In Between Trips

MAY 2019

After finishing my trip I fly out to Phuket to spend two wonderful weeks with my kids, before heading back to the UK in Springtime. My first month or so is spent with family in Scotland, which is therapeutically good for the soul like it always is. Then, the remainder of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 is spent back on the Isle of Wight. I pass my time working in a Call Centre which, inevitably, turns out to be as demoralising and tedious as it sounds. Nevertheless, I keep my head down and just get on with it, quietly hatching my plans of freedom as I pretend to empathise with a tiresome barrage of moaning customers.

Unsurprisingly, work seems to improve when I book my escape flight to Bangkok for February and give myself a definitive finishing date. My intention now is to carry on cycling from where I left off last April, heading South this time and aiming to make it all the way down to Singapore. Once again, I’ll have the goal of coinciding the end of my journey with meeting my kids at Easter. All I have to do is sort out a rough plan for cycling the 2,500km in between.

I have a final two weeks with family in Scotland, organise a Thai visa, get some spares for the bike and buy all my sunscreens, lotions and repellents. Everything appears to be going really smoothly until – medically speaking – I fuck my back up. Somehow I manage to twist myself whilst getting up and trap a nerve in my lower back. It’s like two bones in my spine have collapsed on each other and are squashing the nerve. It’s bloody agony, and can only be remedied by me hanging from a door, stretching my spine and thus releasing the problem nerve. This injury leads to me walking round like a cripple for days, in wincing slow-motion, and having to postpone my flight by one week. Then, just as I’m recovering, Storm Ciara blasts in from the Atlantic, cancelling trains between Oban and Glasgow and scuppering my intended method of bike transportation to the airport. Luckily, very luckily, my sister happens to be driving to Glasgow and saves the day. Miraculously we cram the bike, a plethora of luggage and two small children into her family car.

The day before departure then sees me engaging in a similar performance to that of the previous winter. Once again I spend a cold hour in my sister’s back garden, wrapping my bike with bin bags and packing tape so that it’s deemed acceptable as aeroplane hold luggage. The big difference this year is that I have a dodgy back and hail showers to contend with.

My Wednesday flight to Dubai is an hour late taking off, but makes up most of that time due to the remnants of Storm Ciara blowing us along. I notice that in the plane, and especially at Dubai airport, there’s a good number of passengers wearing mouth masks to guard against the Chinese Coronavirus. In departures, a French woman sitting opposite me coughs once and I move away, immediately suspicious of her. On arrival in Bangkok every passenger is ushered through two separate temperature check stations, so at least I know I’m Coronavirus-free at this point. I retrieve my bike from Oversize Luggage, withdraw some Thai currency and head outside for a taxi to my hostel. It’s mid-afternoon by this time, but my taxi driver tells me I’m only his second fare of the day. Apparently everywhere in Bangkok has become a lot quieter without Chinese tourists.

Last year I finished my cycle at the Best Bed Suvarnabhumi Hostel, and that will be the exact same location for the start of this year’s cycle. The owner family recognise me from before and tell me I can chain my bike to the stair railing like I did last time. I move all my gear upstairs in a weird twilight zone of consciousness, half wired and half jet-lagged, until sleep and a shower perks me up. So, despite an obstacle course of back injuries, winter storms and potential global viruses, I’ve made it to the starting line. I just need to acclimatise now.

 

 

 

 

To Be Continued …

11th APRIL 2019

My final cycling day of this trip begins with an exotic mix of 7-11 sandwiches and a pineapple pastry. I ride back towards the wide, busy expressway, knowing that I can follow it all the way to Bangkok by using the quiet ‘Frontage Road’ that runs alongside. This is such a bonus, as travelling into a city on a bike can be a right pain in the arse. My only issue is having to haul my bike up, over and down the same footbridge as yesterday to reach the correct side of the expressway. So, although my day looks reassuringly straightforward, I’m sweating buckets within minutes.

I follow this Frontage Road all day, the main body of traffic on the noisy expressway to my right while I trundle up the quieter road alongside scooters and local transport. With about 25km to go I stop at a roadside Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch and a break from the scorching heat. This establishment is precariously close to the road and is basically a series of benches on the pavement under a corrugated iron roof. I’m wistfully happy that my final lunch will be street food in a simple, family-run shack with a bit of language barrier confusion. I think I’ve ordered chicken today, but who knows what will be served. It turns out to be a tasty chicken soup, with real strips of chicken meat instead of the usual bony, gristly offerings. Mercifully, there’s no sign of chicken feet either. I’m going to miss that weird feeling of jeopardy and never quite knowing what will arrive on my plate.

After travelling North for the last few days, I’ve rounded the top of the Gulf of Thailand this afternoon and am now heading West towards Bangkok. The traffic continues to build as I get closer to the capital and the expressway junctions get ever more complicated. My turn off to Suvarnabhumi Airport involves a sweeping right hand curve that manages to rise up over one road, while at the same time dipping under the massive concrete expressway. Then, for a couple of kilometres, I have the cool experience of cycling right under the flight path as planes are taking off. As one particular plane roars directly overhead, I look up and notice the orange Jetstar Asia logo on its undercarriage. I have the strangest moment of realisation and stop to check my phone. It’s just after 12.50pm, which is the same time my own Jetstar flight will take off from here in two days. What are the chances of me arriving at the airport just as the flight I’ll be on in two days time is thundering over my head ?

