Day 12: Trip to the Island of Koh Pha Ngan
We've made a huge mistake. We are two hours into the train ride to Chumphon and the blessing of air conditioning has turned to a nightmare; what was once a soothing whisper has turned to a steady arctic blast and the blankets’ defense provides as much protection as a tank top in a blizzard. Teeth are chattering in the seats around us and any getting sleep is out of the question. It doesn’t help that we are all still dressed for the humid Bangkok afternoon, so we dig in, layer up with the little clothing in our day bags, and count the minutes until our dawn arrival.
Of course we’re running an hour late, but eventually the the train pulls to a stop and the entirety of our car rushes for the platform. We peel off to our next mode of transportation; an open-back bus that will take us to the docks and our connecting ferry to Koh Tao. They pack the bus with travelers, all hunched over waiting for blood to begin flowing properly again. After an hour, we get to the docks and we're greeted by a full ferry waiting on our delayed arrival. The ferry has three levels and the lower decks are packed so we head up top; which works out well since it’s where I would want to be anyway. The sun is just starting to peak over the horizon and thankfully thimbles of coffee and tea are being passed around the deck. A majority of the passengers have been traveling all night like us and the mood is quiet, somber, and lethargic.
With the sun's arrival comes warmth and breathtaking views of the clear waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Eyes open fully around the deck, layers are shed, and the group collectively stretches the sleep away. Conversations and introductions in what seems to be every language on planet earth start up, and huddles are formed. The air is calm and some card games break out in some of the newly formed groups.
For the first hour after we embark, there is little to see but the sunrise splashing across the blue-green waves and the occasional brightly painted fishing boat getting an early start on the day's work. Each one has its own unique markings-- dragons, athletic signs, and random English words are scattered across the hulls; like decaled tropical birds bobbing across the sea.
We all spread out across the deck and join different clusters, where I'm eager to hold some conversation and make new friends outside of our small group. I end up spending the majority of the trip to Koh Tao chatting with a Seattleite named Paul. He has spent the passed few months tooling around some of the same parts of South East Asia as us. We trade stories and experiences and naturally end up talking about SWAP Socks and the work we’re doing on this trip. Paul, who ran a team at Amazon that did some impressive work with supply chain management and product shipping flow, has a lot of great advice for the coming months/years of SWAP Socks. I eagerly absorb as much as I can, gladly agreeing to talk again in a few months when we can also exchange more stories from our respective trips. Conveniently, Paul is fresh out of socks which happens to be a common occurrence when your whole closet is on your back. So I get him into a pack of Cool Oceans, fitting for a ferry ride in the Gulf of Thailand. If you end up reading this I hope they’re treating you well, Paul!
Good conversation makes the four hour trip fly by as other vessels crop up more frequently and the edge of Koh Tao appears on the horizon. As we get closer to shore, we pass more tropical bird boats heading out for the day, and we start to pick out bungalows peeking out from the vegetation that hugs the rocky outcroppings of the surrounding beach. The water is glassy and transparent and even with the crisscrossing of boat wakes, the sandy bottom is clearly visible.
The ferries' occupants begin to grow restless in anticipation for the arrival, and we say farewell to our new friends. As we were forced to take the long way to Koh Pha Ngan, we are the only ones aside from a lone Brazilian who remain on board for the second leg of the trip. When the ropes are thrown to shore the ferry exhales, spewing out its restless cargo in one seething mass of limbs and backpacking packs.
A few travelers already on Koh Tao, headed for Koh Pha Ngan, make their way down the gangplank and join us on deck. As soon as the last bag is thrown aboard and all ties have been released, we head back out to sea. There seems to be a collective agreement among the new passengers that it’s time to catch up on some rest and soak in some sun, and pretty soon everyone is laid out and napping on the open deck. I awake a few hours later to the sound of birds and the island of Koh Pha Ngan sprawling out in the distance. As we round the northern curve of the island, the jungle gives way to rocky outcroppings and hints of a small town. After a few minutes the harbor comes into view, complete with a massive beached gunship.
Companions are awoken around us as once again the ferry's ropes are thrown ashore. We haven’t eaten since junk food in the Bangkok train station, and not properly since the previous days’ breakfast at Parrot Cafe. So we disembark and saunter down the walkway towards a waiting fleet of taxis, heading off in search of food. We wind our way around the island and end up seated at "Planet Hollyfood", one of what we discover to be many cheesy knockoff-named establishments on the island. Regardless of the questionable theme, the food looks amazing and in minutes I’m sipping on a Singha and digging into the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had. Welcome to Koh Pha Ngan.