Make For The Border

15th MARCH 2020

My planned route for cycling Bangkok to Singapore was always going to be somewhat flexible, even though the general direction is South. The real options lie in choosing whether to travel down the West or East coast of Thailand and Malaysia. In Thailand I was able to start at the Gulf of Thailand on the East coast before deciding to cross over to the Andaman Sea on the West. With Malaysia I have similar options – I could cycle down either the West or East coast, or I could even choose to ride through the mountainous interior. As yet I’m undecided. The only certainty is that I need to cross the Thai / Malaysia border as far away from the East coast as possible. Since 2004 there has been a jihadi-type insurgency in Thailand’s four South-Eastern provinces, resulting in over 6,500 deaths. All travel advice encourages tourists to avoid these provinces and especially their overland border crossings. Consequently, I’m not going to take any chances – the checkpoint I’ll be using today is the most Westerly crossing point between the two countries.

The remnants of last night’s bakery goods provide a little snack before leaving Khuan Pho, but within a few kilometres I’m hungry again. I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe that forms one corner of the owner’s house, with chairs and tables spread out cosily on the driveway in the front garden. With my ropey language skills I order a plate of fried rice. This is one of the easier meals to request in Thai as ‘Khaew Phad’ can be ordered by simply asking for ‘Cow Pat’. The owner lady sits down next to me and starts to show me all the Western names and faces in her Facebook friends list. We both end up just pointing at things on our phones because neither of us can understand what the other is saying. It’s frustrating that communication is such a problem as I think we’d both fancy a bit of a chat.

When I resume I have about 30km left until the border. At the town of Chalung I buy my last bottled water in Thailand, turn North for a few kilometres and then double back through a forested valley that will take me South to the border. The road slopes gently uphill as the valley narrows, and the jungle-covered hills on either side seem to be crowding in around me. As I gradually lumber upwards I hear a single, clear ‘Ping’ from the rear of my bike. I swear out loud, realising that my slow, weighty pedal turns have caused yet another spoke to break. Bollocks. I’ll have to get that fixed in Malaysia.

Nearing the border a ten year old local kid is jogging towards me on the roadside. He spots me approaching and reacts like he’s just seen a zombie, dramatically pulling his t-shirt up over his nose and mouth so that he won’t catch Coronavirus from this strange Westerner. He looks genuinely nervous. It’s sad how this virus has made some people so mis-trusting and afraid of foreigners.

The final kilometre to the border is a hot, steady uphill past a throng of messy market stalls. A number of tour buses sit parked between the two carriageways, having released their passengers on cross-border shopping sprees. It’s a wonderfully chaotic scene, with people milling all over the road and families eating lunch in any shady spot they can find. This colourful, bustling, disorganised scene seems quite a fitting way to ride my last kilometre in the country. Thank-You Thailand ! You been an absolute pleasure once again !

After me fretting so much about border closures, the checkpoint itself is a real anti-climax. My passport is nonchalantly stamped out of Thailand, before a two hundred metre walk takes me to the near-deserted Malaysian border post. The official stamps me in without a fuss and I now have permission to stay here for three months. How long I’m actually going to get, though, is anyone’s guess. Compared to Thailand, the Malaysian side of the border is completely dead. The market stalls and hordes of people have been replaced by virtual silence and a desolate forest road. The contrast is remarkable. Within a few kilometres I cycle through my first Malaysian Police checkpoint, where four officers are standing under a temporary archway that sprays a fine mist to keep them cool. I look at their device enviously as I ride past, with a constant trickle of sweat running down my forehead.

I already know from Google maps that a steep hill is imminent, the twisting contours and tight hairpins being a dead giveaway. When I reach the first slope it’s a long, gentle uphill through farmland, before the road steepens sharply and begins to zig-zag up a sharp, jungly hill. By the third corner I’m off my bike and pushing. Tackling this steep ridge in thirty-five degree heat and humidity is proving to be a problem. I’m dripping sweat like a squeezed sponge and it feels like my lungs are only working at half their capacity. Because I’m gasping so badly for oxygen, I take to simply pushing the bike uphill from one patch of shade to the next, then spending the next five minutes recovering at my roadside rest spot. My God, this is a struggle ! On a couple of occasions I even wait for clouds to cover the sun so that I dont have to continue pushing in direct sunlight. I feel so weak and drained that I twice resort to sitting on my arse at the roadside just so I can get my breath back. I’m not even sure why this feels so difficult, as I felt fine at the border half an hour ago.

Sluggishly, by moving up the hill in tiny sections, I eventually make it to flatter ground near the summit. I’m able to get back on the bike, slowly freewheeling until I find a track that branches off to a viewpoint car park. I pass a roofed platform beside the track, pull over and just lie on the wooden floor for the next ten minutes. I’m fucked. When I get back to my feet I resume pushing and trudge my bike slowly up to the viewpoint. I’m glad I made the effort though. I can see for miles, over wetlands, forestry and a series of small, rounded hills. There’s a huge lake off to my right and a brief, localised rainshower falls in the distance to my left. I think I’ve also worked out which town is Pedang Besar, my destination for today.

While I’m taking pictures, a young couple in a car start chatting to me. They’re both in their twenties and surprise me with their near flawless English. The guy offers to take my picture and then gives me a leg of chicken from his KFC takeaway. This is my first impression of Malaysian hospitality, and it’s overwhelmingly positive thanks to this chap. As we’re talking, I’m amazed to see another cycle tourer trundling up to the viewpoint. It turns out he’s a twenty-something Swiss guy called Marcus who left home in 2015 with the intention of cycling round the world. He cycled through North and South America first, before heading to New Zealand and then onto Australia for a two year working holiday. Now he’s riding through South-East Asia and will find his way back to Switzerland at some point in the future. The bloke in the car thinks we must know each other already because we’re both cyclists, but our meeting is pure coincidence. Marcus is heading into Thailand today, so I’m happy to tell him he’s got an easy downhill all the way to the border.

The guy in the car is a top bloke, giving both myself and Marcus a small drink carton before we all head off in our separate directions. On the way down I’m treated to a lovely, twisting descent that goes some way to making up for the awful climb on the other side. Unfortunately, my speed means that I’m unable to swerve when a stony pothole looms large on the road ahead. All I can do is hold on tight and crunch through the middle of it. My spokes will end up wrecked at this rate. The road flattens out and I turn left towards my accommodation, whilst also cycling straight into the path of a heavy tropical downpour. I take shelter under the roof of a Plastic Chair Cafe that looks like it must be closed on Sundays. For five minutes the rain pelts down violently, with the cafe’s tin roof exaggerating the noisy battering. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the deluge ends and the sun reappears.

I reach my hotel to find that I’ve not prepaid online like I thought I had. Nor does the hotel accept payment by card. And, of course, I haven’t got my hands on any Malaysian currency yet either. Bloody Hell, this isn’t going particularly well. The bloke at reception tries to help by walking me round to an ATM at the college next door, but it’s a machine that’s not compatible with my UK bank. What this means is a 14km round trip to the next town to find a cash machine that will let me withdraw some Malaysian Ringgit. It’s not a huge distance, but I really don’t need the extra kilometres after today’s heat, hills and humidity. At least I can leave my panniers at the hotel while I plod off into a hot headwind. An hour or so later I’m back at the hotel, relieved that I have a wad of Malaysian money in my pocket and can now pay for tonight’s accommodation.

My bike is stored in an unused function room downstairs, while I head upstairs to a small, standard room with no windows. I’m so weary that I just peel my clothes off, have a shower and then barely move a muscle for the rest of the evening. I don’t even make the effort to pop out for food and drink, which is a pretty foolish decision when I’m so dehydrated. Because I feel so drained, it barely registers that I’ve beaten the border closure that would have stopped me getting into Malaysia. My plan now is to ride 75km to Alor Setar tomorrow, where I’ll stop for a much needed Rest Day and try to work out how to tackle the rest of the country.

 

The Best Laid Plans

13th MARCH 2020

Nelson’s two-storey house is large and roomy, but also surprisingly cool inside. Upstairs, my bedroom is particularly airy as the windows have been left open all day. They remain open throughout the night too, letting a wonderfully cool breeze rush through the mosquito screens and into my room. I think this is the most comfortable night I’ve had on the trip without the help of air-conditioning. 

I wake to find a series of WhatsApp messages from Nelson, saying he’s already left for work and also telling me where to find ingredients for breakfast. ‘Make Yourself at Home’ is the main gist of the messages and, once again, I’m amazed at the openness and generosity of a Warmshowers host. I only met this bloke yesterday afternoon and now I’ve been given free run of his house before I leave. I’m not entirely alone though – a massive tan coloured dog called ‘Plawan’ is sprawled at the flyscreen door, clearly visible to passers by and about the best burglar deterrent you could wish for. This brute of a beast is the reason my host can be so casual about leaving windows open all day. It was Nelson’s daughter who named the dog when she was four years old. However, no-one is quite sure why she chose this particular name. Apparently ‘Plawan’ translates as ‘Big Fish’.

