Khao Lak, Thailand, April 23
Thailand (Part 2)
In the morning we boarded a ferry bound for the island of Ko Lanta Yai along with Johnny, Christine, and Hakumi. The ferry ride was mostly peaceful, if a bit uncomfortable on the hard seats. There were several locals on the boat touting for various hotels. We were approached by each tout and shown pictures of beach bungalows and handwritten testaments by previous guests praising the hotel in question. I of course deferred all such business to Suzanne who interrogated each tout and settled on one particular hotel which looked good on paper.
Upon arrival at the pier in Ban Sala Dan on the northern end of the island, our new friend from the hotel shuffled all of us into a waiting van (amidst a throng of other enterprising hotel representatives). We drove down a largely unfinished and potholed road through the small town and on to the beach area. The hotel had some nice bungalows and a decent beach, but upon arrival we learned that the cheaper bungalows which the tout had told us about on the boat were now suddenly full and only expensive accomodations were available. Grrr...smelled like a common tourist trick. Sue was not happy. We decided to look elsewhere.
After a frustrating afternoon of inspecting bungalows at different hotels, we settled on the Khlong Jark Bungalows down at the southern end of Ko Lanta. The Khlong Jark had a bunch of rickety huts near the beach, with adequate bathrooms, fans, and mosquito nets. And they were only 100B ($2.30 US) per night. (The fact that Johnny and I had to ride in the back of a pickup truck along a bumpy, dusty dirt road for 17 kilometers to get there may have had something to do with our decision to stay as well...) Next door was the much more exotic Waterfall Resort, which had a really nice restaurant on the beach. (Actually, using the word 'resort' in their name was major overkill. Sue looked at a room here too, but it was still too expensive.)
One great advantage over the hotels we had looked at was that the beach here was fabulous - very large and clean and flanked on either side by rocky outcrops. After settling into our hut, Sue and I walked down to the end of the beach and scrambled over the rocks. We found a small sea cave and climbed through to the other side. We continued on, walking and climbing over jagged but brittle rock formations bewteen the ocean and a high rocky hill. We observed a local woman and her child collecting what appeared to be small snails from the tidal pools and another group of bungalows built on stilts on the side of the hill. At dusk we headed back to our beach for a quick dip in the ocean, showered, and joined Johnny, Christine, and Hakumi for dinner at the Waterfall Resort's restaurant.
One of the reasons we came to Ko Lanta was to explore a series of caverns called Tham Khao Mai Kaew in the middle of the island. The previous evening at dinner we had made arrangements with the staff at the Waterfall Resort to get a ride to the caves in their truck which heads up north every morning to meet the ferry from the mainland. At eight o'clock we headed over to the resort only to find that their truck was full with guests returning to the ferry. There was no room for us to get to the caves. We were very disappointed and after a bit of tension and venting we decided to just wait until the following day.
Sue and I decided to spend the day by ourselves, hiking to an inland waterfall. Along the way the jungle on either side of the trail became very dense. The plants all around us seemed prehistoric, with giant leaves as big as us. At one point we wondered if there may be any wild animals, like tigers, still lurking about in this jungle. A few seconds later something came into my peripheral vision which froze me in my tracks. The trail ahead was curving to one side and was hidden from view. I sensed something very large and possibly dangerous just ahead, though we heard nothing. I could almost feel the adrenaline being pumped into my bloodstream doubletime. Then I saw an enormous grey foot appear on the path ahead and I turned to say something to Sue, but no sound came out. In the next moment, we were face-to-face with an Asian elephant, walking towards us along the trail, just a few feet away. My heart nearly burst out of my chest and we both pretty much froze. Suddenly, everything became clear - on top of the elephant was a bamboo bench of sorts upon which were seated a Western couple and their young Thai guide. The elephant was not actually wild, but just conducting an 'elephant trek' through the jungle. (We had seen signs for this activity along the road the previous day.) We stepped aside so the elephant could pass. I had never seen an elephant that close before and it was pretty amazing. We asked the couple if they were enjoying the trek to which the responded positively as they swayed from side to side with each enormous step. They did not look very comfortable. Neither did the elephant. I made a mental note to skip the elephant trek.
