Stickman Readers' Submissions March 7th, 2008

Delightful Thai Beach Resorts 5b – Around Ko Lipeh

I've booked a boat trip around Koh Lipeh with snorkelling and beach stops. The other tourists in my long tail all yak away in Italian and Spanish, enhancing my holiday mood. But obfuscating the Anda-terranean feeling they all simultaneously light up a smoke.

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The Long tail Boat Outing

The first two stops are in open water or next to a piece of rock, just for snorkelling. I don't get wet there because I know what's on the menu; the usual 2 million inedible yellow-black fish which keep kissing you. (TAT buys them by the tank load from Hong Kong sweat shops and secretly sprinkles them all over Andamania to promote "exotic" snorkel trips.)

"You don't like snorkelling", all tourists and even the chao ley boatmen ask me.

"I don't", I confirm, "I just came for the views."

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"Why, you should try!"

"No, water's too wet here, it's better in the Similans."

"That's not true, it's equally wet everywhere, I've been all down the west coast."

Against heavy group pressure I remain unwet.

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Then we land on Ko Hin-Ngam, also known as "Black Stone Beach". It's just an islet with a beach of black pebbles, and a few zones of white pebbles too. The white pebbles appeared only after the tsunami. If you have no shoes, hop from white to white, because the black pebbles are hot like a pizza stove stone.

What tourists do here (also grown-ups) is build little pillars with the black pebbles, than snap the pillar with their cams. Meanwhile the boat man gives free Thai lessons, preferably to blond western ladies in bikini. Me he asks if I like chao ley, as if there was a rivalry – or serious difference – between Khun Thai and chao ley ("sea gypsy") people. On the street, I couldn't really distinguish between Khun Thai and chao ley, and as mostly in such situations I say "good heart everywhere".

On Ko Rawi we are received by rangers from Tarutao National Park who have planted a plastic desk right into the sand. They want to sell us national park tickets. The tour agency had instructed us for this situation: "Just tell them you already bought the national park ticket on the mainland, but now you forgot it in your hotel room." This is what my boat companions tell the rangers – who make dark faces, but then walk away without fresh cash. I had already been forced to buy a national park ticket on the boat from Ko Lanta (see previous article), but after the other tourists had lied about their tickets, I am not asked to show my existing tickets.

There we sit in striking white sand, munching the usual cold something-over-rice lunch pack and watching the spectacular emerald crystal clear waters. Even now it's already clear that the tiny "Friends" agency on Lipeh's village strip had organized the best budget boat tour I experienced so far:

– The price is only 350 baht for a full day including lunch, fruit and water, without snorkelling equipment. Other comparable long tail trips are priced around 700 baht.

– If you need snorkels and fins, you pay 100 baht extra. But then you yourself choose your preferred gear from a pile of very decent stuff, instead of getting something thrown at you by a yawning boatman.

– The approximately 15 tourists are spread over two separate long tails with two drivers, even though squeezing all into one boat might have been possible.

– The boat men don't cling to a schedule, but rather watch how long the tourists would like to stay at a certain spot.

Budget as it is, the boat men speak no English, and it's of course only slow, noisy long tail, not an energetic speed boat which tends to have an English speaking guide apart from one or two boat handlers.

My tour companions of course don masks and snorkels again and dive after some 10,000 more yellow-black-striped fish, still trying to get me into the water. When one Italian lady comes out of the sea, I tell her "wait, you have some trash there sticking in your face, maybe it's electric wire or a fishing line. Shall I remove it?"

"Oh, grazie, that's no trash, it's glitter I've got worked into my hair at the Lipeh beauty shop."

After a long stay on this beautiful Rawi beach we make it across a local strait to Ko Adang to lounge on another lovely white sand beach. Just for a change my boat companions set out with snorkels and masks again, and the boat men allot water melon slices. My suggestion for further trips would be to go to Ko Adang first and then to Rawi, this order gives you more shadow on every beach. Adang does have chao ley settlements on the opposite coast, but we don't venture inland anywhere.

On this outing we're relatively lucky with the weather: For once, the skies are swish blue, the water's emerald green blue clear, it's a delightful Andaman cliché and I get some nice tropical pictures, finally putting the polarizer lens to use. But on three lengthy Andaman stays in the last two years, always in December and January, I had a lot of clouds, overcast skies and rain too. These days in the Andaman, if you're a pro snapper with a picture postcard assignment, you'd be hard pressed to make your publisher happy.

