End Of Days

17th MARCH 2020

It’s March the 17th, which means my Rest Day in Alor Setar will coincide with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland. Nonetheless, piss-ups and pints of green Guinness are the last thing on my mind. All I feel is an overwhelming sense of relief that I won’t be cycling. I’ve spent the last six days riding in humid, mid-thirties heat and now I just want to rest, unwind and recuperate. As it turns out though, my Rest Day will be far from relaxing.

One thing I do want to get sorted is my broken wheel spoke, so I trundle off slowly to the nearest bike shop. When I speak to the owner I’m told he can’t help as he doesn’t have the tools required to fix spokes. I’m pretty sure he’s lying – I think it’s more because I’m a foreigner and he’s worried about catching Coronavirus. He directs me to an alternative shop, who say they’re able to help and for me to come back in one hour. I kill time in a Chinese-owned cafe across the road, where a noodle dish with anchovies becomes my lunch. When I return to the bike shop I get chatting to an English speaking assistant who’s protecting himself behind a face-mask. He tells me that from tomorrow Kuala Lumpur will be ‘closing down’ in an attempt to combat the Coronavirus. What ? I’m also told that Malaysia is going to restrict travel between states, which means I won’t even be allowed to cycle from here to the capital. What the fuck ?

I’m a bit stunned by this information, but I’m still not fully convinced that it’s accurate. I go back to my hotel, get online and try to search for some confirmation. Bloody Hell, it IS true ! Malaysia is going into Lockdown. From tomorrow no foreigners can enter the country and all ‘non-essential’ businesses have to close. Amazingly, hotels and guest houses have been put into this ‘non-essential’ category, which means they’ll have to ask all their guests (including me) to check out tomorrow. Even if someone has just arrived in Malaysia for a two week holiday, they will still have to leave their hotel.

This changes everything for me. I knew that Singapore was inaccessible, but now Malaysia’s Lockdown means I can’t even cycle to Kuala Lumpur any more. Although I’m in denial, I know deep down that my trip is over. Consequently, my intended day of leisure turns into an afternoon on the internet, frantically trying to work out my next move. The conclusion to my scrambling research is that I should probably get out of the country as quickly as I can. If I don’t move rapidly there’s a danger that borders will close and I’ll be stranded in Malaysia with nowhere to stay. Therefore my simple plan is to get to an airport ASAP.

I discover that my nearest airport is 120km South on the island of Penang, but there’s no way I’m going to cycle that distance in one day. Let’s face it, the heat and humidity had me struggling to cover 75km yesterday. Instead, I’ll have to try getting the bike on a bus or train tomorrow. My main task tonight is to book a flight. Skyscanner are showing some cheap-ish flights to Glasgow via Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, but all through dodgy-looking third party travel agents. The airlines themselves have prices ranging from an expensive £800 to an eye-watering £2,000 for a one-way flight to Glasgow. Even though I need to get home, I can’t bring myself to spend that amount. I decide to sleep on it.

When I wake the next morning I have a flash of inspiration. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remember that accommodation site Agoda now offers flights as well. I manage to find a one-way ticket to Glasgow, leaving tomorrow night, for a slightly less painful price of £440. I’m also aware that Malaysian Airlines are allowing customers to change flights for free at the moment. So, now my plan is to get to the airport today and see if they’re able to transfer me onto tonight’s flight.

After checking out I ride along a series of eerily deserted streets towards the train station. Nearly every business I pass is closed, their shutters pulled down as if it were Sunday. Normally I’d appreciate a quiet city road, but these abandoned streets feel somewhat unsettling. When I reach the train station I’m given a simple ‘No, you can’t take your bike on the train’, without much empathy or the offer of an alternative. My only other option is to try the bus station. As I make my way there, I’ve almost resigned myself to abandoning the bike in order to get the bus on my own.

I needn’t have worried though. An aging ticket seller at the station finds me a bus to the charmingly named city of Butterworth, which is my jump off point for the ferry to Penang. When I ask the bus driver if he’ll take my bike he says ‘No problem. You put bike under the bus. Plenty room !’. My ticket costs the equivalent of £3, whereas it costs me £10 to put my bike in the luggage hold. I have a feeling that I’m being scammed on the bike price, but figure that a total of £13 really isn’t too bad. At least this way I get to keep my bike. The bus itself is almost luxurious, with ice-cold air-conditioning that chills my sweaty torso within minutes. Before we depart the driver walks up the aisle with a bottle of hand sanitiser, squirting it onto the hands of anyone who wants it. The bus is maybe half full.

Two hours later I’m in the port of Butterworth, a journey that would have taken me two days on the bike. At the city’s ferry terminal I’m pleasantly surprised to find that my boat ticket costs a modest 30p, which makes up for being overcharged by the bus driver. Along with a horde of scooters, I board what seems like a floating metal car park for the twenty minute crossing to Penang Island. Being out on the water feels good, with the vessel’s open sides allowing a fresh sea breeze to blow right through the car deck. Across the turquoise channel I can see the tightly packed buildings of George Town, the island’s normally bustling capital, sitting below a range of steep, rainforested hills. As we cross I take the opportunity to apply sunscreen, for what will undoubtedly be the final time on this trip.

Disembarking in George Town I see an old colonial clocktower, painted brilliantly white, and a relic from the bygone days of British Empire. I turn South and start heading down the coast towards Penang airport, a 17km jaunt that is ridden mostly on cycle paths. On the way I pass two giant road bridges that link Penang Island to the mainland – the first measuring 13km and the second a whopping 24km. In old Imperial measurement, that translates to a bridge that’s fifteen miles long ! Both would be amazing to cycle across, but unfortunately both are off limits to bikes and pedestrians. I continue riding South through built up areas that have now fallen spookily silent. It seems the only businesses to remain open are supermarkets and petrol stations. Even the Plastic Chair Cafes and food stalls have had to close, which leaves the roadsides looking quite sad and empty.

