Day 57 - 25 April 2015 - Kuala Perlis to Koh Lanta
However familiar I may be with the route and the place I have a habit of checking it out the evening once again before I travel on that route. As far as Krabi was concerned I had never travelled there and the route linking Kuala Perlis through the borders of Malaysia and Thailand was absolutely new. When I keyed in the name of the hotel in Koh Lanta, Krabi in the destination on Google Maps it repeatedly threw up the message “Route not found”. Initially I was a bit amused, but when I zoomed in on the hotel location I found that Koh Lanta was an island not connected by a bridge. To make matters worse it looked as if I had to cross waters twice. I doubted if I had made a terrible mistake going for budget accommodation. A few more tries later I messaged Shrey Bansal of Lifestyle Services, who had been helping out with booking in hotels. He spoke to the hotel and was told that it was connected by road. I wondered why Google Maps was not able to guide properly. I contemplated booking another hotel instead of taking a chance with one that may take me avoidable extra time even if some kind of connectivity was available. Panic was about to set in when I zoomed on the map a bit more and saw the Krabi-Lanta island ferry marked on the map. I checked Maps with that as destination and I got a proper route. I was somewhat assured, but I did not know the ferry facilities for the crossing. That, I decided, could be experienced as I got there. Therefore, before I went to bed I set the destination on Google Maps on my phone to Krabi-Lanta island ferry. The distance was shown as 320 km and possible time to destination as 4 hours and 34 minutes. I slept assured that I had some place to motor to in the morning.
The hotel tariff did not include breakfast, so I could leave any time I wanted. I had picked up a loaf of bread last evening from Kangar and made sandwiches with the Kisan jam I had. I collected the deposit and started out earlier from the hotel than I had intended at 7 am. Just as I was rolling out of the hotel, Google Maps started acting funny. It just would not start navigation. I tried and tried, but it just would not budge. Technology can be more obdurate than a human, I experienced. And there were no messages as to why it was ‘behaving’ the way it was. Later I found out that I had not enabled the GPS. In the past when that happened, the system automatically requested activation of GPS for more accurate location information. Anyway, when you are down on your luck, I guess, even software has a way of knowing that! Once I switched on the GPS the lady started squawking, and all was well.
Bukit Kayu Hitam and Padang Besar are the two most used crossing in north Malaysia to cross into Thailand. I was targeting Pedang Besar. However, Google Maps charted a different course for me. I noticed, as I followed directions of Google Maps, that I was consistently bypassing Padang Besar and going on in a north westerly direction. The route had rice fields on both sides at first and then I entered a dense forest that turned out to be the Perlis National Park. Doubts started surfacing all over again; was it an international border or was it only meant for locals who crossed over regularly for commerce? The apprehensions were genuine considering the documentation and paperwork required for the car. I continued on the forested route consoling myself that the worst that could happen was to retrace the route and enter Thailand through the Padang Besar immigration and customs post. A few km short of Wang Kelian, the border post, I parked at a Caltex fuel station to tank up. Diesel is almost 40 percent cheaper in Malaysia as compared to Thailand. The attendant at the fuel station told me that it would open only at 8 am since the border would also open only then. I did not quite catch the connection, but I waited in anticipation of the cheaper fuel. When it was 8 am the attendant told me that the accountant would be a bit delayed and he did not know for how long! I had enough fuel to reach my destination and hence, I drove on to the border.
