30/11/02: Minibus from Chumphon to Surat Thani; check in at the Muang Thai Hotel; arrange pending transport; check email; eat at faux Pizza Hut; go for a walk on the waterfront; get followed and retreat to hotel for early night.
Surat Thani is a fairly busy place, bringing to mind the calmer streets of Bangkok, but without the hedonism or as much pollution. Its only real use is as a stop-off point prior to getting the ferry to Koh Phangan or Koh Samui; you’d struggle to make a night of it in Surat Thani, such is the shortage of bars or suitably inspiring vistas. It does, however, lie upon a river, and the opposing bank seems to be made up off nothing but palm trees. This low rise scenery is actually rather pleasant and gives the impression that for about 1000 miles there is nothing at all but vegetation.
This is our first experience utilising the form of transport mostly employed by the traveller: the private VIP Bus. These heady sounding vehicles can come in many forms – on short hauls such as this, you’re looking at a minibus – but what distinguishes them from the cheaper, public single-decked coaches is the price (in the manner defined by the aforementioned qualifying adjective) and the fact it services destinations common to most travellers. By this I mean that, rather than dumping one on the side of the highway, the VIP Bus will drop you off pretty much anywhere you like, or at the very least a drop-off point more conducive to one’s needs. What is more, the rendezvous for boarding such a bus will normally be locally convenient, and if it is not then the agent you booked the bus with will arrange for it to pick you up from wherever it is you have been staying. Although more expensive than the Public Bus, it’s not so much so that it isn’t worth the indulgence. Indeed, one might break even if the cost of paying for any secondary taxi is taken into account.
Wealthier locals might also utilise these buses.
As we near Surat Thani, conveniently located accommodation is quickly sourced from the guidebook. Not really sure of either what we are doing or where we are going, we ape our fellow traveller-type passengers and disembark when they do, hoping that we’ve done the right thing – what a shower of clueless spanners we three are. It turns out to be the right move, although it takes about 20 minutes of walking up and down the same 50 metres of road before we finally nail our quarry.
Our chosen venue is much more substantial in both structure and amenity than we have grown accustomed too. It is more like the establishment my colleague and I stayed in on our first night in Bangkok, except without the plush atrium, or the buffet breakfast, and an even shabbier bathroom. This is not an act of deliberation; there just doesn't seem to be much on offer for the weary traveller on a budget in Surat Thani. It sums the place up: a purgatorial town one passes through, offering no incentive to stay for any longer than is entirely necessary. But stay we do, if only because we still haven’t a clear idea as to how we are supposed to get to those islands. We could have sorted all this out in Chumphon or Hua Hin (it might have been a struggle in Prachuap Khiri Khan) but we've got months of this kind of stuff to get through, so what’s the rush?
We find a run-down travel agent not 30 metres or so from our hotel, all peeling walls and faded posters. The stickers plastered across the window reassure that they know their stuff, and if we’re still in doubt then the proprietor’s very decent command of English is enough to alleviate any residual fear. It turns out that ours is not an entirely unreasonable course of action. Ferries to the islands start plying their trade from an early hour, and what’s more the terminal we need to sail from is a 45 minutes’ drive out of town. The kindly, well-spoken Thai lady arranges tickets and tells us to rendezvous back here at 09.00 the next morning to board the relevant bus. We will then be presented with coloured stickers that we will attach to our chests to enable the staff at the port to guide us in the direction of our appropriate ferry, which will be the one leaving for Koh Phangan.
This all seems too easy. Why, every other journey we have undertaken up until now has involved making our own way to a remote terminal and then hanging around for an hour or so, sweating profusely in the process, anxiety building. Profoundly suspicious, but at the same time bursting with a sense of accomplishment, we think about what we might like for dinner.
After making a deliberate effort to go native these last few days, by gorging myself on fish, I really fancy a spot of western fare. It’s no fait accompli, but when we pass an establishment that has very obviously taken Pizza Hut as its template, I persuade my colleagues that it’s for the best. It goes down well, despite a certain oddness about the taste that I can’t quite put a finger on. An imbalance of herbs, perhaps? Too much oregano?
