Sorry I’m a day late with this—I had a few unforeseen dramas which required my attention yesterday. My apols.
For years, no decades, I’ve hated Surat Thani. If you’re not familiar with the city, it is a southern Thai provincial capital often used as a gateway to the Gulf islands. I had a particularly unpleasant time there one trip years ago, which only served to cement my loathing of the place. It turns out though, I was doing it wrong.
Surat is one of those places travellers try to spend as little time as possible in. At a quick glance—which is all many give it—the appeal of the place isn’t obvious. The centre of the old town, Ban Don, sits on the south side of a river (more on that in a bit). The immediate area by the riverbank is a fairly typical Thai town. There’s some older buildings and narrow lanes, a market, and a temple or three.
With the clock ticking down on beach time though, few linger. Instead they shuttle from the train or bus station to the pier—in and out. Getting stuck there overnight thanks to a late train or broken down bus, is a fate worse than death. Ok, I’m being a little melodramatic, but yeah, the general view is “Oh God no, not Surat—I wanted Samui!”
The side of Surat Thani too many miss. Photo: David Luekens.
Some of the local population in the tourist industry, know many travellers feel this way. They grasp that they may only have four to six hours to monetise the traveller. The result? Surat Thani has a not totally unfair reputation for scams and money–wringing.
It is the typical stuff. The ride from the train station drops you at a tourist restaurant. They sell you the ferry ticket and transfer and do all they can to keep you on site eating their mediocre food. More often than not, travellers, sleepless from the overnight trip from Bangkok, acquiesce. Many chug Chang beers, eat bad pizzas or greasy takes on pad thai. They play cards, stare at their phones—some even talk to one another. Few stray outside.
The night boat. My God the memories. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
My worst Surat Thani experience was when I (stupidly) bought a through bus ticket from Ko Pha Ngan to Bangkok. The agent in Thong Sala said they had VIP, first class and second class seats. I don’t remember the prices, but it was something like 1,000 baht, 750 baht and 500 baht. Fine with discomfort, I went with the cheapest ticket.
Unfortunately my idea of discomfort and the travel agents’ differed. When the bus showed up, everyone else boarded except for two women and myself. We were second class ticket holders. Once loaded, we were invited to get in … the luggage hold.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it. At the Raji Thani. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I remember thinking they were joking, but they weren’t. There was a tatty vinyl sofa in there. No windows. All the walls were covered in black carpet that stank of stale cigarettes and beer. The three of us looked at one another.
The travel agent, to whom I’m being kind describing as a complete asshole, smiled. “No problem—the bus can go without you”. He was well practised—no doubt he acted out this same routine daily.
No, this is not the Mekong Delta, it is a canal off the Tapi River. Photo: David Luekens.
We demanded they call the police—riding in the luggage compartment was unsafe, we argued. They refused. This was before smart phones, so none of us could call easily. One of the others went off to find a police officer while the remaining two of us argued with the agent. It was ugly. There were tears.
The constabulary arrived. Like the agent, I’m sure their performance was well practised. He feigned sympathy and asked to see our tickets. He looked at each ticket carefully, then handed them back.
“Your tickets are second class seats, and in this bus, second class is with cargo”.
Supporting the right kind of local business. Photo: David Luekens.
If we didn’t feel safe, he suggested we catch another bus and buy a first class ticket this time.
We rode in the luggage hold for the ten hours to Bangkok.
Screw you Surat Thani travel agent.
From getting off the ferry to sullenly climbing into the luggage hold, I’d been in Surat Thani about four hours. What chance was I giving the place?
I was doing it wrong.
Sleep by the water at the 100 Canals Homestay. Photo: David Luekens.
A few years ago, David Luekens headed to Surat Thani as a part of a Travelfish research project. David spent a few days exploring Surat Thani and the surrounds—rather than the few hours most do—and it paid dividends.
He found some of the more standard stuff—temples, some non–touristy quality places to eat and so on. But, David being David, he found more captivating activities as well. In particular, a local homestay programme running on the Tapi River.
The Tapi River? Where is this unheard of body of water? It is actually the river Surat Thani sits on! Exploring the river has been in guidebooks for decades, but you needed to read them closely. As I wrote a week or so ago, many, clearly including me, don’t. For years I’d passed through Surat Thani, trying to get in and out without touching the ground if possible.
Hello beautiful. Photo: David Luekens.
I should have been doing the opposite. Namely I should have slowed down.
“Setting out on a narrow longtail boat steered by boisterous Surat native, Mr Lek, we cut north into one of the many canals that crisscross the delta. Still within sight of Surat’s multi-storey concrete buildings, the simple houses set over the water and shrouded in greenery present an immediate contrast of rural and urban, side by side.
Continuing into the tropical trees on a sunny morning, we spotted cranes and other birds gliding or twirling over the treetops. For a moment, a pair of dragonflies hovered next to our boat. Bright orange and yellow wildflowers joined the red leaves of umbrella trees amid a dense backdrop of flora.”
Now that sounds far more appealing than ten hours in a bus luggage compartment.