Satun to Pulau Tioman 14 April – 25 May 2014

This post is dedicated to all the wonderful people who’ve befriended us in Malaysia. We can’t thank you enough!

Most people travelling to Malaysia from Satun take the ferry to either Langkawi or Kuala Perlis. However, the expense and hassle of negotiating the Pino and trailer’s safe passage on a small boat meant that the land crossing at nearby Wang Prachan was a far more attractive option despite the steep hill awaiting us on the other side. We had been misinformed about the provision of accommodation in Wang Prachan itself (which turned out to be little more than a string of market stalls either side of the road near the border) so we rolled back down the road for a couple of kilometres and stayed in the National Park accommodation (not cheap – 400 Baht entry fee on top of the 400 Baht for the room – but it was raining and in any case we’re getting very lazy about camping in the tropics; it’s still just too damn sticky).

The border crossing itself was a straightforward affair. It’s a quiet crossing so the border guards had time to chat and admire the Pino, and Keith found a bottle of his favourite whisky (cask strength Glenmorangie) in the duty free shop. From there on it was a simple case of being stamped into Malaysia, and here we are! Malaysia has provided us with plenty of memories so far: mostly wonderful, some slightly irritating, and some, frankly, a bit baffling.

Man on motorbike, rather peremptorily: “Where you from?”
Tamar: “England.”
Biker, pointing at the ground, announces: “Malaysia!”
Tamar, perplexed: “Er, yes, it is.”
Biker rides off, presumably pleased with himself for having helped a pair of hapless cyclists establish where they are.
Tamar & Keith almost ride off the road laughing.

Or perhaps we misunderstood; perhaps he was telling us that he was from Malaysia…but then why did he think we might have thought otherwise?

On another occasion we’d stopped for a snooze at a bus stop (sadly no longer as frequent or relaxing an experience as it was in Thailand as the bus stops in Malaysia are not nearly as well appointed) when our doze was interrupted by the screech of brakes. I cracked an eye open to see a concrete mixer truck slewing to a halt on the grass verge just ahead of us, and its two occupants leaping out and trotting in our direction. Keith was closest so they prodded him awake to have the usual ‘Where are you from? Where are you going?’ conversation before hopping back in their truck and departing. I wouldn’t say we regret our decision to travel on such an interesting machine, in fact most of the time it facilitates the most wonderful and enjoyable encounters, but if we are recumbent with our eyes closed then please people, we really just want to be left alone for a little while.

Oh, and car, truck and motorbike drivers, unless your horn issues anything other than a very mellow parp or a cutesy little toot-toot, please, please restrict yourself to a giving us wave or thumbs up when you pass us. Seriously, any other honking or blaring occurring as you hover on our shoulder can only sound at best annoying and at worst, downright aggressive.

Poor bus-shelter provision and careless hooting are not the only let-downs of late. To Keith’s chagrin 7-Elevens are no longer a source of delicious and cheap iced coffee, and when he does now purchase one (usually from a cafe to accompany his lunch) it is frequently made with what looks like a tea-bag. That’s just wrong!

Thankfully, these minor irritations are just that, and do not really detract from the wonderful experience we’ve had in Malaysia so far. We particularly like the multiculturalism of Malaysia. The diversity of ethnicities, evidenced in the cuisine, the languages, architecture and places of worship gives a very different feel from the other SE Asian countries. If you have an ear for it (or, if like us, you don’t and you just ask people outright what language they’re speaking) you’ll hear Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Mandarin and Hokkien), Indian dialects, the Malay language, and, handily for us, English. Malay is the official language, but you can still find people from the older generation who don’t speak it at all as they were educated in English and their home language was Chinese.

Mmm-mmm, Beef Torpedo Soup!

Mmm-mmm, Beef Torpedo Soup!

Malay cuisine is as diverse as its people. In Georgetown, where we’d anticipated spending a couple of days, we were so overwhelmed by the plentiful, cheap and fabulously varied dishes on offer that we ended up staying five nights and gorging ourselves stupid. Penang Laksa, Hokkien Mee, Char Koay Teow, Nasi Kandar, Roti Canai, Wan Tan Mee, Rojak, Cendol and Ice Kacang all competed for our palates’ attention. Warm rich spices from India, tangy hits of tamarind, chilli and lemongrass, sweet and spicy shrimp paste, garlic, sesame, ginger….oh! be still our beating hearts and salivating mouths! The only dish that wasn’t entirely enjoyable was the Beef Torpedo Soup, the main ingredient of which was somewhat chewy. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to work out which bit of the bull might be the torpedo. In between eating we wandered around admiring the sights and sounds of Georgetown until we reluctantly heaved our groaning bellies back onto the bike and set forth again, hoping we didn’t sink the ferry from Penang Island back to the peninsula.

