In my last post I wrote about the relatively unknown Thai island of Koh Mak, which was only a pina colada* away from my idea of Heaven. However, what I didn’t say is that perhaps the main reason my stay was so blissful was that I journeyed through actual Hell in order to get there.
There are plenty of horror stories about South East Asian transport: accidents, breakdowns and buses falling off cliffs. My friend Matt and I’s trip from Chiang Mai to Koh Mak was worse than any of those though. Not in terms of immediate danger – although there was an element of that – but mostly out of pure frustration.
You know that quote from the Dark Knight Rises about there being no true despair without hope? Yeah. That. For about twelve hours we were always within inch of paradise, only to have it slip through our grasp at every turn.
Let this post be a warning, all ye who wish to travel from Chiang Mai to Koh Mak.
How Matt looked after the journey
First, here was my travel plan:
Wake up: 04:15
Fly from CNX to BKK: 06:55 – 08:15 (Bangkok Airways)
Bus from BKK Airport Bus Terminal to Laem Ngop Pier: 10:15 - 15:15
Laem Ngop Pier to Koh Mak by Speedboat: 16:00 - 17:00
Arrive Koh Mak: Pimm's O'Clock
It seemed achievable.
After waking up at 4:10am and arriving at the airport before 5am, things were off to a good start. The flight to Bangkok was smooth, I had a spare seat next to me and we landed on time at 8:15am. We had two hours to catch the bus from the airport at 10:20am, then a five hour journey to the pier in Trat where we should be an hour or two early for the final speedboat of the day to Koh Mak at 4pm.
What could possibly go wrong?
Even though our luggage was delayed, we were in plenty of time when we asked BKK tourist information where to go for the airport bus terminal. They told us to go downstairs and buy tickets at the desk. The desk said we were too late. But that was fine, because it was the wrong desk anyway. They then said to go outside. And outside the guards told us to get on shuttle bus A.
We walked past several buses until we found the right one, which drove off right in front of us.
Figuring we might have a long wait for the next one, we asked a taxi driver how much it would be to quickly follow the shuttle bus. We agreed on 100 baht to the airport bus terminal, jumped in, and he drove off away from the airport. Really far away from the airport. After about ten minutes we were looking worried and he had started saying “tii nai?”(where) into his iPhone. I assumed he was calling his next customer until he pulled over, handed us the phone with Google Translate on the screen and asked us “Where you go?”
We told him the airport bus terminal again. We told Google too. Neither of them seemed to get it. For some reason, he agreed on a fare, accepted the journey and started driving without actually knowing where he was taking us. Taxi drivers in Bangkok are usually a) trying to rip you off; b) drunk; or c) both. He was probably option C.
Eventually, Google did in fact translate, and he took us towards the right place while we gently encouraged him to go faster.
A jaded expat once told me Thai urgency is an oxmoron
Thankfully, we made it to the bus station with about half an hour to spare, which didn’t really matter because the bus was already full. As we were told this, another taxi driver approached us. After a bit of haggling he said he’d drive us all the way to the pier for 3000 Baht and even call and book the boat for us. This was cheaper than I’d seen online so we said we’d think about it and probably go with him. We offered him 2000 Baht and lunch but he obviously wasn’t hungry.
We were still in good time though, so I asked a nice lady at the kiosk if there was another option. While I was doing so, another driver offered us the same taxi for 2500. I ran back over to Matt and the driver and asked if he would go for 2500 too, giving him first dibs as in fairness he did find us first. He asked who offered that and I explained it was the guy over there. With a look on his face like someone just told him his teenage daughter shagged an entire rugby team, he marched over to the other driver and started yelling.
Thai people are generally pretty calm, but if you’ve ever seen somebody flip out there, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve been told that Thais tend to bottle a lot up to save face, but when they burst, they really go for it. It’s sort of like those YouTube videos where they put a pack of Mentos into a bottle of Coke. It was quite a sight to see. Defeated and emotionally ruined by the altercation, the second driver limply waved us off with the first, who then stomped back to his car while we followed.
