Introduction


This ride represented my first real ‘foreign’ challenge, away from the comforts and predictability of Europe and very much into the unknown. The usual rules applied i.e. to be self-sufficient, to explore places of historic interest and natural beauty and wherever possible to take the road less travelled. This third criterion proved to be somewhat impracticable as maps are rarely used in Thailand and the best I could find was a 1:1,000,000 scale i.e. 1mm = 1km, utterly useless for exploring by bike. Also once off the main roads the signposts were in the indecipherable Thai script, and this along with the obvious language barrier and the local’s unfamiliarity with maps made for some interesting detours along the way. It would seem that the average Thai is not a well travelled fellow and asking directions to a town as remote as 50 miles away from the seat of a ‘kycal’ would be like asking a London cabbie if he could show you the right way to Mars.

As ever I travelled as light as possible only this time I took more spares and tools along with extra factor 30, mozzie spray and a silk sleeping bag liner that proved invaluable. I’d also packed my i-Pod and had selected a long list of uplifting tunes to keep my spirits high when the going got tough. It proved to be boon on some of the long slogs, and I’m sure the locals enjoyed the sound of me singing along! So after hours of poring over maps and double-checking distances I set my course.



Bangkok - Malaysia
190 miles, 17 mph average26 Jan 06Day 1
Bangkok


Immediately upon stepping out of the air-conditioned airport, the heat hit me. It was just before dawn and I was as far north as I was going to be for two weeks. This was the coolest it was possibly going to be; 25 degrees C. I decided on a day’s sight seeing to get over the jet lag and start to acclimatize to what is officially the world’s hottest city.

Bangkok is manic; traffic of all descriptions, flyovers, underpasses, the Skytrain and a million mopeds all battling for space in a state of chaotic disarray. And yet I never saw any tempers flare; road rage just isn’t in the Thai vocabulary. Losing your temper is a big no-no in Thailand and so the whole system relies on everyone being cool in the heat.

My first port of call had to be the Wat Phra Kaeo, the sacred resting place of the Emerald Buddha since 1795 and Thailand’s holiest temple. Its golden dome (Phra Si Rattana Chedi) is said to house a piece of the Buddha’s breastbone. A typical Wat will contain several buildings such as the temple, monk’s quarters and a library (ho trai) but is it often dominated by the Wihan or assembly hall. Quite often there will be a Bodhi tree, representing the tree under which Buddha sat as he attempted to attain enlightenment. The most recognisable Thai architectural feature, ever present on roof apexes is the Cho Fa meaning ‘tassel of the air’. Its shape derives from the garuda - a fierce bird featured in Hindu mythology.

Conveniently right next-door and also on the banks of the Chao Phraya River is the Grand Palace. Built at the same time as the Wat, it was the King of Siam’s official residence from 1782 to 1946. Royalty is the most revered institution in Thailand. Criticizing or defaming it is deeply offensive to the Thai people and could even land you in jail. Throughout Thailand I saw huge shrine-like posters of the King. It was very often a far younger man depicted (the King is rumoured to be in his 80’s now) and nearly always with an expensive Japanese camera slung around his neck. Passing through rural villages I’d noticed a PA system blaring in the mornings and early evenings. This turned out to be the National Anthem, which is played at 8am and 6pm daily.

Bangkok is chock-full of interesting sights, and is a shopper’s paradise. Street stalls loaded with fake gear rub shoulders with the Real McCoy designer boutiques, all co-existing in that unique Thai harmony.

And so the ride had to begin. My alarm rang out at 4.45am and I met the taxi driver in the hotel lobby. Other cyclists who had made the trip had warned me that there was no point doing battle with city traffic, choking fumes and hopeless signposting, so I made the first few miles to the edge of town in comfort. The driver dropped me on Highway 35 from which it would be easy to navigate my way westwards to Phetchaburi.