Further along the trail we began to see coconuts piled up here and there. I thought it odd that there would be so many on the trail considering we didn't even see many coconut trees. A short while later the coconut mystery became clear when we came across a pile that was decomposing. They were not actually coconuts, but elephant droppings.
That evening we again joined our friends for dinner at the Waterfall Resort's restaurant. As a special treat, the restaurant had a troupe of 'chao naam' (sea gypsy) musicians serenading the guests. They played some traditional music which their leader explained had been adapted from Muslim songs originating in Kalimantan.
We rose early for our second attempt at getting to the Tham Khao Mai Kaew caves. This morning more guests were leaving the resort and heading back to the ferry, but Suzanne, Christine, Hakumi and myself were able to all squeeze into the pickup truck. Johnny stayed behind to keep an eye on the beach. After driving several kilometers along the dusty, bumpy main road, we turned down a side road and were let off in a large clearing near a ramshackle little restaurant. Inside we managed to communicate to the owners that we were there to see the caves. They took some money off of us (150B per person) and we waited for the guide to show up.
The story behind the caves is that when the guide and his brother were young boys, they were following some bees through the jungle, hoping to find the hive to get some honey. The bees were flying into a small crevice in the side of a large hill and when the boys climbed in, they discovered a huge series of diverse caverns. Now, some years later, they have capitalized on their find by charging tourists for a 2-3 hour spelunking challege.
Our guide arrived and together with a few other tourists who had shown up at the restaurant, we set off into the jungle. After hiking uphill for about thirty minutes, we came to the cave entrance (marked by a large pile of discarded plastic water bottles...) One by one we descended down a bamboo ladder into the cool and ominous darkness. For the next couple of hours we walked, crawled, climbed, slipped and slid through the cavern complex, aided only by our flashlights, and an occasional strategically placed rope, log, or ladder. The final exit involved a belly crawl through a long narrow tunnel at the end of which shone some tantalizing rays of sunlight. We emerged muddy and tired, covered with scrapes and bruises, but satisfied. This activity was money well spent!
Unfortunately, we discovered upon returning to the restaurant that our ride from the resort had already come and gone. We were pretty much on our own for getting back to our hotel several kilometers away. After debating the possibility of them coming back for us anytime soon, we set off walking to the main road to try and flag down a ride. After walking for two or three kilometers, a young guy on a motorbike stopped and we sent Hakumi along with him. After another couple of kilometers we arrived at the start of the tourist beach area and waited outside a small shop for any trucks to pass by. Before long, a pickup loaded with Muslim Thai people came by and stopped for us. We packed ourselves in with them for a while and then switched to another truck going our way farther down the road. Suzanne and Christine sat in the cab of this second truck while I had to bounce around atop a pile of cinder blocks in the truck bed.
We finally arrived back at our hotel by late afternoon and I promptly jumped into the ocean fully clothed to try and wash the mud off. For dinner we again headed over to the Waterfall Resort (where Johnny and Christine had defected to, opting for comfort over cost) for a dinner that Johnny had pre-arranged while we were out exploring the caves: grilled barracuda, tiger prawns (the biggest shrimp I have ever seen!), and squid.
After our extensive meal, Sue and I stopped by the small outdoor beach bar at our hotel for a beer before going to bed. On the bar was an old Thai-English phrase book, circa 1975. It was divided into chapters based on scenarios such as dining in a restaurant, riding a bus, etc. We flipped through the book, entertained by the poor grammar of some of the English translations. In one particularly amusing chapter, we guessed that the scene may have had a title such as "A Trip to the Red Light District" based on this handy conversational exchange:
"Am I a man?"
"No, you are not."