Continuing round the airport’s perimeter, I ride parallel to the take-off runway for about 5km while being blown along beautifully by a hot, strong tailwind. I get a few greetings from maintenance workers resting under shady trees, while a plane hurtles down the runway every five minutes with a loud, heavy rumble. At the roadside I notice a couple of ‘No Cycling’ signs, but I’m not sure I can see any alternative route options. I’m now so close to my destination that I can’t be bothered detouring, so I simply ignore them and keep going. Once I’ve ridden the length of the runway I turn left past the main airport entrance, through hordes of taxis, buses and yet more signs saying that I shouldn’t be cycling.

On the opposite side of the airport I pass under a different flight path – this time for planes coming in to land. I stand for a while on a road bridge, videoing planes as they descend noisily over my head, before they land a few hundred metres ahead of me. Once I resume I’m able to freewheel effortlessly down the curved bridge and I’m at the Best Bed Suvarnabhumi Hostel within two minutes. It’s a clean, modern building that exists primarily as an overnight stopover for people arriving in, or departing from, Bangkok. I check in and chain my bike to stair railings on the ground floor, where it’s destined to remain for the next two weeks while I’m in Phuket with my kids. The family who run the hostel are lovely, and have been extra helpful in agreeing to store my bike until I get back. They even offer to do a free clothes wash for me, which is a really nice touch, but might also say something about my appearance.

To celebrate my arrival I pop to the 7-11 next door, buy a large Chang Beer and make my way up to the hostel’s roof terrace. I sit there, slowly supping the cold beer while watching a steady procession of planes coming into land on the runway ahead of me. They start as tiny specks in the high distance, way off to my left, before looming larger and touching down just past my vantage point. It’s the perfect spot to relax and mull over the journey I’ve just undertaken.

It’s almost three months since I left a Scottish midwinter and flew to a Hanoi midwinter, which turned out to be only slightly warmer and completely unfamiliar. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of Vietnam, but after cycling it’s length and spending half my trip there it has now become one of my favourite countries. One of the joys of cycle touring is that you get to know a country a lot better by travelling at such a slow pace. Now, almost 3,000km later I’ve made it to Bangkok, grateful as always that I’ve managed to reach my target without any major calamities. It’s not all been plain sailing of course, but I would have to say that this cycle trip has now jumped to number one on my list of favourites.

I stay on the roof terrace until sunset, which brings welcome relief from the exhaustingly hot afternoon. By dusk, the street below is coming to life with food stalls, and beyond the runway the Suvarnabhumi Airport sign has now been lit up in giant purple letters. I go back downstairs, enticed by the street food stalls, and on the way get chatting to some of the family at the front desk. They can still barely believe that I’ve cycled all the way from Hanoi, and ask if I’ll ever return to Bangkok. I reply that I might come back next year and carry on my adventures. They have a laugh and seem to think that I’m joking. I laugh too, but with the insight to know that I’m not joking.

To Be Continued …

 

Counting down to Bangkok

8th APRIL 2019

A constant din from the street two floors below continues into the wee small hours, although by daybreak the road is almost deserted. Shutters are pulled down over bars, restaurants and massage parlours, whereas in a normal city Monday morning would mean a return to work. I guess Pattaya isn’t really set up for working nine to five.

The reception and massage at my accommodation are closed too, so I just leave my key on the reception counter and head off. I have a couple of options for leaving town, including a trundle along the sea front which might actually be quite pleasant at this early hour. In the end I just take the most direct route onto the busy Number 3 road and leave Pattaya as quickly as possible. It’s a long time since I’ve been so underwhelmed with a destination. If you’ve ever seen a Thailand episode of Banged Up Abroad, you can almost guarantee it will feature Pattaya at some point.

Today I’m on the main Pattaya to Bangkok road, which means that although my cycle is busy, at least it’s straightforward. I plod along slowly, with a constant stream of traffic at my right ear, until I’ve reached the coastal town of Si Racha. My accommodation is just before the town centre, a modern six storey hotel with a coffee shop on the ground floor. It’s room rates are more expensive than my normal outlay, but I know that I’ll get my money’s worth by comprehensively abusing their All You Can Eat breakfast buffet tomorrow.

The second big plus for this hotel is the shower. I’m not really sure where to begin when I step into a large cubicle that looks to have more controls than a PlayStation. It’s a complicated affair, with an array of dials for different lights and water pressures, as well as half a dozen jets that shoot water into your side from various heights. I spend a while twiddling all the knobs and trying to suss it out, discovering that every time I change settings I get blasted by cold water for the first five seconds. There’s also a seat attachment in there, so I’m able to park my arse on that, close my eyes and have the side jets blast me from close range. It’s a real effort to drag myself away.

