25 Days of Heaven Part 1
A previous submission about a reader’s motorcycle trip in Cambodia has inspired me to share with Stickman readers my own ride of a lifetime around Thailand. I am a long-time lurker on the site, and figured it was about time I contributed something in return for the hours of enjoyment I have been provided by Stick and all the submitters. Please forgive me for the low quality pictures, as my originals were stolen along with my laptop and camera promptly upon returning home, leaving me only with what I had uploaded to Facebook while on the road. Although very frustrating, it sort of gives me an excuse to go out and do it all over again…someday.
Part 1: Phuket to Bangkok
I arrived in Thailand in early November 2009 and spent a few weeks relaxing in Phuket and planning my trip. My first order of business was finding an appropriate ride. Having a decent knowledge of bikes and knowing that I had to be prepared for absolutely any type of conditions, I knew that most of the common models available for rent in Phuket were not adequate. Thankfully a friend of a friend named Dang had a decent enough Honda Transalp 400cc that he was willing to let me take off the Island for 12000 baht for a month, about 3 times the rate for a regular small bike. For those of you unfamiliar with rentals in Phuket, leaving the island for extended amounts of time is usually not permitted with rented bikes. Having convinced Dang and his brother that I had adequate insurance, resources and the skills necessary to take care of the bike should I experience any problems while out on the road, he agreed to let me go. So in early January one night I announced to all my friends in the world famous Kangaroo bar that I was leaving, to which the staff responded by insisting I make an offering to the small shrine in the bar to implore Buddha for good luck, as they were all sure I was riding off to my death. This tells you a lot about the reality of driving in Thailand. Undaunted, the next morning I packed up a few things, strapped my two backpacks to the bike and set off.
A Transalp is the type of bike that is used in the Paris-Dakar rallies, and although mine was smaller 400cc version, it was well suited to long hauls. It handles nicely in curves, cruises at 90kph with little to no vibration and has a comfortable seat position to help minimise back pain. Said pain will of course be transferred to your butt, some things just can’t be completely avoided, but can only be mitigated as best as possible. Fitted with multi-purpose tires that are more suited to tarmac than off-road conditions, but still perform quite well on dirt roads and gravel, this bike was ideal for going just about anywhere except deep sand, heavy four stroke bikes with road tires are not meant for riding down the beach. Especially when loaded with luggage and a tall white guy.
I stopped just south of the Sarasin Bridge to get one last shot of Phuket and the Andaman Sea before crossing onto the mainland. Having survived my first ill-advised photo-op without beaching the bike, I crossed the bridge and made my way to Phang-Nga along highway 4, where I stopped for a 30 baht lunch of massaman and rice. Although it was the first week of January, Phang-Nga was almost deserted when compared with the hordes of tourists I had just left behind on the island, a contrast that suited me perfectly. It’s a nice sleepy little town with limestone outcroppings seemingly sprouting from the ground right in the middle of it.
A quick drive up and down the main street gave me a decent feel for the place, but I knew that I could not linger too long, as I wanted to get as many kilometers done as possible on my first day, before the inevitable pain and fatigue started to slow me down. A good trick to maximize your riding hours is to get off the bike regularly to stretch your legs and get your circulation going; doing so also afforded me several interesting opportunities to take photographs. I had planned to ride and average of 2-3 hours a day, always allowing me plenty of time to stop and visit whenever I wanted to (or so I thought), and also maximising safety by never being tired or pushing myself and never being in a hurry. Solo riding around Thailand is dangerous business after all, and not to be undertaken lightly.
I stopped in this roadside seafood restaurant, and these rather strange looking creatures on display, presumably offered on the menu but no English was spoken or written anywhere so the mystery remained. They look like a cross between a crab, a turtle and a manta ray. They are horseshoe crabs and are considered living fossils. Normally they are used as bait. I just ordered a couple of bottles of water, and was on my way.
