Tour of Thailand: Prologue 22 June 2013, Bangkok to Ayutthaya

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Er…by train…

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It was clear we should start the Bangkok to Chiang Mai bike ride in Ayutthaya. Mike D did it from Bangkok but suggested it was crazy. You might say catching the train is cheating; but that is only if you consider staying alive to be cheating.

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Ride it if you dare…

In Bangkok the pavements are fair game for any small vehicle and the roads are akin to a war zone. This is a place where size matters and not a place to try to balance on a bike you have never ridden, using panniers and carrying luggage, which you have never done, amid traffic customs you have not experienced. So the bikes were transported to Hua Lampong Train Station by Siam Taxi Van and loaded into third class.

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Never have I travelled so cheaply (the bikes, however, were many times more expensive at 100THB per bike – still nothing to grumble at though).

It would have been an enjoyable ride, had I not been worried about disembarking. It was somewhat olde worlde with the open windows providing the ventilation and the open spaces between the carriages where Indiana Jones would have been chased onto the roof to do mortal battle with some villain. Now people risk their lives by standing out there having a fag.

This is a bicycle tour, the operative word being tour as much as bike, so I wanted to stay in places of interest. Ayutthaya appeared interesting; once the capital of Siam and a major trading port before the city was sacked by an invading Burmese army in 1767. Ayutthaya is almost off the wat scale and one of the things to occupy tourists (didn’t I say I wanted to get away from the tourist trail?) is to hire bikes and cycle the city, visiting old wats and new. It seemed obvious that already having bikes we should spend some time there, so we stayed for two nights.

In Ayutthaya, at the beginning of our ride, several themes began to emerge – punctures, wats, wats and wats (including cockerel wats), karaoke and dogs – each to be endured, admired or avoided.

Sorry? What did I say about wats? So, perhaps I was angling for my full wat dose: my wattage. In any event there were no wats on day one. Negotiating the howling dogs at the train station and the slightly less intimidating traffic, when we arrived at Luang Chumni Village we were asked to wheel our bikes through a waste land. After unloading we prepared to head out to investigate the ‘island’ and buy a puncture repair kit and I found I had my first flat. One new inner tube of three used and more self-flagellation about having forgotten to buy the puncture repair kit in the first place. That was my first realistic Thai experience; trying to buy a puncture repair kit from a very rudimentary bicycle shop, across a huge language language gap and with several Thais watching. I couldn’t manage a whole kit, but I did achieve four patches and some glue for 20THB.

On day two we set out to explore the floating market and the wats. Close to Bangkok, steeped in some history and grandeur of days gone by, Ayutthaya still draws the tourists. Even though it is low season there was much evidence of that. Tourists meandered the roads on bikes. Their coaches and mini vans lined the streets. And there was still that Thai attitude to tourists that I had so longed to escape from in the south. Take the floating market (no longer a place where trade takes place on junks, just another t-shirt tourist trap), we were asked to pay 20THB to park our bicycles on the street. Never in my (not that extensive) cycling career have I been asked to pay to park my bike; that is one of the beauties of bicycles, is it not? No fuel, no parking fees. No, thank you; we dumped them outside the 7 Eleven.

On the same day we paid a visit Wat Phra Mahathat, central to the island and opposite a food market. After having had my feet savaged by ants while parking my bicycle (for free), I was not in an understanding mood. A sugary drink helped but could not rescue the situation when I saw the ticket booth for the wat; in plain English there was a ‘Foreigner’s’ price. I watched throngs of tourists, clearly happy to pay this, trailing from the booth towards the ruins. No. Interpreted in its most negative light (a skill of mine), it was a blatant declaration that the foreigners or tourists were there to be taken advantage of.

We still saw wats. In Ayutthaya it is hard not to. And as we cycled further afield we noticed that as well as wats there were dogs (I had encountered many dogs in the south of Thailand and up until then was unafraid). In the road, under cars, enjoying the shade of a tree or a nook of a wat; but one thing was clear, they had the run of the place. Strolling around Wat Kudi Dao a whole pack trotted and circled, outside the low walls, one with a mouthful of road kill. Other dogs appeared and joined in. They were some distance away when we entered the ruin, until one dark one (small, but in my mind resembling a hound of hell) slunk inside. We watched from the stairs of an old pagoda as the dog began to wind its way through the fallen stones. The question really was, were these old bricks his territory?