Although I’ve been given permission to search for breakfast food, it still feels wrong to have a large-scale rummage around in someone else’s home. I could be extravagant and raid the fridge for fancy ingredients, but I dont want to take the piss. A handful of home-made cookies and some bread with honey fill me up nicely. Then, just as I’m loading my bike at the front door, Nelson pulls his car into the driveway. He’s had a meeting sprung on him at work and has rushed home to change into a business shirt. I’m quite glad he’s turned up, as now I get the chance to say Goodbye and thank him for his hospitality. It’s about 10.30am by the time I get away.

For a couple of kilometres I retrace the route I took into Trang, before turning South and out past the city’s airport. Today’s ride is a relatively short 45km, although I’m still plodding along quite slowly after yesterday’s draining heat and humidity. It’s a pleasingly straightforward cycle too, all on the one main road and with no major direction changes. Nevertheless, I still like to check Google maps every now and then to see how I’m progressing. I’m in the process of doing just that when a young traffic cop pulls up on a motorbike and asks what I’m up to. Handily, I’m able to show him the Google map on my phone, which tells him where I’ve come from and exactly where I’m cycling to. He zooms in and is satisfied when he recognises the name of the hotel marked as my final destination. That’s the first time I’ve been stopped by the cops in Thailand, despite seeing hundreds of traffic police and passing through dozens of temporary roadblocks between regions. On all the previous occasions I’ve just been waved through without any fuss.

For my final half hour I’m able to get off the main road, travelling through scores of rubber tree plantations on my way into Palian. I check into the Cupid Hotel, which seems slightly too posh for the town that surrounds it, and leave my bike at the stairs behind reception. My evening food wander reveals that Palian is an odd little place. Unless I’ve missed something, this must be the first town in Thailand where I’ve been unable to find a Plastic Chair Cafe. My sustenance comes at a food stall where I choose two portions from their various chicken-on-a-stick options. The first of my lucky dip choices tastes like it could be chicken livers, while the second seems like barbecued chicken pieces in a bland orange sauce.

Back at the hotel I receive the e-mail I’ve been dreading for days. My kids will definitely not be flying out to Singapore to meet me in April. The Australian government is now advising their citizens against any non-essential overseas travel because of the Coronavirus outbreak. As much as I hoped I’d be wrong, I could see this outcome was starting to look more likely as time wore on. With infection numbers rising worldwide it’s become inevitable that some countries would impose travel restrictions or think about closing their borders. I still feel completely gutted though. The whole reason for me being in South-East Asia was to meet up and spend time with my kids. The cycle trip was just background so I could indulge myself for a couple of months on the way. Most of my evening is spent staring at the wall, my eyes glazed over and my mind numbed into a melancholy trance. I settle down to sleep feeling sadder than I have done in years.

Last night’s news leaves me with a bit of a quandary; reaching Singapore would have been be the perfect conclusion to this cycle trip, simply because that’s where I was due to meet my kids in April. However, now that my kids can’t travel, I start to wonder if there’s any point in making Singapore my final destination. There’s also the very real prospect of Singapore having closed it’s borders by the time I get there anyway.

With all these uncertainties swirling round my head I decide that, for the time being, I’m going to continue cycling. It would feel pointless and hollow to come this far and then just meekly give up. I might not be allowed into Singapore, but I’m going to get as close as I can under these unusual circumstances. At least if I carry on cycling it will provide me with something to focus on. And, after the depressing news about not seeing my kids, I need all the distraction I can get right now.

My mood hasn’t improved much by the time I leave Palian, and isn’t helped by the fact that I still can’t find a Plastic Chair Cafe for breakfast. I’m ten minutes out of town before I spot a roadside drinks bar that also masquerades as a part-time food stall. It appears the only foodstuffs they can offer me this morning are Pau (sweet, steamed buns with a minced meat filling). Three large takeaway buns are hungrily purchased, one for immediate consumption and two for snacks on the road. I follow a flat, two-lane highway for the first 20km, passing through small towns, occasional patches of untouched jungle and the ever present rubber-tree plantations. Although this main road isn’t busy, I still take the chance to divert to a minor route when the chance comes along. Once I veer off it’s like entering another world. Now I’m cycling through shady forest and past a number of tiny, scattered settlements. It seems that every second person shouts Hello as I pass, which helps to cheer me up just a little bit. It’s so good to be far from the well trodden track today.

By about half distance I’m back onto the main road again, fuelled by my remaining Pau and drinking ridiculous amounts of water. My final hour is ridden in familiar slow motion, over a series of gradual up and down slopes, just as the searing mid-day sun moves directly overhead. By 1.00pm I’ve reached the small town of Khuan Pho, where I ride a couple of kilometres off the main road and down a dirt track to find my accommodation. The Payabangsa Resort turns out to in the middle of nowhere, a group of motel units amidst a field of brown grass with tall, jungly hills to the Eastern horizon. When I arrive, a handful of local kids are swimming in an irrigation ditch that runs between the two sets of units. If I didn’t have such marvellous air-con in my unit I’d probably brave the dirty grey water and jump in to join them.

In the early evening I walk back into town on another fruitless search for a Plastic Chair Cafe. Instead I visit a grocery shop for bakery goods and a pavement food stall for more chicken-on-a-stick lucky dip. The food stall girl offers me some rice to go with the chicken and carefully bags up a takeaway portion for me. By the time I’m back at the motel my t-shirt has transformed from light green into patchy dark with sweat. The atmosphere is so oppresive tonight that the simple act of being outdoors prompts a flood of perspiration. I have dinner inside, eating the vast majority of my munchies while the air-conditioning hums loudly on full power. The uneaten bakery goods will do for tomorrow’s breakfast. And, barring border closures, tomorrow should be my final day of cycling in Thailand.

 

(Not So) Happy Feet

11th MARCH 2020

There’s not much in the way of accommodation that splits my journey equally between here and Trang. I have to settle for a motel in a place called Khlong Thom, which is only one-third of the total distance. At least this means today should be an easy ride, so I’m able to wake a bit later and amble down to breakfast at my leisure. It’s the same All You Can Eat arrangement as yesterday, with another squadron of small birds darting in and out of the open-air dining hall in search of scraps.

I leave Ao Nang on the same road that I cycled in on, uphill out of town and with the sun searing into my right hand side. The first 30km are a bit of a mundane cycle, ridden in busy traffic on a road that skirts round the provincial capital of Krabi. Then I rejoin the main highway, which is surprisingly quiet after all the bustling market traffic around Krabi town. As I move further South the craggy limestone cliffs that were such a feature in Phang Nga province are becoming far less common. Now the road is flat, straight and rather featureless.

By 2.00pm I’ve reached Khlong Thom, a small town that stretches either side of the main highway. My two-storey motel, with a car park that’s been overgrown by weeds, is one street back from the main road. Three stray-looking dogs bark and run towards me, which is a bit disconcerting, but they just have a sniff and a careful inspection of their new arrival. Otherwise, the place seems unattended. I knock at the reception window as I can see a TV switched on inside. There’s no answer. I just sit on the ground outside reception, surrounded by the dogs who seem to have accepted me now. I’m there about twenty minutes before the owner opens the reception door and looks genuinely surprised to see me sitting on the ground outside. When he notices my bike he changes my room from first floor to ground floor, showing an awareness that you don’t often get with accommodation owners. Once inside, I’m pleased to see that the room looks almost luxurious compared to the building’s messy exterior.

In the evening I only have to venture round the corner to find a collection of food stalls where I stop for dinner. Through a combination of my gestures and their broken English I order a chicken noodle soup, not realising it will be served with two scrawny chicken feet perched hideously on the surface. I’ve tasted these morsels before as part of my ‘try anything’ motto, although I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. I recall trying to pick the tiniest sliver of meat from a bony foot, coupled with the feeling of tiny, scratchy claws inside my mouth. However, despite those grim memories, I decide I’ll try again. The experiment lasts all of five seconds, before a half chewed foot is extracted from my gob. They’re still awful.

When I get back to the motel, it looks like the three stray dogs have now shape-shifted into a trio of stray cats. They all sit quietly in the shadows and regard me with evil intent as I walk through the car park. It feels like a scene from a Stephen King film. When I wake the following morning I’m relieved the horror movie cats haven’t tried to devour me or possess my soul during the night.

Prior to this trip I made a promise to myself – there would be no 100km days this time. For me it’s just too bloody exhausting to ride that sort of distance in tropical heat. Plus, these long days are becoming increasingly humid and oppresive in the lead up to rainy season. Each day further South and each day closer to wet season seems to become more sultry and energy-sapping. This continual build up of heat makes March the hottest month in these parts. Today’s ride of 90km will be quite long enough.

Leaving Khlong Thom I stop for a fried rice breakfast, before continuing my ride South under a flawlessly blue sky. My first 40km are spent on flat, hot and unremarkable highway, the kilometres passing by quickly and efficiently. I could very easily stay on this road all the way to Trang, simply covering the distance, but decide to take a more interesting minor road instead. My change of direction brings me straight into shaded woodland and a welcome, breezy headwind. A few kilometres later I’m cycling through jungle and rubber tree plantations. Trucks with harvested palm oil trees now pass regularly too, their heavy loads of burnt palm balls sitting high above the truck’s cargo bed. Inevitably, a certain amount of spillage occurs when cramming so much load into an open top truck. I spot handfuls of the bright red pods on the road, some with their oily bounty still intact.

