Posted in travel

Driving to Phang Nga National Park

I have been staying in Phuket, Thailand, for about a month and a half, and in that time I have not actually done much exploring. Mostly I stay at home, working, or go to the gym. I’ve been to the beach a few times and I’ve gotten to know the southern part of the island pretty well, but until today I had never really gotten out and explored.

Last night, I looked on Google Maps for places within a day’s drive of Phuket, and decided that Samet Nangshe Viewpoint seemed like a good place to visit. It’s a good few hours’ drive from southern Phuket, especially with weekend traffic. So this morning, about 9am, I set off on my Honda Click, aiming for Sarasin Bridge, which connects the island with the mainland.

Driving through Phuket was not much fun, to be honest. The roads are busy and dangerous, and in places they have large potholes or – even worse – have become completely warped in the stifling heat. You often find yourself sandwiched between a speeding lorry and a row of haphazardly parked cars, hoping no one opens a door and kills you. Other times, you’re going around a bend, being tailgated by a speeding minivan, hoping that the warped road does cause the bike to slip out from underneath you.

After the airport, which is about an hour’s drive from Saiyuan (where I live), the roads get better. For one thing, from the airport to the bridge there is at least a bike lane to drive in. That doesn’t mean that minivans and lorries don’t occasionally veer into it, but generally it’s a much safer passage. By the time I hit the bridge, I was pretty tired and it had only been an hour and a half.

The View from Sarasin Bridge

I stopped and walked part of the way across the bridge. Men were fishing, and I saw a few of them catch some medium sized fish. In fact, I could see that the water was rich with fish, as many of them darted about near the surface.

Then it was time to jump on the bike and find Samet Nangshe. Getting there wasn’t entirely straightforward, but at this point I didn’t care. On the mainland, driving was much more pleasant. Phuket had been busy and the roads were dangerous, but here they were open and well-kept. I pulled off the highway and headed into the countryside on narrower roads that wound through green forests. Sadly, it was not real jungle as all that had evidently been cut down and replaced by – I think – gum trees. Certainly, they were planted in neat rows and had been tapped for some sort of sap. It was sad, but at least I was amidst greenery rather than buildings.

The route to the viewpoint was pretty well signposted, even when seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The only thing was that the distances listed on the signs were completely arbitrary. I had noticed that on the road up through Phuket. I would see a sign that said:

Sarasin Bridge – 24km

Then, ten minutes later:

Sarasin Bridge – 26km

How does that make sense? On the way back it would get even worse, and I had to start completely ignoring the signs or I would go mad.

Near the viewpoint, I saw a small road wind off towards the mangroves and couldn’t resist following it. It took me to a small fishing village, where people hired out long-tail boats to see “James Bond Island”. This island, actually called Koh Tapu, is famous as the location of Scaramanga’s hideout in The Man with the Golden Gun. As with most things in Thailand, a little attention turned into a relentless procession of tourist hordes, and it has been thoroughly commercialised. I was tempted to take a boat there by myself (as they only cost 1,500baht), but decided against it. I didn’t feel like being surrounded by tourists. Maybe another day I would return.

Long-tail Boat at Phang Nga Bay

I returned to the main road and then headed on to what I thought was Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. I found a car park and bought a ticket for 30 baht, then hopped on a little truck, which whisked me up the hillside. On the way, I talked with a Thai family. They enlightened me to the fact that this was not Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. In fact, Sam Nangshe was another 200 meters along the road. I had stopped at Samet Nangshe Boutique Hotel. Oops. Oh well, unperturbed, I alighted and decided to look around. It was, after all, high on a hill and just a few hundred meters from the famous viewpoint. Moreover, there was almost no one here…

Panoramic View of Phang Nga Bay

Well, the view certainly lived up to my expectations. I grabbed a grossly overpriced cup of iced tea and sat looked out at the view. What can you say about a scene like that?

After an hour of watching the view (and admiring the Thais’ tie-dye shirts), I set off again. On the long route back to Phuket, I saw a number of little villages and enjoyed cruising the quiet country roads.

