Angthong

Home, Bangkok, Thailand, 2007-03-15

#travel #thailand

This weekend just gone, I went down to Koh Samui and Angthong National Marine Park with a group of friends from work. It was such a great trip that I want to write something about it as much to enable me to remember it as anything. I’ve actually been to Angthong before, 5 years ago, but I remembered liking it so much last time that I jumped at the chance to go again. By the way, the correct way to pronounce Koh is “Go”, like in the English word “got”, with a very short vowel sound. The standard Thai to Roman transliteration makes it look like you should pronounce it like “coa” in the word “coat”.

Thursday

So the group was me, Ann, Kat and Noei from work, plus Ann’s cousin Taew and Taew’s boyfriend Kang. Actually it was an extended weekend - Last Monday was a public holiday, but we all switched that for Thursday, and also took Friday as annual leave, making it a 4 day weekend. Plus we left straight after work on Wednesday, so we were on Koh Samui by around 7am Thursday morning.

First of all, us GCS’ers got into to work early on Wednesday so that we could leave early to go across the other side of Bangkok to the Pin Klao bus terminal. For me, I woke up at 5:30 am and was at my desk at around 7:15 am. We ducked out of work at about 4:30 pm and grabbed a taxi to Pin Klao. At Pin Klao we collected our tickets which Kat had pre-booked for us, and went to KFC to kill some time. Our bus was leaving at 7pm and we met up with Taew and Kang at the bus just when we were boarding.

At 10 hours, this was going to be one of the longest bus rides I’d done for a long time, so I was relieved to see it was a VIP bus, and not a standard 44 seater. The VIP buses in Thailand have airconditioning, large airline style reclining seats, and enough legroom even for me. Even so, I don’t think I’ll do such a trip again. I’ve done the same route on an overnight train a couple of times, and even though you don’t sleep well, you do at least get some sleep. On the bus I got one stretch of 50 minutes of sleep.

We were all pretty shattered by the time we got off the bus at the pier in Surat. We were among the first people onto the boat and we all staked out bench seats in the open air outside the cabin where we could get a little more sleep.

One thing I learned on this trip is that a scarf is an almost crucial piece of travel equipment. I had a krama that I’d tied to my backpack as an afterthought, but it turned out to be really useful. The first time I used it was as an eye cover to block out the fluorescent lighting on the boat so I could grab an hour of sleep on the way to Samui. My sun-averse Thai travelling companions all had scarves which they hid under to avoid the sun. I started doing the same after I started getting sun burnt a couple days into the trip.

We got to Samui around 7am on Thursday morning, but we weren’t staying there. We took our bags straight to another boat which would be taking us to Angthong, and then went off to get some breakfast of chicken and rice before returning to the boat at around 8:30 am. The trip to Angthong is around 1 hour. Most of that time, my Thai friends took lots of photos. It was actually pretty fun. Ann is crazy about photography, and she had everyone posing for shots.

Angthong is an archipelago of around 30 (I’m guessing) islands. It’s a national park, so there’s no resorts or other development, aside from the facilities run by the park rangers. The only accommodation is on the main island, Koh Wu Tha Lap, which is where the staff who tend the national park live. There are around 8 or so bungalows there, as well as a large restaurant and the park ranger’s headquarters. Angthong is where the movie The Beach is set, however the movie was actually filmed on Koh Phi Phi, which is on the other side of the Isthmus of Kra in the Andaman Sea, near Phuket.

We joined a day-tripper boat from Samui to Angthong, but we weren’t doing the round trip as we were going to be getting off at at Koh Wu Tha Lap. On the way there we stopped for a couple of hours at an island called Koh Mae Koh to see the “sea inside” (talay nai). I visited the same place last time I was at Angthong in 2001. This time around, there were no where near as many fish, and there were a LOT of big black sea leeches with bodies about as long but not quite as thick as my forearm. I asked a Thai boat driver who had walked with his tourist group into the interior of the island about it, and he said it was like that because of the time of year. Last time I came it was in an October.

We got to Koh Wu Tha Lap with all the other tourists who were mostly just there for the afternoon. There were a couple of other people on the boat who were going to be staying like us. After we had checked in, and everyone had had a chance to shower, change and rest, we collected snorkels from the rangers office, and headed down to the beach to go for a swim.

