Just a short piece to let you know that we made it safely back home. It was a bit hairy getting out and involved being slightly ahead of the wave of restrictions, but we managed it and are back home. Bernie is on her way back to work as a doctor to meet the needs of patients in the current crisis and David is under huge demand as the legal consequnces of the pandemic work themselves out. So this is a short piece – we have to concentrate on other things at the moment but look forward to a time when we can return to cycling, travelling and the good things in life. Meanwhile, isolating back at home, totally dependant on our wonderful friends and family and just trying to do our bit amongst the chaos.
Apologies that the blog has not been updated for the last few days but we have been in turmoil and can now report that this particular adventure is coming to a premature end. We were already worried about whether to come home to offer help to our families and others as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, but the decision was made for us when Malaysia closed its borders on Monday.
So we have made it to Trang and have tickets for the overnight train to Bangkok. Hopefully, we will then get a flight back to the UK.
Thanks for reading and sharing this journey with us. It has been really special even if shorter than we hoped. However, given the very serious challenges that people are facing all over the world as a result of Coronavirus, the premature end of our cycling trip is totally irrelevant.
Hopefully we will have the time to post a reflective piece over the next fews days, but until then – this is us signing off.
The first day of our third week in Thailand. Today started with the 5am alarm – despite the fact that we had had a series of family calls at 3am about lost keys. We tried to help with that crisis, failed and so a large bill was incurred. Less said about that, the better. Anyway we felt remarkably unaffected at 5am and even less at 6.10am when we finally set off after the resort provided an early breakfast of coffee, toast and yogurt with muesli. The first few km were up and down with road surfaces that were fine – and we even stopped to examine a rubber tree that had recently been tapped, with the white rubber continuing to run out gently.
The road was undulating, running through jungle and yet surprisingly populated. This is “ribbon development”, Thai style. There is thick jungle half a mile each side of the road but parts of that corridor are cleared and developed with rubber plantations, banana groves or coconut plantations. The road topped out at about 130m, after which it was downhill, largely with the wind to the town of Phang Nga. The last 4 km were around the hills and back facing north, so we battled the wind that had been behind us for the last 30km – though of course we hardly recognised that there was a wind when it was in our favour. There is a motto for life generally there but I will leave it to others to work it out.
The manager of our hotel spoke good English and arranged a boat tour for us to the bay with majestic cliff type structures jutting out of the sea. We opted for a private tour – a bit expensive – but enabled us to control the timetable. Our boatman was a young man and his wife and 2 children came along as informal tour guides – as it was the school holidays.
The photos do not quite do justice the beauty of the bay, but they are better than any words. The highlight of the tour was “James Bond Island” – part of the set of the 1974 film, “The man with the Golden Gun”. The film got mixed reviews with Roger Moore as Bond but Christopher Lee‘s portrayal of Scaramanga as a villain of similar skill and ability to Bond was generally praised. Thailand is still milking the connection 45 years on.
Perhaps the highlight was the mangrove swamps, where trees with roots in the salty water thrive. On the way back we saw an 8ft python swimming yards from the boat – elegant but dangerous (just like us I suppose – that is a joke in case anyone does not know us).
Back to the hotel and supper at a local restaurant where the service was erratic but the food was good when it eventually came.
It was a luxury to wake at dawn but sit quietly looking at the spectacular view across the lake emerge, rather than busy ourselves getting ready to cycle.
The ‘dawn safari’, with a 6.40, start thwarted about half the group so there were some advantages at being used to being up early. After a quick coffee we were back in the boat – again perfectly timed to see the sun peak above the mountain top. .
Low cloud drifted across the lake and enveloped the mountain peaks. It was a magical scene morning we saw long tailed macaques, lemurs, gibbons, hornbills and a variety of other unidentified birds. Although monkeys are seen quite commonly on the road or attached to temples it was completely different seeing them in their natural habitat.
Back for breakfast and then the main trip of the day. A walking trip into the jungle to Nam Ta Lu cave. We were warned we would get wet! Another 20 minute boat trip took us to the start of the trail – or in fact about 1km down from the official start as the water level was so low the boat could not get that far. However soon we were walking through thick jungle with bamboo, enormous fig trees and a huge variety of vegetation. A variety of spiders and butterflies were pointed out, as were the occasional chameleon. Although there are some big beast in the national park it was unlikely they would ever come to one of the few tourist tracks.
