I thought I would start with a couple of facts. Well, maybe fact is too strong a word as have not managed to check them. First off, there are even now more Polar Bears than there are Starbucks. The second fact has more to do with cycling through Asia, and that is – there are more ‘ 7 Eleven ‘ stores here in Thailand, than the rest of the world put together. Now check both of those before you go telling too many people, and don’t blame me if they are a bit wrong.
It is a still morning as we pick up highway 4 out of Ranong. It is unremarkable, and could be any major road anywhere in the world if it were not for the dozens of wild dogs and shrines. We have realised only now that vehicles are often sounding their horns as they pass a shrine, rather than encouraging touring cyclists. We are still waving back. A stiff, but short climb comes up at 12 Km and coincides with an unseen fish rendering plant.
As we crest the hill, the road has been cut further into the hill. All along here, highway 4 is being widened and upgraded. On what is left of the hill to our left is a shrine complex. We push the bikes off the road and climb up for the view. In a few months time there will be four lanes of speeding traffic coming through this gap on its way to or from Bangkok.
We have been seeing structures of poles and wire at the side of the roads. Best guess at what they are ‘ a place to dry out grass for making hay ‘. We have also been seeing people riding mopeds with bird cages held under their arms and often with a second cage bungeed to the back of the bike. Not unreasonably, we had not connected the two things. But there, at the side of the road is a group of men cheering and encouraging a collection of birds in cages. It is unclear, but presumably, like an audience wanting an encore, they want more singing. Another man stands on the opposite side and is holding a stopwatch.
60Km by 11.15. We are met at the gate of Pannika Resort – touring cyclists welcome, by Aungkana. It is a big friendly, so pleased to meet you, Labrador dog of a welcome. We have been passing touring cyclists most days. They are on the standard route down the coast from Bangkok to the South. Aungkana and the Pannika Resort is where just about every one of them stays. It is at milestone 555 and is a must.
We ride into the village of Kra Buri to take a look at the river. Brown with wash off, it is running fast and bringing branches and logs down with it. The sun is going down and it is the end of the working day. Long tail boats are taking people back to Burma, which is on the other side. Not a single passport or document is shown. They are here to pick up a days pay for the toughest of work. Their labour looks like it pays for the swanky pickups that drive up to the jetty and away again.
The morning is misty. It hangs above the river as we pedal next to it. Burma, home to one of the most reviled and oppressive regimes on the planet, is just a few metres away on the other bank. Of course things are changing there, but not enough for the loudspeakers that hang from every telegraph pole to be turned off. Propaganda is being very loudly broadcast across the river. I am not sure that anyone is that bored over there, that they are choosing to sit in the dense jungle and listen. I guess it plays all night and day, which can’t do much for house prices here.
At 28Km, we hit a steep hill. It feels remote here, but there are voices coming from the forest and lives being lived. We have turned East, and are crossing from West to East coast of Thailand at this narrow point, and will run up the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. The road gets very busy as we get involved in the outskirts of Chumphon as we hit the East coast. The plan is to give the town as wide a birth as possible. I turn on the gps and string minor roads together that will bring us to the sea. Every time we use the gps it feels a little bit like cheating. We ride down insignificant minor roads and through unloved neighbourhoods. It is impossible to buy a map here with these roads marked on, so it is gps or live locally for a couple of years or more.
We get to quiet roads and find our way to Thung Wua Lan ( or Thung Walaem; like everywhere here there are 4 ways of spelling it! ) Beach. It has everything going for it, but is curiously quiet for a tourist spot with half a dozen Kilometres of golden Palm fringed sand and blissfully warm sea. We like it, and take an impromptu day off. Every coast that we have ever biked along has national enclaves. The Dutch have found this little spot. They know the two important things we need to find out. The best place to stay and the best place to eat. Which is where you will find them, as they turn a mahogany shade of old furniture, as back home the dykes freeze and forgotten neighbours wrap up warm and skate.
We did try to leave. Waking to a dull day that had a strong smell of the peatyest end of the Lagavulin Malt range. It was a morning that had a taste to it. We had got the bags to the bike when the heavens opened and we had a legitimate excuse to go back to bed. We repeat the process again the next day. An early start is the absolute key to riding in Asia, and this morning we share the beach with the wild dogs as the sun rises. The 4041 is a minor road, with rubber tree plantations and every couple of kilometres, a huddle of food stalls. I have no idea what percentage of the population run a food stall, but guess it is a big number. I certainly doubt that many do any cooking here, why would they.
