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On the road . April 2008 . Thailand

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Farang Bar, Chumpon, Thailand, 17-04-08
Here, have everything you need: the island sellout

Life's a Beach: at least that's what they say and I suppose in a way they are right. At least thousands of western tourists think so every year as they flock to this island to soak up the sun, sand, sea and partying atmosphere. In all fairness, it has been pretty relaxing, just lying in the hammock, reading and contemplating the wonderful skies over the ebb and flow of the Mae Haad waters, but after a couple of weeks we are more than ready to move on. Unfortunately, Ko Phangan doesn't quite have what it takes to keep us engrossed for much longer. The attitude of local business is consumed entirely by the colour of your money, even though you'll have conversations with owners that say otherwise. The smile is typically correlative with the amount of cash you spend or how 'big' you can note yourself in society in general and that does become a little tiring after a while.

Prices are severely inflated. The best example being an hours internetting for 120 baht. In tourist areas on the mainland it is on average 40 baht and in the regular Thai town it is not much more than 10 baht. It would be understandable taking the situation 10 years ago into account: no electricity, no roads and very basic facilities, but this is not the case today. All modern conveniences exist in abundance and it is simply greed bred from tourism that results in this sort of commercialism. One book shop owner in Thong Sala wanted the equivalent of four of my novels to trade against the price of one of her second hand books. Now that has to be the epitome of financial gluttony. Further to our disappointment, we take in the major construction of beach resorts with swimming pools on the once beautifully rainforested hillsides and wonder how all these places fill their quotas to stay in business. It is an inevitable conclusion that we won't be going out of our way to return here in the future.

Our next port of call is Ko Samui and with our recent experience firmly in place we apprehensively embark on the trip to an eastern beach: Ban Lamai (35km; 263m). The slow-ferry price from Ko Phangan is 200 baht and a figure of 100 baht for each of the bikes is plucked out of the air from the woman behind the ticket office counter. Normally, we wouldn't go anywhere near Samui except to change boats or renew a visa but this time round we actually have a place to stay with John and Linda, two perpetual travellers who we met on a couple of occasions in Turkey.

On arrival, Nathon has definitely expanded, is obscenely touristy, but is pretty much the same flavour as when we were last here ten years ago. My immediate impression, after cycling the 22 odd kilometres to our destination is at least the island has a Thai feel about it in certain places and that the cost of food and drink, laundry and internetting, though still more expensive than on the mainland, is not completely over the top. There are prices to suit all walks of life and you can still find bungalows for 150 baht on Lamai Beach if you don't mind share toilets and sleeping on the floor. I think my point is, at least you have a choice of what you want to spend and there is enough competition to keep the opposition on their toes.

Though, in my opinion, the biggest down side to Ban Lamai is the long boulevard running parallel to the ring road. A passage of bars, restaurants and massage parlours just waiting for the high season to come and flood their seats, stools and beds with westerners prepared to dish out as much cash in a few months as is needed to keep these places open all year round. The beach itself is a nice enough stretch of land though the amount of litter a little worrying, not to mention the presence of jet skies. Still, if you wander a little further inland, the environment changes dramatically. It might not be on the beach but it is distinctively more Thai orientated and you can be totally oblivious to the western attractions just a few streets on.

John and Linda have set up a very comfortable room for us in the local school, where they are both staying and volunteering time before embarking on their next bout of travels. They show us around their part of this world and it's fun to exchange travel stories and anecdotes. (If you would like to read about some of their travel experiences then you can purchase John's book online) The pleasure is short lived since we need to make a dash to some border to renew our visa, which means leaving our homely set-up after only 3 nights. Our decision to cycle to Ranong instead of forking out the 1700 baht on visa run fees turns out to be a very good idea indeed. Not only because we venture into, for us, the unknown territory of the west coast, but because we cycle through the type of Thailand that we enjoy the most: rural, undeveloped and with a never ending supply of smiles.

Cycling the visa run
Ko Samui to Ranong (2 and a bit cycling days; 1 boat trip day; 173 km; 956 m)

Ban Lamai to Chumpon (25 km; 200 m)
Chumpon to Kra Buri (87 km; 261 m)
Kra Buri to Ranong (61 km; 495 m)

The Seatran Express boat to Chumpon leaves from the north eastern ferry pier just next to the Big Buddha and a little further on from the infamous Chaweng Beach. The roads are incredibly hard work in the midday sun and no wonder when I find out later that they were often around 13%. Surprisingly, they are also in bad repair for such an affluent stretch and even though the view from above, before we drop into Chaweng cove, is of blue ocean and white sandy beach, it is really not that special: simply another hangout spot for westerners on holiday with all the added expenditure attractions that come along with it. Still, I'm sure most of the two-week holiday makers would totally disagree with me.

