After two days in Kata, Thailand, Donna and I had seen enough. Our brief travel diversion to this SE Asian version of Cancun wasn’t a complete bust, but almost. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, incredibly beautiful, but even during off season it was crowded with tourists. And nothing was as cheap as we’d become accustomed to in the rest of Thailand.
We sat in our little room to escape the sweltering heat, humidity and torrential rains, and after a little research decided to leave the next day and head on over to Rai Leh. The entire reason for coming to Southern Thailand in the first place was to climb and see why every climbing publication ever printed touted it as a “must do” destination.
We’d caught a cheap flight from Bangkok to Phuket (USD $40 one way) but really hadn’t thought much about how to get across the Andaman Sea to Rai Leh until right then. Some friends back here in the US had told us a ferry was the only way to go. Fast and cheap they’d said, no worries.
We consulted our Rough Guide as to where we’d need to go the next morning to catch one of those fast and cheap ferries, which turned out to be about an hour ride in a sketchy ass Toyota Hilux pickup converted into a taxi…otherwise known as a songthaew. There were actually some decent looking ones around, ours didn’t happen to be one of them. Anyhow, the worst part was having to pay about USD $15/each, which paying that amount for just about anything in Thailand is bordering on absurd in our opinion. The driver was nice (as always) so we kind of blew it off.
We got to the ferry station and stood in the queue to buy tickets with a pretty large group of rude tourists, almost all who were heading out for tours to some of the more popular islands. The large pushy group dynamic didn’t agree with us much, but this was the means for us to get somewhere else, so we endured. Once we got to the window to purchase our tickets, the plan made an abrupt change. It seems they wanted USD $125 for the 2.0 hour ride via jet catamaran!
Whaaaaaat? We immediately stepped out of line and hit the reset button. Where was that fast and cheap part? We scoured the fare board posted on the wall and sure enough, regardless of what ferry line we took, it was going to be pricey. We then sat, dug out our Rough Guide and initiated Plan B which could be found under the title, “Other Modes of Transportation”.
We quickly discovered there was the option to take a local bus, our normal option if available anywhere we travel, but that would take roughly 4-7 hours (yes, a nice tight schedule) and could be “an experience” as the the book described it. The bus depot was a short tuk-tuk ride away so we threw our backpacks in and went to check it out.
The first thing I noticed was there were only about three Thai people in the entire depot and not one sign posting the fares to various towns and villages was written in English. The lettering was beautiful for sure, but pretty useless to us. Undeterred as always, we approached the ticketing window and told the attendant of our desire to get to at least Krabi or Ao Nang. From there we’d have to figure out other modes of transport, but that appeared as close as the bus would get us. From there we’d just figure it out.
For the three minutes prior to approaching the attendant, I practiced how to ask for a ticket in the native Thai dialect. In the three seconds following that attempt, I knew I had horrifically failed to execute the request as the stunned attendant blankly stared at me as if I’d suddenly grown a third eye. New plan, get out the map and just point.
The attendant smiled, said “yes, yes!” and immediately started scribbling letters on a little blue sheet of paper as I clumsily sifted through my wad of baht to pay for the ticket. All of a sudden, we looked and noticed our bags were not there! Oh sh#$%!! Then Donna saw a guy loading them on a bus. She ran out to make sure they didn’t drive away without us, while I anxiously finished the transaction.
Armed with two pieces of blue paper, I ran out of the terminal to Donna to make sure everything was okay. Fortunately our bags were on the right bus! Whew. The bus she was standing by was painted with so many bright colours it was close to giving me a seizure, which sort of help take the edge off my anxiety about the bags.
The same guy who had loaded our bags turned out to be the boarding attendant, bag handler, chef du cuisine at the nearby pad thai cart, station petrol pumper, the bus’s guest services ambassador and yes, our driver. We were still reeling a bit from the thought of our two backpacks going on a potential walkabout until he smiled, bowed, vigourously shook our hands and welcomed us onto the kaleidoscope that was his bus.
“Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes…prease on”, directing us to get on.
So awesome. We knew right then we’d made the right choice.
There were three things we noticed upon boarding. First was the fact that we were the only Westerners aboard, perfect. Two, the advertised “luxury air conditioned service” consisted of what could be described as an ancient GE Window Unit sticking out of the rear section of the bus. Given the oppressive heat and humidity of Thailand, this was a concerning development. And third, and most importantly, was the circa 1960s television precariously mounted above the driver’s head blasting a Thai music video at a volume level equivalent to a jumbo jet. Nevertheless, the tightly schedule 4-7 hour bus ride to Krabi cost us USD $6 total and it had the all the markings of a good adventure, so we were in it for the duration.
