27th MARCH 2019
It’s 9.00am when I leave the Grumpy Indians Motel, back-tracking into town for breakfast at a street food Plastic Chair Cafe. As usual I don’t have much clue what I’m ordering, so just point to a curried meat and veg mixture, mostly because the remaining choices look far too daunting for breakfast. The meal comes with steamed rice and is smaller than I would have hoped for, but My God it’s spicy ! By the time I’ve finished I’ve drunk an entire jug of water, poured over ice, in a failed attempt to extinguish the fire in my mouth. I’m sweating before I’ve even begun today’s ride.
With my mouth still burning I leave Klong Yai and rejoin the gloriously smooth main road towards my destination of Trat. After the last two months I’m still a little shocked to be cycling on such perfectly surfaced, litter-free roads. I pass through a lot of roadworks on today’s cycle, the excavations suggesting that most of this route will be upgraded to dual carriageway in the future. The construction workers are a friendly bunch; I receive far more random Hellos than I would have expected in either Vietnam or Cambodia. The ‘Land of Smiles’ is living up to its reputation today.
The morning passes smoothly, although by afternoon things have started to get sticky and humid under a blanket of oppressive cloud cover. I’m trundling along, my thoughts turning to the possibilty of rainshowers, when a sudden and almighty ‘Ping’ resonates from the rear of my bike. My first guess is that it might be one of the elasticated bungee cords used to tie down all my gear, but then I realise it was probably the sound of a spoke breaking. It was. All that extra weight on the back of my bike takes such a toll. The spoke has snapped cleanly in two, and now the rear wheel has a distinct wobble when it rotates as a result. I always seem to get these mechanical issues towards the end of a trip, as if fate is tempting me to just keep going without repair as ‘I’m almost there anyway’.
Nursing the bike along slowly I reach a Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch, where an English speaking customer translates what they have on offer. My helper asks where I’m from and what my name is, although he has to settle for ‘Lob’ after a few struggles trying to say ‘Rob’. He tells me his name is ‘O’ which, even for me, is not too difficult a mouthful. It’s not often I can pronounce a local’s name better than they can attempt mine. My lunch choice is chicken noodle soup, which arrives with the gruesome spectacle of a chicken’s foot resting on the surface. Remembering my previous experience with this cuisine, I simply remove the appendage and leave it to one side. Nevertheless, the soup and noodles have a nice homely taste to them, despite all the bony chicken morsels.
The afternoon is a slow motion ride towards Trat, with my back wheel appearing slightly more warped every time I look at it. There are distance markers at every kilometre for the final 15km, which only seems to make my progress even slower. I’ve become quite adept at judging distances by now, so I’m disheartened that the markers are always a couple of hundred metres further on than I’d expect them to be. This slow progress continues until my destination, where I find my accommodation up a cute little side street flanked by guesthouses and restaurants. The street has white lines painted down the middle, yet is barely wide enough for a single car. I check into the Residence Guesthouse, my bike chained to a concrete bench outside with the promise that I can bring it indoors overnight.
By the following morning I’ve decided to spend an extra day in the large-ish town of Trat. I head downstairs to an outside table beside the quiet road for a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast. Seated next to me are an English couple in their thirties, waiting for a taxi which will take them to the town’s pier for a ferry to the nearby island of Koh Chang. The guy asks if I’m on a pushbike, and then reveals that he cycled almost full circle round Australia a few years ago. It also turns out that he cycled the same Adelaide to Darwin stretch that I rode on my first big cycle trip in 2006. Small World. They tell me they are both teachers who quit their jobs last year to go travelling, which is very liberating to hear and something we all have a good belly laugh at. We chat for a bit before they head back upstairs to pack, while I slowly sup a filter coffee and say Hello to any locals that wander past.
My first port of call today is a bike shop to see if I can get a replacement for my broken spoke. There are a couple of options, but I just make for the closest one and show them the damage. An English speaking girl at the counter is assigned to me and offers me the tiniest of red plastic chairs to sit on. She’s a local, but is wearing blue-coloured contact lenses over her brown eyes, which gives her an unexpectedly striking look. I spend a while chatting with her, distracted by her stunning eyes, while a bike mechanic deals with my wheel. The repair process is a long one as, once again, this shop doesn’t have spokes to fit my UK-sized wheel in amongst their stock of spares. The guy has to cut one to size, then threads it onto my wheel. I’m in the shop about forty-five minutes.
Once the young bike mechanic is finished the old shop owner inspects his work carefully and thoroughly, like Mister Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid. He puts my bike on a stand and spins the back wheel, clearly showing that there’s still a slight warping as it turns. He grunts, then seems to be giving the young mechanic a bit of a telling off for not getting it perfectly straight. He shows the kid which spokes are contributing to the wobble, and together they take the bike away to ‘true’ the tyre by adjusting the tension on spokes that need it. When they return the wheel looks perfectly curved, solid and smooth. Mr Miyagi advises them to charge me 100 Baht for their efforts, which means that all my wheel problems have been expertly fixed for only £2.50.
In the afternoon I ride my newly fixed bike to a Buddhist temple that I’d seen on the way into town yesterday. The site is dominated by a huge golden dome, shaped like an enormous shiny hand bell, while a pair of ornate serpents twist round the railings on each side of the steps leading up to the shrine. The main temple in the centre is long and tall, under a steep, decorated roof with upturned, curved corners. Standing either side are it’s warrior guardians, fierce looking golden statues with green faces, red eyes, tusks and fangs. I spend ages exploring the peaceful surrounds, feeling like I’m a million miles away from the busy highway just beyond the outer wall.
By late afternoon I’m sitting in a hairdressers, about to face the lottery of asking for a haircut with a language barrier. I’m getting really woolly at the sides and on top, so try to mime Number One clippers and a bit of a snip, snip on top. The lady seems to understand the universal language of hairdressing and does a grand job, in between answering her phone and nipping out to pick up her daughter from a friend’s car. She trims my eyebrows too, as hairdressers are prone to do with men of a certain age. Freshly shorn, I move a mere two doors down for a mild, creamy massaman curry and my second pineapple shake of the day.
On the way back I stop at a 7-11 for some easy-option Western munchies and chance upon a group of locals playing what looks like petanque in a park. At first I think it’s an odd sight to see this French version of bowls in Thailand, but I later discover that Thailand are currently second only to France in the sport’s World Rankings ! I also learn that the sport forms a compulsory part of Thai Military Service, so I guess I won’t be quite so surprised the next time I see it being played.
I’ve had quite a productive day for a Rest Day. My bike is fixed, my hair is cut and my clothes have been washed. Tomorrow I plan to make for Chanthaburi as I continue creeping my way slowly towards Bangkok.