The boat trip actually costs 900 baht each but we pay 950 including the service charge from the booking agency plus 75 baht for each bike payable only at the pier, although we were quoted 300 per bike at one office, 150 at another and one woman even went so far as to say that the ferry wouldn't take bikes altogether. She obviously didn't get a commission from those ticket sales! Certainly makes life pretty confusing and it definitely places some doubt on the speculated 4½ hour journey time as well. The route takes us via both Ko Phangan and Ko Tao before arriving very late and just before dark in Chumpon. My sea-faring legs are in true 'Spry' form and I feel pretty queasy for most of the 5 hour sailing time.

As we cycle out of the fishing village and towards the supposedly close accommodation it becomes obvious that we should have just cycled towards Chumpon instead. We find Laemtian Hotel (Ban Sari: 25km;200m) after 9kms of cycling in the dark and just down the road from an upmarket Novotel complex. The 600 baht price tag is quite outrageous for what we get, even if there is hot water, air-con and a television. The latter being totally useless because it only receives Thai stations. On the other hand, the staff are really unpretentious and cook us a generous serving of fried rice. Although rather glutinous and severely lacking in flavour, it still hits the spot and when they offer it to us for free we are most appreciative of their kind gesture. Their apologies are also thick and fast when we complain that the bed linen is dirty and before we know it the entire workforce is in our tiny room changing the sheets and pillow cases. It takes them a little over 10 minutes to complete the task and their ineptness makes us wonder exactly how long they have been in the hospitality business. Ali begins to applaud when they finish which adds a laugh and a smile or two to the auspicious occasion. They leave and we fall asleep inbetween sweet smeeling sheets soon after.

By the time we get to Chumpon the next day, we have done 16 kilometres and had a breakfast of peanut-paste sandwiches, swiss roll and two delicious little tins of Birdy's iced coffee each. It's stinking hot: and I mean the type of claustrophobic heat that leaves you feeling dizzy, as if you have very little oxygen to utilise. The trip to Kra Buri is really difficult. Intensifying the difficulty is the fact it isn't that flat and we find ourselves wanting to stop after each 45 minute stint of cycling. Not quite sure how many litres of fluid we shove into our bodies today, but it is a lot. We both lack an appetite and have to force ourselves to eat something. Fruit seems to go down the easiest and the pineapple and two mangoes we purchase for a total of 15 baht from a roadside stall are an energy revitaliser, well needed before we make our destination.

Also, just before we find somewhere to rest for the night is Kho Khot Kra or the Kra Isthmus landmark, the shortest land distance between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Unless you have an atlas handy, that won't suggest much to most of you, but it does mean that we can clearly see Myanmar on the other side. Although solely for the purpose of obtaining another Thai visa, it will represent the 24th country on our world tour.

Kra Buri (87km; 261m) has nothing itself as far as lodgings is concerned and after asking around we are given a business card for the Kra Buri Homestay & Resort. It turns out to be in absolutely the middle of nowhere along a dirt road, way upmarket at 1000 baht per night, which we are definitely not paying for and with no restaurant facilities available except their market run at over-inflated prices. Needless to say, we and our taxi driver escort traipse all the way back to the main highway and he indicates a somewhat cheaper accommodation further on down the road. I'm dubious as to whether his interest in where we lay our heads for the night is a service which we will end up having to pay for. The usual afternoon thunderstorm, which results in us covering for shelter in a petrol station and him abandoning the pursuit proves me totally wrong. We thank him profusely for his kind heartedness and after the weather has died down we venture alone a kilometre up the road, as he suggested, to Pannika Resort, where a very enthusiastic and entertaining host, Aungkana, shows us a clean and simple bungalow for 350 baht per night. Her guestbook indicates that this place is a well frequented cyclist's stop-over, though the next morning there is clearly competition directly next door. The room was a little stuffy, which didn't make for a very good night's sleep but in all honesty, Aungkana makes the place what it is.

We figure today will be an easy stint, but we get it extremely wrong. It is undulating and the heat is almost unbearable. I feel completely exhausted around the 40km mark and it appears we are making absolutely no headway at all. Every kilometre post seems like miles apart and there is also a small pass of 138m around 16 km before Ranong (61km; 495m). After battling this normally easy hill, contending with a flat tyre we are well into the downhill glide but I can only just keep the pedals going round. We are both relieved to get out of the burning sun when we find Kiwi Orchid & PL Guesthouse, although it only has very basic, fan-cooled rooms with share bathroom and toilets for 250 baht. It will do for the couple of nights we intend to stay. The food and friendly staff definitely make up for the simple facilities.

The price of tourism...not just for those who are willing to pay
The visa run to the Union of Myanmar (formally known as Burma) is not as unique as you might believe. There are hoards of tourists being herded everyday across Thailand, through immigration, plopped on a longtail boat, hurtled towards Myanmar and then returned safely and satisfied with another 30 day visa stamped in their passport. Goes without saying that there are plenty of agencies willing to take a lot of cash off you for your peace of mind that this resource is totally being organised for you. While I wouldn't want to begrudge anyone the simplicity of these organised services the Thai entrepreneur has cleverly monopolised on, it becomes a little wearisome when you enquire about the cost of a service and the only option you get is the most expensive and heavily supplemented with commissions.

