Krabi, Thailand, April 15
Thailand (Part 1)
In the morning we packed up and stuffed ourselves into a mini-van heading for the border of Malaysia and Thailand. The border crossing experience was uneventful, as the driver collected everyone's passport, disappeared for fifteen minutes to get the visas stamped, then returned and we were on our way. As we drove through southern Thailand, the most notable difference from Malaysia was the presence of colorful Buddhist temples and numerous Buddha images.
The van dropped us off in the city of Hat Yai where we exchanged some money ($1 US = 43.4 Thai Baht). From there we took another packed mini-van, in which we were the only foreigners (or "farang" in Thai), to the ferry pier in the small west coast town of Pak Bara. From there our plan was to take a ferry to the Ko Tarutao National Marine Park on the recommedation of our friend Johnny. The park consists of 51 islands lying about 30 km offshore. The largest of these is Ko Tarutao and we planned on spending a few days camping there on the beach.
The ferry was scheduled to depart from Pak Bara about a half hour after we arrived, but did not end up even arriving in Pak Bara until almost three hours later. The ferry was an old wooden vessel, clearly too small to hold all the waiting passengers. Sue and I and a few other people (mostly farang) ended up sprawled amongst the large pile of baggage heaped onto the bow. We were apprehensive, but this turned out to be great, as the seas were calm and the scenery fantastic. (In rougher conditions, however, it would have been, at the very least, uncomfortable...)
Upon arrival at Ko Tarutao late in the afternoon, we stepped onto the pier at Ao Pante beach by precariously climbing over two other docked boats while loaded down with our backpacks and then reported to the information center. We were surprised to find the area was quite developed with several large buildings and many people milling about. The ranger on duty informed us that there were no more tents available for rental that night and all of the bungalow accomodations were full. Sensing the desperation of the group of backpackers with nowhere to go, the ranger offered us the floor in a large empty room of the newly built visitor's center. This was better than nothing, so we accepted, each couple securing some space on the hardwood floor. One of the couples were Thai, and they talked the rangers into letting us use some brand-new mats and pillows we saw in a locked closet. (These were normally reserved for use in the bungalows.)
We started talking with another of the couples, Richard and Nouria from England, and had dinner with them at the park's overpriced restaurant. We spent a couple of hours talking in the restaurant after we ate and then headed over to another pavilion where we heard music being played. It turned out to be the aftermath of a dinner for a packaged tour group of older Thai people and the music that was playing was from a computerized karaoke machine. The tables were strewn with dirty dishes and the only people remaining (besides the karaoke operator) were a group of old Thai men drinking whiskey. They were very glad to see us and offered us drinks and were generally entertained by our attempts to speak Thai and each other's attempts to speak English. Before long Sue and I were trying our hand at "Country Road" in front of the karaoke machine. Even though we were just warming up, some official looking tour coordinator type showed up immediately after we finished and shut down the karaoke machine for the night. We said goodbye to the old Thai men and walked on the beach for a while before going to bed. (And with those mats and pillows, the floor was surprisingly comfortable!)
Early in the morning we were able to rent a tent, as many people were departing the island back to the mainland. We spent the rest of the morning on the beautiful and nearly deserted white sand beach. After lunch, we locked up our big packs in a storage room and along with Richard and Nouria hired a longtail motorboat to take us south along the coast of Tarutao to another beach camping area called Ao Son.
Ao Son was quite isolated compared to the Ao Pante beach area, and the facilities were much less developed. There were only a handful of other campers there besides us. Due to the possibility of leatherback turtles using the beach as a nesting area, the actual campground was set a bit farther back where the earth was like concrete. We staked down our two-man tent with some difficulty, hung the bags of fruit we had brought with us from a tree to keep them away from the ants, and spent the rest of the afternoon on the deserted beach.
At dusk, we suddenly came under attack from swarms of tiny biting sandflies. For some reason, they seemed to be concentrating their attack on myself and Richard. Before finally making it back to the campground, swatting and flailing about, I'd say I was covered with not less than one hundred of the little buggers. Fortunately, the campground was not infested with sandflies, but I was itching fiercely all over. Desperately looking for a shower, I was told there were no shower facilities, but to bathe in the nearby river. Richard and I eagerly jumped into the cold water for instant relief.
Upon returning to the tent, we found that while we were at the beach the rest of the campers had been entertained by some monkeys working up enough courage to climb down the tree on which our bags of fruit were hanging to pilfer several bananas and chew a hole in our watermelon.
