9th MARCH 2020
My sleep is shattered at some ungodly hour by the incessant screeching of cockerels in the bamboo patch next to my unit. As I’m already awake, I figure I might as well have an early start, rising like a zombie to get dressed and packed, before slowly shuffling off for breakfast. I’m served at the reception area, a tiny, open air office outside the basement kitchen consisting of one chair, one desk and a handful of tourist brochures. When my main breakfast arrives it’s a little disappointing – a bland plate of fried egg, hot dog sausage and two triangles of drab-looking processed ham. This sparse offering is what Thais refer to as an ‘American’ breakfast, which turns out to be rather ironic given the miniscule size of the portion. Luckily I’m also given side dishes of toast, water melon and mini bananas which fill the gap and prove far more appetising.
As I eat, the sun is only just starting to creep up over the steep limestone cliffs behind the house. The rest of the sky is an unbroken pale blue, promising a baking hot day for my ride of 85km. I avoid the busy main road when I leave Phang Nga, opting for a quieter route near the coast that also acts as a short cut. My first ten minutes are ridden in the cool, protective shadow of a huge cliff, in direct contrast with the long hot hours that are destined to follow. I ride South, then East, then North as the road negotiates it’s way through a scattered network of tall karst formations. It’s clearly a lot easier to build a road that meanders round these cliffs, rather than tunnelling through them.
Because the road is so flat I’m able to zip along quickly, my speed creating a slight breeze that’s just enough to keep me cool. Normally in this heat my forearms would be glistening with sweat and uncomfortably hot. Today though, they look and feel fine. I cruise through small towns, past temples, mosques, rubber tree plantations, jungle and basic wooden houses. In one town I stop for water at a 7-11, enjoying the store’s air-conditioning as much as the short breather. The girl who serves me must have to upsell as part of her job, asking if I’d like to buy a take-away coffee as well. I tell her that I will, as long as it’s an iced coffee and I can sit inside their air-conditioned shop to drink it. I spend the next ten minutes supping an iced latte and watching the goings on in the world outside. By the time I’m finished I’m actually starting to feel cold, the air-con having worked so well that it’s chilling all the sweat on my torso.
At about the halfway point I rejoin the main highway, speeding along on flat straight roads for a further 20km, before turning off towards Ao Nang and the coast. I don’t stop for lunch until I’ve cycled three-quarters of today’s kilometres, thinking it’s better to leave only a short distance for when I’m lazy and sluggish after food. Lunch is spent in a simple Plastic Chair Cafe, which sits in a cool, shady space underneath the owner’s wooden house. The menu is printed in both Thai and English, a sure sign that I’m getting closer to a tourist hot-spot. Another sign is that the owner seems to have toned down the spiciness of her food to suit Western tastes. I imagine she must go easy on the chillies when cooking for foreigners, but this leaves me with a prawn noodle soup that’s quite tasteless and watery.
My final 20km to the coast are ridden through shaded woodland and in the shadow of towering limestone cliffs. When Western tourists on scooters start to become a common sight, I know that I’ve almost reached town. A cooling downhill then takes me through dense forest to the outskirts of Ao Nang, where I follow a narrow concrete road to the Royal Nakara Hotel. It’s quite posh by my standards, situated on a hill above town and with a bedroom so large it could easily have been sub-divided into two. I drag my sweaty body into the shower and have an extra long soak, while at the same time washing all my dirty cycling gear on the shower floor. My fancy-ish hotel probably wouldn’t encourage this sort of behaviour, but it badly needed doing. Afterwards I sit on the huge West-facing balcony, watching the sun set over distant hills whilst surrounded by an assortment of drip-drying clothes.
At night I intend to walk into town for food, but get accosted by an Indian bloke outside his restaurant who promises me 20% off the menu prices and half-price beer. Even as I accept his offer I realise that his reduced prices will still be higher than in a non-tourist town. I step inside to have Thai Red Curry with chicken and then chill with a large Leo Beer. I don’t realise it at the time, but this will be my last beer of the trip.
The next morning I head downstairs to a large, open air dining hall for breakfast. It’s an All You Can Eat option where you get a cooked plate to begin with – scrambled egg, hot dog sausages, triangles of ham and the crispiest, crispiest bacon. Then I get stuck into cereal, toast, fruit and coffee whilst watching tiny birds zoom into the dining area and flit around searching for crumbs.
By mid morning I’ve wandered down the big hill into town and take a walk along the beachfront. It’s a bit of a weird feeling being back here, having visited previously in 2002 with my (thankfully) ex-wife. Obviously the town has changed and modernised since then, but this is down to the passage of time rather than having to rebuild after the 2004 tsunami. Ao Nang got off lightly compared to other coastal settlements as the tsunami waves here were much smaller than in Phuket or Khao Lak. The town also had warnings phoned in from Phuket, which gave people enough time to move away from the beach and get to higher ground. The coastline afterwards was messy with debris and smashed long-tail boats, but most businesses were up and running again within days.
I have a very literal Rest Day, which mostly involves blogging and an afternoon siesta. I’m back down at the beach around 5.00pm, where a fresh sea breeze has helped dissipate the worst of the day’s heat. The centre of the beach is packed with tourists and long-tail boats, so I wander towards a set of soaring limestone cliffs that dominate the far corner. The further I walk, the more peaceful it becomes. The sun has begun its descent behind me, and out to sea I can spot the jagged outline of Phi Phi island on the horizon. There are two islands in this group; a smaller one (Phi Phi Ley) where The Beach was filmed, and a larger one (Phi Phi Don) which is crammed with tourists, bars and accommodation. I had toyed with the idea of going over, but then decided against it. Visiting an overcrowded party island, swarming with gap-year kids and pissed-up backpackers probably wouldn’t add much to my Thailand experience.
It’s almost dark by the time I leave the beach and start walking up the hill to my hotel. On the way I stop at a street food stall for some Pad Thai with prawns and a mango smoothie. When it’s my turn to order I ask for ‘Pad Fry’ for some reason, which generates some strange looks and confusion from the girl who serves me. The smoothie, made in front of me with juicy fresh mango, is delicious. The ‘Pad Fry’ is average, perhaps to punish me for getting my words wrong.
In the evening I receive an offer to stay with a Warmshowers host in Trang, 145km to the South-East. Ideally this would mean two days of cycling 70km. Nevertheless, a quick search for en route accommodation dictates that I’ll be riding 55km on the first day and 90km on the second.