Saturday, 28 June 2008

Day 401 - Kuala Lumpur

Kuala! After a few nights camping in the bush and stopping at little villages it comes as a bit of a culture shock. It makes Penang feel like a little backwater. There are people here, lots of people.

Heading south from Jeli came as a bit of a surprise, I expected it to be hilly and tough going, but in reality it was flatish and a bit of a doddle really. I stopped for some iced tea and the sweat starting pouring. I looked back to where I had come from and it seemed I was being chased by a big black cloud, oh dear, time to make a move before it catches me. I was on a hiding to nothing really, before too long there where thick black clouds all around me. It started to rain, but there was nowhere to hide, I had to keep going. I was let off somewhat lightly as it soon stopped raining, but there was thunder and lightening all around, it was only a matter of time before I took a full on hit. Then I was cycling on very wet roads, I seemed to be timing it just right and missing the lot, but I decided not to push my luck and camp out in it, so I made my way to Dabong. When I got there I was surprised how small the place was and apparently nowhere to stay, so instead I did what comes naturally to cyclists in times of adversity, I found a cafe and had something to eat. It started to rain, again I had timed it to perfection. When it eased I reluctantly got back on the bike and stood there trying to decided what to do, I should have done that before I went out into the rain, but never mind. I was asked by a motorcyclist where I was going and I said I was going to look for somewhere to stay and a brief phonecall later I was following him to a guest house, though in reality it wasn't, but at least I had a bit of a dive to spend the night in, a big dive mind you, 3 rooms of dive, I was spoilt for choice.

The following morning was full of murk, but at least dry. I had to back track 6km and a waterfall I passed yesterday had disappeared into cloud. As the day progressed the weather got better and the roads hillier. For some reason I didn't seem to be going well, progress was slow with a lack of power. At Gua Musang I stopped for more food, that'll solve the problem. I had a relaxed break as there was not so far to go, but once I was on the move again things just seemed to be worse. I suspect my speed was ok, but it felt laboured, just hard work and not rewarding at all. I plodded on slowly then had a series of little stops as I looked for food and water for the evening. Now it's been a long time since I lowered the tone of this blog by telling you about my natural bodily functions, so it's only right that I should tell you this because it has a mildly interesting ending. Having stopped a few times as I had said I spotted a public loo. I had been needing to go for a poo for some time so this seemed the ideal opportunity, so I stopped yet again. Having been to the loo and feeling much better, I was washing my hands when the urge hit me again, but I had run out of loo paper so had to dash to the bike for more and make a quick return. So after two visits I am about to set off....wait a minute, not yet! Another dash to the loo and by the end of the third time I must have lost an alarming amount of weight, and that reminds me of other story, but later. So at last I set off again, and here's the interesting bit, I felt really good, I was riding with ease, in fact I felt so good I didn't want to stop, it was as though my body had been using all its energy in clearing out the system and once its job was done normal service could be resumed. Normally by the end of the day I am tiring, but today I felt great. It was a good job too as every time I saw a path or track leading away from the road I could see a house, I couldn't camp there. Eventually I was heading through limestone cliffs and found a track, so I went down it. I passed through a rough ford, surely that meant nobody else would be down here. Wrong! I was still looking for the best place to camp when I came across a man with a gun over his shoulder. I don't mind men with guns that are visible, it's the ones with concealed guns that are the problem and you can't tell who they are anyway. He came over to me and agressively said "Yes" in a questioning manner. In a friendly voice I said "Hello" and carried on. Hmm, I am not quite sure why I have told you that, it was hardly the most exciting conversation in the world! So I found a nice spot and put the tent up and blow me, 10 minutes later a JCB came past and 100m further on I could see tree disappearing before my eyes. Is nothing sacred? A few minutes later a truck arrived, then left full of earth and the process was repeated until the JCB left at 8pm when it got dark.

More murk the following morning, either that or the JCB had demolished the limestone cliffs while I had been asleep. I set off and ready for an early breakfast, but there was nothing, typical! I stopped at the first place I found and had rice and something washed down with milk tea. The tea here is great, normal tea with condensed milk added that sits at the bottom of the glass, so I can never resist a spoonful of the milk dragged up from the bottom, delicious. When I am home I hate sweet tea and coffee, but my body seems to want it now and I love the stuff. I stopped off in Kuala Lipis a nice little town with some colourful old colonial buildings. I used an internet cafe but the power went off 5 minutes after I had arrived, though thankfully they could still serve hot sweet tea in the cafes. I carried on a bit further to Benta, an easy flat ride after the hills of the morning. The weather looked bad again and I was undecided what to do, so I popped into the police station and asked if they knew of a homestay. A quick phonecall later and he had found a place, a small room with a television that showed just one channel that proudly stated it could only be viewed in Malaysia, I am not surprised, nobody else would want it. Later I changed my mind on that one though as they show the Euro semi final between Germany and Turkey, so I was sorry to see that Germany won 2-1.

