Day 9 Langkawi to Koh Phi Phi 2 March 2010
We were picked up by a young man as promised at 8am to be taken to the pier for a fast speedboat to Koh Lipe. The transport was a real eye opener, an ancient van with more rust than metal, decaying seats and a gear box that resembled an old tool box in the back cupboard of someone’s shed. When we got out at the pier and Christine wanted to photograph the van, the driver was very much amused and a little pleased.
After filling out the necessary papers and surrendering our passports, we boarded a 10 metre speedboat packed with no less than three 200hp four stroke outboards and set off for Koh Lipe. The sea was smooth and the boat really flew along, easily producing 30knots or so. It took just under an hour to reach Koh Lipe, a delightful looking island populated by the sea gypsy people. Most passengers got off here, while we were transferred to a 40m long fast ferry. Here we were handed back out pass ports, Koh Lipe being in Thailand and we had completed the easiest border crossing ever experienced. More people were ferried out from the island in long tail boats and off we went, heading North for several hours. There was little to do except sleep, chat to the Russian/Croatian couple along side us and generally admire what little view there was. Most of this first leg of the voyage was beyond sight of land.
Eventually, the twin towers of Koh Laoling appeared and we headed directly towards the gap between the two islands. At a rate of knots, we went straight between the islands and rounded up into an idyllic bay, with a beautiful coconut lined beach, chalets and beach shacks. We hove to while a couple of long tails ferried a few more passengers out. This was to the first of many such islands along the way. At some, we dropped off while at others we picked up whole families of holiday makers. The Andaman Sea seems full of small scale resorts and secluded tropical hide-aways. We visited Kn Mook, Ko Kradan, Ko NGai (quite developed) and cruised the extensive resort coastline of Koh Lanta.
A lunch stop was made at Hat Yao Pier, where most passengers disembarked to catch mini buses to Krabi or Phuket. We stuck with the ferry, travelling further North to Saladan and the Northern end of Koh Lanta. Here we were transferred to a smaller ferry for the final leg to Koh Phi Phi. Others were led to a different ferry bound for Krabi. The whole system is very easy to follow and very efficient. It certainly beats mini-bus travel or hanging around in airport lounges.
The ferry to Phi Phi would not have passed a survey as a dive wreck back in Australia. It was best not to look too closely at any aspect of the construction of the vessel. It was too scary. The upside was that the sea was calm and the prospect of breaking up thereby diminished. Once clear of the Saladan Channel and into the open sea, it opened up the engines, which made it shake and vibrate badly. By this stage, we had been on board boats for around 7 hours straight so we just ignored it all and slept peacefully.
As Phi Phi grew on the horizon, we could look back on the whole experience of the sea trip. We have travelled all the way from Penang to Phi Phi (and will go on to Phuket) by sea. It is a leisurely and convenient way to go and we highly recommend it. The long narrow fast ferries so prevalent in the Andaman Sea are remarkably comfortable, even when the sea starts to get up a little. The noise outside on the top deck is rather deafening at times, but it is worth it and the scenery when near the coast is worth 10 times what you pay.
Phi Phi has developed quite a lot since we were here last (2007 I think). The village area now sports a maze of back streets and a lot more accommodation. I have read considerable criticism of Phi Phi on the Internet, calling it an environmental disaster and economic exploitation at its worst. I can see where that comes from but it is still a wonderful place and the Thai people are entitled to benefit from tourism opportunities. We settled in to a lovely room in the Phi Phi Hotel, found some food to eat, walked around a few market stalls and crashed, totally exhausted.
Day 10 Koh Phi Phi 3 March 2010
What a lazy day. We got up late, had breakfast in the hotel (the being a rare time that our accommodation includes it), retired back to the room to watch movies and read. At one point, we did venture to the beach for a swim and a short sting under the umbrella on deck chairs, watching the passing parade of sun tanned through to lily-white bodies. We Swam in the hotel pool, did our exercise routine off the computer, bought a few CDs of music, argued over the price of a “genuine” Rolex watch (but walked away) and generally had the slckest day yet of the whole trip.
