March 31st - April 6th: Chumphon to Bangkok, Thailand
March 31st: Arriving in Chumphon.Caught the slow ferry from Koh Tao to Chumphon, and enjoyed a gentle ride back to the mainland. Rugs had been laid out all over the deck for lounging on, and the handful of farangs and locals dozed off to sleep. Most travellers were heading for Ko Pha Ngang for the night, this being the evening of the infamous Full Moon Party. But it involved backtracking, and I was in the mood to move on, and having spent a fair few days on the islands, I needed a dose of reality.
Arriving at the port, we passed fishing boats and watched fishermen washing down their catches in huge nets. Cycling into town, I was in no hurry and enjoyed the surroundings. Found Pat's Place, where an old lady with a few token teeth showed me to a room. Having left my sandals on the beach, went in search of flip flops with Kou, Pat's daughter. We combed the town and eventually found the only pair of size 9's, cunningly disguised as 11's! Pat appeared and insisted her green curry was much sought after; indeed, it was good.
April 1st: Bang SaphanA hearty bowl of muesli, yog and fruit for breakfast. Set off towards Cabana, in search of the coastal route. All was going well until I headed into the local airport, but with some shrewd compass calculations and an eye on the rising sun, I rejoined the road. Bumped into Claude, a Frenchman who has lived in the tropics for the last 20 years and cycles around Thailand every year. With a backpack strapped to a rear rack and a bike bought in Bangkok, he heads down the coast in search of new discoveries. Tanned and very much in shape, he certainly didn't look his age - 50. We chatted the morning away, as he too was headed to the same town.
Arrived in small Bang Saphan and found some bungalows on the beach. It was remarkably peaceful and empty; I crashed out and reawoke at dusk. Claude invited me to a fish restaurant overlooking the sea - an amusing scene ensued. No one spoke any English; I was very much craving a plate of noodles, but had some trouble conveying this. I was handed a pen and paper, and set about drawing a piping hot bowl of thin noodles. As I frantically drew more and more noodles, my artwork was met with bemused looks - it felt like some bizarre game of Pictionnary. I was shown to the kitchen and the waitresses (despite having no idea what they were looking for) and I, set about searching high and low, opening fridges, foraging in cupboards - every once in a while, one would brandish an item, but I would shake my head - until eventually 2 instant noodle packs were found in an office drawer...
Over fried rice and prawns...and the noodles, we philosophised about our lives and our travels, talking about our impressions of the Thai people and why we feel the need to travel. In western society it seems we are encoded into what is right and wrong, and given a set of morals in the process. Yet in some far flung region, tradition could dictate quite the opposite of what we think is 'right.' Confronted by this, it can break down our own system of beliefs and rearrange them into new ones - kind of like looking at a situation laterally, seeing it from a totally new perspective.
The Thais live each day very much for the moment. In the West, the importance of planning for the future is instilled into everyone, sometimes sacrificing the 'now' to a future which might never exist... But this also means the Thais throw their garbage onto beautiful beaches from their cars or just drop what they're holding. I have to remind myself it's just another mentality.
For me, travelling these countries is not always immediately enjoyable every waking moment, but without doubt, it leaves a strong impression and sense of really being alive - my only uneasiness is the feeling that these visits are not always reciprical. We rounded off the evening with a Magnum ice cream(!) and a stroll by the beach. The following morning I awoke to a magnificent sunrise. What better way to start the day.
April 2nd: Prachuap Khiri KhanI write this from a sweltering box (hotel room) having just arrived in the small coastal town of Prachuap Khiri Khan. It's been quite a morning. Leaving Claude, I hit the main road north to Bangkok. As I cycled, a junkie nutter on a moped sidled up beside me for a chat, and then followed me for a good 30 or 40 kms. He rode very close, drifting into the dual carriage way causing cars and trucks to swerve, dropping back, overtaking me and generally acting very odd. I waved politely; he smiled, and kept doing it. When he took his hands off the steering wheel and shut his eyes, it got too unnerving. Finally, I stopped at a petrol station - he came over to me and started babbling in Thai, pointing to his forearms and tapping his head. I walked off and sat in the shade, and some kids came over to inspect the bike. Everyone seemed to be watching him watching me. Finally, he tore off down the highway against the oncoming traffic. I waited a little then moved on, checking over my shoulder to see if this nutter was coming back.
As I approached a truck billowing out smoke by the side of the road, it caught fire. Everyone ran back. Flames leapt up, its tyres burst just like in the movies. Along with some mopeds, I squeezed by before it blew. This was turning out to be an eventful day.
Prachuap Khiri Khan is one of those towns backpackers tend to overshoot as they steam ahead to Bangkok from the islands. The hotel I'm in is typically Thai: big open plan layout, children and dogs scatterd about, old fossil Thais draped over chairs, people sleeping in the reception area, a life size portrait of the King framed over the entrance, a Bhudda with offerings... I escaped my sweatbox for a dip in the sea, but its bath temperature was barely refreshing.