The following day was surprisingly easy through Raub to Bentong, where I stopped in a cafe. They were showing the Germany v Turkey again, so I didn't take much interest, until Turkey scored with 3 minutes to go to make it 2-2. How can that be? It was 2-1 last night! Had I been dreaming? Basically yes, because Germany scored another with seconds to go, the excitement last night was just too much I must have fallen asleep. I then had to cut through the mountains towards Kuala Lumpur, the easiest way was the expressway, to I joined that for a few kilometres to Bukit Tanggi, another cafe, more food, isn't life wonderful. But once again through the mountians it was hard to find anywhere to pitch a tent, so I followed the road through the village and by heck it was steep. People called out "Where are you going?", but I failed to answer as I was using all my effort and breath on keeping moving fast enough so that I didn't topple over, if I could have answered I probably would have said "I don't know". I felt I was on the road to nowhere but having put so much effort in to get up a very steep hill I was reluctant to go back down again and make it a wasted effort. It paid off as there was a turning signpost KL, still going up by nice and gently now. There was still nowhere to camp, lots of spots right next to the road, but it was impossible to get further back as it was just steep hillside and alot of rock. I just had to keep going, slowly and upwards. I ended up a service area and nearby were some buildings with a nice patch of grass, but security wouldn't let me stop there. A little further on more buildings and more security, but this time they let me put my tent up. Once the tent was up I sat and did a Sudoku puzzle I had stolen from the paper in the cafe, the paper had stolen it from the Daily Telegraph. Soon it started to rain lightly so I sat on a chair in the car port area and continued the puzzle. I have to say I am useless at the things, I always manage to get stuck and very frustrated with them, it ended in the bin. Then the heavens opened. It just tipped down for a couple of hours and areas at the bottom of slopes were flooded. I was offered a room inside so I made the most of it, though I think it was where the cats normally sleep judging by the noise they made outside and they continued efforts to force the window open that I had shut.

By morning everything remaining in the tent was perfectly dry, but it was a reminder not to pitch the tent anywhere that water can collect, because it collect very fast and you would soon be flooded out. I had breakfast in the services, good food the same as everywhere else and at the same price too, not like service areas in rip off Britian where they serve poor food at restaurant prices. I was surprised to find that I was just a short climb from the top of the little pass. I took the back road despite being told the motorway was best. The road was a delight, though there were a number of small landslides from the nights rain, some blocking half of the road. The mountain road continued down until I was just 14km from KL. Getting to the centre was easy as the Petronas Towers stood head and shoulders above everything else and I just aimed for them. When they were built the were the tallest buildings in the world, but now they are just the tallest twin buildings. I found a guest house that suited my pocket, though not a place to fall in love with. It very much reminds me of cabins on a ship, little corridors and lots of doors and rooms with no windows, but its home for a few days.

So Malaysia has been good so far, a sort of Muslim Thailand. The people are very friendly and more English is spoken here than any other country I have passed through on this trip. On my way into KL I stopped to look at the map, then a lorry wanted to park where I was, no horn or abuse like at home, the driver stopped, got out and asked where I wanted to go, gave me directions and parked once I had moved on.

I guess alot of money goes into education in Malaysia. As I came through the hills I would round a corner to see a massive prison like structure, which always turned out to be a school, usually far bigger than the village waranted. But there was pride in the schools with well maintained gardens, and I sensed there was competition between the schools of the area.

I mentioned my weight earlier. Whilst in the guest house in Penang they had some scales so I weighed myself for the first time since I left, I was 9st 4lbs, that can't be right. I found another set and had already put on 11lbs and weighed 10st 1lb. I would guess I am around 10st 7lbs, about 2 stone lighter than when I left, though if I keep eating like this when I return I will reach 15st pretty quickly.

So I will be in KL a few days. I have quite a few odd jobs that need to be done, but I will tell you about those in the next post, I bet you can't wait!

Monday, 23 June 2008

Day 397 - Jeli

Clement and I have been pretty relaxed Penang, ok, more like totally relaxed. The first night we were here we went for a beer, not something I do that often when traveling alone, but we were both tired and pretty much lost track of what we were trying to do and arrived back at the guest house without having had a beer. The 2nd night was more successful, somewhat too successful and every night there after has pretty much taken the same course and all this after my initial reluctance to go out. We generally head out at 10pm, have something to eat, head for a bar, stay there until it closes, then head for a cafe that shows the Euro 2008 matches on a big screen which start at 2:45, where we are joined by Parsi a German. Yesterday we got back to the guest house at 5am and my first thought was "Gosh, we are back early tonight!". Having had another late night we still managed to get out on the bike a cycle around the very hilly island. The west side is much more rural and the road through the hills were a delight. The local fruit Durian was growing everywhere, Clement loves the stuff, but he was somewhat dismayed that they were always out of reach, most of the them very high up in the tall trees. Some of the north coast was also fantastic, with really nice deserted beaches but we were soon back in the built up area.

After yet another late night it was time to move on, not that we went far, due to a late start, a ferry crossing and our paths splitting as Clement was heading back to Thailand and I was taking the long route to Kuala Lumpur. We only covered about 30k, then turned off the main road into a palm plantation and camped there for out final night together. The two weeks together has gone so quickly, it's been good fun and Clement has been a good companion to ride with, I did my best to persuade him to continue south. We talked about everything, even about our lives and emotions, the sort of subjects men don't normally talk about, though as Clement doesn't like football we had to talk about something. Whilst we were in Penang France got knocked out of Euro 2008 and every time somebody asked where he was from he was all too quickly reminded. Thankfully England didn't even get there.

The following day we rode for the last few k together into Sugai Petani, where we had breakfast and just 200m further on we split up, though I am sure we will one day meet again, but who knows where? Once on my own again the kilometers slipped easily by as my mind was deep in thought. I had covered another 50k and hardly noticed it but decided to stop at the next cafe, but the road then climbed up through the mountains and I didn't see another cafe for a further 40km, though thankfully I still felt good, though I was now on a road not marked on my map and with no distance signs so I had no idea how far I had to go. So that was 90km without a break, probably the longest unbroken stretch of the entire trip. I found a restuarant at Gerik just as it started to rain, good timing. I bought a bit extra and continued a little further before again pulling off the road into another palm plantation for the night.

