Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Road to Ranong and Dead End Return

A pound of cancer anyone? Tobacco never looked so pretty. Nong Ya Plong market.

Sunday morning the 18th and we're in Chumphon, a little town 8 hours from Bangkok by train. Having arrived rather late the night before, an early morning start was rather improbable but we didn't expect to start the day so late. It was past 9 by the time we could finally summon the energy to saddle up the bikes. The internet place downstairs informed us we couldn't use the printer after we'd selected the route we wanted to take towards Ranong so we had to look around for another internet palour with a printer that worked so that further stalled us. A rather prolonged breakfast followed with a small chat session with another pair of cyclists that just rode into town. By the time we finally started peddling it was 12 noon. We had spent more than 10 days in Bangkok looking for the perfect bicycles. The search took us through the sprawling flea markets of China town, all the up market bicycle showrooms in town and almost all the travel companies offering bicycle tours. We hoped to get second hand bike but it was soon apparant it wasn't going to be easy to find a good second hand. The few we saw were rather archaic heavy models. Probike, the best known bicycle shop in town had some pretty Trek models but all above our budget. The staff also seemed rather busy to handle our queries and didn't have too many inputs for us. Finally on some obscure lead we made our way back to the Worachak area aound China town where we came across the Merida showroom. The owner was a rather shy nervous man but he did have sound technical knowledge about bicycles and was intrested enough to offer the best of his inputs. Merida is still a fairly new brand and while it has fairly descent reviews, we were a little unsure. But with some research and added suspension forks and other minor modifications we had two rather impressive looking touring bike ready for a slightly expanded budget. The look was good but we wouldn't be completely satisfied till we baptised them through some dusty roads.

The decision to travel as much as possible by bicycle had been a long conte
mplated one but I was always apprehensive about my fitness to do it. One week in Bangkok and as plans were hatched to continue travelling towards China and deciding on our mode of transport I finally dared to suggest cycling as far as I could and god willing we'd make it to China. Cedric had already made many road trips by bicycle but it would be a first for me, the max being around 80 kms I had done with Dundee from Bangalore to Fireflies on Kanakpura Road and back. So we decided to test out my stamina and ability by renting bikes and cycling to Kaeng Krachan National Park. We printed out maps from Google and made the trip by small off roads for almost all the way clocking around 150 kms till the National Park entrance where we spent three beautiful days exploring the bit we could of Thailand's biggest national park. On the way we passd and slept in lovely villages and were overwhelmed by Thai hospitality. Most memorable was pitching camp in the weekly market area of a village called Nong Ya Plong thinking the market would be a weekend one only to be awakened and invited home by people living next door as the market was to start the next morning at 5am. We visited the market the next morning and were plied with freebies at almost each stall we visited. It was the random acts of kindness and encouragement from people along the way that made me decide cycling was the way to go though I did suffer in the one major uphill we crossed along the way. Hopefully peddling along daily would build my stamina along the way. And that's how we left Chumphon for Ranong where we had to go to renew Cedric's visa and also to try our luck to see if we could cross over to Myanmar to see what the whether we could travel beyond the border town of Kawthaung. The route was open for a few travellers in 2005 where they could travel by boat towards Yangon.

The road out of Chuphon led along the main highway for the first 7 kilometres after which we crossed into a smaller arterial road that ran almost parallel to the highway but with enough distance in between to hide all signs of the busy highway. Thailand has amazing roads. There are roads almost everywhere and it's only rare rural patches that still remain untarred though work is being done on them as well. The main roadways are always endless stretches of beautiful tarmac. For now we were happy with the rough off road with was a good chance for us to test our bikes and also gave us a sense of really being on a seldom travelled road.

The country lanes led us through alternating palm and rubber plantations with a few scattered houses with people cheerfully calling out helloes from the shady comfort of the wide varendas that every thai home seems to have. The road was far from being a flat stretch and was a good warm up for both bike and rider. Soon it was a proper work out and just as I felt I'd expended enough enery on uphills for a day we were back on the highway. It was a good 30 km stretch covered on the dirt track and I was more than ready to brave some fumes than another killing rough slope. Luckily for us the traffic on this stretch isn't too heavy and we were gliding along on beautiful roads for the rest of the day's ride.

Along the way we crossed the Isthmus of Kra, the narrowest part of the Malayan Peninsula that forms a 53 km bottleneck between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Siam. We stopped at a viewpoint that allowed good glimple of the Mayanmar shore just across the Kra Buri river before it melts into the Andaman Sea. We made our stop at the village of Kra Buri where we stayed at a cosy roadside guesthouse called Pannika Resort. We had covered 70 kms by then.

