I'm currently sitting in the Hat Yai airport waiting for my return flight back to Bangkok after five days in one of the most beautiful areas I've ever visited. This area of Thailand certainly isn't for everyone, but I must say... I had a wonderful time.
Because I had Thursday and Friday off this past week for reasons that I still do not know, I decided to visit a friend living in Satun, about an hour and a half from Hat Yai International Airport and the same from the Malaysian border. And because it was in the air whether or not we had to work Wednesday or not (I was told yes versus no about fifteen times over the course of the week), I ended up leaving school early on Wednesday being that I had already booked my flight out around noon that day. Oops.
I flew from Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok (a nice and quiet airport) via Air Asia for about 3,500 baht round-trip. Air Asia is the equivalent of RyanAir in Europe, but the seats are slightly more comfortable and airport security isn't nearly as much as a pain to go through. Although buying and printing tickets is a bit of a pain with Air Asia, the experience has been fairly positive. Had I booked my flight a week earlier than I did, I probably could have gotten round-trip for right at 3,000 baht, which isn't bad for an hour and a half trip both ways.
Anyway, Hat Yai's airport certainly isn't much, and after getting scammed in a taxi to get to the minibus station at a nearby Tesco Lotus (about 15 km from the airport), I was on a minibus en route to Satun for 70 baht.
Note on the taxi: I couldn't find the baht bus to get to the Tesco, so I hired what I thought was a 30 baht 1990s model Nissan rattle-trap car to go the ten minutes. The driver, well skilled in deceit, then changed his mind to 300. Not the end of the world, but it did piss me off a bit. Oh well, what can you do. Getting mad doesn't accomplish much.
There isn't much to Satun itself. There are a few little restaurants (one named "On's" that was particularly good), a few little shops, maybe three 7/11s that I saw, and a Big C not too far from the town center. Still, realize that this is a big change from Bangkok. I can't walk to the nearest 7/11? What is this sorcery?
My lovely friend is the only foreign teacher at a technical school in the town, funded by an ASEAN grant of some sort. The school is far smaller than the school I work at, but everyone I met when I visited the school was extremely nice and incredulous at the sight of a "new" farang. The level of English in the region, needless to say, is far worse than Bangkok.
I'm told there is a night/day difference in English speaking and development in general just over the Malaysian border, but I didn't get a chance to check for myself.
Satun is a sleepy town, and there is very little to do in the town itself. There are a dozen or so foreigners living in the area that I met, but seeing a white-skinned person here still garners stares and smiles. The area used to belong to Malaysia, as I understand, so the area has a large Muslim population and many mosques. I saw more mosques than Buddhist temples during my visit, which is a different experience from what I'm used to in Bangkok.
Each evening, my friend and I would peruse a few restaurants and bars in the area, but the pickings were slim to say the least. Even so, the relaxed atmosphere in all of them and the lack of hustle-and-bustle outside that I'm used to in Bangkok was a wonderful change.
Still, I hate staying still for too long unless it's on a beach. So, during my second morning in town, I decided to rent a motorbike. Allow me to note here that, although I have ridden on several motorbikes in Thailand, I have never actually driven one... ever. But, I figured that if everyone else can do it, why can't I? Besides, compared to Bangkok, the traffic in Satun is non-existent, so it's as good of a place as any to learn.
It only cost 300 baht/day for this little automatic Honda that got wonderful fuel economy. No need for a passport, no deposit, no license check... just sign your name on some piece of paper, and the bike's yours. It was as easy as buying a newspaper.
After I figured out that you have to hold the left hand brake and be sitting on the bike to start it, I got off to a shaky start and was off! It didn't take long to get the hang of it. The bike just... goes... wherever you happen to be looking.
I explored the city a bit, randomly wandering around the rural, winding roads, being careful not to hit the multitude of goats and cows that mosey around to their heart's content. This being my first true experience with rural Thailand-genuinely rural-I am still in awe at the magnificent landscapes and utter tranquility I came across. It was lovely to feel so laid back in a country where I already thought I WAS laid back.
Bangkok may be relaxed compared to a city in the States, but it can't hold a candle to Thai countryside. During this first day on the bike, I spotted a sign that looked like a pier or some sort of water feature, so I decided to follow it. Voila! I stumbled across a fairly large freshwater river (or more likely, brackish), took some lovely photos in the small fishing village next to it, and eventually made it to the ocean. Who would have thought?
