Our trip from Vientiane to Koh Samet in Thailand was a long one. Two trains, one taxi, one minibus, one boat ride, a two kilometre walk, and some 19 hours later we made it to our separate hotels.
Let’s start at the beginning–and I’ll start with the first train. As I mentioned previously, Lao now has one stretch of railway tracks that takes you from the suburbs of Vientiane, across the Thailand-Lao Friendship bridge, some 3.5 km to the Thai border. Again, given that you have to travel 20 km east of Vientiane to get to Thanaleng Railway station, it doesn’t make all that much sense to take the train for the final stretch. That being said, I rarely pass up the opportunity to take a train.
Thanaleng Station in Lao:
The snazzy train:
Crossing the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge:
The customs and immigration office was right inside the Nong Khai train station. A bit slow because a single immigration officer processed the train-load of people but we had an hour and change to kill before boarding the train to Bangkok, so we had time to spare:
This is the interior of the overnight train, specifically 2nd class. It’s actually pretty comfortable and an ideal way to travel before they put the beds down. There is comfortable seating next to the windows on both sides. Unfortunately, they like to put the beds down as soon as possible, so the beds will be down by 9:00 pm at the latest. On one train they started pulling down the beds at 7:00 pm. As such, it is advisable to always pick a lower bunk on your train rides when traveling in first and second class. Once the beds are down, the person on the upper bunk has to sit up on the bunk and can’t look out the window.
I like the different colour coding in the various second class cars, to help you keep track of yours:
This is the third class seating, my favourite in terms of day travel if you don’t have to share the seat. If you go to the car at the very back of the train, you can hang out on the outdoor platform facing the tracks out back. And, these are also the only windows on the train that actually open, so they’re ideal for taking pictures and for getting a nice breeze in your face (the 1st and 2nd class cars have AC). What I did on this ride with Adam was leave my stuff in our 1st class cabin, and because the last car was pretty empty, I was able to get my own seat right at the back of the train. That was the best train ride of my 7 months traveling so far.
Our first class cabin. It was TINY. As you can see the aisle space next to the bed was essentially non-existent. The only advantage of the top bunk in 1st class seating is that there is a space where they store the bedding during the day that is ideal for hiding your stuff away if you want to explore the rest of the train cars.
That’s me on the top bunk. The pricing was very reasonable. It came out to $36 CDN for the top bunk, $40 CDN on the bottom bunk, for the 13 hour train ride, including the portion from Lao to Thailand.
Adam and I had dinner and I had breakfast on the train. Both were actually very good, the dinner, particularly good. Dinner-wise-, by far the best train food I’ve had, I think it even beat out Via One, but the lack of booze on the train (neither sold nor generally permitted) makes Via One the winner on the food and drinks front. This is the tiny kitchen that somehow cooked meals for the train’s 12 cars, an impressive feat:
A shot out one of the glorious open windows in the third class seating:
Bangkok’s railway station:
Unfortunately, this is where we got our first unpleasant taste of the horribly dishonest taxi drivers that operate in Bangkok. I’ve literally traveled to hundreds of cities in my life-time (heck, on this trip already), and I’ve NEVER encountered such brazenly dishonest cabbies. They would flat out refuse to use their meters, even if you walked away, and their proposed flat rates were 3-4 times the metered rates. The first cabbie we encountered didn’t even have a working meter, it’s that bad. In the end Adam hooked us up with an Uber X cab to get us to the Victory Monument minivan station.
The minivans from the Victory Monument station depart to Koh Samet on a very regular basis, so within normal business hours just show up and you can get a minivan easy. However, the puzzling thing is that the minivans at that station have ZERO trunk space or roof racks. So if you have small luggage you may be able to get away with storing it in the aisle, but if you have a behemoth 20 kg backpack as I do, you will be forced to purchase a second ticket for your bag. The three hour ride to the dock in the minivans is pretty comfortable, and reasonably priced. If you don’t have to pay for a second seat, it will set you back under $8 CDN for a nice leather seat. Alas, there are four middle seats in the van which are probably less comfortable, we lucked out as we would have had a middle seat at the front but our van was one passenger short.
The ferry terminal to Koh Samet:
I found the boats to be quite pretty, unfortunately they have a very high centre of gravity which makes them less than ideal unless the water is perfectly calm. Our boat ride that was supposed to last one hour was a bit of a disaster. About 15 minutes into the ride the engine went out so we had to switch boats out in the water, no small feat with 100+ people and luggage: Then, the poor design of the boats combined with really poor design at the destination dock ended up seriously damaging the boat. Turns out that some genius thought it was a good idea to design a dock with stairwell platforms jutting out from the sides as opposed to just having a uniform flat surface. Result? The rubber tires on the end of the boat are useless and our boat got smashed up against the 90 degree angles of the stairway platforms along the concrete platform, crushing a bunch of the wooden planks along the side. The boat wasn’t on the verge of sinking but it was severely damaged, and let me be clear, the seas were not particularly rough.