When I reach Malaysia’s third busiest airport I discover that (bizarrely) there’s no Malaysian Airlines ticket office or help desk. This means I’m unable to change my flight time and can’t travel until tomorrow. This also means I’m going to struggle with finding accommodation tonight as hotels and guest houses are now in Lockdown. Luckily, staff at the airport’s information desk seem to know somewhere that’s still accepting guests. They phone a place called the EST Hotel, about 2km from the airport, who tell me just to come on round. When I get there, the woman who greets me says they have no rooms available because of the Lockdown. I’m puzzled and pissed off by this. I tell her I phoned from the airport ten minutes ago and was informed that they did have a room. ‘Ah, you mean the other EST Hotel !’ she replies, before pointing to a hotel with the same name at the opposite end of the block. I push my bike to their sister hotel, where the owner bloke ushers me in the door quickly and without any fuss. It looks like my overnight stay will be strictly under the radar.

My room is small and bare, with more of a prison cell ambience than a hotel room. It’s not much bigger than a single bed and quite a depressing space in which to spend my last night in Malaysia. Still, with hotels under Lockdown, I should probably count my blessings that I found any sort of accommodation. I’d be spending the next twenty-four hours at the airport otherwise.

The following day I arrange a late check out as my flight isn’t until the evening. A big chunk of my morning is then spent sourcing bin bags and packing tape to package my bike for the journey. Not having a bike box should be excusable on this occasion as every bike shop in the country is now closed. By mid-afternoon I’m back at the airport, spending the first forty-five minutes outside while I wrap up my bike. I’m temperature checked before I can enter the building and make my way to a departures board that shows fourteen out of twenty-three flights have been cancelled. At check-in, Malaysian Airlines will only accept my bike as luggage after it has been professionally packaged by the guy who normally wraps suitcases in cling film. I’m happy enough to oblige as it’s the only way they’ll allow my bike on the plane.

The departure lounge is surreally quiet, with barely any passengers and only food outlets permitted to open. It’s around dusk when we take off for a one hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. As our plane gains height we fly over the enormous Penang Road Bridge, lit up like a long, glowing snake in the waters below. At Kuala Lumpur I then board a jam-packed Emirates flight bound for Dubai. The airport in Dubai is slightly busier but, even here, it’s only the food outlets that are allowed to open. A further seven hours later I touch down in Glasgow on a cloudy and unremarkable Friday morning. I simply scan my passport and stroll back into the UK. Our entire flight does the same, which is a bit of a worry as we’ve all just arrived, squished together like sardines, from Asia and the Middle East. No temperature checks, no questions, no advice or mention of Coronavirus. It’s like I’ve landed in a different world where no-one has to worry about the pandemic. Every shop in the airport is open and the only people wearing masks are a handful of passengers who have just landed. I clearly remember being surprised at how lax the UK attitude to Coronavirus was, especially when I’d just spent weeks in countries who were taking it far more seriously. This little episode should have been an insight into what was coming. Still, at this point I didn’t think the UK Coronavirus response would end up being such a shambles.

And then I realise that my cycle trip is over. The past forty-eight hours have been such a blur that I haven’t really had much chance to think about the demise of my journey. This is the first time that I’ve set out on a long cycle trip and failed to complete the challenge. Overall, I’m left feeling frustrated that I wasn’t able to reach my destination. I also feel cheated that I only had two days of cycling in Malaysia, when there was still so much more to see. Mostly though, I feel sadness about not getting to see my kids at the end of the trip. This virus has had far-reaching consequences I would never have imagined three months previously. Part of me thinks I might get back to Malaysia next year to complete the journey, but who knows what will happen with this bloody Coronavirus. Like everyone else on the planet, I really have no idea what the next few months might bring …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running On Empty

16th MARCH 2020

The lack of windows in my hotel room means I wake up in total darkness, disoriented and with absolutely no idea what the time is. I feel horribly drained and sluggish too, a direct consequence of not rehydrating after check-in last night. Nevertheless, I’m hoping that today’s flat 75km to Alor Setar won’t prove too problematic, especially with the incentive of a Rest Day tomorrow. I fill my bottles from the hotel’s water cooler, then step outside to find a bakery / cafe on the same block. I’m not sure what to order, so just point at a chap who appears to be eating omelette, and give a Thumbs Up. Puzzlingly, after going through this process, I’m presented with a plate full of freshly cooked flatbread, cut into chunks and served with a trio of curry dipping sauces. Perhaps the owner thought that I simply wanted ‘breakfast’.

After wolfing down my food I head South, over a gently sloping landscspe and past the giant lake I saw from yesterday’s hilltop viewpoint. Within the first few kilometres there’s sweat rolling down my cheeks like I’m exercising in a sauna. I have a little flashback to when I met the Iranian cyclists, Saeed and Sharareh, at Ban Krut beach in Thailand. They had just cycled North from Kuala Lumpur and were able to give me some ominous advice as to what lay ahead – ‘Malaysia is hot. Really hot !’ Unfortunately, their information on scorching temperatures has turned out to be annoyingly accurate. It feels like the heat and humidity from Southern Thailand has intensified even more now I’ve crossed into Malaysia. I’ve been cycling less than an hour when I have to pause at a bus stop for a rest and some shade.

By mid-morning I’ve ridden 30km and made it to the large town of Kangar. I still feel reasonably okay at this point, although this odd sense of well-being is not destined to last. Just past town I stop for lunch at a Plastic Chair Cafe, intending to stuff myself with enough food and drink to raise my depleted energy levels. My food choices are displayed in a dozen metal trays on tables outside the family home. Most trays seem to involve bony fish curries of some sort, but I’m not sure I’m in the mood for that. I show the lady owner my ‘Not Spicy’ translation and she points to what looks like butternut squash in a red curry soup. She tastes a spoonful first, then nods her head to indicate that it’s mild enough for me. Steamed rice accompanies my meal and I help myself to a large glass from their vat of sickly-sweet sugar cane drink.

