Uthai Thani – The Thai Old West (sort of)

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The day started slowly. After breakfast (complete with heart shaped fried eggs – er, why? because they can?) we ambled to the hotel store room, now seasoned bicycle riders, ready to ride out. Not so fast; my bike clearly had a flat rear tyre (the second in three days). A stand off of ‘I told you so’s ensued, before the more industrious repair.

After we replaced the inner tube I checked the front tyre, consumed by squishy tyre anxiety, and decided more air was needed. Realising the tyre had one of those temperamental Presta valves I adjusted the pump (and congratulated myself that I knew how to do so), connected it to the valve and flattened the front tyre. More sad than the deflated rubber was the look of despair on Nick’s face.

When we set off, one and half hours behind schedule, it was beneath an already blazing sun and into heavy traffic. It would be hours before we rolled into sleepy Uthai Thani with its wooden shutters and porches, wide dusty streets and outlaw dogs that slumber like the (un)dead until dusk.

Heading first towards Sankhaburi we joined this road:

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The concrete was terrible, the scenery lush. Butterflies wheeled between plants and across the road, workers strode the paddy fields and wats stood proud beyond lily pads that barely stirred. And here, more than the last two rides, the vehicles honked, the drivers waved, stuck up their thumbs and on the roadside workers shouted ‘hallo!’

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Sankhaburi is a neat town and we weaved through the back streets, watching life happen and being a small part of it. Thirsty and looking for cheap sugary drinks I bore the weight of our bikes while Nick ducked into a small store, where a middle aged Thai lady was watching a soap opera. He looked unhappy when he emerged. Apparently the lady had charged 12 Baht for drinks that are clearly marked 10 Baht and for which, everywhere else, we had always paid 10 Baht. The extra 4 Baht was not particularly important, it only served as a reminder of our place; cash important, presumed to be ignorant and most definitely to be exploited. I hoped those four Baht would help to buy her an few extra coals to stoke her delicious fire in hell and necked my drink.

After riding what resembled the Thai equivalent of the A1 (the difference being that they don’t sell hammocks on the A1), we hit the 3183 with 33km to go.

Uthai Thani was a departure from the functional cities of Sing Buri and Lop Buri. It is nestled into a curve of the Sakae Krang River, which is the source of the town’s life. At 16:00 the shadows were lengthening; the shop fronts yawned, the dust crunched under our tyres and we headed straight for the river. The GPS took us on a loop, along a promenade that has been decked with trumpeting elephants and spotless crazy paving. Here, the shop fronts are deserted. Over a narrow bridge onto Koh Tepo, past Wat Uposatharum School, its dogs and into Paya Mai Forest Park and the Paya Mai Resort.

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The Sakae Krang, the blood vessel of the town

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The view of the river from the resort

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The closest wat and doggy playground, Uposatharum

It could have been the isolation of the island, the dogs that guard the quiet road to the resort and those that dominate the town, the absence of any other guests at the resort, or any other Westerners anywhere, but images from Dracula began to haunt me.

After arrival we had three hours of daylight to find food before the dogs came alive. The sun was low when we headed back to town, lower when we found a street-side eatery and asked the patient lady owner to give us whatever she was serving. Nick ate with great speed, having seen a large pack of dogs sprawled on the steps of the bank; his dog-sense always more acute. And before dusk had settled they began to shamble the streets, glassy eyed, with sleep in their limbs. As they began to gather we mounted our bikes and hit the resort track while the sky was still pink. Our door was pressed safely behind us while there was still more daylight than shadow.


The stats:

Stayed at Payamai Resort, Koh Tep, Uthai Thani
Cycled appx 90km.
One puncture, rear tyre, then I flattened the front.
No rain.

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What I Did Not Know – Lop Buri to Sing Buri, 25 June 2013

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What I did not know about the MDR Hotel, Lop Buri, was that it was 2-3km down a dual carriage-way with at least three lanes of hooning traffic in both directions. With each revolution of my pedals (no longer tired after the 87km now that the adrenaline had kicked in) I thought ‘f*ck’ as another car, truck or weaving moped sped by, until the word played on loop. But, we finally found the MDR, checked in, shackled our bikes and tucked into the mini-bar.

