Leaving our truly wonderful bungalow nestled amongst the verdant tropical rainforest of the Khao Sok National Park was incredibly difficult; it was one of those places where we wish we could have had more time. The room was a perfect temperature (very important to cyclists in the tropics), it was immaculately clean, there was no noise from the road and most importantly of all it meant we could procrastinate over cycling the biggest hills since northern Laos… In the end we only managed to put it off by about 30 minutes whilst we slowly consumed our breakfast. Putting it off, as we had anticipated was the wrong decision. By the time we pushed off it was after 9am and the sun was beating down with unrelenting ferocity.
Having spent weeks getting used to (and then sick of) pancake flat roads it was both a welcome change and an unwanted challenge on what was turning out to be a ridiculously hot day. Thankfully the hill climb lasted under an hour and at the summit we rejoiced in a job well done by consuming enough water to sink the Titanic whilst taking in the mind twisting scenery. It was the type of scenery that you see in travel brochures of tropical rainforests. Countless karsts rose up through the sweltering haze caused by the humidity; enormous, ageless trees battled it out for lumen supremacy, and vines gripped at anything they could get their tentacles into. We felt incredibly lucky not to be zipping past this majestic scene in the back of an air-conditioned bus, even though the climb felt as though it had actually consumed some of our soul. Aside from the scenery the other great thing about climbing hills en-route to the coast is that you are guaranteed a downhill, and this was one of the great ones… sweeping corners, minimal traffic, newly laid seal… it was the finest downhill we had had in almost a year and the sort of place that you feel more like a child with a wide grin racing down a driveway on a new trike than an adult trying to behave in a manner fitting for a road. We loved it!
On reaching the coast, and the tourist hot spot of Khao Lak we made a beeline for the hotel we had booked the previous night; but one thing had changed, one thing we had not seen on our journey to date, one thing that brought the mind back from the joyful morning to the harsh reality of living in such a dreamlike place. We started seeing numerous tsunami evacuation signs, when we looked closer we also noticed that the buildings were relatively new. We stopped to take a closer look at our iPhone map and noticed we were still someway from the coast and in a reasonably elevated position; we looked at each other and both asked the question almost in-synch… “surely THE tsunami didn’t reach here?” We pushed off again, but this time far more aware of our surroundings, and as we passed by the small tsunami museum we took note, as that was a place we definitely had to visit.
The time in Khao Lak was wonderful, we managed to relax in front of the full fury of our air conditioning unit when we weren’t out looking around. It is very easy to see why thousands of tourists flock to such an area. The sea really is that perfect type of sea that you see in the adverts and as per usual the Thai people are some of the most joyful people you will ever have the pleasure of meeting, nothing is ever too much trouble and nothing is ever done without a lot of banter and a huge smile. Another great thing about the town was it had a fully stocked western supermarket, and after weeks of eating local cuisine it was a pleasure just to sit down with a bowl of corn flakes, drowned in fresh milk and topped off with fruit; this of course was chased down by freshly baked baguette after freshly baked baguette and topped off with very tasty croissants (have I ever mentioned how much cycle tourists eat?!?!?!).
On our second day, after consuming our body weight in food we made our way back down to the excellent tsunami museum and spent the next hour or so talking to the local lady who runs it, and watching some of the footage again; but this time with the context of having spent time at one of the beaches where it occurred. We were told some truly harrowing stories of the day it hit, but also some truly remarkable stories; we were transfixed in an almost daze like stupor as she reeled off her experiences and how it had impacted the local community.
There were three things that really took me aback about the whole thing; first it was just the sheer size of the wave, standing on the beach and picturing how high 14 metres is was quite terrifying; second, was how far inland the wave wrecked a path, it really was a long way and up quite a steep incline; and thirdly, we read a very interesting piece written by a German man living in Khao Lak at the time of the disaster and it ended with the words “don’t be a victim of circumstance”. This final message was so spot on. You hear too often people blaming this or blaming that for their “predicament”. We’ve all heard it, we’ve probably all done it at one time or another and it seems absurd when you compare it to what happens in some parts of the world. Everyone remembers where he or she was when they first saw the images of the tsunami, everyone remembers how they felt, and then everyone (to a certain extent) forgets as something else is beamed into the living room and onto the TV. For the people living the nightmare it was either become a victim or crack on. And crack on they have, all the time with that winning Thai smile and gentle personality. I think it is fair to say that our time in Khao Lak was genuinely eye opening and certainly made us realise how incredibly lucky most of us are.