Crossing back into Phuket was a descent into chaos, but at the airport I stopped and went to Nai Yang Beach. This beach is quite famous as the place where you can see planes coming in to land, passing low over the sand. I had read that it was now out-of-bounds and that visitors were met with signs proclaiming the death penalty would be sought for trespassers! However, I could see no such signs and so I went to see if I could shoot a photo of the planes.

When I first got to the beach, I was met by a woman who told me, “This is a National Park, you should pay 200 baht.” I told her I’d think about it and drove away. About 200 meters away, I just parked and walked onto the beach. Evidently, there is only one checkpoint and you can just go around it.

After an hour, I had only seen one plane come in to land and a dozen taking off. The problem with getting a photo was that you couldn’t really see them taking off until they were in the air… They were so damned fast that they were already up in the sky before you could frame the shot. The one that landed did so just as I arrived and was too far away to make it work.

Plane Taking off at Nai Yang Beach

When I got home, it was 6pm and I’d been driving for most of the 9 hours since I’d left. I was exhausted, and my hands were purple from sunburn, but it felt good to have explored a little. I will be in Thailand for a year, and although it’s a cool place to live, sometimes it’s easy to get trapped into not doing much. You have to get out and see the surrounding areas, just like you would if you were on holiday.

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Posted in travel

Back to Bali

My stay in the Perhentians was thoroughly enjoyable, yet it was somehow not difficult to say goodbye. When the time came, after only four days, I felt privileged to have seen such a magnificent part of the world. But staying there four days was enough – sticking around longer would’ve given me no greater experience of the islands. It is a small place, and easy to get a feel for in a short time.

I took the fast boat back to the mainland at 8am and then a coach from Kuala Besut to Kuala Lumpur – two towns on opposite ends of the peninsula, and opposites in a great many other ways, too. I was lucky to have caught the bus at all… I’d been walking in the wrong direction and a taxi driver offered to take me to the station for free. The bus was the most luxurious I’ve ever seen, with huge reclining seats and reasonably fast Wi-Fi. It was almost empty, but a man sitting diagonally from me managed to spoil my journey somewhat. He had a giant hole in his right foot, which he spent most of the journey picking and sniffing and eventually chewing. The bus rolled along the spine of peninsular Malaysia, huge rocky formations shooting vertically up from the jungle into the skies on either side, yet it was hard to enjoy the view while an old man ate his own foot just in front of me.

I’d been told the trip to Kuala Lumpur would take only six hours, but it took almost nine. On the way, I managed to book a flight to Bali, in Indonesia, and a night in a hostel with a cheap airport pickup. I rushed to the airport to catch my flight, but it was delayed. Worse, my flight was with Air Asia – I’d booked on a Chinese app and hadn’t realized. Air Asia is my least favourite airline and the reason for that is somewhat related to the fact that when I checked in I had to pay extra for my luggage, making this budget flight not so cheap.

After an extremely bumpy flight, the plane landed at Denpasar airport at around midnight and I was pleasantly surprised that I was given a visa exemption. Last time I’d visited it had cost me $25 for a visa on arrival, and everything I read online said that was still the case. I strutted through immigration feeling very pleased by this turn of events.

Unfortunately, at customs, I was pulled aside and thoroughly searched and interrogated for a long, difficult time. A strange man with a fake friendly persona went through everything I owned, asked me weird pseudo-casual questions, and went as far as to swab my fingernails in an effort, evidently, to prove I was some sort of international drug smuggler. This was particularly frightening, as in Indonesia being found guilty would land you a minimum twenty years in prison, and more likely a short stint in front of the firing squad. My paranoia grew as the interrogation dragged on, and I became convinced that someone had planted something in my backpack during the bus ride, and the authorities had somehow been tipped off…

Of course, given that I am no drug smuggler, I was reluctantly turned loose around two o’clock, feeling shaken and irritated. Thankfully, my driver was still waiting, and soon we were at Gandhi Hostel, in the middle of Denpasar. I had planned on setting off for Lombok the following morning, but it was three o’clock when I got to the hostel, and I didn’t fancy setting my alarm for two hours later… The hostel owners were outrageously friendly and, although very small and basic, I was thoroughly impressed by Gandhi Hostel during my short stay.