Even though it’s not one of the main snorkelling spots, there was a great variety of fish here. There were quite a lot of sea leeches here, but unlike at the Talay Nai at Koh Mae Koh, this time we were in the water just a few feet away from them. It turns out that even though they’re huge, they don’t chase people around sucking their blood. All the leeches I saw were sat on the sandy sea bottom only moving when the currents buffeted them. After I got back to work one of my other workmates, Tak, told me that they’re not the blood sucking type of leech, and in fact they are some good eating and are quite expensive. Maybe we should have brought a few sackfuls back to Bangkok.

When it started getting dark, we headed back to the bungalow to shower and change before going to the restaurant for dinner. The restaurant is large and open to the air on three sides, so you can see the beach and palm trees and feel the very non-polluted breeze from your dinner table. The weather while we were there was really good. I remember a couple of times walking around outside at 8pm or later and enjoying the warm breeze which can’t have been any cooler than 23 or 24 degrees.

Dinner on the first night was our first of many all seafood affairs, all of which were excellent. Even though I’ve been visiting Thailand since 2000, and have had many dinners with many Thai people, I’m just now getting to understand the concept of the shared meal. The way it works is very egalitarian in that any person may order any dish they like, and in general everyone should be able to have at least one go at every dish.

Khun Gorn is a ranger who has lived on Koh Wu Ta Lap for 8 years. One of his many hobbies is fire dancing, and after dinner Ann wanted to go and see him do a show. After dinner we wandered down to the tree seat (a large circular wooden platform built around the trunk of and in the shade of a large tree) to find him. When we got there, there were a bunch of Thai guys who work at the ranger station drinking whisky and playing guiter. Inevitably the guitar was offered to me, and Khun Gorn and I played guitar together for a while which ended up derailing the plans for the firedancing show that night, but we ended up seeing that show the next night. Khun Gorn is a great guitarist and singer.

I got to bed sometime around 10 or 11pm, truly surprised that I’d managed to do a full day of boat riding, swimming, snorkelling, hiking, and guitar playing on no more than 1 hour and 50 minutes of poor sleep on the bus / boat ride the night before.

Friday

We got up ralatively early, considering how much sleep we all had to catch up on. I think it was around 8:30 am. I followed the others down to the restaurant after I’d hand washed some clothes in the bathroom. The bathrooms (our bungalow had two) were fairly standard country Thai bathrooms, with a large open-topped concrete tank full of water and a tupperware container for sluicing water over yourself. Possibly as a concession to foreign tourists, the bathrooms had western style toilets, rather than the squat variety. And like every such Thai bathroom I’ve been in, the floor was constantly wet and there were absolutely no hooks on the walls where you could hang your clothes, so getting dressed after washing without getting your gear all wet involved carefully planned slow-motion gymnastics.

After we had breakfast, we piled into a long boat and went to see a stone bridge (sapaan hin) rock formation at a nearby island. That particular island also had a ranger’s hut, as well as a couple of friendly dogs who tried to get into our boat when we left. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was now getting sunburnt.

We cruised around a little more before heading back to the island for lunch. At this time, I realized I was getting burnt, and put sunscreen on, but it was already too late. Just one morning’s worth of sun without sunscreen was all it took. Even though I wasn’t badly burnt, it was enough that for the rest of the trip, I could really feel the suns rays, and I started copying my Thai friends and hiding under my krama whenever we were riding anywhere in a boat.

In the afternoon, Khun Gorn and our boat driver from the morning (who’s name I never learned), loaded a couple of sea kayaks onto a long boat and took us across the other side of the archepelago to a really great snorkelling spot. They anchored the boat at a small beach, and we kayaked back a bit to where the coral and fish were. This was a really great experience. The variety of fish and coral was amazing. It was like flying over some kind of alien world. Khun Gorn swam with us and explained in Thai about different corals, fish, and at one point actually picked up a sea anenome (one of the really nasty black things covered in foot long spikes) and sat it in the palm of his hand while he told us about it. We spent a two or three hours there, until we were too cold to stay longer. After Noei and Kat humorously struggled unsuccessfully to get back onto their kayak, Gorn and the boat driver ended up half dragging them into the long boat.

Next we headed to a nearby beach so Ann (and the rest of us) could again photograph the sunset. I think Ann photographed every sunrise and sunset during our trip!

Once again back at the island, we showered and changed and headed to the restaurant for dinner. This night, the staff were re-celebrating the marriage of one two of the staff. The girl is from Phrae, in Northern Thailand, and the original wedding a month before was held there, so this night they had a video of the ceremony playing, while the approximately 40 or 50 staff of the island ate dinner and drank Sangsom whisky. They moved a table around for us so we could join with them and watch the video as we ate.