I’m not due to meet my Warmshowers host till after 3.00pm, so I don’t want to reach Trang too early. I stop at a modest Plastic Chair Cafe, where chicken and rice appears to be the only option available. The lady owner brings my meal and offers me a small bowl of watery soup as an afterthought. She sits at the next table, facing me and directly behind me. A minute later she sneezes in my direction and I immediately think ‘Coronavirus !’ It seems that any slight cough or ailment theses days is thought of as a potential virus symptom. Mind you, she has just prepared all my food, so I’m fucked if she does have it.

Carrying on, I find that I’m still going to reach Trang too early. I delay my arrival by sitting in a little pagoda outside a posh looking science college, almost drifting off to sleep on the wooden bench inside. Ironically, after deliberately killing time, I then struggle with the afternoon heat and don’t get to my host’s place till nearly 4.00pm. I ride into a modern housing development that looks more European than Thai, to be greeted by an American teacher called Nelson. He must recognise my fatigue as he promptly goes about preparing a fresh fruit smoothie in his blender. A mixture of crushed ice, banana, blueberry, mango and ice cream gets whirred round and then poured into a jug. My God, it tastes blooming delicious ! I feel instantly reinvigorated.

In the evening Nelson drives us a couple of kilometres to the Trang night market, an open-air collection of food stalls, bars and clothing shops. I visit three different sellers and enjoy a mixed bag of spicy sausages, crab and meat balls, before sitting down for a chat with my host. He’s in his early sixties and has adopted that shaved head and goatee look that some men of his vintage seem to favour. It’s also pretty clear that he dyes his facial hair too. His chest hairs are pure white, whereas his goatee and moustache are jet black. I try hard to avoid looking at the goatee, but it proves comically difficult to ignore. He’s a kind bloke in that he regularly hosts passing cyclists, and often at very short notice (Iranian couple Saeed and Sharareh also stayed here). However, although good with travellers, he’s quite disparaging about Thai people and looks down on them if they can’t speak English. I ask if he can speak Thai, to which he replies ‘No, and I’ve no interest in learning it’. I’m flabbergasted that someone would think they’re above learning the language of a country they’ve lived in for years. Especially when that someone is a teacher.

When we get back he tells me about the ‘spirit house’ that sits on the vacant land next door. These small shrines are everywhere in South-East Asia, looking like mini houses and often mounted on a pillar. Nelson says these spirit houses are built for spirits that may have been disturbed during the construction of a home or business. Offerings of food, drink or gifts are then left in the shrine to appease any spirits that might bring bad luck. If the spirits are ‘active’ the offerings might be replaced every week. Bizarrely, the most commonly seen gifts in spirit houses are bottles of Red Fanta. At first I thought the red colour must represent blood, but apparently it’s just because the spirits prefer sugary snacks and drinks. And, to be fair, who doesn’t love a Strawberry Fanta ?

Nelson gives me the option of staying an extra day if I want to. It transpires that his Thai wife and six year old daughter have gone away till the weekend and I think he’ll be bored without their company. I’m half tempted by the offer, but I want to press on and get into Malaysia quickly in case they close their borders to combat the Covid-19 virus. If the border does close in the next couple of days then I can’t leave Thailand and the trip is over. At least if I cross into Malaysia it will buy me some time to trundle down the country towards Singapore. Although, who knows what the border situation will be by the time I get to Singapore. This Coronavirus outbreak is beginning to sound a lot more serious now.

 

 

Ao Nang Beach

9th MARCH 2020

My sleep is shattered at some ungodly hour by the incessant screeching of cockerels in the bamboo patch next to my unit. As I’m already awake, I figure I might as well have an early start, rising like a zombie to get dressed and packed, before slowly shuffling off for breakfast. I’m served at the reception area, a tiny, open air office outside the basement kitchen consisting of one chair, one desk and a handful of tourist brochures. When my main breakfast arrives it’s a little disappointing – a bland plate of fried egg, hot dog sausage and two triangles of drab-looking processed ham. This sparse offering is what Thais refer to as an ‘American’ breakfast, which turns out to be rather ironic given the miniscule size of the portion. Luckily I’m also given side dishes of toast, water melon and mini bananas which fill the gap and prove far more appetising.

As I eat, the sun is only just starting to creep up over the steep limestone cliffs behind the house. The rest of the sky is an unbroken pale blue, promising a baking hot day for my ride of 85km. I avoid the busy main road when I leave Phang Nga, opting for a quieter route near the coast that also acts as a short cut. My first ten minutes are ridden in the cool, protective shadow of a huge cliff, in direct contrast with the long hot hours that are destined to follow. I ride South, then East, then North as the road negotiates it’s way through a scattered network of tall karst formations. It’s clearly a lot easier to build a road that meanders round these cliffs, rather than tunnelling through them.

Because the road is so flat I’m able to zip along quickly, my speed creating a slight breeze that’s just enough to keep me cool. Normally in this heat my forearms would be glistening with sweat and uncomfortably hot. Today though, they look and feel fine. I cruise through small towns, past temples, mosques, rubber tree plantations, jungle and basic wooden houses. In one town I stop for water at a 7-11, enjoying the store’s air-conditioning as much as the short breather. The girl who serves me must have to upsell as part of her job, asking if I’d like to buy a take-away coffee as well. I tell her that I will, as long as it’s an iced coffee and I can sit inside their air-conditioned shop to drink it. I spend the next ten minutes supping an iced latte and watching the goings on in the world outside. By the time I’m finished I’m actually starting to feel cold, the air-con having worked so well that it’s chilling all the sweat on my torso.

At about the halfway point I rejoin the main highway, speeding along on flat straight roads for a further 20km, before turning off towards Ao Nang and the coast. I don’t stop for lunch until I’ve cycled three-quarters of today’s kilometres, thinking it’s better to leave only a short distance for when I’m lazy and sluggish after food. Lunch is spent in a simple Plastic Chair Cafe, which sits in a cool, shady space underneath the owner’s wooden house. The menu is printed in both Thai and English, a sure sign that I’m getting closer to a tourist hot-spot. Another sign is that the owner seems to have toned down the spiciness of her food to suit Western tastes. I imagine she must go easy on the chillies when cooking for foreigners, but this leaves me with a prawn noodle soup that’s quite tasteless and watery.

My final 20km to the coast are ridden through shaded woodland and in the shadow of towering limestone cliffs. When Western tourists on scooters start to become a common sight, I know that I’ve almost reached town. A cooling downhill then takes me through dense forest to the outskirts of Ao Nang, where I follow a narrow concrete road to the Royal Nakara Hotel. It’s quite posh by my standards, situated on a hill above town and with a bedroom so large it could easily have been sub-divided into two. I drag my sweaty body into the shower and have an extra long soak, while at the same time washing all my dirty cycling gear on the shower floor. My fancy-ish hotel probably wouldn’t encourage this sort of behaviour, but it badly needed doing. Afterwards I sit on the huge West-facing balcony, watching the sun set over distant hills whilst surrounded by an assortment of drip-drying clothes.

At night I intend to walk into town for food, but get accosted by an Indian bloke outside his restaurant who promises me 20% off the menu prices and half-price beer. Even as I accept his offer I realise that his reduced prices will still be higher than in a non-tourist town. I step inside to have Thai Red Curry with chicken and then chill with a large Leo Beer. I don’t realise it at the time, but this will be my last beer of the trip.

The next morning I head downstairs to a large, open air dining hall for breakfast. It’s an All You Can Eat option where you get a cooked plate to begin with – scrambled egg, hot dog sausages, triangles of ham and the crispiest, crispiest bacon. Then I get stuck into cereal, toast, fruit and coffee whilst watching tiny birds zoom into the dining area and flit around searching for crumbs.

By mid morning I’ve wandered down the big hill into town and take a walk along the beachfront. It’s a bit of a weird feeling being back here, having visited previously in 2002 with my (thankfully) ex-wife. Obviously the town has changed and modernised since then, but this is down to the passage of time rather than having to rebuild after the 2004 tsunami. Ao Nang got off lightly compared to other coastal settlements as the tsunami waves here were much smaller than in Phuket or Khao Lak. The town also had warnings phoned in from Phuket, which gave people enough time to move away from the beach and get to higher ground. The coastline afterwards was messy with debris and smashed long-tail boats, but most businesses were up and running again within days.

I have a very literal Rest Day, which mostly involves blogging and an afternoon siesta. I’m back down at the beach around 5.00pm, where a fresh sea breeze has helped dissipate the worst of the day’s heat. The centre of the beach is packed with tourists and long-tail boats, so I wander towards a set of soaring limestone cliffs that dominate the far corner. The further I walk, the more peaceful it becomes. The sun has begun its descent behind me, and out to sea I can spot the jagged outline of Phi Phi island on the horizon. There are two islands in this group; a smaller one (Phi Phi Ley) where The Beach was filmed, and a larger one (Phi Phi Don) which is crammed with tourists, bars and accommodation. I had toyed with the idea of going over, but then decided against it. Visiting an overcrowded party island, swarming with gap-year kids and pissed-up backpackers probably wouldn’t add much to my Thailand experience.

