We hired a car in Chiang Mai and James drove us to Soppong, close to the Myanmar border in the north west of Thailand, near Pai. The road there was a continuous succession of S and hairpin bends as it snaked up into the mountains. The scenery was beautiful but I got horribly carsick for the first time since I was a child and did not appreciate it as much going as when we returned to Chiang Mai. By the way, I think it would be a really fantastic trip to do on a motorbike. When we arrived at the Soppong River Lodge I was feeling a tad frazzled but after a short while I started to relax as Soppong worked its magic on me. My spirits were restored by the beautiful tropical vegetation surrounding us, the river running past the lodge and the Zen-like feel of the lodge.
The area is full of ancient caves and we hired a guide to take us through one on a bamboo raft. We also explored the beautiful countryside and villages nearby. I think I grew up watching too many war movies because I kept expecting Japanese soldiers to come bursting out of the jungle and for Steve McQueen to come riding past on one of the ancient motorbikes that you see here.
Soppong was a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of all the East Asian cities that we had been visiting and we left feeling much revived. We had to return the car to Chiang Mai and because I had changed my “old” mindset, I was persuaded to go to the night market there, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It has a very festive atmosphere, helped quite a lot by the Chang beer tower that we consumed. One can eat at restaurants in the market and watch the passing parade. It is a very pleasant way to spend an evening. I even managed to buy some really nice silk scarves there. I also managed to walk into a pole whilst gawking at a ladyboy show, much to the amusement of all concerned.
Gulf of Thailand Islands
From Chiang Mai, we flew to Koh Samui and arrived eager to get onto the beach and into the sea. The airport on Koh Samui is the nicest airport I’ve ever seen. It is designed like a tropical resort and it gets you into holiday mode as soon as you step off the plane. We stayed at Ô Soleil Bungalows, which is right on the lovely white sands of Choengmon Beach. We had the bungalows and the beach virtually to ourselves as the tourist season had not yet started. We spent everyday swimming and lolling about in the sea and on the beach and at night we ate at restaurants on the beach. One evening the kids decided to go to Chaweng, a more touristy area, in search of nightclubs and more action. I stayed at the bungalows intending to do a “Shirley Valentine” and dine on my own on the beach. However I landed up spending a very pleasant evening chatting to the owner of Ô Soleil, Jean, about alternative technology and energy, which gave me a lot of ideas for the farm.
Koh Samui is a popular island for tourists because of the airport and it is rather chock-a-block with holiday resorts. The main beaches are quite built up and commercial but Choengmon Beach is still quite rustic. Our stay at Ô Soleil was just as I like a beach holiday to be. Shoes are discarded, you don’t move from the beach, you read your novel with no distractions and the world goes on without you. But it was too quiet for Alex, although after visiting Chaweng he did say that our beach was far nicer.
We caught a ferry to Koh Pha Ngan. One of the things I liked about travelling in Thailand (and China, for that matter) was how easy and cheap it was to move from place to place. Most of the places we stayed in arranged our onward transport for us (if we weren’t using public transport) and even catching taxis from the different airports was straightforward and regulated.
We stayed at a place called Cookies’ on Haad Salad Beach and I have to say that, as much as I loved Choengmon Beach, Haad Salad took my breath away. As Alex said to me, this was what he imagined a tropical island to look like. Crystal clear water, white sand and palm trees. On our first day we hired a kayak and went out to the coral reef to snorkel. I’ve never seen such huge coral and so much sea life. Kiera and James both have diving licenses and have been on quite a few diving holidays in Asia so they were able to point out all the different kinds of fish to Alex and me. We had such a glorious day and it rates as one of the best I’ve had in a long time.
The visibility was never as good as it had been on our first day. On one of the days we caught a longtail water taxi to a beautiful, isolated beach, called Bottle beach, which was a fantastic beach for swimming. The water taxi trip was great fun especially on the way back when the wind had got up and the sea was quite choppy.
One evening Kiera and James grudgingly accompanied Alex to the half moon party in another village on the island. But it seems that they had a good time and the next day Alex was a bit worse for wear, “hanging” as he calls it. Otherwise we spent our evenings strolling along the beach and enjoying the good food and good beer. Apart from one meal on the beach in Haad Salad where James was given squid that hadn’t been cleaned, we never had a bad meal in either China or Thailand. Unfortunately wine was way too expensive but the beer in Thailand was good and I also got to taste a lot of very nice cocktails.
I’ve always made a distinction between travel and holiday. If I’m travelling I don’t worry about resting, I can do that when I get home. But on holiday I like to relax and not exert myself too much. This trip enabled me to do both and at the end of our island stay we were all in island mode and rather reluctant to leave. I was secretly dreading another Asian city and wished that we had skipped Hong Kong as our final destination before coming home. I was in for a very pleasant surprise.