Monday, 28 March 2011

A Breath of Fresh Air

Bangkok – Chumphon

Our good friend Nick had come out from the UK to join forces with us for our first week’s cycling in Thailand. Being married to a Thai girl, he lived in Bangkok for a few years but had never cycled in Thailand, so we were all keen to explore Thailand from the seat of a bicycle.

We waved goodbye to Aom, Nick’s wife, as we pulled out of the parking bay to join Bangkok’s rush hour traffic. The road that had looked like a minor road on our map turned out to be a six lane highway. Thankfully Bangkok drivers were respectful and there was enough space for everyone. We endured the traffic a further 50km, and as soon as we had cleared Bangkok’s suburbs, were able to join a small lane winding through fertile rice fields and coconut plantations.||

Our stomachs rumbled indicating it was time for a snack so we pulled into one of the many eateries that line the roads in Thailand. The eateries are makeshift kitchens with a scattering of tables and plastic stools. It’s low key and best of all the food is fast, fresh and tasty. Nick was quick to take charge and translated our orders into Thai as we relaxed. We felt lazy leaving it all to Nick but it was so nice to let someone else take charge.

The lush tropical vegetation soon gave way to extensive salt farms in various stages of production. Stopping for some pictures outside a farm we were invited to come in for a closer inspection. Nick got chatting to a sweet old guy who took delight in viewing the pictures we had taken of his workplace. It seemed they both shared a fondness for unusual hat wear!

Salt farm   Nick and a salt farm worker

After learning all there is to know about salt farms we pushed through the hot afternoon stopping regularly to fuel up on iced coffees and eventually arrived in the small town of Samut Songkhram. We had just pulled over to ponder our accommodation options when a police man in smart uniform donned with Raybans pulled up on a motorbike. “Hotel? Follow me”, he motioned as he gunned his motorbike palming the oncoming traffic to stop and pulled away at speed. Chasing him down through the city streets it was clear he was the law as we pulled various illegal manoeuvres to arrive at a comfortable looking hotel. Before we could thank him properly he was off, the sound of his motorcycle roaring through the streets.

Once we had washed we went out in search of food. Glancing around the streets there seemed to be an eatery on every corner and with no menu and little in the way of identifiable foods, we were lost. From a glance the makeshift kitchens edged on street corners and perched in the front of shop fronts all looked pretty similar. But to the trained eye, the placement of condiments, a hanging chicken or a display of veg all have very distinct messages indicating the food on offer. Nick showed us how to read the street food stall language as we passed from stall to stall, squatting in little plastic chairs and devouring the various delicacies on offer, from steamed chicken to fish balls, stir fried noodles, roti with condensed milk and iced tea.

The following morning, we weaved our way to the coastal town of Cha-Am following minor roads and passing through sleepy fishing villages. Nick is naturally very sporty and a keen cyclist, but he had convinced himself that we had somehow become superhuman during the last 10 months and that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with us. Therefore he had decided to go ultralight, travelling on a road bike with only a handlebar bag to hold his possessions. Our hearts sunk when we heard of his plan, and sure enough, Nick was easily coasting along while we huffed and puffed to keep up!

Nick freestyling

At the slightly tacky beach resort town of Cha-Am, we found a hotel with huge air-conditioned rooms. It was there that we encountered the sweetest security guard of all time. After we negotiated to take the bikes up to the room the nice chap with big brown eyes and shaggy black hair insisted on carrying one of the 15kg bikes up the three flights of stairs. With an awkward grip on the bike he threw himself at the first flight of stars with real gusto, marching ahead of us. On the first landing, a mere 10 steps up he had put he bike down and looked uneasy and was soaking wet. We assumed he had got caught in the rain earlier. We indicated this was not our floor, we had another two to go. The same thing happened on the next landing, he was going no further, but we insisted it was still up, what was the reason for the delay? Then it clicked, he was completely out of breath, exhausted, sweating from head to toe! As he stooped over the railing gasping heavily, we tried not to look and busied ourselves in some meaningless conversation. After what felt like an eternity he gritted his teeth, let out an almighty groan and made one last push to the final landing. The poor chap nearly collapsed for his efforts but he couldn’t help hide his delight as he beamed at us from ear to ear. We couldn’t thank him enough, no one has ever gone to so much effort, what a great man.

