Mystery tour ends in Lanta
BANGKOK 25 June 2012: I know today’s final destination is the southern island of Lanta, but the rest is a bit of a mystery. I am mulling over the day’s business as I take in the view of Bangkok’s city skyline, the lights on Wat Saket, the golden mount temple, twinkling in the distance.
It’s not often I get to stay in a Bangkok hotel so the view from the Siam@Siam room on the 24th floor gets my full attention. A century earlier Wat Saket would have dominated the skyline, the highest point on a flat lush green Bangkok marooned by an enormous river and watery lush green paddy fields as far as the eye could see.
Today, it is difficult to find a spot in downtown Bangkok’s concrete clutter where you can see this distinctive temple landmark.
The day is starting well until the telephone rings and the public relations manager tells me I was supposed to be in the lobby ready to board a mini-bus to the airport.
Senior travellers are not in the habit of rushing their morning quiet hour, but I had just five minutes to pack my gear and head off on what was turning into a mystery tour.
Not quite right, the bus driver knew where we were going and I assumed the public relations team from Siam@Siam knew too. They had sheets of paper that suggested someone had typed out an itinerary.
This is a green tour, I thought as the van bulleted down the almost deserted roads of inner Bangkok at the crack of dawn. There must be an embargo on paper explanations or they expect me to open Facebook.
Congestion is always close at hand in Bangkok so the airport quickly made up for relatively clear highway to snag us at its drab grey-steel check-in counters.
This airport just doesn’t get better with age and despite how hard we might try to give it some slack, it usually disappoints. It’s just too big and ugly like a sumo wrestler and about as user friendly as a jelly donut.
We are travelling TG 241 to Krabi, a domestic flight that takes just one hour. Like the passengers heading for other early morning flights to Phuket and Chiang Mai we end up a basement holding area that reminded me of the temporary ones used when Don Mueang Airport underwent renovations back in the early 1990s.
Is this the best Suvarnabhumi Airport can do for national airline’s domestic flights? We are definitely at the end of the pecking order stuffed like sardines in a tin waiting for a door to breeze open so we can stumble on to airport buses to take us to the planes. And what a gas guzzling hike it turned out to be. We meandered through a grand tour of the aircraft parking lots until we finally rolled up almost to the belly of an ancient Airbus A300-600 well painted mind you and looking fresh and sparkling clean.
I haven’t travelled to Krabi or Lanta Island in seven years so Krabi’s neat looking airport came as a surprise. Owned and managed by the Department of Civil Aviation, this is what I call a user-friendly airport. Baggage drops off in minutes and the walk to kerb-side taxis is less than 300 metres. No fuss or hassles except from three over active women sitting in taxi rental booths who insisted on poking their silly heads through the windows to yell “taxi mister.” Just to make sure there was no mistaking their invitation, they waved huge notice boards blazoned with the words TAXI in our general direction. There were two female heads peeping from under three of the boards so I assumed the other was held aloft by a Hobbit, standing on her tip-toes, but still well short of the counter ledge.
Give the Siam@Siam team, led by managing director, Kla Kitchakarn, credit they described the benefits of staying at most of the hotels on the route through Krabi town all the way to the hill top Lai Lay Grill restaurant, which true to its name is on a hill top with a great view of Ao Nang bay.
I still haven’t seen an itinerary but I reckon we will be on Lanta Island by sunset, so this can be a long leisurely lunch.
What I am worrying about, we are in good hands; Siam@Siam’s cigar-smoking managing director is a veteran of travel who knows his way around Krabi like it was his backyard.
Occasionally, a restaurant surprises you and this is one of them. Usually when restaurants have a great view, they flop on the food, but not here. Great Thai dishes cooked southern style and the open style kitchen is an invitation to wander over to the cooks to gain post-meal tips on cooking the dishes you just enjoyed.
I am no gourmet, but I love good food served in a natural setting and Krabi’s hill-top restaurant scores all the points. Yes, our bus stops at Starbucks on Krabi’s main street and I can see signage announcing the presence of junk food providers, McDonald’s and Mister Donut. Where would we be without these modern icons of sugar delivery.
We replenish the tourist police escort with iced café latte and set off in the general direction of Lanta, but first to Wat Tham Sua where we stamp amulets according to our birthdays that we are told will be stored in a yet to be completed pagoda.
