Saturday, 3 October 2009

South Thailand and Malaysia

Having planned to do as much of our trip overland as possible there always remained the uneasy question of Southern Thailand. As you get into the deep South of the country it ceases to be the land of smiles and is more like the land of random bombings, shootings of school teachers who are not Islamic and general anarchy as the insurgence continues. Happily we found a route that managed to circumnavigate the affected areas by heading through Koh Sok and into Krabi, down to Satun and then taking a ferry into Malaysia. Local buses and boats, happy days.

With Koh Tao behind us our next stop was Khao Sok National Park, two hours inland from Surat Thani. Khao Sok is famous for its verdant scenery and stunning lime stone karsts that are dotted around the inland. The national park is situated in the highlands, is refreshingly cool and is punctuated by rivers, mountains and lakes. There are over 150 species of birds and the dense jungle is home to tigers, leopards, gibbons and gaurs. It is the type of place that when you wake up in the middle of the night, you hear more sounds than you would during the day. The night vibrates with the noises of insects and animals and breathes with life. The karsts are enveloped with cloud above and winding rivers below, the white crags of the karsts dominating the landscape like slabs of alabaster.

The one factor that was slightly against us in Khao Sok was the weather. It rained a great deal, so much so that the owner of our guest house was heard to express concerns of the river flooding it’s banks. Antediluvian rain. Day and night. Then night and day. As we were on the aforementioned banks this was a bit of a concern, but happily the rain dissipated on our second day and left us free to take a tour of Cheow Lan Lake, about an hour from our guest house. The lake is beautiful and accommodation is available in simple huts built upon rafts. Alas we did not stay here but the setting is stunning and would be a must if we did the trip again.

It was during our time in Khao Sok we were lucky enough to befriend David and Yolanda from Holland, who became our erstwhile travel companions for the next five days. We met them shortly before they fed the cutest puppy in the world a mouthful of electricity. Or more accurately one evening during which the guesthouse owner's puppy decided to nibble on an extension cord we were all using. There was a yelp, a howl and a slightly grumpy pup that was then seen heading for the comfort of his basket. The next day he was back on form, his razor sharp milk teeth incising anything in sight. David and Yolanda were fantastic company, and at the end of our trip together we had swapped numerous book recomendations, music and movies. On the subject of music, David was (until recently) the bassist for Dutch band Alamo Race Track. They're famous... They've played Lowlands. See them here -

From Khao Sok we then travelled together across the peninsular to the fishing village of Krabi. Being the Low season Krabi was almost like a ghost town, the guest houses were half empty and the promenade along the river front was patrolled by boat drivers touting for business. “Where you go today? Motor Boat? Mangrove forest? Island? Beaches?” They were friendly enough, in contrast the manager at our guest house was a nightmare. Every time we so much as walked through the restaurant or peeped into reception he was trying to flog us a trip. When we told him that we would be getting a local bus further South as opposed to his mini van his petulance increased ten fold. He was the type of character that made you want to slip a packet of anti depressants into his coffee, if not to cheer him up then just to make him go to sleep.

Krabi is beautiful and again is marked by the same limestone karts that dominate the landscape in Khao Sok. The town has a sleepy appeal with some unusual sculptures that include a set of large apes clutching onto the traffic lights at Soi 10. These semi simians represent the 40 million year old remains of the Siamopithecus Oceanus that were found nearby. Or to put it simply, some of the earliest remains that suggest the ape to human evolutionary process. There are many that think that the theory of evolution is daft. I am one of them. Surely we would have known better than to move out of the trees in the first place. And as Douglas Adams remarked, there are those who even question why we would have even left the oceans.

The four of chartered a boat (called “Free Dom,” almost like there is a girl called Dominique who has just split up with a tyrannical boyfriend) that took us through the mangrove swamps and then on the island of Ao Nang. As you head down the river towards the swamps you pass through Khao Kanab Nam, twin limestone karts that rise out the water, one hundred metres in height and so readily identifiable that they have become the symbol of Krabi. In an inspired moment I took a photo of them from the boat, and then laughed my socks off when I saw that The Rough Guide to Thailand has an almost identical picture on the first page of their book. The mangrove swamps are fascinating, with their roots bared by the tide like a poor set of teeth sticking out of failing gums. The banks of the swamp are home to millions of Fiddler crabs; as you work your way deeper into the swamps the atmosphere becomes positively eerie and the jokes about running out of fuel seem to lack much humour.

After three days in Krabi it was time to move further South, carefully avoiding the areas around Songkhla, Hat Yai and Pattani where the insurgents are bombing, shooting and killing on a daily basis. We took a local bus further South to Trang, and then after a couple of hours wait we connected to another bus to Satun. In all we travelled for a full day, but it was fun and with good company. Local buses are often a lot more interesting than a stultifying ride in a minivan and this journey was very true of that. We spent a night in the no frills local hotel at the bottom end of town and visited the nightmarket in the evening. The market consisted of mostly second hand clothing and vendors who, refreshingly, left us completely alone. Satun was a really interesting town and the Muslim influence was very apparent. Many women wore burquas, we saw several men with prayer caps and in the evening the chanting from the mosque cut through the night. We only spent one night in Satun before making our way through to the ferry terminal at nine o’clock the next morning. Form here we cleared immigration in record time and boarded the ferry that took us to Langkawi Island in Malaysia. After a few hours in Langkawi we boarded a second ferry that took us to the quaint World Heritage site of Georgetown.

One of the first things that any visitor to Georgetown will pick up on is how ethnically diverse it is. There is a Little India that sells very fine food and boasts a variety of luminous colours to the sound of blaring Bollywood music. Then next door there are mosques and around the corner are the Chinese temples. Architecturally it is wonderful, there are so many styles of buildings on every street, from grand old colonial houses to stylised mosques and flamboyant temples. There is an abundance of colour of noise and life. The harbour lends a commercial feel to the town, whilst in the distance the modern glass and steel office buildings of Buttherworth contrast sharply to the beatific air of Georgetown. It was in Georgetown that we finally bade farewell to Yolanda and David, before boarding the overnight train through to Kuala Lumpur. Thus far we have only spent a day in KL, which is magnificent. We fly back there is a few days time from Bali, where we are diving with our friends James and Jens. This is such a hard life!

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