Surat Thani, also known as Suratthani, translates to “City of good people” and is one of the oldest towns of the Kingdom. It dates back to the fifth century and is the gateway to Thailand’s blockbuster islands Koh Phangan, Koh Samui and Koh Tao.
Since I’d just visited happy-go-lucky Koh Phangan, with its hippie people on a quick trip to Thailand’s south, going to Surat Thani was the best option to head home on the mainland.
I booked my journey from Koh Phangan to Surat Thani online, which was completed hassle-free in a few clicks. By making the reservation within fewer than 24 hours before the scheduled departure time, I was taking chances. More on that in just a bit.
Being a little late, aware that I’d still have to bring back the rented motorbike, I raced across Koh Phangan that was engulfed in the morning mist, and started my trip from the Island of Good People to the City of Good People.
Checking-in with patience and smiles
I’d just got my passport back from the motorbike rental guy and rushed to Thong Sala Pier and Raja Ferry’s check-in desk at 9:15 am, 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time. To my surprise, check-in wasn’t even open yet.
“Sir, Raja Ferry’s employees will start checking you in at 9:30 am,” said other staff to me, in the near-empty waiting hall. Seeing my baffled expression, they added, “The boat leaves at 10:30 am.”
Now that was a relief. I’d been thinking I was late, and my Bookaway reservation still read “pending.” I wasn’t sure whether I’d make it onto the ferry or not, but since the trip hadn’t been canceled, I thought I’d just pop up, ask and see.
I couldn’t find any food stalls in the waiting area – probably due to the pandemic and the lack of travelers – so I stocked up on drinks and snacks at the nearby 7-Eleven and came back to Raja Ferry’s check-in desk at 9:40 am. Their employees had to make several phone calls, giving me charming smiles, shrugging. No clue what the issue was, but remaining calm, smiling back, I got my ticket after what felt like half an hour. I just had to sign a receipt.
Don’t take this for granted though; you should book more than 24 hours before you travel or else you might not make it onto the boat at the time you had spontaneously chosen.
With the ticket in my hand, walking along the pier, I glanced back at the island’s deserted Thong Sala Beach. With its light-colored sand, green-tinted waters and mountainous backdrop, that was a beautiful sight even in the dim light of the overcast sky.
Riding the Raja ferry to Don Sak with an itching travel bug
There was still time to kill; people couldn’t board the ferry just yet. Seeing the waiting area that was crowded with farangs, I opted to take a seat in another roofed area close by where a group of Thais provided a more chilled-out atmosphere.
As much as I loved listening to the sound of rain falling on the waiting area’s roof, the scene made me even wearier after some night owls partying on their balcony had granted me a near-sleepless night. I wish I could’ve taken a nap, but people started to board the rusty old ship at 10:33 am, so I trudged along.
I was walking in the middle of the ramp, tired and oblivious to the looming truck behind me. Suddenly, a Raja ferry guy barked in a hectic tone of voice, “Right side, right side!”
Speaking of sides, there are two restrooms on the giant ferry, one each for men and women, hidden at the end of the corridor on either side.
Sleep-deprived as I was, I slumped into a so-so-comfy pleather chair inside the cabin right in front of the air conditioning and the fan, and watched the gogglebox indifferently as there was only some Thai action movie. Mai pen rai (it didn’t matter); as long as the AC was working properly, all was right with the world.
On the Raja ferry, it’s often a challenge to find a seat where it isn’t hot. You can’t bank on the air conditioning, and the “radiators” outside that are connected to the AC do a fantastic job in terms of blowing out heat from the interior.
Raja’s engines were revving up at 10:50 am, billowing black clouds of diesel exhaust, and only seconds later, the slow but cheap ferry put out.
My hopes for a perfectly functioning air conditioning were crushed rather quickly, so I grabbed some snacks and a can of coke at the onboard shop and took a seat outside at the back of the boat. For a moment, this place was so peaceful. A little Thai girl was waving goodbye to Koh Phangan, the seagulls were silently following the boat’s wake in search of an easy catch, and I enjoyed the salty wind – balm for the soul.
A while later, this pleasant wind wafted a sweet-scented ciggie smell past me. Realizing that the Thai Rastafari wasn’t going to stop chain-smoking, I moved once again, desperate to reach the next destination.
Sitting on the floor in the corridor, watching the sea slip by and the islands roll past through the railing, I scratched my travel bug and revelled in this moment.
The Raja ferry arrived at Don Sak at 1:27 pm, pleasing everybody with another dose of diesel, and I adjusted my mask in preparation for the last leg of this journey.
Enjoying the second part of the trip
Finding my minibus was child’s play, because the driver recognized the sticker on my tee that read “airport,” and beckoned me over.
“Mee haa na-tee, mai?” (Have you got five minutes) I asked the chauffeur. Shooting me a surprised look, he nodded. I ran inside the building to answer a call of nature, and gave the two restaurants, the cafe and the minimart a miss.
I needn’t have hurried; the guy was waiting until the last seat was taken. I’d taken it upon myself to sit next to the driver as this is usually the most comfortable place on a minivan.
A quarter-hour later, he drove off, and with the sea to my left, I caught sight of the massive limestone rocks through the trees. They towered behind the beach and the turquoise waters, making me dream of the next trip in Thailand.
The road to Surat Thani ran along vast stretches of palm and rubber tree plantations as well as green landscapes, and I said bye to the karst peaks behind them on the horizon.
Passing temples and the sparkling, snow-white City Pillar Shrine with its 4-faced Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, we reached Surat Thani at 2:55 pm. Since more and more Thai people got off the minibus along the way, I used Google translator to make myself understood. I wanted the driver to drop me off at a motorcycle rental shop, but he was like, “Mai rujak,” (I don’t know any).
Getting off at Surat Thani’s airport at 3:25 pm, I hailed a cab and was pleased to find the taxi driver wasn’t trying to rip me off. I remembered the city’s meaning and looked forward to mixing with these good people.