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Pirates & Turtles at Port Royal

THAILAND | Monday, 11 January 2010 | Views [573]

One last post from Andrew...

Situated 2 hours north-ish of Ko Samui lies a pirate cove, hidden away through rough, charging Asian seas. A place, where only the tenacious or touristy shall venture. Be there treasure here, only yee shall know, but it be not gold bullion or my booty. Where ancient shipping vessels still roam the water and even older longtail boats ferry the beach-lovers too and from the amazing coastal satellite island, Koh Nangyuan. Ko Tao or,'Turtle Island' as it is easier remembered, is basically the movie set of 'Port Royal' from Pirates of the Caribbean. Arriving on a rather flash catamaran from Ko Samui is about as technologically advanced as far as the boat travel goes here! 1970's 'house boats' converted into diving and snorkelling transports, all painted in fading bright colours are the vessel of choice here and accompanied by even more longtail boats, of which you can either hire privately for tours around the island, or to secret, hidden, diving locations if you're more adventurous and experienced.

The Pirate-like Island of Ko Tao, arrrrghh!
The main town centre of Ko Tao is situated on and around the wharf, with 2 main roads branching off from here. One direction will take the 'high road' used mostly by the few cars, motorbikes and huge black 4x4 utes who masquerade as Taxis and ferry both the locals and tourists along this short stretch of road. The 'low road' is most travelled by tourists on foot, by ATV or scooters along a pathway-sized stretch of concrete from the wharf to the hotel and bar areas. Both the high road and the low road won't get you to Scotland before ye, as they both end where the beach does. You see, most of Ko Tao is undeveloped mountainous forest with only one side of the island (the gloriously golden sanded part) being developed solely for tourism.Turtle Islands pirate-esque feel, the mix of fabulous beaches, restaurants, swimming and amazingly, the shopping, fast turned into the best location we had been to since Chiang Mai.

Welcome to the final blog of our 18 day long tour of Thailand. We've been north and now are set to be stranded on a not-so-deserted island, but before I regale your eyes with tales of how turtle island got it's name, I want to make mention of a couple of wins and losses along our journey. I'll get to all of Ko Tao's magnificence shortly, but wanting to keep these things fresh and unique each time, I'll end with the beginning and have the middle be what should've been the end.

Does that make sense?

Wins and Fails

You're sitting there, thinking, "what on earth do you mean?... wins and fails?". Well, it's simple; Along our journey I've come across a few moments that have either been forgotten in the writing process or edited out due to length. Before I hit you with the wonders of Ko Tao, I just want to 'prequel' it a little for you and make mention of a couple of things I've thought were quirky, brilliant or crazy along the way. If you want to know more about each event, let me know in the comments below, I'll explain further, but here's a few things I thought were worth a revisit:

For The Win:

• Uniforms:They're everywhere and I do mean EVERYWHERE I can't stress how ridiculously awesome it is that any sort of position of employment that has the least bit of authority attached to it, requires a full regalia outfit, complete with fake awards and 3 stars on your shoulder. From basic hotel security, to train 'porters' dressed like 5 star generals it's the most comedic thing you've ever seen. All uniforms issued must also be 3 sizes to small and therefore, are skin tight, further blurring the line between authoritative uniform and stripper costume. Best bit of all? The police look like street cleaners compared to everyone else around!

• English Spelling: It's as bad as you see on the internet. You'd think some places (ie: hotels) would quickly google the English options first or ask one of their guests to quickly spell-check the thing. There were honestly hundreds of menu errors alone to have you in tears, not counting the thousands more Kristy would've caught! There's a few brilliant ones I've got photos of, including some rather cute English-Thai names of places too.

• Joc Pochana: Whether it's location, location, location or simply us being lazy, the best food in Thailand was about 5mins walk from the New World hotel on Samson Rd in Old Bangkok. Joc serves up a delicious array of Thai classics, best of all being the 'Fried Basil and Chilli Duck'. Good luck getting lunch there though, Joc is only open from around 5pm till whenever people stop sitting down or the taxis and tour buses passing by gas everyone first. Most mornings when we left the hotel, between 8am and 9am, Joc was still going or packing up the chairs. Two people will eat like a king for $9 plus a couple of oversized Singh beers will push the bill to $12. Either way, it's the best food we found and better still, he'll help you learn your Thai while you eat!

