Our Epic Journey from Kuala Lumpur to Koh Tao

Being budget travelers, Jo and I were faced with a difficult prospect when deciding how to get from KL to our future island home on Koh Tao, a mere 960km away . The expensive option was to fly to Surat Thani and catch an express ferry to the island. The cheaper alternative was to catch a train from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai, then hop on a bus to Surat Thani, followed by an overnight 8 hour ferry ride to Koh Tao. You can guess which route we decided to take, mostly because I wouldn’t have much to write about if we’d flown 840km of the journey. So, here’s a quick peek at our epic journey from KL to Koh Tao.

KL Sentral to Hat Yai:

For this leg of the journey, Jo and I decided to take the number 20 train (Senandung Langkawi) overnight into Hat Yai. We purchased second class tickets online. This gave us beds in an air conditioned carriage. The only downside was having to sleep with our luggage as there was no storage space. Besides from that, it was a pleasant train journey.

I was a bit too big for the beds.
I was a bit too big for the beds.

We stopped at the Malaysian-Thai border and disembarked. We thought it was going to be a quick stop for us to pass through immigration, so Jo and I left our bags on the train and proceeded to join the line for customs. We had just started filling out our arrival/departure cards when I noticed that the doors of the train had started to close. With a jolt of panic, I told Jo to ask someone if we need to get our bags while I kept our place in the line. Jo managed to get someone to open the door to our carriage and then disappeared inside. She stumbled back onto the platform 2 minutes later red faced, panicked, and laden with all of her bags. Realising that Jo hadn’t been able to get my bags as well, I ran from the queue as the train doors started closing again. I hammered on one of the doors until a Malaysian man popped his head around the corner and smiled, seemingly finding quite a bit of amusement in my panicked state. He opened the door for me and I hurried inside. I asked him when the train was taking us to Hat Yai. He nodded and then said “Service,”. Not fully understanding, but knowing that I didn’t have time to stand there talking to him, I thanked him and hurried over to my bed. I hadn’t properly packed my bag before I got off the train, so my stuff was littered all over my bed. Thinking I didn’t have much time, I scooped it all up in my arms, put my bag on my shoulder and made my way haphazardly towards the door, dropping my water bottle and book several times as well as hitting my head on the doorframe more times that I care to remember. I practically fell onto the platform and trotted over to the queue where Jo was waiting as the train pulled away from the station. We then proceeded through customs without incident.

Once we had passed through immigration, we had to wait for another train to pick us up from the border and take us to Hat Yai. It was a small train stations there wasn’t much to do, but I ate some fried rice at the cafeteria while Jo tried to convince me that I was going to get food poisoning. After about an hour, the exact same train we had arrived on rolled into the station. We went to our carriage and shuffled along to our beds. They were completely untouched. The entire interior of the train had been left alone. At that moment, I realized that the man I had spoken to before was trying to tell me that the train was going to take us to Hat Yai, it just needed to be serviced first. We waited for another 45 minutes on the platform before the train departed.

This guy and his friends got bored and started dangling their legs out the back of the moving train.
This guy and his friends got bored and started dangling their legs out the back of the moving train.

Hat Yai to Surat Thani:

As soon as we got off the train at Hat Yai we were mobbed by Thai men asking us where we were going and offering us “special” deals and taxis. A very persistent man followed us out of the train station and tried to herd us over to his shop. We had read about travellers being ripped off by people offering services, so we were very wary. The fact that the man followed us out of the train station and to an ATM also put us off. In the end, the man didn’t have any services running to Koh Tao, so he left us alone. We decided to catch a Tuk Tuk to Hat Yai bus station to organize our bus tickets.

My first Tuk Tuk ride ever!
My first Tuk Tuk ride ever!

