Day Nine: Khao Lak to Phuket.

We’re done!  Rolled into Phuket after an easy 90 KM from Khao Lak.  We added up the various days’ exact totals from someone’s Garmin (the earlier numbers I’ve quoted were approximations), and it came to eight hundred and ten kilometers. The trip was originally billed as being about 850 KM long, but since they changed the hotel we’d be staying in Phuket, we gained about 30 KM.  No one is complaining of course!

The day started with a group photo, here we are in our Spice Roads jerseys:

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We cycled through Khao Lak, which is a very picturesque town, with cliffs on the ocean side (which immediately reminded me of Southern California, except of course everything else—the vegetation, the soil, the people—was different).  Here is a view of one of the beaches, from the cliff-top road we were riding on:

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Throughout the ride, I’d seen temples ringed with statues of tigers and rooster, presumably these animals are invoked to protect the wats. (I know that most wats have a Garuda on the top and Nagas all around the periphery to protect them, for instance.) I couldn’t get a picture of this earlier for various reasons, but today I got one: a whole wall of a wat ringed by roosters:

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About 15 KM from the entrance to Phuket, we stopped for a break, right on the Andaman Sea.  Here’s a random rider, whooping with joy:

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It has been a great ride indeed!  For me, it was a foray into a whole new world: that of serious road-cyclists, and in particular, of racers. It is a sport unto its own, with speed its only currency. Coming to cycling as I do from the environmental perspective, where the goal is to make cycling the dominant means of transportation, and from the cycle-touring perspective, where the cycle is intended as an ambassador of goodwill and as a symbol of being at peace and in harmony with one’s surroundings, the high-testosterone high-competition world of racing had never quite been my thing.  But now that I have seen it up close and personal (and in fact, for over 800 KM, having been a serious road-cyclist myself), I’m at least partly persuaded that road-cycling and racing may have some merits as a sport unto itself. Certainly, my fellow-riders seemed to enjoy the racing, and enjoyment is just what sport is all about!

But at the center of what made this a great ride is Thailand.  It is a beautiful country, with simply lovely people.  They are kind, they are gracious, and they are forever smiling. Chalk it up to Buddhism, or chalk it up to good breeding, the Thai people are a delight.

A special shout-out to our drivers, Rin (on the left in the picture below) and Suwat.  They drove patiently behind us, fixed our flats for us, made sure our water bottles were filled at all breaks, cut our fruit for us, and pampered us in general, smiling all the time.  Along with Aum and Bottle (whose pictures I have posted earlier), Rin and Suwat made this trip run without a hitch, taking care of all our needs.  Kapun Krop you guys!  Thank you for a fantastic trip!

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(Excuse me everyone, “Five Minutes.“)

Day Eight: Khuraburi to Khao Lak

Today wasn’t bad at all, just eighty kilometers, and they just flew by.  In fact, we lingered at lunch since our hotel at Khao Lak wouldn’t accept new guests till 2 PM.

I did my thing: ride leisurely, checking out the scenery.  One of the first things I saw was this lovely family from Myanmar (as I was to later learn) walking by the side of the highway.  They were wearing what I thought was face-paint, but which I later learned was thanaka paste, make-up obtained by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree, part of the culture of Myanmar.  It turns out that there is a large number of people from Myanmar who live in Thailand under work-permits, but who are not allowed to own cars or scooters.  They can only walk to their places of work (or wherever), or cycle about. Anyway, here is the family.  They didn’t understand any English, so I couldn’t speak much to them, but I did learn that the girl is ten years old. From the body language I could infer that the lady under the parasol is the little girl’s mother, and I suspect the other two would be a cousin or aunt and a grandmother.

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The scenery continued to be like yesterday, ups and downs, with dense vegetation on either side, lovely shades of green all around.  Here’s a sample:

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For one of our breaks, we pulled into a roadside stall, run by a Muslim lady.  She seemed to be wearing what looked like a salwar kameez.  I didn’t want to potentially embarrass her by asking about her clothing, so instead I asked her if I could take her picture. Here she is:

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Another long break was in the town of Takua Pa.  We had iced coffee at a coffeehouse run by a lovely family, with a tragic history.  First, here is the charmer, who I spotted as soon as I went it.  I was impressed by how expertly she wielded her cutlery:

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Turns out the owner, a very gracious lady who I couldn’t speak to too much because she didn’t know any English, had lost two daughters and her husband in the tsunami.  We were by now in tsunami country, the portions of Thailand most affected. Takua Pa is not on the coast, but is not far from it, and the lady’s daughters and husband perished when they’d gone towards the coast for some work. But the lady carries on, smiling.  Here she is, pictured with her son, who also runs the restaurant (the charmer above is this son’s daughter):

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From Takua Pa, we cycled over to the Tsunami memorial, right on the coast.  They have since built a giant Buddha statue on the beach, and I was quite struck by it when I saw it: it seemed to radiate peace, and had a very calming effect on me.  Here is a picture:

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We are now at another lovely beach resort hotel, the Apsara, in Khao Lak.  The waters are serene, and the beaches are wide with white sand.  It would be heavenly to come back later to these areas and spend longer time.  But we leave tomorrow for our last cycling day, 90 KM to Phuket.

