As I've mentioned before, the laidback island life is not something that I've naturally gravitated to in life. Usually when I've taken my vacations (especially since starting in advertising nine years ago), I've wanted to see and do as much as humanly possible, making the most of the precious time abroad. What's been so unusual about this trip for me is that I've spent way more time relaxing at the beach (and relaxing in general) than I ever have before. I mean, when you're in the tropics with some of the best beaches in the world, do as the Romans, right? (Or, in this case, the Germans, French, Russians, Swedes, Danish, etc., etc.)
Given that I spent about 10 days in Cambodia in beach surroundings, a long morning at the beach in Hoi An, Vietnam, and a full day hanging out on Langkawi in Malaysia, it seems almost frivolous or excessively indulgent that I have yet another week or so of idle beach lounging on the itinerary. But when I booked my flight for Myanmar over a month ago, I had no idea how much time to allow (and I probably could have squeezed in those two islands in Malaysia and cut down of some of the Thailand time!). So, I'm making the best of allowing too much time in the islands in Thailand. I know, I know. What a pity party: I'm stuck on all these gorgeous tropical beaches for longer than I needed to be! Woe is me. Guess I can nourish that sadness with a dip in the pool and instagramming more pictures of palm trees.
Anyway, getting from one tropical paradise to another was not as tranquil. The trek between Langkawi and Koh Samui was long and stressful. Nothing as dramatic as the shlep between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, but definitely a long day. I left for the ferry terminal around 8 am, following my guesthouse owner's advice, only to realize in the taxi ride that she'd given really bad advice. I needed to be at the ferry terminal at 8, not leave for it then. The ferry terminal was packed with people, and after trying to get on the ferry with only an email confirming ticket purchase, was informed I'd need to go actually get the ticket from a window (also why you were supposedly be at the terminal at 8). I ran to the ticket counter and thankfully a nice uniformed worker for the ferry line whisked me to the front of the very long queue so I could collect my pre-paid ticket. I ran back to the terminal and found a mass of people lingering in front of the customs area for boarding the ferry to Thailand. Here's one of the nice things about travelling solo: you aren't trying to be polite to impress anyone, you can just absent-mindedly continue to walk (push?) through the dense crowd of Malaysians standing around confused and walk straight into the immigration/customs area and realize the mass of people hanging around slack-jawed and confused aren't even trying to board your ferry at all. If you'd politely stood in their mix thinking you were waiting in some jumbled line, you would find yourself missing the ferry.
I got on the boat and we set off about a half hour after departure time. An hour of smooth sailing later, we arrived in Satun, where we queued in a very long line to go through passport control. As soon as we were out, travel agents descended on the group to figure out where we were going and to sell us tickets. A woman approached me and offered me the whole trip to Suratthani for $20, which seemed like a fair price. It involved sitting in the back of a songtheauw (a pick up truck with a roof) and transferring to one minivan to drive two hours Hat Yai, then another minivan for four hours to Suratthani. At Hat Yai, I needed a new ticket to board the next minivan, and the woman at the ticket counter tried to insist I give her more money, but I threatened to call the original travel agent with a mega smile and excruciating, honey-sweet politeness, and the ticket lady got with the program after a chat on the phone with my original travel agent and handed me over my ongoing ticket. (Side note: Thailand, you've had like a bazillion tourists travel here for at least 30 years. Maybe quit the scams and hassle towards people who choose to come here? It's one thing in Cambodia where everyone is basically destitute and impoverished and the entire group of educated, academic and entrepreneurial people in your society were slaughtered in the name of Communist ideology, another in a country that can claim it's the only country in SE Asia to never have been colonized by European or other Asian powers.)
Anyway, off we were to Suratthani, in a minivan being driven by a literal crazy person. His approach to driving was the speed as fast as possible in the center of the two lanes (thank God there was an actual meridian with oncoming traffic), then would narrowly pass any trucks or cars in his way by swerving to the right or left (usually the left, which when you're on the opposite side of the road is not the lane to be passing on), then would kind of slow down when the traffic around him subsided, and as soon as we neared a new set of cars, would resume his process of stepping on the gas and swerving in and out of traffic. He had a special technique where after passing a vehicle would swing back into their lane and then the other lane, as if to assert his authority over the road. We had a number of close calls, one with a truck loaded with lumber which I was pretty certain we would collide with.
As we entered Suratthani, we sat in a ton of thick heavy traffic. When I looked out the window, I realized it was because the traffic in the opposite direction was barely moving due to the street being flooded with red, fast-moving water about a foot or so deep. Cars were just sputtering along in the deep water, as well as motorbikes, trucks, buses, etc. We continued through the flood (our side wasn't as bad, the center divider was trapping the flood of water from splashing over to our side of the road) for at least an hour. Everyone in the minivan talked about it, but since they all spoke Thai, I have no idea what the cause was -- it had rained but there was a pretty serious amount of water in the roads, so I'm thinking maybe a water main broke?
We got to Suratthani and the minivan driver dropped off all the other passengers and instructed me to remain in the car. I showed him where my hotel was, thinking his plan was to drop me off at the hotel. Instead he drove down a few narrow side streets and dropped me off at another travel agent. I was thoroughly lost (there's no map of Suratthani in Lonely Planet -- it's really just a jumping off point for the islands in the Gulf of Thailand) and my phone was dying. The guy at the travel agency wanted to know where I was going next. I said I didn't know (a lie to avoid them trying to sell me a ticket anywhere). They wanted to sell me a ticket to somewhere, book travel and tours for me. I said I just needed to go to my hotel. They wanted to sell me a ticket to an island. I asked, could they please just help me get to my hotel? Could they call me a taxi? The guy pretended now he couldn't speak English and walked away to watch TV. What street were they on? Where could I find a taxi? Nothing. I pulled my phone out and called my hotel and asked if they could send me a taxi. They couldn't speak English. I walked down the street and found two guys hanging out inside a shop. Where were we? I needed to go to this hotel, could they help me get there? They pointed down a street and said "tuk tuk".