At a junction in the path we were advised to leave our bags and keep one camera that would be put in the guide’s dry bag when we got wet. We trekked on another 1.5km to the mouth of the cave where we were all handed out headtorches. No lit up walkway here. It was a cave that was used by communists in the area about 30 years ago, although now free of any dissidents!
Instructions given, we headed off in single file through the most brilliant cave excursion we have ever done. Everyone’s head torches lit up fantastic rock formations and stalactite and stalagmites as we waded along a small river. For the first few hundred meters, the walls were dotted with thousands (or probably millions) of bats.
As we ventured further the bats disappeared and the cavern narrowed and we plunged into our first deeper water, up to our waists. A narrow channel twisted and turned as we went in and out of deeper water, sometimes needing to swim short distances. After about 45 minutes we suddenly saw daylight and emerged through a small hole back into sunlight and the jungle. It was an amazing experience. For some (particularly the “larger” members of the group) it was quite a physical challenge but they were encouraged through and the whole group was elated.
Then back through the jungle, back in the boat and a quick lunch before we were fairly unceremoniously ushered out into the main boats back the dam so they could be ready for the next group. As David mentioned yesterday, we were slightly processed but it was all very efficient and friendly and the tour company packed in loads into the 24 hour trip.
At the other end, everyone had their onward transport arranged and we were soon back in our little van being taken back to the hotel at frightening speed to be reunited with our bikes and kit. It was about 3.30 by then and we weren’t about to set off again so we booked ourselves back into a bamboo house to plan our next stage. All in all a fantastic interlude.
We mooched around in the morning, sorting out the stuff for our mini-trip and then having a relaxing breakfast. The morning drifted along and a small van came to pick us up at about 10 to take us to the Ratchaprapha Marina – about 5km away, which was the start of the boat trip.
Once we arrived, we had to find the “Smiley Group” – the tour group we had signed up with. That was more difficult than it sounded amongst the hundreds of tourists who arrived in minibuses, were herded like sheep onto a pontoon and then send out into the lake on narrow boats with covers to keep them from the strengthening sun. Suddenly, after paddling our own canoes (or cycling our own bicycles) for 2 weeks largely on our own, we were in “tourist-land” – big time. We were told to wait and so waited but the time ticked well past 10.45am with no sign of any Smiley Group.
Indolence went to panic amongst the men who did not appear to have a job other than to tell jokes to each other, smoke and tell tourists to wait. They started gesticulating that we might have missed the boat – literally – and pointed us towards the massed ranks of tourists milling around the water’s edge.
After running along the pontoon, establishing that none of the boats about to leave were the “Smiley Group”, we eventually found our “group”, and were told to sit down to wait again. About an hour later, we were herded onto the pontoon, on to a longboat and were off.
The reservoir was created by the Ratchaprapha dam which was started in 1982. Its purpose includes electricity generation, irrigation, flood control, and fishing – and now tourism. It was inaugurated on 30 September 1987 by which time the Cheow Lan lake covered 71sq miles or 185 sq km, and has a depth of over 100m in places. To put that in context, it has a surface which is over 15 times bigger than Lake Windermere. The scenery was stunning with jungle coming down steeply to the sides of the lake, and trees poking out in places. The lake was low at this time of the year, and fills up when the rainy season starts in June. There were a huge variety of trees and other vegetation on the banks, as well as huge rock faces coming up directly from the water.
After about an hour we reached the “Smiley Raft House” – which was a series of raft buildings tacked together with a club house in the middle. We got allocated a simple room (electricity but no AC) and were left to enjoy ourselves for the afternoon. Our fellow travellers were almost all Europeans, and were a mixture of Dutch, Swedish, Lithuanians, Germans and Russians (plus a few we did not identify), as well as a nice retired Canadian couple from Vancouver who were fleeing the damp and cold of winder in Canada.
We swam in the lake – refreshing but a bit more like a bath than a lake swim – and canoed across to the other bank and amongst dead trees poking through the lake surface. Then we went on a boat trip to see wildlife – somewhat difficult in a boat of 20 people and a loud engine. But we stood on the back with binoculars and got a great sight of hornbills flying majestically across the upper reaches of the forest. There were also a variety of monkeys and the occasional gibbon, swinging Tarzan like from tree to tree.
