So it wasn’t as hard to get out of Bangkok and to an island as the T.I.T. would have you believe, but it was a bit involved. It’s easy enough to book bus tickets, I use Thai Ticket Major. The prices seem reasonable, you simply print your receipt and check in at the TTM booth at the bus station. The bus was comfortable, air-conditioned, and you are provided with blankets. It makes several stops where you can purchase food, snacks, or use the bathroom. However, getting to the bus station from Khaosan Rd. was a bit of a chore. Apparently, there is a bus that goes directly there, but I could not figure out what side of this giant boulevard to catch it from. I waited for the first bus, 509, and asked if it went to the BTS station. The lady seemed rushed and confused, and kind of shook her head. I then assumed I must want the opposite side bus and made my way over there. When that bus arrived, I asked the same question, and was told that I wanted the bus on the opposite side. WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE, PEOPLE?! Then I took a taxi instead.
Side note: the word for “go” in Thai is “pai” and it doesn’t decline or do anything funny, so you can use it in any context of go or to go, such as when you’re ordering food “to-go”. “Pai nai?” means “Where are you going?” Servers will ask you, “Pai; tee-nee?” which means “to go or here?” (roughhhhhhly)
The taxi ended up costing 300 b, a little less than $9, but it was worth it to get where I was going and just chill in air-conditioning. Then I got on a bus for 13 hours. I arrived in Surit Thani, the eastern coast of Thailand, at about six in the morning. I got out and saw that we were at a dock. I was thoughfully informed, on wandering bleary-eyed into the nearby building, that I needed to purchase a ferry ticket. Apparently, some bus tickets include the ferry pass, but my ticket had been “quite cheap”. The ferry ticket cost 150 b. I boarded the ferry at 7am, and enjoyed exploring the ferry for awhile. I couldn’t check into my bungalow until 12:30, Hostelbookers claimed, so I didn’t care how long the ferry took. I’d gotten some snacks (dried lotus and some kind of filled pastries) at a roadside purveyor during the night, and subsequently had felt a little the worse for wear since.
I arrived at the dock at Na Thon, and decided to take a songthaew, as they’re the cheapest transportation on the island, according to the guidebook. Songthaews are pretty funny, they’re pickup trucks with a metal rig soldered to the back that includes seats and a metal rails for people to stand on the back and hold onto. It’s a combo truck and merry-go-round feel. You’ll see them all over the island, they always honk if you’re walking, and they’ll try to overcharge you hardcore. I didn’t think to have the bungalow address written down, but I was pretty sure it had said it was a 3-minutes walk to Chaweng beach, so I told the driver I wanted to go to Chaweng. I was feeling pretty smart, because the taxi drivers were asking 1,200 b to go to Chaweng, and I had secured a songthaew ride for only 100. When I sat down, I opened my guidebook and found that my ride should have only cost between 60 and 80 b. Ah well, live and learn, eh?
En route on a crowded songthaew, I considered that it might be practical to have the bungalow address written somewhere, so I dug out my laptop. Thankfully, my mail handler saves my emails, so I could pull up the reservation. I was dropped off in downtown Chaweng, and asked the driver for Moo 3, which is where my place was supposed to be. He said we were currently on Moo 2, so Moo 3 should be nearby. I asked around a bit, showing the address written on my hand, and a friendly security guard told me I was in the wrong town. I was so worn out, I gave in and allowed him to call me another taxi. The driver was very friendly, and talked about all the places we were driving through, but I was mad at the rate (400 b) and tired and nervous about ever finding this place. However, the taxi driver must have felt bad for me, because he did an admirable job of bringing me right to the door of Green Canyon Bungalows. I staggered out and up to the desk, which was wo-manned by a French woman. I had prepaid a deposit online for the week, and as we completed the exchange in French, I was relieved to be in a language I don’t have gaping holes in. She told me I could pay the rest at any time, and I was led to the ricketiest looking little bungalow perched on the side of a mountain. At $8 a day, with a swivel, ceiling-mounted fan, an en suite bathroom, a mini-deck, and clean sheets and towels, I was in heaven. For the record, Green Canyon Hip & Cheap Resort is in Maret, a suburb of Lamai.