When we leave Ko Adang back towards Ko Lipeh, the sky has turned grey again. We reach Lipeh's Pattaya beach in the driving rain.

On the Ploypailin Express

After Lipeh, I plan to spend some nights on the lesser known Ko Bulon Leh. Very roughly spoken, that island lies halfway between Lipeh and the mainland. As it's near Christmas, I want to book the boat and also the accommodation ahead.

The first ticket shop on Lipeh tells me there is no direct boat to Bulon: I'd have to go to the mainland and from there head back into the sea for Bulon. The second shop says there is a direct connection to Bulon, but they could not book accommodation there. Only when I return to the "Friends" agency in their wooden shack, things get easy: They know about the boat straight to Bulon *and* they can book me into exactly the resort and the bungalow I want.

For the Bulon boat I am asked to appear at 2 pm at the Varin resort, the boat should arrive around 2 or 2.30 pm. The trip should take two hours. Great, I think, for sunset we'll be on Bulon. Haha.

One friendly guy from the Friends agency awaits the tourists at Varin resort to make sure we hop into the correct boat. We wait until 3.15, then we finally climb into long tails to take us to the Bulon boat mooring further outside.

The boat to Bulon looks like the kind of vessels Harry Belafonte sang about. It is beleaguered by many long tails. It has brought food and supplies for the resorts on Lipeh's Pattaya beach. But only one long tail can be attached to the Bulon banana boat at a time, and only with one, not with two fixing points. So the attached long tail swings in all directions, while a plastic bag of cucumbers or a stash of eggs gets handed over. Finally our long tail is tied to the "Ploypailin Express" with just one rope. The Swedish family from my shaking dangling long tail has quite a hard time getting their infants and ten plastic bags of plastic beach toys over to the Bulon boat.

Then we are seated on the open upper deck and watch more sacks of vegetables and gas cartridges being handed from the Bulon boat to waiting long tails which connect to the Bulon boat only one at a time, even though that multiplies the waiting time. I believe that Thais prefer to do only one thing at a time and are less fond of multitasking than Windows 95.

Always when I think that now we can start travelling, another long tail farts along and gets a couple dozen eggs or three salads delivered. Especially exciting is the long tail with the large "Varin" sign. The guy surely is no chao ley, maybe he never handled a long tail before. While connecting his long tail he looks already panicky and when stumbling over his rocking boat he almost falls into the sea.

16.30 pm already. So forget sunset on Bulon. But finally, at least, the anchor is lifted, the machine fired up. Yippie, we start! And really, we cover a good 200 meters until the boat does a full stop – to pick up another passenger, approaching by long tail. Everybody sighs with relief when we get going again. It is 300 meters before the next stop. One more Thai lady arrives by long tail, headed for Bulon or I don't know where. By this time we should already see Bulon in the distance. But then again, in Thailand I've never had worse treatment than on farang-oriented island transports. We're white trash there, exhausting dollar when squeezed hard enough.

And guess what, the show gets even worse.

In open waters, the boatman collects the tickets. Two sexy German backpackeresses have no proper ticket. They had embarked on Ko Tarutao, headed for Ko Adang. But our banana boat was never bound for Adang, instead it now travels to Bulon where the sexy backpackeresses don't want to go at all. Maybe they should've swigged one can of Chang less, or two. But guess what, our boatman shows gentlemanship: He'll bring them chicks back to their port of embarkation, Ko Tarutao, where they know how to secure a cheap bung. Only *after that* our ship will sail to Bulon. This is a sizable detour for two non-paying, but sexy beer-swigging backpackeresses. The Bulon-bound majority including the Swedish infants may listen to the boatman's complacent explanation: "We take care ladies, they no have ticket to Bulon." And those about ten people who paid the 550 baht for a non-stop Lipeh-Bulon ticket may endure another 80-minute-delay well into the night. I just hope the resort on Bulon will keep my reservation until late at night. On Lipeh I had paid a 15 percent deposit for the Bulon room.

Of course there may have been other reasons behind the scene, maybe they wanted to call at Tarutao first anyway, because on Tarutao two more passengers to Bulon join us.

