Sunday, February 22, 2009

Broken by Pai...almost

Kitty saying bye in Chiang Mai

The lethargy's been seeping in with heat. Leaving Chiang Mai wasn't easy as we arrived on the weekend and so there was no way to go about getting official work for Chinese visas done. The two day's break from everyday cycling was enough to make moving even to get basics like laundry done a tough mission. To top it's getting hotter everyday. So we finally applied for our visas only the next Wednesday spending the days in between for some indulgence in food and sloth which has lately been all that we look forward to on entering a tourist cove. The town was a nice enough place but thick on the tourist trail with garish tourist pandering tacks almost everywhere. As our visas were to get ready only the Tuesday ahead we decided to head North to the hills to chase some breeze and escape the crowds.

The map showed an interesting loop west of the town towards Sa Moeng which curved along after the town further west before turning North on rough rural road till a place called Wat Chan from where it joins main route no. 1265 which links with the the highway to Pai (another tourist destination that a friend we met later described as a Khao San street in a lovely valley). We hoped to be able to complete the loop in about four days and maybe hitch hike back if need be. So off we went eager to be back on our cycles.

Cycling can be profoundly humbling experience. I need to confess I had quite a romantic idea of traveling by bicycle. Each quiet time I spent deciding whether to commit to a cycle was usually languid daydreams of coasting down gently sloping valleys in the red gold glow of a setting sun. No wonder I easily convinced myself to take the step. About an hour of steady peddling brought us to our first slope. We took a small detour that promised a cave at the end and were soon huffing up a small path along Mango plantations. The climb grew steadily steeper but I was still in good spirits. We passed our first real rural Hmong village along the way. It was a typical rustic scene as I had seen in Mizoram before. Bamboo houses on slits with pigs noisily snuffling around in their wood pens while hens clucked with their brood pecking the dusty road. A few villagers squatted along the road which also served as their front yard cooing over a small baby that exchanged hands quicker than it could nestle into the next lap that held it. I was still in a good mood. An all too short descent later we were puffing up the next steep slope which led back to the main road just as I was ready to start protesting at the effort we spent without proper breakfasts in our bellies. The road was the pass that led down to Sa Moeng. I gritted my teeth and set about peddling again but it wasn't before long a combination of tiredness hunger and irritation at the building heat got to me and I could just about do what I could to try and focus on getting to the top.

Cycling or any activity that requires the ability to withstand pain for hours is as dependent on the mind as it is on physical endurance. I fully subscribe to that in theory but have yet to really exercise it fully. The climb to the pass was my chance but halfway up the 5 km slope I really began to break. The worst is when the mind caves in before the body. I began to question all my reasons to try and cycle to China. I cringed at the confidence I must have exuded while sharing my plans with friends and family. I was under no false impression that it would be an easy ride but to suffer as much continuously for days seemed an inane act of utter stupidity with the physical ability I possessed. I reached a point where I could just gag "I can't" while trying to push my bike the next 5 metres. It wasn't before long I was cursing myself for all the hours of idle daydreaming while reading accounts of cyclists who'd travelled the world while thinking I'd love to do the same. Maybe I was better off living tgis adventure vicariously. It was an intensely humbling moment that I couldn't fight this feeling of defeat but sank into a morass of self pity. By the time the pass came in view, I had to do all I could to stop the tears from breaking out. I reached the top of the pass, looked at Ced reclining of a patch of grass below the road sign welcoming us to Samoeng, tried to speak but alarmed him by broking out into a loud gagging sob instead. I bawled my eyes out feeling utterly foolish but unable to control the sobs as they poured out unabated for a couple of minutes. I cried for all the pain it took for me to reach the hill, all the defeat I felt in me, the realization of the rough work that lay ahead if we were to continue and the naiveness with which I had excitedly decided the road to China must be peddled. I cried till the tears ran dry after which Ced forced me to take a nap though I didn't have to try hard and slept for half an hour. From here it was downhill to Sa Moeng.

