Sunday, 1 July 2012

Hounded up the Isthmus

23rd May - 8nd June 2012
4676 – 5597km
Nakhon Si Thammarat – Surat Thani - Bang Saphan Noi – Prachuap Kiri Khan – Hua Hin - Pak Tho – Kanchanaburi

Hounded up the Isthmus

We were somewhat naive the day we left Martyn's house, setting ourselves the goal of reaching Surat Thani by the first evening, despite the fact it lay some 140km away. By our reckoning all those days we'd had lately relaxing and unwinding, scoffing food and watching TV, would mean we'd be well rested and capable of tackling a monster day in the saddle. We were wrong.

Our fattened bellies weren't the only thing that held us up though....
As it turns out, sitting around drinking beer and eating pizza is not a good way to get fit for cycling, and unsurprisingly we flaked out after only 70km to collapse into a motel in a little town off the highway. Our strength gradually returned though, and after another abrupt 70km day that got us into Surat Thani we started punching over the 100km a day mark once again.

In Thailand there are people driving up and down the roads selling
everything from pancakes to pineapples. Here's Robin buying

delicious mangos.
At this point, heading north from Surat Thani, Thailand finds herself getting squeezed up against Burma for 500km along a long, narrow neck of land between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. This lanky corridor has a superb title: “The Isthmus of Kra”. To my mind this sounds exactly like the kind of place to set an 80's synth soundtracked fantasy movie, and though we did not see any unicorn riding maidens, or any oiled up, sword wielding men, (although I did listen to a spot of Foreigner during the ride), we were daily beset by the baddies that prowl the Isthmus, those fanged beasts, anathema to cyclists, postmen, and unicorn riding maidens alike; lairy, hairy, and sometimes a little bit scary, the four legged orcs of Thailand – dogs.

An evil looking dog in a muzzle, and it's trusty sidekick Patsy.
Bloody dogs. Daily - pretty much hourly actually - our pedalling was interrupted as one, two, three dogs caught wind of the newcomers in their territory and came hurtling down the road after us. They snapped and barked around us, but most of the time our trick of just stopping and walking with the bikes calmed them down. In fact, quite often when we slam the brakes on and turn to face the incoming animal it screeches to a halt and bolts back off where it came from while we wave our fists at it. It gets tiring though, especially when an assault comes every fifteen minutes or so. Makes it slow going. And after the seventieth dog has barked at you in dog to piss off, it starts to wear you down.

Occasionally we came across a particularly boisterous bunch who kept on at us after we'd got off the bikes and sworn at them. Thankfully we have a Plan B, which involves throwing stones – or rather, acting as if we're about to, and so far this has deterred even the bravest of street dogs.

The real danger comes when you don't see the bastards coming, and since they come so frequently, and from just about every angle, the odds are that this will happen from time to time.

Case in point: one lovely morning we were riding along an empty stretch of road, tootling along at somewhere between 15 and 20km an hour. Liv was in front of me, and we were cruising along enjoying the breeze. A few grey clouds about, it was still an hour or two off midday so the temperature was amiable, and the sky was shot with the golden light of a glorious day. Mmm, isn't life wonderful. Fa la la la la.

Just then, I heard a quick skittering of paws on the tarmac beside me, and as I turned to look I was rather surprised to see a large brown dog in mid-air about to collide with my bicycle. The hound's bold leap terminated with a thwack on the back of my bike, his front paws found purchase on my rear panniers, and although his hind legs could only scrabble at the sides it did manage to hang on long enough to get a free ride a few metres down the road. I think the dog was more surprised than me at the situation though, because after having a distracted snap at me, it came cartwheeling off and bolted back across the road in alarm at the quick, bizarre events that had taken place. Ran away, that is, until its instincts twanged back into action and forced it to dash back after the intruding cyclist, but by now I was too far away and going too fast for a rerun.

They liven things up, I suppose, but it does get very annoying; stopping every few minutes to shout at a band of barking animals dancing around us. But despite the regular interruptions, and our depleted fitness, we started making good progress, and gradually wound our way up north.


After five days' riding we came to a small coastal township called Bang Saphan Noi. The sun was going down, and we'd clocked well over a hundred kay that day, but our luck finding accommodation seemed to be thin on the ground. We were knackered and were willing to take anywhere within our price range, but after rolling through the town's few streets and empty market square we discovered there was actually nowhere to stay in town at all.

We rode towards the coast, hoping that there might be a few places along there. There were. One weird collection of very expensive rooms by a dirty estuary and small rural village, totally out of place, and charging somewhere in the region of $100 a night. No thanks.

The other was advertised as being some 20km down the road, but that was 20km back the way we had come from. We decided against backtracking in favour of pushing on up the road with our fingers crossed that something showed up.

