Stickman Readers' Submissions July 17th, 2008

Time Out – Part one

For a lot of us that live here, particularly those living in the rat races of Bangkok and Pattaya, the daily grind of earning a living eventually makes us forget some of the original reasons for coming here. Over time, the monotony of travelling on the BTS, the traffic congestion and the never ending swarm of humanity that we encounter each day numbs our minds to some of the great places to check out in this country.

After another in a long line of seemingly pointless shopping excursions to MBK, with the girlfriend, the sky train arrived at Siam BTS. I’d picked the worst time of day to be there, it was 5.30 p.m., and I was about to encounter, once again, a tide of workers heading home. The train pulled up and the doors opened. I was hit by that particular Thai phenomenon which is, essentially, those waiting on the platform aren’t going to wait for those on the train to alight before pushing their way on to get a seat.

Somewhere in the deep dark recesses of my brain, something began to stir. Someone stood on my foot and I was about to explode when the girlfriend grabbed my arm, looked at me in that beautiful sedate Thai manner and very calmly said “Jai yen yen, teerak”. Obviously she knows my mood changes and sensed the farang loss of patience about to erupt. I smiled, took a deep breath and moved towards the centre of the platform to gather my thoughts. I think I just stood there for a while, oblivious to the throng milling around me, and, in a trance like state, it just came to me; I need to go somewhere, anywhere, to get away from this never ending treadmill of city living.

Over the next couple of days I considered where it was I’d like to go. In the end I decided on somewhere I hadn’t been before; Trang. I did a bit of an internet search and found some info on accommodation and local attractions. It all looked pretty interesting. There were a number of waterfalls in the area and there’s a national marine park, encompassing a number of small, picturesque islands not too far off the coast.

I called the Thumrin Thana Hotel, in Trang, to confirm that there would be rooms available for the number of days that I planned to be there. Once room reservations had been confirmed, I booked a couple of round trip flights on Nok Air. The cost was 4,400 baht per person and there were departures every day, from Don Meuang, at 0900.

The flight down was fairly uneventful. It was a full flight and baggage space, in the overhead lockers, was at a premium. I made a mental note that, if I planned on doing this again, I should avoid taking a flight on Monday mornings. The food and drink service is similar to Virgin Air; if you wanted to put something into an empty, growling stomach, you’ll have to pay for it (even a cup of lukewarm black tea).

Seventy minutes after lifting off from Don Meuang, we touched down at Trang’s provincial airport. Like most small airports, instead of the conventional enclosed disembarkation into the arrivals hall, there was a stairway to negotiate and a short, humid walk across the tarmac.

We waited next to a motionless baggage belt while the ground crew emptied the cargo hold of the plane. I had to keep reminding myself to relax and adapt to the slower pace of things that are the norm once you get away from Bangers.

Eventually our bags turned up and we made our way towards the terminal exit. There were a couple of taxi touts hanging around but their mild mannered approach was refreshingly welcome compared to the aggressive gauntlet encountered at Suwarnabhumi. They were pleasant, smiling and politely enquired where it was that we were going.

After mentioning that I had a booking at the Thumrin Thana, we were ushered to a cab and on our way. It was a short drive – only seven clicks – but the two hundred but fare was probably more than it should’ve been. I guess farang pricing still applies in the provinces.

My Thai is not that flash – something I’m not particularly proud of considering that I’ve been residing here for the better part of fifteen years – but I picked up enough of the conversation, between the girlfriend and the taxi driver, to know that there was a sales pitch taking place. The driver also happened to be a tour guide and would be able, if we wanted, to show us the local highlights for the very reasonable sum of 2,500 baht per day, or 1,500 baht for a half day. I said I’d think about it and took her card as we pulled up at the hotel.

