Surat Thani, Thailand
Written on board the Surat Thani – Koh Samui Night Ferry
Koh Samui is big news in Thai tourism. The idyllic tropical isle attracts visitors of all sorts to its crystal clear waters and picture perfect beaches. Increasingly well-heeled tourists arrive by air. Never being one to slavishly follow the pack your correspondent has chosen to do it the hard way – overland from Kuala Lumpur. The first part of the journey – the new sleeper service from the shiny6 new KL Sentral railway station to Hat Yai in Southern Thailand, whilst slow, is reasonably comfortable.
The only delay was at the Malaysian-Thai border, where the train was (it transpires for me, crucially) delayed for over an hour while customs officers searched for …. something. While we were waiting, I started talking to Chris, the American backpacker in the berth opposite me. It transpired that he was also headed to Ko Samui to go diving, so we decided to travel together. Chris had been travelling in Malaysia and Thailand for about 2½ weeks and had another week or so to go before he headed home.
At Hat Yai we were greeted at the railway station by the usual range of touts and rogues promising bus rides to wherever we wanted to go. Outside the station we met a tout who promised a service to Ko Samui for 450 Baht, about $18 Australian, which sounded reasonable. The minibus, with 12 passengers crammed into a vehicle designed for 8, whilst not entirely reasonable, took us to the Gulf of Thailand port of Surat Thani in four hours. There we were told that the ferry left at 6.00pm, two hours after we arrived. I wandered off for just a few minutes to find us some lemonade (we had not even had breakfast at this point). Upon returning, Chris told me that the forward minibus to the ferry had been too full to take us and had left! Further, the ferry terminal was 85 kilometres away and that we wouldn’t get there before the ferry’s 6pm sailing, it being by now nearly 5pm.
We had some harsh words (mine were harsher than Chris’ – threats to write to Lonely Planet to tell them what a terrible service this particular travel agency provided). Various alternatives, including taxis, other companies and fast ferries were suggested, then dismissed. At one point we were sent, back packs and all, on the backs of motor scooters around the back streets of Surat Thani. I thought for a moment that my number was up as I balanced precariously whilst mad Thai traffic whizzed about me.
All this excitement, however, came to nothing. We were advised that the only option was the dreaded ‘night ferry’ – leaving at 11pm and arriving at the island at 5.00am! They did promise that it had berths and we would be able to sleep well on board. We decided to take it, rather than spend a night in dreary Surat Thani, and were told to be back at the travel agency office at 7.30pm to catch the bus to the ferry.
We wandered around and had dinner at a US fast food-style pizza restaurant where no English was cheerfully spoken, but the Thai staff were friendly. We raced eagerly back to the office in plenty of time and caught the bus to the ferry – all of 500m away! We still had a three hour wait so wandered along the night market that set up along the harbour and regretted having had dinner as the street hawkers’ Pad Thai looked pretty good. There was plenty of fruit available and I bought some to keep for breakfast.
An ancient lady was cutting up some durians and offered us some to try. I found it rich and quite cheesy, but not at all unpleasant, although I didn’t buy a lot more. Chris found it pretty disgusting and reckoned he could taste it for hours afterwards. We sat and I had a beer next to the bay and shared travel stories. Chris has traveled quite a lot, including doing a solo camping trek up the Inca trail in Peru at about the same time as I (and the TSO) were in Argentina. I was grateful for his company today, as travelling in Thailand had proved quite trying and I’m not sure how I’d have coped with the trials and tribulations on my own.
The ‘night ferry’ itself is an ancient – could be a converted pearl lugger – but characterful vessel. The ‘berths’ are tiny narrow mats of foam, about an inch thick and 18 inches wide, crammed together along the upper deck. The roof of the other deck is about five feet high, so one has to stoop constantly. As we await departure, we also await more adventures.
The following is an extract from Lonely Planet’s Thailand Update. “Travelers should be warned off the night boat from Surat Thani to Samui (and the one to Pha Ngan). Both are masochists’ delights. The trip sounds fine (mattress and pillow on deck, get a good nights sleep, wake up at the island). Baloney! The mattresses are (once were) 2 inches thick and 22 inches wide, jammed together the whole length of the deck: the German next to me overflowed onto mine, and me onto the next occupied by a little Chinese (who eventually went to sleep about 2 am but whose limbs jerked out in spasms, clocking me in the jaw and catching me in the goolies).
Toilet arrangements are primitive. The smell of stale sweat mingles with the stench of fresh sewage. The ceiling height is five feet (ow, my head). The old timber boat [we traveled on] is a potential death-trap: Thais toss their glowing cigarette butts overboard, where they are swept back inboard (where, exactly?) by the slip- stream. I arrived in Na Thon utterly exhausted, panting to get off. Incidentally, the fare is 150 baht, not 80 (and to Pha Ngan, 200).” Source: Dr Allan M Healy (Jul 2000)