I sit down beside a table of headscarf-wearing women and get stuck into my curry. At first I enjoy the subtle flavour but, within a few mouthfuls, I’ve completely lost my appetite. I carry on robotically, trying to force the food down slowly because I know I’ll need energy for this afternoon. Despite my best efforts, I can only finish half my meal, which is a scenario that’s virtually unheard of for me. By rights I should be starving after missing out on food last night. I’m not sure why I don’t feel like eating, but I’m sure it doesn’t bode well.

When I go to pay I get chatting to a guy who works on the nearby tourist island of Langkawi. He pays for his food and then tells the owner to add my meal onto his bill. It’s a really nice touch and, once again, I’m left feeling humbled (and pleasantly surprised) by another example of Malaysian hospitality. If these roles were reversed, I can’t imagine someone in the UK buying a meal for a foreigner they’d only just met. My new friend tells me it should take about two and a half hours to reach Alor Setar by bike. Little does he know how slowly I go, or how rubbish I feel.

Weirdly, when I resume cycling I feel as bloated as if I’d just eaten a large banquet. This is such a contradictory sensation, given how meagre a portion I consumed at lunch. It’s not long before I begin to feel woozy, stop again and have to lie down on a bus stop bench for another breather. Most Malaysian bus stops are quite comfortable; made from concrete, with a wide bench to lie on and a solid roof for shade. There never seems to be any passengers waiting at these bus stops either, so I don’t feel so bad about using them to lie down and recover. This is just as well, as I’ll be stopping regularly today.

My afternoon kilometres seem to pass in blurry slow-motion, with each one feeling a few hundred metres longer than it should. One straight, exposed section sees me crawling along beside a narrow canal, into a tiring headwind and with no roadside trees or shade to protect me. The straight seems never-ending, with both road and canal stretching off interminably into the distance. It takes half an hour of snail’s pace plodding to reach the sanctuary of the next town, where I dismount and sit under a tall tree on the canal bank. I look up to see a road sign that tells me Alor Setar is still 28km away. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but at the moment I feel groggy every time I stand up.

Clambering to my feet like a ninety year old, I carry on. God, I feel rough. I’m getting hand cramps now too. Every time I apply sunscreen or check my phone, a couple of fingers clamp together and have to be physically prized apart. It’s more uncomfortable than sore, but still a definite sign of dehydration or heat stress. It’s thirty-six degrees out here ! The kilometres drag on until a petrol station brings the relief I’ve been longing for – a 500ml Gatorade and a similar volume of water are downed in seconds. This perks me up briefly, although it’s not long before I’m back into slow plodding mode. I continue inching forward in small increments, stopping to rest in bus stops and then struggling to get going again. After a hazy hour of cycling I notice a milestone on the opposite side of the road saying it’s now only 8km to Alor Setar. The milestone sits under a huge shady tree, so I cross over to shelter from the sun for a few minutes. I’m unable to find a comfy sitting position, and consequently just lie down on the dirt by the roadside. To passers by I must look like a tramp, but I couldn’t care less. I’m ruined.

The fact that I’ve only got 8km to cycle is probably the only reason I get back up. I wobble off dizzily, stop at one final bus stop and fuel myself with more juice from a corner shop. I’ve drunk like a camel today, yet it feels like no amount of liquid will quench my thirst. As I near the city, traffic lights on red mean I have to stop repeatedly while waiting in direct, blazing sunlight. I’m so light-headed by this point that standing upright takes enormous concentration. I feel like I could topple over at any second.

Thankfully, the city itself has enough tall buildings to provide shade and makes my final kilometres a little easier. I reach my accommodation in the most sweaty, exhausted condition and am greeted by three receptionists, all of whom are wearing face masks. They remain professional, but do look slightly unnerved by my bedraggled appearance. The accommodation turns out to be part hotel, part leisure centre, it’s drawcard being a large outdoor swimming pool on the ground floor. Of course, my room is up on the second floor. I trudge heavily up the stairs with my pannier bags, moving like one of those ancient tortoises you see on documentaries about the Galapogos Islands. My feet are so heavy that I manage to bang them into the face of nearly every step on the way up. In my weakened state I can’t even contemplate carrying my pannier bags to the end of the long corridor at the top. I just place them on a cleaning trolley and push them to my room instead.

Once in my room I’m straight into the shower, sitting on the floor with early-morning stares while soothing water cascades over my head. I’m absolutely wrecked. I work out that I’ve drunk TEN litres of water and juice over the course of today and haven’t once needed to go to the toilet. When I do eventually pee, it comes out as nothing more than a dark yellow trickle. How the Hell can I have drunk so much and still be dehydrated ? I’m hoping that it is only dehydration. Any little health issue these days and you immediately start worrying about Coronavirus.

I’ve perked up somewhat by the time evening arrives and take a walk to Subway. I know I’m in Asia and could have my choice of exotic foods, but right now I just fancy a plain old Subway sandwich. The most exotic thing I’ll be consuming tonight is the purple Fanta that accompanies my foot long seafood sub. I can tell I’m starting to feel better as my normally voracious appetite has returned, although I still remain unbelievably thirsty. I book myself an extra day in Alor Setar to give me a chance to relax and recover tomorrow. In all honesty I know I should have rested today. At least now I’m certain I was suffering from dehydration and not coming down with Covid-19.

However, this bloody virus is starting to have an affect on my cycling route and possibly my final destination. It looks like Singapore will be closing their borders or quarantining any new arrivals for 14 days. This requires a change of plan. I’m not so desperate to get into Singapore that I’ll wait two weeks for the privilege. I’m also not rich enough to stump up for long term accommodation in such an expensive city. I’ve accepted now that I’ll probably have to end my trip somewhere in Malaysia. Realistically, my new target has to be Kuala Lumpur, as flying back to the UK should still be easy enough from the Malaysian capital. I will have to keep a close eye on border closures and travel restrictions though. I might end up stranded here otherwise !