It’s almost dark by the time I leave the beach and start walking up the hill to my hotel. On the way I stop at a street food stall for some Pad Thai with prawns and a mango smoothie. When it’s my turn to order I ask for ‘Pad Fry’ for some reason, which generates some strange looks and confusion from the girl who serves me. The smoothie, made in front of me with juicy fresh mango, is delicious. The ‘Pad Fry’ is average, perhaps to punish me for getting my words wrong.

In the evening I receive an offer to stay with a Warmshowers host in Trang, 145km to the South-East. Ideally this would mean two days of cycling 70km. Nevertheless, a quick search for en route accommodation dictates that I’ll be riding 55km on the first day and 90km on the second.

 

 

Phang Nga

7th MARCH 2020

Despite enduring a hot, muggy night in my bamboo accommodation, I end up re-booking and spend an extra day in touristy Khao Lak. It wasn’t my intention to stay on, but a surprisingly quiet beach and the town’s chilled-out vibe have persuaded me otherwise. My morning involves a bang average omelette breakfast, followed by an increasingly panicky search for a cash machine that will supply me with Thai Baht. The first three machines I try all cancel the transaction, followed by an ominous ‘Contact Your Bank’ advisory. This does happen sometimes as my UK bank card is only compatible with certain Thai banks. Still, I’ve never had three refusals in a row before. When I put my card into ATM number four I find myself offering a quiet ‘Please, Please’ to the machine. I’m more than a little relieved to hear the whirring sound of banknotes being counted out for me.

In the afternoon I make for the beach once again, alternating my time between floating in the Andaman Sea and lying on a beach towel. Remarkably, I feel slightly cold each time I get out the water, which is a bit of a piss-take after last night’s stifling heat. As I warm up in the sunshine, I morbidly try to picture what it would have been like when the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 hit these shores. I can imagine it all started with a scenario similar to what I’m looking at now – tourists relaxing on the beach without a care in the world. Then, oddly, the seawater began to recede, leaving huge areas of sand exposed as the tide was drawn back from the shore. Nowadays we realise this is a precursor to a tsunami, but back then people were less aware and actually went onto the beach to see what was happening. If you watch YouTube footage from that day you can see tourists standing on the beach, simply watching as the sea rushes relentlessly towards them. Although the waves don’t look monstrously high, they just keep ploughing over everything in their path. The sheer power of the water destroyed most of Khao Lak’s buildings and swept a Thai Navy boat more than one mile inland. The vessel still rests in the same position today as a memorial. Officially the death toll was a whopping 4,000 lives, although most estimates put the final figure much higher. 

I stay on the beach until sunset, before heading into town for Penang Curry with prawns. Mercifully, the humidity has eased off since last night, although I do order another large Chang Beer just to make sure I stay cool. Back at my accommodation I settle in for the night, thinking how ineffective a bamboo hut would be against an incoming tsunami.

The next morning I wake, untroubled by tidal waves, and stroll to the on-site restaurant for my 8.00am breakfast appointment. An unusually healthy option of yoghurt, fruit and muesli starts the day, while my Belgian host Ariane tells me what to expect on the road ahead. According to her, there will be two big hills on today’s ride – the first as I’m leaving Khao Lak, then another as I turn inland towards Phang Nga. I feel better when she tells me the second hill is ‘not so strong’.

Hearing this prepares me for a tough first climb out of town, but in reality it’s not that arduous. The road snakes up and round a headland, passing through tall, verdant rainforest peppered with a handful of high end resorts overlooking the sea. Near the summit I’m able to stop on a corner and look back down to see the main beach of Khao Lak far below me. For the next 10km I pick my way through roadworks on the busy main highway to Phuket Island, before I’m able to turn left onto a much quieter inland route. Now I’m riding through a jungly, rural landscape that’s dotted with farms, tin-shack houses and rubber tree plantations. With the sky a cloudless blue, I’m grateful to find that Ariane’s second hill is indeed ‘not so strong’.

After my climb the road follows a river downstream, with my easy downhill mirroring it’s gradual descent towards sea-level. However, despite this comfortable ride, I’m beginning to wilt under the sun’s persistent rays. The unrelenting heat forces me to stop for food and shade when I’m a mere 10km from my destination. A ramshackle food stall at the roadside beckons me in, even though it’s no more than a simple shack with a few chairs sitting on dusty ground outside. I show the lady my Google Translation for ‘Noodles’, just so there’s no misunderstandings, and sit in the shade, exhausted, to wait for my food. When she returns I’m given the most delicious dish of egg noodles with prawns and calamari, served on a shiny green banana leaf. It’s probably the best ‘road meal’ I’ve had on this trip, and all for the ridiculously low price of 40 Baht (about £1).

Rested, I carry on and rejoin the main road within a few hundred metres. As I move closer to Phang Nga I find I’m riding through a valley with towering limestone cliffs on either side of me. Southern Thailand is famous for these spectacular karst landscapes, especially Phang Nga Bay, where they rise vertically from the sea in the shape of tall, jagged islands. Phang Nga town itself is long and skinny, it’s expansion limited to the narrow valley between two sets of cliffs.

I cycle towards a residential part of town, a couple of streets back from the main road and alongside a small Buddhist Temple. The temple grounds are quite scruffy, but they are home to the most brilliantly white peacock I’ve ever seen. The bird struts around importantly, fanning its tail feathers into a pearl coloured semi-circle as I ride past.

My accommodation is just round the next corner and consists of three newly built units behind a two storey family home. The property is bordered by a small patch of bamboo jungle, complete with feral chickens, while soaring limestone cliffs dominate the rear horizon. My host is a forty-something Thai woman, who greets me in near-perfect English and chats for a while before I check in. Within minutes she says she’d much rather live in Europe than in Thailand, which she considers to be a poor country and far too hot. Much like my Dutch mate in Bang Ben Beach, she says Thailand is a good destination for travel, but not such a great place to live. She also hates being in direct sunlight, so pops up an umbrella so she can walk me round to my unit. This seems like a bizarre over-reaction as it’s only a walk of around ten metres !

The unit is modern, air-conditioned and spotlessly white, unlike last night’s bamboo hut. Bafflingly, for all this added luxury, it’s £3 cheaper too. I peel off my cycling top, have a long shower and then crash out for a late afternoon siesta. The heat has frazzled me today. In the evening I walk up to Phang Nga’s long main street, stop at a cluster of food stalls and replenish my system with a dinner of chicken, rice and veggies. Tomorrow I’ll be riding a further 85km along the coast to a place called Ao Nang Beach, the location of my first ever visit to Thailand in 2002. My circumstances have changed a lot since then, but I’m still looking forward to a weird little trip down memory lane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Get What You Pay For

5th MARCH 2020

During the night I regret getting sunburnt, as the middle of my back aches every time I roll over. The only positive from this is that I’m awake early, so I decide I’ll just get up and start cycling as soon as I can to beat the afternoon heat. I go straight for breakfast, where Bo said he would shout me omelette and coffee because he owed me 50 Baht change from last night. Unfortunately this 50 Baht budget means the food is nowhere near the grand scale of yesterday’s offering.

I’m finished breakfast and on the road by 8.00am, the first 10km a simple retracing of my steps past the ‘Tsunami Zone’ signs and out through a flat landscape of muddy, tangled mangroves. When I get back onto the main road I continue cycling East and inland for a further 10km, before turning South at the town of Katoe. This change of direction has the morning sun beating straight onto my burnt back, its relentless rays seeming to sear right through my cycling top. The next couple of hours have me riding through jungly forest and past a handful of prawn farming sites with their huge aerated, man-made pools. I’m puffing on one short, steep hill and have to stop for a breather on the way up, before a small Buddhist shrine at the roadside lets me know that I’ve reached the top and the highest point of today’s cycle.

I wait until I’ve ridden two-thirds of today’s distance before stopping for lunch at a large hangar-type building in the town of Kamphuan. The place looks like it might host the local night market, but there’s only two stalls open when I roll up at mid-day. A combination of pointing, nodding, laughing and shrugging gets me a tasty bowl of chicken noodle soup from a trio of bemused-looking women in headscarves. When I carry on I find that my surroundings are becoming far more Islamic as I get closer to the Malaysian border. As well as women with covered heads, there now appears to be more mosques than Buddhist temples at the roadside. A group of around a dozen men are standing at the roadside outside one mosque, waiting for a bus by the look of things. One old timer raises his walking stick and shouts a toothless ‘Salaam Alaykum !’ as I approach them. I’m so surprised to hear an Arabic greeting in Thailand that I forget the correct reply and just shout ‘Salaam !’ as I cycle past with a raised hand.

The final hour to Khura Buri becomes a bit of a hot, hilly trudge into an annoying headwind. However, this morning’s early start has worked a treat, with me arriving at my accommodation not long after lunch. The Riverside Guest House sounds idyllic, but is actually nothing more than a collection of run-down wooden huts at the end of a stony track beside the town’s river. It appears they even had a tree hut at one point, located about five metres above the ground in the crook of a tall tree, but gaping holes in the floor and a lack of access steps suggest that it’s now off limits.

Because I’ve arrived early there’s no-one around, so I have to carry on into town to pick up my keys from the owner’s tour-booking shop. When I get back to the huts I pad carefully up a set of rickety wooden stairs and into a room that can only be described as ‘basic’. The windows are glass slats that don’t close and the floorboards seem to be three-quarters wood and one-quarter gaps. I can look right through the floor and see the ground a few feet below me. Goodness knows what creatures will be joining me as I sleep tonight, especially as I’m right beside the river. Still, for only £7 per night (with breakfast thrown in) I can’t really complain. The phrase ‘You Get What You Pay For’ could hardly be more fitting for this place.

