Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two Days One Night In Koh Tao And A Night On The Ferry

We left Malaysia through Chungloon (or Changloon) post and entered Thailand through Sadao post. I will tell more about the overland border crossing on a separate post. We arrived in Hatyai bus terminal at around 5:30 p.m.

Since it's a bit difficult to stick with the trip-by-train itinerary (we were too tired to go to the train station), we decided to continue the journey by bus. As if there was not enough drama in this journey, all tickets to Surat Thani were sold out until April 12!

The next available tickets to Surat Thani were on April 13. There was no way I wanted to spend two nights in Hatyai, so I asked if they had tickets to Chumpon. Yes, they did, alhamdulillah! 

I discussed this with Aneen and we decided to change our route. We were not going to Surat Thani and then to Koh Phangan as planned, but we were taking a detour to Chumpon and then to Koh Tao. Moral of the story: when traveling, be flexible and prepare the contingency plans.

Something interesting happened when we purchased our tickets: Thailand's national anthem played on the TV and everyone, including the ticketing officers and the other people in the terminal, stopped their activity and stood up. I've read about it, but it still surprised me to see the people really dropped their activity to honor the anthem.

Since Hatyai is the closest city from Malaysia, many people can cakap Melayu (speak Malay) and the city has Muslim communities too. There was a musholla in the terminal and I saw a girl with headscarf inside. I thought she was from Malaysia, but when I asked in Malay if it was already Maghrib, she replied in English that Maghrib was still two minutes to go. Oops, so she's not a Malay-speaking person, my bad.

The bus would leave at 9 p.m. so we left the terminal to find something to eat. There was a night market nearby and there were food vendors wearing headscarves. It felt like we had yet to leave Malaysia :).

We went crazy and bought many foods for our dinner.

With our stomach full, we went back to the terminal and waited for our bus.

After almost eight hours on the road, the bus reached Chumpon at around 5 a.m. We hopped off the bus in a sleepy state and found ourselves surrounded by motorcycle taxi drivers that offered us a ride to the ferry port.  We said no and simply followed the other Caucasian bus passengers. We figured that if they made it this far (just like we did), they were going to Koh Tao too.

Several hundreds meters away from the spot where the bus dropped us was the Chumpon train station and the ticketing office for ferry going to Koh Tao. However, another drama was in place when we asked for the tickets to Koh Tao. Can you guess? Yes, all the tickets were sold out!

It's almost Songkran, one of the most important holidays for Thai people, so it's no surprise that traveling within Thailand during these days would be a bit difficult. It would be like traveling in Java during Idul Fitri. 

However, all those Internet browsing on travel forums paid off (I forgot which travel forum mentioned it, but it says that despite Songkran, there would always be an extra ticket or an extra boat, just smile and ask around politely. By the way, showing anger is a big no in Thailand) so as a man approached and offered me a fast boat ticket to Koh Tao. The fast boat was scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. We took the tickets for sure! Alhamdulillah. Despite the ticket deficiency, the journey had been quite smooth :).

While waiting for the bus that would take us to the pier, I went to the train station and asked the information officer to lend me a space to pray. It took a couple of minutes for the officer to understand my intention, but he finally let me use a small space behind his desk.

At around 6:30 a.m. we boarded the bus that took us to the pier. The fast boat ride from Chumpon to Koh Tao was only two hours that it felt like going to Karimun Jawa islands on KM Bahari Express :).

Even the welcome gate looks as if it's transported from Karimun Jawa islands :) By the way, the vehicles on the photo are used as taxi here.

Once we landed on Koh Tao, the next problem was to find a room to stay. We walked for several hundreds meter from the pier and the buzzing of taxi drivers, and a woman came to offer her taxi to us. I told her that we had yet to have any hotel booking and were looking to find a place under 500 Baht (because we still had a long journey to go).

She suggested several hotels and said that she could phone the hotels to check the room availability. A true Thailand hospitality :). We agreed, she phoned the hotel and the room was available, so we rode on her taxi to the Sunshine Hotel.

