A Travellerspoint blog

The Isle of Coconuts

KO SAMUI

sunny
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I had to spend the whole night cramped in a cab and travel over 800km in order to get to what is considered to be one of the most beautiful islands in Thailand…

There we were the day before, in a low-key Pattaya restaurant, Sujith, Sravan and me, all of us groggy (with hangovers), and all of us downing fresh bottles of Heineken (to get over the hangovers). Pattaya had left us dazed and exhausted, and we were wondering where to go next. This was one of our mini round table meets for deciding the next destination. In contention were Bangkok, Samui, Phuket and even Laos. We weighed the resources in hand, ran through a cost-benefit analysis and finally eliminated all other destinations to arrive at Samui (hey, we were MBAs after all). Sorry Loas, maybe next time! Ko Samui was always on the cards even on my first Thailand trip; but we had skipped it owing to one of those impulsive itenary changes. There was no missing it the second time.

So, we had this brilliant idea of booking a cab directly from Pattaya to Don Sak pier, because strangely, there was no public ferry transportation available between the eastern and western gulf coasts of Thailand, flights were too expensive and there were no direct buses between the two places. Yeah, I know. this was like reaching your ear from around the back of your head. But we did not have a choice, did we?

The cab agent informed that it would take around 11-12 hours for the trip. We got ourselves adequately ready for the overnight journey. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Tick. Pizzas, Tick. Pepsi, Tick. Empty Stomachs, Double Tick. We started off at around 10pm from Pattaya, and after gorging on our supplies, I gradually fell asleep listenig to soft Thai music occasionally being woken up at stops. Our driver had this habit of stopping in the middle of nowhere and taking off without a word and returning after 10-15 minutes. There were major communication problems between us; he neither spoke nor understood a single word of English. Overall, the overnight ride went smoothly and even when we woke up in the morning, we did not feel any tiredness; Thai highways were so good! 50km to go and we realized that our driver was as clueless as us about which direction to take when he started stopping the car and asking passerbys. However, we managed to get to the pier on time and take the next ferry to Samui island. We tipped the driver 200 Baht for the smooth ride and bade him farewell; it was the only time we saw him smile.

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The ferry ride between Don Sak Pier and the island took an hour and a half. Ko Samui is part of an archipelago of 80 islands and some islands were visible during the ride. They were small, green, uninhabited islands jutting out of the water and adding to the natural beauty of the place. There was even a large statue of Buddha on one of them. It is said that the first backpackers arrived in Ko Samui in small coconut boats way back in the 1970s. Then the tourism boom of the 1990s happened and nothing was the same as before.

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The ferry ride from Don Sak to Ko Samui

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After arriving at the Na Thon pier on the island, we took a cab to Lamai beach, the second largest beach on the island after Chaweng beach. Chaweng beach is the Samui equivalent of Pattaya's Patong - overcrowded with hotels, shops and tourists. We figured Lamai would be more ideal for chiling out. As always, we relied on the taxi driver to take us to a guesthouse which suited our budget, and we crashed in ‘Sea Breeze Bungalow', one of the many guesthouses along the Lamai beach strip. It even had a one Mr.Jaroon who promised us the massage of our lives. We wasted no time in changing and heading to the beach straight into the water.

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In the evening, we set out to explore the island by renting a couple of bikes. Samui is almost circular in shape and when I saw the island map, I only saw a green shaded circle with a yellow circular line drawn along its circumference signifying the main road. The middle of the island is covered in thick forest and the interiors are mostly inaccessible. Do we need a map for this? We decided to just keep heading north along the main road until we get to Chaweng beach. It turned out to be a worng decision because we ended up getiing lost for the next 2 hours. We could not find the beach at all. Instead we went through crowded market places, one-way shopping streets and even around a lake twice. Finally, we managed to find a detour which took us to the Chaweng, but when we got there, we were greeted with the darkness. It was the Chaweng all right, but there was not a speck of light in sight. Apparently, we had missed the ‘party’ side of the beach and had ventured into the ‘sleepy’ side. Already tired and resigned to our fates, we left for our guesthouse as it was already late. The night ended on a happy note with Bailey’s on the beach with lots and lots of pizza. Lamai beach was also dark and quiet; Relaxing on the beach chairs, staring at the moonlight, sipping Bailey’s and talking about life was the moment of the whole trip.

Sravan was to leave for home a day early. So the next morning, I got up and dropped him at the airport before sunrise. The Ko Samui ‘Airport’ turned out to be nothing but a runway and a couple of huts, one for handling arrivals and the other for departures. The airport was originally built by ‘Bangkok Aiways’ as a private airport but later, Thai Airways also started operating flights to it. It looked more like a beach shack than an airport. Not even a fence separated the runway from the road, and I actually had a speed race with an airplane!

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Guess: Airport or Resort?

