6:30 am. Somewhere in Surat Thani. After shaking off Cheap Ticket Guy, I wandered only as far as the next street corner before I stopped for a brew and gathered my thoughts. There was little need to race around and hunt for a bus just yet; I still had the whole day still ahead of me. I kept an eye out for busses whilst supping the coffee, but nothing drove by. I hoped that the girl at the breakfast stall would be able to help, but she didn’t understand my questions – not even when I applied that hopelessly ridiculous, broken English accent (with equally comical hand signals) commonly adopted when speaking to others either too lazy or too ignorant to learn my native language. The cheek of them.
After coffee, I covered a few more streets in search of the ‘Beeg Bus Stacion’ but found nothing. I asked around a bit more and eventually came up trumps at a guesthouse. The kindly chap at reception pointed across the counter, through the door and over to the opposite side of the street. But even better than pointing at a bus stop, he pointed at a big orange bus! After thanking him profusely, I hightailed it through a sea of hard-swerving mopeds and jumped on the bus just as it began to pull away. Indiana Jones: you know nothing. Well, to be honest, the bus wasn’t actually pulling away when I got on. I just made that up. In truth, the bus was still standing there long after the needle on my lung-o-meter had swung back from the red, ‘near explode’ zone back into the more comfortable, browny-grey, ‘morning cough’ zone.
It was still early morning, school time I would say, judging by the amount kids in crisp, white uniforms that crowded a bus otherwise filled with nice smelling ladies and elderly gentlemen. I couldn’t have felt more out of place. They had all, no doubt, recently scrubbed down and donned clean clothes to start their new day, whereas Ihad just spent 12 hours sleeping partly clothed on a clammy night train from Bangkok. To make matters worse, we were packed in like sardines. I edged into the remaining standing space in the aisle, right in the middle of the tin.
Worse still, after the impromptu 100-yard backpack-dash, I was now sweating like a horse. Everyone could see it, and one young lad in particular, sat just down to my right, probably felt it from time to time, too. I would have liked to have bent down and apologise to him personally, but I knew that any sudden movement would only unleash another bead-fest on his little, and already wet, neck.
The ticket girl edged closer.
“Big bus station?” I enquired, trying my utmost not to drip on her too much.
She gave a nod, relieved me of 12 Baht, and looked up and down my soggy, still slightly panting body with a mixed expression of shock, confusion and horror – similar only to that of someone witnessing a slow-motion, 15 car motorway pile up. Unsurprisingly, she made her way out of the drip-zone at a startling pace. By now, I think the small boy to my right had started to cry. They looked like teardrops, but, given my current rate of leakage, I couldn’t be sure.
Thankfully, within 10 minutes we pulled into the main Surat Thani bus station. I was glad not only to be at the station, but to be off that bus. I had done it. Now it should be plain sailing to Krabi, my jumping off point for the islands. If only life was that easy. With everything at the station written solely in Thai – schedules, bus bays, you name it – I had no choice but to reintroduce the silly accent and again start asking for pointers.
After a good hour of harassing a string of staff, motorbike taxi drivers, fellow passengers and songtheaw drivers, I learned I’d have more chance of getting to Krabi by flapping my arms, caw-ing like a seagull and flying there myself than by bussing it there from Surat Thani. No buses, or at least none that I could find, headed that way from this particular station. Cheap Ticket Guy at the station spoke the truth. This called for another change of travel plan and a swift round of travel roulette.
Rather than sit around and wait indefinitely for a bus to Krabi that may or may not arrive, I chose instead to get on the next southbound bus – wherever it went. It went to Phuket Town, so I did too – but not before stopping back at the Surat Thani train station to pick up passengers…all of whom were now a 27 Baht round-trip better off than I, and none of whom by 9am had mentally scarred a bus conductor for life.
The 12 hour train ride from Hualamphong Station, Bangkok down to Surat Thani went surprisingly quickly. I expect I must have slept for longer than I first thought possible.