If you have time you can climb the 1237 steps to another pagoda on the top of the karst. The more comfortable option is to visit the cave at its base and light a joss stick at a Chinese temple in the spacious courtyard.
Our religious tourism duties aside we head off to get in touch with nature at Khao Phra Khram Nature Reserve about halfway to Lanta.
Hidden in what the park keeper says is a second generation forest ( it looks pretty thick to me) there are two quite remarkable fresh water ponds fed by mountain streams; one an emerald green and the other a sapphire blue.
Thai visitors refer to the two ponds as Sra Morakot or emerald pool and until recently they were definitely what the Tourism Authority of Thailand used to call “Unseen Thailand.”
Thankfully someone discovered them and now we have a wooden walkway covering 1.8 km of forest trails that helps to prevent further damage to the environment as we plod along behind an enthusiast park keeper.
There are two ponds about 1 km apart. The first one known as the emerald pool is about 25 metres in diameter and a sign says you can swim here, although there is a warning to keep an eye on your children as they could drown in the turquoise water.
Fresh spring water burbles down slippery slopes, but once it enters the pool it assumes a vivid emerald hue. There are variations of green depending on the temperature of the water throughout the day. A description (only in Thai language) explains it is due to bacteria and algae in the water as well as the mineral content high in calcium carbonate.
The wooden board walk ends at the blue pond that was originally an elephant watering hole and lies on a crust of Magma, which gives it a bluish hue, while there is a constant stream of bubbles rising from the sandy floor.
If you do an impersonation of Pavarotti, the bubbles increase in response to the shock waves running through the water to the pond’s sandy floor. Sounds of music or the hand clapping from friends who never knew you were an opera singer cause the flow of bubbles to intensify in a remarkable display. It beats the water fountains at mega marts any day.
Villagers manage a cluster of snack shops and a toilet block located near the gate of the reserve. Foreigners pay Bt200, locals Bt50 and if you a senior citizen 60 or over you can get in free.
It is getting late so our bus rumbles down the lane back to the highway and puts on a turn of speed at the heels of the tourist police car. We are about 50 km from Lanta’s two island, known as Noi and Yai (sisters little and large) and when the bus pulls into a gas station we transfer to a fleet of cool Toyota Commuter vans. Tour buses are a little too big for the winding road to Lanta and substantially slower as we are to discover.
The vans gun down the country lane drafting behind the tourist police car as if they were attached to the bumper by an invisible cable.
Lanta is one of the few tourist destinations that still requires visitors to transfer by a car ferry not once but twice. The first car ferry is impressive a sturdy affair capable of transporting 36 cars across the sea channel between the mainland and islands. It takes 10 minutes and requires a small bumper tug boat at each end to ram the ferry into a docking position.
It was the second ferry ride between Lanta Noi and Lanta Yai that I just could not remember from seven years ago. I could have sworn I drove over a bridge. Obviously, I didn’t as the fleet of mini-vans pull up sharply on a wharf for a shorter channel crossing on a much smaller, but faster car ferry.
I recall during that visit, seven years earlier, that a dreamy hotelier told me it would take just two years to build a super bridge across the channel to connect the two islands.
It will be ready in three years from now the Siam@Siam sales team tells me. There’s a sign to prove it too that says the project will cost Bt400 million, take 900 days and will span the channel for 740 metres.
We are on Lanta Yai’s sandy soil heading for Crown Lanta resort that opened just four years ago on a headland that marks the start of an impressive bay lined by a white sand fringe far to the south. It should be raining, but it isn’t which is good news for hotels that bother stay open. The southwest monsoon marks the island’s low season when villagers take a respite from hosting tourists who cram into the 2,300 available rooms, leaving nothing but a few straw mats to sleep on during the holiday peak.
Lanta residents have two typical signs they hang out: No Vacancies (November to March) and Gone for Lunch. The latter swings in the breeze for around five idyllic months of peace and quiet, May to October.
Lanta’s beaches and its people probably welcome the rains. They can earn enough money from tourism in a short sweet season, but there is always pressure to extend the envelope of opportunity by experimenting with niche markets like weddings and honeymoons. That is what really interests Crown Lanta and probably explains why there are so many chic magazine editors floating around poolside with models and cameramen in tow, all probably wishing they could sneak in a second honeymoon rain or shine.