Thursday, 27 February 2014

Sun, Sea and Coconuts - Southern Thailand

Thankfully the rain that had plagued us on our first day seemed to have been an anomaly, and on our day of departure we awoke to the standard sunshine. As we packed up the bike we were joined by a Thai man who was staying in the room next door. He was keen to hear about our journey, and insisted on giving us each a cowrie shell bracelet to bring good luck. Oli in turn was busy admiring the guy's car, a classic Fiat, which was pretty unusual for Thailand.


The road south was busy with weekend traffic. Combined with the increasing heat as we made our way down the country it made for a tiring ride. However, as is almost always the case in Thailand the road quality was excellent, which allowed us to get through a lot of miles. Getting fed up with the drive by late afternoon, we decided to pull off and find somewhere peaceful by the sea to spend the evening.

Our first attempt found us winding down a narrow road, fringed with coconut groves and pretty villages. It came to an end at an empty white sand beach. It was beautiful, but when we asked at the random hotel set on the edge of the trees we discovered that this solitude came at a premium price. It was still relatively cheap by European standards (£40), but way out of our budget. We pushed on a little further, and ended up at another gorgeous stretch of sand, albeit a little wilder looking than the first. However, this spot was evidently more popular with Thai tourists, and subsequently there was a smattering of places to stay. It was still a lot more than what we were used to paying in Northern Thailand, but the setting was so beautiful that we could understand why.

After a short walk along the almost deserted beach we stopped for dinner at a fish restaurant that seemed popular with locals, always a good sign. We eventually managed to explain my vegetarianism, and ended up enjoying a fresh and delicious dinner. We washed it down with an ice cold Chang beer, watching dramatic but ominous looking storm clouds roll in over the sea. As per usual, our presence in an area that doesn't see too many tourists seemed to amuse everyone, and we exchanged a lot of smiles and giggles. This is one of the lovely things about South East Asia; no matter how out of place we may be we have never felt unwelcome.


Thankfully the storm we had anticipated never happened, and the beach was looking very appealing in the bright light of the morning. Our stop on the coast had given us food for thought, and we had decided the previous evening to abandon our plans of going to Koh Lanta. Thailand is hardly short of coast, much of it far less heavily developed than the islands themselves. We decided to save an island trip for another time, and spend a little time exploring what the mainland had to offer instead.


Some limited research took us in the direction of Khanom. Despite being very close to the jump-off point to the party islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, it is well off the tourist radar. Whilst there is a Thai tourism scene, it is relatively unknown by foreign visitors. A few small resorts were strung along the main road, but there was also evidence of larger places part-way through construction, so it is hard to say how long the place will retain its current character. After a little searching, we managed to find a place within budget that was still nice. We settled in for the night, filled up on tasty Thai food at one of the two tiny restaurants close by, and crashed out.

On checking out the beach the next day, we were a little disappointed to see it was not quite what we had expected. It was still a beautiful place, with an extensive and lonely stretch of pale sand, fringed by lush greenery. However, its appealing remoteness also held a down side, as the choppy sea appeared to have washed up a lot of rubbish over the years. As this is not a well populated area it does not seem to be collected, so there was rather a lot of it in some places. It was quite depressing to get an idea of the volume of waste that gets chucked in the ocean. Still, it was a naturally beautiful and wild area, and we loved the fact that we could have miles of sand all to ourselves. Plus, the place we were staying was just lovely, and there was good and cheap food easily available.


We ended up staying two full days, alternating between the beach and the comfort of our porch. We caught up on our washing, did some Malaysia planning and ingeniously fixed my broken sandal with string. The beach that we had not been too impressed with on first arriving grew on us. It may not have been an ideal swimming spot, but it was a gorgeous and peaceful spot in the afternoon and evening light. Sitting and chatting whilst the sky softened and the waves rolled in was the perfect way to end our not-so-busy days. 


We awoke on our last day in Khanom with plans to head just 100 kilometres south to the provincial capital of Nakhon Si Thammarat. This really should not have been a great struggle, but we could not get the urge to explore the coast out of our heads. When passing the small town of Sichon, we decided to take a diversion and see what it was about. We were very glad we did, as it turned out to be a charming and interesting little place. We stopped to take a closer look at some unusual murals outside a temple, then thought we should get back on our way.


This time we made it just a few hundred metres before spotting another diverting sight. On the road out of town lay a small dry-dock, where several fishing boats were undergoing some much needed maintenance. We stopped on the road side to have a look, and tried to snap a few photos without getting too much in anyone's face. However, one of the workers spotted us, and cheerily waved for us to come in. We were very happy that he had been so welcoming, as it turned out to be a fascinating place. From a photography perspective we could easily have spent the day there, but as it was, we decided to get out of the way after a few minutes and continue down the road.


We really were not doing too well at making progress, and when Oli spotted a road heading to the sea we decided on a whim to follow it. It brought us out on a white-sand beach, edged with endless coconut palms. The water was a beautiful aquamarine against a bright blue sky. We quickly felt that this was the beach paradise we had been subconsciously searching for, and decided that if we could find somewhere affordable to stay then that was what must be done. There were only three immediately obvious places to stay, and most of the rooms on offer confirmed our suspicions that this might be quite an exclusive area. However, one place also had a bungalow set on the lake on the other side of the road. These were half the asking price of the next cheapest place, so it was a done deal. We were the only guests, which made it feel even more special.


