Shoddy sunblock & a 42 hour journey


Our train to KL

It’s just before seven am, and our train is currently shuffling it’s way through the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. We’ve been travelling for two days without a break now, and we’ll be pleased to finally get there!

Since we last slept in proper beds, we’ve taken four ferries, three minibuses, a coach, and two sleeper trains. Its been quite a journey!

Our final couple of days at Koh Lanta were spent enjoying the sun and dodging the occasional torrential downpour. Running out of the sun lotion we’d brought with us, and keen to save a few pennies, we thought we’d take the chance to try the non-branded sun lotion. Oh how wrong we were!

At half the price of the Nivea, and SPF 25, we went for ‘body moisturising lotion’. It was only while we were on the way out for the day that we realised it wasn’t water resistant, which isn’t exactly ideal when then planned activity is snorkelling. The thick cream was more the consistency of white emulsion paint than what we’re used to, but we went for it and after a day of being a primed canvas for the red of the sun’s rays, and feeling somewhat crisper than intended, we decided we should get something else for the rest of our time on the beach.

Next up, coconut oil lotion, SPF 20, of much better consistency, and with a great tropical smell. We spent a little over an hour lying in the morning sun covered in the stuff, before the distinct smell of something frying. Bacon for breakfast? Oh, hang on… We hastily retreated into the safety of our bungalow to face the reality that we’d effectively basted ourselves in cooking oil and then rotated under the solar heat like a sunday roast. We’d been conned for a second time – there was no SPF in this lotion, despite the claims of the packaging, but at least I can reliably tell you that chicken and coconut go well together.

So it was with some reluctance that we returned for a third time, to buy Nivea sun lotion. Expensive? Yes! Worth it? We’ll let you know once the sunburn has died down enough for us to brave the sun!
Yesterday we left Thailand after a couple of fun but rushed weeks trying to take in as much as we could. The few things we’ve seen make it stand out as a much more developed place than elsewhere we’ve been, with all the trappings of a modern capitalist society along with the wats and pagodas. Seven-Eleven stores are ubiquitous and practically on every street corner; Bangkok even has British chains like Boots and Tesco (branded Tesco Lotus). Thailand also seems to have a surprisingly progressive (or nanny state, depending on whether you’re a smoker) attitude towards cigarettes. Most indoor spaces are non-smoking, a far cry from elsewhere. Cigarette packets are covered in the most off-putting photos imaginable of the consequences of smoking, and in a precursor to the restrictions due to come into place in the UK, then cigarette packets cannot be displayed at the point of sale, instead being hidden behind a screen. Even some city parks are actually smoke free, something I can’t imagine ever taking hold back home!

Curiously, Thailand also seems to have an obsession with pipes. Absolutely everywhere, pipes seem to sprout from the pavement or floor to offer up a meter or a stopcock. I know I risk coming across as an obsessed plumber, but we haven’t seen this elsewhere – at every opportunity, there are pipes and dials and taps. I don’t know why, and I’m going to pass up the opportunity for some elaborate metaphor about control or austerity.


Meters and pipes on the pavement

When Laura came to Thailand a few years ago, she came back with the feeling she hadn’t met a single Thai that wasn’t welcoming and friendly. The same goes for our recent experience. Perhaps we’ve just been lucky, but there’s a rare warmth of character and natural friendliness that we’ve tended to find is sometimes replaced by greed in the other places we’ve been to that are quite so tourist savvy.

This should have been the train to Malaysia...

We were due to take the train all the way into Butterworth, Malaysia before changing onto the KL-bound one we’re now on. Unfortunately, the plan came a cropper early yesterday morning due to either a lack of water on the train (according to the first excuse), or, more likely, a landslide. It meant we ended up being minibussed to the border before being escorted across by railway officials and then onto a luxury coach. The way they handled it matched the exemplary approach we’ve found everywhere here, with a level of organisation that the rail replacement buses of the UK can certainly learn from! The buses were waiting for us, they were quick, and there were plenty of uniformed personnel at each step. It was annoying not to cross the border by train, but great to have our opinions of Thai professionalism reinforced as we were leaving.



The Malaysian border

Beaches and Emerald Caves


A beach on an island south of Koh Lanta

Having taken the train from Bangkok and then a tedious day-long bus journey, we’re in Koh Lanta Noi, an island off the Andaman Coast of Thailand. This is the beach country, in both the book/film (set about 20km west of here) and the lying horizontal sense.

We’re here in ‘peak season’, a notch up from ‘high season’ that I didn’t know existed until we questioned the exorbitant prices of all the accommodation. Fortunately after a night in an expensive basic dorm (500 Bhat, or £10 each per night), we’re staying in a nice bungalow a short distance off the beach, which even has a fridge and kettle to tend to our breakfast and lunch needs. It’s lovely to be able to stop briefly again and soak up the sun, even if that means we’re both now sheltering in the shade after becoming slightly more red than golden brown this morning.

