(Not So) Happy Feet

11th MARCH 2020

There’s not much in the way of accommodation that splits my journey equally between here and Trang. I have to settle for a motel in a place called Khlong Thom, which is only one-third of the total distance. At least this means today should be an easy ride, so I’m able to wake a bit later and amble down to breakfast at my leisure. It’s the same All You Can Eat arrangement as yesterday, with another squadron of small birds darting in and out of the open-air dining hall in search of scraps.

I leave Ao Nang on the same road that I cycled in on, uphill out of town and with the sun searing into my right hand side. The first 30km are a bit of a mundane cycle, ridden in busy traffic on a road that skirts round the provincial capital of Krabi. Then I rejoin the main highway, which is surprisingly quiet after all the bustling market traffic around Krabi town. As I move further South the craggy limestone cliffs that were such a feature in Phang Nga province are becoming far less common. Now the road is flat, straight and rather featureless.

By 2.00pm I’ve reached Khlong Thom, a small town that stretches either side of the main highway. My two-storey motel, with a car park that’s been overgrown by weeds, is one street back from the main road. Three stray-looking dogs bark and run towards me, which is a bit disconcerting, but they just have a sniff and a careful inspection of their new arrival. Otherwise, the place seems unattended. I knock at the reception window as I can see a TV switched on inside. There’s no answer. I just sit on the ground outside reception, surrounded by the dogs who seem to have accepted me now. I’m there about twenty minutes before the owner opens the reception door and looks genuinely surprised to see me sitting on the ground outside. When he notices my bike he changes my room from first floor to ground floor, showing an awareness that you don’t often get with accommodation owners. Once inside, I’m pleased to see that the room looks almost luxurious compared to the building’s messy exterior.

In the evening I only have to venture round the corner to find a collection of food stalls where I stop for dinner. Through a combination of my gestures and their broken English I order a chicken noodle soup, not realising it will be served with two scrawny chicken feet perched hideously on the surface. I’ve tasted these morsels before as part of my ‘try anything’ motto, although I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. I recall trying to pick the tiniest sliver of meat from a bony foot, coupled with the feeling of tiny, scratchy claws inside my mouth. However, despite those grim memories, I decide I’ll try again. The experiment lasts all of five seconds, before a half chewed foot is extracted from my gob. They’re still awful.

When I get back to the motel, it looks like the three stray dogs have now shape-shifted into a trio of stray cats. They all sit quietly in the shadows and regard me with evil intent as I walk through the car park. It feels like a scene from a Stephen King film. When I wake the following morning I’m relieved the horror movie cats haven’t tried to devour me or possess my soul during the night.

Prior to this trip I made a promise to myself – there would be no 100km days this time. For me it’s just too bloody exhausting to ride that sort of distance in tropical heat. Plus, these long days are becoming increasingly humid and oppresive in the lead up to rainy season. Each day further South and each day closer to wet season seems to become more sultry and energy-sapping. This continual build up of heat makes March the hottest month in these parts. Today’s ride of 90km will be quite long enough.

Leaving Khlong Thom I stop for a fried rice breakfast, before continuing my ride South under a flawlessly blue sky. My first 40km are spent on flat, hot and unremarkable highway, the kilometres passing by quickly and efficiently. I could very easily stay on this road all the way to Trang, simply covering the distance, but decide to take a more interesting minor road instead. My change of direction brings me straight into shaded woodland and a welcome, breezy headwind. A few kilometres later I’m cycling through jungle and rubber tree plantations. Trucks with harvested palm oil trees now pass regularly too, their heavy loads of burnt palm balls sitting high above the truck’s cargo bed. Inevitably, a certain amount of spillage occurs when cramming so much load into an open top truck. I spot handfuls of the bright red pods on the road, some with their oily bounty still intact.

I’m not due to meet my Warmshowers host till after 3.00pm, so I don’t want to reach Trang too early. I stop at a modest Plastic Chair Cafe, where chicken and rice appears to be the only option available. The lady owner brings my meal and offers me a small bowl of watery soup as an afterthought. She sits at the next table, facing me and directly behind me. A minute later she sneezes in my direction and I immediately think ‘Coronavirus !’ It seems that any slight cough or ailment theses days is thought of as a potential virus symptom. Mind you, she has just prepared all my food, so I’m fucked if she does have it.

Carrying on, I find that I’m still going to reach Trang too early. I delay my arrival by sitting in a little pagoda outside a posh looking science college, almost drifting off to sleep on the wooden bench inside. Ironically, after deliberately killing time, I then struggle with the afternoon heat and don’t get to my host’s place till nearly 4.00pm. I ride into a modern housing development that looks more European than Thai, to be greeted by an American teacher called Nelson. He must recognise my fatigue as he promptly goes about preparing a fresh fruit smoothie in his blender. A mixture of crushed ice, banana, blueberry, mango and ice cream gets whirred round and then poured into a jug. My God, it tastes blooming delicious ! I feel instantly reinvigorated.

In the evening Nelson drives us a couple of kilometres to the Trang night market, an open-air collection of food stalls, bars and clothing shops. I visit three different sellers and enjoy a mixed bag of spicy sausages, crab and meat balls, before sitting down for a chat with my host. He’s in his early sixties and has adopted that shaved head and goatee look that some men of his vintage seem to favour. It’s also pretty clear that he dyes his facial hair too. His chest hairs are pure white, whereas his goatee and moustache are jet black. I try hard to avoid looking at the goatee, but it proves comically difficult to ignore. He’s a kind bloke in that he regularly hosts passing cyclists, and often at very short notice (Iranian couple Saeed and Sharareh also stayed here). However, although good with travellers, he’s quite disparaging about Thai people and looks down on them if they can’t speak English. I ask if he can speak Thai, to which he replies ‘No, and I’ve no interest in learning it’. I’m flabbergasted that someone wouldn’t want to learn the language of a country they’ve lived in for years. Especially when that someone is a teacher.

When we get back he tells me about the ‘spirit house’ that sits on the vacant land next door. These small shrines are everywhere in South-East Asia, looking like mini houses and often mounted on a pillar. Nelson says these spirit houses are built for spirits that may have been disturbed during the construction of a home or business. Offerings of food, drink or gifts are then left in the shrine to appease any spirits that might bring bad luck. If the spirits are ‘active’ the offerings might be replaced every week. Bizarrely, the most commonly seen gifts in spirit houses are bottles of Red Fanta. At first I thought the red colour must represent blood, but apparently it’s just because the spirits prefer sugary snacks and drinks. And, to be fair, who doesn’t love a Strawberry Fanta ?

Nelson gives me the option of staying an extra day if I want to. It transpires that his Thai wife and six year old daughter have gone away till the weekend and I think he’ll be bored without their company. I’m half tempted by the offer, but I want to press on and get into Malaysia quickly in case they close their borders to combat the Covid-19 virus. If the border does close in the next couple of days then I can’t leave Thailand and the trip is over. At least if I cross into Malaysia it will buy me some time to trundle down the country towards Singapore. Although, who knows what the border situation will be by the time I get to Singapore. This Coronavirus outbreak is beginning to sound a lot more serious now.

 

 

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