Sunday, 8 November 1998
Flying for the first time in four months, from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok , was a bit of a shock to the system. The usual set of travel concerns (how much will it cost, are we on the right bus) were replaced with a new set (will the straps of our rucksacks make it through baggage handling, will we get a window seat. Our friends back in the UK, Ian and Emma had mailed me regarding our interest in Sumatra but also to say that they themselves would be going to Cambodia around Christmas and would be in Bangkok around mid December if we were interested in meeting up. They asked me for the latest news on Cambodia but I was unable to be very forthcoming. On the plane trip I peered out of the window and through the cloud cover could just about see it, at the very least I could say it was there. Getting into Thailand was easy enough and they issued a visa on the spot. At the other side we mooched around the offices of Emirates air and KLM in order to explore the possibility of shifting our flights around to give us more time in Sumatra.
Finally outside the airport we drifted around a bit too much. The airport is a good hour from the Khaosan road but we made it seem more like three. The plane journey had disoriented us and now we were not sure where we were or where we wanted to be. We first got on the wrong bus and it was not until an English speaking Thai man took us under his wing and showed us where to change buses etc. that we finally found our way. in this I felt let down by our Rough Guide, all it had to offer on the subject of buses from the airport was that there were some. The Khaosan road was not how I imagined it would be nor was Bangkok to that matter. You read so much about places that they sometimes turn into caricatures. In place of a manic whirl of live sex shows, sixties drop outs and bag snatchers I found a quite relaxed place with a wide range of tourists populating the bars of the road.
We settled into a room that was little more than a double bed and a fan with a hint of privacy and then set out to explore. We found a restaurant and I had the first of many green curries. Following this we went for a beer and met a complete nutter. I said to Anna after our encounter that I always seem to attract such people but I must admit this guy will take some beating. He was a sixty year old ex-colonel of the Iranian army who had been exiled from his country. This part of the story could have been true, he showed us the shrapnel wound in his leg and could tell a few stories. He had also met everyone active in middle-eastern politics from the seventies onwards and had apparently told more than one American general to screw himself. This bit bordered on the ridiculous but if you believed the first bit it could be true. He was also an ardent fan of Sadam Hussein citing the fact that the middle east really could do with a third world war. However his presence on the Khaosan Road took some explaining. Apparently he had met a Japanese girl and had slept with her and afterwards she had accused him of rape. So because of this he had spent the last two years in a Bangkok jail and ha only got out seven days ago. At this point most people would have run a mile but we stayed on and humoured him making sure to keep an eye on our bags. We even kept our ground when his friend, another Iranian sporting a huge handlebar moustache, a shaved head and a red bandana turned up. However nothing happened to us and his life story never even got into the realms of believability.
Monday, 9 November 1998
Of course I would hype our only tourism related activity in Bangkok but riding the express boats up and down the river is the one thing everyone has to do if they go there. In fact our motive was less than touristic, we had to pick up our poste restante and the boats are a faster way of getting from the Khaosan Road to the post office than struggling through the traffic. The boats stop at numerous piers throughout town and express is really the word for them, they power through the water at an incredible speed and barely stop at the piers long enough for everyone to jump off. On the course of the journey we were able to do some long distance sit seeing and we arrived at the post office in record time.
Now I guess a lot of people love Bangkok and would consider us staying there for little more than 48hrs a crime. Others probably hate it and wonder what took us so long. However the problem was not Bangkok in our case it was that during months of travelling we had incubated a desire to collapse into some palm thatched bungalows on a white sand beach and not even the imposing Wat's of Bangkok could stop us from making a dash for it. Our entire day was consumed by a list of tasks that included obtaining visas for Australia and rearranging our flights so that we would have a chance to change our plans and visit Sumatra. After twelve hours of rushing around Bangkok we were finally able to collapse into the comforts of the Khaosan road.
Tuesday, 10 November 1998
Sadly more of the same as some of our tasks still remained outstanding. So our memories of Bangkok are limited to a few upward glances at gilded roofs as we hurried past to the offices of Air New Zealand etc. We had planned to visit the Royal Palace but after all our jobs were done we had less than two hours left before the bus to Krabi would leave and seeing that this would not be enough we decided instead to spend the time trying to pick up some reading matter for the beach.
