Tour of Thailand: Prologue 22 June 2013, Bangkok to Ayutthaya

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Er…by train…

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It was clear we should start the Bangkok to Chiang Mai bike ride in Ayutthaya. Mike D did it from Bangkok but suggested it was crazy. You might say catching the train is cheating; but that is only if you consider staying alive to be cheating.

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Ride it if you dare…

In Bangkok the pavements are fair game for any small vehicle and the roads are akin to a war zone. This is a place where size matters and not a place to try to balance on a bike you have never ridden, using panniers and carrying luggage, which you have never done, amid traffic customs you have not experienced. So the bikes were transported to Hua Lampong Train Station by Siam Taxi Van and loaded into third class.

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Never have I travelled so cheaply (the bikes, however, were many times more expensive at 100THB per bike – still nothing to grumble at though).

It would have been an enjoyable ride, had I not been worried about disembarking. It was somewhat olde worlde with the open windows providing the ventilation and the open spaces between the carriages where Indiana Jones would have been chased onto the roof to do mortal battle with some villain. Now people risk their lives by standing out there having a fag.

This is a bicycle tour, the operative word being tour as much as bike, so I wanted to stay in places of interest. Ayutthaya appeared interesting; once the capital of Siam and a major trading port before the city was sacked by an invading Burmese army in 1767. Ayutthaya is almost off the wat scale and one of the things to occupy tourists (didn’t I say I wanted to get away from the tourist trail?) is to hire bikes and cycle the city, visiting old wats and new. It seemed obvious that already having bikes we should spend some time there, so we stayed for two nights.

In Ayutthaya, at the beginning of our ride, several themes began to emerge – punctures, wats, wats and wats (including cockerel wats), karaoke and dogs – each to be endured, admired or avoided.

Sorry? What did I say about wats? So, perhaps I was angling for my full wat dose: my wattage. In any event there were no wats on day one. Negotiating the howling dogs at the train station and the slightly less intimidating traffic, when we arrived at Luang Chumni Village we were asked to wheel our bikes through a waste land. After unloading we prepared to head out to investigate the ‘island’ and buy a puncture repair kit and I found I had my first flat. One new inner tube of three used and more self-flagellation about having forgotten to buy the puncture repair kit in the first place. That was my first realistic Thai experience; trying to buy a puncture repair kit from a very rudimentary bicycle shop, across a huge language language gap and with several Thais watching. I couldn’t manage a whole kit, but I did achieve four patches and some glue for 20THB.

On day two we set out to explore the floating market and the wats. Close to Bangkok, steeped in some history and grandeur of days gone by, Ayutthaya still draws the tourists. Even though it is low season there was much evidence of that. Tourists meandered the roads on bikes. Their coaches and mini vans lined the streets. And there was still that Thai attitude to tourists that I had so longed to escape from in the south. Take the floating market (no longer a place where trade takes place on junks, just another t-shirt tourist trap), we were asked to pay 20THB to park our bicycles on the street. Never in my (not that extensive) cycling career have I been asked to pay to park my bike; that is one of the beauties of bicycles, is it not? No fuel, no parking fees. No, thank you; we dumped them outside the 7 Eleven.

On the same day we paid a visit Wat Phra Mahathat, central to the island and opposite a food market. After having had my feet savaged by ants while parking my bicycle (for free), I was not in an understanding mood. A sugary drink helped but could not rescue the situation when I saw the ticket booth for the wat; in plain English there was a ‘Foreigner’s’ price. I watched throngs of tourists, clearly happy to pay this, trailing from the booth towards the ruins. No. Interpreted in its most negative light (a skill of mine), it was a blatant declaration that the foreigners or tourists were there to be taken advantage of.