Weaving my way north among the karst formations I left Phang Nga behind and made my way first to Map Thap Put, then on up #415 to Ban Ta Kuhn, hoping to get to Ratchaprapha reservoir by nightfall and get a room in the famed floating bungalows. The views around the Phang-Nga area are among the most spectacular I have seen in all my travels. Add smooth and uncongested roads to that and you have one of my best afternoons of riding so far in my life. And this was only day one. This trip was shaping up to be memorable.
I stopped to refresh myself at Bang Tao Mae waterfall and then as soon as I started back on the road I ran into one of the area’s famed micro storms, which forced me to stop for about half an hour and find some shelter at a gas station. This was an unexpected delay that would come back to haunt me later. I did try to press on wearing my rain suit, a great value costing only 100 baht at the 7-11. Of course it was in shreds after about 5 minutes and pulling over became the only option as the rain started to really come down hard. This was to be the only time I got caught by any serious amount of rain while out on the road in the whole month I was travelling. My less than durable rain suit ended up being enough after all. Later that afternoon I rode up to Ratchaprapha dam in time to get some shots at sunset, but since I didn’t know my way around I ended up looking for a good vantage point until it was too late and the light was no longer sufficient for the digital camera I was using. So I made my way down to the pier where I was told I could find a boat to take me to the floating bungalows. The place was not very busy when I got there, vendors were packing up their wares, and not a tourist was in sight. A group of tour guides and boat drivers were sitting together under a tree drinking some beer, and while I sat there eating a snack and looking lost one of them approached me. I explained to her that I wanted to spend the night in a floating bungalow.
-No problem, she says, have room for you, 200 baht.
-Great, I reply, how do I get there and is there a safe place to park my bike for the night?
-You take a longtail boat, take you to bungalow.
-Ok and how much is that?
-2000 baht, she says matter-of-factly.
-Oh…, and my bike? Is it safe here? I ask.
-No, not safe.
Now I first thought she was trying to rip me off, but thankfully instead of accusing her of such and causing face loss and everything that goes with it, I just asked her nicely why it was so expensive. She explained to me that I was in fact too late and that they would have to use a boat which normally carries 15 people who pay 100 baht each, and since it was past finishing time, well none of the boat drivers wanted to do it unless I paid two thousand. At least she was honest about it. If my heart had really been set on sleeping in a floating bungalow I could have bargained a little, given them a sob story about getting caught in the rain, bought the driver a beer and eventually got the price down somewhat, but I was exhausted and ready to crash early anyways so what was the point. And to be honest the “not safe for your bike” comment turned me off more than the price. So I settled for buying a couple of cans of beer, sat down with the boat drivers and handed a few out, keeping one for myself. They passed the cans around and drank to my health, but no further conversation was exchanged. I decided I could head back to Ban Ta Khun and find a room there for the night, and just come back during the day to visit the dam and reservoir before moving on.
I found myself a 300 baht room with air conditioning, and then to my great surprise I found out there was a fair in town! The lady who rented me the room explained as best she could that the fair was the only place to go eat, since everything else in town would be closed anyways, what with everyone being at the fair. So I crossed town to immerse myself in the cultural experience that is the rural Thai fair. A whole bunch of low quality goods for sale, a whole lot of suspect looking food for sale and a beer garden with a stage featuring a band playing bad music you can barely discern through all the distortion caused by poor acoustics and cheap, badly tuned equipment. And of course pretties dressed in tight beer company uniforms, looking oddly out of place in this backwoods town. Yes I was now experiencing the real authentic Thailand.
And they even had a Ferris wheel! I wondered about the quality of the view though…at night, in a town with almost no lights other than along the main road. When I returned to my bike after eating some questionable chicken and mostly nourishing myself with a pitcher of Chiang, a crowd of youngsters had formed and were admiring the machine. Since this was my first night outside Bangkok or Phuket in all the time I have spent in Thailand, these guys had me a little bit nervous. At first they mostly wanted to know about the bike and all, but almost immediately changed the subject and asked me if I had a Thai girlfriend, to which I responded that no, I did not. They seemed to warm up to me at that point and my initial unease dissipated. I made a mental note of that moment. After a little chatting they invited me to a karaoke bar to drink beer with them, which I respectfully declined, explaining that I was tired and had a long drive ahead of me in the morning. As I rode off I gave the throttle a little tug and the modified pipe growled deeply for half a second, their faces lit up and they gestured and pointed enthusiastically, a few of them even shouting. They were definitely bike enthusiasts, and I had just made their night.
