Page 48: Pelni ships in Indonesia

On a normal voyage on a Pelni Ship, you could be going from one to any other Indonesian island, on a giant ferry that takes at least some hundreds of people.  Each route is about two weeks long, arriving surprisingly punctually at each port. 

Sean and I took a ship from South Kalimantan (the south-most bit of Borneo) to Java – a three day trip, which we thought was two days long because, well, that’s what everyone told us.  Well, except for a guy sitting next to us who noticed that we were baffled.  When Sean and I were pretty sure that we were meant to arrive in just a few hours, but couldn’t help but notice that there was still thousands of kilometres to go, this guy next to us leaned over and introduced himself.  Turns out he’s also going to Java, and it turns out that we still have 18 hours of sea-time left. 
Sunset on the ship

srsly?!  Eighteen?!  I mean, that’s a pretty significant miscalculation that mister ticket-selling man made.  And the guys at the port.  And the others who we’d talked to. 
Well, we couldn’t deny the logic that this guy possessed, seeing as we had just left Sulawesi, which was nowhere near halfway between our departure and destination.  Well, thanks helpful bad-news guy.  Damn good he told us, cause otherwise we would have been direly confused when our arrival time came and went and we still happened to be, well, in the middle of the sea.  And how super convenient that we had bags and bags of food, so much that even with an extra 18 hours and four meals, we still somehow had food left. 

The famous Pelni ship
I’ll backtrack a bit here.  Let me tell you a bit about these Pelni ships.  Before we went to Indonesia, we’d heard of such ships as ply the vast waters between Indonesian islands.  Byron had been in Indonesia, and these ships were, according to him, and I quote, “awesome.”  He had stories of meeting people, enjoying the free rice-and-fish head-packed-in-Styrofoam meals, playing endless games of cards, and generally being happy basking in an incredibly unique cultural experience.  Byron was also, helpfully, honest about the downsides of the ships: They’re hot, stinky, loud, sleepless, and everyone smokes all the time. 
Tugboat tugging us away from the port
Sean thought to himself, “Well, I’d rather take an aeroplane above all the hot stinky mess and arrive at my destination within hours of comfort in the sky, instead of days of boat.”
And I thought to myself, “OMGzorz that sounds so cool we have to do it!!!!”

Sean’s opinion did not change much as we travelled further and met more and more people who had taken Pelni ships and had seriously not had a good time at all.  It seems that most people have a love-hate relationship with these ships.  Mostly hate, and a little bit of love. 

Ultimately we ended up taking the ship because the three day trip was only like $35 for a "nonseat" ticket, and because my desire to travel on a ship was undeniable.
So lo and behold, we are boarding a Pelni ship with our backpacks and our bags of food, and there are three decks that have some second class rooms, a cafeteria, bathrooms, offices, and like 20 million people.  Our departure port was not the starting point for the ship, so there were people everywhere: in the staircases, outside, in the hallways.  Pretty much every surface that could be slept on was being slept on. 

Did I mention that it’s Ramadan, and that every Indonesian person uses this holiday as a perfectly legitimate reason to go visit their family, who invariably lives ridiculously far from them? 

Ramadan = Full ship
Well, it’s Ramadan, and the ship is packed, but Sean and I luck into a little spot outside on the deck.  Our logic is thus: it’s fucking hot inside the ship; all the good spots are taken and guarded; the outdoors cool, sunny, and windy, and when everyone out here smokes it’s not in a small confined area; and if it rains we’re screwed. 
Three yays, one nay: the outdoors wins. 

I don't know why, but this upside down pictures of Sean waiting is here. 
Trying to not let the wind drive our hair into our eyes, therefore driving us mad

What will they do next? 
So we found our little spot on the deck and lay down our bags.  Soon thereafter a man walked by with pieces of paper like brown paper-bags that have white plastic on one side. About one by one metres.  I don’t know what this is, or why I would want a huge piece of plastic-paper, but Sean has a quick survey of our surroundings and decides that, since everyone else has one of these under their bums, that this piece of paper is a thing on which to sit and sleep.  So Sean and I procure two of these bum-papers and lay them down while the dozens of people around us nod their approval and continue to stare to see what we’ll do next. 
Well, what shall we do next?  We have (so we thought at the time) two days on this boat, and not much to do but sit around.  Well, so that’s what we did.  24 hours went by surprisingly quickly, doing nothing but sitting around, reading our books, not playing cards because it’s way too windy to be possible, layering up to sleep, using the bathrooms which are totally not gender separated (the ship was like 3 percent female, so the males helped themselves to our bathroom), and generally watching people and being watched, preparing our food, and thrice daily going to the cafeteria to get rice-and-fish head-Styrofoam.  
The first 24 hours, and then the next.  And then we have the conversation with helpful-guy who tells us that we're not arriving in three, but in 18 hours...  and there you go.  three days on a Pelni ship! 