A few days south of Khao Lak we found ourselves having one of those days when you just can’t find any proper food, nothing to sustain energy levels that drop to unimaginable depths in the tropical heat. Now I know I bang on about food quite a bit, but to be honest, to a certain extent cycle touring is basically eat, sleep, cycle, repeat; so it is bound to happen from time to time. When we got to Thailand everyone went on about how good the food would be, how you would be eating like royalty everyday, how you would just pull up anywhere and get amazing food (even those who had never been to Thailand). This generally happens, but from time to time on our journey (mostly in Central Asia) the food stars have misaligned so much that there never seems to be any food of any quality and you really appreciate the saying “you are what you eat”. This particular day we consumed the following between us: two banana cakes, two iced mochas, two chocolate brownies, eight small boxes of cornflakes, six tins of sterilized milk, one kilogram of rambutans (a delicious local fruit which was a welcome respite from the processed rubbish), four pot noodles, and to cap it all off four bags of crisps. We felt horrendous, which I guess was quite apt given we were staying in one of those roadside motels that doubles as a brothel; this one being particularly quirky; not only was the entire room coated in mirrors, it also came with a back door/hatch for a quick escape. It must have been a popular setup because this particular location was perpetually frequented during our stay by numerous couples, who would arrive in 4x4s with tinted windows, pull into the private car park, draw the curtain behind the car, disappear for a short time and then leave… the joys of cycle touring, being off the beaten path and seeing how a country actually is.
As we pushed further south the heat and humidity started to take a toll on our motivation levels. Although the scenery continued to inspire, the constant battle with our minds exhausted us day in and day out. Due to this we set about a routine that enabled us to spend a couple of hours each day sampling the very fine iced coffees on offer at a chain of petrol station coffee shops called Amazon; not exactly cultural, but certainly well needed… the fact they almost always had plenty of chocolate cake and wifi on offer were just added bonuses.
About 100km north of the Malay border we started to detect another change and this time it was of the religious kind. All through SE Asia, Buddhism had been the most easily recognisable religion; with stunning Wats lining the streets of tiny villages, monks walking here and there, and the fragrant smell of incense wafting around wherever we went. This gave way to the return of Islam, and Wats were replaced (or neighboured) by elegant mosques and the staple of pork on the menu was replaced with delicious lamb specialties. Our final day in Thailand was a Friday and as we passed through the border and over a ridiculously steep hill and down into Malaysia we noticed that the roads were basically devoid of traffic. After stopping for an incredible Chinese style lunch we pushed on and all of a sudden the roads were heaving with scooters, booming cars, and pimped out 4x4s… Friday prayers had just finished and the safest place to be was anywhere but on the road. We pulled over and watched the hustle and bustle as all in sundry went back to work or off to feast. It was quite eye opening that within the space of about 150km the beliefs of an entire people had changed. After so long without the call to prayer it was nice to be back amongst it as we settled in to our first night in Malaysia.
As we pushed on down the coast and further into Malaysia it became quickly apparent that all is not what it seems to the outside world. The roads were a shadow of the quality in Thailand, and with the favoured mode of transport changing from mopeds to lowered out boom cars it was sometimes quite uncomfortable. The towns we passed through were often run down and in dire need of a facelift and there was obvious segregation between the predominant races of Malaysia. We later heard that certain people in government had been accused of epic levels of corruption, all of which has never been proved and may just be a political move by opposition, but there certainly was evidence in the provinces of a lack of funds and rising levels of ethnic tensions, all of which is incredibly sad because, as in Thailand, the people of Malaysia were incredibly friendly and often went out of their way to help and support us.
Malaysia, being a former colony of Britain meant that the English language was back on the menu (sort of), which made our lives a little easier and after a couple of nights heading down the coast we were closing in on our first major stop of the penultimate country in Asia… George Town, on the island of Penang. The morning that we approached the island we stopped in at a typical roadside eatery where everything from Chinese, Indian, Malay, and western was on the menu. In typical fashion we ordered (in English… amazing) a bit from many of the vendors and as I was standing to collect the incredible offerings a random man came up, started talking to me and then insisted on paying for our entire breakfast. At about $USD10 it was not really a trivial amount to a local (or a cycle tourist)… I suggested that we were okay, but he insisted, and yet again we had come across more kindness from strangers.
The voyage across to George Town from Butterworth was the first time since Azerbaijan that we had rolled onto a proper ferry (crossing the Mekong by long boat does not really count), and it was the first time that we were off the actual continental landmass of Eurasia since leaving Blighty almost one year previously. Our first afternoon was spent at the (in)famous Australian armed forces pub The Hong Kong Bar which was handily situated a mere two minute stroll from our excellent hostel. It was good fun talking to a lot of the older guys who had retired and hearing what the place was like back-in-the-day. It was also a great location to get up to the minute information on exactly where to find the best street food in George Town (something that it is famous for), and also some local knowledge on where to find excellent street art, something else George Town is apparently famous for that we were completely unaware of.
After a couple of days exploring the city inside out, it finally rolled around to our one year anniversary of setting out on our journey; we had managed to book ourselves into the top rated restaurant in the city and indulged like cycle tourists have unlikely ever done before. It was a great evening and one that made us look back at where we had come from, what we had achieved, what we had learned, the unimaginable highs, the equally unimaginable lows, the great friends we had met, the people who had helped us out and most importantly all the support we had received in getting us to George Town. Living the dream had never really felt more real until we were able to sit back and reflect. Planning for the final push to Singapore and the immensity of Australia could wait a while whilst we soaked it all up.