We still saw wats. In Ayutthaya it is hard not to. And as we cycled further afield we noticed that as well as wats there were dogs (I had encountered many dogs in the south of Thailand and up until then was unafraid). In the road, under cars, enjoying the shade of a tree or a nook of a wat; but one thing was clear, they had the run of the place. Strolling around Wat Kudi Dao a whole pack trotted and circled, outside the low walls, one with a mouthful of road kill. Other dogs appeared and joined in. They were some distance away when we entered the ruin, until one dark one (small, but in my mind resembling a hound of hell) slunk inside. We watched from the stairs of an old pagoda as the dog began to wind its way through the fallen stones. The question really was, were these old bricks his territory?

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Sadly I left my khaki shorts, white vest and huge gun in Ao Nang.

I felt like I was on the set of Tomb Raider, but with none of Lara Croft’s bravery or ammo. Quietly we tiptoed across the court yard, retreating under the dog’s narrowed eyes.

Dinner was a marked contrast to the day’s exploitation and dereliction. We had scoffed on the train while reading a Lonely Planet paragraph on Gahn Glooay. Effectively a bar/restaurant/karaoke venue; although from the look of the female staff it appeared to have a fourth function. Purely by chance and driven by hunger, we stumbled in there. Never have I been more uncomfortable as when, having asked for Singha Beer, the staff hovered pointing out what we should order. My brandished two fingers and menu pointing, were not understood. But to my surprise, when my hastily ordered food arrived it was some of the best I have tasted in Thailand. And the karaoke? Well it wasn’t great, but hey, the people in there were having fun and there were no dogs.

The final theme was kindness. While Ayutthaya left a spicy-sour taste in my mouth, Luang Chumni Village (at 1000THB per night) was a truly lovely stay. The owners leant their pump (after the wasteland incident), gave towels to dry the bikes and prepared a lovely breakfast; the staff were friendly and kind. The rooms, rustic wooden stilted things – some with the bathrooms located under individual houses – were a delight and are surrounded by well tended garden and what resembles a small moat. Ok, so we shared the room with a lizard that had the awful habit of chattering in the dead of night night but as I was later to find out, he was to be the first of many. I left there with regret and some anxiety about the 80km of road to the city of Lop Buri.

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Lizard home stay, I can’t recommend it enough.

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The Journey Starts Here

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The journey starts here…

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…on a train.

Having done some research and read several blogs (Mike’s Travels in Asia being one of them), I decided it was not safe to cycle out of Bangkok.

22 June 2013

Train from Hua Lampong Train Station to Ayutthaya. A bargainous 15THB for people, a not so bargainous 100THB for the steeds. The first puncture and the strangest dining and Karaoke experience, ever.

23 June 2013

A day of consolidation in Ayutthaya. Spent taking in the floating market (a heavily tourist-driven attraction where a woman tried to charge 20THB each for parking our bikes – er, no), the wats (complete with special ‘Foreigners’ price – again, er no) and avoiding the roving dogs.

24 June 2013 –Ayutthaya to Lop Buri (approximately 87km

Hot hot hot. Sweating, squinting to read the GPS on my iPhone and more dog avoidance. And another strange dining experience at The Broiler, Lop Buri.

25 June 2013 – Lop Buri to Sing Buri – approximately 50km, but the GPS was having none of it)

After GPS said ‘no’ we made our own route. This was a better day of cycling, winding through rural villages, stopping occasionally to snap a wat and buy 10THB orange drinks at the side of the road. Beautiful greens, soggy paddy fields and big smiles.

26 June 2013 – cop out in Sing Buri

Despite the plan for the longest ride so far, woke up, took in the grey sheets of rain against the silt brown of the Chao Phraya outside the window and booked into the hotel for another night. Once again nearly attacked by dogs.

27 June 2013 – Sing Buri to Uthai Thani

Getting into it now. Arrival at the most striking town so far. It still retains its strong connection to the Sake Krang River, Delightfully exudes an Old West feel with its wooden shutters and wide dusty streets and has a huge amount of bike shops. Most of all, it is a friendly place.

The Big Wat

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Actually a small, shiny wat.

A ‘wat’ is a monastery temple in Thailand. A ‘what’ is a type of question that I have many of, scattered among my ‘whys’, ‘wheres’ and ‘whens’.