After a restless night sleeping on the rock-hard ground, we spent most of the day hiking to Lu Du Falls, about one and a half hours from Ao Son. The hike involved clambering up a boulder-strewn riverbed for a couple of kilometers. As it was still the dry season, the waterfall was not very big, but the pool underneath was deep enough to swim in. The water was cool and felt great after the hike. We climbed up the rocks next to the falls a couple of times to jump into the pool. On one of these jumps, I lost my second cheap watch of the trip as the velcro strap came undone as I hit the water. As we were drying off afterward we noticed an animal skull, probably a deer, nearby in a shallow part of the pool. We were glad to have seen it afterward and not before, as we figured we might not have gone into the refreshing pool otherwise. (Still can't get that Australian crocodile thing out of my head...)
We hiked back to the campground and Sue and I packed up our gear, choosing to hike the eight kilometers back to Ao Pante via an interior road rather than spend another uncomfortable night sleeping on the hard ground. After four kilometers, we were picked up by a large truck carrying a group of Thai women teachers and their husbands on holiday. (I think they were part of the group who had the karaoke dinner party the night before last.) They gave us a ride the rest of the way back to Ao Pante. On the way Sue had a good time talking to the women about being a teacher while I sat on the floor among the men smiling a lot and looking generally agreeable.
Back at Ao Pante we found a nice spot among some trees lining the back of the beach and pitched our tent in the soft sand.
Shortly after sunrise, the tent became a veritable oven, as tents do, and we emerged for a swim in the ocean at 7:30 am. After breakfast, I bought a nylon hammock from the camp store and proceeded to become completely befuddled trying to string it up between two trees in front of our tent. A very nice (and probably highly amused) Thai couple camping next to us came over and had the hammock rigged up in no time.
The afternoon was clear and sunny and very hot. We spent time alternating between lying in the shade, on the beach, and cooling off in the ocean. On one of these excursions into the water, Sue, who tends to not like to touch the bottom but float instead, discovered a disadvantage to this technique. As one or two signs about the park indicated, the ocean here is the habitat of stingrays and scorpionfish, both of which pack a very painful but non-lethal sting. The proper way to enjoy the ocean in such areas is to stomp and splash around as much as possible when entering the water so as to scare away any unseen problems. As Sue was floating along, she stuck her foot down to touch bottom and either stepped on or near a friendly little stingray or scorpionfish, who in turn decided to deliver a painful sting to Sue's heel, causing her to shout loudly and become quite ornary. She lifted her foot up to show me the small puncture on her heel which was beginning to swell so I picked her up and sloshed back onto the beach. After applying an anti-sting treatment and some topical antihistamine from our first aid kit to her foot, I ran down to the park's first aid station to get some help. The ranger sent a motorbike up towards the camping area and I helped Sue limp out to the road to meet the bike.
The first aid worker on duty was a young guy and at first seemed a bit unsure of himself. He didn't speak any English, so crowded into the room besides he, Sue, and I were a few Thai women who were trying to translate for him. For some reason they asked if I was a doctor at one point, which made me somewhat concerned. (I, of course, answered that I was not a doctor, but played one on TV...they didn't get it.) However, the young medic went about his business competently and everything was quite clean and sterile. He cleaned out the wound and gave Sue topical antibiotics and acetominophen for the pain. She rested in the first aid station for the remainder of the afternoon and in a few hours was feeling much better.
Talking to the park ranger later on, he warned us about swimming in what he called "middle tide", that period between high and low tides. He said that's when the stingrays come into the shallow water to be trampled by unsuspecting tourists. On the way back to the campsite, I checked the warning signs that were posted near the beach, but saw no mention of the sinister middle tide. Hmm, sounds like suggestion box material...
We packed up our gear, returned the tent, and caught the 1:00 ferry back to Pak Bara on the mainland. From there we took a mini-van to the town of Trang and late in the afternoon checked into the Ko Teng Hotel. The hotel was a large, musty place, ancient but spacious and clean enough.
Towards evening, the woman who owned the hotel walked with us a few blocks to show us where the night market was. She then took us to a stall serving khanom jiin (chinese noodles with curry). She also brought us some fried mushrooms from another stall and then left us to wander around. Before returning to the hotel, we sampled the fried chicken (gai), pork satay, grilled squid and octopus in chilli sauce, cornbread cake, and some kind of egg cake with caramelized onion on top. And all this for 70 baht (about US $1.60)!
In the morning we had a good Western style breakfast of eggs, toast, and coffee at the hotel. We packed up and walked across town to board another mini-van bound for Hat Yong Ling, a national park beach. There we found ourselves to be the only foreigners among the several groups in the camping area on the beach. We learned that with the approaching Songkran Water Festival during the coming weekend, many Thai people had this week off and were on holiday at the beaches. With some difficulty, we located a park ranger and rented a tent for 150 baht. He was even nice enough to carry it to the beach and set it up in the spot Sue picked out.