The ride was flat and boring. Unremarkable scenery and the never-ending city sprawl. On meeting Highway 4, I was relieved to turn south as a breeze was picking up behind me and I was able to ride in the shade of trees lining the route. One of Thailand’s oldest towns, Phetchaburi has long been an important cultural and trading centre, and in the 19th century King Rama IV built his extravagant palace complex called the Phra Nakhon Khiri or ‘celestial city of the mountain’ overlooking the city.

At Cha-am I was able to turn off the main road and follow the coastal route towards seaside towns such as Hua Hin and Prachuap Khiri Khan frequented by holidaying families from Bangkok. The sight of a foreigner or ‘farang’ was still a rarity and all along the route greetings were shouted from delighted locals, occasional ‘hellos’ mixed with the Thai equivalent of ‘how do you do’ – ‘sa wah dee’, to which I could echo ‘sa wah dee kap’ causing the smiles to broaden further. The greetings were universal, be they from groups of immaculately uniformed school children, to a team of construction workers in the back of a pick-up truck. Always a smile, in this land of smiles.

By midday the heat was building but the wind had helped me cover the first 100 miles of easy terrain. During December and January the dry North-Easterly monsoon wind blows down this coast and I’d timed my ride to coincide with it to help me along.

The major roads often have a ‘moped lane’ at the side – perfect for cycling on, and with the combination of flat, smooth tarmac and tailwind I was able to overtake as many mopeds as had passed me, cruising at between 20 and 25 mph. As well as motorbikes with up to four passengers, some had an ingenious sidecar that could carry yet more children all sat in style beneath a neat sunshade.

I was beginning to fatigue as the heat rose, so I started looking out for somewhere to eat. There had been no shortage of stalls by the road selling dates, pineapples and a range of mysterious looking fruits. Bottled water too had not been a problem to top up. I pulled into a filling station that had an outside washroom to the rear where I could rinse off the sweat that was beginning to sting my eyes. Cooled and refreshed, I approached a lady who had a stall displaying various dishes, a wok and a single gas burner. There were two people in line so I figured she must be good. The guy in front of me had a dish of fried rice with chicken so I motioned that I’d like the same but ‘mai pet’ – an essential snippet of Thai meaning ‘not spicy’. The food was brought to me where I’d sat in the shade and she indicated the price using two fingers. I handed her two hundred-Baht notes (about £3), at which she immediately burst out laughing! It turned out that she wanted 20 Baht (about 30p) for this delicious freshly prepared meal. She could so easily have ripped me off, but this honesty and of course the amazing low prices were typical of my experiences in this wonderful country.

Before long a small inquisitive crowd had gathered. The garage owner had been learning English at night school and we were able to have a stinted conversation about where I lived and where I was going, which he in turn relayed to the audience who smiled and nodded appreciatively.

Rested and refreshed I set off to climb through the limestone outcrops of the Khoa Sam Roi Yot (meaning mountains of 300 peaks) one of Thailand’s many national parks. It was almost a relief to be climbing hills again after so much flat country, and although it was hard riding at times the jungle scenery kept my spirits high. From time to time I’d catch a glimpse of the crab eating macaque monkeys, who astonished me by leaping into the water and swimming off with great speed, their long arms thrashing at the water like a Mississippi paddle steamer!

At Hua Hin I nearly came to grief. Peddling through the town, the bough of a tree suddenly crashed down right in my path. I swerved out into the road, narrowly avoiding it and luckily any oncoming traffic. I looked back to see a man high in the tree with a pruning saw, waving his apology to me. I can only guess that he didn’t think I was travelling so fast!

Darkness fell rapidly at about 6.30 but my lights were strong and I was enjoying the relative cool of the evening, so I pressed on checking the map for the most likely town to have accommodation. There was nothing for miles, but I knew there was a minor road to the coast coming up and I was in the small resort town of Bang Saphan by 8.00. I had covered 190 miles (306km) breaking my previous best by 14 miles although I was slightly disappointed not to have topped the double century, which I felt I could have done had I been confident of finding accommodation further down the road.

