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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
On the recommendation of our friend Andrew, we headed inland and uphill to the Khao Sok National Park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Riding away from Khao Sok we soon left behind the wildlife wilderness and found ourselves between regimented rows of oil palms and rubber plants.
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.
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.
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!