Cycling out of Pa Tong was a lot harder than I had remembered (when entering). While the hills weren't very steep relative to what I've cycled in the UK and Europe, it was the heat that was causing me problems. Even climbing for a minute or two I found I would overheat and be drenched in sweat. Stopping to rest, even in the shade, meant I would sweat even more. It was a no-win situation. The best thing to do was to get over the hills as quickly as possible. The northern part of Phuket was suprisingly nice. The beaches were beautiful and quiet. When I stopped for lunch, there were only a few people dotted around, all of which were Thai. It was quite a contrast to the southern part of the island and amazed me that people don't seem to venture further up to find such beaches.
Once on the mainland I lost the sea breeze. The road to Phrang Nga was fairly straight forward. In the distance I could see the bay near James' Bond Island (where part of Man With The Golden Gun was filmed) as the road weaved between the large limestone rocks that are common part of the landscape. I didn't bother visiting it (maybe something for next time). While the limestone hills were impressive it didn't compare to Yangshuo, China. For the second day I passed a few dozen bikers on Harley's and kitted out in full leather riding up the coast. I had no idea Thailand had such a big biking community. Having cycled 100km, I arrived in the quiet and rather dusty town Phrang Nga. In the town itself (not the bay) there is no tourism infrastructure at all. I managed to find a hotel, the New Luk Muang hotel (built for the crew filming James Bond in 1967). It was £10 for the night. The hotel, had been refurbished at some point, but still resembled a 1960's concrete building with little character and large open spaces. It was a fun place to stay though.
The next day was one of the hardest days cycling I have done for a while despite only being 85km. A combination of factors, not eating a proper breakfast, the hills, the heat and the lack of cloud cover (so I was out in the full sun for 5 hours). I arrived at Pak-Up hostel in Krabi Town at around 1500 feeling exhausted. The hostel girls were all really sweet despite me leaving sweat slug-trails all over the reception. The hostel was perfect and bike friendly (no stairs! and I could store it inside)... clean rooms, massive beds and lockers, super-fast internet, and two bars. I got an early experience of the the cleaner girls who made me laugh. Both tiny girls, jumping from bed to bed and making it while sat on it. They were always chatting in Thai and giggling, even more so if they come in when you're moping around in your boxers. Definitely on a par with the "bye bye" cleaner girl in Yangshuo.
The street markets were nice at Krabi Town, although nothing special. I found the portions weren't big enough, and would end up ordering two portions. In which case I was better off just going to a restaurant (all of which were very cheap too and the food was great). Two steamed rice with every meal! What I did like about Krabi Town was that it was still a largely Thai-based town and was a long way from being anything like Pa Tong. The best bar I found was the Joy bar, basically a crazy bar with live music and happy people (more than just alcohol). Dancing, drinking, singing with the band (usually out of tune), and playing pool... the hours would disappear quickly. I'd often find myself walking back to the hostel at 4am.
Over time I got to know the hostel staff fairly well. Everyone had a two/three letter, one syllable name beginning with "P", a name-nightmare for me over the first couple of days. Thailand, like in Europe is first-name then family-name, but everyone generally goes by a very short nickname. So Sukanya is known as Pu (pronounced Poe!) rather than Suk, or Sukkie. I've read the nickname is a traditionally thing to confuse evil spirits from finding you. I gave up trying to say most Thai surnames given how long they were as I could feel my brain haemorrhaging trying to pronounce them (Pak's for example). It's not the first-names they need a short nickname for, it's the family-names. Pak (the owner) and James had both gone to the same university as me so it was nice to reminisce about the local haunts in Exeter.
On my first stay at Pak-Up, I met two fellow Brits, Jess and Liam at the hostel who I ended up spending the next six days with. We spent a day visiting Railay (150BHT via longboat taking 30 minutes) but it was a bit of a disappointment. The rock formations and beaches were very impressive but it was quite busy and felt too much like a resort. I swam out to a few of the limestone rock islands near the beach but discovered the sea was full of tiny jellyfish as I got constant electric-shock-like jabs on my body. The snorkelling was very poor too, most of the sea bed appearing to be dead. Liam and I rented a sea kayak for a couple of hours which was the best part of the day. It allowed us to go through caves and coves around the coast and surrounding islands.
Liam and Jess had both agreed to take the ferry to Ko Lanta, so I decided to join them and cancel my remaining days at Pak-Up. While they took a two hour ferry, I cycled the 120km distance to Funky Fish on Long Beach in Ko Lanta. It was the best day of cycling so far, despite the bike breaking down. The shifter cable I had repaired (cowboy style as best I could in Phuket) broke. As luck would have it, when leaving Krabi I saw a bicycle shop (the only one?) and bought some spare Shimano shifter cable and housing. I quickly repaired it and was back on the road again in 20 minutes. During the day I had a couple of wobbly moments, the first was when a large green insect impacted into my crotch at a combined speed of around 40kph. The second was my first dog chase in Thailand (I got caught day dreaming). I met the first fellow cycle tourist along highway 4, a Dutch guy called Fedde (theturningwheel.org), who was cycling home from Australia giving talks and working as he went to spread knowledge about sustainable living. A very impressive thing to do and something I wish I had the knowledge to do. His blog is definitely worth a read. We sat for a good hour talking while eating freshly cut pineapple from a roadside fruit seller. I ate two pineapple's worth and was left with a numb tongue for 3 hours (I never knew pineapple could do that, the acids?). We parted and I continued along, leaving highway 4 and cycling towards Ko Lanta through the national park. It was perfect cycling... great tarmac, almost no traffic and amazing scenery.
