Posted in travel

Driving to Phang Nga National Park

I have been staying in Phuket, Thailand, for about a month and a half, and in that time I have not actually done much exploring. Mostly I stay at home, working, or go to the gym. I’ve been to the beach a few times and I’ve gotten to know the southern part of the island pretty well, but until today I had never really gotten out and explored.

Last night, I looked on Google Maps for places within a day’s drive of Phuket, and decided that Samet Nangshe Viewpoint seemed like a good place to visit. It’s a good few hours’ drive from southern Phuket, especially with weekend traffic. So this morning, about 9am, I set off on my Honda Click, aiming for Sarasin Bridge, which connects the island with the mainland.

Driving through Phuket was not much fun, to be honest. The roads are busy and dangerous, and in places they have large potholes or – even worse – have become completely warped in the stifling heat. You often find yourself sandwiched between a speeding lorry and a row of haphazardly parked cars, hoping no one opens a door and kills you. Other times, you’re going around a bend, being tailgated by a speeding minivan, hoping that the warped road does cause the bike to slip out from underneath you.

After the airport, which is about an hour’s drive from Saiyuan (where I live), the roads get better. For one thing, from the airport to the bridge there is at least a bike lane to drive in. That doesn’t mean that minivans and lorries don’t occasionally veer into it, but generally it’s a much safer passage. By the time I hit the bridge, I was pretty tired and it had only been an hour and a half.

The View from Sarasin Bridge

I stopped and walked part of the way across the bridge. Men were fishing, and I saw a few of them catch some medium sized fish. In fact, I could see that the water was rich with fish, as many of them darted about near the surface.

Then it was time to jump on the bike and find Samet Nangshe. Getting there wasn’t entirely straightforward, but at this point I didn’t care. On the mainland, driving was much more pleasant. Phuket had been busy and the roads were dangerous, but here they were open and well-kept. I pulled off the highway and headed into the countryside on narrower roads that wound through green forests. Sadly, it was not real jungle as all that had evidently been cut down and replaced by – I think – gum trees. Certainly, they were planted in neat rows and had been tapped for some sort of sap. It was sad, but at least I was amidst greenery rather than buildings.

The route to the viewpoint was pretty well signposted, even when seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The only thing was that the distances listed on the signs were completely arbitrary. I had noticed that on the road up through Phuket. I would see a sign that said:

Sarasin Bridge – 24km

Then, ten minutes later:

Sarasin Bridge – 26km

How does that make sense? On the way back it would get even worse, and I had to start completely ignoring the signs or I would go mad.

Near the viewpoint, I saw a small road wind off towards the mangroves and couldn’t resist following it. It took me to a small fishing village, where people hired out long-tail boats to see “James Bond Island”. This island, actually called Koh Tapu, is famous as the location of Scaramanga’s hideout in The Man with the Golden Gun. As with most things in Thailand, a little attention turned into a relentless procession of tourist hordes, and it has been thoroughly commercialised. I was tempted to take a boat there by myself (as they only cost 1,500baht), but decided against it. I didn’t feel like being surrounded by tourists. Maybe another day I would return.

Long-tail Boat at Phang Nga Bay

I returned to the main road and then headed on to what I thought was Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. I found a car park and bought a ticket for 30 baht, then hopped on a little truck, which whisked me up the hillside. On the way, I talked with a Thai family. They enlightened me to the fact that this was not Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. In fact, Sam Nangshe was another 200 meters along the road. I had stopped at Samet Nangshe Boutique Hotel. Oops. Oh well, unperturbed, I alighted and decided to look around. It was, after all, high on a hill and just a few hundred meters from the famous viewpoint. Moreover, there was almost no one here…

Panoramic View of Phang Nga Bay

Well, the view certainly lived up to my expectations. I grabbed a grossly overpriced cup of iced tea and sat looked out at the view. What can you say about a scene like that?

After an hour of watching the view (and admiring the Thais’ tie-dye shirts), I set off again. On the long route back to Phuket, I saw a number of little villages and enjoyed cruising the quiet country roads.

Crossing back into Phuket was a descent into chaos, but at the airport I stopped and went to Nai Yang Beach. This beach is quite famous as the place where you can see planes coming in to land, passing low over the sand. I had read that it was now out-of-bounds and that visitors were met with signs proclaiming the death penalty would be sought for trespassers! However, I could see no such signs and so I went to see if I could shoot a photo of the planes.

When I first got to the beach, I was met by a woman who told me, “This is a National Park, you should pay 200 baht.” I told her I’d think about it and drove away. About 200 meters away, I just parked and walked onto the beach. Evidently, there is only one checkpoint and you can just go around it.

After an hour, I had only seen one plane come in to land and a dozen taking off. The problem with getting a photo was that you couldn’t really see them taking off until they were in the air… They were so damned fast that they were already up in the sky before you could frame the shot. The one that landed did so just as I arrived and was too far away to make it work.

Plane Taking off at Nai Yang Beach

When I got home, it was 6pm and I’d been driving for most of the 9 hours since I’d left. I was exhausted, and my hands were purple from sunburn, but it felt good to have explored a little. I will be in Thailand for a year, and although it’s a cool place to live, sometimes it’s easy to get trapped into not doing much. You have to get out and see the surrounding areas, just like you would if you were on holiday.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Koh Samui

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.

IMG_2598
The oddly named, but very pleasant, Wazzah resort on Koh Samui.

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.

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A storm moves quickly in from Lamai beach.

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.

Posted in Photography, travel

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

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.