When we first arrived in Thailand we rode north along the east coast, so from Chumphon we now cut west across the peninsula to cycle the opposite coast heading south. The next couple of days were beautiful with the best views for ages on very quiet roads.
On the second day we met Damian, an Australian cyclist spending his retirement alternating between playing golf and bike touring. He’s mostly ridden in Thailand and Indonesia, and since we might head to the latter in the near future we were able to pick his brains about that.
It was probably the hottest day yet, which is saying something, so much so that my legs were cramping. Fortunately I’ve been carrying around a pot of salt which I was gargling when I had a throat infection a few months ago, and we usually have plenty of water.
I knew we had a bit of a hill ahead and wasn’t feeling up to it at all in the heat. We stopped at a shelter at the bottom of the incline, close to a waterfall. It hasn’t rained for ages though, so it was a bit lacking. It was tempting to cool off in the pool at the bottom as others were doing, but it would just delay the inevitable and get even hotter. A ranger came over to say hello and ask where we’re from and where we’re going. Richard really struggles with place names, so told him that we were going to Rangoon. We are going to Ranong. The confused ranger then pointed to the water bottles we carry and said “Water is good. Very hot. Very, very hot.” And then put on a coat. Any other country and I would think he was messing with us, but Thais seem to be made of different stuff.
We set off again to face the switchbacks, and it felt like life was happening inside an air fryer with a magnifying glass pointed at us. The heat was so intense I just wanted to get away from it, so focused on going faster to make the climb end sooner. The downhill wasn’t that much better though – the breeze from our momentum just seemed like the backdraft from a fire.
We settled in at a bar in Rangoon/Ranong, when we saw Damian again who came over and joined us for a few beers and a chilled evening. We’re going the same way and doing similar distances, so we expected to bump into him again but never did.
Beyond Rangoon, I could see a police check point on the road up ahead and Richard talking to one of the officers off to the side. I thought he’d been pulled over and was waiting for me since I have the passports and stuff. But they’d stopped him to let him cool off in their office, and had already given him an armful of cold energy drinks. They had a chest of cold drinks, and another with packets of food which they told us to help ourselves to. Best of all they had a cooler full of ice which I added to our water bottles.
The next few days we were treated to the most amazing scenery, through rolling jungle accompanied by the sound of monkeys and tropical birds. It does help that the air is clearer here in the south and the traffic quite light, but it was easily the most impressive part of Thailand so far and it managed to get even better in the week ahead.
One sombre part of this area of Thailand is the reminders of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. We stopped in the village of Ban Nam Khem and learnt that a quarter of the population of this place was killed and 80% of homes destroyed by the tsunami. It was one of the worst affected areas of Thailand. We visited the memorial park where there is a huge curved clay wall representing the wave that hit the shore here, opposite plaques honouring 1,400 of those who died.
Halfway down this wonderful coast we took a few days off along Khao Lak beach, a picture perfect piece of paradise. I’m not usually a fan of beach breaks, but I do love swimming and it was great to re-charge a bit and spend some time off the bikes. The downside was that the food in the tourist areas was not as good as the rest of Thailand, but having something to moan about can be cathartic.
The road leaving Khao Lak took a turn upward to give nice views of the coastline and beaches, before reverting back to the rolling jungle scenery we’ve been enjoying on this road. Not wanting to go to Phuket, we instead cut inland through a couple of national parks which were particularly beautiful, before heading for Phang Nga. It’s a place with an amazing setting of karst cliffs jutting up with the town nestled amongst them. I saw a crested serpent eagle (I think) in the forest park after leaving the town, but after that had a bit of a huffy day. We’ve been a bit spoilt recently with the scenery and roads, so the traffic around Krabi was an unwelcome change.
The busy roads continued for the next couple of days, and combined with the very undulating terrain and the heat we found this bit of the ride to be deceptively draining. We had meant to have one long run to the border, but we were too tired so we took a day off in Trang for no reason other than to rest our legs.
One distraction on the road has been the upcoming election season in Thailand, and there have been countless posters along the way advertising candidates. Thanks to photo editing, their faces have had all texture eliminated and their teeth any natural colour removed, so it seems that Thais have a choice between various uncanny valley dolls. I did a small poll of two people, neither of whom are Thai, or will be here for the elections, or know anything about it. But we both agreed that the woman dressed as a doctor or pharmacist seems very trustworthy and the guy who looks like he’s in a boy band deserves a chance.
After Trang the traffic gradually eased off as it diverted off to the main road east and the various ports and towns along the coast. We were left to take lesser roads, with our final destination being a small border crossing to Malaysia at Wang Prachan. The terrain continued to be undulating, and over the crest of the only incline of note the view that opened up was like seeing the Lost World plateau. Being able to ride this road was the kind of privilege that brings a bit of a lump to the throat. On the way into the next village a moped pulled alongside and the rider shouted out “Welcome to Trang, welcome to Thailand, welcome to our country!” We have just over one day left here and I think I’m going to miss this.
Richard’s lived abroad in the past, but I’ve spent longer now in Thailand than any other country outside the UK. When we leave there’ll be no coming back for a long time because we’ve exhausted any available visas, which almost certainly means we won’t be back here at all. It’s a wonderful country to travel in, and a great one to cycle in. We’ve become so used to the rhythm of being here that we missed it when we left for Laos and Cambodia and felt comforted when we came back. At the same time we’ve had some groundhog days, especially recently, and we’ve felt as though we haven’t really been moving and seeing new things. The building heat and humidity have really had an impact on the distances we’ve covered, and it’s been frustrating to not move along as fast as we wanted to.
For our final day in Thailand the humidity was at 93%. The border crossing we headed to is a small one, and a bit remote on the Malaysian side. The days of money changers at borders are gone, so we stocked up in Thailand with a huge amount of water and other drinks, fearing we might not be able to get money to top up on the way. It still was nearly not enough. The road to the border was amazingly scenic. There were signs warning of monkeys crossing the road. Previous signs threatening elephants have always come to nothing, but these ones delivered with a large troop swinging through the trees above us. There was a short steep incline leading up to the border which was annoying. I had hoped to not turn up looking like I’d been dragged through a river, but oh well. The crossing itself was easy, but we knew we had the biggest climb for a while on the other side.
The climb turned out to be horrendous, and one of the most physically crushing things I’ve ever done. In terms of gradient and height it was nothing compared to some of what we’d ridden in Turkey, but the conditions made it sickening. The only thing cooling me down on the way up was the sweat running off my arms and onto my feet. Which is disgusting. We were surrounded by monkey calls and thick jungle, which started to seem a bit oppressive as I crawled round the switchbacks. Richard’s right knee has been bothering him for a few days, and not surprisingly it flared up on the climb. The descent the other side was one of the steepest I’ve ever been down, so we had to take it a bit slowly even then. And a headwind for the last ten miles into the town of Kangar was a kick in the guts.
We arrived late in the afternoon exhausted and hungry. Lots of people at stalls were busy cooking, but it’s Ramadan so no one was eating yet, just getting takeaways for later. We hung around in our room until after sundown, but when we went back out everything was shut. We’d seen a local supermarket so we thought we could at least get some crisps and biscuits, but that was shut too. We wandered down the road feeling confused, when some people at a closed stall called us over from across the street. They bagged up some food and drinks and said that it was a gift to us. We had chicken curry roti, char kway teow (a noodle dish) fried egg and iced milk tea. It was all delicious, and not only the most wonderful welcome to a country, but the perfect antidote to the sadness of leaving Thailand.
A playlist for the ride: