On Wednesday morning we finally bid farewell to Malaysia as we boarded a local minibus that was to take us from Georgetown to Hat Yai in Thailand. The minibus was full so we didn’t have a lot of room to stretch out or move, but the journey was straightforward and only took about 4 hours. We stopped just before the border for a toilet and food break, where we tried sour, unripe mango for the first time- not a hit with Ben, Cara or Piran but now a firm favourite for Jago. At the border we got out of the minibus to get our passports stamped as we left Malaysia, then we were shuttled the short distance to Thai immigration, where our visas and passports were quickly processed. As we entered Thailand the scenery changed to mile upon mile of rubber plantation, with the taps at the bottom of each tree clearly visible as we passed. The roads weren’t nearly as scary as I had been expecting with most people driving their pick ups, cars and mopeds fairly sensibly. As we headed north we started to see the occasional golden Buddha statue by the side of the road, our first glimpse of this integral part of Thai culture. We’re still not clear why the Buddhas need to be quite so enormous, but they certainly do catch your attention. We reached Hat Yai just after lunchtime and caught our first tuk tuk of Thailand to our hostel. Piran was worried we might fall out the back, but eventually relaxed and started to enjoy the transport. We didn’t do much in Hat Yai apart from booking our train tickets north on the sleeper train for the following week, which was incredibly easy to do in person at the railway station, organising the bus and boat transfer to and from Koh Bulon where we planning to spend the rest of the week, and eating lots of delicious food. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant where we experienced our first hotpot, with a pot of boiling water in the centre of the table that we used to cook our own food. I can’t really see the attraction of this as I normally go out so that I don’t have to cook for myself, but it seems to be very popular! After lunch we did a small spot of shopping where the children’s blue eyes were greatly admired and Jago nearly received a marriage proposal before we rescued him from the hordes of admiring shopgirls. We also enjoyed our first authentic Thai food at dinner time, finding a fantastic local restaurant with delicious green curry, coconut milk and galangal curry, and pad thai. Yum! We are definitely going to like the food here.
We were collected from our hostel early on Thursday morning and transferred by minibus to Pakbara, a small seaside village with just a few shops and cafes that is the main port for passenger boats to the southern islands. We had a few hours to wait for the public boat to Koh Bulon Leh, so we retreated to the cool of an air conditioned restaurant for a couple of hours. We have really noticed how much hotter it is getting now that we are into March and further north. I always thought that I would like to live in a warmer climate but this weather isn’t good for much more than lying by a pool or on the beach- I hope we adapt to it enough to get out for some walks over the next few weeks. When we were in Hat Yai we had noticed lots of street vendors selling fruit out of carts full of ice by the side of the road and had been amazed at the cheap prices, and it was fantastic to see them again here in Pakbara-, looking like this is widespread in Thailand. We love mango, pineapple and watermelon and it is such a treat to be able to have such delicious fruit so easily available. Having whiled away a few hours we finally boarded the tightly packed public boat to Koh Bulon and within half an hour we had made it to our paradise island. It really is as beautiful as the pictures, with clear turquoise water and white sandy beaches with a jungle interior. The speedboat was unable to reach the beach due to the shallow water so we all transferred onto local longboats which then took us around the island, dropping everyone off at the beach closest to their accommodation. I had booked us in to Chao lae homestay which was a minute’s walk from a quiet, shady beach that wasn’t good for swimming or sunbathing due to large amounts of coral but which was perfect for relaxing and playing on. Our accommodation was clean and comfortable and the food here was the best on the island- truly delicious. Mango sticky rice is my new favourite thing; I think I would put on weight very quickly if I lived here! It only took 10 minutes to walk over to the other side of the island with its fine, soft, white sand and warm sea suitable for both swimming and snorkelling and the island felt really safe, so the kids were able to have some proper freedom here and explore without always needing to be accompanied by an adult. There were enough restaurants to have a good choice of food but the island was free of the commercialisation and party vibe that I have read about in some of the bigger islands, with everything locally owned and run. With its beauty, simplicity, excellent food and small size it was perfect for us.