A man with ear piercings, arm-hugging tattoos and black nail polish on his finger nails was at the reception desk. We quickly checked in and put our backpacks off our backs.

I told the receptionist that we wanted to snorkle and asked if the hotel had a snorkeling tour that we could join. He said that he could show several snorkeling spots and that I could rent snorkeling gear from the hotel.

Now, this was where we had this miscommunication. I thought he would take us by boat to the snorkeling spots, whereas he meant he would show them on the map. Also, there was an information board near the hotel's restaurant about a snorkeling tour that started at 9 a.m. I thought he would take us on that tour, albeit only half day.

He said he couldn't take us to catch the tour because it was already too late. Aneen was too disappointed to hear the news that she left the restaurant hastily. The receptionist was a bit surprised to see her reaction (as I said, showing anger is a big no in Thailand, a country that is known as land of Smiles).

Keeping a friendly face, I asked him if it was possible for us to join the next day's tour and leave the island in the evening because we needed to be in Bangkok on April 14. He said yes, there was a night ferry that departed the island at 11 p.m.

I asked him again if it was alright to check out the next morning and leave our backpacks at the hotel while we take the snorkeling tour. He said, yes, sure. Hurray! Another proof of Thailand hospitality. Thailand and Indonesia do share many similarities, whereas getting angry will not solve the problems but being polite and keeping an open mind will do.

I shared the news to Aneen, who welcome the idea after giving it a few minutes thought. We booked the tour for the next day and decided to rent a motorbike to explore the island. While going around the island, I kept pinching myself and saying,"I can't believe we made it to Thailand!" that Aneen finally said,"If you say that once again, I will slap you to make you believe that we made it here." Ha!

Here are the photos of Koh Tao.

While other tourists tried to be tan, this girl sat under the shade of a coconut tree to take the pictures

Pardon my traveling toes :)
Swinging in a hammock and posting new status on Facebook are holiday's best activities

A pineapple vendor

Our very late lunch menu: tom yam kung soup (for me), stir fry prawn (for Aneen) and fruit shakes

Our hotel is just a few meters away from the beach. We hung out there on the afternoon and this toddler, who said that her name is Edie Purple, came and asked,"Are you wearing a mask?" Awww.

The good thing about Sunshine hotel is it does not serve alcoholic drinks. So if a guest wants to drink liquor, he/she can buy it at a bar next door
The boulders on Koh Tao coastlines remind me of Belitung, but Belitung is much more beautiful, methinks :)

The next day, we checked out and booked the night ferry&bus-to-Bangkok tickets through our hotel. We had asked another ticketing bureau on the tickets but the price it quoted was too expensive (1,030 Baht per person), while the hotel gave us lower prices (950 Baht per person).

The tour started at 9 a.m., would end at 5:30 p.m. and was scheduled to visit at least four snorkeling spots and Koh Nang Yuan. However, due to the bad weather (it was cloudy the whole day and at some point, it drizzled), we had to skip two snorkeling spots and went straight to Koh Nang Yuan.

If members of House of Representatives go abroad for a comparative study, these snorkeling addicts also do comparative study on snorkeling. The verdict? Indonesia has more beautiful snorkeling and diving spots. The first snorkeling spot we went to was basically dead, no live corals and only few fishes. The second had more corals and fishes, but still couldn't beat the beauty of the Gilis in Lombok. Now, the question is how to sell our potential to tourists?

Here are the photos taken during the snorkeling tour and around Koh Nang Yuan.

Aneen fed the fishes with biscuit crumbles

In Koh Nang Yuan

We returned to the hotel to take our backpacks. The ride back to the hotel was a bit wet as people on the road had been pouring water to every passing people and vehicle. It's the first day of Songkran! I borrowed the hotel's toilet to change clothes while Aneen ordered us something to eat (spaghetti for her, Tom Kha Khai for me).

