A long, long day
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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Anyway, we get to the train station in time for our 7.30 bus. At around 7.10 a guy runs around shouting "Koh Tao! Koh Samui! Koh Phangan!" so we all jump to attention, grab our bags and follow him as he races out of the building and down some shady alleyway. The 20 or so of us in the group exchange slightly worried glances as we are herded into darker and darker side roads. Then, sure enough, around one more corner is our bus, a modern looking coach with enormous drawings of the Incredible Hulk on both sides, bright pink curtains and rows of multi-coloured party lights along its length. And this is the government bus service.
We dash on board to claim a good seat, as it looks like a full load tonight, and we choose a pair just above the rear entranceway. The bus quickly fills up and we take off. Only then do we notice that our seats are partly broken and this causes them to squeak nosily every time the bus turns, speeds up, slows down or goes over a bump (of which there are many in Thailand). In addition, there is nothing behind us except a two metre drop down the rear stairwell, so we are constantly in fear of leaning back or reclining our chairs in case they snap off, causing us to catapult backwards and plunge to an embarrassing death without even waking up first. So we stay awake pretty much the whole night, partly due to our noisy and potentially lethal seating situation and partly due to the action movies played at full volume on the TV.
The good news is that the bus ride is only 10 hours. The even better news is that it deposits us in the middle of nowhere at 5.30am with a two-hour layover before our boat ride. A minbus collects those of us who are island-bound and drives us to pier, where Jane and I have a 'Cup-a-Noodles'-type thing each for breakfast while we wait for the boat. A local asks us where we are headed and we say "Koh Tao". "Oooh, Koh Tao", he says, wincing and makes a big ocean wave gesture with his hand. We look out at the serene waters behind him and feel the warm windless weather. "Probably just wants to sell us a ticket somewhere else", I say dismissively.
The boat appears to be a seaworthy vessel, if not exactly at the cutting edge of nautical technology, and the first hour or so is very enjoyable, laid out on the sundeck, catching some rays. Then, once we clear through the inner islands and hit the open waters of the Gulf of Thailand, things change. The sea starts to swell and the bow hitting the crest of oncoming waves sends large splashes of water on to the front deck passengers. One English guy on the deck in front of me half finishes a can of beer and decides to empty the rest into the sea. Naturally, the wind picks up the beer and whooshes it into my face and clothes. Soaked by the beer and the ever-strengthening waves, I venture down to the shelter of the lower decks inside.
The boat continues to power into the rising waves, sending it into a rough and unpredictable pattern of rises and falls. My sea stomach has never been the best and, in a sudden development, I realise that I need to throw up and I bolt for the toilet. Now remember, this is Thailand, and rural Thailand at that, so toilets are not quite what we westerners are used to. The entire 'room' is about 4 feet by 4 feet - just enough room to turn around in. On one side is a large plastic garbage can filled with water and a bowl floating on the top. That's for washing your hands. The other half of the room contains the toilet itself. It's one of those squat jobs with the foot pads on either side but the whole thing is on a raised platform that brings it up to about knee level. The toilet is the place for chundering so I let fly with a well-directed load of Cup-a-Noodles. As I'm still leaning over the hole for round two, the boat hits another swell, causing all my mushed-up puke, with some sea water for seasoning, to come flying back up the toilet hole and hit me on the side of the face. I can't have been a pretty sight or smell as I groggily stumble out of the WC - my face green with sickness and decorated with chunks of my own vomit, and my clothes dripping wet and smelling of sea water, beer and aforementioned chunder.
Looking around though, I see that other people are in similar situations. It's an almost apocalyptic scene of passengers vomiting into garbage cans, sick bags, the sea or even where they stand if those other options aren't available. People are staggering around reaching out for something to grab on to as the boat lurches around and, with their seasick green complexions, it looks like something out of a zombie movie.