I was directed to the only hotel in town that thankfully had rooms available. This had been a concern as it was the time of the Chinese New Year and I’d been told places could be busy with vacationing locals. I say hotel, although in the western sense it would barely have qualified. It had none of the hot water or flushing toilets that we take for granted. Nonetheless it appeared to be clean and I was very tired so it sufficed perfectly. I got cleaned up and headed into the night in search of food, stopping at the first roadside shack I came across. Shack is possibly an overstatement. The ‘restaurant’ consisted of someone’s open front room (complete with grandma reclining on a worn out sun-lounger), the ubiquitous wok and gas ring and some ramshackle plastic chairs. The whole place appeared to be constructed from an assortment of wooden off-cuts clad in left over corrugated iron. I’d made better dens in the woods as a lad! However I was made welcome, an ice-cold beer appeared from nowhere and the wok was fired up to fry an omelette and rice.



Bangkok - Malaysia
167 miles, 14 mph average27 Jan 06Day 2
Chumphon - Surat Thani


I was up early again and set off on the quiet coast road through sleepy villages apparently untouched by time. Chickens ran in the road and dozing dogs eyed me suspiciously as I glided silently through. Time for some breakfast I thought so I stopped at the first stall selling bananas - breakfast of champions! Thai bananas are typically short and sweet so I bought half a dozen for just a few pennies. The stallholder seemed so amused by the sight of me that she offered a whole bunch for free. I felt awful to insult her generosity but there were no way I could carry such a load on my bike.

There were very few settlements along this part of the journey, but there were occasional clusters of roadside stalls all somewhat bizarrely selling exactly the same produce from the neighbouring fields. At one point I counted fifteen ‘micro shops’ all selling nothing but bananas. How did they decide on the price? How would the buyer decide which stall to visit? Occasionally I’d pass a place to eat that looked quite reasonable but more usually it would be a rural shack with the next day’s dinner running around your feet. One thing they all had in common though were welcoming smiles and fresh ingredients. Whilst eating in such surroundings I was constantly concerned that I’d pick up some horrendous stomach bug from the apparently unsanitary conditions, however my fears were to be unfounded as my bowels remained as regular as Phileas Fogg. I dined almost exclusively on ‘cow pat’ (a mildly spiced egg fried rice), as this was the only dish I was able to pronounce correctly!

Chumphon is regarded as the starting point of cultural transition between the Buddhist heartland and the south of the country where Muslim culture is strong. Venturing out onto the first stretch of rolling jungle road that was to last over 100 miles, I could see a huge statue up ahead, as I came closer I saw a giant golden Buddha looking out over the hills. It was clear to me that this was still a land dominated by Buddhism although even in the Deep South the two faiths seem to be able to live harmoniously. I still passed many countryside wats, and at one point met a monk who stopped for a brief chat on his way to breakfast. He didn’t speak any English though.

North of Chaiya, the capital city of the Srivijayan Buddhist Empire between the 7th and 13th centuries and once a pivotal port of call between trade routes linking China and the India sub continent, I turned off the main road once more and soon crossed the Eastern Orient Express Line that I had been running parallel to but unseen for so many miles. The station master’s office showed typical Thai pride and patriotism with its twinned flags of the nation and monarchy. The road beyond obviously led to Chaiya, but try as I might I could not get any meaningful directions, bearings or signposts and rode up and down lovely empty lanes shaded with magnolia, rhododendrons and wild flowers, to dead end after dead end. Finally I gave up and headed back to the main road. At least the wind was still behind me and I slipstreamed a passing motorbike that had a sidecar converted into an ice-cream van. Its rider didn’t stop laughing for the ten miles that I tailed him spinning away in my highest gear!

By sunset I was ready for bed having covered over 160 miles of rolling hills, each village yielded no sign of accommodation, so I headed down a lane towards the coast in the dark. The lazing hounds that had kept watch over me during the heat of the day, obviously conserve their energies for their evening fun. This mainly involves lying in wait for passing cyclists then chasing them at full pelt, barking wildly to alert the dogs in the upcoming houses. On the whole I could veer into the centre of the road and keep a short sprint going until I was away from their territorial reaches, but on one lonely stretch of forested road my worst fears came to pass. A pack of apparently wild dogs took a dislike to me and kept up their chase for over two miles. Between their ferocious snarls I could hear the scrabbling of sharpened claws on the road surface. Too afraid to look back, I used every last reserve of energy within me to stand hard on the pedals as they snapped at my heels. Thank God there was a slight downhill gradient as they only gave up their pursuit when I flew into the next village.

Still shaking and dripping with sweat I made enquiries about places to stay for the night. Each time I asked about a ‘rohng rairm’ (hotel) I was greeted with a smile and an outstretched arm pointing down the road saying ‘Surat Thani’. The city of Surat Thani was over 30km away and even if I’d had enough batteries in my lights I had precious little energy and there was no way I was going to risk being caught by more dogs. A group of men sat drinking took some empathy with my plight and invited me to sit on their porch to join them with a very welcome cold Singa (the local beer). Shortly the village headman came over and as he spoke a little English I was able to explain my situation in a combination of single words and sign language, making barking noises and biting movements about my legs. Eventually we agreed that what I needed was a lift to a town with a hotel. A pick-up with a driver was placed at my disposal. The driver downed one more large Thai whisky and we set off, swerving and bouncing along the road. He dropped me off some miles away from my route but at least outside a hotel. Such was the luxury of the accommodation commensurate with its 200 Baht (£3) per night tariff, that I could probably have halved that had I the energy to negotiate. A real 5-cockroach place, complete with missing windows and complimentary filth! I washed off in the bucket provided and headed to the store across the road for provisions. Luckily Thailand has a mixture of local shops (for local people) and international 7-11 stores (like our Spar shops). The local shops were a great adventure, looking for items that were actually recognisable as food, but not always ideal when you need to carbo-load. 7-11’s on the other hand sell stuff in packets just like at home! I didn’t risk using the bed linen provided and was very happy to settle into my sleeping bag liner for a bug free night.



Bangkok - Malaysia
110 miles, 14 mph average28 Jan 06Day 3
The Isthmus of Kra


Getting back on my route before the dawn, I was faced with a dilemma. In order to cross from the east coast to the west, I could take the marked route through the high mountains or opt for a new road not shown on my map and shown as incomplete on others. My legs were sore from so many miles and the thought of battling up high passes in the heat of the day didn’t appeal, so I took a gamble on the latter. I found the new road without too much difficulty and too my delight it was virtually deserted. It cut through virgin rain forest and climbed steadily to about 1,000m over a distance of some 50 miles emerging eventually in the characteristic limestone crags of the Khao Phanom Bencha national park, home to rare species of black bear and the clouded leopard. Sadly I didn’t see any of these but I did almost become an endangered species myself when I nearly hit a four foot long copperhead snake sunbathing in the road.

The road was eerily quiet as it passed through no villages or towns. Its only purpose seemed to be to link the tourist areas of Phuket and Krabi with Surat Thani – the departure point for ferries to the holiday island of Koh Samui. I must say I felt rather smug later thinking about those ‘intrepid’ backpackers who shuttle between resorts and say they have ‘done Thailand’ - from the comfort of an air-conditioned coach!

In fact too quiet can be a problem as by 11am I had run dry and with no stalls or village shops to buy water I was starting to get edgy. Once my water had run out, the sun beat down remorselessly and with no shade I was consumed with dipsomania. The next 5 miles seemed like 50 as I was still climbing as the temperature also climbed into the high 30’s. Up ahead I spotted a group of farm workers setting out a lunch table under some trees. They were pleased to see me but not half as delighted as I was to see them and their great urns of fresh drinking water. They filled my bottles twice over as I glugged back the first cool litres and wouldn’t accept any money even though they were clearly penniless manual labourers. I wondered if Thailand would be able to resist our capitalist material pressures, to which these generous people would doubtless be exposed in future.

I wanted to make Krabi for the last ferry to the Andaman Islands at 2pm, but unfortunately the humidity had affected my mobile phone and I was unable to switch on my only means of timekeeping. As such I felt I had no choice but to keep riding at as strong a pace as I could manage and thankfully the road soon began to descend towards the coast. The payback for all the climbing was 25 miles covered in less than an hour.