Yesterday was a tough, the road just seemed to go on up forever. There were one or two long descents, but they just whizzed by and I was once again climbing. I learned my lesson from the previous day and stopped at every cafe just in case, had at least a drink, filled the water bottles and a water bag, just what I need for a long climb, a bit of extra weight. Added to the climbing I wasn't going particularly well either and to make things even worse during the night I had been bitten on the backside by something with big teeth, hard enough to wake me up, but now it was really causing me a problem, it wasn't just uncomfortable, it was painful and no matter how I sat it hurt. My backside was screaming at me to stop and I screamed back "ok, ok, as soon as I find a suitable place", but by their definition mountains tend to be hilly, so there were very few places flat enough to even pitch a tent on. I then saw a little old wooden bridge going over the roadside gully and the overgrown track had one little spot big enough to camp on. Unfortunately there were leeches about and they seem to like my feet more than the mossies did, though I preferred the mosquitos for a change. Down at the bottom of the track was a crystal clear river, the perfect place for a skinny dip shower, just wonderful and it felt or so good to be clean again. Nights camping in the wild/bush/jungle are just great, each night has different sounds, there is not a moments peace from the life going on outside, but it is a joy to listen to. I passed a number of monkeys through the mountains, but thankfully my spot was free of them.

After I packed up this morning and walked back to the road, I had to once again take off my sandals and de-leech my feet, how on earth do they latch on so quickly. The road to Jeli was pretty much downhill and after a nights rest and a bit of Savlon, my bitten backside seems to be back to normal. So here I am in Jeli, what a great name. I always love the name of places when you can eat them, talking of which I am feeling hungry. It's only just gone midday, so I am not stopping here for the night, I shall carry on for a few hours yet and then find another place to camp in the bush. Guest houses seem to be few and far between around here, but I am really enjoying being back to basics again. Once the tent is up and I have washed, the sound of the stove heating up that first brew if coffee is just bliss.

I don't seem to be able to upload photos at this cafe, but attached is a piece that appeared in the Malay Mail last Friday, it's mainly about blogging, but it may be of interest.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Day 391 - Georgetown, Penang

After a lateish night we woke up late in Kangar, to make things worse we both felt pretty lazy and getting anywhere fast didn't seem to be an option and to make things even worse to started to rain, hard. We lay on our beds and started to nod off, until a pipe poured water onto the corrougated roof outside of our room, it was deafening. I was all for staying put and reading a book, but Clement was all for getting out of the place as it was a cramped dive, a good enough reason to move on. When I say cramped, I mean to the extent that if there had just been 2 people in the room you would have had to manouver your way around each other, but we also had 14 bags and 2 bikes in there, we are talking cramped. So once the rain eased we were off. It wasn't long before we could tell it was the right decision as the sun started to shine and we saw blue sky for the first time in a few days. We weren't going far, about 50k, so we just ambled along on little lanes next to the main road, sometimes ending where a bridge over a river had collapsed resulting in us doing U turns. We met a Malaysian cyclist, David, who had just started a journey to the Beijing Olympics. He owned a cyclists guest house which we will probably stop in and recommended a place for us on Penang Island. As planned we stopped the night in Alor Setar, a place of dual identity, sometimes called Alor Star, both on road signs and signs in the town. There wasn't much there, but our room was oh so much better than the one we had just left. We were both glad to have moved on and we talked about why we had felt so lazy in the morning. We decided is was because of pushing to the Thai border with a deadline, no chance or choice to stop, so once we were across the border we could relax, the first day that we at least had the choice to be able to stop.

We were up earlier the following day. We knew we were heading south but had no idea how far we would go, on which road, or where we were aiming for in the evening. We used the main road to get out of town then stopped for breakfast after about 10k. By the time we eventually got going again it was midday, then we saw a signpost to Butterworth where the ferry to Penang goes from, it said it was 83k, yet we had expected it to be much further. It seems I am once again the proud owner of a very inaccurate map as it distances indicated on the map are much further. We had intended to take two days to get there but decided to reach there by the evening so went for a main road bash. The ferry terminal was signposted along the motorway, so not being sure if we were allowed to cycle on it, we did anyway, passing through the toll area without any problems. I was amazed to find the ferry ran every 20 minutes and was packed, despite there being a bridge a little further south which apparently we couldn't cycle over. We soon found ourselves a cheap guest house to call home for a while.

So all this is a clear indication that I am taking my received messages seriously. Rather than pushing on impulsively I have gone across to an island where I intend to stop for a few days, and so far I am really enjoying it. To add to that I have already changed my planned route down to Kuala Lumpur. The west coast seems to be far too busy, densely populated flat and boring, so I am going to cross the mountains and head down the interior, which will hopefully be much quieter and more scenic.

