Leaving Koh Tao?

Day 30 – Koh Tao  – Thursday March 31st 2011

We were up early, to get to Mae Haad pier as soon as possible. Trying to check out, the staff didn’t have the key to the safe, so couldn’t get my passport out. Eventually the key was found and we were trying to escape Koh Tao for a second day.

The pier was pretty quiet when we got there, so we were right at the front to get our tickets re-confirmed. One way or another we would be leaving today!

In the queue we saw the Basingstoke trio again, and also got chatting to a Melbourne couple who seemed pretty chilled out. It’s a shame that we don’t plan to as far as Melbourne. They made it sound like our sort of place.

Sea Legs

Nic and I took some travel sickness tablets and by some amazing fluke we survived the whole return trip without revisiting our breakfast. The journey was loads better, but there was still a load of sick bags being passed around.

The pier rumour may have been correct, as we ended up docked in a fishing village, where waiting TV crews were interviewing people as the loaded off the boat.

There was a free coach into Chumporn Town, so we got that. We found Fame Guesthouse near the Railway Station, and paid £1.50 each for a basic room with no fan and shared bathroom. It was fine by us, and the perfect place to recover from the island.

Fame have a decent restaurant downstairs which serves good cheap food, and even makes their own fresh bread every day.

We went to the Tourism Authority of Thailand office to find out about trains south. Bad news. No trains yet, but there should be one to Hat Yai in the next couple of days.

The Thai Met Office have advised against all non-essential travel to islands in the east or west and also advised caution in Southern Thailand. I am getting worried about missing our flight from Singapore to Bali on April 11th. Bali could be our only chance of getting on the beach.

Hidden Gem

Although not here by choice, Chumporn actually seems quite interesting. We ate some good street food at the night market, and the whole place is not really geared towards tourists. Often people pass straight through here on the way to the islands, but I will be happy to explore around here for a couple of days until the trains are running again.

Koh Tao Navy Evacuation

Day 29 – Koh Tao (Still) – Wednesday March 30th 2011

At 10am we were booking another night’s stay. Frank had heard about a Navy ship evacuating people from the island, but Lotus said they would let us know.

We went for lunch and watched another dodgy movie in a bar.

When we went back to Lotus, the guy told us to pack our things ASAP and get to the Navy boat. We packed our bags in record time, excited at the prospect of finally getting out of here. We even got most of our money back for the room we had booked for the night.

Freedom Beach (-Haha)

When we jumped off the songthaew at Freedom Beach we were told we’d get taken by helicopter to a Navy ship anchored off shore. A plush resort had been taken over to process everyone, so we went into the lobby.

A stern Thai woman was shouting and screaming at us to leave, and said there was no more space. Some English travellers pointed us to the check-in table downstairs so we crept round the corner and joined the huge queue.

We were given coloured stickers and raffle tickets and told to join another queue. We would be boarded by our ticket colour. Or so we thought.

After waiting a while we were told that the Navy boat was now full, and that unless we had an urgent flight to catch, we wouldn’t be going anywhere. Balls.

We got chatting to an English trio from Basingstoke who were planning to cut their trip short as soon as they leave the island. I think we would be considering the same if we hadn’t only just started out.

A sinister story emerged that the reason they had stopped using the helicopter was because a man tried to drag a kid off it and get on the helicopter himself. The remaining evacuees were ferried to the ship on a fleet of long-tail boats, which were overloaded with ten or more people at a time.

Trapped on Freedom Beach

Everyone left on the island was offered catamaran tickets for the next day. Real news wasn’t easy to come by, so we just had to buy tickets and hope for the best. At least they were selling them at face value. The downside was we would be boarded on a first-come first-served process on the jetty at 8am tomorrow.

They must have sold three times more tickets than the catamaran could hold, so I was dreading a boatload of spewing passengers.

Also, if we make it back to solid ground, we then have to contend with the terrible flooding in southern Thailand on our way to Malaysia & Singapore. We have heard a rumour that the pier in Chumporn has been washed away.

Our next destinations of Bali and Australia are also having a bad time with this weather.

Passing Time in the Koh Tao Storm

Day 28 – Koh Tao – Tuesday March 29th 2011

This island is so small that it doesn’t even have roads on google maps. At the moment there are no roads anyway, just a series of rivers. It’s still raining and nobody knows how long it will last. We also heard that Burma has had an earthquake. Not sure how bad it is yet.

Koh Tao Map
Koh Tao Map

When we finally get off this island we are heading straight for the mainland and staying there. None of us wants to spend any more time on an island. I am suitably freaked out.