I arrived at the port (I assume it's the Port of Satun) around low tide, but it was still beautiful to behold, especially for someone like me who is addicted to the sea. The smell of ocean... ah! Apparently there are ferries that can take you to nearby Thai and Malaysian islands, but unfortunately I didn't have the time to pursue any island excursions during this trip. The whole experience of the day was lovely; once you get out of Satun proper, the scenery is amazing. Completely rural, various rubber tree farms and small rice paddies, and genuinely kind and relaxed Thais.
The next day followed suit too. After I had breakfast at the little restaurant that I rented the bike from, I headed to what's known as Monkey Mountain. It's literally right next to the town, and doesn't take more than ten minutes on a bike to get there if you don't get lost like I always do. Oh well, that's part of the fun. The mountain is part of a park of some sort that contains several picnic areas and a stream circling around the mountain. And, as the name would suggest, many monkeys. Oh, and don't forget the random goats, which appear to be the landscaping service for the park.
By 9:30 in the morning, I had climbed this small mountain and discovered an abandoned gazebo of sorts at the top. I was the only person there, which was amazing, and once I sat still for about a minute, I counted a dozen or so monkeys. This is highly interesting for me because I've never actually seen a monkey outside of a zoo, much less taken pictures of them. I'm quite the shutterbug, and Monkey Mountain did not disappoint.
After about fifteen minutes of making no sudden movements, these wild monkeys became brave enough to come right up to me. They're remarkable to see up close; their curiosity, dexterity, and highly amusing behavior caused me to hang out with them all for about two hours. Just me and the monkeys, so to say.
One particularly brave fellow spent a good 45 minutes trying to steal my flip flop off of my foot. He gained a following of young monkeys by the end of his endeavor, but eventually gave up grabbing with his tiny little hands and multiple mouth-grabbing attempts in lieu of a loose board from the pavilion I was sitting in that acted like a trampoline. That provided him entertainment for another 45 minutes. It was highly interesting to watch all of them going about their lives up-close-and-personal. I'm not typically big on zoos or animal watching, but this was quite a wonderful experience.
Around noon, I decided to try to find a beach my breakfast restaurant owner suggested. Once again, the motorbike journey was awesome, taking me through several rubber tree groves, chicken farms, and jungle areas in the 20 or so kilometers it took to get to the beach. The beach area I ended up in, whose name I can't remember, reminded me a bit of the coastal plains between Savannah and Brunswick, Georgia, in the U.S. The area is largely untouched with just a few small villages dotting the area. Just based on the looks I got, waves of surprise, and shouts of "Farang! Farang!" by the children, I'd say they don't get very many Irish-looking people around. It's nice to see there are still places in the world largely untouched by Western influence.
By this point, I was stopping frequently to take pictures of the increasingly beautiful scenery. I finally reached the crest of a large hill and wow! Ocean with mountains in the background. The terrain changes so quickly from coastal wetlands to mountainous areas to beach that I could barely catch up. Breathtaking is about the only word I can think of to describe the mix.
I explored a few beaches, which were largely rocky but with lovely coarse sandy areas intermittently, and stumbled upon an extremely secluded beach after a fifteen minute walk along the coastline. I couldn't find any motorbike paths leading to it, and I didn't see very much litter of any sort (which unfortunately resided in a few other beach areas I saw) nor human activity.
It was so secluded, in fact, that I felt it necessary to walk around in my birthday suit (not the most exquisitely tailored, I must say), just because I could. I can't say that I've visited a more peaceful place in my life... and I have the sunburn to prove it. Nothing like a little skin cancer to spice life up a bit. Hey, at least there will be a good story behind it...
I won't say that the beaches in this area are the most beautiful I've ever seen, nor are they necessarily the cleanest. But the tranquility they offer, with the constant breeze, lack of people, and mountainous background certainly make them top-notch in my book.
