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 Sarareh 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 perspectives 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.

 

 

 

Creeping down the Coast

23rd FEBRUARY 2020

Sunday morning sees me leaving Cha-am and the Aussie-Thai guesthouse. The owner bloke is up and about quite early, seemingly none the worse for last night’s beer consumption. I’m continuing down the coast today, which means that in 25km I’ll reach the heavily developed tourist city of Hua Hin, although I know already that I won’t be stopping. If I wasn’t too keen on Cha-am, then I’m pretty sure I won’t like Hua Hin.

The road between the two tourist spots is surprisingly busy for a Sunday, but a strong, steady tailwind has me flying along whilst barely even touching the pedals. By the time I reach Hua Hin, I find it’s jam-packed with cafes, hotels and tourists. There also seems to be a lot of old Western guys gadding around on motorbikes with Thai women on the back. A few of the old blokes have gone for the shaved head and goatee look, probably not realising that this makes them look about as creepy as Gary Glitter. I don’t see that there’s much public access to the beach, although I do spot a way through via an alleyway beside a hotel. I pop down to check it out. The beach itself looks like it could be quite pleasant, but there’s not a single person sunbathing; the powerful wind would only result in their bodies being blasted by grains of sand. The blowy conditions have brought plenty of windsurfers and kitesurfers out, mind you. I carry on cycling, glad that my decision to miss Hua Hin has been vindicated.

Leaving town the road sweeps back inland, crosses a railway line and deposits me back down alongside what looks like a cycle path. Oh My Goodness, it IS a cycle path ! For the next 15km I speed along happily, separated from traffic and being pushed along effortlessly by the strong breeze. This easy section ends when the cycle path finishes and my road joins back up with the main highway. This bigger road feels ridiculously busy now after three days of quiet coastal roads. Luckily, I don’t have to suffer it for long as it’s only another 5km until my destination of Pran Buri.

My accommodation is at an OYO hotel, which I’ve noticed are fairly common in Thailand and only ever charge about £10 per night. Finances dictate that this probably won’t be my last visit to one of their establishments. The receptionist is happy for me to lift my bike up the stairs, wheel it along a corridor and keep it inside my room, which always scores extra ratings points from me. After a shower I head out for food, which involves crossing the main highway on foot to reach the town centre. I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe, where I get talking to the cook as she makes me a very garlicky chicken fried rice. She tells me she’s a bit of a cyclist herself, but modestly says she only ever rides about 40km at a time. I nod my approval and tell her that’s actually pretty good. I’ve only cycled 50km myself today.

Back at the hotel I make my way up to the roof for sunset. I’ve found that most buildings here have steps up to a roof level if you look for them. I get a good view over the tin-roofed neighbours, the colourful temple just beyond and an orangey-red sun dipping over hills on the horizon. Back in my room I get to thinking that my daily kilometres will have to start increasing pretty soon. If I keep faffing about with these 40km days it will be touch and go whether I make it to Singapore in time. And I’m not even taking Rest Days into account with that calculation. All these thoughts influence my mind as I try to decide on tomorrow’s destination. I end up choosing a place that’s 80km away, just to force myself into building up those distances. In reality though, it’s not the distances that are the problem, it’s cycling those distances in a blazing tropical heat.

Next morning I’ve got my head into the mindset of simply getting the kilometres done. I realise that I’ll have to put in a few days of eighty-plus kilometres on these flat roads if I want to rack up some distance and make it to Singapore. The downside is that I’ll need to be on the main highway all day if I want to achieve this. So, aided again by a slight tailwind, I just put my head down and get on with it.

There’s not so much in the way of roadside eateries today, with me passing up on a couple of potential food stops not long after town. Of course, after bypassing these cafes, it then takes ages till I see another one. I’ve cycled about 50km by the time I stop for pork with rice and some soup. The girl reaches straight for a bottle of Coke as well, because I’m a Westerner. While I’m eating, an older couple in their sixties pull up to the cafe. It turns out they’re from Holland and on a three day trip from Hua Hin, planning to get the train back there tomorrow after reaching Prachuap Khiri Khan tonight. Although they arrived at the cafe ten minutes later than I did, they still get up and leave before me. I sit and chill for another little while, giving the Dutchies a good head start to make sure I don’t catch them. I can’t really be arsed making small talk today.

I drag myself away from the cafe, then find it a chore to get going again. As is becoming the norm for this trip, I come over all drained for the last 15km of the day. This tiredness coincides with facing the first hill of any consequence since leaving Bangkok. It’s only a gradual climb, but made more difficult in direct sunlight and without a breath of air. I can feel sweat dripping down the side of my face. As I’m struggling, I catch myself wondering how the old Dutchies would have fared on their way up here.

