Surat Thani By Train
THAILAND FACTS Source: Thaiways.
Total 63,038,247 (2007). Of the total, 9.3% live in Bangkok, the capital city.
Thailand has a land area of 513,115 sq.km. bordered by Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia . On the east coast is the Gulf of Thailand, the west the Andaman Sea.
The temperature varies from 19C to 38C with the annual average at about 29C. The humidity is from 66% to 82.8%. During winter in the north, the temperatures are lower at night. Weather Link.
75% Thais, 11% Chinese, 3.5% Malays; also Mons, Khmers, Burmese, Laotians, Indians and a variety of hill tribes.
Red by train, blue by bus.
Bangkok. Where began an extended trip through Southeast Asia in early 2003. I was meeting my partner who had been here a month already travelling in the country's north as well as Laos, Cambodia and one of the Ko's in the Gulf. We were planning to continue to the southern coast, then on to Malaysia and Indonesia.
The shock was not only cultural for me - I had just arrived from working in -30 degree temperatures in northern Canada's woodlands. I was finding Bangkok hot, polluted and difficult to navigate. The many wonders of the ancient Thai capital were lost on me those first few days, elation quickly giving way to exhaustion.
Ultimately, I was saved by my friend's patience and enthusiasm. She led me to the Chinatown district and the Chao Phraya River, a liquid highway cutting through the city. I had just purchased my first digital camera, an Olympus C5050z; here was an opportunity to learn its idiosyncrasies under the harsh urban sky.
Our budget hotel, with its rooftop garden and pancake and fruit breakfasts, had been an oasis from Bangkok's urbanity. We checked out early one morning, used the spanking new self-ticketed rapid transit and took ourselves to the Hua Lam Pong railway station.
Maybe I was just another ill-prepared westerner not yet toughened for the rigors of overland travel, Asia-style, but I was seeking some swimmable ocean at that point. It was easy to convince me to quit Bangkok and catch a passenger train heading south.
It was a mellow day-long ride, curving south to Surat Thani on the Gulf of Thailand, where we found a plain hotel near the boardwalk. We had no large plans other than finding an outdoor eatery and strolling the town's plazas.
The morning brought confusion and temporary anxiety as getting exact information on the buses going west proved difficult. When we finally got seated, the winding ride across the top of the isthmus was easy and uneventful. We were looking ahead to some beach time.
On The Andaman Sea
After Surat Thani, we came across the peninsula by bus, from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian, arriving in Krabi, the hub city of the Thailand's Andaman coast where surreal chalk-walled outcroppings dot pristine emerald beaches. Larger versions of this same limestone geology form the distant inland hills. If not for the many bland reminders of modern corporate culture and development, one might feel they've entered a magical kingdom.
At Krabi, we were loaded into the back of a canopied pick-up. Passengers faced one another on two wooden benches, making for a wobbly ride down to the Ao Nang coast. Our drop point was the coast road's northern terminus at the Nopharrat Thara River. Our guide book told us there were secluded budget resorts on the other side. To get to them required a ferry ride in a wooden longboat powered by distinctive long-shafted oudoor motors.
A limestone peninsula stands guard at the easternmost end of this rather lonely beach. Our cabins were situated about 200 metres to the west. The ocean was so shallow here that one needed to walk out a long way before swimming was possible. The more populated Ao Nang beach a few miles southeast offers deeper waters and a little surf.
We had found a small resort of palapa-style bamboo cabins standing on stilts in the sand just above the beach. The owner, Dang, was an extroverted Thai woman who treated her guests like old friends and would cook them up the catch of the day, Thai-style, in the outdoor restaurant's rough kitchen. Travel bum luxury of the back-to-nature, not-a-care-in-the-world kind.
Eventually, we abandoned the hammocks, crossed the river again and rode a jitney along the coast road to the town. The Ao Nang area is built up with shops, hotels and the usual tourist come-ons. We rented a scooter at a fair price and went exploring the rural Krabi countryside.
Well-armed but gentle, this guy didn't seem to mind that I was wandering his rubber plantation looking for photographs. He was even kind enough to pose for me.
Though Thailand is a majority Buddhist country, the Islamic religion has a strong presence on the southern peninsula. We found a seafood-oriented roadside market run by local adherents and enjoyed a green papaya salad underneath the welcome shade of towering palms.
Crossing to Malaysia
A filling breakfast of delicious pad thai in the Krabi bus depot must have made me sleepy, because I barely remember the bus ride down the Andaman coast road to the border outpost Satun. This sea-blown commercial city in Thailand's Muslim south was to be our waystation for the evening before crossing into Malaysia.
The place had a desultory air, but that was probably just us, wondering what to do. Lots of travelers pass through here, but Satun feels no need to be a tourist town. A non-descript hotel sold us a bleak room and we dined, beerless according to custom, at an outdoor table on a rough sidewalk. Morning meant finding our way to Malaysia's Penang Island by water taxi, bus and ferry. A fitful sleep and a sunrise stroll to the market got us through the night.
Photographers are drawn to outdoor markets; filtered light, colorful food proudly displayed, sellers as if performers at their stalls. Satun's was large and busy, the morning light slanting in, giving glow to the dark place. While we witnessed open-air butchering, locals perused tubs full of sea creatures and infinite varieties of curry paste.
A quick paper plate of cut fruit is a reliable tropical breakfast. There was no time for sitting; we needed to find a ride to the waterfront customs dock, then pass through an exit check and catch a powerboat out of Thailand. With the heat rising early under a flat white sky, the launch took us past a shoreline of featureless bush to the Malaysia side of a wide bay. From there, it was by bus down the coast to get the Penang Island ferry.
Georgetown, on Pulau Penang, is an old British-built trading city with architecture from the high empire days. An immense modern boat carried us over from the mainland into a busy harbor.
Once you look past the lingering colonial influence, Georgetown feels more Chinese than Malay with red lanterns hanging over outdoor cafes and bold Chinese characters carved into building walls. Even outside the many temples, Buddhism is observed in daily life with impromptu incense shrines on the early evening sidewalks.
The hotel was grand but faded. A ramshackle affair close to the town's center that now catered to budget travelers like us rather than wealthy merchants. I used my first internet cafe here to send some of these photos back to Canada.
We found Georgetown's compact cosmopolitan core charming and lively; easy-going with history hanging in the air. Just like that morning's meal, we stood for dinner the first night, sampling from one of the many kiosks and push carts selling sizzling concoctions: meat, fish and seafood served shishkabob-style with onions and peppers and paid for by the piece. Then cold Tiger beer and dated western music at a sidewalk cafe table.
Another cheap scooter rental the next day, as we doubled our way around the island on the perimeter highway. We swam at a north-facing beach, stopped at a fruit farm and watched fishermen setting nets along the shore.
The following morning had us early at the docks. Here we were crowded aboard a fast boat heading south across the fabled Strait of Malacca to the port of Medan on the Sumatra coast. Belching diesel smoke and the clattering boom of the motors couldn't diminish the excitement of being on the open ocean. We were heading to Indonesia.