Spending time stranded on an island wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but I’m out of books. There is a secondhand bookstore here, but they want £6 for a pirate photocopy of a real book.

We are going to a bar tonight to watch a pirate screening of Napoleon Dynamite. Should lighten the mood a bit.

BBC News and google haven’t really got any info about this situation, so we are relying on information from locals and other travellers. This gives the Chinese whispers effect, where it can be hard to determine the real facts.

Koh Tao Floods – Here To Stay

Day 27 – Koh Tao – Monday March 28th 2011

At 8:30 we were woken up by girls shouting in the room next door. We heard every word they said. “The boats have been cancelled. No more boats for at least 2 days.”

So it seems we are stranded here for the time being. Luckily we found somewhere cheap to stay whilst we wait out this storm. We have a couple of weeks until we fly out of Singapore, so hopefully we can get out by then.

The thought of getting on another boat is turning my stomach. At the moment I’m happy to just sit tight and wait.

We had no electricity all day, as the generators were being switched off to conserve fuel. The water was also switched off to avoid contamination from the floods.

Most of the shops were closed, except a small swedish shop, which was selling snacks by candlelight.

Flood spreading

The flood water had now spread from the main road, and there was now 8-10 inches flowing down our road. We had to walk barefoot, to stop our flip-flops being washed away.

We could see that Porto Bello was one of the few restaurants with lights on, so we would be eating there again. Pete went out to take some photos and stopped by Porto Bello to ask about the floods. He said that this weather is worse than they had in the monsoon, and the worse summer rain for over 9 years.

People expect things to start back up in two or three days, but I’m sure they are just making that up. There doesn’t seem to be any real forecast about this.

A local phrase we hear a lot here is, “tomorrow is better….. maybe,” which I suppose is optimistic.

Tsunami

We don’t know if the Japanese Tsunami has played a part in this crazy weather. Some people are convinced it did.

It’s strange to be stranded in something like this. It’s normally the sort of thing that you see on the news.

Local houses are being washed away. We overheard a local talking about a rock that smashed through his house. He was asleep and luckily got out before his house collapsed. He did have a black eye.

We moved our backpacks into the wardrobe as we noticed a damp patch appearing on the ceiling. We later booked an extra two nights, as we can’t really go anywhere. The weather is about 25°C so at least it isn’t cold.

Vomit Comet & Lotus Everything

Day 26 – Chumporn to Koh Tao – Sunday March 27th 2011

Our bus arrived in Chumporn at 5am, but we had to wait on the pontoon until 7am. It had rained all night, and was still raining. We were all huddled under a tarpaulin shelter.

The sea didn’t look too rough, but when the catamaran arrived it nearly smashed the jetty to pieces before they managed to get it secured. They loaded and unloaded supplies before letting us board. We were a bit late setting off.

Welcome to the Vomit Comet

After a minute of intense seas, the staff came round handing out sick bags. Nic and I both took one as a precaution. I wasn’t too worried, as I’ve been on boats before and never been sick.

After twenty to thirty minutes of being thrown from side to side I couldn’t take it any more. Along with most of the boat I was soon throwing up. Frank somehow survived the whole trip without being sick and Chick lasted until right near the end. Frank was almost overcome when he made a brave dash for the toilets, which were located outside, but somehow regained his composure. He’s pure man that fella.

I could barely stand by the time we reached the dock, but almost ran off the boat. I couldn’t get on solid land quick enough. Nic was even worse than me, and I felt bad that I couldn’t help her more. I was in no state to help anyone.

We ignored the row of taxi hawkers outside the building, and walked into Mae Haad. We asked a travel agent about accommodation and she advised us to head towards Sairee. She flagged down a Songthaew and within a couple of minutes we were there.

Lotus Everything

We were dropped at the top of Soi Lotus (Lotus Road). We soon realised where it got its name. Everything was named lotus, from restaurants, guesthouses, massage places and tour offices it was all lotus. Naturally we checked in to Lotus apartments. We paid £3 each for double rooms, which was really good, considering we had been told the whole island was fully booked. We had also been told that rooms start at £8 per person, so even better.

We slept for a while to recover from the trip and then went out to explore. Since Vietnam we had got quite attached to our rain Macs and would be using them a lot.

Ignoring the torrential rain for a minute, this island looks really nice. There are beachside bungalows, restaurants and shops, and it all feels welcoming and laid back. If only this rain would stop.

One negative is the beach nearest to our rooms was strewn with beer bottles. It also seems like everyones sewage runs into the sea. If the weather gets better we will try to find a better beach.

Full English

I had a big breakfast to help regain my strength. Washed down with a sugary coke, it was just what I needed. We went back to our rooms to get changed before going for dinner later.