I woke up early on day two and rode back up to the dam to get a few photos in better light. It was national children’s day and they had a whole bunch of activities set up at the dam and there were hordes of families in attendance.
This was the armed forces recruitment tent, which was by far the most popular with the little ones. There is nothing like putting an assault rifle or grenade launcher in the hands of a child to inspire him to want to serve King and country.
I got back on the road quite early the next morning and rode through Surat Thani to Don Sak, where I wanted to catch the ferry to Koh Samui. Having spent plenty of time on Phuket, I was not very interested in staying long on Samui, basically just wanted to take a quick look around. Of course when you’re riding that is as good an excuse as any to go somewhere. I had lunch at the ferry terminal while I waited and then hopped on for the 90 minute cruise over to the island. The ferries are no-hassle and cheap, but if you do plan on using them make sure to consult the schedules in advance because they do not run at short intervals.
My shipmates on the ferry
Koh Samui reminded me a lot of Phuket: very developed, nice mountain vistas crowded with expensive mansions, crowded beaches and lots of tourists. After a good night’s rest I took a ride around the island, which took about an hour and although it offered some nice technical riding and memorable views, the amount of traffic and all the development with accompanying signage made it rather unappealing. I then returned to my bungalow to grab my packs and head back to the mainland. First retracing my steps to Surat Thani, I then turned north on the coastal highway towards Chumphon. This part of the trip was rather uninteresting, as the highway driving demanded my fullest attention and the scenery wasn’t really worth looking at anyways. Endless strip malls, gas stations and various industries dot the highway, the mostly flat ground is constantly covered in litter and everything looks grimy and dirty, as is often the case in places where it gets as hot as it does in Chumphon. It was much warmer than it had been further south while I crossed this area. The road here has 2 car lanes and a fairly wide bike lane on the left as is often the case around the country. When approaching a slow moving truck in the left lane, and there were many of those, I was constantly forced to make a split second decision of whether to pass to the right or in the bike lane on my left to avoid fast moving cars blazing by at high speeds angrily blowing their horns at me for blocking their lane at a measly pace of 100 or so with my two-wheeled vehicle. So I constantly had to pop in and out from between two large slow trucks into either the left or right lanes with all sorts of traffic going either a lot slower or a lot faster than me. The bike did not let me down here; it swerved in and out of lanes confidently and had tons of acceleration in the 60 to 110 range. Definitely did not feel like driving an off-road bike, almost as smooth as a true sport-touring model.
I had a map. Do not laugh, they were not so easy to come by for the longest time in Thailand, and I suspect that is because before Google no one actually knew where anything was in the first place, so how can they make a map of it? Today thanks to satellites and smartphones I never again have to ask a Thai for directions, and that my friends is progress. Unfortunately I wasn’t equipped with GPS and smartphone apps back then, so I asked many Thais for directions during the course of this trip, with results that were invariably delivered highly enthusiastically, and were invariably inaccurate. So, on this map of mine, it looked like this place called Prachuab Kiri Khan was about half-way between Koh Samui and Bangkok. It was quite a bit farther than that, but I had made up my mind to spend the night there, and so I violated my “no driving at night” rule on the third day. As it was getting darker I was slowing down gradually, I started avoiding the fast car lane entirely, which left me in the motorcycle lane more often than not. That’s when I spotted him, in the headlights of the truck just ahead of me to my right: a samlor, ghost riding in the suddenly very narrow bike lane. I made a split-second decision to accelerate into a spot between two trucks to my right, and as I swerved past the heedless driver, I felt the heat and smelled the burning coals of the fire pit he had mounted onto his motorized contraption that passed for a vehicle. A head on collision with a mobile barbecue on a highway in heavy traffic would have been a very painful and messy accident, and I was quite relieved to have avoided it.
