The Daily Explorer

May 1, 2008

Sun, Sea and Songkran

Thailand: April 2008

In our latest issue, guest Editor Amber Solaire (above) brings us further coverage of Ray’s recent visit to Thailand. Following the wedding of their friend and fellow student Paul Smith (see Thai-ing the Knot), Ray and Nikki went on to explore the remote, sun-kissed island of Ko Lipe on the Malaysian border and then headed for Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, to rendezvous with friends in time for the Thai New Year festival known as ‘Songkran’.

With the wedding celebrations over, I discovered that Ray and Nikki were heading further south, to the border of Malaysia, for the very beautiful but remote island of Ko Lipe. “It is great to get a spell of ‘real’ travel again and even better to be doing it with Nikki” Ray told me. “Our research had indicated that Ko Lipe would be perfect for a few days isolation – no crowds, cheap accommodation right on the beach and great food – what more could a man want?” joked Ray.

Above: (LEFT) Map showing the location of the wedding (see Thai-ing the Knot) in Nakhon Si Thammarat (1) and the Ko Tarutao Marine National Park which contains the tiny island of Ko Lipe (2) The map on the right shows this area in more detail and you can see that Ko Lipe is a tiny island which takes about three hours to reach by ferry from Pak Bara. Ko Samui is highlighted (3) as Ray and Nikki were planning to go there later, via the Khao Luang National Park in Nakhon (1) which has some of the highest peaks in the Southern peninsula and some great trekking opportunities

Below: Nikki (left) sits at the roadside before setting off with Ray on their journey from Nakhon to Hat Yai – their resting point for the night before catching the ferry at Pak Bara to Ko Lipe. Their luxury transport is an old minivan (right) – “I have never been in one that wasn’t packed” said Ray

Used by travellers as a transit town, there is nothing particularly special about Hat Yai and for Ray and Nikki, it was simply an overnight stop en route to Pak Bara where they were planning to board their boat for Ko Lipe. “It took us a few hours to get there in the minivan and we were not sure if we would be able to pick up the internet on the island, so we decided to make the most of our time in Hat Yai and get online” recalled Ray. “We were also travelling on a budget, so we looked for a very cheap room, as we really only needed somewhere to sleep for a few hours and a shower. I think we had both forgotten just how basic some of these £3.00 per night rooms in Thailand can be” he added.

Above: Nothing much happens in Hat Yai, and unless you live there, it is a place you pass through on your way to somewhere else. Ray sent us this picture of the railway station – “I was amused when we passed it” he said, “as it looked like it had been built for the set of a children’s school play” he laughed

Below: Ray (left) gets used to the idea of ‘budget’ travel again after quite a long absence from it, while Nikki (right) wonders if she should have spent just a little bit more on her room for the night!

I asked Ray what he looked for when checking out a cheap room. “Basically, no bed bugs, a fan and somewhere to wash is the bottom line” he told me. “Upgrades could include hot water and air conditioning if it is available and if you feel extravagant” joked Ray. “We made our choice of room in Hat Yai partly based on the low price, but also because this particular guest house had access to a lot of information about transportation and helped us organise our tickets for the boat to the island” explained Ray. “It was probably one of the worst rooms I have stayed in during the last couple of years, with a no flush, squat toilet and a cold shower with no pressure, as well as a sink which leaked its contents straight on to the floor, but hey – it’s all part of the experience” said Ray.

Above: The bathroom in this room at the Cathay guest house in Hat Yai leaves a lot to be desired and would probably not appeal to some of our readers – but it’s typical of the accommodation on offer to the low budget traveller – “At least the sheets were clean and the bed was pretty comfortable” said Ray

Grateful they were only staying for one night, Ray and Nikki boarded a minivan early in the morning to rendezvous with the ferry at Pak Bara some two hours away. “We were feeling very excited by the time we made it to the harbour” said Ray. “Nikki spotted a place that made fresh coffee and we just had time to grab a couple of cups and take them on board with us. Life does not get much better than this” thought Ray as they made their way on to the boat.

Above: Ray is obviously very happy and excited as he and Nikki leave Pakbara for the three hour journey by boat to the remote island of Ko Lipe

Below: The first sighting of Ko Lipe (left) in the distance and as the boat gets nearer, Nikki feels like she has landed in paradise (right)

Koh Lipe is the southern-most island in the Tarutao National Marine Park. Although it is relatively undeveloped at present, it is quickly becoming renowned for its underwater world and pristine beaches. “The island has four main beaches” Nikki told me, “which are Pattaya, Sunlight, Sunset and Karma. Hopefully, we will visit all of them, once we have organised a place to stay” she added. “It’s a really small place” said Ray. “There are no cars or buses – only a small number of mopeds, and all of the beaches are connected by footpaths. It only takes about an hour to walk the entire island. And there are no ATM’s, which is a sure sign that the island has not yet gone mainstream” observed Ray.

