16 Dec 2007
Sukon Island
Trang, Thailand
7° 5'43.02"N 99°33'56.69"E
30°

 

Having decided to cross the border by road I thought we'd be able to get a bus, but the only transport from Penang to Thailand was by mini bus. We decided to ignore the government warnings and head for Hat Yai. I think if we'd gone onto the mainland and into Butterworth we might have been able to pick up a coach en route from KL, but it just wasn't worth the bother. I've read some horror stories about minibus travel in Asia - 12 seats/15 passengers, no air con, no suspension and other horrid tales, but we checked out a few and picked what we thought was the best. As it turned out it was good - a 10 seater with working (but not overpowering) air con and good suspension. All seats were taken, although if everyone had as much luggage as us (and we don't have a lot) I don't know where it would have gone, but most people were only going for a day or two - including 3 Malaysians who have lived in Australia for longer than us and are touring around pretty much the same as we are. Even better, we arranged for the minibus to pick us up and on arrival in Hat Yai the driver asked where we were going and dropped us off, so we got door to door transport at no extra cost. Not bad really - about 4 hours in total (with about one of those hours being taken up by toilet/duty free shop/Malay immigration/Thai immigration stops for A$8/3.50 each.

 

And we found a scam. As we were at Malaysian immigration, one of the Australian-Malays said something about his RM1 (about 34c/15p). Didn't think much of it until we got back on the bus to go to the Thai immigration point, where we noticed everyone else had a RM1 note in their passport with their arrival card. Oops - we'd changed all of our money into Thai baht, and spent the loose change we had left on chewing gum. One very kind fellow passenger offered to give us RM2, but I started to think about it and declined.What is this charge? Who makes it? Who takes it? It had scam written all over it. Nobody seemed to know why, they just knew you had to pay it. Other buses and minibuses were arriving and everybody, Malays, Thais and westerners had their passports and RM1 note (presumably because they'd been told they had to). I just handed over our passports with the arrival cards, got the stamps and away we went without comment. I have no idea how many people make that border crossing every day, and just how much cigarette money (as bribes and backhander's are commonly called all over Asia) the Thai border officials make from them. There were 11 people on our minibus including the driver. There were another half a dozen or so full minibuses there at the same time we were, as well as 4 coaches and I don't know how many cars. You couldn't even start to count the trucks and vans. You may think 34c/15p isn't a lot of money, and it isn't, but in Thailand you can get a simple fried rice or noodle meal at a food stall for 85c/38p. Two people and they've almost got a meal. Four people and they've got more enough for a big bottle of beer. Thousands of people must pass through that border every day - there were hundreds just in the time we were there - and I didn't see anyone not paying it. It will be interesting to see if the same thing happens on the way back. It would be even more interesting if we were asked for it (hehehe).

Hat Yai is where Malaysians go - just for a day or two - for cheap shopping, duty free and massage parlors (there were an awful lot of them around). We noticed almost as many Malaysian number plates on cars and buses as Thai ones, especially on the weekend. Malaysian channels were on TV, Malaysian newspapers for sale in shops and in hotel lobbies, Malaysian food everywhere you went - it was quite bizarre, almost like not being in Thailand at all. We stayed at a great hotel in the middle of town, and were there for the King's birthday celebrations. We managed to catch some of the practice the day before, but we missed out on the big day though - the afternoon parade due to physical exhaustion and the evening jollies due to alcoholic exhaustion. Looked as though it would have been quite good, even though it rained. In fact, it rained most of the time we were in Hat Yai. Every day, it would clear for an hour or two then down it came again. Not heavy rain, just enough to mean you couldn't get very far. Or take any good photo's. I'm really kicking myself that we missed the Kings' Birthday celebrations as we would have had some fantastic photo's. Blame it on those evil duty free shops.

I was disappointed in the food (again). Peter got some good feeds, but he loves the only two foods I can't eat - soup and shellfish. (I don't count melon as food. Melons are noxious weeds which, when cut, spreads its foul stench to contaminate all food and drink in its vicinity). Maybe it was because of the Malaysian influence, but the only place I could find Pad Thai (fried rice noodles, one of my favourites) was in a food court and it was a bit ordinary, as was the fried rice - it just didn't seem to have that unique Thai taste to it. The hawkers stalls, canteens and restaurants all focused on shellfish, almost all of them Chinese-Malay but a couple did have chicken or pork to substitute (most still used the ubiquitous dried shrimps for flavour though).

I had a serious run in with a woman in a Chinese canteen on the edge of the market. Peter had a bowl of soup and I asked for a glass as there was a jug of water on the table - if it's in a jug on the table, it's safe to drink and free. She said "No, no" and insisted we had 'clean' water from a bottle. That should have set the alarm bells off, but for some reason it didn't. When we got up to leave, Peter handed a note over, from which he should have gotten a lot of change and she started waving her hands for more. Not just a bit more either. I thought she was joking when she told us how much. More than double the price of a bowl of soup with a lot of seafood in it (there were only vegetables in the soup being sold), and the bottle of water was 25 baht - 5 baht everywhere else.

