Fieldtrip through Southeast Asia :: Part 2 - Krabi (New Years!) and Hat Yai
Hello! And welcome to Part 2 of our adventures through Thailand and Malaysia! Sorry about the two week month delay (I'm busy!) but I believe when we last left, me and Rob had just finished up 3 days in Bangkok (Wat Po! Muay Thai! Snake Farm! - recap here) - and we were on our way to Railay in Southern Thailand for New Years. So, ready for Part 2?
[recap from part 1] :: So remember, the "zero itinerary" part of this story? Our only plans were to have a rad New Years and then somehow make it back to Bangkok for our flight to Kuala Lumpur on the 2nd? Well, we currently have a one-way flight to the beautiful beaches of Krabi (ha!) and currently no way of getting back to Bangkok. While at the airport, we chatted up some travel agent folk in search of flights back... nothing from Krabi (etc) to Bangkok till at least January 3rd. Which leaves us with a few sketchy options: (a) try to find a 10 hour train ride back to Bangkok, (b) try to find a 15 hour bus / pickup truck ride back or (c) find someway to skip the flight and cross over into Malaysia by heading through the dodgy areas of southern Thailand (click it!).
Ah, we'll figure all that out later! We've got Krabi-time to look forward to!
Soooo we caught our 7pm flight from Bangkok -> Krabi. Last two open seats on the plane means we get to sit in the last row (aka the seats that don't recline). As an added bonus, I got to sit next to The Huge Guy. Upon landing, we took a quick cab ride to downtown Krabi (aka "Krabi Town" according to Lt. Rob).
Though the magic of The Book (Lonely Planet Thailand, remember?) we booked a room ahead of time at the awesome-sounding KL Mansion. Rolled in around 10pm or so..
... checked into our not-so-awesome hotel room (eh, but $10 US/night).
I don't so much heart these combo toilet + shower rooms. Ah, the sweet luxury of Krabi Town. Combo bathroom + shower: bathroom is wet and dirty when you want to pee, shower feels dirty cause you just pooped in the same 3x3 space.
Now remember, we kind of came to Krabi on a whim. We were looking for some New Years plans, couldn't book any plane tickets to any of the "destination" islands and when the travel agent was like, "I can get you to Krabi" we said "Sure!" having no idea what we were getting ourselves into (in fact, the only reason Krabi sounded familiar at all was because Marc.J put it on his "Hey go here and check it out" list - I think as a rock climbing destination?).
Anyway, we rolled in expecting lush beaches and a bunch of tourists hanging around getting all fired up for New Years... instead we found a pretty dumpy port town, no beaches in sight, no tourists anywhere. This place was dead.
Well, except for this carnival going on literally across the street from our hotel. Krabi seems pretty tiny - maybe a 10 min walk from our hotel (which looked like it may be on the outskirts) to the other side of town. We took a lap around to get our bearings (er, try to find a beach) and when we came up empty, hit up the carnival (sketchy rides, people selling chocolate-covered bugs, some pop-the-balloon game, and a lots of vendors selling everything from camo shirts of tube socks to videos of people on superbikes doing tricks - rad!)
Back to the lap of the town - we found this "Pancake Sunny Merry Christmas!" magazine in the local 7-11, grabbed dinner at the American-looking Thai place on the corner (what else would you call it? Hottest curry I've ever had), had a few drinks at the rooftop bar (recommended, btw - shout out to our boy Galapagos) and called it a night.
Next morning: still with no New Years plans, we figured we'd roll out of bed, head down to the port, hire up a longboat and head to Ko Phi Phi (what was sounding like the best of the New Years spots - pronounced "pee-pee", btw) and then just roll the dice with finding a place to stay ("worse comes to worst, we'll sleep on the beach!"). However, we still had this trip from Krabi -> KL looming us over us - especially the part where we needed to find someway to make it over the border.
We hit up breakfast at our favorite neighborhood American-looking Thai place and instead of just jumping on a boat to Phi Phi, decided to play the Responsible Adult card and instead went to visit the travel agent across the street in hopes of plotting our way out of Krabi for after New Years.