Kiwi Orchid offers the visa run to Myanmar for 400 baht, which they say is divided up into a 50 baht taxi fee to and from the pier and 350 baht for the longtail boat service to and from Myanmar. From our research, this price seems completely hyped, so we decide to do it ourselves, even though, when it becomes clear we are not interested in coming up with the 400 baht per person fee, we are immediately offered a discount of 100 baht if we both take up on their offer. All the more reason to do it alone, I reckon.

And here's the cold hard reality of the tourist industry: the local taxi to the pier costs 12 baht each way per person and that is fixed and written in each vehicle on a board above the driver. The longtail boat was offered to us for 100 baht each upon arrival and although it seemed like he wouldn't go down in price, I'm sure we still paid more than a local would for this service. We were more than happy with this fee and the whole process cost just a couple of hours of our time and only 248 baht instead of the 800 baht offered at Kiwi Orchid. Forgive me if I seem like I'm standing on the soap box once again, but this is an outrageous difference in cost.

We have both been shocked at the number of so called 'backpackers' that don't blink an eye at the excessive amount they pay on flights, bus and ferry fees and other such services; especially when the guide books give an indication that what they are paying is way over the normal rate. And they all have a spanking new guide book in hand, that's for sure. You can generally judge the seasoned traveller by the publishing date of their LP.

So, they all come ambling in with their fisherman's pants and tattoos and look like they haven't got a cent to spend and yet they just hand over these wasteful amounts of money. Just as I was shocked when a backpacker on the ferry boat to Greece said: 'my budget is 60 euros per day', I am surprised that Thailand is no longer a budget destination for the average foreigner. It really could be, if greed didn't get in the way.

More to the point, because tourists come in and just hand over this sort of money without even wanting to know what the regular price might be, it implies to the local population that every westerner is happy with this situation. As I said earlier, that's fine if that is the way they want to travel, but it makes it hard for those who want to do things by themselves. If the truth be known, all the hugs and kisses you get from Mama Y or Mama X, when you enter their guesthouse for the second time in the same season, are more about the cash value you are worth for your bus ticket to Bangkok or you visa renewal in Myanmar than anything else. Sorry, if this sounds a little cynical, but please, if you want to prove me wrong, go back in say five years and see whether they remember you then.

Thailand to Myanmar Immigration Information:
*Please note that the Thai Immigration Office has recently moved from the original Immigration Point, one kilometre before the Pier. The only signposting at the time of writing is a board above the port entry labeled as 'one stop service'. It is on the right hand side behind a petrol station as you enter the Pier area. Open everyday from 6.00-18:00. Everything processed same day and takes roughly 1½ hours for a 30 day renewal visa. The Thai visa is free and you can renew until you have spent 90 days in the country in total. You'll need a copy of the front page of your passport (for your boat ferrier, when you land in Myanmar) and a pristine $US10 bill for the Myanmar Visa Process. You can use a $US20 bill for two persons if you like. The longtail boat cost us 100 baht per person, though it has been written that it can be as low as 60 baht per person.

Wifi Point , Hua Hin, Thailand, 23-04-08
In the firing line

(Ranong to Chumpon: 3 cycling days; 182 km; 1174 m)

Ranong to Laem Son National Park (54 km; 209 m)
Laem Son National Park to Phato (46 km; 380 m)
Phato to Lang Suan (61 km; 598 m)
Lang Suan to Chumpon (75 km; 196 m)

And a very Happy New Year to you too...
Well, aren't we lucky? This is the second celebration of this kind this year and as 2551 rolls in, (now, that is a long way off in the future for the western mind), we get a true soaking. Songkran, as the Thai New Year is known, is supposedly an occasion for an annual family get together and one of the biggest water fights you have ever seen in your life. Shops, service stations, and roadside stalls have been selling water pistols for weeks and now the nation can finally get to use them. The kids especially laugh themselves silly squirting one another and jumping for glee when they see us: two slow moving targets that they can barrage full-on with streams of water. This, plus the meagre garden hose are the more pleasant and fun forms of ammunition used during the holiday festivities. The other, not so enjoyable form is the overflowing bucket. A couple of these thrown full force at the same time are enough to force you across the other side of the road and also drench you completely through to your socks. And there is nothing that I hate more than soggy, squishy socks!

The bucket-soaking can either be from a stationary position alongside the road, the moving target or even worse, both at the same time. Today, the Thai highway system is full of festivity-charged youngsters packed in standing up position in the back of a pickup trucks. Normally, you wouldn't bat an eyelid at this, but today they are crowded around a large blue barrel full of water and are eager to wet anyone in their path. In the beginning, it's all a bit of fun and quite a novelty. Towards the end of the day however, it becomes a challenge to try and pass without getting wet. All this water though, does assist in cooling us off on yet another very hot day.

