Category Archives: Thailand

Sungai Petani to Koh Tao 14 October – 14 November

Goodbye Malaysia and hello again Thailand!

Our final night in Malaysia turned out to be one of those unexpected delights that make travelling the life-affirming experience that we love.  As the afternoon wore on and the kilometres ticked away beneath our wheels, we gradually became aware of an increasingly worrying noise emanating from the rear of the Pino.  A quick diagnostic suggested it was the rear hub and we decided to cut the day short so that Keith could take a proper look at it whilst there was still good daylight.  We soon spotted a sign for a ‘homestay’.  It was a reasonably new looking, professionally printed sign.  Despite the homestay difficulties chronicled in the last blog post we couldn’t help but allow ourselves a small degree of optimism.  We followed the sign down a lane and found another sign at the open gateway into well maintained gardens with some tidy looking bungalows built high up on concrete pillars…..but, sadly, no sign of the owners or any other guests.

Thoroughly frustrated by Malaysia’s homestay system and anxious to get working on the hub we decided to stay there anyway and set up camp on the concrete base below one of the bungalows.  Not long after a local man came cycling along the lane and gave us a long stare.  I waved hello.  A short while later he pedalled back, came into the garden and asked us what we were doing and how we got through the gate.  We explained that the gate had been wide open and we were looking for somewhere to stay for the night.  He introduced himself as Zachariah and proceeded to try to contact the owners for us whilst Keith stripped the hub and we cleaned and re-greased the bearings.

In the end Zachariah’s efforts to reach the owners came to naught and he had to bid us farewell as it was time for him to head to the mosque for evening prayer.  After prayers though he returned and suggested that we come and stay at his home.  In other circumstances we would have loved to have said yes, but by this point it was getting late and we’d already got all our kit unpacked and set up in the tent.  What we really wanted to do was get an early night and then be on the road in a timely fashion to get to the border the next morning, so we said ‘thanks but no thanks’ in a way that we really hope didn’t make him feel that we were spurning his very much appreciated hospitality.

Zachariah’s generous nature was not to be thwarted so easily though.  A short while later, just after I’d gone to bed, he came back again, this time with his wife and two sons.  They’d been shopping and bought us two 1.5litre bottles of fizzy electrolyte drink, a huge bag of biscuits and a 6-pack of pot-noodles!  Keith was also presented with a pile of old t-shirts to add to his bike-rag collection.  We felt so bad at having turned down their bed and were absolutely delighted by their unexpected gifts.  The chocolate biscuits in particular were very much appreciated the next day as we pedalled along.

So, Zachariah, if you’re reading this, thank you again a thousand times, and very best wishes for the imminent birth of your daughter.

It was a quiet day in Malaysia as we left it – most of the shops were closed and the only activity was around the mosques as it was one of their holy days.  The quiet roads meant we made good speed along the final kilometres of dual carriageway that we were forced to take as we approached the Thai border.

Malaysian cuisine.....maybe next time....

Malaysian cuisine…..maybe next time….

Cheap, plentiful drinking water in Malaysia

Cheap, plentiful drinking water in Malaysia

The border crossing itself went relatively smoothly.  Keith was lured by the duty-free shop in the no-man’s land between the two border control offices and was unable to resist the “buy 2 get 1 free” offer on a Scottish Whisky and so 3 litres were acquired to sustain us during our time back on Koh Tao.

Momentarily delayed between Malaysia and Thailand.

Momentarily delayed between Malaysia and Thailand.

The extra weight was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back though and as we pedalled away from the shop one of the chain links broke, momentarily delaying our arrival in Thailand.  The immigration officer on the Thai side was particularly nice and even let us indicate where we’d like him to put his little stamp – we’re rapidly running out of pages in our passports and a single stamp on an otherwise empty page means one less page available for a visa (which needs a full page).

The weather on the west coast had been much wetter than on the east, with some absolutely torrential rain drenching us from time to time, so we were keen to make good speed across Thailand, partly to escape the rain and partly to get back to Koh Tao as fast as possible to start our Divemaster training.  We pushed on through Hat Yai to Songkla, and two days later made it to Nakhon Si Thamarat where we got our 2 month tourist visa extended to 3 months.  Initially the immigration officer told us that his photocopier wasn’t working and we’d have to go elsewhere to get copies of our current visa, but after a bit of chit-chat about our bike and our travels he told us he’d go and “check if his photocopier might be working after all”.  Hurrah, hurrah, it was indeed working, so that made the whole process much easier for us and 45 minutes later all the paperwork was complete so we can now stay in Thailand until the 12th of January.

Thai truck mudflaps.

Thai truck mudflaps.

