When I’ve thought about visiting Thailand, I’ve had an image of beautiful small idyllic places , with remote white sandy beaches and occasional palm trees. There is plenty of that but the problem is the westernisation that has overtaken the Thai ideal.
We’d left Langkawi, Malaysia for an international boat trip to Koh Lipe, Thailand. We took a claustrophobic ferry boat which took 2 and a half hours. We were seated under the deck and all doors were sealed shut. It wasn’t clear how to get out in an emergency and the state of the boat from the outside gave us no reassurances, it was ancient, the paint work was peeling off it and seemed to be listing slightly even as it sat along the dock. When we boarded the ferry we’d handed over our passports to the captain to help aid the migration process at the other side. We had been stamped out of Malaysia and were bound for Thailand across a pretty rough sea. As we left the harbour we could hear running water, it was scary so I went to investigate, the noise was coming from the squat toilets at the back of the boat and to some extent our minds were put at ease, we would have to suffer the stuffy capsule in which we found ourselves.
As we approached Koh Lipe the island seemed relatively small but the beach area was jam packed with water taxi’s. We’d had heard that the ferry boats couldn’t get you to shoreline and and when we pulled up in the bay, we waited for a water taxi to ferry us to the beach jetty. We watched as the ferry boat captain balanced precariously between big boat and small, holding an unzipped waterproof bag containing everyone’s passports. The passports and passengers made it to shore and the immigration process begun. We waited on the beach outside a wooden ramshackle immigration office until our name was called, we then collected our passports and queued up to get stamped into Thailand. We’d already arranged a visa which would last 60 days, so although we had to queue in the searing heat, the rest of the process was quite straight forward.
My first impressions of Koh Lipe was that it looked more developed than I had imagined, there were lots of water taxi’s, people waiting to take us by motorbike or tuk tuk and far more buildings than I’d expected. Our accommodation was a concrete bungalow not too far from the shore, but we couldn’t swim in the sea as it was jam packed with boats. Our room had a fan but no air conditioning to keep us cool and I was already thinking about how hard it was going to be to sleep, the humidity was crazy. Koh Lipe, like other Thai tourist destinations, has a street called ‘walking street’, made up of dozens of restaurants, Thai massage parlours and gift shops. It seems walking streets accommodate the worst of western excess, restaurant after restaurant selling burgers, fried breakfasts and beer occasionally perforated by a traditional Thai place that was struggling to retain its true Thai identity.
We went back to the beach bar adjacent to our bungalow and met a guy called Jacob. Jacob had overheard some of our discussion about whether “true Thailand” really still exists. He wanted to reassure us that there were still beautiful less developed islands we could visit. It turned out that Jacob had just spent the last 3 months visiting every single inhabited Thai Island in the country. He was in search of what he called ‘treasured beaches’ for his as new phone app which he was building and is due to hit the app market in February. He gave us lots of tips which helped us to plan the rest of our trip. We used his tips the very next morning by visiting Jacob’s favourite beach on Koh Lipe, somewhere we could swim and relax for a while, it was pretty good but the swimming was interrupted by insignificant jellyfish stings. We only stayed on Koh Lipe for 2 nights which was enough.
The next island we visited was Koh Bulone, we visited Koh Bulone in further search of the Thai ideal, we hoped for an idyllic remote island, untouched by the mass tourism. Koh Bulone was a contrast to Koh Lipeh, a lot smaller with only a handful of accommodation available and only two proper resorts. We avoided the resorts and decided to walk the whole length of the island with our backpacks to try to find a smaller bungalow in a more remote setting. Our efforts paid off. We found a small homestay called Chaloen it only had a handful of bamboo bungalows on stilts. It was situated slightly inland and was significantly cheaper than the beach front resorts that we had seen earlier.
