Another instantly different as you cross the border experience. On our ferry there was a monk and a ladyboy. On land, the forests looked wilder, not the regular rows of plantation palms we had seen for much of Malaysia. People no longer wore motorbike helmets or their jackets on backwards as they zoomed around on mopeds. There were A LOT of pictures of the King. The alphabet is crazy and we were not totally clear how much a baht was, but the road was good and Satun seemed a friendly town. Most importantly, we found a motel with cable TV, to watch the mighty Imps play Burnley in the FA Cup.
After a winning first dinner of pad Thai and banana rotis, we enjoyed watching the winning Imps and looking at some island options. Tiny Bulon Leh caught our eye, so we pedalled to Pak Bara for the ferry service. It was a scenic boat ride, with towering limestone stacks, blue sea and Bulon’s beautiful curve of white sand. Getting on to the beach was a little trickier. We had to transfer to a long tail boat (just like in every travel brochure picture of Thailand) to get from the speedboat to the sand. Getting the bikes off the long tail needed one person on the boat passing the bike to the other, stood in the sea, to carry above the water and up the beach. Two bikes and eight panniers took a few trips.
We hadn’t booked any accommodation as we had heard that you could make a donation to the school and camp just back from the beach. This turned out to be true, so we put our tent in one of it’s best spots of the whole trip. There were a few downsides to camping, mainly the ants and the heat, but the location made up for the discomfort. White sand, turquoise water, blue sky – like an episode of Death in Paradise without the ‘impossible’ murder, only four suspects and Ardal O Hanlon. (That’s right, we are fully up to date on all the big changes back home).
Bulon is a great size for exploring and I would recommend a visit if you are in the area. It’s small enough to walk all the ‘roads’ in a few hours, yet developed enough that there’s a good range of accommodation and choices for eating. We snorkelled, saw lots of fish, and circumnavigated the island by kayak, only getting a little bit seasick. We also enjoyed hanging out with Andrew and Marcy, two cyclists we first met on a train in Kuala Lumpur. (They are on instagram @convenientlylocated where you can see some much better photos of some places we’ve been and lots more that we haven’t). Apart from the sweaty sleeping arrangements, it was like a real holiday.
It was tough to leave but the speedboat ride to Koh Lanta helped. Massive chunks of rock sticking out the the sea, dreamy islands and beaches, finally mangroves and precariously built restaurants as we approached the port. There were no cars on Bulon, only the odd motorbike and a few handfuls of people around, so it had been a very quiet island getaway. Arriving on Koh Lanta was the exact opposite. We had to transfer the bikes and bags to the main jetty via two other boats. Once on firm ground there were hundreds of people in vague queues with either extremely large backpacks or wheely suitcases. The wheely suitcase crowd seemed averse to rolling their suitcases for our ease of passage. Or perhaps we just make lifting 45kg bikes around them look so easy it appears there’s no need. We eventually emerged into taxi driver alley. They all thought they were the first to make the same joke. Point at bikes, say ‘Taxi?!’ Laugh. At least it wasn’t ‘How do you cross the ocean?’
We escaped the port town and found a nice beach further south for dinner and sleeping. It was much busier here but brill to have a shower that wasn’t the sea and a room with fan still in earshot of the waves. Refreshed, we spent four days riding to our next island mini-break, via Krabi, Phang-nga, Khao Lak and Khuraburi. On the way there were some great little roads between limestone cliffs, villages with friendly people who thought we were nuts, mosques, temples, giant buddhas and all manner of other stuff to look at. We stopped regularly for fruit or iced tea or rice and vegetables. It was very hot. There was a bit of drag of touristic development along the Khao Lak coast. Imagine Skegness with tailored suits and massage instead of slot machines and chips. And a much better beach. We weren’t sure where to stay, and ended up at a bar with camping on the most scenic of the beaches. The downside was the ominously grey sky and thunder out at sea. The evening improved when my coconut shake arrived in a coconut. It then got even better when the bar staff said we could sleep on the massage platform so we didn’t have to put the tent up in the rain. We fell asleep to the sound of waves on what was essentially a school gym mat.
In Khuraburi we spent some time finding out how to get the boat Phra Tong, our next island. Excitingly, we would see someone we knew there, a good friend from university on her own Asia adventure. We were given some detailed directions and a hand drawn map.
“Turn right at the 7-11 (there were three), go past the school, 12km, turn right at the…Muslim?”
“Yes, for Muslims, 200m, ferry. Get there early, 9am. Sometimes if no water, 11am. Be early.”
We took the advice and rode early. At 8:15am there were two English cyclists and a small crowd of fisherman at the… port? Boat area? There wasn’t any water though, and the boat would clearly not be going at 9am. Jo went back up towards the Mosque to find some second breakfast. The water started rising, and some little fishing boats paddled in, adding to the crew hanging out drinking tea. A larger boat arrived, we established that this was our boat and keenly lifted the bikes on. A truck arrived with what seemed like a year’s supply of juice cartons in. These were also going to the island. Eagerly, we helped with these, thinking that once the loading was complete we would set off. In fact, once the boxes were on, the captain told the three Thai women waiting we would leave at 12 or 13. It was 9:55. Another couple who were waiting got on the boat ready. We retired to some shade, but didn’t leave the area completely as we didn’t trust the ’12 or 13.’
Our captain wandered around for a while, checking out a boat that was being built nearby, getting a snack, chatting to some fishermen. We wrote our diary, read some of our book, wondered about another trip to the breakfast place. All of a sudden, at 11:15, he pointed at us and the boat. It was time. Unlucky the three ladies who were coming back for twelve.
We toured through mangroves and saw monkeys swinging around. On Phra Tong there didn’t seem to be a great deal. We found the road from the jetty village, not so tricky as it’s the only one on the island. It is concrete and just the width of a pick up. More mangroves, more monkeys. We rode for about 45 mins and saw one lady on a moped. There were no signs anywhere, our offline map helped us to identify that a sandy side track should take us to an area with a couple of accommodation options. We selected Mr Choi’s. He is quite the character should you be passing. Our bungalow was on stilts, the floor made of thin boards with big gaps between. Great for air circulation, rubbish if you drop something. Or several things.
It was weird but awesome to walk down to the beach and find someone we knew. This was one of the least easily accessible places we have been on the trip, there was hardly anyone else there, yet one of them was someone we had known for many years. As with the rest of the country the tap water is not drinkable but 4g and wifi was excellent despite the sparsity of population. We spent four days walking the long, empty beaches, kayaking to other small islands, eating pineapple fried rice out of a pineapple, and laying in hammocks reading. Now this was a holiday. Even on the last night, when there was no electricity to our row of bungalows (usually running 6-11pm) because as Mr Choi explained, the generator was “kaput” and he had to choose between keeping the electricity for our row or the row with a family and baby in and “I choose baby of course”. The next morning we joined the kaput generator on Mr Choi’s boat for a private ride back to the mainland, to the real marina this time with other boats and everything. If the dream of an unbroken cycle to China by 2nd May (last entry date for our visa) was still on, it was time to stop lazing in hammocks and start pushing the pedals round. Fast.