Feeling a bit guilty for causing an argument, even though you know, a taxi is a service and we were exchanging money for it and didn’t actually do anything wrong, we jokingly offered to still buy him lunch as way of an apology. After a bit more stomping, he turned around and said: “Fine. You go with him.” We said it was OK, but we just got “I no go” in response.
The other driver was now being consoled by one of the cleaners. When we returned and said we’d go with him instead, he declined. I still don’t fully understand the concept of face in Thailand, but I assume they had an agreement between them to not go for less than 3000 Baht, and we unintentionally caused both to lose face considerably by mentioning the cheaper offer that he shouldn’t have given us.
Well, now we were fucked. We’d missed the bus and neither taxi driver would take us. I returned to the woman at the kiosk and asked if she knew another way. The only other routes I researched were from the central Bangkok bus stations, and now to get to those in time, we’d need to get a taxi there. Which I had a hunch was probably not going to happen.
The friendly lady suggested that we take the 10am minivan to Chonburi, a city outside of Bangkok and located on the way to Trat. She said she’d tell the driver to drop us at the local bus station, where we could catch an alternative bus to the pier. Success! Using my broken Thai I’d made a friend and got the sort of solution you don’t find online! We climbed into the van and burned down the motorway.
Watching our progress on Google Maps, I figured we were almost 30 minutes ahead of our original bus, actually giving us a head start. I followed the route on screen towards the bus station. And then right past it. Maybe Google couldn’t be trusted? We noticed things were awry again when the minivan stopped at the side of the road and the driver just wandered off.
Again trying to befriend the natives, we asked another passenger who spoke good English what was happening.
“He pick up his friend,” he said.
Great, so the driver had ignored what the kiosk lady had told him in favour of giving his buddy a free ride. We explained that we needed to get to the bus station so we could get a bus to the pier in Trat. Our fellow passenger knew what we were talking about and seemed enthused about our deadline, so when the driver got back in with his mate there was lots more shouting (friendly, this time) and we shot off again. Instead of the bus station though, we skidded to a halt outside a travel agent, where our new companion said we could catch the bus we needed in about 30 minutes, still keeping us on schedule.
We walked in and discovered that the bus did not exist. The next one was in more than two and a half hours and the woman said we would definitely not make it to Laem Ngop Pier in time for the boat. Not only were we buggered again, but now we were in the middle of nowhere too. I suggested another taxi and between us we managed to call a local company who offered to do it for 3500 Baht – even more expensive than before. The person on the phone did not understand when I asked how long it would take or when it would pick us up, so it seemed a tad pointless to pay a higher price for a taxi after already getting another bus, plus the fact that we couldn’t guarantee it’d arrive to get us there in time.
While I paced up and down trying to negotiate into the handset, Matt chatted to two young backpackers. They were waiting for their bus and said they were going to Koh Chang, a larger, more developed island next to Koh Mak. They were stuck too and were going on the next bus to Chantaburi, which is very close to Trat, where they would then find their way to the islands.
It seemed we could get a bus in 20 minutes, head to Chantaburi, which was en-route anyway, then presumably get a cheap taxi straight to the pier once we were nearby. We said fuck it and bought a ticket. If the bus arrived in Chantaburi when the agent said it would, we’d be on time.
Except of course it arrived half an hour late. According to Google Maps, the journey was now impossible.
We were in Chantaburi with just over an hour to make it to the pier. The information desk said it was an hour and twenty minute journey but one of the taxi drivers seemed optimistic.
I’m not one to give up at the last hurdle, so we asked him to take us and he agreed. If every other bloody mode of transport was running late, why wouldn’t the speedboat be? And this guy grinned when we said ‘FAST!!’
However, the guy we thought was the driver was actually just a tout. He lead us to an elderly chap and his knackered Songthaew pick-up truck, we climbed into the back and the vehicle pootled out of the parking lot. We accepted our fate as the old wagon and its geriatric driver chugged to the motorway.
