Deserted beaches, coloured with palm trees, fisherman long-tail boats, bamboo huts and hammocks is the postcard image you imagine. But Thailand’s islands, in all its complexity is more than picture perfect.
People go to places for different reasons. I have had a year of madness, and all I wanted was to disappear into the abyss.
So, yet again, I turned my gaze to Asia, but somewhere I have never been before. Apart from SA, this bewildering continent is my second home. And it made such a price difference that I could even afford to fly my mom, Anne-marié Mailovich, over, to a part of the world that is so dear to me.
I realised I would be travelling during the monsoon, the tumultuous rainy season that wreaks havoc in the region year after year, but it mostly implies brief spurts of showers, which cools things down. As a traveller, the obvious benefit of the season is that it’s also low-season. There’s low prices (especially accommodation), smaller crowds, more room for negotiation, often very affordable flights and if you are lucky certain experiences; and, obviously, you have more of the destination for yourself.
The first island and my friend, Petrus
My morbid curiosity lured me and my friend, Petrus Malherbe, to Thailand’s biggest island, Phuket – where all the Saffas, Kiwis and Aussies go for Patong’s Bangla Road with its party girls, smokey bars and it’s buzzing night lights.
Apart from the tall trees swaying in rhythm with the ocean, this is a far cry from the postcard. With the exception of the lower than usual room rates and macabre, empty hotels, the over-saturated stomping ground was doing business as usual.
For three days we just focused on the endless beaches, cheap accommodation, and flinched at the hefty island prices (the cost of transport and alcohol is abnormally high for Thailand).
But, to be honest, after facing the harsh nightlife reality, I felt closer to Thailand.
Staring at its open-cables power supply and signs kindly showing you the tsunami evacuation route, the everyday remnants of one of the biggest natural disasters known to man, that crushed Phuket in 2004. This place still has a bleeding heart, and is more than its smoke-and-discoball sex industry.
Me, my mom and Koh Lanta Yai
I suppose I am an old soul, in island style and in life. Just off the coast of Krabi, also south in the land of smiles, me, my mom and my friend Debreé Kluge ended up on Koh Lanta Yai.
As all the articles promised Koh Lanta Yai had all the chill in the world.
Good food, some of the worlds’ cheapest (even cheaper in the monsoon season) diving certifications and all the things you can imagine to do on an island.
Sea kayaking, island hopping, snorkeling, diving, exploring the local mangrove, marvel at the animal life . . . and the list continues. It remains to be seen if there is enough interest for these activities during monsoon. The weather might mess with your plans, but the diving schools, and tour operators collaborate and combine programs to make the most of the lost and wandering tourists.
When things don’t work out, you can always rent a moped and jet across the island for a picnic and make the magic happen on your own.
On rainy days, I updated my diary, read, had coffee and made friends. I even got treated with one of the local kids having me “test” her cupcakes.
Adventuring for one
As I left the Thai Kak Pier on the coast of the South Western border town of Ranong right at the end of my trip to Thailand, where I was on my own for the first time.
I had a little more than a week left of my visa, and a Thai woman advised me to come and check out her paradise, and her conviction about this gem convinced me.
I was on the last stint of an almost 24 hour overland trip from Kanchanaburi, a town two hours north of Bangkok, where the infamous Death Railway was built by allied forces’ that was captured as forced labour as war criminals. Kanchanaburi is where the real bridge in the 1952 flick Bridge of The River Kwai is – today it’s a prime spot for selfie-mad tourists.
After this, I was pondering the existence of man and cruelness of war when I realised – on the slow boat (the public ferry) to Koh Phayam – paradise hardly comes easy.
The only way to figure out this trip was to ask local, hoping for someone that thinks out of the box and speaks English, because no app (and I usually check out Rome2Rio for directions between towns), no booking site (not even Go12Asia, my favourite booking service for shuttles, etc.) could give me easy-ish options; they also charged a fortune.
Luckily, a kind Kanchanaburi railway ticket officer helped me to unpack the situation. I had to travel from hub to hub for a decent chance on regular connections for busses and trains. Then, I had to catch a local bus to a city called Ban Pong (who knew that was place), catch a second class sleeper couch on the night train to the other busy city called Surat Thani.
There I had to schlep to the local bus station, because very few people, other than the locals, make their way to the city of Ranong, bordering Myanmar.
This bus ride was a four and a half hours mission. After a quick search by the army, we ended up at a bus station, where I needed to convince a guy on a motorbike to take me to the station (luckily money talks) and finally caught the slow boat to this mystery island . . .
One of the only operating accommodation-spots promised that I would be able to flag down someone at the pier to take me to Flower Power Village, which had low-season rates as low as 250 Baht (roughly R125 at the time) for a decent private room with a fan.
The Italians running the establishment, a couple and the staff, seemed to be the only people on the premises and pretty much the only operating bar, restaurant and shop in sight.
I was staying in the Buffalo Bay part of Koh Phayam, which is allegedly the quieter bit of the island, so I assumed the rest of the island would be busier. Of course, this was clearly a lie during off-peak-season. I basically pitched up on an island that was “closed” for the low season.
The sound of hornbills and rainforest cleaved through the nothingness, with the waves rocking me into a solemn state of melancholy.
Somewhere along the empty road on the one ATM-island, free of 7-Elevens and often electricity, I decided to stay for the silence; the long conversations with travellers that never left; life around the school next to the Tsunami shelter, on the flatter than earth island – and for its Moken Village, where sea gypsies roam on land now.