Waking at 5am left me ample time to double check my gear and enjoy a stunning sunrise over a leisurely breakfast. Breakfast was a hot, sweet cup of coffee and, acquired the previous evening from one of the walk-on vendors, a styrene tray of spicy mince and boiled rice (complete with plastic spoon and precariously balanced fried egg.)
I managed to get a grandstand view of my new surroundings from the far end of the carriage. After pulling open one of the main exit doors and wedging myself firmly into the exit aisle (so as not to alight the train during a sharp sideways jolt, of which there are many), I cracked on with breakfast.
That morning, as I sat and watched and sipped and munched, I felt truly blessed. I could genuinely appreciate just how lucky I was. Seldom do you chance upon 2 such exceedingly rare pleasures in such a short time span : a spectacular sunrise over Southern Thailand and a decent cup of train coffee. What a treat.
For the next leg after Surat Thani, a bus trip, I decided to play it by ear. I’d see what was heading south from the bus station (assuming that there was one and that I’d actually find it) and take it from there.
Shortly after breakfast, the journey finished. We pulled in to Surat Thani train station just after 6 am. Even before the train had come to a complete stop, I knew that onward travel wasn’t going to be a problem since a group of touts had already gathered on the platform – all eagerly scanning the train doors and windows for potential customers. I looked back down the carriage and counted about 6 other backpackers slowly making their way to the exits. Our carriage was a prime target.
With one, final lurch forward, the train stopped. By now, many of the tour reps had gathered around the exit, all jostling for a place at the front of the pack, their destination placards waving high in the air. I was genuinely surprised by their eagerness.
The doors opened and the welcoming committee pushed through the Thai passengers to get to us. The moment I stepped onto the platform and into the bright sunshine, I almost got a large, neatly printed placard thrust up my nostril. It was akin to some bizarre race where the winner is the first to grab a shirtsleeve and therefore ‘claim’ the tourist inside it. I pushed my hand deep into my wallet pocket and kept walking. I also wished I’d played more rugby at school.
“Where you go?! Where you go?!!”
We have cheap ticket to Ko Phang Ngan! Come! Come! Cheap! Cheap!”
But I didn’t want to go go, even if it was cheap cheap. I told the fella that won me I didn’t know where I wanted to go and that I didn’t need a ticket, cheap or otherwise, but it wasn’t enough to shake him off. He wasn’t going to give up just yet. I continued out of the station and down the street, all the time with my new mate in tow, without the slightest idea where I was heading. After about 500 yards, cheap ticket man slowed up.
“Hey, where you go?” he said, sounding genuinely confused.
“I go for coffee…this way” I replied, pointing down the street and to the furthest visible point from the tour office.
“We have coffee! Come! Come!”
The thing is, he probably did, too.
“No, I’ll go down here, and then maybe Krabi” I blurted “…but later…and from the bus station”
My foolish concession gave the guy a new lease of life. Man, I wish this plonker would keep his gob shut, I thought (and by ‘that plonker’ I mean me, not him.)
“Station no have bus Krabi! We have bus Krabi! Cheap cheap for you! Easy for you!”
I hesitated. Glancing back over my left shoulder, I saw the other folks from the train getting funnelled into the tour agency opposite the station. What if this was telling the truth? What if they did have the only busses to Krabi? What if the other people were also going to Krabi and they knew this? For a moment, I considered joining them. I pictured the map in my head: Krabi looked a big place, Surat Thani looked a big place – surely there had to be busses between the two. I decided to carry on walking.
“No, I think I’ll go to the bus station…but thanks anyway.”
All I had to do now was find it.
The words ‘streamlining’, ‘cutbacks’ and ‘reorganisation’ are all too common these days, and despite sitting here gaily tapping away – my workstation a laptop on a pair of sweaty legs, my suit and tie a pair of sunbleched pants with the ass hanging out – Ubertramp.com will also soon succumb to a vicious round of ‘fat trimming’.
