Thailand

Back to Koh Tao

Earlier this year, following my spinal surgery, Mos and I decided to leave Chiang Mai and move back down to the island of Koh Tao. Which, as you may remember is where we got married on the 14th March last year. Chiang Mai was amazing and we loved it there, the climate was great, much cooler than the rest of Thailand. We had a really nice house, an awesome dog, and some great neighbours. It had started to feel like our home. It was after all the first place we had lived as a married couple.

But, I wasn’t working. Any work I was doing was done remotely over the internet. Or the odd bit of film and television production work in Bangkok. So there was no need to be tied to a location. And Mos had been offered her old job back, at Scuba Junction on Koh Tao. These factors, and many more, made the decision a sensible and ultimately easy one.

We packed up our belongings into large boxes and divided them into two piles. The first pile was stuff that was to be sent to our farm and family in Bueng Kan. We had a few things that we wanted stored safely, there was aslo Em and Sak’s belongings. As at this point Em and Sak were both living with us with their daughter, our niece, Oon Ing. They would be moving to live in Bueng Kan with the rest of our family, Em and Sak would also take the reins on our farm. In addition to Oon Ing, they would be taking another very special cargo with them. Khao San, our dog.

Over the last few weeks Khao San had bonded with Em and Oon Ing. And she normally finds it very hard to build relationships thanks to her fairly horrible past. But with Em, Oon Ing and later Sak, Khao San had no issues. She could see that Mos and I trusted them and she gradually started to trust them too. She would come and sit on the sofa with them, play around them, and generally be far more relaxed than we had seen her in front of other guests to our house. Possibly the best sign was when she started to get protective of the then two-month old Oon Ing. If she could hear her crying upstairs she would immediately find Em and try to signal upstairs, mostly by repeatedly running from Em to the door of the room Oon Ing was in. If a stranger walked past our house she would immediately check where Oon Ing was and then sit within eyesight of her.

It was horrible for Mos and I to leave Khao San, but we knew that we had already improved her life dramatically by rescuing her from the Care For Dogs shelter and giving her the love and care she deserved. We also knew that she would grow to love life on the farm. We have two other dogs over there, both a similar size and look to Khao San, but considerably more robust. They are both sisters, so we hope Khao San will eventually fit in as a third.

The second pile of boxes would be sent down to Koh Tao. In Thailand postage is so cheap it’s easier to move house by post than to hire a van or truck. I think we posted the entire contents of our house for a little under $200. In these boxes we loaded extra bedding, all of our clothing and other bits and pieces like keyboards, cables, adaptors and speakers. Oh, and we also posted our scooter, which cost a further $100.

For the remaining bits of furniture and general household stuff we called a local second-hand shop who came in a pick-up truck and gave us a fair price for the lot.

Once we were all packed up, postage sent and remaining bits sold, it was time for us to leave. Em, Sak, Oon Ing and Khao San would be leaving later that night on a ‘VIP Extra’ bus to Udon Thani. A twelve-hour, overnight journey through very tight and winding mountain roads. Not a pleasant journey, which is why we sweetened it slightly by buying tickets for the ‘VIP Extra’ bus. This bus has very wide and fully reclining seats. Waitress service with free refreshments and also blankets and pillows to help you sleep.

Mos and I were leaving on the sleeper train to Bangkok. My back was still in recovery as this was still only one week since my surgery. So I decided that we couldn’t fly or take the bus as both of these would greatly exceed my sitting threshold. At this point I could only sit for about ten minutes before feeling pain. By fifteen minutes the pain would be unbearable and I’d have to take a painkiller and walk around. The sleeper train was the only option really as it enabled me to lay flat for the entire 14-hour journey.

Once we arrived in Bangkok we took a taxi to Khao San Road (no relation to our dog). We often stay in or around Khao San Road, it’s a very busy street famous for catering to backpackers. There are hostels and cheap hotels all over the place, along with cheap bars and a lot of street food. Because it is a hub for backpackers it’s travel links are very good. You can get buses, trains, planes, boats all from Khao San Road (or at least a $2 taxi ride away). Khao San Road is also my least favourite part of Bangkok, if not the whole of Thailand. Thanks to the constant waves of 18-20 year old gap year students and travellers flooding the street with their cheap booze and luminous clothing, other industries have emerged. In short, the area is now teaming with con men, criminals and prostitution. There are Indian palm readers who aggressively grab your wrist, Tuk Tuk drivers who follow you asking if you want to see a ping-pong show, or the pickpockets that follow drunk travellers waiting for them to reveal the location of their wallet. But, we still go there, and will do in the future.