 

 

 

 

Make For The Border

15th MARCH 2020

My planned route for cycling Bangkok to Singapore was always going to be somewhat flexible, even though the general direction is South. The real options lie in choosing whether to travel down the West or East coast of Thailand and Malaysia. In Thailand I was able to start at the Gulf of Thailand on the East coast before deciding to cross over to the Andaman Sea on the West. With Malaysia I have similar options – I could cycle down either the West or East coast, or I could even choose to ride through the mountainous interior. As yet I’m undecided. The only certainty is that I need to cross the Thai / Malaysia border as far away from the East coast as possible. Since 2004 there has been a jihadi-type insurgency in Thailand’s four South-Eastern provinces, resulting in over 6,500 deaths. All travel advice encourages tourists to avoid these provinces and especially their overland border crossings. Consequently, I’m not going to take any chances – the checkpoint I’ll be using today is the most Westerly crossing point between the two countries.

The remnants of last night’s bakery goods provide a little snack before leaving Khuan Pho, but within a few kilometres I’m hungry again. I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe that forms one corner of the owner’s house, with chairs and tables spread out cosily on the driveway in the front garden. With my ropey language skills I order a plate of fried rice. This is one of the easier meals to request in Thai as ‘Khaew Phad’ can be ordered by simply asking for ‘Cow Pat’. The owner lady sits down next to me and starts to show me all the Western names and faces in her Facebook friends list. We both end up just pointing at things on our phones because neither of us can understand what the other is saying. It’s frustrating that communication is such a problem as I think we’d both fancy a bit of a chat.

When I resume I have about 30km left until the border. At the town of Chalung I buy my last bottled water in Thailand, turn North for a few kilometres and then double back through a forested valley that will take me South to the border. The road slopes gently uphill as the valley narrows, and the jungle-covered hills on either side seem to be crowding in around me. As I gradually lumber upwards I hear a single, clear ‘Ping’ from the rear of my bike. I swear out loud, realising that my slow, weighty pedal turns have caused yet another spoke to break. Bollocks. I’ll have to get that fixed in Malaysia.

Nearing the border a ten year old local kid is jogging towards me on the roadside. He spots me approaching and reacts like he’s just seen a zombie, dramatically pulling his t-shirt up over his nose and mouth so that he won’t catch Coronavirus from this strange Westerner. He looks genuinely nervous. It’s sad how this virus has made some people so mis-trusting and afraid of foreigners.

The final kilometre to the border is a hot, steady uphill past a throng of messy market stalls. A number of tour buses sit parked between the two carriageways, having released their passengers on cross-border shopping sprees. It’s a wonderfully chaotic scene, with people milling all over the road and families eating lunch in any shady spot they can find. This colourful, bustling, disorganised scene seems quite a fitting way to ride my last kilometre in the country. Thank-You Thailand ! You been an absolute pleasure once again !

After me fretting so much about border closures, the checkpoint itself is a real anti-climax. My passport is nonchalantly stamped out of Thailand, before a two hundred metre walk takes me to the near-deserted Malaysian border post. The official stamps me in without a fuss and I now have permission to stay here for three months. How long I’m actually going to get, though, is anyone’s guess. Compared to Thailand, the Malaysian side of the border is completely dead. The market stalls and hordes of people have been replaced by virtual silence and a desolate forest road. The contrast is remarkable. Within a few kilometres I cycle through my first Malaysian Police checkpoint, where four officers are standing under a temporary archway that sprays a fine mist to keep them cool. I look at their device enviously as I ride past, with a constant trickle of sweat running down my forehead.

I already know from Google maps that a steep hill is imminent, the twisting contours and tight hairpins being a dead giveaway. When I reach the first slope it’s a long, gentle uphill through farmland, before the road steepens sharply and begins to zig-zag up a sharp, jungly hill. By the third corner I’m off my bike and pushing. Tackling this steep ridge in thirty-five degree heat and humidity is proving to be a problem. I’m dripping sweat like a squeezed sponge and it feels like my lungs are only working at half their capacity. Because I’m gasping so badly for oxygen, I take to simply pushing the bike uphill from one patch of shade to the next, then spending the next five minutes recovering at my roadside rest spot. My God, this is a struggle ! On a couple of occasions I even wait for clouds to cover the sun so that I dont have to continue pushing in direct sunlight. I feel so weak and drained that I twice resort to sitting on my arse at the roadside just so I can get my breath back. I’m not even sure why this feels so difficult, as I felt fine at the border half an hour ago.

Sluggishly, by moving up the hill in tiny sections, I eventually make it to flatter ground near the summit. I’m able to get back on the bike, slowly freewheeling until I find a track that branches off to a viewpoint car park. I pass a roofed platform beside the track, pull over and just lie on the wooden floor for the next ten minutes. I’m fucked. When I get back to my feet I resume pushing and trudge my bike slowly up to the viewpoint. I’m glad I made the effort though. I can see for miles, over wetlands, forestry and a series of small, rounded hills. There’s a huge lake off to my right and a brief, localised rainshower falls in the distance to my left. I think I’ve also worked out which town is Pedang Besar, my destination for today.

While I’m taking pictures, a young couple in a car start chatting to me. They’re both in their twenties and surprise me with their near flawless English. The guy offers to take my picture and then gives me a leg of chicken from his KFC takeaway. This is my first impression of Malaysian hospitality, and it’s overwhelmingly positive thanks to this chap. As we’re talking, I’m amazed to see another cycle tourer trundling up to the viewpoint. It turns out he’s a twenty-something Swiss guy called Marcus who left home in 2015 with the intention of cycling round the world. He cycled through North and South America first, before heading to New Zealand and then onto Australia for a two year working holiday. Now he’s riding through South-East Asia and will find his way back to Switzerland at some point in the future. The bloke in the car thinks we must know each other already because we’re both cyclists, but our meeting is pure coincidence. Marcus is heading into Thailand today, so I’m happy to tell him he’s got an easy downhill all the way to the border.