We spent the afternoon exploring some caves amid the large limestone promontories marking the northern edge of the beach and then trying to help Sue overcome her fear of middle tide stingrays and get back to enjoying the ocean. Shortly before dusk we headed off the beach to explore the shower facilities, which turned out to be an adventure in itself. The 'shower' consisted of a twenty foot well dug into the ground, the very bottom of which was filled with some murky water smelling distinctly metallic. To pull the water up from the well two plastic industrial chemical jugs had been cut in half and attached to long ropes. After observing some locals to be sure that this was the correct procedure, we doused ourselves with several buckets full of well water until we were questionably clean, being careful not to get any in our eyes or mouths.
For dinner we hit one of the few food stalls near the beach parking area, where we enjoyed a meal of fried rice sterilized with Beer Chang. The food actually was pretty good, and the nice people at the food stall even provided a candle for our table. (I can't quite remember, but this may have been because there was no electricity.) Back on the beach we built a fire and spent the evening watching the sky for shooting stars and satellites. After Sue went into the tent to sleep, I was visited by three Thai boys bearing firewood. They sat down for a while and we tried to talk with the help of my phrasebook, but the most I could get across was "This is my first time in Thailand" and "Passports, please!"
From Hat Yong Ling, we planned to spend the day travelling north to Krabi where we were hoping to rendezvous with our friend Johnny and his wife Christine. Usually, the days that we spend doing a great deal of overland travel are characterized by some degree of frustration with public transportation and language barriers, leading to at least one argument between us. Today, however, we hit what I call the 'travelling groove'. Starting with the offer of a five-baht motorbike ride out of the park and back to the main road by a park employee, we next were offered a FREE ride on an air-conditioned mini-van back to the bus terminal in Trang. The very nice man who picked us up was on his way back to Trang from somewhere in the south and just happened to be passing by when the park employee dropped us off. We actually thought he was the official public mini-van we were supposed to have been waiting for and once we were underway found out that he was just doing us a favor! He dropped us at the bus terminal late in the morning, just in time to jump on a bus for Krabi that was about to depart. The ride was comfortable, getting us to Krabi by early afternoon. We found a great little guesthouse with minimal effort and a short while later randomly ran into Johnny and Christine out on the street. Things were definitely going our way!
For dinner, we joined Johnny and Christine and their friends Angelo and Sylvia from France at a food stall in a big night market near the ferry pier, which was a short walk from the guesthouse. At Johnny's experienced suggestion, we enjoyed an a la carte meal of lok kalam (shrimp, cauliflower, and oyster sauce), tom yum kung (spicy prawn and mushroom soup), garlic pepper chicken, and sauteed morning glory (a Chinese vegetable Johnny describes as the 'hollow veggie').
After dinner we walked around a nearby night market where I subjected myself to another supremely horrendous pizza experience.
We were up early this morning for a full day of activities - taking in the Songkran water festival while touring the area on rented motorbikes. The Songkran Festival is the traditional Thai New Year. The Thai people will clean their homes, pay homage to Buddha images, and show respect to elders by sprinkling water on them. Believing that the water washes away bad luck, the festival culminates in masses of people taking to the streets and painting passers-by with fragrant powders and/or dousing them with water.
After a quick lesson on riding the motorbike, Sue climbed on behind me and along with Johnny, Christine, Angelo, and Sylvia, we were off. The motorbikes were only 4-speed, 100 cc Honda Dream's, but coupled with my inexperience and all of the people in the streets throwing water at us as we passed, I had some fairly constant white kunckles.
We didn't have to go far before being completely soaked from groups of people throwing water using buckets, hoses, and water guns. As we would approach some groups they would wave at us to slow down (which we almost always had to do because they were blocking the road), and then paint our faces with the fragrant powder-paste of various colors. Other groups would slow us down simply to dump or spray water on us, which would wash off the previously applied powder-paste and start the whole process over again. Most effective were the many pickup trucks out cruising the roads. With beds equipped with large tubs of water and packed with people sporting buckets, they would drench us unceremoniously as they unsuspectingly drove up from behind. This was all done in good fun, and considering the day was hot and sunny, the water was for the most part refreshing. (Some of the water was really COLD - we suspected they were putting ice cubes in their tubs!)
