The old, bare-chested and darkly-tanned sea gypsy crossed Koh Lanta’s Urak Lawoi Bridge in his worn-out shoes and frowned when he saw me taking pictures. He looked as though he was just roaming the streets of this sunbaked island, unsure how to kill time, and was clearly disconcerted by the sudden appearance of a farang. Apart from him and me, there was no other soul in sight. It was peacefully quiet after the first light of dawn that felt hot already.
The long crow of a lone rooster broke the silence of a sleepy fishing village slowly stirring to life. Shutters of family-run minimarkets were pulled up at Saladan Pier, and boats were gently bobbing on calm waters where Thailand’s “people of the sea” – the Chao Le – have lived for generations, not least because the sea gypsies like remote places.
I was lured to Koh Lanta largely because of its long, sandy beaches that stretch along the west coast as far as the eyes can see. In times like these, the island’s secludedness was the ultimate place for self-reflection.
Due to the lack of travelers, there were also no ferries running between Koh Lanta and Phuket or Koh Phi Phi, Lanta’s neighboring island. To get back to my adopted homeland, I had to take the minibus and travel to Phuket via Krabi. Here’s what the ride from Koh Lanta to Phuket was like.
Checking in at Saladan Pier
I’d booked the tour with Krabi Sea Pearl, but the departure location was GoodLuck Lanta Tour’s office near the jetty. They were well-organized. They’d called me the night before to inform me that the departure was an hour earlier, at 8 am instead of 9 am. They said that since not many people were traveling, they were only going to Phuket once a day for the time being.
At 8:05 am, my phone rang. “Where are you?” asked the tour operator’s employee. I told them I was at the pier, and then they said, “Our office is on the corner.”
The staff didn’t ask me to show my ticket; they knew it must be me since I was the only foreigner around. The woman behind the desk gave me a friendly smile and handed me my ticket. “Minibus – the white one,” she said and pointed at the minivan.
Riding the minibus to the car ferry at Koh Lanta Noi
When people speak about Koh Lanta, they usually mean Koh Lanta Yai, the bigger one of the two islands that’s connected to the smaller one by a bridge. Koh Lanta Yai is also where your 5-hour-journey to Phuket begins.
At 8:13 am, the driver, a slim, affable Thai man shut the door and turned the ignition. I’d taken a seat in the front, next to the driver, because that’s where the AC usually works best. The leather seats were comfy, but a few stains on it didn’t look so nice.
Three minutes into our ride, the driver stopped and slid the side door open quickly to let the fourth passenger get on the bus, a local woman. I could tell he was in a hurry.
Crossing the bridge to the small Lanta island, I reveled in the view of Koh Lanta Yai’s little fishing village to my left and the brown, casuarina-fringed beach of Koh Lanta Noi to my right.
The street to the car ferry pier ran along modest tin-and-wood homes of the Urak Lawoi, one of the three main sea gypsy tribes in Thailand. It made me think about their way of life that is at stake, because marine conservation efforts limit the sea gypsies traditional fishing grounds, and a tourism boom – especially in Phuket – pits them against developers eager to get the patch of land where their boats and homes sit on.
Some ten minutes after the first stop, the driver collected another traveler, a local woman carrying her infant. The guy slid the door shut and ran back to his seat.
We arrived at the pier at 8:29 am, which was probably one minute before the car ferry’s scheduled departure time. The driver said something about “vela” (time) to the security guy, exchanged good-natured banter, showed his ticket, and burst out laughing.
The car ferry left just five minutes later, with a jolt I couldn’t fail to notice.
Riding to Phuket
Motorcycles were the first to start driving off the car ferry just 15 minutes later. I studied the mainland’s scenery when we arrived. Its coast at Hua Hin Pier, which isn’t near Hua Hin, is flanked by mangroves and the sea is murky. The landscape around it is hilly and green, and the houses in the small fishing villages with their tin roofs were just as modest as those in Koh Lanta.
“Change bus na kap,” said the driver a moment later. I was happy to do so, because the minivan’s AC was in need of improvement. “Sir,” the guy said and pointed to a slightly bigger bus when he saw me taking notes. The driver was kind enough to help a woman carry her bags onto this 20-seater, and it was still the same guy as on the first part of this journey.
The AC of this bus was working properly; I loved the cool stream of air. The interior was spotless and the seats were even comfier than the first minibus’.
“Doo-doo-doo,” the driver honked briefly three times, then drove off at 8:56 am, just five minutes after we’d arrived. I drew the curtain as the sun blinded me, grabbed for the earbuds and listened to MP3.
Just a few minutes later, the driver stopped; the automatic door opened, and a 20-something local carrying a backpack entered the bus and took a seat. At 9:05, he stopped again, and I had an inkling as to why. In Thailand, it’s common for bus drivers to pick up and deliver packages along the way, and now was no exception.
At 9:24 am, he stopped again to collect some more parcels. I didn’t really mind, until a silvery bag wafted an offensive fish smell towards me. My bad! I had chosen to sit in the back of the bus.
A while later, somebody must’ve perceived it too and covered up what reeked like three-day-old kod with Siang Pure Oil.
At 10:15 am, we arrived at Krabi’s bus terminal where more local travelers joined us. I used the five-minute stop to leak the lizard. The toilet there cost three baht. When I came back, the minibus was full. Luckily, my neighbor’s perfume smelled nice (sarcasm off!). Here, a guy in a white uniform checked whether people had fastened their seat belts and reminded offenders, including me, to do so. It made sense. The way he was wearing his mask, not even covering his mouth, however, did not make sense.
Enjoying the last leg of the journey
At 10:55 am, the driver stopped to gas the car, but not to let people relieve themselves.
Approaching Phang-Nga Bay, listening to the squeaking sounds of Styrofoam packages rubbing against each other, I loved the sight of limestone rocks. They towered behind shacks and tin huts on stilts that intermingled with golden dome mosques and jewel-encrusted temples. It was a change of scene after palm and rubber tree forests had rolled past endlessly.
At 12:40 pm, people had to get off the bus at Phuket’s border-like checkpoint for the sake of temperature checks. Also, everyone had to jot down their name and phone number or check in via app.
50 minutes later, the driver pulled into Phuket’s bus station 1, and said, “last stop kap.”
What stops is he referring to? I was wondering, and set out to visit the sea gypsies at Phuket’s Rawai Beach to see how they were faring.