16.01.2013 - 27.01.2013 35 °C
Since my first stop in Thailand wasn't exactly the highlight of my travels, I was not expecting much from the second. I found the north to be far too touristy and now I was on my way to the southern beaches, where the banana pancake trail was first forged by shoestring beach bums and backpackers so many years ago. I think a lot has changed since then so to avoid being disappointed, I was not looking for anything cultural from the white sand beaches and limestone cliffs of southern Thailand. I planned to do what everyone does down there, get a tan, get drunk and get a scuba certification.
I arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Yangon early in the morning. The contrast between the two capitals could not have been more striking. One moment I was in the middle of southeast Asia at it's most real and raw and only a short 40 minute flight later I found myself in the middle of southeast Asia at it's most touristy and glamourous. I wasn't terribly put off by the transition to be honest. A month in Burma had worn me down and I was ready for a little relaxation and a few western niceties. With over a thousand pictures and hundreds of stories from Burma needing to be transformed into a blog entry, I also had a busy couple days a head of me so I got to work. After the stories were written and pictures burned, I still had a little time to hit the town one last time before moving south. So I met up with a group of couchsurfers (mostly local expats) that night and spent far too much money making an idiot of myself in a string of fancy Bangkok clubs. I awoke the next morning hungover and pissed off I had dropped so much cash. But I sucked it up, then dropped a bunch more cash on an overpriced train / boat ticket to Koh Tao. In high season, there are tons of tourists trying to get to the islands but only a few boat companies. Thus, the Thai sailors really have the tourists by the balls. It's one of countless examples in Thailand where a glut in demand results in poor overpriced service.
It was a long journey to Koh Tao, first a 12 hour overnight train followed by a bus then a three hour rocky boat to the island. On the train I chatted with a Dutch woman in her late thirties named Nathalie who was on her way to meet some friends further south. She had a few days to kill before her friends arrived and decided to tag along to Koh tao to do some snorkeling.
We arrived in Koh Tao early and found our way to a beach side diving resort where I organized a four day intensive diving course. Since so many wanna-be scuba divers like myself flock to the island every year it's the cheapest place in the world to get a certification. I had already done my course in my early teens but never logged any open water dives. So I had to do the entire course over but was pretty well prepared.
Once the course was set, Nathalie and I took a stroll around the island. It was a prototypical tropical paradise with palm lined sandy beaches, large vegetation covered peaks and crystal blue waters. Unfortunately, it was also the prototypical tourist destination with a foreigner to local ratio of about 20:1, overpriced pubs and pizza parlors on every corner and posh beach clubs blaring techno music late into every night. On the few nights that I went for a drink, I was always surprised by the sheer number of Canadians that seemed to have annexed the island from Thailand. But its what I had expected from the southern beaches, and part of me was happy to drink beer and eat pizza with canadians for a few days.
I began my scuba training early in the morning with some videos and a dive in the pool. We were a small quirky group of four taught by a very experienced Irish instructor who had over 8000 dives under her belt. There was myself, another Canadian girl from Winnipeg, a swedish guy named Bjorn who I got along with well and a neurotic German math teacher in his mid-40s who had no idea what he had got himself into. Everyone seemed to be getting along fine except the German. His English comprehension level was very low and he was quick to panic in even the most simple situations. I thought it was pretty funny but he drove our instructor mad. He would often get nervous in the water and stop the entire lesson so that he could go pee. One time, while we were all suiting up on the boat to do an open water dive, everyone was horrified when he decided to strip down completely and stand there with his German sausage hanging out waiting for the instructor to bring him his equipment. He was an odd one.
Bratswurst aside, the open water dives were interesting. We never saw any whale sharks (a common occurrence off Koh Tao) but we did get a glimpse of a giant barracuda, a stingray and lots of colorful fish. Four days later, we took our final exams and officially became certified open water divers. It was a fun course and I was satisfied with the money well spent. That night they played us a underwater video made on our final day which included an running race along the ocean floor set in slow motion to the song 'Chariots of Fire'. After the video we got together with some of the other graduated groups for some buckets at the pub then made our way to a local electronic music festival where orbital (a famous DJ) was playing. I woke up once again very hungover and slept the day away before catching an overnight boat and bus to my next destination. The boat consisted of a hundred sardine style beds which offered you literally half a meter of wiggle room I'm which to sleep. It was so rocky that half the boat began puking only twenty minutes into the eight hour journey. It was a long night but after 17 hours of buses and boats, I made it to Koh Lanta where Nathalie and her friends were already waiting for me.
Nathalie had organized a secluded Thai style stilted house in a fishing village on the backside of the islands. The owner was a old Thai healer who was constantly trying to sell us various herbal concoctions or traditional medical practices. He invited us for dinner which soon turned into a lecture on his healing abilities. The food was great (we had to pay for it) but after a while the guy started to annoy us so we went back to the cabin for a good night sleep.
The next day we moved to the other side or the island. The stilted house was nice and had a fantastic view, but no running water, no beach and nothing to do. To be honest, after a very cultural month in Burma, I had come to southern Thailand to relax on a beach for a week. The Thai house was a cool experience for a night, but I was ready to lay in the sand with a book and Koh Lanta is the perfect place do so. It is much more laid back and quiet than Koh Tao with a more thriving local population. The island is very large and flat making perfect terrain for motorbiking. In between time on the beach we would ride motorbikes around the island stopping off at various caves, waterfalls and villages; the three prototypical south east Asian attractions. Same same but different. I decided to to out on my own one day in search of something unique. The island is so big that there is plenty to explore, and I found a few nice fishing villages and a couple perfect little limestone islands off the south coast before returning to the beach.
Before I knew it, I had spent four days in Lanta and was ready to move on and out of the country. I said my final goodbyes to Thailand that night by bar hopping the quiet selection of Lanta's late night joints for a few hours.
The next morning I caught a packed minibus to Penang. As I crossed the border into Malaysia, I was happy to be leaving Thailand. I didn't have a horrible time in the country, but I was hard pressed to find anything terribly special about it. It's got some beautiful beaches but its just, plain and simply, far too touristy to be interesting. I often felt like a mindless cattle be herded around the country. I am sure there are still interesting areas to see in the remote corners. I just didn't think it was worth the effort to try to get off of the very overdeveloped tourist track which seems built to constantly rope you back in. So, I just did the beach thing, put a check mark next to 'Thai Beach' on the to do list, and moved on to the next country.