Like most people, we've learned to get around Thailand on rented motorbikes or mopeds. Usually they cost between $5-7US per day, not including gas. Filling a motorbike up costs about $2US.
Anyway, one thing we've learned is that you never know what you're going to get, so give the bike a good once-over before striking out into the yonder for a two-wheeled adventure. We should have done that yesterday when we picked our Honda Dream.
The island of Ko Lanta Yai has an elongated north/south shape, with the main roads forming a figure eight. It is about 30 kms long and 6 wide.
As we got on the bike, all was well, though it seemed a little loose on the turns, so I was careful not to push it too hard. Sachi rides double with me. We decided to traverse all 30kms of the east coast, about one half of which is dirt road.
As we got on the dirt road at the north eastern side of the figure 8, I thought to myself "Well it would suck to break down here... There's no one around, its in the heat of the day, we only have sips of water and we don't speak Thai."
It was at about that moment that the looseness I felt before turned into all out squirreliness, with the back tire feeling like it was sliding around in mud. Sure enough, the back tire was completely flat and at the furthest point we could be from where we started.
Being at least 7kms from any place that might be able to help us, we jumped on the moped and rode the flat tire all the way up that dirt road at about 5kph, with the tire struggling to remain intact all the way. The locals we did see could only shake their head and point forward as if to say "keep on going, farangs, I can't help, sorry."
Eventually we made it back to the paved road, which was still a good 20kms from the resort- and we still had a flat tire. Our next goal was to find some sort of service station that could help. In the meantime I could picture us creeping down the side road on the metal rim, with the tire having been shredded to pieces, sparks flying everywhere and each person we meet pointing further down the road, farangs.
Then, only 1-2kms from the dirt road, an oasis appeared on the horizon. It was none other than a full service, fully certified, Honda motorbike service center and showroom. We pulled up, pointed to the tire, they immediately jumped into action, replaced the inner tube, charged us $2.50US (yes, you read that price correctly), and we were on our way in about 20 minutes. We could only smile and shake our heads at how easily we averted what could have been a time consuming, possibly dangerous and certainly annoying experience.
For as long as we're in Ko Lanta, that Honda Dream is going to be our motorbike. We know for sure that it has a brand new back inner tube, and handles adversity like a champ. Plus, if something goes wrong, we know where to go.
The reason to go to Railay Beach is the scenery and the nice beach. The locale itself is built up with resorts that are nice, but make for a busy environment. Ton Sai is just a kilometer away and is more of a low-key backpacker place- called "the peasant beach" by one resident we met. The same is true for the east side of Railay Beach, which has a mud beach. Lots of people come for the excellent rock climbing too.
Now that we're in Ko Lanta, here's a look back at some of the scenes from Railay Beach...
Most unforgettable were the sunsets. The sky would seem to be on fire sometimes.
These clounds aren't exactly on fire, but look pretty magestic, I think.
The longtail boat is the only way to get to Railay Beach.
Once you're there, though, you can explore on foot and by sea kayak, which is highly recommended. No cave for Sachi.
I think we're both happy that we went to Railay beach, but I don't think it would make it onto the agenda the next time around. We'd prefer the more traditional, laid back, Ko Lanta style of Thailand.
A while back, our friend in Seattle, Steve Manning told us about Railay Beach and then added a travel experience about it too. Since then, we've been hoping to make it.
It took us 3 cabs, a bus and finally a long tail boat to get here, but we made it at a cost of about $25US for both of us from Phuket. When we first got to Railay, we were impressed by the scenery- high limestone cliffs or "carsts" are everywhere,making for a truly other-worldly feel.
We're staying at a place called Railay Bay Resort, which is one of the better places here. We have a bungalow that isn't Baan Krating, but it's nice. It has A/C, which I need these days. I have needs you know. It costs about $50US per night, which is a lot for Thailand and backpacker standards, but we're OK with it. Breakfast is included and it has all the niceties... location on the beach, restaurant and bar, nice grounds. Interstestingly, the resort has one of the few bars at Railay that serves alcohol.
Plus, you get views like this...
Just around the big rock on the left of the beach is another beach called Pranang, which has floating kitchens, where we got lunch for about $3US.
I haven't yet jumped off this rock, but I will...
We are still in love with Thailand.
