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On the road . March 2008 . Malaysia and Thailand

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Ideal Travellers' House, Kota Bharu, Malaysia, 11-03-08
The mini Ardennes

Kota Tinggi to Pantai Cherating (4 cycling days; 1 rest day; 346 km; 1159 m)
Kota Tinggi to Mersing (94 km; 575 m)
Mersing to Kuala Rompin (63 km; 231 m)
Kuala Rompin to Pekan (89 km; 52 m)
Pekan to Cherating (100 km; 301 m)

Just one of those lack lustre days, I guess: we both haven't had much sleep and we can blame the television programmers for putting Gordon Ramsey's 'Hell's Kitchen' on from 12 to 1am for that. Furthermore, the weather is not looking too good. Consequently, after 10 kilometres or so, we find ourselves sheltering under a dilapidated vegetable stand for the best part of an hour, wishing that we had just stayed in bed. It's already 11am before we get back on the road and there's still a considerable amount of kilometres to make before the day is over.

From here on in, the rain never really stops spitting at us and the undulating road conditions quickly wear our legs and our patience out. It's not that the hills are particularly steep (6%) or long (200-400m), it's just that this 'Mini Ardennes' ride doesn't let up until we are a few kilometres from our destination. Moreover, it almost drives you mad having to continually change gears over such short distances. So much so, that at times, I just coast down the decline in my smallest gear and wait until the gradient is steep enough on the uphill stretch to start pedalling again. And so it goes on.

And so do the palm oil plantations: there is not much natural rain forest left in this region at all. I try to attune my mind to counting the different types of wild flower species along the road side and that keeps me entertained for a while. There is definitely an assortment of the usual yellow and pink varieties but I hit the jackpot when I spot my first wild orchid, majestically sticking its white and mauve head high above the man tamed undergrowth. I count six in total before entering the port of Mersing (94 km; 575m).

The town itself is a little smaller than we had expected seeing as this is the main ferry terminal for trips to Pulau Tioman. From here, you can also catch a bus to almost anywhere in Malaysia. Typical with such a travel hub, there are quite a number of westerners in town. Omar's Backpackers, where we stay, is truly a backpacker's place: lights out at midnight and all that, but it's clean, has a share kitchen and costs a meagre 20 ringgit for a spacious double room. Besides, we will be asleep well before the light curfew on the account of one physically, knackering day.

Despite slight head winds, we zoom out of Mersing in fine form. The road is much more inviting and kilometres of rain forest are really something to enjoy from the bike saddle. A jittering melange of cooing, whooping, chirping and clicking form a enticing hum from behind the luscious green backdrop. Birds and butterflies, the colours rainbows are made of, flaunt themselves in full view. Monkeys are also in plentiful numbers and are a little cheekier than their winged friends: quite often attempting to chase after us as we pedal by. A quick, loud hiss is normally all it takes to stop them in their tracks. We breeze into the tiny township of Kuala Rompin (63 km; 231m) and settle at the first hotel we see: seems a waste of time to search any further than the brightly painted Kencana Hotel on the left and at the beginning of town. The room is light and cheery and only 35RM.

Scenery-wise, the following day is pretty non-eventful. The only parts worth mentioning are, yet again, the rain forest bits and there aren't enough of them as far as I am concerned. The greenest of green fern barricades the road from unconventionally collaborated trees and the wildlife that lays beyond. Only the vibrating hum lets you know there's a whole different world inside. Man's contribution of row after row of palm oil palms is so contrived in comparison with the natural beauty of the rich thick scrub sweeping it's organic form way up into the tree tops.

We pass some pretty small villages. Everyone is incredibly friendly. In the warm, humid and wet weather, we have both taken to riding in shorts, mine baggy and Ali's the lycra bike pants type and so far no untoward attention at all. You can generally get a feel for what's okay and what's not by taking a good look around you. There is a large Chinese population in the areas we have cycled through up till now, which means that a strict dress code is not exclusively adhered to. In fact, the Chinese just seem to get on with what they do best, in the way they see fit, while the Muslim community does pretty much the same. All very amicable actually.

We make Pekan (88 km; 52 m) around 4pm and opt for the budget choice in town: 1) because the black clouds above us are promising to dump bucket loads of rain any minute; and 2) the 'a little more up market' hotel next door is fully booked. The owner of Hotel Pekan is a bit embarrassed as he takes me upstairs to show me one of the rooms. He explains the state of his premises by saying 'Hotel very old'. It's actually not that bad, I've slept in worse, but he is right about it being very old. All that matters at the moment though is that it's a roof over our heads while the heavens have just decided to open up. Furthermore, a basic room with share bathroom and toilet for 18 RM is dirt cheap for Malaysia.