Exhausted by my drama and the 1000 odd m we'd climbed during the day we stopped at a lovely guest house we found along the rustic north end of the town. Jame guesthouse was built near the strawberry field that dot this area and it was the most restful place we'd payed to stay in so far. Chomping strawberries and watching the night creep in around the fields around us I soon forgot my day's break down and soon became optimistic about the next couple of days ahead of us along the little used road that would connect us with Route 1265.

If the previous day had gone better we could have cycled another 15km to camp at Khunkhan National Park and Hot Springs. Thailand is dotted with lovely wildlife parks, though the wildlife may to restricted only to a few little mammals like porcupines and civets, and each one offers camping facilities with toilets and showers. As each one is not marked on the map it pays to do some research ahead to find a lovely campground. But we didn't regret the 500thb bill we ran up at the homestay for two delicious meals and a beautiful night's rest on stiff clean white sheets.

By this time I was resigned to the inevitable climbs we'd have as by mid day we were above 1000m and it didn't took like the hills were going to suddenly fade away in flat plains. I marveled as we rode through thick pine forests and realized we were about 1500m above sea level and at a much higher altitude from my childhood pine fringed hometown of Shillong and I could never before consider cycling to Shillong or even around the hilly town. We slept that night on the school grounds of another Hmong village called Maetala. The kids in town though excited to see cyclists weren't at all intrusive and after realizing we were looking for a place to pitch camp and have access to toilets they showed us to the school grounds and left us to unpack in peace.

Pitching camp at the Hmong village of Maetala School grounds

From here it was an almost endless rutty dirt track that took us along through dusty valleys and lovely hills and the villages that lay along them. We met or rather inhaled the dust from a few adventurers bikers as they whooshed past up on big 600cc dirt bikes. This road seemed to be popular with bikers and off road adventure jeeps taking an alternative route to Pai. Apart from that it was smiley villagers on their mopeds that made up the little traffic that plies on these demanding roads. It was with relief we finally reached Wat Chan where out of almost nowhere a beautiful tarred road greeted us. The night was spent at Wat Chan hospital grounds after locals tipped us off on the camping and lodging facilities offered by the hospital on the pine crested hill behind the main building. Next day it was back to tackling 35 km of unforgiving steep climbs and equally unnerving steep descents before we decided to hitch the rest of the way back if we wanted to be back in Chiang Mai in time to collect our visas early next morning and leave at once towards the Laos border.

A kinder winding of the few along route 1265

Thais are mostly helpful hospitable generous and kind. I remember a rather nasty fall I had along the way as my back tire punctured during a particularly potholed descent. It was then that two big dirt bikes rattled by without the riders even bothering to look not that I was badly hurt but every local on their lowly moped that passed after offered us their help. It was the same as we tried to hitch back to Chiang Mai at a junction 10 km from Pai. Many huge tourist hired and charthered almost empty SUVs passed us by without a glance till a young Thai couple who'd passed us earlier seemed to have changed their minds and they painfully backed their pick up back to where we were waiting with our dusty selves and dustier cycles. Bless them for if no one had agreed to give us a lift it would have been at least another 3 days to tackle the steep winding hills of the area. I got a little car sick on the way down my body a little unfamiliar with the motion after all the cycling we'd done.

Harnessing momentum for the climb ahead

Curious toddler in a hilltop village between Phrao and Fang

Our visas in hand and a little wiser from the knackering climb we'd gone through we estimated 7 days to reach Chiang Khong from Chiang Mai if we were to take it easy. But the first day's ride to Phrao was mercifully flat with just a few short ascents and followed beautiful valleys. The road out of Phrao was even lovelier as we passed farms along valleys and pockets of lovely wild land with a slight backwind carrying the lovely almost citrusy scent of wild flowering peas. We had two slightly demanding climbs but after the lesson from Pai it was done more or less easily. We surprised ourselves by cycling almost 109km that day and going way beyond our initial plan of stopping in Fang and managing to go upto Thathon instead. Travelling without a guide book and having only the map meant we were quite surprised to see another tourist joint in Thathon as rafting trips down to Chiang Rai are quite popular from here. Another odd 100kms and more beautiful Thai countryside as we crossed isolated pockets of villages and we got our first sight of the Mekong river and the Laos border across as we pulled into Chiang Saen after dark.

