We started the trip out with my least favorite part of traveling – an overnight train. The good news was that it actually wasn’t too bad. After being on Indian overnight trains it seemed like a luxury to be able to sit up in bed and not worry about our little insect friends crawling all over me. I slept for a few hours and we arrived in Surathanni at around 7:30 the next morning.
We hopped straight onto a covered open bed truck with two benches along the side of the bed called a Songtaew and drove for a couple more hours to get to Khao Sok.
What was remarkable about that drive was the beautiful scenery along the way. We had transported from the concrete jungle of Bangkok to majestic limestone mountains and lush jungle overnight. We all craned our necks to see out both sides of the truck and snap a few pictures of the greenery flying by us.
We turned off the main road and took a short drive into a small thoroughfare where we arrived at our bungalow resort called Morning Mist. It looked like something out of a movie with lush gardens and tiny fan cooled bungalows. We explored the quiet little town surrounding the bungalows and found only a few small hotels, a few internet cafe’s and a minimart. Right down the middle of the town was a bridge over a shallow river full of fish. It felt surreal as the cicadas hummed and birds chirped in the tall forest around us.
The next morning we left early to catch a ride over to Khao Sok national park, which is located in Surat Thani province in Thailand. It includes the Chiao Lan reservoir dammed by the Ratchaprapha dam. The park comprises the largest area of virgin forest in Southern Thailand and is a remnant of rainforest which is older and more diverse than the Amazon Rainforest. The wild mammals include, Malayan Tapir, Asian Elephant, Tiger, Sambar Deer, Bear, Guar, Banteng, Serow, Wild Boar, Pig Tailed Macaque, Langur, White handed Gibbon, Squirrel, Muntjak and Mouse Deer. Thank you wikipedia!
Visually it reminded me of how Halong Bay in Vietnam was supposed to look (it was covered in fog when we went). There were jungle covered limestone mountains and islands jutting straight out of the perfectly turquoise water. We hopped about a boat to take us over to one of the islands on the far side of the lake for a hike and cave explorations. Thinking about hiking in the oppressively humid heat was a daunting feeling but the scenery kept me motivated and positive. We clambered up a steep hill for about five minutes at the beginning of the hike and then it leveled off into around 40 minutes of an easy path along heavily jungled forest. You could hear gibbons calling out each other, birds and lizards chirping, and the rustle of leaves as I happily ventured through the forest.
We turned off the main trail and arrived at the surface of a small body of water where there were a row of bamboo flat boats. We delicately climbed aboard the boats and took a short ride over to some ancient caves to see stalactites and stalagmites. It was also reminiscent of the caves at Halong Bay, but much, much smaller. We walked around for a while and then followed our same path to get back to our boat on the other end of the island.
We boarded the boat again and took a quick ride over to a Bunkhouse for lunch. A bunkhouse is a floating building with attached bungalows. We were only day time visitors, but several tourists called the bungalows home for a few days. I happily jumped into the beautiful turquoise waters for a cool down swim for a few hours. It was a refreshing afternoon and then we hopped back on the boat to see some sights and go back to our hotel.
The next morning we got on another minibus to head over to the Ao Nang, Krabi area of Thailand. As usual, I will allow wikipedia to explain a little about Krabi. Krabi is a southern province on Thailand’s Andaman seaboard with perhaps the country’s oldest history of continued settlement. After dating stone tools, ancient colored pictures, beads, pottery and skeletal remains found in the province’s many cliffs and caves, it is thought that Krabi has been home to Homo Sapiens since the period 25,000 – 35,000 B.C.
What wikipedia doesn’t mention, however, is that this whole area was devastated by the 2004 tsunami that made land fall in this region. While Indonesia is known for being hit the worst, areas of Thailand and Malaysia were heavily affected by the deadly wave that killed somewhere between 220-280 thousand people in a matter of minutes as it swept across the land. About one year ago Japan was hit by a horrible tsunami that killed about 15-20 thousand people. So imagine losing 15-20 times that many people – the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in Daytona Beach, Florida. It’s simply terrible to imagine, but the recovery and attitude of the Thai people is a testament to their sense of community and ability to recover from tragedy.
We arrived fairly late in the day on our first day in the area for a homestay. If you have been following this blog since the beginning, you will recall my homestay in Cambodia. This one was similar, but the accommodations were in a dorm style room.
We dropped off our bags and Mr. Ae took us on a walk through his rubber and pineapple plantation. He showed us how the rubber is harvested from the trees and gave us some crazy statistics. His entire farm produced about 2 kilos of rubber per day. It takes 30 kilos of rubber to make one tire. So these rows and rows of trees surrounding me only made about two tires a month, or 24 tires a year. Do the math. Last year, we hit 1 billion cars on the road, they each need four tires…wow…thats a lot of rubber trees!! After our walk we helped cook dinner and prepared our breakfast for the next morning.
We had a warm nights sleep and then left early in the morning to go about 20 minutes to our hotel. We drove through the cute town of Ao Nang and saw streets lined with your typical tourist food and shopping. While I am not usually a fan of heavily tourist filled areas, sometimes it’s nice to see shops that cater to tourists. We didn’t linger long and went right back out after dropping off our bags.
