Recently I took a ferry trip from Koh Samui to the Thai mainland and it reminded me of all the other ferry journeys I have taken in south-east Asia over the last twelve years. It also brought home to me the similarities between the experiences in different countries and reinforced my belief in certain ferry etiquette and cultural norms.
Im not talking about the small ferries which ply between neighbouring islands, but the large ones which pack hundreds of passengers on board and belch out black smoke the entire way to your destination. They are often also car ferries so the bottom deck is filled to the rafters with cars, mini-vans and even buses of all sizes.
They usually have two or even three decks with outside and inside seating areas. They offer snack bars with bizarre self-catering facilities, in that they sell cartons of instant noodles and point you to a hot water urn, three-in-one coffees in a thin pack which also require you to find your own water source and sometimes, if you are lucky, actual polystyrene packs of fried rice or congealed noodles.
The most important thing to know when boarding the ferry is that you do not dally. So many people make the terrible mistake of heading straight upstairs to stand on the romantic aft deck with the wind blowing in their hair, watching the ship leave shore and the waves receding behind them. This is a mistake. Fifteen minutes later they are wind-burnt, cold, and ready to find a seat. By this time it is too late. All the good seats have been taken and they are forced to perch on a small, plastic stool constructed for a five-year old child for the rest of the eight-hour journey. They look miserable and well they should.
The trick is to get on early and find your seat. You need to then stake it out with bags and other people if you are travelling in a group- before venturing further afield. There are two choices. Inside there is usually a large section with very comfortable, padded seats. This seems like the best option but does have its disadvantages. There are usually at least three televisions blasting movies at ear-splitting volume, the snack bar is usually located in this area and emits rather unappetizing smells, and because none of the windows open, it can get either hot and stuffy, or Arctically cold with the over use of air-conditioning. Also, you tend to find the largest of Asian families bedding down in here, usually with fifteen or sixteen children in tow, a few old men who belch and burp their way through twenty cans of beer before falling into a snore-infested sleep and matriarchs who scream constantly at the children and the old men.
The other seating area is often situated at the back of the ship and has less comfortable chairs, usually plastic in military rows. But the air-conditioning generally isnt so bad and there are doors opening to the outside of the ferry nearby which does usher in odd gusts of fresh air every now and then. The toilets are usually easier to access from here as well which can be an important consideration.
If travelling in a car you must get down and into it in plenty of time before the ferry docks. If you dont the stampeding mass of humanity is quite likely to just shunt your vehicle overboard in their haste to disembark. Once the ferry ties up at the pier you would swear that all three hundred people on board were held captive below-decks for at least 465 days and forced to row the boat themselves at gun-point. They leap off as if a pistol has been fired and physically shoulder their way to freedom.
Usually I am right in the middle of this mass exodus dying to get onto dry land, looking for a clean toilet and good food and begging for an actual bed to lie down in. But knowing that I have survived another south-east Asian ferry journey does at least put a big smile on my face.