Snorkeling, swimming, monkeying around, painting the Pino, playing cards…and a little bit of pedalling too.
The indolent mood that enveloped us in Bangkok has continued as we’ve meandered down the east coast of the Thai peninsula. In fact, in 17 days we pedalled just 640km. I’d love to dramatise and announce with world-weary stoicism that it’s the cumulative effect of many hard months on the road that’s reduced us to our current enfeebled state…but in reality we simply have no particular deadline driving us at present and are really enjoying beach life.
We left the hustle and bustle of Bangkok slowly…which is pretty much the only speed possible on Bangkok’s traffic-choked streets. There’s only one main road to take you down the peninsula from the city, and so, unsurprisingly, it’s usually quite busy, especially at the weekend with hordes of urbanites heading out to Hua Hin. However, our Bangkok hosts Paul and Natt showed us a cunning route to avoid the worst of the traffic. Instead of heading west, we headed south east from Bangkok on Sukumvit Road. At Samut Prakan we heaved bags, bike and trailer onto a small river ferry which took us across the Chao Phra Ya River.
We then followed a canal-side road west to Samut Sakhon where we were forced onto the main road for the next 40 or so km, but after that took a quiet back-road past sea salt fields and shrimp farms from just after Samut Songkran all the way to Hua Hin.
Although we’d spent a weekend in Hua Hin for the bike hash we hadn’t really seen much of the town as we’d been based at a hotel out on the southern edge, away from the main tourist centre. This time we booked into the Mod Guesthouse which is built out over the sea on stilts and well-located for pottering around the tourist markets. If you stay at Mod try to get room 10 at the farthest end, out over the sea. It’s the lightest, airiest room with the best views. We liked it so much we stayed for 4 nights.
Keith tried out the snorkel, mask and fins we’d bought in Bangkok, but reported visibility to be next to nothing in the turbid water, so I decided to wait and christen my snorkelling kit in a more visually profitable location.
The night we arrived we met up with John (a friend of Paul and Natt’s) and had a splendidly chatty evening with him. We’d met up mid-afternoon and the plan had been to relocate during the evening to a bar showing the Tour de France…but the next thing we knew it was closing time and the TdF was over. It felt like our conversation had only just begun though as John’s such an interesting guy – thanks for a brilliant evening!
The company in Mod Guesthouse was also very friendly. We particularly enjoyed meeting the family from Crawley in West Sussex. Small world!
From Hua Hin we rolled along coastal roads to Prachuap Khiri Khan, the county town. The place to stay in Prachuap is a guesthouse called Maggie’s. The rooms are basic, but there’s a kitchen and large sitting room/dining room so plenty of opportunities to socialise. We stayed for 6 nights, but still felt like blow-ins as it seems that most people who get to Maggie’s like it so much they stay for weeks or even months. Our stay was over too soon…we still have an outstanding card-game of Five Hundreds with Aussies Bart and Paddy to account for one day.
Keith did some more snorkelling in Prachuap, but reported the same poor visibility as in Hua Hin, so my kit continued to stay dry and instead we headed up the 369 steps to the small Buddhist monastery which is overrun by long-tailed macaque monkeys. Keith made the bold decision to take some bananas with which to feed the ravening beasts. I told him it was a bad idea, but he insisted. We ascended cautiously, stepping with care over the casually strewn tails of well-muscled, sharp-fanged simians. On a flat section I stood well back and watched as Keith withdrew the carrier bag containing the bananas from his rucksack. Within moments he’d been rushed by a large male which grabbed the bag, and, after a brief tussle (which Keith lost), the macaque scarpered with its prize just before another one landed on Keith’s back, causing Keith to retreat to a safe distance and give up on any idea of handing bananas one by one to the polite and patient primates of his imagination.
We went back the next day devoid of food but with a freshly-charged camera battery (our other big mistake on our first visit was to forget to check the camera) and began to relax and enjoy ourselves. The macaques are definitely not to be trifled with, but if you just walk quietly among them and don’t try to interact then they’re more than happy for you to be there and will just get on with their monkey business. If you’re a regular visitor then it’s possible to get even closer. Keith saw one of the locals (who feed them daily) stroke one of the big males on the head – although not when there was any food around – but for strangers like us that wouldn’t have been a good idea. We spent a good couple of hours just walking and watching. It felt like such a privilege to be there. It was as if we’d been allowed into the enclosure at a safari park. In many ways it was actually all the nicer for not physically interacting with the animals and just watching them go about their natural business.
Whilst we loved watching the macaques, we still couldn’t resist a bit of interactive monkey business so we paid a visit to the troop of dusky langurs that live over at Ao Manao, on the other side of the bay from the macaques. Dusky langurs are smaller and are much more gentle creatures than macaques. They have a penchant for peanuts and we didn’t feel at all threatened even when they leapt onto our shoulders and tried to pry extra nuts from our hands.
Keith also took the time at Prachuap to do some bike maintenance. The Pino’s handlebars had become quite rusty in places so Keith sanded and painted them with some anti-rust paint. I lounged around reading books of course, useless partner that I am.
From Prachuap we rolled sedately down to Chumphon taking 4 days to cover a distance we could have easily covered in 2 days, as we stopped off overnight at Ban Krut, Bo Mao beach and Thung Wua Lan beach (where I finally christened my snorkelling gear). It had been raining a little each day but never for too long until the day we rode into Chumphon when it poured all day and we arrived soaked to the skin. We had a couple of chores to do before getting the boat across to the island of Koh Tao, the first and most important of which was to enquire about renewing our visa. One of the guys we met at Maggie’s mentioned that an immigration office has recently opened 8km from Chumphon (if travelling from the north then it’s on the left hand side just as you turn off route 4 towards Chumphon), so even though our visas were still valid for a further 23 days, we wanted to know whether we could extend them for a further 30 days at this early stage, or whether we’d need to wait until they were closer to expiring (necessitating an early departure from Koh Tao). Thankfully they said they could do them early, and indeed could do them while we waited. We tried not to leave too many damp patches as we filled in the requisite forms, and about 30 minutes later we were on our way back to Chumphon (via Tesco Lotus to pick up a few bags of muesli and other items we anticipated would be pricey on the island) with a new exit date stamped into our passports allowing us to be in Thailand until 22 September. Anyhow chores completed, we made our sodden way back through Chumphon and down to the car ferry terminal. It wasn’t a large vessel and after a couple of trucks had driven on the remaining deck space was soon packed with a variety of cargo including mounds of fresh fruit and veg. Last on were a Harley Davidson and our Pino, lashed unceremoniously on the steeply sloped bow end of the deck.
On the bright side, the bunk beds were comfy and we managed to get a little sleep between our 9pm departure and 2.30am arrival. After docking we were allowed to stay on the boat and sleep for as long as we wanted, but only after we’d moved the Pino on to the shore so that the rest of the cargo could be unloaded. OK, so when I said “we” I really mean Keith, and of course, knowing the Pino was standing unattended on a busy dockside wasn’t really conducive to careless slumber so by 6am we were on shore and hunting for a) breakfast and b) somewhere to stay for the next two to three weeks. Both missions were accomplished by 10am and by the end of the following day we’d also selected which of the multitude of scuba schools we wanted to attend.
For the next few weeks we’ve got some serious underwater fun to engage in. Expect the next blog entry to be even less bike-oriented than these last two. I apologise in advance to those of you who want to read a cycle touring blog!