8.30 pm. On very rough waters in a pitch black night we finally see the lights of Sandfriends resort on Ko Bulon Leh. The Swedish infants are very quiet, but stay cooperative. Now our banana boat cruises up and down the coast line, waiting for a long tail to pick us up (there is no pier). We steam up and down the Bulon east coast with the resort's promising lights in the far distance – but no long tail comes to pick us up.

Only after 25 minutes I see a thin light frantically dancing on the waves – a long tail for us. Oh my god, this light is bouncing like crazy – are the waves so strong? The Swedish parents insist that their kids get life vests before being handed to the long tail. This is not possible, says the boat man, because he might not see the vests again (he only cares for sexy backpackeresses). He promises that the long tail will have life vests. On that the Swedish parents won't rely so they blow up inflatable arm rings for their still very silent kids.

On the madly slapping waves, in the driving wind and in black night, the approaching long tail gets tied to the "Ploypailin Express". We have about no light to show us the way from the big boat down to the small boat, there is no proper stair too, just the boats' planks, it all feels like an emergency evacuation.

Heroically I am the first to clamber down to the long tail. There I get to stand on uneven slippery wood in a puddle up to my ankles. Still I don't move to the back, as I should, because I want to make sure they also bring my luggage. So the other evacuated tourists have to make their way into the back around me. I am almost slipping away on the uneven wet terrain.

At one point, the four year old Swedish girl with arm rings lands on my arms, even though I still balance heftily on my uneven post. Swedish momma and poppa are swallowed up by the night. There we stand, bouncing in the black, girl on my arm and I, around us scared voices of tourists trying not to fall into the fuming waters.

"Ok", I try my best Swedish to the little brave girl?

"Ok", she whispers back.

"Go to island fast", shouts one boatman! "Very strong wind!" They loosen the rope!

"STOP", I shout into the night, "my bag is not yet here". This is such a transparent trick to rid me of my checked luggage.

"It's there", a boat guy shouts back, "at the other end of the long tail"!

"WAIT", I bellow and climb on the shaking boat all through ten waiting people and ten plastic bags of plastic beach toys to the longtail's far end – and yes, there's my bag, not even wet or dirty.

Later I heard that on another trip from Lipeh to Bulon the "Ploypailin Express" suffered serious engine problems. All staff had put on life vests then, obviously they feared the worst, and finally the tourists were dropped on the wrong side of the isle, so they had a guided forest hill walk along muddy trails for a mile – with kids and luggage in the black night.

Around 9 pm, ten wet and shaken tourists line up in the Sandfriends reception building. "We kept all your reservations, sure", announces the friendly receptionist. At least one reliable guy in these parts. "The restaurant will be open 90 minutes more!"

Now I need a whiskey, I think.

"Now I need a whiskey", sighs the Swedish mother.

Back to the Mainland

Some relaxed days later. "At 9 am the long tail will take you to the big boat back to the mainland", Sandfriends' friendly head receptionist had told me. So I guess I'll have to wait until ten or so. But at 8.30 two hectic resort workers knock on my bung door – "long tail waiting already!" Now I get hectic too and the last things are packed in record time. I forget my special European toothpastes in the bathroom, so for the following months I'll have to use undelightful Thai and Filipino toothpaste.

The long tail drops us at the bigger banana boat mooring outside. Then it sets out for another nearby resort where a few more tourists must be picked up; we wait one hour for them. Obviously it's not possible to deliver all tourists to the bigger boat with several long tails simultaneously; it's the Thais' style to do only one thing at a time, no multitasking please, and why, the passive ones are entertained by watching the one monotask going on.

The announced one hour ride to the mainland takes at least 90 minutes because the boat man stops two times on the water to use his cellphone (only one thing at a time). The second lengthy stop is within sight of the harbour.

I'm lazy to wait for the backpacker minibus (300 baht) and the taxi to Had Yai airport can be haggled down to 1000 baht. THAI leaves Had Yai for Don Muang just on time.

Stickman's thoughts:

Great report and you have once again touched on the many issues why these smaller Thai islands have been off the Stickman radar for some time. Dealing with unreliable, unsafe travel operators is not my idea of fun.

nana plaza