I should add that due to the place I was staying in Langkawi and the rush of getting on the ferry and the travel agent whisking me on to the songtheauw I had eaten like five morsels of real food that day. There was no food at the guesthouse in Langkawi (and it was far from anything open in the morning); I had planned on eating at the ferry terminal but it took way longer to get to the ferry terminal than I'd planned on (plus the whole ticket shenanigan) , then I managed to cram a tiny croissant in my face before hopping on the songtheaw and a very small bag of potato chips in my mouth while changing minvians in Hat Yai. At our one rest stop break en route to Suratthani, not much was for sale, except at the 7-11 I managed to find a tiny croissant with ham and cheese to be heated up in the microwave and a bag of cashew nuts. I was basically weak with hunger and when I finally found the road with busy traffic, a guy came up to me and offered me a ride for some crazy amount like 400 baht and I said no and he said OK, 200 and I said, um that is insanity and he said it was very far. I decided to just keep walking (I would describe this as walking in a blind, hangry rage, cursing everyone for trying to rip me off and making traveling so stupidly difficult). Finally a songtheauw pulled up beside me and offered to take me for 50 -- wait, no, no I said 60! -- baht.
I got to the hotel, which was this sort of cute arrangement of little shipping containers turned into hotel rooms. I say "sort of cute" because the property felt like it had been constructed over a marsh and was down an unpaved road. It was also called a "resort" which was a total abuse of the word, since there was no food of any kind. Anyone booking this place thinking they were coming to a "resort" would be extremely disappointed. The women at the front desk spoke about 5 collective words of English and when I asked where I could get food, pointed out a bicycle that I could ride to find it.
My room was a little shoebox and while it was clean, smelled of mould. (Probably because it was built inside a shipping container!) Whatever, I had just spent the previous two nights in Langkawi in a fan room that left much to be desired (like a mosquito net, or a bathroom floor not covered with tiny ants), so it would do. At least I had my own bathroom. I hopped on a bike and headed down the road looking for food. After pedaling for five minutes, I finally came to the main street I'd travelled down in the songtheauw. Traffic was swooshing by in two lanes in each direction. I found street vendors but no one selling anything I wanted to eat, just some soup from one and soup at another. After making it across both sides of the street, I decided I'd had enough of the bicycle, so I pedalled back to the hotel. (I am not a huge fan of bike riding, esp in either heavily trafficked or dark conditions.)
I got back to the hotel and back off on foot. Now I was walking down the road in the almost-dark of night, another thing I have an aversion to. I spotted a blonde girl at a street vendor near the main road and noticed that someone was helping her order by translating the food choices into English. (None of the menus or anything in this area were in English, it was just a sea of Thai characters.) Perfect, I thought. I can glom on to a fellow Caucasian!
My ploy worked as I managed to get some fried rice and papaya salad for cheap, which I took back to the hotel and ate with the fellow Caucasian, who turned out to be a young Danish girl who I think misjudged my age and treated me quite disdainfully. Example:
Me: "Where have you been before here?"
Her: "I was in Thailand travelling around with a group and in Sri Lanka."
Me: "Oh cool! I'm headed to Sri Lanka too."
Her, wearing a look of total superiority: "Oh, I wouldn't do that. It's not a good place to be a solo traveller."
Me: "Hmm, yeah I guess I was thinking it would be a bit like India, so I'm preparing myself for that. "
Her: "No, it's not like that. There's no hostels there. Just in Colombo and Kandy. There's no hostel scene. "
Me: "Yeah, that's OK. I'm a little older than the average 'backpacker' anyway."
Her: "Well, you have to figure out how to get everywhere by yourself."
Me: "Um, OK..."
Anyway, it turned out that she had spent her time in Sri Lanka at a surf camp for a week, then had travelled for a week by herself, where she had been met with nothing but amazing hospitality and kindness from everyone she encountered. I kept trying to figure out why she was being so discouraging about it, but I finally got the sense that maybe she just wanted to have been the only person who had travelled to Sri Lanka, or thought herself special as she'd managed to travel around by herself there. She was also 20. (One thing I have noticed is that youth and misguided arrogance seem to go hand-in-hand...)
The next day I was up super early for my minivan to the ferry to Koh Samui. I arrived around 2 pm at my hotel and spent the rest of the day relaxing -- actually, I fell asleep in the shade next to the swimming pool! I didn't do too much the next two days, just wandered into the town of Lamai (about a 20 min walk from where I was staying), swam in the pool and kayaked out in the ocean in the very flat, calm waters. A nice time, although I was not particularly enthralled with the town of Lamai which had a myriad of open-air girlie bars, strip clubs, tattoo parlours, and questionable massage places. I've heard Phuket is way worse (which is why I'm avoiding it) but something about the whole sex tourist-aspect of Thailand makes me very sad, especially considering that Thailand has one of the higher HIV rates in the world, and I think the highest in SE Asia (need to fact check that!). It also has one of the highest hetereosexual rates of HIV transference, which is also very depressing, since it means HIV is primarily being transferred to/from female Thai prostitutes. (ALSO why even though I have NO interest in getting a tattoo, Thailand would be the LAST place anyone should consider getting one!) And the whole dynamic of old white men and teeny tiny young Thai women seems totally skeevy and gross to me.
Anyway, I am in Koh Phangan now, at a lovely resort I got at a great deal since the prices drop dramatically after the Full Moon Party crowds leave. I'll be here for a few more nights, then will head on to explore the beaches and jungles of Krabi!