From Chiang Mai with the Floods to Koh Chang with the Capsticks

Page Six, Not Four

Donna’s coming to Thailand!  In Korea it was great to hang out with her, watching her spice tolerance increase from avoid-all-red-foods to eating-spicy-squid-soup-for-breakfast, her hilarious bungee jump with her unforgettable “oooooooh-mygaaaaaaaaaaawd,” and her general awesomeness at being in not-Canada. 
This time her story is even better.  Sean and I have a tendency to brag about how bad-ass his mom is.  “Yeah she got a tattoo with us on Koh Chang.” 
“She convinced us to go zip lining… I was about to chicken out and she talked me into it.”
“She walked through the jungle to an ice-cold water-fall swimming hole.”
I don’t think we convinced her to try the wonders of flavoured tobacco from a hookah, though.  

Well, our time with Donna started in Chiang Mai, where we had one afternoon-and-evening with her and my parents.  We sat by the pool, went for a swim, walked to mom’s fave restaurant across from the train station (the same fated train station that we would soon become very, very familiar with), chilled at the restaurant in our fancy pants hotel… before mom and dad had to go to bed to wake up early for their flight back to Canada.  It was a nice, pleasant meeting of parental units, which is not surprising at all, considering the fact that all three of them are infinitely awesome. 

I’ll talk about our epic zip-lining in the jungle experience on another day; that is on page 4, not six.  This page is all about the trip from Chiang Mai to Koh Chang. 
matching backpacks
First step of our journey is a train ride, for which Sean and I cleverly bought the tickets ahead of time.  Set departure time is 15:00.  So, being the good punctual Canadians that we are, we arrive half an hour early, each of us with our matching backpacks and some foodstuffs for the ride.  Three o’clock comes and goes and there’s no sign of our train.  We sit around and check multiple times that the other trains that have come and gone are not ours, and make sure that we’re waiting at the right tracks.  Eventually we decide to order a meal at the train station restaurant, with giant smoothie-coffee things to keep us happy.  It must be around four thirty that our train finally shows up, purges itself of amazing quantities of passengers, staff, and garbage.  We don’t get a signal to embark, so we keep sitting for another bit while the train sits there doing dick-all.  After some time the train leaves, empty, without us or the other dozens of to-be-passengers waiting around.  A helpful guy working there let us know that the train has left to re-fuel. 

Okay, that’s cool.  Makes sense.  I guess we won’t get there if we don’t have fuel.  I don’t remember what time it is that the train came back for real, but I think it was three hours late that we boarded and finally left Chiang Mai.  Which I reckon isn’t so terrible, because it was meant to arrive in Bangkok at like 5am, so at least now we would arrive there at a reasonable hour.  So we thought we’d get there around 8am.  You know, leaving three hours late, arriving three hours late. 
Convenient sunset to will away the time
But alas, just a couple of hours out of Chiang Mai the train had technical difficulties and stopped for an amount of time that felt like forever - conveniently at sunset, though, with our windows facing the view of the sun setting peacefully over rice fields and hills and some forest.    
Trains, trains are awesome.  I love them.  If I had to choose between airplanes, trains, boats, songthaew, tuktuks, or any other kind of mode of transportation available in Thailand, I’d choose trains.  You get to choose between the different classes, so in Thailand we usually splash out and go for the non-aircon sleeper berth.  Which, when you get into the train looks like normal sets of seats facing each other.  Donna gets into the train with us and sits down at her bench with another traveler across from her.  Sean and I, in another bout of cleverness, didn’t tell her that the benches become beds.  So she’s mentally preparing herself for a night of sitting up face-to-face with a stranger, with whom to share valuable foot space.  We eat some snacks, take some pictures, hang out, and a few hours later the bed-making man comes by.  This guy is awesome.  The first time we saw him, I thought of him as the man that magically transforms the train into a heaven of sleeping wonderfulness. 
A bed on a train?!  YES!!!
This guy takes the two benches and pulls them toward each other so that they become a bed at bench-level.  And then the thing that appears to be an innocent compartment above our heads is unlatched, pulled down, and… is a bed!  A bed with mattress, pillow, blankets and all!  I wish I had a pictures of Donna’s face when she saw that transformation, it was pure relief, pure happy wow-we-get-to-sleep-comfortably!? 
A quick trip to the bathroom to brush teeth, change into comfy sleeping clothes, and a last good-night, and we’re sleeping comfortably to the regular jostling of a train and the soothing train sounds. 