Above: A stay on Ko Lipe means finding a bungalow on the beach at one of a handful of small ‘resorts’. This one (left) is called ‘Castaway’. Rooms can cost between £10 – £60 per night, depending on the level of luxury you require. Ray disembarks the ferry on to a long tail boat – the local boatmen earn their living by getting passengers from their boat to the shore as there is no harbour (right)

Below: Before you get the wrong idea, the word ‘Porn’ means something completely different in Thai. On discovering this, a disappointed Ray moved swiftly on and decided to look elsewhere!

Readers of the Daily Explorer may know that Nikki and Ray have plenty of experience of finding and choosing accommodation and as usual, had come prepared. “We talked to other travellers in Hat Yai and read the Lonely Planet to understand our options” Ray told me. “We also took a bit of a look around when we arrived and decided to opt for a relatively new place called ‘Mountain’ Resort – probably called so because it sits on top of some small cliffs by the beach on the north side of the island” he recalled. “I am glad we did because it turned out to be a really good choice, with fabulous food on site, as well as live English football which was a bit of a bonus” added our sport loving traveller.

Above: The ‘Mountain’ resort was Ray and Nikki’s choice of accommodation on the island and it turned out to be a great decision – “Where else in the world can you get a location like this, with great food and hardly anyone around for the princely sum of £12 a night between two of us?” said Nikki

Below: This is the view of the beautiful white sandy beach and the crystal clear turquoise waters from the restaurant at ‘Mountain’ resort

Sitting on the shores of a paradise island like Ko Lipe, it would be easy to think that not much ever happens. “I guess that’s what most people must have been thinking when the Tsunami hit Thailand a couple of years ago” said Ray, who had seen signs on the beach pointing towards newly created evacuation areas. “Although the main impact area was some miles away from here, and one would not wish for such a thing to happen again, they are not taking any chances and have taken steps to ensure that anyone on the island can move to the relative safety of elevated areas” observed Ray.

Above: One of the signs spotted on the beach pointing the way to the Tsunami evacution areas (left). This charming young girl (right) provided some amusing company for Ray and Nikki whilst they were having lunch on the beach – “The people here are really wonderful and I am quite amazed at how confident some of the children are” observed Nikki

Below: Ko Lipe and ‘Mountain’ resort were big hits with Nikki, who enjoyed a day out snorkelling in some of the waters around the island (left) and was very happy with the huge selection of vegetarian food on offer (right)

A couple of days after his arrival, I gave Ray a call on his mobile to find out how he and Nikki were getting on. “We have had some great conversations” said Ray, “and I am really glad we have had this time together to get ourselves up to date” he told me. “Knowing that I have to leave Thailand in a couple of weeks to do some work in Europe, I am appreciating the gift of this time even more. It is also helping me weigh up how much I want to get back into working and professional development, as opposed to continuing my personal ‘journey’ and the exploration of the world through travel, and how I might reach some kind of balance between the two” explained Ray. “I have been reading a very inspiring book, written by the Bhagwan Rajneesh, which talks about the courage it takes to live one’s life outside of peer pressure, the need to conform or seek approval and make choices based entirely on what most energises you as an individual” said Ray. “I know I don’t really want to return to what I used to call my ‘normal’ life but have not yet understood how to re-define myself – I am working on it!” said our traveller.

Above: Ray takes time out to read about the joy of living life to a different beat – “If someone would have said to me five years ago that in a couple of years, I would be living like a nomad for 900 days on the trot, I would have laughed it off as an impossibility” mused Ray!

Below: Sunset is one of the best times of the day on Ko Lipe. Ray stands and admires the spectacle (left) while these two Thais play some interesting tricks with the camera (right)

With some trekking on Ray and Nikki’s itinerary, they made the journey back to Nakhon Si Thammarat, where they had been a few days earlier for their friends wedding. “There is something really fantastic about getting back to nature and Nikki and I love to trek through mountains and rain forest” Ray told me. “We discovered that Nakhon has some of the highest peaks in southern Thailand and found a local trekking company that might be able to provide us with a guide for a three day trip” recalled Ray. “Nikki needed to get to a border, as she is required to check in every three months under the conditions of her visa, which meant another overnight stay in Hat Yai on the way back” explained Ray, “but we didn’t want to stay at the previous place, so we decided to go for something slightly more upmarket, with a proper flushing toilet” joked Ray.

Above: Spot the difference … an additional £1.50 per night in Hat Yai buys you a room which has its own bathroom with cold shower, like the one featured earlier (left), but with the luxury of a flushing toilet! (right)

Khao Luang National Park is located on the southern peninsular of Thailand and is named after the tallest mountain in the park, which covers an area of 570 square kilometres. It receives monsoons from both the east and the west coasts which means the park receives a great deal of rain all year. The hot season is between February and April. “In a way, I am glad we did not know this when we set off” said Ray, “otherwise we might have changed our minds” he told me.

