Readers' Submissions

The Islands

  • Written by LL
  • October 14th, 2015
  • 21 min read




This trip report is about 10 days travelling around the islands in the Southern Gulf of Thailand in the summer of 2001. My friend’s 19 year old son Sean had come to Thailand to spend two months with us on his summer vacation from college. He was a suitable travelling companion because I don’t know of anyone else that would have cared to endure the rigors of this journey. This was one of the many misadventures that I allowed a 19-year-old to put me in that summer.

The Journey Begins:

We packed up and prepared for this trip into the unknown. Our only guide the Lonely Planet guidebook. Which provided to be invaluable, but was like an anchor? Being well travelled I had a very light pack like a child’s school backpack. My young friend on the other hand had a very large backpack, something he would later come to regret.

My wife/girlfriend at the time, Rak, decided she would come along. I reluctantly agreed hoping she had the fortitude to make the journey. So there we go, the three of us leaving our home early one hot June morning heading for the Southern Bus Station. We needed to take the bus south to Chumpon, and then catch to overnight ferry to the island.

As fate would have it the buses were all sold out and we had to wait for a couple of hours. No problem there is always a noodle stand close by. We finally got a bus heading south.

After about 5-6 hours on the second-class bus we finally arrived in Chumpon. It was nearly dark and we were immediately descended upon by the touts trying to get us to buy a ticket for the boat to the Island. I knew that the price was 100 baht. There was one guy who worked for a small guesthouse in Chumpon and we got our tickets from him. It included a taxi ride to the boat and they let us stow our gear and also hang out at the guesthouse. We had about six hours to kill before the boat left at midnight. We all headed up the street to a Sukiyaki place for some dinner. After dinner Rak went back to the guesthouse and curled up on of the little sofas and took a nap. Sean and I set out on foot to explore the town of Chumpon.

We eventually wound up back near the guesthouse, and Sean started talking to two young Thai guys that ran a little travel/tour agency. They invited us in for a drink. They were drinking “Regency” it is a cheap Thai Brandy. They had bought two Siamese fighting fish and were gambling on the winner. I later found out it is illegal.

The time finally came for us to board the Songtaew for the ride to the dock. Some fellow backpackers also accompanied us. It was quite a ways to get to the boat. It was a big wooden hulled boat and also doubled as the supply boat for the Island. There was a middle deck and the bottom was where all the supplies were stowed. It even had motorcycles going to the Island and all of the beer and food for the guesthouses.

We were going to Koh Tao “Turtle Island”, it is a small Island way out in the Gulf of Thailand. At one time it was a penal colony because of its remoteness and treacherous seas. The boat left at midnight and was packed with both Thai’s and Farangs. Rak and I staked out a spot on the middle deck, while Sean went and sat up near the bow. Something he would later regret. The boat pulled out at midnight, down a river passing fishing boats, homes, and processing plants. It was quite a long way to the open water, and we had to go slowly. The night was beautiful, and this was my first real trip with Rak.

As soon as we entered the sea, the boat started to pitch and roll, because of the big ocean swells in the gulf. At Chumphon, there are a lot of islands near the shore; you have to clear these before you reach open water. There were some fishing boats coming and going from the harbor as we left. When we cleared the headlands got even rougher.

We were in for a long cruise. Most of the people had already settled down on their mats and pillows. I went and stood up front with Sean and gave smokes to the old Thai boat captain. He had a tough job keeping the boat on course in these rough seas. It would roll to the left, roll to the right, and then move forward a little. Looking over the side, I could see the bilge pump shooting a steady stream of water out. If it had broken, we would have taken on water quickly. My only comfort was there were plenty of illuminated fishing boats. Some we would pass within a couple of hundred feet.

Sean was getting soaked sitting up on the bow, but there wasn’t any room on the main deck. It started raining, and everyone on top moved down. Being no stranger to boats we were sitting right in the middle of the bottom deck. I decided I should try and get some sleep, so I curled up next to Rak. A rather attractive 30 something year old Thai lady next to me decided I was warm, and cuddled up to me. It was a bit chilly with the wind and sea spray. Luckily Rak didn’t see the girl cuddling me, thank God.