When Prachuab Kiri Khan finally appeared in my field of vision I was deeply relieved, and pulled over into the relatively unknown town to find some food and lodging. Since the train from Bangkok to Surat Thani comes through here there and there is a beach, there is a small “touristy” part of town where a few backpackers can be found, along with some decent food and cheap rooms. After a great dinner and a well-deserved shower I made my way back down the hotel lobby for a few cold ones, and to see if I could get some information about the area from the other travellers and hotel staff. A few tables were set outside, some of them occupied by a few backpackers and others by rather colorful expats.
This delightful young woman from Turkey was riding her Hello Kitty bicycle, which she had bought from one of the rental shops on Cha-Am beach because she thought it was cute, all the way to Nakhon Si Tammarat. Basically the opposite route that I had just come in one afternoon and then some, although I imagine she would be avoiding the highway. Still the plan seemed a bit sketchy to me. I certainly hope she made it in one piece. I also ran into a pair of German youths, in their twenties, who had come to Thailand with family but had set off on their own. One of them, a fair skinned, freckle faced lad with a shaved head, seemed so pale that I assumed he had just gotten off the plane. He assured me that they had been island hopping for 2 weeks, and that he could not figure out why he hadn’t gotten sun burnt or even a light tan yet, as he normally was very sensitive to sun exposure. I asked him if he was using sunscreen, and to show it to me. He produced a bottle of sunscreen on which the only things not written in Thai were the manufacturer’s logo (a well-known brand name) and the number 35. Now SPF 35 would have been fine for his needs, except of course that this is Thailand. So I proceeded to explain to my new young friends about the Thais obsession with pale skin and that his sunscreen had skin whitening agent in it, keeping him as pale as the day he left Deutschland. We laughed our heads off for 5 minutes straight and could not keep a straight face the rest of the night whenever any one of us looked at poor Whitey.
In the morning I started out early to do some sightseeing before it got too hot, and because sunrises are even prettier than sunsets in my humble opinion. I had spotted a hilltop temple the night before on my way in to town and knew that since it overlooked the bay of Thailand it would be a great place to get some early morning photographs.
There are almost 400 steps to the top but I told myself that once there the view was going to be worth it. The temple however, was not unguarded. I approached the first one I saw to snap a shot, but he got all aggressive on me when the flash went off a little too close for his liking.
Then he called in reinforcements. It seems my plan for getting to the temple this early to get pictures at sunrise with no one around had failed to take into account that there would be no vendors on duty where I could exchange regular currency for something more appropriate to use as tea money for the monkeys. I made my way up as quickly as I could, but there is no real fast way to climb 396 steps. Several of the monkeys tried to intimidate me as I made my way past them, bearing no gifts. They were not amused. One of them even decided to show his appreciation of my generosity!
The view from the top was not a disappointment though, and the temple itself had some very interesting buildings.
After I came down from the monkey shrine I made my way over to the air force base just south of town, which houses a museum with several old aircraft on display, and happens to also be the access to those nice mountains I had seen off in the distance. The main road in to Ao Manao from town crosses the airbase’s runway, and there is a gate that closes the road whenever a plane needs to takeoff or land. There are also several very old aircraft on display parked along the road. One of the older expats I met in town had told me that the trail leading to the top of the mountain, where there is a small shrine, would be “a nice stroll” if accomplished before it got too hot. I grew suspicious immediately when I got there as the place was once again guarded by monkeys.
The monkey statue’s instructions were clear, so I cautiously proceeded uphill, pretty much knowing it was a trap. I was immediately surrounded by these monkeys who were clearly trying to kill me with their cuteness.
