A race against nausea and heat-exhaustion.
2/22/12 - 2/22/12 82 °F
With our desire to do some more SCUBA diving satisfied, Sam and I got an early start on leaving Koh Phangan the next morning. Our next destination: Railay Beach, one of the places I'd been most excited about visiting since we started planning this trip. We knew it was going to be a grueling trip -- it ended up being just over 11 hours by tuk-tuk, catamaran, bus and long-tail boat -- but keeping in mind postcard-perfect visions of sun-soaked white beaches and sapphire tides stretched between towers of jungle-capped limestone cliffs, we set out. Travel in Thailand up to that point had been fairly easy and pleasant compared to some horror stories we'd read from other travelers, but we were about to have a little experience of our own.
One option for travel here is to buy what the call a "joint ticket" which includes the bus, boat, taxi or whatever it takes to get from A to B for one price. We'd heard that some of the buses in those packages were "scams", on which peoples bags were looted and frequent stops were made so shop owners could hassle riders to buy something. We decided to forgo the package deal, get to the mainland and make our own way via the government buses which we had read were supposed to be safer, cheaper and nicer. So we took a Songserm slow boat from Koh Phangan to a small pier on the mainland with nothing around it but a ticket booth and a food stand. We were told there was a mini-bus on the way to take us into Surat Thani town, so we set our things down to wait and a few people bought some food and snacks from the only available option. After everybody was finished buying food, a guy who had been there since we showed up stood and announced that the mini-bus (which had been there the whole time) was ready. We've learned since then that buses in Thailand and Cambodia stop VERY often at food stands/ small shops. I can't decide if stops like this are a courtesy to the riders or if the bus companies get some kind of commission for bringing in customers, maybe a little of both. Either way it's a little annoying for a couple of westerners who are used to things running fairly efficiently and on-time.
Anyway, we made it to Surat Thani, where we set to work trying to find the government-run bus station that, as far as we learned, does not exist. It's actually just a street lined with buses of varying colors and shops that sell over-priced tickets. To get the best deal you have to find the correct bus and avoid getting suckered into buying a ticket while you're at it. There are plenty of people on the sidewalk assuring you that their friend runs the shop that sells the ticket you need. It's best to just ask them which bus you'll be riding and then go directly to the bus. The driver will sell you the ticket without the middle-man mark up. Even direct from the bus driver, prices can vary. Sam and I paid 200B each, the girls in the seats next to us bought from the same guy and paid 250B each. A Swedish couple we met had bought through one of the travel agency shops lining the street and they paid 500B each! And this is the bus that we thought was supposed to be legit!
As expected, the bus ride was awful. By the time we boarded the bus only the back seats, where you get none of the a/c, were available. But we had it better than the girl in the seat next to me. Things were fine for her until we started moving and some hidden reservoir of stale water cascaded from the ceiling into her lap. She patched it up with some first-aid supplies and the rest of the trip was uneventful; boring except for the continuous game of trying to keep from passing out or throwing up from the mix of heat and blaring Thai pop music.
The road signs for Krabi were a welcome relief, from there we were expecting to catch a long-tail to take us to Railay, but that would have been too easy. We pulled into town and everyone got off, except the six foreigners who were told this wasn't our stop. Instead we were driven to a coincidentally inconvenient spot about a mile out of town. When the Swedish man confronted the bus crew as to why we couldn't get off in town he was told "That stop Thai people only. You stop here." "Here" happened to be nothing more than a three-walled shelter with a few desks occupied by smiling travel agents eager to tell us the "more better" way to get to our destination. With no other option at this point Sam and I pooled together with the two Slovenian girls to take a cab to Ao Nang beach, where we hopped in a longtail for the short ride to Railay Beach West.
It was about 5pm when we arrived and we headed for the more backpacker-affordable accommodation on Railay Beach East, which is about a 5-10 minute walk from Railay West. We soon found out that this happened to be the weekend of the Chinese New Year. The combination of the holiday and the beginning of the tourist season meant ALL of the budget accommodation was booked by the time we got there. Sam camped out at a little juice shop with our packs and I ran around for a good hour or so trying to find a place we could afford. I finally found a place, a little windowless brick room big enough for a bed, it was ridiculously over-priced but it was the best we could do. Dehydrated, hungry, head aching and soaked with sweat, I took the room. I found Sam and lead her back to our home for the night, we both immediatley collapsed on the bed where we laid in the dark for few hours before even considering our next move.
I think it's a requirement to have at least a couple terrible travel experiences while in SEA. Ours wasn't as bad as some we've hear about but here's hoping it's the worst we'll have to deal with. At least it makes for an interesting memory.