We were aiming for a big restaurant on the main road called Hippo, but the main road was now a river which we didn’t fancy swimming across. Instead we turned back and went to Porto Bello, a really good Italian restaurant with a lovely atmosphere.

We walked to a bar on the waterfront for a few Changs before trudging back through the knee high water to our rooms.

News from back home is that there is a mini heatwave and everyone is already getting a suntan. We are as white as ghosts.

 

Bangkok Temples and the Bus to the Islands

Day 25 – Bangkok to Chumporn – Saturday March 26th 2011

We decided to have a look at the famous sights of Bangkok today, so we booked our transport to Koh Tao, left our baggage at the tour office, and then set out for the day.

We started at the National Gallery and Museum, which were free today due to a public holiday. Then we made our way to the famous Emerald Buddha. We arrived to total chaos so decided to skip this one and go to see Wat Pho instead. It was a good call, as Wat Pho has a massive gold reclining Buddha and large grounds to walk around. There were big stone guardians at the gates.

Frank and Chick left early to return to Khao San Road, but Nic and I decided to head for Wat Arun. We walked via a street market, monument bridge, and a lovely waterside path before snaking through back streets to reach the temple. The temple looked really different and was covered in tiny ceramic tiles. By the time we got there, we didn’t even have time to go in, so we flagged down a Tuk-Tuk to take us back to Khao San Road. It only cost a pound, which was a bargain, as it took ages to get back.

After eating, we headed for the tour office at about 6:30pm, but didn’t get on a bus until almost 9pm. On the plus side, I got chatting to an Indonesian guy Boris, who was travelling to Koh Tao to work. He gave me his copy of the guide-book, which we hadn’t been able to get anywhere else.

 

The Intricate Details

Day 24 – Hanoi to Bangkok – Friday March 25th 2011

At 6am we were collected by our pre-paid taxi. We had paid in advance to avoid any scams like last time. Despite this, he still tried to charge us when we arrived at the airport. When he saw that we weren’t going to pay, he quickly gave up, which only helped prove his guilt in our eyes. I wonder if there is a single decent taxi driver in Hanoi.

The flight to Bangkok was uneventful and we knew exactly how to get a meter taxi here. We were heading for Sinad Guesthouse, which is just a few minutes walk from Khao San Road (pronounced Ko Sarn Road). The taxi cost a respectable £7 between the four of us, and we were glad to be clear of the Hanoi taxi drivers.

Sinad was basic but cheap, but we will only be staying here one night to see the famous Khao San Road.

Khao San Road

The road is surprisingly small, with massive neon signs and banners all vying for your attention. I finally got my Chang t-shirt from a market stall for £3, saving 20p compared to the one in Chiang Mai.

In the evening we returned to KSR for dinner. I ended up having a few Changs and we sat at the various bars watching live acoustic bands all night. There was an old couple doing blues covers and a young duo singing acoustic covers of hits from bands like Coldplay and Rage Against The Machine.

The highlight of the night for me was a really good duo. One guy had an impressive snare drum box, which he sat on whilst accompanying the singer / guitarist. The singer / guitarist was a total genius. He had an attention to detail and played every single noodly detail from their massive repertoire of songs.

I was in my element watching them, and so was the bearded metalhead bloke, who was giving requests for songs, which they invariably played.

I had got through quite a few Changs when we left, and started explaining to Frank about how I loved the intricate details. I did love them.

Bumpy Bus & Young Local Helpers

Day 23 – Ninh Binh to Hanoi – Thursday March 24th 2011

Today was mine and Nic’s 7 year anniversary. We didn’t really celebrate it much. In fact, we spent most of the day travelling.

Our morning plans were rained off. Motorbikes or bicycles would be madness in this weather. We tried to book another car again, but they were fully booked due to the weather. Instead we got on a bus to get back to Hanoi.

The bus ride was gut crunchingly bumpy. It took about two hours to reach the bus station. Unsurprisingly Giap Bat bus station is nowhere near the centre of town, so we had to try and catch a local bus to the lake. We were so far from the centre of town that we were off the edge of our tourist map.

After much gesturing and map-pointing, Frank got the woman at the information desk to write down the bus number we needed, 08. We had just seen one drive off so had to wait for another. Loads of number 06 buses came and went.

A local teenage couple came over to help us, and one of them even went with us when our bus arrived. She even helped us buy tickets and then pointed out the lake when we got there. It took about 20 minutes.

Eventually back at David Guesthouse we booked and paid for a taxi at 6am tomorrow to take us to the airport. It cost $15 USD. Can’t wait to be back in Thailand!