We explored the narrow twisting laneways of the village, marvelling at the huge increase in eating establishments and mid-level to budget accommodation. After the delights of Langkawi, everything seemed a little on the expensive side but when put in perspective and converted to Aussie Dollars, life is still very cheap. One menace that has sprung up since last time we were here is bicycles. Whereas before, there was the odd bike around, most people walked and goods were transported by hand-cart. The hand-cart pushers would give a polite “ting-ting” when coming up behind. Now, the bikes are everywhere and few use a bell. They just expect you to jump out of the way. Even worse is the fact that some places are hiring out bikes to tourists and this makes for a really dangerous situation. The electric bikes are also making an appearance, raising the speed even more. Someone needs to start a “Ban the Bike” campaign.
As usual, we ate well and found sufficient beer to wet the palate.
Day 11 Koh Phi Phi to Phuket March 4 2010
We had a ferry to Phuket booked for 1:30 so we had a morning to kill, which we started with a good brisk walk along the length of Loh Dalam Bay then back through the winding paths and laneways back to the hotel. Breakfast followed and a laze around until we were forced to check out of the hotel. We passed some time reading the paper (The Bangkok Post) and making some forward bookings on the Internet. This whole trip would not be possible without the Internet. We have had the flexibility of making late bookings and managing our own way. In previous times, one felt at the mercy of package tours and travel agencies. Unfortunately, Internet access varies in both cost and quality. The Phi Phi Hotel advertised in-room WiFi access but in reality, it only worked reliably down in the foyer.
The ferry trip was quick and comfortable, taking around an hour and a half. When disembarking, we found that the Russian couple that had been on the ferry from Langkawi were also on board and we shared a mini-bus to Karon. At Karon, we stayed in the Karon Café Inn, or at least we thought we were, They booked us in then took us across the road and down the street to Las Mararitas, a sister establishment. Both are combined restaurant/hotels and offer an excellent standard of budget accommodation. Our room overlooked the street, which was virtually a mall with alfresco dining on both sides of the road and numerous small market stalls.
At night, the street came alive and although the festivities continued into the wee small hours of the morning, the sound-proofing proved good enough and we slept well. The ready access to cheap yet quality eats and reasonably priced drinks of all descriptions was a bonus and we spent much of our time in Karon siting in cafes or small bars.
Day 12 Karon March 5 2010
Another lazy day today, walking, swimming on Karon Beach, eating and browsing the markets, where Christine managed to beat down the price on a pair of bathers to an acceptable level. The evening was spent down the Western end of Karon, near Kata, at the Bounty Restaurant which is a firm favourite from previous visits to Phuket. The standard was maintained and we went on to the Karona Spa and Resort for deserts. We stayed at this wonderful place back in 2004 and fell in love with it. This time, it was a bit out of our price range but the food remains really cheap. The same guy that sang covers of 60s and 70s songs back in 2004 was still performing. As before, he sang to an vacant audience and seemed pleased that we sat down to listen and consume some delicious banana fritters and icecream.
Day 13 Phuket to Ho Chi Minh March 6 2010
With a fairly late flight out of Phuket, we checked out as late as we could then spent most of the remaining time sitting at the Mermaid Restaurant, using their free WiFi, drinking juice or coffee andhaving another wonderful lunch. The Mermaid has a hotel as well, and the reates were even better than the Karon Café Inn. This looks like a great spot to stay in the future.
Overall Impressions of Phuket
• Karon is much nicer than Patong. Its more laid-back style and smaller crowds makes moving around much easier.
• A visit to the markets can be quite challenging. Just browsing is not possible. Coming back the next day wrecks you bargaining power. They know you want the goods.
• Food in the main eating street of Karon is a very high standard and very cheap. While food seems to be of a universally good standard, beer prices vary greatly. We often choose a restaurant based on beer or fruit juice prices as this will make up the main part of the bill.
• Phuket is still worth a visit, especially when combined with a stay out on one of the islands.