I really couldn’t sleep and decided to go check on Sean and the Captain. Sean was dripping wet and the old Captain asked me for a smoke. We were far enough out to sea now that there weren’t any more fishing boats, just some way off in the distance back towards the coast. I began to think that we must be getting close to the Island. It was pitch black and you could not see anything. The boat was bobbing up and down with the swells. In between wave crests I thought I saw a green glimmer on the horizon, it must a squid boat. Knowing that squid boats fish close to the shore I knew that must be the Island. A bit later the green lights on the squid boat came into view. It was just before sunrise, and if you looked real hard you could make out the black outline of the island against the sky. As we got close you could see some lights emanating from the Island. It was a long 6-hour cruise, but we had made it, almost.

As we approached the Island it began to storm. I woke Rak up and she was freezing. I reached into my nag and pulled out the hooded windbreaker I always carry and gave it to her. She put it on and just sat there with her arms wrapped around her knees shivering. She was a real little trooper and didn’t complain once. We made it up to the big concrete dock at the main town on the Island. It took about twenty minutes of maneuvering and trying to throw a line to the people on the dock to get to it. Finally it was time to disembark. The tide was very low and everyone had to go to the top deck. It was still raining a little and the seas were rough. The boat was bobbing rhythmically about 3-4 feet. There were some Thai guys on the dock and on the upswing you pitched them your bags. On the next upswing you jumped and they grabbed you. I let Rak go first and they had no trouble snatching her up to the dock. Next it was my turn, I timed it and then I jumped. They grabbed me when I hit the dock, but I don’t think they could have got me if I had missed. It would have meant certain death or injury as it was about 12-15 feet down and looked deep.

Whew; we had made it to dry ground. We donned our packs and made our way to the main street. It was a mist grey just before sunrise. There were people at the pier trying to entice you to stay at this particular guesthouse or resort. So there we were my 22 year old Thai girlfriend, my friend’s 19 year old son and me. We stopped briefly at a little café for Rak to use the restroom.

The road from the shore went straight up the mountain. It was full of little shops and cafes most weren’t open at that time of the morning. The Island is mainly a diving place and most of the people there were divers. I quickly noticed that I was the oldest person on the Island except for a few Thai residents. We marched up the road to the top of the mountain where it flattened out a little. We decided to go north.

We hiked along till we came to a group of small bungalows. We asked the girl there if we could have a look at one. I asked her to go down on the price even after pointing out the hole in the floor, but she refused. So we decided to hit the beach and head back towards the main town. We hiked along the beach for a good while and came up to another little resort. Up back from there was a little village, well not really a village but a few small shops. We were getting tired so stopped in for a drink. We looked at a map and decided to try the southern end of the Island. The lady there said she could call us a taxi that would take us there for 100 Baht.

The taxi, pickup truck arrived and we climbed in the back. The Island is very scenic and we drove along the road taking in the sights and arrived at Ban Ao Chalok. There was a little bay there with palm trees it looked like a postcard. There was a small resort there with some really nice bungalows perched on the mountainside with a view overlooking the sea. They had a little open air restaurant there and they had internet too. The old Chinese guy that owned the place said he one room available. It was still pretty early in the morning and he said he would have another room ready for us at noon. We took the one room and went and put our bags up and then went to get some food. After eating we all went back to the room and slept till about 10 AM when it started getting hot. The Island has very limited electricity and some places only have generator power. The rooms only had an oscillating wall fan and no A/C. This place turned the electric on from 6 PM to 6 AM.

After we got up we all decided we would go rent some motorcycles for 150 Baht per day. Sean wanted a bigger motorcycle a 250cc so we had to go back to the main town at the dock. Rak and I did some touring around on the motorbike and the scenery was beautiful. The Island is rather small so we pretty much covered all of it. Later that evening we went back to restaurant where we were staying for dinner. They had the Thai style wedge pillows and low tables so you basically sat on the floor. Every night they would play movies from a DVD on a big TV. The whole place would fill up with all of the guests mostly young backpackers. The whole place had a summer camp feel to it. The food was really good and cheap too. It was nice sitting next to the sea and listening to the sound of the waves. The place had only a roof and a floor with some bamboo blinds. At 10 PM when they closed we would buy some beer and go sit on our balcony. It was very romantic and was the best time I had with Rak in our entire relationship. It was cool at night with the fan and the room was really nice.

The next day Sean and I took the motorbike and went exploring the dirt trails on the other side of the Island. He found a little place with some bamboo huts where a bunch of kids were staying. One night in a beachside bar they were having a black moon party. We went and hung out for a while and it was like that movie “The Beach”. Late at night the Island seemed deserted.

