Thailand….military, mayhem, beaches, sunsets, ancient villages and breakdowns.
An avenue of armed soldiers, with their guns at ready greeted us on the Thailand side of the border crossing point. What appeared to be very young, uniformed and armed soldiers were standing at all intersections. They were in army tanks stationed along the road and at the many check points along the road.
The Sungai Kolok/Rantau Panjang border crossing is not the preferred option it seems, but it was the closest to us and looked inviting. After all a new country, our fifth, was beckoning us.
Thailand is still under military rule, but this scene was a shock to us. I felt like I was riding into a chapter from the novel, “Tomorrow when The War Began”. No it wasn’t Science Fiction, this is how many people in the world live and have lived for centuries.
At each checkpoint, the road narrows to a single lane, leading to an army green camouflaged shelter, sandbagged and ready for action. We had no idea whether we were supposed to stop or not, so we just kept on going. The usual smile trick did not seem to be working here! Con’s lean-running bike backfires readily and this added more concern as we rode down the avenue of armed soldiers. Con would put them on high alert and I was left to pacify them with a smile!
It was coming on dusk as we rode into the city of Rantau Panjang, Thailand.
Con was feeling unwell and we quickly gave up on the idea of finding the elusive compulsory 3rd party insurance, so our next priority was to find Sim cards for Thailand. Being an area of political sensitivity, we had to register our phones with use of our passports as ID. However, my Samsung just couldn’t seem to work on the three different cards we tried, so we only had one working phone. Once again, a Good Samaritan came into our lives in the form of a young Thai man who had just returned from 12 months exchange in Alaska. His English was just what we needed and he patiently stayed with me for two hours whilst I tried in vain to get my device to work. He also explained the military presence, of which we were extremely ignorant and warned us not to go out at night and not to walk the streets.
By this time, it was dark so he showed us to our hotel and we were happy to be in the refuge of an air conditioned room. The hotel manager said,”Oh your bikes are safe here, there is a Navy boat parked right outside the hotel.” And there was, only 50 meters from the hotel on the inlet! We did walk out for dinner, but did not stray far.
As I have said before, travelling overland gives you a very different, but more realistic view of a country. Thailand is a popular tourist destination for many Westerners, but they often see a very sanitised version of the country, from daily life to food and politics. The Southern States are on the list of places not to go on our Australian Government travellers website. They are largely Muslim States wanting independence from the Buddhist regime of Thailand. I later met a young man who had completed his compulsory army service and had been stationed in this volatile area. Hehighlighted just how dangerous it is, but said they are not looking for ‘farangs’. He did say, in his opinion, the unrest upsurged in recent years because the Thai soldiers were raping the Muslim women and not being held accountable. A part of the very complex scenario I am sure. I have come to learn that these border unrests, that we only read about, are complex. To the villagers who live on the border, the demarcation line is just a modern political entity. Their people have been living in the border areas for centuries, moving across at their will. The powers to be, often from countries who have no understanding of the locals, make pragmatic decisions with no regard for the people on the ground who call the border areas their home.
The following day Con was feeling very unwell and we limped along to Songkhla, finally leaving behind the soldiers. I led him to a hotel which we found on booking.com which was a “24 hour” hotel, in the outskirts, complete with mirrors and a single condom supplied. This type of accommodation has become the norm for us as they are budget and we quickly learnt to find the signs that had “24 hour” amidst the unintelligible alphabet of Thailand.
It was in Songkhla that some of our best and worst times in Thailand began. Con was stricken with a terrible bug and became very dehydrated and ended up in hospital on a drip. It turned out to be the first of our numerous trips to a Thai hospital. They are very efficient and extremely friendly, helpful and cheap. They did not hesitate to admit him, conduct full blood tests and rehydrate him on a drip.
Very painless – well for me anyway.
The Songkhla Bike Week was on in a few days, so we decided to stay and rest up. The meet was quite the experience and a further display of the amazing modifications bikers make to their bikes here, many of which wouldn’t comply in Australia. We once again were overwhelmed by people interested in us and our trip, so were treated to the same hospitality and friendliness we have come to know in SE Asia. Bikers from Malaysia and all over Thailand were at the meet and it was a great introduction to Thailand for us.
These Bike Weeks are held all over Thailand and are not in fact a week long, but usually 3 days. All types of bikes congregate for the event where many modifications are to be seen. Bikers in all types of bikie gear from the American influenced leathers to the enviable, neat and top of the range of gear so many of the Malaysian neighbours wear.
We always feel a little untidy and below par when we have to stand next to the extremely well dressed Malaysian bikers. They always look so neat and so do their bikes.
So we then began our traverse of Thailand from South to North.
Having our own motorbikes and an extended amount of time to get to know a country certainly provides us with a realistic montage of images.
As a first timer to the country it was not the idyllic holiday I had heard so much about. This southern area seemed to be just busy; fast and dangerous highways, leading us from city to city.