In the late afternoon I make for the seafront, through a peaceful green park with families, kids and joggers. It’s all very civilised. I can’t help comparing today’s genial scenes with yesterday’s awful first impression of sleazy Pattaya. I’ve come down to the sea as Google maps had shown a little island sitting just offshore that’s home to a temple complex and a sea turtle pool. Koh Loy island is connected to the mainland by a five hundred metre long bridge, which I walk over in blazing sunshine, having underestimated the need to apply extra suncream so late in the day. The main hilltop temple, complete with bell-shaped golden dome, sits at the summit of a short, steep climb and is occupied by an odd mix of monks and tourists. I’m not sure if I’m becoming a bit templed-out, but I’m just as impressed by the panoramic sea view as I am with all the holy shrines. Back down at sea-level I make for the sea turtle pool via a Chinese temple that looks like an architectural blend of pagoda and bandstand. Disappointingly though, the sea turtle pool seems to be missing an important feature. The turtles.

By the following morning I’ve decided to spend an extra day in Si Racha, with the All You Can Eat breakfast representing a grand start to the day. Strangely, although I could choose any option with these unlimited feasts, I still always begin with a bowl of cereal. It somehow feels like the right thing to do. However, after my cereal, the floodgates open to a gluttonous food binge that includes fruit, pancakes, cakes, noodles, fried eggs and rice. Then, Oh My Goodness, they even have sushi and pigs in blankets. I eat like a fat, contented hog. Shamefully, I’m feeling hungry again by lunchtime, so wander out for some 7-11 sandwiches. It seems these cycle trips always make me eat excessively, even though exercise is meant to suppress my appetite. The upside is that I can now eat greedily and know I’ll still lose weight. If I consumed this amount of calories in normal, day-to-day life I’d be obese.

Most of my afternoon is then spent trying to find a way up to a temple and viewpoint that overlooks the whole of Si Racha. I’d seen the temple from my room last night, lit up spectacularly like a beacon on the hillside above. Ultimately though, my quest today is unsuccessful, due to a combination of wrong turns, roaming guard dogs and a baking hot day. Eventually I find steps up to the shrine by accident as I’m heading back to my hotel. I also find a group of around twenty feral pigs raking around the path leading to the stairs, some of them so big and bulky that they look like wild boars. Bloody Hell, could they actually be wild boars ? This thought makes me chicken out and avoid tempting fate. I don’t want to be gored trying to walk past feral pigs with only two days of cycling to go.

My penultimate day in the saddle sees me departing Si Racha after gorging myself silly on yet another mammoth breakfast. The girl at reception asks for my water bottles before I leave and returns them full of refreshing chilled water, which is a nice touch and hugely appreciated. This cold water turns out to be a blessing, as the morning heats up horribly within the first few kilometres. I’m still trying to ride for an hour without cycling gloves in a vain attempt to match my pale white hands to my brown, tanned forearms. Once again though, my bare hands can scarcely grip the handlebars as they are sweating so much. My gloves are back on within minutes.

I’m back on the busy Number 3 road again, with traffic increasing steadily as I get ever closer to Bangkok. Things get even more hectic through the city of Chon Buri, and then 5km later my road morphs into an expressway. This is essentially a motorway so it’s off limits to cyclists, although there is a separate, minor road at the side that I’m able to use instead. I discover this smaller roadway is called a ‘Frontage Road’ – a local route that runs parallel to the expressway, allowing traffic to access regional villages and businesses. I’m now able to follow the most direct route, while being able to avoid the scary speeding traffic. It’s the perfect solution if you’re a cyclist who’s trying to get into a city.

Less perfect is when your accommodation happens to be on the opposite side of the expressway. There are traffic bridges for doing U-turns across the busy lanes, but not within easy reach of my turn-off. My only option is to walk my bike and gear over a footbridge. I detach the panniers first and trudge up forty steps with them, before leaving them at the top and traipsing back down to retrieve my bike. This time climbing the same forty steps, in sizzling heat and with a bike slung over my shoulder, nearly does for me. I stand at the top, leaning over the railings like a sweltering asthmatic trying to get my breath back. Once I’ve recovered, I carry both panniers whilst walking my bike over the ten lanes below, then haul everything down the opposite steps in two movements again. I have sweat running into my eyes and dripping off my nose by the time I’ve transported everything up, over and down the footbridge.

My accommodation in Ban Kao is a further 3km from the expressway, which is ridden in weary slow motion on this scorchingly hot afternoon. At reception, the family who run the hotel look surprised and a little bewildered to see this sweaty, dishevelled Westerner at their front desk. After trudging to my room I spend ten minutes just sitting on the cool tile floor, staring blankly, while the air-conditioning operates at full blast. By early evening the temperature outside has dropped slightly, so I go hunting for the first food I’ve needed since this morning’s gargantuan breakfast. Oddly, I stumble upon a Plastic Chair Cafe that has English signage and pork steak with chips on the menu. I know that on this South-East Asian trip I’ve been actively avoiding Western food, but tonight I quite fancy some. Plus, it’s been three months since I’ve eaten any chips so I think ‘Fuck It, Why Not ?’ It’s bloody delicious. The side salad is far from Western though – a grated coleslaw base is topped with a peculiar mix of apple, kiwi, sweetcorn and dragon fruit. Weird, but tasty.