The guy in the car is a top bloke, giving both myself and Marcus a small drink carton before we all head off in our separate directions. On the way down I’m treated to a lovely, twisting descent that goes some way to making up for the awful climb on the other side. Unfortunately, my speed means that I’m unable to swerve when a stony pothole looms large on the road ahead. All I can do is hold on tight and crunch through the middle of it. My spokes will end up wrecked at this rate. The road flattens out and I turn left towards my accommodation, whilst also cycling straight into the path of a heavy tropical downpour. I take shelter under the roof of a Plastic Chair Cafe that looks like it must be closed on Sundays. For five minutes the rain pelts down violently, with the cafe’s tin roof exaggerating the noisy battering. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the deluge ends and the sun reappears.

I reach my hotel to find that I’ve not prepaid online like I thought I had. Nor does the hotel accept payment by card. And, of course, I haven’t got my hands on any Malaysian currency yet either. Bloody Hell, this isn’t going particularly well. The bloke at reception tries to help by walking me round to an ATM at the college next door, but it’s a machine that’s not compatible with my UK bank. What this means is a 14km round trip to the next town to find a cash machine that will let me withdraw some Malaysian Ringgit. It’s not a huge distance, but I really don’t need the extra kilometres after today’s heat, hills and humidity. At least I can leave my panniers at the hotel while I plod off into a hot headwind. An hour or so later I’m back at the hotel, relieved that I have a wad of Malaysian money in my pocket and can now pay for tonight’s accommodation.

My bike is stored in an unused function room downstairs, while I head upstairs to a small, standard room with no windows. I’m so weary that I just peel my clothes off, have a shower and then barely move a muscle for the rest of the evening. I don’t even make the effort to pop out for food and drink, which is a pretty foolish decision when I’m so dehydrated. Because I feel so drained, it barely registers that I’ve beaten the border closure that would have stopped me getting into Malaysia. My plan now is to ride 75km to Alor Setar tomorrow, where I’ll stop for a much needed Rest Day and try to work out how to tackle the rest of the country.

 

The Best Laid Plans

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.

 

(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.

 

 

Ao Nang Beach

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.

 

 

Phang Nga

7th MARCH 2020

Despite enduring a hot, muggy night in my bamboo accommodation, I end up re-booking and spend an extra day in touristy Khao Lak. It wasn’t my intention to stay on, but a surprisingly quiet beach and the town’s chilled-out vibe have persuaded me otherwise. My morning involves a bang average omelette breakfast, followed by an increasingly panicky search for a cash machine that will supply me with Thai Baht. The first three machines I try all cancel the transaction, followed by an ominous ‘Contact Your Bank’ advisory. This does happen sometimes as my UK bank card is only compatible with certain Thai banks. Still, I’ve never had three refusals in a row before. When I put my card into ATM number four I find myself offering a quiet ‘Please, Please’ to the machine. I’m more than a little relieved to hear the whirring sound of banknotes being counted out for me.

In the afternoon I make for the beach once again, alternating my time between floating in the Andaman Sea and lying on a beach towel. Remarkably, I feel slightly cold each time I get out the water, which is a bit of a piss-take after last night’s stifling heat. As I warm up in the sunshine, I morbidly try to picture what it would have been like when the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 hit these shores. I can imagine it all started with a scenario similar to what I’m looking at now – tourists relaxing on the beach without a care in the world. Then, oddly, the seawater began to recede, leaving huge areas of sand exposed as the tide was drawn back from the shore. Nowadays we realise this is a precursor to a tsunami, but back then people were less aware and actually went onto the beach to see what was happening. If you watch YouTube footage from that day you can see tourists standing on the beach, simply watching as the sea rushes relentlessly towards them. Although the waves don’t look monstrously high, they just keep ploughing over everything in their path. The sheer power of the water destroyed most of Khao Lak’s buildings and swept a Thai Navy boat more than one mile inland. The vessel still rests in the same position today as a memorial. Officially the death toll was a whopping 4,000 lives, although most estimates put the final figure much higher. 

I stay on the beach until sunset, before heading into town for Penang Curry with prawns. Mercifully, the humidity has eased off since last night, although I do order another large Chang Beer just to make sure I stay cool. Back at my accommodation I settle in for the night, thinking how ineffective a bamboo hut would be against an incoming tsunami.

The next morning I wake, untroubled by tidal waves, and stroll to the on-site restaurant for my 8.00am breakfast appointment. An unusually healthy option of yoghurt, fruit and muesli starts the day, while my Belgian host Ariane tells me what to expect on the road ahead. According to her, there will be two big hills on today’s ride – the first as I’m leaving Khao Lak, then another as I turn inland towards Phang Nga. I feel better when she tells me the second hill is ‘not so strong’.

Hearing this prepares me for a tough first climb out of town, but in reality it’s not that arduous. The road snakes up and round a headland, passing through tall, verdant rainforest peppered with a handful of high end resorts overlooking the sea. Near the summit I’m able to stop on a corner and look back down to see the main beach of Khao Lak far below me. For the next 10km I pick my way through roadworks on the busy main highway to Phuket Island, before I’m able to turn left onto a much quieter inland route. Now I’m riding through a jungly, rural landscape that’s dotted with farms, tin-shack houses and rubber tree plantations. With the sky a cloudless blue, I’m grateful to find that Ariane’s second hill is indeed ‘not so strong’.

After my climb the road follows a river downstream, with my easy downhill mirroring it’s gradual descent towards sea-level. However, despite this comfortable ride, I’m beginning to wilt under the sun’s persistent rays. The unrelenting heat forces me to stop for food and shade when I’m a mere 10km from my destination. A ramshackle food stall at the roadside beckons me in, even though it’s no more than a simple shack with a few chairs sitting on dusty ground outside. I show the lady my Google Translation for ‘Noodles’, just so there’s no misunderstandings, and sit in the shade, exhausted, to wait for my food. When she returns I’m given the most delicious dish of egg noodles with prawns and calamari, served on a shiny green banana leaf. It’s probably the best ‘road meal’ I’ve had on this trip, and all for the ridiculously low price of 40 Baht (about £1).