So far Malaysia seems pretty similar to Thailand, but subtley different. As already stated the roads are much busier, but gone are all the new Toyota pickups that the Thais love so much to be replaced by far more makes of car which are much older. I read in the paper today that it is one of the most expensive places in the world to buy a car, hence the older cars. Fuel prices are cheap, though recently the government withdrew its subsidy on fuel, so it went up 40% overnight. People here are very friendly and as some people pass us they call out "Welcome to Malaysia". Malaysia is almost entirely muslim, but it feels very different to any other muslim country I have been in. Women wear the veil but it seems much more relaxed as men can talk to women without any problem. It also a very lush and green land, whereas other muslim countries have been arid and brown, it makes it feel quite different. Food here is also eaten with the fingers, not my ideal way to eat, especially with a runny sauce. They also have 3 pin sockets here, the first I have seen since I left home and a bit of a bugger when my hot water heater is only two pin, I really miss my coffee. Clement has shown me a away around the problem by sticking my penknife into the top hole then pushing the socket into the bottom holes, works a treat. I am not convinced it is entirely safe, so if I manage to electrocute myself I would like to leave my underpants to The Farting Monk in Palain.

Our first day in Georgetown was the lazy day we didn't have in Kangar. I enjoyed doing not alot. I didn't have breakfast until 3pm, then dinner at 10pm. Clement is leading me astray as we spent the night in a bar. I was somewhat dismayed to see a sign saying "English Pub", if I had seen it earlier I wouldn't have gone in. But they did serve Kilkenny, so we ordered 2 pints and were surprised to receive 3. Apparently it was happy hour so 3 pints for the price of 2, great. "How much!!!" Compared with UK prices it was sad hour with 3 pints for the price of 4. After that we stuck to Tiger and normal UK prices, still very steep for a stingy git like me. A well dressed man collapsed, was lifted and propped against the bar with a stool wedging him in to stop him falling, he must have had his bill for Kilkenny too! It was a pub of loud music and sports on the tele. We sat by the window, not that there was a window and soon I had a woman eyeing me up and beckoning for me to come over, I declined the offer. At 2:45am Euro 2008 started on the TV, Turkey v Czech Republic, one advantage of being in a crap pub. At 3am it went off as the pub was closing. Soon we were the last people in there other than the guy still passed out and wedged against the bar. I guessed he was the owner, I was wrong, he was only the manager. We walked down the road and found a 24hr cafe with a big screen showing the football where we joined a German. As we sat and watched the woman who had been eyeing me up arrived, but the German said she was a ladyboy, a bloke dressed as a woman basically, or an ex bloke. See I told you it was a good job that my message from the book wasn't that I fell in love as I can't even tell the differences between the sexes here! We watched the end of the match, the first of Euro 2008 I have seen, and well worth watching as the Czechs were 2-0 up with 15 minutes to go and lost 3-2 with two goals in the last 2 minutes. We arrived back at the guest house at 5am. I normally get up at 6am, I decided to have a lie in.

The next day turned into another lazy day, so no surprise there. Another 2 cyclists arrived, Coen and Dienne from the Netherlands so we joined them from brunch in Little India with a mound of rice and various curries served on a banana leaf and eaten with the fingers. They have come up from Singapore, so we were able exchange information and tips of our routes and experiences.

I suspect I will be in Georgetown another day or two before heading inland, where Clement and I will once again go our seperate ways.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Day 387 - Kangar (Malaysia)

One of the hazards of staying in budget accommodation is that it is not uncommon to share your room with unwanted visitors such as cockroaches, occaisionally, geckos frequently, but I find them facinating, and ants, all too often. The evening I was in Phangnga I returned to my room with a tub of icecream only to find ants all over the bed. Even the thought of them crawling all over my body is not conducive to a good nights sleep, so I made it all too plainly clear to them that they were not welcome, but I suspected they wouldn't take the hint. Too help eleviate the problem I put the empty icecream tub on the floor at the end of the bed in the hope that they would find that more attractive. When I woke in the morning it seemed that my plan had been successful as there were plenty of ants in it, but sadly so too was the young gecko that I watched the previous evening scurrying around the walls, it was dead, stuck fast in the solidified remains of the icecream. I felt slightly saddened by the fact that I had unwittingly brought it's short life to an end, but I managed to cheer myself up with the thought "What a way to go!" It could never happen to me though, I am sure I could always eat my way out of such a problem, unless it was chocolate icecream of course, then I would suffer the fate as the poor little gecko.

The manager of the hotel tried to persuade me to stay another night by offering me the room free if I went on a day trip on a boat to some of the islands with a couple of other tourists. Being as I had no intention of the trip and it was 8 times the price of the room I didn't consider it was a good deal. So I carried on to Krabi, on a roller coaster road through wonderful tree covered sandstone cliffs. Having kept in email contact with Clement I checked into the same guest house as he was staying, Joelle having returned to France after a 6 week tour. It's ironic really as I had expected to wait a couple of days in Krabi for Clement, yet due to the consequences of the book he had lent me, he ended up waiting 3 days for me. It was like wandering around town with a local, he knew all the places to eat, and the people running them. We called in at the market to buy some fruit and the guy there asked if I was his father.....bloody cheak! I don't know if it is due to the weight loss, but I do look older and I still look in the mirror and think "is that really possible to look like that, I don't feel that old".