Above: Ray landed the job of working out which bus to get from Hat Yai to Nakhon (left). Nikki takes her seat on the bus (right) and waits patiently for the driver to turn up – “Even if there is a schedule, you never really know when the bus is going to leave, so you have to relax and be patient” said Ray. “The driver eventually turns up when he is ready” added our global traveller

Below: The mountains in Khao Luang National Park provided Ray and Nikki with a compelling reason to return to the region. The tallest peak, at 1835 metres, is accessible from Khiriwang Village and it is possible to take a three day, two night trek to reach the summit. Unfortunately, it would have taken too long to organise so Ray and Nikki had to settle for a one day guided trek instead through the rainforest to one of the many waterfalls

In the capable hands of their guide, ‘Mr Bern’, Ray and Nikki were taken into the heart of the forest and through some spectacular scenery. “He was a really charming chap” said Nikki. “We did not realise we were coming here at the hottest time of the year, and it really was scorching, which made some of the steeper inclines even harder than normal. It was fantastic exercise, although Ray was pretty tired as he had been watching a Chelsea match in the early hours of the morning and only had about three hours sleep” she told me.

Above: The effort in the scorching heat in Khao Luang National Park was well worth it, especially when our travellers reached this freshwater mountain pool – “I couldn’t wait to get my sweaty clothes off and jump in to the freezing, fresh water” recalled Ray

I am sure Ray and Nikki will return to Khiriwang Village at some point in the future to climb the summit of Khao Luang mountain. But in the meantime, a rendezvous on the island of Ko Samui with some friends was awaiting them and they left Nakhon for the port of Don Sak, near Surat Thani (see map at the top) to take the one hour ferry crossing. “When we here last, in November 2006, we spent a lot of time with a great English couple called James and Susie, who have lived on the island for some time and we couldn’t wait to see them again” recalled Nikki. “We were also relishing the prospect of being in Ko Samui for Songkran, which is the New Year in Thailand. Literally everybody takes part in the celebrations, which are huge fun and unlike anything we have ever seen in Europe” she told me.

Above: Nikki takes her seat in the brand new, air-conditioned minivan that will take her and Ray to the port at Don Sak (left). Then, a few hours later, they are re-united with James Taylor, who came to collect them from the ferry terminal (centre, right). He lives on the island with his partner Susie, who has featured regularly in our sister publication, The Daily Lama

Below: Ray and Nikki arrive at James and Susie’s house (left), which is located on the wonderful, secluded beach at Bang Por on the north shore of Ko Samui (right) – “We were very lucky to find a house to rent for the week right on the beach” said Ray. “Although prices have gone up here, the house will cost us £85 for the whole week, including air-conditioning and linen, which is pretty good” said our budget conscious traveller

I asked Ray to tell me a bit more about Susie and what makes her such a special friend. “Nikki introduced me to her the first time I came to this part of Ko Samui and we became instant friends as she is very creative, energetic and loves to play with the camera. When we are on Samui, she is the ‘unofficial’ photographer for The Daily Explorer and she has taken many of the great snaps that you may have seen online” said Ray. “We love the way she gets us to pose for the camera and she really has a unique approach to taking pictures – we are encouraging her to take it up professionally or start a blog of her own” added Ray.

Above: Susie Moberly, or Susie Cream as she is affectionately known on Samui, with her dog Diggy (left) and with Ray and Nikki as she sets up another one of her highly unorthodox and highly amusing photo-shoots on the beach (right)

Below: Susie’s partner James runs one of the best wireless Internet Cafe’s on the island, on the terrace of their home – “Nikki and I love sitting on their balcony and getting online, especially as I was being chased by Amber Solaire for my photo’s for the latest issue of The Daily Explorer” said Ray. “Susie makes sure we have plenty of tea and coffee whenever we are there, which is most of the day!” added Ray

For Ray, having a base on Ko Samui for a few days was an opportunity to experience some kind of routine. “As time goes by, it is increasingly difficult for me to settle into any kind of pattern, as I am moving around so much” explained Ray. “After nearly 900 days on the road, I am much more used to it than when I first started, but it is still great to get a few days in one place where I know I don’t have to pack each day and I can leave my things out on the floor without worrying if they will still be there when I return” he told me. “We were staying very close to James and Susie’s house and they very kindly invited us round every morning for breakfast on their balcony – if there was an award for hospitality, they would be outright winners” said our appreciative traveller.