Day Seven: Ranong to Khuraburi

Still dead from yesterday’s 140-odd KM ride, I took off today for an almost as grueling 128 KM ride to Khuraburi. However, I made an important decision: today, and for the next two days, I’m going to ride the way I like my rides to be—relaxed, lots of short rest breaks and camera breaks, and with as much mingling with the local people as possible—instead of the full-fledged preparation for the Tour de France that we seemed to have been indulging in.  Not that there’s anything wrong with training for the Tour de France of course, but it was just not my thing. Now, exactly one other person thought like me, Michael, a retired university administrator who lives in North Carolina, so Michael and I rode a very leisurely ride today, securely positioned at the back end of the pack, most of the rest being typically a good half hour at least ahead of us.  One of our guides Bottle (bless his heart) and one van (driven by Suwat, bless his heart too) stayed with us.

It was the right decision to have made, and today’s felt more like the ride I’d done with my buddy Partha in Malaysia a few years ago, only much longer. The scenery was gorgeous, we were once again going up and down rolling hills with dense vegetation on either side. And 128 KM later, we pulled into a lovely wooded resort hotel, set in jungle-like surrounding, with its own lake.

More in pictures:

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A major boulevard in Ranong we spent time on this morning before we hit the open road.

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The roadside looked like this much of the time.

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A typical cottage one would see by the side of the road; sometimes you’d see several together.  Typically, plantation workers live in these houses, Bottle tells me.

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Bottle! His real name is Chanwit. He’s really looking forward to the baby girl that’ll be born early next year!

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The rearguard.  That’s Michael on the left

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We were not far from the coast, and there were these mountains on our east whose lower reaches we were passing through, so fairly often we’d see rivers like this run down from the mountains towards the sea.

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A small settlement on a road perpendicular to our road.

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Another sample of the scenery that accompanied us throughout.

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We are now far enough south that we are starting to see Muslim communities.  This picture was taken at a snack shop by the first mosque I saw: it had a school adjacent to it, and the kids had just been let out. This kid wasn’t shy, she was charming actually. She was older than the others in that snack shop, and may be related to the owner.

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More charmers!

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At our lunch stop.  This 13-year old is the daughter of the owners.  She came over to practice her English with me, goaded on by Bottle, our driver Rin, and of course her doting mother. We had a great time together.  The restaurant the family runs must be doing quite well, since this girl is being sent to Singapore soon for a short stay for some tutoring.  (I met her cousin outside, who’d done a similar stint in New Zealand.)

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The scene from my room window, at the Khuraburi Greenview Resort.  Very beautiful place.  But lots of walking up and down steep garden paths to get to and from our rooms, and after three days of hard riding of well over a hundred KM a day, my legs were looking around for an elevator.

Tomorrow we go to Khao Lak, 80 KM away.  After this intense riding, I’d hesitate to call tomorrow’s ride a “short” one: it is quite possible that my legs will refuse to pedal that long.  We’ll see…

Day Six: Chumphon to Ranong

I am now dead.  Undeniably certifiably dead.  We did an exhausting one hundred and forty-two kilometers today, involving lots and lots and lots of ups and downs through rolling hills on a particularly hot day. By the time the ride ended, I was dragging myself along, struggling to follow one pedal stroke with another, looking the very picture of tiredness!

The day itself started off like it might rain: here is a picture looking out to sea from our hotel in Chumphon past the swimming pool, at a little before seven in the morning.  Notice the clouds.

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However, those clouds vanished even before we started cycling at eight.  It was already hot then, and got to probably around 35 celsius (mid 90s Fahrenheit) in the afternoon. Going up and down hills in this heat for nearly 150 kilometers saps you even if you are cycling slow, but most of our group consists, it appears, of racers, and they set a very rapid pace.  I was with them for about an hour in the morning, but fell back to a slower pace (my usual average of 25 KMPH).  But the point is that even then, one feels the pressure of the faster group: for instance, the organizers have a policy that all riders should ride off from breaks at the same time, so you are aware that if you are very slow, the fast group that has already reached the next rest stop cannot leave for the next stage for a very long time, until you get there and have had your rest. That makes you pedal a bit harder in the heat and over the ups and downs than you would have liked!

By the time afternoon came around though, even the 25 KMPH average proved hard to maintain, and I hung back and cycled at the very end, with just the tail van behind me. And I stayed at the tail end for the rest of the ride, struggling.  The important thing though, is that I did it!

Here are some pictures:

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We were crossing the Isthmus of Kra today, a narrow strip of land running from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea.  We are essentially on the Andaman coast now in Ranong, although our hotel is not near the ocean  Just as with a ride I did in Malaysia two years ago where we crossed across the peninsula to the west coast, here too, the rolling hills were full of vegetation, not to mention palm plantations and rubber plantations.  The scene above is a typical road scene we encountered: heavy vegetation on both sides, not much traffic.

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Some nice greenery by the road side, on one of the hills today.