We got our first clue of the economic disparity between the two countries separated by a 10 mins boat ride while looking on at dusty truck and steam shovels hauling sand off the Laos banks while the Thai riverbank was an almost continuous line of bustling businesses offering food, massages and other epicurian distractions. It was only late in the evening that folks on the Laos shore seemd to dress down for the evening as strains of badly accompanied Karoake music wafted across the Mekong. Even then we could still se the lights of trucks moving along the sand bank hauling their sandy load as if to catch up on some long procratinated work.

across the Mekong...massage with a view of Laos sandheist

We stuck to the road parallel to the Mekong to complete the remaining 70 odd kms to pull into Chiang Kong a little after 3. It had taken us 4 days to get here instead of our estimated 7. Lessons from Pai still resounding in our head we refused to rejoice too much knowing the hills of Laos were waiting. The Laos shore beckoned us to cross over the same day and by evening we were tucking in pork laap (a lao meat salad) and Khao Soy (Noodle soup with slight traces of fermented soya bean and curried meat) in Haouy Xai. 30 days visa on arrival is available for all nationalities though the cost for Indians, Pakistanis, Afghanis and other nationalities around the Indian Peninsular have to pay 40$, 10$ more than most Europeans. The crossing was an almost banal affair of boarding a boat for a 10 minute ride across the river. Looking back at the retreating Thai shore I couldn't help but feel a slight twinge of nostalgia for the good roads, beautiful food and great people we were leaving behind but I hoped in Laos I wouldn't have the hassle of being asked if I'm Thai by almost every local I met. The only damages suffered so far was 3 punctures, a rather embaressing break down and an even more embarressing fall I had when I forgot I had fastened my toe clip only to find my feet stuck to my pedal when I braked to get off my bike. I swayed for a few micro seconds, my face freezing in horror as I realized I was falling but too panic stuck to do anothing about it before I hit dirt sideways, feet still locked on to my pedals. It took Ced awhile to shake off the laughter before coming to aid my poor moaning self as I caught the bar of my cycle square between the legs during the fall.

Puncture repairing break with mangoes waiting to ripen behind the bamboo hedge

We were back in the thick of the tourist trail as the 2 day boat ride from Haouy Xai to Luang Prabhang as thanks to Lonely Planet and assorted guide books is a must do on almost every tourist's itinerary. We spent two days in Haouy Xai watching the multitude of tourists assembling just below our guest house every morning to ensure themselves seats on the boats to Luang Prabhang from the pier below the guest house. I was glad we had the option of peddling the rutty roads that Laos is notorious for instead of being squeezed in with the the hordes on what seemed over crowded boats. We would meet some of them in a couple of days if they stayed long enough in Luang Prabhang. For now we had to gear ourselves for the roads that may or may not lead us where we want to go. Laos is one of the poorest countries of the area and has very little in terms of public infrastructure except for what the colonists left in bits of the southern regions and what the Chinese with their vested interests are supplying further north and the Thais are beginning to take over in areas close to the Western border.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This is Zen

When cat's nap with angel cat guardians looking on; all's feng shui with the world.
(Chiang Mai '09. Pic courtesy Ced)

A few weird things

I never met a man before who made a chore of shampooing his cock. Every weekend he steals his wife's bottled hair shiner to pour on the bright plumes of his feathered biped. For his cock is a prize fighter and one that brings him some coins and maybe more; respite from the boredom of a quiet rural life. So till the day the beak dips in the agony of defeat and pain, an hour from bubbling in a pot...the plumes will stay bright and dandruff free, shampooed clean.

I loathe lizards, I mean I used to loathe lizards till they stopped unexpectedly popping up in places I didn't want them to be after living in a gecko free house. But there was a time my brother would taunt me with songs of fried lizard meat. I thought that was only a thought that could spring in a fiendish sibling mind. Until now. I forgive you bro! And pity the poor things. (Mae Phrik market).

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ahoy! Chiang Mai!