Our day’s tour started aboard a large power boat. It was an undenyably beautiful area, but painfully overcrowded. Our first stop was at a beautiful beach at Koh Mai Pai where I did a bit of snorkling.
This was my first time snorkling since I learned to scuba dive in 1998, so I was hoping it would be cooler than I remembered. Unfortunately this was not the best area to be snorkling. It was pretty bland and I only saw a handful of small parrot fish before returning to shore. We got back on the boat and stopped by Viking Cave. Of course there have never been Vikings here, but the cave has numerous cave paintings of vessels, resembling Viking longboats. There are pictures of elephants and also of various boats: European, Arab and Chinese sailing ships, baroques, motorboats, and steamships. They were probably drawn by pirates, who paused in the cave on their travels from west to east, sheltering from the monsoon winds, transfering cargo, or making repairs.
The cave is revered by the local people. They come here to collect the swift’s nests, used to make Bird’s Nest Soup, a Chinese delicacy. The season for the nests is between February and April. A bids’ nest company has the concession for the cave, and they must be asked if you want to visit the cave. We did not have their permission so we only go to float by on our boat like the rest of the hoards of tourists.
We went for lunch on Phi Phi Don which was completely destroyed during the tsunami. It has since been rebuilt and everything is shiny and new including rows and rows of tourist driven shops, restaurants, and hostels. It was also very touristty and I was ready to go after a short time.
We made one last stop at the beach made famous by the movie “The Beach”. It bore little resemblance in my opinion because it was absolutely FULL of tourists. In fact there isn’t enough shoreline for boats to drop anchor. They pull up, drop their pack of tourists and then back out to make room for the rest of the waiting boats to drop theirs. After all of the lawsuits about the damage that Hollywood caused to the beach while filming the movie, it’s sad to see the Thai people not promote sustainable tourism in these beautiful islands. I felt like I was betraying my eco-tourism beliefs by being there at all. If beaches could talk, I am sure this one would tell you it wished it wasn’t so beautiful.
Our last stop was for more snorkling, but I was so put out by the hoards of boats and tourists at each place we went that I opted not to participate further. I enjoyed the day overall, but was left a little sad about the fact that my nephews will not likely be able to see these islands in their current condition. But enough about that. Krabi is beautiful and worth a visit, but you may want to find some areas a little off the beaten track if you want a taste of the pristine and untouched beauty for which Thailand was once known.
We went back to our hotel, cleaned up and a few of us went out on the town for the night. I knew we had a free day the next day, so a few drinks were in order. We found a few lame bars, and a couple of fun bars. It turned into a really fun night! The next day – not so much fun – but at least it was a day when nothing was planned. I needed to spend a day in to finish my Australia plans anyway! I was able to book a few flights and a trip to swim with whale sharks…but thats a whole new chapter in May…
Back to Thailand…but wait…it’s time to say goodbye to Thailand! We drove a long drive from Krabi to Penang and made the border crossing into Malaysia, which is where I am now. It was a very long day in a van, but I was happy to see beautiful Georgetown on famous Penang Island. We had arrived late in the day so we went over to a local “food court” for dinner. It was a large group of street vendor booths in an area about the size of a large 7-11. There was a small dining room adjacent to the vendors. You went up to the vendors, ordered what you wanted and then they delivered it to you. We all tried a sampling of delicious traditional Malay food and then I went to bed for the night.
The next morning we met up with a local tour guide and took a whirl around the sights of Georgetown. George Town was founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, a trader for the British East India Company, as base for the company in the Malay States. He obtained the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah and built Fort Cornwallis on the north-eastern corner of the island. The fort became the nexus of a growing trading post and the island’s population reached 12,000 by 1804. The fort was our first stop of the day. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was an interesting site to see a british fort in the middle of a large Malaysian city.
Our next stop was a small chinese buddhist temple adjacent to one of the Clan Jetties of George Town. They are the traditional settlements created by Chinese immigrants who share common historical, geographical and lineage origin. The one we walked down was called Chew Jetty and was lined with shops and homestays for tourists. At the end was a small temple overlooking the bay.
We took a stop by a Thai Buddhist temple and across the street was a Burmese Buddhist temple. Both had their own characteristics and I was lucky enough to receive a blessing from one of the monks in the Burmese temple. Feeling a little bit elated and even more blessed than before, we went back to the minivan for our last stop of the day.
Kek Lok Si is one of the best known temples on the island. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia. The temple is heavily commercialized with shops at every level and inside the main temple complexes. Generous donations from the affluent Chinese community allow the construction of additional buildings. It was modern and beautiful with lush gardens and intricate buildings. We enjoyed an hour or so walking the grounds and returned to our hotel to recover from a hot day of sightseeing in the air conditioning.
And that brings you current! Tomorrow we are going to take a local bus from Penang to Kuala Lampur (or “KL” as most people call it.)
I will keep you posted on all the new things I see and do! Hope you all had a great Easter!
P.S. I have no idea why the fonts on this post are all messed up…sorry if it creates any viewing issues for anyone! -L-