For dinner I walk back into town and find that Tom and Am Tours is still open, with the lady owner sitting out front glued to her mobile. I chat with her for a while, before moving to the English menu cafe next door for my first Pad Thai since Bangkok. It’s nice to know what I’m ordering for a change, and at least with Pad Thai I don’t have to worry about burning spiciness or other unwanted surprises in my dish.

When I return to my dilapidated hut I’m greeted by a light brown tree frog crawling on the bedroom wall. The creature’s feet stick with little suckers and allow it to walk as effortlessly on the vertical wall as if it was moving along flat, horizontal ground. As well as the frog, I’m joined by a handful of small geckos who stick to the walls and ceiling whilst trying to pick off flying insects. Sadly, I think the geckos may be more effective in thwarting mosquitos than the tattered old mozzie net I’m about to spend the night under.

The following morning I rise early and say Goodbye to my amphibian, reptile and insect room-mates. I make my way back to Tom and Am Tours for a simple breakfast outside their shop that consists of two hot dog sausages, an egg and all the toast I want. I’m thankful for sporadic cloud cover as I leave town, especially as the first 10km are a steady climb into jungle-covered hills. I plod slowly upwards until, once again, I find the summit is marked by a small Buddhist shrine at the roadside. The approach path to the shrine is flanked by around a dozen ornamental cockerels, an especially auspicious symbol in Thai culture and resplendent in blacks, reds and greens. It gets me thinking about Aussie Warren, who ran the homestay I stayed at in Pathio. He told me that he once drove for five hours just to pick up a pair of cockerel figures from a renowned temple in Southern Thailand, all to ensure his business would be blessed with good luck.

The morning passes quickly, with smooth roads and intermittent cloud cover helping to speed me through undulating forest and jungle. By mid-day I’ve once again covered two thirds of my daily distance and stop for lunch in the fairly large town of Takuapa. On the main road through town I find a large Plastic Chair Cafe, where I’m served by a young woman wearing a face mask. I show her my Google Translate screenshot for the words ‘Not Spicy’ and she points to the top row of metal trays displaying food. She then indicates that the ominous looking trays on the bottom row would definitely not fall into that category. This Google translation of ‘Not Spicy’ into Thai script is going to be such a useful tool. If only I’d thought of it sooner ! Ironically though, when my pork with rice arrives it’s so far away from being spicy that I have to add some chilli dressing to give it a bit of a kick. Maybe I’ll need to find the translation for ‘Slightly Spicy’ for future mealtimes.

After lunch I ride along steadily until my afternoon is blighted by an unwelcome stretch of roadworks. The road ahead is being upgraded to dual carriageway, which means all the shady roadside trees have been cut down to allow for the extra width. It’s horribly hot and exposed. I ride the next few kilometres on a bumpy dirt road in sweltering slow motion. It’s tough going, especially as I’m now cycling under an afternoon sky that’s practically cloud free. My final 20km are a bit of a struggle, but I still manage to reach the touristy, beachside town of Khao Lak before my 3.00pm check in. The main road is jam-packed with Western bars and guesthouses but, oddly enough, the town seems less busy as I get nearer the beach. I’m staying at a place called Garden Bungalows, owned by a forty-something Belgian woman who sits me down at her reception desk, while her Thai staff member brings a large pomegranate juice as a welcome drink. After my last scorching hour cycling, it is indeed most welcome.

My accommodation is a small bamboo bungalow in a private tropical garden, raised about a metre off the ground and with a roof made from palm tree fronds. It’s a step up from last night’s primitive hovel, although there’s still plenty of gaps between the bamboo for hungry mosquitos to squeeze through. The room isn’t much bigger than the single bed it contains and is breathlessly hot when I step inside. I chain my bike to the bamboo patio, remove the front wheel as an extra theft deterrent and head off to the communal bathroom block for a much needed shave and shower.

By late afternoon I’ve wandered the short distance to Khao Lak beach, a gently sloping stretch of pale sand that contains far less tourists than I imagined it would. I remain on the beach until after sunset, before walking back into town for a pork and cashew nuts that I intend to wash down with Fanta. However, the evening is so sticky and hot that I drain the Fanta within two minutes. It looks like a large Chang Beer will have to be ordered in addition, just to cool me down properly. I eat and drink slowly, spending well over an hour watching the world go by from a seat next to the road.

Back at my bamboo bungalow it’s oppresively hot. I try sitting outside for a while, but it’s just as stuffy and airless. Sweat is literally trickling down my forearms. What I’d give for an air-conditioned hotel room right now. As it is, I’m in a baking bamboo box with a wall-mounted fan that can’t be angled down far enough to cool me as I sleep. Through the wafer thin walls I can also hear a pair of local musicians, singer and guitarist, trying their hardest to sing some old classics like American Pie and Hey Jude in the bar next door. They get a lot of the words wrong, but make up for it by sounding infectiously happy with their efforts. I lie there listlessly, dozing off occasionally and then waking up in a sweaty glaze to the bizarre sounds of next door’s entertainment. Yup, you certainly do get what you pay for.

 

 

 

 

 

Bang Ben Beach

3rd MARCH 2020

There are basically two trains of thought on preparing for cycle trips. The first is to build yourself up beforehand, so that you’re fit and ready to go as soon as you land. The second is to just start cycling when you arrive, in the hope that you’ll gradually develop some kind of fitness as you ride. My built-in laziness and general lack of discipline means that I usually flop lethargically into the second category. The first few days are always a painful shock for unprepared muscles, but now after two weeks, I think I’m slowly becoming used to cycle-touring again. My plan to acclimatise and break myself in gently seems to have worked. In saying all that, I’m starting to crave a Rest Day. After today’s ride I’ll have cycled thirteen out of the last fourteen days, so it’s about time I had a day off the bike. 

When I step out onto the hotel’s second floor balcony I see that the sun has started to poke up over forested hills to the East of Ranong. The sky is an unbroken pale blue and there’s not a breath of wind. It’s only 8.00am and today already feels like it could be a scorcher. I traipse down to the ground floor for a complimentary breakfast of one egg, two hot dog sausages and three triangles of sorry-looking ham, all kept lukewarm in a griddle pan with a lid. There’s also toast and jam, so I make sure to cram down six slices for energy before leaving town.

On Google maps, today’s route looked very similar to yesterday’s hilly, twisting ride, but it’s actually far more benign. A cycle path out of town and a handful of easy, gradual slopes have me over halfway before I know it. Lunch is taken at a Plastic Chair Cafe just off the road, where all their wares are displayed in huge metal cooking pots at the front counter. I choose one that looks like some kind of meat curry, which is served with a bowl of steamed rice and a basket of help-yourself salad on the table. One old bloke at the next table points to my meal as he’s leaving and says ‘Ooh, you like spicy !’ Well, not especially. I really need to get the Thai translation for ‘Not Spicy’ added to my screenshots

The afternoon sees me riding through thicker forest, with tall trees casting a welcome shade over most of the road. I also begin to see mosques for the first time on the trip, a sure sign that I’m getting towards Southern Thailand and the border with Muslim Malaysia. Women wearing headscarves are now a more common site, and I hear the afternoon Call to Prayer as I pass one village. I turn off the main road towards the Laem Son National Park, which lets me know I’m within 10km of my destination. As I head towards the coast, the road passes through an area of low-lying mangroves and I see a handful of signs telling me that ‘You are now entering a Tsunami Zone.’

When I reach the Wasana Resort (which obviously isn’t a resort) it looks like there’s no-one around, until I see a sign telling me to check the owner’s villa. Inside is Bo, an affable Dutch guy in his early sixties who has lived in Thailand for the last thirty-five years. He shows me around, introduces me to a German cycle tourer in another unit and says he can organise a snorkelling trip for tomorrow if he can rustle up three more customers. I move all my gear into the unit and open both windows to try and create some airflow. A gecko, about a foot long and with the most brilliant colour scheme of green, white and orange diamonds is hiding in the window recess. He’s a stunning looking reptile and not too fazed by my presence, merely crawling out of the window frame and then moving up into the roof space.

I take a spin to the beach for sunset, avoiding the National Park and its 200 Baht entry fee by going through the village and chaining my bike outside one of the beachside resorts. The beach is a wide stretch of clean, light brown sand, flanked by jungle at its Northern end, casurina trees at the South and a couple of resorts in the middle. It’s a stunning location, with the sun about to set over a couple of pointy islands in a flat calm sea. I lie on the sand, propping myself up on my elbows and watch sunset with only half a dozen other people. This one moment makes the days of hot, hilly climbing all worthwhile.

