Surat Thani is not a destination. For travelers it is a transit town used to reach places like Koh Samui, Koh Phangan or, in our case, Khao Sok.  There really isn’t much for tourists to do besides sleep for an evening and wake up early to catch a bus or a boat.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t still have an interesting time the one evening you’re there.

We arrived via Nok Air to the Surat Thani airport, abut 20 km west of the city, and got a ticket on the Phantip Travel company bus into town for 100 baht (about US$1.35) each.  I had read online that the bus drops you off at their office in town, but actually the conductor on the bus walks around asking which hotel in Surat Thani you are going to, and the bus will drop you off at the door. If you don’t have a hotel already arranged, he can help you arrange one through their travel agency, though having an idea of which hotels are good and which are not is advisable in this town. Hotel value ranges widely, according to the reviews we read online.

After checking into our hotel, the just sufficiently clean but very spacious Tapee Hotel, we hit the mean streets of Surat to see what the place was about. Our first stop was the riverside, a five minute walk from the hotel. Here we encountered a public evening market lining the road running parallel to the river. There was a wide range of products from incredibly obscure English language books to blankets to tourist souvenirs.  Prices are definitely negotiable.

Around sunset we heard a loud tweeting/screeching noise coming from above. A flock of what looked like thousands of birds was flying wildly and noisily above the market heading out toward the water.

“Those aren’t birds,” Her said, “they’re bats!”

A teen wearing a T-shirt with, very aptly, a Batman logo just happened to be walking by and Her pointed at his shirt and then up at the sky to verify her assertion. The youth didn’t speak English, but he understood what we were asking and confirmed that indeed, these were bats heading out to hunt for the evening. If you’ve never seen a flock of bats in flight, it’s fascinating.

Our next stop was the night market. While the riverside market’s focus was on goods, the night market’s focus was on food. It isn’t even close to being one of the biggest night markets in Thailand, but it is certainly very authentic as this is where many locals come to eat and entertain themselves for the evening.  Here you can find good drinks, dinner and dessert — all for extremely low prices by western standards.

We picked the food stall with the largest crowd and got in “line.”  (In Southeast Asia the concept of queuing is theoretical at best.  As the locals must see it, a queue is simply a crowd of people one joins and then forcibly pushes through to get to the front.)  Upon reaching the front, a woman working the stall offered us a small plate containing some of the noodles she was cooking, seemingly unsure us westerners would like it.

After tasting the delightful noodle dish with shrimp and peanuts, we agreed to take a seat at one of their plastic sidewalk tables and ordered three plates of the shop’s dish du jour.  My initial impression was that the plates would be small, and we would each split the third dish.  What actually happened was the plates were quite large, and I ended up pigging out, eating almost two entire plates on my own!  After paying our bill, we ambled back to our thin-walled abode and used the sound machine on our iPhones to drown out the crying baby next door and the loud traffic four floors below.

The next morning, we got up early to catch one of the early buses from the downtown bus depot toward Khao Sok.  There are two bus stations in Surat Thani: the old one about 10 minutes away in the middle of town and the well-equipped and brand-new station about 2 km outside of town.  The bus to Khao Sok starts at the old station and stops at the new station en route.  Whichever station you decide on leaving from be sure to buy the ticket at the station.  You will undoubtedly encounter “friendly” locals appearing out of nowhere to help you “find the ticket office”.  This usually ends in, at best, you paying more than double the price of the ticket and getting on the same bus.  At worst, it may end in you having a worthless piece of paper and being several hundred baht poorer.  Just walk up to the bus with the name of your destination painted in bright colors on the side and talk directly to the driver.  He can sell you a ticket or will show you where you can buy one legitimately.

Slightly sweaty but safely aboard the bus with cool drinks and some snacks we began the ride to our destination — the jungle of Khao Sok.