Due to the heat, we had agreed on an early start (something we are not known for), so we were a little peeved when we got up extra early and it was raining hard. The rain was quite unexpected during the dry season, and it rained all day on and off. Initially we found it quite refreshing, but by the end of the day when we were soaked through we actually started to feel the chills. Thankfully we had a nice tail wind and were flying along.

We were coasting along comfortably with a lovely tail wind and smooth roads when our GPS suddenly indicated a turn off the main road to a suspect looking smaller dirt road. Sticking with our philosophy of road-less-travelled we went for it. The track weaved through muddy villages until it became wetter and wetter until we were cycling in 20cm of murky water. We trudged through this desperately trying to avoid putting our feet down and having wet shoes for the remainder of the day. Ahead we could see a tarmac road but to get to it we had to push our bikes through a rubbish dump – the glamour’s of cycle touring!

Rubbish dump   Cycling through a minor river

We were planning to take a day off at Dolphin Beach, situated near Khao Sam Roi Yot national park. We found a nice little place with bungalows to stay in, but unfortunately the weather was not on our side. On our rest day it was still raining hard, windy and about 16°C – very cold for Thailand, particularly as life takes place outdoors, so we were sitting in the outdoor restaurant with our rain coats and two pairs of socks on!

Guy and Nick were undeterred by the weather and the look on the resort owners face as they asked for the paddles to go sea kayaking. Standing on the beach with the wind howling and white caps blowing Guy was reconsidering the option. He turned around to discuss it with Nick but he was already bounding full steam for the water towing a bright pink 3 manner vessel that looked more like a canal barge than a sea kayak. Splashing and crashing Nick managed to crash it through the swell and return to the shore with vigour. Guy took out the one man kayak but soon tired and watched Nick who seemed to have endless bounds of energy.

Somehow Nick convinced Guy to come out in the barge and moments later he found himself at the front of the 3 person kayak heading full throttle through the break with Nick motoring from the back seat. The swell seemed to be growing steadily stronger as they bashed their way out. As they tipped the crescent of the waves the drop was so sharp that the Kayak was falling fast, leaving Guy flailing in mid air only to be reunited with his seat in a crashing thud. As the intensity and frequency of this serious ass beating picked up Guy found himself numb with laughter essentially draining him off all remaining strength and leaving the vessel at the mercy of the waves. The final nail in the coffin was when they hit the mother of all waves shooting Guy so sky high that he landed one whole seat position back in the middle of the Kayak. Well this was too much to handle and soon the Kayak turned and flipped leaving Guy, Nick and the pink barge washed up on the beach, a very classy finale.

Dolphin Beach   Nick in his pink kayak 

After our day off, the weather improved and we decided to make a quick detour to visit a cave in the national park. “We can cycle there, and then we just have to climb up a little bit”, said Nick who had already been to the cave previously.

Well, we can attest to the fact that more than just a little bit of climbing was involved. We parked the bikes and then scrambled up to the cave over a rocky path for the next 40 minutes. We were the first visitors of the day to Tham Phraya Nakhon cave – there was nobody around and it was quiet and serene. A Thai king had discovered the cave during a storm and built a small pavillion, which was bathed in morning sunlight streaming in from above when we arrived. It was just amazing and made us forget our aching legs as we marvelled at our surroundings.

Phraya Nakhon cave

When we made it back to the bottom and had lunch at the restaurant there, Guy suddenly realised he had forgotten his mobile phone back at the beach resort. A 10km detour was not what we had in mind, seeing that our legs were tired from the hiking and we still had 70km to cycle that afternoon, but Nick solved our dilemma by volunteering to get the phone. On his road bike, the detour wouldn’t take too long, and it was a good opportunity for him to “stretch his legs” rather than cycling at a reduced speed so that we could keep up with him. It also meant we could sit in the restaurant and sip iced coffee.

