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Island-hopping Backpacker Style

By Carolyn Bonello

July 17, 2008 

Had I chosen to save time rather than money, I’d probably already be on the other side of the globe by now. But, instead, 24 frustratingly hot, sticky hours after leaving the Perhentian islands in Malaysia, I’m only an unimpressive few hundred kilometers away, on the island of Ko Samui, in neighbouring Thailand. So much for ‘island hopping’. It took one hell of a hop to get here!!

The idea was to save every Baht we could. We were still 2 weeks into our trip. There were another 2 months left. We couldn’t afford flying from one place to another. That would be sinful. Shocking.  Against  basic backpacker principles. We’d just have to make do with buses, boats, trains, tuk tuks, elephants– the cheaper the means of transport, the better. What I didn’t take into consideration was the simple fact that’ Asia time’ is in a league of its own, far, far away from the standard Greenwich Mean Time we all calibrate our watches by.  Let me explain……

8am. The only noise was the sound of the little engine chugging along slowly. The waves gently lapping against our wooden boat lulled me to sleep. Boasting a healthy chocolate-brown tan, a flowery sarong and massive shades, I felt more like the protagonist of a sun cream advert than the scruffy backpacker that I actually was. I gazed at the crystal-clear waters and whiter-than-white sand that we leaving behind. Surreal. Relaxing. Away from the rest of the world. The Perhentian Islands off the North-East  coast of Malaysia. But now we had to move on…..to yet another island! Well, the original plan was to head to Bangkok in Thailand and get down to some serious travelling, but  Ko Samui just happened to be en route, so a wee bit more sun and sea wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it?

The two-hour boat ride back to Kota Bharu on mainland Malaysia was smooth and pleasant. Safely on firm ground, I was suddenly aware of rude glares from a local woman who watched disapprovingly as I walked around in my skimpy sarong and bikini top. Kota Bharu is a socially conservative city, consisting of an entire Muslim population, hence the need to cover up, not necessarily with tudung ( headscarf) and all, but just decently.  Fine.  Next step was to get to the Thai border. The novelty of a tuk tuk quickly wore off as we were jolted violently along the bumpy road, looked on by stern Thai officials who seemed to be totally unimpressed  by  our cheerful jovial mood. Once safely in Thailand, passports stamped and bags checked, it was time to move on. Next leg of the journey. We needed to get to a place called Surat Thani.

11am. On asking how to get there, the place from where we would eventually catch the boat to Ko Samui, we were invaded by a dozen or so little men, all pleading for us to get in to their taxi. We settled for this helpful chap who spent around 15 minutes trying to stuff all our bursting backpacks into the boot. The drive was to take 6 hours he said ( So in Thai time that means around 9). His nauseating style of driving had us stop several times for me to get out and take some deep breaths of fresh, or rather, polluted Thai air. Suddenly, an hour and a half into our trip, he came to a standstill and waved us out. Backpacks thrown out, he muttered something about another driver coming for us, and he drove off. And there we were. In the middle of some Thai highway. With nothing but our bags. And a couple of packets of biscuits.

‘And now what?’ I looked at my friends casually, hoping they wouldn’t notice the trace of panic in my voice. Actually there was absolutely nothing we could do but wait. That’s all we ever seem to be doing anyway. Waiting for the bus to fill up. Waiting for the jungle train. Waiting for the boat to leave. And now waiting to be SAVED!!

Half an hour later( by now it’s 1pm), like an oasis in the desert, we spotted a blue minivan coming towards us and slowing down. Sure enough it was for us!!

‘Helllloooo leeeedies, we go we go’ the mystery driver  speedily loads our bags and in seconds we were on the road again, this time a tad more comfortable in this flashy blue van with leather seats, enough leg space for  a seven footer, and air con. I still cannot understand this weird, inexplicable exchange of vehicles, but who cares.

7 hours later, at 8pm, dazed and a little bit woozy, we finally got to Ban Don pier in Surat Thani.

All that’s left is a smooth boat ride. Can’t be that bad’ I sniggered to myself, as I was already picturing myself sipping fresh pineapple juice on the golden sand.

Its 9pm, 1 hour after our flashy-van-ride, and we’ve been sitting at the pier. Waiting. For a change. Waiting to hop on the boat. We’ve chosen the slow night boat. I stare at my wrinkled ticket . 

Departure: 9pm.

Seat no.:  22.

Great, I hope it’s a comfortable seat. Seat? We push our way through a sea of smelly men. I spot my number. Twenty-two. A space half as wide as my armspan. No chair. Just a paper-thin, torn mattress.  All for me. Number twenty-two. My niche for the night. Great.

Its 10pm, and we’ve only just left. An hour late. We’ve all settled down next to our numbers. There’s just a small bunch of other backpackers. The rest are locals. Young Thai men, elderly people, entire families. They’ve all  managed to pack themselves in. At first it’s fun. A whole new adventure. A great way to mix with the locals. But the pungent odours that slowly permeate the air quickly dampen my enthusiasm. The boat is reeking of stale urine. An old man spits his way through the aisle. And I’m glued to my mattress at number 22! Miraculously I manage to get some sleep.

Its 5.30am and we are finally in Ko Samui.Thai people are so incredibly agile. They twist and contort themselves and push their way out of the crowded boat, and I’m still trying to get my backpack sorted. Even though the sun hasn’t yet risen, it’s hot. And I mean beads-of-sweat dripping-down-my-forehead hot. I pluck up courage and picture myself on a sun-kissed beach in just a few minutes. I push my way through, just like the rest of them.

Time to relax’, I grin to myself as I look around in search of some decent accommodation. But all I see are pick-up trucks and a mob of sweaty people fighting to get in.

Nooooo, not more transport. But yes, we are still not at our final destination. We want Chaweng beach. And this is most definitely not it. This is just the berthing pier.  

And then finally, at 8am, a whole 24 hours after leaving the lovely Perhention islands, we had made it. To Fiji, one would ask? Er….nah, just thought we’d take it nice and slow to Thailand!! Oh for the joys of backpacking!! 

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