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.