The combination of a decent mattress, crisp sheets, fleece blanket, and the gentle rolling of a train produced a great sleep on Friday night. As I mentioned in the last post, I was riding the express train between Bangkok and Surat Thani – the gateway to southern Thailand’s many beach resorts. I had pre-booked a bus from Surat Thani to Phuket and planned to spend Saturday #43 on a train, bus, tuk-tuk and beach.
During the last 90 minutes of the train ride we rolled through jungle-like vegetation, vast rubber and palm oil plantations, a few small communities and clusters of tin shacks that encroached on the railway property. I would love to have spent some time in these small towns but that’s just not possible unless you’re prepared to drive the 1422 kilometre distance between Bangkok and Singapore. The train was a trade-off that allowed me to stop in Surat Thani, Phuket, Hat Yai, and Kuala Lumpur on my way to Singapore. (I’ll fly back to Bangkok and on to Beijing in mid-May.)
Around 6:30 a.m. the cabin steward came through the train offering a choice Nescafé or no Nescafé. I had a momentary lapse of judgment and said that I’d take mine black. A few minutes later the elderly woman returned with a styrofoam cup containing equal parts water, milk, instant coffee, and sugar. There may well have been more milk and undesolved sugar than coffee and water as the coffee was the same colour as the wooden stick that stood erect in the middle of the cup. It reminded me of the swill we used to make in the press box at Assiniboia Downs in the 80s. Of course we drank that because it was free, hot, and, well, it was Winnipeg in the winter.
But back to the train. We pulled into the Surat Thani Train Station (shed with benches) shortly after 8:00 a.m. I had pre-booked the Express bus to Phuket so there was no need to negotiate with the throng of touts promising “best bus to Phuket at best price, sir.”
We stopped on the edge of town at the Executive Travel Lounge (pictured above) where a nicely dressed man boarded the bus. He chatted with some passengers and accepted cash handouts from others. I assumed that it was a shakedown until the guy in front of me dug into his wallet and got out a plastic card. Doug was a British-born tour guide who regularly accompanies groups of European holidayers between Phuket and Koh Samui. He explained that locals use prepaid bus passes, most tourists have tickets purchased from a travel agent, and hippies and backpackers tend to pay cash on-board. I asked Doug why the bus company would pay a man to collect onboard rather than just have us pay before boarding. He replied: “Well, you saw Surat Thani, didn’t you?”
The ticket-taker was just a few rows in front of me when I realized that the ticket wasn’t in my pocket. For a few minutes I thought I’d be tossed off the bus and forced to thumb it into Phuket. Thankfully I found the receipt lodged into a hidden pocket in my new Bellroy Travel Wallet. (Insert shameless plug here.) If you regularly travel with a passport, do yourself a favour and check out a short video about this really handy product: http://bellroy.com/wallets/travel-wallet
I’m not sure why but I was under the impression that an “express” bus would make the four-hour run to Phuket with few if any stops. I was mistaken. In Thailand the term “express” means fewer stops than other buses, and in this case fewer was 12 – 15. I had a nap and lost count after eight.
None of the stops lasted much longer than about 30 seconds, if we even came to a complete stop at all. Most of the time a farm worker would jump on or off the bus as it slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder. On the rare occasion that we did come to a complete stop the driver left a cardboard box on the shoulder of the road in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea what that was about but it was shady to say the least.
The lone bathroom stop was at a decrepit roadside gas station / cafe. It wasn’t much but it was greatly appreciated by those who couldn’t bring themselves to use the filthy squat toilet on the moving train. The toilet in the roadside restaurant was clean enough but it too was a squat toilet that you flushed with water dipped from a bucket. I had a bunch of Starbucks napkins in my daypack so I didn’t have to experiment with the more “eco-friendly” option that was hanging in each stall.
I’m not sure which was older – me or the wheezing bus. I have read about boat loads of used Greyhounds being sent to India and Asia during the Carter administration. This could very well be one of those buses. I rode similar buses in Peru and Bolivia and I will undoubtedly experience worse in the coming months, but at least this one had a rudimentary air-conditioning system in a country where I’d take AC over breaks and shocks any time.
I have friends and family who have been to Phuket and still speak highly of it. My nephew Chris and his wife Natalia narrowly escaped the devastating tsunami in 2004. I’ve known about Phuket for years but until last week I wasn’t aware that Phuket is an island. Phuket Village is a community on the island, and the spot that most tourists know as Phuket is actually the community of Patong Beach.
We pulled into Phuket Village around noon and 40 passengers made a mad dash for the dozen or so waiting cabs. I had been seated in the last row of the bus and was the last to retrieve my backpack. As you might have guessed, all of the taxis had left the station by the time I was ready to move on. This wasn’t an issue as the 20 minute ride to Patong Beach will set you back about $30 in an air-conditioned Toyota Corolla or about $2.50 per person when four share one of these open air cabs. I went with the open air cab and added $27.50 to the beer fund.
You don’t get door-to-door service for under three bucks so I had to walk about four blocks from the bus stop to Stanley’s Guesthouse. When I researched this place online I was led to believe that it was the heart and soul of Phuket. Reviewers described the ground level pub as a hopping spot that is popular with tourists and locals alike. One British expat said that he stops by every night and it’s his de facto home away from home. The rooms above the pub were described as being clean and spacious with ensuite facilities, high-powered fans and good air-conditioning.
That rooms were pretty much as described but the ground level pub was a pub in name only. Yes, they had a fridge full of beer, several tables, a bar and three stools. They didn’t have any of the other things that make a pub a fun place to hang out. You know, like other human beings. Hell, the bartender was rarely in sight. You had to pass through the pub to access the stairs to the hotel above. As a guest of the hotel I was given a key to the pub’s front door and told to come and go as I pleased. “Just be sure to lock the door behind you,” was the only request.
I had a nap in the afternoon and left the hotel around 8:00 p.m. Two elderly gentlemen were sitting in the bar with their backs to the wall and BBC News on the TV. The volume was turned down and the men sat in complete silence. Neither had a drink in front of them and the bartender was nowhere to be found. The Pub was a far cry from the party hostels I visited in Australia and New Zealand. Thankfully there are a several other bars and restaurants in Patong Beach. Like, 200, perhaps?
After an overpriced dinner at a tourist-trap of a restaurant and two drinks in an almost empty club, I headed back to the hotel well before midnight. The bartender had left for the night so I poured myself a Diet Coke and left $2 on the bar. Just when I was feeling sorry for myself, I turned on the TV and caught the unfolding story of the earthquake in Nepal. Suddenly a dull night in Phuket didn’t seem so bad.