Samut Sakhon. Cha am, Chumphon. Ranong. Phang Nga. Trang. Hat yai. Pattani.Kota Bharu. Total Kms14975
As I had been staying in the northern suburbs of Bangkok it meant that I had to ride through the center of the city and out the other side when it was time to leave. I hoped that by leaving at 6.30am I would miss all the early morning commuter traffic and it would be plain sailing out of the city. How wrong could I be? From the moment I left the safety of the hotel car park I was attacked by early morning traffic even with all my lights blazing on the bike the drivers still couldn’t see me, at one point I thought it might be safer if I turned the lights off because then at least they wouldn’t know what to aim for. During that early morning ride through the city horns blared all around me and cars driven by madmen desperate to get to work inched passed me. At first I was as polite as I could possibly be ‘’ come on guys take your time and give me a bit of room here after all we are in this together’’, after about half an hour of this politeness I managed to get the sentence down to a couple of choice words and hand gestures that are understood in most countries. Finally after about 3 hours of madness I managed to reach the outer suburbs of the city and I was completely lost. Following my compass south with a map that was not detailed enough to show the streets of the suburbs I had to hope that I would eventually find a main route. It was now about 11am the sun was beginning get hot, I was tired from that morning’s commuter adventure and felt it would be good to have an early finish. I spotted a sign that said Jimmies Guest House, perfect I would have somewhere to stay and hopefully Jimmie could help me with a detailed route out of the suburbs and south towards the coast. I never found Jimmy and after almost an hour of following the signs I gave up outside the gates to what looked like an expensive resort. I didn’t care if it cost $1000 a night I just wanted off the bike. It turned out to be much cheaper than I had though and would be the perfect place for an overnight. Once again I was given a small private bungalow overlooking a lake; a short walk to the other side of the lake brought me to the restaurant. The rest of that afternoon was absolute bliss as I watched birds and other wildlife on the lake from the comfort of my private balcony.
The resort did have other guest who I met that evening at dinner. They were a group of pensioners from northern Thailand who had traveled down to Bangkok to perform in a karaoke competition. Karaoke is huge here and every bar or club and restaurant no matter how big or small has a karaoke machine. Everyone is welcome to pick up the microphone and sing. I was used to listening to people who can’t sing perform songs that should never have been written. At dinner that night I listened to my way, somewhere over the rainbow, send in the clowns and other classic songs from the 50s and 60s sung in Thai, it was the most bizarre evening. The group who were all great fun had brought a professional karaoke instructor with them and he was busy all night teaching the contestants how to sing each song. They had noticed that there was a foreigner in the restaurant listening to them and clapping at the end of each song and they were determined to get me on the stage. Fortunately we could find nothing in English on the machine, although that was partly my fault as I had told him to key into the machine songs by System of a down or Metallica. I went to bed that evening to the sound of Hey Big Spender sung in Thai.
It’s difficult to put into words just how wonderful my ride along the south coast of Thailand was. The sand really is golden on the dreamy beaches and the water really is a deep blue that you will find nowhere else in the world. This as they say is the stuff of dreams. On both sides of the peninsular there are famous islands and beaches. I initially took the East coast route south for a couple of hundred Kms but as it became more developed I cut across the country almost at its narrowest point and made way along the West coast. It was getting very close to Christmas and I was wondering what to do on the day. It would be good to be somewhere special on the day rather than getting up and riding the bike as if it was just another day and the island of Phucket about 200Kms to the south came to mind. As it got closer to Christmas I noticed more tour buses with signs saying Phucket on them passing me. Sleeping inside with their heads banging on the windows was the iPod generation who had arrived at Bangkok airport that morning and was now rushing to the island for the Christmas break. Phucket would probably not be an ideal destination for my Christmas break. That morning I was given a small piece of information at the side of the road that would once again make the bike ride worthwhile. It was about a place to stay for the night, a small museum and guest house only a few Kms down the road.
The wave the shook the world to its core and left almost 300.000 dead in its wake caused untold damage to this Western part of Thailand. Immediately after the disaster aid came from the united states and the Coca cola company who had had set up small museum dedicated to the people who had lost their lives in the four surrounding villages and a guest house had been built close to the museum. I met Mr. Pe the new curator who spent an afternoon walking me through the museum and telling me about his personal experience of the disaster. The wave traveled at over 1000Kms per hour and hit the villages in this area about an hour after the earthquake. Almost 500 people lost their lives here, mainly fisherman who had no idea what a Tsunami was and as the water initially retreated leaving fish lying on the sand they walked out on what a few minutes earlier had been sea and was now land and started to pick up all the dying fish. They saw the main wave advancing out to sea but assumed it was just a very large wave that would break on the beach like any other. This however was no ordinary wave and before anyone realised what was happening this monster wave was on them killing everyone. Resorts, hotels and homes just disappeared but the real cost was human with over 5000 people dead in Thailand. Mr.Pe went on to explain how funds had been given by many Western governments to place an early warning system on the sea bed. If there is ever another monster magnitude earthquake again signals are sent up to satellites that then alert warning centers, alarms are sounded and people know exactly what to do and how to get themselves as quickly as possible to higher ground. Mr.Pe told me that he would like to involve the children in a Christmas party and although many of them were Muslim children he felt that as so many had lost their parents in the disaster it might be a good idea. He had never organised a Christmas party before but had sent out word that all the local children were invited and that they should each bring a present. I told him I had never organised a children’s Christmas party but it couldn’t be that hard. So my plans changed that afternoon and involved decorating an area where the party would be held, organising a lottery system for the presents so that each child would go home with a different present to the one they had brought, setting up tables for the food and generally helping out on what was to prove to be a very successful day. The sound of children laughing and the looks on their faces as they opened presents will stay with me forever.
