21.11.2015 - 01.12.2015 33 °C
On Saturday November 21 we travel by private car from Cambodia to the island of Koh Chang, in the province of Trat. After leaving Battambang at 8am we arrive at the ferry terminal at 12.30pm. The driver parks the car on the ferry and recommends we head onto the upper deck with the other passengers for the short trip across. The island is beautiful; jungle covered mountains surrounded by a blue sparkling sea. Thirty minutes later he pulls up at our hotel which is right on the beach. A bit of four star luxury for us, with separate bungalows amongst tropical gardens, infinity pool overlooking the beach and beach side restaurant. The perfect spot to have a rest and for David to recover from a virus that has worn him down over the past week.
Our days and evenings are spent very lethargically reading, eating and drinking. Gradually we regain our appetites and begin sleeping properly, although the bed is still fairly hard, typical of Asian hotels. Thailand is so clean and civilised compared to Cambodia; no smelly drains beside the road, no tuk tuks, no cheap little restaurants with plastic chairs and dubious hygiene. It is also more expensive; used to US$2 cocktails and $3 meals, we find the average price of $5, $6 or more for drinks and main courses quite expensive! I think we are in for a shock when we get home!
The beach is clean with soft white sand and there are plenty of restaurants and supermarkets within walking distance. We feel pleased with our selection of hotel and beach, as there are many choices on Koh Chang. The only negative is the sand flies, which we notice after a couple of days by the itchy lumps on our arms and legs. These insects are so small you don't notice them biting you until a couple of days later when you discover you are covered with bites.
We catch a Thai taxi, a songtaew, to one of the six elephant camps on the island. The songtaews consist of a ute with bench seats along each side of the tray, where you sit under a canopy. So they can carry around 8-10 passengers at a time, and are cheaper than a regular taxi. We choose the elephant camp recommended by the author of the website iamkohchang.com. This author, Ian is a native English speaker who lives on Koh Chang and runs a small hotel. His website covers accomodation options, tourist advice, and how to get there. It is through Ian that I booked our transfer there from the Thai border. The elephant camp he recommends sits well as our preferred option, as it is on a large site in the jungle where the elephants have plenty of space, and elephant treks are not pushed by the staff there. We do not wish to do a trek because we find it cruel, but we would like to see these amazing creatures. Our songtaew driver takes us to the camp, well off the main road in Klong Son. He tells us he will wait, which we appreciate as we can see there is not much traffic there and it would otherwise be difficult to get a songtaew back. We tell the woman at the ticket office that we don't want a trek, just a look, so she takes us over to one of the female elephants, telling us she is very friendly and calm and we can pat her as much as we like. We stand beside her, tentatively patting her trunk, while she regards us with a depth of understanding that is quite intimidating, and picks up the plants strewn at her feet, belting them against her leg, then conveying them to her mouth with her trunk.
Another day we catch a songtaew to the Klong Plu waterfall. There are a few waterfalls on Koh Chang, but this one is closest to where we are staying. It is a 500m walk from the entrance, through lush green jungle, beside the river. On arrival there are a few other tourists there, some swimming in the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. There are a large number of fish here, some quite large. The small ones peck at our feet, which does not hurt, but is a shock at first. A family arrive and enter the water beside us, the children shrieking in alarm when they are pecked by the fish.
On Wednesday November 25 it is Loy Krathong, a water festival celebrated in Cambodia and Thailand. Our hotel was holding a dinner to celebrate; it was 600 baht per person, which we didn't want to pay, so we dropped in at the start for a beachside drink, then wandered down later when they had fire twirlers performing on the beach.
After our week on Koh Chang we traveled by private car to Koh Samet; about 4 hours closer to Bangkok. We stayed on this island in 1999 with our daughters. This time we had booked a hotel in a different location, but were interested to see how much things had changed in sixteen years.
Our driver dropped us at one of the five piers that service as departure points for the various boats that travel from Ban Phe to the different beaches on Koh Samet. In a scene reminiscent of our previous visit, a tout spotted our car as soon as we arrived, beckoning us to follow him, he offered the option of a speedboat leaving in 15 minutes, for 600 baht, or waiting 1 hour for the public ferry. We opted for the speedboat, which we shared with about ten other people. It plowed through the waves, spraying all the passengers, until it arrived at the beach near our hotel and we were unceremoniously dropped off, into the shallows, with our luggage. Nothing had changed in sixteen years. Fortunately we were wearing shorts and waterproof sandals, so we waded up the beach with our feet covered in wet sand, until we located a sign pointing to our hotel.
The hotel was on the northern end of Koh Samet, in an area with few other hotels or restaurants. So while this made it quiet, it also meant there were limited options for eating. The hotel had a bar beside the pool, which provided a simple and small range of dishes.
So the following day we hired a motor scooter for the day from our hotel, and rode the six kilometres around the island to Vong Deuan beach, where we stayed in 1999. It didn't look that different, except there was not much beach any more, the sea level obviously higher, so all the restaurants and cafes were sitting right on the water's edge.
They say you should never return to a place you have visited before, and it's usually my motto as well. We only stayed on Ko Samet to avoid one long journey by road to Bangkok, and to provide another place to visit in Thailand on our way home. Visiting this beach after sixteen years did make me a bit nostalgic for all those years when our children were little. I could still remember them sitting under the tree at the water's edge having their hair braided, and me getting into trouble when I took a photo of them. In those days the beach was much wider, and every night the restaurants would set up chairs and tables on the sand, with ice filled trays of fish, from which you could choose your dinner. Candles would sit on top of the tables, and the whole beach would flicker in the gentle candle light. Electricity only ran for a couple of hours in the evening, so candlelight dinners were a necessity.