Craving

I have just had a severe craving for Birds Eye Potato Waffles, Heinz Baked Beans and Ketchup. The Vietnamese food I have had seems to be much less tasty than Thai food.

Caves and National Park

Day 22 – Ninh Binh – Wednesday March 23rd 2011

Please, Take A Safety Belt
Please, Take A Safety Belt

Our drive to the national park took about an hour (In the car above).  It cost about a pound to get in to the park, which included a guide for the primate and elephant conservation areas. Elephants and primates were rescued and returned to nature wherever possible.

We were driven to cave where ancient human remains had been found. We got to just go in and explore. There were hardly any other tourists in the whole park.

We had lunch at the top of the park and then went for an unguided walk through the forest. The start of the walk was on a concrete pathway, but it soon gave way to dirt tracks. Along the route we saw a big old tree, some scenic views and another cave. Palace Cave.Luckily I had my head torch so we were able to go into the cave and have a look round. We were only a few hundred yards in when I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face.

Frank went off a little further into the cave, with only a tiny LED light, which stopped working halfway. This cave seemed to be sucking the light from our torches so we made a speedy exit.

Thinking about Vietnam

If we hadn’t left Hanoi, then I would have much positive to say about Vietnam, but Ninh Binh has shown me a different side. Maybe Hanoi is just another big busy city. Maybe we were silly and unlucky. We definitely didn’t have a great time there and can’t wait to get back to happy, easy Thailand. I can’t wait for another happy Sawasdee from a smiling Thai.

Tomorrow we will hire some bikes or mopeds to have a look round Tam Coc. I am thinking of trying a geared bike, as I’ve always wanted to learn to ride. The main problem is navigating the busy 1A road to get fuel before we leave. That will be fun.

Train to Ninh Binh

Day 21 – Hanoi to Ninh Binh – Tuesday March 22nd 2011

We had a free bread and jam breakfast whilst our Hotel owner booked us a taxi to the Railway Station. We packed our bags and then forced our way through the busy daytime streets to the main road. We found two waiting taxis, but only one had a driver so we chose that one. We are smart travellers.

We loaded our backpacks into the boot and all got in. The driver ignored us and left the ignition off. We showed him a picture of a train on he map, but he wouldn’t get going. For fear of him driving off with our stuff, we opened the boot and unloaded our stuff while Frank went round the corner to get the Hotel owner.

The driver and Hotelier shouted at each other for a few minutes. Then we got the thumbs up. This time, he started the car and we were off. It was only a short ride and cost about a quid.

At the railway station, we couldn’t help think that the title on the ticket desk was a bit misleading. She didn’t seem to want to sell us tickets. We eventually coaxed the tickets out of her, but had a few hours to kill before the train to Ninh Binh was due.

We wanted to lock our backpacks in the lockers, but were told by the attendant that we couldn’t use the lockers. We would have to leave our bags with her behind a desk. We didn’t like the sound of that, so took all our stuff back out to the busy street. We needed to find somewhere to chill out and waste some time. In this part of town this proved easier said than done.

The pavements were again full of motorbikes so we ended up walking along busy roads until we reached a small park and lake. Actually more of a muddy puddle. We sat in the windy park for a while, and then took shelter in a small restaurant. It was a locals only place, but we managed to order some food and drinks. The drinks were fine but the food was awful. The driest piece of chicken I had ever seen, on a bed of raw vegetables. Lovely.

We hadn’t quite wasted enough time yet, and as we wandered around, thought we had hit the jackpot when we saw a KFC! We went in, but it was closed. At lunchtime! Madness. We ended up at another bad restaurant where Nic had some food which was almost as bad as mine.

Train to Ninh Binh

The train was on time and busy. Some people had so much luggage that they must have been moving house. They had bags, boxes, TVs, books, lampshades and anything you could imagine.

We arrived at the tiny Ninh Binh station which had no maps or guides at all. We didn’t have a clue how to find our Hotel. Frank asked in a guesthouse next to the station, and the woman was kind enough to give us a photocopied hand-drawn map of the area. She even marked off our hotel for us.

It was a few minutes walk through town and we could see instantly that this was a much more relaxed place. Apart from the massive main road, the other roads were actually quite safe to walk down, without fear of being run over.

Friendly

On the way we had children coming up to us and saying hello and old people smiling as we walked past. Much nicer place.

The Ngoc Anh Hotel was exactly where our map said it would be. It was tidy and quite new. The rooms were pretty new and had decent bathrooms.

The staff here were really helpful and were happy to arrange trips too. We booked a trip for tomorrow. We get our own driver in a 4×4 to take us round the nearby national park. It cost $40 USD but between the four of us that’s pretty good going.