There are times when I feel I should have called this blog High Maintenance as opposed to High Mileage. Again it seems an age since I last wrote so here goes. Current location is the top bunk of a sleeper train between Butterworth (Malaysia) and Kuala Lumpur. In true Malay style the train left at exactly the right time and now winds away smoothly into the night. Overhead the fluorescent lights wrap around the smooth curves of the ceiling and the sound of the wheels on the tracks punctuates the otherwise silent carriage. Unlike Thailand there are no men hawking beer in the aisles or ladies selling pungent foods. And unlike India no one has yet appeared shrieking “Cha, cha cha Chaiiiii! Coff, Coff, Coff, Coffeeee!” In some ways this train feels slightly more clinical, but it is clean, comfortable and trains are such a great way to travel. I would say the best, but for me boats win by far. Sorry Paul Theroux. More practically though, and to the point, the battery life on the laptop promises about another 45 minutes which is handy really, because then I will close my eyes and wipe the sleep from them seven hours later when we arrive in KL at 5.30 AM.
We’re now six months into our trip and still talking, oops Freudian slip, I mean going. It feels good to still be travelling and whilst the initial excitement may have been sanded down a little, it still feels exhilarating to be exploring this beautiful part of the world. And to continue the metaphor, where the edges have been sanded down I think we have become more savvy in the way we deal with each adventure and each challenge. We have had some wonderful times. And of course there have been times when we’ve found ourselves humming “Grounds for Divorce” a little too loudly. “Is your wife sick of the sight of you yet?” read one email from a photography friend Danny. And a few days later “Has your wife strangulated you yet?” in an online conversation with another friend. To be fair travelling twenty four seven together, living in a room the size of a size three shoe box and breathing the same air 23.3 hours of the day can be trying at times. But it is all part of the adventure, and at the end of the day when the stamping of feet and vociferous discussions are done, we look out for each other and support each other. In the time since the last upload we have left Bangkok behind and continued our trip through to Koh Tao via the overnight train to Chumpon. Swerving the usual travel agencies we booked our tickets directly from Hua Lampong Station in Bangkok where Nipun managed to find a deal by booking the second class sleeper train with fan as opposed to AC. For anyone doing a similar trip the ticket counter in the station offers the ferry tickets as well which we were unaware of and happily they sell them at the correct price.
The sleeper train was much as I remember it from ten years ago. In summary, at around ten o’clock, after a couple of over priced, cold Changs, you fold yourself into your bed and hope to high heaven that someone wakes you up at 4.30 the next morning when you pull into your station. The Thai staff are great, and sure enough at the allotted hour they come through the carriages with a spreadsheet and bang on your bunk to get you off the train. Of course the travellers, red eyed and slightly crazed with anxiety have hardly slept, all of us thinking we are going to end up in Surat Thani at the far end of the line. The station at Chumpon is different from what I remember, though at time of the day memory is certainly an unreliable companion. Having said that Chumpon station seemed cleaner, bigger and more modern. And this time around there was a coffee shop open to help restore some semblance of vitality to the day.
The next stage of the journey isthe ferry from Chumpon Harbour, which is still emerging sleepily from the clutches of night. This goes across to the island which takes about four hours, and both occasions this has been a fabulous trip, the new morning sun being warm and ocean rolling around us frantically. Not so good if you get seasick, but touch wood, we don‘t. Finally, after a fifteen hour journey, you arrive in Koh Tao. My initial thoughts on arriving there was how much it had changed in the last ten years. Winding back the clock to 2002 the beaches were less developed, the bungalows and bars were constructed from poles and straw and far less prolific. Having said that though, Koh Tao is still magnificently beautiful. We initially stayed on the West Beach near the harbour and the sunsets over the ocean lack none of the grandeur of ten years back. During the day we snorkeled and looked at the coral and shoals of clown fish, and then two days later we moved to South Beach. The reason that the vast majority of people visit Koh Tao is to dive and to PADI training. We decided to do a taster dive and then, after pontificating and prevaricating for hours we tossed coin and the outcome dictated that we would do an Open Water Diving Course. The next three days were spent by and large submerged. On the first day we met a psycho Thai (a minority as far as I can tell) who wanted to beat up our dive instructor for (unknowingly) landing on a private beach for the shallow water training. I suggested later that we all should have wrestled him to the ground and tickled him into submission. At the time it was not so funny though and it took the intervention of a Japanese regular to the island to defuse the situation. Days two and three were spent removing regulators under water and learning to clear flooded masks before the final exam which was easy - it was a testament to team work with all of us copying each others answers. We left Koh Tao on the night boat to Surat Thani which is infinitely more comfortable than it was in the past. These days you have a dormitory style cabin with mattresses, sheets and pillows. When I did the trip last the boat looked like it might sink and when I did manage to sleep it was with an oxygen tank as a pillow and a bottle of Absolut vodka as a sleeping pill. Still, some of the charm has been lost, I will remember the first trip a lot longer than the latter.
As we cross the halfway line of our journey I feel increasingly despondent about it ending. It is almost like the end of our trip will represent a departure from our everyday life, that returning to our lives in England will be an almost alien experience. Each day here holds an adventure, looking up from the computer now (in Bali, ten days after I started writing this) the sea below is shades of turquoise and blue and the wind that blows shoreward cools the thirty something degree heat. I find myself gazing up and trying to imprint every minute and every landscape into my memory. And then being immensely happy and grateful that I am here in the first place.