Sometimes it’s good to plan ahead of time when you travel. For example, when my wife and I took the bus to Sulat Thani, a port city on the Gulf of Thailand, we just assumed boats serviced the island of Koh Tao as much as it did Koh Samui. They did not. The Samui boats left regularly. But there was only one nine-hour night boat to Koh Tao, which departed at 11pm.
We were not looking forward to being crammed together with a new set of strange passengers, not after our bus ride, when a ten-year old boy who occupied the seat in front of us kept urinating into bottles that his mother unsteadily held for him. Each time he filled a bottle (and he filled multiple bottles), my wife and I had to clear the floor of our possessions and ride with our feet up, until the mother finished fumbling with the cap.
Arriving in Sulat Thani
Once in Sulat Thani, we transferred our luggage to a songthaew–a pickup truck equipped with seats and a canopy over the flatbed.
“Twenty baht each,” the driver told us, which is about 60 cents (US).
“I need an ATM first,” I said, having zero baht to my name.
On the way to the pier, he stopped at the Krung Thai Bank. The machine ate my card and the bank was closed. A young Thai woman, one of the few in Sulat Thani who spoke English, offered her assistance. We banged furiously on the glass doors of the bank. There were still a few employees inside finishing up paperwork. A worker approached and my savior explained my dilemma through the slight gap between the glass wall and the closed automatic sliding door. A few minutes later, the bank employee returned my card, slipping it back to me through the speaking slot.
“Use there,” the Krung Thai banker shouted, nearly muted by the glass. She was pointing to an ATM across the street, not wanting to have to retrieve my card again.
At the new machine, cash dispensed, which we needed to pay the driver and to buy the 550 baht (about $18 US) ticket for the night boat.
Sulat Thani Night Market
The pier was a lively place, filled mostly with families and groups of men occupying the plastic red chairs of the night market. The busy food carts and the motorbikes that had towed them in were parked between the docked ferries and the main thoroughfare, Th Ban Don.
Each stall prepared a different offering. There was the chicken man, who stood behind a glass box, displaying his hanging poultry. There was the banana crepe lady, plopping down huge chunks of orange butter onto the hot plate and folding away, giggling at our inability to communicate. At one end of the market, an assembly line of workers dished up soupy desserts filled with sugar-soaked fruits and gelatinous unknowns. A bar cart that played reggae music was illuminated with flickering, colored lights. Girls in red Asia Air aprons chopped vegetables and cleaned dishes, and then circulated the raised patio to take orders.
The menu that sat atop our plastic Pepsi tablecloth was in English, but the waitstaff could not understand us. So I just pointed to items.
“One… one… one… two,” I said, ordering curry with pork and chicken, fried noodles with vegetables, a water, and two large Singha beers, which added up to 300 baht (or $10 US). For dessert we sampled a 30-baht banana crepe and an 8-baht sweet bun.
“Look behind you,” my wife said. A man walked the Ban Don pier with a baby elephant. The local men ignored the young pachyderm, showing a greater interest in a women’s volleyball game that played on a television on one of the boats to Koh Samui. Everyone was lined up along the dock, staring through the ferry’s window. After a decisive point, the men erupted with the spirit of college kids watching The Final Four. Then there was the sound of an electric guitar. A woman led a blind guitarist, who had a miniature amplifier slung around his neck, through the market, navigating him around tables and black lampposts with golden dragons perched at the top. The constant zip of motorbikes down Th Ban Don accompanied the guitarist. Cars with tinted windows cruised the strip as if this were the poorer version of Ocean Drive in Miami, sans plastic-faced women and Ferraris.
After a “big beer,” (the word “large” does not translate well in Thai), I had to use the bathroom. A crew member pointed for me to use the one on the night boat. It was my first viewing of the vessel’s interior. I crawled through the small portal and climbed to the ship’s upper deck. Instead of seats or benches, like I had imagined, there were sixty-three beds each with a number overhead. Thirty assigned spots were on the floor along the port side and thirty were along the starboard side. (Three beds were elevated, hanging from the middle of the ship, above the moldy life preservers, perpendicular to the sixty on the floor.) The beds were large enough for sixty-three small children, not sixty-three adults. I recognized then that turning in my sleep would be impossible and spooning with strangers would be inevitable.
The Night Boat to Koh Tao
A Thai woman, who had already settled in for the long-haul and was good at reading body language, pointed downstairs. “Toilet.”
I went below and had to contort my body to reach the bathroom. The toilet bowl was a bowl, but not the kind Americans could affectionately dub throne, since it wasn’t raised two feet off of the floor. This bowl was built into the floor, like a urinal, but without the porcelain backboard.
“What’s the boat like?” my wife asked when I returned to the table.
I explained the layout, trying to stretch the silver lining. “The sheets on the beds are really nice. I think they’re silk.” She wasn’t buying it. “Look, it will be a really good story to tell everyone. Plus we save money on a room.”
“We’re going to get bed bugs,” she insisted.
“Yes, maybe. But look on the bright side: We don’t have a bed to bring them back to.” We were traveling for the entire summer. “We can always just buy new clothes. You like shopping for clothes.”
She took a big swig of her Singha beer. It was 9:00 pm. The other Westerners started to arrive to the market.
By 10:00 pm, Marissa could no longer take the anticipation, so we boarded the night boat to Koh Tao an hour early. The Thais were assigned to the starboard side and the Westerners were segregated to the port side. The turquoise walls matched the red, gold, and turquoise silk sheets. The tiny pillows overlapped with one another. It would be head after dirty head.
I sat down on space number 46. My wife took lot number 47. We watched people ascend the small staircase, ducking the ceiling fans and smiling out of shock. A man on the Thai side lit up a cigarette. A small boy in Angry Birds pajamas ran across our mattresses. His mother chased after him. Someone was already snoring and the boat was still docked.
“I feel like I’m being smuggled illegally into a country,” Marissa declared.
There was a lot of nervous laughter as strangers met their sleeping mates.
I had taken a night boat once before, a twenty-four hour trip from the west coast of Greece to Venice, Italy. While it wasn’t a fun journey, it wasn’t difficult. Passengers could watch television, walk around the ship, order drinks from the bar, or just stand at the bow and watch the long wake race away from the boat. On that Mediterranean ship, we had personal space and the freedom to move. On the night boat to Koh Tao, nobody moved. Nobody even stood to use the bathroom, foregoing that common ritual that precedes sleep.
After twenty minutes of travel, the lights went out. Marissa and I played backgammon, the dark cabin aglow from my iPad and a few other laptops. Best of three was quick. All that was left to do was sleep. Or try to sleep.
In my supine position, if I had spread my arms out, I could have easily touched the three people to my right and to my left. I could feel my arm hair lift with the humidity and tangle around the arm hair of the sleeping Frenchman beside me. Later in the night, when his phone fell out of his pocket, it hit me on the hip.
Koh Tao had better be beautiful, I thought.
(To get to Koh Tao in a more intelligent manner, check out these ferry services. Or take the night boat to Koh Tao. You’ll at least have a story.)