"Disco kung! Disco kung! Very aroi! Very aroi! Eat! Eat! "...Inspector Doy of A. Sam Ngao area was quite a persuasive man. He had roared past us in his Isuzu pickup, pulled into the dusty unfenced yard of a house along the road all the while yelling "me hom, me hom, come! come!". It was so far the strangest invitation we'd had and one hard to ignore. A rather conspicuous motor with a propeller strapped to the back of his pick up rather intrigued Ced, who recognized it as a rather old fashioned paragliding motor. Our curiosity piqued along with the heat of the afternoon sun beating down on us we decided to accept the invitation. It clearly wasn't a bad idea as he had just returned with two friends from what seemed to have been an excellent shrimping (fishing...shrimping?) session. But by the stale beer they reeked of it and the slightly suspect all too jolly mood they seemed to be in I wasn't too sure how long we could stay. But for the moment we couldn't refuse the cold ice and water they served us and the plate of rice that was plonked down in front of us. I suspected something amiss when one of the guys shoved some live still twitching shrimps into his mouth and invited us to do the same with encouragements of aroi! aroi! (Thai for delicious...also mostly pronounced aloi as thais don't seem to produce the rrr sound too well). I had so far evaded trying fried insects but there was no escaping this. I watched on slightly horrified as one of the guys proceeded to dress some the the very alive shrimp with chilli powder, fresh coriander, onions, salt and fresh lemon juice. I'm sure it would have smarted the shrimp like mad as it intensified their squirming while some even managed to jump out the bowl only to be picked and dumped back right in. I have to confess my mouth watered abit as I love anything dressed in lemon juice and chilli powder. I also love shrimp but I prefer them asphyxiated and clearly dead. I was served my portion in a bowl and I ate them as quick as I could hoping to shorten their suffering. At least that was what played on my mind. A couple escaped my bowl and that's when the man who introduced himself as Inspector Doy made his disco kung joke. (Kung being prawn/ shrimp in Thai) It was hard to laugh with my mouth full of squirming shrimps. The last time I'd eaten anything still alive was the quivering oysters in France. Somehow back then served with the typical French gastronomique finesse I didn't ponder the plight of the oysters too much while I squeezed my citron into their gelatinous mass. I guess the champagne had help steel some nerves and numb sympathy.

Inspector Doy as it turned out was a policeman on holiday which was why he was a little drunk, as he explained and also a paragliding instructor; which explained the motor in his pick up. Being an amateur paraglider himself, Ced soon had the willing inspector pull out the sail to check out it's span. So there we were on the 3rd day of cycling towards Chiang Mai after our little train ride to Naknon Sawon; trying to catch the wind with a rather unsteady inspector on holiday. "When drink, I no fly. No good", he conscientiously declared before wrapping up the sail and returning to his drink and disco shrimp salad. The shrimps had mercifully succumbed to air and citrus by then and lay quietly in the bowls.

We goofed up on the train to Nakhon Pathom by getting up on the wrong train. We knew there was a problem when we boarded after first loading our bicycles in the luggage van. We could find neither coach nor seats. Somehow coach no.5 had mysteriously disappeared and after no. 4 we were in no.6 which packed with young army recruits strewn all over in all possible shapes and gaps. They were on the seats, over the seats, under the seat, out in the aisles and even strung from hammocks tied to the luggage racks. Most were passed out from what seemed to have been a rather rough training camp. Luckily for us, the ones awake were extremely courteous and polite and they soon realised we had boarded the wrong train as trains had been delayed and the one we were on was the one that was supposed to have arrived at Chumphon 2 hours earlier while the train we had tickets for was delayed as well. No wonder we were surprised when we saw the train pull in exactly at the time printed on our tickets. The luggage van staff had assumed we knew what we were doing so they didn't bother to check our tickets either. So it was a rough night spent by the loo which mercifully unlike Indian train loos do not stink. We strung our hammocks and made the best of the long night.

Next day early morning we arrived in Nakhon Pathom only to find out the train we wanted to catch to Nakhon Sawan was available only from Bangkok. The next train to Bangkok was the one we had missed the previous night, Train No. 172. It was hard to not miss the irony as we waited for the train to ferry us to Bangkok. The unwelcome diversion to Bangkok wasn't so bad as we managed to catch up for a quick drink with friends who had just landed in town and we also met some dutch cyclists; a couple well into their 70's who were cycling around in their almost vintage dutch bicycles. They took their time to get around but had covered some pretty impressive distances. It was quite inspiring to meet and swap stories. We finally boarded our train at 2pm, the correct one this time and slept almost throughout the 6 hour ride to Nakhon Sawan. Ced had only a week left on his visa and we hoped to save time by skipping the busy suburban towns near Bangkok.