The Malaysian side of the Wang Kelian border post is a very small facility and not crowded. As I was driving into the gate I asked a uniformed person if the customs office was anywhere close by. He identified himself as the customs person and took my Carnet for stamping. I was asked to complete immigration formalities, park the car and get back to him. Immigration formalities were completed sitting in the car and I parked to get back to customs office. By the time I reached there, two ladies were already working on the Carnet. One of them turned out to be a huge Bollywood buff and she hummed a few tunes, perhaps to reinforce the proclivity! In about 15 minutes I was through the Malaysian border. A very short distance away is the Thailand border. I parked and reached the arrival booth of immigration, were I declared that I was travelling in a car and required documents for the car too. He politely directed me to another counter where a taciturn officer kept asking for Thai insurance. I pretended as if I did not understand the language and kept on putting one document after another on his desk. The car registration, Indian insurance, IDP, passport, Carnet and a few more embellished his already busy desk. He handed me a “Arrival and Departure Card” and expected me to be happy with it. With the experience at the Thai border when I was travelling to Laos still fresh in my mind I insisted on securing the ‘Information on Conveyance’ document from Immigration. Through my persistence the officer kept on saying “Thai insurance” and I kept on thrusting the Indian insurance under his noose. Finally he blinked, and stamped the required document after I filled it up. With that I went to the immigration counter and completed what had to be done. The officer was only curious to know what I intended to do in Koh Lanta! Customs formalities did not take long. Apart from stamping the Carnet they also gave me the Customs paper required to be handed over at the exit. When I drove past the Thai border post I said to myself that this would be the last unassisted border entry of the South East Asian Expedition.
The rice fields in Malaysia gave way to rubber, teak and oil palm plantation on the Thailand side. I motored along merrily and reached the first ferry for Koh Lanta. I drove onto the loading platform and I was told that I had to purchase the ticket at another location. I went back to the location mentioned by the supervisor and was given two tickets that cost THB 170. I did not know then that they were for the two ferries that would take me to my destination. Enquiries revealed that the ferries operate from 6 am to 10 pm. I need not have worried at all. But that is 20/20 foresight. The ferries were a pleasant experience and hassle free. More than two Ro-Ro vessels were deployed and they tuned around in less than 30 minutes.
A tuk tuk driver helped me reach the DR Lanta Bay Resort. The low price of the room reflected in the service. An elderly gentleman, who completed the check in formalities, even suggested that I should not have breakfast there as it was not worth it! The room was quite okay and the beach front was glorious. Therefore, I presumed, customers even put up with indifferent service. All the hotels, resorts and spas either overlooked the sea or were beach fronted properties.
After changing money at the Siam Commercial Bank counter I sauntered around the waterfront scrutinizing menus. Finally I zeroed in on the Seaview Restaurant and it turned out to be a good choice, both in terms of service and food. Chilled Chang beer was the ideal accompaniment for the excellent Phad Thai chicken. As I walked out of the restaurant I saw a young man outside a 7Eleven store having an ice cream cone. He smiled when I asked if he were advertising it. I too went into the store and emerged with a Magnum ice cream stick. I sat on a bench outside the store and started a conversation with Oliver and Philip. Both of them Londoners, were school friends. While Oliver works with an advertising firm in London Phillip works in Singapore. The two childhood friends were spending a few days of vacation on the island. It is funny how it is so easy to make conversation with some. Oliver and Phillip fell into that category. I took leave of them once the ice cream was over and they were off to get a few shirts tailored in the adjacent shop.
After a short snooze I went in search of a good massage centre and laundry service. The first was disastrous and the second successful. Halfway through the massage the girl apologised that she was new there and therefore, not very skilled. It certainly reflected in what she was doing. I went through with it though, not wanting to make a song and dance about it. Soiled clothes had accumulated because of the finger infection. I located an automated laundry service and, in an hour, got through the chore while having a couple of beers. Later I went to one of the restaurants on the water front, many of them had closed, and had fried rice and spring rolls.
I had very little time to explore the island. But what I saw was incredible. It has white sandy beaches with stunning sunset views, affordable accommodation, friendly people and good food. The island is supposed to be great for diving and snorkelling and many tour operators offer diving lessons and tours to neighbouring islands, as well. The island has become a traveller hot spot in the past few years with its picturesque Andaman sea coastline. Koh Lanta is actually two islands – Lanta Noi and Lanta Yai, both part of the Koh Lanta National Park. Tourist facilities are only on the second island. I drove through the first island from a ferry landing to Lanta Yai via a second ferry. I wish I had stayed a couple of days more here to take a few diving and snorkelling lessons. But, as scheduled, I have to move on to Phuket tomorrow.