As soon as we stopped at the bus station, a Thai lady standing out the front of a shop asked us where we were going. We said Surat Thani and she offered us tickets by bus for 250 baht each. It was a very cheap price so we accepted. 30 minutes later, a small van drove up to the shop, and we were told to get in. We opened the side door and found that the only seats left were right in the back. There was also no storage space for our bags, so we had to put them on the seats with us. It was incredibly awkward getting into the van, and we were the only travelers on it. Everyone else in the minibus was Thai. We made it to our seats after some awkward shuffling and hitting a few people with our luggage. Because there was nowhere to put our bags, we had to hold our bags. So, we had 30kg of stuff on our laps, in a cramped minivan, looking down the barrel of a 4.5 hour journey. At this point, the more expensive option was looking a lot more appealing.

The first hour leg of the journey was fine. After some short, intense periods of shuffling, we’d finally managed to arrange the bags in such a way that we were relatively comfortable. The driver eventually stopped off at a cafeteria for us to eat and go to the toilet (Lucky for me. I had been tempted to use an empty water bottle for 20 minutes before we stopped). 15 minutes later, we were all bundled back into the van and continued on our way. It was at that point that something in the driver must’ve snapped, and he turned into an absolute maniac…

I’ve spent about a year in Russia, where the drivers pay no heed to pedestrians, speed limits, lanes, other cars, or anything that could be considered a “road rule”. My dad has lived all over the world in almost every continent. He lived in Russia for 15 years and it is the only country that he refused to drive in. Despite this, I have never seen such reckless driving as I did that day in the minivan. As soon as we hit the highway, our driver went completely mental. His speed increased to about 120-130 km/h on the crowded highway. He started swerving in between and around cars, other vans, and large semi-trucks (of which, there were many), and when he found himself blocked in, he proceeded to bully the driver in front by tailgating them, often leaving only about a meter in between our bumper and theirs, and only slightly decreasing his speed. Too often he found himself approaching semi’s too quickly and had to screech on the brakes. He would also randomly swerve off the road entirely and onto a grass patch by the road in order to pass someone. This meant going within meters of a small ravine in the median strip of the highway. Even the Thai people on board the bus were looking unnerved by the way the man was driving.

After an hour and half of this driving, Jo started to ask me if we could get off the bus. We saw a sign that said we had 135 km/h, and I was convinced with the speed we were going that it would only take an hour to get there. We had no phone with service, and the highway had very little in the way of shops or places where we could ask someone to call a taxi for us. So I persisted that we stay on the bus for a little longer. I tried distracting Jo from the horrendous driving with conversation and by playing word association games, but in the end, I covered her eyes every time the driver did something dangerous (this meant that my hand pretty much never left her face). Jo continued pleading with me to get the man to stop. She was so scared that she started crying. I said that we’d stop as soon as we saw some shops, but at that moment, our driver had to screech on the brakes yet again. This time, it was because he had become impatient with two semi’s blocking the highway. He had tried to drive through the small gap in between them and had gotten too close before realizing that he wouldn’t make it, and had to slam on the brakes. That was the last straw. I shouted for the driver to stop. He didn’t hear me and kept driving. I repeated myself, but again he didn’t hear me. Even some of the other Thai passengers tried telling him that we wanted to get off, but he kept on going. I was just about to yell again when Jo raised herself from her seat, tears streaming down her face, and screeched at the driver, “STOP!”. This time, he listened and pulled over to the side of the highway. We got out of the van, put our bags on the grass patch next to the road, and I gave Jo a big, long hug.

Once we had finished marveling at how we had survived the bus ride from hell, we looked around to find that we had been dropped off close to a side street with a few small food stalls. We heaved our bags over to a woman who was selling fried banana and asked how to get to Surat Thani. At first, she suggested taking a motorbike taxi, a prospect that made us uncomfortable due to the size of our bags. We asked if a car could take us there, she gestured that she would speak to some men sitting on the other side of the road. 2 minutes later she came back and said a van would be picking us up soon. She then took us to a small undercover patio area that had a table and a few chairs. The woman smiled and told us to sit and wait.

After putting our bags down, I decided to buy some fried bananas from her as a way of saying thank you. They were pretty tasty and she was quite amused at my attempt to fit underneath the roof of her tiny stall, as was her friend, who barely came up to my waist. The woman chatted with us a little about where we were going and how her sister owned a bar on Koh Tao. She was the nicest person we’ve met so far, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. After about 15 minutes, a van rolled up to the stall, and we were told that it would take us to Surat Thani. The driver helped us with our bags as we bundled ourselves into the van. We pulled out onto the highway once more and hoped that this last stretch of our journey would be a lot smoother.