A long night's struggle with mosquitoes after we foolishly slept with the door ajar for fresh air ensured we were off to another late start. After we finally started peddling and barely made it 2 km out of town we saw an inviting diversion from the highway in the form of a board that promised a waterfall 10
kms away. Deciding the road was more important than arriving on time we pushed off towards it. I was happy for the choice we made as we passed through lovely undulating countryside that remined me a lot of parts of
Assam and the road to Shillong. That we passed a lot of betel nut palms with the nuts drying on the roadside made me a little nostalgic for the North East of India. But this was beautiful recompense. And the alternating ascents and free wheeling descents made it the best ride so far. We didn't dare spend much time at the Bok Krai waterfall which was actually within the Thungraya Nasak Wildlife Sanctuary. The entrace was 100thb with camping for the night but as we just wanted to visit and head back towards Ranong the lady gaurd finally let us in for 100thb for both of us. Our little diversion and plus the fact we again took a diversion from the highway to take a longer arterial road to Ranong made us break for te night along the way. But I tackled my first pass along the way. A stretch of tedious uphill that rand for around 2 kms. I did make several stops but cycled it up trying to think of cyclist who'd taken the Karakoram Highway. Around 25km from Ranong we decided to stop at the nearby Hat Yai Hot Springs and camp for the night. After a lovely bath at the hot springs frequented by locals we were invited by the range to sleep in the quarters instead stringing up our hammocks, an offer we couldn't decline. It was quite amusing to locals arriving on mopeds with only their towels on for their evening bath. We spent a lovely evening with some beers while trying to communicate in scraps of random English and Thai words.

The next morning was another blearly start. This was becoming an irritating habit. But we did reach Ranong finally and made it down to Sapanpla Pier a futher 7 kms from town. A slight problem with my vis
a status and having to get a re-entry permit tokk all afternoon and we finally had to postpone crossing to Myanmar for another day.

The Myanmar crossing didn't work. I had a sinking feeling it wouldn't but really didn't expect Kawthaung to be so closeted. We had early on decided if it didn't work we'd spend some days in the town and visit nearby places for a few days before heading
back to Thailand. Turns out our visas had to be transferred to Yangon first so the only option we had was to fly, a decision we had pre-decided not to take. The immigration and tourism officers were quite courteous however and unnecessarily apologized for the inconvenience. It was possible to travel by boat before but new military rulings completely forbade it now. We also weren't allowed to roam outside the town limits and being rather worried that we might wander too far out with our cycles, we were asked to leave them at the office. Kawthaung is quite a dead end town with peksy touts in the visa re-issueing business which is the only reason foreigners come here. As we had to hire a guide even to visit the beach we decided to admit defeat and head back. The town is a little bit like a non-descript dirty mid-way Indian town and I was in no mood to be reminded of that. But we did have an excellent dal roti sabji meal at a local tea house run by a man of some strange Bangladeshi-Burmese descent. In fact half the locals here seemed and looked quite mixed up between east coat Indians, Bangladeshis and Burmese. Or maybe that's why they were by the pier in the first place. We also met an interesting local officer cum school teacher cum journalist appointed by state who seemed really eager to talk about India's economic state and we couldn't help but exchange email addresses in case of a later visit. So it was back to Ranong and end of trip report first half. Unsuccessful except that we're happy with our bike after 206.5 kms of the primary test and we have the required visas to plan next step. Tomorrow we plot the best route back North and towards Laos. We're still hopelessly amateur at this right now but I can feel some character building.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Quick Takes #3

Never fool with your camera ISO setting when in a National Park. Experimenting or rather fiddling around with the camera's ISO meter one night pretending to film nightlife, we forgot to set it back. Guess what happened to the next day's wildlife sighting perks. All shot in morning light with 800 ISO before realising the idiocy of it. Double damn but a lesson learnt. But you can still spot a. dusky langurs
b. some kind of civet
c. some kind of gibbon
d. and with certainty a red bearded bee eater.

Condensed Fortnightly

It's a tough job to try and condense the weeks that passed. I hoped to be able to chronicle all that was wonderful these last few days. But perhaps it was the ill-planned days or maybe we'll blame it on sudden delays of appointments made or even
the unexpected call from a new found friend.
But it's been hard to put in words all I'd love to share with you...

So in a few odd words and ill rhymed lines
I'll speak in brief of sore butts that heckled
worse than the burning sun
when we cycled down to Kaeng Krachan

We spotted lots of gibbons
And porcupines none too rare
A hornbill there and a civet there
Smelt an elephant too as he whooshed by the hammocks
That held us and all we carried
From Bangkok to Kaeng Krachan

Yes! we slept in hammocks
Too ill-equipped even for a measly tent
And peddled dusty roads
and meddled with maps

Lost our way we did
More than thrice the fingers I can hold
While rattling down a rutty road

But we did find and oh in plenty
Kind people and gifts that come rare
Pineapple from a sweet faced lady here
A bed there and a blanket too
Not to forget the smiles on the way

And best of all

The knowledge that the world's often a better place
When travelling the roads where rare people dwell.

P.S: Forgive me mamma for killing good verse
But it's often better than droning out prose.

Quick Takes #2

It pays to have local friends to get the best bites in town. After business hours dishing in Sukiyaki communal style.

N.B: Be it friend or foe you dine with, dare ye not ask for the serving spoon.

Quick Takes #1

When in Bangkok and confused for food just look for these to pick and choose...