• Coconut & Tamarind Juice: Also found nearby the New World Hotel, this Vegetarian restaurant serves some great basic western meals and like all the food here, for very reasonable prices. Best of all on the menu is their Coconut and Tamarind Juice and it's 60 Baht (or $1.20) of mouth-watering, orgasmic deliciousness. Have two in a row, I did! Fatty.

• Checkers: One great moment of our tour happened right at the end, as we waited for the train back to Bangkok after finishing in Ko Tao. Running late, as usual, we had to wait for an hour and half for the Bangkok train so to kill the time Kristy and I sat down with two taxi drivers (and Dong translating) who were playing checkers on the side of the street. With no business around for taxis in this 'middle of nowhere' railway station, these guys evidently play checkers to kill the time between work and were phenominal at the game. You've honestly never seen checkers played like this before. Each old taxi driver knew the others move about 5 steps in advance, so much so, that most games would finish early on, given they could predict who was likely to win! Being the board-game, card wrangling, ultra-competitive guy that I am, I had to have a crack at these old codgers and was promptly schooled in checkers quicker than you can say 'King Me'. I've learned never to underestimate how smart and friendly Thai people are. Both Kristy and I came here thinking our stuff would get nicked or broken into and by the end of our trip were not thinking twice about handing our bags to a porter or keeping our day packs unlocked. These two lovely old taxi guys, playing checkers on the side of the road, were happy to have two white people sit down and play checkers with them while they waited for a train, I doubt I would be able to say the same thing about Australians or New Zealanders given the same scenario


• Bangkok Airport: Forgeddaboudit. Waste of time. Get in, Get out as fast as you can. We, due to rush hour and traffic constraints, had to leave earlier than we wanted to and upon checking in and crossing the relatively relaxed passport control, you're stuck in a world where everything has tripled or quadrupled in price back to western, or worse equivalents! It's a sprawling mess of overpriced crap and worst of all, the Transformers were STILL mortgage-repayment prices! Most disgusting food in the country was eaten at a restaurant here, it made us both feel ill but, I guess, did the job of cleaning up our last remaining Baht, both with the bill and toilet trips*.

• The Only Honest Tuk Tuk Driver: ...in the WHOLE of Bangkok, and we told him to bugger off. This is an epic KLAB fail. On our 'in between day' after getting back from Ko Tao, we decided to do a day of Temples and Markets (as well as the Royal Palace) so it was a packed day. We'd forgone the taxi and instead opted for my keen directional skills and a map, which to my credit, worked perfectly! Unfortunately, as the temperature rose so dropped my patience and I got a little tetchy. After going through the ordeal of getting to the royal palace, we really wanted to check out the temple of the reclining Buddha. We knew it was close by, but weren't sure of the direction... A Tuk Tuk driver accosted us upon leaving the palace and told us it was just around the corner and he'd take us there for 10 Baht (or .30c) to which, we both scoffed and opted to walk upon his pointed direction, thinking we knew better. Not only were his directions perfect, but it was an awful 15 minute walk during the hottest, muggiest WORST Bangkok day we had experienced yet. Sweating, grumpy and crowded by hundreds of people at the reclining Buddha, I died a little inside for turning down Thailand's only honest Tuk Tuk driver!

• Scammers: Lonely Planet warned us, Dong cautioned the group and they're very very real. On all our Bangkok-based days, we would've been asked, on average, once or twice a day whether we wanted to see the "Big Buddha" which is codename for: Gem Scam. We also were told at least 3 times that the Grand Palace (Thailand's Royal Family estate) was closed and/or we couldn't see [insert tourist attraction] because it was closed or a public holiday. All of the prior are lies told by scammers on the street who dress very official-like (usually wearing polos with the signature crest of the royal family, very odd) and for all intents and purposes look like the real deal to visiting tourists. Worst of all, their English is usually outstanding, which is such a waste of talents! If you plan on visiting the wonderful land of Thai, don't be fooled. A bit of easygoing smiles and basic Thai (or simply just walking away) can get rid of these pests. I think enough people must be fooled by them to keep them in business, so don't become a putz for their plans. The Grand Palace never closes and the odds of Thailand or Buddhism in general having a public holiday on the EXACT day you're visiting [insert tourist attraction] is highly unlikely, also something your Intrepid Travel guide would most likely let you know about should it happen...