A couple of large vegetable fried rice (presently our staple diet) and a deserved beer (not part of the staple diet due to the cost factor) top the day off perfectly. A bit of reading, writing and relaxing and we are soon asleep, only to be awoken in the wee hours to the sound of more rain than we would like to hear. It continues all morning as we wait in our hotel room knowing full well that there's no use leaving in this sort of weather. On the other hand, our choice of hotel room's is somewhat different to this one should we choose to hang out in it all day. Nine o'clock comes around and the downpour dies down to a weak patter. With black skies in front of us and wind in our faces, we leave somewhat apprehensively.

Maddening Monsoons
Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I really thought that the monsoon season was over. However, by the pressure in the air and the sweat dripping down my nose, I'd say we're right in the middle of it. It is now 12 pm and we have only accomplished 15 kilometres due to repeatedly seeking refuge under what ever we can find along the way. Our expectation is that today's journey should be somewhere around the 80 kilometre mark. We push our way along miles of roadworks on busy roads, highway networks and very, very uninspiring urban landscape. The sign post 9kms before Kuantan validates that Cherating Beach is just 35km further on. Our map confirms another distance, but it's only 1.30pm, so we figure it will be a cinch. You think we would have learned by now: firstly, never ever trust a map maker; secondly, do not believe Malaysian road signs and thirdly, never underestimate the weather.

The skies open up once again and just before we are violently swept back to Singapore, we pull over, half drenched, at a disused vegetable stall. At this stage, we still believe we are just over an hour away from our destination, so we wait the rainstorm out for 75 minutes. As soon as it hits 5pm and it appears as though the rain isn't going to stop anytime this century, we decide that there is no other option than to don the raincoat and helmet and go hell for leather.

Nice plan, except for the fact that Cherating Beach is actually 20 kilometres further than we estimated and the road starts to climb and fall and we are in one nightmare of a rainstorm. The traffic is also unforgiving, splashing us with their spray, not that we can get any wetter. Oh yeah, and did I forget to mention that when the rain backs off we are cycling into a headwind. Boy, if there is ever a time when you would want to pack the whole thing in it's right about now.

What is most worrying is we seem to be so far inland and there are no official signposts to gauge from, not that you could trust them anyway. We stop to ask a truck driver, who says it's about 9 kilometres away. Now, tired and wet I may be, but this I can do. However, just as we have both mustered up a bit of speed, 3 kilometres down the track, we spot a giant board stating the Cherating Sailing Club is 17 kilometres further on. Does this guy drive around with his eyes closed? After the turnoff at Sungai Ulan, a load of lousy resorts who haven't got a clue how far they are from anywhere, begin to taunt us: one says 12km, the next 5km and another 10km. How can they all be so wrong? Just for the record guys: Cherating Beach is 50kms from Kuantan City Centre and 15 kilometres from Sungai Ulan.

Shoulders are flooded completely along the coast and we weave the best path possible through the puddles. Houses are entirely cut-off from the road and one restaurant I see has shut up shop for the night. Not much chance of clientele dropping in for a quick bite to eat when they can't see their feet, let alone the restaurant floor. We just keep on cycling, leaving these great photo opportunities behind us. Believe it or not, the rain actually gets worse. I scream some futile and unrepeatable words at the heavens and then we see the sign we've been looking for: Pantai Cherating (100km; 301m), on our right. There is only one resort sign at this entrance and so we are still doubtful as to whether this is the correct road, but take it anyway. The first place we hit that looks half-way decent and open is Ranting Resort and a chalet, not on the beach, is 50 RM with a fan. Soaking, frazzled and so very pissed off, we just accept without looking any further. Anything resembling comfort is of paramount importance at this point in time. Our room is okay and the surroundings pleasant, though there could possibly be better deals around.

Can't remember much of the night, we showered, ate and fell asleep in that order and that's about it. Next day and it's a difficult job finding something for breakfast. The usual Malaysian style buffet is available in a couple of places, but the dishes are either seafood or meat based. I find it rather unusual that you can't get the traditional roti canai or roti telur anywhere in this village. This is Malaysia after all! A westernised restaurant up the road, Cherating Cottage, does it's own version of roti canai which is really quite good. A quick walk on the beach and the rest of the day is taken up with a few necessary chores. There's washing to be done and while Ali patches the numerous holes in our Ortlieb bags, I sew up the gapes in the clothing. Ali's bags are really quite bad and need quite a bit of attention. The late afternoon is set aside for a wander up the beach.