By hour three, I have thrown up a total of five times. All my recent meals are long gone, so I'm down to dry retching. The need to puke out something is so strong and I am pushing so hard that I am sure my eyeballs would have popped out if I had not closed my eyes. At Koh Samui, some grateful passengers disembark like POWs being released, and a new load of suckers get on. I'm feeling a little better so I go and find Jane, who had claimed a safe and dry spot outside. Jane hardly ever vomits, as she doesn't have that gag reflex that allows the rest of us to so freely regurgitate. This means, however, that her Cup-a-Noodles are lodged just below her throat in an unpleasant neither-here-nor-there location. With vomiting not on the cards, the only other release is from the other end. I didn't ask for details and I don't think anybody wants them, suffice to say that perching on that little toilet hole with the boat being thrown around at all angles and water and various other liquids being shot back up through the toilet with one solitary Kleenex for comfort, it would have been an act of courage, patience and dexterity.
The final leg of the ride, Koh Phangan to Koh Tao is the choppiest. I have nothing left to give so I simply lie down on some of the indoor seats and don't move for the last three hours, which seems to work. Mayhem reigns all around me though as the boat - a sturdy ship with space for a good 100+ passengers - is tossed around like a toy in a bath tub. At times, when the boat catches the right part of a large wave, it feels as though it becomes airborne, leaping like a long-jumper before crashing down violently on the crest of the next oncoming wave. A few of us actually fear for the bits and pieces of the poor old boat, subjected to such rough treatment.
Jane, meanwhile, has opted to stay outside. On the stern deck, she is protected from the water but not from the frenzied gyrations of this crazy dancing boat. All around her, people are barfing into any type of bag they can find, even sharing bags on occasions. Finally, she can stand it no more and she has to produce her own technicolour yawn, at last exorcising the demonic Cup-a-Noodles like something out of 'Poltergeist'.
Terra Firma has never felt so good, and the island of Koh Tao is a welcome contrast to the mainland. The gangway from the boat ends on the beach, where a dozen young men clamour for the day's serving of rich, white, groggy tourists. "Hello, sir - Taxi?" Well, we do need a taxi, so I half-heartedly prepare to haggle. "One hundred baht!?" I say in feigned disbelief when he tells me the price to our hotel, "You've got to be joking! That's just . . . ah, bugger it, let's go then". After 24 hours of travel, including seven hours of Thai water torture, paying $3 to get to a nice comfy bed doesn't sound too bad. The 'taxi' is actually the back of a pick-up truck, which already contains three young Scottish people, Jane's puke-buddies from the boat. It's a 4-wheel drive because this island has virtually no paved roads. In fact, it hardly has any roads that would not rip a regular car to shreds within half an hour. The ride is bumpy and hair-raising as we bounce through the tiny 'town' and out into the centre of the island. This is the real Thailand, I reckon, not the polluted chaos of Bangkok. Men stand around on the side of the road, motorcycles hurtle past with way too many people on them, women tend to sad-looking gardens and, in amongst all this are the white folk. Koh Tao is famous for its scuba diving so all the hotels are geared towards diving and most of the tourists come here to dive. The island also happens to be extremely beautiful and almost like stepping back in time. The unpaved roads, shanty houses, rustic thatched-roof bungalows, palm trees and a laid-back, 'anything goes' attitude really make you feel like you are in one of those old sea ports from the days of buccaneers and smugglers.
Our accommodation is in one of the many low-key guesthouses on the southern tip of the island. Our private room is by a good stretch the largest rented room we've had on this entire trip, as well as the cheapest. By this stage, after 24 sleepless hours, we're ready for a shower and a nap.
In the evening, we explore our surroundings. The beach is small and quiet, lined with easy-going beach bars with comfortable pillows to sit on, chilled-out music playing and nouveau-hippies drinking and laughing. We find a clean-looking restaurant with an extensive English menu and order some delicious Thai curries then flop out on the bed again and don't wake up till the middle of next morning.