It’s dark by the time I get back to the Wasana Resort. I sit at a table outside reception and order a tasty chicken and cashew nuts that comes with rice and a side salad. The German cycle tourer comes over to join me, telling me he’s almost finished a long journey that will take him from Shanghai down to Phuket. A good comparison of our cycling styles is that he completed the 130km from Chumphon to Ranong in one trip, whereas I took two days to cover the same distance. His secret is that he starts cycling very early in the morning to limit the amount of time he spends in the afternoon heat. It’s something I should really look at doing myself, instead of struggling like a fool through the hottest part of the day. This chap is also an advocate of putting drops of a chlorine-based miracle liquid into his drinking water. He claims it cleans out his system and will protect him against Coronavirus. I’m not sure I’ll be following his lead on that one, mind you.

We chat for a while over a couple of local Archa beers, before Bo gets out a bottle of sinister looking Thai brandy. He pours me a massive measure, but he won’t give the German any because he’s cycling tomorrow and has to be up early. Our host then gives me the good news that he’s found the required numbers to arrange a day off snorkelling trip for tomorrow.

The next morning I’m served a big breakfast of tomato and onion omelette with salad, cooked by Wasana herself. As an afterthought she tells me ‘I put pepper on your omelette.’ Luckily, that’s fine with me.

For the island hopping trip I’m joined by a Dutch couple in their fifties and a French couple of roughly the same vintage. The French guy looks like he could be a smaller, stockier version of Gerard Depardieu. We all jump in the back of a pick up truck, before we’re driven to the pier and then transferred to a wooden long-tail boat. Our first island has a small roped off area above a shallow reef for snorkelling, although the visibility isn’t great. Through the mist I do manage to spot some angelfish, clownfish, parrotfish and dozens upon dozens of malevolent black sea urchins, some with spines as long as knitting needles. The second island is mostly beach, but with a cracking viewpoint that’s accessed by climbing up a jungly hill using ropes, creepers and bamboo trunks.

On the third island we’re back in the water again, only for the Dutch guy to step on a sea urchin as he’s walking backwards into the sea. The tips of two spines have broken off and are sticking out of his heel. Our long-boat driver just smiles and pulls them out without any fuss whatsoever, although the Dutch guy is concerned that they might be poisonous. I tell him not to worry as I once did the same thing myself. The only aftermath of my folly was a cluster of tiny black circles on the sole of my foot which disappeared after a week. With my mask on I can just about spot the spiky spheres in the cloudy water. There are tons of them lurking on the sea bed once again, but they only seem to congregate on rocky areas. If we stay on sand near the shore then we’re OK.

On the way back we travel parallel to the mainland and into a stiff afternoon sea breeze. The open-sided boat is bouncing around like a cork, sending arcs of seawater splashing over us with every wave. Fortunately for me, these soakings make it a refreshing, rather than a sea-sicky trip. I get back, have a shower and notice I’ve let myself get sunburnt. I’d suncreamed my shoulders and love handles, as these are the parts that normally burn when I’m snorkelling. However, the middle of my back was left unprotected and, needless to say, it’s the middle of my back that’s now glowing red. I assumed that my back would be mostly underwater when snorkelling. It turns out I was wrong.

For dinner I sit outside at the resort and order prawns in oyster sauce. Shortly afterwards Bo arrives with my food and announces that he’s put squid in there as well. They keep adding ingredients to the food in this place without asking ! It’s just as well I’m not a fussy person. The Dutch couple join me, with the bloke feeling none the worse for this afternoon’s sea urchin encounter. At the table next to us are a pair of fat, middle-aged American guys, one of whom is already in my bad books for asking if I was an Australian when I greeted him with an initial ‘How are you, mate?’ This objectionable duo could hardly be more loud and obnoxious if they tried, banging on endlessly about money, cars and investments. The Dutch guy leans over to me and whispers ‘Americans ?’ I simply roll my eyes while nodding the affirmative.

Bo comes to join us with his trusty bottle of brandy once he’s finished cooking. Despite spending more than half his life here, I get the feeling he’s now very weary of Thailand. He says it’s a great country for travelling, but not so much for living in. A couple of surprising revelations are that he hates the sun and, after thirty-five years of residence, he can still barely speak the language. He tells me this is because he’s partially deaf in one ear, and consequently he can’t distinguish between the five different tones used in Thai. That’s his excuse anyway. When he asks about our snorkelling trip we mention that we saw some clownfish, which Bo tells me didn’t have a Thai language translation until the film Finding Nemo was released. The Thai word for ‘Fish’ is ‘Pla,’ so now ‘Clownfish’ officially translates as ‘Pla Kartun’ … Cartoon Fish.

Myself and the Dutch couple are then shown a scrapbook of old photos from when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Bang Ben Beach in 2004. We’re told the waves washed 2km inland, destroying Bo’s original bungalows and nearly all other buildings in the village. The only consolation is that no lives were lost here. This was down to the tsunami hitting Phuket, 300km South at around 9.00am, but not reaching Bang Ben Beach until 11.13am precisely. This two and a quarter hour time window gave everyone the warning and time they needed to move inland. Nowadays at the back of the beach there is a line of tall casurina trees, about 1.5km long and 100 metres deep that have been planted as a ‘breaker’ against any future tsunami. The trees wont stop the water, but they will certainly slow it down and make the impact less damaging for the village that lies behind them.

It’s a nice evening of beer, brandy and chatting with the Dutch, although I do feel a bit guilty they’re all speaking English on my behalf. By this point the Americans have become drunker, louder and even more annoying. It’s as if they are saying things now just to be outrageous. Myself and the Dutchies simply blank them though, which hopefully pisses them off as they’re obviously craving some attention. I’m in bed by 11.00pm, planning to emulate the German cyclist by beating the heat and starting early tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Hot Rides & Hot Food

1st MARCH 2020

At this point on my trip I’ve reached a really narrow part of Thailand, which gives me the choice of staying on the East coast or moving over to the Andaman Sea on the West. I choose the latter, mostly because I think it will be quieter and more interesting. My new Westerly heading means I have the sun blazing straight onto my back like a blowtorch this morning when I leave Chumphon. Nonetheless, this direction change has also brought smoother roads and a tailwind.

About mid-morning I’ve stopped at a 7-11 for a large chilled water and get talking to an old Dutch motorcyclist and his Thai wife. He’s lived over here for years, so fills me in on the road ahead and then asks where I’m from. I tell him ‘Scotland. And you’re from the Netherlands ?’ He looks genuinely surprised that I spotted he was Dutch, but there’s no mistaking that accent. He sounds just like Goldmember in the Austin Powers films.

My altitude increases as I pedal towards a set of hills, although it really doesn’t feel like I’m climbing. I’m moving along effortlessly today. Ahead, it looks like there’s a length of black rope on the road, lying right across the cycling zone at the side. It’s only when I get up close that I realise it’s actually a skinny snake, about four feet long, and quietly sunning itself on the tarmac. Myself and the reptile are both equally shocked, and it moves off quickly, sidewinder-style, into the undergrowth. I’ll need to keep my eyes peeled for this kind of encounter and be a bit more alert in future.

I’m soon riding through a set of jungle-clad hills where it looks like the surrounding area is being excavated to extend the dual carriageway. Apparently the West coast city of Ranong has been earmarked as a ‘Superport’, which means that the road links between there and Bangkok need upgrading. I pick my way through the roadworks, then enjoy a few kilometres of lovely freewheeling descent. After curving round one final hill I’m back on a straight road South, parallel to a river that forms the border between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). One hundred metres of slow-moving brown water is all that separates the countries at this point. I could literally swim across the border if I wanted.

By this point I’m getting hungry so pull up to a Plastic Chair Cafe. I do my usual ‘Can I eat ?’ mime, but the woman at the counter shakes her head. I do notice some empty lunch plates at one of her tables, so I’m not sure if something was lost in translation or she was just being a dick. Five minutes later, in the bustling high street of a small town, I go through the same charade in another attempt to get some food. This time a middle aged bloke motions ‘No’ with his hand, as does his harsh-looking wife. Wankers ! I call them rude names as I thank them ever so sarcastically. They don’t understand me, yet swearing at them while smiling makes me feel a whole lot better. I wonder what’s going on with all these people ?

Just past town I pull over at a stall outside a nice looking house. This place has the same stacks of silver steaming dishes that nearly every food outlet in the town had. The stall is unattended, but a woman sees me and comes running over from the house. She couldn’t be more helpful. By pointing and nodding I manage to order three Pau, which are sweet, steamed buns with various different fillings inside. They are chunky and quite more-ish, served with an orange dipping sauce. My three Pau soon become five. She then pours me a glass of the most sugar-laden and unnaturally blue coloured drink I’ve ever seen. I swear I can feel my teeth tingling as I drink. The Pau are so tasty though and about twenty pence each, so they could well become a staple food source.

As usual, the final hour is a bit of a hot slog in the afternoon heat. I stop at a 7-11 for a 1.5 litre bottle of water and drink almost half the contents in one go. At the town of Kra Buri I leave the main road, cycle through a dusty little town and find my accommodation about 3km further on. It’s called the Mulberry Resort, which conjures up dreamy images of lush and tranquil gardens. The reality, of course, is a group of motel units on dry, barren ground. At night my only food option is a family corner shop, where I have to make do with a handful of pre-packaged, sweet bakery goods.