Regarding the terrapin shaped archipelago

Sorry to burst your bubble, but their aint any turtles on "Turtle Island". BUT, Ko Tao does look pretty turtle like from side on as you approach it, especially with the misty Thai waters and sleepy eyes aboard the catamaran! I'll finish where I began, in the glorious arrival to Ko Tao and being swiftly bundled into a ute and taken to our five star beach bungalow right on the ocean front. Well... Close to the ocean. Reality is a little more harsh, and old resort signs can be deceptive. Seashell Resort, where we stayed, isn't really five Star in the western sense. I'm sure there was A five star bungalow somewhere! I mean... the dis-used reception looked pretty nifty. Our Bungalow was a little basic, but nice... after re-arranging the bed we had the fan above our heads which made the 35+ days much more bearable.

The other members of our group weren't as lucky as us.

Jenn and Rich had a bung shower, that dribbled water rather than, er... "showered" it. All of the rooms didn't feature hot water (or were cleaned, evidently, during our stay) and poor old Pat (Grandad) couldn't get his fan going on the first night and promptly paid $30 to upgrade to an air conditioned suite! None of this bothered Kristy or I, we scored the one closest to the beach and that's where we headed straight away. Crystal clear waters, no waves and a beautiful white sandy beach was where we spent the rest of our arrival day.

Snorkelling was on the menu for day two at Ko Tao and Dong had kindly booked almost all the group in for a full day of underwater action. Our restaurant was pretty shabby at delivering our food, let alone getting it all... so we learned quickly that when things moved slower in mainland Thailand, in Ko Tao they barely crawled at a reasonable pace! Nevertheless, we downed some food finally, got kitted out and headed for our boat to take us to the ocean.

...and the ocean, is where I was born to be!
Snorkelling is incredible here, we had four stops (out of a possible 7, but we lost a few due to bad weather on the other side of the island), each being 40 minutes in length and the water at every location kept getting better and better. We swam with the fish. Literally. Both big and small. Coral of all shapes albeit, a tad dead in places, but the third location was possibly the best for lots of coloured coral and amazing underwater sea life, but I was here for the fish. We had lunch in between our 3rd and 4th stop and the leftover bits of watermelon and rice were thrown in the water and fish appeared from EVERYWHERE! We were attacked from all sides as thousands of fish swam to get some rice from the above-ocean feeders... Rich grabbed a bit of watermelon and with my trusty underwater camera in hand, got a primo shot of him feeding some of the fish! The final snorkelling location was Koh Nangyuan. This island is much smaller again from the already tiny Ko Tao. It's basically a nature reserve for fish and coral and has a strict 'no diving' policy of which, only snorkelling is allowed. It's an optional $6 to enter the island, that's about as "optional" as underpants. I've never seen so many fish so close to the shore, swimming around coral, rocks and Ko Nangyuan sports the most beautiful beach you've seen.

Koh Nangyuan Island has a few, what looked to be, top end resort hotels around... so if you were looking at an amazing location for a honeymoon *coughkirstenandcraigorameliaandtim* this would be the most incredible choice. The beach is amazing, the fish are everywhere and Ko Tao is a 15 minute boat ride away either by longtail or dive-boat. I spent the entire day in the water, my tan took a turn for the worst as well, becoming more red than brown but it was worth it. Kristy and I chewed through 30 shots each of underwater action and she headed up to the highest point on Koh Nangyuan to take some incredible postcard shots of the place.

We headed back to Ko Tao burnt, wet and snorkelled beyond repair of an amazing day of swimming with all manner of undersea fish. It was the best day I had since riding the elephants and certainly something both Kristy and I are keen to do again, maybe take some time out to learn how to properly dive on a 4 day course? It's something Ko Tao prides itself in and all their training facilities look to be top notch plus they're all PADI certified. There's plenty of resorts and hotels for all manner of budgets and it's somewhere, if you're visiting Thailand, that should be a must-see. Skip Ko Samui, or just have a day there... get it out of the way for the far more charming and far superior Ko Tao.

