I’ve been in Thailand for a Month or so and haven’t left Bangkok, so was looking forward to a trip away for a bit. Being new years the obvious choice was part island Koh Phangan, in Surat Thani in the south of Thailand.
I’ve previously done some backstage work for New Zealand’s biggest new years party – Rhythm & Vines and was put in touch with the crew at sister event Rhythm and Sands by festival director Hamish Pinkham. After a bit of discussions it was agreed that I’d come down and play a few DJ sets and help out at the event. I hadn’t played out since the World Cup Asia players party, so was definitely looking forward to it. I’ll leave the actual coverage of the party side of the islands to another post for here and on propa.co.nz.
I headed out to the tourist ghetto of Khao San Road to book my transport down for what was to be a long trip down – with a combined ticket from Lomprayah High Speed Ferries and Buses (only finding out when I got home that my flatmate owns a travel agency here in Bangkok after I got home) for around 1400 baht. I’d been told that this was the most comfortable way to travel, and the fastest way to get down there.
The same weekend I also ended up competing in the TPOC (Thailand Paintball Official Circuit) which meant a pretty fast turnaround time in the afternoon of packing bags, showering and then making it down to the travel agency for pickup, pretty quickly learning that bus and ferry travel in Thailand is organised chaos. I was carrying some pretty expensive DJ equipment down with me so had to ensure that none of my luggage was stored under the bus – which turned out to be a very good thing later on!
The procedures for bus travel in Thailand are different to anywhere I’ve been by bus in the western world. Generally there is a bus station, some form of signage, and tickets that make some level of sense. Not in Thailand. First you are given a receipt for your booking, then, you are taken to another office to check in, then you are given a different coloured sticker (but not told what it is for) and then someone who is not in uniform or has any form of ID sends you off to the “bus stop” 500m down the road, to wait an hour or so until you are ready to board the bus.
The bus stop at Khao San turns out to just be a massive roundabout in the middle of the road, again with no signage (in Thai or English) or anything to ID it as having anything to do with transport whatsoever. There are of course no staff to be seen either, but there are way more passengers that can fit on one bus, and all going to different destinations, all with different coloured stickers. Everyone starts asking and guessing how the process actually works, and whether we all end up on the same bus or what.
Eventually a fleet of two story passenger buses turn up, and a Thai guy ushers us onto different buses based on the colour sticker we have, with the numbers (on Lomprayah bookings) on your sticker also being the numbers on your seat. (Protip: if you have luggage that can be damaged easily there is a amp rack up the front of the top story of the bus that you can stick your gear, just make sure to lock it to the rail as it is a sleeper bus!).
The buses are Airconditioned, and by that I don’t mean at a comfortable temperature, so make sure you bring a hoodie or blanket – a sleeping mask and airplugs are also recommended. Take some snacks/water with you – the bus does make one stop near Hua Hin if going via Chompon (two if via Surit Thani) for food + bathrooms.
The bus arrived at Chompon Ferry terminal at about 5am in the morning (we left Bangkok at 9pm) and the ferry was due to depart at 7. Unfortunately the food stall didn’t open until 6, so all our bunch of hungry Farang could do is sit around and wait as a storm hit the coast. Check in also starts at 6am, so you can imagine the mad rush. Once again we were given stickers once we’d checked in – seems to be the norm in thai transport and makes it easier to hear the cattle, I mean tourists onto the boats.
Any large luggage is stacked/thrown against the front of the inside of the ferry if you are lucky (or it might be depending on time you board/or departure port) or if you aren’t so lucky on the front deck under a tarp – this is a bit of an issue if there is a storm, which there was…
Lompraya ferries are advertised as being more comfortable and faster ways of getting down to the islands, which is technically correct, and you pay a premium for it. That said – I won’t be travelling on them again, as if there is a storm, you feel every part of it, and well, to say it was choppy when we went was an understatement. I spent most of the trip with my travel eye cover on so I couldn’t witness the unspeakable horrors that were going on around me – it was literally the worst trip I’d ever been on.
I should have known something was up when 5 minutes into the trip the staff started to hand out sick bags. For the entire 4 hour trip the boat tossed and turned while every single passenger around me proceeded to be see sick, the sound, smell and sight of 300+ people vomiting for 3 hours until we got to Koh Tao was enough to prevent me ever wanting to book on the fast, but unstable ferries again.
It got even worse when we got to Koh Tao and Samui an hour or two later, as passengers got off, a new group of passengers got on, and were greeted with the aftermath of the vomit fest, the difference being they were all travelling on full stomaches – well not for long.