Peter put up a bit of an argument, but I was just too annoyed to even speak to her. Paying a bit over the odds is fair enough, but this was a joke. The water alone was 5 times the price other people are selling it for and they're still making a profit. The other people in the canteen realised what was going on and seemed surprised at the price she was trying to extract. I handed over what was a fair price told her that was all she was getting and walked out. She got the look and the vibes from me, and wasn't game to ask me for any more. Peter was really annoyed with me for putting him in the position I did - he'd eaten but I had the money and I'd walked out (expecting him to follow). If he hadn't been with me I really think I'd have walked without paying anything at all. We've been overcharged before, but this was my tipping point. 99% of food sellers are honest. An odd one might charge us $1.10 instead of $1, but who cares. The majority are so surprised and pleased that a westerner would sit down and eat at their place (we often see them telling everyone around that we're there) that we pay the same as everybody else. Of course now, because of the actions of one single person, it's going to be a while before we order something without finding out the price first because we don't want this kind of unpleasantness again. I'll put money on it she won't try it on again if another westerner happens to wander in though.

We had a day tip out to Songkhla, about an hour away on the east coast. It was only 30km which shouldn't really take an hour, but about half of the time was spent crawling around town touting for extra passengers - every seat was full before we left. Songkhla is very different from Hat Yai with a real seaside town (as opposed to seedy border town) feel. The beach looked as if it would be great in the dry season, but the sea was pretty mean the day we visited. We had gone there with the intention of checking out the hotels and to see if it was worth going to stay for a few days, but the weather put us off - it was just the wrong time of the year. Maybe on our way back through Thailand as we head for Singapore for a flight to England we'll stop off there.

One place I liked the look of was Narathiwat - as it turns out it would have been no good at this time as it's on the east coast, but Peter said no because of the troubles. Muslim insurgents have been fighting for years for an in dependant state in the south of Thailand. We very rarely get to hear about it in the west unless there is an incident with a particularly high casualty rate or when westerners are amongst the victims, but thousands of people have died here, including in Hat Yai city centre. If it weren't for the very conspicuous and heavily armed soldiers around town, you wouldn't know there was anything amiss.

It's sad really, seeing soldiers with M-16's at the ready watching people buying fruit and vegetables. Insurgents they may be, but Al-Qaeda they ain't. When we were in Bangkok last October, 22 bombs went off simultaneously in banks in Yala province - out of 22 bombs, only one person was killed (or maybe he was just seriously injured, can't remember). The day before we left Malaysia 6 people had been killed when a bomb exploded outside a roadside restaurant in Narathiwat - the reason Peter wouldn't go there. The police said they thought the explosion had been accidental. The insurgents were transporting the bomb and it had gone off unexpectedly. Note to any would be terrorists: If you want to transport a bomb, don't store it UNDER THE PETROL TANK of a motorbike then take the motorbike on a (probably bumpy) road trip.

After Hat Yai we went on to Trang. There isn't a great deal to say about the town itself, but we were there less than 24 hours and I was a bit under the weather. In the morning, we headed towards the railway station to see if we could get to Krabi, passed a travel agent and found out about Koh Sukon which seemed ideal - short boat ride, nice beaches, good accommodation. Sounded perfect, so with less than 10 minutes notice off we headed to the pier. Didn't think too much about the boat trip - and what a trip. We shared a small longboat with a few other people, a couple of life jackets, food, LP gas tanks, petrol drums and several other things I didn't really want to know about.

We've spent the last few days lazing around on the beach, walking around the island and generally doing nothing. The bungalows we are staying in are basic but great for relaxing - no TV or phone, internet a bit intermittent and queues to get on the single computer when it's working means we've caught up on reading and done a lot of nothing. The perfect antidote to a week in Hat Yai. No idea where we're heading next - tomorrow we take the early morning boat back to the mainland, on to Trang by road then maybe back to the travel agents to see what they suggest. Looks like some nice beaches about an hour up the coast from Trang, but I'm not sure if there's any accommodation.

We can't really go any further north at this stage because the Europeans have started to arrive for the Christmas holidays, which means any popular spots will be packed until the middle of January. Besides, we're already 2 weeks into our 30 day visa, so by the end of December we're going to have to head south and back into Malaysia for a couple of hours (or maybe we'll risk the boat trip to Langkawi and stay a couple of days) so that we can get a new 30 day visa stamp when we come back into Thailand (if I get organized enough, I'll apply for a 60 day visa in Malaysia so we won't be so rushed), otherwise we'll never get to Vietnam. I really wanted to be in Ho Chi Minh City for the Chinese New Year, but somehow I can't see it happening.