Monday, January 2, 2012

Touring the southern provinces - Part I

On the road north of Krabi
Nut and I are on a tour of the southern provinces. The idea was to get out of Bangkok to ride the new bike and to see places I had never visited before. Tucked into that was the idea of visiting her son, Stayu, nicknamed Do Do, who lives with his father in the little town of Pa Phayom, near Phatthalung. To do that we would travel south on the east coast of Thailand's long arm that stretches south all the way to Malaysia. After lunch with Stayu we would cross over the peninsula to the famous west coast that fronts on the Andaman Sea to visit an area that draws millions of tourists to Thailand annually.

We left Bangkok on the 29th, the Thursday before the big New Year's Weekend. After a hard day in heavy traffic on the 8-lane highways that serve the hordes in Bangkok we arrived in Hua Hin, a tourist mecca on the Gulf of Thailand. After finding a nice guest house I immediately phoned Rety & Bruce, who had hosted me when I was traveling and Couchsurfing in Spain 2 years ago and who have been living in Hua Hin since September. They were packing for a month in Australia where one of their daughters lives, and where they will catch a few matches in the Australian Open, but they told us to head on over for a visit. We had a lovely chat and shared dinner at a local eatery. These two quit their jobs in Vancouver, B.C., a few years ago after selling their home at the peak of the market just months before the American-triggered economic collapse reduced global real estate values. With that money and some clever investing they've been able to remain job free and travel extensively. They have become true Citizens of the World. In March they will go to Italy for a few months, or maybe a year, who knows? By the time I leave Thailand next spring they could even be installed in a new villa or residence and hosting Couchsurfers again. Could another visit be in the offing?

The next day we meandered along the coast following a route I had made up with the help of my GPS software. The intent was to stay off the main roads as much as possible to avoid traffic and to explore rural Thailand and the less populated beaches along the way. A blue highway kind of trip. The ride to Prachuap Khiri Khan was wonderful. The day was cloudy and cool, the roads ran close to the ocean and the traffic was light. A very nice day for motorcycling.
Beach south of Hua Hin - Phu Noi
The coast south of Hua Hin
The CBR250 just off Route 1047 north of Prachuap Khiri Khan
Rocky ridges north of Prachuap Khiri Khan - Sam Roi Yot N.P.
The Garmin-compatible auto-routing software I'm using is available for free on the Internet and while not perfect is nevertheless vastly better than trying to devise a clever route with only a paper map. (Check it out at: Free Routable maps for Garmin. The paper map I use is one of the better ones available, printed by PN Map, "Thailand Traveling Guide, New Edition" ISBN 978-974-485-037-9, in English and Thai). Each night I sit at my Netbook with the paper map open as a reference, and build a route in my Garmin Mapsource program that takes us near beaches and other points of interest while avoiding the big highways whenever possible. I transfer the route to my Garmin GPSMAP 60Cx and then during the ride merely follow the directions it issues.

We wanted to have a swim at a beautiful beach near Prachuap Khiri Khan, Aou Minou, but by the time we got there it was cooling off and the beach was in the shade. We climbed the stairs to a temple on Kao Chong Krajok first and it took a while, quite a while. This temple was at the upper end of the longest flight of stairs I've ever climbed, 390 of them to be exact.
The middle section of the stairway to the temple at Kao Chong Krajok
Almost there! (Tired, honey? close-up below)

View of Prachuap Khiri Khan and its bay from the temple
View north  from Kao Chong Krajok temple -- Prachuap Khiri Khan
Nut was all set to swim in her Thai version of a swimsuit but at the last minute chickened out. Too cold!, she exclaimed as I took this photo. Note the long sleeves on this "swimsuit" please.

The beach at Aou Minou
Our dinner at Aou Minou. Notice the smile? I have teeth again!
Next day, New Years Eve day, found us in Chumphon after a longish ride that was almost as pretty as the one the day before. We found a cheap guesthouse a short distance south of the city and then doubled back to town for a fantastic meal at a restaurant named Prik Hom. Nut had spotted a special logo on its door that she told me meant Good Food Inside. Right, check. It was an excellent dinner that included among other delectations a huge plate of broiled giant New Zealand green mussels, and especially considering the whole deal cost only about 500 baht (15 bucks). We expected to be kept awake by fireworks for much of New Years Eve but our little place was quiet. Even the bar next door, which had a rock band belting out tunes at 8 pm, was uncharacteristically shuttered soon after we got back from dinner. We were both fast asleep before midnight.

The New Years Day ride was the longest on the CBR250 so far: 320 km in 5 hours moving (8 hours total with a rain delay of at least an hour) on the way from Chumphon to Thung Song. This trip was different in another way -- we drove in pouring rain for the latter half of the journey. For the first hour of the storm we stopped at a closed for the holiday tire shop which had a convenient roofed over area with a couple of chairs where we and the bike stayed dry until the rain had subsided into what was merely a downpour rather than the torrential rain that stopped us. We got tired of waiting so we donned our 30 baht raincoats, really just super thin plastic bags with arms, switched from tennis shoes to flip flops and hit the road again.
Rain delay -- Route 41 south of Chumphon
An hour later we stopped to take a break at a 7-11 and even though we weren't actually cold, we wanted hot drinks and a chance to stretch our limbs. As usual in the 7-11 the aircon was cranking hard, which I usually like, but on this day the place felt so damned cold we jumped right back on the bike to escape the chill.  The water splashing up from the pavement was so warm it felt good. One thing I learned from the experience: the rain in Thailand is wet like it is everywhere, and inconvenient, but it's not going to give you hypothermia.

By the way, the Royal Thai Police were supposed to be out on the highways enforcing the law, encouraging people to use seat belts and helmets, in an effort to minimize the carnage over the long holiday week. Ha! Their idea about how to do this is to set up these big roadside tents, sort of like a checkpoint except nobody's checking anything, and forcing everybody to slow down by putting up barriers to squeeze the traffic into a single lane in front of the tent. That's it! No extra patrol cars, no patrol cars at all really, no speeding tickets issued, few Thais wearing helmets. What they are doing in those tents aside from sitting around in the shade and gabbing is anyone's guess. (Drinking beer?) As for literally getting out on the roads and enforcing laws -- no, not really -- that's not the Thai way. This is why driving is so dangerous in Thailand. Nobody enforces traffic laws.

We overnighted in an upscale hotel in Thung Song and from a dry and comfy room watched the rain sheet down that evening and into the night. The next day dawned cloudy with rain threatening to come soon so we got up early, skipped breakfast, got on the bike and hustled down the road to Pa Phayom to see Nut's son. The weather forecast was gruesome -- we only spent a few minutes with him before hurrying westward to stay ahead of the rain. Later that day we saw on TV that practically the entire area we had traveled through and some of the same roads we had just driven were now under water. We were just a hop, skip and a jump ahead of the floods that have plagued southern Thailand since last spring.
Nut and her son, Staya
We made it to Krabi that afternoon. I had suspected and now knew for sure that the west coast of Thailand is teeming with farangs! Naturally. Where else would they go but to the most beautiful beaches in the country? Big hotels, souvenir shops, McDonalds, Starbucks everywhere, yech! All the things I love to hate. I had sort of wanted to visit Phuket while in this area but the glitterati scene at Aou Nang Beach in Krabi snuffed that wish for good.

To be continued...