Pit Stop, Ranong Thailand 2014
Updated: Jan 4
According to online information, the bus station in Chumphon was 14 km out of town, whereas the mini-van taxis were only two blocks from our hotel, the A-Te. Mini-vans move locals and farangs throughout the country, are incredibly cheap, but as we had learned on previous trips to Thailand, are commanded by insane drivers.
We’d considered Koh Phangan as an option for our beach vaca, based on recommendations from our friends Mitra and Fabio we'd met in Bali. A rickety old wooden ferry boat had taken us to the island from Samui; there wasn’t a dock to shore, so the boat pulled up as close as possible, then we jumped into the crystalline waters, stretching out our arms to catch our packs as they were tossed off the boat by deck hands.
In those halcyon days, the main town consisted of the usual assortment of German freaks hanging out in cafes along the port, and little else. Haad Rind Beach, the site of the most famous Full Moon parties in the world (stolen from India’s Goa Freaks who traveled overland across the old hippy trail back in the 1960s and 70s and staged massive parties on the beach to celebrate the rising of the full moon, replete with large quantities of drugs and alcohol, bonfires, acoustic guitars, bongos, dancing et al.)
Koh Phangan Full Moon parties have taken it to a whole other level (or in the parlance of Emeril Lagasse: "kicking it up notches previously unknown to mankind!"). If you want to learn more about the Phangan madness, check it out here.
We weren't interested in the Phangan Full Moon event, even though our timing was right for the January 2014 happening. Before we left Canada, I checked a voucher I'd received through Marriotts Reward Visa, which included 50,000 sign-up points —good for up to five nights at one of Marriotts’ many hotels, inlcuding an e-voucher for a Category 5 Hotel anywhere in the world. Last year, we'd our annual e-voucher to stay at the Amman Marriott in Jordan on our way to Thailand (only so-so, that time it snowed in the desert!).
I anticipated cashing in the free e-voucher in Bangkok in May before we returned to N. America, but was surprised to discover the coupon was only valid for six months from issue, and was to expire in February. Free but a limited. A cursory tour of the Marriott website revealed options in Thailand were somewhat restricted; most hotels were in a higher category that our e-voucher’s value.
One joint stood out: JW Marriott at Khao Lak, a five star resort on the west coast of Thailand, ground zero during the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, some 90 kms north of tourist mecca Phuket. In 1987 when we were on Koh Phi Phi ,I was talking to a Texan and I’ll never forget him line, “We’re staying over on Foooo ket!).
We altered our plans away from the east coast and Phangan, then set our compass toward the west coast. Which was probably a good thing as the winds were pounding the east, as we had discovered in Prachuap. We'd heard harried tales of bouncy boat rides to the popular trio:f Tao, Samui and Phangan. Seasoned travellers we later met at our hotel in Ranong described how everyone on the boat to Tao tossed their cookies, including them, and they were Canadian west coast sailboat enthusiasts!
And that is how we ended up wedged into a cramped mini van, surging toward Ranong, only two and half hours away. But here's the wrinkle: who knew we would be crossing over an extreme mountain range to the left coast. Who realized Thailand had such a mountain range in the south?
Certainly not us.
The little van seemed to spend 90% of the westward journey negotiating wicked switchbacks. We pitched left then right, the air con doing little to dissipate the stifling heat. Incredibly, Elaine read a book on her iPad mini, but eventually gave up as the driver steered the van around curves at breakneck speeds, including the famed “passing trucks around blind corners,” invoke the traveler's proverb: "No atheists on a Third World bus!"
I decided to check the name of our next hotel on my iPhone. BIG MISTAKE. Unlike Elaine, I do not have the ability to read while moving in a car or bus, easily be overcome by motion sickness. This simple task of reading my iPhone for a few moments caused motion panic to set in. As we rolled up a severe incline, I felt for sure I would toss my breakfast. I quickly drank some water, rested my head against the seat in front me, invoked a calming mantra, and held on for dear life.
Fortuitously, we finished climbing near the point of no return. The road levelled off, we began a gradual decent to Ranong, and I was able to regain my composure.
As we entered into the outskirts of Ranong, we were reminded how truly ugly Thai towns can be. A wall of non-descript concrete blocks greets the traveler in every town of a certain size; charming wood buildings still exists in many city centres, but new construction seems given over to mouldy blocks plastered with ugly signs.
At the station, we were hustled by the usual lot of desperate taxi drivers. Feeling somewhat wobbly and in no mood to walk, we overpaid but were soon deposited at the charming Thansila Resort. We had pre-booked a room overlooking the river based on a TravelFish.org review. This turned out to be a mistake as the newer section featured updated suites that were away from road noise. While our room was charming - a stone cave with windows facing the river, we soon discovered it was annoyingly noisy due to the hilly road being negotiated by near constant stream of motorcycles and trucks, sans mufflers! Small matter—we were only here for a night.
On this particular day the resort had that friendly traveler vibe, a bit of a mecca for Canadian adventurers. We chatted with two different couples, one from BC on the road from October to March, the other a gentleman from Winnipeg with a Thai wife. The commonality: they were both retired military. Go figure.
It is always fun to share notes with fellow travellers and grouse about the highs and lows of independent SE Asia travel. Lots of solid advice back and forth—what Jimmy Buffett described as the “Coconut Telegraph,” reminding us of days before the Internet. The best information is first hand, taken with a grain or two of salt. “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” according to Paul Simon.
I was still was not quite standing on solid ground from motion vertigo, but BC Marty offered to give me a ride up to the bus station on the back of his rented moto scooter, as the resort’s receptionist was a bit clueless about buses to our next stop: Khao Lak. I hopped on the back of the scooter and we shot up the hill back to the station. I hadn’t realized the mini-van had dropped us off so near the bus station, tucked behind a row of buildings. Note to self: when coming into a new town take a minute to scan the environs.
Timetable established for the bus to Khao Lak for the next morning (every hour on the half hour), we reconnoitred back at the resort, then took a leisurely stroll up river to the hot springs (“only 150 metres away," but more like 1 km!)
The springs are a major tourist draw, replete with a contingent of ultra-modern double decker buses. These bad boys are massive, travellers perched on the second storey. We wondered if they featured a full on bar on the lower level.
The hot spring pools were built by Thais to attra t tourists, evidently very popular. The soothing waters are diverted from deep below into huge cauldrons, which bubble over and are incredibly hot. A series of pipes and a cooling system are employed to keep pools at a temperatures of about 40 degrees Celsius. Instead a full body dunking, we soaked our feet, then enjoyed a delicious lunch at one of the many food stalls along the river.
Then, we climbed to a small shrine featuring a fat Buddha (as opposed to the skinny one revered by the Thais) being tended by a very slim young Thai girl. No doubt this shrine catered to Chinese tourists, even though it was far removed from the main springs. One concession to Thai traditions was that the Fat Buddha’ s face featured Thai styling’s… most unusual.
Later, we strolled along a river path into town (unlit despite many lamps along the way), got turned around but eventually found the night market. We spied one stall featuring deep fried balls that looked like arancini balls. The lady popped one into a bowl, mashed it and then added about 15 different ingredients to create a most magnificent mélange of Thai noodles. No idea what the dish was called but it was simply delicious, regarded highly in our never-ending quest for delicious Thai dishes.
Returning to the resort, we sat in the very chill restaurant chatting with Canadians about long-term travel plans and how smart we were escape from this very wicked Windsor winter. We then called it a night, toddled off to our room by the rushing river, put in our ear plugs and awoke to the promise of another day, another exotic place.