Last year, I flew from Bali to the little town of Surat Thani, Thailand. I was meeting up with some friends on the island of Ko Phangan for a week of beaches, night market pad thai, and nerdy blogging sessions.
I planned to fly from Bali to Singapore, Singapore to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Surat Thani, where I would take a bus to the Surat Thani pier and catch the last ferry of the day to the island of Ko Phangan. If my calculations were correct and I didn’t have any delays, I’d be able to make the final sailing with about 20 minutes to spare. Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, as you can probably imagine, this totally non-ridiculous travel day didn’t exactly go as expected. After sprinting through not one, but two, airports after a delay in Singapore and downing an extra-large Thai iced coffee in one gulp because I forgot I couldn’t take it through security (rookie mistake!), I arrived in Surat Thani at the ripe hour of 9:30 pm.
Arriving in a new city in the middle of the night usually isn’t one of my MOST favorite things to do, so I tried to figure out a game plan. Because of the delays, I hadn’t been able to get a Thai sim card like I’d planned to in the Bangkok airport, so my phone was pretty much useless.
And even though I could order a vegetarian version of every single menu item with alarming accuracy, my Thai wasn’t good enough to ask for help.
There wasn’t anything open around the airport, so I figured the best bet would be to just get on the bus to the pier and ride it until I saw somewhere I could stay for the night. After walking outside into the sticky night air, a driver standing beside a bus with the Ferry logo along the side waved me over.
I perched myself in the very front of the bus so I could look out the big window, which was decorated in typical Thai fashion with pink tassels and velvet curtains. We set off into the night.
I quickly learned a few things about Surat Thani. First, it’s pretty dark at night. Second, I really don’t know my way around Surat Thani. The driver cruised along a dark highway and then turned into what I assumed was the town. Overhead, cheerful pendants and colorful cloth triangles stretched between the buildings, but in all directions, the roads were dark. No hotels or hostels in sight.
Just as I was preparing to convince the driver to let me sleep on the airport shuttle, we turned a corner and the front window was filled with light. In front of me, gleaming under a dozen light poles with industrial lighting, was the pier.
I could see market stalls and people selling food. There were boats lined up along the wooden docks and people were unloading heavy wooden crates. Even though it was late, a few kids played around their parents stalls and teenagers sat together looking out at the water.
The driver gave me a nod in the direction of the pier which I assume meant, “last stop” so I grabbed my backpack and crossed my fingers that I could find a place to wait for about 8 hours until the next ferry in the morning.
The first thing I noticed when I got off the bus was how amazing the market smelled. Someone was frying up something delicious in a scorching wok, a smell that always brings joy!
The overhead lights were so bright it looked like it could have been daytime. Music blasted and groups of friends sat around low plastic tables playing cards and drinking Chiang beer. It didn’t look like this party was dissipating any time soon so I figured at least I would eat well and maybe make some friends.
As he drove away, the bus driver caught my eye through the windshield and pointed to a card table under a yellow tent. A painted cardboard sign read, “Ferry Tickets” in English and Thai, and someone was there selling tickets, even though it was the middle of the night.
I walked over to the little table and the man selling tickets smiled. When I asked him for a ticket to Ko Phangan, he handed me a white paper stub. I assumed it was a ticket for the morning, but then he pointed to a slimy wooden ramp leading to one of the largest and boats in the pier. Despite its age, the ferry had a clean coat of cream and turquoise paint.
It creaked and bobbed against the wooden pier posts. At the far end of the boat, workers were loading motorbikes, chickens, work equipment, and crates of produce onto the lower deck.
“Tonight?” I asked the ticket salesman “Yes! You can go tonight, it leaves at 11:00 pm.” I made a face so wild with delight that he laughed. No sleeping on the pier for me!
I carefully tip-toed my way along the wobbly ramp up to the passenger deck then climbed a four-foot ladder leading up to the seating area.
Two neat rows of orange mats like the kind used in school gym class lined the floor. Against the wall behind each mat were a reading lamp, pillow, and outlet. The ceiling was just barely high enough for me to stand upright and a line of windows surrounded the upper half of the whole room.
I put my backpack down on mat in the middle of the room close to a bouquet of hanging life vests, still in shock that things worked out as well as they did. A few more passengers came up the ladder – some travelers with backpacks like mine, a woman with her children, and several men who I saw loading up fishing gear earlier.
At exactly the time they said they would leave, the motor growled into gear and we puttered out of the pier into the night at an impossibly slow speed. The normal daytime ferry takes about two hours to make this journey, but ours was going to take us through the night. Now I understood why.
That being said, it was relaxing to feel the rumble of the boat and the calm swell of the waves. After reading my kindle for a few minutes on my mat, I turned off my reading lamp, burrito-ed myself up in my sarong, and got one of the best nights of sleep I’d had in a long time.
At sunrise, the roosters politely informed everyone on the ship that it was time to wake up. There must have been at least a hundred roosters on that boat to make the noise at that volume. I’ve been to Irish hurling matches and those roosters could put that screaming stadium to shame.
And just as I was vowing never to own a rooster or be close to one, ever again, I opened my eyes and understood what they were carrying on about.
The whole passenger deck was washed in red and orange light. Through the row of windows, a panoramic view of Ko Phangan in first light slowly surrounded us.
Everyone stirred awake – not gently thanks to the roosters – and sat facing the windows. It was probably one of my favorite sunrises I’ve seen in my travels, sitting on a foam mat on the upper deck of a night ferry boat in the middle of the sea in Thailand.
I never thought I’d say this, but I was grateful for that rooster. Because not many people get to see that particular sunrise.
We docked in Ko Phangan shortly after. And as I walked off the pier around 6:00 am, well-rested, and a bit overwhelmed with how beautiful Ko Phangan was, I felt so thankful for a string of flight delays, inconveniences, and rambunctious roosters that brought me there.
Important Information About The Night Ferry From Surat Thani To Ko Phangan
- Location: The night boat pier is on Brandon Road in Surat Thani City Center. You’ll arrive at Thong Sala Pier in Ko Phangan.
- Departure Time: Nightly departures from Surat Thani at 11:00 pm
- Arrival Time: Arrives the following morning in Ko Phangan around 6:00 am
- Cost: 400 Baht
- Tips: Bring water and snacks if needed, as these are not available on the ferry
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