What I did not know then was that my relationship with red Fanta and the post-ride mini bar was to be a consuming and enduring one.

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Enduring Love.

What I also did not know was that to get north to Chai Nat, Uthai Thani, Nakon Sawan, we had to pass through Sing Buri. Sing Buri was 40 – 50km away and happy, exhausted, still consumed by trepidation (I speak for myself here), I realised the next day’s ride would be to Sing Buri. It slowly dawned on me that our first day’s effort had been in vain.

What I did not know (but would regularly be reminded of) when trying to plan the second leg, was that the GPS could not be relied upon. While it has a bike setting, the app could not devise a bike ride to Sing Buri that did not retrace kilometres of road towards Ang Thong. The only obvious road was the rather busy looking 311 but for some reason the app did not think it was suitable for a bike. Computer say no.

I’m lazy. The 311 is straight, sure and only 33km. Only, Nick did not fancy it. Instead, the next morning, while heading towards the 311 (because there was no way I was heading back towards Ang Thong) we stumbled across a set of side roads that run parallel with it, through lush, well kept villages that run along the side of the Lop Buri river.

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Rolling through the Thai countryside.

I think this ride was the one and only time that I felt part of one of those epitomous cycling scenes; gentle breeze through the hair, smiling, the world smiling with us (and waving and shouting in the case of the locals) and no gruelling effort-filled sweat drenching our flesh and clothes.

We continued to roll all the way along the Chao Phraya River, to the door of the Chaisaeng Palace; literally the only place to stay in Sing Buri.

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View of the Chao Phraya River from the hotel window. The silty appearance reminded Nick of ‘Nam.

What I did not know was that staying in Sing Buri would be like treating myself to a holiday in Mansfield or Grimsby. Whether it would have mattered, had I known, is another thing entirely. Both Lop Buri and Sing Buri are cities of industry. They really don’t see tourists, Sing Buri less than Lop Buri, I think. With its huge local market, a tarp and post labyrinth through a bounty of fish guts, squid, chicken legs, grinning pig’s heads, garlic, ginger, fruits, tools, bungee cords, ponchos, bagged up sauces, meat on sticks, deep fried chicken, its gaudy karaoke dining, rammed, disorganised department store and packs of territorial mongrels, it was clear that this was a functional town with no particular want or need for tourists.

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A functional sign outside a bar; my kind of place.

Mansfield, Grimsby or anywhere, that was what I came for. The smiles and good service were important and the place did not disappoint.

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The glittery fish of Sing Buri; the envy of Grimsby.

We stayed an extra day. Not because we were captivated, because we were trapped, by what turned out to be a very small amount of rain.

What I did not know is that while we ambled the market looking for the best bike specific poncho, eating meat on sticks and avoiding karaoke joints and Mister Donut, my bike was in the hotel store room with one flat rear tyre (the second so far). So the next morning, imbued with enthusiasm and armed with coloured ponchos for the third leg to Uthai Thani, the first task was puncture repair.

Important stuff:
Travelled 45km
Stayed at Chaisaeng Palace, Sing Buri. Lovely staff, can recommend the cafe and the iced cappuccino
No rain until the following day
No punctures on route

Wat Ifs – Ayutthaya to Lopburi, 24 June 2013

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So, the first leg of the tour took us to the city of Lop Buri, according to the GPS, some 80-odd kilometres north of Ayutthaya. It’s funny (firstly, its funny how people say ‘its funny’ to describe things that really are not funny, things that are frustrating, annoying, disappointing…) but I think I chose to go to Lop Buri over Sing Buri because of something I read on one of the bike tour itineraries. The funny bit is they have a support vehicle. Funnier still, they must have gone there because there was something to see, but I could not remember what. Anyway, on the map, Lop Buri and Sing Buri are a similar distance from Ayutthaya. I booked the MDR Hotel; Lop Buri it was. Approximately an 87km away according to the GPS, 67km, according to hallowed Google Maps.