I arrived at Funky Fish at around 1700 and met Jess and Liam. Our hut was around 40m from the sea. It wasn't the nicest of rooms (with bathroom) but was acceptable and the only time spent in it was sleeping at night. Closer to the sea was the bar/restaurant playing some great music and serving not quite the best Thai food I've had (Bodega in Pa Tong is still top) but it was very close. The girls serving us found it funny how I would always order two portions of rice with a meal. On the one occassion I ordered one portion, the girl asked if I was ok with such worry and sincerity I almost ordered a second! Having breakfast and dinner while sat 20m from the sea was a fantastic experience. I also had a £5 Thai massage next to the bar. While I kept telling myself the pressure massages (one from a blind woman) in China were doing me good, I never felt comfortable or relaxed. The Thai massage however was perfect as the girls didn't work me too hard. Given they weren't very busy I had two girls working on me at the same time, one doing my head while the other did my legs! Ko Lanta was generally fairly quiet (mid November) as high season hadn't quite started. It offers the perfect mix of paradise and party. Beyond where we were staying the island is great to explore when you get bored of sitting on the beach.
Exploring Ko Lanta
We all hired scooters to explore the full 25km length of Ko Lanta. It was my first experience on a motorised form of bike and I adapted very quickly. Having been sat on a bicycle for the past few months, it didn't feel much different except I wasn't covered in sweat and my legs didn't ache. I was used to the Thai roads and traffic so slotted in quite nicely. We sped down the island to the southern tip where there is a national park (with a 100BHT entry fee). The further south we went the steeper the hills got, less complete the roads were (a dusty track at one point) and fewer people we saw. The park was very beautiful and well preserved, definitely worth seeing. There is a walkway around it and you can see plenty monkeys and giant comodo (?) lizards (they were huge whatever they were). It had a sandy beach (surrounded by rocks) which when we got there only had six people on it, and a lighthouse that you can hike up to for views along the rugged coastline. It reminded me more of Jurassic Park than Thailand. I spent most of the day humming the Jurassic Park theme tune.
We also visited the east side of the island where the "old" town is and sea gypsies live. It was a nice ride on the moped cutting over the hills in the middle of the island. I was now very confident on the moped, and during one clear, open stretch hit my top speed of 87kph (just under 60mph). I don't think I'd like to go much faster than that without leathers/padding on. The old town was typically quite poor with a few nice bars dotted around to attract the tourists. It has a long pier which is great for watching the fisherman and for views looking back at the town. Further down the coast we found poorer areas with sea gypsies selling all sorts of quaint items on little stalls.
I really enjoyed Ko Lanta as it has a good mix of paradise, bars, and nature without feeling touristy or booze-Britain-like. In fact I mostly saw Germans and Swedes there. It was also the island where I discovered coconut shakes and Thai massages, which are now part of my daily routine. Before leaving we did meet a rather odd character called Sean while sat at the bar in the evening. I thought he was French at first as his English just didn't sound right. It turned out he was from Leciester! He looked fairly messed up, like we'd just awoken him at 3am, one of his eyes was barely open, he was unshaven, his hair all over the place and he didn't smell too good. He mentioned he had finished his medical studies so came out to Thailand to relax. I naturally asked him what he studied as part of his medical studies. He responded, "I wasn't studying, they were studying on me, paid me two grand for it". That explained the erratic behaviour, appearance and poor English. He had lost his credit card while in Thailand so had no access to the two grand in his bank account, so had resorted to labouring in Thailand (working on roads etc...) for 200BHT (£4) a day. That explained the smell. The last I saw of him was walking off into the sea in the darkness of the night.
Road To Trang
Leaving Ko Lanta, I said goodbye to Liam and Jess and was on my own once again. For the first time in Thailand I started to get a lot of attention. Mopeds would beep me, or more commonly pull alongside me and ask where I was going. They didn't seem to care where I was from, just where I was going in their country. On the ferry out of Ko Lanta, two muslim girls just starred and smiled at me from no more than three metres away. I gave them a friendly wave to keep them content. They giggled and turned away. Twenty seconds later they had turned round and were smiling at me, this time also waving. I waved back once again and they turned away. This repeating around a dozen times and became a little bit tiresome although the girls were very sweet. Annoyingly I saw them on the 2nd ferry (two to get off Ko Lanta) and it all repeated again!