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On my way back to the guesthouse, I lost sense of direction again, but I did not care. Riding on the empty roads in the cool early morning weather was very invigorating. I somehow managed to get back to the hotel and found Sujith still fast asleep. So, I headed to the beach to put my photography skills to use and could capture a few good pictures. Slowly, the beach started filling up with sunbathers desperate to get a tan from the morning rays. I was already as tanned as the colour of the T-shirt I was wearing (which was black), so I returned to the room. Sujith had already woken up and we had a proper ‘American’ breakfast with sausages and all.

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It was finally time to bid adieu to the place. Our flight to Bangkok left from Surat Thani on the mainland and we had not thought about how we would reach there yet. We had to go to the pier, find a ferry, go to Don Sak, and then to Surat Thani airport from there. This would take atleast 4 hours. We went to the nearest travel agent office and asked the lady at the counter about our options. She was livid when we mentioned that our flight left in 5 hours and immediately started her own enquires. After a tense 5 minutes, we got a breakthrough. Our Madam could arrange a car, a ferry and a bus for each part of the journey that would drop us directly to Surat Thani airport. It was a fair deal and the lady seemed more relieved than us. She instructed us strictly to leave in an hour so that we could reach there on time; that was Thai hospitality for you! We exchanged the usual pleasantries and then she asked us how long we were on vacation. “1 week” we said. She was surprised. “1 week? 1 week?! What will you do in 1 week? You have to stay here atleast 2 months”, she exclaimed. Her response spoke volumes about the kind of travelers who come to the islands of Thailand. They come to relax, to chill out, to recharge; to forget their mundane lives back home. I wondered whether I could ever afford the luxury of a 2 month vacation in the rest of my life. We assured her that the next time would be a much longer stay.

Our excitement in Samui had not ended yet. When I went to return the bike, the rental shop was closed; I had to leave in half an hour and I had given my passport as collateral for the bike. There was a slow sinking feeling in me but I quickly collected myself and managed to somehow obtain the shopkeeper’s contact number. The shopkeeper answered sleepily and I calmly explained to him the situation. “No Problem, No problem”, he said, “I will send someone to open the shop”. His girlfriend, I presume, came after 10 minutes, apologized, opened the shop and returned my passport for the bike. I heaved a sigh of relief and returned to the hotel to pack. But wait, it was not over yet. I realized that my camera was missing; I had put it in the bike basket. I literally ran to the shop again and was relieved to see the lady holding my camera. We managed to catch the car, the ferry and the bus on time to reach the airport and catch our flight. Whew! Enough thrills to last me a month.

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On that note, my trip to the island of coconuts (as referred to by the foreigners visiting the place) ended. The coconuts grown here are supposed to be very tasty but unfortunately, I could not taste any coconut water. Also, bike riding was considered to be dangerous on the curvy roads of the island. But in the end, I would remember Samui for the two completely differing bike ride experiences I had (along with our private beach party in between). I can now proudly strike another place off my ‘must-visit islands’ list!

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Posted by charanam 06:45 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

The Jewel of Kedah

LANGKAWI


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We had to choose between Penang and Langkawi....

After the Singapore GP, Arjun, Priyatham and myself had already made up our mind to go around Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur was planned for the last two days, and we still had two days in between. So where do we go? We had to make a choice between two islands on the west coast of Malaysia, two islands which were touted to be 'must-see'. But we simply did not have time to cover both. Ultimately, the lure of duty free shopping tipped the scales decisively. Langkawi it was!

Palau Langkawi is your typical Southeast Asian island, or rather it is an archipelago of 99 islands situated in Malaysian state of Kedah, the main island being the largest and most visited with beautiful beaches, lush green forests, seafood, seafood and more seafood. After we landed in the smallest international airport I have ever seen, we headed to Pantai Cenang, the most popular beach in Langkawi at the south-west tip of the island and we checked into 'Gecko Guesthouse', one of many budget guesthouses around the beach.

The Gecko

The Gecko


At the Gecko Guesthouse

At the Gecko Guesthouse

The beach was just a few strides from our place. As soon we entered the beach, a downpour greeted us and we had to run for cover. Exactly after five minutes, it was as sunny as ever. This was typical Malaysian weather. We enjoyed the quiet beach and we even made Priyatham get into the sea water (he who had never even got into a swimming pool before). After the swim, I had a 'sea food' pizza in the nearby pizzeria which consisted of fish, shrimp, crab, squid and what not.

But I felt Langkawi was a world apart from the tourist hustle and bustle of Phuket. Maybe we were in the off season, or maybe I was doing too much travelling for my own good. The serenity, or rather the lack of activity on the island, took me by surprise. The guest house we checked into was vacant, the roads were deserted and we ate all alone at the pizzeria opposite our guesthouse. There were a few people at the beach but not as many as you would expect to see on a beautiful beach of a Southeast Asian island. I knew the place was sparsely populated, but this was almost like a ghost island.