The goal is to deliver passengers from one city to another, where the players tip (based on speed, # of accidents and near-miss bonuses) will be the measure of success.
It is a driving game with the most skillful players will use quick reaction times, the horn, the brake and some yelling out of the window to proceed and win.
Each course will be between two destinations in India and include likely scenarios from that route.
The driver will be tested in navigating the real obstacles on the streets of India. Some examples:
Animals will constantly appear in the road, including Brahma bulls, dogs, goats, camels, water buffalo, boars. Elephants and monkeys. Hitting a bull or cow in India kills the driver ends game play.
Since there are no sidewalks, people will constantly appear in the road and show little respect for a vehicle. Again, skillful use of the horn will ensure safe navigation through masses of pilgrams, farm workers, beggars and pedestrians.
The other vehicles on the road represent the most dangerous objects. Freight trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles and bicycles appear constanly. The driver will have to contend with sudden stops, constant passing, vehicles going the wrong way on a one way street, aggressive merging and general unpredictability. Full concentration is required.
The road itself will change often. Large potholes, unmarked speed bumps, construction areas, sudden detours, and one way bridges are to be expected and navigated skillfully.
In some cases, the driver may have to make stops for the passengers to be sick, eat or take pictures. The driver may make extra money by picking extra passengers, but this reduces the tip amount. Answering stupid questions is optional.
Ultimately, it is a game of speed and survival in a place where rules of the road do not apply. It is every driver for himself and the one who finds the most creative and death defying way to safely deliver his passenger(s) to their destination wins and advances.
As an experienced driver in India once put it, "To be able to drive in India, you need 3 things: Good brake, good horn and good luck".
This game could be applied to several other destinations around the world.
I am feeling better! Finally. It's been too many days - though not unexpected here. On our way up to this mountaintop town of Darjeeling, I had some time to recover a little from the rattling jeep ride (Lee mentioned the strike). The word was out that at 6:00 the road would be opened, so we waited it out below the road block on the side of the road with hundreds of others.
I'm getting used to all the stares and Indian men trying to bump into me all the time (bumpers up - I say). But yesterday one man who looked intent and unfriendly walked by our sitting Jeep a few times after Lee had gotten out to stretch his legs. The man stared the entire time. I had sunglasses on and ignored him. He walked to the front of the jeep obviously looking for the driver, then into a storefront door to find him, all the while making sure I was still there. Then he began talking to the timid teenager in the front seat that spoke almost no English. He was obviously asking about me - the kid kept saying I don't know - I don't know. I made sure my door was locked and then Lee leaned in on his door. "He's asking about me." I said. Lee looked over at him across the Jeep and scowled and shook his head saying NO. The man shook his head back and walked away from the vehicle. Yay Lee! I was in no shape to deal with that situation. If the driver had been around, I'm sure he would have told me to get out of the jeep and at least take a picture with the guy - and he would have tried to receive a pretty rupee from it. Not that I would do it.
I was never in any danger or felt unsafe at any time. It was just the ridiculousness of the situation and my low tolerance of it feeling so ill. We laughed about it for a while afterwards. When you feel healthy you have so much more confidence to be assertive and handle any situation that may arise. I think I might just climb a small mountain today!
The trains in Mumbai are famous because they are so completely over taxed, moving more people than any metro system on earth. They have an excellent safety record based on train crashes, but 10-15 people per day die on the tracks. As Wikipedia describes:
Mumbai's suburban railway is the densest route in the world. It is approximately a little more than 50,000 passengers per kilometer, transporting 65 lakh (6.5 million) commuters daily. This has resulted in severe overloading in the trains which carry 5000 commuters per 9 car train which are designed to carry less than a third of that amount. The density of passengers in peak hours is as high as 15 people per sq metre.
We went to the busy Dadar station today at rush hour to watch the spectacle, which should not be missed in any visit to Mumbai. The event can best be described as a sport for the men. It takes speed, agility, strength, perseverance and concentration.
As the train approaches the station, the men let out a chorus of yells as they gather on the platform. As the train speeds by as it slows, a few jump into the open doors as the crowds push closer to the edge. The men clearly revel in the competition among their peers.
When it comes to a stop, it turns into a civilized wrestling match with each man struggling to find some type of toe hold inside the train- some way to pry himself into the car before it leaves. The men are packed together so closely I wonder how they can breathe.
