Thursday, 18 June 2015

Thailand - Surin and Koh Phangan

During my week in Thailand later on this year, I was lucky to travel to incredibly varied places in a relatively short period of time. You can read about my experiences in Sangkhlaburi and Bangkok here, but now it's time to move on to Surin and Koh Phangan; two very different areas of the country!


Surin was actually the second stop on my whirlwind tour; after one night in Bangkok, I was picked up by the project coordinator at the crack of dawn (fortunately jet lag meant I hadn't really slept anyway) and ferried 6 hours down the road to Surin. This was the place I was most looking forward to before I arrived. We have several projects based here - teaching, childcare, medical, and at an elephant village - and I was excited to meet the volunteers and see the work that they did.

Elephant Surin

It was a fairly uneventful drive to Surin; not as stunning as the drive to Sangkhlaburi, but you could certainly see it becoming more rural the further we went. We stopped off in Surin City first, which is bigger than I thought it would be, although still relatively small. I didn't really see much of the town, as the volunteer houses are based around 10 minutes from the actual centre, but what I did see looked nice.

The part of town our volunteers stay in is lovely - it has lots of cute bars and restaurants, and even has a coffee shop built into a camper van! The people in Surin are incredibly friendly; I met a lot of people in my week in Thailand, and none were friendly than those I met here. All the staff at the projects went out of their way to help us, and our volunteers, and I wish I could have spent longer with them.

After a brief stop at the volunteer houses, we headed straight for the elephant village, around a 30 minute drive outside of Surin. This was the bit I was most looking forward to, and it turned out I was right to be so. I'm aware elephant volunteering is controversial, and is certainly something I'm very wary about (I turned down an elephant ride in Cambodia because I didn't think the elephants were treated properly). Fortunately, at this project, I know that all is above board, and the elephants are very happy. The elephants there used to be worked in Bangkok in the tourist trade. They were kept in very bad conditions, and cities are horrendous environments for them as they need to constantly graze to stay alive and healthy. In the elephant village, the elephants are rescued and brought back into a rural area, where they're looked after really well. The volunteers help to collect sugar cane, wash them and walk them down to the river, which provides an income for the village, and ensures the elephants will never be misused.

Me Elephant Surin

Elephant Village Surin

Elephant Village Surin

Our homestay in the village is absolutely stunning; it's in the middle of nowhere, with paddy fields stretching as far as the eye can see. A couple of the elephants stay in the same bit as the volunteers, and from the hammock on the balcony, you can watch them wandering around and feasting on sugar cane. When I was there, I got a cuddle with the friendliest elephant - Pai Lin - got to feed her some sugar cane, then went to explore the area with the volunteers whilst they went kayaking on the river.

Elephant Village Surin

I SO wish I could have stayed longer; it really is idyllic, and somewhere I'll be returning to in the future.

We then headed back to the hotel in Surin, which was AMAZING. We stayed at the Maneerote Hotel, which I'd definitely recommend. The rooms were huge, really clean and comfortable and the bathroom was amazing!

The next day, we headed to the other projects, which are all based around Surin City. We visited a school, a childcare centre and the medical centre; they were all amazing, and it was great to see first-hand what our volunteers come and do. I know some may turn their nose up at what they deem as 'voluntourism' but I think if it's done properly and sustainably, then it can only benefit all involved.

Paddy Field Surin


School Surin

Koh Phangan

At the end of my week in Thailand, I was very lucky to be given the opportunity to spend a couple of nights on one of the most popular islands. I'm going to admit I was a little wary about this at first, as it's the home of the Full Moon Party. I'm decidedly not a party person, and was a little worried that I wouldn't be able to avoid them, but this was completely unfounded.

There are a couple of ways to get to and from Koh Phangan; on the way there we flew from Bangkok with Air Asia to Surat Thani, then they organise your transport from there to the ferry, and from the ferry over to Koh Phangan. The whole process took pretty much all day, as our plane was delayed a little, but it was painless and something I'd definitely recommend. I much preferred Dong Mueang airport to the main international one in Bangkok (I'm not going to attempt to spell it...) - it's cheaper and has a lot more options in terms of food and drink! I travelled both domestically and internationally from here, and both times found it nicer than BKK.

Sunset Koh Phangan

When we arrived in Koh Phangan, we were picked up from the ferry port in Haad Rin, and transferred about 15 minutes down the coast to Mac Bay. If you ever visit Koh Phangan, I would 100% recommend that you stay here. It has easy access to the main town and party beach (the resort run their own taxi service), but it's remote and feels like a little piece of paradise. It has a bar and restaurant on-site, which serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, so you never have to leave if you don't want to. It has a pool about a minutes' walk from the rooms, and its own little private beach!

Sunset Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan

Meals and drinks are very reasonably priced; if you stick to Thai beer and Pad Thai, you won't spend much more than you would on the mainland. If you opt for the western style dishes that are on offer, you'll spend a little more, but it's definitely worth it. They have pink noodles!!

Pad Thai

The rooms are amazing - you can either have a beach hut, or an air conditioned room set about 1 minutes walk from the beach (this is what I had). The bathrooms are western style, and it will take you about 30 seconds to walk down to breakfast in the morning, overlooking the sea.

Beach Panorama Koh Phangan

I got up early one morning and watched a guy raking the sand so it was pristine for those rising later (boy did I feel bad when I went for a paddle and ruined all his hard work!). The beach is shallow right up to a sandbank out at sea (I couldn't tell you the distance, but it took me around 5 minutes to walk to it). This means you can lay in the shallows (the water is warm!) and watch the world around you, or wade further out to sea for a swim. Across the way, you can see Koh Samui - this is only a 30 minute ferry ride away, and definitely worth a visit. Whilst here, you can have a massage, go snorkelling or scuba diving, trek in the hills, or just relax!

Koh Phangan

Me Koh Phangan

Pool Mac Bay

Unfortunately, I was only here for 2 nights before I returned up to Bangkok ready for my trip to Cambodia. I was travelling alone this time, and took the budget route - I used the Lomprayah company, as I have friends who had used them before and highly recommended them. You book one ticket, and they ferry you back across to the mainland, then pile you all on a coach ready to make the 6 hour drive back up to Bangkok.

I booked the early departure (8.30am) to make sure I'd be back in Bangkok in time for my flight to Phnom Penh the next day (just in case of any delays), and it was pretty much a painless journey. My one criticism would be that they pile all your luggage on one end of the ferry. This means that, when it comes to the end, all the doors are blocked because everyone is trying to get their luggage, but nobody is really sure where it is. There must have been about 200 bags in a pile, with people whose bags were at the top, stuck at the back of the queue. I had one heartstopping moment where I thought they'd lost my bag - I waiting until the pile had gone, with still no sign of my rucksack, when I discovered they'd thrown some of them through the window onto the jetty outside. Not a problem, but I wish they'd told me!

There was a bit of a wait for the buses (around an hour), which I assume was on purpose as we were all held captive at the various shops and cafes at the port, but for the price I paid (around £15 for the whole journey), it certainly wasn't something to whinge about. If you're on a budget, and looking to get back to Bangkok, this is definitely what I'd recommend. It didn't take much longer than the flight, and was a hell of a lot cheaper!

Next instalment - onwards to Cambodia :)

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