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 …