This post wouldn't be complete if I didn't write a bit more about the book I read, The Alchemist. Having finished I was still left in doubt as to what was going on here. The underlying story and theme was about reaching out and searching for you dreams, to listen to you heart and look out of omens on the way. Well I am still in search of my dream, but in reality I am 'living the dream', I am also listening to my heart, as best as I know anyway, and I wouldn't know how to spot an omen if I ran it over with both wheels. But did I really need to 'held' in Patong and forced to read a book that told me to basically continue with what I was doing, that just didn't make sense to me. I decided I had to read the book again, I was desperate to anyway, I needed to know and try and understand what this was all about. So that's what I did, I started reading it again, and once again I was amazed I what I was reading, though this time because it was not about me at all. Sure I could see there were aspects that could be applied to me, but what on earth was I thinking. In fact I found this read through very bland, I had none of the emotions of the previous time, but I was still convinced there was something in there that I had missed. I was struggling to find it though and the only realistic thing was that the shepherd fell in love with a woman but was told to continue to search for his dream. Was I about to fall in love, I don't think so. I certainly wasn't looking to and had no desire for such a thing at this stage. Then, when I was about half way through the book I started to read a paragraph and immediately it shouted out "ME, ME, ME". Now you may remember from the previous post that I said I was about to encounter the most difficult part of the journey so far, but what I didn't tell you, apart from one or two people by phone and email, was my solution to the problem. I had decided that I would not deviate to any attractions, but take the shortest and quickest route, not stopping other than for a rest when needed one, and to get to Australia and Sydney as fast as possible. I then slowly read the following paragraph: "Meanwhile, the boy thought about his treasure. The closer he got to the realization of his dream, the more difficult things became. It seemed as if what the old king had called 'beginner's luck' were no longer functioning. In his persuit of the dream, he was being constantly subjected to tests of his persistence and courage. If he pushed forward impulsively he would fail to see the signs and omens left by God along his path" Shiiiit! Well that seemed to make things pretty clear, delivered in writing with a poke in the ribs at the appropriate time, the only thing that was missing was a signature. I knew this was why I had been forced to read the book and I knew if I didn't want to I didn't need to read any more of it. The message had to be clear otherwise I would have been falling in love with every beautiful woman I passed, and there is no shortage of them. Whilst I sat in the cafe though, I did continue, though just a few pages further on I began to feel ill, and soon very ill. I knew I was in a bit of trouble, I quickly paid and left. In the 200m back to the guest house I was sick 3 times, somewhat embarrasing. This incidently had no connection with the book, just bad timing. I told Clement to head out on his own and I was sick again about 90 minutes later, though well enough to read that passage over and over again, I was amazed.

I would like to point out here that I am not a religeous person, though I do believe in a God, though I don't know what form he she or it takes. I don't go to church, I pray occasionally, normally when I need something, but my prayers are never answered.

The following day I was well enough to start cycling again, though I noticed that my heart rate was low and got lower as the day went on, so I probably wasn't that well afterall. At lunch we were joined by a woman that that was far to 'in your face' for my liking, though Clement took it in his stride. I am not a lover of being physically fed by anybody, let alone somebody I don't even know. We made our way to a beach to find somewhere to spend the night and hopefully find food and water. All we found was a large shelter with open sides, good enough to spend the night in. We went to the port, but there was nothing there either other than 3 small boats with men loading them. We managed to srounge some water from them, then they invited us to eat. They gave us a drink from what looked like a beer bottle, but it was gin clear and much closer to gin than beer. We made our way back to the shelter. As the sun went down so the mosquitos came out, we weren't going to get much sleep here, so we set up our tent inners inside the shelter to act as mosquito nets, very affective but too hot.

By the following morning I was dead! I can confirm there is life after death, but unfortunately it is damed similar to life before death, for all I knew I might have been dead for years. Having discussed it with Clement I decided it was the batteries in the chest strap of my heart rate monitor that was dead, not me. We stopped for lunch in a town just as the rain started, it continued for about 3 hrs. We stayed in the restaurant until it stopped. See, it's a tough life you know. By nightfall we were just arriving at Palian and found a nice bus shelter to sleep in but continued to see what else was there. We called in at a temple and were offered some space on the balcony where some monk lived. After a welcome shower we ate the food we had bought, along with other bits that they gave us including coffee. We had a social couple of hours before they went to bed.

By the following morning we were both dead! We got very little sleep. If it wasn't the kitten jumping on our tents and making a general nuisance of itself, it was the nosiest monks I have ever heard. Every they did was at full volume whether it was running water for ages, talking very loud on a mobile phone that was on speaker phone, spitting, belching and farting. I never realised monks were allowed to fart, let alone so frequently and with so much volume. We were up very early, there was no point lying there any longer. We both struggled the whole day due to lack of sleep. Once again it rained, so we had a lunchtime sleep in a bus shelter. We had to push on though as our visas ran out the following day and we still had some way to go. To make things worse at the end of the day we came to a town where all 3 maps we had showed the road we needed, but in reality it just didn't exist. When we asked we were told to go to Satun and take a ferry or have a 70k detour. We tried again to find the road but had to give up as light was fading fast. We found a small shelter in the bush (photo), just a platform 3 ft off the ground with a roof, but it was our home for the night. Once again we put one of the tents up as a mossie net, but during the night my feet hung over the edge of the platform.

I reckoned on about 70k minimum to the border today, and that's if things went well. We made our way to a village and asked the way. Good news, they said it was possible, drew us a map and told us it was only 42k. Just 20k later we were at the border, not the one we had expected to be at or had been directed to, but we were there never the less. Once in Malaysia we could relax a little. My SE Asia guidebook told me that Thailand was in the wet season, I could confirm that, but Malaysia was in the dry season. I just hoped the weather knew where the border was. It didn't! An our later we were once again in a bus shelter and watching very wet life go by, but celebrated the successful crossing by eating dried fish. We made it to Kangar in the light rain that followed. Even after a few kilometers the changes are noticable, though I can't tell you them now as I am running out of time, I will save that for another day.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Day 381 - Phangnga

I stayed much longer than expect at Patong, despite the place and Phuket not really being my scene. I was really thankful to have a good room with a balcony and the added luxuries of TV, fridge and hot water.