Back at the hotel I reflect that, all being well, tomorrow will be my final day’s cycling for this trip. A culmination of 2,700km across three countries has left me within 60km of my goal. By this time tomorrow I should be in Bangkok.

Sleazy Pattaya City

7th APRIL 2019

There’s no breakfast option at The Halabala Resort, despite the claims of my accommodation website. Instead I cross the busy main road and visit a 7-11 on the opposite side, stocking up on mayonnaise-themed sandwiches, pineapple pastry and nut snacks. Well, technically I don’t stock up; I scoff the whole lot in the car park outside.

Carrying on I’m able to leave the crowded main highway after 5km, turning inland through bustling Ban Chang and it’s mad tangle of overhead telecom wires. Once I’m through town things become quieter, and for a while I cruise along effortlessly on minor roads fringed by jungly forest. When my small road is bisected by a busy dual carriageway I’m left with two choices – I can either detour 8km to get to the other side or walk my bike across and lift it over the central reservation barrier. I’ve made more difficult decisions; I take all of five seconds to choose the laziest option. The last time I pulled this trick I struggled like a skinny weightlifter, straining to hoist my fully loaded bike over two sets of barriers. This time I simply detach the panniers and lift everything over in instalments. Why the Hell didn’t I do that before ?

Once I’m across the highway, my road rises sharply through a section of thick, shaded woodland. It’s intimidatingly steep, so I feel no shame whatsoever in jumping off to push. This gets me thinking about my first forays into cycle-touring, where I would almost ruin myself just to say that I cycled every inch of the way. However, I’m far more relaxed about cheating nowadays, and I’ll happily hop out the saddle to push if I need a breather. As it happens, this steep little climb has me stopping for a break anyway, despite the fact that I’m pushing. At the top I see that I’m heading towards an ugly band of dark clouds, but at least I’m rewarded with some easy freewheeling past forest and farmland to get there.

A pointy, triangular mountain is looming large up ahead. As I cycle closer, it almost looks like a giant gold Buddha has been carved into one face of the mountain. Then, when I reach the landmark, I realise there actually IS a giant gold Buddha carved into the mountain ! The area was originally used to quarry rock for road construction, which left a sheer cliff face on one side of the mountain when the mining stopped. In an attempt to beautify what remained, laser technology was used to carve a one hundred metre tall Buddha image into the rock face. All the laser carving took place at night, while during the day gold leaf was painted into the freshly cut grooves. Today the place is swamped by dozens of tour buses, some selfie-taking tourists and a few Buddhist types who have come here to pray. It’s an impressive, yet magnificently surreal sight.

I leave the Carved Buddha Mountain for a straightforward glide down to the coast, rejoining the main road about 10km South of Pattaya. By now conditions have become horribly dark with heavy, fat raindrops splattering all around me. I notice two kids with scooters are already sheltering under a bus stop, so I pull over and sit below the awning of a shop that’s closed on Sundays. For the next thirty minutes I watch as the dry road out front becomes inundated by small cascades of streaming water. Within an hour it will be bone dry once again. That seems to be the pattern with rainshowers here – heavy and intense, but only for a short time.

When I move on again I’m cycling past luxury hotels, resorts and condominiums on the Southern approaches to Pattaya. This must be a more affluent area that allows richer residents and tourists to put some distance between themselves and the sleaziness of Pattaya city. I’ve never visited the city before, although I feel I know what to expect just by reputation alone. Pattaya is most famous for seedy sex tourism, which is perfectly illustrated by the tacky range of businesses on the street where I’m staying.

My accommodation is right next door to Ping Pong Beer Bar 3 and opppsite the tastefully named Beaver Bar. To access my second floor room I have to go through a ground floor ‘massage parlour.’ A couple of the girls offer me a massage and say it’s safe to leave my bike outside as they will watch it for me. Nonetheless, their chatter doesn’t inspire much confidence, so I chain the bike to railings outside a language school across the narrow street. What a language school is doing in the middle of all this debauchery is beyond me. Once I’m through the massage parlour I realise there’s an alleyway and rear entrance to the building, so I walk straight back round to retrieve my bike from outside. Despite all the surrounding depravity, my room turns out to be surprisingly nice.

After showering I go for a bit of a wander, just to see if Pattaya is as awful as it’s reputation suggests. As I walk down my street towards the beach I must pass a dozen massage parlours and receive plenty of “Hello, you like massage ?’ offers. The street also houses English Bars, Norwegian Bars, Swedish Bars and a further two outlets from the Ping Pong Beer Bar franchise. The next street along is predictably similar, with another horde of massage parlours and a handful of Western-style bars advertising Premier League football matches. It feels like I could be on the Costa del Crime in Spain. The place is swarming with Russians, chavvy tattooed Brits and creepy old foreign guys with very young Thai girls on their arm. It’s an absolute shithole.