Nakon Sawan on the eve of the Chinese New year was rather quiet for a Chinese dominated town. Apart from the bright coca-cola sponsored red banners lining the roads there didn't seem to be much in terms of celebration. We saw a couple of lantern kites from our hotel room but I guess we were too tired to notice much else. Another unavoidable late start thanks to the sleepless night before and we were more than eager to cover as much ground as possible. We started at 11.30 am and cycled almost wordlessly with few breaks to the next town Kamphaeng Phet. We stuck to the highway almost throughout the day intent on covering the 130 odd kms that led to the town. Though unseen from the road, the highway runs parallel to the Ping river which later meets the Nan river to form Thailand's major river system, the Chao Praya at Nakhon Sawan. I made up for the lack of scenery by focusing on my Cateye bike meter and trying to maintain our average speed of 22.8km/hr. After nearly a 100 km on the main way we finally decided to take a break and follow a dirt road next to the river. The few seconds of quiet and greenery was therapeutic for our tired limbs and eyes. It was also a reminder again of how stressful traveling on a major road can be even though the highway traffic here wasn't the worst we'd seen. But the dirt road didn't run long. There were several large factories built along the river and the way was soon blocked by huge cement walls. It was infuriating. We headed back to the highway and crossed the river at the next bridge. It was a bit of a detour but the road on the opposite bank led though lovely residential areas and was mercifully free of highway traffic. By the time we reached Khampaeng Phet and pulled into a roadside restaurant to eat we were at 140.7 kms and drained of energy. Maybe it was the tiredness but both of us were rather grumpy and it resulted in another small session of snapping at each other and bickering about the menu. Luckily we still laugh and check ourselves in time before things get unnecessarily heated. I guess it's going to take a lot more time for the cyclist's zen to build.

The next day was a long round about detour along rd no. 1109 to avoid the highway on our way to Tak. The rural road we took was the least inhabited we crossed so far and led through large patches of dry scrub forest. For a change the few houses we crossed seemed poorer than in the South and land less fertile. We saw less of people lounging around their varendas and munching food, which seems to be a national pastime. The temperature was 33c in the hot midday sun and the going was tough with the heat. By this time I had shed my shorts for my long cotton FabIndia pants which shielded my legs (burnt almost black) better from the hot burning sun. The scenery soon took a turn for the better as we got nearer to Tak. Tak turned out to be a really pleasant town built along the river with almost every kind of shop including a Trek bicycle outlet and a huge book store where we bought a pretty good road atlas. It also had an excellent night market by the riverside where we stuffed ourselves stall-hopping.

Next day's ride was the most pleasant so far as we stuck close to the river following the secondary road marked on our new atlas. Escaping the highway was a simple matter of crossing a bridge and following the western bank northwards. A short while after the bridge we came across a welding factory with a huge bicycle adorning the entrance. I'm sure many cyclists would have posed next to it and we couldn't help but stop for our first team picture.

cycle, cycle, big cycle

It was a scenic ride through paddy fields, banana and mango plantations, pepper farms and other farm lands till we reached Sam Ngao a little after which we had our encounter with Inspector Doy and disco kung. The road after A. Sam Ngao takes a beautiful inviting winding diversion westwards to the Bhumibhol Dam but we had to decline and continue North. We stopped for the night at Mae Phrik village were locals dissuaded us from trying to explore a road marked on our larger map but leading to a conspicuous dead end on the Atlas we had bought. The road reappears again at Ko waterfalls. It seemed the road led through a jungle and there was no way to cross by bicycle. It led to a small argument as Ced was even excited with this bit of news while till our little compromise, I was keen to taking the shortest route to Chiang Mai to save time as his visa was running short again. We finally decided to further extend the visa if need be but take time to explore all we could while we had the chance.