At that point, I was too tired to even want to lay on the beach. I showered off, and fell into bed. I roused myself later that afternoon to stagger over to Rose & Rose Thai Food, lately Rose & Mika (the Mika being taped over). I ordered some food, but couldn’t bring myself to eat too much of it. I had been feeling progressively worse since consuming the roadside snacks, and now felt as though I could barely make it home with everything inside (if you know what I mean). Crawling back into bed, I slept for the rest of the day, and almost the entire next day as well. By the next evening I was feeling good enough to try to hike the 3km to the Tesco Lotus for supplies.
It ended up being more of a hike than I could take on. I’d say I didn’t get more than 2km by beach route–passing numerous on-the-beach bars with 100b cocktail offers and enticing beach chairs. I ended up bailing up through one of the bars and chugging back along the road. I did find the remains of a market, featuring fresh fruit, meat, and fish, along with the requisite food carts.
I was jonesing for some Tom Yum if I could find it. As I walked along the road, I found an interesting sign, brown, and looking like a folded chefs cap, emblazoned “Phen”. It looked nice from the outside–clean and well-decorated. I inquired as to a menu, and the prices were doable (80b for a bowl of Tom Yum Kai, but the portions were big and I wrote off the expense). It was calm and quiet, an actual restaurant as opposed to a roadside eatery. The Tom Yum came, and was delicious–spicy, with onions, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and tomatoes. She also let me drink my bottled water. Then I finished the trudge home. The next day I investigated a motorbike.
The going rate for motorbikes was 200b per day, which is about $6, and you can rent one and just drive away–no insurance, no helmet, nada. You’re generally required to leave your passport, just to make sure you come back, instead of making off. You can haggle down to about 150b per day, if you agree to let it more than 2 or 3 days. I’m sure they could be found for cheaper, it seemed cost went in pockets. I did request a helmet (I’d seen the roads), and drove away. You can find gas all over the island, sold by almost everyone. It comes in old liquor bottles, stacked in a magazine rack display, with a sign proclaiming, variously “Gasolin, Gassoline” or just “Gas” and the price, 40b for 1 or 100b for 3. You can do at least 1 lap of the island on 1 bottle of gas. I sped off to get the lay of the land.
It’s a trip driving in Thailand. 2 lane roads fit roughly 4 lanes of traffic; Thai traffic drives on the left side, and the far side is somewhat reserved for motorbike drivers. The hills go up and down, curve around and around; the roads are paved, but sometimes a bit sketchy. Anyone can pass anyone, driving way over the median to do so. Some of the lesser used roads are so steep as to be barely mountable by a low-powered bike. I call these nightmare roads–like the roads you fly down without brakes in your nightmares. Drivers constantly come up behind you to honk, sometimes to pass, sometimes I’m not sure why. A good thing to know is that Thai drivers will try their best not hit you. If you step out (or drive out) into traffic, the drivers will actively try to avoid you, rather than running you down and claiming it was their right of way. But you’d better apply the same mentality to the motorbike holding father, mother, daughter, baby and grandma making a slow U-turn in the middle of the road. Full Thai families somehow jam onto single motorbikes, baby held by mother perched on back. Three schoolgirls or boys to a bike is not uncommon, the one on the back texting or eating an ice cream. It’s also fairly common for women to ride sidesaddle, especially younger Thai women and girls out with boys.
I drove down a random road, and ended up at a jungle wat. I was in my swimsuit, and felt a bit uncouth wandering around the swept dirt outer area of the wat, gazed at laughingly by young monks, but 10m past the end of the temple enclosure was the beach! A beautiful beach: white sand, clear blue water, packs of puppies roaming around terrorizing beach-goers… Yes, Thailand is full of dogs. It seems there are even more dogs on the islands. Dogs of all breeds, shapes and sizes don’t seem specifically attached to any one locale, but wander the island. Some daubed with raucous purple splotches of Gentian Violet, looking like they were caught in Holi crossfire. My travel advisor spun me about getting rabies from a dog lick, but apparently there’s been a lot of work done rounding up the dogs and giving them rabies vaccinations on all the Thai islands. These dogs have no fear. Dogs lie sleeping in the street and sometimes even road, whilst tour vans, motorbikers, and songthaews whizz around them. They’re not even remotely concerned with the possibility of being smashed flat by a ersatz tourist.