On the way back I have seafood fried noodles in a Westernised restaurant surrounded by other Westerners. Why the Hell would I travel to the other side of the world to that ? I had toyed with the idea of possibly spending two nights in Pattaya, but my short stroll tonight has already convinced me otherwise. Tacky sex tourism surrounded by a depressing herd of drunken Westerners really isn’t my scene. I’ll be out of here tomorrow.

 

Mae Rumphueng Beach

2nd APRIL 2019

Somewhat predictably, my plans to stay at Mae Rumphueng Beach for only a short time are soon reconsidered. It’s such a cracking spot that my intended two day visit quickly evolves into four. These relaxing days off the bike generally start with breakfast in the bar at the villas, under a corrugated iron roof that amplifies the sound of occasional tropical rainshowers. Yoghurt with fruit and muesli becomes my staple, followed by toast with jam and always finished with a long, slow iced coffee.

I’m at the beach every day; swimming, floating, sunbathing and belatedly attempting to tan my white feet to match the colour of my brown legs. On one particular afternoon the sea is a little more choppy than normal, leading to a wondrous ten minutes in which a juvenile reef fish tries to use me for shelter and protection. The fish is only a tiny thing, with yellow and black vertical stripes and obviously feels a lot safer beside me than in open water. It swims a few centimetres away from my chest, using me for cover like I’m a piece of driftwood in the ocean. Any time I try to turn or move away it follows, swimming back towards me when I stop to check where it is. This is such a cool little episode, but eventually I have to get out and let it fend for itself.

I continue my animal interactions when I return to the villas and sit down for dinner on their comfy wicker sofa. What could very well be the same lizard as before pops up onto the bench behind me and scampers along to eat small scraps of pork that I drop onto the wooden surface. It’s not exactly tame, but it’s not exactly fazed by my presence either. I’m having Penang Curry tonight, which is a bit like Thai Red Curry, although sweeter and with peanuts. It seems to go down a treat with the hungry, inquisitive reptile.

I don’t touch my bike for three days, save for making a short trip back to see the aquarium at Ban Phe, which turns out to be a little gem and probably the best 75p I’ve ever spent. Quite often attractions will have one price for locals and a higher price for tourists, but at this aquarium it’s just one flat rate for everyone. The next time I use my bike I don’t even make it away from Mae Rumphueng Beach, simply moving from the fully booked villas to a hotel further along the seafront. I say Goodbye to Ulrika and her posse of friendly local bar staff and check in to the Wellington Hotel, which is larger and cheaper, but without the character of the villas I’ve just left behind. At sunset I take my last walk along that wonderful beach, the ever present horizon clouds blocking the sun’s final descent over the sea once more. Strangely, as clouds amass out to sea around this time of day, the skies inland always seem to be clear.

In the evening I realise I must have been devoured by mosquitos the previous night, an irritating memento of my time at the MM Villas. Their air-conditioning was so cold and powerful that it would keep mosquitos from landing on me, but after a while it would become so chilly that I’d have to turn it off. And of course, once the air-con is off, the mosquitos venture back out to play. I must have drifted off to sleep with my legs sticking out from the covers as my feet, shins and calves are now covered in ugly red spots. And they itch like Hell !

When I go to retrieve my bike the following morning, I find the large empty hall where I left it has now turned into a conference room full of students. I walk in, trying not to attract too much attention to myself and offer a few apologetic nods and hand gestures. My bike is chained to a table, which I need to bend over to see the combination lock, completely forgetting that I have a gaping hole in each butt cheek of my shorts. As I’m wheeling the bike out of the room I notice one girl giggling with her friend and pointing at me, having obviously noticed the undignified holes in my shorts. I just smile and give a Thumbs Up, which leads to her putting both hands over her mouth and giggling even more in that way Asian girls do when they’re embarrassed.

Once outside I notice my front tyre looks slightly deflated, so I stop in the shade, upend the bike and begin pumping with my Presta valve pump. Things seem to be going OK, until the pump’s rubber ring works it’s way loose once again. I don’t have the patience to try and refix this, so just remove the wheel and put on a Schrader valve inner tube, which I know can be inflated with my second pump. This now leaves me with one spare inner tube. I’ll be back onto puncture repair kits after that.

Then I trundle slowly away, a little wary and conscious of my front tyre for the first few minutes, like I always am after a change of inner tubes. I roll gently along the seafront to begin with, hotels and restaurants to my right, beach and shimmering blue sea to my left. Then I turn inland and rejoin the main road, which gives me the choice of a fast, direct route to Bangkok or a quieter route through Rayong City. I choose the latter, although Rayong itself is a bustling little city that takes a while to get through. To celebrate crossing the city I stop at a roadside Plastic Chair Cafe for some lunch. The owner lady speaks English fairly well and asks if I’d like some Fried Rice with pork. Then, as an afterthought, she asks if I’d like egg to go with it too. That all sounds good to me, so I sit and wait while draining a huge jug of iced water as she cooks my meal from scratch. The result is delicious and filling, with a surprisingly peppery taste. I’m halfway through my food when she has another afterthought, asking if I’d like a bowl of clear soup to go with it. Hey, Why Not ?