The air-conditioning of the hotel’s lobby was a welcome relief after the poor flow of the taxi's. As we were checking in the girlfriend remarked that she’d just spotted a Thai TV ‘superstar’ (why is that in Thailand they’re called superstars and not just stars). She looked at me smiling as though something remarkable had just occurred. I gave her a deadpan look in return and just said ‘oh yeah’. I was going to have to explain to her that I’ve got about as much interest in Thai TV ‘superstars’ as I have in the mating habits of the spotted bark worm. On a previous occasion I’d pointed out to her that most of the so called ‘superstars’, that I’d ever seen on Thai soaps were getting paid on false pretences. However, in Thailand, most of them seem to assume incredible status and it’s my guess that, every now and again, they need to get away from the attention and come to an out of the way place like this for a bit of peace and quiet.

We got our room at a reduced rate. There was a fifty per cent reduction in the rate because it was the low (rainy) season. A 4,000 baht per night room was now going to be only 2,000 baht per night. That seemed like a very good deal and we checked in for three nights.

C:UsersMark JonesDocumentsABOUT THAILANDTHAI.TALESPhotosThumrin Thana Hotel Lobby.JPG

Thumrin Thana Hotel lobby

Heading towards the lifts I noticed lots of Thais wearing red and white tracksuit tops with Honda emblazoned on the back. It looked as though our arrival had coincided with a convention of some sort. It was nearing midday and we were both starving. After dropping the bags in the room we went looking for the restaurant. Reception pointed us to an escalator which led up to the second floor. As we approached I could hear the sound of a large crowd noshing in. Sure enough it was the convention tucking into a buffet style lunch. I got off the ‘up’ escalator and stepped straight onto the ‘down’ escalator; the girlfriend in tow.

I told her that we’d be better off either getting room service or looking for something nearby. We decided go for a walk along the road. As luck would have it there was a small, air-conditioned coffee shop, within 200 meters of the hotel entrance, which also sold Thai food. What I’d forgotten was that Thai food in the south can be a bit different to Thai food up north. I selected a couple of things, that were ready cooked and sitting in stainless buckets, and it was served on a plate with steamed rice. The first mouthful had my eyes watering. It was, to put it bluntly, bloody ‘phed’. The girlfriend was in hysterics watching me struggle through it and, by the last mouthful; I reckon I had steam coming out of my ears. The other Thais watching thought it was great and readily remarked to the girlfriend ‘farang kin phed dai mai’.

We decided to take up the offer of the taxi driver / guide and arranged a half day tour up to a cave system approximately thirty seven kilometres north of Trang. The driver picked us up at two p.m., and we were on our way. After a leisurely drive along roads bordered by acres of rubber trees (yang para) we arrived at Taam Khao kop.

I’ve been in a number cave systems, both submerged and dry, in Thailand and was pretty much expecting just another ho hum cave tour. Fortunately, I was in for a bit of a surprise. There’s a small stream that flows under the limestone formation and, therefore, the majority of the system at Taam Khao Kop is accessed by boat.

C:UsersMark JonesDocumentsABOUT THAILANDTHAI.TALESPhotosHeading towards the entrance.JPG

Heading towards the cave entrance

For two hundred baht you can hire a fiber glass skiff with two paddler / guides. The skiffs are moored up at a small jetty on the stream which is fairly close to the car park. There’s a two hundred meter, or so, paddle up the stream before it disappears under a limestone cliff face. This is actually the entrance to the cave system itself. I was wondering why the skiffs were so low to the water. As we approached the entrance I understood why. A lot of the traverse of the system had ceilings that were so low I had lie flat on my back to avoid scraping the rock face.

C:UsersMark JonesDocumentsABOUT THAILANDTHAI.TALESPhotosPaddlers kicking back at one of the boat landings.JPG

A couple of paddlers kicking back at one of the boat landings

Fortunately there’s a number of stop off points along the way where the low ceilinged traverses, which I might add are pitch black at some points, open up to large chambers. At these points the locals have put in small boat landings to enable the sightseers to clear the skiffs without too much difficulty. From these landings you can then walk into the tunnels of the cave system to admire some of the spectacular formations.