Georgetown’s unusual ‘dog’s bone’ shaped windows

Georgetown’s unusual ‘dog’s bone’ shaped windows.

We loved the intricate stonework at the Khoo Kong Si Temple.

We loved the intricate stonework at the Khoo Kong Si Temple.

A craftsmen working away in one of Georgetown’s shophouses.

A craftsmen working away in one of Georgetown’s shophouses.

Some of Georgetown's street art.

Some of Georgetown’s street art.

Outside Cheung Fatt Tze’s exceptionally well restored mansion aka The Blue Mansion.

Outside Cheung Fatt Tze’s exceptionally well restored mansion aka The Blue Mansion.

A venerable old bruiser.

A venerable old bruiser.

Some more Georgetown street art.

Some more Georgetown street art.

Fresh watermelon juice to go.

Fresh watermelon juice to go.

A piece of Little Britain, up on Penang Hill.

A little bit of Britain, up on Penang Hill.

The vertiginous funicular ride down from Penang Hill.

The vertiginous funicular ride down from Penang Hill.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché, but it really is the people we meet who make our journey so wonderful, and Malaysia has an exceptionally rich seam of extraordinarily welcoming people, both in the expat and local communities.  We’d encountered Malaysian hospitality on our first visit here last year when we met Mudrikah and her friends in Khota Baru, and Zachariah helped us out near Alor Setar. We got in touch with Zachariah again when we knew we’d be passing by, but sadly our timing was off and he was not around. So instead of visiting Zachariah we stopped off at a hotel, where the owner’s son, Richard, turned out to be a keen cyclist and after he and his friend had been for their evening ride they took us out for dinner and we had the chance to find out a little more about Chinese culture in Malaysia….and also marvel at the different hours that Malaysians keep compared to the rest of SE Asia. Most other Asians seem to be early risers and, with the exception of in the busy cities, the restaurants seem to close quite early. Not so in Malaysia where we frequently saw people sitting down to dinner at 11pm.

A late dinner in Sungai Petani with Richard and friends.

A late dinner in Sungai Petani with Richard (wearing glasses) and friends.

We left Hotel Akasia laden with gifts of fruit and biscuits and made our way from there to Georgetown for our gluttonous feasting, and then to Simpang Ampat where some friends of Andrew (our friend in Chiang Mai) live. Andrew had contacted Brett and Noey, and they’d very kindly invited us to spend a few days with them and their four children. Two nights turned into five as we played Mah Jong, swam and fooled around in the pool, were introduced to the never-ending joy of banana-leaf curry (where waiters repeatedly pile curry and rice onto your banana leaf until you beg them to stop), sighed in delight on a return trip to Georgetown to sample some ‘to-die-for’ patisserie in an unusual art gallery, oohed and aahed at the fireflies lighting up the trees like Christmas lights on a river trip, and made even more new friends at the combined birthday parties of some of Brett and Noey’s friends and colleagues.

Keith in party-mode, which makes it all the more extraordinary that Amanda subsequently invited us to stay with her.

Keith in party-mode, which makes it all the more extraordinary that Amanda subsequently invited us to stay with her.

Noey, Keith and Tamar’s artistic contributions to the tablecloth at the cake shop in Georgetown where diners are provided with crayons and given free rein (Noey’s picture of Keith was by far the best in our opinion).

Noey, Keith and Tamar’s artistic contributions to the tablecloth at the cake shop in Georgetown where diners are provided with crayons and given free rein (Noey’s picture of Keith was by far the best in our opinion).

The marvellous Myers family.

The marvellous Myers family.

It was at the birthday party that we met Amanda, who lives in Taiping, and who invited us to stay with her when we finally dragged ourselves away from the family fun of Brett and Noey’s. Amanda took us to an extraordinary bar, more of a ‘speakeasy’ really. Previously a tailor’s shop, it went out of business over a decade ago and the owner appeared to have simply locked up on the last day of business and left it at that. Shirts and half-finished suits hung gathering dust on the wall and bolts of cloth were left in careless piles on the counter. And so it sat until a year ago when the owner decided to turn it into a bar. To facilitate the change of use from tailor’s to drinking establishment the owner has taken a minimum expense approach. He’s basically bought some crates of beer and unlocked the front door. The dusty suits and bolts of cloth remain in situ, there are no tables, few chairs, you just perch where you can and soak up the unusual, musty ambiance of this unforgettable venue. Unfortunately Keith lucked out on the conversation front, being perched closest to a regular who didn’t like the British and was determined to tell Keith all about it at drunken length.