As I continued to climb the trail up the mountain, I started to suspect that the old chap at breakfast had played me, because climbing all the way to the summit was a nasty, rocky climb with hostile looking vegetation full of brambles and thorns surrounding me on the way up. The limestone rock is porous and sharpened by the rain over time. You don’t need to be scared of heights to feel uneasy up there.
Alone and without a helmet, ropes or even decent shoes for climbing, I would have been a fool to try and make it to the top. As it is I turned back way after I should have, and I was so unsettled when I did that I failed to even get any pictures from the highest point I reached. There were some ropes here and there along the ground and strung between trees and roots, but one look at the jagged rock beneath my feet everywhere convinced me that I did not want to do anything foolhardy: a fall here, even a very small one, would be extremely painful and would literally tear me to shreds. I did get some shots a little before my nerves gave out, the views were breathtaking.
A nice stroll indeed old man.
I probably had less than 100m to go before reaching the summit when I turned back and I had started to glimpse the shrine on the summit, but I chickened out, which is probably a good thing. I climbed safely down the mountain, made my way back to the hotel to gather my gear before leaving for Bangkok. I did not get very far before finding out the hard way that my fuel level indicator was not very reliable. The engine sputtered for a few seconds and then went dead, the tank completely empty. I pushed the bike for a short time in the blistering heat until I reached the main road, and soon after a local resort owner stopped in his pickup and gave me a tow into town. After this incident I started keeping tabs on my fuel consumption a little more closely than I had been doing so far.
Before hitting the main highway to Hua Hin and on to the capital, I stopped at this very nice almost finished temple and ate some pineapple I bought by the road. The main building is huge and all made of hand-carved wood; it’s quite impressive, as is the rest of the complex.
On my way to Bangkok I took a small detour off the main highway to ride through the resort towns of Hua Hin and Cha Am, and I was immediately struck by how clean the city of Hua Hin was. Anyone familiar with Thailand has gotten used to seeing litter almost everywhere, and the lack of it in Hua Hin was almost surreal, a contrast I would come across again later. I made a mental note to return some other time; Hua Hin struck me as a place I might like to spend some quality leisure time at some point.
After a quick lunch on the beach in Cha Am, it was finally time to make my way into the capital, and tackle the beast that is Bangkok traffic. Most people I know who spend any amount of time in Bangkok quickly come to the conclusion that they prefer to use public transport and taxis to get around, and I don’t blame them. The main reason is not safety as far as I’m concerned; Bangkok drivers are fairly civil and competent when you are used to Phuket, the problem is it’s just really hard to find your way around.
The city is huge, and this became increasingly obvious to me as I first entered the urban area of Samut Sakhon, and kept riding at a relatively good pace for 2 hours before reaching the downtown area. I stopped once or twice to pull out my map and get my bearings as best I could, while using the automobile only express lanes as long as I dared. Eventually I spotted the river, so I followed it until I found the Thaksin Bridge. Once I crossed the Chao Phraya I started seeing familiar landmarks and street names, and eventually I turned on to Wireless road. When I finally parked my bike in front of a small bar in a side soi just off Sukhumvit rd. and pulled off my helmet, I was covered in black grime; all of my clothes had also literally changed to a much darker shade. My arms were black. My helmet’s lack of visor had left a black mask on part my face with white circles around the eyes where my shades had somewhat protected me. I made a mental note to buy one of those medical type masks that are sold on street corners around the city before going back out on the road to avoid breathing too much of pollution residue that was now covering my face like a bad Halloween costume. The lady who runs the bar set me up with a safe indoor parking space at a condo complex nearby where I parked the bike right next to the security booth, and went off to check to my room in and get cleaned up.
Having been to Bangkok several times before I had little interest in exploring the city on my bike, so I decided to rest up there for a couple of days, and proceed north again as soon as the effects of riding from Phuket to the capital wore off. For those unfamiliar with the feeling, being saddle-sore is extremely unpleasant and those first 4 days of riding had left me with a very acute case.
(In my next installment, I will cover the portion of my trip which brought me from Bangkok to Chiang Mai via Udon Thani.)