The Andaman Coast

 3-16 June 2008

Arriving back on the mainland we headed back to Talkoo resort and our delightful pink dolphins! We have obviously set them thinking as they are actively promoting camping now and have cleared some spaces for camp sites so, if you want to camp in the Khanom area they’re definitely worth a look! Their website is apparently under construction but if you google Talkoo Resort Khanom a few weeks hence it should be up and running.  A great spot ..having the pool to ourselves was a nice touch though we can’t guarantee that one!

 The drive across from the east to the west or Andaman coast only took about 3 hours and the roads here continue to be really good. First stop was the town of Krabi in the province of that name. It is a pleasant enough little town on the river, with a great night market and friendly (predominantly Muslim) people. I loved the street lights, thinking perhaps they were an unflattering view of British tourists ( pictures to follow!) but apparently Krabi was one of the first places where early man was supposed to have settled so that’s what they’re all about. We headed out quickly to Ao Nang a nearby beach resort thinking this would be better for camping. We lucked out and found a great spot right on the beach. Ao Nong is apparently very busy in the high season (November onwards) but pretty quiet now. It is lovely for swimming with a back drop of limestone cliffs and craggy islands. It is also very friendly and a really nice spot to relax for a bit. The wet season was supposed to be upon us but we had a few days of really great weather.

 

 On Saturday 7 June we headed on to Ko Lanta an island to the south connected by the car ferry. On the way we passed a bird singing contest and pulled over to have a look. Just like the east coast of Malaysia setting up caged birds on long poles to sing is a major sport. It was hard to understand how the thing worked, the crowds watching would become animated and point to one bird and the “official” would go and write something on the  bird’s card (affixed to the cage front) but quite how or why they won or lost was unfathomable to us, and we could’t find an English speaker to explain! Certainly there seemed to be a fair bit of money changing hands so gambling was a big part of it (though it’s supposedly illegal in Thailand....mind you so is prostitution…ho hum!!)

 We headed on and boarded the car ferry for the short trip over to Lanta. We migrated straight to the south of the island where the development is less pronounced. The Tsunami caused some damage here and on this side of the coast in general  (though nothing like the devastation in Sumatra) and on our travels we saw many warning systems and signs in place, far more than in Indonesia.  Ko Lanta is apparently very busy in the high season. Again we were lucky (to start with!) having very fine weather but it is unpredictable at this time of year, and the island’s major attraction for many - access to some excellent diving sites and beautiful off shore islands – are off the menu until November time. We again found a great campsite right on the beach. Having lived in Darwin for a year we are a bit hard to impress with sunsets but the ones we saw in Lanta were spectacular. We had a lovely couple of days, visiting the national park and seeing some great beaches…when suddenly the weather broke and the wet season kicked in with a vengeance! We definitely now know our campervan is water tight as the gale that howled around us all night was pretty persistent. We had had a loose plan to visit the Phi Phi islands and perhaps have another dive but the few days rain will mean visibility will be pretty poor for a while so instead we headed back to Krabi where we had to go to immigration for our visa extension - amazingly we’ve already had 2 months in Thailand!

We also visited the nearby Watt Tham Seua or Tiger Cave Temple. Built around honouring a particular monk (Ajahn Jamnien- he’s still alive) the hall is built into a long limestone cave, going into a system of caves which you can climb  inside. There are also many monastic cells and caves where the monks live built into the caves and a sweet little hill side laundry area with 3 or 4 washing machines!

 The real challenge of the place lies in an incredibly arduous stairway up to the top of the  hill where there are various shrines and statues notably a big Buddha. The peak is 600m but the steps (1237 in all and believe me we felt them!) were often very steep like a stone ladder. It was not helped by the fact that a) it was stinking hot so you only had to move to break into a sweat and b) as darkness fell we were harassed by a troop of monkeys …as mentioned previously I have had a few bad monkey experiences and cannot warm to the little beggars at all. There was one point half way up when I wasn’t sure whether I should abandon climb but I persevered and the view at the top was amazing. Our legs were very sore next day!