The friendly Krabi travel agent = Rose (Rob has a photo of her - send it!) and despite the buckets of options for Krabi Town visitors (see blackboard), Rose was able to confirm that there was *no way* we were getting back to Bangkok for our flight to KL - not on the 2nd, not on the 3rd, possibly on the 4th (too late!). No planes, trains, no busses. The *only* way to Malaysia is to trek south over the Thai / Malaysia border - which from what we've been reading online (eek) and hearing from fellow travelers (Galapagos: "You're doing what???") is pretty sketchy.
After about 1000 phone calls, Rose comes back to us with a possible option - catch a 7am van on Jan 2nd and drive five hours from Krabi -> Hat Yai. Then catch a 17 hour overnight train from Hat Yai -> over the Thai/Malaysia border -> Kuala Lumpur. There are two seats left on that van... do we want them?
Now Krabi is safe. Port town - the gateway to the beaches of southern Thailand. Hat Yai, on the other hand, is a little sketchier. It's pretty well known that the four provinces in SE Thailand are dodgy thanks to Thai nationalists fighting with Muslim extremists - it's not a Thai / Malaysian thing, more of a Thai vs Thai kind of deal.
"Four years after it began, a Muslim insurgency continues to plague Thailand's southern provinces where little progress has been made to curb the violence. It hasn't affected the resort areas on the Andaman Coast or the Gulf of Thailand, but creates risks for overland travel in Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla provinces, including the town of Hat Yai." [Chicago Tribune]
We did our homework beforehand, knowing that Hat Yai is on the outskirts of where the violence has been (and by "violence" I mean "bombings") - probably about 3-4 hours away. Rob and I checked and double-checked and triple-checked that the train Rose was trying to book us on - after stopping in Hat Yai - would then cross the border on the *western* side of Thailand and not the eastern, bomb-city side of things. Rose assured us. And with no other post-New Years options out of Krabi, we booked those tickets (1380 B = $43 US). Oof.
What's next? Well, we still need New Year's plans. So we got Rose on the horn again calling to a bunch of different islands (Ko Phi Phi included) and - no real surprise here - everything is booked (she gave us the same "You idiots, you can't just come here New Years eve and book a hotel!" look that the travel agent in Bangkok gave us).
After about 15 mins of Rose dialing around, she tells us that she has a friend on Railay with a room for us. She warned us ahead of time - the place *just opened* and is kind of hard to find, but she gave us her friend's mobile number and a little hand-drawn map so we could find the place.
So, about an hour after our Thai breakfast, we left with a half-baked plan to get to Kuala Lumpur *and* a place to crash on New Years Success! It's gotta be about 11:30a now, the next boat is supposed to be at noon, we run back to KL Mansion...
... spot this Hot Ride on the way back (I think this may have been the Mayor's car - stands out like a sore thumb in the land of 8000 scooters)...
... hit up the ATM ("I've got a million in the bank and it's all mine, a third of it invested in salt mines" - Shep will get it), drop another $10 US dollars at Hotel KL to keep our place for the next two nights (just. in. case.), packed a day pack (er, leaving everything else in the room) and headed down to the dock!
Again, Krabi = port town. It's a half-day stop for most people as they make their way to the beaches. The port is docked with a dozen or so longtail boats which shuttle people back and forth to the different islands - 30 mins to Krabi (100 B = $3 US), maybe 2 hrs to Phi Phi (do they take the same boats?).
There's no set schedule - they leave whenever either (a) 10 people show up for a ride or (b) the 6 people who are waiting throw in another few Baht each to make up for the missing passengers. We opted for the latter with our new friends.
Boat ride = kind of awesome. Once you pull away from the port, you start zooming by the nearby islands, rock formations just growing out of nowhere. Kind of beautiful.
Me + The LT, crushing dreams. Note cute girls in the back. Meow!
And after about 30 mins we roll into the eastern bay of Railay. Railay is a peninsula (not an island - still connected to the mainland). Bay on the east, ocean on the west. West side is all developed up... the east side looked as if it was still run down by the tsunami (it wasn't - it's just in the process of being developed). BTW, Phi Phi (2 hrs out) and the surrounding islands were *leveled* by the tsunami.
The boat pulls in as close as it can - the remaining 20 feet you're wading through the water. Now, to the hotel! Rose marked an "X" on one of the touristy maps she gave us - "go all the way to the end. Find a place called Last Bar..." (last bar on the island, get it?) "... and then keep walking". Um okay.