People told me I would see lots of temples on my trip to Thailand, so many temples that the next one would just be another so w[h]at? I’ve seen a few and having been in Thailand for just over a month, having snorkelled, ridden, rowed, walked and on the verge of bidding goodbye to my brother and his girlfriend, Kelly, I asked myself what I was going to do with my second month in the country.

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Bye, bye…

I had been bused, song thaew’d and tuk tuk’ed from venue to venue and during these journeys I had been anxious that I would get where I needed to go, and in one piece. But was I really ‘travelling’? I didn’t think so. I had had a lot of Thai people approach me because I represented income – restauranteurs, drivers, tour companies – and I had tried my best to master a limited amount of Thai of their language with which to respond. I had met some lovely people, but I felt like the country was being brandished in front of me, like gilt covered tack, made ‘pretty’ like people think you want to see it; you like this? And this?

I felt dissatisfied.

I’m not sure exactly where the idea came from. Those ideas that possess you are like that. They have an energy of their own – my life has changed direction on the back of these ideas. I would cycle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, alone. I had looked at the tour companies who offer that sort of experience months ago (I guess the seed was sown then), I would be looking at £1000-plus (a complete budget-blower) and would I really be getting anything different, asking yet another tour company to hold my hand around the country and show me what they thought I should see? I was not convinced. The cogs of my stubborn mind bit.

I travelled to Bangkok with Robert and Kelly and set about finding everything I needed…

The bike. The Trek 7.2x. Yes, golden. This has been provided by Spice Tours of Bangkok for 370 THB per day (including rear rack). They were not the cheapest but they communicated well and considered all my requests. Bangkok is a huge city and all the bike rental/tour companies are scattered about it. Without wanting to pay the hungry tuk tuk drivers to shuttle me around the city, I was compelled to stick with what I had found.

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Steed (trustiness has yet to be established).

Luggage. It is rainy season and in any event it is important to have good panniers, both for balance and for keeping the stuff dry. While one blogger, By Misadventure, had mentioned using the dry bags that you see for little money at the beach resorts; I was not convinced. Having no idea what I was letting myself in for, I needed the real thing. I found two shops in Bangkok that stocked them – Probike and Bike Zone (or at least the shop next door in the Amarin Mall). Bike Zone gave the best service, so I got my 40L Ortlieb City Roll Back panniers and small handlebar bag there. Both shops gave 10% discount in any event. This cost in the region £135.

I could not forget my amazing Chinese shopping bag and six bungee cords. The bag is huge and sits on top of my panniers. It just holds stuff – my helmet, extra bottles of water, sugary drinks, sunglasses case…stuff. It is jazzy (not heard or used that word since the 1980s) and you can just chuck loads of stuff into it if you are at a train station or unloading the bike to check into a hotel. It cost the equivalent of £2 – bargain.

Tools. Multitool Topeak Hexon II (Bike Zone, the owner of which told me he had done Bangkok-Chiang Mai in five days – nothing like feeling inadequate), pump (Blackburn Airstik), puncture repair kit (forgot to buy this – big mistake given the puncture on T-1), Swiss Army knife (I already own this – good for opening packs of peanuts and raisins). Two spokes and three inner tubes (provided by Spice Roads, to be reimbursed if used). Bike lock.

Maps. Thinknet Maps of Thailand and Northern Thailand. Thailand GPS (by City App) app for the iPhone. Google Map screen shots. Strava bike app for emergency GPS assistance.

My stuff. A pair of padded shorts; a must. Walking shoes, good socks, T shirts and vests. A bandana for all round usefulness, although these uses have yet to present themselves. And my engine driver’s hat, courtesy of Tesco Lotus (yes, Florence and Fred are in Thailand), because you really must keep the sun off. Sun glasses, for the same reason.

And at the last minute, and much to my relief and the preservation of my life and sanity, I have company!

The journey starts here with lots of wats on the way and likely more what ifs?

Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW)

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Sometimes travelling does not teach you new things; it confirms the things you already knew; if not now, one day I will be a crazy cat lady.

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Introducing Barbara, ninja cat. She has just eaten, hence the wise expression.

Travelling through places which are strange to me, I’ve found my brain automatically seeks things that it recognises and understands; things with which it can help to build a map of its surroundings. So new tastes, smells seeping from street-side stands and open fronted shops, weather that makes water ooze from me or drenches me with its own warm torrents, dead eyes, strange customs, odd language (even the altered twangs of English, drawled by young Americans or sun-soured ex-pats), rush hour that is hours and ferocious hours long, where even the side-walk becomes fair game for enterprising motorcyclists. First comes alienation. Then threat, under the onslaught of taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers, motorcycle taxi drivers, restauranteurs, tailors, all the while ignoring the beeps of the horns, the roar of the traffic, the angry gunfire of the rain. And all the time my brain looks looks looks for anything it knows.

Animals. Barbara here, she is ‘same same, but different’ (a tried Thai-tourist expression); a cat of a different culture. Never has a cat been so quick to identify a sucker, follow them and hassle them until they break them down and get what they want. Along with Barbara I have met some heart-warming pets and some rough dogs, but I had little to say about them until I visited Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW)

Funded by donations and the profit from founder Junie Kovacs’ business, Time For Lime Restaurant and Cookery School, LAW has been helping animals on Koh Lanta since 2005.

I had read about it before I arrived on the island – Thailand Lonely Planet features a paragraph – but it was not until I saw a Western looking woman walking a dog on a lead (a rare sight) that I remembered and knew I must not be far from the LAW base. Armed with directions from the dog walker, I set out to visit.

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The first thing that struck me was that people had time. Busting at the seams, LAW still want you to visit, to show an interest and they want to show and tell you about their work. One of their main principals is education and they will talk to anybody who will listen. So, although it was too late to help walk any of the dogs, Terri, a volunteer from Edinburgh, took me on a tour.

We started in the hospital ward. Here, abandoned kittens, poisoned dogs and animals recovering from operations languished in fan-cooled air. Terri knew everything about them, sharing their sad stories and opening some of the cages so they could share cuddles.

The main surgical work that LAW do is neutering of dogs and cats. The organisation believe that one of the principal ways of reducing the abuse and cruelty caused to animals on Koh Lanta is to neuter them, reducing the stray population. But, they will help wherever needed. Amputations on dogs and cats that have been hit by cars are not uncommon – there are no orthopaedics on Koh Lanta, a specialism demanding money, a highly trained professional and long term care – and the reactive treatments for poisoning are regularly required.

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A new, young inmate.

As I had travelled the south of Thailand the presence of stray dogs was almost immediately remarkable. Aloof creatures; by day they move with purpose or languish in shade and by night the streets belong to them. Terri told me that the guesthouses frequently acquire puppies; a great draw of tourists. As dogs, they no longer have the appeal and anyway the low season descends and the dogs are turned out to the monsoon rains to fend for themselves. They seem to do pretty well. Only they are at odds with the significant Muslim demographic on the island, many of whom believe that dogs are unclean and feel justified in causing them pain. They are poisoned, burned, starved, left by the road to be hit or on a cliff to be drowned. LAW takes these animals in and if they can, they rebuild their bodies and their trust and hopefully find them a new home.

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In fact, many of LAW’s inmates find new homes all over the world, greatly assisted by the fact that the organisation can fulfil quarantine requirements. Others aren’t so lucky. Meet Woody and Oscar, part of the same dog pack, long term inmates, chilling on the beach part way through our dog walk.

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Just Chilling…

Much to the affront of my ‘good deeds’ ego the pair did not seem that excited about our walk on my second visit to LAW. I couldn’t blame them, because, as I took my tour a day earlier, for all the tens of dogs and cats it housed, it was remarkably quiet. There was none of the ricocheting, incessant barking you might hear at an RSPCA home. The dogs at LAW are separated into packs and they all have their discreet areas to roam, take shelter and eat; Oscar and Woody had got lazy, they had everything they needed right in their own living room.