At first light we were off towards the dead end road. It led along a valley where a dam is being built. There were quite a few locals using the roads so we were confident it wouldn't be a dead end. The road did stop right at a village but there was an alternative small road that continued. The locals here knew of the road to Ko waterfalls and pointed us in the right direction. As it turned out the road passed through a small protected forest area and was not much more than a rough dirt track. We stopped to ask the ranger if it was possible to cross forest to join the road that connects Ko waterfalls with Pha Phueng village from where road continues. He was quite delighted to see cyclist and waved us on merrily assuring us it was possible and to just stick to the right at each fork. The road was a proper mountain biker's dream for downhill descents but more than a painful sore with our road bikes uphill. I mostly pushed, pulled and dragged my bike while riding in the few places the road permitted. But thanks to the novelty of the situation and the fact that we were in a forest completely alone, I barely noticed we were slowly ascending. After a couple of hours and more than a few wrongs turns, tosses and tumbles with a few bruises we finally did reach the end of the forest and the road. The rangers on the opposite side of what serves as the entrance of Mae Ping National Park seemed quite surprised to see us. At least we didn't have to pay an entrance fee this time using the gate only to exit.

It was during our blissful freewheeling downhill coast that I realised we had made at least a 600 m ascent through the forest. After a small break at Pha Pheung we continued on the road that seemed to continue to slope downhill through the beautiful valley of Mae Kong Wa.
Coasting through Mae Kong Wa Valley (picture doesn't do justice)

To our delight we found a merry market carrying on in full swing next a football field. Turns out it was an inter-school football event between villages and so another reason for the inhabitants around to party. We stuffed ourselves with different sausages, meatballs and different barbecue grills that seem to be an ubiquitous part of Thai street cuisine before continuing through the valley to break for the night at a bamboo shelter built by a chorten near a small stream.

Morning after night spent near Mae Kong Wa village
The night was chilly enough to wake us up several times and decide we'll have to look for a tent in Chiang Mai. At least we were off to an early start and before long we found ourselves back on an unavoidable highway with Chiang Mai less that 80 kms away. We decided to take it easy and stop early to break at Chom Thong town to complete the remaining 70 odd kms to Chiang Mai the next day. From Chom Thong we had several options that stuck us to country lanes till we pulled into the suburban residential layouts around Chiang Mai where we saw our first firangs after a week on a their rented shiny black Honda Phantom cruiser looking rather lost and ridiculous with helmets too big and gothic for their white shorts and matching sleeveless netted T-shirts. We had arrived. 1007 km on the odometer.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Because I love the King

Step off the boat at the Tha Thien pier along the mighty Chao Praya River that flows through the mightier Bangkok city scape and you'll find him. Scraping rusty notes from what sounds before you bother to throw a glance, like an all too battered violin bereft of antiquity. Look twice and you'll see the notes are not borrowed of wood but a broken oil can. Redeemed of it's toxicity it's contents long chugged to aid an engine sputter, it's now bound by strings, coaxed by a salvaged battery and loving worn hands; to spill out notes high and low but never shrill. We stop to wonder and without invitation are told why he stands where he is. "Because I love the king", he declares with flourish. "And because you also love the world", we reply filled with adoration for the little man fashioning music from broken oil cans. "Yes! I love the world and I love my king...", he replied "and here's a song to save the world..." as he spun another mournful piece from the yellow plastic can.