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Sadly I left my khaki shorts, white vest and huge gun in Ao Nang.

I felt like I was on the set of Tomb Raider, but with none of Lara Croft’s bravery or ammo. Quietly we tiptoed across the court yard, retreating under the dog’s narrowed eyes.

Dinner was a marked contrast to the day’s exploitation and dereliction. We had scoffed on the train while reading a Lonely Planet paragraph on Gahn Glooay. Effectively a bar/restaurant/karaoke venue; although from the look of the female staff it appeared to have a fourth function. Purely by chance and driven by hunger, we stumbled in there. Never have I been more uncomfortable as when, having asked for Singha Beer, the staff hovered pointing out what we should order. My brandished two fingers and menu pointing, were not understood. But to my surprise, when my hastily ordered food arrived it was some of the best I have tasted in Thailand. And the karaoke? Well it wasn’t great, but hey, the people in there were having fun and there were no dogs.

The final theme was kindness. While Ayutthaya left a spicy-sour taste in my mouth, Luang Chumni Village (at 1000THB per night) was a truly lovely stay. The owners leant their pump (after the wasteland incident), gave towels to dry the bikes and prepared a lovely breakfast; the staff were friendly and kind. The rooms, rustic wooden stilted things – some with the bathrooms located under individual houses – were a delight and are surrounded by well tended garden and what resembles a small moat. Ok, so we shared the room with a lizard that had the awful habit of chattering in the dead of night night but as I was later to find out, he was to be the first of many. I left there with regret and some anxiety about the 80km of road to the city of Lop Buri.

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Lizard home stay, I can’t recommend it enough.

The Journey Starts Here

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The journey starts here…

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…on a train.

Having done some research and read several blogs (Mike’s Travels in Asia being one of them), I decided it was not safe to cycle out of Bangkok.

22 June 2013

Train from Hua Lampong Train Station to Ayutthaya. A bargainous 15THB for people, a not so bargainous 100THB for the steeds. The first puncture and the strangest dining and Karaoke experience, ever.

23 June 2013

A day of consolidation in Ayutthaya. Spent taking in the floating market (a heavily tourist-driven attraction where a woman tried to charge 20THB each for parking our bikes – er, no), the wats (complete with special ‘Foreigners’ price – again, er no) and avoiding the roving dogs.

24 June 2013 –Ayutthaya to Lop Buri (approximately 87km

Hot hot hot. Sweating, squinting to read the GPS on my iPhone and more dog avoidance. And another strange dining experience at The Broiler, Lop Buri.

25 June 2013 – Lop Buri to Sing Buri – approximately 50km, but the GPS was having none of it)

After GPS said ‘no’ we made our own route. This was a better day of cycling, winding through rural villages, stopping occasionally to snap a wat and buy 10THB orange drinks at the side of the road. Beautiful greens, soggy paddy fields and big smiles.

26 June 2013 – cop out in Sing Buri

Despite the plan for the longest ride so far, woke up, took in the grey sheets of rain against the silt brown of the Chao Phraya outside the window and booked into the hotel for another night. Once again nearly attacked by dogs.

27 June 2013 – Sing Buri to Uthai Thani

Getting into it now. Arrival at the most striking town so far. It still retains its strong connection to the Sake Krang River, Delightfully exudes an Old West feel with its wooden shutters and wide dusty streets and has a huge amount of bike shops. Most of all, it is a friendly place.

The Big Wat

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Actually a small, shiny wat.

A ‘wat’ is a monastery temple in Thailand. A ‘what’ is a type of question that I have many of, scattered among my ‘whys’, ‘wheres’ and ‘whens’.

People told me I would see lots of temples on my trip to Thailand, so many temples that the next one would just be another so w[h]at? I’ve seen a few and having been in Thailand for just over a month, having snorkelled, ridden, rowed, walked and on the verge of bidding goodbye to my brother and his girlfriend, Kelly, I asked myself what I was going to do with my second month in the country.