In the morning, I rented a motorcycle from Putri, the woman in charge, and set off for the north of the island. In 2009 I explored Bali for a week or so, and saw most of the well-known tourist spots. Bali had never been someplace I wanted to return – not that I disliked it, but it’s a bit touristy for my tastes, and it had only gotten worse in the past seven years. However, with a day to kill, I thought I’d take a look around from the vantage point of a little scooter, hopefully exploring some lesser-visited places, and getting away from the crowds.

I set off north, through Ubud, and then veered northwest along a circuitous route through the countryside toward Mount Kintamani. The traffic in the south of Bali is nothing short of horrendous. Cars and bikes seem to move frantically, yet get nowhere fast. It is slow and frustrating, yet at the same time incredibly dangerous. All the way to Ubud it was like this, and the short trip took around an hour. Beyond Ubud, I deliberately kept to the smallest roads, and gained some freedom and distance from the oppressive traffic.

Bali is incredibly mountainous, and the roads, while in mostly good condition, feel like off-road tracks, going up and down steep slopes through the jungles and rice paddies. Eventually, I joined a larger road when it had come far enough north to be relatively free of traffic, and was able to open the bike up, heading uphill at great speeds, past the unique Balinese red brick walls towards the volcano.

When I reached the rim of the crater containing Lake Batur I stopped here and there to soak in the view. Sadly, like most of Bali, tourism is rampant, and it is hard to enjoy the spectacular sights because every vantage point is staked out by vendors. Still, there were perfect blue skies and the scenery at this part of the island is incredible. Mount Kintamani was mostly steeped in clouds, but at times the cover broke to reveal the great volcano, which last erupted some sixteen years ago. The crater and the lake are surrounded by sharp green hillsides which on this day were bathed in sunlight.

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I started down the road to the lake and fortunately found a derelict building site from which I could enjoy the view unaccosted. Then I zipped down to the lakeside and drove in a long arc around water to the northern edge, just as the sun was coming down over the volcano. My map told me I could take a road up to the crater rim from here, but some locals told me it was “extreme” and “dangerous.” I liked the sound of it, but upon closer inspection it was actually far more dangerous than I imagined. I made it up only about a kilometre before very carefully driving back down, defeated by the broken, steep, dusty trail, and returning along my route around the lake.

Almost as soon as I got back to the top, a huge cloud swept in and the temperature very suddenly dropped. The sun was gone, and the moisture in the cloud, along with the elevation, made it rather chilly. All the tourists had disappeared and the businesses that catered to them were all now closed, leaving behind an eerie ghost town. I drove back to Denpasar, going past the famous rice terraces, although it was getting dark at this point, so the view was far from optimal. In Ubud I was stuck for a long time in traffic, which persisted the entire way back to the hostel, which I only managed to find with the help of GPS, taking a convoluted route through altogether far too many backroads. Driving in northern Bali can be a lot of fun… but driving in the south is an absolute nightmare.

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Back at the hostel, I booked a ferry to Gili Trawangan, near Lombok, for the next morning. I was satisfied that I didn’t need to spend any more time on Bali. It may have once been “The Island of the Gods,” but tourism has caused it to lose much of its splendour, and while it is still certainly a pleasant place, I prefer my tropical paradises to be a bit more like the Perhentians – quiet, relaxed, and with the impact of humans far less obvious on the natural surroundings. I hoped Lombok would prove to be that way, as suggested in numerous tour guides.

Posted in travel

Kratie and the Irrawaddy Dolphins

I went to Lao to see the incredibly rare Irrawaddy Dolphins and yet in the end I had to leave the country before I was able to catch a glimpse of the bizarre purple mammal. The Irrawaddy Dolphin is distributed in discontinuous populations throughout South and Southeast Asia, with the Mekong having one of the larger and more accessible populations. Some viewing can be done above the border, in Lao, just near Si Phan Don. But the best viewing is in Cambodia, north of the town of Kratie (pronounced kra-chay).

I woke early and headed for Don Det’s north beach, which serves as the island’s port, and waited around for half an hour with a group of travellers until the boats were ready. It was only the first of many irritating periods of waiting that day. The next would come on the other side of the river, on the mainland, when we had an hour and a half to wait for the bus to the border. Of course, this is perfectly normal in Lao. It is incredibly rare for a vehicle to leave or arrive on time, and there is, of course, never an honest explanation given. The journey from Don Det to Kratie took some eight hours, and yet there was only about three hours of actual travel time.