Our first destination was a Buddhist monastery called Wat Thum Sua (Tiger Cave Temple), which was several kilometers outside of the town center. The monastery is set in a forested area, surrounded by limestone cliffs and caves. After parking our motorbikes and wringing ourselves out a bit, we climbed a very long stone stairway to the top of a karst ridge and toured a few caves housing Buddha images. There were also several small 'kutis' (monk's huts) near the cave entrances, complete with freshly laundered saffron robes hanging out to dry. Back at the bottom of the hill, we entered the main 'wihan' (central sanctuary), which was a building built out from a large cave. Inside we observed several monks and lesser wat personnel eating lunch. The monks rely solely on the local people for sustenance and each day people come to the wat bearing alms in the form of food. The monks were gathered in a circle on a raised area with quite a spread laid out between them. The local people seemed to be sitting reverently on the floor of the sanctuary below them. Above the circle of monks, on an even higher platform, was the wat's 'long phor' (abbot, or head monk). He had an even better spread than the lesser monks below him and it was easy to see that the people were keeping him well-fed. Johnny, who has met the abbot several times and has developed some rapport with him, refers to him as the "Big Monk".
Not far from the entrance to the sanctuary, I saw something very interesting. A monk was sitting in the meditation position, legs crossed, completely motionless, with his eyes open and staring straight ahead. The really weird thing was that he was sitting inside a glass case. I thought that this was just something the monks take turns doing, sitting inside the glass case. At Johnny's urging, I walked up to the case for a closer look. Johnny signalled further approval and I bent down to stare into the monk's eyes. He didn't move. He didn't blink. It almost seemed as if he wasn't even breathing. Johnny then let us in on the secret - the monk was, in fact, dead. He was a previous abbot of the monastery and, according to Johnny, slowed his metabolic rate down so far while he was meditating that he passed right on into the next life. His body was preserved as a memorial. I couldn't help but thinking what if the monk hadn't really intended to do that, but meditated to expiration by accident. Bummer. I thought about taking a picture, but just couldn't bring myself to do it. (I later heard a conflicting story that the encased monk was actually just a wax figure, but judging from the detail of the tiny blood vessels on his face, I'm tending to believe Johnny's version.)
After the Big Monk had finished eating and come down from the platform, Johnny spoke with him and then indicated that we should follow them into an inner chamber. The little room was a sanctum sanctorum, of sorts. It was air-conditioned, with a clean white tile floor and filled with many elaborate Buddha images and a large safe. Across the room, the Big Monk sat down in his chair and following Johnny's lead we knelt on the floor before him. Now, this did feel a bit awkward, and Johnny sensed it, but he reassured us that this was just an expression of respect and we complied. With Johnny translating, the Big Monk said he was happy we could come and would like to bestow a blessing upon us. Johnny explained that the Big Monk would bless us by touching the tops of our heads with an object in which his power was contained - a concentration of his karma. We bowed our heads and from some hidden compartment the Big Monk produced his karmic talisman. To me, it looked like a large keyring, similar to the one your high school janitor carried on his belt. Hanging off the keyring were what appeared to be a whole collection of random trinkets. Now, I was looking at this thing out of the corner of my eye, but I am pretty sure that among the items contributing to the karmic power source were several seashells, lucky rabbit's feet, and Pez dispensers. There may have also been quite a few actual keys. Anyway, the Big Monk touched the jingly talisman to the tops of our heads, returned it to it's hiding place, and then gave each of us a bag of colored pebbles and a small golden pendant bearing his image. We thanked the Big Monk and
headed out to a market next to the wat for lunch.
We left the monastery and rode 40 kilometers to the beachside resort town of Ao Nang. Along the way, we continued to get soaked by groups of people by the roadside and roaming pickup trucks. At one point we saw a long line of pickups along the side of the road. We cringed as we passed, but soon discovered the reason for the queue - the tub in the bed of each truck was empty. They were in line to refill their ammunition from a large water tanker truck!
As we approached the main road along the beach in Ao Nang, traffic became very heavy and the roadsides were massed with people. Being on motorbikes, we were able to slowly weave our way among the cars and trucks, but not without being constantly squirted and dabbed with powder-paste. We parked on the side of the road for a while, jumped in the ocean, and bought some food and drinks from some nearby street vendors.
After trying to dry out a bit, we maneuvered our bikes back into the traffic flow with difficulty and continued on. The crowd soon became largely comprised of young people, mostly teenaged boys. We began to see beer cans and bottles here and there and the scene began to deteriorate. The crowd began to take on a sort of mob mentality and Western women riding on the back of motorbikes drew much attention. Sue was holding on tightly and more than once I had to swat away groping hands. We finally made it to the end of the beach road and Sue was understandably irritated. Instead of heading back along the same route, Johnny led us to an empty beach a few kilometers away. There we swam and rested in the shade of some big rocks before mounting up again and heading back toward Krabi late in the afternoon.