The next morning I take a steep hill away from the ‘Resort’, rather than back-tracking through town and adding extra kilometres. I stop for breakfast as soon as I can, eager to get something more wholesome in my belly after last night’s sweet bread snacks. I’m tucking into a big plate of ribbon noodles with pork and veggies when a couple of dodgy looking geezers pull up on a motorbike. They look a right slick pair of characters, ordering a beer with their takeaway at 9.30am. One of them asks if I’d like a drink, but I say I can’t because I’m cycling. He says ‘You exercise, I drink !’ By the time I’ve finished, they’ve got their takeaway, downed a large beer and sped noisily off.

The main highway South of Kra Buri is hilly and hot. At one set of roadworks a car passes me and pulls in ahead. The young driver looks to be getting out, so I think he might be about to offer me some cold water or a drink. Instead he hands me a mouth mask, telling me ‘Lucky, lucky. You wear !’ I’m not sure if he’s trying to protect me from Coronavirus, or thinks he’s safeguarding his country by muzzling the foreign cyclist. I thank him and put the mask in my back pocket. 

It’s becoming blisteringly hot now. Although I’m only cycling 60km today, I really start to struggle with the heat, especially where roadside trees have been cut down to make way for widening the carriageway. The lack of shade is demoralising. I keep climbing, eventually slogging my way past a roadside waterfall that looks to be no more than a trickle in the middle of dry season. A long hairpin bend then signals the start of a much steeper section through thick, shady jungle. I sit on a crash barrier for ten minutes, gathering my strength and listening to passing trucks, shifting into lower gears as they climb. I motivate myself and plod off, finding that the hill is only tough because of the scorching heat that accompanies it. Crawling towards the top, with sweat dripping through my eyebrows and into the corners of my eyes, I am absolutely pooped. There’s next to nothing in my tank at this point, which gets me thinking of that Tour de France rider who used to shout at his legs when they wouldn’t give him any more power. I’m not sure I even have the energy to shout.

After reaching the summit I just relax and coast down the other side. It’s a nice downhill, and makes me glad I wasn’t cycling in the opposite direction. I’m totally drained though, having to sit under a tree for ten minutes despite being on a slight down slope. This heat is playing havoc with me today. The last hour to Ranong is predictably slow, and I get to my hotel a dripping, exhausted wreck. My room is on the second floor, with the stairs being trudged up in super slow-motion. The hotel doesn’t really have anywhere suitable for my bike either, so I sling that over my shoulder and transport that up two floors as well.

An afternoon siesta perks me up and I go for an evening wander to the Ranong hot springs. I take a little local street to get there, and encounter a barking dog who shows an unwelcome interest in trying to sniff or lick my feet. Regrettably for the mutt, I’ve just sprayed myself with mosquito repellent, which results in a burst of comedy sneezing on its part. Confused, the dog simply walks off. I think I may have stumbled onto something here ! The springs themselves are in a public park, where joggers or cyclists finish their routes and bathe their feet in the knee deep water. The place is packed with older locals, sitting round the pool’s edge and making it a nice little community gathering.

I walk back to the main street and find a restaurant with tables on the pavement outside and a menu in English. The woman who serves me advises against my first choice of Southern Thai Fish Curry as she thinks it would be too spicy for me. She recommends the Jungle Curry with Chicken instead. It looks like a bowl of chicken curry soup when it arrives, and is accompanied by a side plate of flowers and salad. I have a little mouthful just as a tester. My God it’s spicy ! My mouth feels like it’s numb, and yet on fire at the same time. I’m glad she recommended the less spicy option. I ask the woman if I should eat the flowers, and she says that flowers or salad will cool my mouth down after a spoonful of curry, This tactic works to a degree, but I also drink a Red Fanta and a large Chang Beer to counteract the fiery curry. Astonishingly for me I can’t even finish the whole meal, having been soundly defeated by the intimidating spiciness. I visit a 7-11 on the way back for snacks and, far more importantly, some chilled water.

Today’s trials in the heat have got me thinking about having a Rest Day. If I can just get to the beach tomorrow, then the following day will be set aside for recovery.

Sugar, Sweat and Seafood

28th FEBRUARY 2020

After a couple of false starts, I’m actually awake in time for sunrise this morning. I step outside, camera in hand and ready to walk the short distance down to the beach. However, I can see the ground is wet from overnight rain and, sadly, there’s still plenty of clouds floating stubbornly on the horizon. There’ll be no eye-catching sunrise over the sea today. Back to bed.

Breakfast is available in a coffee shop right beside my accommodation, where my choices are rice soup or something that Asians call an ‘American’ breakfast. I’m still trying to avoid rice at this point, so I choose the American breakfast. I should have known better. My plate arrives topped with two sad-looking hot dog sausages, a triangle of ham, a fried egg and two slices of toast. There’s an awful lot to be said for a Full Scottish, English or Irish breakfast.

A middle aged Thai woman is sitting at the next table, sounding like she’s on a video call to a friend. She moves round to a different table, and I get the distinct impression that she’s filming me as she talks. I just look straight at her phone’s camera while I’m eating. Then, sure enough, she hands me her phone so I can video chat her friend, who now looks acutely embarrassed. It’s all a fairly pointless exercise though as we can’t understand a word the other is saying. My breakfast has gone from disappointing to surreal.

Despite the motel thinking I looked shifty and disheveled on arrival, they’re happy to return my 500 Baht deposit after checking my room. I leave the beachside on narrow concrete roads, past pockets of jungle, messy local houses and the inevitable barking, manic dog. Joining the main road speeds me up, although cycling up hills in direct sunlight has me sweaty and unkempt-looking within minutes. My surroundings are now a mixture of unspoilt jungle, interspersed with areas of palm and rubber tree plantations. The rubber trees, planted in straight neat rows, all have a diagonal section of bark cut off so that their rubbery sap oozes out and drips down through grooves into a waiting plastic cup. For me, all this tree life and roadside foliage is such a bonus, providing a cooler and far less draining cycle than I expected.

A couple of long, slow uphills then have me sweating my nuts off, before I decide to stop for lunch at a stand-alone Plastic Chair Cafe surrounded by forest. As an alternative to rice I choose noodle soup this time, but it turns out to be a bland, watery affair containing mostly lettuce. My rice substitutes have been so average today that I wish I’d just stuck with the familiar grains. At least whatever accompanies the rice is normally full of flavour. As well as being a food stop, most Plastic Chair Cafes also give you the chance to cool down for half an hour. Usually the owner sees me arriving in such a hot and bothered state that they’ll drag a pedestal fan over and point it straight at me. That, coupled with glasses of iced drinking water, do wonders for the spirit. I find that after lunch is always the perfect time to reapply sunscreen too; at other times my arms are so sweaty that the sunscreen simply drips off.

Reinvigorated, I carry on freewheeling down through the jungle and past Chumphon airport, before finding my accommodation in the quiet beachside village of Pathio. As I’m rolling down a concrete road towards the sea, I recognise the homestay’s little coloured huts from their on-line images as I’m passing. I push my bike along a gravel track towards the yellow hut, where two young lads are sitting on a shaded seat outside. They tell me the electricity has just gone off, which means that I won’t be able to use the fan or shower inside the unit. Brilliant.

Just as I’m about to sit down in the shade the owners, Warren and Win, drive in. They are an Aussie / Thai couple in their late forties who have only opened the accommodation in the last few days. Warren apologises for the power cut, but says it will be back on soon because Win’s uncle is the town mayor and lives only a few houses away. We chat for a while before I start moving all my gear into the hut. Inside it’s surprisingly cool as both windows have been left open all day, letting the sea-breeze create a refreshing airflow through the hut.

In the absence of a working shower I just put on my swimming shorts and make for the beach, only to be intercepted by Warren at their newly opened restaurant in front of the accommodation huts. We have a chat over a couple of iced waters and he tells me a few things about living in a Thai community from his Western perspective. He says that if a bloke is going through a rough patch or struggling to cope he can just take himself off to a temple for a while. This can be for a day, week, month or however long it takes to sort their head out. There’s no social stigma attached to it either. It’s not like Western society where someone would be ‘sent to the nuthouse’ – it’s just an accepted part of life here. Apparently it’s also quite common for released prisoners and folk who want to disappear to take refuge in temples too. So, the monks you see walking round with shaved heads and orange robes might well be straight out of prison.

The electricity comes back on as we’re talking, but I keep with my idea of getting into the sea. A five minute walk through the village and down a narrow track takes me onto a shoreline with messy waves and an even messier beach. The high tide line is littered with plastic and rubbish, while the water’s edge has dozens of sandbags and hessian sacks half buried in the sand. It’s such a shame as this could be a nice beach if it were cleaned up. I only spend around ten minutes in the sea, but it does cool me down beautifully. There was a young couple on a motorbike when I arrived at the beach, but otherwise I’m the only person here.

In the evening I head to the restaurant where Win has put on a feast of grilled fish, soup, rice and omelette. Her sister then arrives with bagged sections of the juiciest, sweetest pineapple. Even the core is delicious. I chat to Warren and a twenty-something Austrian couple, all blond and European, who have been touring Thailand’s islands and face a nine hour train journey back to Bangkok tomorrow. I have one large Chang Beer while the Austrians have eight between them. Mind you, they do have the luxury of being able to sleep it off on the train tomorrow.

