Around The Traps in South East Asia: Part 20
By mid-February 2020 the rumblings of a contagion in China were being felt in Phuket. Direct flights from a number of mainland China locations had been halted, and the downturn in arrivals could be seen across the island. There was less minibus and bus traffic on the roads. The shopping malls and beaches also had a significantly lower number of Chinese faces about. At a hotel very near to me, the Par Phuket, which specialises in Chinese group tours, the numbers were way down. People who lived in Phuket had no inkling of how serious things might become, but they were aware that something was up. Many Thais could be seen wearing masks at the shopping malls. The high season was dead in the water for many local businesses as trade continued to evaporate.
At my favourite beach spot, the northern end of Karon, another sure indication the China arrivals had dropped off a cliff was the downturn in wedding photography groups. During the high season it wasn’t unusual to see up to five couples per day having their wedding photos done along the water’s edge, in the late afternoon. By late February there were no couples to be seen. For expats such as myself, it was actually an enjoyable time. The feeling was a bit like what was termed “the phony war” in the lead-up to the Battle of Britain. There was something very serious about to unfold but in mid to late February, everyone just carried on as though there was nothing to really be concerned about. Something was definitely odd but we were enjoying the ambience of a low season in a high season climate.
There was also much less traffic on the roads and getting about was almost as easy as the low season months. The less congested roads created the opportunity to get out and about and explore some rarely visited nooks and crannies. A favourite area of mine was the LAEM KRATING HEADLAND, on the southern tip of the island. Just south of the Karon Lookout, there’s a dirt road turn-off on the right which eventually leads to NUI BEACH, BLACK ROCK VIEW POINT, and the DRAGON CAPE. It’s a remote area of the island with very little development (hotels, bars, restaurants, etc.,) except a few ramshackle bars and restaurants. If you want to get off the beaten track in Phuket, this is the spot to head to: OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN PHUKET – https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/off-the-beaten-track-series/phuket-off-the-beaten-track/
If you go right to the end of the trail, to Laem Krating Headland, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of nowhere. Such is the silence of a part of the island, devoid of the sounds of modern life. I’ve been there a number of times previously and the only person to be seen is a local farmer, tending his banana plantation. The crazy thing is he always remembers me. My Thai isn’t great but reasonable enough to have a chat for a few minutes. After which he invariably gives me 2 kg of tree ripened bananas for 20 THB. Laem Krating Headland is an excellent location to get away from the high season crowds and enjoy a bit of solitude. The word is getting out though as more people are being seen there, particularly at Nui Beach. The increase in popularity is most likely due to free transport being provided by the restaurant owners at Nui Beach. To save beachgoers the risk of an accident on the rough dirt road, a pick-up truck provides a taxi service from the parking area at the start of the access track.
THE PHANG NGA LOOP TRIP:
By the third week of February I was already formulating a plan to head down to Australia but before going I wanted one last adventure in my local area. Khao Sok was a place I’d always had firmly in my sights for a bit of sightseeing and adventure. Having been there some 20 years previously I was well aware of its top rating for National Parks in Thailand. The thing is though most people who go there aren’t aware the primary feature is the massive lake, formed by the construction of Rachaphrapit Dam. Invariably they book a tour / hotel / guesthouse only to find themselves at the national park HQ and accommodation area, some 62 km from the lakeside marina. They’ve then got to pay for more transportation to get to CHIEW LARN LAKE. Being over 180 km from Phuket, it’s not doable as a single day tour. To get full value, at least two nights is recommended at the national park. As mentioned, most people when they pay for an extended trip to Khao Sok, don’t know they’re going to be accommodated miles from the lake. With this in mind I put together a plan for a 4 day / 3 night trip up through Phang Nga Province, using my own motorbike, culminating in an extended trip across the lake. I’ve called it the PHANG NGA LOOP TRIP and for those interested, the full report can be seen on my website: https://www.megaworldasia.com/en/thailand/khao-sok-national-park/
NOTE: If you want to avoid Phuket, my report tells you where you can hire motorbikes near Phuket Airport, have one night at a nearby resort, and then head off to Khao Sok National Park. On the way there’s two notable sightseeing attractions, with the first stop only 50 km from Phuket Airport.