It happens to be the Princess's birthday, and a display of Thai dancing is being put on, with stalls set up serving food from all over the region. Little girls dance on the stage, immaculately made up like their older counterparts. From the top of a hill, A Wat (temple) overlooks the town - 400 steps overrun by monkeys lead up to it, and there, young monks are enjoying the attention of some girls.
April 3rdVisited the local market in the morning, and got plenty of laughs when I started photographing the fish! Breakfasted on pinneaple, bananas, jack fruit and spent the afternoon deciphering routes, and trying to untangle the complex overland visa web. I think I have found a murky light at the end of a sinewy tunnel, largely thanks to my new bible, 'Asia Overland,' a tome of information. Claude arrived in town, and at the nightmarket famed for its seafood, we enjoyed a scrumptious bowl of fat 'lasagna' noodle fish soup, followed by a plate of fried noodles with squid. Whilst we sat and munched, the vapours from the hot vinegar thrown on to the woks almost choked us. We tested out a range of desserts, from pancakes to papaya. We're planning an early start tomorrow, so I headed for home, sneaking back for more noodles on the way! Well, at 30p a plate, it's hard not too...
April 3rd: Cha-amSunrise over the rocky outcrops rising from the sea was subdued and peaceful. A trishaw driver had slung a hammock in his cab and was fast asleep. I cycled with Claude up to Hua Hin, by way of the beautiful Khao Sam Roi Yot national park, a detour which lopped off another section of the bland highway.
Hua Hin is a commercial and concrete town pretty much overrun by tourists - the hospital welcomes American Express - its redeeming feature is the Railway Station Hotel. This graceful and elegant hotel, set in beautiful grounds dotted with animal topiary, was used in the filming of 'The Killing Fields'. Not a great fan of the international hotel chains, this is how a luxury hotel should be - big marble hallways, sweeping staircases and an abundance of style. I bid farewell to Claude and pressed on. I had really enjoyed his company, and he had reminded me of the importance of enjoying each day, rather than ploughing on for the sake of arriving somewhere - its incredibly liberating just stopping where you don't expect, even if its only half way to your 'destination.' Which is not such a new idea: Lao Tzu wrote in 520 BC, 'A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving...'
In Cha-am, I checked into the 'Jolly Jumper.' This Dutch run pad seemed empty of residents yet I was consigned to the top floor. I had expected a friendly Dutch welcome, maybe some traditional dishes urgently cooked up after my long day in the saddle, but the owner (nipple ring) seemed strangely uninterested.
April 5th: PhetchaburiI followed the coastal road to Hat Chao, and then onto Phetchaburi, as an alternative to the highway. As I write, the sun is being subdued by a thick layer of cloud, and just as I found the hotel, the storm began. Claps of thunder resound through the air and rumbled on for an age. Suddenly it's lovely and cool. I turn the art deco style fan off and sit in my bare and characterless room, contemplating what to do next. It's a Chinese hotel with a magnificent stone staircase; dragons are painted along the walls. Despite seemingly being the only guest, I've been consigned, yet again, to the third floor. Some obscure Thai classical music is rattling out of a transistor somewhere below as I watch the fan gradually slow down. The town is full of temples, but its still raining hard, so I opt for a dash to the markets.
At sunset, I went for a 'Wat Walk.' Wats are working temples, home to the buddhist monks. Phetchburi is famed for its amount of Wats and its desserts, both of which I enjoyed as I wandered around. I settled down at a stall for supper opposite a shop being renovated by some painters grooving to Thai pop.
April 6th: Phetchaburi to BangkokAnd finally, Bangkok... Having been fed horror stories of riding into the smog ridden capital, I was faintly surprised when suddenly I was there. Setting off this morning, full of trepidation and worry, I cycled against a storm, driving rain and a strong headwind. Yet the highway seemed almost empty for much of the way. Trucks past, throwing up spray, and pickups which were stacked perilously high with baskets of food and clothes, sleeping bodies intertwined amongst them. One open truck carried a cow, kept in place by rope attached to its horns. All it could do was roll its eyes, surrounded by people on all sides, hanging on to the roof, shouting out 'Where are you from/what is your name/how are you? in rapid succession. They too were soaked to the skin, so we felt a kind of comraderie which lifted me above the miserable weather.
Cycled through the city, traffic police clearing the way, to the (in)famous
Khao San Road. The last 20 kms stretch of road had been a kind of living
hell, caught amongst the trucks and buses which had ground to a halt,
breathing in their dark clouds of fumes. And setting eyes on this street
overun by travellers, I wondered where exactly the road had led me...