The lake setting for our bungalow was perhaps even better than being on the beach front, which remained only around 100m away. Our view was framed by lush coconut groves and trees on all sides. It was a nature lover's paradise, as the area seems to be home to a wide variety of bird species, flitting by in a wonderful array of colours. We happily watched for a while, and I reflected that maybe bird watching gets an unfair press as far as hobbies go. Granted, it's not as exciting as cross-country skiing or base jumping, but it certainly seems to have its merits.

We would have been quite happy just sitting on our porch, but it was the beach that had originally lured us to stay. Here was what we had been hoping to find. White sand, shady palms, gently rolling surf. This was it. We installed ourselves on a couple of beach chairs, and were quickly located by the two friendly resident dogs. They were quite happy to be fussed over for as long as we cared to pay attention to them, and were rather adorable.


Eventually Oli tired of the dogs, and started chasing the numerous tiny crabs that skittered around the edge of the surf. He tried to make what he termed a 'crab arena' (see below), but funnily enough didn't manage to encourage more than one in. I persuaded him to abandon this game and go for a swim instead. The sea was delightfully warm and the waves gentle. Once again, we reflected as to how fortunate we were to have chanced on this place.


It was all going wonderfully, and we had very high hopes for dinner. There is only one restaurant within easy walking distance, which made the decision as to where we should eat rather easy. Somewhat to our displeasure, it turned out that this very short walk involved negotiating a pack of highly aggressive dogs. They were not at all happy about us walking past their house, and the solitary jerk barking at the gate was quickly joined by some very large friends. We have dealt with our fair share of defensive dogs whilst on the road, but even the more committed individuals usually back off if you take a step towards them and clap your hands. These however were going nowhere, and got rather too close for even Oli's comfort.

We got past them unscathed, but were then worried as to how we would get back in the dark, presuming they would only get more twitchy as night fell. Fortuitously we now found ourselves outside the house of a friendly English expat and his Thai wife. We had chatted to him whilst searching for accommodation, so did not feel too embarrassed about having to ask if he would drive us back the 200m down the road so that we could get the bike. It turned out that he had had a run in with these canines just a few days previously, and was only too happy to help us out. We ended up joining him for a pre-dinner beer, and enjoyed an interesting chat. A silver lining indeed.

The food at the restaurant turned out to be surprisingly bad. Oli's fish came out almost entirely uncooked, and my food was fine but decidedly uninspired. Still, the beach front setting made for an atmospheric meal. The table next to us was occupied by a group of Thai men, merrily working their way through a bottle of whisky. They were pretty amused and surprised to encounter us, and gifted us a generous measure over ice. Sadly we could not indulge too much, as it was necessary to ride the bike back down the road. Due to the hurried circumstances in collecting it (and the fact that we had forgotten that I had the room key when Oli went back), we for once broke our rule of always wearing our safety gear. Riding down the road wearing just flip-flops, no helmets, no jackets and no knee armour felt bizarre, but a little liberating. Panic not though parents, we will certainly not be doing that again!

The previous day had been such a good one that we felt there was no need to hurry off. A second night was definitely in order, and we were keen to continue our important work of sitting on the beach. This ended up being more interesting than we anticipated, as it happened to be time to harvest some of the hotel's many coconuts. Nothing can make you feel like a big oafish Westerner like seeing a middle aged Thai man shimmy effortlessly up a palm tree, and we watched in sheer admiration. He tried to get Oli to try and do likewise, laughing when Oli declined. The green coconuts were enormous, and the sound when they crashed to the ground amply demonstrated why it is unwise to seek shade at the base of such a tree. We were pleasantly surprised to be presented with a coconut each, and sipped the delicious juice directly from the shells.


We were joined on the beach by the Norwegian owner of the hotel. It turned out that the main income here was weddings and high end Thai tourism. It was very rare indeed for foreigners such as ourselves to randomly rock up and enquire about a room. This made us feel even more fortunate to have ended up here. Interestingly we also asked about the problem dogs next door, and were told that they had actually bitten a friend of his the previous month. Apparently the owners don't really get that the dogs are a problem for the community, and don't bother to try and enclose them. We were glad we hadn't attempted to walk back past them!

As we had been pretty disappointed with our food the night before, we decided not to eat there again despite its convenience. The previous day we had lunched in a small village by the main road, and had enjoyed an outstanding feast for just £2 between us. As this was also a quarter of the price of the closer restaurant, we decided it was worth another go. The second visit was just as awesome, and Oli declared that we should always make sure to eat at what we have termed 'plastic chair establishments'. To be fair he has a point, as they are almost always run by friendly ladies, serving amazing fresh food for tiny prices. We tend to eat most of our meals in such places, and will try and stick to it for our remaining Thai days!


We returned from our lunch to do some more beach relaxing, joined by the nice dogs from the day before. This really was a beautiful setting, and it was really hard to believe that we could be the only people on the beach in such a place. Annoyingly after a while the territorial git dogs from the day before appeared, barking at us even though we were nowhere near their property. I was a little shaken, but amazed when our normally very slow and docile dog companions leapt up and started barking back at the intruders. They successfully saw the unfriendly animals off, and we were very glad we had made the effort to make friends!


I am writing this on our porch as the sun goes down behind the palm trees. Dog nuisances aside, this has been an amazing stay. The kindly owners of our hotel, combined with the stunning location made it a truly special experience. It is very refreshing to know that unspoiled Thailand absolutely does still exist, and is easy to find with a little trial and error and a willingness to explore. Southern Thailand is definitely a place that warrants more time, and we have been making vague plans to return in a few years on longer visas and buy some little bikes to pootle around on. If anyone has the time and the inclination in the meantime though, we would highly recommend it.