Lilian seeing us safely off on an trip into Taiping.  (Photo courtesy of Amanda)

Lilian seeing us safely off on an trip into Taiping.
(Photo courtesy of Amanda)

Amanda very generously let us stay on at her place for a few days whilst she was at a conference in Ipoh. We relaxed with Lilian the dog (who is looked after by everyone on the street but spends a lot of time at Amanda’s), pedalled round the beautiful Lake Garden, and watched the entire first season of Game of Thrones over the course of two evenings.

From Taiping we rolled down to Ipoh where we met up with Amanda and Noey and some of the other people from the party in Simpang Ampat. It was then a two day cycle from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur and we broke the trip at the curiously-named ‘Slim River’, which turned out to be named not after a skinny bit of water but after a 19th century English captain who mistakenly went up the Slim River instead of the main River Perak.

We’d initially hoped to visit an old friend of Tamar’s in Kuala Lumpur, but in another burst of bad-timing we managed to arrive when he was visiting friends and family in Scotland, so we approached KL resigned to hunting for a suitable hotel….and once again were rescued by the incredible Malaysian hospitality. Angie & Yuen were collecting some river gravel for their hydroponics hobby when two sweaty cyclists flopped down onto a nearby shady bench and promptly fell asleep. When they awoke the cyclists appeared hungry (rummaging in their bags for biscuits) so Angie gave them a container of rojak (a delicious curry) and politely went back to her stone gathering. When the cyclists came over to thank Angie for the meal she was appalled to discover they didn’t even know which hotel they’d be staying in for the night – how can anyone live like that? And so she immediately offered them her spare room for the night. The two cyclists were very, very grateful!

KL’s a bit of a nightmare to cycle round – lots of busy dual-carriageways – plus we wanted to stop off at a ukulele shop en-route, so it was a little later than anticipated by the time we got to Angie & Yuen’s where a sumptuous feast awaited us. Yuen’s a fantastic cook (under Angie’s tutelage we believe).

One of the things we really wanted to do in KL was buy a ukulele for Keith (inspired by Brett and Noey’s musical family Tamar had already bought an alto recorder in Taiping). He’d spent a couple of hours trying some out in the shop en-route to Angie & Yuen’s and we had a few more shops earmarked for the next day. Luckily, the one closest to Angie & Yuen’s had a really helpful assistant who talked Keith through the pros and cons of various instruments and showed him a few chords….and then all we had to do was to work out how to a) attach it to the trailer and b) keep it dry in the hot, humid, storm-prone tropics.

With Angie & Yuen at the National Monument.

With Angie & Yuen at the National Monument.

In addition to a suitable dry-bag for the uke, Tamar also needed to buy a new bikini (the old one having become a suncream stained rag). How hard could these two tasks be? Very hard as it turned out. There are precious few outdoor gear shops in KL (it seems that the only expeditions Malaysians make are by car to their air-conditioned shopping malls) and swimwear manufacturers, for the most part, do not cater for a combination of broad ribs and small boobs. After a day of emotional anguish we did eventually manage to get everything we needed, and as it was so late when we finished we had the added bonus of seeing the spectacular Petronas Towers illuminated at night. It was almost midnight by the time we padded our footsore way back home to Angie & Yuen’s. When we weren’t shopping, Angie and Yuen drove us around to see the sights (and some shopping malls) and were great company.

All offending bodyparts appropriately covered at the National Mosque.

Offending body parts appropriately covered at the National Mosque.

The breathtakingly beautiful Petronas Towers.

The breathtakingly beautiful Petronas Towers.

A catfruit.

A catfruit.