The road turned out to be complete and linked up with the Phuket – Krabi highway. Suddenly I was just another tourist. Gone were the bemused looks and waved greetings as I blended in with other westerners for the first time in over 400 miles. I made the docks at the Krabi River by 12.30 in plenty of time for the ferry. Once the bike was secured on deck I settled back to enjoy the fabulous views of deserted tropical islands. After a couple of hours we came into the harbour on Koh Lanta Yai, in the channel between this and its virtually uninhabited northern sister Koh Lanta Noi.



Bangkok - Malaysia
30 miles, resting29-30 Jan 06Day 4-5
Koh Lanta


After being blown well ahead of schedule, and having found paradise I decided to rest up for a few days. The island was everything you could dream of in such a place - deserted beaches backed by tropical flora overhanging the white sand to provide some welcome shade. A had a look around for a suitable place to stay for a few nights and settled on a beachside bungalow with a quite sumptuous interior. I had air-con, hot water, a huge western bathroom, daily maid service, a fridge and ample cycle parking all for the princely sum of £10 per night. I whiled away the hours snoozing on the beach, feasting on masaman curries, king prawns and barracuda and watching the sun slowly slip into the Andaman Sea.

I took a ride around the island to see the Sea Gypsies or Chao Ley. Found in villages of a temporary nature around the Andaman Sea and Nicobar Islands they speak their own language and have their own animistic beliefs.

On the second day I indulged myself in a Thai massage from a lady in a wooden shelter on the beach, and for 200 Baht I had a full hour’s work-over with intense therapy on my aching legs. As well as applying pressure to key points this involved a complex system of manipulation during which the masseuse pinned me down with her feet whilst stretching and twisting my limbs. Whilst always on the verge of actual pain, the treatment certainly did the trick as the next day I was itching to get some more miles under my wheels.



Bangkok - Malaysia
145 miles, 13 mph average31 Jan 06Day 6
Trang & The Deep South


Another pre-dawn start to beat the heat. However by the time I had reached the north shore of the island my lights had begun to flash a warning of low battery power. This would apply enormous pressure to make my destination by nightfall as I had been assured to find a hotel in the town of Langu but certainly nowhere else. I had recharged my lights two nights before and could only come to one conclusion. Thai people, as lovely as they are, are incessant fiddlers. Whenever my bike was left unattended someone would sidle up, check the tyre pressures with a squeeze of the thumb, nod knowledgably and proceed to look over the rest of the bike. As soon as the computer was spotted I had to intervene for fear of them pressing the reset button and losing all my precious data. The only explanation I could find was that the maid had been fiddling with the headlight, turned it on and left it burning as it requires just the right sequence of clicks to extinguish. It probably overheated and cut out leaving just enough power for the first hour’s riding.

At the crack of dawn I hailed a passing fisherman who happily took me on his long-tail boat to the north island for a handful of loose change. I was due to meet the vehicle ferry from the mainland at 7 a.m. but on arrival there seemed to be little action at the quayside. By 8 a.m. the queue had grown significantly and locals were busy making animated phone calls. It was clear the ferry had broken down. Already the sun was beating down as I sat helplessly feeling the best part of the day slipping away from me. Time for radical action. I stepped towards the edge of the dock and shouted out to the first passing fishing boat. He soon got the message and hoved-to, delightedly eyeing the 100 Baht note I was waving in the air! The bike was lowered onto the boat but I lost my footing on some algae, slicing open the tips of both thumbs and three fingers on some razor sharp barnacles. To add to my woes an elderly gent also boarded but although he was sprightly for his years he sat squarely on my crash helmet breaking the peak I’d relied on as a sunshade. It was going to be a bad hair day.

I had to head north back to the highway from here, and as I did so the wind started to pick up, full in my face. Even when I turned east towards Trang the wind veered round to resist me once more.