The following day I walked over the mountain and found a place where I could rent a snorkel and swim fins. There were corals in about 4-6 feet of water. It was like being in an aquarium. I got Rak to wade out in the water with me until she seen a sea cucumber and thought it was a snake. It took a pretty good sized stingray coming out from one of the big round corals to get me out of the water. Sean met some euro girl and moved over to the hippy commune and got stoned all the time. We left him there.

Koh Pha Ngan & The Mountain of Death

Rak and I decided we would head over to the next Island Koh Pha Ngan. It is the Island in the movie “The Beach” where they went for supplies. We booked a ticket from where we were staying for the big speedboat 250 Baht each. The trip took one and a half hours from Koh Tao. From the other side of the Island you could see Koh Pha Ngan. We packed up and got a taxi truck to the Dock. I got Rak some Dramamine for all the boat trips. The boat was pretty big and was supposed to be Air Conditioned but it was incredibly hot. People started getting seasick as the seas were really choppy that day. It was a grueling boat ride that seemed to never end but we finally made it. Koh Pha Ngan is a pretty big Island and has just about everything you could want. We landed on the dock and walked through town and headed for the bank to get some money. There were no ATM’s on Koh Tao.

We decided to rent a motorcycle for 150 Baht per day and stopped at a little noodle stand for some lunch. We asked the people there for directions to Haad Rin beach. This is the place to be where they have the infamous full moon parties. The road to Haad Rin was gorgeous; it followed the shoreline past little villages, resorts and coconut palms. When we almost there the road came around a big bend and there before me was the steepest road I have ever seen. We immediately stopped and got off the bike and sized up the situation. After a while two little girls came up the road and they also stopped. I watched them and the girl driving took off full throttle. Now remember these are 100cc motorbikes we are talking about here. When they were almost to the top the bike was barely moving. It was something to watch but they made it. I told Rak there was no way we would even try to attempt it. So we turned around and headed back to the shop where we rented the motorbike. Of course they refused to give us a refund, including the full tank of gas we bought. I soon realized that the word “refund” does not exist in the Thai language.

We found a songtaew driver who was wiling to take us to Haad Rinn. He had an extended cab pickup so he let us sit inside. When we got to the mountain of death he too stopped. He dropped the clutch and floored it. We too nearly stalled at the top, the view of the water was breathtaking. As it turns out there were two more climbs nearly as bad as the first one. At the bottom of the first peak there were some crashed up motorcycles.

We had finally made it to Haad Rinn beach! We walked up the main street and found us a bungalow for 350 Bt ($8.33 USD) a night, what do you expect. By now it was late afternoon and we sat at the little restaurant at the bungalow and had a coconut shake. We went back to the room and took a shower and then went to dinner. Later we walked around and went and bought some beer and wine coolers and sat on the beach. Later we went and checked out one of the beach and then went back to our room. I was kept awake some by the techno beat of a nearby beach disco.

The next day I decided I had seen enough of Pha Ngan and we headed to the Island of Koh Samui. Luckily, it was a just a short hike to the Haad Rinn pier and only a 30 minute boat ride to Samui.

We landed at Big Buddha on Samui. I knew the place to go was Chaweng Beach. So we hopped on a songtaew with some backpackers and the guy took us to Chaweng Garden Beach Resort. 850 Bt ($20 USD) a night for a really nice room with A/C, big bed, cable TV and hot water. We had been staying in little bungalows for a week now so we took it. We walked out to the beach and it was beautiful, just way too crowded. We cut through to the main road and there were Mc Donald’s, supermarkets and shops, just way too commercial. They had truly paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

We went out that night and had a big dinner. I had a killer Shark steak and Rak ate like she had never eaten before. We even stopped at another restaurant so she could eat some steamed crabs. Rak went back to the room and crawled under the covers and watched Thai TV. I think she was glad just to be back to civilization.

I, on the other hand just had to go out and explore the nightlife on Koh Samui. I did my usual stuff. Hit the Internet shop, go for a Thai massage and have a beer or two at a little beer bar. I didn’t stay out late and was kind of looking forward to a little Air Con myself. The next day we were supposed to catch the ferry back to the mainland to Surat Thani. I read the old Lonely Planet and it was going to be an arduous journey. The ferry landing was quite a ways from town, and then we were looking at an 8-10 hour bus ride back to Hua Hin.