Thai drivers drive extremely fast and make it known very quickly that under no circumstances are bikes to stay in the right hand lane. Thailand has shocking road fatality statistics.
Tourist attractions of waterfalls and caves were signposted, but they soon become commonplace and unattractive after a while, especially in the dry season. I was looking forward to the beaches.
Once again though we had another problem. Con’s clutch was slipping and it wasn’t looking good.
We found a great little beach side village at Chang Lang beach and set up tent. It was a very peaceful and lesser known area on the Andaman Sea. So we felt privileged to have sea views in a resort we had to ourselves. Yes, we were the only visitors for most of the week! We have come to learn that the phrase,” Popular with local tourists” in the guidebooks leads us to the quieter places. Locals don’t frequent the favourite destinations of the “Farangs,” so tend to have their own favourite holiday destinations. We find them more authentic in every way and so of course are the prices!.
Our time at Chang Lang was peppered with that holiday feeling! We had a beautiful day on a Long Tail boat to Ko Muk and the Emerald Cave, great local food, lots of swims and yet more spectacular sunsets.
Then there was the clutch issue.
Every day for 5 days, Con took apart the clutch and tried something different to get it going reliably. In the meantime, our local bike shop in Australia had ordered a clutch and posted it to Chang Lang – snail mail!
So began another saga in Thailand which was to go on for another 5 weeks!
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8grHinjV0w) How we made another 2000kms on the old slipping clutch.
Reasonably confident with his modifications, eager to move on and along with the resort owner’s promise to post on the clutch, we tentatively rode up the coast to Khao Lak; this time a more touristy beach resort and, to us, very crowded, ordinary beaches and ordinary food! Another “24 hour” resort was home for a further few days as the clutch still wasn’t doing too well. Con put his sleuth like skills to use and found a local mechanic who obviously modified bikes. Three days later, with an addition of a homemade clutch plate we took off north again tentatively nursing the modification.
The Andaman Sea coast line is spectacular with the many limestone formed islands and sandy beaches. Riding along the coast is always special and we have certainly done many coastline kilometres on this trip.
Tragically though it is this coastline that was hit so brutally by the tsunami. Many resorts have not been rebuilt nor even cleaned up. Memorials dot the landscape which remind us of how immense the waves were and how far reaching the devastation actually was. Normally, I love camping on the beach, but I was constantly unsettled by the horror of the tsunami and what it must have been like on that terrible day in December 2004. Locals still talk about it and retell the stories of their experience on that day. It is very haunting.
Whilst at the mechanic shop we were told about an ancient village. Another ancient village! It was on a lesser known island Ko Kho Kao and so off we went to explore it. Once again the bikes came into their own, transporting us from a crazy, tourist infested beach to a near deserted island with just traditional housing and villages on it! On the only main road traversing the little island, we found a small faded sign to the Ancient Village, Thung Tuk, and yes it is truly ancient! It has a remarkable history and yet is like a ghost area.
There were signs of archaeological digs there and a deserted interpretive centre with fading signs. This area was a major stopping off point on the ancient silk sea trade routes from Persia and India to China. Persian pottery and glass beads were carried along this part of the route which was at the narrowest area of the Thai peninsula. The island formed a natural camp area for the traders who transferred their wares from large sea boats to smaller river boats. It was here they waited for the Trade winds to take them to either China or Westward.
What made this place so exciting was that the ancient relics of the trade items were scattered everywhere! Broken plates and glazed ceramics were abundant. The glass beads had been looted over time, but we had fun hunting for them anyway. These artefacts dated between 3rd BCE to 8BCE. (BCE you ask? In a non Christian country it means Before Common Era) The items we found could have been over 2000 years old. Ruins of ancient buildings and temples were spread around the area and it was ours to explore alone.
That night we slept on a beach which was deserted except for a visit from a local family with their battery powered purple light. We paid them a visit amongst the swarming mosquitoes to find them huddled on a blanket under the light. The mother was sitting cross-legged with scissors in hand, wrapped up in heavy clothes to guard against the masses of mosquitoes. As the swarms of black beetles flew in to the light, the family would snatch them and throw them onto the blanket. Mum would grab them and instantly snip off their legs and wings as though she were trimming her roses. I still have a very vivid image of those poor legless and wingless beetles lying on their backs with two black eyes staring up at me. Deep fried beetles!
Thailand is certainly providing us with a roller coaster ride. Spectacular coastline and islands, idyllic islands and ancient histories still haunted by the tsunami devastation. Crazy Thai drivers who behave erratically and speed along even in the motorcycle lane. Quiet times and tourist mayhem.
We head north on the Thai Peninsula to search for more secret beaches, 24 hour hotels and eventually the mountains of the north. And the clutch!
For the History buffs:
Andaman Coast Trade Routes information