30th November 2011
An estimated 4,000 people lost their lives on Boxing Day 2004 in this quiet tourist town as a tsunami swept up from the beach destroying all in its wake. Unofficial estimates put the figure at 10,000. Its a sobering thought, and there are subtle reminders in the form of signs stating “Tsunami Evacuation Route”. Other less subtle reminders are a police boat and fishing boats beached some kilometres inland from the sea where they were carried by the rushing force of the super-wave that struck that day. It is hard to comprehend the scale of the disaster or the loss of life that occurred here nearly 7 years ago, and there is no outward sign along the main strip that anything of that magnitude had ever happened.
Reviews I read before coming here stated that the high street had changed – all the buildings are new for one, and that Khao Lak was very definitely open for business. Whether the composition of the shops is now the same as it was before is unclear to me, but I was immediately struck by the number of opticians and tailors there were crammed into such a small area, after all the main street is only a couple of clicks long, and some chains of opticians have 4 or 5 stores spaced at intervals along it. There is even a McDonalds here now, but it is very expensive, even for just the chips!
My impression is that Khao Lak is a quiet and friendly family destination catering to a predominantly Scandinavian and German tourist population. There are hopeful cries of “Taxi Taxi” as you pass the converted pickup truck drivers, the shop owners try to entice you in to check their wares with a smile, and everywhere it feels like there are at least 2 staff to every customer. It is November, high season, and yet the town does not feel full, the beaches scattered with 20s of bathers rather than 100s – the place feels laid back, not rushed, not busy.
We had slept comfortably and well, broke our fast early with the usual cereal and bread with honey or nutella, and a cup of freshly brewed coffee from the hostel café. It was to be another beach day for us, so packing essentials we headed off up the main street to the corner by the large supermarket, before heading down towards the beach. It is a walk of some 1.2 km we were informed and we were ready to dive into the water when we finally got there! The water was filled with the sand, and the waves moderate – so snorkelling was pointless (we did try but couldn’t see our feet), but playing with ball and frisby and cavorting in the waves was the order of the day. There were various young children around and about that the boys convinced to let them borrow there body boards, so an alternative source of amusement was added to the mix.
We ate at a restaurant not far from the beach which served reasonably priced, and quite tasty Thai food. before returning to the main dish of the day – a major helping of having fun on sand and in surf. Soon enough, the shadows lengthened and we headed back home to Seaweed Hostel. Dinner was OK too at a small place half-way up the main road; Thai again, chicken and rice again for the little ones. And so home to bed, Harry Potter forr the boys, and some more research on dive courses, resorts, dive centres, transport etc etc etc for Tania and me, before we too retired, tired and slightly befuddled.
1st December 2011
Pinch, punch, first of the month; white rabbits – however you mark a new month, here we are at the 1st day of Christmas month. As we read on FB of trees going up, neighbours luminescent decorations draining the national grid, and the rising cost of furnishing the little cherubs with the latest toy or must-have super-hamster-eats-seeds video game (doesn’t exist and I am registering the patent/copyright!) we feel very much outside of it all and unexcited.
We have our way of celebrating Christmas, and “back home” we would all be getting excited, singing carols and joining in with the usual annual outing for the Christmas tunes of now and yesteryear. Buying and wrapping presents, writing cards (which we are notoriously bad at doing), and leaving the tree purchase until Christmas Eve. Tania dresses it whilst the kids hide upstairs, and then called down by a bell to see it in its splendour for the first time, replete with lights, candles and sparklers. Most likely impossible to achieve whilst we are on the road, though I’m sure if we doused the tree in petrol and set fire to it next to a box of fireworks the S.E.Asia Health & Safety Executive would not even bat an eyelid.
It feels like we have opted out of Christmas at the moment. I hope that as the day approaches that that buzz of excitement will appear, and that this will in the end be a special Christmas during which we can focus on what it really means without all of the commercial trappings on this day of giving, not receiving.
Putting this to one side, we awake to another fine day and decide another beach day is in order. The morning is once again passed in the surf, enjoying leaping the waves with the kids again borrowing body boards from various children on the beach. Tania and I decide that we may as well get one for the boys too and I head off to haggle over price at one of the many beach shops on the high street. Striking a reasonable bargain I head back to the beach where Tania and the boys are exploring rock pools further up the beach. So, I do what any big kid would do and have a go myself until the children suddenly spot me in the waves and rush to my side. We take it in turns to have a go, until it inevitably gets snapped in two rendering it fairly useless! An hour… is that a record? Lunch was sandwiches we had made before heading to the beach.
We head home as the shadows lengthen, passing the shop where I had bought the board from. The proprietor glanced in my direction with a questioning look and I motioned that it was broken as we walked past. Dinner was at a place recommended by Ta, the very helpful hotel manager, which was way past the large supermarket that we usually go to. It was cheap, and relatively filling and tasty. Ticked all the boxes. The wander back meant stopping at various shops as Tania felt the urge to window shop until the rain started to fall. Gently at first, but then taking on monsoon proportions as we made it to the Pancake Street stall by the supermarket. Sheltering under the bus stop to eat them, and hoping that the rain would stop (or at least ease off), but to no avail. So, braving the rain we jogged through the deluge back to the hostel, arriving there soaked to the skin, but giggling. Bed time and Harry Potter saw us off into the land of nod.
