The Silver Backpacker – Chapter 2: Koh Tao to Kanchanaburi

So after 5 days of relaxation the adventure really began and I boarded the ferry that would take me to the island of Koh Tao and beyond….

The island of Koh Tao (Turtle island) is situated in the southern section of the Gulf of Thailand and is one of a group of three islands, Koh Samui and Ko Pha Ngan being its sister islands.

I chose to take the daily ferry service from my starting base, Koh Samui , which is the only one of the three that is served by an airport. The two hour ferry ride stops first at Ko Phan Ngan and again on its return journey.  This gave me my first view of the famous 'Full Moon' Party island which I was to retunr too some months later.  The arrival at Koh Tao was fascinating, The ferry  was very crowded with backpackers and all passengers were greeted by what only can be described as a horde of touts, each one offering better and better deals on accommodation. Not that I was interested, I had pre booked my accommodation for my 12 night stay at the rather grandiose sounding Coral Grand Resort. The Coral Grand is neatly tucked in at the far end of the long sandy Sairee Beach. It is a quality beach front resort with very good accommodation at a reasonable price. It offers  direct access to Sairee Beach, a decent pool,  water sport activities and immediate access to the night life which is focused not too far along the beach. Having settled in that is exactly where I headed, for the night life.  Sairee  Beach epitomises is Thailand: perfect sunsets, beach bars, seafood BBQs, music of all descriptions and above all else, the atmosphere and buzz of people of all nationalities chilling out.

My first full day was spent alternating between a resort sunbed and swimming in either the hotel pool or the sea. There was though something different from the previous eevening, almost an eerie silence about the place: it was quiet; where were all the people I had met the previous evening. I was soon to discover. It transpired that Koh Tao is a mecca for Scuba diving, something that had previously never occurred to me.  I had been lured by the lazy tropical island life. Watch video here.

The third day I made a tentative enquiry and soon discovered the resort itself had a very professional PADI Dive Centre and I had signed up to take my first steps into the underwater world at the ripe old age of 59 years. Three of us started the course, myself and a Belgium couple. The female dropped out on the second day. With such a small class we really benefitted from the almost singular attention of the Dive Instructor and we both qualified as PADI Open Water Scuba Divers successfully. Little did I realise at the time what the Dive Bug would do for me.

I made the most of the remaining days on Koh Tao, hiring a small motor bike and exploring the island. and getting to know the Thai people considerably better. I had no problem with the spicy nature of their food and of course, it was always considerably cheaper than the western options of which there was plenty of choice. All too soon my 12 days on the island came to an end. I was heading for Bangkok, the capital and, after a few days there, onward to Kanchanaburi which was to be my base while I explored the infamous Second world war Burma Railway construction and the Bridge over the River Kwai.

To get to Bangkok I chose a different route from the one which brought me to Koh Tao. It involved a ferry ride but this time a somewhat longer one to the mainland and the town of Chumpon. From Chumpon I reserved a sleeping berth in the overnight train to Bangkok. No ordinary sleeping berth I may add but a bunk and a curtain providing the only privacy and maybe some 20 bunks along the sides of each carriage. The train arrived at Bangkok around 5,00am and I headed across the city for my new home for the next 3 days, The Nai Lert Hotel

The Nai Lert holds a great position in Bangkok. Situated in the same road as the British Embassy it really is at the crossroads of the central districts and, more importantly, right on the doorstep of Sukhumvit Road, the centre of the  great Bangkok  night life. Bangkok has always fascinated me. It's hot, vibrant, colourful and full of life. There is never a dull moment in Bangkok. My 3 days soon came to an end and I reverted back into 'Backpacker' mode from the luxury of The Nai Lert, and boarded a locals bus for the 3 hour journey to Kanchanaburi. I had allowed myself 5 days to explore this area of Thailand. I had visited Kanchanaburi previously on two occasions. Once while on a holiday in Bangkok and once while travelling on the Eastern and Orient Express. The E & O make a stop at Kanchanaburi on all their journeys, it's part of their programme to give their passengers a short insight into the River Kwai.

I again hired a small motor bike as their were considerable distances between the various aspects of 'The Death Railway'. The furthest, Hellfire Pass with its museum and walking trail,  was some hour and a half away while the second museum, the JEATH Museum is actually in the centre of kanchanaburi.  Two of the largest  War Grave Cemetaries can also be found in the area, the Don Rak cemetary is in the heart of Kanchanaburi and contains the graves of some 6980 Austarlian, British and Dutch Prisoners of War.  The second, the Chong Kai, is some 2Km down the Kwai river, it is more peaceful with almost 1700 graves. It is actually situated on the initial site of the POW Camp hospital.

Read Chapter 1 – Taking off for Asia
Read Chapter 3 – Thailand and Vietnam
Read Chapter 4 – My Lai, Hue and Saigon

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Richard Okill

Retired naval officer & businessman

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