But I want to tell you about what I see from my balcony each morning. There is a school just below that I look down on and can see clearly. Each morning at about 8:15 the pupils, up to the age of about 11, assemble in the yard in very neat lines. There are staff there too but they hardly seem needed. A daily set of procedures then starts that includes the national anthem and the raising of the flag. Throughout the behaviour is just perfect. When the proceedings have finished they lead out in single file one row at a time, never directed by staff, each line waiting patiently for the previous one to finish, never breaking ranks. I can even see them in 3 of the classrooms, they have no windows just opened shutters, and again the behaviour is spot on, they sit and pay attention the whole time and I have yet to here a raised voice from a teacher. I bet you can guess where all this is leading to, yes me having a good old moan and getting things off my chest. Firstly, I can't imagine any group of pupils in the UK standing around for so long without complete meyhem breaking out. The little darlings wouldn't be expected to pay attention for so long, besides, it would probably be considered a breach of their human right to stand still in rows. In fairness they would probably just get wet anyway. And what about the national anthem and raising the flag, probably considered xenophobic at home. And whilst I am having a moan about Britain I may as well continue. Various incidents and news items have irritated me whilst I have been away and I am sure when I return the place will take some getting used to again. A few are as follows: When Caroline and I were sick with the same virus, her doctor wouldn't come out to see her, yet third world India had a doctor at my bedside within half an hour. After the 'instant' cash transfer to Yangon took 6 days to arrive I complained. It turned out that the only 2 parties to handle the transfer, the bank and the Foreign Office, had both wasted days rather than minutes. I wrote emails of complaint but the final repsonses I got were to the effect of "I am sorry you are not happy with our service", clearly their standards only reach as high as a very poor service bordering on the downright idle. Then I heard about the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow and ensuing chaos when just a week earlier Beijing had opened a complete new airport, one of the largest in the world and people were singing its praises. I know there will be differences in reporting, but unfortunately I can believe them both. Recently I heard of the binge drinking party on the Underground the day before alchohol was to be banned....only in Britain. I could go on. I am also getting fed up of answering the same old questions about Britain, why do we binge drink?, why do our football supporters always cause trouble?, was it right to invade Iraq? etc, etc. Unfortunately all I see is Britain on the decline, a very negative view I know, I wish I could be more positive. Take our drinking problem for example, towns centres are becoming no go areas in the evening and some I have passed through have drunken people in the streets, people throwing up, litter from take aways strewn everywhere, yet every country I have passed through I see people drinking at all times of day, yet they are never drunk or agressive. Whilst with Joelle and Clement in Chumphon a bus load of female tourists arrived at the bar we were at. It was early afternoon and they immediately ordered beers and were noisey, Joelle making the point that they were British. In fact they weren't or at least they weren't speaking English, but that is the perception people have of us when we are abroad. OK, enough, I could go on, but at least I have had a moan and got it off my chest as I said earlier. Feel free to disagree, I would love to be proved wrong and to be shown we are moving forward in the right direction. Oh, and don't get me started on motorists as I am not going to bite. It has to be said though that Britian has the busiest and most congested roads, though you may be pleased to know that they don't have they worst drivers, there is some way to go for that title yet, but they do have the most impatient and agressive drivers, probably due to the congestion. It is a joy to cycle in places where people just carry on calmly despite the stupid things that people constantly do around them. Here in Thailand it's commonplace for motorcycles to head the wrong way on a hard shoulder, but there is no aggression or anger shown towards them, everybody is calm and relaxed, a lesson we could learn. We are the best at hating cyclists though, no doubt about that.

Whilst cycling on Phuket island I have seen other cyclists, probably just hired bikes at a guess, though I can not make contact with them, their whole body language as we approach each other says "leave me alone, I am not even going to acknowledge you". What a shame. Sometimes as I cycle along, my mind wandering and miles away, I hear a call from somebody, I turn and there they are waving, I return the gestures and it always brings a smile to my face. But what I like even better is as I ride along and I can see somebody looking at me without any intention of making any contact, so I call out, wave or both. Suddenly they are doing the same and a big smile appears on their face, that never fails to make me feel good. It doesn't hurt to say hello in whatever language to a stranger, it can make their day as well as mine.