Rested, I carry on and rejoin the main road within a few hundred metres. As I move closer to Phang Nga I find I’m riding through a valley with towering limestone cliffs on either side of me. Southern Thailand is famous for these spectacular karst landscapes, especially Phang Nga Bay, where they rise vertically from the sea in the shape of tall, jagged islands. Phang Nga town itself is long and skinny, it’s expansion limited to the narrow valley between two sets of cliffs.

I cycle towards a residential part of town, a couple of streets back from the main road and alongside a small Buddhist Temple. The temple grounds are quite scruffy, but they are home to the most brilliantly white peacock I’ve ever seen. The bird struts around importantly, fanning its tail feathers into a pearl coloured semi-circle as I ride past.

My accommodation is just round the next corner and consists of three newly built units behind a two storey family home. The property is bordered by a small patch of bamboo jungle, complete with feral chickens, while soaring limestone cliffs dominate the rear horizon. My host is a forty-something Thai woman, who greets me in near-perfect English and chats for a while before I check in. Within minutes she says she’d much rather live in Europe than in Thailand, which she considers to be a poor country and far too hot. Much like my Dutch mate in Bang Ben Beach, she says Thailand is a good destination for travel, but not such a great place to live. She also hates being in direct sunlight, so pops up an umbrella so she can walk me round to my unit. This seems like a bizarre over-reaction as it’s only a walk of around ten metres !

The unit is modern, air-conditioned and spotlessly white, unlike last night’s bamboo hut. Bafflingly, for all this added luxury, it’s £3 cheaper too. I peel off my cycling top, have a long shower and then crash out for a late afternoon siesta. The heat has frazzled me today. In the evening I walk up to Phang Nga’s long main street, stop at a cluster of food stalls and replenish my system with a dinner of chicken, rice and veggies. Tomorrow I’ll be riding a further 85km along the coast to a place called Ao Nang Beach, the location of my first ever visit to Thailand in 2002. My circumstances have changed a lot since then, but I’m still looking forward to a weird little trip down memory lane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Get What You Pay For

5th MARCH 2020

During the night I regret getting sunburnt, as the middle of my back aches every time I roll over. The only positive from this is that I’m awake early, so I decide I’ll just get up and start cycling as soon as I can to beat the afternoon heat. I go straight for breakfast, where Bo said he would shout me omelette and coffee because he owed me 50 Baht change from last night. Unfortunately this 50 Baht budget means the food is nowhere near the grand scale of yesterday’s offering.

I’m finished breakfast and on the road by 8.00am, the first 10km a simple retracing of my steps past the ‘Tsunami Zone’ signs and out through a flat landscape of muddy, tangled mangroves. When I get back onto the main road I continue cycling East and inland for a further 10km, before turning South at the town of Katoe. This change of direction has the morning sun beating straight onto my burnt back, its relentless rays seeming to sear right through my cycling top. The next couple of hours have me riding through jungly forest and past a handful of prawn farming sites with their huge aerated, man-made pools. I’m puffing on one short, steep hill and have to stop for a breather on the way up, before a small Buddhist shrine at the roadside lets me know that I’ve reached the top and the highest point of today’s cycle.

I wait until I’ve ridden two-thirds of today’s distance before stopping for lunch at a large hangar-type building in the town of Kamphuan. The place looks like it might host the local night market, but there’s only two stalls open when I roll up at mid-day. A combination of pointing, nodding, laughing and shrugging gets me a tasty bowl of chicken noodle soup from a trio of bemused-looking women in headscarves. When I carry on I find that my surroundings are becoming far more Islamic as I get closer to the Malaysian border. As well as women with covered heads, there now appears to be more mosques than Buddhist temples at the roadside. A group of around a dozen men are standing at the roadside outside one mosque, waiting for a bus by the look of things. One old timer raises his walking stick and shouts a toothless ‘Salaam Alaykum !’ as I approach them. I’m so surprised to hear an Arabic greeting in Thailand that I forget the correct reply and just shout ‘Salaam !’ as I cycle past with a raised hand.

The final hour to Khura Buri becomes a bit of a hot, hilly trudge into an annoying headwind. However, this morning’s early start has worked a treat, with me arriving at my accommodation not long after lunch. The Riverside Guest House sounds idyllic, but is actually nothing more than a collection of run-down wooden huts at the end of a stony track beside the town’s river. It appears they even had a tree hut at one point, located about five metres above the ground in the crook of a tall tree, but gaping holes in the floor and a lack of access steps suggest that it’s now off limits.

Because I’ve arrived early there’s no-one around, so I have to carry on into town to pick up my keys from the owner’s tour-booking shop. When I get back to the huts I pad carefully up a set of rickety wooden stairs and into a room that can only be described as ‘basic’. The windows are glass slats that don’t close and the floorboards seem to be three-quarters wood and one-quarter gaps. I can look right through the floor and see the ground a few feet below me. Goodness knows what creatures will be joining me as I sleep tonight, especially as I’m right beside the river. Still, for only £7 per night (with breakfast thrown in) I can’t really complain. The phrase ‘You Get What You Pay For’ could hardly be more fitting for this place.

For dinner I walk back into town and find that Tom and Am Tours is still open, with the lady owner sitting out front glued to her mobile. I chat with her for a while, before moving to the English menu cafe next door for my first Pad Thai since Bangkok. It’s nice to know what I’m ordering for a change, and at least with Pad Thai I don’t have to worry about burning spiciness or other unwanted surprises in my dish.

When I return to my dilapidated hut I’m greeted by a light brown tree frog crawling on the bedroom wall. The creature’s feet stick with little suckers and allow it to walk as effortlessly on the vertical wall as if it was moving along flat, horizontal ground. As well as the frog, I’m joined by a handful of small geckos who stick to the walls and ceiling whilst trying to pick off flying insects. Sadly, I think the geckos may be more effective in thwarting mosquitos than the tattered old mozzie net I’m about to spend the night under.