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Bye, bye…

I had been bused, song thaew’d and tuk tuk’ed from venue to venue and during these journeys I had been anxious that I would get where I needed to go, and in one piece. But was I really ‘travelling’? I didn’t think so. I had had a lot of Thai people approach me because I represented income – restauranteurs, drivers, tour companies – and I had tried my best to master a limited amount of Thai of their language with which to respond. I had met some lovely people, but I felt like the country was being brandished in front of me, like gilt covered tack, made ‘pretty’ like people think you want to see it; you like this? And this?

I felt dissatisfied.

I’m not sure exactly where the idea came from. Those ideas that possess you are like that. They have an energy of their own – my life has changed direction on the back of these ideas. I would cycle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, alone. I had looked at the tour companies who offer that sort of experience months ago (I guess the seed was sown then), I would be looking at £1000-plus (a complete budget-blower) and would I really be getting anything different, asking yet another tour company to hold my hand around the country and show me what they thought I should see? I was not convinced. The cogs of my stubborn mind bit.

I travelled to Bangkok with Robert and Kelly and set about finding everything I needed…

The bike. The Trek 7.2x. Yes, golden. This has been provided by Spice Tours of Bangkok for 370 THB per day (including rear rack). They were not the cheapest but they communicated well and considered all my requests. Bangkok is a huge city and all the bike rental/tour companies are scattered about it. Without wanting to pay the hungry tuk tuk drivers to shuttle me around the city, I was compelled to stick with what I had found.

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Steed (trustiness has yet to be established).

Luggage. It is rainy season and in any event it is important to have good panniers, both for balance and for keeping the stuff dry. While one blogger, By Misadventure, had mentioned using the dry bags that you see for little money at the beach resorts; I was not convinced. Having no idea what I was letting myself in for, I needed the real thing. I found two shops in Bangkok that stocked them – Probike and Bike Zone (or at least the shop next door in the Amarin Mall). Bike Zone gave the best service, so I got my 40L Ortlieb City Roll Back panniers and small handlebar bag there. Both shops gave 10% discount in any event. This cost in the region £135.

I could not forget my amazing Chinese shopping bag and six bungee cords. The bag is huge and sits on top of my panniers. It just holds stuff – my helmet, extra bottles of water, sugary drinks, sunglasses case…stuff. It is jazzy (not heard or used that word since the 1980s) and you can just chuck loads of stuff into it if you are at a train station or unloading the bike to check into a hotel. It cost the equivalent of £2 – bargain.

Tools. Multitool Topeak Hexon II (Bike Zone, the owner of which told me he had done Bangkok-Chiang Mai in five days – nothing like feeling inadequate), pump (Blackburn Airstik), puncture repair kit (forgot to buy this – big mistake given the puncture on T-1), Swiss Army knife (I already own this – good for opening packs of peanuts and raisins). Two spokes and three inner tubes (provided by Spice Roads, to be reimbursed if used). Bike lock.

Maps. Thinknet Maps of Thailand and Northern Thailand. Thailand GPS (by City App) app for the iPhone. Google Map screen shots. Strava bike app for emergency GPS assistance.

My stuff. A pair of padded shorts; a must. Walking shoes, good socks, T shirts and vests. A bandana for all round usefulness, although these uses have yet to present themselves. And my engine driver’s hat, courtesy of Tesco Lotus (yes, Florence and Fred are in Thailand), because you really must keep the sun off. Sun glasses, for the same reason.

And at the last minute, and much to my relief and the preservation of my life and sanity, I have company!

The journey starts here with lots of wats on the way and likely more what ifs?

Survival 101: Ko Lanta

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Note: if Trip Advisor reviews read ‘simple’ or ‘rustic’ you may have to prepare to ‘survive’. We are not talking Bruce Parry SAS-style but that does not mean it cannot feature in the general ‘survival’ dialogue, does it? DOES IT?

