Flying back into Malaysia from Sumatra took some adjusting in our headspace. Although we had not long been in Penang, the difference in culture after Indonesia was a bit of a jolt. We immediately took advantage of the great food, and eventually got used to not being the centre of attention everywhere we went (I think Richard secretly likes being akin to a movie star in Indonesia!). Our reason for being there again was to apply for a new passport for Sal- a painful and slow procedure done at the local Australian “Consulate”- a tiny counter inside a working dentist’s office. Very bizarre!
Three weeks later, somewhat sick of the place, with passport in hand and in desperate need of the sun, we legged to Ko Fruitopia for some beach time and to catch up with good mates Jo and Robbie, who had been very brave and stuck out seven weeks of mixed wet season weather on the island. Being the start of the monsoon, we weren’t expecting the ten days of glorious hot, dry and sunny weather we had on arrival. But nothing lasts forever, and the following four days of drizzle, clouds and dark skies saw us retreating to the mainland. (Thanks for the pics, Jo)
We enjoyed our time around somewhat cloudy and drizzly Krabi. The comforts it provides are many (think bacon breakfasts, baguettes, ice-cream milkshakes, and clean sheets and friendly faces at one of our favourite guesthouses), but after our week or so, it looked like a good time to explore more of southern Thailand. Typically, the day we left the west coast, the weather turned sunny there.
Looking for sun, we headed to the east coast (there are two separate rainy seasons in Thailand, each effecting the different coasts at different times of the year), and ended up in one of our most dreaded spots in Thailand- Surat Thani. Surat Thani is the stepping off point for Ko Phangan, Ko Samui and Ko Tao, three of the big tourist attractions in the country, and has the reputation of being a “den of thieves” type place. We tried to avoid a stay in town, but ended up deciding in the spirit of not rushing, we would give it a go for the night. To our surprise, away from the bus station, we found a typically friendly, cheap Thai town, with great food, and even had kids staring at us in wonder (doesn’t happen too often in Thailand!). We could tell for sure, tourists only go there to transfer to the islands, and people stopping to check out the town are definitely in the minority. The riverside is lovely, accommodation good value, and with two great food night markets, we were in heaven. We will absolutely come back for further exploration.
The palaver involved in getting to Ko Phangan from Surat Thani was enough for Sally to swear there will never be a repeat visit. Even before we arrived at the island, the degrading experience of being labelled with coloured stickers and herded around with dozens of other tourists was sickening. We were steered this way, funneled that way, made to wait, people were fighting to board and disembark the boat armed with suitcases the size of beds..... it was a most disappointing re-introduction to a place we have fond memories of. It’s so horrible to be traveling with only other farang- how do the locals travel? It’s a far cry from the effortless, breezy long-tail boat trips to the Andaman islands we’ve become used to.
Ignoring the advice of friends (may have been a bad move), we chose to stay on the west coast of Ko Phangan- an area of little coves with sweet ramshackle huts on our previous visit 13 years ago. Well, a lot changes here in 13 years, and the little huts are mostly gone, given way to concrete resorts with little atmosphere. After a huge day of searching up and down the coast, we finally settled on the laid back village of Sritanu. We chose a small and very casual bungalow operation with friendly owners, and a white sand beach. The sea on this side of Ko Phangan at this time of year is not great for swimming due to low tides, but fine for paddling and splashing in the VERY warm waters.
|Bungalow, Sritanu Beach, Ko Phangan|
It was hard to get used to the shocking amount of tourists and tourism on Ko Phangan, but we eventually found positive things about being there. We just had to treat it as a “holiday”- it aint the sort of place for meaningful cultural exchange of any kind! The biggest draw was the absolutely glorious weather we had for the entire time we were there!
Ko Phangan is one of those places full of activities for the restless tourist. It amused us to think of people actually doing all these things. Do they take their massage before or after their elephant ride- and where to fit in the Thai boxing and beginner dive? The full moon/black moon/half moon parties must surely be undertaken with newly dread-locked hair, and followed by a detox and yoga course (including macrobiotic and organic foods, of course) to purge all the drinking and drugs. And how to choose between a new tattoo, and a newly tailored suit? Then there’s hiking, boat trips, cooking courses, flying fox, shooting range, gym, mountain biking, fishing, wake boarding, kite boarding, snorkeling and kayaking, and the list goes on. Phew! We were exhausted just thinking about it all, and chose instead to laze on the lovely white sand beaches, eat our way around Sritanu village’s restaurants, chat with people, set out on walks along the coast, and wiz around on a ridiculously cheap hired motorbike to explore other parts of the island (OK, technically that is an activity).
To sum up, we definitely prefer the smaller, less touristy islands on the west coast of Thailand, and although there are plenty of people who love Ko Phangan, it just wasn't our scene.