This is quite possibly one of the best viewpoints in all of Thailand. Most people go for the sunrise view but a late afternoon visitation is also good value as the sunlight coming from the west gives excellent photo opportunities. The entry fee is only 90 THB and includes a ride in a pick-up truck to the peak. The road is approx. 1 km to the top, and quite steep in places, so a walk up is a bit of a slog. If you go for the sunrise view, you need to be at the parking area by 5:30 AM to catch the first pick-up to the top. I stayed overnight in a nearby bungalow and got there in good time for a spectacular sunrise.
WAT BANG RIENG (aka Wat Rat Uppatham):
Approximately 65 km north of the Samet Nangshe Viewpoint is one of the most picturesque Buddhist temples in Thailand. It’s a few km north of Phang-Nga Township, on a less travelled road (hwy 4118). Temples can become a bit ho-hum after a while as they invariably have the same colours and characteristics. What makes Wat Bang Rieng a little different is its incredibly scenic location. The temple site is set among dense, jungle-covered terrain. The official name for Wat Bang Rieng is WAT RAT UPPATHAM. This is how it is indicated on Hwy 4118 and the short side road (from Hwy 4118) leads directly to the parking area of the temple. From the parking area there is pathway leading up to the main temple, which is the highest point of the site. The view from the parking area is a spectacular sight.
To the right side of the main temple there’s a viewing platform which looks out over the two additional features of the site. Directly below the lookout is statue of a female deity – Aum the Compassionate – which is a popular figurine at Buddhist temples throughout South East Asia. A stairway leads down to the pond area to allow sightseers and worshippers to get closer to the statue. From the pond area a cement path leads off to the right to the third feature; a large, seated golden Buddha. One of the great things about being at this temple is the lack of crowds. While I was there, no more than 15 people were about. I think this is definitely one of the best Buddhist temples I’ve seen in Thailand.
CHIEW LARN LAKE:
As mentioned the Chiew Larn Marina is very close to Rachaphrapit Dam. If you check Google Maps you’ll see it’s also in Surat Thani Province, and a good 60 km from the Khao Sok National Park HQ. There are some cheaper bungalows nearby (within 5 km) the Marina. If you arrive at the marina in the afternoon, as I did, don’t make the mistake of letting the touts talk you in to taking a boat trip on the lake in the latter part of the day. Late afternoon shadows from the west make the scenery look dark and moody, and the wind comes up with enough force to create choppy white caps on the lake’s surface. Essentially giving you a shitty photo experience and a bumpy ride. Have a look at the marina and check the prices for the tours, because there are a range of options available. The standard two hour lake tour is 2030 THB per person. The boat does a run around a standard route, taking in some nice scenery, but without giving you the option of a bit of trekking.
I’d done some research before departing and knew there was several caves located around the lake. The one I was interesting in visiting was called NAM TA LU CAVE. A quick check of the tours available at the marina indicated a tour to Nam Ta Lu was one of the options, and the price was 3030 THB per person. I was a bit concerned that there might be a minimum number of people required, but was told “one person, no problem.” The Nam Ta Lu Tour would take approx. 6 hours and included the standard lake trip, a few km of jungle trekking, and a full traverse through the cave. I made arrangements with one of the less aggressive touts to meet at the marina the following day at 7 am. Another option for visitors to Chiew Larn is to spend a night or two at one of the floating bungalow complexes on the lake. Once there you can swim, go kayaking, and also do any of the treks which are on offer.
I was up early the next day, in anticipation of a great day on the lake, and after having breakfast at the marina we underway at 0800. My tour guide’s name was Nong, a friendly fellow and a robust chap when it came to going through the cave. At 8 AM the lake was calm and unruffled and as we made our way towards the caving area, the reflections of the peaks on the surface were quite superb. Another good reason for starting early was to avoid the hordes of sightseers which normally arrive in busses at around 10 AM. The start point for the trek to Nam Ta Lu Cave is way across the other side of the lake and takes almost two hours to get there. On the way Nong took me to some of the great scenic locations which are normally part of the standard two hour trip on the lake. One of which is the impressive THREE ROCKS (Hin Sam) site.
After nearly two hours of travel we entered a shallow area, in the far western side of the lake. Nong told me we weren’t far from the landing point. As we got closer we passed a superb floating bungalow complex where a good number of people could be seen swimming or sitting around getting a tan. According to Nong, a night at the Bungalow was 1000 THB per person. Due to the fact the trail to the cave was only a further 400 meters from the bungalows, anyone staying there could do the tour for just 700 THB.
