Although a two-month Thai visa only costs US$10, I'm still suffering from the attitude problem that struck me in Indonesia; I really want to head over into India, and it feels like I'm just 'doing time' until I can hit the subcontinent.
On the other hand, after the pleasant surprise of Malaysia, I'm not going to dismiss a whole country just because somewhere else happens to have fired my imagination. Thailand is a well-known travel spot, and it's got enough variety to keep even a fussy sod like me occupied. There are beautiful beaches, mountain areas, forests, culture, cities, cuisine... Thailand does it all pretty well, so despite my slightly grumpy disposition, I'm finding myself getting fairly interested in the whole prospect.
After the border, the first stop Charlie and I landed up in was Hat Yai, after an easy bus ride direct from Penang and across the border. Customs didn't even bother to look at our luggage, and the automatic 30-day visa was granted without any fuss.
Hat Yai isn't exactly attractive, so after changing some money at a wonderfully advantageous rate, we hopped onto the bus and headed east to the coast at Songkhla, a town by the beach. This was only to break up the journey; a direct trip north from Penang would have been an all-day effort, and we'd have had problems finding an open bank on our arrival, so we took in a break along the way. There were hardly any westerners in Songkhla, and it made a nice change from the international tourism of west coast Malaysia.
Southern Thailand is extremely constricted, geographically speaking. A thin peninsula joins Central Asia to Peninsular Malaysia, and although most of the peninsula is part of Thailand, Myanmar takes a pretty large chunk out of the western coast. This leaves a very thin strip for Thailand, so everyone takes pretty much the same route between Malaysia and Bangkok, with the only real choice being between heading via touristy Phuket on the west, or the less touristy but still ridiculously packed island of Ko Samui on the east. We decided Ko Samui would make a lively stop for Christmas; the beer is cheap, there are pretty beaches and there are loads of people. What more could Santa wish for?
Thai Bus Problems
The next day we struck north, aiming to get to Ko Samui in one journey. Things didn't exactly go according to plan, however, and by the end of the day we were stuck on the wrong side of the Thai peninsula, some eight hours from our starting point and still four hours and a long ferry trip from Ko Samui. It seems that the simplicity of Malaysian transport has lulled us into a false sense of security.
Thai transport is good, but it's good in the same way that Indonesian transport is good; there are lots of buses, but they're not that flash. However, the Thais are even more flexible than the Indonesians in their definition of 'truth', so when you get on a bus and the conductor says it's going to Surat Thani (the ferry terminal for Ko Samui) and charges you accordingly, you might be forgiven for thinking that the bus will actually go to Surat Thani... but think again, sucker! We ended up in Krabi, miles from Surat Thani, where the conductor said we could change here for Surat... except the last Surat bus for the day had already left. Connection? I don't think so.
Perhaps it was all part of a scam, because the touts at Krabi were very keen that we go with them to stay the night in a lovely hotel they knew, and from where we could catch the Surat bus in the morning, but something about the whole thing stank, so we decided it would be better if we got back on the bus and stayed with it to Phuket, a better bet for accommodation and a bigger terminal than Krabi. And I could have sworn I saw a bus marked 'Krabi-Surat Thani' pulling out just as we drove off for Phuket. Thailand? Lie-land, more like.
Phuket, though, turned out OK, if only because we were there for just one night. It's a major, major tourist spot – package holidays galore head out here during the peak seasons – and this makes survival easy, if a little uninspiring. Still, after a whole day of tarmac surfing you don't want language barriers, and Phuket fitted the bill. The main attraction of Phuket – which is technically an island, though the bridge to the mainland is very short – is the collection of beautiful beaches where white people go red. We, however, missed out on this exciting egg-and-chips experience and only saw a snippet of Phuket town, so I'll leave out any disparaging remarks I might have otherwise made about beached-whale tourists from the north of England, holiday reps called Gary, and disco nights down the authentic 'Beach and Beer Glass' British pub. I'll save them for Ko Samui...
There was one point of interest though; on the way, at Phang-nga, we passed the beach where the action scenes of The Man with the Golden Gun were shot. That's the James Bond film where Christopher Lee, the bad guy, builds a high-tech destructor beam on a paradise island in the middle of nowhere and threatens to destroy the world, and Roger Moore saves the day by tracking down the weapon of mass destruction and disarming it. Well, the beach off Phang-nga has a couple of surreal limestone islands where the destructor beam was filmed, and these islands reflect the surrounding landscape in microcosm. The drive up from Krabi to Phuket was simply stunning, and a pleasant bonus after the other screw-ups.