Once we’d checked into our hotel, the Khao San Road Park, we had a quick shower and got in another taxi, back to Bumrungrad Hospital to see my surgeon. It was time for my first week check up. Thankfully, the surgeon agreed with my diagnosis. My back was healing well and I was well on the way to making a full recovery. He said I should stay on ‘light-duties’ for another three weeks and then gradually build up my activity after that.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that before my back surgery I had just completed a pre-employment medical for my new job. Obviously this surgery had put my medical on hold until I was cleared to continue by my surgeon and the companies medical team. The job is for Royal Caribbean International. They require geeky people like me with a professional history of satellites up links, camera feeds, broadcast systems and various other technical bits to work on their ships. And by ships I mean cruise ships. Currently their fleet consists of 22 ships. Two of these, the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, which are sister ships, are the worlds largest passengers ships. The fleet sail pretty much everywhere you can think of too. This, along with their offer to employ Mos once I had completed my probationary period onboard made this very attractive. All I had to do now was wait a month and revisit my surgeon to get signed off as fully functioning and fighting fit.

This was also another factor in moving down to Koh Tao. It’s a small island so I could walk just about everywhere and there are plenty of spots for me to lay down and read a book on my Kindle. It was the perfect recovery location for me to fully heal.

Once again Mos and I chose the sleeper train to make the journey from Bangkok to Chumphon. Chumphon is the nearest point of the Thai mainland to Koh Tao, about 60km. As a result it’s also where the Lomprayah catamaran boats ferry people to and from the island. The Lomprayah is the fastest of the various boat services taking around an hour and forty-five minutes. Other boats leave from the nearest big town on the mainland, Surat Thani. These vary from cargo ferries to overnight sleeper boats. Some of these can take over twelve hours to reach Koh Tao. But, are about half the price of the Lomprayah.

Although the Lomprayah is the fastest boat to Koh Tao, it still well exceed my 20-minute sitting barrier. So I stood outside on the back of the boat. Unfortunately this is also the area where the landlubber’s come to share their travel sickness. Often in a projectile fashion. Thankfully I managed to find a spot behind a door that kept me out of eyesight of the chunder fountains and gave me a good view out to sea. Although once you leave Chumphon peir there is very little to see for 60km other than water and sky, there are the occasional sights that make the journey more interesting. There are often fishing boats with children on board, madly waving at the boat full of tourist as it thunders past. There are shoals of flying fish that jump out and skip along the surface of the water to safety. And sometimes sea birds come and fly next to the boat as if they are escorting us on the journey. I think it’s much more fun standing outside than watching some commercials and out of date infomercials, despite the sound of people loosing their lunches.

Once we arrived on Koh Tao, it immediately hit us how much had changed since we were last here almost exactly a year ago. We got off the boat to be greeted by an army of pick-up trucks from various dive schools and resorts. On our first visit to Koh Tao there were probably a total of thirty cars/pick-up trucks on the island. Now there where twice that number, all on the pier  We eventually made our way to Scuba Junction, the shop where Mos would be working. The two managers and a few dive instructors were still there, but the rest of the staff were all new. The Thai boat boys were all still there; Pak, Tak and Sak. There is also the captain of the dive boat, who only seems to go by the name of ‘Captain’. He was still there.

As usual, finding accommodation on the island was a long and frustrating process. Because of the huge number of tourists that visit the island for short periods, costs are high. We stayed in a couple of different bungalows on the beach road for a week. And just to clarify, bungalows on Koh Tao are not single floor houses  as we might imagine in the UK. They are a very basic shack, which often consists only of a single room with a bed, some have en-suite toilets. We stayed in one, part of the SBC2 resort, that was pretty crappy. The room was small, the mattress was old and hard and they hadn’t given it a good clean in months. Sadly that is fairly standard for Koh Tao. There is a lot of accommodation  food and diving instruction that is well below par. But, on the other hand, if you know where to look there are also some really good places. I imagine it’s the same everywhere in the world with there is a high volume of short-staying tourists. If people can get away with running a resort with low standards and still manage to charge what others charge, they will. The other bungalows that we stayed in were part of Nat Resort. The bungalows are all concrete construction, so there are no rotting floor boards or termites. They are spotlessly clean. There is plenty of natural light and lots of fresh air. Exactly the same price as the SBC bungalow, but so different. Most also come with hot water showers and some with cable TV.

Thankfully, after a week in bungalows, we managed to find a nice en-suite hotel room for a months rental. Hot water, air conditioning, cleaning and bed changing every four days. That set us back $500. Which is about four times the price of an equivalent room in Chiang Mai. We just needed to get in somewhere, unpack our bags and relax. The hotel was the La Ville View Guesthouse, which is fairly new. For anyone that knows Koh Tao, it’s between Choppers and the 7eleven on the junction in Sairee. Other than the temperamental WiFi we had no complaints about our room.

Two weeks into our months rental at La Ville View we started to look for a more permanent option. We wanted a house. Something with a kitchen, living room, fridge etc. A place that we could make feel like a home, not a hotel. After a few days of searching, a friend of ours, P’Daeng, offered us on of his families houses. P’Daeng is one of a handful of locals that own and run the island. He’s a very good friend to have in this kind of community. The house was a little further from the beach and Scuba Junction as we would have liked. But once I’d walked the journey a few times it seemed much shorter. It takes 12 minutes to walk from our house to Scuba Junction. 15 on the reverse trip as half the route is uphill. If you know Koh Tao, we’re about fifty meters up the hill from Roctopus dive school.