Our gamble paid off nicely. After just a kilometre or two we saw a sign for a resort tucked away off the road. We rode down the lane just as the sun disappeared below the horizon, and came across a lovely collection of rooms decorated with seashells and blue paint, surrounding a wooden dining area adorned with paintings and maritime bits and bobs. The price was steep though, pretty much our entire daily budget, but when we explained our situation, and said we would spend three nights there, they knocked two hundred baht off the price - nearly 50% - so we snapped it up.

We had two very lazy, but very luxurious days in that place. The woman who had translated for us and helped us nail the bargain price turned out to be an English teacher called Arom, down from Bangkok for the weekend. We enjoyed dinner with her on our second night, talking about her job, and our bicycle ride, and this, and that.

The next afternoon Arom left, making us two the only guests there, but after dinner the owners and staff invited us to join them for some whiskey and snacks around the table. It was a brilliant night. Our Thai was nowhere nearing a conversational standard, and their English was just as bad. The chef knew only three phrases of English: “Happy”, “No” and “1, 2, 3.” God bless her, she spent a very long time - and I mean a very long time – that night, trying to make sentences out of those. Lot's of hand gestures, waving, and “No. Happy.” a flurry of hands “One, two. Happy(?)”
The staff and their family and Arom on the right. Lovely stay with these guys.

Liv and I politely strained to grasp the meaning, but one of the owners just laughed, poured out some more whiskey, and turned up the music. Sweet fried fish was served, along with chilli fried frog. We think it was frog anyway, it tasted a lot like McDonalds beef burgers in all honesty, but we were told it was “Froh”, and when we did our frog impressions they were met with a laugh and a nod. It can't have been beef at any rate, because it was full of tiny bones that you had to crunch and grind in your mouth, like some fairy tale giant, before swallowing it down. Strange, but surprisingly tasty.

As the night wore on hundreds of flying ants emerged and began swarming around the lamps. They were everywhere, falling in the food, in our drinks. The floor was covered in them. And then along came a very fat looking frog, hopping along the floor and snapping them up one after another. One frog with about a thousand ants for dinner. Lucky guy. We pointed at the dish on the table, then pointed at the frog to confirm matters, and everybody nodded.

We see a lot of things covered in grass and vines.
Frog.” I said, pointing at the frog on the floor.

The owner pointed at him too, to correct me, “Happy!” he said, and we all laughed.

We went to bed happy that night too, although we woke up feeling a wee bit groggy. We saddled up the bikes and crunched across the gravel drive in the cooler air of morning, some of the staff were sat by the gate and waved us off as we set off up the road. The roads around here were quiet, especially at this early hour, and our cloudy heads soon relaxed into a lovely morning of- #WOOF WOOF WOOF! God dammit...

The Death Railway

For four days we rode north, following the highway that snaked up close to the coast. The ride was quite reasonable, but not exactly enthralling, despite the regular excitement the dogs kindly brought with them. The highway was as dull as dishwater – endless kilometres of flat grey road, lorries rumbling by, cars honking hellos, stopping every couple of hours for a cold drink or a cornetto or yet another plate of fried rice. There were a web of country lanes that led off from this main road, but because they zig-zagged all over the place they invariably added ten or twenty kilometres to our day whenever we ventured down them. We tried it a few times, but the increased distance it brought, along with an increasing number of dogs, kept us on the highway for the most part.
We joined a bunch of kids in a small cafe for breakfast before they went off to school.
On the fifth day since our days off eating frogs we reached the top of the Isthmus. Thailand swells out now, with Bangkok over to the east, Kanchanaburi to the west, and Thailand's inland plains and hills to the north. We decided to bank west, towards Kanchanaburi, the site of the infamous death railway during the second world war. To get there the choice of some fairly straight forward back country roads or the dreary highway was really no choice at all. So we made our way some 130km along almost deserted roads that lead through some lovely open plains vibrant with the greens of maize and rice. After so long on the highway, and despite getting a little bit lost here and there, it was a dream to get away from the noise and pollution and get down to some sterling cycling again.
Off the highways the roads are quiet and beautiful.
We arrived in Kanchanaburi quite late, owing to a few misjudged turnings and a timely puncture, and were welcomed to the city by a large pack of overly keen dogs that had to be chased away with rocks. We weren't sure of the layout of the city at all when we arrived, but we managed to stumble into a really nice little guesthouse, which actually just so happened to be on the outskirts of the main tourist drag – a tourist drag that we had no inkling even existed here.

Interesting place, Kanchanaburi. Much of it's popularity with backpackers stems from its location beside the Bridge over the River Kwai – the busy tourist street actually leads right up to it – but owing to its popularity with the gap year backpacker crowd the street is jam packed with bars offering cheap alcohol and a good time. The site of a war crime turning into a place to go and get sloshed doesn't exactly sit very well with me, it's a bit off, but thankfully Kanchanaburi is also quite capable of dealing with its history in a very sobering and informative way, you just have to traipse to the other end of the tourist strip where the war cemetery and museum lie.