The next morning Win serves me a weird confectionary breakfast of sugary, coloured balls and a coffee, before I say my Goodbyes to herself and Warren. I’m not in any huge hurry to depart as I’ve only got a short day of 40km, so I faff around until after 11.00am. The road to Chumphon is all on the main highway, and mostly smooth and fast, bar the occasional sweat-inducing hill. In my favour there’s a fair bit of cloud cover today, which makes cycling in the heat much less demanding.

I’m only 15km from Chumphon when I stop for lunch at quite a run-down looking Plastic Chair Cafe. There’s a bit of language barrier confusion at first, but the lady does have food pictures on the wall, so I begin pointing my finger. She shakes her head and points to a picture of fried rice with seafood instead. I guess that’s what I’ll be having then. I do manage to communicate the ‘one chilli’ message though, which works a treat with the spiciness. Despite the outward look of the place the food is really good, with a few big prawns and some squid mixed in with the rice. Just as I’m finishing the husband arrives back with watermelon and a sack of ice to pour into their ice bin. He cuts up the watermelon and gives me some slices on a plate while telling me ‘Free !’ When I leave, he makes both his young sons say Thank You to me for eating there, while I thank them all for their kindness.

A further five minutes down the road I meet an old French cycle-tourer heading the opposite way. He must be in his sixties and has the furriest ears I’ve ever seen. He also carries a metre long bamboo stick, attached to his bike frame, as protection against dogs. My general tactic now is to stop pedalling and use the Gordon Buchanan ‘Hey, Bear’ approach. It seems to have worked so far, but a bamboo stick would probably be good back-up. The furry Frenchman is heading North to Hua Hin, then getting a ferry across the Gulf of Thailand to the delightful city of Pattaya. Good luck in that shithole mate.

On the outskirts of Chumphon I take a circuitous bypass round the city, just to avoid Google mapping my way through the centre. I find the ‘Love You Resort’ down a side street off the ring-road. With that kind of name I was half expecting it to be a Love Hotel, but I’m pretty sure it’s just motel units with an odd name. I wouldn’t say I’m 100% sure, mind you.

For dinner I cross the highway and take advantage of a giant Tesco Lotus and its bakery department. Half a dozen sugary pastries and strawberry milk probably aren’t the healthiest option. Nevertheless it’s got me away from rice, noodles and soup for an evening, so that has to be a good thing.

The Quiet Beaches

25th FEBRUARY 2020

Breakfast at the Srisupawadee Resort has been arranged by the same girl responsible for cleaning, check-ins and everything else at the motel. This morning she serves up a huge bowl of rice porridge with a poached egg in the middle. It looks a bit like paper mache mix and is quite tasteless until I add a few squirts of soy sauce. I’ve also been given a small fruit loaf which I just dip into the gloop. It’s far from gourmet, yet should be filling enough to keep me going for most of the day. To drink I have the bizarre ‘Super Coffee’, which is coffee, milk and sugar all in the one sachet. It tastes surprisingly good, which makes up for the rice porridge.

I ride back out the village, then inland again, before rejoining the main highway South. At this hour the morning sun is rising to my left and casts welcome, cooling shadows onto my side of the road. I’m benefitting from a pleasant tree-lined cycle today, through National Park and palm tree plantations which makes my task so much easier. With all this tree cover I’m crusing along quite well, and even allow myself to think I might slowly be getting used to this malarkey again. Just as my mind is wandering I’m surprised by a ‘Hello’ from another cyclist behind me, which turns out to be a sixty-something Aussie bloke who’s here for a few weeks on holiday. He says he saw me cycling yesterday, and we ride together for five kilometres until he turns off towards his beach resort.

I’m able to leave the main highway at the exit for Ban Krut Beach, although it also means leaving the shady trees behind. This smaller road is far more exposed and the sun is now directly in front of me, beating down relentlessly on my forearms. I’m within 10km of my destination, but I still stop for some food just to have a break and get out of the sun. The lady at the Plastic Chair Cafe cooks up a standard chicken fried rice, although doesn’t include any chillies, probably in deference to me being a Westerner. The result is actually a little bland without a touch of spiciness.

Recharged, I carry on until I reach the turn off for Wat Thang Sai, a hilltop Buddhist temple with fairytale-looking spires. My plan is to return here tomorrow on my Rest Day, but as I’m already here I think I might as well pop up now. The slope is gradual at first, then steepens so much that I have to jump off and push nearer the top. I’m puffing and sweating like nobody’s business, yet in an odd way I’m almost enjoying it. My reward for this effort is a huge, golden Buddha at the top, sitting cross-legged and staring serenely out to sea. The fairytale temple itself is only accessible by walking up a long pathway, so I have to miss out on that. I don’t fancy leaving my bike and panniers unattended for so long, even if they were chained up. As I descend I can look back up and see the temple’s spires poking above the canopy of surrounding trees.

I take the beachfront road into Ban Krut, past a few hotels, restaurants, houses and even some open ground. Thankfully the town doesn’t look too developed. My accommodation is a hotel about fifty metres back from the beach, where I jump into a swimming pool within ten minutes of checking in. I can feel the sweat and toil of today melting away in the cool water. Once I get out I lie on a shaded poolside lounger and promptly fall asleep. My seven straight days of cycling have caught up with me.

For my day off I had planned to get up early for sunrise over the ocean. However, I wake up during the night, think better of it and roll over to switch my alarm off. By morning, only ten minutes after the sun has risen I look out my window to see a pinky-orange ball hanging just above the horizon. Damn, it looked like it would have been a good one !

This hotel does a complimentary breakfast and, although it’s pretty standard fare, you can eat as much as you want. I have extra helpings of cereal, toast, watermelon slices and mini bananas, all washed down with the strangely addictive Super Coffee. Then I have a pretty chilled Rest Day that includes clothes washing, a seafood curry lunch and a bit more time poolside. I set my alarm again with the thought of catching sunset before I leave tomorrow.

When I wake up the next morning my room is suspiciously light, which is an odd outcome given that I set my alarm for 6.15am. I look out and it’s definitely past sunrise. What the Hell ? It turns out my phone had a large overnight update to process and, consequently, this wiped all the alarms. Luckily, It’s cloudy over the sea anyway, so I didn’t miss out on sunrise.

For breakfast I have at least double helpings of everything that’s on offer, and can sense the staff talking about me as I return for my final round of toast and jam. My usual excuse for gluttony is reasoning that I’ll need the energy for cycling, yet today I’ll only be travelling 40km down the coast. This short distance means I faff around till after 11.00am, even going as far as to borrow a pair of scissors from the breakfast area to cut my big toenails. It’s a bit of a grim thought for the next person snipping the top off a Super Coffee sachet, but it’s something that really had to be done.

With time on my side today I take a quiet road that runs alongside the beach, which is a gorgeous picture of palm trees and aquamarine sea. It’s a lovely ride, and gets me wondering why Ban Krut Beach isn’t far more popular. I’m glad it’s not, mind you. I’ve stopped to take pictures when I’m approached by a couple on bikes. Saeed and Sharareh are from Iran and on a trip from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, through Thailand and then onto Laos and Vietnam. They call themselves ambassadors and urban diplomats for their country, no doubt hoping to change people’s perceptions about Iran because they always get such a bad press in the West. However, I’ve found that among international cycle tourers Iran is a destination where travellers constantly remark on how friendly the people are. I tell them I’d love to cycle there one day, but getting an Iranian visa might prove difficult with a UK passport.

The pair were held up for a week in Malaysia, due to an episode of aching joints which resulted in hospital visits for them both. Their first thought was ‘Coronavirus’ as it’s currently all over the media, but the pain was eventually diagnosed as infection from mosquito bites. I give them what advice I can from cycling in Vietnam last year, and they advise me on what to expect in Malaysia – ‘The roads are so busy. And it’s hot. Really hot !’ We have a round of photos, with Sarareh popping a baseball hat on first because she doesn’t want any evidence of her Muslim head being uncovered while travelling.

Carrying on, I follow the coast as much as I can, before the road veers inland through jungle and past tiny settlements. I run the gauntlet of three ‘Dog Houses’ in a row, where the bloody animals come charging out their garden like barking, snapping missiles and run alongside me. Like a horrible chain reaction, the dog at the first house sets off the dog at the second, who in turn sets off the third. None of them look like they’re actually going to try and bite me; it seems more of a territorial warning to keep away from their owner’s house. Still, I never want to fully test that theory.

The rest of my ride is on a larger road, which speeds things up until a Plastic Chair Cafe lunch of pork with rice and a little bowl of soup. I continue just past the town of Bang Saphan and then turn onto a small concrete road which takes me back to the coast. I’m staying right on the beach in a motel-type complex which takes 500 Baht from me as a deposit. This is the first time on the trip that I’ve been asked for a deposit. They must think I look really dirty. Or dodgy. Or both.

Before it gets dark I walk along a decent, fairly clean beach with only a few locals for company on the sand. I pass handfuls of lobster traps, all piled on top of each other and with palm leaves woven into their roofs, presumably to make the lobsters think they’re heading for some kind of shelter, rather than a trap. For dinner I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe behind the beach and ask if they have noodles. No, it’s chicken fried rice again ! I’m going to actively avoid rice for my next few meals as it seems like it’s all I’ve been eating lately. When I get back to my room I set my alarm for sunrise again, hopeful that I’ll get to see it climbing over the sea before I leave the East Coast.