After a week or so on Koh Phangan we eagerly caught the ferry further up the gulf of Thailand to the smaller island of Koh Tao.
We’d been looking forward to visiting this island, after hearing lots of really good reports, it’s the smallest of the three main islands in the gulf, just 29 square kilometers, and it’s meant to be much more laid-back and relaxed than it’s two big brothers Samui and Phangan.
But we were either missing something or maybe just suffering from island fatigue and after only three days we pulled the pin and decide to move on.
The island itself is indeed beautiful and we spent an amazing day snorkeling, by far the best snorkeling we’ve ever done anywhere. The water so clear we could photograph the fish swimming below us straight off the edge of the boat.
We’d been told by lots of people that the water is much clearer on Koh Tao than the other islands, and that turns out to be true, it’s like swimming in an aquarium, incredibly clear and teaming with sea-life, lots of beautiful coral formations and dazzling colors. It’s hard to connect the main beach on the island, Sairee beach, with the snorkeling though, Sairee is pretty poor, it’s very shallow and very dirty, we tried swimming there a few times but ended up just standing in the water up to our calves for a while before calling it quits and getting out.
The main town that strings along beside Sairee beach has some pretty funky bars and restaurants along the sand, some are great and they more than make up for the poor beach outside, they compete with each other for happy hour specials and night-time entertainment. We decided to take in a show, the all dancing, lip syncing lady boys, they tried their best, but with power shortages and more enthusiasm than talent it was a bit of a struggle, but still worth the free entry price.
So after just a few days on the island we’ve run out of things to do, it seems that most people are on Kao Tao to get their scuba dive ticket and we’re not going to be doing that so we’ve decided that enough is enough and it’s time to head off to the mainland. A bumpy two hour catamaran ride away we arrive at Chumphon pier where buses are waiting to take everybody to their various destinations.
And ours is the port town of Hua Hin, about 200 kilometers north, up the main spine of Thailand towards Bangkok. We had really wanted to go by train, the line runs through Chumphon and on to Bangkok, but it all got too complicated in the end with schedules and getting to the station so we settled for the easy option which is by coach, it’s a four or five hour trip, past farms and small settlements, rice paddies start to appear the further north we head and it all makes for a pretty ride.
And it’s a pretty pleasant surprise when we do arrive, the bus, bizarrely, pulls up almost in front of the hotel we’d booked at random, so a short stroll down the street sees us settled in.
The town is a long skinny strip, sandwiched between some small green hills and the railway to the west, and the beach to the east, we’re only a few hundred kilometers from Bangkok and it’s been a favorite weekend getaway for the who’s who of Bangkok for over a century and because of that, it looks and feels a little like some kind of comfortable Bangkok neighborhood has been lifted up and plonked down next to a strip of soft white sand.
There’s lots of trendy cafes, some night markets, plenty of street food, the usual tattoo joints and more tailor shops per square kilometer than anywhere on the planet, or so it seems. Many with an imaginative name, Picasso, Valentino, Hugo Boss and a surprising number of Versace.
On our first night here we stumbled onto a little Thai place called Koti restaurant, the kind of place that almost had us feeling homesick for Penang, with lots of locals wolfing down some really very good Thai dishes, so good in fact we went two nights in a row and joined in the fun, sharing tables with some local families.
And some of the food really was tasty, we’d been a bit disappointed with a lot of the toned down tourist fare we found on the islands, it was a bit of a struggle sometimes to avoid the Pad Thai/Hamburger options, but this place had some real depth and spice to their dishes.
The town is no secret off the beaten path place, it’s got all the mod-cons you’d expect, with big hospitals, all the McBurger places and the odd shopping mall or two, it’s even got it’s own palace that the Royal family favor as a get out of town hideaway, so we decided to go for a walk and check it out.
Unfortunately the map scale was all out of kilter and we spent a solid hour and a half plodding along a not very interesting road getting hotter and more and more bothered without getting near the place, so we ended up abandoning that plan and went for lunch instead.
