Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

Blogging since 2003. Thank you for reading :))

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Into the heart of Thailand

Dec distance: 1,152 km

Mon 25 - Sun 31 Dec
Phuket to Bangkok, 952 km

My past three expeditions in as many years took me from Singapore through Malaysia to at most 100 km into Thailand. This year, I head further north, by air - to Phuket, then ride to the heart of Thailand - Bangkok. This time, as was with previous rides, something chilling happens. In 2003, violence rocks my destination days after my ride. In 2004, a tsunami misses me during the ride. In 2005, floods wreak havoc days before my ride begins, causing deaths of some and evacuation of thousands. In 2006, bombs go off hours after I leave Thailand.

Ride overview
125 DecKhao Lak
Khao Lak Tony Hotel
226 DecRanong
Royal Princess Ranong
327 DecChumpon
Chumpon Grand Palace
428 DecPrachuap Khirikhan
Hadthong Hotel
529 DecPetchaburi
Royal Diamond Hotel
630 DecBangkok
Bangkok Centre Hotel
731 DecBangkok
Total 952

Ride highlights
What I learnt (personal firsts)
1. Packing my bike into a bicycle box. The most useful webpage I find is Box your bike (most of the information there is useful, though I made my own modifications like using styrofoam to prevent the box from being crushed when baggage handlers inevitably place the box on its side instead of the right way up.
2.  Using chamois cream instead of vaseline (thanks, VL)
3. Taking a group photo (including self-portrait) while on the move
4. Drafting a van (look below the bumper, around the side and through the windscreen; when drafting a biker, look between the legs instead of just the rear tyre).

What I'm still figuring out
1. Why, for almost 1,000 km, I've seen only one Siamese cat in Siam
2. Why Thailand is almost litter-free though litter bins are widely unavailable, while Singapore is litter-filled (but for the cleaners) though litter bins are widely available
3. Why there is broken glass on the road (more so than in Singapore or Malaysia)
4. Why hot Milo and and well-known isotonic drinks are practically unavailable. However, some shops sell a local, yellow-coloured isotonic drink that is very sweet
5. Why almost all the hotels we stay in have a "no bikes in room" rule though the rooms are big enough.

A holiday is hard work
Day 1: Mon 25 Dec, Phuket to Khao Lak, 81 km. I spend over two hours yesterday removing bicycle parts, bubble-wrapping them and packing my bike into a bike box. I'm concerned the box might not fit into a taxi, so I walk around a carpark measuring taxis. A box measuring 135.5 x 76 cm (width doesn't matter that much) would fit into the usual Toyota Crown taxi. Today, I wake up at 4 am to catch my first-ever budget air flight. It's hard work unpacking my bike and getting it ready in Phuket. Our bike leader is "Ant" - of the flying ant kind - as he leads the roadies while on a moutain bike wih 1.5 inch tyres and so-so components. It's a bad start for me. My pen doesn't work though I dip it in hot water and steam it at the Singapore airport cafe. My tyre punctures. My waterbottle, veteran of three expeditions, cracks on Day 1. My cable housing cracks in sympathy. My mind is about to crack too as I start too fast and drop faster behind the rest (most of the 11 in the group are on road bikes). I haven't fully recovered from my cold.

Khao Lak is tsunami territory. It commemorates the second anniversary tomorrow, at the site where a two-storey, bungalow-sized police boat was swept hundreds of metres inland. At its swiftest, the tsunami had travelled as fast as a jumbo jet. In its wake, tsunami warning signs dot the landscape. I visit the tsunami museum and see signs of the worldwide outpouring of help offered to the Thais.

Slower than a butterfly in a headwind
Day 2: Tue 26 Dec, to Ranong, 206 km. I'm careful not to cycle too fast at the start and burning out too fast. FT passes me and pulls me along for several km but I give up. It's hard when the rest stops are 50 km apart regardless of terrain. It's no wonder that Thailand rhymes with "highland". I amble along at touring speed; slower than a butterfly in a headwind. The countryside looks like Malaysia, dotted with mosques and coconut trees. The locals are clad in sarongs and tudungs. I entertain myself by blowing my nose while on the move; it's hard to drink with a clogged nose.

I keep cycling alone until flying Ant whizzes by. I latch onto his slipstream desperately. The only reason I keep up is, he's riding up hills on his big chainring, on roads that pass peaks reaching up to 1,400 km. It gets dark. I have a rear blinker. There are no street lights. I keep my front wheel away from his rear wheel and from the side of the road, by cycling on the straight and narrow - the thin white line. Light from the headlights of passing traffic helps. I wonder if I should remove my sunglasses but keep them on as insects and other unidentified flying objects hit my face. If they hit my eye, I'll be blinded. I'm the last one in, 40 minutes after the others had arrived. My body screams silently in pain. My engine is still "running" and I have a sleepless night.

