Thailand, the country shaped like an elephant’s head, is renowned for its beautiful islands and beaches. The “elephant’s trunk”, stretching down the Malay Peninsula, has coasts on both the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Andaman Sea to the west, and both coasts are lined with hundreds of islands. The west coast, around Phang Nga Bay, has a particularly large concentration of islands, and it is this region that I explored upon crossing Thailand’s southern border from Malaysia.
I traveled by bus from Penang, Malaysia, across the surprisingly busy border, and through the province of Songkhla. Songkhla Province is a fairly unstable area of Thailand, as it is involved in an ongoing conflict with the national government over its desire to have more autonomy (some of the southern Thai provinces have closer historic and religious ties to Malaysia than to the rest of Thailand). The region has seen sporadic violence over the past few decades, so it is not a very good place to stay and visit. Nevertheless, it is an important transit hub for travel between Malaysia and Thailand; accordingly, my transit of Songkhla consisted only of a bus change to the city of Krabi in Krabi Province, where I spent one night before boarding a ferry to the island of Koh Lanta.
The islands of Thailand are known for their white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, luxurious resorts, and alcohol-fueled “Full Moon Parties”, all of which contribute to Thailand being one of the top tourist destinations in the world (three of the top 25 most visited cities in the world are in Thailand). Among the millions who flock to Thailand each year are freezing Europeans who come to enjoy the sunshine and good weather of Thailand’s dry season, which corresponds to the winter season in Europe. Thailand is such a popular destination, in fact, that there is even a Swedish TV drama series called 30 grader i februari (“30 Degrees in February”) that follows several sets of Swedish characters who move to Thailand to escape various problems in their snowed-in lives, only to find themselves dealing with a whole new set of problems in Thailand.
When I arrived in Koh Lanta, my goal was to relax – two weeks of city sightseeing in the tropical sun is exhausting! I stayed at a hostel on one of the main beaches along the west coast of the island not far from the ferry terminal in the north. Koh Lanta is a fairly large island though, so the next day I decided to explore it by renting a bicycle. This somewhat got me around – I made it to the far end of the island, 25 kilometers south of the ferry terminal, but I ended up transporting the bike nearly as much as it transported me! It had no gears, so it was practically useless in Koh Lanta’s hilly southern half. Renting a motorbike would have been much more practical! It was a nice day though, as I made several stops to enjoy the more remote beaches and have refreshing snacks like fresh coconut shakes and mango sticky rice, a Thai specialty.
Traveling down the length of Koh Lanta, it is impossible not to notice the overwhelming presence of everything Swedish-related. There are Swedish restaurants, Swedish schools, Swedish fika cafés, and many Swedish families on vacation. Other European nationalities are thoroughly represented as well, but Koh Lanta is particularly known for its Swedish influence. The locals have caught on to this trend and many of the tuk-tuk drivers have decked out their vehicles in the colors of the Swedish or other Nordic flags. I even met a local who spoke a fair amount of Swedish. Needless to say I found this island very amusing – it almost felt like I was in an episode of 30 grader i februari!
I spent the next few days on Koh Lanta snorkeling at some of the smaller islands in the Lanta archipelago. Whereas the larger Thai islands such as Koh Lanta have most of the development and infrastructure, it is the smaller, uninhabited islands that are the most picturesque and the ones that make for great postcard photos. During a couple different day trips, I snorkeled over coral reefs and through schools of fish at the islands of Koh Rok Noi, Koh Rok Yai, Koh Chuek, Koh Kradan, and Koh Maa (yes, koh, or เกาะ, means “island” in Thai!). One of the trips also included a stop at Koh Mook to swim through an 80-meter-long cave in the cliff face – at the other end of the cave is a beach in the center of the island, surrounded by high cliffs on all sides. Because the cave is so long and dark, and becomes inaccessible at high tide, this beach used to be a favorite hangout for pirates.
After a few days in Koh Lanta, I took the three-hour ferry ride over to Phuket island (which involved a chaotic at-sea boat transfer near Koh Phi Phi). Koh Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and by far the most visited. Its airport is the third largest in the country and has many direct flights to destinations all over Asia and Europe. Phuket is a mountainous island with a series of bays and beaches around its coast that host hundreds of resorts and leisure activities for the crowds of vacationers who come here. The west coast has the most popular beaches, centered around Patong Beach and its infamous Bangla Road, where I’m told many interesting things happen… I only ventured over to the west coast once, however, and spent the rest of my stay on the east coast in Phuket Town, the capital of Phuket Province. There is not much to see in Phuket Town itself, but there is a great night market as well as some nice cafés and many good restaurants catering mainly to the locals rather than the tourists.
Not far from Phuket Town is Koh Siray, which is technically an island, but is separated from Koh Phuket by only a small channel. On a hilltop on Koh Siray, I visited a quiet Buddhist temple called Wat Koh Siray, which has at its center a large gold reclining Buddha statue. Later, I took a walk through Koh Siray’s sea gypsy village. Sea gypsies are a group of people who are traditionally nomadic and who used to move around from island to island until the increasing development forced them to settle in permanent villages. The sea gypsy, or Moken, people have their own language and culture, and their lifestyle is centered around fishing. When I walked through their village on Koh Siray, the day’s catch was already drying in baskets along the waterfront, while the people were lounging on wooden decks outside their homes. Some of the women were working on various activities such as grinding spices or preparing shellfish.
At the top of one of the mountains in the center of Koh Phuket sits a 45-meter-high statue of the Buddha. Though it is still under construction, it is an active Buddhist religious site and a popular place to go for a view of the surrounding landscape stretching out to the Andaman Sea. The project is funded mainly by donations, but the main statue is largely complete, and it is an impressive sight that can be seen from miles away.
I have now reached the end of the first leg of my trip, and will be moving off the Malay Peninsula to a different region entirely. I am not done exploring Thailand, however. There is still much more to see in this country, and I plan to return later in my trip to visit Bangkok and the northern regions. Before that, though, my next destination is India, where I will arrive in the city of Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.