The other added bonus is to be leaving Ranong, well at least where we stayed. We are seen off with over-emotional cuddles and an attention that is absolutely not indicative of the stay we had at Kiwi Orchid. In hindsight, it would have been better to stay in the area near the 7-Eleven just past the market in the town. Though I can't vouch for the accommodation, we have been recommended on more than one occasion to stay at Bangsan (TV Bar). Next time round then: so, we'll let you know in six months time.

Relaxing by the Beach
Out on the winding road to Laem Son National Park (54km; 209m), we pass through local villages and a much more traditional atmosphere. Thank goodness, for the intermittent shade from the roadside forest, but as soon as we take the park's turnoff we are in the full sun for 10kms. The earthy smell of water buffalo dung mixed with midday heat is almost sedating. Minute lizards dart in every which way, back to their roadside holes as we disturb their moments of sun basking. Mangrove trees stand firm in dried out mud, their intertwining root mass clearly on display. And the pedals just keep going round and round. The trance is only broken by utilities overloaded with giggling water bearers off to the beach for the day.

This area of coast line was hit severely during the 2004 Tsunami and as we move closer to the National Park, warning signs for the tsunami zone and evacuation route indicators become more frequent. Consequently, it costs nothing to enter the park these days (previously 250 baht each) and that is a good thing because all the accommodation is full. We pitch the tent in the set aside grassed section under the age-old casuarina trees, which are still standing tall and strong. Apparently, the mangrove areas here also saved this particular region from the havoc the giant wave reeked further afield.

Although our recommendation for accommodation would be the secluded Andaman Peace Resort at 400 baht per concrete beach bungalow, we are really chuffed at staying on the beach while everyone around us is celebrating Songkran. Young and old and in between, families and friends, picnicking, lazing on bamboo mats or swimming, fully clothed as they do, in the ocean. The beach here is a long, beautiful, sandy white stretch of coast line that even with so many people here, it doesn't seem crowded at all. We enjoy ourselves so much so the first night that we stay an extra one to soak up more of the atmosphere.

Normally, it would cost you 10 baht per person to put up your tent, but no-one seemed to mind us, the only farang in the whole area, staying for a couple of days. In fact, it stopped many in their tracks and quite a few came over to have a somewhat limited chat. The area once had simple bungalows as well and I dare say that these will return in the future. Simple, but full shower and toilet amenities are also available as well as food stalls and locally priced restaurants just outside the gate. All you need really for a relaxing stay at the beach.

Heat and Hills: not a good combination
The trip towards Phato is a killer. At 8am I can feel the sun's intensity burning my shoulders and by 9.30 we have reached the turnoff at Ratchakut and have to start climbing. We cover most of our days altitude in the next 10 kilometres and face 16% gradients as well. It is 35°C in the shade, which we are not lucky enough to be in. My heart races at one stage: so fast that I absolutely cannot move on. It is a strange feeling and I panic a bit because my lungs feel tight. Ali said I sounded like I was about to cry, which was probably true. I find it hard to breathe and it is all I can do to slow my pulse down. Putting my head between my knees does the trick and a sachet of isotonic in my near boiling water actually tastes pretty okay. Still, I need to stop every 200m or so to rest until the worst of the climbing is over.

By lunchtime, a few glucose lollies, nuts and drinks later I feel much better and we continue our way to Runs 'N Roses Eco Lodge. Unfortunately, their three bungalows are fully booked, but they offer a couple of beds in the volunteer's dormitory for nothing and we only have to pay for our food, which is a superb solution. Situated in Paksong Village, 12 kilometres before Phato (46km; 380m), the owners have developed a beautiful environment combining nature and culture with creative flare. So, if you are looking to pamper yourself for a few days then this truly is the perfect place. Freshly prepared food to absolutely die for, in plentiful supply (and that coming from a couple of cyclists means there must be enough!), as well as serenely appointed bungalows with uniquely resourceful use of local materials. After our tour of the Lodge, even though we appreciate their generous gesture of free accommodation in the dormitory, we are kind of disappointed that we can't stay in one of their beautiful bungalows.

After yesterday's experience with the excruciatingly hot weather and the undulating road, we leave very early and try and get as many kilometres done as possible before the heat starts to wear you down. Problem is, the sun rises so quickly that before you know it, it's scorching. Under normal circumstances, the roads would be only a little challenging, but at the moment they are leg crunching, energy zapping inclines that make it feel like you are going to fall over before you will ever reach the peak. On the way down, you just sit in the saddle motionless, breathing heavy and grabbing every bit of cool wind that you generate on the downhill ride. And then the next climb starts. It reaches 48°C in the sun today and there are no level sections until we get to within 16 kilometres of Lang Suan 61km; 598m. It is much cooler here.