As we returned, the sun set across the lake (they get the timing right because they do this every day). Then back for communal supper and finishing my book – William Boyd’s “An ice cream war” about the British/German war in East Africa as part of the First World War. Great writing and brought home the utter stupidity of this (as all) conflicts.
A different day to being on the bike but really good.
We were even more efficient at getting up this morning and when we left a 5.50am it was definitely still dark. The town however was awake as we pedalled our way out and soon the sky began to get light. We had a few kms on the main highway and then turned off, turning west this time to head across towards the other side of the Thai peninsular. There were subtle changes in the landscape – still coconut and rubber being the main crops but the road gradually got more and more undulating.
Nothing very steep but our legs are used to flat. After about 35km we came across an unprepossessing little town that had a great coffee shop. Iced cappuccino is my current tipple of choice!
As always the day began to heat up. The road was still up and down, up and down and we had lost any sea breeze a long while ago.
Mountains began to loom up ahead and the scenery was beautiful but it was starting to get hard going. Luckily we reached our destination about 12. A village at the far end of Lake Chiew Lan by the Ratchaprapha dam. We had booked into a little hotel by the river opposite a spectacular rock face.
Our room was in a bamboo building. For the first time we had no a/c so we lay down and melted for a couple of hours while the fan pushed around hot air and we tried to rehydrate. I took about 3 showers to try and cool down!
By 3.30 it was getting bearable again and we swam in the river, which was blissfully cool and had no crocodiles (or at least none we saw). There was a small roped off area by the bank – essential as we could see a mighty current in the centre of the river. By 4.30 we felt ready to cycle the 4km into town to buy some food. Although it almost as cheap to eat out, we like cooking for ourselves reasonably regularly as it can become a pain to constantly be looking for somewhere and deciding what eat. Tonight was therefore a vegetable and egg green curry which David cooked in our little stove. Delicious. As we sat and ate on our balcony it got dark and we could see a lightening storm in the distance….but no rain here.
Tomorrow we are off on a 3 day tour where a boat takes us far along the lake to the middle of nowhere – no electricity, no internet, no mobile signal. We have booked 2 nights staying on the lake where we are hoping guides will take us on walks into the jungle etc. We are looking forward to some time of the bikes and getting away from everything. Like many people we have become rather obsessed with coronavirus and looking up what is happening in Europe and this part of the world so it will be nice to be forced just to read some good books and see, we hope, some spectacular scenery. We will be back in touch in a few days!
Today sort of worked as a cycle touring day. We got up at 5 and left by 6am, when it was just still dark. It was largely flat riding today – lots of roads where we could see for miles – and some mountain scenery at the side. Roads quiet and beautiful.
We cycled until 98km until about 12.30am, when we arrived at our destination, a town called Chaiya. It is described as “sleepy” in the Guidebook and I can see why. But we found a cheap but clean hotel and dived into an air conditioned room (cost £10 for the night) and had a snooze.
At 4pm we went out on our bikes to look at some famous Buddhist wats (i.e. temples and monastic centres) which were hugely impressive and had a contemplative feel about them. We then did some shopping (sorry for the garish shirt that will come up in future photos), planned the next few days and then had dinner with a fellow cyclist who was staying the same hotel. We exchanged views on cycling, travelling, life the universe and everything and, perhaps inevitably, on Covid-19. She had been on the road for 8 months in a variety of places including China. It was an unexpected and fascinating evening to round off a really excellent day – even if one where there is not a vast amount to report.
The rest of the day can be shown by pictures and videos – far better than words.
Today was a day that did not go exactly to plan but worked out fine nevertheless. After overstretching ourselves a bit yesterday we resolved to have a short day with fewer hour directly in the sun. We were in a nice hotel with breakfast included so had a proper breakfast and set off about 7 rather than out usual 6am. David had found a lovely looking homestay at the tip of a little peninsular about 45km away so that’s where we were headed.