Cherating Beach boasts being one of the three main tourist attractions on the Malaysian east coast. The beach itself is quite alright, though swimming is monopolised by males, which of course I find a shame. The water is a little churned at present too, but there's still a nice sandy frontage to walk along. The rest of the area looks a bit like a building site though and there are very few tourists around. We can only gather that it's not the start of season yet. Still, the amount of shack like buildings that are still being operated out of, but have definitely seen better days, is quite surprising for this so-called holiday destination. Two nights is enough for Ali, though I could stay at least one more. It's the beach that wins me over every time. Growing up, almost on top of the ocean in Australia is what's done it, I suspect. When I'm not near it, I do so miss it. I'm not quite sure what it is: the sound of the waves pounding on the shore; the foam tickling my feet as it curls around them; squeaking white sand; salty lips; or just sitting on a dune mesmerised by the surf meticulously moving in and out for hours. Anyway the next day I get my wish: it's bucketing down in the morning and we stay an extra day. The afternoon pans out to be great weather. Lucky me, I guess.

Wi-fi point , Thongsala, Ko Phangan, Thailand, 23-03-08
Up to the distance

( Pantai Cherating to Ko Phangan: 11 cycling days; 1 rest day; 907km; 1112 m)
Pantai Cherating to Dungun (87 km; 140 m)
Dungun to Kuala Terengganu (78 km; 135 m)
Kuala Terengganu to Kuala Besut (107 km; 77 m)
Kuala Besut to Kota Bharu (58 km; 45 m)
Kota Bharu to Narathiwat (69 km; 65 m)
Narathiwat to Pattani (93 km; 89 m)
Pattani to Songkhla (11 km; 97 m)
Songkhla to Hua Sai (102 km; 66 m)
Hua Sai to Nakhon si Thammarat (70 kn; 44 m)
Nakhon si Thammarat to Thongsala (118 km; 221 m)
Thongsala to Mae Haad (14 km; 133 m)

March 8: International Women's' Day, a dear friend, who I've lost contact with but still think about 's birthday and election day in Malaysia. Almost everything is shuttered close except for the polling booths, which are abundantly represented along our route. Interestingly enough, fully-scarved women are also out in full force and in keeping with the day's spirit, energetically cheer us on with waves and the big thumbs up as we pass them by. Quite a foreign combination but definitely an uplifting sight after India and Pakistan. On a completely different note, necessity calls Ali to buy a new tyre to replace the, now almost through to the tube, Indian Hindustan make we bought at the border of Nepal for € 1.60. That's a total of 2764 kilometres for those of you who are interested. We will try and get the replacement Schwalbe tyres owing to us in Bangkok, but until then he sincerely hopes the € 2.20 Malaysian version will stand up to the heat and the distance.

Everything is relative
Today is an easy ride. Goes to show that everything is relative and had we not had such difficult cycling conditions a few days ago, I would probably be whinging about today's incessant headwinds. But in reality, all they really do is make us push a tad harder and slow us up a bit, detrimenting a record time making trip. We skirt massive oil refineries, which are despicably unattractive and give the olfactory senses the impression the person in front has let off one gigantic fart. Considering this view and smell, there's not much inclination to camp here, though the rest of the trip so far in Malaysia has offered many appealing opportunities for setting up the tent.

The rain barely gets past a spatter and doesn't really interrupt our journey, so it's a relatively easy haul into what we believe to be Dungun (87km; 140m). In hindsight, we consider it to be more of an outskirt township than the centre itself, but the Sri Gate Hotel is comfortable, clean and conveniently positioned, as is the semi-fashionable Pantai Café with excellent coffee, spicy fried rice and one commendably brilliant English-speaking owner across the road.

In search of the perfect breakfast
Election is over and as expected Barisan National, the ruling party for the last 50 years, won majority votes again. Not surprising, seeing as they have a twelve party coalition which pledges enormous support. Opposition parties are few and far between though a couple of them have recently joined ranks to win a victoriously democratic five states. Now, the clean-up job begins on the eye-sore chaos of flags, string, poles, cabins and booths, water bottles, posters and evidential rubbish associated with mass-human congregation.

it's another straight forward day and we hit the coast for a substantial duration for the first time while cycling the east coast of Malaysia. While Pantai Cherating was okay, I would suggest staying on the stretch between Dungun and Kuala Terrengguna, especially around Tanjung Jara and Rantau Abang. Here, there are some really quaint guesthouses and plenty of bungalows to stay in. The beach appears a lot nicer than we have seen to date and there is the added bonus that camping would be dead easy if that's your cup of tea.

On first impressions, Kuala Terengganu (78km; 135m) looks promisingly organised with wide laned roads, golf courses and green parks. It's clean, neat and structured. However, when you actually get into the centre of the city, this reverts to bedlam. We would like to visit the recently opened Muslim architectural theme Park, but upon dragging ourselves around town and to the 'closed at 3pm' tourist information, we realise that it's not in town at all. There's no preparation or logic to the placement of buildings and businesses, except the ferry, which doesn't have too many options about where it can be positioned and we immediately decide it will be a quicker option for tomorrow's journey instead of going back around the city head.