With more men than room, the train begins to move and the lucky ones fight tooth and nail to find some way to hold onto the train as it leaves, each with a confident smile, knowing he had won. Some are left to fight for another train.
Incredibly, we saw just one station of many, where the scene will be repeated until the train achieves a level of density that no mere mortal can handle. Athletes indeed.
We're zig-zagging our way across the Indian Ocean, thanks to favorable air fares. From Sri Lanka, we went back to Singapore and took a cheap bus to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we've been for a few days. "KL" as everyone calls it is OK, but not my favorite place. The food has been awesome and it's super cheap, but it's a huge city with less character than I imagined. The next time in Malaysia, we'll do the non-city tour for sure.
We're staying in China Town at a place called the "Hotel Chinatown Inn" which is perfect for us - recommended. $28US per night, perfect central location, AC, etc. They have late check out too, which we need badly today.
There is a Formula One race starting tomorrow that I wish we could see, but we're heading to Mumbai India tonight, which should be an amazing experience. India is considered to be one of the hardest places to travel, so I think we'll be challenged a bit- but it will be really interesting and we're both excited.
Suddenly yesterday, both of our ATM cards stopped working and we spent this morning trying to reach Bank of America to get it all set. It's funny how hard things can be sometimes.
I hope to have the Treo working again to be able to do some moble blogging from India, which I miss greatly.
The vehicles in Sri Lanka fascinated me. They seem to have a flair about them that you don't see everywhere. Check out this private bus, used for moving locals around the island:
Or this freight truck, called a Lorie.
Of course, they have the three-wheelers, known as tuk-tuks or bajaj.
Strange to us, but normal in Asia. This, however, is something completely Sri Lankan. It is a hand tractor which which came from China. The Sri Lankans attached a trailer and turned it into a people mover. Very common.
And of course, regular tractors too.
All these things, plus normal cars, trucks and busses get along very well with the Sri Lankan system of horn beeps and constant passing through curves and in cities. I never saw one accident, not even hardly a dent on any car- it just works.
Note: We worked with two drivers and tour guides in Sri Lanka and whole-heartedly recommend them both.
To contact and learn more about the drivers in this post and view pictures of them, go here: Honest Drivers and Guides in Sri Lanka
Because other travelers love Mervyn Perera's service and want to help him, I'm collecting reviews about his tours here.
We’ve learned from several sources that
This our driver, Mervin, showing us how to drink from a King Coconut:
We were looking for a good way to see the major cities, cultural sites, beaches and wildlife of
Here’s what US$90 per day includes for both of us.
- Modern 4 door sedan with A/C and a full gas tank each morning
- English-speaking, honest and safe driver available to us 24 hrs/day (includes his R&B)
- Pick-up and drop-off at the airport
- Lodging at mid-range and top-end hotels and guest houses
- Sit-down breakfasts each morning
- All entry fees to parks, museums, temples and tourist spots (between $3 and $40 each)
- All expenses for an afternoon wildlife safari (entry fees, Land Rover & driver, tracker guide – about US$80)
- 3 expert English-speaking guides to the 3 ancient cities
- Full itinerary/tour planning for the 9 days
What is not so obvious makes this decision very worthwhile:
- A local driver to explain the colonial history, politics, local etiquette, scams, and local street vendor snacks like King Coconut freshly cut with a machete
- Someone to set us heading in the right direction and watch our bags during every activity – the car is never out of his sight
- Someone to make all reservations and sort out any issues
- Complete independence from tour busses or vans – it’s just Lee and me
- No need for road navigation so we can enjoy the sights
- Comfortable rides in A/C where public transport squeezes 17 people in a 7 person van – no A/C of course
- Flexibility to change a day’s schedule on a whim – very important when your stomach isn’t doing so well or you’re tired from the day’s hike
To this expense, add a few tips here and there, and lunch and dinner for two (less than US$20 total) and you have a great trip to
What about the adventure of figuring it out for ourselves? Yes, we factored that in when we made our decision. We like the adventure, but with so little time here we wanted to make the most of it, and as Lee mentioned earlier, we’re not 20-year old backpackers and are greatly appreciating the A/C six degrees from the equator.
You can learn more about our driver and his contact information on this post.