After lunch the heat intensifies horribly. My hands are now so sweaty that I can barely grip the handlebars, even though I’m actively trying to avoid wearing gloves to even up the tan between my brown arms and white hands. I have to revert back to cycling gloves after a few kilometres though, my hands looking like they’ve been dipped in water with the amount of sweat glistening on them. I’m a hot, sticky mess by the time I reach my destination, reflecting that The Halabala Resort makes my accommodation sound far more grand than the group of motel units that it actually is.

The reception girl, after trying to scam 100 Baht from my change for herself, tells me there are some restaurants up on the main road, but they don’t open till 7.00pm. Nonetheless, I need to find a stall that sells water, so I take a wander anyway and chance upon a restaurant that looks like it’s already serving. I’m so used to Plastic Chair Cafes being open-fronted that it’s almost a shock to find an enclosed roadside restaurant with glass windows ! The place is run by a middle aged lady, who can speak pretty decent English, and her twenty-something son, who can’t. Mother takes my order and shuffles off to cook it, while the son decides he’s going to put on some English-language music to entertain their Western guest. He’s trying to make me feel at home, bless him, but to my absolute horror he begins playing Country Music songs. He looks over to see if I approve, so I just nod politely and try to force a smile, while some redneck singer whines about regrets, guns and cheatin’ country hearts. I realise he’s trying to do the right thing and we’ve had a bit of cultural misunderstanding, but I’m still mortified that someone might think I’m a Country Music fan.

Mercifully, my food arrives quickly and diverts my attention from the music. It’s fried noodle and pork, loaded with oodles of fresh veggies. Again, like my lunch, it has a distinctly peppery taste, which I’m guessing must be some kind of regional quirk. I head back to my accommodation and drink an entire large water bottle while being driven to distraction by my itchy mosquito bites. These motel units in the middle of nowhere are supremely quiet, which I know will be in direct contrast to where I’m heading tomorrow. The next leg of my journey to Bangkok will see me stopping in Thailand’s infamous sex capital of Pattaya. It’s not often you have to adjust from Country Music to Ladyboys within 24 hours. I’m still not sure which will be the most disturbing.

 

Once More To The Sea

31st MARCH 2019

It’s just before 9.00am when I say Goodbye to a tired, bleary-eyed Peter at the Traveller Hostel. He has only just risen from his bed behind reception, having waited up till the small hours so he could check in a late arrival. I get him to take a picture of me before I depart and, although he’s half asleep, he’s still sharp enough to make sure his hostel name is included in the shot.

For breakfast I return to the same cafe as yesterday, choosing a carb-heavy pork and macaroni soup to set me up for today’s 80km. I follow that with a minced pork baguette, which is washed down by an iced coffee just to get me buzzing. After fuelling up I avoid Chanthaburi centre and it’s rabbit warren of one way streets, heading past parks and industry on the outskirts of town instead. Then I’m back on the main road towards Bangkok for a while, which is getting noticeably busier as I edge towards the capital. The increase in traffic doesn’t make a huge difference though, as I still have a big, safe buffer zone at the edge to cycle in. The first 50km whizz past, with flat roads and a tailwind helping me speed along effortlessly.

For lunch I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe which is open on all four sides, giving it the appearance of a giant wedding gazebo. I’m struggling to order, even with Google translate, so the owner lady gets me to point to the food I’d like from a handful of metal trays on display. I choose a meal that looks like slices of aubergine in a curry, served with rice, which seems marginally less baffling than some of the other options. When the food arrives it still looks like aubergine to begin with, but I quickly discover that it’s actually cross sections of fish, complete with spine and an assortment of other little bones. And Bloody Hell it’s spicy ! It takes me ages to finish the meal due to a mouth-searing heat and spending time pulling long, thin fish bones from my mouth. I’m only charged 25 Baht (60 pence), which seems like a bargain until you realise you can no longer feel your mouth.

When I carry on there’s sweat dripping from my face after a few kilometres, a combination of my spicy intake and an intensifying afternoon heat. The traffic has been building too, even from this morning. If I continued on this busy Number 3 road I’d have less than 250km to cycle till Bangkok. Nonetheless, I’ve already decided on a quieter route and want to spend my last ten days in Thailand pootling along the coast. I get to the decent sized town of Klaeng, leave the main highway behind and head back towards the sea.

Once I’m off the big road I slow down to the pace of my rural surroundings, languidly trundling past villages, temples and forest. The final 15km to the coast pass very lazily compared to this morning’s brisk progress. Then I’m at Mae Phim Beach, a 5km stretch of wide, surprisingly clean sand flanked by hotels, shops, seafood restaurants and street stalls. I’m staying on the fourth floor of the oddly named Pimpimarn Hotel, which has a great beachside location but definitely looks like it’s seen better days. My bike is left in what appears to be the hotel’s karaoke room, chained safely to a table, before I go for a late afternoon wander along the beach. I walk towards the setting sun, until it dips behind a low band of cloud and hills on the Western horizon.