I am writing in my hard wood room (yes, I know Parry would not even have a room) in a century old fishing inn, which juts out across the Adaman, whose waters shimmer below, between every plank and joist. I share my room with a spider, evidenced by her webs and an incense coil smoulders in a corner to ward off my other companions, the mosquitoes. Cue survival.

To survive, you will need the following:

Mosquito net
Travel washing line
Swiss Army knife
Common plastic water bottle
Old sarong

    The Scenarios:

Blood Suckers!

The bedroom window has no actual glass, only bars, like a cell. The walls are made of century old planks and there are significant gaps between them; endearing, rustic, indulgent sigh. I began to worry about what would be visiting through these holes. From spiders to mosquitoes, from bats (wheeling in the corridor outside my room, I am not being dramatic) to rats or even the leg-humping chihuahua that belongs to Pao, the guesthouse owner (more on him – the dog – later).

I was not content with the incense coil, nor with the mosi plugin I bought with me. I needed a net, a force field against the the things that go bump and slurp in the night. Luckily, I had said net, but unluckily, not a clue as to how to erect it. The bedroom ceiling is palatially high, the vertical beams so hard that they could be made of stone…what to do with my four cornered box net?

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This…

In sequential moments of genius and extreme insectophobia I realised I could anchor the corners of the net around the wooden beams instead of driving the little hooks that came with the net into the wall. Carefully, with much tongue biting, I poked the little threads behind the posts, using the Swiss Army knife to tease them through. And the washing line? Stretched across from the bed to the barred window (those bars came in handy for something, at least), it provides my fourth anchor point.

Have it, all creepy species that may want to share the room and blood without paying

Wine-oh!

Now this clearly became a survival situation when I paid 650 THB for Jacobs Creek Shiraz Cab Sav from here:

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Says it all…they know how to get the tourists’ attention

Now, you may think (or even say), ‘you’ve been ripped off.’ And paying through the nose is not survival. No it is not. But in my defence this is the cheapest I have found wine out here and what is drinking Jacobs Creek (at all) if not survival?!

When I got back to the guesthouse with the stash the plan was to imbibe it from a coffee cup, seated on the stilted decking area. Yawn of decadence.

Instead, the rain lashed and the wind howled through cavernous and confused building (what’s outside is inside and the other way around). So, my plan was out and I did not feel inclined to go fetch a coffee cup, watched as I would undoubtedly be, by Pao, seated before his laptop and horrendous Thai soap. But my days of slugging wine from the bottle have not yet arrived: I needed a receptacle.

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Created in seconds: a wine tumbler fashioned from my water bottle. Civilised sipping could commence!

Pesky Pup

He ain’t much of a guard dog, although he has his serious face on here.

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And there’s something effeminate about him (apart from when he’s chewing on the long suffering cat, and then he’s simply disturbing). In fact, he has bad thing-chewing and leg humping habits.

So, lonely as I am, I am delighted when he pays me some attention. I am less delighted when he embraces my leg, clasps a mouthful of legging between his incisors and proceeds to hump. When he wasn’t doing that the leather thong on my new flip flops proved great for assuaging his chewing fetish.

Now, I want to keep my new tiny dog friend (although at the same time I feel a little used) but I cannot put up with his dirty habits. Survival is required.

An old sarong and the trusty Swiss Army knife. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in this survival task, but at the close of business I had a shabby chic, beach fashioned, dog ragga toy made from plaited strips of shredded sarong. Perfect for taking out those tiny doggy frustrations on and I got to keep my friend!! Not extreme survival, I grant you, but innovation. Beat that Parry.

Idiot Abroad: Phuk Ups

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I couldn’t resist. Really, Phuket is pronounced without the ‘h’ sound, so it’s not even right, not strictly funny: even so, I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, the title says it all. I would only add that these incidents are listed in order of occurrence, not severity.

    1) Always read the packet.

Stifled by the heat, I thought to myself how nice it would be to buy some herbal tea to enjoy in my room. And furthermore, what lovely aromatic choices there would be on offer, being so close to source and all…

So, at the nearest ‘Family Mart’ I selected a tea in a jolly red packet. ‘Senna’ it said on the back, this sounded nice.

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Looks nice too.

