Leeches and beaches

Island retreats in Thailand's sunny south

My next destination from Chiang Mai was the sunshine island of Koh Pha Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand, some 1500 kilometres south. It’s possible to take a couple of trains all the way to the nearby town of Surat Thani, but again my last-minute decision cost me a seat on the first one to Bangkok, leaving only road based transport to get there.

I hadn’t been faring too well on overnight buses so far on my trip, but I’m happy to say that this one was much better. Billed as a ‘VIP’ seat on a Nakhon Chai Air service (for less than £10), it had first class airplane style comfort and took a relatively short 7 hours to get back to Bangkok. The seats on these buses don’t extend flat but they recline enough to sleep comfortably. Food and drink is provided at seat throughout the night and there’s even in-seat entertainment with a live video stream of the front of the bus (though why this is necessary on a night bus is beyond me).

The NCA VIP bus back to Bangkok

My connecting train to Surat Thani left the following evening, leaving me the day to give Bangkok a second chance. The overnight train that night to Surat Thani was as enjoyable as the first to Chiang Mai, with no complaints. Having said that, two consecutive nights in transit had left me shattered as the ferry finally pulled up in Koh Pha Ngan.

Haad Salad

It’s ironic that I headed to one of the premier global party destinations to seek a meditation retreat. Koh Pha Ngan hosts the famous full moon party where thousands of revellers hit the beach for an all-night extravaganza. But there wasn’t any sight of it when I arrived – it had been cancelled due to the King’s death and the island was largely empty (most other tourists I met didn’t know what to do with themselves). Unsurprisingly I was the only guest at my hostel, Shiralea Backpackers resort.

Sunset from Haad Salad beach

Enjoying a thoroughly value for money back massage on the beach.

I ended up at the Yoga Retreat. It was my first time ever doing yoga, and it was after the first session I realised how inflexible I really am! The studio looks out over pristine jungle and just sitting with the sound of tropical birds and the fresh air was amazingly refreshing and calming for the mind. The teacher was also fantastic and I had plenty of assistance to get me into some of the positions. Many of the other guests here were staying for several weeks to escape life’s daily stresses (funnily enough most were also from London) and when we weren’t going through the agony of yoga or tucking into the food from the raw café, it was great to converse with them. Considering I was alone at the hostel, the retreat provided an opportunity for some  much needed social interactions.

Some delicious rice-wrapped and raw spring rolls at the Yoga Retreat

The yoga practice room overlooking the jungle. No picture can adequately capture the serenity of that backdrop.

Other than motorbike – which I steered clear of due to the state of the roads – the only practical way to get around is by songathew. Unfortunately, unlike Chiang Mai, the frequency is much less and the whole system is run by a cartel making it almost impossible to haggle the price. I traded the steep prices for steep (and occasionally pitch black) walks around the Haad Salad area to save myself a few baht.

Songathews provide a great opportunity to meet other travellers. I bumped into some bored German tourists and accompanied them into town for some drinking games. I haven’t a clue what cocktail this guy is conjuring up though (yes, that is tomato ketchup going into the glass).

Khao Sok

Only a ferry ride and a couple of hours on the minivan took me to the Khao Sok national park, located on the western coast of Thailand. Staying just outside at Cabana resort, the accommodation was basic and I had plenty of creature comforts to accompany me to sleep.

The national park is breathtakingly beautiful. The crystal clear lakes are overlooked by jungle-clad hills and are best explored via kayak. Paddling around the shore of our island was tough work in the blazing heat, and the shade of the trees during the ensuing jungle trek was a welcome relief. The  trek only 2.5 kilometres but it took well over an hour each way due to the muddy terrain and river crossings. One of the rivers we passed through reached up to hip height, which made it a perilous exercise t to protect exposed electronics. I didn’t see any animals unfortunately – only the tracks of a wild cat. Despite this, I found enjoyment just through the sounds of birds and insects, the smell of the diverse fauna.  It was also exciting to swim through an almost completely black and narrow cave to reach our destination. After finishing off the trek, we headed back to a floating water bungalow resort to freshen up before taking the boat back to the pier, which was memorable for our group got completely soaked in our attempt to outrun an oncoming downpour.

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Venturing off into the jungle again the next day, I was somewhat paranoid about getting blood-sucked by leeches having read online about others enduring the same experience. It was only after a slight tingling sensation at the mid-point of my trek did I make an effort to check the state of my feet. As it turned out my right foot was covered in blood and I didn’t need to inspect my toes to know what was lurking there. When I did eventually peel the slug-like creatures off, I offered it some mosquito repellent. The leech proceeded to explode all of my blood onto the patio, before it jumped back into life. It’s quite funny to watch their dopey, slinky like movement. Perhaps if I had actual trekking shoes and not sandals I would have avoided this predictably bloody encounter.

Sorry for this picture, it’s the least disgusting one!

To round off the day I went tubing down a river beside the national park. It was only me and a guide and I was surprised how quickly we got started – clothes off, and jump straight on the tube! For an hour we floated down a fast flowing river beside low hanging trees (home to some resident cobras) and unsighted rocks on nothing more substantial than a swimming pool float. In retrospect it wasn’t a good idea, especially when it came to steering and stopping (splashing around wildly is the only way to do that). While it was great fun, the tubing, ensuing jungle swim and ride back clinging onto the back of a 4×4 was probably borderline a step too far out of my risk appetite. It was a relief then that my next destination offered only sunburn as the main cause of bodily harm.

Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta is an island on the Andaman coast of Thailand. The nearby resort locations of Koh Phi Phi and Krabi receive the majority of tourists leaving Koh Lanta as a peaceful retreat. The coastline is far less developed with none of the international resorts imposing themselves on the beach.

It was the first time since Hoi An in Vietnam almost two months prior that I genuinely took it easy beside the beach and could reflect on life back home. Each evening headed to a bar beside the beach to watch the sunset, listening to live reggae music and doing absolutely nothing.

Relaxing beside a peaceful beach in Koh Lanta

My accommodation was at Sabai Dee hostel, and it’s essentially a bunch of shipping containers turned into dormitories. It’s a strange but fascinating concept despite the rooms not being  particularly comfortable. They’re pretty tiny and noisy due to the tin interior, the bed is like sleeping on concrete floor and I’d be awoken at 5AM by the prayer chants from the nearby Mosque –  but the atmosphere however was fantastic and my time talking to some great guests made this stay as memorable as the whole concept.

Sabai Dee Lanta Hostel, a.k.a. the shipping container hostel

Kunda Vegetarian Cafe served up some mouthwatering food in a very quirky and rustic setting. I can’t remember what this dish was called, but it was completely fresh and delicious.

Goodbye Thailand

Like so many other countries on my trip, Thailand took time to grow on me. My initial experience reminded me of arriving in Hanoi where my first thought was just to get out. Although I’d like to visit Thailand again during more favourable circumstances and closer to high season, I still managed to filled with positive people encounters, varied cultural experiences, stunning landscapes and plenty of boxes ticked under the ‘adventure’ header on my to-do list.

Travelling through the southern stops in Thailand, the pace of my journey began to slow down. My energy levels were low and the constant on-the-go adventure for the previous three months had taken its toll on me. Instead, this was an opportunity to devote time to myself, ponder on my life and pick up some new skills. Taking yoga and meditation classes definitely helped with mental and physical relief.

Leaving Koh Lanta after a thoroughly satisfying stay, I set off towards the city of Penang in the Malaysian peninsula.


Next: Colonial charms

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