On the way back I notice a cafe bar that does massaman curry, which is just the sort of mild, mellow dish I need after heat-blasting my mouth at lunchtime. I settle down to chicken thigh in a gorgeous, creamy sauce mix of peanuts and onions. All this is washed down by a luminous green-coloured Fanta, which looks disturbingly toxic, yet tastes addictively delicious. On the way back I visit a 7-11 for some supper snacks and also some munchies for tomorrow’s breakfast. Needless to say, I return to my room and devour the whole lot.

When I wake the next morning I regret last night’s greediness, having to return to the 7-11 once more for some breakfast sandwiches. Every filling seems to include mayonnaise – crab mayonnaise, tuna mayonnaise and even the unpleasant sounding pork mayonnaise. I buy one tuna and one crab, but am not curious enough to try the pork.

Today’s trip is an easy 30km, so I faff around till the latest possible check out time and then begin an unhurried trundle along the coast. This ride sounds like it could be stunning, though in reality the view is often blocked by upmarket, private resorts on the beach side of the road. About halfway I’m able to stop at a public beach and see what I’ve been missing. The island of Ko Samet sits just offshore and away to the left are a group of three much smaller islands. These miniature land masses look idyllic, with sandy beaches that I can see from my vantage point on the mainland. One of the islets is cone-shaped, looking almost like a perfect triangle. I stay for half an hour, before heading towards the bustling little town of Ban Phe and its multitude of piers jutting out into the sea. My final kilometres involve detouring round a headland that’s home to a scattering of exclusive hillside resorts, before I glide back down to sea-level and Mae Rumphueng beach.

My accommodation is at the MM Villas, about two minutes walk from the beach and run by a Swedish lady named Ulrika who’s lived in Thailand for the past fourteen years. She tells me she saw my booking, noticed the Anderson surname and thought I might have been Swedish myself. If she’s disappointed by my non-Swedishness she hides it very well. I sit and have a chat with her while having minced pork with rice. As we’re talking I notice a small lizard has popped up onto the benchtop beside me. I chuck a couple of scraps of pork down on the bench and, to my surprise, the lizard scuttles along towards me to eat them. For a brief moment I feel like some sort of Lizard Whisperer.

By late afternoon I’ve made my way to the beach, my flip-flops now in hand so I can walk in the sea. My God it’s warm ! The beach here slopes so gently that the sea is still incredibly shallow even twenty metres from the shore, meaning the water has heated up nicely by this time of day. I’m walking along in a sea that’s as warm as bathwater and as clear as gin. This is lovely !

I stay until sun down, but again it looks like sunset will be thwarted by that weird horizon cloud that seems to appear at this time every evening. However, with brilliant timing, a gap forms between sea and clouds just before sunset to show a fiery red ball dipping into the ocean. I keep walking along the beach after dark, then cut back up to the beachside road on my return. Back at the villas there’s a group of middle-aged Swedish blokes at the bar, but they’re really rather civilised and by 11.00pm everything has gone quiet, save for the occasional and dramatic crack of thunder. I like it here. I’d originally booked two days, but within an hour of my arrival I’d already extended that to three. Now, with all this time on my side, my stay here might turn out to be even longer.

 

 

 

Chanthaburi

29th MARCH 2019

My second leisurely breakfast in Trat is a carbon copy of yesterday’s tomato and onion scrambled egg, washed down by a strong filter coffee. I leave town around 10.00am, heading North-West on smooth, flat roads that have a safe, one metre buffer zone at the edge for cycling. The morning part of my ride is refreshingly easy, as I cruise past brilliantly green jungle under an increasingly cloudy sky. Up ahead there’s an ongoing display of lightning flashes in the direction I’m heading, followed by long, heavy rumbles of thunder. Before long I’ve cycled into the rainstorm, so take shelter beneath a roadside canopy that looks like it normally covers a fruit stall. Scooter riders are stopping to pull wet weather ponchos over themselves or to hide under bus shelters as heavy rain batters noisily onto the ground. Half an hour later I emerge and continue cycling in a dripping environment that has been cooled down nicely by the deluge.

Language barriers abound when I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch, but two guys who look like students step in to help. One produces his mobile and gets me to say words out loud into his phone so they are google-translated into Thai. Then it becomes a bit of a game where they will say Thai foods so I can read the English translation. What flummoxes me is that the Thai word for pork sounds like ‘Moo,’ when all my instincts tell me that ‘Moo’ should be cow. It’s all good fun, although we’re not progressing very far with ordering my food. In the end I just point to what the two students are eating, give a Thumbs Up and hope for the best. A tasty bowl of noodles duly arrives, complete with chunks of ‘Moo’ and some small, puzzling meatballs. Not the worst result.