The road to Chumpon is a national highway and as well as radiating oodles of heat from it's bitumen surface, it is very busy. We stop frequently and I actually loose count after five times. We know there is a short cut but wonder if we'll miss the turn-off or not. Believe it or not, it is signposted and we are lead along smaller paths with very little traffic. Although the weather doesn't really change and the sweat is pouring from our bodies, the rural surroundings make for a more pleasant journey.

As we enter the main part of Chumpon 75km; 196m, we stop to ask for directions to a hotel and of course we are directed to the 'westerner section' of town: that being the area with guesthouses, internet cafes, book shops, travel agencies and bars with big gaudy signs in English plastered everywhere. Later that evening, on the road parallel, I discover a couple of unpretentious Chinese hotels with a much better deal than the Farang Bar's 200 baht oven-box rooms with share bathroom facilities. On a more positive note, although the restaurant food is a little pricey, the size of the meals is very generous. There's also the added extra of free wireless internet. It is amazing what will keep us happy these days.

And it is amazing what keeps a lot of westerners happy as well. Bars such as the one we are staying in are hotbeds for expats. Mostly men, the retired type, with well-earned beer guts, a Thai wife half their age or even less and a drinking habit that has them in the restaurant at 10am ordering their first beer as we are finishing our breakfast. A sight that is still really hard to fathom.

Flat on our backs
(Chumpon to Hua Hin: 4 cycling days; 305 km; 926 m)

Chumpon to Bang Saphan (104 km; 545 m)
Bang Saphan to Tap Sakae (53 km; 115 m)
Tap Sakae to Prachuap Khiri Khan (50 km; 99 m)
Prachuap Khiri Khan to Hua Hin (97 km; 167 m)

The next four days are pretty much the same routine: we get up really early to avoid cycling in the heat; kick off the day with jam or peanut paste sandwiches, cake or biscuits and a couple of cans of iced coffee; and then we pedal the rest of the day in 30-60 minute cycles, before stopping for a drink, some fruit and a water refill.

The journey to Bang Saphan (104km; 545m) is the longest we have done in a while and we arrive quite late in the afternoon. We pass through quite a picturesque landscape with little villages supporting rubber, coconut, pineapple and palm oil industries. The latter certainly being the biggest money spinner for locals, but not yet taken over the entire countryside, like on the east coast of Malaysia. Close to our destination, their are a number of resorts, we choose Tontonglang on the Beach, which is about 10 kms before Bang Saphan and offers very nice bungalows for 300 baht a night.

We plan to follow the coastal road today towards Tap Sakae. Initially, the long stretch of undeveloped coastline seems almost unbelievable, but the closer we wind our way into Ban Krut the more touristy everything becomes. The scene here is trendy, chic and tasteful with their infinity edge pools, cream calico cushions resting on timber deck chairs and cocktail bars and restaurants offering taste-bud tantalising goodies to keep your every craving at bay.

Tap Sakae (53km; 115m), just 25 kilometers further on up the coast is a smelly, dirty little fishing village and so far removed from the well-groomed atmosphere of Ban Krut. We stayed here on both of our previous visits to Thailand and I must say, I never noticed that the village was this aesthetically lacking. Today however, we end up in the very run down Chanruen Hotel as the former Talay Inn is no longer in existence. In fact, the place is in rack and ruin, though it is clear that someone still lives there.

Our fan cooled hotel room is like a damned convection oven. I lay as flat on my back as I can on a lifeless piece of foam, recuperating from the ride and the swollen glands-sore throat that Ali has generously passed on to me. We keep ourselves entertained by speculating what might have happened to Dwaeng and Doy and the family that once ran Talay Inn. Well, we need to do something to while away the hours. There's not much chance of finding a Bangkok Post newspaper here.

Back on the flat
The whole of the Prachuap Khiri Khan province is simply ghastly. So much rubbish lining the roads and a stench in places that practically knocks you off your bike gasping. Roadside pineapple stalls supply welcomed nasal relief and apparently this area yields the biggest crops in all of Thailand. As you enter the golden gates of Prachuap Khiri Khan (50km; 99m) however, you leave the rot and decay behind you and find yourself in a pretty neat and tidy city. It's not that big and not overly interesting except for the large monkey population and nice views across the bay. The woman owner of the Inthira Hotel, where we stay has a permanently sour-face and not particularly enthusiastic about anything other than receiving her 250 baht for the shabby room we rent from her. Needless to say we only spend one night.

We start off the next day, not planning to arrive in Hua Hin, but seeing as the wind is in the right direction and the highway basically flat we just keep on cycling through our intended destination, Pran Buri. Journey is also pretty uneventful today except that 20 kilometres before Hua Hin (97km; 167m), Ali annoyingly breaks his third spoke for the day and it confirms that we'll need to get his back wheel re-spoked in Bangkok.