So it goes in places like this. I spent the past winter in Africa, where everything moves at a leisurely pace. But at least there they have the decency to say, “We’ll leave eventually. There’s no rush, man.” In Southeast Asia they’ll always try to bullshit you.

Despite the extended periods of unnecessary waiting, and being ripped off at the border by corrupt officials, the journey went largely as expected, and I alighted from the bus at 4pm on the scenic riverside of Kratie. Once again, I was standing on the eastern bank of the mighty Mekong. The nearest hotel was Oudom Sambath, and I checked in for $7 per night. I knew I could’ve gotten a better deal someplace else, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s worth it for what would’ve ended up being only a dollar or two.

I love hotels in Southeast Asia. Outside you so often have a French Colonial exterior, and inside there are remains of the original building – ornate windy staircases and intricate cornices – but then of course it’s also fused with the local flavour, and all too often left into a state of total dilapidation. The rooms are invariably dingy and unclean, yet with just a faint reminder of former grandeur.

**

I woke up at six o’clock without an alarm and headed down to the lobby to negotiate the hiring of a motorcycle for the day. I managed to rent a Honda Dream for $7 and soon I was flying up the road towards Kampi – the little village where the locals thrive on dolphin tourism. It felt exhilarating to be back on a bike again. Between 2013-14 I lived in Cambodia and rode my motorcycle all over the south of the country. By that point I’d been riding motorcycles for seven years across countless countries. You see, I have a major addiction to these machines, and the only reason I don’t ride them anymore is the fear that perhaps I like them too much… There is no greater thrill than pulling back the throttle and bolting along the road, overtaking trucks and dodging cows, potholes, and the like.

I rode a bike last year for a few nights in Thailand, but I was on a small island and I hardly had any use for it. I would just take it out after a few beers and feel the chill night air rush by, taking dark corners and blind hills with the confidence that comes from being on holiday in a strange land, feeling invincible. Here, though, on the banks of the Mekong River, I started off slowly. I had a lot of road ahead of me and after a few kilometres just getting a feel for the bike, I opened it up and started to enjoy myself. Periodically I would slow and take in some of the sights, but the experience of the bike itself was enough to keep me entertained. Roads in Cambodia are notoriously dangerous. Where do you even start in describing the dangers – the dry dust and the wet mud are equally fatal; the drunk drivers, the herds of cows wandering unchecked; the children and adults alike sauntering into the streets; giant potholes and bridges with slats rotted through… I could go on. When I lived here, I’d hear nearly every week of someone who’d died on these roads. Yet a mix of caution and confidence makes these stretches not only rideable, but fun.

Fifteen kilometres north of Kratie I found the dolphin boat dock. It was not signposted, nor did it make itself at all visible. There was only a large empty parking area, which attracted my attention, and then a small stone dolphin. Once inside, I had to ask around, but was eventually pointed to a man in a little yellow boat. He didn’t speak a word of English except for “hello,” which was used every time he wanted me to do something. His long boat was painted bright yellow, with the number eleven painted on the front. I gathered that in the high season, or perhaps even later in the day, there were enough tourists to fill at least that many boats. For now, though, it was just me. I had come early because I figured that’s when it would be best to see the dolphins – on a tranquil river without other boats.

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We puttered out onto the river and headed north for forty-five minutes against the fast flow of the water. It was an overcast day, but beautiful in its way. Ominous clouds hung over the trees on either side. We saw men fishing with large woven baskets. The river seemed high – I suppose this is wet season, after all – and there were seemingly tall trees only just sticking out above the water level. The fishermen used these to anchor their boats or baskets.

Eventually my boatman pointed and shouted “Hello!” which I took to mean there was a dolphin. Indeed, as I stood and steadied myself, I saw a large purple shape briefly protrude above the water’s surface and then slip back into the thick brown water. I hurriedly snapped some photos, but fortunately the dolphins – I believe there were three or more – stuck around for several minutes. The boatman said “hello” again and waved me to the back of the boat, from where I could see clearly. These odd alien creatures took turns breaching and making snorting sounds, then disappearing. Unlike their oceanic cousins, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are shy and don’t seem at all playful. They look more like small, purple Orcas with their bulbous protruding foreheads than dolphins. Sadly, these weird and ethereally beautiful animals are endangered and badly in need of protection. I felt privileged to have seen them in their natural habitat before it is too late.