On Saturday night we ride the motor scooter to a beach front restaurant for dinner and I have the best Thai food so far; stir fry prawns with cashews. As we are eating some young men and a boy arrive on the beach in front of us to do fire twirling. The boy is only about ten, but his skills are amazing; the three of them twirl an array of fire-sticks, standing on each other's shoulders, throwing them in the air, and even using a hula hoop with small fires placed around it.
Sunday morning we ride to the town, where we have breakfast. There are a few nice looking cafes but the breakfast options everywhere are very limited and unappetising. Ko Samet is quite different to Ko Chang, it's still stuck in the seventies, with oodles of backpacker hostels, and western food options for breakfast and lunch are limited. Behind many of the hostels, hotels and restaurants lies jungle strewn with garbage and building materials. There is a lot of building going on; extensions and new hotels, but it seems a shame the Thais don't put more effort into cleaning up the environment as they go to make it more alluring for the tourist.
For the rest of Sunday we lie by the pool and read, feeling now that we are filling in time before we can go home. Now we only have two days before we arrive back in Melbourne we are impatient to be there and be reunited with our family.
On Monday we walk to a restaurant for another ordinary breakfast of stale toast and greasy fried eggs, then return to our hotel to pack. We get a taxi to the pier and catch the 12pm boat to Ban Phe. The public boats are the same old wooden boats we used in 1999. When we arrive there are two ticket booths; one to purchase a mini van or taxi ticket to Bangkok, the other to purchase a bus ticket. We decide to take the cheaper option of the bus, as we are not in a hurry. We have booked a hotel near the airport for our flight to Singapore at 11.45 the following day. The bus finally departs just before 2pm. I ask the ticket collector how long the journey is, and he says its three and a half hours. So we settle in for a long trip, which should get us to the bus station in Bangkok around 5.30pm. There is not much to see on the trip; the curtains are kept closed to keep out the hot sun, but we can tell the bus is slow, and driving on back roads, rather than the highway. It stops frequently to pick up more passengers. We should have realised it would be another interminable bus ride. It seems fitting to end our seven months of traveling with another of these, that have really highlighted the worst aspects of traveling. At least on a long flight you have food, entertainment and a toilet. None of these are available on long bus journeys.
Around 5pm the bus pulls into a depot. We start to hope this might none the bus station, but the bus is merely refuelling. No one seems to know how much further we have. We seem to be somewhere on the outskirts of Bangkok's massive sprawl. We set off again and about 15 minutes later I hear the two young women in front of me talking to a Thai passenger across the aisle. It seems we are quite near the airport, but still a long way from the bus station. The two women are heading to the airport for an evening flight, and are becoming worried that they are going to miss it. I speak to them and explain we also wish to go to the airport as our hotel is only ten minutes from it. One of them goes down to the driver and asks him to stop and let us off. He ignores her and keeps driving. Both women are pleading with him. And I add my voice in as well, telling him that four passengers wish to get off. During this David is saying to me " we can't get off now, how will we get our luggage?" The bus starts to slow, and I say to the women we can share a taxi with them to the airport. David continues to protest, this time that we'll never fit all the luggage in the taxi. I ignore his protests, knowing if we don't take the chance to get off the bus now, it will be a long time before we will get to our hotel, and I am already insane with boredom from this interminably slow journey. We all get off and retrieve our luggage, and as we do another couple appear who also need to get to the airport.
We flag down a taxi and I show him the hotel name and address on my iPad, thinking he can perhaps drop us off on the way to the airport. He says he doesn't know where it is, and is decidedly unhelpful, so we decide to go to the airport with the others, and get another taxi from there. In all the confusion we have forgotten to ask him to use the meter. When we pull up at the airport he tells us we owe him 400 baht, pointing to each of us and saying 100, 100, 100, 100. We tell him "sorry but it doesn't work like that. And why didn't you switch on the meter"? "Meter dead" is his response. We offer him 200 baht between us, which he immediately accepts! David and I farewell the two women, then approach another taxi driver, this time making sure he has a working meter. I show him the hotel name, which he looks up on his iphone, switches on the meter, and we are away, with him tracking the journey on his mounted phone, laughing and joking with us. He has a go at my bright green case, which after seven months of travelling is now covered in black marks. When we arrive at the hotel the taxi fare is 80baht. What a nice contrast.
The hotel is called Lilac relax-residence and it is the loveliest boutique hotel, setting out to capture the custom of the traveller needing somewhere overnight near the airport. It markets itself very well, offering free round trip transfers from the airport, breakfast, even free drinks in the mini bar. The whole hotel is beautifully decorated in lilac, and very tasteful. We eat dinner at a small cafe opposite, then returned to our room, turning on the TV to discover the film 'The Way' ; the film about a man walking the Camino. An incredible coincidence and so appropriate to spend our final night watching a film about our the start of our seven month adventure in May.
Watching the film revives how much we enjoyed walking the short section of the Camino that we did, and reinforces how much we want to return someday and do a longer section of this amazing trail.
It is hard to believe we have been traveling for seven months. At the start I wasn't sure how it would all go, whether I would get unbelievably homesick somewhere along the line, or worse, get sick or injured and have to return home. We have been so incredibly lucky; firstly to have the opportunity, time and resources to undertake such a long journey, and secondly that it has all gone so smoothly. We have had no disasters at all. Since the bombings in Paris we have become a bit more apprehensive, which has increased the urge to return home. Particularly when we received a 'world wide terrorist threat' alert from DFAT.
So, fifteen countries, seven months, over sixty thousand air kilometres and who knows how many thousands of kilometres on the ground later, we are finally heading home to our beloved family and friends who we have missed so much. We have learnt a lot from the experience; about travelling, about people, about other cultures, and mostly about ourselves.
So here it is: our 2015 adventure.