tourists, and swimming leisurely in the turtle-filled seas, I found a new perspective, and I looked forward to spending more time here.
The streets of Gili Trawangan, or rather the dusty paths that criss-cross the tiny island, are mercifully free of motorized traffic, in stark contrast to Bali, just across the water. Instead, dozens of horses pull little carts around, filled with tourists and building materials for the numerous little bungalows being built to cater for the huge influx of tourists that now come to Gili Trawangan every year.
Along the waterfronts, small beach bars and larger resorts are filled with bikini-clad young tourists. They serve the local beer, Bintang, almost exclusively, along with tropical cocktails, and the menus primarily offer Western-style food. All except the most expensive resorts will allow guests to sit on the beach for free, sometimes even using their beach chairs and sun beds, and at night the waiters will whisper to passers-by, “You want weed? You can smoke on the beach… it’s no problem. No police on Gili Trawangan!” Which all sits in seemingly direct contrast to the façade the island now presents as an up-market, bourgeois tourist destination.
Gili Trawangan’s main draw as a tourist destination is its waters, and all through the town and in almost every hotel, guesthouse, homestay, and hostel – as well as the bars and restaurants – diving companies and boat-owners offer an array of scuba and snorkelling trips. Despite years of exploitation leaving most of the reefs that surround the Gilis (including the other two islands in the chain – Meno and Air) dead, there is still an abundance of easily visible marine life. On my first day snorkelling, I saw six turtles, and on the second day I saw fourteen. I also encountered moray eels, banded sea kraits, giant puffer fish, and innumerable colourful fish whose names I don’t know.
The beaches are mostly white sand, but sometimes black, giving way almost immediately to coral reef – or dead corals where a reef used to be. (There have been successes in regenerating the reef, particularly around Gili Meno, in recent years.) It is very accessible during the morning and early afternoon when the tide is high, but less so later in the day as the tide lowers and the reef and rocks are exposed. On the northeastern shoreline there is a bed of seaweed that draws huge numbers of green and hawksbill turtles, and just further out is a steep drop-off into the ocean. On the western side there is a dive site called Shark Point several hundred meters off shore, where I found one white-tipped reef shark. The currents all around Gili Trawangan are deceptively strong, and caution is advised while snorkelling or swimming.
I stayed another few days on Gili Trawangan, mostly spending time with two friends from China who’d were visiting Indonesia for a few weeks. We explored the island and its waters pretty thoroughly, and I became very fond of the place – having come full circle from my disappointing first day. However, with my summer holidays drawing to a close, it was time to move on and see more of Indonesia. I booked a 4-day boat trip to Komodo National Park through Wanua Adventures for a cool a1.8 million rupiah (U$140) which would stop off in various places of interest along the route from Lombok -> Sumbawa -> Komodo -> Rinca -> Flores. I had no idea what to expect, but an adventure on the high seas, coupled with some time hunting the Komodo’s famous dragons, seemed like the perfect ending to a long, enjoyable stint in Southeast Asia.