Whilst I am rambling on, let me tell you a little story. A week or so back I cycled for 3 days with Joelle and Clement from France. At some stage I talked to Clement about books and he kindly offered to give me a book, but I declined as I already had two, so didn't need another. On the evening that we split up Clement had the book to give to me. As soon as I saw it I knew that I would never read it and again declined his kind offer, but he was pretty insistent and eventually I took it so as not to offend him, but it was just extra baggage, thankfully not very big. Anyway 4 days later I arrived at Patong on Phuket and after looking at a number of guest houses and hotels checked into one for 2 nights. The following day I went out on the bike to the south of the island, but I knew by early afternoon I was in for a late finish, it was tough going too, and as I had been on the bike for 10 days from Bangkok I decided to have a rest day the following day. I did just that and did nothing and felt guilty about it, what's more again by early afternoon I once again knew I wouldn't leave the next day, though I wasn't happy at all about it. I didn't really like it in Patong, it's not my scene, yet I didn't want to move on either. The third day there was more of the same, again by early afternoon I knew I wouldn't move on. I was withdrawing into myself, spending too much time in my room and on the balcony, such a waste of time. I wasn't even enjoying myself, I felt despair, I was stuck in this place. I couldn't work out how I had got myself into this situation and worst of all I couldn't see a way out, I might be here for days yet. It was during this time that I wrote the first part of this post, probably a reflection of my mood at the time. One effect of all this was that I started reading again, the first time in weeks that I have read anything other than a travel book or a map. I finished the book I had started so long ago and thought I might as well read the book Clement had given me. I was surprised to find out that it was a novel, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, I don't usually read novels. Still, I gave it a go. Once I started reading I became totally engrossed, I could hardly believe what I was reading, it was about me! It didn't actually name me, but never the less it was about me. It was about a young man (ok, ok, but I am young at heart and it is a novel) from southern Spain who when he was young his father wanted him to be a priest. He didn't want to, he wanted to travel the world and the only way he felt he could do this was to roam the land as a shepherd. His father eventually bought him a small flock. He had been a shepherd for a few years when he had repeated dreams about a small girl who transported him to the pyramids in Eygpt and told him that there was treasure there, but as she was about to show him he always woke up. He went to a old woman who read dreams and she told him that he should go to the pyramids and all would become clear, it was his Personal Legend. He thought she was a waste of time and forgot about it afterall he couldn't give up his flock, his livelihood and the only job he had experience in, then a while later whilst in a town to sheer his flock he talked to an old man. He told him he was a king and he knew about his dreams and the pyramids and he too said that he should go and reacdh hi8s Personal Legend. This was too strange so had to be true, so he then dicided to go, sold his flock and bought a boat ticket to Tangiers in Morrocco. Soon after he arrived he had all his money stolen, he had not a penny in the world and the Foriegn Office were hardly likely to help him out (actually, I added that bit). He got a job with a man selling crystal and when he had enough money he was about to head home and buy a new flock when the crystal seller encouraged him to continue to the pyramids and realise his dream. He continued and as his caravan rested at an oasis he fell in love with a girl he met at a well. He thought this was his treasure, his Personal Legend, but the girl told him to carry on as this was not the pyramids and if he really loved her he would return to her. As the story pregressed I realised it wasn't so much about me, but applied to about 95% of the population and it was a story about urging people to realise their dreams, about omens and receiving signs, learning how to interpret them and understand them. I didn't finish the book, but I went for a walk and whilst walking I realised that tomorrow I would leave Patong and whats more I was relishing getting back on the bike, I could hardly wait for tomorrow, the despair had gone and been replaced by happiness and contentness, I felt released, free. I thought alot about the content of the book and how and why I had come to aquire it. Firstly the book had been delivered to me with some insistence, I would never have chosen it myself, I had already judged it by it's cover. Once I had it I had no intention of reading it, so Patong was a significant place to be as it wasn't my type of place, so I spent longer and longer in my room and started to read. If I had been anywhere else I would have been out and about much more, unlikely to be reading. The room was also important. If I had taken any of the other rooms in Patong that I had seen then I would have found in much easier to move on, the room I had was a nice place to stay, an easy place to stay. But why had I been forced to read this book. Well in a few weeks time I will embark on the toughest part of this journey so far. I expect it to make the last year seem like a picnic, but I will write about that nearer the time. When I go through this stage I will need to be aware of the omens, the signs, to try and understand them, to understand my inner feelings and be able to act on them and make the correct decisions. I have been on the road now for just over a year, but I feel that this is the most signficant thing that has happened to me. You could say it is fate, coincidence, that may be so, but all I know is the strong emotions I felt both before and after starting to read that book were very real.

The only advantage about staying in Patong for a few days was to see the sunsets. Each evening for about 20 minutes there was a kaleidascope of colour (photos), more than worth the short walk to the beach, just magical, magical.

This morning it was raining when I woke up, it was still raining when I left, but there is no stopping me now.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Day 377 - Patong (Phuket)

Leaving Chumphon I was on my own again. I got directions out of town from the people at the guest house, then decided to ignore them as they seemed to heading the wrong way, I find it much better to just go by instinct and the compass. Then I saw signposts pointing in the direction I was going to a beach and the port, a bit odd as I was heading in land and across the peninsula. Then I realised I had my east and west mixed up, something I do even more than left and right, so I did a U-turn and followed the instructions the guest house had given me, they were spot on. Sod my instincts! Once on the right route things went really well, I felt good and strong all day and it was a breeze. I had expected to climb through mountains, but it was a flat twisty road through the hills, much easier than expected. It probably also helped as I was back on my own again and could ride at my own pace, it is so difficult at somebody elses pace, whether they are faster or slower. Roadkill here consists mainly of snakes, all different flavours. I had seen a few live one too, some I have had to swerve to avoid. I am not sure if I would kill them if I went over them or if it would just make them angry. Later in the day I passed a signpost that said "Union of Myanmar 100m", so two months after leaving the place I am no more than a stones throw from that God foresaken land and regime, definately not the time for a wrong turning! And anyway, in whose eyes is it a Union? Only the military rulers I would guess. In Ranong I decided that the hotels would be near the port, they weren't, but the port was 5km the other side of town, so more wasted time and effort, though at least I got a glimpse of the sea, the surrounding islands looking really nice.

