13th MARCH 2020
Nelson’s two-storey house is large and roomy, but also surprisingly cool inside. Upstairs, my bedroom is particularly airy as the windows have been left open all day. They remain open throughout the night too, letting a wonderfully cool breeze rush through the mosquito screens and into my room. I think this is the most comfortable night I’ve had on the trip without the help of air-conditioning.
I wake to find a series of WhatsApp messages from Nelson, saying he’s already left for work and also telling me where to find ingredients for breakfast. ‘Make Yourself at Home’ is the main gist of the messages and, once again, I’m amazed at the openness and generosity of a Warmshowers host. I only met this bloke yesterday afternoon and now I’ve been given free run of his house before I leave. I’m not entirely alone though – a massive tan coloured dog called ‘Plawan’ is sprawled at the flyscreen door, clearly visible to passers by and about the best burglar deterrent you could wish for. This brute of a beast is the reason my host can be so casual about leaving windows open all day. It was Nelson’s daughter who named the dog when she was four years old. However, no-one is quite sure why she chose this particular name. Apparently ‘Plawan’ translates as ‘Big Fish’.
Although I’ve been given permission to search for breakfast food, it still feels wrong to have a large-scale rummage around in someone else’s home. I could be extravagant and raid the fridge for fancy ingredients, but I dont want to take the piss. A handful of home-made cookies and some bread with honey fill me up nicely. Then, just as I’m loading my bike at the front door, Nelson pulls his car into the driveway. He’s had a meeting sprung on him at work and has rushed home to change into a business shirt. I’m quite glad he’s turned up, as now I get the chance to say Goodbye and thank him for his hospitality. It’s about 10.30am by the time I get away.
For a couple of kilometres I retrace the route I took into Trang, before turning South and out past the city’s airport. Today’s ride is a relatively short 45km, although I’m still plodding along quite slowly after yesterday’s draining heat and humidity. It’s a pleasingly straightforward cycle too, all on the one main road and with no major direction changes. Nevertheless, I still like to check Google maps every now and then to see how I’m progressing. I’m in the process of doing just that when a young traffic cop pulls up on a motorbike and asks what I’m up to. Handily, I’m able to show him the Google map on my phone, which tells him where I’ve come from and exactly where I’m cycling to. He zooms in and is satisfied when he recognises the name of the hotel marked as my final destination. That’s the first time I’ve been stopped by the cops in Thailand, despite seeing hundreds of traffic police and passing through dozens of temporary roadblocks between regions. On all the previous occasions I’ve just been waved through without any fuss.
For my final half hour I’m able to get off the main road, travelling through scores of rubber tree plantations on my way into Palian. I check into the Cupid Hotel, which seems slightly too posh for the town that surrounds it, and leave my bike at the stairs behind reception. My evening food wander reveals that Palian is an odd little place. Unless I’ve missed something, this must be the first town in Thailand where I’ve been unable to find a Plastic Chair Cafe. My sustenance comes at a food stall where I choose two portions from their various chicken-on-a-stick options. The first of my lucky dip choices tastes like it could be chicken livers, while the second seems like barbecued chicken pieces in a bland orange sauce.
Back at the hotel I receive the e-mail I’ve been dreading for days. My kids will definitely not be flying out to Singapore to meet me in April. The Australian government is now advising their citizens against any non-essential overseas travel because of the Coronavirus outbreak. As much as I hoped I’d be wrong, I could see this outcome was starting to look more likely as time wore on. With infection numbers rising worldwide it’s become inevitable that some countries would impose travel restrictions or think about closing their borders. I still feel completely gutted though. The whole reason for me being in South-East Asia was to meet up and spend time with my kids. The cycle trip was just background so I could indulge myself for a couple of months on the way. Most of my evening is spent staring at the wall, my eyes glazed over and my mind numbed into a melancholy trance. I settle down to sleep feeling sadder than I have done in years.
Last night’s news leaves me with a bit of a quandary; reaching Singapore would have been be the perfect conclusion to this cycle trip, simply because that’s where I was due to meet my kids in April. However, now that my kids can’t travel, I start to wonder if there’s any point in making Singapore my final destination. There’s also the very real prospect of Singapore having closed it’s borders by the time I get there anyway.
With all these uncertainties swirling round my head I decide that, for the time being, I’m going to continue cycling. It would feel pointless and hollow to come this far and then just meekly give up. I might not be allowed into Singapore, but I’m going to get as close as I can under these unusual circumstances. At least if I carry on cycling it will provide me with something to focus on. And, after the depressing news about not seeing my kids, I need all the distraction I can get right now.
My mood hasn’t improved much by the time I leave Palian, and isn’t helped by the fact that I still can’t find a Plastic Chair Cafe for breakfast. I’m ten minutes out of town before I spot a roadside drinks bar that also masquerades as a part-time food stall. It appears the only foodstuffs they can offer me this morning are Pau (sweet, steamed buns with a minced meat filling). Three large takeaway buns are hungrily purchased, one for immediate consumption and two for snacks on the road. I follow a flat, two-lane highway for the first 20km, passing through small towns, occasional patches of untouched jungle and the ever present rubber-tree plantations. Although this main road isn’t busy, I still take the chance to divert to a minor route when the chance comes along. Once I veer off it’s like entering another world. Now I’m cycling through shady forest and past a number of tiny, scattered settlements. It seems that every second person shouts Hello as I pass, which helps to cheer me up just a little bit. It’s so good to be far from the well trodden track today.
By about half distance I’m back onto the main road again, fuelled by my remaining Pau and drinking ridiculous amounts of water. My final hour is ridden in familiar slow motion, over a series of gradual up and down slopes, just as the searing mid-day sun moves directly overhead. By 1.00pm I’ve reached the small town of Khuan Pho, where I ride a couple of kilometres off the main road and down a dirt track to find my accommodation. The Payabangsa Resort turns out to in the middle of nowhere, a group of motel units amidst a field of brown grass with tall, jungly hills to the Eastern horizon. When I arrive, a handful of local kids are swimming in an irrigation ditch that runs between the two sets of units. If I didn’t have such marvellous air-con in my unit I’d probably brave the dirty grey water and jump in to join them.
In the early evening I walk back into town on another fruitless search for a Plastic Chair Cafe. Instead I visit a grocery shop for bakery goods and a pavement food stall for more chicken-on-a-stick lucky dip. The food stall girl offers me some rice to go with the chicken and carefully bags up a takeaway portion for me. By the time I’m back at the motel my t-shirt has transformed from light green into patchy dark with sweat. The atmosphere is so oppresive tonight that the simple act of being outdoors prompts a flood of perspiration. I have dinner inside, eating the vast majority of my munchies while the air-conditioning hums loudly on full power. The uneaten bakery goods will do for tomorrow’s breakfast. And, barring border closures, tomorrow should be my final day of cycling in Thailand.