So we're walking. Past the framing of new hotels and freshly poured concrete foundations.... we finally hit Last Bar (literally the last thing on the island). Looks like a dead end to the two of us ("Rose f'ed us!")... before we decide to walk through the kitchen...
... and then out through the back...
... down this shifty path, down past Last Bar's trash pile and their generator...
... and then along this abandoned beach...
... and around this corner...
... and then past this collection of sandbags and some local kid on a rope swing...
... before it opens up into the Railay Garden View Resort! Ha - who would have thought. We hike these wooden steps all the way to the top...
... and there's this *brand new* bungalow resort. How brand new? They opened the day after Christmas and we are literally the first people ever to stay at the resort! Hahahahah - how awesome is that?
Now, you can't blame us for being a little weary of the travel arrangements Rose hooked us up with - Does this resort even exist? Does this train from Hat Yai exist? Are we sure it goes over the western border? But, after seeing this place that Rose hooked us up with for New Years, all the weariness was gone and we could relax a little. Ha. So, if you make to to Krabi, look her up!
Rose @ Siam Srithong Travel
So we check in, they give us a free glass of that delicious mango juice, we drop our stuff off (by the way, when I say "new' I mean: beds that have never been slept in, towels that have never been used... there was still shrink wrap on all the light switches!). What's next? TO THE BEACH!
We had to backtrack out the same way we came in - Hello little kid on a rope swing! Hello generator! Hello piles of trash! Past where the boat dropped us off and then through the *luxury* part of the island. Fancy pools, swim up bars, air conditioning!
And then the beach opens up like this... (to our right)
... and this...
... (to our left). Maybe the most beautiful beach I've ever been on. You can swim out as far as you want and you can still *just* touch the bottom. Sand was super nice and it wasn't super crowded. We crashed for like 2 hours.
Oh, by the way, here's a postcard I send my mom + dad. These two pics above were taken on the beach that looks like a backwards-C on the top middle of the postcard. See the "X" on the other side of the island - the one, er, in the woods? - that's our hotel. That beach on the bottom (looks like a checkmark?) is supposed to be awesome - though we were never able to find the secret path that leads there.
By the way, we only lasted two hours because it started *pouring*. We sprinted back to the little village in between the two islands and ordered up some little pancake-toothpick-snacks (pancakes + nutella = blew my mind). Check out the runoff.
When the rain let up, we headed back to our romantic bungalow retreat and crashed. For like four hours. Remember, it's New Years Eve (yeah!) and here we're here in Railay (yeah!) and we have absolutely noting to do... TO THE BEACH!
First up = dinner. We ordered up the fresh seafood skewers - shrimps, scallops and the like - and some meat kebobs. And some curry. All for like $10 US. A lot of the resorts on Railay are run by Muslims which means no alcohol for sale - no worries as every place plays by the BYOB rules (and 40oz Tiger beers were never further than 10 steps away).
The restaurant was right on the beach (part of some hotel that was fancier than ours). As we were eating, we could see all these lights floating in the sky - I initially figured they were bonfires in the distance - maybe torches on a cliff nearby? - before realizing that there was, um, nothing in front of us. The whole Mystery Light thing was bugging us for a good hour before we figured out that they were *mini hot air balloons* that locals and tourists would float up for good luck (and esp after the restaurants were giving them out with dinner). Check it out...
... here's a little How-To in case you want to try this at home. Lantern is made of paper. There's some thin wire holding the structure in place and the heat source is this super-dense cardboard wheel (think: wheel of cheese). Light those suckers on fire and soon enough the sky looks like this...
... kind of amazing, eh?
And even cooler in video! Kind of. If the video was longer and better lit. Shut it!
After dinner we just explored around the island - there's not too much going on in terms of clubs (a good thing) - there's no real Full Moon Party on Railay. You know that sketchy stretch from where the longboat let us off and the Last Bar? That whole stretch is filled with mini bars / dance parties and the Lt. and I set off to hit every one.
Met some Brits and Aussies on the way, settled in at this place called The Rock (?), slayed these backpackers in Genja Jenga.