Tom kha khai

A taxi picked us up at 7:50 p.m. and dropped us at the pier. The taxi driver pointed to a woman sitting on a table under a red umbrella. Seeing how local our faces were, the woman talked to us in Thai language. This happened throughout our trip, really. The good thing is we were considered as locals (read: not a ripe target for scammers). The bad thing is, hmm, well there is no bad thing about being considered as locals :).

Anyway, back to the woman at the pier, she quickly switched to English when she saw the confusion on our faces. She said that the ferry had yet to arrive and told us to wait.

That night there was a group at the pier, playing a very loud traditional music. The locals and foreigners jumped on their feet and danced. Several foreigners sat and watched the dancing people as they puffed their cigarettes.

The only smoke-free seats were next to a moustachioed, heavily tattoed Caucasian man (he has tattoos along his neck!). Aneen and I stopped short upon seeing the man. But since we love our lungs, we sat next to him.

I turned to the man, smiled and asked if he was waiting for the night ferry too. He was probably more surprised that I had the guts to talk to him. He said, yes, he wanted to go to Surat Thani.

Despite the tattoos, the man was quite friendly. He is an American and does not like too much noise, that is why he goes to Koh Tao. But since it's Songkran and he also does not like getting wet everytime he goes out for a walk, he decides to go to the southern Thailand, where it is less celebrated. He works for a fish wholesale company in America (and I quickly whispered to Aneen,"Wow, he's also into fish business, he must be your soulmate!"). His ferry departed at 9:30 p.m., 1.5 hours earlier than ours. Somehow, we both forgot to ask his name. Oh well, bon voyage monsieur!

Our ferry came several minutes after the ferry to Surat Thani departed. The night ferry ride marked our highest achievement in trying all non-airplane modes of transportation, starting from train to Penang ferry to bus to fast boat to night ferry.

Good night, everybody!

Next post: Bangkok.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Penang In Five Hours (Or Less)

While the night train journey went smooth, we got a sad news once we arrived in Butterworth: the tickets to Thailand were sold out. Well, it's a sad news for me because it meant this train brain person couldn't try the Thai train.

On a lighter note, there are buses and minivans going to Hatyai, Thailand. I prefer taking bus to minivan, so bus it is.

The bus terminal is actually located near the ferry terminal to Penang. Once you leave the stations, a group taxi drivers may approach and offer the 10-Ringgit-drive to the ferry terminal, but don't take it. You only need to climb this concrete stairs on the left of the train station. Once you're up there, there are signs pointing you to the ferry terminal and bus terminal.

Just climb the stairs as modeled by my friend Aneen

Of all bus companies in Butterworth, only one (Eramas) serves the Malaysia-Thailand border crossing. The last bus to Hatyai departs at 2 p.m., giving us six hours to explore Penang (we left the bus terminal at 7.30 a.m.). After securing our bus reservations, Aneen and I took the ferry to Penang.

The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes. You only need to pay the fare (1.2 Ringgit, if I'm not mistaken) when leaving Butterworth and it's a free ride from Penang.

When we landed in Penang, my cellphone rang and a local number appeared on the screen. At first, I didn't want to take it (international roaming is expensive). Since I gave my number to the girl behind the bus ticketing counter, Aneen thought it could be the girl so I picked it up.

It was her, informing that the 2 p.m. bus was rescheduled to 1 p.m. I said, ok, no problem, we would be there before 1 p.m. A few minutes later she called again, saying that the tickets were not RM 35, but RM 40. Argh, why didn't she say that when we were at the bus terminal? It's Rp 60,000 went down the drain :(.
Moving on.

These budget travelers hopped on the Free CAT bus, frantically pressed the hop off button upon seeing a restaurant that had many customers and successfully got lost somewhere in Lebuh Campbell.

Instead of cursing the fate that made us got lost, we tried to seize the moments and explore the nearby market. 

We bought three honey plums for 6 Ringgit. There is a good thing about getting lost :)

We saw these food stalls with tents and thought that there were something to eat...

But it turned out to be the center of all pork food stalls. Sorry porky, I can't eat you.