From KL we headed south to Melaka (aka Malacca), and once again had the good fortune to be befriended by a local. We were sitting on a bench, having a biscuit to fortify ourselves before hunting for accommodation, and as usual had drawn a crowd of spectators, one of whom asked us, unexpectedly, if we were WarmShowers members (Couchsurfing for cycle tourists). We replied in the affirmative and he said he was a WarmShowers host and his last guests had just left that morning so if we wanted to stay we were very welcome. Naturally, we leapt at the chance. Howard owns the excellent Ringo’s Foyer Guesthouse and keeps a room free up on the roof for WarmShowers guests. He is without a doubt the host with the most and within minutes of arriving we’d been introduced to the other guests and were all on bikes being shown round town by Howard before being taken to one of his favourite cheap eats places for some excellent laksa. After dinner he took us to the best place to see the procession celebrating Buddha’s birthday – as luck would have it we’d arrived on Wesak Day. Melaka’s an easy place to like, especially if you’re staying at Ringo’s Foyer, surrounded by bikes of every shape and size, and taken to the best places to eat every night by the ever-helpful Howard.

Wesak Day parade in Melaka.

Wesak Day parade in Melaka.

Wesak Day parade in Melaka.

Wesak Day parade in Melaka.

 Georgetown’s trishaws are prettily decked out with plastic flowers, but in Melaka they take trishaw decoration to a whole new level.

Georgetown’s trishaws are prettily decked out with plastic flowers, but in Melaka they take trishaw decoration to a whole new level.

Yellow bird, as yet unidentified...any twitchers out there among you want to offer an opinion?

Yellow bird, as yet unidentified…any twitchers out there among you want to offer an opinion?

From Melaka we gradually began to bear east, through Muar, Batu Pahat and Kluang to Mersing, where we took the ferry to the beautiful island of Pulau Tioman. We had to negotiate the Pino’s passage directly with the captain and ended up paying more for the bike than for one of our own tickets, but the deckhands were helpful and took note of Keith’s instructions on where to grasp the trailer, bike and bags to cause least damage to them.

Once safely disembarked, the Pino once again proved its worth as a way into the local scene.  Within hours we’d had three invitations to the same snorkel-test (the ‘graduation ceremony’ for a new divemaster), made friends with a scuba instructor who follows both the Giro and the Tour (and told us which bar he’d be watching them in), and been invited trekking the next day.  By the end of the night we’d made good contacts in two dive schools and had the name of the manager in a third.

During this period of pedalling, eating, shopping and making new friends, we also found time to submit applications for new passports. We’ve run out of pages in our old ones and are now waiting on tenterhooks to see if the passport office will accept our applications, which we’ve submitted without our original passports. We’ve sent full colour copies of our passports instead but are not keen to be parted from the originals, which we need to check into most hotels, and would also need if suddenly called upon to travel home. So here we are, on another tropical island paradise, awaiting new passports and passing the time by freelancing as divemasters. It’s a hard life. 

Next to a giant trishaw between Melaka and Muar.

Next to a giant trishaw between Melaka and Muar.
(Photo courtesy of Sabine and Fernando who are travelling around in a VW camper).

 

 

 

Hang Dong to Satun 13 March – 14 April 2014

Riding an elephant, swimming through a bat-filled cave, exploring the night-time forest, looking for dugongs on a boat trip and running the gauntlet of the drunken waterfight that is Songkran (Buddhist New Year) – it’s been an action-packed end to our time in Thailand.  We’ve also celebrated three years since quitting our jobs and setting foot to pedal, and, if you add up our total distance for our 2011 and current trips we’ve just passed the 40,000 kilometre mark – that’s almost 25,000 miles and the same distance as the equatorial circumference of the earth.  It’s not all good news in this instalment though, tragically, we’ve lost our Meerkat mascot who has been with us all that time.  We have no idea if he fell off or was stolen, all we know is that about 11 km into the day’s riding we suddenly noticed the empty space on the front of the boom.

Meerkat - missing in action.  :-(

Meerkat – missing in action. :-(

Almost unbelievably, Thailand has been our home for eight of the last ten and a half months.  Keith has made good use of that time to expand his Thai vocabulary admirably and can now quickly establish whether the price quoted for a room is for the full night or just a couple of hours (a common pricing feature) and even converse with mahouts about how many verbal commands their elephants respond to. Rather feebly, my own Thai vocabulary remains limited to “hello”, “thank you” and the names of a few of our favourite dishes.  During those months we’ve rolled our wheels through 43 of Thailand’s 76 provinces, but almost half our time was spent in just one place, diving on Koh Tao, so for our final month we made the effort to branch out a bit and discovered there’s a whole lot more to Thailand than beaches, temples, 7-Elevens, patriotic flags and pictures of King Bhumibol.