We loved Krabi and particularly Ao Nang but as time was pressing on (and the weather was a bit all over the place!) on Thursday 12 June we headed on up to the tourist centre of Phuket.

 We were both actually quite pleasantly surprised by Phuket.  I had heard it was a huge touristy area and expected it to be nightmarishly garish, and whilst there were more neon lights girlie bars and unlikely couples (think 20 stone plus tattooed Western men with gorgeous skinny 18 year old Thai girls) than we’d seen so far,  the town did have a lot of charm. The explorer who founded Penang actually married a Phuket girl apparently and tried (unsuccessfully!) to make the city part of the “Old Country” and some of the old architecture was very similar to that in Penang showing Portuguese and Chinese influence. We took a little guided tour to give the driver (Andrew!)  a day off, and saw some lovely old buildings as well as a scenic view point and interestingly a “Chao Ley” or sea gypsy village. There was a large settlement of sea gypsies in Lanta and we had been keen to see them though we got rained off, so we were glad to do so now. These people have only really been settled for 80 years or so, and before were true gypsies travelling throughout the ocean, regardless of political boundaries. Sadly this is no longer possible and they now live in villages but go to sea for weeks at a time. Traditionally they speak their own language (similar to Malay apparently) and have their own religion which involves the worship of sea spirits. Nowadays they are recognized legally as Thai citizens and all the younger ones speak Thai. Their traditional  stilt houses have been replaced by modern  ones, particularly as a some were lost in the Tsunami. I guess these people - particularly the ones in Phuket and similar areas-  will find it increasingly hard to retain their traditional way of life, and it was fascinating to glimpse it whilst it still exists.

The trip was rounded off with a trip to a huge gem factory (apparently the world’s biggest jewelry store!)  where Thai gemstones (Rubies, Sapphires and Emeralds) and pearls are made into jewelry. I think Mr Lee our guide hoped to get a big kick back from the commission for this part of the tour! I bought a small black pearl on a choker …perhaps enough commission for a drink for Mr Lee!

 Again the camping Gods were smiling on us and in Phuket which we thought might be a problem we have been spoilt for choice with camp sites. We journeyed on up the coast to the beaches of Karon, Kata,  Patong and Surin. All these were beautiful though Patong is a bit too built up for us (though pretty quiet at the moment) the coast line is in parts pretty rugged and unspoilt.  At Surin beach there was a magnificent pagola - like structure with the royal crest on it. Andrew jokingly  said it was the King's  changing room, and from what we later  gathered  this is pretty much it, when he holidays in the area he greets the people from the balcony. On that note I don't think I've mentioned before but the esteem in which the King is held in Thailand is quite incredible. His picture adorns every home/restaurant/office/roadside (it always has to be hung at a higher level than any other picture) and everyone stands for the national anthem at the cinema. Compared to the UK where most of the monarchy are seen as fair game  for the tabloids it is a stark contrast.  Anyone being remotely critical of the King in public here is likely to end up in gaol!    

 

Andrew was thrilled that whilst Thailand is not really known as a surf destination the recent trade winds from the Indian ocean  have definitely caused the waves to pick up along this stretch of coastline. The current is pretty strong and you are generally warned off swimming but he has managed  to get out for a couple of decent surfs, the “biggest and best” it ever gets here according to locals!   We also have found the mother of all campsites at Kata Viewpoint, which is between Naihan and Kata Noi beaches and affords a view up the coast to Kata Noi, Kata and Karon beaches. A wonderful view to wake up to, (though you want to check the handbrake thoroughly as we’re right on the cliff edge!!) We met an early morning walker who commented that the only other people in the area who had a view which was (almost) as good as ours were those in the luxury bungalows below us and  they were paying 50,000 baht (approx $1600 Aus) per night for the privilege whilst we were paying nothing!  Can’t complain about that!!  So as at 16 June 2008, we plan to spend another day or so here relaxing on the beach (me) and surfing (Andrew) before heading north up the coast to the Ranong Province.