May have drunkenly gloated about it a bit? Lit some sparklers? (To be honest, we were pretty crunked up by this point)
Just before midnight we headed back to the beach which was packed with people sending off lanterns and lighting off fireworks. Pretty rad with the firework explosions lighting up the rock formations and all.
Here's 12:01am. Hey 2008!
And some fireworks.
This looks a little more, er, apocalyptic that it really was.
The rest of the night was a little bit of a blur - hopping from place to place to place. I eventually had to call it quits around 4am (and somehow made it back to sketchy bungalow city sans flashlight). Rob was up till around 6am (?) chatting it up with the Aussie's who were rolling 10-more-beers-before-last-call style.
Next morning. Checkout is probably around noon - but we're the first guests ever, so f' it, we'll check out whenever we damn well please! Woke up at 2pm. On the beach by 2:30.
Here's RM trying to reconstruct the evening.
Dear hotel, sorry we lost your flashlight. xo, dps
Look them up if you ever head to Railay. Even if just for the freebee mango juice. (not in the guidebooks yet, so chances are they'll always have rooms)
Wait, is that is for pics from Railay? We spent the day chilling on the beach (kind of overcast), skipped the last boat home and instead chartered our own private longboat for the ride back to Krabi (1000 B = $30 US / 2 = $15 each!).
We got back to Krabi around 7p. Showered up, got some dinner at the Italian place on the main drag (Bolero, 075-611105 - Best. Coke. Ever. btw) and packed our bags for the trek into Malaysia in the morning.
I can't tell you how sketched out were were over this next leg of the trip. Flipping through The Book offers some subtle encouragement...
... but who knows when this book was published - last summer? - and how much sketchier things have gotten since then.
We had the chance to catch up on email back at KR Mansion - I did the responsible thing and sent J my itinerary just in case anything happened. He quickly forwarded me back a link to some of the violence that went down *last night*. Ugh.
Two bombings on New Year's Eve...
+ Suspected Muslim insurgents wound 27 in southern Thailand bomb blasts link]
... now remember, we're not going through Sungai Kolok (or really anywhere close), but we are we're traveling through Hat Yai (about four hours away, though still considered part of the sketchy area).
(A) = Hat Yai.
(B) = New Years bombings / Sungai Kolok
... Krabi is just to the right of that second red dot from the right, btw.
I didn't sleep at all that night. Maybe 2 hours tops. I ended up finally getting up around 5am and watching the sunrise from the roof.
Dawn. I've never seen the sunrise come up so quick. Bus picked us up at 7am.
Right around 7, this luxury mini bus picks us up. There's like 2 other people in the bus, some TVs in the back and Rob and I are thinking, "Hey this isn't going to be so bad."
Turn out our lucky luxury bus was simply the "pick-up bus" and ended dropping us off about 15 mins outside of town at some random garage...
... that had this cool kind-of-pimped jeep hanging out...
... and where we switched from mini bus -> mini van. Rob and I got the westerner seats - way in the back of the van. After about 20 mins of picking people up ("we're fitting *more* people in here???"), I did a quick headcount - 16 people for 16 seats - just as we stopped to pick up on more person. The driver gave me and Rob the "push over!" look. I shot him back my best "there's no fucking way you're cramming five people in the back seat of this bus" look. And luckily passenger #17 got crammed up in the front with the Korean girls. Whew.
This shot, btw? What the four hour ride from Krabi -> Hat Yai looks like. Lots of trees planted in rows (planted + harvested for tea tree oil - used to fry up everything - we later learned).
We stopped at a rest area about 3 hours in. I got some more curry.
Oh, how could I forget to mention this awesome personal ad we found in the back of a magazine someone left on the bus. Nothing says "hey laaaaadddddeeeeeeezzzzzz" like a dude wielding a sword.
Four hours later... welcome to beautiful downtown Hat Yai!
It's just after noon and we've got two hours to kill before our *17 hour* train departs. (17 hours!)
Hat Yai = didn't really seem as sketchy as we figured it would be. And it's hard not to look like a tourist with a hoodie and a huge backpack, so we figured we'd play it cool and find a place to crash for a few hours.
This chinese food place will do. I had the curry.
The staff was super nice - letting us camp out, read the paper and watch CNN with them (everyone loves Americans after the obligatory + awkward 5 minute "aw, we didn't vote for Bush - he's the worst!" intro).
