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Leaving Koh Samui, to Penang via Hat Yai

Saying goodbye to the dogs in Koh Samui. Photo by Warwick Meade.

Eventually and sadly, we left Koh Samui and the pups that kept us company for the last few days. It took us two days to get from our little corner of Thailand to Penang, Malaysia. Why? Cause we’re cheap and avoided planes. Budget airline Firefly was quoting something like $100 per person to go from Koh Samui to Penang. Taking the overland route was cheaper: about $90 for the both of us to get bus tickets to Penang, with a night at a budget hotel in Hat Yai.

But what a trip it was. You too can get from one side of the Malay peninsula to the other by doing the following:

Day 1

1. Ferry from Koh Samui to Don Sak

Ferry from Koh Samui. Photo by Warwick Meade.

Beautiful weather for a cruise along the northern coast of Koh Samui. Not a bad way to spend two hours.

Time spent: two hours

2. Minibus from Don Sak to Hat Yai, but actually Nakhon Si Thammarat

We disembark from the ferry and end up in a minibus by ourselves and the two drivers, full air conditioning on full blast. We’re thinking: This is awesome. We can spread out, take in the scenery, I’ll catch up on Serial

The driver drove at 150 km/90 mph as he weaved in and out of traffic on the two-lane road. We’re both warily eyeing the speedometer. I was laying down, thinking that if we got into an accident, my spine would be snapped into two. I sat up and looked for a seat belt. No seat belts.

Kiwi chastised the driver to slow down, which he did for about 15 minutes. Then, the driver would slowly work his way back to 90 mph, and Kiwi would give him the side eye to stay in a safer speed.

I fell asleep, then woke up to find out we [our itinerary and the people on it] had been sold to another minibus. Meaning, we have to switch minibuses. Great.

Time spent: two hours, plus a chastisement
Total time spent: four hours

3. Minibus from Nakhon Si Thammarat to Hat Yai

We end up on a almost full minibus, which proceeds to flirt with maximum capacity at each stop, taking on one more additional passenger. And the air con felt more like someone breathing on you, like a creepy heavy breather, than actual coolness.

Time spent: three hours
Total time in transit: seven hours

We finally got off the minibus with the heavy-breather air con. The taxi touts tell us that our hotel is 15 minutes away, but we can take two motorbikes there for 100 baht ($3).

4. Motorcycle from Hat Yai minibus stop to Hat Yai hotel

Kiwi looked at me distantly upon the offer of motorbike taxi because in the past, I’ve said no f**king way to motorbikes. People drive crazy on them, and I was fairly sure that our travel insurance didn’t cover motorbiking.

Well, I checked the policy while on Koh Samui and we’re covered. I jumped on the motorbike with the driver, my carryon and my backpack on my back. Kiwi got on the bike with his driver, and we were off. The bikes don’t go much faster than maybe 15-20 mph, and the breeze felt refreshing.

When we stopped at an intersection, I looked to Kiwi to see how I should be holding on. Originally, I grabbed the sides of the driver; Kiwi had his arms around his. Kiwi fondled the driver’s chest as a joke. The driver laughed, pointed at me, then back to Kiwi, which I took to the effect that chest-grabbing is a couple thing to do. But who is supposed to grab whose chest? I don’t know. Whatever. I’m on a motorbike in Thailand, I need to focus on staying alive. When we got off the bikes at the hotel, I ran up to grab Kiwi’s chest to get a laugh out of the drivers.

Time spent: 15 minutes
Total time spent traveling on day 1: Seven hours, 15 minutes and two masculine chest grabs

That night, we explored Hat Yai. It’s a culture shock for me, an American, to see snowflake decorations at a town seven degrees away from the Equator.

Hat Yai, Thailand. Photo by Tina.

We ate some roti canai and made puns with Hat Yai (“Are you excited to be in Hat Yai? You mean Hat YAY?!” or “Hattttt Yaiiii [oh oh]!” to the tune of “Hey Ya,” complete with Andre 3000 jazz hands.)

Day 2

5. Bus from Hat Yai to Thailand-Malaysia border

We had the oldest, nicest bus I’ve ever seen: 1970s-style armchairs that lean back and USB ports for phones. But we wouldn’t be on for long. Once we reached the border, we were told that we needed to walk through Thai immigration, then a minibus would take us through Malaysian customs and immigration.

Time spent: two hours
Total time in transit: nine hours, 15 minutes

6. Waiting time at the Thailand-Malaysia border

Thailand-Malaysia border. Photo by Warwick Meade.

