Getting To Thailand
I took the ferry from Shekou (on the mainland) directly to Hong Kong airport for £26 (£14 once you collect your tax refund making it amazing value). I had decided not to box my bicycle for the flight, which can be a problem with some airlines. Despite this the whole process went very smoothly (as detailed in my post, flying from China with a bicycle) and I was sat in the departure lounge within a couple of hours. For checking-in the bike it was just a case of taking off the pedals, turning the handle bars, lowering the saddle and deflating the tires. The flight was with Sri Lanka Airlines, £140 return to Bangkok who have a 30kg check-in allowance. A few hours later I landed at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, my bicycle surviving the journey with only a couple of scuffs on the frame. Some cling film wrapped around the frame would probably stop that in future. I checked my bike into luggage storage at the aiport (£2) and took the transfer bus to my hotel (a £20 a night airport hotel, the Regent Suvarnabhumi). The next morning I was up at 0600 to catch my flight to Phuket. I was once again able to check my bicycle in without any problems. It arrived at Phuket with a few additional marks on the frame, but I was able to rub most of them off. Phuket is termed an "international" airport but it's no more so that Newquay airport. There isn't even an oversize luggage section so I had to quickly dash over to stop my bike making the rounds on the baggage carousel.
The 40km cycle from Phuket airport to Pa Tong was supposed to be a leisurely introduction to cycling in Thailand and the first time I'd cycled on the left side (the "right" side!) of the road since leaving the fine shores of England. After around 30km I got a rear puncture. Stopping to fix it I inspected the tire and noticed the rubber was cracking quite badly. The tire after 6,500km was now more of a slick tire than grooved one. I did inspect the tire in China prior to flying, but hadn't noticed any cracks. Given the tire had been fully inflated for the past 5 months, the change in structure by deflating it for the flights (and cold temperature of the hold) seemed to push it over the edge. Due to its poor condition I disposed of the rear tire and put on my spare tire. Worringly I noticed the front tire was suffering from a similar problem, but was in far better condition.
Two minutes after fixing my tire and puncture my rear gear shifter gave in. I could shift up but not down. The cable had begun to fray and was becoming jammed inside the shifter and cable housing. I cursed a few four-letter words, then to be safe cut the cable and decided to carry on with only one gear, the hardest one (as the rear mech naturally sits on that gear)! In retrospect I wish I had fixed it, as what followed in the final 10km to Pa Tong where some of the hardest hills I've encountered since Germany. Only having the hardest gear available meant I had to walk the bike up most of the hills. It left me dripping in sweat and my clothes completely drenched. So much so that when I got back on the bike I thought it best to put my rain cover on my saddle to protect the leather!
The hills down to Pa Tong where quite steep which gave me my next shock. Having not had to brake for prelonged periods or with much pressure since Serbia, my brakes were suddenly put under strain they weren't accustomed to. It gave the driver I overtook at 65kmh (breaking the speed limit for the road) quite a shock to see a cyclist passing him. Once I was able to stop I cleaned them out with some water and then limped into Pa Tong where I set about replacing the brake pads and shifter cable.
Before going to Pa Tong I had known its reputation, but that still didn't quite prepare me for the experience ahead. It's not the sort of place to take your girlfriend unless you actually hate her. While someone like [wiki]Phil Mitchell[/wiki] would probably love Pa Tong, it wasn't really to my taste. Pa Tong represents a western culture born into a small but now bustling Thai community. With it comes all of the worst qualities from western society...money, exploitation, heavy drinking, aggression, poser tattoos and in general, idiots. Obviously not everyone there is like that, but it was the first time I had sensed aggression on the whole trip (14 countries), and not from Thai people, but from fellow Brits. It just left me feeling ashamed of my country and sorry for the poor Thai community who had to endure it. As an indication Pa Tong has four McDonald's (no, I didn't go) which is more concentrated than some areas of London. There are plenty of stalls selling fake you-name-it, massage/happy ending girls (aka massaaaaaaaaaage...they love to stretch the vowels), ping-pong shows and bars making it a booze Britain paradise. Oh and ladies that aren't as you'd expect. If in doubt look at the hands, and if still in doubt air on the side of caution, ie it's a man. That mindset got me safely through my time there.
During a night out with a mixture of people from the hostel, we went to a small locals bar for a few drinks before going to a club. A modern day version of [wiki]the Fonz[/wiki] (and a generally nice guy), Seb, turned up too and in true Fonz style bought a bottle of whiskey for us all to share (aaayyyyy!). As the night progressed one of the hostel guys (camp Matt) was dancing within a couple of metres of a pregant Thai girl sat at the bar (smoking!). All of a sudden a bull dog like, 40-something year old Brit stormed over. Instead of the civilised approach "sorry my Thai wife is pregnant, you wouldn't mind dancing away from her" he proded Matt and just said "dance over there ....DANCE!...OVER!...THERE!", pointing at a corner then stared him down. Not wanting to cause any trouble Matt stopped dancing and all was ok, or so we thought. Twenty minutes later the bulldog came back over as we had a "situation" as he put it. As he said this I noticed a couple of his 40-something friends flank around the back of our group. It was a nervy few moments as we didn't want any trouble. As luck would have it The Fonz (Seb, aaayyyyy!) was the nephew of one of the 40-something year old guys the bulldog had been socialising with. He called his uncle over and the situation was diffused. We promptly left.
The Bodega hostel was a great experience and if you're unable to stay there at least go for the food. It was some of the best Thai food I've ever tasted, spicy too (the just about right, addictive spicy). The hostel itself is the perfect chilled, trendy location to relax in and escape Pa Tong. The staff were great, one of the gems they showed me were the 1BHT (ie 2p) water fillup machines (you get 1 litre for every 1BHT) which saved me a fortune instead of buying bottled water.
The Full Moon party, while normally a binge drinking fest on other islands, was actually very pleasant in Pa Tong. A few of us went down to the beach and watched people light lanterns, put kathrongs to float off in the sea, and set off fireworks. There was no aggression as before, just good fun and a nice mix of Thai and western people. They even had a beauty contest and tradition Thai dances.
South of Pa Tong there is a 60ft Buddha statue that is a one hour cycle away. There are also a few nicer beaches, but still not great. Cycling inland was a great way for me to escape all the tourism and see some of the Thai villages although it meant a lot of hill climbing.
Naturally I couldn't leave the area without experiencing a ping-pong show, so on my last night in Pa Tong a group of us were guided by one of the hostel staff to a ping-pong show. Entry was free, but the first drink cost 500BHT (£10) then subsequant drinks were 200BHT (£4). I stuck with the one beer and made it last. The show was good fun, although I think I was frowning in shock/anguish most of the way through. However, it's not something I'd do again or bother recommending to anyone. I don't really see the point in it. I had thought the most shocking moment was when one of the girls walked out with an empty fish bowl and then preceded to fill it with fish. It was obvious what was about to happen, the shock was in the quantity of fish she produced. She would have been better off bringing a fish tank on stage. That was trumped when a women walked out without a prop. What was she going to do? Ah yes, produce a bird (budgie) from inside her. I have no idea how it survived in there, but the poor fellow quickly fluffed his feathers dry upon re-entering the world. Strangley, the budgie actually seemed to enjoy the noise and drunken people clapping despite what I thought was quite a cruel environment for it.