We were up at sunrise this morning in order to pack our gear and head back to the pier at Ban Sala Dan for the ferry back to Krabi. As I was arranging my things, I discovered that during the night a colony of large winged ants had decided that my backpack was a suitable location to set up shop. They were concentrated in various nooks and crannies of my pack, tending to a large number of eggs which resembled grains of rice. This is not the kind of problem you want to deal with first thing in the morning. While Sue packed her things, secretly overjoyed that she had kept her pack zippered shut, I hauled all of my stuff out to the front porch, shook all the ants out, and repacked. We made it over to the Waterfall Resort to meet Johnny and Christine for the ride to the pier with just a few minutes to spare. I inhaled a banana pancake and some coffee and we were on our way.
Once again, Johnny and I were subjected to a dusty, bumpy ride in the back of the pickup, while the women rode in the cab. Along the way, the truck ran out of gas but, miraculously, a petrol station was close by. We arrived at the pier covered in a fine film of red sand and hopped onto the boat.
Back in Krabi, we said goodbye to Johnny, Christine, and Hakumi and boarded a mini-van for the town of Phang-Nga, a jumping off point for tours of the beautiful Ao Phang-Nga National Park. We arrived in Phang-Nga in the afternoon and checked into the Thawisuk, another old and airy hotel with proprietors who spoke little to no English.
Sue was feeling a bit under the weather and rested in the room while I walked a couple of kilometers through town to locate a church that we had found on the Internet. I then returned to the hotel to retrieve Sue and we found a small local restaurant for dinner where we had the luxury of ordering from a separate menu specifically for foreigners, complete with inflated prices.
Before heading down to the church I had found for the Sunday morning service, we stopped near the bus station to sign up for a two-day tour of Ao Phang-Nga National Park with an outfit called Sayan Tours. The owner was a very friendly Muslim man. After we booked the trip, he had one of his staff drive us to the church in their air-conditioned truck. He also offered to drive us to another park in the afternoon to do some hiking.
At the church we met the pastor and his wife, Phil and Yvette. The church was a part of the church-building mission program of YWAM (Youth With A Mission). The congregation consisted of local Thai people, so Phil gave the sermon in Thai, but Yvette sat next to us and translated. After the service, we shared a good home-cooked meal with the congregation in the church.
During the afternoon we took up Mr. Sayan's offer and hiked through the sa Nang Manora Forest Park. The trail worked it's way through dense rainforest and past several cascades and limestone rock formations. At the end of the trail was the 'Bat Cave'. It was inhabited by many squeaking namesakes perched high overhead and the whole place reeked of bat guano. Sue waited outside.
We were picked up from the Thawisuk early in the morning and driven to a pier where we boarded a big longtail boat and along with a group of other tourists set off on our tour of Ao Phang-Nga National Park. The park consists of some forty islands sporting massive limestone cliffs and extensive mangroves crisscrossed with tidal channels used by local fisherman as aquatic highways.
After cruising through the mangroves for a while, we visited the breathtaking Tham Lod cave, but had to leave quickly due to the mosquite assault. Next we passed through Tham Neuk cave, affording great views of giant stalagmites (stalactites?) dripping down towards the water. We then visited the Tham Talu cave where we were able to jump out of the boat into the water, climb up to a ledge in the cave and jump off. This was all fun and games until one of the girls in our group brushed against a jellyfish and received a nasty sting. Next was a walk through a cave called Tham Panak, followed by lunch on a small beach. In the afternoon, we saw the claim to fame of Phang-Nga, Ko Phing Kan, also known as 'James Bond Island'. The island was featured in the movie 'The Man with the Golden Gun'. Ko Phing Kan, which literally translated means "leaning on itself", is visually striking, like a giant rock splinter, but the viewing area is swarming with cheesy souvenir vendors.
Late in the afternoon we stopped at Ko Panyi, a Muslim fishing village built on stilts over the water. Our accomodation for the night would be some huts similarly built over the water, next to the home of the Sayan family (the tour company owner). The village is a very unique and interesting litte place. About one kilometer square, it's a maze of passageways flanked on either side by shops and homes. The water below is constantly visible through spaces between the boards and bamboo poles making up the 'ground'.