The first leg was always going to be hard, for the following reasons, as I remember:

1. I was worried about my tyres, I had already had one puncture and barely ridden the bike. Punctures hold a certain mystique for me. When I was a child they put an end to bike riding for weeks until Dad got around to fixing it;
2. The GPS, downloaded from iTunes for £21.99, produced by City App. This app had no reviews and I was about to follow it into the Thai countryside;
3. The traffic worried me. I fairly wobbled along on the bike, proud that I was carrying all my luggage. But I also felt vulnerable; a snail or a tortoise (I saw a fair few of the latter cracked open like water melons on the highways), bearing the full weight of my life and vulnerable to it being smashed to smithereens.
4. The owner of Luang Chumni Village worried me further. Watch out for the traffic, it is dangerous, she said. A British couple had both been killed, she reminded me, during a bike tour as a pick-up had ploughed into them, the driver’s attention distracted by something he wanted in the footwell.
5. Dogs, dogs, dogs, everywhere. Could I out-pace them, weighed down by the burden of my life? Or would I have to stand and fight?
6. Could I actually cycle long distances? A big question that should have come nearer the top of the list.

I left on this wave of ‘what ifs’ and we made our way out of town through back streets, me increasing my chances of making my fears reality by brandishing and reading my iPhone as we went. Soon the town fell away to flat countryside and the odd wat. Already, wats had begun to wain for me (not least because of the packs of dogs that languished in the ruins in Ayutthaya), only the cockerel wat brought me up short.

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Cockerel Wat.

The day was flat, hot and we were chased by dogs. Mercifully, a Thai lady called them off. They have this bark (Thai women) that stops dogs in their tracks. So, on we cycled, increased adrenaline helpful if anything, through ramshackle villages, proud, lonely wats and sparse green and brown paddy land where water birds lifted from the fields as if shaken from a blanket.

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Sorry, I missed the birds but managed to steal this image.

At say 40km, I began to get hot. I had not put on my sunglasses, the sun was penetrating through the ridges of my helmet and the helmet itself had begun to make me feel like my swollen head was in a vice. Under sufferance I swapped the helmet for a baseball cap, put on the glasses and slugged warm water. On we went.

We made it to the centre of Lop Buri unscathed (and refreshed following chocolate milk at the 7 Eleven), cycling goggle-eyed through a huge teak furniture market to a huge roundabout. But then we were lost. I had booked MDR Hotel as I had read that it was refurbished and of the scant choice of accommodation in Lop Buri, it looked the best. Furthermore, the dogs reared their scabby heads, because I was sure I had read somewhere about the presence of large packs in the old town, which was enough to convince me I was not staying there.

Important details:
87km journey
Stayed MDR Hotel, Lop Buri
No rain until safely inside hotel room
No punctures

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…

Elcidium Boutique Guesthouse, Kata Beach, Phuket

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So, according to Wikipedia the term ’boutique hotel’ was harnessed, initially, by USA and UK to describe intimate, luxurious or quirky hotels. Typically, these places are fashioned in a themed, stylish ‘and/or aspirational’ style.

So, I chose Elcidium (still no idea of what this word means) because of the Trip Advisor reviews and because it was within my budget, at £14 per night/low season.

Leo, the man who looks after the four bedroom property (intimate, yes, a tick on the ’boutique’ front), lives up to the positive comments that these reviews hold about him. He was quick to get me a towel when soaked by the rain, a lantern when village electricity died, a mat for the beach and he literally got me out of a hole.

The rooms are spacious, with large double bed, desk, coffee table and chairs, balcony (with table and chairs) and a private bathroom. Perhaps the drapes, red and gold finishes and dark wood are aspirational; I don’t know. But the air con works well, there is a fridge, fresh drinking water daily and a flat screen TV. WiFi is free and reasonable. So, the rooms look like this:

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And here are the downsides, sorry, here have to be some.

1) With no real communal area (reception does have seating but with no bar or cafe people do not congregate there) this is not a place for a lone traveller looking to hook up with other travellers.

2) Sorry, but I have to be honest, Leo’s cleaning could have been a little better (dust on electric sockets, toothpaste on the mirror), but there is no doubt his intentions are good, his personsl touch largely makes this place and hey, he is a guy!