LP recommends staying at Ping Anchorage Travellers Inn: not a bad choice for the 38 ringgit fee and to be honest, you could hold a party in the space not that we were contemplating that move. Still, if you are looking for atmosphere, these old office blocks basically converted into lodgings have very little charm: Next time round though I would recommend checking out The Tropicana Lodge at No 30 Jalan Petani, 20200 Kuala Terengganu: it is open 24 hours and if you can judge the accommodation by the food served up here, I'm sure you'll get okay value for money. Even if you don't stay here, it's worth a visit for breakfast: it's the best we've had so far in Malaysia.

And on that note, Malaysia really does have the perfect breakfast: kopi 0 and roti telur: In layman's terms that means strong black filter coffee, poured from a height Malaysian style with a thin layered bread like pancake filled with egg, lightly griddle-fried and served with daal and a fish curry: the latter dish we skip but the rest of it is super delicious. We are blessed that we can find this nearly everyday and will definitely miss it when we have to leave.

The ferry from Kuala Terengganu to Seberang Takir costs the grand total of 1 ringgit each: bikes are free. Other bonus is the journey saves us about 9 kilometres or so. The road from here, follows the coast, which we also like and travels around the back of the airport. Due to it's quiet, traffic-free nature it is a pleasant change. The T145 highway, which we are on, later becomes the 3865 and then it changes yet again and so many times more that I can no longer remember what the numbers are. More significantly, the road goes inland a bit and apart from meeting Christian, a young German cyclist heading in the other direction, there's not much to say about this trip except that it becomes pretty boring: Watermelons on one side and palm oil on the other. It's flat. It's also hot, even though it's overcast and the watermelons look pretty appetising from my end. Ali, on the other hand doesn't like watermelon, so that pretty much settles that. I certainly can't consume a whole melon in one go and I'm certainly not lugging the kilos around with me until the second sitting.

We make Kuala Besut (107 km; 77m) by six pm. Nan Hotel is conveniently signposted and it is 45 ringgit for a very clean room, though the toilet and shower are packed into a space literally no bigger than 1 metre square. The town is really nothing more than a stop-over point for the Perhentian Islands and nothing much happens here except for the possible surprise of a tout suddenly popping up behind you on his motorbike and asking if you are going to the islands or not. We visited Pulau Perhentian Kecil twelve years ago and though we can't vouch for the state of the beaches now, then they were some of the most pristine and beautiful we had seen in Malaysia.

Below are a few prices to familiarise yourself with the cost of living in Malaysia. One thing to point out is that Malaysians are an extremely honest folk and only charge you what the going price is. No headaches about being ripped off in this country and besides, most products have the price labelled.

fresh juice
soft drink

coffee / tea

1 litre
1.5 litre
per cup

1 - 1.50 ringgit
2 - 2.5 ringgit
1.60 - 1.80 ringgit
2 - 2.30 ringgit
3 - 3.40 ringgit
7.5 - 10 ringgit
1 ringgit

roti chanai with daal
roti telur (egg) with daal
apples / oranges

nasi / mee goreng

per piece
per piece
(175gm pack)
small each
per piece
per serve

80 cents
1.30 ringgit
1 - 3 ringgit
50 cents
1 ringgit
1 - 3 ringgit
3.00 - 3.50 ringgit






* (at the time of writing 1.00 Malaysian Ringgit = 0,20 Euro cents)

Been there done that
Our last stretch of road in Malaysia is one we have done before and the expectation is for a trouble-free, eighty kilometre stint. Turns out to be even easier, as we seem to have found a few smaller roads and as well as being pleasantly quieter than the main drag, we trim 22kms off the journey. It's one of those zip along days and Ali is ecstatic about the fastest trip we have done so far: 18.40km/hour average. That man and his figures! Helping us is the totally flat terrain and the additional advantage of a wind blowing slightly to the side but unquestionably in our backs. Coming into Kota Bharu (58 km; 45m), it first appears as if everything has changed: modern; massive shopping complexes, closed over open sewers, the neon light element ten-fold it's former glory and the roads supremely immaculate.

We head straight to Ideal Travellers House where we stayed over a decade ago and believe it or not, it is identical in atmosphere, appearance and price as well. Well actually, it is two ringgit cheaper. It intrigues us as to how this can be, but of course we are not complaining. We'll leave that sort of sentiment for the disgusting meal we endeavour to eat at the Muhibah Vegetarian Restaurant. Baaah and double yuk! Still, this is our only negative experience and the next morning we are ceremoniously waved off with friendly goodbyes from the guesthouse owner as she is renowned for doing with everyone. The day begins on a positive note and we both have a great feel about heading on into Thailand.