We stayed on Koh Bulon for 4 days, although I could easily have spent a couple of weeks here. The kids enjoyed scavenging the island for old bits of string, rope, bottles and other items of rubbish which they then used to make rafts for their toys, a bird feeder (Cara), a mobile (Jago) and some drums. Sitting on a swing made out of large plastic containers and watching Cara and Piran launch their raft with Chocolate (Piran’s toy dog) and Kiwi (Cara’s toy kiwi) on board was a particularly happy time for me. They had designed and made the raft themselves without adult assistance. Aurora (Cara’s toy fox) also enjoyed a ride in the ‘Aurora explorer’, a hollow coconut shell, and Jago and I attempted to build a raft strong enough for him to sit on which failed spectacularly but which we both greatly enjoyed. Jago decided to make a 2nd model by himself the following day, displaying a good ability to learn from his first attempt by modifying and improving the original design. I console myself that these kinds of activities more than make up for the lack of ‘formal’ education these past few months. We also managed to dedicate some time to guided reading, enjoying our first Thailand book, ‘Jack and Max Stalwart and the Emerald Buddha’, which we will use as a model for writing our own stories about Bangkok, and a bit of time for music, with Cara learning an Elephant song on the recorder which the boys accompanied on home made drums whilst I sang.
The rest of our time was spent playing football and stuck in the mud, swimming and building sandcastles, and eating. Cara and I went snorkelling off the beach by the Bulone resort, the nicest part of the island, and saw beautiful blue-tipped coral, hundreds of beautiful fish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. This whet our appetite for more, so on our final day we chartered a longboat and went for half a day snorkelling and fishing around the other small islands making up Koh Bulone which were just as beautiful and mostly deserted. I had a wonderfully relaxing hour or so sitting by myself on a beach, hearing the sea lapping on the shore, watching crabs scuttling on the rocks, and feeling very serene as I appreciated the quiet paradise around me whilst the rest of the family caught fish on the boat. Jago was put off snorkelling by the large purple jellyfish swimming in the water, but the rest of us snorkelled in several spots, the highlight being a large white rock which for sheer numbers of fish was unlike anywhere we’d ever snorkelled before. We finished our trip in a large cave, accessible only from sea, that is home to hundreds of bats, and Jago finally joined us in the water to get a whiff of the guano, although only Ben and Cara were brave enough to venture further into the cave than the initial opening. It was a very relaxing outing.
Despite the beauty of the island, we still experienced highs and lows on Koh Bulone with ongoing arguments over bed sharing and Cara still demonstrating extremely challenging behaviour. We have overcome similar problems with all the children over the past 6 months, and I believe that it’s good for us that whilst we are travelling together we have to address these difficulties whereas at home we would just have carried on with normal life; I feel we are slowly getting better at resolving our issues and we are growing closer as a family. However it does feel extremely hard dealing with this without any friends who can empathise and share their experiences of similar situations. Similarly the children haven’t got friends to distract them from any tensions at home. After long discussions about whether or not we should bring our travels to an end and return home from Thailand, we agreed not to make any hasty decisions in the midst of a challenging time and to trust that we will emerge from this phase much better equipped to cope with the impact of the hormones that lie ahead if we deal with it rather than run away. It certainly feels tough some days though! Talking about it with the kids, everyone has agreed that they would feel happier if they had more time apart from each other, having some dedicated 1:1 time, so trying to incorporate this into our life, as well as planning the rest of our travels, will be our focus for the next few weeks.
I could very easily and happily have spent a couple of weeks relaxing on Koh Bulone but we had the enticing offer of my schoolfriend Pomme’s beach house in Huahin waiting for us as well as a reunion in Bangkok planned for the following weekend, so on Monday we bid the island farewell and made the journey back to Hat Yai, ready to continue with the journey north. I would absolutely come back to Koh Bulone for beach holidays in the future- it really is an unspoilt tropical island paradise, absolutely perfect for families.