The Arriving and Settling In

The king and co.
You don't mess with monarchy or religion here.

We descended into a Bangkok twilight an hour before sunrise and the dawning after Christmas. The gaudy tinsel decorations in the airport were already beginning to droop as if aware of the fate awaiting them next; a big yellow garbage truck. For now they had reason to linger on till the dawning of the New Year…

Reporting at immigrations I got my first taste of the homecoming that awaited me in Thailand. The officer snorted in surprise when I handed in my blue Indian passport and took a second good look at my face. “You look like Thai”, he finally exclaimed while stamping me in. This was to become routine everywhere I went. After spending years in the south end of my home country explaining “I am an Indian from the North Eastern parts and yes that’s why I don’t look like you”, it was a fair change to explain “yes I look like you but I’m an Indian from the North Eastern parts and so I don’t look Indian”.

As we left the airport in a comfortable a/c airport shuttle bus I couldn’t help but notice how everything around seemed to be a cleaner better version of how any major Indian city can be. For one the ground crew were prettier and seemed to fit into their smart short skirted suits better than their Chennai airport counterparts and there weren’t any touts heckling passengers. But I did spot an extremely agitated Indian gentleman rushing around frantically looking for the fastest means of transport to Pataya. As I was to find out later, Pattaya is the closest place to Bangkok for all the illicit carnal pleasures that have indelibly marked the country since American GI’s made Thailand their favourite R&R playground during the Vietnam War. Something made me guess our gentleman was in a big hurry to make best use of the weekend ahead.

We got down near the landmark Democracy Monument in Banglamphu, an area popular with travellers for the cluster of cheap lodging around. Bangkok’s equivalent to the main street of Anjuna Beach lies here. Khao San Road is unavoidable at times for the conveniently located ATM’s, FE’s and department stores but that’s if you can stomach the garish tourist black hole it’s become. Rows of street stalls selling clothes, quick bites, fake IDs, CD’s, tattoos, hair braids and dread locks fight for space with bars that spill into the street each blaring out bass thumping crappy electronica or the heard one too many reggae or rock numbers and not to forget the hoards of tourists that seem to continually march up and down this seedy stretch. But that said Khao San is inescapable on the tourist’s itinerary for the sheer incongruousness of this least Thai part of town.

The Democracy Monument looms large on the huge Ratchadamneon Khlang (Road) that holds it. It was built to commemorate the transition from absolute monarchy to a constitutional one in 1932. While the size is imposing I kind of expected something more elaborate from the Italian designer behind it. But the four prongs of this structure remains a favourite ground for political rallies demonstrations, the most infamous one being the one that left more than 50 people

dead in 1992; the most recent being the PAD (yellow shirts) anti-Thaksin protests that held Suvarnabhumi airport hostage for two days before making way for the new PM, the rather handsome Abhijit Vejjajiva who in yesterday’s paper was accused by opposition of being too western and far removed from the rural majority after publicly sharing his appreciation for the new Guns and Roses and Oasis albums. The same article also listed Arctic Monkeys and the Killers as being some of his favourite current bands.

Bangkok was for business and shopping was business. After a couple of hours sleep I was introduced to a fraction of all the excesses that this city seemed to offer. First was the food. There was food everywhere. Countless little roadside restaurants with plastic chairs and restaurants and street corner trolleys with everything from sausages to frappe, fresh fruit, sushi and smoked dried squid seemed to line every street. Then there are the shopping zones. Apart from the upmarket mall infested areas around Pratinum and Siam Square there are flea markets galore. Morning markets give way to all day long street markets after which with dusk the night flea markets slowly colonize pavements around the city.

When people talk of Bangkok as shopping paradise believe it. The Pratinum Siam Square area is famous for the behemoth shopping malls that it houses. Thais love fashion and there is a huge industry to cater to every whim and fancy of changing trends. Mini-shorts were the latest thing in for the moment and it seemed that every self respecting Thai girl withany clue of fashion had to have a pair. There was no dearth of legs on view. Work meant spending many days walking the vast expanses of these colossal glitzy buildings till we finally hit nausea point. I’ll not elaborate on the days spend on selecting, designing and refitting garments for this years collection nor on Bangkok’s dizzying consumerist coddling side but to give a petite picture, they actually have skywalks interconnecting different shopping malls so shoppers can mall hop without stepping into the humid Bangkok air.

Apart from the hedonistic and materialistic side of Bangkok, a majority of its residents are extremely devout. The roofs of numerous wats and phrangs are very much part of the Bangkok skyline as are skyscrapers that flaunt the economic flatulence (may I use this word?) the city seems to enjoy.

So this is a bit about the Bangkok that overwhelmed me during the first week of my stay without getting into the bits about the proliferation of prostitutes and lady boys that have always been a rather incomprehensible part of Thai culture. While a little unsettling I have to add that I have yet to see anyone being rude or vulgar with a street walker. There’s one whose turf is the street outside our hotel and I’m happy to say receive the same courteous treatment as she does while drinking coffee at the cafĂ© down the road.