A busy border crossing. We walked around the border town for a bit, browsed the shops. One shopowner muttered farang (foreigner, in a similiar way gringo or gringa is used by Spanish speakers for English-speaking Americans. Not a slur, but I don’t love it. I wouldn’t wear it on a t-shirt ironically or unironically.)

We might have been the only Westerners walking through that day. Most Westerners probably would have just taken Firely or Air Asia. But we’re backpackers. Onward.

Time spent waiting: 90 minutes
Total time spent in transit and waiting: Over 10 hours over two days? Am I even calculating this logically?

7. Minibus from Thailand-Malaysia border to a Penang mall

Malaysia’s highways are really well kept. You could blink and think you were in the States or New Zealand or something.

There was a point where our van was trying to bypass two lanes merging into one by cruising along the median. The guy in the car in front of us was actively blocking the van. Our van would try to pass on the median, the car in front would go into the median, then merge back into the highway. Our van would try again, the car in front would straddle the lane and median. The driver let out something in not English, then punctuated it with “motherf**cker”. Kiwi and I yelled “yeah!” Obnoxious tourists.

Time spent: Are we there yet?
Total time spent: No, seriously. Are we there yet?

8. Walk from Penang mall to hotel

The walk was actually pretty nice. We walked by many street food stands: chicken rice, vegetarian food, prawn noodles…

Time spent: 20 minutes?
Total time spent: Too tired to count. Good night.

Now that we’re in Penang, we’ve seen so many cool coffee shops and food halls. Eventually, we summoned the will to eat some char kway teow (smoky fried noodles). A summary of Penang coffee and street food is for another post…

Should we have just taken a plane? Or was this worth it for the story alone? Comments.

How To Thanksgiving on Koh Samui: Eat Pie

There doesn’t seem to be much of an American expat community on Koh Samui. Not that I looked terribly hard: I sent out a couple of tweets asking if anything was going on. I saw travel message boards from an American traveler asking if there are any events for 2013. Didn’t seem like much.

Not that I expected Thailand to celebrate an American holiday by any means. What I didn’t expect was that the expat population on Koh Samui is mostly European. A big noticeable sect of that expat population is old men drinking beers at noon while enjoying the attention of entirely female bar staff.


How we celebrated Thanksgiving:

Our hotel gave us a fruit basket to devour.

Fruit basket at hotel. Photo by Tina.

We’re staying at a place that is doing some really loud construction projects. The owners put this fruit basket on our patio after the cleaning lady left. I think it was left as more of a thank you for sticking around, but it was nice to receive it on a holiday known for bounties of food.

We ate pie for dinner.

Pies on Koh Samui. Photo by Kiwi.

Down the road from our hotel is a British pie shop with savory and sweet pies. So we ordered pie for Thanksgiving dinner and dessert. Cottage pie for Kiwi; pork, apple and radish for me; apple pie for dessert. (See Americans and Kiwis? Pie! Strengthening trans-Pacific relations one crust at a time.)

Admittedly, I did almost cry when the pies were placed down in front of us. Because for the last 29 years, that plate was turkey. But Kiwi helped me pull it back together. Pie is a legit part of Thanksgiving, and fitting for our first Thanksgiving together.

Kiwi eating pie. Photo by Tina.

We talked about what would comprise a Kiwi-American Thanksgiving.

Manuka honey glazed turkey? Sure. Oyster stuffing? Why not. Sweet potato and kumara? Both. Roast lamb alongside the turkey? Es posible. Cheesecake alongside a pavlova? Yes please.

We had a nightcap on the beach.

Our hotel has a pretty legit beachside bar, so we order nightcaps to top off Samui Thanksgiving. I got a cocktail that the server told me was like drinking tom yum, a sour Thai soup. It was like that, but not really. It was a lychee martini with lime and lemongrass (and it was good). Kiwi had Thai rum on ice. We looked up our favorite Western bands and checked their tour schedules to see if and when they’ll hit Auckland.

I called my family.

While chatting with the east and west coast families, I got to see some amazing food prep, Facetiming with turkeys in mid-roast and stalking Italian desserts on Facebook. The fam all sound like they had tasty meals. And it was nice to know that we can still have chats millions of miles away.

Overall, it was a lovely, unique Thanksgiving. We had an endearing attempt at celebrating the holiday in a far away land while staying in touch with family. It’s a story we can recount for years to come: that one Thanksgiving in Thailand.

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