Before the bus pulled away, Donna asked if I’d looked at a map to see what route we’d be taking. Uh, no. I think between the confusion of actually purchasing the tickets and the gut wrenching episode of turning around and seeing our bags not there, I really hadn’t had a chance to further flex my brilliant command of the language and inquire. I then dug our well worn map out and began looking.
From the recognizable towns listed on our ticket, I traced our route on the map along a long, thin red line which had no more than 1mm distance of straight lines for the entire distance. Our reaction to that was that air conditioner better work or it could make for a very long, very queasy day.
Thankfully the air conditioner thing kind of worked, kind of. The video we discovered, was an old VHS tape on “loop mode” so we had the pleasure of hearing one song, at those jumbo jet level decibels, repeat every 6-8 minutes…for six hours. We also discovered there was an official ticket taker on the bus. This was probably the most curious thing of our entire travels in Thailand. When the bus initially pulled out, he walked through and inspected everyone’s ticket, some people paying him right then, which seemed odd because we had to go through the ticketing attendant, but nothing out of the ordinary really. Then, inexplicably between stops, he would randomly walk through and inspect everyone’s ticket again. I can understand after we’d stopped to pick up or drop off passengers, but no, this happened randomly between stops for the entire trip, sometimes two or three times between stops. This was his job and he was obviously quite proud of it. Bravo him!
True to the squiggly lines depicted on the map, the road never straightened out for more than a quarter of mile. That fact didn’t seem to register with the driver because I can’t really recall him ever hitting the brakes other than at bus stops, both the designated ones and random ones. The bus would lean so much at times going around corners the windows beside us would form gaps around their perimeter from the twisting of the fuselage, and I’m not even kidding.
The air horns, all of them, worked beautifully. Any pedestrian within 100 meters of the road would receive the full, eight horn fury of the Kaleidoscope bus. And every time he would pull the string to blast some poor farmer back into his field, I would almost jump out of my skin. Judging by the driver’s frequent glances in our direction via his mirror, I began to think he was trying to impress us with his driving skills. We couldn’t decide whether he was the crappiest driver on the face of the earth, or the best. Whatever it was, he was at least confident and always had a smile.
We made lots of stops along the way, sometimes in amazingly picturesque villages. The way the local scheduling seemed to work is the driver would lay down on the horn as he approached the villages and people would know that “it’s time”. Anarchy would always ensue as soon as the bus would stop. People would simultaneously get on and off the bus amongst pure and unfiltered, mass chaos. Then, once the people getting off were off and the people getting on were on, we’d sit for a half hour…with the air conditioner turned off. However, that was 100% okay with us because in each village, a vendor would get on the bus and sell little cups of sorbet! It was like pure heaven in a cup! I think we became legends because we’d buy three or four each at every stop! For less than USD $0.05, it was the deal of the day! That’s the Thailand we were accustomed to, not what we’d just left in Phuket.
After a full day of travel, dozens of ticket “verifications”, about a gallon of lychee sorbet (each) and no less than 400 loops of that mind numbing Thai pop music video, we finally pulled into the Krabi bus terminal. It was a collection of dilapidated buildings complete with a food cart serving pad thai, a 1970s vintage soda box and an adjoining field full of other Kaleidoscope bus carcasses. We both had to laugh when we looked up and saw a sign on the side of a building, written in English, which read DON’T PANIC. That made us both laugh out loud. Obviously others without a good sense of humour and sense of adventure had passed this way before.
Once we got off the bus we were welcomed by the customary wave of tuk-tuk, songthaew and taxi drivers wanting to take us to our next destination. “Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes, I take you!” was the coined phrase even though they had no idea where we wanted to go.
From our research during the NASCAR worthy bus ride, we had concluded we needed to somehow get to “the pier”. That was it, that’s all the info we had…“the pier”. We knew that was the way things worked so we sorted through the phalanx of drivers, made our selection based on nothing in particular and confidently requested, “the pier”.
“Sawatdee kha! Yes, yes, I take you pier, 40 baht! Korp kun kha”. (40 baht was about a $1 at the time)
And with that we got in a nice young guy’s rickety little taxi, along with his daughter and I assume his dog, and pulled onto yet another thin red line.
Forty five minutes later we arrived at “the pier” just as he promised. We knew this because there was a sign that read, “The Pier”. Another 45 minute in a longtail boat and we found ourselves in Rai Leh, with very few other people, a cold Singha beer in hand, sitting on one of the prettiest beaches on the planet.
Travel on a thin red line…I say $6 well spent.
Oh, the climbing? Yeah, “must do”.