The cats are the same. They roam around the courtyard, wash, bask, greet visitors when it suits them. In the evening they converge because it is feeding time, which takes place in a large concrete floored room with different levels, sleeping areas and scratching posts, where they are locked overnight.

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Ian the Cat.

Many moons ago I used to work in animal welfare. I was young and had a naive idea of what caring for animals as a job really means. But I learned a lot. And seeing how LAW is run – with care, time (largely from volunteers like Terri) and great organisation – I was impressed with how they have harnessed many of the positive features of UK animal charities and still in relative infancy, LAW is alive with a new hope and generosity.

With its established place on Lanta and its intention to care for the island’s animals and educate its people, LAW was something that I could make sense of in many ways. But don’t just take my word for it, visit their website to find out about their work first hand.

I Want to Ride My (Motor)Bicycle…

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There is no escaping it, two-wheeled transport (the motorised kind) is a big thing in Thailand, whether you are a local or a visitor. Much of the Thai population use motorbikes and scooters as their main mode of transport, balancing babies, extended family, pets, recreation equipment in the most creative and precarious ways. Many cannot afford cars. Sometimes the riders are children, nipping through the city on the way home from school. Sometimes the riders are drinking, texting, talking on the telephone or even brandishing an umbrella before their face as a futile defence against the monsoon rain. Motor scooters swarm along the town and beach roads like ants do the side walks.

And, like ants, if something gets in their way then they find a way around it; and it most likely will not be legal. Undertaking, overtaking, pavement mounting, riding on the wrong side of the road against the traffic, illegal U-turns, emerging without checking their mirrors, ploughing across lanes and lanes of traffic…And the police turn a blind eye. When I asked one drunken moped rider what would happen if the police realised he was inebriated, he shrugged his shoulders and said he did a lot of drinking with the police. Anecdotally, it seems that what the law says and what the police actually enforce are two entirely different things in Thailand. A major case in point: motorcycle helmets. You will most likely see that the majority of riders are lidless, although this is not what the law says.

Which brings me back to the visitors. Amid all this chaos, they can’t seem to wait to join the swarm. Because, to get off the beaten track, there is no better form of transport. They’re quick, cheap and cool (aerated, that is); not so cool if you get a pink ‘Hello Kitty’ design. Or, worse still, Man United.

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As far as I was concerned this was retro-cool

But locals will tell you that statistically, an average of seven tourists a day are injured riding motor scooters or motor bikes. Depending on what statistic you are reading, they might tell you that there are 28 to 38 deaths per days relating to motorcycle accidents. The locals will shake their heads and bemoan the dangers of tourists on motorcycles. Any injury you get will be assumed to be a from a motorcycle or scooter (personally, I would rather that than tell someone I fell down a drain), because that is the main source of injury to foreigners out here. And those injuries, they could run from gravel rash to something much worse; life changing even. So, do the risks outweigh the rewards? Actually, do you really know the risks you are taking?

Insurance is what I do for a living and personal injury is something I think about a lot! The best way of reducing a risk is to make sure you know as much as you can about the one you are taking. Hind sight is a wonderful thing…

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…usually…

…so make sure you do the thinking before the worst happens.

ARE YOU INSURED?
Insurance for the physical damage to the bike is one thing. You can purchase this for an additional sum when you hire the bike (more on that later). But in the first instance, do you have travel insurance? If so, have you actually read the policy to affirm that it covers you for riding a moped or motorcycle? Many will not. My policy with Post Office Insurance EXCLUDES riding a moped or motorcycle unless I or the rider of the bike (if I am the passenger) have a licence to ride the bike. Some insurers may exclude this risk altogether due to the high risk of injury.