But it’s not as quite as severe as it first may sound.
One thing I’ve noticed since being away (in this case, away from home and the usual 8 hajillion zilla-bit broadband connection) is how slow Ubertramp.com loads from an internet cafe. And for a site aimed at budget travellers, where time IS money in internet cafes, that’s not a good thing.
I need to sharpen the mouse and ruthlessly hack away at the nice looking (read: slow loading) stuff. I need to cut the current Java eye candy in favour of good, wholesome, budget friendly HTML. Ideally, I’d like to do this via a wifi connection from my laptop laden with geeky but timesaving tools – but in reality I’ll probably have to do it from an internet cafe. Its going to be interesting, that for sure.
Over the next however long I’m going to be analysing, stripping back and re-testing the site and slowly converting it into a more streamlined beast built for speed and accessibility over looks and shiny bits. Though, over the next however long, I’m also going to be spending a healthy percentage of my time in a hammock.
The more important shiny travel gadgets, such as the interactive maps, will stay (although they’ll only be accessible to registered users to reduce database load and overall site load times) and many of the tabbed bits will be changed instead into lists. Registered users will still have normal functionality on the community side (and be able to search for other users, message them, link to their own travel sites, write travelogue entries, upload unlimited photos, find people near them on the maps etc) as these are all things that’ll help build a better, more helpful, friendly and useful budget travel community. If you’ve not yet registered, you can do so for free here.
Graphics will get compressed where possible, and non-essential icons and other eye candy will be ditched in favour of more basic methods of getting the point across. Sure it may look a little uglier, but ugly and useful has to be better than pretty and useless (or as it is currently from internet cafes: pretty useless.)
What the site will lose in looks I hope to gain in efficiency. Well, that’s the general plan, anyway.
I’ll have plenty of time to start planning the changes on the 12 hour journey to Surat Thani this evening, and when I next get a cheap and half decent internet connection I’ll put the plan into action.
In the meantime, enjoy the non-essential shiny stuff as its days are numbered!
Any feedback you have on this – such any comments or suggestions on what you should think should stay, go, or be introduced in the future – would be greatly appreciated. Ta.
See you at the beach.
The 1 1/2 hour walk from Khao San Road to Hualamphong train station was hot, sticky and, on occasion, cough-up-stuff smoggy, but the food stops alone made it worthwhile. I’m glad I stuck it out.
The helpful staff at the Hualmphong information desk did the station proud. Considering my rather vague notion of where I wanted to end up, they clarified things quickly. Surat Thani was indeed the stop I needed to get to the south western islands around Krabi, and it didn’t take long to sort out the details. Read more
Soon as I get a ticket, I’ll head out of Bangkok and down to the Thai islands in the southwest. If you picture Thailand as the shape of an elephant’s head, I’ll be travelling from the bit where the peanuts go in, to approximately 2/3 of the way down the bit that roots around your crotch.
According to my freebie Thailand map (courtesy of the WWW) there’s a train line running right down the middle of the trunk. Seeing this pleases me no end. It’s just a personal preference, but I’d choose to take the train over the bus any day of the week, particularly on longer journeys and especially in Thailand. It may not be the quickest way from A to B in Thailand but, as long as you aren’t in cattle class, it’s probably the most comfortable option for the price.
Since this is the one main line that runs south from Bangkok, I figure it’s the same mainland route I took back the other way from Ko Pha Ngan a couple of years back, which stops (or possibly terminates) at Hualamphong Station near Chinatown, Bangkok. After double checking on google maps and cross referencing to my scribbles, it does. The line runs right into Hualamphong Train Station. Bonus.
I’ll dig out the compass and the freebie Bangkok map (this time courtesy of the airport) and take a wander down there this afternoon to try and grab a train ticket. With a bit of luck they should know exactly how far down I need to go. Surat Thani looks the nearest big city (where there may be the most transport across to the west), but I’m sure I’ll be able to get the lowdown at the station.