Every Thai male is expected to become a monk for a short period in his life, this usually lasts about three months. Family’s call it taking up Robe and Bowl. Very ornate Spirit houses are built outside homes to encourage the spirits to live independently from the family. The Monks travel from one spirit house to the next sometimes walking the length of the country and often with no shoes on. I would pass them as they made their journey south and I would get off the bike and walk with them. Not all spoke English but there was a silent companionship as we walked the same route sharing food and water and on the odd occasion that I couldn’t find a hotel I was happy to sleep inside the same Temple as my walking companions.
Southern Thailand goes through periods of unrest that involves a small armed group dedicated to making this part of the country a Muslim state. Arson attacks and bombings take place every now and then usually against the military or police. Kids on bikes are not a target and I assumed it would be safe for me to ride here. I had the usual warnings from people about the dangers and how I would most likely be shot if I tried to ride a bike in the area. There is a very heavy handed police response to what is happening and to the Muslim population. The main road south to the border with Malaysia was covered in road blocks but I was always waved through. I had one lift in an armored police van. I was told that this stretch of road was very dangerous, people are shot here and I would have to go with them, reluctantly I unloaded the bike and got everything into the van. It was about 100Kms to the border and I assumed that’s where they would take me. We drove for about 5Kms to a 7/11 store and they let me out. I have a feeling they wanted to go back to the police station and tell everyone that they gave a foreigner a lift on their way into work this morning.
Chiang Mai, Lampang, Tak, Kamphaeng Phet, Chainat, Ayuthaya, Bangkok. Total 13975Kms
If its true that its the people that make a country then Thailand must be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Thais are a very special people, always ready with a smile, they are a laid back good hearted people who really understand how to look after visitors. From the moment I arrived at Bangkok airport I was greeted by smiles from every official that I spoke to. As I waited in line to go through passport control an official from the airline told me that the bike would be waiting for me as soon as I had passed through the Immigration check. Sure enough as I walked through the glass doors there was a small smiling Thai man standing next to my bike box that stood almost as tall as him. He didn't just hand over the bike and leave me but took me to the hotel booking desk and then helped me hire a van so that I could be transferred into the city. When I got into the van I couldnt thank Sam enough for all the help he had given me. I offered him a tip but he wouldn't take it, he said it was his job to help people through the airport with oversized luggage and he was happy to do it.
I was transferred to a small hotel on the outskirts of the city. In the morning I was going to take a bus 700Kms north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then ride south back towards the capital. I had a real urge to leave the airport and head south to the beaches but I had a two month visa and that's a long time to be riding along a coastal road, besides I wanted to see some of the interior of Thailand with its beautiful countryside and mountains. The small guesthouse was close to the bus station and run by an elderly Thai lady. It was late by the time I checked into my room but she told me to come downstairs to her kitchen and she would make me some dinner. I was looking forward to my first Thai meal and unpacked my bags thinking about shrimps cooked in coconut oil with fried rice or Thai green curry with mixed vegetables and sticky rice. When I finally went down to the kitchen there on the table waiting for me was a plate of macaroni, I tried hard not to look disappointed, after all she had gone to the trouble of opening up her kitchen and making me something to eat. From the first mouth full of macaroni it was absolutely delicious, we had the same conversation throughout the meal, she would ask me, is it same like England and I would say, well, the plates the same as in England, but what have you done to this macaroni its delicious. So my first meal in Thailand although Italian turned out to be delicious and in the two months that I have been here I haven't had a bad meal yet. Food is everywhere and some of the most delicious food comes from vendors who set up a cart and stove at the side of the street and cook the meal while you wait. Its always a very spicy sweet and sour meal with chilli peppers that are like a small bomb exploding in your mouth. There is nothing better than the smell of rice cooking for breakfast. Im now happy to have a spicy curry with rice or a noodle soup first thing in the morning.