The road through the national park was beautiful and flat but with scenic hills in the background. The only blip in the scenery were the ever present prawn farms, which had taken over parts of the national park.

Freddie and Nick   Eucalypt plantation

Our destination for the night was Prachuap Khiri Khan, a small town by the sea. According to our guide book, if we blurred our eyes a little, we could imagine we were in the South of France. While that was maybe a bit far fetched, we did find a lovely little French run guest house, and we decided to treat ourselves to a huge fish dinner. Portion sizes in Thailand are pretty small, so we often end up ordering double portions to provide the calories we need for cycling, much to the confusion of the waiters.

Leaving Prachuap Khiri Khan the following morning, we cycled into a national park alongside the coast. Again, our map let us down (could you believe it!) and the only road we could find turned out to be a tiny overgrown track. It looked like a bit of an adventure so we wheeled our bikes on over fallen trees and through the thorny undergrowth, but eventually the track all but disappeared so we gave up and went back to the road waiting for the imminent signs of punctures to emerge – thankfully none.

Having spent a few hours picking our way through the dirt roads of the national park, we were starving. Unfortunately we only passed through very small villages with no restaurants. Eventually, we came past what looked like a restaurant set up for a celebration. We stopped to ask and found out that it was a wedding celebration, and the “restaurant” was in fact a family home. The sister of the groom immediately invited us in.

Benz was very friendly – she and her boyfriend both had a Master in English, so we were able to communicate well. Despite our sweaty, grubby appearance we were made to feel very welcome. Immediately, rice, noodles, fried fish and various curries were brought out, and we were even given a sweet coconut soup as dessert as we sat in the courtyard of their lovely home edged only a few feet away from the glistening blue sea. They kindly offered for us to stay for the evening celebration but we had to kick on as it was getting late.

Overgrown track  Wedding crashers

In the late afternoon, we came past a Wat perched high on a forested headland gazing out over the shimmering coastline below. The climb up was sharp and steep but the stunning views and most beautiful Wat we have seen made it all worth while.

Hill top Wat    Views from Wat

Later in the afternoon, we followed a road directly along the beach and stayed in a beach bungalow for the night. Thailand really has far more than its fair share of beautiful white sandy beaches and we really loved the ease of pulling into a beach bungalow and heading straight for the tropical beach just metres from the doorstep.

Suddenly a week had gone by and it was already our last day with Nick. We had a long day ahead as Nick had booked a train from Chumphon (110km away) in the evening to get back to Bangkok. It was quite hot and hilly, and to top it off Nick was having trouble with the local wildlife as a bee managed to find his way into his cycling shorts.

In the late afternoon we ended up in another beach village not far from Chumphon, where we were planning to spend the night. We had one last iced coffee with Nick before he cycled on to the station to catch his train.

Nick charming a dead snake   Another day another beach  

After 10 months of being on the road and being in a country we had already visited before, we weren’t feeling the pangs of excitement that we had felt in previous countries. However with Nick on board we had a bit of a re-awakening. All those little things that we already took for granted - a friendly wave from a passing motorbike, a nonchalant chat with a shop keeper, a giggly wave from a child on the way to school, all felt good again. Nick brought a fresh perspective to our travels and reminded us to appreciate every moment of our trip. Thanks mate, we’ll miss you and your Jacko gloves.

2 comments:

Thomas Andersen said...

Haha, great stories! How did your friend manage those tiny roads/paths on his road bike? Greetings from Prachuap Khiri Khan.

Freddie & Guy said...

Hi Thomas,
apart from a few punctures he was fine!
Enjoy Prachuap Khiri Khan (though by now you're probably on your way south again).
F&G

Post a Comment