Of the group of people from the day tour, only Sue and I, a Thai couple, and a girl from Sweden were staying overnight in the village. We were free to wander about the village and we explored for a while, taking in a soccer match being played on a small concrete field, the fishermen tending to the day's catch in large floating nets, and the village mosque. A tasty homemade dinner was served to us on a small patio behind the huts, with a view looking out across the water.
I detected a strange vibe in Ko Panyi. Despite the many shops and stalls geared towards the tourist dollar, it seemed as though some of the locals were not altogether happy with our presence. I got the feeling that a lot of people were not happy with their home being exploited for tourism. Considering that we were staying overnight when all of the daytrippers went back to the mainland, we tried to keep a low profile and not get in the way. It was easy to see how the locals must be quite fed up with boatloads of tourists sticking their cameras everywhere.
After breakfast we packed up and headed back to the village pier. As we were walking down one of the main 'passageways', a teenage boy brushed by us, somewhat rudely. As he was walking away, we noticed that he was wearing a shirt with an image of the World Trade Center in flames on the back. The words "Bomb America" were printed above the picture. We were fairly shocked that the locals would allow that type of thing, considering the dependence of some of them on Western tourists for their livelihood. We were very angry. We considered that the boy may just have been ignorant of the meaning, but we thought not. For whatever good it might do, we vented to Mr. Sayan about it when we arrived back in Phang-Nga. He seemed genuinely concerned and said he would deal with the situation...
The rest of the day we spent travelling by bus first to Kok Kloi and then on to Khao Lak on the west coast of Thailand. Khao Lak serves basically one purpose for tourists - as a base for diving excursions to the islands in the Andaman Sea, particularly Similan National Marine Park. Upon arriving in the Khao Lak area, we got off the bus near the Taplamu pier where the dive boats depart from, not knowing that all of the hotel accomodations were several kilometers further up the road. We contacted a dive shop called Blue Zone Diving that Mr. Sayan had recommended and they came to pick us up. We booked a one-day dive trip for the following day. After our day of diving, the boat would let us off on one of the islands in the marine park where we would camp for a few days. From Taplamu we caught a ride to the hotel area with a truckload of divers just returning from a trip. Their reports of swimming with whale sharks fueled our excitement.
We checked into a room at the fairly nice but inexpensive Garden Beach Resort, spent some time on the beach, and wandered a short way into town to buy some groceries to take with us to the islands as we had heard food there was very expensive. Later in the evening we watched an absolutely stunning sunset over the ocean and then had dinner at a restaurant on the beach. (They actually had to move our table back at one point because the water was getting too close!) We feasted on green mussels with garlic and lemon grass, grilled barracuda, and vegetables in green curry.
That's not a coconut next to Sue's foot... (Ko Lanta)
Hiding in the jungle, Ko Lanta
Fisherman at sunset, Ko Lanta
Bungalow at Khlong Jark, Ko Lanta
View from the hammock, Ko Lanta
Johnny and Christine, Ko Lanta
Grilling some crabs and barracuda, Ko Lanta
Sea gypsy serenade (Sue and Johnny), Ko Lanta
Exit from the caves, Ko Lanta
After the cave tour, Ko Lanta
The Bat Cave, Sa Nang Manora Forest Park, Phang-Nga
Inside the Bat Cave, Sa Manora Forest Park, Phang-Nga
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (1)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (2)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (3)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (4)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (5)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (6)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (7)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (8)
Phang-Nga Bay National Park (9)
Dave and Sue in front of Ko Phing Kan ("James Bond Island")
Ko Panyee Muslim Fishing Village, Phang-Nga Bay
Football match, Ko Panyee
Mosque above the rooftops, Ko Panyee
Drying out the catch, Ko Panyee
Floating fish tanks, Ko Panyee
Selling the catch, Ko Panyee
Fileting the catch, Ko Panyee
Muslim school (1), Ko Panyee
Muslim school (2), Ko Panyee
Muslim school (3), Ko Panyee
Sunset at Khao Lak