We finally made our way to that restaurant and had breakfast (nasi lemak and teh tarik, again, because we are that creative).

This was the restaurant we were trying to locate

Also called nasi lemak, but looks more spicy

After having a meal, we were happy and ready to hit the road. Here are the photos around Georgetown, a town that is rich in culture and heritage.

 Masjid Aceh

Masjid Kapitan Keling

I don't know the name of this building, it's located near Masjid Aceh

Kuan Yin (Kwan Im) temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Penang

 A man prays at this small shrine on a street corner. It's the "Om" Sanskrit word above the shrine.

 Sri Mahamariamman temple in Penang's Little India

The city informs visitors about local history through wrought iron installations like this one on Canon street

I don't know what this street art means, but it's cute :)

When the clock hit 12 p.m., we rushed to the ferry terminal to catch the bus. Not wanting to sound dramatic, but we missed the ferry by a few seconds and had to wait for 5-10 minutes for the next ferry. It was the longest 10 minutes and when the ferry touched down in Butterworth, guess what we found? 

Our bus was actually scheduled at 2 p.m. 

I didn't know what happen with the girl behind the counter because she didn't give any explanations. She only told us to sit and wait. If stare could kill, she would have died there and then. I mean we could have spend another hour in Penang! 

To cut the long story short, the bus arrived at the exact hour. We hopped on the bus and were more than ready to cross the border to Thailand.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Cakes, Flowers And Weekender Events

Yesterday my office celebrated its 30th anniversary. There were a lot of food, cakes and flowers coming to the office that we literally didn't stop chewing since morning :).

In my opinion, this red velvet cake is the most delicious of all three. Couldn't resist the macarons before taking the photo

I decorated my desk with lilies and other flowers from the bouquets that flooded my office

After the party is over, it's time to check what the weekend has in store.

-- Movie Screening: Werner Herzog films. April 26-27. Bentara Budaya Jakarta.
-- Movie Screening: La conquete. April 27 at 1 p.m. IFI Salemba
-- Movie Screening: The Marathon. April 27 at 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. Erasmus Huis
-- Exhibition: INACRAFT. Until April 28 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Jakarta Convention Center
-- Exhibition: Noir et Blanc by Drs. Suyadi (Pak Raden), until May 5 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Bentara Budaya Jakarta

Have a relaxing weekend:).

Thursday, April 25, 2013

How The Trip Started

I've read about Songkran, Thailand's New Year/Water Festival, many years ago, but I didn't have the thoughts to experience it myself. When my friend Lilian, who relocated to Thailand in 2010, posted about her Songkran experience, I knew that I should come and see it. 

Then another good friend Tika relocated to Malaysia last year because her husband Budi got a job with Petronas Malaysia. So I had some wild thoughts to visit them and do a Malaysia-Thailand overland journey, and because adventure is my game, I put Cambodia into the itinerary.

Thanks to Tiger Airways, a budget airline that seems to always hold a promo to fly in the region every now and then, I got  a Buy One Departing Ticket Free One Homecoming Ticket. Yay! So I planned my trip by flying Jakarta-Kuala Lumpur (KL) and continue the rest of the trip by land before flying back to KL from whichever city I am at and then the KL-Jakarta flight.

Tangent: Dear Tiger Airways, just a kind suggestion, how about having an open-jaw ticket throughout South East Asian countries for the next promo? Sincerely, Your Future Faithful Customer. 

I managed to coax my uni friend Aneen to join me in this trip. But we both almost cancelled the trip when Aneen's mom was hospitalized a month ago and D was rushed to ER three weeks prior to the departure date. Anyway, all's well ends well. Our folks got better and gave us permission to take the holiday.