Its a little hard explaining why so much of our time was consumed by the task of finding something to read but it certainly was the case. In Pakistan and on the Silk Road we found travellers cafes that operated book exchanges on a one for one basis. In the rest of China and Vietnam we rarely found any English books and survived only through my parents posting a literary "aid package", our brief spell in Hong Kong and the desperate measure of resorting to English translations of Chinese classics. Anyway our arrival in Bangkok was a delivery into a paradise of second hand books and the hell of second hand book dealers. The first adjustment you have to make is to realise that regardless of what price you paid for it, its condition and the amount that the dealer is selling similar books for the you will always be surprised by the amount of money that they offer for your books. On the other side you also have to adjust to the fact that they charge obscene amounts of money for their own books even though they are dog-eared, written by authors you have never heard of or are so popular that you have either read them or vowed never to read them. That old Groucho Marx quote "I would never join a club that would have me as a member" is embodied in these establishments. The couple of times we got decent prices for our books it would turn out that the shop had nothing decent to swap them for, it is bad practise to offer a good price and bad practise lands you with a shop packed with duff books. There is no system, if you turn up with the two most appealing books you are given a price based on the RRP and nothing else. If you turn up with expensive books you are told that they are difficult to sell at that price or else "books are very expensive in England". The only way out is to become a Stephen King fan since the volume of dog-eared copies of "It" and "Carrie" floating around makes the cost of buying them low and so lessens the blow when you come to sell them. However I still held out against it and this is why our attempts to find suitable books dragged on so much.
Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Ko Lanta, Krabi, Thailand
Another night spent in absolute agony trying to sleep on a coach. Even the fact that we travelled on super spacious VIP coaches from Bangkok to Krabi did not mean that I could find any surface on which to rest my head so it lolled around at night and I was kept awake by thoughts of "How stupid would it really look if I had one of those toilet seat shaped travel cushions?".
Our arrival in Krabi was followed by a sweaty dash around town to ascertain that first there was no ticket office for the boats to the assorted island destinations and worse than this the travel agents all had fixed upon a price and only a man whose office was a clipboard would undercut this price. In the end we resigned ourselves to paying the full price at the agents on the dock and were taken aback when they suddenly offered us tickets for the same price as Mr Clipboard.
We had settled on Ko Lanta - having decided not to risk the weather on Ko Tao or being one of a massive crowd of tourists on Ko Phi Phi. The trip took two hours with a stop on the way to drop off people heading to Ko Jum, little more than a couple of huts on a deserted island. On the way we chatted to a Dutch guy Rhinehart who had journeyed with us from Bangkok. Our arrival was somewhat spoiled by the realisation that I had left Anna's walking boots on the quay side in Krabi and so we pushed by the waiting pick-up trucks for the various bungalow operations only to find that the Island was experiencing a power cut and so there was no way to contact the mainland. Having realised this we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do so headed for the dive shop.
Anyone who has visited one of the quieter islands in Thailand or Indonesia will already know how slow the pace of life is. As the English, part-owner of the dive shop padded over to us in his flip-flops holding a beer in one hand I remembered that this lifestyle also takes hold of the ex-pats as well as the natives. This however was a good rather than bad thing - in our highly agitated and sweaty state the offer of a coke and a sit-down was more than welcome and as the Ko Lanta set up was discussed I slowly felt myself unwind. The people at the dive shop were more than helpful, since it was a long way from town to the beach where most of the action took place they loaned us a scooter. Visiting the bungalow operations proved more difficult than it sounded. Lanta's roads were all dirt tracks and with recent rain a couple of the tracks down to the beachside had turned to mud. We nevertheless found a superb bungalow only 20m from the sea and for only 300 baht. We returned the scooter and got back to the hotel in a bizarre motorcycle-trailer combination driven by a guy so relaxed he could have been Jamaican. After this we settled down, swam and enjoyed what was left of the sun.
Thursday, 12 November 1998
Ko Lanta, Krabi, Thailand
We had decided that given the fact that we had last dived two years ago we desperately needed some sort of refresher course. We were never that proficient anyway and the thought of jumping into 20m more than scared us. So we had booked what is known as a "scuba tune-up" with the dive shop. This consisted of a morning of classroom work and a few exercise off the beach. The classroom work was less helpful as the instructor basically gave us a multiple-choice test and then told us about any answers we had got wrong. The diving exercises were more exciting however as the churning sea off Ko Lanta meant that visibility was reduced to less than two metres. The tide kept on pulling us back ad forth and so when it came to buoyancy exercises we drifted all over the place. A lot of the time we could not see the instructor and at one point the instructor lost his list of exercises and had to spend time looking for it. All in all this bit was the most helpful as we regained our familiarity with the equipment. I still felt a bit foolish forking out $50 each for the tune-up as it turned out that in some places they give free tune-ups and for the money we could have dived for a day.
The rest of the day we hung around reading, swimming and beaching. The evening was spent partly in the hotel restaurant and partly in a beach bar just down from us. The Dutch guy turned up (as he had the night before) and we chatted about everything and nothing. He reminded us very much of Nick, a Dutch guy we kept running into in China, both of them had gone travelling separate from their girlfriends. Whereas Nick had never been able to contact his, Rhinehart had a definite program and knew when he would be staying in the KL Hilton with her.