We had found the Thai ideal but remoteness and tranquility came at a cost. The electricity supply was limited to 6 hours per day, from 6pm to Midnight, we had a squat toilet in the bamboo hut and there were all manner of insects knocking about. The benefits outweighed the primitiveness, the accommodation had a real rustic charm about it, the bamboo huts were in a kind of village hamlet, there was an area of dried mud in the middle where children played and there was a ramshackle bamboo hut where guests could eat in the evening. It was a perfect place to stay for a couple of nights. We have seen some amazing wildlife over the past few months and this islands was no exception, we saw huge monitor lizards as big as some of the smaller Komodo dragons, lots of hermit crabs and Paul’s favourite – fireflies which momentarily illuminated the pitch black night air with brilliant electric flickers of colour.
A couple of days later we waded into the bay with our backpacks on, and scrambled aboard a local fishing boat which slowly took as around the island to where our speed ferry was waiting. We caught a ferry to the mainland, then got a minibus to Krabi town which took about 6 hours. Our hostel in Krabi had air conditioning, it was clean and had a normal toilet that flushed! It even had power all day long plus the bonus of Wifi, yippee, its amazing the home comforts you miss when roughing it Thai style. We stayed here for 3 days, generally getting clean again and relaxing. We visited Tiger Cave Temple, climbing the 1267 steps to the top was fun, not for the faint hearted but worth it for the great views across the surrounding hills. Another day we caught a local tuk tuk bus to Ankor Beach and then caught a water taxi to Railey beach to swim and enjoy the views of the limestone cliffs as a back drop . Ao Nang however was another hideaway of western excess where we found McDonald’s, Burger King and Starbucks coffee.
From Krabi Town we moved on to Koh Phi Phi a 2 hour ferry ride away. The island was particularly badly hit by the fatal Tsunami back in 2004. One the first day when we climbed to the viewing point at the highest point on the island that afternoon we found a tribute showing photo’s after the Tsunami that had hit the island, a large area of was just washed away. There are dive schools on every street corner, more western restaurants and cheap style but expensive accommodation everywhere. The night life was full on, we walked down the street towards the main beach where the music was getting louder and louder. The walk way was starting to fill up with people drinking alcohol “buckets”. People were drinking away, having their photo’s taken with a monkey which had been dressed up, so cruel! We found beach bars with blaring music and young locals throwing fire sticks around in time to the music, tourist were doing limbo and getting free shots for successful completions. The girls were even offered free buckets if they got got their tits out, all very surreal for a Buddist country where sunbathing topless is frowned upon? We only stayed on Phi Phi for a night before we had to escape!
Phuket was our final Thai island experience, it’s probably the largest Thai island and was also devastated by the 2004 boxing day Tsunami killing 250,000 people. We arrived by boat and got a minibus to Phuket Old town, which is situated inland. Phuket is perhaps misunderstood, often associated with go go bars and sex tourism, the old town is forgotten. Phuket Old Town was beautiful, lots of ancient buildings with a strong chinese influence about them and excellent food found in the local restaurants. We stayed at “Sunny Hostel” a new place that had only been opened for a few months. The location was quiet and it was a great place to relax after the mayhem on Koh Phi Phi.
Paul had found that we could go to see some Thai boxing in Patong so we planned on having a night, Patong is the part of Phuket that really is associated with excessive nightlife of all descriptions . We had a great night out, its was certainly varied. We started with a local meal in a small restaurant near to the boxing stadium, followed by the Thai boxing itself. There were 7 fights starting off with a fight between children who were only maybe 12 years old. Each match lasted 5 rounds unless they knocked their opponent out. We were able to bet on the fight by picking the red corner or the blue corner and passing a bit of money to one of the bookies who were roaming around the stadium. After the boxing we headed to the famous Bangla Road to drink and people watch, Manchester United were also playing so we watched that too. The bars were fascinating and jam packed, every bar was full of dancing girls gyrating on poles above overweight again western men who leered longingly below, a fascinating place to people watch and an entertaining way to finish our trip to the Thai Islands. Hedonism reigns on the islands but tranquility can be found if you are prepared to rough it for a few nights.
From Phuket I arranged visas for our entry into Myanmar. It took a bit of doing but it turned out to be well worth the effort.