The next day I felt as bad as I did good the previous day, if that makes sense. I stopped for food, more rice, but I still lacked energy, so I stopped again and decided to throw as much sugar at the problem as I could, that did the trick and normal service was resumed. Looking at the map I decided to stop at the only place that was really close to the beach, about 3km off the main road. There was a lovely beach there, about 4km long and not a soul in sight. There were lots of signs about, all tsunami related, highlighting the fact that it was a danger zone and lots of sign to evacualtion points. From here on for the rest of the coast down to Phuket I always knew when I was near the sea as there would be evacuation signs. Nature and man have a remarkable ability to recover through and other than the signs there is no indication as to what happened here 4 years ago. Anyway, I decided to stop the night on the beach, but went back to the village to pick up some food. Whilst there I called in at the tsunami museum. I didn't really see or learn anything I didn't already know from the extensive coverage at the time, though I saw one picture of locals running away from the wave as it hit the land and one western person apparently casually walking towards it. I couldn't help but wonder if that man is still alive. Whilst there I was told they had a guest house, so enquired at the price. It was over my price range, but the people were so friendly and helpful that once they reduced it a little I decided to stay. The museum is in a community education centre, funded by the Americans to help the recovery from the disaster, and a lot of very good work is being done there. They had built the guest house, a wooden structure on stilts, just 3 months ago so that visitor to the centre had somewhere to stay. Officially it wasn't open yet, so I was the first person to stay there, which would explain why they were taking so many photos of me whilst I looked around it, and I thought they were taking photos for my good looks! Today also saw a dramatic change in people. Suddenly there were roadside signs to mosques, and the women were all wearing long skirts and veils, I was now in an area that is 90% muslim. Even some of the men had long beards, beards being a very rare sight in Asia.

The following evening I hit package tourist land, still 100km short of Phuket, but there were now pricey hotels and restaurants, no street food vendors and prices had pretty much doubled for everything. Then I had a pretty easy final run into Phuket, but from about halfway down the island it became hilly, very hilly. I now belted down hills and really had to work hard going up short steep twisting hills, sweat pouring off me, progress was now really slow. At last I could see the beach of Patong in the distance and soon enough I was heading down the main street, one block back from the sea front, a mass of signs, hotels everywhere, where do I start? It took me a while to find a suitable place, most were too expensive, or too grotty if in my price range. One place a little over my price bracket showed me into a very dark room, but as I walked further in I was surprised to see a window, a very large one at that. I pulled back the curtain and lurking behind was a balcony, so I went out onto it. It was still dark, a bit odd as it was still only 2pm. From the balcony I could touch the build next door, no thanks, not for me. But my search paid off as I found a big clean room with an enormous bed, fridge, TV and balcony that overlooks the town and the hills beyond, oh, and one very small patch of sea. I went for a walk on the beach (1st photo, it obviously Patong isn't it?), hardly anybody was there, but enough to keep those running the parasailing in business. Walking around I once again felt very out of place as I didn't have a tattoo. Not a problem as there are no end of tattoo places, though I drew the line at getting my body pierced. It's great having a fridge for a change, it gives me the chance to have little things that I have missed for so long, like bread and butter as there are no end of 7/11 Supermarkets here. But I was soon left looking at the empty wrapper of a loaf of bread, where had it gone because not even I could eat a loaf as quick as that. I have given it alot of thought and the only answer I can come up with is that it evaporated, it's still about 30-35 degress out here. I will buy another load, but next time I will eat it really fast to see if that makes any difference. A walk in the evening was an eye opener. Every few yard is a massage place and price lists are thrust in front of you, most are exactly the same, even the way they have been printed. I asked one girl what a Russian massage was and she demonstated by gently caressing my arm, but gentleness apparently comes at a price, 50% more than a Thai massage. There are dozens of bars, enormous ones at that, they have a roof for shelter but no walls and they stretch way back from the road. Girls are used to bring in the punters, though there are very few being the low season. There are girls dancing on tables, girls in fancy costumes, though judging by their voices they are probably men, and scantilly clad girls sit in the smaller bars to entice the men in. Not my scene really, I returned to watch Sharipova getting knocked out of the French Open.

I spent a rest day touring around the southern part of Phuket island. The west side is really nice. I passed through the resorts of Karon and Kata beaches, though hardly anybody was either in the towns or on the beaches, probably due to the imminent rain. I took shelter under a shop front as it tipped down and got talking to a young man from one of the shops. He was facinated to hear that I had come through Burma, then told me that he was Burmese and had left 5 years ago and didn't want to go back other than to see his parents. Once the rain stopped I headed off, the road climbed sharply but thankfully I turned inland to the left. Shit! It was far steeper and went of for 2km, sweat was once again pouring off, though it was far easier than when carring all the baggage, but the views from the top were worth it. The southern most tip of the island is supposed to be really nice. It was ok, but not worth the trip alone. I made way north along the east side of the island, vastly different to the west, flat, with a dual carriageway to Phuket town and built up all the way, nothing nice about it. There was one last steep climb back across the hills to Patong. I only rode 52k, about half of it flat, yet I had still done more climbing in a day than I have for weeks.

With such a hard rest day and getting back late, I decided to have a proper rest day today. I have got up and that's about it. Had a quick walk on the beach again, but it looked like it might rain to I made my way to an internet cafe instead. Patong is not really the place for me, but at this time of year it is the only place that has a bit of life. Overall though, Phuket is much nicer than I expected and having seen this island I can only assume that some of the other must be really stunning, though I am not going to be able to see them.