Sun & Kip
Later on in the day, while cycling at around 30kph, two girls pulled up alongside me on their moped. They started off asking where I was going, where I came from, what nationailty I am, and it eventually progressed into how old I was and do I have a boyfriend. I put the latter down to poor English and quickly corrected them that the term was girlfriend. This all took place over a kilometer or two at around 20-30kph! The girls were named Sun and Kip, both 18 years old on their way home from college. Sun was the chatty one of the two (and very pretty), sat on the back of the moped. She even started taking photos of me as we went along. When English failed her, she'd hide her face in the back of Kip sat in front of her. It was very sweet. They asked me to go for lunch for them. As it turned out I was long over due lunch, so we stopped for some street food at the next town (Wang Wiset). Lunch involved a lot of giggling and starring on their behalf as I ate some sort of stew with rice (when ordering I just pointed at the most "normal" looking one, £1 with a drink!). The food I have had while on the road in between the touristy areas of Thailand has really opened my eyes as to what Thai food really is beyond the typical Phad Thai/Prik, Red/Green curry most westerners are used to. As I went to continue my journey they both wanted a hug despite all the sweat I was covered in. I obliged and also gave Sun a kiss on the cheek as she'd been very sweet. It caused all manor of histerics and blushing, ending in Sun hiding in a shop with her hoodie pulled over her face to stop me getting a photo of the moment.
I Hate Dogs
I eventually left highway 4 and started to cut diagonally across to Trang. This meant going down much more rural/local roads which provided a break from the traffic and also a chance to see some local scenary. It did however expose me to all the unfenced dogs people own. During the two hours of cycling I had around 8 dog encounters although non of them serious. I don't think the dogs in Thailand are aggressive, although when a dog gives chase I don't hang around to prove that theory. On a few occasions I was going slowly and got off the bike instead of accelerating which worked very well. The dogs would come bursting out of the driveway to chase the part man, part machine, then look quite confused/dissapointed when I jumped off and transformed into a simple man pushing a bike. I would often get a few low barks of disapproval before they turned to go back home. Or the dogs that couldn't be bothered to give chase would just give me a single bark, which I think was their way of f*cking with me as it would make me jump then bolt. The worst incident was when three dogs came running out of the house after I had passed it. Going at 30kph I thought I was safe, but they started catching me so I pushed up to just over 35kph and managed to maintain the gap. They gave up after 200m or so, but chased faster and for longer than I had expected.
I Can't Read Thai Road Signs
I soon came to a turning with a large road sign written in Thai. The road was very rural, I could tell as it wasn't tarmac but was instead concrete. After cycling down it for 3km it turned into a muddy brown trail. Great. I still refused to turn back. I then figured out the sign must have said something along the lines of "road incomplete" as I came across a digging site and construction road. I had to negotiate my way passed a dozen large trucks and avoid being run over by a bulldozer. Naturally I couldn't double back and find a different route, as doubling back isn't natural to a cyclist (a bit like turning left in Zoolander). Luckily the bumpy, muddy road that was being carved out only last a couple of kilometers. The workmen didn't seem to mind me going down it, although I got some weird looks ("what the hell is that crazy white boy doing", sort of looks). Soon I was back on tarmac and arriving in Trang to negotiate its awful one way system.
I enjoyed my time in Trang. It, like most Thai cities and towns, is a typical dust bowl and not very pretty. Beyond that though, the people were friendly and it had an excellent night market by the railway station. The number of tourists were now down to a scattering so it was nice to immerse myself in predominately Thai environment. One thing it lacks is a decent hostel, any hostel in fact. I had to spend one night in a rather dingy hotel, Koteng Hotel for 280BHT a night. That got me a room with a TV and a/c but no wireless, all in a building that looked like a reject from 1960's China. A far better hotel, with wireless and closer to anything of interest was Sri Trang Hotel, but it was nearly double the price at 500BHT a night. I decided to spend a few days on the islands close by, specifically Ko Mook. I booked up using the agency next door on the right-hand side of Sri Trang Hotel (as you stand facing it). My bike was obviously a problem to take to the island, but they were kind enough to let me store it where they lived while I went island hopping. With the bike sat in their living room, I felt a bit bad as it obscured the route to the toilet and blocked their TV view a little. They didn't seem to mind though.
On Ko Mook it was 400BHT a night for small room with fan and bathroom, all very basic, and no internet. Transfers were 300BHT each way via minibus and longboat. It is possible to do much cheaper I later found, 100BHT for a bus to the port, and the standard 60BHT on the ferry with the locals. An agency will charge around 250BHT to go via bus/ferry, the extra 90BHT is the cost of having it all organised for you. I arrived and had to jump on a bike "taxi", which was basically a motorbike with a cage side-pod. Going along the mud tracks with tractor-like groves in them, with two people and four bags in the pod, made me a little nervous at times. It was a very nice island, well preserved, but in doing so meant the huts and bungalows were set quite far back from the beach. I missed the relaxed feel in Ko Lanta were I could sit in front of the sea eating and drinking as it wasn't possible in Ko Mook. My bungalow was right up in the hills and trees with the widlife, so instead of hearing the sea at night, I could hear all manor of insects. Ko Mook was well positioned for exploring the other nearby islands, which I did, taking longboat tours to Ko Ngai, Ko Kradan and Ko Rok. On Ko Mook there is also the Emerald Cave which is definitely worth sea-kayaking to (go early to avoid the park ranger who will charge you 200BHT).