That night, Johnny arranged for the matriarch of the family which owned the guesthouse he was staying at to cook an authentic Thai meal. We cleaned ourselves up and headed over to the Cha Guest House to join Johnny, Christine, Angelo, Sylvia, and Ralf and Michael from Germany for a huge feast consisting of tom yum kung, keang som (curry fish with pineapple), pu (chilli crab), keang kai (curry chicken and potatoes), sauteed vegetables, and steamed rice. Everything was delicious - and incredibly spicy! I think I drank about two liters of water with my meal. As a special treat, Johnny had the chef prepare some fried chicken's feet. Keeping an open mind, I tried to eat one following Johnny's example. I didn't have much luck with it. What little meat I was able to get off tasted fine, but what really bothered me was feeling the cartilage in the joints ripping apart as I tugged on the chicken toes with my teeth. Yuck.
In the morning, Sue and I rode our motorbike a few kilometers back along the road to the beach to a small Baptist church we had noticed the day before. The service was given in Thai, but we sat next to a girl who spoke some English and she was able to translate some parts for us.
The afternoon was spent checking email and shopping in Krabi. For dinner we again went down to the night market by the pier for a big a la carte meal with Johnny, Christine, Angelo, Sylvia, Hakumi from Japan, Christine and Lisa from Australia, and Sandra and Sara from Sweden. Afterward, we walked through the nearby night market and all bought silly hats to indicate that we were farang in case it was not already painfully obvious.
We met up with our friends again this morning and headed down to the pier to embark on a longtail boat tour of the beautiful karst landscape and islands surrounding Krabi. We first passed Ko Hua Khwan (also known as Chicken Island) and then stopped at Ko Rang Nok (Bird Nest Island) for a swim and a snorkel in the perfectly clear water. Next we headed over to Ko Poda for more swimming, lying on the beach, and lunch. In the afternoon we headed to Hat Tham Phra Nang, a slightly crowded beach sporting a few resorts. At one end was a beautiful limestone cliff containing a large cave. Inside the cave was a small Buddha shrine surrounded by many carved wooden phallic offerings. The spirit of an Indian princess is said to inhabit the cave and local fisherman leave the offerings to ensure a productive catch. While Sue slept on the beach, I swam across the cove beneath the cliff and scrambled through some more caves, acquiring a nice foot laceration in the process.
For dinner we all went to a different night market and ate at a Muslim Thai food stall. Afterward we shopped for dessert among the market stalls. We bought some Thai delicacy sticky rice and mango, jackfruit, bananas in coconut milk, and some kind of colorful gelatinous rice best described as "gummy worms" and headed back to the Cha Guest House to eat it all, whereupon we discovered that we accidentally had left the sticky rice back at the market.
Thai fishing boat, near Pak Bara
Sleeping on the floor of the visitor's center, Ko Tarutao
Ao Pante beach, Ko Tarutao
Ao Son campground, Ko Tarutao
Hiking to Lu Du Falls, Ko Tarutao
Lu Du Waterfall (barely...), Ko Tarutao
The skull at Lu Du Falls, Ko Tarutao
Hammock 101 (before), Ko Tarutao
Hammock 101 (after), Ko Tarutao
Sue and friends, Ao Pante beach, Ko Tarutao
Sunset at Ao Pante (1), Ko Tarutao
Sunset at Ao Pante (2), Ko Tarutao
Suzanne, post-stingray attack, Ko Tarutao
Main intersection at night, Trang
Green curry and stuff at the night market, Trang
Grill Boy, Trang night market
Tuk-tuk stand, Trang
Campsite at Hat Yong Ling
Beach at Hat Yong Ling (1)
Beach at Hat Yong Ling (2)
Crawling around Hat Yong Ling
Riding with the luggage, Bus from Trang to Krabi
A home-cooked Thai dinner at the guesthouse; Angelo, Sylvia, the "old man", Christine, the chef, Suzanne, and Johnny
Trying to eat the chicken foot, Krabi
Karst (limestone) island formations near Krabi
Johnny on the longtail boat, Krabi
Ko Hua Khwan (Chicken Island)
Our longtail boat moored on the beach, Ko Hua Khwan
Longtail boat driver taking a break, Ko Hua Khwan
Dave going for a snorkel, Ko Hua Khwan
Fishing boats moored near Ko Poda
Beach at Ko Poda (1)
Beach at Ko Poda (2)
Beach at Hat Tham Phra Nang (1)
Beach at Hat Tham Phra Nang (2)