Cycling past the busy town of Prachuap Khiri Khan I’m really starting to feel the heat. As the afternoon has progressed any shade in the left hand lane has disappeared, and now the sun has moved to my right. I can feel my right knee and calf are burning slightly, but I don’t stop as I’m so close to my destination. Eventually I do get off the main road and turn towards the small fishing town of Khlong Wan. My accommodation is at the Srisupawadee Resort, which makes it sound a lot more alluring than the two rows of motel units that it actually is. I’ve noticed that Thailand has a habit of putting the word ‘Resort’ behind any kind of accommodation to give the impression of extra luxury. If Eastenders was set in Thailand, the pub would be called The Queen Vic Resort. There’s no-one at reception when I arrive, although a woman doing the cleaning doubles up as receptionist and checks me in. Despite the motel unit exterior, the room itself is spacious and comfortable. The shower is even separate from the rest of the bathroom, whereas most accommodation in Thailand only has shower and toilet together in a Wet Room.

In the evening I take a walk through some little local streets and down to the seafront. There’s a long jetty with a huge concrete structure at the end, which looks like a set of truck loading bays for picking up fishing catch. I walk out along the jetty, passing over what could be a nice little beach, were it not littered by loads of plastic and trash. By rights, a concrete jetty and dirty beach don’t sound at all picturesque, but looking back to shore I can see an orange ball sun setting and reflecting hypnotically on the rippling water below me. Sometimes there’s beauty where you least expect it. On my way back the only eating option I pass is a street food stall selling fried bits and bobs, mostly on sticks. I fill myself up with three spring rolls and two fried chicken breast on a stick.

When I get back to the ‘Resort’ I notice that my head looks a bit red, which shouldn’t be the case as my forehead and nose are always shaded by the peak of my cycling helmet. Perhaps it’s just a result of being out in the heat for so long today. Nonetheless, I seemed to cope with the longer distance otherwise. As a reward I’ve decided to stay for two days after reaching Ban Krood Beach tomorrow. It’s about time I had my first Rest Day of this trip.

Language School

21st FEBRUARY 2020

For the first time on this trip I sleep right through the night without the help of air-conditioning. I’m stupidly chuffed with myself for achieving another small step on the long road to acclimatisation. Breakfast is rice soup with seafood, whilst once again sitting on decking overlooking the mangrove pond. When I check out I take some pictures of the owners with my bike, and the thing that strikes me most is just how small they look standing next to the bike. I feel like a giant beside them.

Today I’m steering well clear of the main highway, taking a winding road that follows a river down to the coast. Accompanying me this morning is a very strong wind which, with the twisty road, can move from headwind to tailwind within seconds. At the river mouth I have to cross a tall parabola bridge over the point where the river meets the sea. I can spot the waves below being blown into a choppy mess by the incessant wind. I’m starting to think about lunch by this point, but first I have to make my way through a flat, straight section bordered by hundreds of man-made salt pools. The seawater in each shallow, square pool is slowly evaporating under the harsh sun, until only salt remains. The salt is then formed into metre high cones, all ready to be bagged up. A squad of about thirty workers have just arrived on motorbikes as I ride past, most of them with heads completely covered against a long day of heat and reflective glare. It must be a tough gig.

I’m ravenous by the time I get past the salt pools, so just stop at the first Plastic Chair Cafe I see. It’s a family run affair, which takes up the whole area outside the front of their home. I end up with soup and rice, while a customer in his thirties chats to me despite his ropey English. The old guy who runs the place is different though – his English is really quite good, and he makes it his mission to give me a crash course in the Thai language. He gets a notepad, then draws a line down the middle so he can write the English word on one side and it’s Thai translation on the other. Whilst I’m eating he gets me to repeat the words in Thai and, just to make sure I’m paying attention, tests me on them later. I’m there about an hour, by which time I’ve ordered a papaya salad as well. The whole meal, plus a glass bottle of coke comes to 100 Baht (Neung Roi Baht). See, I was paying attention !

After lunch I have my usual slow afternoon and don’t cover the 15km to Phetchaburi until 2.30pm. I find the Banthai Guesthouse on a quiet residential street near the city centre, it’s wooden construction making it look like an old-style traditional home. My room on the first floor has been in direct sunlight all afternoon and the insides of the walls actually feel hot when I touch the wood. There’s no air-conditioning either, so it could be a sticky old night.