The afternoon heats up once the clouds have dissipated, but I’m still feeling quite fresh when I roll into the riverside town of Chanthaburi around half past two. I reach the Traveller Hostel, just across a bridge into town on a narrow, busy street. The owner is a friendly bloke with excellent English, who calls himself Peter in the same way that many Asians choose a Westernised version of their own name. I leave my bike at reception, chain-lock through the back wheel, and head upstairs to what must be the tiniest room I’ve seen on the whole trip. My consolation for overnighting in a large cupboard is that the effects of air-conditioning kick in almost immediately in such a confined space.

For dinner I walk back over the same bridge I rode in on, finding a Plastic Chair Cafe for a basic rice meal with chicken and pork strips, before stopping at a 7-11 on the way back. I stock up on snacks, and also manage to find the elusive large bottle of sunscreen I’ve been searching so long for. It costs the equivalent of £10, which means I’ll be paying much the same price as I would in the UK. Still, I don’t think sunscreen is a product you can compromise on, especially if you’re a Scottish guy cycling in the tropics. At night I try to plot an itinerary that will take me round the coastal route to Bangkok. I work out that I’ve got around 350km to cycle and have twelve days left to complete the distance. This is a pleasingly comfortable ratio, even for me. With this in mind I eat all my intended road food snacks for tomorrow and mark the day down for exploring Chanthaburi instead.

The next morning I have such a lazy start that I almost miss my morning meal at a cafe that stops serving breakfast at 11.00am. After stuffing myself I wander back through the narrow alleyways of the Old Town, awash with tourists, gem shops, stalls and cafes. At the river’s edge there’s a community of old wooden shacks on stilts, looking a little out of place, but now protected and occupying prime position in the trendiest part of town. I amble through the tight, shady streets and visit a handful of Buddhist temples, leaving my shoes outside at the entrance to each one, before making my way back to the hostel via a milkshake bar.

Peter is there at reception to greet me, saying he can take me out for food tonight at his favourite street food cafe at the night market. I’m more than happy to agree as you always discover much better places with the help of local knowledge. We go there by motorbike to find the night market is absolutely jam-packed with people, and so stupidly busy that there are no free seats at his chosen cafe. We hang around for a while, but have to resort to a Plan B as the tables just aren’t clearing. He takes me to a restaurant a couple of kilometres away that looks far more upmarket, a place he normally comes with his family for Sunday lunch. I’m asked if I would like to try some regional Chanthaburi food, which is music to my ears, and Peter orders three dishes to share between us.

The first plate is a crispy appetiser of what appears to be fried green beans with tiny dried shrimps, which has a nice crunchy, seafood taste. I enjoy the starter, although it turns out to be fairly mediocre compared to the main courses that follow. The first looks like a large version of the clear chicken soups I often get as a side dish in Plastic Chair Cafes. However, when I take a spoonful I’m just not prepared for the mixture of flavours ! At first I get a lemony, sour flavour that makes me suck my cheeks in, before I start to experience an unexpected sweet taste. Then, about twenty seconds later a warm spiciness kicks in. Blimey ! How the Hell do they make a dish that goes from sour to sweet to spicy in one mouthful ? Peter has obviously watched tourists trying this before and is sitting there grinning, waiting for my reactions to the taste changes.

The third course is my favourite though. It’s a dish that’s local to the Chanthaburi area called Moo Chamuang, which is a kind of sweet and sour pork-belly curry in a thick brown sauce. What makes it unique is the use of Chamuang leaves, only found in this region of Eastern Thailand, which add quite a sour flavour to the sweet, tender slow-cooked pork. I can say without any doubt that these three courses add up to the best meal I’ve had on the entire trip !

While chatting over the meal I find that Peter has had an interesting life. He’s forty-five, from Chanthaburi originally and spent ten years working as a tour guide all over the country. His career came to an abrupt end when he fell foul of his employers, who just happened to be in cahoots with the Russian mafia in Pattaya. When he unwittingly took on a driving job for one of their rivals, his employers took him to an uninhabited island offshore and beat him up, knocking out a couple of teeth in the process. He pauses his story at this point to show me the gaps. The Russians were just going to abandon him there, so he said they could take all the money in his wallet and he’d also pay them his fee from their business rivals. The thugs were happy with this and acted like they were all mates again, but this episode had shown Peter what they were capable of. Wisely, he decided to get out immediately and move back to Chanthaburi. His decade in the industry wasn’t a complete waste though – he is currently providing material for a Thai novel which explores the seedier side of being a tour guide.

It’s been an enjoyable and fascinating evening, and all the better for some local insight. Peter insists on paying for all the food, which is a bloody decent gesture. The bill comes to 350 Baht, which converts to less than £10 to feed two people in a posh restaurant with probably the best meal I’ll have in Thailand.

I’ve enjoyed my time in these Eastern provinces, a little bit away from the regular Thai tourist trail. Trat and Chanthaburi have both been unassuming, yet very likeable towns, and I’m glad I was able to spend an extra day in each. My new, relaxed schedule for the rest of the trip means I’m now able to get a proper feel for the locations I visit instead of just rushing straight through. Kind of how a cycle trip should be.