There were quite a few empty seats in the van, so we were able to put our bags next to us. The driver was also much better than the amateur stunt driver we’d had before. He stayed in one lane, never going over 80 km/h, and that was the way we wanted it. One hour later, we arrived in Hat Yai and started dropping off passengers at their desired destinations. The driver asked us where we were going, I replied “Ban Don Pier”. He had no idea what we were saying, and neither did the remaining passengers. We tried many times to explain where we were going, but nobody seemed to understand. Eventually, a girl in front of us got me to type our destination into her phone. From that, she figured out what we wanted and told the driver. He got out of the van, hailed a Tuk Tuk, and after a brief discussion, called us over. He told us the Tuk Tuk driver would take us the rest of the way. We thanked him and got in.

Hanging out the back of a Tuk Tuk in Surat Thani
Hanging out the back of the Tuk Tuk in Surat Thani

After a short ride, we got to the pier. We saw the boat going to Koh Tao and were ready to get off, but the driver only stopped to have a brief conversation with a man on the side of the road before driving off again. Jo and I, a bit confused, were helpless as the driver took us straight back to the spot he’d picked us up from. When he dropped us off there, we were met by a very smiley but pushy lady who asked where we were going. We told her Koh Tao, and she asked if we wanted the night ferry. It finally seemed like we were getting somewhere, so we asked how to get there. She offered to sell us tickets, give us a place to keep our bags, and drop us off at the ferry later as we still had 6 hours before it left. The price for all of this was 1500 Baht. We knew it was expensive, but at this point, we were so sick of taking the cheap but inconvenient option. So we accepted, dropped our bags off and set about exploring.

After visiting a few markets in the area and getting foot massages, we made our way back. We felt like we’d been ripped off because we hadn’t been given tickets to the ferry when we’d paid, so we wanted to get to the pier early just in case we needed to buy tickets again. The same lady who sold us tickets called a taxi for us and as it arrived, told us to get in. We asked if we could have our tickets. She said that they’d be waiting for us at the ferry. Feeling very suspicious, but too weary to question her, we got into the back of the truck with all the luggage and drove off to the pier.

I'm used to feeling tall everywhere I go, but these markets literally made me feel like a giant.
I’m used to feeling tall everywhere I go, but these markets literally made me feel like a giant.

When we arrived at the dock, I asked the driver about our tickets. He pulled out his phone and prank called a number. Across the road, I saw a man get out of his chair, hop onto his scooter, and in a fantastic display of both coolness and laziness, drive the 20 meter distance between him and us, hand me 2 tickets, drive 20 meters back to his chair, and sit straight back down. I can only hope to one day achieve the same level of sloth and apathy that he demonstrated on that day.

Hat Yai to Koh Tao (home stretch)

There were a few food stalls on the pier, so we promptly set about devouring as much delicious food as we could while we waited to board the overnight ferry. 1 hour before departure, we boarded the ferry and found our beds. There was only one area for all of the passengers, on the lower level of the boat. There were 2 rows of mattresses packed tightly together on either side of the room. The toilets were on the back deck, through a small corridor and down a flight of stairs. The boat was fully booked, so there was no room for spreading out. As the boat left the dock at 11pm, we realised that we were only 8 hours away from arriving at our destination. With that thought, we promptly lay down on our mattresses, and fell asleep.

This was the sleeping area on the ferry
This was the sleeping area on the ferry

At about 4am, with an almighty crash, I was woken up. It was very dark, but I could make out quite a few other people who had obviously been woken up by the noise. Another crash. The whole boat shook hard enough that the windows shuddered. I looked outside and saw the front of the boat smashing into huge waves. The ocean was very rough, but the boat showed no signs of slowing down as it ploughed through walls of water. Throughout the morning, more and more people were woken up by the boat being hit by the huge swells. Some tried laughing it off nervously, others were much more obviously scared. I put my headphones in and played the most calming music I had, trying to ignore the swaying and crashes.