Post dinner, we take a stroll along the waterfront. It’s pretty hectic down there, but still a long way off the intensity one would be obliged to deal with in Bangkok. This is the weirdest place I have come across yet – not Chumphon, or Hua Hin, or even Prachuap Khiri Kan. Every time I think I’ve got this country nailed it throws me another curve ball. Look, there’s a department store on that shabby street, where vendors and beggars litter the pavements. We take a look inside. The place is surprisingly busy, really quite modern and the prices not much less than what you would expect to pay back home in England. I’d hoped I might find a Lacoste polo shirt at a significantly reduced price. I’d hoped that the lithe Thai physique would dictate a sizing more akin to my own. Nothing doing here.
Along the main drag there are all sorts of strange boutiques. I suppose it offers an insight into what a lot of suburban Thailand is all about, and it’s putting me back on edge. This last week has been good for my state of mind – despite the fairly heavy drinking – but now I swear we’re being followed and I don’t feel very comfortable in my new environment. To be fair, it’s quite plausible that we are being followed, although not necessarily for the nefarious reasons that spring to my mind (robbery, extortion, murder). We don’t hang about, then, and could do with an early night regardless, so we each grab a solitary can of random beer from the nearest 7-Eleven, pull back to our hotel and watch Thai television (which is an experience in itself). We have to be up early for our bus, after all.
01/12/02: Get the bus to port and then the ferry to Koh Phangan; check emails on arrival so as to establish the position of M; get songthaew (pick-up trucks that have been converted into taxis by installing a bench on either side in the back and covered with a canopy) to Haad Rin and find M and crew; eat, go to bar and watch Liverpool 1 Manchester Utd. 2; go to beach and drink at The Drop In(n); free booze, very drunk.
Refreshed after our quiet night in, we comfortably make our 09:00 rendezvous with the bus, which looks like something Disney might have thrown together had they been asked to make a movie about travelling in South East Asia: an preponderance of polished chrome inside, and sprayed-painted cartoon characters out. Westerners who had previously been conspicuous by their absence now account for the majority of our company. Who knows where they've all sprung from, because they weren't out and about in Surat Thani last night. (It was later discovered that most people purchase a ticket that covers an overnight VIP bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani and transfer from there to the port, dispensing with the strange public-transport orientated charade in which we chose to indulge ourselves.)
The ferry terminal is a hub of Caucasian activity. Without realising it, I am beginning to develop a weird suspicion of my own race and do not feel comfortable surrounded by so many of them here. Maybe it’s the collective shrill that emanates from us, and such stridency is not appreciated amongst our hosts. On top of that, I don’t like what most people are wearing: lairy traveller fatigues, which may well serve some sort of practical purpose but are intended, I suspect, to convey an air of insouciance and/or familiarity with this whole travelling business. Thais don’t tend to wear their hair in dreads or cornrows, or sport over-sized tie-dyed trousers, finished off with a conglomerate of accessories. They wear trainers, T-shirts and denim, just like the rest of us more normally do.
Such nascent cynicism is soon brushed aside when I lay my optics on what I can only assume is our ferry. This rusting hulk of a vessel looks like it’s not been serviced in decades, if at all, and the sea is pretty damn choppy to boot. It is now raining, in fact, which is no bad thing as far as I'm concerned, adding to a sense of nervous drama that I am beginning to feed off. We hang around in a surprisingly modern waiting room, with a ‘who’s who’ of world nationalities, until our boat is ready to depart.
In the meantime, last night’s temperance has confused my digestive system and I am forced to utilise a squat toilet for the first time. These resemble our own western toilets in shape, except they are countersunk into the ground, which means they are only approachable from a squatted position – hence the name. There is no cistern either, just a bucket to the side, which does the job surprisingly well. I am not squeamish but it is all a bit hands-on, so to speak, and a portent of things to come, because outside of the towns almost all toilets are built like this.
Once on the ferry I spend most of my time perched on the gallery watching the wake emanate from our boat’s rear end, drinking coffee and chatting to some young Thai lad. He is a taxi-driver on the island but had some business on the mainland – I cannot recall what – but his confidence puts me on my guard.