I take my bike to a cycle repair shop about five minutes from the guesthouse, where the little owner guy says he’s able to fix the spoke and to come back at 7.00pm. As it happens, 7.00pm turns into 8.30pm, but when I go back a second time my bike is sitting on a stand ready to go. He’s sorted my problem spoke and adjusted the tensions on all the others so the wheel now rotates smoothly. He tells me he’s even given my gears a quick service, even though I hadn’t asked for that. He charges me 200 Baht, which means that for £5 my bike is running smoothly and I have piece of mind.

The next morning I take advantage of a small complimentary breakfast put on by the guesthouse, served downstairs in the outdoor courtyard. I help myself to cereal, coffee, fruit and a mixture of small, sweet cakes in packets. I’m heading for the coast today, choosing the quieter roads once again and making for the small resort town of Cha-am. Getting to the coast is a bit of a slog though; the first 15km are into a constant headwind that’s blowing in steadily from the sea. All this changes at the ‘Dolphin Intersection’ roundabout, where I hang a right round the sea mammal sculptures and start riding South. The headwind that was my torment two minutes ago has now become a friendly tailwind. I’m not exactly hugging the coast, although I do catch glimpses of the sea through the intervening scrubby wasteground.

The wind is pushing me along so effortlessly and quickly that I’m almost in danger of being too early for check in. My delaying tactics centre around food consumption, where a Plastic Chair Cafe and a bowl of meaty noodle soup kill the required time, whilst also filling me up. Back on the road I find the approach to Cha-am is marked by an increasing number of coastal resorts. In my idealistic thoughts I was hoping Cha-am might be like a fishing village with the occasional tourist, but I’m way off the mark – the town is entirely given over to tourists.

When I find my guesthouse I’m checked in by a fifty-something Aussie guy with shaved head and jet black eyebrows. He’s a talkative bloke, and we chat for a bit while his Thai wife deals with room fees and passports. He tells me if I want to join him for a beer later he’ll be in the Red Lion pub, which is on the imaginatively named Bar Soi (Bar Street). For now, he says I can leave my bike at the entrance door alongside their rental scooters, but there’s no way in Hell I’m leaving it outside the front door overnight. We compromise and I lift it up to the first floor landing, although I still remove the front wheel to make it an even less attractive prospect for thieves.

By late afternoon I’m walking along the beach and dipping my feet into the Gulf of Thailand. There’s only a very narrow strip of sand though, and most beachgoers are sat on deckchair / lounger combos behind the beach itself. The whole spectacle is a little underwhelming if I’m honest. At night I pop out for some food and happen to stumble upon Bar Street. I can see the Red Lion pub beside another one that has a huge England flag draped on it’s back wall. I decide not to bother going for a drink. Why on earth would I travel all this way to have British beer in a British pub, surrounded by backpacking Brits and expats. I could do all of that in the UK.

I was going to stop in Hua Hin tomorrow, only 25km further down the coast and a larger and more developed version of Cha-am. After today though, I’m not so sure. There’s a fair chance I might just pedal on past …

 

 

Leaving BKK

19th February 2020

Today is the day I finally get to cycle out of Bangkok; one whole week after leaving Scotland. In reality, a few days of taking it easy was just what I needed to acclimatise and recover from jet-lag. Now it’s just my lack of fitness I have to work on.

My last Casa Picasso breakfast fills my belly, before Yorshi helps get my bike onto the pavement outside. He takes a couple of pictures of me in ‘about to depart’ pose and gives me his phone so I can find the Nine Miles Per Hour facebook page for him. My journey starts by following the same route I’ve already walked as a city tourist, past the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and over the Chao Phraya river. The road carries me South until a huge, complicated junction has me joining the Frontage Road that runs alongside the Rama II Motorway. This side road is for slow moving traffic like scooters and cyclists, but it also allows access to businesses that line the route. As I moved further away from Bangkok, I thought the glut of industries along the road would begin to thin out. They don’t. It’s a constant, built up trail of service, commercial and manufacturing companies all the way out of the capital.

For lunch I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe, which feels a bit like catching up with an old friend. It’s right beside the road, noisy and has a very home-made feel to it. I point to the rice cooker and the lady owner nods her head. She then points to some kind of meat and I nod my head, although I’ve no idea what she’s offering. Once I get stuck into the meal I realise that it’s pork strips with rice. Strangely, being surprised by what arrives on my plate is something that I’ve missed.