An unspectacular day, but none the worse for that. We pick the only spot without accommodation to try and end the day. There are hotels, of course there are. But their French or Swedish owners have a strange concept of supply, demand and pricing structure. We sit and drink a Coke in a massive bar. The four staff are happy to have someone to talk with, but no deals can be done. To be honest you can not even pitch a tent in Switzerland for the sort of money they are asking for a spectacular view and most of the building made from marble. We are feeling mean, so push on beyond the dizzy 90Km mark.
A bungalow, and breakfast at 8.00 is included. It breaks the golden rule that I have just told you about, but what could possibly go wrong. The power fails just after 7.30 in the morning and we do not get on the road until 8.45, after half a breakfast. We have to find a stall for a second breakfast before we have even got half a dozen kilometres down the road. We have had better starts to our day. Such things throw my rhythm completely and I find myself seething. Many a farmer, if you are not quick enough to get away from them, will turn to you and give you bit of sage advice on the subject of mornings and early starts. ” An hour before noon is worth two after “. Agree with them, for they are right, but move away now before they start moaning about something.
The gps links small roads together. It could not be easier with the right side of the screen a pleasing sea blue colour. We may be the first touring cyclists to have ever used this road. If not, then it still feels that way. Many are rough concrete farm roads. All have the mark of a thousand doggy paw print from wild dogs now passed. If you want a smooth surface and you want immaculate you would have to stand over it with a stick and possibly a gun as it sets.
We watch women doing the back breaking work of processing coconuts. To get at the meat you have to get rid of 5 cm of stuff you do not want. The heavy nuts are held high and then bought down onto sharp knife edges. If you want good abs, this is for you. The women are pleased with the attention, and a coconut is deftly opened and offered to drink. I am not sure if you can automate this task, so best not give it too much thought when you unwrap your next ‘ Bounty Bar ‘ or guzzle down an energy drink made from coconut milk.
There is coconut processing going on all along this stretch of road. Trucks and vans pass impossibly overloaded with the heavy fruit. The road is littered with those that have rolled off the top. They will bring your day to an end if you hit them with a touring bike and certainly if you are behind a truck when one falls. No vehicle drives here with what would be called a “safe load” in Europe. Often, at the top will be a couple of young boys acting as human bungees. It is just an elaborate game of Jenga.
The dogs are getting a bit too frisky and we have to use the whistles twice. It works fantastically well. The dogs leap back from their bicycle pursuit, stunned. The Thais that witness the results beam an approving smile. As I walk around a town at the end of the day, one gets its own back and runs up and bits me. We are wondering what will be the first country that we pass through where we are happy with the treatment of dogs. I have a nasty thought it will be thousands of Kilometres and many months away. The treatment here is nothing short of appalling.
We end the day at a nice clean ‘ 24 ‘ in the town of Thap Sakae. We eat a full meal, then stumble across a Roti seller. It is the highlight of the day. Banana and chocolate have rarely tasted quite so good. The Muslim faith and Roti production appear to have a strong link, and we are now looking for Mosques and a car tyre sized hot plate in our search for our favorite source of cycling calorie.
6.45 am and already a strong headwind. We have had all the stimulation that we need from highway 4 and the speeding traffic. Once again we go in search of the slightly longer but infinitely more pleasing back road. The gps throws up a series of small villages that huddle close to the sea. I guess if we carried a guide book we would know that one of them has a spectacular temple complex. We just stumble upon it, which actual makes it feel even more special.
The early start means that we get into town and can pluck a hotel at random before the wind really gets strong. Prachuap Khiri Khan has more tourists walking around than any town since Krabi. We change and walk around as civilians. I am not sure what I travel for. Is it to meet people or see landscapes. This is a big distinction, a fundamental difference. Certainly it is the people that we remember most vividly, and possibly a few of the more jaw dropping sights. It is often the bad days that you remember before the good, and certainly where you are when you get bitten by a dog for the first time in your life.