January 10th - January20th : Bankgok - Ko Chang, SE Thailand
by Mr. D
Starting out... Khao San Rd - pale skinned & optimistic
Our first few miles of laden bicycle touring was in rush hour Bangkok on a busy weekday morning. Swiftly, but cautiously we flowed with the traffic which appeared to have little problem sharing the road with eratic slow vehicles like us. But we rode only to the bus station, and soon after we were soon cruising in style for the next 200 km's of busy roads and built up suburbs out to Rayong, a small town on the south-eastern seaboard.
Thailand is a different country out of Bangkok. - blue skies, genuinely nice people, and spectacular scenery. The sea is a gorgeous blue, and you can see why this place has such a burgeoning tourist industry. - Sadly, it is this very tourist industry that is also steadily ruining much of the best parts of the country. Ko Samet, our destination for that evening is an island national park in which all development is supposedly prohibited. But commercial greed and tourist dollars are no match for the few enviromentalists in this country, and now the island is rapidly turning into yet another strip of bars and resorts and all sorts of tacky buildings lining once beautiful beaches. - loud music and tv blares barely drowns out the sound of diesel generators powering everyones air-con and hot water. Ignorant tourists rent jet skis and power boats and steam over coral reefs, blissfully unaware of the destruction they are wreaking below. We're told that every now and then the police close the island, but it isn't long before they turn a blind eye again, and things go on as normal.
The same story happened further up the coast in Pattaya over the last 20 years. - Now no-one in their right minds would go to Pattaya for the beach. Sex industry sure, but the beach is a mess, covered in sewage and destroyed by construction. Recently the government did pour a huge chunk of cash into adding a proper sewage system, but at an astronomical cost, and a little too late. Ko Samet seems to be heading at least in the same direction, yet everyone knows the problem and no-one is willing to solve it.
We got out of Ko Samet a day later and headed down the coast towards another island national park, Ko Chang. We figured that being further away, and less accessible it would be more what we were looking for in a relaxation stop before 'we really hit the road.'
What looked like an easy day cycle ride turned out to be a gruelling slog in the fierce sun. Ironically, this is the cool season for Thailand, but for Richard, fresh from the snowy wastes of Derbyshires Peak district, this was hardly cool! - We slogged on through the day going through at least a liter of water an hour and our skins steadily turning a fetching shade of pink.
Fortunatly, roads here are at the moment wonderful to cycle. - Tarmac is smooth and there is usually a nice wide shoulder to cycle on. There are plenty of stalls by the roadside selling snacks and drinks and provide plenty of rest opportunities. The only problem comes in navigation. Maps of Thailand seem to be non-existant, and after leaving the tourist areas, we're pretty much coping with a 1:1500000 map covering the whole country. Needless to say this dosen't really tell much about where we are or junctions or anything much, so when we get lost we really get lost.
Our hopes to make it to Ko Chang in one day quickly didn't materialize and by about 6pm we found ourselves watching the sun go down in the middle of nowhere. - We hadn't planned on any food or fuel to cook with so weren't in too good a mood. Richard was exhausted from the day and clearly wasn't too happy at my insistence that he hurry up so that we could find somewhere decent to camp.
As we stopped for water, a women with two children on a motorbike stopped to chat with us. Since she knew about as much English as Thai, our conversation led nowhere and as I tried to mime asking directions to the beach, she looked even more confused. We cycled on, but bumped into her again after unsuccessfully trying to get down to the beach on a side road. - This time she managed to communicate to us to follow her. We did, and were soon surrounded by a bunch of Thai kids and a few parents. We then proceeded through our phrase book to ask all sorts of silly questions. - The kids every now and then spoke a tiny bit of English and must have been learning it at school. Either that or watching too many American movies. But they were quite shy to use it on two sunburn cycling 'farang'.
We eventually mimed our beach request successfully and were given a ride in a pick up truck way back up the road we had just cycled down. Richard and I glanced nervously hoping that they weren't going to try and take us back to Ko Samet.... and fortunatly they didn't! - We ended up in a seaside village with the whole village gathered around us. One women spoke some english, "from when she was a mama-san looking after US Air Force" and invited us to eat with them.
Us & the village chief & Oo & his mum & others
We slept in the village and ate crabs for breakfast with 'Oo,' their star student, the next morning. The crabs were fresh straight from the fishing boat, and were well tasty. - Richfound it a tad odd to be eating dinner food for brekfast, but it was so good that he couldn't really complain.
Staying a night in the village of Changkham opened our eyes to a side of Thailand that most foreigners never see when they zip between resorts in their air conditioned buses. I'm not sure I really enjoy sitting on my rearside and physically propelling myself and all my possessions on a bicycle, but what it does give you is the freedom to get off the beaten path and see the world as it really is. Not just the temples and the beaches and the hotels, but the real places. Later as I pointed out a 'typcial market town' in the guidebook to Richard, he pointed out that's like saying that Buxton's a typical market town. In actually the typical places are the ones that no-one ever goes to visit, the ones that no-one ever writes about, the Changkhams of this world which will never be in any guidebook. This is why we're cycling and choosing to travel the hard way.
Ko Chang fortunatly turned out to be a very different place to Ko Samet. - It's one of Thailands largest islands and has escaped a lot of the tourist boom that has afflicted much of the rest of Thailand. (Possibly because of the malaria resistant mosquitoes there) - At the risk of changing this, I reckon Ko Chang may be the most serene and beautiful place I've ever seen. - towering forested peaks, surrounded by crystal blue seas and gorgeous white sandy beaches. Development here is being kept much more in check, but only 70% of the island is national park. - Parts previously farmed before the park was created remain private property... of course this ends up being all the beach front property. - sigh!
We're staying in a coconut bungalow made of natural materials which sits right on the water front. - It really is a piece of paradise and we can wake up and walk just 5 yards to the sea and go for a swim in flat calm waters. The sunsets are gorgeous and the night sky is lit up with stars that are never visible in HK or the UK. - Shame I don't have anyone a little prettier than Richard to share it with :(
We figure on staying here for the next 3 days, and then 'really' starting the trip. (We said that in BKK didn't we?) - From here on in, it starts getting much tougher.