Across the Isthmus: The Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Siam

Paknam Laung Suan Beach Road

Struggling to control my breathing as in came out in ragged gasps while straining every muscle in my leg working the pedals I tried to focus my mind on the descent that lay after the climb. It didn't work. I'm not sure which caved in first my mind, my lumber region or my thighs. Mentally screaming at myself for being so weak I nearly sobbed leaning on my handle bar. Several trucks lumbered past on low gear honking their encouragement. I could only smile faintly and wave weakly back. One truck even stopped by my bicycle and made signs to me to hang on for a free lift to the top but I didn't fancy the thought of breathing in all the fumes that trailed behind. Thankfully I felt better as my breathing stabilized and I reminded myself once again this was good training for the high mountain passes I might one day take. I started peddling again but with the wind blowing straight at me, I was nearly knocked off my cycle while shifting one gear lower. I had to stop again. It was my 3rd pass as I didn't seem to be getting any stronger. Watching Cedric bob away around another curve at apparent ease didn't help. I knew he'd be waiting again at the top of the pass for a good while. Maybe it was the stress of the moment but just the though of it irritated me. I have to confess I had been snapping at him quite a bit lately. We hadn't agreed entirely on the Ranong crossing idea but I finally conceded and even got excited by the time we started towards the town. But the general sordidness of the pier on both shores along with the disappointing let down of not being even able to ride our bicycles around Ranong got to me and I hadn't been in the most agreeable mood for a while. It is something I have to watch out for. With the long road ahead tempers flaring unnecessarily is something to be avoided. For now it was peddle a 100 meters, stop to reason with self and peddle again. By the time the pass came in view I wasn't even nodding my acknowledgment to the thumbs up and honks from passing cars.

This part of Southern Thailand maybe the narrowest stretch of the peninsula but it's far from flat. Low lying undulating hills mark the area between the two seas and we seemed to be the highest road of the region - the highway connecting Ranong with the eastern town of Luang Suan where we were headed. Luckily for me there was only one pass but once crossed the road refused to run flat. All too short descents gave just about enough momentum to climb halfway up the next ascent after which it was grit teeth and peddle painfully till tipping over the next slope. At least I had a view of the lay of the land from the vehicles that zoomed past to disappear down one slope only to reappear again in the distant horizon. This went on for hours. By the time we finally reached flat land that promised no further surprises we had clocked 98 kms. We decided to skip the main town and instead head to the Paknam Lang Suan Beach town that lay another 14 km away. It turned out to be a good decision as we were welcomed by a lovely relaxed town with a really pretty sea face. To top it the place was throughly devoid of "firangs" and the locals seemed quite happy to welcome us. We stopped by a store cum stop-for-a-drink place by the beach to celebrate my first 112.8km run across the Istmus from the Andaman Sea to The gulf of Siam with a beer. Thais love being outside and almost every home and shop has a sit out with benches and tables outside where you'll normally find the entire family and/or customers chilling out with drinks and food. The store owner also rented out the showers for beach visitors to use and thought it was a lovely idea to string up our hammocks and camp by the beach for the night. After a quick dip in the shallow blue sea (which had a rather muddy floor thanks to run off from the estuary nearby but lovely none the less) and a shower after we headed off to find food and settle for the night.

After a lovely night's rest and a beautiful morning view of the sea from our hammocks we started the trip back towards Chumphon though this time by the narrow local coast roads.

Shrimpfisher struck by dawn

As we didn't have a detailed map for this region we just stuck as close as we could to the sea. We made several dead end turns and took some false roads but it was worth the beautiful coconut plantations and coastal farms and villages they led through. At one point after reaching another dead end that led to a fishing port by the bay we decided to take a short cut through the lovely Royal Prince of Chumphon College of Fishery campus only to find the gate on the opposite end locked. Not wanting to waste time we simply unloaded our bags and hoisted bags and cycles over the ten foot high gates while campus staff waved and looked on lazily from a distance. I'm constantly amazed at how genial thais can be. I guess they didn't have the keys either or else they would have sure come with it.

Sawi Estuary

Ban Bo Kha Village

The ride took us along the Ao Sawi Bay (Ao being bau in Thai) and along the estuary that meets the Sawi river. Another missed turn took us down to yet another picturesque fishing village, Ban Bo Kha before we settled on the country road that led all the way to Chumphon. 23 kms out of Chumphon we rejoined the highway only to scoot off after two minutes of blearing truck engines and assorted highway traffic zooming past us.The highway route may be the shortest but definitely the most painful.
Beware of crossing cows

We hit a dirt track parallel to the single track railroad that led through more winding country roads and friendly smiles from locals before finally pulling in Chumphon tired but happy after our 98.43 km ride that took us through some of the lesser visited parts of South Thailand. From Chumphon we clambered onto a North Bound Train that will lead us to Nakon Pathom near Bangkok from where we'll take the roads that lead to Chiang Mai. Further North and Further East!