The following morning I rise early and say Goodbye to my amphibian, reptile and insect room-mates. I make my way back to Tom and Am Tours for a simple breakfast outside their shop that consists of two hot dog sausages, an egg and all the toast I want. I’m thankful for sporadic cloud cover as I leave town, especially as the first 10km are a steady climb into jungle-covered hills. I plod slowly upwards until, once again, I find the summit is marked by a small Buddhist shrine at the roadside. The approach path to the shrine is flanked by around a dozen ornamental cockerels, an especially auspicious symbol in Thai culture and resplendent in blacks, reds and greens. It gets me thinking about Aussie Warren, who ran the homestay I stayed at in Pathio. He told me that he once drove for five hours just to pick up a pair of cockerel figures from a renowned temple in Southern Thailand, all to ensure his business would be blessed with good luck.

The morning passes quickly, with smooth roads and intermittent cloud cover helping to speed me through undulating forest and jungle. By mid-day I’ve once again covered two thirds of my daily distance and stop for lunch in the fairly large town of Takuapa. On the main road through town I find a large Plastic Chair Cafe, where I’m served by a young woman wearing a face mask. I show her my Google Translate screenshot for the words ‘Not Spicy’ and she points to the top row of metal trays displaying food. She then indicates that the ominous looking trays on the bottom row would definitely not fall into that category. This Google translation of ‘Not Spicy’ into Thai script is going to be such a useful tool. If only I’d thought of it sooner ! Ironically though, when my pork with rice arrives it’s so far away from being spicy that I have to add some chilli dressing to give it a bit of a kick. Maybe I’ll need to find the translation for ‘Slightly Spicy’ for future mealtimes.

After lunch I ride along steadily until my afternoon is blighted by an unwelcome stretch of roadworks. The road ahead is being upgraded to dual carriageway, which means all the shady roadside trees have been cut down to allow for the extra width. It’s horribly hot and exposed. I ride the next few kilometres on a bumpy dirt road in sweltering slow motion. It’s tough going, especially as I’m now cycling under an afternoon sky that’s practically cloud free. My final 20km are a bit of a struggle, but I still manage to reach the touristy, beachside town of Khao Lak before my 3.00pm check in. The main road is jam-packed with Western bars and guesthouses but, oddly enough, the town seems less busy as I get nearer the beach. I’m staying at a place called Garden Bungalows, owned by a forty-something Belgian woman who sits me down at her reception desk, while her Thai staff member brings a large pomegranate juice as a welcome drink. After my last scorching hour cycling, it is indeed most welcome.

My accommodation is a small bamboo bungalow in a private tropical garden, raised about a metre off the ground and with a roof made from palm tree fronds. It’s a step up from last night’s primitive hovel, although there’s still plenty of gaps between the bamboo for hungry mosquitos to squeeze through. The room isn’t much bigger than the single bed it contains and is breathlessly hot when I step inside. I chain my bike to the bamboo patio, remove the front wheel as an extra theft deterrent and head off to the communal bathroom block for a much needed shave and shower.

By late afternoon I’ve wandered the short distance to Khao Lak beach, a gently sloping stretch of pale sand that contains far less tourists than I imagined it would. I remain on the beach until after sunset, before walking back into town for a pork and cashew nuts that I intend to wash down with Fanta. However, the evening is so sticky and hot that I drain the Fanta within two minutes. It looks like a large Chang Beer will have to be ordered in addition, just to cool me down properly. I eat and drink slowly, spending well over an hour watching the world go by from a seat next to the road.

Back at my bamboo bungalow it’s oppresively hot. I try sitting outside for a while, but it’s just as stuffy and airless. Sweat is literally trickling down my forearms. What I’d give for an air-conditioned hotel room right now. As it is, I’m in a baking bamboo box with a wall-mounted fan that can’t be angled down far enough to cool me as I sleep. Through the wafer thin walls I can also hear a pair of local musicians, singer and guitarist, trying their hardest to sing some old classics like American Pie and Hey Jude in the bar next door. They get a lot of the words wrong, but make up for it by sounding infectiously happy with their efforts. I lie there listlessly, dozing off occasionally and then waking up in a sweaty glaze to the bizarre sounds of next door’s entertainment. Yup, you certainly do get what you pay for.

 

 

 

 

 

Bang Ben Beach

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.

 

 

 

 

Hot Rides & Hot Food

1st MARCH 2020

At this point on my trip I’ve reached a really narrow part of Thailand, which gives me the choice of staying on the East coast or moving over to the Andaman Sea on the West. I choose the latter, mostly because I think it will be quieter and more interesting. My new Westerly heading means I have the sun blazing straight onto my back like a blowtorch this morning when I leave Chumphon. Nonetheless, this direction change has also brought smoother roads and a tailwind.

About mid-morning I’ve stopped at a 7-11 for a large chilled water and get talking to an old Dutch motorcyclist and his Thai wife. He’s lived over here for years, so fills me in on the road ahead and then asks where I’m from. I tell him ‘Scotland. And you’re from the Netherlands ?’ He looks genuinely surprised that I spotted he was Dutch, but there’s no mistaking that accent. He sounds just like Goldmember in the Austin Powers films.

My altitude increases as I pedal towards a set of hills, although it really doesn’t feel like I’m climbing. I’m moving along effortlessly today. Ahead, it looks like there’s a length of black rope on the road, lying right across the cycling zone at the side. It’s only when I get up close that I realise it’s actually a skinny snake, about four feet long, and quietly sunning itself on the tarmac. Myself and the reptile are both equally shocked, and it moves off quickly, sidewinder-style, into the undergrowth. I’ll need to keep my eyes peeled for this kind of encounter and be a bit more alert in future.

I’m soon riding through a set of jungle-clad hills where it looks like the surrounding area is being excavated to extend the dual carriageway. Apparently the West coast city of Ranong has been earmarked as a ‘Superport’, which means that the road links between there and Bangkok need upgrading. I pick my way through the roadworks, then enjoy a few kilometres of lovely freewheeling descent. After curving round one final hill I’m back on a straight road South, parallel to a river that forms the border between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). One hundred metres of slow-moving brown water is all that separates the countries at this point. I could literally swim across the border if I wanted.