The eastern lowlands of the Deep South are among the most fertile in the country. The year round heat and humidity making ideal conditions for coffee beans, pineapples, cashews, oil palms and of course rubber trees. Since the first rubber tree seedlings were brought to the area by the British in 1901, Trang has been one of the world’s leading trade centres for this everyday commodity. The regimented plantations line the road and once the sap is collected it is laid out to dry forming oblong rubber mats ready for market. Trang is also famous for its Vegetarian Festival held each September and in which ascetic religious rites are performed by devotees who have worked themselves into a trance in order to rise above physical pain. Those of a squeamish disposition should look away now!

By now I too was riding in a trance having transcended all pain! The miles ticked by and just south of Trang I crossed the town’s river soon after which I was treated to a short refreshing rain shower. Further south and hotter still. By midday my shadow had all but disappeared beneath me, as by the border post I would be just 5 degrees north of the Equator.

As the afternoon rolled on I approached the Banthat Mountains. These verdant hills rise to 1350m and are home to the Sakai tribesmen who still maintain a hunter-gatherer existence, living in simple leaf shelters and talking their own ethnically unique language. The mountains are also home to many rare bird and reptile species as well as tigers. It did occur to me that I probably couldn’t outpace a tiger in the way I’d beaten those dogs. Oh dear.

Climbing through one of several passes, I was overtaken by a logger’s truck. As it was travelling only slightly faster than me, I grabbed hold and got a free ride to the top. Unfortunately the rubber tree logs were still fresh and sprayed me with a droplets of white latex to which the sawdust flying from the back of the lorry then became stuck. Talk about being tarred and feathered! No wonder the lorry driver was roaring with laughter when I temporarily overtook him on the way back down.

I made Langu with about an hour to spare before nightfall and headed to the Pharmacy. I wasn’t ill, but a trick I had learned from another traveller was that the chemist is likely to be the most easily accessible well-educated person in any town. True to form he emerged from his office and gave me concise directions in perfect English to the best hotel in the area. I’d already seen two places that made my night near Surat Thani look like the Ritz and I wasn’t about to endure the company of sewer rats again. The resort hotel was just out of town and consisted of a number of attached bungalows in the American motel style. At 350 Baht (about a fiver) for the night I wasn’t complaining as it was basic but spotless.



Bangkok - Malaysia
68 miles, 14 mph average1 Feb 06Day 7
Thale Ban national park & the Malaysian border


The night in Langu had been a success. I’d found decent accommodation and later a great little coffee bar that prepared meals and sold freezing Singa, that I swigged down in the company of the local chief of Police who seemed to use it as his regular watering hole. On the way through the chaotic town streets I’d spotted two westerners on bikes so immediately introduced myself. By an amazing co-incidence the Italian guys were due to set off for the same destination as me the next morning, so we agreed to meet at 6am.

After so many miles in my own company I was delighted to have someone to chat to. They both spoke perfect English and we exchanged stories of our travels whilst spinning inland towards the mountains. The first 20 miles in the cool of the early morning were fine, but as the gradient climbed so did the thermometer’s needle and it became clear we were on different agenda’s. Robbie and Carlo were planning to make the trip over two days, whereas I wanted to get my head down and be at the border for lunchtime. After knocking out such colossal miles in the previous days, I’d forgotten that 60 plus miles in mountainous jungle terrain can be quite a challenge. We parted company at the next town and I set about the climb, happy to be on my own once more.

The road twisted and turned through banana plantations and lush, dense jungle of great diversity, but the gradient never exceeded more than 1:10 so for the most part it was a steady rather than a gruelling climb. As I counted down the KM posts to the border the air started to clear and the temperature fell slightly as I gained altitude. Finally the rather quaint colonial buildings of the border post came into view.

The border guards all spoke a smattering of English and as it was still early in the day, they had time on their hands and met me with a great deal of curiosity along with the obligatory tyre pressure checks and nods of approval. One ventured to comment that my bike was very heavy for such a long trip – I’m not sure if he meant light or if he had simply not spotted the laden pannier rack. In any event, they all took turns at sitting on the bike accompanied by great shouts of laughter as not one of them could reach the pedals from my lofty saddle’s perch.



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