There a few memorable things about Malaysia besides the great breakfasts: the quirky way they ride around on motorbikes with their jackets on backwards. I never really got the chance to ask anyone why this is, but after googling the subject it is supposedly to protect themselves from the wind and dirt. Obviously haven't yet worked out the purpose of a zip or buttons. Everyone is extremely friendly, on both east and west coasts. It's also a very hassle free country to cycle around in, with facilities brimming from every corner of the country. On the down side, the traffic is a little busier than we had expected it to be and due to the mostly flat and well bitumised roads, they travel fast. Not only did we have a hard time with this, but so did the abundant wildlife. I have seen some of the most diverse road kill in all of our trip so far: an armadillo, several bats and mongoose, a leopard-like wild cat with the most amazing spotted coat, domestic cats galore, dogs of course, plenty of feathered friends in colours ranging from one end of the spectrum to the other, so many snakes of so many sizes that I am glad we didn't take to camping at this time of year and the saddest moment of all: a dead calf next to one very stressed out mother.

All in all, we are undeniably glad to have finally voyaged the east coast, a trip we abandoned 12 years ago, but that said, Malaysia still doesn't have the panache to really warrant a return trip for us. We cycle enthusiastically towards Thailand with a sort of been there and done that feel.

Great to be back in the land of smiles and mini things
It is 27 kilometres to the ferry border crossing at Pengkalan Kubor. As soon as you are out of the city bustle of Kota Bharu and have passed the giant Tesco on the left, just seconds before you hit the river crossing, the road will continue to become more and more serene. The only pity is we seem to be following a garbage collection truck. It's extremely hot and needless to say, the stench trail it leaves behind it correspondingly grotesque. We spy our first magnificent golden buddhas towering over the landscape. Immigration is a piece of cake and we are on the ferry in no time, paying just 6 baht each for the crossing and watching the same 'Welcome to Malaysia' billboard, we saw 12 years ago, quickly disappear from sight.

The Thai 'Land of Smile' slogan has sadly been replaced with something a bit more up-market and immigration rules have changed, meaning that only a 30 day visa is stamped in our passports upon entry. This might need to be extended at a later date, but at the moment we are just excited to be back in one of our favourite destinations. The last time we were here, Tak Bai was just a dead end town with a couple of basic shops. Now it's quite a lively market, but still, in comparison with other border crossings, small enough to be a much nicer port of entry. It is immediately recognisable, especially after Malaysia, that not everyone speaks English, but that doesn't stop the big smiles that Thailand is famous for.

Our first impressions are of how the roads have changed for the better and how incredibly modern the vehicles passing us are. No more plumes of black exhaust smoke to choke on. Even the scooters are state of the art. The not so becoming military presence with regular check posts along the far south east of the peninsula hasn't escaped our attention either. Still with recent problems it is to be expected. Very surprisingly, the cost of everyday commodities has barely changed at all in the last 10 years. Water is still 5 baht a bottle, a large beer: 45, a can of soft drink: only 15, and a plate of fried rice: 30. Admittedly, these prices are only available in the non-touristy areas, but still we find it quite amazing that there hasn't been any inflation in this considerably long period of time.

From Tak Bai it is just 40 odd kilometres to Narathiwat and although we stayed here before for a few nights, we hardly recognise anything of the town. It's bigger and a lot more modern now, though we can't find an English newspaper anywhere. Seem to remember we had that problem last time as well. There is an abundance of supermarkets and stores and it is nice to see that they are still full of all consumable items in mini denominations.

Narathiwat Hotel has such a worn out sign that we initially miss the place altogether, but manage to find it on the return search. We are the only foreign guests and get to choose a fantastically clean and airy room including sarong towels that smell like Mum has just washed them, toilet paper, soap and a bottle of drinking water. The view over the river from the balcony outside our room is certainly a bonus and great value for money at 140 baht (50 baht = 1 euro). The staircase to our room upstairs is barricaded off with a broom handle to keep the downstairs area, permanently reserved for the girls that live there, separate. Ten guesses for what their job is. There is not much chance of any real disturbances though, since the hotel's doors close at 9pm. This does seem awfully early for women of such a trade. Still, there's no real objection on our behalf, because the one hour time difference means we have a 6.30am rise instead of the usual 7.30am. Early to bed, early to rise as they say.

'Hello You!'
It's very flat and we cruise along the immaculate wide shoulders that also double as cycle lanes. Boy, it is hot today. Around 45 °C in the sun and we have to stop just under every hour; don't much feel like eating in this heat but welcome a cold soft drink with eagerness. Go through 4 litres of fluids by myself, and except for the excitement of seeing my first ever live cobra in the wild, that's about all I can really remember. Of course the military are still around in droves, blocking roads or just patrolling, machine guns braced, from the back of camouflaged pick-up trucks and tanks. They are friendly enough as our passports are more of an interest to them, than our threat as muslim rebels.