Above: Ray enjoys his daily yoghurt and muesli breakfast at James and Susie’s place (left). After breakfast, ‘super-geek’ James helps Ray resolve some computer problems – “He gave me loads of help and I cannot thank him enough. I am so lucky to have fallen into a friendship with a technical genius” said Ray

Songkran

Of all the many feasts and festivals in Thailand, Songkran is the most striking. Widely observed throughout Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, the festival starts on 13th April and ends on the 15th, occasionally going on till the 16th. In a certain sense, it is a bit like April Fool’s Day, when the maids of the village play pranks on any gallant who happens to pass their way. “These days, the pranks take the form of getting soaked with water wherever you go or being covered in flour, talcum powder and numerous other coloured substances” explained Ray. “Literally everybody takes part and normal life is put on hold – wherever you go, you are going to get wet and no one escapes” he told me.

Ray was unable to take any pictures during Songkran as there was no way for him to use his camera with the threat of constant soakings going on. But luckily for us, Susie Cream stepped in and sent us a selection of her own Songkran snaps …

Above: Susie receives the ceremonial blessing with water at the start of the festival from her Thai neighbour (left) and everyone is getting very wet as the revelry goes on in nearby Mae Nam (right)

Below: Huge groups of people gather to ride around on trucks and cause as much mayhem as possible (left) while others will try anything to intimidate their targets, including disguising themselves as Osama Bin Laden! (right)

Above: The children absolutely love Songkran and have enough energy to carry on for hours ….

Below: …. unlike our very own Ray and Nikki, caught here in the crossfire of someone’s hosepipe for the umpteenth time!

Although Ko Samui is not renowned for its walking trails, Ray and Nikki were keen to explore the central area of the island and went off in search of ‘Samui Mount Everest’. “At 600 metres, it is obviously not really a mountain and nowhere near as challenging as its namesake suggests, but it gave us a really good workout and some spectacular views out to sea in the Gulf of Thailand” said Ray.

Above: Ray pauses for a moment to catch his breath and take on some water as he and Nikki try to find the highest viewpoints on Samui

Below: There is nothing better after a good hike than a one hour, full body Thai Massage, as Ray will testify …

One of the things you would notice if you travel to Ko Samui is the sheer quantity and rapid pace of development that is taking place on the island. “It has really changed a lot since I first started coming here three years ago” observed Nikki. “There is a big push to make Samui the ‘St Tropez’ of Asia and consequently, there is development going on everywhere, both with hotels and private homes. If you are looking for a good value second home, then Samui may be worth considering” added Ray.A couple of their friends have entered the developers market and just completed their first project. “When Steve told us that we could come and see the finished house, we accepted and rode over on our motor bike to take a peek” recalled Ray. “We were staggered when we saw how magnificent the place was – multi-level, great views over the forest and ocean, quiet, infinity pool, beautiful finishing touches and three separate en-suite double bedrooms in a courtyard with trees and waterfalls – it was like a little Thai palace!” said Ray.

Above: Steve Bray shows Nikki and Ray the finished house from his first property development with his partner Krystyna. They sold the property way before it was completed and could have sold half a dozen more as it is so beautiful and there is a shortage of large villas on the island. They are starting another three in September. “The plot was literally forest before they started” said Ray. “It’s amazing what you can do when you have the vision” he said

Editors Note: Our special thanks to Amber Solaire, who has done a great job in compiling the last two issues of The Daily Explorer from Thailand, and Susie Cream who has given us some stunning snaps. Ray has now departed Thailand to return to Europe and a temporary dip back into the world of work, as he begins his involvement with a five day training programme for corporate executives in Switzerland and the United States. More about that in our next issue which will be online in a couple of weeks. Please email me with any comments you have at thedailyexplorer@gmail.com

MOZZIE BYTE

Above: The unusual and striking interior of the International terminal at Abu Dhabi airport, which Ray passed through on his return to Europe recently. Look out for our next issue of The Daily Explorer as we follow Ray back into his professional world for a short while and update you on his travel plans for the next few months

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3 Comments »

  1. WOW… great blog and fabulous photos… even mine look good, thanks for all the compliments… we’re both blushing! missing you lots… NOW… listen to this…how about taking me on as official tag along photographer? Love you lots Susie and James.

    Comment by Susie Moberly — May 1, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  2. What a treat. Awesome! Ko Lipe is still looks lovely, especially those sunsets:) I like the shot of the moken girl known in Thai as the Chao Ley (people of the sea)or Chao nam (people from the water. These sea gypsies were given Ko Lipe by the Thai Government after the second world war; they are an amazing group and so friendly. I wanted to run a link from our new site: http://www.lessmosquito.com to your blog if thats ok? See you in London. Best wishes, Howard

    Comment by howard carter — May 1, 2008 @ 8:18 pm

  3. Sigh!

    Once again, I want to join my intrepid travelers and simply be their personal assistant or Sherpa or nanny or photographer or body guard. Maybe I’ll just be able to travel with them again someday!

    What a joy to have met them!

    -Quita

    Comment by Quita — May 5, 2008 @ 6:43 pm


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