Condo Country
The views from the saddle are of high rised condominiums and hotels: some look like ships and others try to look like ships and others are just there to be big and overshadow the skyline. This place is about as touristy as you get and can be likened to the Costa del Sol in Spain, except the price tag is a little more reasonable (European standards that is) and the beach is fabulous in comparison. You can buy yourself an small apartment here for as little as 2 million baht. That's just 40,000 euros.

Though these sorts of places are not really my cup of tea, they are obviously a hit with Thai and Western holiday makers alike. The streets are packed with tourists strolling up and down, wondering where to spend their money next. And there is absolutely everything you could possibly want from souvenirs, pirate dvds, tailored clothing, massage and beauty palours, travel and real estate agents, cocktail bars, restaurants selling Australian tenderloin steak for 72 euros per kilo or rock lobster with buerre blanc. And we usually join the ranks, though on a somewhat lower scale, by getting our pizza fix over and done with.

There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses for all types of traveller. The cheapest double rooms, with fan and bathrooms go for about 350 baht. That's about the best deal you'll get. We stay at Pattana Guesthome, which is a lovely old teak building and elegantly renovated. A young Thai boy presents their basic room for 300 baht. It is pleasant enough, but other than it's rooms, the place has little else to offer. Breakfast is ridiculously priced as a package deal, (no individual ordering), with the even more ridiculous 7% added VAT: just one of those annoying little snags you have to watch out for in tourist cities. And only in tourist cities mind you. Besides that, there seems to be no other activity going on down in the so-called restaurant at all, even thought the seating area is set up most atmospherically for dining.

There's not even a drinks list available and we have to ask the individual prices of each item in the fridge. It is certainly shocking to hear that a small Heineken costs a small fortune as do the soft drinks and water. The young guy, who runs the place when the boss isn't around and the same one who showed us the room, seems adamant that these prices are normal and keeps using the Hilton Bar as an example. I keep telling him, that his guesthouse is not the Hilton. Somehow, I get the feeling that this guy is not to be trusted. Anyway, it doesn't worry us as we find a great local hangout with some of the tastiest food we have had to date and local priced drinks. It is situated on the corner of Dechanuchit and Naeb Kehardt Roads and its specialty is the claypot meal. Another good choice of food at reasonable prices is, of course, the night market.

Number One Vegetarian Restaurant , Bangkok, Thailand, 04-05-08
Nice things come to those who wait
(Hua Hin to Bangkok: 3 cycling days; 199 km; 180m)

Hua Hin to Phetchaburi (73 km; 40 m)
Phetchaburi to Samut Songkhram (48 km; 54 m)
Samut Songkhram to Bangkok (78 km; 86 m)

Have just read the diary from our previous travels and it appears we couldn't wait to get out of Hua Hin last time either. Today, we are up nice and early and all ready to leave, except there is no-one present at Pattana Guesthome to pay for our room. We hang around a bit and just as we are debating what to do, the owner turns up at the gate: grumpy faced and totally ignoring the fact that we are obviously standing, waiting for someone or something to happen. After obviously being disregarded for several minutes, Ali politely asks if he can pay the bill at which the owner turns around and says: "Reception opens at eight". Nice one!

For some bizarre reason, this guy seems to think that we are going to hang around and wait for another three quarters of an hour, and yes, I kid you not, this is the damned owner of the business! Well, if there's one thing that this trip has developed in me, it's a sense of explosive impatience when it comes to arrogance, outright rudeness or blatant greediness. This man's actions cover at least two of those categories very nicely and I give him a round of the kitchen, that would even impress the likes of Gordon Ramsey. He also seems to think, by placing his finger over his lips to indicate that I should be quiet because other guests are sleeping is going to shut me up. This man does not know me very well and it doesn't. In fact I take pleasure in raising my voice a notch or two. Apart from questioning his unnecessary impertinence and condescending nature, I would like to know from him, how I am supposed to know that reception opens at 8am. I mean, except for a bit of laminated paper stating that breakfast is 90 baht plus 7% VAT, the place doesn't even have a menu or drinks list, let alone a sign stating the opening hours. He points to the above mentioned breakfast menu, stashed away behind some other pamphlets, at which it is my turn to point out that a breakfast service has absolutely nothing to do with the opening hours of reception. He huffs and puffs and pulls out the little registration book. Under his breath and not in earshot of me, he mumbles something about four nights and Ali hands over the money: now that wasn't so hard, now was it.

As I get on my bike, quite pissed off and after nearly wiping out a motorcyclist coming head-on down the alleyway, Ali relays that the price of the room is actually 250 baht. That little weasle: the boss' step-in had tried to rip us off 50 baht each night. Most likely, the prices of the drinks were including a surcharge intended to line his pocket and not the businesses. Let's just say, Pattana Guesthome is not among our choice of best accommodation this month, though the rooms are pretty decent. Sadder still, Hua Hin is the epitome of Tourist Thailand and a not a place that appreciates budget travellers like ourselves. They only want the package holiday makers, those heading direct from Europe, Australia, America etc to their beachfront to sun, sand and sea it for a couple of weeks before heading back home, happy and relaxed after their cheap holiday in Thailand. What they don't and won't ever understand is that Hua Hin is so very Un-Thai in every aspect: monetarily, atmospherically and honourably.