While staying in Ko Mook I decided to see a few of the surrounding islands. Over two days I booked longboat trips. The first day went very well, the weather reaching 37C (!) as I visited some of the closer islands, Ko Ngai and Ko Kradan. For my second day I decided to go out a bit further and visit Ko Rok, the most western island in the area. The day started fairly well, although was overcast. After two hours on the longboat we arrived at Ko Rok and began snorkelling. The corals were beautiful as where the beaches. Ko Rok is actually two islands positioned very close together (250m apart) so in between them the snorkelling is fantastic.
After a couple of hours of snorkelling we decided to move on as the currents were becoming stronger and dragging us away from the boat. It had also started to rain hard and the winds were strong (20+ knots). Our first attempt to leave the island had to be aborted as the sea was by now quite rough. The waves were causing the boat to ride up quite high then drop down, smashing on the water with such force that made it difficult just to sit in the boat. If we were hit quickly by a second wave in succession before the boat had a chance to sit back up again, most of the wave would end up in the boat. We turned back to the island, bailed out all the water we had taken on, then sat and waited a couple of hours to see if the conditions would improve. Unfortunately they didn't but the boatman wanted to get us back to Ko Mook before conditions worsened, so we ventured back out into the sea.
Longboat In A Storm
What followed was, while an amazing experience, the least safe and most uncomfortable experience of the trip (or any that comes to mind). It's hard to put into words what it was like but the little longboat was being thrown around violently by the unpredictable and awesome power of the sea. It gave me just a small taste of how uncompromising and dangerous the sea can be. I braced my legs in a wide stance for stability and held on with both hands as hard as I could to the wooden plank-seat to stop myself launching off the boat. Every wave we went over, gravity would momentarily leave, the sense of weightlessness causing me to come off my seat, until we crashed down into the water bringing me painfully back to my seat and jarring me forward. I was sat the furthest forward of the 4 people on the boat so was bouncing around quite a lot more as we smashed over each wave. The wooden plank-seat offered little comfort and I was constantly being soaked, taking water in the face as waves poured into the boat. I kept looking ahead for a glimpse of the next island (KoKradan) but given the poor visibility could only see a grey skyline. In fact at one point we couldn't see any land. More worryingly, we were the only boat out in such conditions, so if anything did happen I wouldn't have put our chances of survival as very high. This all lasted for over an hour and a half but it felt like a lot longer. By the end of it I was shivering from being cold (I never thought that possible in Thailand), my legs were worn out and had the elvis-shake, and my hands were numb from gripping on for so long. It was one hell of a workout and I was exhausted.
As we finally reached Ko Kradan the sea began to calm, and relative to what we had just been in felt like a Summer cruise. The poor boatman who had been working frantically the whole time needed a 15 minute break and a chance to bail out all the water we had in the boat. Being Thai (and used to hot weather) he was struggling with the strangely cold conditions more than we were. He drank a whole bottle of water then smoked a couple of cigarettes. I asked him if what we had just been through were the worst conditions he had been out in. I got the response, "yes, worse condition, worse condition... very bad". Arriving back at Ko Mook was a huge relief. We thanked the boatman for getting us back then went straight to the first bar for a coconut shake + beer.
Non Stop Rain
After island hopping for a few days I returned to Trang. It was pouring down and doing so all day and most of the night. It was forecast to be like this for a whole week. I decided to try and escape the weather so cycled 7 hours (135km) in the rain to Hat Yai. I stuck to highway 4 for the whole way due to the rain and it offered quick cycling. Given the distance I arrived quite late as it was getting dark. Hat Yai wasn't a very interesting town, mainly a built-up hub city linking Thailand to Malaysia. I managed to find the Louise Guest House and booked a room for 400BHT for the night. It was still raining the next day, but rather than hang around (I wasn't impressed by Hat Yai) I cycled on heading west to La Nga. The route would have been quite nice had it not been for the weather. The highway was never particularly busy and usually just a single lane either side with the standard bike lane at the sides. La Nga was a bit of a resort area and seemed to be full of German's and Swede's. I found a guest house for 400BHT a night and got in to dry off. I had planned to cycle right down to Satun town, but the following day it was still (!) raining. At this point I gave up and cycled the 90km back up to Trang. I stayed at Sri Trang Hotel once again where I met a few other tourers, all holed up waiting for the rain to stop. A 40-something year old Romanian guy had lost patience and was going to cycle to Krabi the next day regardless. He asked me to join him but upon mentioning starting at 0600 I passed on the idea! I woke up the next day, again to more rain, and like the Romanian guy decided to just get on with it and cycle back to Krabi. Foolishly I started at 1100 though, and with 140km to cycle didn't have time to stop for lunch (as it gets dark around 6) so did the ride off a couple of rests, pack of Oreo's and a can of coke. I was drained by the time I reached Krabi. Triple steamed rice with dinner that night! I had made it to Krabi and effectively finished my cycling (100km+ days at least) in Thailand, having clocked up 1045km.