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Lunch was at 85 KM today, at a lovely restaurant attached to an organic coffee plantation and roasting shop.  The restaurant was set over a little creek, this is a picture of the creek at the entrance to the restaurant.

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I found this the most exciting: that’s Myanmar on the other side of the water body!  That water is actually the Andaman Sea: there is a narrow part of the sea that exists between the lower tip of Myanmar and the east coast of Thailand.  This is that part.

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A waterfall we stopped at around 125 KM from the start.  There was a steep climb after this waterfall for about a kilometer, but then we coasted down, and the ride to our hotel was easy.  However, tomorrow promises to be a similar day, with more rolling hills with their ups and downs.

Day Five: Ban Grood to Chumphon

I said something wrong yesterday: today was not the day we proceeded to the east, that will be tomorrow.  Today we headed down south around one hundred and twenty kilometers from Ban Grood to Chumphon, which is still on the Gulf of Thailand coast.  Not complaining at all: this part of the world is simply gorgeous. Kilometers of unspoiled coastline, wide sandy beaches, and hardly any people.  Here is the scene as we cycled off in the morning, a lovely ride along the coast:

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We didn’t take our first break till about 40 kilometers into the ride, about an hour and a half after starting.  Strangely, after resting for a day, it didn’t feel super strenuous, although we were obviously cycling at a pretty rapid clip.  I kept up with the main crowd for about an hour (that group seems to always cycle at an average of 30 KMPH), and then, when there was some small climb, fell back.  But soon our guide Bottle came along, and I and one other cyclist fell in behind him and drafted off him.  Now Bottle’s wife is expecting, and there’s going to be a baby girl in the family soon, so Bottle is generally pretty relaxed about cycling (he even thinks this may be his last long trip). But this morning, he was in a tearing hurry, and I think we were back to a 30 KMPH average cycling behind him.

During the second stage it started to rain.  Poured quite heavily too.  I found myself cycling alone, the main group having long since taken off and with one or two behind me.  The route was a bit inland now, and there was dense vegetation all around. I found it quite very enjoyable: cycling in the rain with greenery all around. This was the road after the rain:

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Lunch was at about 90 KM into the ride.  Gorgeous restaurant, built on stilts on the beach.  Here is a view of the sea from the restaurant:

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and here is a random rider lying after lunch on the hammock the restaurant provided on the beach, looking towards the ocean:

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Hammocks to me are the height of civilization!  They seem a common feature in much of south-east asia (Vietnam had them all over the place too, as did Cambodia), with road-side restaurants routinely providing hammocks for their customers.  They signify a relaxed approach to life, a philosophical attitude that eschews hustle and bustle, recognizing that in the end nothing matters, and that there is no point getting uptight about anything!  The west may have its wall street and its venture capitalists and loads and loads of frenetic, soul-deadening activity, but south-east Asia, in its infinite wisdom, has the hammock.

Twenty five odd kilometers after lunch, we pulled into a gorgeous hotel on another gorgeous beach.  Here are a couple of scenes right outside our hotel:

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Tomorrow is the longest day: about 140 KM. I hope to survive!

Day Four: Ban Grood to Ban Grood

On the fourth day, we rested. Nothing really to report. But tomorrow is one of several long days. Four of the next five days all involve riding over a hundred kilometers, and tomorrow in particular involves 118 KM. Tomorrow is when we head across towards the east coast of Thailand.

Day Three: Prachuap Khiri Khan to Ban Grood

A short one, only seventy two kilometers. The day started with a lovely sunrise over the Gulf of Thailand, that I watched through my bedroom window.  Here is a view:

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We started our ride by visiting an air force base, to go hang out with some monkeys. That’s right, monkeys. Turns out that at an interior point in the base, there is some kind of a monument to monkeys, and there a whole troop of monkeys hangs out regularly. We went to go check them out.  When we found them, we fed them corn on the cob, and I believe this is the first time ever, in spite of growing up on the subcontinent, that a monkey ever ate out of my hand.

The ride through the base was breathtaking. The air force base was built on the oceanside, and we had beautiful oceanfront scenery then.  The base itself was very neat and orderly, and some of the roads even had bicycle paths.  (We ignored those, of course, since we were big enough of a group to own the road!).  Here are some members of our group, riding on one of these roads:

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And here is the ocean, lapping serenely at the base:

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The middle third of today’s ride was quite unpleasant: we had to ride 25 kilometers on the side of a freeway.  Much of the shoulder was under construction, and was unpaved. Moreover, the rains had turned things to slush, and our bikes and clothes and bodies became quite muddied.

But the last third was lovely again. Towards the end we visited a lovely temple, maintained by the King’s daughter, and it showed: everything was well-maintained, and tastefully appointed.  Here is a shot of the temple:

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And here are Lindsay, already described in the Day One post, and an unnamed rider, at the temple. Our friend and fellow-rider Helen, a middle school teacher and long-distance runner from New York (she told me she ran 62 miles once) took the picture.

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We are now ensconced at the Ban Grood Arcadia, in a small beach resort called, you guessed it, Ban Grood.  Here’s a view from our hotel restaurant, looking across the road to the beach:

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More tomorrow.