As with the price of everyday goods, the Thai hotel standard appears to have lifted somewhat while the rate remains the same: now you get all the added extras of towels, water, toilet paper and soap thrown in as well as clean bed linen. Bathrooms could always do with a bit more of a scrub as far as I'm concerned, but then, I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to that. Besides, they are not that bad, especially when compared to Central Asia and the Subcontinent. Palace Hotel is 180 baht and with absolutely no objections from the hotel staff, we can literally wheel the loaded bikes in and then conveniently out again the next morning, which makes for an exceptionally early departure from Pattani (93 km; 89m) the following day.

We hear 'Hello You' for the first time today and both smile at one another as it brings a flood of memories back from our previous visits. While considerably more people do speak English these days, especially the younger generation, on the whole, there is still a lot of stunted English, hand and feet signing as well as a couple of Thai phrases we already know being used to get messages across. Makes for a totally interesting time in any case.

Police escort in Thailand?
Again, a stinking hot day and we are relieved when the trees can occasionally shade us from the heat. Its intensity is felt as early as 10am, when we stop in the shade of an industrial complex to eat our roti pissang and drink a couple of birdy iced coffees. Mmmm, delicious breakfast! While I'm bathing in a pool of sweat, Ali in all his optimism relays to me that it is good that there are clouds looming behind us, because they will unite and later give us cover. I just think: what a load of bullshit, and my realism wins out; only for the last 15 kilometres do we receive a bit of cloud shade and then that is highly sporadic.

A few kilometres into our journey and a couple of young policemen stop us, urging us to put the bikes in the back of their utility van. We decline the offer most politely and say we would prefer to cycle the distance and so they, ever so politely back, escort us the full 20 kilometres out of the region. And so here we are in Thailand, of all places in the world, being shepherded out of Pattani to about a kilometre after the border with Songhkla. Here, they turn around with a beep and a wave. At the time, we consider this to be completely over the top, but just two days later, we read in the Bangkok Post that a bomb goes off in a hotel, not the one we were staying in, but nonetheless, in Pattani. They really only had our best interests at heart.

Almost to our destination and we have to turn off and face headwinds: it was exactly the same 12 years ago as well. In keeping with tradition, we have decided to go back to Amsterdam Guesthouse which takes a bit of finding, and unfortunately, it is closed. The owner, who is still just recognisable, is either very old or in such poor health that he can barely talk anymore. A little disappointed that the place is no longer operating as a lodge, we enquire at Yoma 1, just down the road and find there is absolutely no reason to be disappointed at all. For 280 baht, less than we paid more than a decade ago, we get a fancy room with attached bathroom, fan, television and all the other sweetly added extras. Wow, we really feel like we are living it up this time around!

Songkhla (111 km; 97m) has exactly the same feel as before, even though the old market area is now a sort of mini-shopping complex and gold shops have popped up all over the place. Only real disillusionment is, I can't find any Songkhla cloth anywhere, which I was kind of hoping to purchase as a sarong for our stay on the beaches. Maybe you have to go to the island of Ko Yo for that now.

As vegetarians, food is a lot more difficult this time around. Mainly because, Thai cookery is centred around seafood and every dish deserves a good dose of fish sauce or generous wallop of oyster sauce. Even more maddening, most of the curry pastes are made with shrimp paste, so we really can't venture too far from egg and vegetable fried rice, noodles of the same description, or if we are really lucky: phad pak ruam mit and khao: stir fried vegetables on steamed rice. Doesn't really matter because these meals are all pretty delicious and to be really honest, I'm turning a blind eye these days to the odd bit of chicken stock cube. It's just too difficult to fight anymore and causes more confusion when trying to explain than it does justice to the situation.

Just like last time, we take the ferry across to the mouth of the inland sea for the ridiculous price of 2 baht each. This saves us a monstrous 15 km of highway trundle, though it has crushed any belief I once had about boats being a more environmentally friendly mode of transport. With a Jeremy Clarkson conscience, our ferry chugs along, pumping out thick black goo from both pipes into pristine blue skies. On the other side, we search half heartedly for somewhere to have breakfast. These days we have happily resigned ourselves to peanut paste sandwiches and birdy iced coffee for our first meal of the day. Firstly, it is easy for us to purchase, secondly it's energy filled and thirdly, we can stop when we are ready to stop and eat.