As we pressed on through the waves, more and more people became sick. A lot of them didn’t even make it out of the room before throwing up. I’ve never been sea sick in my life, and luckily enough, I wasn’t on this journey. But I could feel my stomach heaving each time the boat swayed. As it started to get light, I decided I needed to go to the bathroom. I stood up to go to the back of the boat, and at the same time, and American man smashed into me, nearly knocking me over. He was quite obviously feeling very sick, and he was hardly able to walk. The boat was swaying violently from side to side, and he was having a lot of difficulty finding his balance, so I helped him to get out to the hallway. Once there he propped himself up against the wall and unlocked a door to his left, thinking it was a toilet. At that moment, the boat dipped sharply to the left, throwing him into the store room he’d just unlocked. The boat the counterbalanced to the right, tossing the helpless man back out of the room, through the hallway, and into another door on the right. As he was being thrown about like a rag doll, all he could do was exclaim “Jesus Christ!”, before attempting to regain his balance. I was only able to stay upright because I was tall enough to use the roof to stabilize myself. I pointed out the toilets down the stairs. He gingerly walked down the stairs, and then walked straight past the bathroom, going instead for the side of the boat. On all fours, he crawled to the edge and was immediately sick over the side. The boat was consistently dipping about 2 meters on each side, and there was no railing, so I was worried that he was going to go straight over the edge and into the water. I stayed with him to make sure he didn’t flip over board. At that moment, I saw the island, Koh Tao, appear in the distance. I pointed it out the to American and said “You’ll be fine, were nearly there!”. We both started laughing out of sheer relief. I helped him up and over to a seat on the back of the ferry, at which point he pulled out and lit what must’ve been one of the best cigarettes of his life. An hour later, at 7am, we arrived at Koh Tao.

We grabbed our bags from the boat, tried to walk over the patches of the floor that weren’t covered in vomit, and made our way down to the dock. Once again, we found ourselves surrounded by Thai men shouting “TAXI!”. We asked a man about how to get to Sairee Beach. He pointed out the general direction for us and said he could take us there for 200 baht. We declined as we had decided to walk there to save money.

20 minutes later, after many a dead end, and finding ourselves lost, we decided to head back to the dock and catch a cab. We walked back to the dock feeling exhausted, frustrated and a little bit sick. We got back to were the ferry dropped us off and asked someone for a taxi. A man said he could take us for 300 baht. Jo said quite firmly “No, 200 baht,”. The driver agreed and took us to our accommodation on Sairee Beach. After a few hours of confusion in regards to deposits and bookings, we were finally taken to our bungalow. We dropped our bags like lead weights, had cold showers, and lay on the hard bed. Slowly the realisation dawned on us… we had made it. We travelled 960 km by anything other than a plane, and it had taken us 33 hours. It was an exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, scary, exciting, wonderful, sobering experience. The best part is, if we’d been given the choice to do it all over again the same way, we would. There’s not a single thing that we would change… except the van ride from hell. That was ridiculous…

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4 thoughts on “Our Epic Journey from Kuala Lumpur to Koh Tao

  1. Thanks for sharing this was very helpful. I am thinking about doing a similar trip. Going to be flying from Sri Lanka to Kuala Lumpur and plan to travel up to Koh Tao. I would like to see a bit of Malaysia on the way up though and I’m wondering if this is something you considered or whether the train stops and some cities along the way.

    Plan to travel south east Asia for a few months so any advice on places to add to the list would be hugely welcomed.

    Hope to hear from you.
    Peter

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for your comment. Your trip sounds very exciting! I have always wanted to go to Sri Lanka. The train that I took from Kuala Lumpur to Hat Yai didn’t stop very much, only once at the border of Thailand if I remember correctly. However, there are many other trains that go through Malaysia that you could take on your way to Koh Tao. I would have loved to go to Borneo, Penang and the Perhentians as well. On top of my south-east asia bucket list is still Burma/myanmar. Looks like a gorgeous/crazy place. Hope that helps a little.
      Jo

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