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 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.