Our journey since leaving the comforts of our friend Andrew’s house, near Chiang Mai in the north, has taken us south through the flat rice and sugarcane plains of Khampang Phet and Kanchanaburi (where a famous bridge crosses the River Kwai), re-traced for the third time our previous route down the narrow isthmus past the familiar towns of Hua Hin and Prachuap Khiri Khan to Chumphon (where we managed to steer ourselves away from the ferry to Koh Tao) and then west to explore the damper, forest-clad hills of Ranong and Phangnga provinces and the wildlife wilderness of Khao Sok National Park.  A final meander south through Krabi and Trang, past karst skyscrapers, and rubber and palm oil plantations, has brought us to Satun, the final province from where we’ll cross the Malaysia border and bid a sad farewell to Thailand, which truly deserves its epithet Land of Smiles.

Although the roads have been predominantly flat, the cycling’s not been entirely easy-going.  March and April brought the full force of the hot, dry season upon us.  The sun rises benignly enough, but by 9am it’s morphed into a malevolent entity, intent on sucking as much moisture from us as possible before spitting us out as crisped husks by evenfall, when it retreats to gather strength for the next day’s assault.  We met another cyclist, Tim, (at our favourite stop-off, Maggie’s Guesthouse in Prachuap) who gets up at 2am to pedal through the night to avoid the heat, but we don’t want to miss out on the sights and scenery, so our compromise is to try to be on the road at first light.

Like little boys the world over Keith is fascinated by machinery – we have lots of photos of this stunning sugarcane harvester.

Like little boys the world over Keith is fascinated by machinery.  We have lots of photos of this stunning sugarcane harvester.

Our preoccupation with the current scorching temperatures has also brought an awareness of a curious difference between Asians and Europeans.  No matter what the temperature Asians retain an air of crisp, cool freshness.  In contrast, Keith and I are soaked in sweat from the moment we leave whichever air-conditioned cocoon we’ve called home for that particular night.  Even when sitting doing nothing more strenuous than eating a plate of Pad Siew or Yen Ta Fo, moisture beads on our faces, throats and bodies, trickling down in irritating rivulets.  Our clothes cling to us and we leave damp marks wherever we sit.  Around us Thais stroll by in bone dry shirts with not a hint of shine on their faces; we feel grotesque and wonder what on earth they think of us. 

You don’t need to go far in Thailand to find a temple – the distinctive jagged rooflines and gaudy statues are almost as ubiquitous as 7-Eleven stores – so to be honest we don’t tend to stop at many now.  There have, though, been two worthwhile exceptions of late, the first of which was at Kamphaeng Phet where the ancient temple ruins are a Unesco World Heritage site.

Weathered stupas at Khamphaeng Phet.

Weathered stupas at Khamphaeng Phet.

New shoes?

New shoes?

The second was just outside Kanchanaburi and built into a cave.  It’s not the most spectacular cave, nor the most spectacular temple, but it was a cool retreat from the afternoon heat, and there were a few resident bats fluttering around to delight us.

Reclining Buddha in Wat Tham Khao Pun, Kanchanaburi.

Reclining Buddha in Wat Tham Khao Pun, Kanchanaburi.

The cave temple is not the main draw of Kanchanaburi, that of course is the Bridge on the River Kwai and the associated war cemeteries and museums.  We decided to watch the famous 1957 film whilst in Kanchanaburi, but found it rather disappointing: definitely a Hollywood interpretation of events.  Much better was a book referenced in the Death Railway Museum, entitled The Railway Man.  It’s the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a Scottish radio operator and railway enthusiast who was tortured by the Japanese for having made a secret map of the railway.  After the war, he spent fifty years suffering PTSD symptoms and growing more and more embittered by his hatred of all things Japanese, a hatred that had a particular focus on the interpreter who’d been his nemesis during hours of interrogation, waterboarding and savage beatings.  Almost by chance, fifty years later, he discovered the identity of the interpreter, who was still alive, and who had spent the intervening years building a temple and doing charitable work in Kanchanaburi to try to atone for his actions during the war.  Lomax decided to confront him….well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out how it all went (or watch the film of the same title which came out recently).

Bridge on the River Kwai.

Bridge on the River Kwai.

Allied Servicemen remembered in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

Allied servicemen remembered in the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery (which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

We rode away from Kanchanaburi on quiet roads alongside a canal surrounded by flat rice-fields that stretched away in an intense carpet of green broken in the distance by abruptly rising hills.  Is there anything that’s quite so green as rice?  It’s like grass on chromatic steroids: vivid, luminous, the greenest green.

