Well, we’re back in Surat Thani now for one night. Koh Samui was interesting to see but, as I suggested, I doubt if we’ll ever go back.
It feels good to be back in “Thailand” if you catch my drift. Although I can bang on sometimes about cost, I’m only using it to illustrate differences and especially when talking about value for money.
We have come back to the same hotel (Little PP Hometel) we used before and it’s fab. The room is big, clean and well equipped – think of a good 3/4* hotel, to give you a benchmark, it’s a similar standard to the Sofitel room we had at the end of November at Heathrow, although the hotel doesn’t have the same facilities. The cost is 1190THB (£27) for the “Superior” room and that’s the upper end in these parts.
Although we positively seek to avoid retreads we are going to go back to the Korean BBQ restaurant this evening that was so much fun last time, it’s worth the repeat. Or maybe that was the cucumber.
By nature, or possibly by professional habit now, I am an obsessive planner and I was more than a little out of my comfort zone this morning when we left the COSI hotel because I hadn’t planned our transport to the ferry terminal. Yes we could have cycled it, but the plan was to cycle here and then explore the quirks of the Thai transport system back to Pattaya.
And those quirks started at the front door of the hotel. How do you get 2 x 6’ Falang and their bikes 35km to the other side of the island. The MPV taxis were too small and the only real option was to stand on the street corner, beckon a Songthaew (literal translation “2 rows”) which is a pick-up with a couple of bench seats in the back and a roof, then haggle a price.
Now you can start to see my discomfort. Would there even be any songthaews? Would they want us and the bikes in the back? Would they fit? What if the world exploded?
Our ferry was booked for 2pm and it was a 45 min ride, so made sense that we were on the street looking for a songthaew at 10:30.
For a full 15 mins there wasn’t one to be seen, that’s very unusual. Siubhan asked me how long should we wait and I tried to be nonchalant when I said that we had plenty of time.
One then came along and we were fixated on it, but then we were disappointed to see people already in the back, that wasn’t going to work.
But you wait 15 mins for a songthaew and then 2 come along at once. The second one was empty and I waved him down. I approached his window with the confidence of a traveller, rather than a fresh-meat tourist, and pointing at the bikes and Siubhan asked how much to the Lipa Noi pier.
5-6 weeks in Thailand has given me a (very) little stab at the correct Thai pronunciation and I was complimented by a Thai waiter a couple of nights back on how I now say “Thank You” like a Thai and have even started using some of the diminutive equivalents of “Ta” rather than the full Kop-Korn-Kaaaaap.
So my pronunciation of Lipa Noi was deliberate to indicate my seasoned Thai traveller status and it must have worked because after he had deliberated for about 5 seconds and counted on his fingers before asking for 800 Thai Baht, I feigned slight indignation and offered 500, same as before. His swift response was 600 and we had a deal.
He pulled over, climbed out and helped us load the fully laden bikes into the back. We managed to secure one of them with the rubber bungee before we were off. This is not luxurious transport and the back of this songthaew was now full of bikes and large people that were bouncing about on suspension hardly fit for an 18C cart!
Mistakenly, I thought we would head straight to the ferry pier but, no, he still had an empty front seat and standing room on the suicide platform at the back, a metal platform that runs across the back of the vehicle, welded at towbar height where you stand and hang on to the bar that runs across the rear of the roof. I’ve ridden the platform many times in Pattaya where the songthaew rarely exceeds 20mph, but riding the very steep hills and sweeping bends of the Koh Samui ringroad at up to 50mph was a very different proposition.
Our driver was touting for extra trade along the route and he soon had an elderly Thai lady in the front seat then we picked up a young Aussie chap who managed to hang on the back, keep a smile on his face and have a halfway reasonable conversation with us.
Next came the pretty Thai girl from Bangkok who, after climbing on, realised that there was no room for her on the benches and she, obviously fearing for her own safety, said “Not Sure”.
The gallant thing would have been for me to stand up and offer her my seat but only the bike on Siubhan’s side was secured and my bulk was being gainfully employed to block the inevitable egress of the loose bike by pinning it down. My favourite phase in the workplace is “what can we reasonably anticipate” and right now I could reasonably anticipate a pretty girl bouncing down the hill having been ejected out over the suicide platform by 50kg of bike and bags that would, equally inevitably, follow her to the tarmac.
