Reaching Koh Tao

September 24, 2008 by  

When I headed to Thailand backpacking for a month, I was expecting a few hiccups. I managed to walk away from scams and avoid monstrously overpaying. After about three weeks of wandering the country I hadn’t experienced a major travel problem.  But my time would come.

I was in Phuket and I was going to leave for Koh Tao, Thai for Turtle Island, it is a Mecca for divers. I don’t dive but I figured it would be a beautiful place to relax on empty beaches — since everyone else would be underwater. The idea was welcome after spending a few days competing for space with the loud, middle-aged Australian and pink-skinned English tourists on Patong beach in Phuket.

I’d been using the public bus system, and aside from general confusion, it was working for me. This time I did some math and figured for an extra 200 THB (C$6.10) I could use the tourist bus service. It would pick me up from the guesthouse and take me right to the port. The ferry ticket would already be paid for and it was a faster trip. I bought a combined VIP mini-van and ferry ticket for 1,000 THB (C$30.50) from one of the many road-side travel agents.

A van screeched to a hault in front of my guesthouse the next afternoon and the driver made more frantic stops to pick up a few more people at other hotels. Then the road-raging madman hauled ass to Surat Thani.This guy was looking for a spot in FIA’s World Rally Championship. He easily took first prize for most insane driver I’d had in Thailand.

In Surat Thani the driver almost ploughed right through a slow-moving truck. He honked and swerved and rushed forward and slammed on the brakes — and then we arrived at our destination!  He put on that whole show just to get around the corner. He dumped us all out (weak-kneed and fairly nauseated) at some hole-in-the-wall travel agent office. We waited while people bound for Bangkok were sent off in a truck.

After about 45 minutes swatting flies from plastic chairs on the sidewalk of the open-front shop the “travel agent” finished his eighth cigarette, got up from his desk where he’d been sitting with his feet up chatting with three buddies and told us that there was no ferry from Surat Thani to Koh Tao tonight.

He said the sea was too rough and that we’d have to get on a bus and go to Chumphon City where there is another port. There would be a night ferry that we could take.

We were suspicious and asked some questions but there was no winning the battle. We got the guy to agree that there wouldn’t be any extra charge for the travel alterations. I was put on a truck with Alex, an American backpacker, and a Welsh guy, Dean, who’d been living on Koh Tao for two and a half years as a dive instructor.

We were taken for a drive and ended up turning down a narrow, bumpy dirt road to a shack that looked more like a temporary accommodation for farm workers than a bus station. The driver tried to get 20 THB each off us (C$0.60). We refused to pay him and he asked again for the money before he smirked and shrugged it off.

We looked around and saw the other people who had been on our “VIP” crazy-van trip. As the sun set we became the main course for the mosquitoes. I’d just run out of repellent. I am candy to those blood-lovers — they can’t get enough of me. I accumulated 90 minutes of mosquito bites before a man yelled at us and frantically waved his arms for us to follow him down the dirt road. We hustled awkwardly with our backpacks down the dark, pot-holed drive to the highway where he waved down a passing bus.

The bus made a few more unlikely roadside stops — even at a chicken stand where another bewildered backpacker stumbled on. The bus made its way to the highway and as soon as we were on it the bus broke down.

It took about 30 minutes and two kegs of oil before they were able to start the bus. We got back on the road and drove for a few hours. At midnight the bus pulled over and kicked us out on the side of the highway.There was nothing in sight, except for a sign that read “Chumphon 8 KM.”

Dean, the Welshman, had been to Chumphon City before. He hailed a motorbike taxi and asked the driver to call another couple bikes. But he could only get one. Alex’s bag was put between the legs of one driver and Dean got on with him. My bag was between the legs of the second driver. Alex got on behind him.

I was left with barely three inches of bike seat to cling my arse to as I squeezed on behind the two men. I had the day-pack on my back. There were no foot pegs for me, I had to put my feet on top of Alex’s feet. Helmets? No. No need for those in Thailand.The driver didn’t see this predicament as any reason to take it slow and zoomed down the road with the three of us and the luggage piled on his bike.

I clung on to Alex for my life and prayed as the eight kilometres of pavement flew under us that I didn’t slip off and splatter my head all over it.We passed a building with a red cross on the sign and I felt only slight relief that there were medical services available in the area.

Nestled into every coveWe reached our destination — The Farang Bar. It’s where you can buy a ticket for the ferry. Farang is Thai for foreigner. And as Thai’s like to do to farang, our driver charged us an indecent amount for the ride. He knew we had no alternative, so he made us pay 100 THB each. Usually for 200 BHT (C$6.10) in Thailand you can go 50 or 80 km in an air-conditioned taxi with seat belts.

We went up to the Farang Bar to see about the ferry. The ladies were just closing up. We’d missed the ferry. We had to buy new tickets for 550 THB (C$16.75) each. We ended up spending the night, sans bug spray, on the outdoor patio of the closed bar.Thankfully the food stall next to the bar was still selling beer.

At 7:00 am, still “buzzed” from the mozzies and the many bottles of Chang, a truck pulled up and honked at us. We hopped in the back and were taken to the ferry. Trucks in Thailand have two benches down either side of the box and you’re lucky if they close the tailgate before they tear down the roads.

They can sit about four people on each bench, but it’s tight. Our driver kept stopping for more and more people until there were 11 of us in the back of the two-bench truck.

But we made it to the ferry and we were in Koh Tao two hours later. After 20 hours of travel costing just over C$50 each, increased blood pressure and nausea, countless mosquito bites and safety hazards, little food and too much beer it was good to see the beach.


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