We did not know a great deal about the death railway when we arrived here, and were attracted, let's be quite honest, like the rest of um, by the Bridge of River Kwai fame. On our second evening in town we watched the movie, and very good movie it is too, and then we headed to the war museum to try to get our heads around it all.

Linking Burma and Thailand by rail had been considered, and dismissed, by the British before the outbreak of war. Too difficult, too dangerous, was the consensus. The land between Bangkok and Rangoon was loping hills, solid rock, and thick with jungle, it would be a nightmare to attempt anything of the sort.
The bridge on the river Kwai, or rather the replacement after the original
was blown to smithereens, not by Alec Guinnes but Allied bombers.
In the early stages of the second world war though, after Singapore fell, the Japanese had a very large work force at their disposal, and a desire to link the two countries to support their efforts against the Allied forces in Burma. Thousands of POWs were sent there, and work began to clear the land, lay the tracks, and bridge the rivers.

Exhausting labour for up to 18 hours a day, insufficient food, malaria and cholera ravaging the camps, and brutal, swift and sudden punishment for anybody not seen to be working hard enough. It sounded horrendous. Of the 330'000 people who worked on the Burma Railway, it is estimated that over 100'000 died.

As the deadline for completion drew nearer, the guards and engineers demanded more from their already weakened workers, pushing up the death toll. Then when the monsoons came the mosquito population soared, spreading more disease, and whittling them further.

Standing in the war cemetery you get something of the sense of the numbers, and it's all the more harrowing knowing that much of it was unnecessary. Prisoners were dying of exhaustion, starvation, and from the brutal punishments – these could have been avoided, and the railway still would have been built. It seems to have been a case of orders from the top demanding a schedule that could not be met, and a few malicious people finding themselves in positions of power, using their status to bully, torture, and kill.

Perhaps the most unsettling fact for me though is the enormous toll on the local populations. Burmese were enlisted by the Japanese to work alongside the Allied POWs, as were Malays, Indians and Thais. Some were tempted in with the promise of decent employment, but when this failed to draw in the numbers, teams of Japanese went around kidnapping and dragging people in to work. 90'000 Asian workers died on the railway, more than five times the number of Allied POWs, and while the Japanese saw to it that the Allied dead saw proper burial, the tens of thousands of Asians who died saw no such treatment. They died, and were disposed of, their last resting place unknown.

It makes you think. But while a remembrance of the past is vital, one cannot dwell on things too long. Maybe it is a good thing that Kanchanaburi is a place to have fun now, as well as visiting these historic sites and have a think about things. If you're ever in town the museum is really excellent. The bars... not so much.

Bad news on the Death Railway

Fun was not going to be on the cards for the next few days though, because while we were flicking through some travel blogs, figuring out where we were heading next, we realised something; Liv's passport did not have enough blank pages left to accommodate the number of visas we needed to get to Beijing.

Well, we did have some fun.
It was Queeny's jubilee weekend so all the British Embassies were closed, preventing us from speaking to anyone about it. Trying to figure out the process of sending off for a new passport from the information available online was a nightmare. How, precisely, was Liv supposed to get a signature from a professional who has known her for more than 3 years when she's out here in Thailand?

Gradually the information came in, then changed, then changed again, but after a couple of days the forms were filled in, photos taken, with no professional's signature required, as suggested by the British Embassy in Bangkok, later denied by the passport office in Beijing before denying their denial and saying it should be fine. Trouble was though, we were now stuck in Thailand while we waited for the passport to come back. A whole four weeks, right when we were getting ready to leave.

We spent several hours sizing up our options, and did a bit of rejigging to our proposed overall route. We decided to shave off some of the longer stretches in Laos and Vietnam in order to make up for time lost in Thailand, so we could get to the high mountain passes of southern China before the winter set in there. The plan now then: Wait for the passport in Thailand, then head into Cambodia, across to Vietnam, partway up Vietnam then east into Laos, then north towards Yunnan – into China, and across to Beijing.

It wasn't the end of the world, and in many ways adjustments we made were better than the previous route, which entailed cycling down the length of Laos, doing a loop of Cambodia then the entire length of Nam. Great to see so much of all the countries, but we'd be pushing at 2'000km in the one month the visas allowed us, and it may well have been a case of seeing less by trying to see more.

The River Kwai

We were determined not to let the whole passport thing get us down, so while Liv was wrestling with the paradoxes of passport renewal I spent some hours tracing out an off-piste route through back country roads towards the north of Thailand, skirting the border of Burma before landing in Chiang Mai. From there we'd drop back down, via a few ancient Thai cities and bat caves, to Bangkok in time to grab that pesky passport before darting into Cambodia..

We had some interesting riding ahead of us, and to keep us on our toes we both decided, as we cycled out of Kanchanaburi on the morning of the 8th June, that we'd try something a little bit different for accommodation that night. So we pedalled out of town, upbeat, and excited about the road ahead. We just hope everything goes smoothly with the passport office...

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