C:UsersMark JonesDocumentsABOUT THAILANDTHAI.TALESPhotosLarge chambers are well lit up.JPG C:UsersMark JonesDocumentsABOUT THAILANDTHAI.TALESPhotosThe beauty of the natural world underground.JPG

Easy enough to access and good lighting.

The beauty of the natural world underground.

In one of the larger chambers that you walk into the locals have set up a spirit house. I know they’ve got this thing about paying respects to the natural world but personally I wasn’t too impressed by this display. I don’t think they quite understand how many thousands of years it takes for stalactite to form. It’s their turf though so ‘mai pen rai’.

C:UsersMark JonesDocumentsABOUT THAILANDTHAI.TALESPhotosAppeasing the underground spirits.JPG

Appeasing the underground spirits.

The exit from the system is the most challenging. The traverse is about 350 meters and for large sections of that the ceiling was so low that, even though I was lying flat on the skiff, at some locations I had to move my head to avoid butting the limestone. The paddlers did a great job though as for long periods they also had to lie flat and use the ceiling to pull the skiff along. Just when I thought the skiff was wedged they were able to move it around and get through the tight spots. The whole traverse takes about ninety minutes and is definitely good value.

C:UsersMark JonesDocumentsABOUT THAILANDTHAI.TALESPhotosManouvering through the tight spots.JPG

Manoeuvring through the tight spots.

By the time we’d completed the circuit and arrived back at the jetty we’d soaked up a couple of hours. I tipped our hard working paddlers and we bade them farewell after a thoroughly interesting cave tour. On our way to the car park we had to get past the dreaded plate sellers. For anyone interested in coming here; if a local innocently snaps a pic of you, you can be sure it’s going to end up on one of those cheap plastic plates that you’ll then be badgered into buying as you depart.

The driver asked if we were interested in heading down to the beach to try some ahaan talay. I knew that the girlfriend was already hungry because of a remark she’d made as were nearing the completion of the circuit in the skiff. She’d spotted some weeds (natural vegetables) floating on the surface of the stream and told me, authoritively, that ‘they were good to eat’.

After a forty five minute drive, once again along roads bordered with endless rubber plantations, we arrived at ‘Haad Pak Meng’. The road then followed the coastline and we had an uninterrupted view of the islands sitting offshore. It was late afternoon and still as hot as Hades. I was considering jumping into the briny to cool down but, after seeing how far the tide was out, decided that a cold Heineken would be the better option. Now I understood why the islands offshore were considered the better places to go for water sports. The inshore areas had to be shallow for quite a way out because it was at least a one hundred plus meter walk to the waters’ edge on a low tide.

Eventually the driver got us to a nice little outdoor style restaurant which was one of a number lining the side of the road. The cold Heinekens went down very well but, unfortunately, the food wasn’t much to write about. It’s kind of ironic that, although we were at a restaurant sitting right on the edge of the ocean, I’ve eaten much better seafood meals in Bangkok.

The last stop, before we took off back to the hotel, was Pak Meng Pier. The place was pretty much deserted when we arrived. There were a number of tour operator / boat charter offices there but only one was open. I was duly told that regular ferries didn’t run in the low season. If I wanted to get out to the islands I had two options. Option one, the least expensive but most mind numbing, would be to hire a long tail boat for the day for 3,000 baht. The girlfriend, who’s a city girl and considers her fair skin to be sacrosanct, quickly said no to that idea. Option two was to hire a speed boat; the fee for a round trip to one island only being 8,000 baht! I decided I wasn’t all that keen to get out to the islands after all.

I told the driver we were calling it a day and that if he spotted a 7 Eleven somewhere on the trip back, I was going to grab another couple of cold Heinekens. All in all it was an interesting day. Tomorrow we were going to have a look a few waterfalls.

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Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice trip report indeed.

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