2nd December 2011
Morning broke with dampness filling the air from the overnight rain, and the ground still moist and slightly steaming as the weak sun tried to break through the clouds and dry us all out. The day was spent between researching the move to Koh Tao, organising PADI courses and tidying up the bungalow. Eventually we headed to the beach again, with broken board in tow. The day overcast, the waves high – not the most enjoyable of conditions, but the rock pools provided entertainment in the form of crabs and jumping fish and the odd sea snail or two.
We headed back, slightly fed up, but also needing to pack the rucksacks ready for departure the next day. As we passed the board vendor, he hailed us and then took our board off us and replaced it with a brand new one. Slightly taken aback, it took a little time for it to dawn on us that he had replaced our broken board in a unsolicited display of distinctly western customer service practically unheard of in Thailand. When I retell the story to fellow travellers it invariably results in some raised eyebrows and incredulous expressions – they don’t do refunds or exchanges here! Smiling and thanking him profusely we made our farewells and headed home. As the boys played on their devices, we sought their permission to leave them for a little while to do some “boring stuff”. Tickets sorted, new sunglasses ordered and picked up, new bikini for Tania and we were back, ready to pick up the boys and go for dinner.
We went early to bed, as the bus for Kho Tao was leaving at 09:50 in the morning, and we needed to finish the packing, breakfast etc.
3rd December 2011
Sun shining, birds singing, waves crashing, mosquitos hunting – we finish packing and bleary eyed we emerge from our bungalow, say our goodbyes to the lovely staff at Seaweed and make our way down the street to the bus stop in the already searing heat to catch our transport to Chumphon. The bus was supposed to arrive at 09:50 but in true public transport fashion, was fashionably late by about ¾ hour. No matter, we scramble on board and pay for 3 seats, the two small ones perched on our knees for the long journey. As we leave Khao Lak, we search for the stranded boats carried inland by the 2004 tsunami. My one regret is that we didn’t explore the place more. This small resort suffered a grave natural disaster, but 7 years on has bounced back. Then again maybe its right that we should enjoy the town for what it is now, not the tragedy that once befell it.
Lots of Thais make up the passengers on our local bus and we, along with a couple of American guys and a German family are the only foreigners on the bus. We pass more palm plantations and regulated forests before we arrive at our first stop, and kind of terminal/transport café. Tania and Oskar descend to find food and 2 minutes after they leave a man comes on shouting Chumphon and gesticulating wildly that we have to get off now. Myself, Luca and Mateo duly alight and indicating our luggage we are marched to another bus for Chumphon (the one we were on before was going elsewhere). Ordinarily this would not be a problem, but as Tania had disappeared and I did not want the bus to go without her and Oskar, the new bus driver was getting rather het up that we were delaying his departure.
After two tours of the bus station and restaurants I eventually spotted Tania and we reunited on the new bus and were on our way – again with only 3 seats. We wound our way through villages and mountains, past forests and plains, making reckless overtaking manoeuvres (as seems to be the way of bus drivers in SE Asia) but not travel-sickness making like some journeys we have been on. Eventually we arrived in Chumphon town. Deposited in a bus station in the centre somewhere, with no facilities or amenities save a ticket/information office, we felt rather abandoned. Enquiring within, the helpful lady phoned a woman she knew who ran a restaurant and travel centre not far away who could help us with the night ferry, and they came and picked us up for free (and another English couple in the same boat – no pun intended).
We drew up outside her place and sorted out tickets, and then had a 4 hour wait before the night boat. So we had some food and then Tania and Luca went in search of flip flops (hers had broken again), and then Tania went off with Oskar (whose flip flops had been taken by someone). Meanwhile we chilled out with games, iPads, internet and the odd game of football on the TV. Oskar struck up a conversation with a fellow Chelsea supporter at the bar who kindly bought him a drink and was impressed with his confidence and knowledge! And the rain came down not just in spits and spots, but torrential, monsoon proportions. I took some photos so I hope you can get a gist.
Eventually, 9pm rolled around and it was time for us to leave for the ferry. The rain was still falling as we dashed for the pickup/taxi and squashed in made the shortish journey to the boat. We pulled up on the dock not more than 50m from the ferry and dashed to cover through a car deck full of sand, produce, building materials, up a ladder to the main hold full of eggs and other food, and then up a gangway to the sleeper deck. Pleasantly surprised, we were greeted with a cabin containing a dozen bunk beds, sheets blankets and pillows. Not luxury, but pleasantly more than we had been expecting. We all got ready for bed and climbed into our bunks. As time passed more and more people arrived to take the last of the bunks, and then drag in mattresses to fill the spaces in between, some couples doubling up in the single bunks All I can say is I am glad that we got there early.
At 23:30 the ferry set sail. Thankfully the boys slept all the way there, but Tania and I spent a turbulent night with the sea tossing the boat and a fairly substantial roll which felt like a couple of metres from port to starboard. We arrived in Kho Tao harbour before sunrise at around 06:30. Tania was awake first and had to wake me up! The crew had not indicated a time for disembarking so we let the boys sleep on as we looked at our surroundings and watched the sun rise. The sea, even in the harbour, was crystal clear and we smiled at the fish we could already see in dawn’s early light…. this was going to be great! Bien Venue á Kho Tao.