This is part two of a two part story.
Click here to read part one.
After hellish day and night in Hat Yai all three of us (a Belgian guy I met called Beet, my girlfriend at the time and I) resolved to get out of town as quick as possible first thing in the morning and go to the nearby coastal town of Songkla. I had heard that you could get passage on tramp steamers up to Bangkok. Since I’d never done a sea voyage before, I thought it would be a great chance to try something new. The other two I was with, thought it was a good idea as well.
When we got to the Songkla port area we made a few enquiries to find that there was a steamer leaving to take timber to Bangkok that afternoon, and that although they didn’t have any cabins for passengers, for a small fee they offered to take us “deck class”.
Deck class literally means that one sleeps outside on the deck. Since it was so hot in the tropics, we didn’t mind the idea sleeping outside at all and being out at sea, we knew that there wouldn’t be any mosquitoes to bother as. So the prospect of sleeping alfresco seemed quite attractive.
When we boarded the boat, we were taken to the deck at the stern. We were told not to go anywhere inside of the boat and to keep out of the way of the sailors as they went about their work.
Luckily, the aft deck had a small awning that gave us some protection from the sun, and there was also a rickety old table with a couple of chairs, that we could sit at. Most of the deck had a guardrail, except for one section where the top railing had been bent and broken from one of the posts, to shiver in space, rhythmically to the throb of the boat’s engines.
The boat or should I say ship, didn’t have much freeboard and its gunwales were disturbingly, only about 1.2m (about 4 feet) higher than the water, but luckily, the aft deck was about five meters (approximately 15 feet) above the water.
It was quite a nice afternoon, as we sailed out of Songkla. There was a pleasant breeze that kept us moderately cool as the sun went down. The price of our passage included food, and since we hadn’t paid too much, we weren’t very optimistic about the quality of the cuisine, we were going to receive. Our pessimism was well founded when we each received a (thankfully) small portion watery rice gruel with a wilted boiled piece of lettuce and fish heads for dinner.
Ya pays ya money and ya take ya chances!
Although the surface was hard, sleeping on the deck was surprisingly comfortable. Unlike the land, we were not enclosed, and there was a comfortable breeze that blew over us as we slept. It was nothing like the usual sweaty, ordeal by mosquito that we usually endured on land.
For a breakfast we were brought….. you guessed it, more watery rice gruel! But with a difference. This time it didn’t have any fish heads. I guess they’d seen that we hadn’t eaten much of what they had offered us the night before. They probably thought we didn’t deserve the best bits.
Now when one travels deck class, there aren’t a plethora of activities one can indulge in, other than just look over the side and watch the fishing boats go by. One thing that did surprise me was the amount of sea snakes (Stoke’s sea snake Astrotia stokesii ) and we saw. I’m not exaggerating and I am certain we saw hundreds of them. I’ve read that although sea snakes are very poisonous they don’t usually bite people unless they are touched. I have met people who have said that sea snakes are very curious and will swim right up to you for a better look, but they won’t bite. All very comforting to know now, but at the time I can remember looking at all the snakes and thinking to myself that I hoped I wouldn’t
have to go into the water for any reason.
By about lunchtime we arrived at Koh Samui. Back in 1974, unlike nowadays, there wasn’t very much at Koh Samui. We had heard that it was a nice place to stay but to tell you the truth we were both so over the whole tropical beach with coconut trees and grass huts thing. Lazing on a tropical beach might be great if you only get one or two weeks holiday a year and you have a stressful job. But I’d already been in South-east Asia for about three or four months and to tell you the truth, one tropical beach is pretty much the same as another.
After some cargo had been un-loaded and some more timber loaded we headed north, up to Bangkok.
As the day wore on, the clouds rolled in and it became very overcast. By nightfall is was starting to rain and the sea was beginning to get rough. Our little awning kept the light rain off us as we had more watery rice gruel for dinner. Later in the evening out little bit of rain turned into a full blown thunderstorm. The wind had picked up and the rain was being blown horizontally under the awning and we were saturated. We thought for our safety that it would be prudent to move inside to one of the passageways but the crew blocked our way, pushing us back outside and locking us out. So we had to stay on the deck as a storm raged. By now, it was starting to get ridiculous, the occasional wave would break against the side of the boat, and we would get hit with its crest.
To give us a bit of protection, we turned the table on its side and put the legs against the wall where the door was and the three of us huddled behind it. We were still getting wet, but at least the full force of the waves weren’t hitting us directly.
One of the fears I had before I had boarded the boat was that I might get sea sick. People had told me horror stories about how they had been so sea sick, they didn’t care if they lived or died at the time. I wasn’t looking forward to that sensation. Strangely enough, even during such a rough weather I didn’t feel seasick at all. I guess I was distracted by the fact that I had to try and stay on the deck and not get washed overboard. Although I wasn’t getting seasick the same couldn’t be said for my girlfriend (Mala).
We were all huddled behind the table, sopping wet and frightened when Mala started to vomit. She suddenly got up without warning, and ran to the guardrail and leant over the edge and puked her guts up. She was in such distressed state that she was totally oblivious to how dangerous her situation was. It took me a couple of seconds to register what was going on, and to my horror I can see that Mala was leaning over the broken guardrail and it was bending under her weight and leaning out over the water a short way with her attached to it. I quickly ran out and to pull her back. The sky and sea had merged into one dark heaving entity but the large incoming waves could be seen due to the onboard lights. The scene struck me with fear as I knew that anybody who fell over board would be lost for sure and there would be no way of saving them. Mala didn’t even realise the railing was broken, and she struggled against me, because she wanted to stay there and continue being sick. Luckily I was much bigger than her and I was able to wrestle her back to behind the table.
So there we spent the rest of the evening, all wet, curled up behind the table, while poor old Mala dry retched for the rest of the evening and I constantly replayed in my head what I had seen when I had gone to pull her back.
I kept thinking over and over again, about what would have happened if Mala had been washed overboard. What would I have done? Jumping in to save her would have only meant that two lives would have been lost. The visibility was so bad that there was no way that even if I could convince the captain a turnaround to look for her that we would have ever found her again. There were no life jackets or preservers. Maybe I could have thrown in the table, if she hadn’t been swept too far away by the time I could get it. I sat for hours wondering what I would have done. It made me almost sick with worry and fear at how close I had come to losing a friend.
Some time just before dawn, the storm broke, and we were able to get a modicum of sleep and some badly needed rest. It had been a very stressful night and oddly enough Mala wasn’t enjoying herself any more. Trouble was, we were out sight of land and in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t like we could just step off and walk away. We had to just sit tight and wait until we got to Bangkok.
Fortunately, the next evening wasn’t as bad as the night before. We did get some rain but it was child’s play in comparison to what we’d already experienced. Mala was sea sick again. Maybe that was the function of the watery rice gruel. It gave the body something to chuck up instead of just trying to turn itself inside out, dry retching all night.
On the morning of our fourth day, we arrived at the estuary of the Chao Phraya river that the water craft follow up into Bangkok.
We finally arrived at Bangkok in the early afternoon but since the ship we were on couldn’t get a berth straight away it anchored in the middle of the river, so we caught one of the amazing long boats that ones sees in Bangkok (click here to see a similar, smaller type of boat at the floating markets). The boats are basically very long canoes with small car engines mounted on the stern like an outboard motor with very long propeller shafts down to the water.
Funnily enough, I haven’t felt the urge to ever go on an ocean voyage again.
Been there, done that, didn’t like it!