Before I arrived in Asia, I had a hard time conceptualizing how complex it would be to get from place to place. In all of my excitement about cities and sightseeing, I totally forgot about the whole planes, trains, and automobiles thing. I sort of assumed it’d just happen and I’d find myself in my next destination.
Singapore and Malaysia were easy. The buses out of Singapore and throughout Malaysia are comfortable, fairly quick, and run regularly. They are easy to book with or without the help of travel agents, the roads are smooth and direct, and there’s no need to do complex taxi-bus-boat-taxi-bus combos to get from place to place. So I had it good for the first few weeks of my trip.
Then I arrived in Thailand.
To get into Thailand and to Krabi, my eventual destination, from Langkawi, I had to take a taxi to the pier and a speedboat to the mainland, pass through immigration, book a taxi/bus combo to Krabi, and hop in a tuk tuk to my hostel. Other than my flight from NYC, it was the longest travel day I’d experienced, and I was pretty tired by the end.
A week later, I had to move from Koh Yao Noi, a west coast island, to Koh Tao, an east coast island. You might look at a map and think that Thailand isn’t that wide in its southern section, and you’d be right, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to go from a island on one side to an island on the other.
My day started with a longtail (slow) boat from the pier Koh Yao Noi to one of several piers in Krabi.
Once at the pier, a few other folks from my boat needed to get to the bus station in Krabi Town, about 20K away. The Internet told us there’d be buses running between the two, but there weren’t, so instead we jumped in the back of a pick-up truck and hitched a ride. At the halfway point we switched vehicles to a rickety open-air bus.
Once at the bus station, we grabbed tickets for the cross-country trip to Suratthani, one of the jumping-off points for Koh Samui, Koh Phangnan, and Koh Tao. Thai buses are…special.
It’s possible in some places to get express buses or private minibuses (expensive, sometimes a scam, not recommended), but the government buses are slow and make a lot of stops on the side of the road to pick up and drop off more passengers than there are seats. It’s unclear to me if it’s a set route or if you can just hail the bus, but either way it’s not the same as the lovely, comfortable, direct A/C buses in Malaysia.
Once in Suratthani, I joined with another girl who was headed to Koh Tao, and we made our way to the pier for the night boat. There are more frequent boats to the island from the northern city of Chumporn (we’ll get there in a few minutes), but from Suratthani the options are limited one fast day boat and the slower overnight ferry.
I’d read about the ferry and knew that it was a must-do if only for the potential for great stories afterward. It’s an old boat that has mattresses laid out on the floor of the top level, and you cozy up with your neighbors for the seven-ish hour ride, during which you may or may not sleep.
It was mainly backpackers and Thais, and it was awesome. In fact, I’d do it again. Our boat wasn’t full, so we were able to spread out, which was good as I’m pretty small and would have been cramped had we been one to a bed. A bunch of people got off the next morning and reported that they hadn’t slept, but I was out almost as soon as we started moving and slept soundly for most of the night. Maybe it was the rocking (which at times felt like capsizing).
So the night boat leaves at 11 pm and arrives around 6:30-7 the following morning. Boats to Koh Samui and Koh Phagnan leave the pier around the same time. You have to buy tickets at the pier — I don’t know if they’re sold ahead of time if you book a package — and you’re assigned a bed number in the order in which you arrive. It’s fun, actually, to hang out there while you’re waiting — there’s a night market and a ton of backpackers and it’s a great way to meet people you might hang out with while you’re on the islands. I passed the time drinking raki with three Turkish dudes and a German girl.
So that adventure got me to Koh Tao. Four days later, I had to get off and somehow make it all the way up the coast to Bangkok and into Cambodia and then to Siem Reap. This is a long, LONG way.
It started with an early afternoon catamaran (fast) boat off the island to the not-much-to-look-at town of Chumporn. If you’re trying to get to the islands from the north of Thailand or Phuket, this is probably where you’d start. Because fast boats and train tickets are very difficult to book yourself, I used a travel agency on the island to do it for me. After I got off the boat, we (most of the passengers) were transferred via minivan to the train station. There were five trains leaving throughout the evening and into the night. Mine was the earliest scheduled for 7:30 pm, but as is common in Thailand, the train arrived more than an hour late.
I booked a second-class fan berth because it was the cheapest option that still offered a bed. There are first-class cabins and second-class A/C berths and third-class seats as well. I’d heard that the A/C cabins are freezing, so generally it’s just fine to do fans, even when it’s hot outside. This is totally true, don’t waste money on A/C unless you’re traveling in April/May when the heat is unbearable.
Like the night ferry, the overnight train is an experience. You cannot (truly) do Thailand without riding it at least once. The upper berths are slightly smaller and don’t have windows, but they’re closer to the fans and cheaper. Mattresses, sheets, and curtains are provided, and you stow your bag on an adjacent shelf and tuck in for the night. It’s not easy to sleep because the bright lights remain on and vendors get on and off at every stop with food and beverages, but like with the ferry, I was able to pass out for a few hours thanks to the rocking of the train.
We were scheduled to arrive in Bangkok around 5:15, but thanks to our delay we pulled in closer to 6:30. As a result, I missed the morning train to Aranyaprathet, the town on the Thai side of the Cambodian border. I was really looking forward to the train because it’s supposed to be beautiful countryside, the tickets are dirt cheap, and it would have been easy to just hop from one car to the next right there at the station.
Instead, I found a group of Aussies who were also heading to Siem Reap, and we shared taxis from the train station to Bangkok’s Morchit terminal, where buses leave for the border at regular intervals. The ride is slow and long (maybe 5 hours?) but not too uncomfortable. Once at the border, we had to stamp out of Thailand, obtain visas for Cambodia, and walk through Cambodian immigration, all of which took a few hours thanks to the lines. The border towns are really awful, and it’s to your advantage to arrive early so you don’t get stuck in them without a ride out to Siem Reap.
At this point, I’d been traveling for 27 hours and was a little bit over it. We had to jump on a crowded but free shuttle to the Poipet bus station, where the Aussies and I joined up with two Spaniards and a Chilean dude to share a minibus to Siem Reap. I’d read that shared taxis were really the only option here, but Cambodia’s tourism industry seems to have picked up enough to support both buses and minibuses. And any rumors of the road being dirt and potholed are unfounded — it’s newly paved. Even so, the ride (which should take only an hour or so) takes nearly 2.5.
So at this point it was getting dark on my second full day of travel, and when we arrived at the bus station and were accosted by tuk tuk drivers, I was bordering on cranky fueled by exhaustion and hunger. After 30 hours, I was thrilled to get to my hostel, take a shower, locate the nearest restaurant, and then go to sleep.
Now that I’ve written a novella about travel days (sorry if you actually read the whole thing), what’s the message here? It’s that the physical travel, not just the destination, is also a huge part of the experience. You have to accept that it’s going to take time to get from one place to the next, that it’s exhausting, and that you might arrive late or miss connections or have to use seven different modes of transport before your day is done, but once you do, the whole thing is a blast. So don’t discount the importance of how you move from one stop to the next, and don’t always take the easy way. The bus to Bangkok or the speedboat to Koh Tao would have been much faster, but I would have missed out on the boat/train combos that truly are up there on my list of great decisions.
And guess what? It gets better — travel in Thailand has nothing on travel in Cambodia. Please see: the slow boat across Tonle Sap (post to come). I still have to investigate night buses with bunks, which will probably come into play at some point in the next week or so. I’ve become a fan of traveling overnight because it also doubles as accommodation, which means I don’t have to pay for a hostel and I have more daytime hours to spend in my destination.
Plenty more travel adventures are in my immediate future, I’m sure.