Ladies and gentlemen, it’s another guest post by the First Lady!
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When we started this trip in November, you could only get a Thailand visa for two weeks if entering by land or sea, or 30s if by air. Since we wanted to stay in Thailand more than a month, we debated flying to save the time and trouble of having to do a visa run in a few weeks through the Burma/Myanmar border. In the end we decided the cost and travel time for the flight wasn’t worth it, and took a ferry from the Malaysian island of Langkawi to Satun, Thailand. We also decided to take our chances on the visa upon arrival, hoping we could get a 30 day Thailand visa as we’d recently heard a rumour of a rumour that Thailand was changing it’s visa rules.
Flight Option: The cheapest flight was 450 ringgit (about $120 USD), and that would only get us to Phuket, plus the taxi to the airport on Langkawi from Pantai Cenang would be around 30 ringgit ($10 USD). The flight would take around four hours, plus travel time to the airport and check in time (half hour to the airport), plus another few hours by ferry from Phuket to Koh Lanta, so maybe seven hours all together.
Ferry/Bus Option: We booked the entire trip through a local travel company in Pantai Cenang (the beach town we stayed at on Langkawi). There were lots to choose from, and all offered a similar trip for a similar price: for 115 ringgit per person ($33 USD) we’d get picked up by a minibus at our hotel at 8 am for the 9 am ferry (and the driver takes you to the correct departure area), the ferry takes 1 hr 15 minutes, and then a mini bus takes you from Satun all the way to our hotel on Koh Lanta (about three hours drive). All going according to plan, this trip should take around eight hours. As an added bonus, you get to wear a bright blue sticker so you can be easily identified by the “tour” operators. Much like I imagine you’d wear for an on shore tour from a cruise ship.
We could have done the exact same trip on our own with a similar schedule for about $25 per person, but sometimes it’s nice to take the easier way, and not have to figure it out and work your way through the hassle of people trying to get you on their bus/taxi/whatever, or finding out the ferry is already full. I usually prefer the DIY approach to travel, but the older I get, the less I like wasting time and energy on logistical things that don’t result in any real difference to the trip or experience. But it’s a slippery slope, and who knows, maybe in 10 years I’ll be doing packaged tours, all-inclusives, and cruises. Although really, is that so bad? The important thing is to keep getting out there. Some people say the struggles and annoyances are a necessary part of the travel experience, and I think there’s something to that. I definitely have some good memories (although not always so much in the moment) of those sorts of experiences from other trips, but for me it doesn’t have to be the hard way all the time. All things in moderation, that’s my other life philosophy 🙂
When we booked the trip we were told to be ready for pick up by 7:50 am, and that’s exactly when our driver showed up (and bad us, we were still finishing breakfast expecting that he’d be late). After one other passenger pick up we were on our way to the ferry by 8:10 am. We got to the terminal by 8:35 am which left me with 10 minutes to get a coffee from Starbucks. Perfect timing. I actually have a strong appreciation for Nescafé instant coffee, and a dislike of Starbucks coffee, but it’s nice to have a cup of the real stuff now and then.
When you arrive at the only ferry terminal at Kuah (on Langkawi), they open the immigration counter around 15 minutes before the ferry is scheduled to leave. You’d think that wouldn’t be enough time to get everyone through, but it was quick and painless, with an official directing passengers to one of three immigration booths. We had assigned seat numbers, but didn’t like the location so jumped on some empty window seats, hoping they didn’t belong to someone else. Luckily they didn’t and we had a great view of all the little islands the ferry passed through on a very calm sea. The ferry left a few minutes late, but took 1 hr 15 minutes as planned.
At the Satun ferry terminal, it took about 45 minutes to get through the immigration line, but that’s because we were pretty much last off the boat. One of the benefits of having booked the trip ahead of time was knowing we didn’t have to stress to rush through immigration because we knew the van wouldn’t leave without us.
The best part of this whole story is we were able to get a 30 day Thailand visa (there’s no cost for the standard entry visa) without even asking! So either they changed it just in time for our arrival (Dec 10), or we got lucky and had an easy going immigration officer. I’m pretty sure it was the former, although at the time I couldn’t find anything on line or on the government websites to confirm.
Once through immigration our bags were x-rayed, we quickly exchanged our Malaysian currency for Thai baht and were met by our tour operator. She asked us to wait with some other backpackers also going more or less the same way, and 10 minutes later, on the scheduled departure time of 10:30 am (or 11:30 am Malaysia time) we all climbed in to a very nice, new minivan, complete with seatbelts! It was a beautiful drive from Satun, on a good highway. The landscape and scenery were really different from Malaysia, much flatter and more open, fewer big trees and more flowers. For those who’ve been to this part of the world before, I’m sure this wasn’t a big deal, but I noticed the difference, and thought the landscape was really lovely and gentle.
For those of us going to Koh Lanta, we changed minibuses in Trang, arriving after a 2.5 hr drive. We’d been told it would take three hours, and it was nice to have a bit of extra time to find an ATM and grab some food before the next leg. We were meant to leave in a half hour, but it was more like one hour. We piled into the minivan for the next leg of the journey, and after a short detour back to our starting point when the driver realized he’d loaded in a bag (one of the many digging into my side at the very back of the bus… note to self, don’t sit at the back because you can feel every little bump sitting above the back wheels) that belonged to someone not in our van, we got to the first of the two Koh Lanta car ferries 1 hr 45 mins later. After a few minutes, we were on the ferry, and 5 minutes later we were off, with the minivan still running for the entire waiting and crossing, just for the a/c. Nice. After another identical ferry ride, we were on Koh Lanta exactly on time, and we’re dropped off right at our hotel, the lovely Lanta Pearl Beach Resort. I love the way they use the word resort here. They’re nothing like our big all inclusive resorts in North America, and as far as I can figure the only thing they have in common is they have a restaurant, a way to buy beer, and you can charge your food and drinks to your room.
Beyond making it to Koh Lanta, my big goal for the day was to finally have a real Thai bucket (Sangsom, coke and red bull. Yum)! I’ve been drinking them for years back home with friends that had been to Thailand and brought the tradition home as a party staple, so there was something special about finally getting to have one at the source. For years I’ve sworn that despite the amount of alcohol in them, they’re a sure fire hangover preventative. For some strange reason, no one else seems to believe me.
We checked into our room and walked down to the beach, found a cozy platform with some Thai pillows, and ordered a bucket. With perfect timing, our friend Alex from Vancouver arrived, after weeks of trying to arrange to meet up, and so it was the perfect end to a great first day experience in Thailand for me.
Unlike the majority of the world’s population, as we’ve been reminded of through conversations with locals around the world, us Canadians are privileged to have the freedom and the means (even if it is through a credit card) to travel almost anywhere, anytime. I think it’s one of the biggest things that makes me appreciate even the less than ideal experiences. At least I get to be here, doing this.