The road was again beautiful and quiet. Coconut, rubber and banana trees in abundance. We passed through small friendly villages but hardly through so much as a town. It was glorious riding. We made our way down the last 2km track to find the homestay but unfortunately when we got there they announced it was closed (it was still showing available on booking.com!). Undeterred there was another homestay on the other side of the peninsular, only a few km away but up a very steep hill – first time pushing the bikes up this holiday! This time it was down an even smaller track that opened into a beautiful bay. Unfortunately the homestay, which was the only building on the bay, was locked up. It was such a lovely spot that we decided we would camp but we were unprepared for that and had no food so we pedalled off again in search of provisions. We found a tiny shop a few km further on but it had so little in that we could not even find enough to rustle up a meal (although we would have been fine if we wanted to buy 20kg of rice or any amount of toiletries!). By the time we pedalled a bit further we had gone full circle and we were back where we started so gave up on the idea of a half-day and pedalled on south. If anything the road was even quieter, undulating along the coastline. But the 2 hours we had wasted earlier meant we were at that crux time of the day – at about midday – when the thermometer hit 39 degrees. We managed another 18km to the next ‘town’. There were 3 hotels marked on googlemaps but 2 were closed. Luckily the third had someone there. The accommodation was in rather shabby bungalows but perfectly sufficient for our needs and was right by the seashore.
After hiding from the sun for a couple of hours and recuperating we cycled the 2km into the town centre – little more than a village really but charming and friendly. We felt a world away from the upmarket seaside resorts we had been through further north, where there is a 7/11 or Tesco express round every corner. Here it is small grocery stores with simple provisions but we found plenty of fresh veg, a chicken leg (all the meat comes frozen) and noodles. We had several attempts to find bread, with the help of googletranslate, but eventually were told it was not being delivered until 5.30.
Back to the ranch for a swim in the sea – the bay so gently receding that we walked for ages to get up to our waists. Again a huge swathe of sand, lined with palm trees and little islands dotted in the bay – and not another soul to be seen.
A trip back into town found that bread still had not appeared so gave up on that idea – it will have to be noodles for breakfast Thai style.
We cooked outside on our little stove, certain that we were the only guests. It does seem very much out of season now, which surprised us, but maybe it wakes up more as a weekend destination.
There is a really good reason why we have never tried to cycle 120km in a day in the first week of any of our tours – it is because we are not strong enough to do so! But today we had little choice apart from having a long day because of where accommodation was located and our feeling that we were not yet ready to camp as we still needed to get out of the heat and humidity at the end of the day.
The day did not start brilliantly as the routes had not made their way on the cycle computers (Wahoos for those of geekish disposition). The reason was probably the fact we were working off a very weak wifi signal and it just did not play ball. Technology is great when it works but evil when it fails us. Anyway 30 minutes of IT faffing sorted it. By now it was 6.45am and we had lost most of the first hour of sunlight. It was also predicted to be several degrees hotter than yesterday, so we were already slightly concerned as to how the day would work out.
The first 40km were great – quiet roads, often cycling through shaded coconut groves. Then we hit the pleasant little town of Bang Saphan. Just outside was the first hill – not just of the day but the first since Bangkok. It was only about 60m of climbing which was nothing for anyone from Worcestershire. But Worcestershire does not have 30+ degree heat and high humidity at 9.30am (or possibly never).
We struggled to the top – the 4% gradient feeling much steeper. Then down and into more quiet countryside on the way south. By about 11.30 it was stiflingly hot – the Wahoo said 43 degrees C and the constant up and downs were getting to Bernie in particular. She began to feel that distinctive type of “cyclist’s head in the heat” which we have all experienced but none of us can describe. Eventually we found a small shop with a seating area. It sold egg-fried rice in pre-sorted containers for 25 baht – about 60p. Delicious and filling – and gave time for Bernie to cool a little. But the prospects of getting much further seemed low – and I was pressing her to agree to find a hotel by the beach and sit it out.
But Bernie is made of stern stuff and overcame her nascent heatstroke (which it was not) and – with me taking one of her panniers – insisted on pressing on. The wind had got up during our lunch and that, combined with 50% less luggage, gave her a new lease of life.
We ambled along and gradually made our way to Chumphon (not Trumpton as I keep referring to it).