An average Thai Songthaew taxi
But suddenly, as if he’d spotted the grim reaper, the old bastard put his foot right down and we held on for dear life.
Overtaking everything on the road and swerving around bends with our driver speeding like death himself were chasing us, I held on tight to the truck with one hand and checked Google Maps with the other. He’d already gained ten minutes. At this pace, we’d make it!
So of course he stopped for petrol.
It was like a scene in a movie where a chase scene cuts to two people in an elevator standing awkwardly. The driver chatted to the lady casually pouring our fuel, five minutes were lost, then BAM! Back on the highway at full throttle.
Sort of like this episode
By now I was looking at alternatives. Matt suggested slipping some money to some locals with a boat and getting them to paddle us over to the island, and I looked into how much it would be to charter a private speedboat. 5000 Baht a day apparently. With no nails left to bite and twelve hours of adrenaline in my system, this seemed like a viable prospect: we could drop our stuff off then cruise around the bay in the evening celebrating our triumph. After getting this far, it was a matter of principle that we make it.
At 3:55pm, five minutes before the boat was due to leave, I found a phone number for the pier online and gave them a call.
“Is there a later boat?” I asked, knowing there wasn’t. “Oh no? That’s a shame. Well, we’ll be there in ten minutes, so can you wait just a little?”
“BOAT LEAVE ON TIME.”
“We’re in the taxi now and…”
“BOAT LEAVE ON TIME.”
“BOAT LEAVE ON…”
Even though it was a few minutes past 4pm as we sped down the dirt track leading to the pier I was still hoping we’d made it. The whole journey had been so farcical I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Dick Dastardly and fucking Muttley racing alongside us, so I felt there was still a chance that the boat would be delayed too.
They probably made it there on time
Sadly, it seems speedboat captains are the only competent people in the nation’s entire transportation system and the pier was empty when we arrived at 4:10pm. An elderly lady on a rusty motorbike solemnly drove up to our taxi.
“Captain no wait for me either,” she said.
I called the bungalow we were staying at and apologised. I was worried they’d relinquish our rooms and we’d have to stay somewhere else but almost knowingly, they said it wasn’t a problem. Instead, we headed over to the more developed Koh Chang, found some cheap beach huts to stay in near the pier and got the morning ferry.
Granted, we didn’t die in a ball of flames at any point, so the trip wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Still, though. I think it vexed me even more knowing that when I lived in Thailand and cultivated the nation’s 'mai bpen rai'/'nevermind' attitude myself it wouldn’t have bothered me half as much. But I live in Japan now where train drivers kill themselves if they don’t arrive on time.** I like to think there’s a middle ground somewhere.
In my last post I joked that you shouldn’t go to Koh Mak because I didn’t want to share it with anyone. Well, if you’ve decided you do want to go….
Good luck getting there!
*other drinks were available
Not pictured: Us
Here are all the bus and ferry times:
Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport Bus Terminal to Laem Ngop Pier:
Bangkok Ekkamai bus station to Laem Ngop:
06:30, 07:45, 09:45
Bangkok Morchit bus station to Trat:
07:30, 11:00, 22:00
(take a taxi to the pier)
Laem Ngop Pier to Koh Mak:
Bangkok Victory Monument to Trat:
Pretty much every hour
Buses to/from Chantaburi, Chonburi, and wherever else we went:
Flights from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi to Trat:
11:40 (arrives 12:40 - Bangkok Airways)
Maybe that would have been the better idea. But it wasn’t cheap.
To make sure you don’t suffer the same fate as me and Matt, I’d advise staying overnight in Bangkok or Trat if you’re travelling from somewhere like Chiang Mai.
Bangkok is awesome and Trat does have a cool night market. It’s another good chance to see the ‘real’ Thailand – ie, a friendly but sleepy small town. We’d have done that but I’d already been there before.
How about getting back to Bangkok?
Assuming you actually want to leave Koh Mak...
Sorry, you’re on your own for that one.
Photo credit: Darko Pevec, Katarina, Matthew Klein, Koh Mak Speedboat