Thursday, December 06, 2012

Getting to Koh Lipe

Sitting cross legged on a white weathered chair, the reverberating sound of sea breeze accompanied by soothing Thai melodies in the morning salty air. There I sat blogging in the yellow glow of the morning sun, looking out to distance Langkawi, the dark blue skies dotted by the occasional sea bird that soared high. It was just after my morning sunrise shoot, I sat sipping hot instant coffee, my laptop laid on the breakfast table, Marlboro smoke bellowed from my mouth. At times like theses, grinning from cheek to cheek broader then Joker’s smile, I wished time would crawl.

Koh Lipe is considered one of the more difficult islands to reach. Firstly it is located far down south next to the border of Malaysia. Driving there from Bangkok will be too time consuming and so the journey would start with a budget plane ride to Hat Yai that took us an hour more or less. From Hat Yai to the pier in Satun leaving for Koh Lipe was another two hours by van and a speed boat ride with very limited schedules that departed in the morning. The sea crossing took us another one and a half hours or so. Because the first ferry this October season was 11am in the morning, we had to arrive in Hat Yai the night before on a Friday and stayed a night there.

Nasty Hat Yai Experience

On arrival in Hat Yai, the cheapest way to get to our hotel would be to know the place first and catch a cheap ride for 50 Baht or so in what Bangkokians call two-row trucks. The price varies and could go as high as 100 Baht per head if one were to arrive late after dark where the frequency of such service dwindles. The hunt for the trucks, yes the hunt, requires one to walk out into the parking lot and spot them parking alongside the roads. If none are around, wait a while and there should be one soon pulling up letting off passengers. They would stop there for an hour or more, depending, so that they could be filled before leaving for reasons of economics. We spotted some locals sitting on the grass having beer next to one such truck, we spoke and asked about getting to town and the guy downing the bottles of Leo said he would leave in a moment after the next flight arrives. He was the driver.

You need to know which vicinity your hotel is located in. Find a hotel near popular markets such as Santisuk or Kim Yong. Why? Because that’s the only way to tell the driver where to go. If your hotel ain’t one of the big names recognized, they will not know where to drop you. Maybe they will say yes they know, but when they let you off, you will be in for an adventure. But not to worry if this happens. Well, it happened to us. Hat Yai is crawling with mini Tuk-Tuks. These are small little red or blue Daihatsu pick-ups with chairs and a roof bolted on. It’s like a mini version of the tow-rows. These are the in-town taxis and they will likely know where your hotel is. Cheap 20 to 30 Baht ride. They seemed honest, we picked up a few Caucasians along the way and they were charged the same rate as local folks there.

River Grand Hotel, the thought of it makes me fuming mad. I don’t know to be mad at Agoda or to be mad at the hotel itself. When we arrived late, they said they had no more rooms even though we had the booking papers from Agoda. We called Agoda, they said it’s the hotel’s fault but never offered any resolution on where we were to stay then. The hotel staffs blamed Agoda back, stating they did not receive the booking orders. To add to the complication, they had hordes of Malaysians by the tour bus loads arriving that day and the hotel then twisted the story to say they overlooked our booking because we arrived late. That was utter rubbish hotel management. They then gave the next excuse that their telephone system was down and that they could not check emails. Another guest that arrived the same time as we did had our similar problems. That made two fuming mad guest which the reception tried to brush aside as best as she could with constantly changing reasons.

Mid October every year, there will be this traditional Taoist religious festival going on where Malaysians flock to Hat Yai in the thousands and all hotels will be fully booked. The receptionist of River Grand, low IQ and IT illiterate, no checking email system. What the f...! And so after heated debate and teaching the receptionist some manners and how she should handle the situation, we got ferried around in a blue Daihatsu tuk-tuk to another two hotels belonging to the same chain. The other guest checked in un-happily to the only room left in one and we had to move on to the other hotel in the vicinity. For some lucky reasons, we met the owner of the chains and he offered to open a suit room for us, without extra charges back in the hotel which we booked. That doused my flame fortunately. He mentioned his receptionist was new and did not know how to handle situations like these, his receptionist should have offered us the suit in the beginning instead of wasting our two hours looking for rooms elsewhere. It was only later on, when we shared our experience with other Thais, that we found out Hat Yai is notorious, very well known in fact, for lousy hotel services. They said with a tint of racism that Malaysians however do not mind such crap because the rates are just too cheap anyways. Cheap it was really, my room cost 600 Baht, so I should just shut up and stop whining.