Here's the initial itinerary that I made before the departure.
April 10: Arrive in KL, have a quick city tour and depart to Butterworth-Penang at night
April 11: Arrive in Butterworth, ride the ferry to Penang, have a quick tour around Penang before riding the ferry back to Butterworth and head to Surat Thani, Thailand by train
April 12: Arrive in Surat Thani, ride a boat to Koh Phangan (I've read that Koh Samui has become too overcrowded, but Koh Tao is too quiet, so I hope Koh Phangan will be somewhere in the middle, not too loud but not too quiet), do snorkeling and spend the night here (a real bed, at last!)
April 13: Spend the first day of Songkran, go back to Surat Thani, take the night train to Bangkok, estimated time of arrival is 6:30 the next day
April 14: Arrive in Bangkok, shop at Chatuchak Market, go to Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Grand Palace (a must)
April 15: Last day of Songkran, perhaps go to Ayutthaya and take river cruise along Chao Phraya 
April 16: Depart for Siem Reap, Cambodia
April 17: Explore Angkor
April 18: Still in Siem Reap (or Phnom Penh? If we still have the strength to take the trip)
April 19: Fly back to KL
April 20: Take another city tour or perhaps go to Malaka (again, if we still have the strength to do it)
April 21: Fly back to Jakarta

Updated: In case you'd like to know, I composed the itinerary by browsing the following websites
--Lonely Planet Thorn Tree
--Websites on Malaysian railway schedule: https://intranet.ktmb.com.my/e-ticket/login.aspx, http://www.ktmb.com.my/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=57, http://www.ktmb.com.my/images/pdf/jadual%20page%201.pdf  
--Website on Thailand railway schedule: http://www.thairailticket.com/esrt/Default.aspx?language=1

Phew! The itinerary sounds very ambitious, doesn't it? Did we make it the whole time? Absolutely not. Let's start with the first leg of the trip: Kuala Lumpur.

My flight on April 10 was scheduled at 7:35 a.m. Since Soekarno-Hatta International Airport obliges the international flight passengers to be at the airport two hours before departure and I live on the other side of the city, I left my home at 3:30 a.m. Alhamdulillah, I managed to hail a Blue Bird cab just a few meters away from my home. This is one reason why I love you, Jakarta! 

Arriving in KL at 10:35 a.m. (the flight was only two hours, but Jakarta-KL have one hour time difference), my friend Tika picked me up at LCCT. We went to Masjid Putra in Putrajaya, where I had to don a hooded robe due to my very casual outfit (long-sleeved T-shirt and cargo trousers). I felt like a Hogwarts student.

Then we had lunch at Village Park restaurant in Damansara area. I had nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves and served with chicken/lamb curry, anchovies, peanuts, egg, vegetables and sambal belacan. In Indonesia, it's similar to nasi uduk) and teh tarik. Yum!

 Tika said that the restaurant was featured on AFC. It was a delicious nasi lemak! And I forgot to take photos of the teh tarik, which is also delicious by the way!

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has visited this eatery. And so did former PM Mahathir Mohamad (his picture in the restaurant was on the other side of the restaurant, but I was too lazy to walk over and photographed it)

Next stop was KL Sentral to buy train tickets to Penang.

In Indonesia, papan kenyataan will mean the reality board. In Malaysia, it means information board. If you ever see me reading the board for a long time, it's because reality is hard :).

After waiting for several hours, I got the tickets and we went to Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, where we can see Kuala Lumpur's heritage building models. It's similar to Urban Redevelopment Authority's Singapore City Gallery. The best thing about this place: it's free. Ha! And you get to learn more about Kuala Lumpur and its heritage architecture, of course :).

Merdeka square

I couldn't find a sewer top with KL on, so this should do

Aneen was scheduled to arrive in KL's Low Cost Carrier Terminal at 9 p.m., while our train to Penang was scheduled at 11 p.m. So Tika and her husband Mas Budi took me to dinner before we picked her up.

Dear Tika and Mas Budi, thank you for being such cool hosts :)

Our dinner: satay ayam (chicken on skewer). It seems that every meal comes in large portion here
Ais kacang (ice with red beans)

We went to LCCT to pick Aneen up and then headed to KL Sentral to catch our train. And the following is the final photo for this post.

I slept on the upper berth. Good night everybody!