I never bother planning things properly, so after a few hours I realized it may be necessary to find some food and water. You can forget finding a 7/11 around here, but I did stumble upon a little beachside restaurant with the best seafood fried rice I've had and a large Coke for 60 baht (2 USD). The Muslim ladies that ran the largely deserted place (it was Friday, not the weekend), all seven of them, got a big kick out of me. Aside from the lady that appeared to be in charge, none of them spoke any English, but they were still trying to set me up with one of the girls that looked to be my age. I feel loved, I think.
That evening, I attended my first South African "Bri" (no idea how to spell that). I would call the event a grill-out or barbeque, but whatever you call it, it was a lovely time with several of the foreigners in Satun. And I've gotta hand it to the South Africans: what little food I had was excellent. A true treat.
Visiting a mountain in the morning and beaches in the afternoon equals a wonderful day in my book. Add a nice barbeque to the mix, and the result is about as perfect of a vacation as is possible.
I loved the beach so much that I returned the next day with my friend and another lovely person from the event the evening before. I was painfully sunburnt this time and had already returned my motorbike (sadness), but it was still quite lovely to return. I can now say I've seen the sun set over the Andaman Sea!
Today, my host treated me to a trip to a beautiful park about 40 kilometers away. My butt is still a bit sore from the trip on the back of a motorbike, but the park itself was breathtaking... much like the scenery I've seen everywhere I've visited in the Satun province. This seems to be a running theme of rural Thailand. It reminded me a lot of the Appalachians in the States; not ridiculously steep, but certainly a mountain by all definitions. There were stairs leading up to the main "bath," a roughly 7' pool at the bottom of a series of small waterfalls. It wasn't overly crowded, making it a quite pleasant family day Sunday. We (the three of us-my host, her friend, and myself) were the only foreigners in the whole park, and the kids got a big kick out of it.
Me being me, I couldn't stay still when I knew the mountain kept going up. So, I somehow managed to climb up a series of other waterfalls past where the park steps ended, walking through the stream itself in several parts, with my expensive camera until I reached a waterfall of probably 30' or so. Oh, it was lovely. No one was around, being that this wasn't exactly a kid-friendly type of climb, but I thoroughly enjoyed the hike. Even more, though, I enjoyed the tranquility of it all... the beautiful waterfall, jungle-like surroundings, and cooler-than-I'm-used-to-in-Thailand temperatures.
Unfortunately, I didn't have too much time; I had to catch the last bus into Hat Yai to fly back into Bangkok at 5:00 p.m., so we had to leave the park not much after 3:45. I shall certainly return upon my next visit and do some thorough exploring... although possibly without my expensive camera, as wonderful as it was to have along.
Had I known the last bus (minivan) into Hat Yai was at 5:00 p.m., I wouldn't have booked the last flight into Bangkok... 10:20 p.m. Oh well. I ended up taking the van too far anyway, and had to catch a bike taxi back to a Tesco Lotus Supermarket I remembered seeing on the way in, then (after a leisurely Japanese dinner) another bike to the airport. At least THIS time, the cost to get to the airport was only 150 baht, not 300 like it was upon arrival.
So, there you have it! A lovely trip in what I would call the "REAL" Thailand. Naturally (I'm back now), the first thing I encountered upon landing in Bangkok was waiting twenty minutes in a taxi que at midnight before re-entering the madness that is Bangkok with a taxi driver who was obviously dropping acid. Rather surprised I made it home, actually...
If I didn't have debts in the U.S. to pay back, I think I could see myself living somewhere like Satun, or at least rural Thailand near mountains and the ocean. You don't make much (30,000 baht seems the going rate, or $1,000/month), but you also don't spend much. Petro for the motorbikes is ridiculously cheap (about $1/liter, but a liter on a bike gets you a LONG WAY), rent is ridiculously cheap (roughly what I pay in Bangkok... $150), and food is about the same as in Bangkok.
Hell, my TOTAL trip cost, including taxis, airfare, eating, many drinks, ...EVERYTHING, was right at 8,500 baht, or $285. Five day vacation for under $300 TOTAL. Anywhere else, I'd spend that on just DRINKS for a few days.
Of course, to even get to a movie theater or store that has a possibility of selling black pepper (or foreign food at all), you're a solid hour and a half from the nearest... anything.
Honestly, I feel like living somewhere like Satun is something I should keep as an option for later in life; the atmosphere is SO laid back that I may slip into such a state of relaxation that I lose interest to visit other places... which is not an option.