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The Po-Thai-Don Adventure

by Matthew Vlemmiks

April 30, 2006

We should have known what was in store when every passenger was handed an industrial strength sick bag as we boarded. Ko Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand, is famous for scuba diving, idyllic beaches and rugged mountains. But my feelings about the place will forever be coloured by the long, terrifying near-death experience I suffered in returning to the mainland.

The morning began with a bit of rain around, but this is Thailand, you don’t expect to be left at the mercy of the raging seas when taking a journey that thousands do every week. As we arrived at the port, the rain began hammering down, soaking my trainers, rucksack and clothes before even boarding the boat. It was a high speed catamaran run by a reputable company – in fact the very same vessel that had taken us on a smooth, care free journey from Ko Pha Ngan to Ko Tao just days earlier. Yes the weather was miserable, but as we pulled out to sea, I was fairly confident my nerves and my life would still be in tact by the time we reached Chumphon.

Unfortunately, catamarans tend to bounce around a bit at the best of times, and conditions were becoming extremely choppy as we pulled out to sea. A full scale storm soon closed in and battered the catamaran for the next two hours, whipping the sea up into a state of frenzy. All the passengers were thrown around like rag dolls, banging heads on the seat in front and straining neck muscles. My travelling partner immediately became frightened so I affected the alpha male role, feigning nonchalance and calm. But it was obvious by the way my fingers were becoming white gripping the seat in front that I was equally distressed.

It wasn’t long before I began to hear tears. Many of the passengers were openly weeping and murmuring pleas for their life to be spared. The woman next to me pulled out her rosary beads and offered up desperate prayers to the almighty. And things quickly deteriorated even further, as the smell of vomit spread through the room. A room in which the doors were bolted shut and air conditioning was non-existent.

It is hard to convey just how terrifying this was. The catamaran constantly seemed on the verge of tipping over, inevitably drowning everybody on board. On numerous occasions the boat was tilted at a right angle, before somehow righting itself, crashing momentarily back to normal, and then tipping death-defyingly in the opposite direction. And this went on uninterrupted for two hours! The young staff on board struggled to appear calm but it was obvious they were worried too. A DVD was put on in an attempt to distract people from their impending doom. I always thought that there could be few things worse than watching Bridget Jones, but on this occasion, it was all that kept me sane.

Finally, with my heart minutes away from packing in, somebody spied land - we had reached Chumphon! For the first few minutes of bobbing aimlessly in the port, everybody was just grateful for the apparent end of their ordeal. But soon, panic took hold again. The sea was too high for us to dock at Chumphon, and we were forced to set out back into the hellish ocean. For the next 15 minutes, amidst much colourful language, we bounced around more violently than ever. I seriously began to fear that we would have to return all the way back to Ko Tao.

But eventually, our ship was able to pull into a tiny fishing village, where the next challenge would reveal itself. The locals were obviously unaccustomed to a large catamaran docking at their port, so the landing equipment was rudimentary to say the least. One by one, the traumatised passengers were forced to descend two slippery, eight foot long planks, tilting down at an acute angle. All this whilst carrying a heavy backpack, with feeble legs wobbling dangerously. It’s hard to believe that there were no casualties, but as my feet touched dry land, I offered up thanks to a greater power that I have never believed in.

Needless to say, ours was the last catamaran to run that day. The South East coast of Thailand was battered by storms for the next fortnight, with tourists stranded on islands they had travelled to expecting paradise. Sadly, many locals were killed in floods in Surat Thani, Prachuap Khiri Khan and on Ko Samui. And for the rest of my travels, there would be no reason to fear anything.

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