I set my alarm for 7:00, because I’m stupidly still assuming that we’re gonna arrive at 8am.  Silly me, but ultimately conveniently done because we have time to clean up, eat a bit of b-fast, and properly wake up the landscape outside.  Rice paddies become little towns, and back to rice paddies.  We see all the morning crowd doing their commute while waiting patiently at all the train crossings.  There are people on foot, on bicycles, motorcycles, and a few cars going from home to work and being interrupted by a train across their road. 
And then eventually Bangkok: at first we pass the outskirts, tin-roof neighbourhoods with lanes and shops and little canals; then one- or two-level concrete buildings of various colours with more and more people walking, shopping, commuting, hanging out, eating their morning meal; and suddenly wide streets and sky-scrapers and car-horns, all the smells and sounds and sights of a big SE Asian city.  Bangkok, a modern city with an unforgettable mix of shinny new buildings, narrow concrete apartments, trees growing on everything, small tin-roof neighbourhoods interspersed with giant shopping districts and areas of metropolitan glamour.  It’s really a site to see.  Donna was impressed.  My favourite thing about travelling with Donna is hearing the things she has to say about new places.  Bangkok is a world-famous city, it’s in books, in movies, and most people have a general idea of what it’s like.  But most of that international image is of the fancy shopping districts, the sky-rises, the modern sparkling stuff of movies.  And of course the areas of pure culture, with markets and food and temples and crowded streets where people do their day-to-day things.  Donna’s first comment about Bangkok was about its poverty, which is startlingly obvious coming from Chiang Mai, and especially entering the city from the outskirts where streams are clogged with trash and houses are smaller than your typical Canadian bedroom.  Like other big cities in developing countries, Bangkok is surrounded by a ring of low-income neighbourhoods that are perpetually being displaced for one reason or another.  It was good to get Donna’s perspective on that; we talked for a while about her first impressions of Bangkok and her thoughts about it. 
Kicking up the dirt with a motorcycle between rice paddies and the train at 7am

Really flattering picture of Donna eating a pink guava 
Anyways!  Our train arrives not at the planned 5:30am but at a comfortable 10:30.  The plan was to take a taxi to a bus station and find out of we’d missed the last bus to the island.  After a taxi ride that meanders through town in a way that makes anyone think that the driver is seriously messing with your sense of direction, we arrive at the bus station.  One of the ever-present helpful-guys working there says hi and asks us where we’re going.  Trat’s our destination, the last stop before the ferry to the island.  So he shows us to the right ticket booth, where we get a ticket for a bus that’s leaving in about half an hour.  Ha!  What a joke!  This time we again think that it would leave on time, but somehow we had just enough time to buy some hot-pink fruit of unknown name or flavour, and some pineapple in case the pink one is gross, and some water, before our helpful-man told us to hurry the fuck up because the bus is right there can’t-you-see-it?!  You have to get on now it’s leaving! 
Onto the bus, a classy comfy bus which shall be our home for the next five or six hours.  The ride out is pretty nice and uneventful, a regular bus ride in a regular bus, with regular meal/pee/smoke breaks, and a regular driver who is luckily not insane. 

I’ve seriously written way too much about the train ride already, so I’ll keep the next bit short.  We get off the bus at the ferry terminal… or did we have to take a songthaew there?  I forget.  Either way, we get to the ferry, wait a bit, get on, hang out for the hour trip to the island.  It’s really pretty and the sun is still up and life is good.  Onto the island, and there’s a bunch of songthaew waiting around to take all the passengers to their respective accommodation.  We get on one, pay the fixed rate, and enjoy the hour up and down steep hills that take us from the north tip of the island to three-quarters of the way down the west side.  The view most of the time is jungly and roady and pretty regular, until you climb up a few hairpin bends and get the rewarding view of the ocean with the sun hanging out near the horizon.  Awesome. 
Eventually we make it to Lonely Beach, check into a guesthouse with bungalows that Sean found online.  The place was nice, with trees everywhere, very colourful, delicious food, hammocks… but an undeniable stank of mould in the rooms and showers that kind of spurt and sputter out when they feel like it, and generally not the standard of your average person who wants a decent place to sleep in comfort. 

The walk to the beach from our bungalows 
We stay one night and then Annie and Danny find us a super awesome affordable place on the beach with fancy bungalows with giant windows and great sunset views and nice porches on which to hang out.  Finally, we’re home and we can relax, take it easy, check out the beach, enjoy island life, and get started with Danny and our new tattoo plans.