Situated on Khoktanord Road, the guesthouse is away from the main beach strip but you have everything you need nearby and there are some good (and cheap) restaurants all within a two minute walk of the front door.

So, just to be clear, a whole-hearted recommendation.

Survival 101: Ko Lanta

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Note: if Trip Advisor reviews read ‘simple’ or ‘rustic’ you may have to prepare to ‘survive’. We are not talking Bruce Parry SAS-style but that does not mean it cannot feature in the general ‘survival’ dialogue, does it? DOES IT?

I am writing in my hard wood room (yes, I know Parry would not even have a room) in a century old fishing inn, which juts out across the Adaman, whose waters shimmer below, between every plank and joist. I share my room with a spider, evidenced by her webs and an incense coil smoulders in a corner to ward off my other companions, the mosquitoes. Cue survival.

To survive, you will need the following:

Mosquito net
Travel washing line
Swiss Army knife
Common plastic water bottle
Old sarong

    The Scenarios:

Blood Suckers!

The bedroom window has no actual glass, only bars, like a cell. The walls are made of century old planks and there are significant gaps between them; endearing, rustic, indulgent sigh. I began to worry about what would be visiting through these holes. From spiders to mosquitoes, from bats (wheeling in the corridor outside my room, I am not being dramatic) to rats or even the leg-humping chihuahua that belongs to Pao, the guesthouse owner (more on him – the dog – later).

I was not content with the incense coil, nor with the mosi plugin I bought with me. I needed a net, a force field against the the things that go bump and slurp in the night. Luckily, I had said net, but unluckily, not a clue as to how to erect it. The bedroom ceiling is palatially high, the vertical beams so hard that they could be made of stone…what to do with my four cornered box net?

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This…

In sequential moments of genius and extreme insectophobia I realised I could anchor the corners of the net around the wooden beams instead of driving the little hooks that came with the net into the wall. Carefully, with much tongue biting, I poked the little threads behind the posts, using the Swiss Army knife to tease them through. And the washing line? Stretched across from the bed to the barred window (those bars came in handy for something, at least), it provides my fourth anchor point.

Have it, all creepy species that may want to share the room and blood without paying

Wine-oh!

Now this clearly became a survival situation when I paid 650 THB for Jacobs Creek Shiraz Cab Sav from here:

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Says it all…they know how to get the tourists’ attention

Now, you may think (or even say), ‘you’ve been ripped off.’ And paying through the nose is not survival. No it is not. But in my defence this is the cheapest I have found wine out here and what is drinking Jacobs Creek (at all) if not survival?!

When I got back to the guesthouse with the stash the plan was to imbibe it from a coffee cup, seated on the stilted decking area. Yawn of decadence.

Instead, the rain lashed and the wind howled through cavernous and confused building (what’s outside is inside and the other way around). So, my plan was out and I did not feel inclined to go fetch a coffee cup, watched as I would undoubtedly be, by Pao, seated before his laptop and horrendous Thai soap. But my days of slugging wine from the bottle have not yet arrived: I needed a receptacle.

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Created in seconds: a wine tumbler fashioned from my water bottle. Civilised sipping could commence!

Pesky Pup

He ain’t much of a guard dog, although he has his serious face on here.

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And there’s something effeminate about him (apart from when he’s chewing on the long suffering cat, and then he’s simply disturbing). In fact, he has bad thing-chewing and leg humping habits.

So, lonely as I am, I am delighted when he pays me some attention. I am less delighted when he embraces my leg, clasps a mouthful of legging between his incisors and proceeds to hump. When he wasn’t doing that the leather thong on my new flip flops proved great for assuaging his chewing fetish.

Now, I want to keep my new tiny dog friend (although at the same time I feel a little used) but I cannot put up with his dirty habits. Survival is required.

An old sarong and the trusty Swiss Army knife. Don’t worry, no animals were harmed in this survival task, but at the close of business I had a shabby chic, beach fashioned, dog ragga toy made from plaited strips of shredded sarong. Perfect for taking out those tiny doggy frustrations on and I got to keep my friend!! Not extreme survival, I grant you, but innovation. Beat that Parry.