The journey takes well over three hours and it rains pretty much the whole way. J and H were right: the rainy season lingers down south.
Thailand offers a dichotomy: the people are extremely warm and friendly and yet persistently try to sell you things, be it cheap jewellery or a lift on the back of their scooter. Unfortunately, this duality manifests itself into one actually distrusting everything they say. Walking through a rural area of Koh Phangan, it began to rain and a lady kindly offered her porch as refuge. I was warmed by the sentiment but politely declined. However, I could not help thinking that had I accepted her offer she would have almost certainly embarked on a long and convoluted attempt to sell me her daughter’s hand in marriage, or maybe cattle. I was probably wrong but, sadly, the seeds of suspicion had long been sown. At least they’re pretty up-front about their intentions most of the time.
I liked the port at Koh Phangan – Thong Sala. I don’t know why but I did. It isn't indicative of life anywhere else on the island, or even what you want to get out of it, but there was something I found quite calming about the place, that one’s time here was going to be very different to that spent on the mainland. Or maybe it was because my visit had come off the back of a tour of the uneventful triumvirate of Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon? Whatever, you could palpably sense that stuff happened here, in spite of the ostensible calm.
After taking breakfast in a quaint little bistro, I left my good companions to check their emails while I surveyed the area. Nothing, except for more rain and a modest herd of water buffalo. I returned to the internet café and checked my emails so as to determine the location of my friend, M, and his girlfriend, E, who had been touring the Orient for about a month now. They had come by way of Malaysia and had moved north from there.
Fortuitously, he had indeed despatched a recent email signalling that he was stationed in Haad Rin, the town situated at the southernmost tip of Koh Phangan. This wasn't a total coincidence: he had contacted me about a week earlier to say he was headed in this direction, and we had factored this into our plans accordingly. In light of this, I saw no point in hanging around and suggested to my cadres that we go straight to Haad Rin. They concurred.
I catch up with the Thai guy who I’d been chatting to on the ferry expecting maybe a favour, but he’s asking 600-odd baht (about £10) to take the three of us to Haad Rin. It looks so close on the map, too. No point haggling, given the regularity of the intermittent showers, and so we stump up the cash and embark on what’s probably the most precarious journey of the whole trip yet.
The roads have been cut into the side of the hills of Phangan with limited expense. One moment everything’s nice and flat, and then suddenly… it’s hard to tell exactly when or how, but proceedings take a dramatically precarious turn. At times our vehicle seems to nosedive at 45 degree angles down alarmingly steep hills, like some kind of kamikaze Stuka, only to have to then do the very same thing upwards as the trough aspires to form another peak. And if another vehicle happens to be approaching from the other direction then one of us has to tentatively perch our tyres on the edge of the road whilst the other creeps on by.
So when we reach our destination the cost seems less unreasonable, given the sheer amount of fuel these pick-ups have probably expended in getting us here. It’s unlikely I make such a moral re-evaluation at the time. No, I just stare in perplexed awe at the amount of tourists that suddenly enshroud me. I do not know at what point it dawns on me, but I have not realised until now that Haad Rin is indeed the Haad Rin that friends have talked about back home – i.e. the place to go if you want to party.
No sooner have these thoughts punched their way through my consciousness, and there’s my dear friend, M. No exaggeration, he just breezes right on by, attired from head to toe in standard-issue travelling garb. Like I’ve said, it’s not my style, but I don’t begrudge M the indulgence for he is a man without pretence.
After the obligatory hugs and comments about it being a small world and such forth, we are recommended cheap accommodation and invited for dinner. We book into Anadin Bungalows and settle in, before re-joining M and his entourage, which consists of his lady friend, E, his Australian work-buddy, D, and two Mancunian girls they picked up, so to speak, in Koh Samui.