Koh Samui is a good place to go to the beach. Every road that turns left off of the main road invariably ends in a beach at some point. The best beach I found was by following a posterboard sign at the end of a dirt road entitled “to beach”. This beach was actually pretty weird, it had a collection of decrepit buildings without ceilings, including some bathrooms, poured concrete flooring and a bar, but was overcome now by foliage, dogs and trash. I’m not sure if it was unfinished and abandoned, or abandoned and reclaimed. You’re also ok to topless sunbathe on most of the beaches, as you’re not quite into the Muslim district of Thailand yet. You can also wear shorts, shorts dresses, and belly-baring tops without much local comment. There’s a huge international population on Koh Samui, French and Russian peoples seem to make up most of it. Many of the eateries in towns cater to this tourists, with trilingual menus and signage. There’s also a large proportion of Westerners cum locals, who think they’re Thai, but don’t have the Thai respect for others and drive recklessly, sans helmet, with their enormous pitbull balanced on the footboard of their motorbike.
A point to be addressed is buying food on the road. This is far more economical than eating at any restaurant in town, and the food is good and fresh. Driving down the road, you will see open-air diners with a roof, tiled floor, tables and chairs, and usually a counter. The counter will offer pre-made delights–don’t choose these, unless they look amazing–but you can order any typical Thai meal and they’ll whip it up for you. Pad Thai, Pad See-Ew, Pad Kee Mao, Rad-Naw, Pad Ka Prao, Khao Pad Anything, Laab, Tom Yum, Tom Kha…any of these are a viable option, and should cost less than 40b. You can also purchase some regional Thai desserts (khanom), such as sweet coconut milk filled with starchy root vegetables and tapioca shapes (khanom ruam mit) for a song.
All over Thailand, but especially on the islands, you can see small shrines like the ones above in front of each house or establishment. They’re known as san phra phum (spirit house), and sometimes feature miniature statues of praying women and men. Food of various kinds is left in or in front of these houses each morning, as well as flower bracelets and other floral offerings. Occasionally, you will see stacks of these shrines in myriad colors, along with other poured concrete furniture such as tables and chairs, arrayed alongside the road. There’s usually only 1 or 2 of these locations per island, as I assume this is where everyone gets their shrines and/or outdoor furniture.
There are so many things to say about Thailand that I never seem to get to. Like the smells. Walking down a street is like moving through a tapestry of scent. And it’s always a bit nerve-wracking. Thai food smells good: fried, but with the characteristic fishy undertone–you go to smell deeper and realize that “on-the-edge” odor you thought was sour pork is really the pile of rancid scraps on the other side of the next wall. The market streets are truly an experience. Raw meat, raw fish, herbs, garlic, onions, blood, old meat, day old fish juice, dogs, cats, toilets, fried food, sweets…you want to smell more, and then you wish you hadn’t.
Mangosteens. Have you had one? If you haven’t left America you haven’t, as they’re currently illegal to import. These fruits are delectable–and it isn’t an overstatement to say so. You would never suspect them of such taste; the exterior is like a leather case, dusky purple, with four round, fleshy leaves perched on top. You have to “crack” this pith to reach the pulp inside: sweet, soft, segmented flesh, some filled with large, oblong seeds. The taste is entrancing; it’s hard work to crack into one of these guys, but the second you devour the innards, you’re onto another. To me, the taste is reminiscent of lychee, and a little of peach, or almost of “candy” grape flavor. You can get a kilo for 30-100b, depending on the quality, the area, and the seller. I found two bad ones in my last kilo, brought them up to the seller, and he gave me four new ones (two of which ended up being bad as well).