The terribly designed boat:
The ugly AND poorly designed dock on the Koh Samet side:
Word to the wise, Google Maps GPS does not work well in Lao, Thailand, or Vietnam. It will steer you wrong about 30% of the time, more so in dense urban centres. What’s worse is that the location data entered by users is terrible in these countries. On more than one occasion the stated location of a place has been KILOMETRES away from the correct spot. We experienced a colossal Google Maps fail upon arriving at Koh Samet. Taking a cab was a proving to be a pain so we decided to walk as Google Maps was telling us that Adam’s hotel was 800 metres away. Wrong, it turned out to be 2 kilometres away.
Along our walk we stopped at a lovely, albeit very expensive beach-side place for lunch:
The Google Maps fail did mean that Adam’s hotel and my hotel (different accommodation budgets) were much closer than previously anticipated which was convenient. Rather than being a good kilometre away we were only a two minute walk away.
That evening we walked down to a great restaurant by the sea. The food was good, it wasn’t too expensive and it was an awesome atmosphere. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a weekend thing, when we tried the place the next night it was completely dead. A brilliant family of fire jugglers entertained us at the restaurant:
The next day I rented a motorcycle and set out the explore the island’s beaches. And that’s one of the things I loved about Koh Samet, I spent three hours ridding around the island and managed to hit most of the beaches. I finished the project the next day and hit the last of the beaches in one more hour. But really, the island is so small that if you push it hard and don’t stop, you can cover the full stretch, one-way, in 35 minutes. What ends up taking a lot of time is that most of the beaches have a bit of a rocky ride down off the main road, which requires you to go really slow, and then a bit of a way to walk down once you’ve parked.
Topping up the gas before departing at a horribly unsafe gas station, or as I’ve noted before, a very convenient molotov cocktail shop, bring your own rag:
The fruits of my motorbike island exploration. This is Au Phai, the main beach where most of the good restaurants and bars are situated. The beach is really nice and with the finest sand of the whole island, the only downside is that 200 metres to the left of this area is a beach covered in sightseeing boats so the water has to be fairly polluted and in terms of staying there, I’d imagine it’s a tad loud. But ultimately, for someone who wants a night scene, you have to stay somewhere near Au Phai:
Au Tubtim, a really quiet beach is at the bottom of this area, with a scattering of little bungalows. Nice and quiet, but you’re stuck with the hotel’s restaurant/bar, there’s really not all that much nearby to do:
Au Luang, similar to my comments above:
Au Wang Dueng. Ultimately my favourite beach for daytime relaxing. There are plenty of loungers and decent restaurants, but the place is still a bit isolated. You’ll still want to hang out at Au Phai at night and cabs aren’t cheap if you’re travelling alone. It will set you back at least $6 CDN alone to get to Au Phai if your cabbie is in an exploitive mood. Not a big deal by Canadian standards, but a pretty massive deal on a $30 CDN a night accommodation budget.
Regardless, don’t make the mistake that I made in paying attention to travelers who said that you could stay anywhere in Koh Samet because everywhere is easy to reach. Sure if you’re sober and have rented a moped that’s true, but it still entails you ridding through dark roads at night on a moped, not ideal. And, the cabs are really expensive, by any standard. From where we were staying up north, to the southern-most point of the island could easily cost $20 CDN one way. My advise is to find a quiet hotel in Au Phai but to spend a couple of your days in Au Wang Dueng too.
Sang Thieng, super pretty but smelled strongly of fish and was totally empty:
After I was done with my exploration of the island, I texted Adam with my verdict that Wong Dueng was the best beach and we hung out at that beach for the rest of the afternoon:
Right before sunset, I took off on the motorbike again to find a nice sunset spot down south. Candidate #1:
The best sunset spot on the island, aptly named Sunset Point:
Au Phai at night, by far the best place to check-out the night scene in Koh Samet:
There is a swanky hotel when you keep walking south on the beach. Then, in a totally unexpected place there is a chill bar with reasonable prices right next to the sea–one of my favourite bars ever.
While we were there, we ran into a group of friendly Westerners. The woman on the right claimed she was a Canadian from Vancouver. However, I mentioned MEC and she had no idea what Mountain Equipment Coop was and had earnestly never heard of it. I spent the rest of the evening teasing her that she is clearly a CIA agent with a Canadian cover story (lol, though I actually believe that is the case, I can’t fathom a native-born Canadian of her age having never heard of MEC, that’s akin to an American being ignorant of McDonalds).
The following day we went on an awesome island hopping tour of the region, but I’m saving those pictures for the end.
Some shots of us hanging out at Au Phai the following day:
Dinner and drinks on the beach at Au Phai on our final night:
These are the shots from our day-trip out on a speed boat. It was a crazy deal, for all of $24 CDN we got picked up by boat at our hotels and we started by going to the nearby island of Koh Thalu where we had an included lunch and did a bit of mediocre snorkeling. But the real pay-off was the next island hop at Koh Kudee where we did some gorgeous snorkelling right of the boat. I’ve snorkelled a ton in my life and that was some of the best I have ever done because the fish and coral were right by the surface and utterly gorgeous.
After that our trip included one more island stop and a little line fishing (i.e. no rod, just bait, hook and fishing line).
I’ll leave you with pictures of the full day trip: