Temples, dogs, rice, more kind drivers (except in Bangkok), finally some cycle tourists, perfect beaches, Tsunami rememberance, cock fighting, funerals and inspiring stories. Our month in Thailand was beautiful and eventful...
We crossed the border from Malaysia at a tiny outpost into Thaleban National Park in the South West corner of the country. We had been told that if we could not prove we were leaving the country within 30 days it might be tricky to get in, so armed with letters from UWS, Phnom Penh hotel bookings and a very few hastily learned words of Thai, we apprehensively approached the immigration officer. We were the only westerners and realised how ‘local’ a border it was when the foreign exchange would only change Ringgit and Baht and looked askance at our dollars. Things seemed to go well, I got my passport stamped, Stu got his and then the officer told Stu to wait, he disappeared, panic started to set in, then he returned with two cold bottles of water for us! A wonderful welcome to the country.
Things got even better that evening when as we cycled into the park to find somewhere to stay we met Eni and Bali, Hungarian cycle tourists heading to Singapore. We stayed together for our first and their last night in Thailand and we swapped stories, currencies and routes. The next morning they reminded us it was Valentine’s day and Bali gave Eni and me a plastic rose (shame on you Stu!).
Valentine’s day was very interesting although not even Stu could pretend it was romantic. We had a wonderful cycle through the undulating, jungle clad hills. We met two more cycle tourists, again heading south, back home to New Zealand. We marvelled at the wonderful tarmac on secondary and even tertiary roads. That afternoon we cycled past a big barn with lots of shouting coming from it. Perhaps a Christian church - it was Sunday after all. Stu went to investigate and then called me over. It was cock-fighting. As we walked in, WE became the main entertainment for a few minutes, but then the 300-odd crowd all turned back to the cockerels. Faces were serious, money was changing hands and people were getting angry. We stayed about 10 minutes, more than enough for me. The excitement of Valentines’ day did not end there. After a tiring 100+km day, we were looking forward to a tasty dinner. We walked down the main street of the small town and came across a very busy restaurant, lots of Thais chatting and laughing, we thought this must be THE place to eat. Stu headed in to investigate again. Soon he was ushering me in too. He had found a table of friendly locals that were insisting on us joining them. People stared at us, but that was to be expected in this very untouristy town. Phong, a literature teacher at the local school came to greet me, the only English speaker in the table. He eventually explained the gathering: ‘My mother is dead. We are all family and friends together’. We tried to make our apologies and leave but he would not hear of it: ‘There is a lot of food, you must stay’.
Cock-Fighting on Valentine's day.
We kept heading north, enjoying the stunning scenery. A stop near Krabi enabled us to spend a bit of time on a lovely beach, enjoying the warm water and James Bondesque island surroundings.
Beautiful cycling towards Krabi
Then we cut across to the West coast and headed up to The Sarojin near Khao Lak. This area is most famous for the devastation wreaked by the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 and all along the coast are very moving memorials and museums. I took a walk down the beach and there is still evidence of ravaged hotels and fishing villages. At the hotel we met an English couple (who ended up cycling with us) and Jon told us of his experience in January 2005. He was due to go to Ko Phi Phi for a holiday when the Tsunami struck. Everyone told him to cancel it, but he went anyway. A carpenter by trade, he found he was very useful and spent his 'holiday' rebuilding houses. Of course, he still remembers the tragedy and the devastation but he says he was most struck by the stoicism and courage of the survivors. "The woman whose house I was building was amazing: she had lost her children, her husband and her house but she did not want to be pitied, she was so grateful to us and kept on saying that life must go on as usual.'
We often say a journey is best measured in friends rather than kilometres and cycling is the perfect way to make friends. Through cycling in England I met Trudi whose brother-in-law, Andrew Kemp, owns The Sarojin. Andrew’s children attend UWCSEA, one of the schools we spoke at in Singapore and so we first met Andrew there. This hotel really is the most perfect place, we are sure we won’t stay anywhere better, possibly ever (although we are thinking about trying to book in for a couple of days for our honeymoon!).
Bikes looking good in the beautiful The Sarojin grounds and setting off again with guests and staff.
Andrew’s story and that of The Sarojin is worthy of it’s own blog and you can read more in the lovely book by Janine Gillion, but I will try to do it justice, briefly, here:
When we have done talks at schools one thing that has often come up is ‘getting out of your bubble’; taking chances, broadening horizons, meeting challenges, having adventures and seeing what life brings. Gap years (provided they incorporate some worthwhile activity) should be encouraged at any age and gone are the days of working your way through a totally linear career path (or so we hope!).
Andrew and his wife Kate really encompass this idea, people who 'think big and dream even bigger'. Leaving the UK to travel through Asia, not really sure where they would end up, a chance meeting got Andrew a job in Hong Kong where they set up base for many years. They later bought a bit of land near Khao Lak (with tremendous foresight) and set about turning it into the first (and foremost many would say) luxury resort on this bit of coast. Times were tough, with long hours, Kate working in Hong Kong still, financial worries, two children, but they persevered and together built from nothing their amazing hotel. One great quote from Andrew is ‘I build it, Kate fills it’. One key ethos was on getting the right staff and treating the staff as part of a big family. As Andrew says 'Anything and everything is possible if you treat people properly. The only way to make amazing moments in the world is to make amazing relationships. You can have lots of money, be the most intelligent person, but if you don't apply sensitivity it's not going to get you anywhere. The story of The Sarojin is a story of relationships.'
Just before Christmas 2004, they were ready to open and gave all the staff a few days off. The first guests were due in January 2005. Then the tsunami struck. No one was in the hotel and so no one was hurt. The Kemps set about finding and helping all their staff now in their extended family and then later the arduous task of rebuilding their dream hotel.
The Kemps have done lots for the local community. Just a few days after the tsunami, they set up The Sarojin Khao Lak Community Fund and and they are heavily involved in the Camellian centre for disabled children and the Hands over Water Orphanage. We cycled to the orphanage accompanied by several Sarojin staff and guests. We met Jame who proudly told me that he is the manager and studying to be a lawyer. He was the very first child in the orphange after the tsunami.
With Jame at the Orphanage and a constant reminder of the Tsunami.
We continued up the West coast and met another cyclist, 'Aussie' Ian, who we ended up cycling with him for week which was great fun. One day we popped into the Eco-Logic lodge for a drink and ended up staying the night and joining in a trip to the hot springs and some mountaintop yoga. With Ian, we headed to the East coast and continued up towards Bangkok. Lots of cycling and staying right on the beach and staying in/passing through some wonderful towns. We also met Poppy and Michael, two adventurous Chinese college students cycling from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok.
Circling the buddha after moutaintop yoga.
Our final day night before Bangkok was spent in the ancient town of Phetchaburi where we celebrated cycling 2200km in one month and visited a stunning temple in a cave, bravely not heeding the warnings of the aggressive monkeys! We also had our first chat with a monk who showed us around his beautiful temple and was willing to pose for photos although not get in the tandem! Temples in Thailand are a bit like zebra in Africa; the first one you see you think is amazing and then you realise that they are everywhere and some people even have them in their gardens. That said, I always found the temples (and the zebra) beautiful and worthy of a stop.
We had a nice break with an old friend Georgie in Bangkok, including visiting the very impressive Wat Pho. Then it was a few days ride to the Cambodian border, on which we were lucky to be accompanied most of the way by Simon Stewart, a travel writer and lecturer at a Bangkok University and married to a Thai. He was full of knowledge on the country and culture and we had a very interesting few days, starting with a ride to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital, sacked by the Burmese in the 17th Century. We had to rush to the border in the end as our visa was due to run out. As we moved away from the coast it became hotter and hotter, we needed to be even more careful with our food and water intake and needed out precision hydration tablets even more! It is sad to leave Thailand after a month but we are very excited about our charity group ride with UWS in Cambodia. If you'd like to support their work, and that of Beyond Ourselves, you can do so on our website!