A precedent is set here. For reasons I presume are hygienically determined, we are obliged to remove our shoes and sit cross-legged around a very low table. The prostration of the furniture is neither here nor there, but the forced abandonment of our footwear comes as a mild surprise. It probably shouldn't, for this is a coastal resort and I can see how it protects against the proliferation of sand. Further, such behaviour is not confined to the littoral regions of the country, and I suspect it’s probably something that might have been expected of us from the moment we left Bangkok.
We then order from a menu that offers Thai and western fare in almost equal measure. I have a chicken burger and chips/fries because my insides are still feeling a bit delicate. I season my chips/fries with chilli sauce, a strategy that I am starting to embrace whole-heartedly. We then proceed to wash this down with a few bottles of Beer Chang, before retiring to our cabins to freshen up for the evening’s entertainment – which never takes me long.
I head up to the shop and get in the beers, and let everybody know that I’ll be kicking back on my veranda, should anyone wish to join me. I say veranda and technically it is, but it is also very small. But then our accommodation is very small. It’s basically a wooden hut with a double bed occupying two thirds of the room and a concrete block of a bathroom stuck on at the back. But it is nice and clean with little in the way of nooks and crannies for the ubiquitous cockroaches to hide in, although there is a plank sized gap just under the overhang of the bed, through which, one morning, a cat will infiltrate. This makes for a strange way to start one’s day in any territory.
One by one I am joined by our entourage and I must admit to being really quite excited. This beach is renowned the world over for its parties and already I can hear the deep thumping of some serious bass. We proceed to drink on my veranda for about an hour until everybody is present and correct, and when they are we descend the 15-odd metres separating our domicile from the beach.
Bars and clubs neatly envelop the bay but everything’s still very calm at this point. We head for an establishment that goes by the name of the Drop In, whereupon one is invited to sit barefoot (naturally) around low tables neatly distributed atop thick Hessian rugs. There are candles and there are complimentary beverages to be claimed. Every half hour the form these free drinks take changes, but they are always spirits, encouraging you to buy beer to tide you over in the interim – not that the beer is expensive.
Once the free drinks have run their previously determined course – or one just gets bored of them – people start heading to the bar and returning with the dreaded Bucket of Joy. Consisting of an unholy mixture of medicinal Red Bull and Sangsom Whiskey, the stuff is like liquid amphetamine. You chuck it all into a bucket, with ice and cola, and drink it through a straw, preferably in unison. It makes the Beer Chang seem soporific by comparison.
Whilst all this is going on a young Thai gent will prance before you, twiddling a burning stick like some psychotic majorette. Everyone is impressed. Take a walk down by the sea and the different tunes from the various bars morph into one another as you drift parallel to the strip. Those locals not engaged in commerce, working the bars or selling pizza and garlands, hover suspiciously, waiting to pounce on an errant wallet dropped in a moment of wild exultation. (This does happen, although you will often find that the wallet and all your particulars will make a mysterious re-appearance a day or so later, once anything of any real value has been stripped – sort of like protecting one’s investment.) A couple of English lads suddenly sprint from nowhere, completely naked, presumably rising to some drunken challenge. This is pretty bad form, but the locals have probably seen far worse and don’t appear too bothered.
At some point in the evening, a few of us will walk the 20 metres into ‘town’ for a spot to eat, usually at a humble eatery called Chicken Corner. It’s almost as busy here, with people watching movies, others eating and some just hanging out. You could say that Haad Rin is only a few hours short of being a 24-hour functioning environment. The music will eventually wind down at about 06.00, although I wouldn't be surprised if a few bars kept serving customers beyond that. I couldn't say for sure because I flaked out some time after four.
02/12/02: Walk down to beach for breakfast and to lounge; Mexican joint for tea; a ‘few’ drinks on the beach at the Cheers Bar and the Drop In.
Koh Phangan. Ko Pha-ngan. Koh Pha Ngan. There seems no standard spelling but maybe the genuine phonetic has been lost in translation. What people want from this island hasn’t been lost in translation and our Thai hosts understand this perfectly; to do nothing by day and to dance with Bacchus by night. Such excess is what Haad Rin has become notorious for. Enter the original Full Moon Party. And so as not to limit one’s possibilities, there are now Black Moon and Half Moon parties too. If it all sound rather debauched then it is, but it’s rarely vulgar (Koh Samui takes care of that side of things). The variety of eateries and the bars, with their scattered cushions and low tables, impose a far more bohemian air to the proceedings. Often people are prepared to while away a few hours kicking back with a Singha and watching a pirated film. Or why not grab a tasty Mexican at Bamboozle and engage a friend in a game of battle ships?