Today is our last full day in the hotel, and as Mos is at work I have been moving stuff from the hotel to the house. We’ve had the keys to the house for two weeks, and I’ve been gradually moving bits and pieces. All that is left in the hotel now is a change of clothes and a few toiletries for our stay tonight. I’m looking forward to moving completely to the new house, it will be nice to feel like we’ve got a home again.

Social, Thailand

Chief of Police

Today I completed one of those manly life goals that I like to call a man-bition. Today I became the owner of a pick-up truck. It’s big, it’s blue, it has four doors and a big diesel engine.

For those of you who are judging me and thinking ‘what do you need a big blue pick-up truck for?’. Well, I live in the mountains of Northern Thailand. And 1,000 kilometres East from my house (by mountain road and dirt track) is our latex plantation, along with our families home and their latex plantation. And from December this truck will be used to transport our combined latex harvest to market every other week. Currently our family use a single scooter, making multiple trips, with bags of latex balanced on the back. Each one weighing fifty kilograms.

I know, you can’t wait to see this truck that I am so chuffed with. I warned you, it’s big and blue. And here it is, under our porch, an hour ago being cleaned by Mos.

Yesterday we met up with the previous owner to have a test drive. And it drove well, the brakes were very soft, but usable. It was all round much better than trucks that were being sold for twice the price that we also test-drove.

Today the previous owner drove the car to our house where we completed the purchase. Shortly after we took the car to a local garage to get some small bits seen to, along with the brakes. This was the start of a fairly memorable day.

As we pulled into the garage, two guys ran out to help us. Then immediately started analysing and poking around. They said that we’d got ourselves a very solid and reliable car. Then I asked them to look at the braking system. They took it for a drive and agreed, it was too soft.

The garage itself was two bays wide. each filled with a car. The mechanics rolled one of them out to make room for our new truck. Within minutes it was lifted up and had three guys pulling bits off and showing us, as we sat there watching TV only metres from the action. Mos was very pleased, as the mechanics and their wifes/girlfriends were all from the south of Thailand. Southerners have a very different dialect to the rest of Thailand. And up here in the mountains Mos can sometimes feel as alienated as me by the language.

After a couple of hours of talking to the mechanics wife and watching our new truck gradually being dismantled we had a full diagnosis. They suggested new hoses and pads for the front brakes. We agreed, and along with a list of other less challenging tasks we left them too it and went for lunch in a street restaurant opposite.

Once we’d eaten our superb fried pork, noodle and sauce, we headed to a nearby ice cream shop on a scooter that the mechanic had lent to us for free.

As we left the ice cream shop we noticed a police man writing up a ticket on the scooter. Knowing from previous experience that if he knew a farang (white person) was driving the bike he would add a few zero’s to the fine we walked past and waited for him to leave.

Once we got back to the garage, we apologised and handed the mechanics wife the 400 baht (£8) fine in cash. The woman snatched the ticket and refused the money. She immediately picked up her phone and started talking in a calm but clearly angry tone. A few seconds later she hung up the phone. And was smiling. She explained to Mos that the Chief of Police for Chiang Mai is also a southerner. And, all of the high-powered southerners in Chiang Mai gather for after-work drinks and food at this garage, on this sofa. She said that we didn’t have to worry about the ticket.

When the mechanics left to pick up spare parts we also decided to head off. I needed a haircut. But with no car, and with my usual hairdressers being too far to risk a helmet-less journey on the borrowed scooter we jumped in a tuk-tuk. I love tuk-tuks. Mos hates them.

After a successful haircut, a quick drink and snack in our favourite bar and a return tuk-tuk journey we arrived back at the garage. By this time they had just finished putting the tyres back on and lowering the truck back to earth. As they did, people started to arrive. They where the south Thailanders that we’d been told about earlier. Among them, the chief of police, two senior officers, and a lawyer. All from the south. And all very friendly. They immediately started offering my whiskey and various meat based snacks. The police chief looked over our paperwork for the car and said he could rush through the new license plate. Another officer took our scooter ticket and said he would cancel it at the station tomorrow.

We sat and chatted for a while, exchanged phone numbers and asked for the bill. They had itemised everything they’d done throughout the day. This included changing the entire braking system; brake pads, drums, disks, hoses, fluid… the lot. They also tuned the engine. Cleaned the heads. Tweaked the suspension. Replaced the front light units, including new bulbs. Changed the oil. Fixed and interior light and cleaned the whole engine bay. This took three men eight hours. And the total came to just under £300. To put that in perspective, I’ve paid £155 for a single brake disc in the UK, and that’s without labour.

Along with the fantastic service and work completed on the car, we had also gained a handful of new contacts that will be great to have in the future. When isn’t it useful to be the drinking partner of the chief of police?