|Enjoying a well-deserved meal with Emma, Kris, Ram and Deng after white-water kayaking!|
Working at the volunteer project left us free at weekends to do our own thing and explore Southern Thailand a little more. We knew we'd be spending a while in the country so had purchased a Rough Guide to Thailand whilst in Malaysia. Keenly opening it up to discover what sounded good in the nearby area, we realised that the authors had been so concerned about the violence which had occurred in the area a couple of years previously that they'd pretty much written off the whole of the Deep South with a 'we don't advise that you go there, but if you do here are some transport details'. Handy! Although the Home Office still advises that you avoid visiting the Deep South of Thailand if possible, the risk to tourists is apparently low. All we needed to do was a take a few hour bus journey through the area in daylight. The only sign of the tensions were as we were on the bus up from the Malaysian border, passing military checkpoints every few kilometres. Most days there is still something going on, as we read in the newspapers in Thailand. Its a real shame that the country is so divided, and that it is a war over which religion should have control.
However, despite guidance from the book we managed to see some pretty cool places (we were visiting and staying away from the from the risky areas, you'll be pleased to know Mum and Dad!). As Hat Yai was our nearest city, we spent what felt like quite a lot of time there, in a dirt cheap guesthouse where we made full use of the surprisingly fast internet access. Hat Yai itself at first glance doesn't really have much to interest a passing tourist, but as we got to know it a little better and find our favourite places to eat etc, and grew quite fond of it. We noticed a lot Chinese influence on the culture there, lots of great Chinese/Thai crossover food but still managed to enjoy the fresh and tasty spicy food for which Thailand is famed. We visited Wat Hat Yai Nai to see the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand, which was different to other statues we have seen as it was painted plaster rather than shiny gold. We got very excited to discover a supermarket that sold muesli so we happily stocked up on a large packet of muesli which we then had to shoo ants out of each morning! Near to Hat Yai is a cool floating market, where we spent an hour or so eating far too much food and getting excited about drinking out of bamboo cups! The food stalls on the river were very tempting, each stall was a small boat moored up, with lots of tasty treats on offer.
One weekend we visited Songkla, a pleasant coastal city (large town?) with wide leafy streets and a large lake. We stumbled across a small but beautiful temple, inadvertently gatecrashing a funeral, before relaxing on the beach for a while. In the evening the city really came to life with a fabulous night market, where the current trend seemed to be 'vintage' so we had fun browsing the vintage style clothes and other bits and bobs, and watching guys serving iced drinks out of a converted VW Kombi van. Bliss! The next morning we visited the market that had set up overnight on the road in front of our hotel, and stocked up on fresh fruit, before heading to Songkla National Museum. It was a pretty interesting museum, with lots about the history of Songkla and housed in a lovely airy old building. In the afternoon we hired a longtail boat and visited a small fishing village over the other side of the lake. They obviously don't get many tourists over that way judging by the gleeful shouts of 'farang, farang' ('foreigner, foreigner') and frantic waving from the small shacks at the lakeside! The villages were an amazing sight, wooden houses built into the lake on stilts, with their fishing boats housed beneath. They were in varying states of repair, some were even subsiding into the lake, apparently this didn't concern the occupants to much as they were sat inside. We hopped off the boat and had a wander round the village, stopping for a cha yen (ice tea) at a small place showing Thai boxing, where the locals got very excited when we ordered in Thai and presumed we could understand them as they nattered away to us, which of course we couldn't.
Our other main excursions were very kindly arranged by Ram and Deng at the volunteer house. We spent one weekend at Ton Nga Chang Waterfall, where Kris worked, with Emma and Kris. We were dropped off at Kris' place and had a mooch around the local area before waiting for ages for a songthaew to take us to the waterfall. In the end we gave up and started walking, only to then be offered a lift in the back of a very posh pick-up truck, a very well-to-do Thai family on a day out to the waterfall with a huge ice bucket and a very slobbery dog. After all that, it was great to finally get there, to only pay 'local rate' as the staff recognised Kris, and to cool off in the waterfall! There are seven levels to the waterfall but the path becomes pretty precarious after level two, so we had level three pretty much to ourselves. It was very serene, sitting in the bubbling waterfall looking out onto the national park below, occasionally clambouring up the slippy rocks to have a proper swim in the deeper pool on the fourth level. That evening we ate instant noodles, played cards and drinking games, the usual camping activities! We stayed in the national park in some kind of government accommodation, kipping on gym mats and being woken up at 3am with big red beetles crawling around on us! The sound of all the various insects, birds and animals outside was a soothing cacophony. We got up at 5am to watch the sunrise and had the waterfall all to ourselves. Amazingly peaceful, and beautiful to watch the sun come up over the misty forest below.On our last weekend with the volunteer project Ram and Deng took Kris, Emma and us out to see Phu Pha Phet Cave. The cave itself is huge, only discovered in the 1990s (by a Monk who subsequently meditated there for 2 years) and with fascinating stalagmites and stalagtites. Despite being halfway up a mountain, there was actually remnants of shells there and some still living coral (due to the intense moisture in the air), showing that at one time this part of Thailand had been under the sea. Crazy stuff! We then drove to a nearby river to do some kayaking. Ram was very anxious about it as she can't swim, but we managed to persuade her with lots of 'oh come on, you've got a life jacket, kayaking is easy, you'll be fine!' etc. We had imagined a gentle punt down river but it turned out to be the fairly ridiculous 'white water kayaking' (complete with 'Thai-style' health & safety precautions, i.e. none) and Charlotte was the only person to not fall out of her kayak (Liam is proud to stay he 'got out' rather than 'fell out', as we got wedged up on a rock and it need a push off), apart from the people who were with the kayak pros (of which, thankfully, Ram was one!). Needless to say, it was tremendous fun (apart from Liam getting bit by a blue spider! Thankfully Thailand doesn't have poisonous spiders) and once we'd finished we wished we could do it all again!
Our experiences in the south were great, and we really enjoyed being in places where most of the tourists are Thai (tourism is the biggest industry in Thailand, which is great for them but can sometimes take the magic away when you look around and see mostly European faces). But it was time to leave the village of Ban Leab (after staying over 3 weeks, the longest we had stayed anywhere in 6 months) and try and see as much of the rest of the country as possible before our visas expired.
|Volunteering, Southern Thailand|