Once more, 10am marks the beginning of the day's heat. It is a long, hard trip. Hot and thirsty work as we push past the familiar prawn farms. Though we are not directly on the beach, the slightly more aqua shade of green sea against the blue sky horizon is clearly visible from where we are. A pleasant smell of salt lingers in the air as does the intermittent but not so pleasant odour of fish farming. The Muslim influence is definitely in minority levels now and the police check points have completely disappeared. On the up and up are the amount of snakes we encounter, mostly flattened but a few still manage to slither past us alive and remind me that a pair of boots is better than sandals any day. We are also plagued with broken spokes and realise that there has to be something wrong with the tension. We have only two spares, so it is not the time to start messing around with the wheels and hope that we'll find a decent bike shop in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Twelve years ago, Hua Sai (102 km; 66m) was just a row of basic shops and a couple of restaurants. It is now phenomenally different, though we spot a deserted building which was the restaurant we ate in last time. Here, we very memorably tried to order dishes of fried chicken, fried vegetables and plain rice and it all came out as one meal. Today's evening meal adventure ends up quite similar to the past, thought there is a little misunderstanding as far as the 'no meat message' is concerned. It is ironed out in due course. Since there is only one other option of a guesthouse on the opposite side of town, we stay in the same resort this time round as well, though the cheap bungalows of yesteryear are no longer standing. The beach here leaves a lot to be desired; blue plastic plumbing pumping liquids both to and from the sea, bottles and rubbish lining the beachfront and half hearted attempts at stone wall breakers. Not very pretty at all.

Same, same really
The riding element today is like any other day and I don't want to give any false impressions about Thailand. Realistically, once you are used to how beautifully green everything is, the roadside viewing is pretty much the same everywhere you look. The eateries, stalls, shops, nurseries, petrol stations and housing lining the roads are all very much of a muchness as well. Of course, I'm talking about the everyday Thailand and not the tourist spots. But the one component that makes this place so special for us, is the people. They have this amazing smile. Everyone. Everywhere. No matter what they are doing. It is truly so infectious that sometimes I realise I have had a permanent grin on my face for kilometres, which in turn makes me laugh. It is great to feel so relaxed.

fresh juice/shake
vege juice
soft drink

beer (Chang)
coffee / tea

250ml pack
250ml bottle
330ml can
per cup
90g packet

5 baht
20 - 30 baht
9-13 baht
10 baht
15 baht
40-60 baht
10-15 baht
6-18 baht

roti telur / pisang
roasted cashew nuts
banana chips
pineapple sliced
vege fried rice / noodles
100cc scooter (new)

per piece
200 gr pack
100 gr pack
12 piece
per portion
per serve

10-15 baht
130 baht
25 baht
20 baht
20 baht
10 baht
25-35 baht
13,000 baht






*at the time of writing 100 Thai Baht = 2 Euros
These prices are only found in non-touristy areas. You can expect the price to at least double, if visiting islands or major resorts.

Thailand has seen the emergence of 7-Eleven in a big way. They have popped up all over the place and definitely dominate petrol stations, but it still doesn't prevent the locals from selling everything from dried fish to the famous Thai broom wherever they see fit along the roadside. Another typically famous Thai product is the bird cage. They are quite ornately attractive and these days, every household and business seems to own a bird or two. Interestingly enough, the men: I've only seen men doing this, travel everywhere with their covered birdcages. In cars, on motor-bikes: a birdcage in one hand, the other on the handlebar. When they stop, they simply hang the cage up somewhere appropriate: even in a tree along the side of the road.

Like Songkhla, Nakhon Si Thammarat (70 km; 44m) has the same feel it had many years ago, even though it is a dynamic metropolis now. It even has a Carrefour. The Siam Hotel is still there, right in the middle of a food market, but we stumble upon Nakorn Hotel first. We walk around for hours trying to find the Indie Pub, where we met the really friendly owner Lek, but to no avail. There's absolutely no way of determining where it once stood: everything has changed so much.

Nothing stays the same forever
We start early for the long trip towards Don Sak, as we are not quite sure whether we'll make it all the way to Ko Phangan today or not. It depends on exactly how far it is and of course when and if a ferry leaves directly for this island. It is another scorcher day and we make the ferry terminal with just 15 minutes to buy a ticket (220 baht each and 60 baht for each bike) and make the mad dash to the terminal, which is a good 1.5 kilometres from the ticket office. After tying our bikes to a ladder against the wall of the car deck, we settle down upstairs for the two and a half hour journey to Thongsala, Ko Phangan; (118 km; 221m). Looking around us, it is pretty obvious that everything about this side of Thailand has changed: this is a fully-blown tourist destination, this boat is packed with half naked westerners still young enough not to know about the hazards of smoking and cooley sporting a pair of fly-eyed sunglasses similar to the pair Lee Majors wore all those years ago. We are not quite sure what we should expect of Ko Phangan this time round.