After we finished dinner, the groom from the video came over and offered us drinks. We politely refused, but regardless within about 15 minutes we had our own ice bucket, bottles of soda water and a bottle of Sangsom. About halfway through our second bottle of Sangsom I relented to pressure from the manager of the station and took up the karaoke microphone to sing Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and The Scientist by Coldplay. When I got back to our table, another guy who works at the island had joined our group. He assumed that because we all work at a hospital, we must all be doctors and nurses. Kat, he decided, was a doctor. Kat ran with this and tried to convince him to donate his body to science. He refused because he thought that it meant he would have to be killed!

After we finished of the second bottle of Sangsom, Khun Gorn did the firedancing show that we’d missed out on the previous night.

Saturday

I woke up on Saturday morning with a modest Sangsom headache, which was soon doused with coffee. After breakfast we hiked up to the top of Koh Wu Tha Lap. Last time I did this walk in 2001 I went up in the hottest part of the day without water, and I’m pretty sure I nearly expired. This time, we left around 9am and I took 2 bottles of water just to be sure. It’s a tough walk, with the terrain being at greater than 45 degrees in many places. Along most of the route there is a heavy rope along side the path that you can use either to steady yourself or to haul yourself up in some spots.

The view is worth it.

On the way down we came across a small troupe of monkeys eating leaves in the trees around the paths. They weren’t particularly interested in us - they probably see dozens of humans every day.

After a three hour trip up and back, we stretched out on the tree seat to rest. Kang and I took turns playing guitar until the kitchen staff brought our seafood lunch from the restaurant out to us to eat on the tree seat.

After lunch we showered, changed, packed and walked down to the beach to catch a longboat out to a waiting ferry with the 20 or so tourists who had come in on that morning’s day tour. The ferry ride to Koh Samui was a couple of hours.

Ann had called ahead and ordered a rental Suzuki Sierra jeep, which met us at the pier. Ann asked me if I wanted to drive, but my 6’5” frame barely fit in the passenger seat. There would have been no way I could have gotten in behind the steering wheel. Kang drove us to our accommodation on Samui. We took a few wrong turns and so ended up driving about three times as far as we should, but we made it eventually. The resort we stayed at was excellent. It was a little out of the way, and the accommodation was basic but clean and had hot water and air conditioning, and was right on the beach. We were only there for one night, but I would have been happy to stay there longer. After we’d checked in and showered etc, we got together outside for dinner, which was seafood of course.

Sunday

We didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing on Sunday, because we had to drop our rental jeep off and get to the bus station by 4pm. In the morning we drove to the nearest market for breakfast of rice and curry, as well as some deep-fried chicken.

After breakfast, we drove up to the small waterfall called Nam Meuang 2. We hiked from the touristy elephant riding center up to the waterfall and back. On the way back we met a little Thai / German boy named Eddie who was there with his German dad. I heard him speaking both Thai and German fluently. Impressive.

After resting for a bit, we drove back down to our resort, packed our stuff and checked out. Our final destination before going onto the bus station was a restaurant that the car rental people had recommended to us, where we had our last seafood meal. It was possibly the best of all our seafood meals as it included a couple of local dishes, including this thick crumbly shrimp and herb paste served on pieces of coconut shell that you scoop up with pieces of cucumber.

Now came the tough part. Whereas on the way to Samui, I got 50 minutes sleep, on the way back to Bangkok, I don’t think any of us got any sleep at all. We arrived back at the Pin Klao bus terminal at 5 am. Luckily, even in Bangkok the traffic is very light at that time of day, so I was back at my apartment by about 5:25am. I managed to get in about 3 hours sleep before going in to work.

Lets go Again?

This was really an excellent trip, and it was mostly due to to Ann and Kat’s planning and organizing.

An interesting aspect for me as a westerner was the system that my Thai friends use for paying for everything. The way it works is that everyone contributes the same amount of money into a pool, and one or two people take the role of treasurer with responsibility for that money. Whenever anything needs paying for (accommodation, meals, kayaks) the treasurers in the group take care of it. This has two effects. First it means that for everyone aside from the treasurer(s), you can largely forget about paying for stuff, and you can concentrate on enjoying your trip. The second effect is that it tends to encourage group activities where everyone is participating. I’ve since learned that this system is quite common in Thailand. I think it’s great. The way we did it was not to pay up a lump sum at the start, but to periodically put in a 1000 baht so that if the treasurers bag fell into the Gulf of Thailand, the groups entire holiday funds wouldn’t go with it.

It was a great trip, and indeed this kind of thing is the reason I came to Thailand. I’m now looking forward to the next one.