So, back at the ranch I set the kettle to boil, pouring in bottled water just to be on the safe side. Settling into the dark lacquered chair beside the coffee table I picked up my pack of tea bags to have a read, all the while mildly smug that I was putting something good in my body and washing out something bad.

But what? What was I washing out? Poo, that’s what. I had purchased laxative tea. That is what Senna does, I learned, it acts as a laxative. And if anybody is interested, it’s long term use is not advised. Phew, what a relief (‘scuse the pun). Again, for anybody who is interested (numbers dwindling all the time, I’m sure), the packet has since remained untouched.

    2) Do experiment with exotic fruits. But don’t defy your natural instincts while doing so.

The small fruit shop was clean and white; this meant it was safe. From across the road I had already identified the item I wanted. What looked like strawberries in a polystyrene tray from 5 metres away was something different close up. Instead of the moist, pipped red flesh, this fruit wore a pink spiky jacket. Still, when I read the word ‘lychees’ I picked up the tray and took it into the cool shop. I had had lycées before, at the Chinese restaurant where I worked my first job. Except there, they had come in tins.

‘Sa wat dee krap,’ the man in the shop greeted me, friendly. So friendly in fact that I felt confident in asking about how to remove the jackets these lychees were wearing.

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The innocent, jacketed lychee

Helpfully, he drew a single fruit from the fridge and holding it out to show me, he began to peel it. Who would have thought? Once peeled, he held out the fruit for me to try.

The moist, fibrous flesh was sweet, and I nodded in response to the shop owners question, ‘sweet, yes?’

He watched me, smiling.

Now it did occur to me to wonder about a stone. But then there’s the language gap and the lychee already an obstruction in my mouth. And strawberries don’t have stones, nor do kiwi fruit, so why –

‘But bitter, also?’ The man surprised me. I did not remember lychees being particularly bitter, but sure enough, there was a bitter taste, yes, and the fruit had become particularly hard, chewy. In fact, it was sapping all the moisture from my mouth, there were morsels everywhere, bits in my teeth and I could not speak, because I knew if I opened my mouth, my mouth would reject all this stuff.

I smiled a closed-slightly-full-mouthed-smile before leaving. Inwardly hoping that my lychees weren’t all bad like the one I had just tasted.

It was hours later that it struck me. I had chewed right through the stone. The huge, bitter, hazelnut sized stone.

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‘Don’t eat me, I taste like shit!’

    3) Down the drain.

The day hadn’t gone well really. The jazz restaurant I had sought out was closed for ‘restoration’, it had rained persistently and I had run out of things to do that didn’t cost money. I was feeling a bit lonely too, so by the time I headed out to get street food for dinner, I had pretty much written the day off.

Climbing into soggy sandals I took to the street to get what I needed. I was probably distracted, feeling sorry for myself. Perhaps that is why I failed to pick my feet up, or perhaps I really did trip over something. All I know is that, at once, I was falling forwards, my other non-tripping foot coming out to save the day, hands flailing. And then where my non-tripping foot should have slapped the concrete, it hit air, just air. My hands did grab something, but not strongly enough to stop my whole body falling down, down, down.

So, when I hit the bottom, hands still gripping, both feet luckily planted, I was inside a drain, up to my shoulders, the road running on regardless in front of my stunned face.

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This drain.

Thankfully, I was rescued, heaved out by two skinny men, to the sounds of their grunts and my new denim shirt and blue dress ripping.

Shortly after I had left, I returned to my hotel room, this time to lick my wounds (hard seeing how most of them are on the back of my right thigh…now, if only I’d attended that yoga class earlier in the week…) and see off a shitty day with Tiger Beer and meat on a stick! Because meat on a stick knows no bounds.

Now, if anyone who reads this can contribute their own idiot abroad stories, I’d be very grateful. For me, I suspect this is only the beginning…

Goodbye Hat Yai! – on awkward transitions

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‘Hat Yai! Hat Yai!’ A Thai woman called repeatedly, walking up and down the carriage. I started; dozing every 20 or so minutes had become a habit on the 15 hour journey.