Before we know it, we have left the long tiresome stretch of neatly cultivated highway that leads you into Hua Hin from the north. Cha-am Beach, 20 kms on, promises the same sort of ambience by the amount of farang (=foreigner) on the footpaths. We skirt around it and attempt to follow the coastal road, which doesn't pay off and we have to double back on ourselves. Doesn't matter as the journey is easy, flat and not at all hot. Only reaches 29°C in the shade today! But more to the point, it is a great freedom feeling to be rid of the tourist trappings. While the countryside could definitely do with a bit of a clean-up and passing by swamp lands and fish farms is not particularly inspiring, I'd much rather this type of Thailand than the manufactured sort. And it will probably be the last time we see this area in this condition. According to the Bangkok Post, plans are going ahead to build a tourist coastal route all the way from Bangkok to Chumpon.

It is 11.50am and we are just 10 kilometres before Petchaburi (73km; 40m) when we bump into Gillian and Wilhem, pedalling in the opposite direction with 10 month old twin girls: Taïs and Nalo. Wow, they do have their hands full but seem to take it completely in their strides. We can't pass the opportunity up to stop at a roadside store for something to drink and an exchange of stories, which starts with all the great adventures in Europe and Pakistan and ends a few hours later with horror tales of India. I can't begin to describe the fire in Wilhem's eye when just the word India entered the conversation. Much to my admiration, Gillian actually took to using a stick on Indian men. Gosh, why didn't I think about that!

The most amazing thing about travel is the spontaneity of it all: besides the obvious unknowns you face each day: what the journey will be like weather- and road-wise and where you will lay your head for the night, who you meet and see is also a total mystery. Today, among the many other smiling Thai faces, we also meet this amazing couple with a tonne of courage to cycle around with their very young family. We are also indebted to them for trusting us enough to generously offer their apartment in Bangkok, while they are trying to rent it out.

So you see, what started out this morning as an experience we would rather forget, turned into a totally brilliant day. Nice things really do come to those who wait.

Life couldn't be more simple!
We cycle away, not really believing our luck and reach Petchaburi a half hour later. What is along the side of the streets and the length of the built-up area has increased dramatically. The structural side of things however, is exactly the same and we cycle straight over Petchaburi Bridge passed the overpriced guesthouse on the right and into Jomklow Hotel on the other side. Twelve years ago, a middle aged lady lay stretched-out on a Thai stone bench, reading her magazine, kept company by her dogs and shrouded in an abundance of whatever fruit was in season. Today the picture is exactly the same and a waft of ripened mangoes greets us along with her welcoming "Savadee Ka". A basic room with fan and bathroom costs us 170 baht. It's as if it were yesterday, though I think she was dabbling in bananas then.

Ali believes there is a Buddhist revival going on and judging by the amount of wats and stupas we've seen in the last few days, maybe he is right. Petchaburi is no different and they certainly haven't spared the expenses either. It's all gold and twinkling and quite spectacular: especially at night. We venture around the little town and come across a family restaurant, where the owner is overjoyed that we want to eat in her establishment. With her little bit of English and our limited Thai, we manage to get a delicious feed of vegetarian fried noodles. Upon paying the bill, we think we misunderstand when she says 50 baht (1 euro) for everything: surely that can't be enough for 2 dishes and two large soft drinks. It is.

Petchaburi also has a decent night market where we buy some fruit for the following days journey. This time the old lady serving us at the stall is so excited by our presence she keeps fumbling the rambutans and mangosteens as she is putting them in the bag. A younger girl comes over to help her. So the tales spun from as far away as Ko Phangan about Petchaburi being rife with street gangs and the very strong possibility of getting shot on the street is about as far fetched as me becoming a football fanatic. It's still a simple little provincial town with friendly inhabitants and a disproportionate number of temples for its size.

For those of you not interested in textiles, you can skip this paragraph because I'm going to rave about the amazing silk and hand woven cotton cloth found in a little shop on the corner of Thanon Phongsuriya and Thanon Damneon Kasem. It really is some of the most amazing stuff I've seen in a long while. It's not cheap though, but when you consider the work that has gone into the 2 yards (almost 2 metres) of tapestry like stitching, it's worth it. (2900 baht (60 euros) for a full hand woven length and 900 baht for border pattern. Patterned silks range from 1000-1500 baht).