Hot headwinds became our companion as we rejoined our twice-ridden route down through Hua Hin and Prachuap to Chumphon, but it was nice being on familiar roads for a change and enjoyed the riding.

Chumphon, in our minds at least, will always be associated with taking the ferry to Koh Tao, so it was something of a mental wrench to turn our pedals westwards towards Ranong.  The short crossing to the west coast of the isthmus brought a complete and abrupt change of scenery and weather.  A heavy downpour mid-afternoon or during the evening has become a daily occurrence, and a surprisingly welcome one when it cools us and renews our vigour on a hot climb.  Even with the cooling effect of the rain though, a dip in the hot springs at Ranong was too much to bear.  Keith dangled his feet in but I couldn’t stand the heat for even a moment, unlike the other bathers who lounged around in steaming water, apparently enjoying the experience.

Ranong Hot Springs.

Ranong Hot Springs.

The soundtrack that accompanies our days on the bike is a mix of annoying earworms (that we share with malicious glee so that the other can suffer just as much), tooting horns (occasionally at us, but more frequently at roadside shrines), shouts of ‘Hello! Very good!  Very good!’ and, with annoying frequency, the frenzied barking of yet another idiotic canine.  Thai dogs are unlike any others we’ve encountered.  They sleep on the hard shoulder, or sometimes the middle of the road, or just stand, staring vacantly, directly in the line of the traffic.  If we pass by unannounced they startle and give chase.  If we give a gentle toot on our horn to forewarn them, that just gives them time to prepare for the chase.  If we pass by on the opposite side of the road, well, no matter, they have no compunction about running 20 or 30 metres up a driveway before flinging themselves between cars and motorbikes to snap at our wheels.  So our otherwise peaceful pedalling is interrupted about 50 times a day by nervous, hysterical yaps; angry barks; throaty growls and (the one we dislike the most) the sudden close-at-hand panting and scrabble of claws on asphalt that heralds the dog that isn’t wasting breath on anything other than the chase.  There’ve been a couple of comedy moments in amongst the annoyance – one of the silent but determined types launched itself up a driveway and out into the traffic only to have to take immediate evasive action to avoid being flattened by a motorbike.  It tried to continue the chase but had lost all momentum and dignity.  Another similar stealth attack ended up with our pursuer skittering and sliding to avoid a lamppost that had suddenly sprung up in front of it.  I swear it knew we were laughing at it.

Apparently a shrine to the god of pink fizzy pops.  Don’t linger long if honking horns get on your nerves.

What appears to be a shrine to the god of pink fizzy pops. Don’t linger long if honking horns get on your nerves.

Mosque at dawn.  As we travel south Islam overtakes Buddhism as the predominant religion.

Mosque at dawn. As we traveled south Islam overtook Buddhism as the predominant religion.

On the recommendation of our friend Andrew, we headed inland and uphill to the Khao Sok National Park.

It was predictably thirsty work on the climb...

It was predictably thirsty work on the climb…

...but we got a boost from overtaking something even slower than us.

…but we got a boost from overtaking something even slower than us.

Khao Sok was a bit of a mini ‘holiday within a holiday’ for us.  We stayed in a great little room (at Smileys Bungalows) with a glass wall giving views over the limestone cliffs, but unusually, instead of lingering in our room wasting time on the internet (ok, there wasn’t any), we booked ourselves on some activities.  On the first day we went on an elephant ride and a night safari, and on day two, we took a boat trip on Cheow Lan Lake followed by a trek through the forest to Nam Tha Lu cave, which involved a subterranean swim in places.

Breakfast at Smileys.

Breakfast at Smileys.

On the elephant ride it was a relief to find our elephant didn’t have any of the scars on its forehead (from impatient mahouts bashing it with a pick-axe-like tool) that we’d heard stories about.  In fact, the mahout didn’t even sit on the elephant.  We perched up high on a two-man howdah and the mahout strolled alongside giving verbal commands to the elephant, reinforced by the occasional encouraging shove on its rump.

We were surprised and impressed by the roughness of the terrain that an elephant can handle – it’s the original ATV!  Steep, muddy ascents and twisting, tree-rooty descents were handled with ponderous pachyderm aplomb.  Tight hairpin bends were comically negotiated by the elephant pressing forward into the farthest point before shuffling around on the spot until pointing down the next bit of trail.