By the way, see all the framed items on the walls? Currency from all over the world. They had an old-style $5 bill from the US...
... so Rob and I left behind a souvenir (which is worth about 2x what we paid for lunch). Not sure if they'll frame it or cash it (ha!), but if you ever make it to Hat Yai, look for us on the wall of fame.
Daothiam (since 1959!)
79/3 Thammanoonvithi Rd
Hat Yai, Songkhla
Chinese place = about a 4-block straight-shot walk out of the train station. It's kind of kitty-corner across the street from the "Bowling Alley!" sign (oh man, we were so excited to go bowling in Hat Yai - turns out they only sell bowling shirts. Wah!). Anyway, 4-5 blocks outside the train station and right past.... THE MALL!
Why not? What can be safer than a 6 story semi-kind-of mega mall?
In the kids department I found this awesome bag that I wish wish wish I bought. I saw a similar one back at the carnival in Krabi except it said...
... DORA THE CAT LIKE ROBOT! Ha! They had the same thing here - buuutttt this was for tiny little kids (and not Size M American Apparel wearing kids - wah!).
Cat like Robot! So awesome.
Oh, and the toy department also had these TOMY Zoids - which I used to have as a wee lad. I hadn't thought about these things in 20+ years until J and I had a conversation about them a week before I left for Thailand (where I could not for the life of me remember what they were called)... and then I run into the exact obscure thing I was thinking about on the other side of the world. Random.
Okay, is it time to get out of here yet? 2pm train from Hat Yai, over the border (gulp), into Malaysia and, with any luck, onto Kuala Lumpur.
If you look real close you can see a woman balancing a plate of food on her head - she's going to train car to train car selling chicken wings. People grab some chicken and drop coins onto the plate. Ah, I'm fine with this Kit Kat, thank you.
The train wasn't exactly the Acela Express we were dreaming of. Instead it was the rickety old subway car filled with bunk beds (er, and this was the more pricey, first-class car). You can't help but feel a little Indiana Jones while waiting on the platform.
(By the way, trains are notoriously slow in this part of the country - there's no Shanghai mag-lev speeding through the jungles of Malaysia. It's actually faster to drive (bus) to most places. We gambled on the fact that a sleep-away train would be more comfortable than a coach bus for an overnight trip.)
Annnnd our home for the the next 17 hours. Basically bunk beds, but you can flip the beds up to make two seats that face each other.
... which is what we did most of the way. I treated myself to some iPod time. Rob logged a bunch of quality Super Mario Kart time. Here's our train ticket.
About 6 hours in (??) the guards storm the train and kick everyone off so we can go through immigration at the Thailand / Malaysia border. No photos allowed, but I had to sneak one of this sign - sucks that it's so blurry:
By virtue of section 16 of the immigration act, the Minister of Interior issues the following order to identify an alien with "hippy" characteristics...
Sorry, no hippies I guess.
Immigration was painless. In fact, the whole "get over the border safely" thing was kind of a breeze (though remember, we crossed on western Thailand where it's much safer - we were a good 4+ hours from the sketchy parts).
When we got back on the train, we got all Transformer and switched our seats from face-to-face to sleepy time mode. I passed out like 3 minutes later...
... and woke up maybe five hours later as we were about 20 mins outside of Butterworth, Malaysia. From The Book (by the way, we've now switched to Lonely Planet Malaysia), we knew that Butterworth was another port town right outside the Chinese island province of Penang (NW Malaysia, btw) and looked like an interesting place to check out.
I woke up feeling gross. The train beds were nasty and there was a roach trap under my seat (I just shivered as I remembered that). I woke up Rob and we decided to pull a Malaysian Audible - jumping off the sketch train, catching the ferry to Penang and crashing there for the night. ("it's our reward for making it out of sketchy sketch Hat Yai!")
Fresh from our luck finding our way from Krabi -> Malaysia, the gamble this time was that we'd be able to find some kind of reasonable transport from Butterworth to Kuala Kumpor the next day. Whatever, we'll worry about that tomorrow - for now, TO THE FERRY! (about a 15 minute ride)
We roll into Penang (city is actually called Georgetown) around 9:30p - walk the mile to what The Book says is the center of town and we luck out grabbing a room on the 11th floor of some hotel with a booming discotheque downstairs (we could feel the bass 11th floors up).