At the Pantai Kok Beach

At the Pantai Kok Beach


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We had huge expectations on shopping 'duty free' in Langkawi. I was already imagining myself with a brand new camera and wondering how I could carry all the liquor, cigars and chocolates that I would be buying in my bag. My dilemma was short-lived after all; because we found out that the items in the duty free shops were in fact more expensive!

Yet, duty free shopping is supposedly a major tourist attraction in Langkawi. Huge duty-free shopping malls (malls mind you, not shops) have been constructed in Kuah and other places to attract shopping tourism. We did not understand the phenomenon. The only thing I found reasonably cheap was the liquor and needless to say, we made most of it. A six pack of Carlsberg cans for 10RM was too good to be true, even cheaper than in India!

I have always loved moped riding on deserted islands, and Langkawi was no exception. Taxis were a trifle expensive on the island and there was no other public transportation. Renting mopeds was economic and apart from the obvious monetary benefits, gave you the luxury to explore the area more freely. We found a bike rental shop just outside our guesthouse. The lady at the desk gave a long, hard look at my driving license issued by the Government of Andhra Pradesh (I got it for about 1500 bucks and did not as much as touch a 2-wheeler during the so-called test) and decided it would do. She showed me the bike and asked me whether I was familiar driving an automatic. I gave her an assuring nod and then immediately asked her how to start the bike. She became more apprehensive. However, off we went on our new vehicles. We could see the lady was still very doubtful as to whether we could bring her bikes back in one piece. We certainly hoped to, because the penalties in case of damage to the bikes were prohibitive.

Mopeding away

Mopeding away

With just a small map on the backside of some tourist brochure to guide us, we went exploring the island. Fuel was cheap in Malaysia, courtesy Petronas. We covered the entire breadth of the island by going to the northwestern tip of the island to see the Pantai Kok beach as well as the Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls aka Seven Wells and then to the south-eastern tip to Kuah, the major town on the island. The famous 'Eagle Square' was situated in Kuah. The huge eagle statue was the icon of the island and ferries coming to Langkawi supposedly catch sight of this statue first.

On the way to the Waterfalls

On the way to the Waterfalls


The Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls

The Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls


At the Eagle Square in Kuah

At the Eagle Square in Kuah

It was while returning from the waterfalls, that the 'helmet incident' took place. The three of us were given helmets by the rental shop and they were compulsory while on the road. Priyatham, who was pillion riding on Arjun's bike and who had till then obediently put on the helmet, decided to take it off for a while. Just then, we were flagged down by a burly, dark skinned policeman who demanded to see our license. Turns out, he was a Malay Tamilian or a Tamil Malaysian. He looked at us closely and apparently thought we were Tamils too. He gave a cursory glance at our Indian passports and said “Malaysia la helmets compulsory appa... teriyuma?”
We were all apologies, and explained to him in English that we were poor, ignorant tourists who were unaware of the rules here. Priyatham put on his helmet and we were waved off with a warning never to repeat the mistake again. I was grateful and even tried thanking him in Tamil, but thought better of it.

And then the 'Helmet Incident' happened

And then the 'Helmet Incident' happened

Just before leaving for the airport, we decided to visit the 'Underwater World', an indoor aquarium near Pantai Cenang. The aquarium showcased many dirverse forms of marine life including seals and sharks. The highlight of the visit was me posing for a photograph with a huge snake around my neck. You could do that by shelling out 10RM for the smaller snake and 20RM for the bigger snake. According to the caretaker, the 'small' snake was for ladies and children and the bigger one which was curled up in a huge box was for men. He asked me whether he should take the big snake out. I said "No Thanks, I prefer the smaller one". The snakes were apparently 'domesticated'. The skin was slippery and the snake I held was constantly trying to wriggle out of my grip. It was a heady feeling standing there with the reptile wrapped around your neck. The caretaker asked Priyatham and Arjun whether they would also like to hold the snake and get themselves photographed. They said "No Thanks".

Underwater World - The largest aquarium in Malaysia

Underwater World - The largest aquarium in Malaysia


Tortoises, or are they turtles?

Tortoises, or are they turtles?

Meet my new pet

Meet my new pet

The Langkawi trip ended with a minor blunder. We had checked the airline fares to Kuala-Lumpur online but did not bother to book our tickets deciding to purcahse them there. It turned out that purchasing tickets at the airport cost you more, a lot more than booking online. So, we had to shell out 200RM each for a 120RM AirAsia ticket.

Despite the duty-free letdown, Langkawi was an enjoyable two days. It has also taught me valuable lessons. One, you should always purchase airline tickets online; Two, helmets are compulsory even for pillion riders in Malaysia; And last but not the least, snakes are nice creatures, after all!

The Icon of the Island

The Icon of the Island

Posted by charanam 07:54 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

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