It’s around noon and I've just awoke. Unsurprisingly, I've seen better days. I invigorate myself with a cold shower – I have no choice in this matter: Anadin Bungalows offers low-budget accommodation – and then head down to the beach to assess the damage. The place looks like a fragmentation grenade has gone off – maybe a few – but will soon benefit from a mass clean-up operation, making way for the evening’s inevitable repeat debauchery.
Most of last night’s coterie is present, in various stages of recovery, some reading books, others just lying there, all wearing sunglasses. We exchange platitudes and then I’m off again in search of food.
I take my American breakfast alone in an establishment overlooking the beach, and it is a satisfying experience. Although my coffee is delivered too promptly for my liking – I like to mop up with a hot beverage after having eaten – the overall quality is good and it hits the spot. This is not a given with the American Breakfast. Sometimes the toast can be very dry, the eggs a little undercooked and the bright pink sausages almost inedible. Not today, though.
My constitution much improved, I walk the seven-odd metres back to where my coterie are still rehabilitating. One of the Manchester Maidens has turned up in a panic. She thinks she’s lost her purse. She’s very willing to accept the possibility that, in a moment of clarity the night before, she stashed it somewhere for safe-keeping, but she’s very quickly eliminating potential locations. At the very least, she needs to cancel her debit/credit cards to protect her funds from being misappropriated, and leaves with that intent.
S materialises shortly after in circumstances similar to those I presented myself in earlier: distant, hungry and thirsty, with nothing much really to say. Instead, he listens to the plight of our Mancunian ally and slowly pieces together the fragments of his hung-over memory. It turns out that there’s a purse in S’s room and he doesn’t know how or why it’s there, although a possible explanation is very quickly coming into focus. Suddenly, my companion returns from her swim to provide the denouement. Apparently – I have no recollection of this – S had knocked on our door at sometime around 05.00 to ask what he should do about the urgently drunk Manchester Maiden waiting for him in his room. The Maiden in question had somehow tracked S back to his accommodation and was now offering herself to him, but was so completely mashed that S was reluctant to take her up on the kind offer. Nobody could recall how the situation was resolved, but as both parties had woken up in their own beds one can only assume that they’d sorted something out.
The Manchester Maiden is then tracked down before she’s had a chance to cancel her credit and debit cards.
The rest of the day is spent lounging about on the shore, grappling with our collective hangover, until tea time, whereupon we stroll across to the other side of town to watch the sunset on the less impressive east beach. There are more bungalows here, a clinic, and a jetty that services the smaller craft that come over from Koh Samui. We watch the sun set and the colours that materialise in the sky as a result. Thai fisherman sort out their fishing boats, seemingly impervious to this picturesque scene. One of them strolls down the beach with a machete, protection against the barking hounds that leap to the imagined defence of the Caucasian freaks that pamper to their every need.
“Leave that dog alone! You hit that dog and I’ll hit you!”
… proffers a particularly dreadlocked member of this itinerant gang. Us Westerners treat these mangy beasts with such unaccustomed affection that they have turned against their more ambivalent hosts who see them as rather less than inconsequential. The poor Thais, barked at by their own mutts and then chastised by some arrogant burk for simply trying to ward off this canine hostility.
The sun down, we leave this sorry scene and head to Bamboozle for Mexican food and a game of Battleships. I outwit M with the classic ‘cluster grouping’ manoeuvre, knowing that I will never be able to pull it off against him again. Connect 4 follows, before hitting the beach for a second night of intense gaiety. I could get used to this.
03/12/02: Beach for breakfast and more lounging; early evening drinks on M’s veranda; Aussie D’s friend B arrives; celebrate at – you’ve guessed it – the Drop In.