Other people were in the carriage too; men. And they called out, ‘Hat Yai, Hat Yai!’ until it rang a rhythm to my panic. I gathered my things in a fever, afraid that I would miss the stop, forgetting that the train terminated here, in Hat Yai City; Big City living in southern Thailand.

My head was ringing as I stumbled, shoe laces still untied, from the train carriage, balking at the canyon between the train and the platform, wincing in advance of the pain I would feel in my ankle.

Old sofas, stuffing-guts spilling out, made for benches. Women stood at stands offering food as the flies crashed above through an overwhelming smell of fish.

And then it began, ‘where’re you going?’ Local men surrounded me; persistent. I was money. I was sweaty money. I began to walk. Again and again and again they asked me. I to them I knew where I was going (first time I have ever said that with much conviction).

If there is ever pessimism in the Lonely Planet, then I would say there were undertones in the section on Hat Yai. In its brevity and it’s ‘stay if you want’ attitude. I didn’t want, but having changed my plans to suit my wretched foot, I had no choice.

Hat Yai City, population 157,000 approx is a transition town; a place which travellers pass through and historically where Malaysian men make weekend pilgrimage to find their hookers. Along with this you might find good shopping and good food.

Between the Internet and The Lonely Planet, I was confused. The Lonely Planet advised that mist interprovincial buses and south-bound minivans left from the bus terminal south of the city centre. The Internet (I generalise here) advised not to travel direct to the bus terminal but that tickets must be booked from one of the many travel agencies scattered all over the city.

My instinct was that I wanted to buy the tickets direct from the station, if I could. Call me tight but I didn’t fancy paying commission to an agent for something that a degree of hobbling could achieve; I think it’s my duty as a traveller to adopt this attitude.

My first life line turned out to be the TAT, the Thai tourist authority. Located 100 yards from Sripoovanart Road on Niphat Uthit 3 Soi 2, they furnished me with a full timetable. So I set off to the bus station to try to book my way out of Hat Yai.

I passed by the international Golden Arches of McDonalds, an amazing feat considering my hunger, before I tailed onto the backstreets where people on mopeds shout ‘hey lady!’, greasy dogs watch their patch of concrete and men piss into the canal. There are also many many food stalls and I berated myself for being too meek to try at least one. Instead I fixed my face and just kept walking. And walking.

But I couldn’t buy a ticket to Ranong, when I got there, as I had planned. No, the ticket booth was shut until six. I slumped down on a bench to gather my thoughts.

‘Where’re you goin’?’ This time it was a New Zealander, pre-occupied with his onward journey to Padang Besar (border town and dead ringer for The Phantom Zone of Superman literature) and a seemingly insatiable itch in his scrotal area.

I’You wanna’ go to Phuket, Ranong bus is gonna’ go there anyway.’ I nodded, made the right noises and tried not to notice the itching.

‘Loads of buses go to Phuket.’

I assured him I would keep it as a back-up plan, then continued to give him my interested face as he told me of his frustrations.

The next time I saw the bus station I rode there, on the back of a motorcycle taxi, my 15kg rucksack wedged in front of the driver. The 50 baht ride might have been the first time I have genuinely smiled since arriving. Whether that was because of the feeling of the warm wind through my clothes or the anticipation of leaving, I don’t know; probably both.

In the end I got a ticket to Phuket – international beach resort – looking for some certainty. Although a little voice resounded, is that what travelling is? Certainty?

On my return to the hotel, through those back streets, I’d asked myself what travelling was all about. Because right then I felt scared, alien and impotent. And of course I got no answer but my instincts told me I might find both my feet and some temporary peace in Phuket.

Now the useful stuff:

The bus terminal is just off Sripoovanart Road on Chotwittayakul 1 Road…

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Bottom right, not Google Maps, I know.

Hat Yai Bus Terminal can be contacted on 0 7423 2404

Buses offers are VIP, two levels of air-con and non-air-con.

Here are a few of the locations the terminal services:

Bangkok
Chumpon
Koh Samui
Koh Yai
Krabi
Padang Besar
Phang-Nga
Phuket
Ranong
Surat Thani
Trang

This list is not exhaustive and for all locations there are multiple departures daily.