A long way down.

A long way down.

Nice view from the top.

Nice view from the top.

We were tasked with hosing down the elephants but they preferred to do it themselves, sucking water up their trunks then squirting it over their backs.

We were tasked with hosing down the elephants but they preferred to do it themselves, sucking water up their trunks then squirting it over their backs.

Can I take this one home with me?

Can I take this one home with me?

It was around this time that Tamar started craving liquorice catherine wheels.

It was around this time that Tamar started craving liquorice catherine wheels.

After washing our elephant we had time for dinner and then met our guide for the night safari.  We didn’t have great expectations for this: daytime treks in other locations (on well worn trails that the animals know all too well to avoid) had shown up nothing more exciting than a couple of large beetles.  A night time safari proved to be a completely different experience.  All the best creatures come out of hiding at night.  We started off with scorpions, giant millipedes and small to medium sized spiders (easily spotted as their eyes glitter like little gemstones in the torchlight) and then progressed rapidly to tarantulas, brightly coloured roosting birds, and sleepy horned lizards, and then, completely exceeding all expectations, we caught a glimpse of some shy and diminutive mouse-deer (about the size of a domestic cat) and an agile Asian civet (which looks a bit like a cat but isn’t one) as it disappeared up a tree.

"Will you come into my parlour?" said the tarantula to Keith.

“Will you come into my parlour?” said the tarantula to Keith.

A sleepy lizard.

A sleepy lizard.

The next day we celebrated our ‘3 years since setting off’ anniversary with a visit to the jewel in Khao Sok’s crown: Cheow Lan Lake and a trek through Nam Ta Lu cave.  The lake was formed in 1982 when the Ratchaprapha Dam was built as part of a hydroelectric scheme.  The lake is huge (165 square km) and a bewitching juxtaposition of emerald green water and soaring limestone cliffs.  Our longtail took over an hour to go from the dam over in the southeast, to the start of the cave trail on the southwest shore.  The forest trail was easy going, but inside the cave was a more sporting proposition.  We actually entered the cave in the opposite direction to usual tour groups, so we got the fun bit first.  We splashed our way up a shallow stream that got narrower and deeper as we progressed into the cave.  In places it was neck deep and swimming was easier than wading.  The route twisted and turned and we scrambled up small cascades into shallower pools, with the cracks and crevices shafting away into blackness above us at the extent of our headlight’s beam.  We turned left and the cave opened out into a wider cavern with a low, smooth ceiling.  The smell was the first hint, followed by a faint chirruping sound.  Shining our beams upward illuminated dozens and dozens of small furry bodies that wriggled and hunched irritably as our lights played across them.  Our guide made a ‘psssht’ sound and for a moment the air was full of fluttering wings and agitated whistles, before the small dark dots reattached themselves to the ceiling and tried to sleep again.  As colonies go it was small, numbering just a few hundred rather than the thousands that you see pouring out of caves on the National Geographic channel, but it was special enough for us.  Other inhabitants of the cave included frogs, toads, spiders and fish, but the bats and the dark, chilling swim were the definite highlights.

Going for a dip in Nam Ta Lu cave.

Going for a dip in Nam Ta Lu cave.

Cheow Lan Lake

Cheow Lan Lake

Cheow Lan Lake

Cheow Lan Lake

One of the nicest things about cycle touring, and travelling in general, is the unexpected interactions we have with both locals and other tourists.  Sometimes we click with people we meet on group activities (like German actors Alex and Nina who we met on the Nam Ta Lu trip whose working lives are so different to the ones we left behind that we just couldn’t stop asking questions) and sometimes we have unexpectedly rich exchanges with people who flag us down at the roadside.  A Thai photographer and his family hailed us early in the morning as we left Khao Sok and he pressed some postcards of his photographs into my hands whilst his English speaking wife marvelled at our journey.  We were really pleased to receive the postcard collection.  We love the fact that this is his impression of Thailand rather than a tourist’s view, or at least it’s the impression that he wants other people to have of his country.  Most interesting was his chosen medium of black and white.  In a country as colourful as Thailand, where temples and shrines are a covered in multicoloured mirrored mosaics, the red, white and blue national flag and yellow royal flag wave gaily along most streets, official buildings are swagged with purple and gold cloth, houses are painted in shocking pink and acid green, long-distance coaches are covered in fantastical psychedelic artwork, days of the week have a colour associated with them and (so we’ve been told) people consult with monks to choose the most auspicious colour for their car, we really weren’t expecting monochrome pictures.  It works though and the pictures are both beautiful and unmistakably Thai.