There are more farang in Haad Rin than there are natives. The locals that do live here, though, ooze nonchalance and are not pushy in the least. This is almost certainly because there is such a captive market here that it would almost be a waste of time to hit you with the hard sell. Sitting on the beach one finds a flyer casually dropped by your side every half an hour or so, announcing the amount of free booze one might receive if one were to frequent the advertised establishment. And with a prettier shore than Prachuap Khiri Khan there seems no reason to leave at all.
04/12/02: Beach for breakfast and yet more lounging; try the Lucky Crab for tea with my comrade – good call. Catch the end of Jackass: The Movie at some featureless bar; decamp to 2$ (we call it The Comfy Bar an account of its nice sofas) and then to Cheers; stay up drinking on veranda with D until 04.00.
05/12/02: The first rainy day since our arrival, on the King’s birthday, no less! The German Bakery for breakfast; to The Comfy Bar to watch a film and play Grass (a drug themed card game) – quite a revelation; return to Lucky Crab with my comrade and also S; go to ‘The Doors Bar’ and have singular beer and a rather early night.
06/12/02: The German Bakery for breakfast again, with M, E, followed by the Mancunian girls – it’s their last night; more beach stuff and then drinks on the veranda with all; end up at the Drop In and the walls start closing in; insist that my comrade come to The Doors Bar with to escape the relentless dance music at the Drop In; stay for a bit before deciding to call it a day.
The next five days were spent drinking copious amounts of alcohol and coffee, watching pirated films, reading papers, playing cards, sleeping, and eating – in my case whenever my stomach would permit, which by now was not as often as I would have liked. My digestive system’s chief source of consternation was the bucket of joy, which I would eventually decide to abstain from.
I can recall a sense of excitement when the rains made their return because it meant I could get off the beach and sit on my veranda with impunity, reading and watching the torrents of water sprinting for the sea (our bungalows having been built on a slight gradient). Or we might watch a film in one of the less auspicious bars set back off the main roads. (If one could call them that; these dirt tracks were mere arteries, connecting the various routes down to the waterfront, or back up passed Chicken Corner, The German Bakery, 7-Eleven, Bamboozle and the Lucky Crab, and then on down towards Sunset Beach.)
The films on show were the latest releases, so you took what you were given – only The Road to Perdition and Jackass: The Movie were really worth bothering with. Fortunately we had Grass, a card game that helped us while away many an hour in the afternoon, without having to resort to booze at too early an hour.
It was on the last night of the Mancunians that the unrest began to creep in. A particularly debauched evening, I’d begun to lose patience with the awful dance music that pervaded in and around the Drop In. Buckets of Joy had become a regular feature, despite everybody swearing off them every morning after their consumption. All it would take was for one person to return from the bar kitted out, a straw shoved towards your reluctant mouth, and then somebody else would figure they should return the favour, and before you knew it, oblivion.
And so it was on that last night, as it had been on our first night, and then B’s first night, and almost every night in-between – only the King’s Birthday was in any way dry – that I began to suffer mentally. I recall wandering off and spending some quality time alone outside the 7-Eleven. I liked it there – the sounds were a distant hum. Was all this the Devil’s work, I thought? What do the Thais think of us here, because for every S showering the local vendors with gifts there was bound to be many an aberrant Westerner behaving less appropriately? I hope they weren't too corrupted, those Thais, by this invasion of atheists and unenquiring agnostics, hell-bent on intemperance of various forms.
Yet I was in no rush to leave. Haad Rin’s modest scale was unquestionably convenient. There was decent food to be had – the tuna sandwiches from Chicken Corner were capable of sorting me right out – there were interesting bars in which to hang, and our cosy little bungalows, with their hammocks and verandas, were no more than a hop, skip and a jump from the beach. The sheer glut of watering holes kept the price of drink very reasonable, which is of real benefit to the traveller on a budget.
When I got wind of where M and E planned to take us to next – our accedence permitting – I wasn't so sure. But follow them we did, if only because I didn't feel like I could handle leaving for Samui just yet.