Thursday, July 22, 2010

Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Surat Thani, and Ko Tao (Thailand)

41 hours. That is how long the adventure to get from Chiang Mai to Ko Tao took us. Having some time to kill, we decided to take the scenic route through Thailand by catching trains. In Chiang Mai, we were excited to try out the first-class sleeper with our own private cabin with washbasin and complimentary drinking water. Alas, we realized when we boarded the train that our tickets were for second-class sleeper with only a curtain between you and the other twenty or so people in the carriage. The beds were surprisingly comfortable, probably the softest we have had so far in Southeast Asia (where on the average mattress, sleeping on your side means your arm dying and waking up with a massively swollen hand in the middle of the night). Really, other than the bruised egos and the ridiculously expensive dinner we bought on board, it was actually quite pleasant.

The overnight train only took us to Bangkok, and our only experience in the capital (besides the previous airport layover) was getting breakfast at a street stall and popping into the 7-Eleven across from the train station. Thailand is absolutely riddled with 7-Elevens with one on nearly every block, yet another testament to the Westernization of the country (as well as Starbucks... and Tesco... and Boots).

Bangkok to Surat Thani was a seemingly endless day train with seats like a coach bus and air con cold enough to require my hoodie. If we had done some forward planning, we should have gotten off the train a couple of hours earlier than Surat Thani and caught a ferry to Ko Tao to be there in time for bed... But since we had not even decided we were going to Ko Tao until about a half hour previous to this stop, we did not have our wits about us.

We caught a local stop-and-go bus from the Surat Thani station to the pier in town, which was an adventure itself. We were surprised to watch the attendant at the gas station fill the tank from the opening under the front seat (and the car battery was under the seat across from it). The bus driver and the lady who collected fares were engaged in a heated conversation that involved frequent gesturing to us. We were worried it was something along the lines of, "why did you let these foreigners on who are too stupid to even know exactly where their stop is?" ... so I was relieved to catch the word "Philippine" in their conversation, realizing they were playing the game of "What Asian is she?", which has happened rather commonly on our trip. When I confirmed, "Philippine," the fare lady was triumphant that she had guessed correctly.

We had four hours to kill in Surat Thani, which we spent visiting a couple of night markets. Finally, we found someone in Southeast Asia selling insects to eat! Richard bought a mixed bag with fish sauce, but honestly, as an entomologist, I have to admit that eating grasshoppers is a little passe for me.

The night boat was wall-to-wall sleeping mats with each person occupying half of a mat and backpacks and shoes piled in every other bare inch available. Aside from the general poor hygiene of the rest of our fellow travelers (typical backpacker hippies), I tried to ignore the cockroach (Oriental) I saw, and the stink already emanating from the toilet before. Unfortunately, I also got to sleep next to the group of English latecomers, who decided that in the interest of staying together, really they could just squeeze in tight. What it actually means is that the six people, who are trying to fit into the space that would fit a cozy four, just make it miserable for those around them. I spent the evening fighting for territory and not hesitating to leave the occasional elbow sticking out. Amazingly, Richard slept like a rock... it must have been the dramamine.

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