It is crucial that you are insured a) for the medical costs (including repatriation) arising from any injury you sustain, and, b) the costs of medical treatment/personal injury sustained by anyone else in the accident for which you might be responsible. These costs could be astronomical. Enter Thailand motorcycle accidents into Google and you will get a good idea of the ‘worst case scenario’ here.

DO YOU HAVE A LICENCE?
So, do you? In the UK, a standard UK driving licence obtained before February 2001 will cover you to ride a 50cc moped, limited to 31 mph. Beyond that you are required to take various CBT (Compulsory Basic Training) and written exams.

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT (IDP)
The jury is out on whether you need one of these or more importantly, whether not having one could invalidate your insurance. You can apply for one through Post Office, AA, and RAC. It is applied for and granted on the strength of having a UK licence and simply sits alongside your UK licence, satisfying the terms of the 1949 Geneva Convention. If planning to drive or ride a moped while in Thailand, one should be obtained before leaving the country.

If you are driving for a sustained period in Thailand, longer than a year, then you need a Thai driving licence.

HAVE YOU RIDDEN A MOPED BEFORE?
Basically, if you haven’t, is the the chaotic buzz of a Thai town or beach resort the place to learn? A lot of riders can have an accident by failing to read the road conditions (wet or gravelly), not paying attention and hitting a pot hole, swerving to avoid the ever-present and much-more-road-smart-than-you stray dog, twisting the accelerator when you should be braking…

I could go on. If essential, then chose somewhere quiet. I hired this retro-gem on Koh Lanta, where there was very little traffic on the road and I could take my time over every manoeuvre (some people would say this is uncharacteristic). Having said that, I rode a moped for a year or so on the the UK roads (and fell off!) about 12 or so years ago.

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The beast and I, on the road together

WEAR A HELMET
This should be provided at the time of hire. If you are not given one, do not hire the bike. Sure, the thought of the wind blowing through your hair evokes a romance and freedom that we will never enjoy in the UK, but it is not worth the risk. The helmet could be the difference between walking away from something or having someone else brush your hair (and perform other basic personal tasks for you) for the rest of your life.

DO NOT HAND OVER YOUR PASSPORT
Some hire outfits will ask for your passport as security. Do not give them this, in the event of an accident or damage, they could refuse to hand it back. Allow them a copy of your passport and perhaps a security bond/deposit to offset against any damage, but never your passport.

OBTAIN INSURANCE COVER
As hirer of the bike you will be liable for damage to the bike during the hire period. The hire company should offer insurance cover. Take it and ensure you are aware of the excess and are willing and able to pay this in the event of an accident.

INSPECT THE VEHICLE CAREFULLY
Make sure you identify any scratches or other damage to the vehicle before you leave and discuss it with the hirer. Take photographs. It is not unknown for hirers to be billed for pre-existing damage on return of the bike.

Make sure the vehicle is roadworthy. If you have a driver’s licence, in theory, you should be able to do this. Check the tyres and ensure that it is taxed – this should be displayed on the bike.

WHEN YOU HEAD OUT
Take your licence, IDP and insurance documents (travel and insurance for the damage to the bike) out with you.

And, sorry (yes the final nail in the fun coffin), wear some sensible clothes/shoes which might afford a little protection if you do come off.

USEFUL LINKS:

Trip Advisor
UK Government Advice
Thailand Driving Licence Requirement – advice
AA International Driving Permit
Post Office International Driving Permit

Aussie Joy’s Tour and Guesthouse, Karon Beach, Phuket

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I made the decision to stay at Joy’s guesthouse, principally based on her Trip Advisor reviews.

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The guesthouse is situated on a busy tourist-driven street, just off the main Patak Road. It is only a two minute walk to the beach and there are bars, restaurants and street vendors everywhere; you are never far from food and entertainment. The downside of this is you may have to listen to popular songs of the last 30-40 years played by the band at the Two Chefs Bar as you try to get to sleep; they do a good Bon Jovi cover!

Joy’s rooms are clean, spacious, air conditioned and basic with coffee and water provided. There is a safety deposit box.

In high season Joy runs a bar downstairs but this was closed this when I arrived.