So I stayed put, choosing instead to suggest that if Siubhan shifted her skinny arse just a couple of inches over the diminutive doll might just be able to perch on the 6” width of bench that was now available. Neither of them were comfortable but, then again, neither of them were joining the Aussie in his bucking bronco antics.
After the diversions to their various destinations we were heading towards our pier and our arrival was uneventful in that the driver pulled up at the entrance to the pier, came around and helped us unload the bikes. I said to Siubhan that it was 600THB well spent.
The only downside was that we lost one of the click-stands on the journey, having most likely left it in the back of the songthaew. These click-stands have been a fantastic find. They are like a 5 section cane with a cradle at one end and a rubber foot at the other. They are made to measure in the US for your bike and they work simply by using them to prop up the top tube at a slight angle while they supply a tie that holds the brakes on so that the bike doesn’t roll forward or back. Incredibly light, incredibly effective and most incredibly useful as it has allowed us to free stand the bikes. The frame makers, Surly, strongly recommend against fixing stands to the frames of touring bikes because of the twisting forces when loaded. This is the alternative solution and the convenience means that I’m more than a tad irked to have lost mine. I have already ordered a replacement and also a spare each.
By the power of my planning paranoia, we were now over 2 hours early for our ferry in the full heat of the day and it was a hot one. Although we were booked on the 14:00 ferry, nobody really seems to take any notice of that and at 11:53 I was handed the paper tickets for boarding and waved towards the noon ferry that was just completing loading a couple of hundred yards away.
A purposeful walk towards the boat meant that we were on board just before the loading ramp was raised behind us and a lurch told us that we were heading back towards the mainland.
The ferry was the same non-event as when we went to the island. Customer service is non-existent, it’s £4.50 each person (with bike) each way, and you are very much expected to fend for yourself, but there’s not much to sort out. We just made ourselves at home on the vehicle deck and found a few hardpoints to tie the bikes to, once again derigging the bits on the bikes that held the valuables.
As I said before, Tree, the manager at our destination hotel had organised some unspecified transport back to Surat Thani from the ferry port for us to be collected at 16:30 which would have given us a little flexibility after our scheduled 15:30 arrival. Now that we were arriving at 13:30 I didn’t really fancy the 3 hour wait in a relatively primitive ferry terminal, so I called him from the boat and told him of our new arrival time. I seem to have slipped into some Thai habits of being passively polite when asking for something and all I did here was say that our timing had changed and trust Tree to offer to see what he could do. He did exactly that and soon he confirmed that the driver was already on his way and, although he couldn’t be there to meet our 13:30 arrival time, he would be there as soon after that as he could.
We were sitting at the terminal cafe at about 14:15 when this lost looking Thai chap stepped out of a pick-up and went to the bikes that had been deliberately placed for maximum visibility with the flags sticking proudly from rear. He was flicking through his phone until he found a text that he showed us, it was all in Thai except for our names. That was as good a confirmation that we all needed that he had found the right pair of foreigners with bikes and that we had the right driver.
In the pick-up bed I was delighted to see a bike rack!!!! Brilliant stuff and, between us we loaded the bikes on there. I was anticipating having to lay the bikes down somewhere and had deliberately left the panniers on to act as cushions and protect both the mechanics and the paintwork. But now I could see a danger in the panniers bouncing off and down the road behind us like a wedding car strewing its paraphernalia.
The rear panniers and top bags came off, the front ones were ok, and they were all bundled onto the back seat of the pick-up along with Siubhan. The interior was definitely built for the oriental physique and Siubhan and I had a little to and fro of the front seat to find the compromise position where we were both tucked up with our knees pressing on the chin but neither of us had loss of blood circulation to lower limbs.
The exhaust on the truck was shagged but it gave it a sort of pseudo-V8 growl. The handling was a bit vague and the driving style was “positive”. The noise and on-the-limit vehicular control reminded me very much of the Nascar experience that I had a few years back, but much scarier. Never mind the 1000km of cycling backwaters and motorways against the traffic, this was probably the most danger that we and our bikes had been in.
But we survived and here we are, enjoying the aircon and sitting on a comfy mattress before heading out for an all you can eat Korean.