The boatman seemed content that he had successfully delivered a dolphin – actually, at least three of them – and took me quickly back to shore. It was still early and I had achieved my goal for the day.

So what next?

I point the bike north and continued up along the eastern bank of the river, mostly going slow and admiring the beautiful wooden homes on high stilts, sometimes painted blue, and always in a flurry of activity. Kids, chickens, old women, and cows came and went freely, though all careful to keep out of the rising sun. As I headed north, the roads became quieter and yet more treacherous, in their own way. Though hardly perilous, the thick, wet mud made it a challenge to keep the bike upright, and made the going slow. On several occasions I had to support myself with my feet just to keep from falling over, and my legs were covered with mud up to the knee. I never strayed from the road, yet it was at times very much like off-road biking.

Sometimes, though, I was able to unleash the power of the little bike and whip up the road with the wind in my face, causing streaks of tears beneath my sunglasses, which dried in an instant. There were great big dragonflies in the air and periodically they smacked into my face. Once one got stuck under my sunglasses and nearly blinded me for a moment, and elsewhere, when going fast enough, one crashed into my head just beneath the helmet, and left an small, dark bruise.

I passed through small villages and towns and eventually came to Sambour, where I took some backstreets and ended up at a small temple, called Vihea Kaok. There was a mighty tree stretching in all directions, giving much needed shade to weary monks retiring from the heat. Many child monks were practicing in a building nearby, and a huge golden Buddha sat upright in the main temple building. I moved on quickly, finding another temple – this one evidently more important than the first. Whereas Vihea Kaok was sleepy, this temple was positively buzzing with activity. This was the “100 Pillar Temple,” so-called because there were many pillars holding the building up. A swarm of children begged me for money but quickly gave up and fought each other over a coconut.

I had an early lunch at a street-side restaurant near the temple, where, miraculously, the proprietor spoke enough English to take my order, and then I took off once again, heading further north. The road continued endlessly along the bank of the Mekong. Sometimes it was possible to ride fast, and at other times it would’ve been suicide. Sometimes there were just empty fields or trees, and sometimes more houses on stilts. Always, though, the big brown river to my left, the red road underneath me, the blue sky above, and dark green to my right.

I began to feel the sun had taken its toll on me and, at a random bridge – just one of many I’d crossed that day – I turned and headed back. The thought struck me to put my GoPro on my helmet and film the ride. It had been pleasant – scenic, even – on the way up. I stuck the camera on my head and took off back down the road. Halfway down, I realized it was pointing up at the sky, and then it flopped down and filmed my forehead for a while, but eventually I got it filming straight ahead. Driving in Asia has become so normal for me in some ways. I wonder if in 50 yrs I’ll look back at the insanity and laugh…

My ride came to an end when I pushed the bike too hard on an empty tank and it sputtered and died on another rickety bridge. I was able to roll it off and then push it to a nearby shop, where an old woman sold me a litre of petrol. The bike still wouldn’t start easily, and I had to kickstart it into action.

I intended to go all the way back to the hotel without stopping, but I spotted an interesting pagoda – Sombok Pagoda – on the only hill for miles around, and had to stop and take a look. I brought my bike to the bottom of a flight of about a hundred stairs and climbed very slowly to the temple. It was eerily quiet – or at least it was eerie until I spotted a sign that said this was a place of silent meditation. In any case, there were no people around. I wandered about and climbed yet another two flights of stairs to the very highest point for many miles around – a small pagoda with a few stone buddhas littered about. The view was obscured by trees growing from the hillside, but through their branches you can see for miles over the flat lands surrounding Kratie, and across the vast Mekong.

After the pagoda, I finally returned to my bike and gently encouraged it back to town. It limped and whined and eventually rolled up onto the pavement outside Oudom Sambath, completely empty of petrol and encased in solidified mud. I had dinner at Red Sun Falling and then watched the sunset from the roof of Silver Dolphin.

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