The butt of jokes
Day 3: Wed 27 Dec, to Chumpon, 135 km. The first batch (of slower riders) leaves one hour ahead of the rest. I stay back to soak my aching body in the hotel hot tub, which is filled by hotspring water from the tap, before setting off with the rest. After a near collision when a cyclist in the peloton screams and swerves, my heart pumps harder and I ride solo, at my own pace. The fastest rider, B, is the last to leave town as he has his carbon-soled shoe stitched after it fell apart. Also falling apart is my butt; it is forming a community of butt sores. I am momentarily distracted by the Isthmus of Kra and my first sighting of Myanmar. I lick the salt from my lips, as I take a licking from the terrain. Thais are tough. In Singapore, people ride from, say, Ang Mo Kio town to Pasir Ris town (halfway across the island) and consider it a big deal. In Thailand, the distance from one town to another can be over 100 km, which is more than double the length of Singapore.

At the hotel, some cyclists ask for massage. The masseuses who showed up aren't quite dressed for the job ... I don't have a good time in bed either, because I had a bad dream about the office. But I'm glad I had the nightmare, as it meant I fell asleep!

Night cycling
Day 4: Thu 28 Dec, to Prachuap Khirikhan, 215 km. There's an edict that night cycling is banned. I also have a 5 mm gash on my new tyres. The peloton powers away as I stop to fix my flat. The support vehicle comes along and I hold on to it for dear life as it goes over 40 km/h. When it gets too hairy, I let go. Holding onto a moving vehicle is a personal first but I don't want it to be the last thing I do. As I try to catch up with the peloton, the picturesque seaside is scant consolation. Thailand is so hilly, even the coastal road is over rolling hills. A helpful roadie, EL, sticks around to help me navigate the maze of seaside roads.

I catch up with the pack at a rest stop. To get a headstart, I take a shorter lunch break, to beat the "stragglers go up the van at nightfall" edict. There's 60 km left to go and two hours of daylight left. Stress, stress! VL passes me and I hang on to his slipstream like a stray dog hanging around for scraps. Other than those who went up the support vehicles on their own free will, the rest of us stay on the road; I guess the edict is no more. I'm so hungry, I eat two cereal bars while on the road. I'm glad I've made it so far - on a mountain bike.

Bike surfing
Day 5: Fri 29 Dec, to Petchaburi, 181 km. My butt is blue-black; this hasn't happened before in about 31,000 km of cycling. KB drafts me for a while; we're among the last riders. I ride the slipstream of passing vehicles; this is the bike equivalent of wind surfing. When a motorbike with a sidecar passes me, I abandon bike surfing and draft it. In the process, I provide some family entertainment, as the two adults and child look at me tagging along. Too bad the fun ends only after 10 km.

Cyclists start dropping out today, leaving just me and the fast group. I bring up the rear, with the safety van behind me. My eyes are glazed, so much so I almost ride into a car going against the traffic, heading right for me. While motorbikes going against the flow are common, I didn't expect a car. I nonchalantly steer out of harm's way, too tired to panic. The safety van behind me stops but I fail to realise this. Soon, I'm not sure where I am, having made a few turns on my own. Fortunately, I'm in the right vicinity, just the wrong spot. Success is sometimes closer than it seems! The lead riders leave. I stuff my face then get back in the saddle. The driver lets me draft the van, usually around 32 km/h, non-stop for two hours. It's an exhilarating experience. I also find that putting aloe vera on my butt helps.

The end is here
Day 6: Sat 30 Dec, to Bangkok, 134 km. I have the pleasant company of EL and KB today. At the 60 km mark from Bangkok, most riders go up the vehicle, leaving just four riders including me. Again, I bring up the rear. I draft a van, which now goes at 39 km/h. Sweat, sweat. I hear traffic in Bangkok is bad. Having biked in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur , I want to see how bad Bangkok is. As it turns out, I feel safer than in Singapore. There's a risk of getting lost though, as traffic lights and drivers who cut in can separate riders behind from those in front - unless those in front look after those behind.
Reaching the hotel is an anti-climax. Not that I expect a marching band ... but what greets me is the chore of boxing up my bicycle. I'm the slowest to finish the job. I then head for Chinatown and head for Patpong (where the sight of dancing girls in thongs scares my sandals so much, it breaks a strap) and the night market at Silom (where a street vendor seems to have better negotiation skills than I have, though she says I bargain like a Thai).

Day 7: Sun 31 Dec, Bangkok, 0 km. Non-cycling day. It's a no-alarrm-clock day too but somehow I get up at the same time as in previous days. A few of us head to Chatuchak market, where I practice my negotiation skills again. I ask for a discount, the vendor refuses to budge. I name a price, the vendor asks his boss, who pauses, then nods. Was that a show for my benefit or did I get a fair deal? I guess I'll never know. But I know I'm glad I did this ride.

Bad omens are harbingers of bad things to come - but not always. This ride had many bad omens - "training" of less than 100 km a week, a pen that doesn't write, a "veteran" waterbottle that springs a leak and a tyre puncture at the start of the ride. The ride ends well; I've several saddle sores but I'm otherwise unscathed. Only four of out of 11 make it from start to finish and I'm the only mountain biker among the four.

Now that I've given my bike a holiday, I'm taking a holiday from my bike for a while, until it becomes a pleasure again to sit on it. I'll also take a break from bananas, kuay teow and fried rice, my staple food for the past week. 

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