I may be the last Aussie on Earth to have visited; but now, at the grand conclusion of my world trip, I've finally visited Thailand. And let's face it: Thailand is the no. 1 budget travel destination in the world, and no true round-the-world backpacking trip would be complete without it. The Land of Smiles is home to sunny beach paradises, steamy tropical jungles, curry that redefines curry, a Buddhist religious heritage of great richness, cheap shopping to please anyone... and more. The only thing that remains a puzzle: what took me so long to get here?
One night in Krabi: I really needed it, in between Ko Tao and Ton Sai. You can't go straight from one farang beach retreat to another: sometimes, you just need to spend a night in a real town. A place where you can find a cheap room, cheap food, and cheap Internet. And a place where a big city boy like myself can feel slightly more at home. Krabi's a pleasant enough town, but it's a bit small and boring. I mingled with my Dutch friend this evening, over dinner and a few drinks. She also insisted on finding a Thai massage, which I stupidly tagged along to: of the several Thai massages that I've had during my time here, it was one of the more painful (apparently, the more it hurts while they're doing it, the better you feel after — I have yet to verify this). Seems that most folks don't linger in Krabi too long: everyone heads to either Railay, Ton Sai or Ao Nang pretty fast.
I met this girl on the bus to Krabi today. She's told me her name a zillion times: but I'm afraid it's all Dutch to me. She's been living in a small village near Ranong for the past 6 weeks, where she was volunteering as an English teacher at the local primary school. I hung out with her this evening in Krabi, and then we kept bumping into each other over the next few days, since we both continued on to Ton Sai. She's a bit daunted by all the farangs, after being in a remote Thai village for so long — but she's gradually getting used to seeing Westerners everywhere once again.
Today was a hectic day on the road — especially compared with my past week of going nowhere and of lying on the beach. Last night, I finally said goodbye to Ko Tao, departing on the night ferry back to Chumphon. The ferry set sail at 11pm, and arrived on the mainland at 5am. It was a sleeper ferry, fitted with a deck-full of bunk beds — and miraculously, I slept like a log for the entire journey. From Chumphon, I immediately grabbed a minibus (pre-booked) west to the city of Ranong, from where I did a so-called "visa run" over the border to Burma (now called Myanmar), and then came straight back without hanging around. I didn't hang around in Ranong, either: from there, I caught a bus headed south; and by 4pm, I'd made it to the city of Krabi. Lots of bussing and boating to squeeze into one day — so much, in fact, that I had time for virtually nothing else.
Known variously as "Thai salad", "spicy salad" or "traditional salad", "Papaya salad" is one of the few Thai foods that I'd never tried and never heard of, prior to coming to Thailand. And now I know why. Tonight in Mae Hat — just before leaving Ko Tao — I sampled a plate of this infamous dish for the first time. I'd been warned that this is "the spiciest dish in Thailand": and as such, I naturally went ahead and asked them to prepare it pet pet ("very spicy") for me. Big mistake: it really is the spiciest dish in Thailand, and perhaps in the entire world. The stuff probably isn't even legal back home. It's a delicious salad: but brace yourself before trying it, because it will blow you away.
After 10 nights here, I couldn't just leave Ko Tao empty-handed — I had to walk away with at least something to remember it by. Found these souvenir t-shirts this evening, while perusing the souvenir shops and knock-off boutique stores that line the streets of Mae Hat. Cute little reminders of this wonderful place. And no, neither of them is for me: I'm generally not a big fan of either pink or of aqua! I think they'll make good presents for the folks back home, when I return in a few weeks' time.
One last place here on Ko Tao that I've heard good things about, but that I haven't previously visited, is a place called Freedom beach. Since this was my last day on the island, today I tore myself away from yet another trip to Moondance beach, and instead ventured onto new sands. Freedom beach is in the opposite direction from Moondance: it's on the eastern side of Chalok Baan Kao, in a tiny protected bay just in from Chalok's eastern headland. Lovely place, and a great final impression of Ko Tao.
Today was my third and final day on the idyllic Moondance beach, and it was no different from the days before it. More of relaxing, more of occasionally taking a dip, and more of doing very little. I found Robert in his usual nesting-spot, sprawled on the sand next to a big rock; and in the afternoon, we were joined by a friend of Robert's, who's just arrived direct from Austria (and who's not gay — although he does run a bar in Graz), as well as by Iris and Andrea.
I'm usually not too bad at absorbing useful snippets of the local language, wherever I go. But the Thai language is a different story: it's Really Hard™ to learn. So far, I've been going at a rate of about one commonly-spoken word per week, and I'm struggling to maintain even that. I've got kop-khun khap ("thank you") down pat, as well as the famous sawadee-khap ("hello" / "goodbye"). I'm working on sabadee-mai ("how are you"), sabadee ("I'm fine"), and sabai ("good"). Also picked up a few food-related words, such as gai ("chicken"), goong ("shrimp"), khao ("rice"), and kha ("coconut"). Plus, being here on the island has helped me pick up some geographical terms, such as hat ("beach"), ao ("bay"), and of course ko ("island"). But it's slow going, and the Thai words have a habit of being awfully slippery against my memory.
In case I haven't yet had my full dose of Austrians, tonight Ko Tao delivered me yet more of them! Iris and Andrea are two lovely girls from Vienna, who are (like myself) currently on a world trip — although theirs is significantly shorter than mine. They've already been to Australia, where the only place they visited was Sydney (they reckon it was so much fun, they got stuck there for two weeks — go figure). They're currently taking their sweet time getting through Thailand's glorious south, after which they'll keep heading north, and eventually home. I bumped into them at the hippie bar next-door to my room this evening, where I shared a few drinks with them.
"No name" vegetables is a crunchy Thai appetiser, which consists of chopped-up mixed vegies, that are battered and deep-fried into little snackable pieces. Best eaten dipped in sweet 'n' sour sauce. Not sure if they have it elsewhere in Thailand — I don't recall seeing it in Bangkok or in the north — but here in Ko Tao, most restaurants list it on their menu. At the remote restaurant this afternoon (after bashing through the jungle), my friend Robert introduced me to this dish, which I've never tried before, but which I hope to sample again.