Joy is a great host and will make you feel at home before you know it.

Joy charged me 600THB per night, low season. I suspect this to have been a little high and I think a better rate could have been negotiated (always a challenge). As it was it included all the Dow Egbert’s coffee I could drink and a Thai cooking lesson on my second night, which I don’t think comes as standard.

Contact Joy through her Facebook page – Aussie Joy Tours and Guesthouse. Sorry, I am unable to provide a link for this due to technical problems.

The Two Faces of Travel and Tourism: Phuket

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There’s a difference between being a traveller and a tourist. Instinctively, I knew that before I started my trip to Thailand, only I couldn’t have explained WHAT that difference was. This is the story of Joy who (without intention) showed me.

With a damaged ankle (the residue of four months snowboarding, in all likelihood) I was forced to change my plans for the start of my trip. I needed to rest and how better to do that than sit on a beach: enter international beach holiday resort, Phuket.

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Aaaaaahhhhh (the satisfied sigh of beach tourist type)

Tourism 101

Now, an intermission, for the briefest of discussions on the debated differences between tourism and travelling. There are a wealth of views and opinions on the Internet, so many, I don’t have time to discuss them here, not yet. But Bryan Grey put it succinctly on Traveller’s Point: ‘The true traveller [is] soaking it up like a sponge,’ they will go anywhere and do anything. And The Colorful Wolf adds a little more detail:


The difference between a tourist and a traveller is that the traveller goes to a place without any preconceptions, whereas the tourist has already decided on how he’s going to experience it. The traveller has an open mind and lets the place happen to him. The tourist brings with him his own environment and expectations, thereby diluting (polluting?) the experience.

So, it’s the attitude, as much as anything. Safely ensconced in my ’boutique guesthouse’and making my pilgrimages to the beach, there was not a huge amount of absorption going on.

Enter Aussie Joy of Karon Beach, who I decided to stay with for the remainder of my time on Phuket – check out her Trip Advisor (my way of guaranteeing or sanitising my travel experience – ever the tourist) reviews.

Joy met me and hugged me with enthusiasm; people meet each other for a reason, she told me. Yes, perhaps it would be my chance to meet people and broaden my experience, I thought. In many ways, Joy did not disappoint.

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This is Joy

Over coffee, Dow Egberts (having first negotiated a sea of chaos, for, as Joy went on to tell me, she was actually closed for the low season and the place was mid-clean), Joy told me about the principles of Buddhism, the lost Euros and her faecal analogy on unhappiness and how to discharge it (unhappiness that is, but you can probably see where that one’s going). She then suggested that the following day we ‘go for a drive.’ I agreed to this, yet not really sure what ‘going for a drive’ would entail.

In fact, on successive days we went for two drives.

Drive #1

An hour later than planned we sat in Joy’s pea-green Mazda as she negotiated the chaotic Phuket traffic; and I still had no idea where we were going. Turns out to Joy’s home; two bungalows in the fishing village of Kokaenod, which looks put over the Chalong bay.

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Looking in on Guan Im

In the Chinese Temple, in which resides female god Guan Im, we paid our respects with incense. I felt a delicate privilege to be part of the ritual. Later, reclining on a crumbling jetty, interrupted only by the laughter of the water, Joy told me that the place was her sanctuary.

As the day wore on Joy insisted I relax on her decking while she tidied her garden. At odd times she stopped to offer me a cold bottle of Coca Cola or whisper of the old catfish, lurking in the depths of the pond. She knows she is safe when I am here, she told me.

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Aquatic Gardening

That afternoon I was invigorated, relaxed and sometimes scared, haunted by thoughts of Cathy Bates in Stephen King’s Misery.

But eventually we did leave the bungalow, heading for the Big Buddha – immense effigy and phenomenal view point between Kata and Chalong – only stopping at street vendors for Green Fanta and finger bananas on the way.