Then the unexpected highlight of the day. After resting and shopping we went out to eat but found the restaurant we wanted to try was closed. On our way back across town another way we came across “OK Buffet”. This was a really busy, all you can eat Thai wonderland.
They plonked a bucket of steaming coals on our table and then put a contraption on top which had a moat for creating your own Pho (vegetable or fish soup) and for cooking meat freshly on top. All the ingredients were available and customers cooked their own meals – going back as often as you wanted for more.
After nearly 120km in the saddle, we were tired and hungry and this was ideal. It was also great fun though we did feel a little “on show” as the only non-Thais in the vast restaurant and with staff regularly having to correct our lousy cooking techniques. But, after lots of laughs and failures, we got there and had a brilliant meal. Needless to say, the OK Buffet is not in any Guide Book!
Coming back we passed a few (empty) hostess bars, showing the seedy side of Western tourism in Thailand. We have seen little evidence of his to date but it remains a sad part of this otherwise brilliant country.
Today was an almost perfect cycling day – apart from the 30km on the main highway – so I guess it was more accurately a day of thirds with the first and third being great and ending in a perfect spot.
The 5.15 wake up alarm was a little easier as we adjust our time clocks and away in the morning at first light and soon another lovely dawn as the sun above the horizon, briefly red, before soon rising higher to shine the rest of the day in cloudless sky.
We relished the cool, as after a brief stint on Highway 4 (the main road from Bangkok to the Malaysian border), we wound our way to a beautiful coastline. ‘Second breakfast ‘ stop was after 30km n the pretty town of Prachuap Kiri Khan, set in a lovely bay.
After Prachuap we were soon in the second third of the day. Here is a very thin strip of Thailand, very close to the border with Myanmar, which at times was only about 12km away. There was literally only one north –south road, the infamous Highway 4, and so there was no other choice for the next 28km. At least the shoulder was wide and very well shaded at that time of the morning (still only about 10.30) with little wind. Small blessings as the traffic roared by. We powered on up and down small undulations (a change from pancake flat) and breathed a sigh of relief when we could eventually turn off.
The final third of cycling and almost instantly the road was quiet and beautiful, winding through rural fields.
We passed a little restaurant crammed with Thai families (it is Sunday). The food looked great but we were still full of breakfast so settled for a drink in the shade. The road soon hit the coast again and a little further on we sat under the trees overlooking the sea for a snack of hard boiled eggs, peanuts and bananas (it’s nicer than it sounds, honest). As we sat, a man and his wife came over to chat. He was from Singapore and she was Thai. They lived in Bangkok but she had come to see her family home and he was checking out the coconut farms for his coconut export business. This seemed one of many businesses, as he gave us an array of business cards and showed us photos of the coconut farms!
The road continued through beautiful countryside dotted with coconut palm groves and lush vegetation. By 1 o’clock we had done almost 100km and the day was really heating up again. By good fortune we also reached the most beautiful bay we had seen so far and a lovely low-key, little town. It was a no brainer to stop for the day, and we had after all already put in 5 plus hours on the bikes! We found a great little ‘resort’ hotel with lots of individual cabins set in pretty gardens. They had one left, which turned out to be very comfortable with balconies front and back and very reasonably priced. There was even a washing machine we could use (one of my least favourite jobs being the daily handwashing). Bliss!!
We ventured out about 4, when we find the temperature beginning to ease, and bobbed about for ages in the sea as warm as a bath.
It being International women’s day, David cooked a lovely ‘one pot’ meal whilst I read and listened to Radio 3 via BBC Sounds – and a small blue-tooth speaker we have brought with us (one of the many things in our panniers to make life a little easier). We strolled out after dinner for a beer by the sea. For the first time since we arrived, no wind. Overall a great day.
The only blight being what we read about Covid-19. Italy reported 1200 cases in a day and is about to quarantine 16 million people in the north of the country. The UK is up to 169 cases and planning drastic action if the cases surge (as seems likely). Thailand is currently reporting 50 cases and ironically 2 of those from yesterday were people who had just returned from Italy. I don’t know how much testing there is and so numbers are likely to be more but at the moment, we feel in one of the safer parts of the world in our coastal idyll with little close contact with anyone apart from each other and the occasional shop keeper or restaurant. Who knows what the situation will be in a few weeks.