Day three on Ko Tao was unfortunately marred by occasional rain storms, we had planned on hiring a Kayak, but instead took to some massages on the beach and found the best street shopping yet! Amazingly, it took me till now to have a true blow-out on T-Shirts and we found a nifty little stretch of road just down from our bungalows that serviced my clothing needs nicely. We caught up with Pat, Rich, Jenn, Dong, Nick and Sarah for dinner down on the beach at 'Fishbowl' - a bar that had live acoustic music to keep Nick happy and great Tom Kha soup to please me. Ko Tao is only slightly more expensive than the rest of Thailand (we're talking, a matter of a dollar or two) and given we were at the end of our tour and well under budget, we kinda went hell-for-leather food-wise and our waistlines certainly took a hit. Nevertheless, the food was amazing and the atmosphere and friends made everything a wonderful experience.

We had a final half a day at Ko Tao and Kristy took over, hitting a well-deserved, literally, last minute shopping spree in the town. Given most of the female clothing here is tiny asian sizes (almost always, the mens sizes are pretty good) she had been doing it tough, but found an amazing shop and the Baht went flying to the hands of some happy locals. I always think it's nice to spend your money in these out-of-the-way places rather than at the main tourist hot spots. It promotes the local businesses and you really don't barter all that much because the prices are generally pretty reasonable or you get a discount right off the bat because they're just happy a white person is spending money in their shop! You'll also find, these smaller locations, like Ko Tao or Chiang Mai have a far superior range of items, both quality and design-wise than in the bigger, more tourist orientated places. Money spent and Nick and I scoring a couple of last minute pre-release DVD's, we were on the boat back to the mainland and eventually a train ride and taxi later, back to our wonderful hotel at New World.

...and that's all she wrote.

We had an extra day, which I won't cover in too much detail here. We checked out a temple, the Kings Palace and some massive local markets after a long Sky Train trip and basically, made the most of our last 24 hours in Bangkok. We did however, want to give something back to Intrepid and the Hill Tribes, so after asking Dong, he suggested we donate our spare clothing that we weren't taking back with us to Intrepid, who do some great work in giving lots of the kids and adults free clothing in these areas. We were glad to offload a bunch of stuff and after grabbing a bite to eat, had to laugh hysterically to ourselves as we said goodbye to Dong for the last time who was now wearing my earlier discarded pair of Khaki shorts! He looked so pleased to have scored some new gear and said that particular design (army-style chamois shorts) were so hard to find in Thailand and very popular amongst the Hill Tribes of Chiang Mai. I think Dong is going to return there to be a bit of a legend now, in his Andrew hand-me-down shorts and I couldn't be happier about it! We (as a group) tipped Dong generously for his wonderful guide work and we were all sure his young son and wife will benefit.

Dong is so proud of the hilltribe he came from, all the people he knows in Chiang Mai and especially, has great pride and hope for his son. I'm sure our extra clothes, though worthless to us, will have great value in either his tribe or the one we visited. We've had a wonderful experience and honestly couldn't have asked for a nicer guide or places to see. Kristy and I want to say thanks to Carthiga, who if she ever reads these blogs, will be no doubt horrified as to how I've butchered the spelling of her name and I want to assure her my card shuffling skills get better by the day. To Nick and Sarah who were just the loveliest, funniest and most generous people and especially thanks to Jenn and Rich who we really didn't get nearly enough time with. If you guys are ever visiting, passing through or near Dubai there is a spare bed and only slightly-used towels for you at our place.

Finally, thanks to you too. I'm sure if you've read this far you've at least enjoyed these a little. It's been a truly amazing experience that I'm pleased to have blogged. Kristy has some amazing photos in store for you, so get ready to check out those. Plus, we have our underwater shots developing as we speak and we'll endeavour to get our holiday snaps up in the next week or so.

As for our next adventure, we're off to Dubai to work and leave early Wednesday morning. Kristy has volunteered to blog our escapades there occasionally, they will be a little less frequent but will be more grammatically correct! Hope you've enjoyed these not-so-little entries and we can't wait to blog about you coming to visit us soon.

Hint hint.

- Andrew & Kristy

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