I struggle for the last 10km or so, devoid of energy, even though I’d only pencilled in a 40km day. Slowly I trundle to my accommodation at the New Friend Hotel, which is essentially just motel units right next to the main road. The thunder of traffic noise is destined to continue throughout the night. It’s not the most pleasant overnight stop, and it’s certainly not picturesque, but the main aim was just to get myself out of Bangkok. So, although I’ve not travelled far, I have achieved today’s objective.

The next morning I have a shower before leaving, due to the room getting stiflingly hot once I switch off the air-conditioning. I’d kept the air flow on all night, which I know isn’t the healthiest thing to do, but I just became too hot otherwise. Sleeping under air-con is probably the reason I spend most of the morning with my nose running like a tap. It’s a habit I’ll need to get out of. Breakfast is taken across the road from the motel, in the same Plastic Chair Cafe that I had dinner in last night. A simple chicken fried rice with fried egg on top does the job.

I’m back on the Frontage Road today, riding alongside the motorway but safely separated from it’s speeding mass of traffic. That is, until roadworks on the Frontage Road means that everyone has to join the main highway. My tactic is to keep as far left and out of everyone’s way as I can. I plod up a long sloping bridge over a river, noticing uneven bumps every few metres where the tarmac has begun to crack. On the down slope I’m particularly careful to freewheel slowly, yet still manage to jolt over one bump quite violently. I swear out loud using the worst possible combination of curses. It was such a bang that my mind turns to thoughts of punctures, and I check my rear tyre as I’m rolling along. Of course, if I’m ever having tyre issues it always has to be the rear wheel. Looking down it actually looks slightly warped. Fuck Sake.

Worrying about my back wheel means I take it even easier than before, lumbering along a road that’s still flanked by as much industry as when I left Bangkok. The bright side is that I do appear to have a lovely tailwind helping me along today. The ever-present Thai national flags at the roadside are all being blown to the horizontal in the same direction I’m heading. Being assisted by this wind is such a boon, as I start to wilt with about 10km to go again. It’s scary how unfit I’ve let myself become.

Just before the city of Samut Songkhram I stop for lunch. At a dirt floor Plastic Chair Cafe I’m supping my pork soup, thankful for the break and blankly staring at my bike. Absent-mindedly I notice the pattern of the spokes and see that one looks way out of kilter. It takes me a couple of seconds to realise that it’s become detached from the hub in the centre. I bet that was from the big jolt this morning. Double Fuck Sake. Although I’m annoyed, I know there’s not much I can do about it till I reach the bigger city of Phetchaburi tomorrow. I’ll just have to be a bit more careful until then.

My accommodation isn’t too far though, so I nurse my bike along and find a tranquil little oasis that’s the perfect antidote for two days of busy, urban cycling. I can still hear a dull traffic rumble as the place is only a few hundred metres from the main highway, but it feels like I’ve ridden into another world. The building is on wooden pillars, at one end of a large mangrove pond and sitting just in the water. As I push my bike along the walkway to my room I can look down and see shoals of large grey fish languishing in the shallows below. Every now and then something spooks them, and the quietness is broken by a frenzy of splashing.

The accommodation owner gives me an iced welcome drink, flavoured with Butterfly Pea Flower and served in a dimpled, silver bowl. She shows me the type of purple flower that has gone into making the drink and even shows me it’s Google images too, just so I know what I’m about to consume. It’s refreshing, predictably flower-scented and has a subtle bubble-gum taste to it. I drink slowly, taking in the surrounds while sitting on the boardwalk above the pond. There are a handful of wading birds, standing motionless in reed beds until they shoot their beaks into the water like an arrow, trying to nab an inattentive small fish. Then I spot something swimming along the water’s surface, looking almost snake-like in it’s movements. Blimey, is that a crocodile ? It takes a few moments to realise that it’s probably some kind of water monitor, a large aquatic lizard that’s native to South-East Asia. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

In the evening I go for a walk round the mangrove pond, just in time to witness an orange ball sun descending over a forest on the opposite side of the water. I return to the decking outside my room and sit down for prawn curry with rice and another flower-based drink, this time mixed with lemonade. All the while I’m eating there are about half a dozen geckos on the walls and ceiling, picking off any insects that are attracted by the lights. I sit there, quite content and happy to be in such a peaceful, idyllic spot. The battle to get out of Bangkok and the busy main highway already seem like a distant memory. Right then I make a vow to try and avoid the main highways as much as I can on this trip. If these sorts of destinations are my reward, then it’ll be worth cycling a few extra kilometres.