On our first day here, it rained pretty heavily in the afternoon. We saw the dark clouds sweeping in over the tree covered hills inland, and since we were on the beach, decided to head for the sea to see it through. I’ve heard people describe the sea as ‘boiling’ in a storm but never quite understood. Standing there as the heavens opened, it was more like the sea was carbonating around us, an effervescent bubbling of translucent blue. The tiny falling raindrops were themselves almost imperceptible and certainly invisible; far more significant were the upward rebounding splashes from the salty sea as each raindrop hit, their speed meaning that much more water leapt up than was coming down from the clouds. It was a strange taste sensation too – turn your head downwards for salt, and upwards for the sweetness of fresh water.

Yesterday, we went on a boat trip to go snorkelling and swimming at ‘four islands’, an hour south from here. I’ve never snorkelled before; it was fantastic to catch a glimpse of life beneath the waves, even if the coral reef where we were was sadly dead. It was one of those truly eye-opening occasions (albeit tempered by a face mask), with alarmingly spiky brown sea urchins nestled in the rocks beneath, and thousands of little fish swimming around, some solo and in fluorescent yellows and electric blue, others like tadpoles swimming in shoals in their hundreds around us. At one point, one of them had a nibble of my leg, but it seems it wasn’t a piraña, as I’m still here to write this! There were also jellyfish in a bewildering (and concerning) range of sizes. The first one we saw was football sized and a see-through shade of light blue. Having mastered our underwater signals, we both indicated we should avoid it (pointing at it with expressions of sheer horror on our faces), and later on, that there were actually quite a few around to be careful of (communicated by swimming quickly back to the boat and climbing out). With the sun shining through the surface creating shards of rippling bright light down to the sea floor, it was quite a spectacle as the jellyfish came into view through the clouds of dust. Some had a purple edge to their body, which was about an inch in diameter, with a long trail of tentacles behind. And then when you looked closer at the clouds of dust particles suspended in the water, you realised that many of the particles were actually also jellyfish, tiny creatures only a few millimetres long, in a swarm of thousands together. It was definitely time to get out, as a sting to my arm soon confirmed!


Inside Emerald Cave. The black hole behind us is the only way in and out.

The day was also a chance to visit Emerald Cave. Jumping from our boat, we were led swimming by our guide into a pitch black cave that opens onto the ocean. Fortunately he had a torch that worked! After about 80m and a number of corners, we emerged onto a secret beach in the middle of the island, surrounded on all sides by high rocky cliffs and with just the watery tunnel as a way in. Fittingly for a secretive cave, this used to be used by pirates to stash their ill-gotten gains before they were sold on the mainland. Unfortunately we left our cutlasses, rum and even kazoos at home, so we just had to make do with a couple of photos and leaving our blog address scrawled in the sand. I’m not quite sure that these words match up to the treasure troves from previous visitors though!


Sunset from Phra Ae Beach, Koh Lanta. You can see Koh Phi Phi in the distance on the right.

Last night we watched the beautiful sunset sitting on the beach here, a fitting image for what’s soon approaching – the setting sun on the first part of our trip. We looked out at a picturesque scene filled with colours that echoed our travels so far: the white crests of waves like the snow of the Himalayas; the bright oranges of Buddhist monks; the deep blue sky of Rajasthan in India; the yellow sand of the dunes in the desert; and the peaceful lapping of the waters edge that we found throughout Laos and Cambodia. Appropriately, there were some dark rocks cutting through the surface, silhouetted poignantly against the reflections of the stunning sun – a metaphor perhaps for the half-hidden horrors lurking beneath the surface in Vietnam, or Laos, or Cambodia – or maybe just a reminder that shipwrecks can and do happen in the most idyllic of settings.

Even here in stunning Southern Thailand there are reminders of recent horrors – in this case, of the 2004 Tsunami which wrought destruction globally. Every few hundred metres along the road is a sign with directions for the evacuation route, and huge sirens stand tall on towers over the prominent beaches. Of course, this is what was required to ensure that all-important tourism returned to these islands after the deaths of holidaymakers; one can’t help but wonder if a system is quite so well established in the multitude of rural coastal communities where whole towns and villages were decimated by the destruction that day. And of course the tsunami was globally visible, played on the world’s TV screens via the camcorder scenes of destruction from beach resorts. The threat of climate change, which will affect many more lives if estimates are correct, is one for which the warning sirens started sounding many years ago, but where we all seem to still be on the beach, admiring the view while on our cheap flight holidays – and indeed our round-the-world trips.