Saturday, February 28, 2015

Travelogue 2015, week 7-8: Andaman (Thailand)

After two weeks we left Satun for Trang, 150 km to the north. Trang is a one size bigger town and less connected to Malaysia. At first the tourists were a shock for us. In 5 minutes we encountered more than in two weeks in Satun. But in the end it turned out they all stayed within a 300 meter radius of the train station.

We were in Trang the two days prior to Chinese New Year, and that was a major event. Every night roads were closed for stages and a market with food stalls - way more upmarket than your average Thai night market. Clearly people went there for a night out, to see and be seen, all dressed up. It was very busy but it had a pleasant and calm atmosphere.
From Trang we made a day trip to Kantang. Kantang is in the mouth of the river Trang, some 30 km south. For centuries it has been a main port with a mixed Malay, Chinese and Thai population. It used to be the second port after Bangkok, and had a rail connection with Bangkok. The glory days were 100 years ago when local entrepreneur and ruler Praya Ratsadanu had good connections with hte royal family, had an eye for the welfare of the people and had innovative ideas. he secretly imported and planted the first rubber tree from Malaysia (after a Brit had illegally stolen the seeds in Brazil). The impact of that is enormous and everywhere: the rubber tree is the ruling crop in southern Thailand.
There is one daily train from Bangkok to Kantang, via Trang, so we could board it. The final half hour of a 17 hour ride. The train had already emptied and took us through very rural land.
The train station of Kantang is the original wooden building, well maintained, with all the original details. One room now is a museum, a side building is a nice coffee shop.

We walked to Praya Ratsadanu's former residence. A wooden villa of two floors, lots of verandas, spacious and airy layout, and probably very luxurious for the time. It was poorly maintained but had old furniture and old photographs that were rather interesting. Most striking was the huge dining table on tte back veranda. It was surrounded by lush forests with the deafening sound of crickets.
We walked down to the river. The roads ware wide and way more traffic than we expected. When we say the port we understood why: that was rather big and the quay was stacked with dozens of containers in transit. Obviously this was still the main Thai harbour on the west coast.
After three days we traveled another 150 km north, to Krabi. Wow, this was réally touristy.  Whole groups passed by. I hadn't seen so many in years. Swedish, French and Russian families; bus loads (literally) of backpackers; elder hippies on scooters; Dutch couples... Apparently Krabi town was not just a hub for the islands in the Andaman Sea, but also a destination in itself.
And on top of that half of China and half of Malaysia seemed to be here. We had underestimated the effect of Chinese New year and the subsequently long weekend, and the bad luck that our itinerary took us to the most touristy spot in the most busy weekend. The consequence was that we could not find a decent hotel the day we arrived, and that it took us hours and hours of looking around and asking around to be able to move into a nice place the next day. For top-season rates.
Despite all of that Krabi was a nice enough small Thai town, beautifully located on the river with a promenade along the bank and a mangrove forest across the water.
From Krabi we made a day trip to Railay. Railay is a small pinunsular 15 km from Krabi. The land side is closed off by steep lime rock formations. So it can only be reached by boat. The far end is another steep rock, but inbetween the two rocks is a valley with beaches on both ends. We took a long tail boat from Krabi promenade. The rocks rising out of the azul sea in a vertical line were quite impressive. And wherever the rock wasn't vertical, it was covered in green jungle.
The valley however was built up to the max with restaurants, shops and resorts. Thousands of tourists crowded the one available km. It was just too much, an artificial recreation park with nothing Thai about it.
We had a coffee on the eastern bay, where we had landed. This was the side with mangrove. the first time this trip we saw mangrove in the water instead of on a mud plain. Tree tops in the sea. We walked to the western bay, that was more beachy. I sat in the shade under a tree for a while, while E. went swimming in the crystal clear sea. She said it was one of the most beautiful spots she had ever swum. Meanwhile it got more and more busy with people arriving by boat from Ao Nang, the next coastal strip, and because the rising tide made the beach more and more narrow.
We were running out of time. We were still 800 km from Bangkok. Hardly less than the 900 km we had travelled since Kuala Lumpur. With just three days until our Amsterdam flight would leave Bangkok, we had to fly the remaining stretch.
For the third time I had not succeeded in travelling overland from Malaysia to Bangkok. But there is no reason not to try a fourth time...
Coffee shop underneath fly-over opposite Don Muang
We took a domestic flight from Krabi to Bangkok's old and legendary Don Muang Airport - now  for low cost carriers. From there it was an easy train ride to the old town of Ayutthaya, 60 km north of Bangkok. There we spent a couple of days. The temperature was rising to the mid-thirties, it was getting seriously hot. From Ayutthaya it is also an easy transfer with public transport to Bangkok's new Suvarnabhumi  airport. And then a long long flight to Amsterdam...

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