Thai photographer and his family.

Thai photographer and his family.

Riding away from Khao Sok we soon left behind the wildlife wilderness and found ourselves between regimented rows of oil palms and rubber plants.

Rubber trees.

Rubber trees.

A rubber plantation inhabitant.

A rubber plantation inhabitant.

We expect we’ll be seeing a lot more palm oil plantations as we head down through Malaysia and into Indonesia where we’ve heard that vast swathes of prime rainforest are being replaced with lucrative palm plantations at a worrying rate.

We couldn’t leave Thailand without one more hit of sand and sea so we made our way to the quiet little village of Hat Yao, where we’d hoped to do some snorkelling, but the visibility was terrible and the sandy shore devoid of visible life.  We also wanted to go kayaking with rare dugongs (sea cows) but when we enquired we discovered that the posters advertising kayak trips with a naturalist were somewhat out of date.  In the end we plumped for a trip on an excruciatingly noisy longtail over to the dugong feeding area off the nearby island of Ko Libong.  We shared the cost of the boat hire with Petra and Rolf, a German couple who were the only other ‘farangs’ in our predominantly Thai resort and were excellent company.  Rolf’s a craftsman, making leather goods to sell at markets, and has travelled extensively, especially in South America, and Petra is a keen birdwatcher and erstwhile camel owner.  (How cool is that?!)  Thanks to their company it was a nice day out, but sadly the murky waters were not conducive to dugong spotting (and neither, to be honest, was the noisy boat).  Our boat driver (who spoke no English) switched off his engine and we drifted around for several hours, occasionally chugging over to a new area, but the closest we came to seeing dugongs was a brief glimpse of dark shape momentarily breaking the water and, separately, an expanding ring of ripples after Keith heard a huff of air near the boat.

Looking on the bright side, on the boat ride to and from the island we saw some amazing displays of fish acrobatics.  We’ve seen fish flying out of the water before to skip along the surface like a spinning stone, but these ones extended their skips by violently lashing their tails causing them to skitter forward, dancing vertically before dropping back to their bellies to skip a few more times before another burst of frenzied tail-lashed acceleration.  We also found a large and beautiful starfish in the shallows when we got back to Hat Yao.  The boatman picked it up for us and if we hadn’t turned it over and watched it retract its suckers we’d have sworn it was made of plastic.  It was much more rigid than we’d imagined them to be.  NB – Don’t go around picking up starfish, some of them deliver a nasty sting, and in any case you just shouldn’t go poking at and tormenting wildlife.  We wouldn’t have touched this one at all if the boatman hadn’t handed it to us.

It's a real starfish, honest!

It’s a real starfish, honest!

As we left Hat Yao, heading towards Yan Ta Khao, we kept spotting the same car again and again.  One of the occupants was clearly very keen to get some pictures of us.  We don’t have many shots of us in action so a big ‘thank you’ to Mr Wirat Juirod (the photographer) and Mr Nares Chookird (the driver) for emailing a few to us.

The Threewheelers in action.

Threewheelers in action – courtesy of Mr Wirat Juirod .

Our Thai visas expire in two days time and to end our time in Thailand in high spirits we’ve (completely by accident) managed to coincide our last few days with the four day Songkran festival celebrating the Buddhist New Year.  It’s a time for renewal and cleaning and traditionally household Buddha images would be cleansed with water and the then ‘blessed’ water used would be saved and gently poured over the shoulders of elders and family to bring good fortune.  Over the years, and particularly as the festival takes place at the hottest time of the year, this has morphed into a gleeful flinging of water over all and sundry, and in some areas degenerated into a four day drunken water fight.  Satun is a predominantly Islamic provinces so we have avoided the worst excesses (drunk drivers and buckets of water being lobbed into the faces of motorcyclists) but nonetheless have enjoyed several refreshing, good-natured dousings from children and adults alike.

We’re in Satun (the province capital) today but our plan to nosy round the museum to learn about Muslim life in southern Thailand was stymied as it turned out to be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Tomorrow we’ll be making our way uphill past some waterfalls and staying at a nature reserve before crossing to Malaysia at Wang Prachan, one of the less-well-travelled border crossings.  We’ll see you on the other side!