Friday, 13 November 1998
Ko Lanta, Krabi, Thailand
The day of the big dive. Everything went pretty much smoothly with the exception of Anna's ears which gave her problems going down and prevented her from doing the second dive. We were diving with a group of experienced and very stand-offish Swedes, who pretty much did not talk to us, a Swiss and Austrian girl and a British guy by the name of Billy. Of all of them Billy was the most friendly and surprisingly (since he had done nearly forty dives) he dived with us. On the first dive we saw lots of fish, which does not sound that exciting but when you are diving it is fascinating. The second dive had the added attraction of a cave which we went into via one entrance and out of another. Much more exciting however were our divemasters attempts to find the cave. It was his first time diving in Ko Lanta and at one point we went into a dead-end cave with me navigating solely by the reflections from Billy's tank. It was pitch black and we could not see the walls, I did not want to reach out to find them either, what with the massive range of venomous beasties that live under the sea. Afterwards I reflected that the dives, because of the poor visibility and lack of things to see were a bit of a waste of money but they increased our experience and so would help us when diving in Oz.
Saturday, 14 November 1998
Ko Lanta, Krabi, Thailand
I have very little to record for these two days. Basically we were hanging around on the beach, reading, etc. The weather was not very good and winds created a great atmosphere but meant that the sea was too rough to swim in. Our final night on the island was marked by the long expected arrival of rain. It started whilst we were walking to the main town which meant that we had to take a sidecar taxi, driven by a ten year old boy, back to the hotel. It continued all through dinner and most of the night.
Monday, 16 November 1998
Anyone that has spent time on an island knows that there is always a possibility of getting cut off. As we had stupidly left Anna's boots in Krabi we had to go all the way back there and had bought our tickets the night before. When we woke up in the morning it took one look at the sea to realise that there would be no ferry. We talked about it and quickly came to the conclusion that it would be much better to get off the island by any means possible than to get rained on. We knew there was a second ferry route that linked with the mainland south of Krabi and after a good deal of confusion managed to get ourselves the last two places in a minibus heading to Krabi via this route. Naturally we forfeited our ferry tickets but I guess this was a lesson to us never to buy them until the day.
When we got to Krabi it was five past eleven, we had just missed the bus to Penang in Malaysia and this unfortunately meant that we would have to spend the evening in rainy Krabi. This had its plus points however, there was an Italian owned restaurant which made the best pizza we had consumed since Lijiang, and there were some second-hand bookshops to explore. This later item proved more annoying than useful. We had bought a brand new copy of "The Dive Sites of Thailand" in order to choose an island from the many in Thailand which might have good weather plus some interesting diving. The ironic thing was that we already had a copy in London but had mistakenly put it into storage. So not wanting to take it back we decided that being brand new we should get a very good price for it. Naturally we did not. The dealer insisted that it would be difficult to sell, we pointed out that Krabi was a major nexus for divers but this held no weight, the price was fixed at a quarter of what we had paid a few days beforehand. In the end we managed to push it up slightly by swapping it for a book twenty baht more than the price he offered but we still lost a lot of money. That night we watched "The Net" on video back at the hotel. I should really say endured than watched but we had not seen a movie for a while. For company we had a guy who doubled up as the non-thinking man's Barry Norman, "Anything with Sandra Bullock in is okay by me!".
Tuesday, 17 November 1998
George Town, Penang, Malaysia
A very well orchestrated trip to Penang in a tourist bus run by some very surly people. The limestone scenery of Thailand flew past at a rate of knots, a smooth change at Hat Yai was quickly followed by a smooth border crossing. We got to Penang at a decent time and predictably it was raining. George Town , which is the main town of Penang Island, turned out to be a very traveller friendly town with all the budget hotels, restaurants and second-hand book shops gathered on one road Chulia St. Thus it took us no time at all to find a decent room and drop our stuff. We then made a beeline for the nearest Indian restaurant - Malaysia has quite a large Indian population and some very good and cheap restaurants to match. This was swiftly followed up by a trip to a bar for a few games of pool and a cheeky dessert at the Rainforest Cafe which turned out to have the best Chocolate cake going.
Wednesday, 18 November 1998
George Town, Penang, Malaysia
George Town is a place that deserves more than a single night. We had put off our ferry to Sumatra for a day in order to do some pottering. A circuit around town revealed that courtesy of British rule the area around Fort Cornwalis and the town hall was strikingly reminiscent of Brighton. In fact the only thing that gave the game away was the streets of Chinese traders houses in the streets behind. This was one of the interesting things about George Town, we probably saw more traditional Chinese architecture in our stroll than we did in three months of China.
The rest of the day was spent, as was usual when we got to a town, getting things. We had run out of books yet again and one of my shirts had bitten the dust on the way to Ko Lanta so I need a replacement. Sadly I must admit we also availed ourselves of the local MacDonalds. Remembering a previous visit to Indonesia I predicted that the food would not be wonderful so we returned to the Rainforest cafe for a Western style last supper, predictably finished off by more chocolate cake.