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I found the Buddha himself caused me to question that space between tourism and travel (or pilgrimage, on a more spiritual slant). The road leading to the great monument-in-the-making is lined with tourist rouses; elephant trekking, monkey shows, bird shows. Creatures shackled and bound to perform in the name of profit. At the site it is not possible to move more than a few metres without a request for a donation (the site itself is free to enter). The huge tiled Buddha, the golden effigies, the intricate wooden carvings all (to me) smacked of iconoclasm or at least something that Buddhism is not. And hence I questioned the place; tourist attraction or holy site?

Joy would say, what does it matter how people came to see the Buddha? However they arrive, they leave with just a little more understanding, a reminder of the principles of Buddhism. I remained unsure.

As the sun was setting we drove south down the coast, through Rawai for delicious street food (sweet nutty sago and coconut dessert), to Promthep Cape (a view point with a huge draw for tourists at sunset), then to the quieter Windmill view point, just beyond. Here we picnicked. Then on to Nai Harn beach and homeward bound, where the task of Thai cooking and people watching awaited.

At 23:00 I stumbled to bed, full and intoxicated.

Drive #2

Again, an hour late. First stop on the mystery tour, Methee Cashew Nut Factory. Tourists are bought here by tour guides and this is more of a shop than a factory:

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Virgin cashews.

In fact, they had a young employee with a basket follow each tourist around the shop as they were invited to taste each product (sumptuous, I won’t deny it – cashews with sour cream, cashews with garlic, chilli, honey, chocolate, cashews in cookies, in brittle, juiced even!). The implication; you will not leave empty handed. So, I left with my bag of cashews and hey, I got this for free:

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Yes, a large cashew growing out if my head!

The cashews were good, but I was left with a bitter taste that I tried my best to swallow (not unlike that that lychee stone incident). From the factory, we skirted the coast, heading to Cape Panwa, mounting view points, only long enough to take photographs.

Everywhere, Joy would point something out; the Muslim communities, their speakers for the five-times-daily prayers, the sea shacks of the Chao Leh (sea gypsies), until we arrived at our destination; Phuket Aquarium

I looked tried to look genuinely interested, but I was fighting disappointment; this was a family tourist destination, not an experience.

After lunch at the delicious Uptown Restaurant, Phuket Town – 240THB two meals and drinks – we headed to Khao Rang (Rang Hill), another view point, this one looking out over the city.

By the end of the day I was choked on tourism. Rightly or wrongly I felt I had become Joy’s pet and she had fed me. All I had done was capture images, which, without proper understanding or feeling would ultimately be meaningless.

Later, seated on Joy’s porch, preparing to go for a run, I watched an Australian man arguing vehemently with the tout for Fashion World, the tailors (who only that morning had kindly shared their Thai and Nepalese curries with me) across the street. The tout had clearly offended in his attempts to coerce, flatter or seduce the Australian into the shop. I wondered what the Australian expected; didn’t he realise that Fashion World was there because he was there? Neither of them were indigenous to Thailand, neither had more right than the other.

Along the sea front, it was dark. The bathers long gone, the litter pickers left at dusk. All that was left were the sweet smelling people who strolled the strip. They ignored the painfully thin man who picked through the litter after the pickers had picked it, preserving what he could, and the rats, curling and darting between the bags, raiding the leftovers, making a show of hiding; but equally sure that this was their time.

Later, I paid Joy for her fuel for that day and fought against feelings of having been cheated.

At Phuket bus station,the next day, I had plenty of time to mull it over. Yes, I could continue to feel cheated or I could recognise what I had learnt. I wanted to experience, not just to see and tick from a list, safe and comfortable in the sterile bubble of a tour car, minivan or from behind glass. I wanted the slight, tremulous fear I had on Drive #1, irrationally wondering if Joy would hold me captive in her bungalow, the humble gratitude before Guan Im and the delicate, grateful relaxation of being invited into Joy’s sanctuary. I wanted experience in all its unexpected forms.

Please leave your thoughts on travel versus tourism below, this is likely a subject I’ll visit again…