Debo cafe, a cute little place run by a a lovely young woman who seemed astonished to see a couple of, clearly lost, farang stumble into her cafe, we don’t speak Thai and she had very little English but we managed to arrange two bowls of pork soup. We weren’t the only customers though, when we arrive we’re greeted by a small and very friendly French Bulldog, he panted and puffed and jumped up on us until the owner sent him off to the naughty chair to leave us alone, and there he settled looking like he owned the place. We later found out his name means “Porky” in Thai, like Porky Pig we guessed.
The cafe is a really cute little place, it felt like we were in somebody’s home kitchen and they were whipping up a quick lunch for us, the owner has posted old fashioned ( now trendy ) Polaroid shots of her and her friends up on the wall as decoration.
Lunch was nice, a kind of odd minced then steamed pork mix, floating in a broth with a soft boiled egg, some skinny egg noodles, a fish ball and a slice of liver, weird but tasty.
After lunch we decided it was still too far to continue onto the palace by foot so we abandoned that plan altogether and headed back towards town, this time we stuck with the road running parallel with the beach, past some pretty upmarket looking wine-bars and French/Spanish restaurants.
It was a good call heading back into town, just as we arrive, at long last, we struck rain, or rather it struck us.
Nearly three months of travel and other than a morning in K.L and a few showers in Penang we haven’t seen any rain, I think we got those three months worth in one go here. It bucketed down, we managed to take shelter under a shop awning and waited it out, but Annie’s shoes came off second best, staying wet for days after.
The roads around Hua Hin are much more controlled and in much better condition than the islands, so the very next day, in warm sunshine again, we picked up a new Honda scooter for a couple of days and headed south to check things out.
First stop, the weird and wonderful little temple town of Khao Tao, it sounds like one of the islands we’ve just left, but is in fact a small fishing port about 15 Klms south of Hua Hin.
The town is jammed in between a large fresh water lake and the ocean, with a little port for the fishing boats at one end under a temple made out of fake rocks, just who it was in memory of we couldn’t quite make out, but the little shrine was pretty cool.
We’d picked up a small pamphlet in the hotel with a map in it, they described Khao Tao as ” This place could be your half-day trip to enjoy nice scenery of nature”, and it was right, we did enjoy nice scenery of nature.
After we’d had a poke around the village for a short while it was time to head off again, further south, to our major destination of the day, Pak Nam Pran a fishing town at the mouth of the Pranburi river. About 25 klms of beautiful winding road leading us through pineapple plantations and some lovely scenery, and we arrive at lunch time and head straight for one of the famous (locally anyway) seafood restaurants along the front of the town.
Choosing one little coconut thatched place on the strength that they had a menu, we march right in and take a seat with all the rest of the family members, Mum and Dad eating their own seafood banquet on one side, Granny pulling crab meat out of cooked crabs on the other, a couple of kiddies running around, a chicken or two and a cute little puppy that spent the afternoon wrestling with our feet under the table. There’s something about dogs going on here we think. At least this little fellow wasn’t sent to the naughty chair.
Off the menu we order what sounds like an ideal mix for a seafood restaurant in a fishing town, some squid fried with garlic, prawns with garlic and a steamed fish dish.
At one end of the restaurant is a few tiled blue tanks with live crabs and sea-snails in them, while we’re having a look in the tanks, Mum, who appears to also be the chef, whips the lid off a large cooler box and grabs a handful of live prawns, after agreeing with her that they do look delicious she disappears into the kitchen, it seems these are to be part of our lunch.
First to arrive is the fried squid dish, and it’s delicious. Soft,tender and with a fiery local dipping sauce.
It’s wonderful finger licking stuff, and as we mop up the final morsels out come the stars of the day, the prawns.
The only thing is, she seems to have forgotten to cook them, we check the menu again and fair enough, it doesn’t actually say they would be cooked, while we’re staring at the dish and wondering if we’re perhaps getting a charcoal burner or something coming to the table, Mum comes over and shows us how it’s done, you grab a prawn, open it out, place a cucumber or snake bean down the middle, fold it over, dip it in the fiery sauce and pop the lot in your mouth.
At least we know they’re fresh.
All photos copyright Ross Duncan: firstname.lastname@example.org