I decided we would just backtrack to Koh Tao. So we caught a songtaew back to Big Buddha point and the boat back to Koh Pha Ngan. We went back to the same little bungalows and hung around the Island that night. Next morning we headed back to the docks to catch a boat to Koh Tao. The main pier at Pha Ngan is pretty big and we had to wait around for awhile.

This time our boat was an older wooden one, and was fill of our usual travelling companions of mostly young European kids. We were sitting inside the boat on some bench seats, sort of like a bus. We left Pha Ngan and headed out into the deep blue sea. The first hour or so was nice, but then it began to cloud up. The waves and seas got really rough and it began to storm. All of the kids sitting on the top deck hurriedly came inside. The crew and I began closing all of the old rickety windows in the boat. The old boat began to creak and was taking quite a beating. I looked around and didn’t see anything that even remotely resembled a life jacket. The Thai crew began to look noticeably worried and I was too having had my fair share of experience boating.

The storm became worse and I figured we were about halfway to Koh Tao. At one point a really big wave hit the boat and all you could see was water. The kids were completely oblivious to any peril and were laughing and joking like they were on some carnival ride. Rak became very quiet and I never once panicked.

{Recounting this story, I remember what a really frightening experience it was, upon returning to Bangkok and telling the story to my friend Peter. He told me that his wife and him went to Samui awhile back and decided to take another boat later. The boat they would have been on sank in a storm and nearly everyone perished.}

I have a lot of confidence in these Thai Boatmen. Most of them have spent there entire lives plying these waters.

After a while we passed through the biggest part of the storm, and things quieted down a bit. Soon we began approaching the Island. The seas were still pretty rough and we had to come around the Island to the pier. Off the Sothern end of the Island there are some huge rocks projecting out of the water. Rocks are really not a good description they are more like mountains. As we came closer the seas kept pushing the boat towards the rocks. Each time the wave passed us the Captain would steer the boat away from the rocks. With each passing wave we got a little closer to the rocks. At the closest point we were maybe 200 yards away from the rocks. Soon we got to the leeward side of the Island where the waves weren’t as bad. The pier was in sight and we had made it back to Koh Tao alive.

When we hit the shore it was still raining lightly and we headed back to the same little bungalows. I went back to the place we left Sean but the trails were too muddy and slippery to make it to that side of the Island. Later that night Rak and I were sitting at the restaurant eating and watching movies like we normally did. All of a sudden a tremendous squall hit the Island and began blowing things over. Everyone had to huddle in the middle to keep from getting wet. The waves were lapping at the edge of the building and it rained that entire night.

The next day we headed to the pier and bought two tickets on the speedboat to Chumpon. It was a nice boat with two big V-6 outboards. We sat in the middle and the last leg of our sea journey began. The weather was OK but the speedboat beat the living hell out of us. There were two little Thai girls sitting in the back and they got drenched. A big wave hit every time the boat came down. I really felt sorry for them and they were two little drowned rats. Their long hair was stuck to them and they were freezing. Some Good Samaritan’s on the boat gave them some towels to cover up with since it was like a wet T- shirt contest.

When we approached the headland the scenery was spectacular. I had come this way in the dark before. We made to the dock there and the Thai crew unloaded everyone’s gear from the bow of the boat. I got off and started walking up the bank and slipped in the mud. I landed on my back, luckily the backpack absorbed most of the fall. I headed to the bathroom to clean off and change clothes. Talk about a loss of face.

There were some rich Germans or something that had hired a minivan to take them somewhere and they offered us a ride into town. They dropped us where we first got off when we came to Chumpon. But we needed to go to the big bus station to go north to Hua Hin. I had stopped at this station before on our way to Phuket. It was a huge parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Rak got two Thai motorcycle taxi guys to ride us there. It was quite a long way and when we got there she ran off to the ticket office. I asked them in Thai Tao Lai (how much) and they said 100 Baht. I gave them 100 Baht and they said no 100 Baht 1 person! I began arguing wit them and Rak came up and said “pay them”.

We got right on the bus that was waiting way across the field and we were on our way home. Sometime later that night we arrived back in Hua Hin. About a week or so later I woke up one morning and found Sean sleeping on our patio covered up with a beach towel. He had arrived in the middle of the night and didn’t want to wake us.

It was a fantastic trip and one of my more memorable ones. I have wanted to go back to Koh Tao. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, truly a tropical paradise. This time of the year the seas are very rough and my friend here says that some nights the police are not allowing the boat to go to the Island.

LL