It was the night 19 of October, the festival was in full swing. The streets were filled with Hokkien speaking crowd from Penang. It felt like back home in Singapore, army days, Hokkien words and swears filled the air. Food everywhere and so dinner was not a problem. By the streets we sat and ate our Mee-Goreng. It was packed shoulders to shoulders. Folks lined the streets to receive the good luck that emits out from deities rocking the religious chairs as they paraded down the road. Pickpockets grinning and spotting easy targets operated among the festivities. It was like Singapore decades back but the only difference was they had loud firecrackers to accompany the jumble of gongs pulsating effortlessly through our skulls. Our hotel was near and we had a nice stroll back. As we did, we chatted about the other guest who checked into the only last room left in the hotel they were sent. See, in Asian beliefs, there will always be one room in any hotels that remains out of bounds to guest. It’s for the nasty ghost to reside in so that paying customers will not be “disturb”. They will sometimes use that room under “crisis” situations. A colleague of mine had one such encounter sometime back in a hotel fully booked at Saraburi. He felt his hair stood on ends in the room, something felt oddly strange as he lay on the bed. So he looked under his bed to find an altar. He slept in the lobby as a result.

Getting to the Pier

The trip to Pak Bara pier started in the early morning. We took a Tuk Tuk to the Kaset bus terminal. Lined up in the shades the white vans sat. We booked two tickets which cost 90 Baht each. There were no schedules, they left as and when they felt the vans were economically filled. The distance to Pak Bara was long but the journey was short at the same time. We sat in the vans so notorious for life terminating accidents widely reported in news. We made it anyhow after just one and a half hours in the hands of the race driver and no we did not shit in our pants. And there at Pak Bara, we waited for the speed boat that left at 11am. That was a cheap ride from Hat Yai to Pak Bara, in contrast to the 300 Baht per head ride in alternative pre-arranged packages provided. That was cheap also, compared to the 2000 over Baht taxi service from Hat Yai airport.

The drone of three diesel fueled Yamaha engines vibrated through every bone of every passenger as the vessel sliced through swelling ocean waves. There were times of calmness as the boat navigated in-between the shielded waters of Koh Tarutao. Beyond that large land mass, swelling deep blue oceans, the whoosh of air under the white canopy and the never ending reverberation of the Yamahas. Over crest and into the trough, the hull slammed the deep dark blue, the sensation of an out of sync galloping horse jumping over high fences. It was difficult to keep the remarkable sight at a distance, the curvature of mother Earth, in focus. This reason, one should not have a big breakfast before embarking on the crossing. If one had not already puked one’s meal out in the previous formula one van trip from Hat Yai to Pak Bara, the marine ordeal is a guarantee for one to regurgitate with the capacity of an ostrich with gastro-intestinal problems.

Koh Lipe will appear in the horizon floating on huge welcoming sheet of shaded jade. As the throttle was pulled back, the drone settled into a whirr. The overriding ring in the ear would however still fill out every void of your senses. It took sometime for me to register the gentle splashes of shimmering green. Looking over the starboard side, my eyelids raised more then what they normally should. There I was in Sunset Bay, the spirits of all on board came together and escalated into pure awe. Clicks of the cameras heard, passengers stood and moved. The boat rocked side to side as the captain challenged to counter steer and balance. In the midst of it all, I sat silent on the high chairs up front in a state of ecstatic trance, taking in full breaths of pristine clear waters with the white gleaming coast where long tail boats of sea gypsies lined. The bustling trees so green against the backdrop of cotton candy clouds on sky clean blue. Elation, just elation. That was how I arrived.

3 comments: said...

Hello, I love reading through your blog, I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation. Wishing you the best of luck for all your blogging efforts.

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Jewie said...

Hey guys.. . thanks for the very encouraging comments. I write to transcript my adventures and to let my mates back home know how great life can be if we have the courage to make drastic changes to our lives, such as moving out to a strange wonderful country like Thailand. And no, I am no famous blogger enjoying any limelight or such. I am just a simple man, making a living in Thailand, a place I grow to love only more and more.