From the landing point we followed a trail along the edge of stream for approx. 500 meters before coming to a jungle trail to the cave entrance. From this point we had 3.5 km to negotiate over terrain which included a number of creek crossings. The path was well defined and was relatively flat for the most part. The highlight of the trek was an area of giant trees, which was impressive to say the least and good to see that forest conservation was now preferable to chopping them down.
Without too much of a struggle we arrived at the entrance of the cave and after a few minutes sorting out my camera gear and lights, Nong led the way through. The full traverse was 700 meters and there was some nice formations to be seen on the way. Nam Ta Lu Cave is a typical Thai river cave which meant that we eventually came to a number of water filled sections we needed to swim through to make the traverse. I took a number of photos but also made a decent video of the tour which can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KMS3pFqD_DI (Khao Sok)
THE FINAL DAYS:
By the start of March things were beginning to intensify in the fight against the contagion. More and more Thais could be seen wearing face masks and the bigger shopping malls, such as Macro and Central, had installed security guards with temperature guns at the entrances. As yet there was no talk of a lock down and flights into and out of Phuket, were still running as normal. But things were definitely ramping up and a lot of the local population were seriously concerned, even fearful. For many local businesses, the high season had never really kicked in. The ladies working at the massage shops along Nanai Road were telling me it was the worst high season in memory. With my planned departure not too far away I helped them out as best I could, by getting a massage every day. Trying to cram in as much of the Thai experience as I could in the final days, knowing a decent massage back in Australia would likely be a rare event. As the days ticked down I was quite concerned flights might be stopped before I could get out. Luckily I had a few days to spare before the Phuket lock-down was put in place.
I spent my final day before departure at Karon Beach and as the sun dropped over the Andaman Sea, I reflected on what had been a pretty darn good run in Thailand and South East Asia. I was three months shy of 27 years in the region and it had been an amazing time. I‘d done the usual things most foreigners do in their first few years in the Thailand. Partied hard, been a whoremonger, got involved with the wrong women, bought properties I couldn’t own, had a run in with the Thai Tax Office, and spent far too much in living for the day, and not planning for the future. It reminded me of George Best when asked “what he’d done with all his money.” The reply was a classic; “I spent it on booze and women, the rest I wasted.” I wasn’t quite in that boat because around 2012 I realised the barfly, whore-mongering lifestyle didn’t do any favours for one’s long term physical well-being, or financial health. I also developed a healthy selfish gene, putting my own satisfaction first and foremost. I haven’t had a live-in girlfriend since 2010. A situation which has allowed me to roam far and wide, exploring extensively throughout the region, as well as buying my own freehold property in Phuket.
Being alone and not responsible for anyone else i.e. a girlfriend, her children, her extended family, payments for a property in Thailand – made the departure much easier. As it will also make my survival and eventual return to South East Asia. Seeing out the pandemic in Darwin is a low-risk option. It’s a low-rise city interspersed with parks and green belts. Social distancing was easy enough to achieve before it became an official requirement. It’s safe, clean, green, and it’s boring. But that’s okay because being someone who moved on from the bar scene in Thailand, I don’t feel I’m missing all that much. Save for the outdoor adventures, the freedom, and the lack of regulation in South East Asia. For some, being back in Australia after spending years drinking and whoring in South East Asia, isn’t easy to cope with. A friend and work colleague, now back in Melbourne after spending years in Pattaya, is doing it tough. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. During the numerous chats we’ve had he keeps repeating the same mantra, “he feels depressed and doesn’t want to be here.” Entirely understandable when one has been living in a make believe world of gogo bars and attractive Asian prostitutes. Normality, or the real world, might seem rather boring in comparison.
I keep telling him the lock-down won’t last forever and that in the meantime, he should focus on getting fit and finding some activities to get involved in. Like a lot of hard-core expat drinkers he’s 30 kg overweight and that, as many of the health experts have been warning us, is a serious pre-disposing factor to being taken out by Covid-19. Now isn’t the time to despair, it’s the time to prepare. Because despite what the conspiracy theorists and doomsday merchants keep telling us about the coming of cashless societies and a new world order, things will eventually get back to normal. People will travel, and the countries that we love in South East Asia will want the tourists back simply because it’s a huge part of their local economies. So while we wait it out, keep yourself fit, brush up on your Thai or Vietnamese language skills, and save some cash for your inevitable return. How do we know we’ll return, because most western countries are absolutely, bloody boring in comparison.
Great report and fantastic photographs!
The author can be contacted at : [email protected]