The next day we take a sneaky little minor road along the coast, which leads you in and out of salt flats and small villages surrounded by plenty of water and the town of Ban Laem. It is a shorter route and much more scenic than the highway hubbub. It is not signposted at all heading south from Bangkok, so those cyclists who want to give it a try, I'll attempt an explanation: heading south from Samut Songkhram on Rama II Road (No 35) at roughly the 14km mark you'll reach the turn off. At the time of writing and only a few hundred metres before, there is a whopping big billboard advertising ADDA footwear with a giant thong (flip flop for the English varieties) and a blurred man in thai boxer-shorts. It’s on your left and above you, so you can’t miss it. Just after, there will be a Ptt petrol station with 7-Eleven and Amazon Café: quite a massive complex and it is here that you take the service road. About 20 metres further on turn left (lots of blue tourism boards in Thai). From here on it’s just follow the main road to Ban Laem and there are enough signs to Petchaburi as well, so that you wont get lost. And just to orientate you, here's a picture of where the service road actually begins.

intersection Thailand

Just a kilometre or so before Samut Songkhram (48km; 54m) and we are nearly being eaten alive by a couple of guard dogs that, either through sheer boredom or an insatiatable love for cyclists ankles, have dug their way under the wire fence supposedly there to keep them in. The dog dazer doesn't work on this couple of rascals and we resort to sticks and stones and my raving lunatic scream;, which is enough to scare the living daylights out of the devil himself. They retreat back under the wire and we breeze the rest of the way into town. Taxi drivers on every street corner are enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon lounge-around. Spying a couple of Farang on bikes, their hands go up in the air and they wave us in the direction we need to go, along with a cry of "Hotel, Hotel..." This is all without us even asking; almost like we have our own personal welcoming committee lining the streets.

Hotel Alongkar is pretty old but apart from a bit of dust here and there, it's surprisingly clean and costs just 150 baht. The staff are welcoming and incredibly good-natured. Samut Songkhram is another one of those provincial townships with a very pleasant Thai-feel about it. Pleasantly, we discover that we barely have to step out the front door of hotel reception, as everything we need is right at our fingertips and within a 50m radius. With an internet cafe next door, food for lunch two premises down, local drinks shop right next to that and a decently stocked supermarket on the corner, we can't really ask for more. It's even more amusing, when just a stones throw to the right and across the road turns into a local open air restaurant in the evening. Life really couldn't be more simple!

Finding our way into the centre of Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
Making our way into Bangkok (78km; 86m) is not as problematic as pronouncing the traditional title given to this 10+ million populated city, though the lungs are certainly worse off for it. Most of the credit has to go to Ali, who brilliantly navigates us onto the No. 3242 road and we avoid having to use the main highway the full distance into town. Our goal is to find the Thai Boxing Arena on Ratchadamnoen Nok, which is no worries at all. It goes without saying that every Thai person knows where the boxing is. From here we have to ring Gillian and Wilhem concerning picking up the key for the apartment.

Honestly, we still can't believe our good fortune and after the first telephone call and the initial blow that we may not be able to collect the key due to a prospective tenant; a further phone call is made; followed by a visit to the local police station for directions to Ratchadamnun Condominium; and before you know it, we have the key in the door and it is turning. Gosh we are lucky devils: we are the proud recipients of a super comfortable, convenient apartment just 10 minutes walking distance from Khao San Road. It makes such a difference being here than say, the usual sweatbox room near to Khao San Road. It's more like living in Bangkok, than staying in Bangkok. And honestly, it's quite an okay city!

Everything in perspective...

So as of the end of April, we have been on the road for 21 months.
21 Months... that's about 640 days.
640 days of hard slog in dangerous countries, on treacherous roads, riding ridiculous distances... or was it...?

Come to think of it, we must have spent quite a fair time in bed.
Say 8 hours a day, over 640 days, that would be just over 213 days total.
What else have we been doing all this time?

Finding food and drinks and devouring it takes up to about three hours a day. So, that's another 80 days gone. Washing (ourselves and our clothing), (un)packing every day and sightseeing consumes 1 hour a day each, which accounts for a further 80 days.

We need to update this site, build other peoples' and keep in touch with everybody, which amounts to more than 2 hours (on average),. That's another 54 days...

And then there is the entertainment / relaxation bit that we have to enjoy (and we're good at that), so we reckon that we spend around 4 hours a day doing that. Again on average, but sometimes more = 106 days!!!

And with 2 hours spent each day on maintenance of various sorts and all the other stuff we've forgotten to mention, we can accumulate another 54 days

That leaves us with...53 days worth of cycling...

Now, that doesn't look like much does it?
Let's see... 1288 hours and 41 minutes divided by 24 hours is...yeah, 53 and a bit days.
That's about right... hmm.

But before you start telling others we are just a lazy couple of cyclists; we did manage during those 53 days, to cycle up more altimeters than 14 Mount Everest's put together. And seeing as that is an average of one ascent every 4 days of the highest mountain on earth, we think you should keep that in mind too!

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