When we got to the island, bags were manhandled off the boat, again I was glad all my gear was safely carried on with me, I’d hate to have anything breakable in my luggage – and I was able to get off the vomit smelling boat straight away.
Arriving at the port I tried to find a taxi like I was used to in Bangkok (I always use metered taxi’s there, and it is cheap as chips, you can literally travel for an hour + for 150 baht) but it turned out that Taxi’s are a little different on the island. Basically you get a taxi via a tout, who tells you 100 baht to your destination – which sounds reasonable, until you realise, that you are on the back of a ute with 11 other passengers and the driver doesn’t have a clue where you are going – 1200 baht for a trip that would cost 35 baht in Bangkok. Expect to pay through the nose for taxis on the Island, use a scooter where you can (but make sure you get it via someone trustworthy preferably Farang – as scooter hire places make more money from charging for dubious damage than they do from hire fees) and use the taxis only when you have to cart luggage around or when alcohol is involved.
When hiring a scooter, make sure to take photos of the entire scooter including any pre existing damage, note it down on the hire sheet yourself (do not trust the hire place to do it) – pay more to hire it through your resort if you can rather than hiring from a street side stall. Often the prices to fix damages are inflated 500+% As tourists have to give their passports as a deposit they are forced into paying these costs if they want to leave the island.
Drive around carefully and be aware of the poor quality of roads, steep hills, and sand on the roads. The scooter I rented had brakes that worked about 50% of what I’d assume would be roadworthy back in NZ. Remember to check your petrol before you head off, don’t do what I did and end up on the hill back from Haad Rin with the bike coughing and spluttering because it was out of gas! Scooter safety is one of the bigger issues on the island (along with theft and drug offenses) and you are guaranteed to see people there and back on the Kao San road sporting the “Phangan Tattoo” ie scars from scooter related mishaps – all easily avoided by using some level of sense, drive on the left, don’t go too fast (40-50km is all you want to do at the best of times) and honk your horn when overtaking. Always assume some nutter is going to come near you head on on the wrong side of the road so ride defensively!
With that being said, its a fun way of seeing the island and dirt cheap if you do it safely and responsibly, especially if you go up the west coast past Thongsala towards the north of the island. Gas can be purchased at almost any roadside stall for 40-50baht per bottle.
A week and a half after arriving it was time to return to the relative peace and quiet of Bangkok (I’d been staying in a 30 bed dorm room and couldn’t wait to have my own bed again!) I booked a return trip, but this time on a different ferry.
Went for the cheaper and slower Song Serm option this time with their express ferry to Surit Thani. While the trip was about 4 hours longer, it was a lot better in my opinion due to shorter (even if it did feel overcrowded) ferry ride without hundreds of sea sick passengers. Total cost for this – 1100 (as opposed to 1400) baht.
This was booked via our accomodation, with our driver picking up and providing us with the tickets. Again a relatively similar procedure where you check in with your tickets (this one having 3 stubs) and are given stickers for the ferry at the Koh Phangan pier. If possible try and get on first and make your way to the VIP seating on the 2nd floor of the ferry – this is airconditioned, has larger seats, and is not overcrowded. You are supposed to pay extra for this, but I have no idea if its when booking or on the boat – we didn’t and no one ever came to check. I can only assume its first in first served, otherwise the rest of the ferry ends up looking like an indian bus – with post full moon partiers on every flat surface, I’d hate to think of how many people its supposed to have on it vs how many it actually carries. This ferry leaves at midday (check in at 11) takes about 2 hours to Surit Thani (the port) then you are onto a bus to Surit Thani (the bus depot) where you wait an hour or so (until 5) before departing on the bus. Again, try and go for the top story at the front for the maximum leg room and luggage space – you don’t want to be waiting around to grab your gear afterwards.
While the bus does have a decent sound system, TV and DVD player, and caters almost exclusively to english speaking tourists, it appears that the only movies they have are hollywood straight to DVD movies, with Thai overdubbed, so take along something to keep you entertained for the ride – or some legally purchased over the counter valium available from pretty much any chemist in Bangkok.The bus makes 2 stops for food and toilet – somewhere north of Chompon and again at Hua Hin. It arrives on the other side of Khoa San road near democracy monument at around 2am.
Of course – the easiest option is flying to Koh Samui and ferrying across to Khoa Phangan… but that wouldn’t be as interesting…