Basically, everything is different from the moment we ride off the ferry: the modern pier with park facilities; the sidewalks; the 7-Eleven; the ATM's; the funky-new scooters and cars for hire; and all the businesses that have sprung up along what was once vacant land. It's already dark and we plonk ourselves in the first guesthouse we see, right across the road from the jetty. Four hundred baht seems a tad expensive but I suppose we had better get used to it. Everything has a big price-tag here.

Next morning we pack the bikes for the trip to Mae Haad (14km; 133m). It is difficult work: the climbs are on average 5% and pushing the bike up 14% in the stinking heat is pushing it hard. The road is the same, just a lot more development along the way and when we hit Chaloklam, there is hardly a business I recognise. This was just a tiny fishing village, with a few bungalows, local shops and a couple of restaurants. Now, there is no need to go to Thongsala for supplies: everything is right here including a 7-Eleven and ATMs. The dirt track to Mae Haad is now bitumised and the once sparsely populated beach front is jammed packed with resorts. On a positive note, they have done a lot to clean up the beach area. It was never a really good swimming beach, but now the white sandy frontage is straddled with sun-baking holiday makers. It was always good for snorkelling, though we were the only ones out there most of the time, but it has now come up in the world and recognised as one of the top 'diving destinations' on the island. We witness an entourage of boats coming in and hanging out around Ko Ma.

We stay only one night at Mae Haad Bay Resort, formerly Mae Haad Bungalows, but the new owners are only interested in guests that look like they want to spend lots of money and our fanned bungalow, for an outrageous 400 baht, is tucked right at the back of nowhere, overlooking their rubbish dumping area. The sand flies are atrocious and it is not long before we are up and about in search of a better place. A walk into Chaloklam doesn't give us any better options, though the food at Fanta Bungalows is really good. We decide to move further down the beach to Mae Haad View Resort. At least here, we get a very simple bungalow overlooking the ocean for 250 baht and the atmosphere a little more akin to Thai tradition. It is pretty relaxed and we'll stick it out here for a while I think.

Wi-fi point , Thongsala, Ko Phangan, Thailand, 01-04-08
Where does the day go to?

Everyday, for the past two weeks our routine barely falters, except for the occasional burst of energy, when we take an afternoon walk into Chaloklam, or much to the locals dismay, heave the bikes up the hill and into Thong Sala. If it is at all possible, they are in general, quite a lot lazier than our current slothful frame of mind. Still, while pushing the cycles up the 31% gradient from our bungalow towards the main road, I do get to thinking that I'll probably be cursing the fact that we chose this place to stay when it comes time to leave and my bike is fully loaded. Nonetheless, it will need to be this going up a hill type torture or along the beach and through the sand persecution. Haven't quite worked out which one is worse at this stage. In keeping with our present disposition, I guess we'll leave that issue until the last day.

Anyway, in our little sanctuary at Mae Haad View Resort, we do not do much else than sleep, get up for breakfast, look out over the bay and watch the fishing boats do their morning thing by lining up in a row and bobbing about on the little waves they themselves cause. It's probably close to 10.30 by now and then we retreat to our bungalow, to hang out there, in the hammock, or on the fan cooled bed inside to do a bit of reading. Ali's been on this book marathon and permanently has literature in his hands. I think he secretly wants to surpass the number of books I've read so far on this trip: he's currently trailing by three, not that I'm counting.

Next, and only if the water looks inviting enough, we'll snorkel out to the reef for an hour or so before returning back to the exactly the same positions we were in before we left, except we'll probably have a banana shake in our hands this time round. A couple of tofu burgers later and at 4.30pm, I'll wander out onto the beach and lie in the not so harsh sun to try and change the lilly white appearance of my body into some sort of beigey-brown hue. Six o'clock and one of us has walked to the shops to get a couple of cans of tonic for my bottle of gin. Ali grabs himself a beer and we sit on our porch, oohing and aahing over and snapping way too many photographs of the brilliant exhibition the sun puts on before he goes to sleep here and wakes up somewhere else on this earth. Seems totally unfair that not everyone gets to see this for themselves every evening.

It is around this time and on cue that the big black mosquitoes that Ali calls trucks, start hurtling passed, ignoring him altogether and bee-lining it for me. Mosi coils are lit as the solid darkness of evening sets in and the moment to get ready for a shower arrives. The nightly discussion about where we are going to eat happens next, though personally, I don't know why we even have it, because although there are a number of restaurants to choose from, there's only one that really does serve fantastic food. On average, dishes here are about 20 baht more expensive than anywhere else, that's 40 euros cents if you are wondering, but it truly is worth it. Mae Haad Cove is just 50 metres further on from where we are situated. After dinner, we manage to fit in a bit more reading or chatting with some of the other guests before closing our eyes and thinking: where does the day go to.

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