The bus ride north to Chiang Mai took over 10 hours. Its about 750Kms north of Bangkok and as we hurtled along passing through small towns and villages I had to keep reminding myself that I would be riding this route south in a couple of days and would get to see all that I thought I was missing. From the bus Thailand looked beautiful, lush river valleys, ancient mountain ranges and fields of Orchids, Thailands National flower are everywhere. Theres a variety of different countryside here from dense mountain jungles in the north to tropical rainforest in the south. The town of Chiang Mai has more than 300 Temples and is considered a National treasure house. The town is surrounded by a medieval wall that is thought to be over 700 years old and was built as defense against Burmese invaders. On the outskirts of the old town is a very modern busy commercial center but inside the old city walls its possible to walk through medieval streets that are traffic free, just friendly Thais wander through these narrow lanes who are always ready to greet you with a smile. I stayed in the town for 5 days, it gave me time to have a good look around, practice a little bit of the Thai language, get to know the food and rebuild the bike. It caused quite a stir when I wheeled it out of my room the morning I was departing, the porters who had helped me up to the room with box must have thought that because of the picture on the outside that inside there was a very large Philips Plasma screen TV and not a bike.
Riding in Thailand after India is a dream. All the roads are well surfaced and although not as flat as in India with some very tough hills I found it much easier going and much less stressful than riding in India. The drivers are very civilized giving me heaps of room when they pass me. One major difference is the lack of cyclists, here in Thailand the weapon of choice is a scooter. Everyone, young and old has a small scooter that they use as their main form of transport, sometimes four or five people are crammed onto the seat and they hurtle past me laughing and shouting. The roads all have dedicated scooter lanes that I can use so Im well to the left of traffic that is passing on my right. Another big difference is how quiet it is, the roads are busy with the usual trucks and cars passing continously but days go by and I don't hear one horn being blown whether its in the middle of a town or out in the open countryside. There is the usual interest as I ride along, one or two cars will stop and the drivers ask where I'm from and what I'm up to. Thailand is such a huge tourist destination that I've lost the rock star status that I had in parts of India and Bangladesh. Although I cant say I mind, its great being able to get off the bike and use the loo without an audience. This northern part of Thailand is much cooler than the south. It makes riding much easier, I can put in longer days as the sun is much more forgiving in the afternoon than it had been in India.
Finding hotels has been no problem. The country is covered in National parks all offering visitors somewhere to stay. Tourism is down about 60% on normal years because of the economic crisis in the West. Perfect for me because hoteliers have had to drop their prices considerably to attract customers. I now recognize the Thai word for a hotel and they are always very easy to find both in town and in the smaller villages. I look for a place that has individual bungalows. These are buildings made completely out of wood usually Teak and although they have very basic facilities they are always clean and comfortable. I haven't had to use the tent in any of the hotel rooms yet. The small resorts that have these bungalows are dotted all over Thailand many of them are in the middle of the National Parks. I've slept in places on the side of lakes, one or two have been house boats, so floating on the lake and some have been in the middle of the jungle. Signs pointing off the main road to a guest house or resort have taken me about 5Kms down smaller lanes to these teak guest houses that have been surrounded by the most incredible jungle and wildlife. Monkeys jumping from tree to tree and early one morning two or three elephants walked past the bungalow where I was staying. Elephants used to run wild through the rainforests but sadly as the rainforest disappears so do the elephants. A local Thai man pointed out to me that if you have a look at Thailand on the map its shaped just like the head of an elephant with the peninsula as it trunk. Checking into one of these jungle resorts was funny. First, as always happens the guy working on the check in desk being asked for the first time in his career if a bike could be kept in the room had to get the manager, who arrived and said no problem but if the bike causes any damage to the room I would have to pay for the damage. I laughed and told the manager that the bike had learnt its lesson from an incident that had took place a week before when it had got drunk, thrown the TV out of the window and had brought female bikes into the room. I had told the bike that if anything like that ever happens again I was going to replace it with a Jeep. The manager without batting an eyelid said fine then there should be no problem.
Bangkok is the destination everyone who is traveling in South East Asia heads for. Its a city of 6 million that never stops to take a breath. It has everything from Ancient Temples to sky rise shopping malls and the famous ultramodern elevated sky-train. Every street is lined with restaurants and coffee shops and vendors who sell every kind of food imaginable. No matter what part of the city you happen to be in, food is never far away. I arrived the day before the Kings 82 birthday. Hes the longest Reigning Monarch in the world 62 years as king. Along with the population of Bangkok I was happy to stand at the side of the street in the blazing afternoon sun waiting to catch a glimpse of him. Thais love their Royal family. Everyone has an opinion about how good or bad politicians are but all Thais only have a good word for the king. He is not well and this is thought to be the last of his birthday celebrations. He was brought to the palace from his hospital bed and it was a silver ambulance that sped past us with the King inside.
Bangkok was full of Cultural Gems, I visited the Grand Palace, The National Museum, a very busy Chinatown and more Temples than I care to remember each with its own Buddha statue made out of wood, ivory or sometimes solid gold. The city has a canal system and these canals were onced used to transport goods and people. Many of the houses are made out of Teak and built on stilts to guard against flooding. This area had one of the only floating markets left in the city. Small wooden boats full of fish, vegetables, rice or even used as small restaurants float by and the only way to get from one spot to the next was by taking a small boat. From Bangkok I head south for a 700Kms coastal ride to the border with Malaysia.