We showered up real quick, got sucked into some Malaysia teen drama TV show (scripted) about a bunch of kids who are on a reality show and trying to make it through Malaysia version of American Idol (very meta, btw), and headed out.
Hmm... no pics from this part of the night, but we made some laps looking for some authentic food and eventually ended up eating at some rowdy pub (maybe my only regret of the whole two week trip - we were so good about not eating shit American touristy food up until this crap ass dinner).
Also of note, Penang = port town = the lucky night we rolled in some US Navy ship had the same idea. The part of town were were in was blanketed in 19 year old Navy kids shopping for drinks and hookers. Nasty. Rob's stoopid looking beard and my "hippie" haircut were the only thing from keeping us (the two other westerners on the island) from blending in.
Two drinks and a crappy meal and we were done. In bed by 1am. A little trivia for you: Malaysia is the only place I've been so far where taxi is not spelled "taxi" - TEKSI!
10:30am and we're awake, showered and ready to explore The Book in hand (actually, I like to rip out the pages and just carry them around rather than carry the whole book - just thought I'd share that).
We figured we'd catch an early afternoon bus out of Penang so we could get to KL around dinner time. We opted for the Lonely Planet walking tour (kind of) to kill three hours time. First stop: Fort Cornwallis (Georgetown = old British colony, btw). We climbed the lighthouse...
... checked out the cannons used to defend the fort (cannons = huge, btw). Rob gave me a little lesson in Naval Battle Techniques (block off the channel, make enemy boats filter through a small opening and then train all your cannons on that spot). This canon = built, stolen, reclaimed 3x over (pirates had it at one point! Argh.)
ps: digicam timer = best invention ever!
Meanwhile, I gave Rob a lesson in huge horse dicks. Actually these are ponies. That one on the left was hung well past his knee. I can't believe I snapped this stupid pic only to find out later that the horse's own leg is obscuring some awesome pony pornography.
Rob, don't stare.
I stopped in at my high school reunion... (btw, Hasselback, Shep and Conte all say hi)
... just as we walked past this under-construction memorial to Babe Ruth's career with the Red Sox??? (either that or maybe WWI?)
Mind you all of this was just killing time until the all-you-can-eat brunch at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the E&O) opened up. I'm going to butcher the history of this place (oldest hotel in Eastern Asia?), but The Book recommended it's buffet and who are we to turn down advice on an all you can eat buffet?
Are you ready for this? I really should have taken pics of everything we ate (maybe 3 plates worth of all-you-can-eat). This is arguable the fanciest restaurant I've ever been in, in the fanciest hotel I've ever been in... and I literally ate a spoonful of everything the buffet had to offer (sans salad - aka worthless filler!) for, what?, 120 RM ($37 US.. a fortune in terms of the rest of our travel costs).
ps: RM = Ringgit = Malaysia currency.
And the "after" pic. This could be after plate 2? Plate 3? Who knows... all I know is that I took the biggest dump in the nicest bathroom in all of Southeastern Asia and then went back for ice cream. (sorry, but it had to be said!)
And with that, let's get out of here. We grabbed our bags from the hotel, stopped at a SIM card store (SIMs don't work from country to country, btw - lame!), and hustled our way to the train station. We caught the shuttle to the station with no more than 30 seconds to spare (Rob, how lucky was that?!!?) and scored the last two seats on the bus.
(Fun at the SIM card store: Rob chatting up the guy behind the desk about tsunami damage. And the guy showing Rob all these pictures of towns that were completely leveled except for the mosques that were still standing - "it's a miracle!". And then Rob plainly explaining that there's no miracle behind things made of wood being wiped out while things made of stone, er, mosques, were left standing. Maybe you just had to be there.)
Anyway, we scored the front two seats. Man, they don't f' around with the buses out here - they are *luxury*. Like flying first class (except without the steak and mini bottles of red wine).
The bus ride to KL (5 hours) looked a lot like the van ride to Hat Yai. I spent some QT with Cooking Mama for the DS. Rob snuggled up with Dr. Tyson.
Half asleep - what better way to wake up to the Kuala Lumpur skyline than with a little YOU'RE IN THE JUNGLE NOW BABY!