By this point I’m getting hungry so pull up to a Plastic Chair Cafe. I do my usual ‘Can I eat ?’ mime, but the woman at the counter shakes her head. I do notice some empty lunch plates at one of her tables, so I’m not sure if something was lost in translation or she was just being a dick. Five minutes later, in the bustling high street of a small town, I go through the same charade in another attempt to get some food. This time a middle aged bloke motions ‘No’ with his hand, as does his harsh-looking wife. Wankers ! I call them rude names as I thank them ever so sarcastically. They don’t understand me, yet swearing at them while smiling makes me feel a whole lot better. I wonder what’s going on with all these people ?

Just past town I pull over at a stall outside a nice looking house. This place has the same stacks of silver steaming dishes that nearly every food outlet in the town had. The stall is unattended, but a woman sees me and comes running over from the house. She couldn’t be more helpful. By pointing and nodding I manage to order three Pau, which are sweet, steamed buns with various different fillings inside. They are chunky and quite more-ish, served with an orange dipping sauce. My three Pau soon become five. She then pours me a glass of the most sugar-laden and unnaturally blue coloured drink I’ve ever seen. I swear I can feel my teeth tingling as I drink. The Pau are so tasty though and about twenty pence each, so they could well become a staple food source.

As usual, the final hour is a bit of a hot slog in the afternoon heat. I stop at a 7-11 for a 1.5 litre bottle of water and drink almost half the contents in one go. At the town of Kra Buri I leave the main road, cycle through a dusty little town and find my accommodation about 3km further on. It’s called the Mulberry Resort, which conjures up dreamy images of lush and tranquil gardens. The reality, of course, is a group of motel units on dry, barren ground. At night my only food option is a family corner shop, where I have to make do with a handful of pre-packaged, sweet bakery goods.

The next morning I take a steep hill away from the ‘Resort’, rather than back-tracking through town and adding extra kilometres. I stop for breakfast as soon as I can, eager to get something more wholesome in my belly after last night’s sweet bread snacks. I’m tucking into a big plate of ribbon noodles with pork and veggies when a couple of dodgy looking geezers pull up on a motorbike. They look a right slick pair of characters, ordering a beer with their takeaway at 9.30am. One of them asks if I’d like a drink, but I say I can’t because I’m cycling. He says ‘You exercise, I drink !’ By the time I’ve finished, they’ve got their takeaway, downed a large beer and sped noisily off.

The main highway South of Kra Buri is hilly and hot. At one set of roadworks a car passes me and pulls in ahead. The young driver looks to be getting out, so I think he might be about to offer me some cold water or a drink. Instead he hands me a mouth mask, telling me ‘Lucky, lucky. You wear !’ I’m not sure if he’s trying to protect me from Coronavirus, or thinks he’s safeguarding his country by muzzling the foreign cyclist. I thank him and put the mask in my back pocket. 

It’s becoming blisteringly hot now. Although I’m only cycling 60km today, I really start to struggle with the heat, especially where roadside trees have been cut down to make way for widening the carriageway. The lack of shade is demoralising. I keep climbing, eventually slogging my way past a roadside waterfall that looks to be no more than a trickle in the middle of dry season. A long hairpin bend then signals the start of a much steeper section through thick, shady jungle. I sit on a crash barrier for ten minutes, gathering my strength and listening to passing trucks, shifting into lower gears as they climb. I motivate myself and plod off, finding that the hill is only tough because of the scorching heat that accompanies it. Crawling towards the top, with sweat dripping through my eyebrows and into the corners of my eyes, I am absolutely pooped. There’s next to nothing in my tank at this point, which gets me thinking of that Tour de France rider who used to shout at his legs when they wouldn’t give him any more power. I’m not sure I even have the energy to shout.

After reaching the summit I just relax and coast down the other side. It’s a nice downhill, and makes me glad I wasn’t cycling in the opposite direction. I’m totally drained though, having to sit under a tree for ten minutes despite being on a slight down slope. This heat is playing havoc with me today. The last hour to Ranong is predictably slow, and I get to my hotel a dripping, exhausted wreck. My room is on the second floor, with the stairs being trudged up in super slow-motion. The hotel doesn’t really have anywhere suitable for my bike either, so I sling that over my shoulder and transport that up two floors as well.

An afternoon siesta perks me up and I go for an evening wander to the Ranong hot springs. I take a little local street to get there, and encounter a barking dog who shows an unwelcome interest in trying to sniff or lick my feet. Regrettably for the mutt, I’ve just sprayed myself with mosquito repellent, which results in a burst of comedy sneezing on its part. Confused, the dog simply walks off. I think I may have stumbled onto something here ! The springs themselves are in a public park, where joggers or cyclists finish their routes and bathe their feet in the knee deep water. The place is packed with older locals, sitting round the pool’s edge and making it a nice little community gathering.

I walk back to the main street and find a restaurant with tables on the pavement outside and a menu in English. The woman who serves me advises against my first choice of Southern Thai Fish Curry as she thinks it would be too spicy for me. She recommends the Jungle Curry with Chicken instead. It looks like a bowl of chicken curry soup when it arrives, and is accompanied by a side plate of flowers and salad. I have a little mouthful just as a tester. My God it’s spicy ! My mouth feels like it’s numb, and yet on fire at the same time. I’m glad she recommended the less spicy option. I ask the woman if I should eat the flowers, and she says that flowers or salad will cool my mouth down after a spoonful of curry, This tactic works to a degree, but I also drink a Red Fanta and a large Chang Beer to counteract the fiery curry. Astonishingly for me I can’t even finish the whole meal, having been soundly defeated by the intimidating spiciness. I visit a 7-11 on the way back for snacks and, far more importantly, some chilled water.

Today’s trials in the heat have got me thinking about having a Rest Day. If I can just get to the beach tomorrow, then the following day will be set aside for recovery.