Thai dual carriageway etiquette – this is a view up the left hand side of the carriageway – the oncoming traffic should be on the other side of the trees running up the central reservation, but it was completely normal to see cars travelling in the wrong direction down the fast lane and motorbikes going in either direction on the hard shoulder.

Thai dual carriageway etiquette – this is a view up the left hand side of the carriageway – the oncoming traffic should be on the other side of the trees running up the central reservation, but it’s completely normal to see cars travelling in the wrong direction down the fast lane and motorbikes going in either direction on the hard shoulder.

The following day we put in a fairly long day’s pedalling and made it to Surat Thani in time for the night boat to Koh Tao.  It was SO nice returning to Alvaro Diving – almost like coming home.  A few faces have changed, but many remained and we joined a rapidly expanding band of ‘salty sea dogs’ otherwise known as DMTs or dive master trainees.  It’s a great team.  A range of ages and nationalities present no barriers and we feel genuinely privileged to be here, now, as part of this band of pirates.

Spooky pirates at Alvaro's Halloween party.  Arrr me hearties!

Spooky pirates at Alvaro’s Halloween party. Arrr me hearties!

Our first task upon arrival on the island was to find somewhere to stay until January.  We spent two days at Sunshine 2 resort where (where we stayed in August) and after checking out a few of the other long-term lets on offer we negotiated an excellent rate here at Sunshine.  For the equivalent of £4 a night we have a double bed (for sleeping on), a single bed (for dumping stuff on), a fan, a cold shower a sink (with actual plumbing so that the water doesn’t rush out of the plug-hole onto your toes, which happens fairly frequently when using Thai sinks), and a sit-down toilet!  Like most loos here there’s no flush mechanism and we use a small bucket to transfer water from a big bucket to the toilet, but we’re well used to that now.  In fact, there’s not much in the way of toilet facilities that could raise our eyebrows these days.

Our room is in a secluded corner of garden next to a pond full of noisy frogs, one of which sounds like a donkey.  The trees are full of common myna birds which launch into the most extraordinary song cycles each morning.  Their range of whistles, chirrups, squeals and clicks seems endless and they string all these different sounds together in long songs that never seem to repeat the same phrase twice.

There’s space to park the Pino under cover next to our little verandah, and we’ve been adopted by one of the local dogs, who went through a phase of following us everywhere (to restaurants, to the shops, to the dive school) until we took pity on her and started feeding her, and so now she just turns up at 9pm and whines for her dinner (what have we started!).  We actually had two dogs for a while and they look nearly identical except one has straighter ears than the other and is also slightly less grubby, although no less tick-ridden despite my best efforts at daily removal.  At first we were baffled by the fact that our dog seemed cleaner on some days than others and then we spotted them together and the mystery was solved.  Pointy-ear dog seems to have ousted bent-ear dog though as bent-ear hasn’t been near our room for a several days now.

Breakfast with dog.

Breakfast with dog.

Our room is a 5 minute walk from the dive school (through the resort’s garden to the beach, past a rival dive school and the resort restaurant, along a boardwalk over the sea, through a pizzeria, along another short boardwalk, onto another beach, past a bar, and we’re there).  It’s the perfect room….almost.  The only things lacking when we moved in were a fridge and wifi.  The lack of fridge was quickly resolved as Jae the vet (who I cleaned cages for back in August) very kindly lent us one for the duration.  The lack of wifi is something we’re just going to have to live with and make do with using the dive school (on the rare occasions when we’re not on the boat and have nothing else to do!).

Although our DMT course is great value for money (if you look at the amount of diving we’re doing) it’s still a big hit on our budget, especially as we’ve had to buy a dive computer each (which start at around £200 and rise rapidly in cost), a compass (we ended up with the most expensive ones in the shop as they will work in both northern and southern hemispheres and as we want to dive in Australia it was cheaper than buying two of the less expensive hemisphere-specific compasses), and a surface-marker buoy each.  We’ve also bought some cheap ‘sea-snips’ (for removing fishing nets and other debris from coral, or for disentangling ourselves or other divers who may get caught up in something), and an underwater camera.  Because some of our duties involve being stationary in the water for long periods of time (assisting in the confined water sessions for Open Water courses or simply practicing or being assessed ourselves on our skills) we started to feel the cold a bit so we’ve bought ourselves some second-hand full-length 5mm wetsuits.  These at least were not budget-breakers.  In fact at just £20 each we’re pretty damn pleased with them.  Keith’s is a well-worn, rather faded but otherwise perfectly fine blue and black suit.  Mine is in better condition, but that’s not surprising really as it’s possibly the ugliest suit in creation, and the fit is terrible – too short in the arms and legs, too baggy round the waist – but after a little creative input from Melissa, one of the other DMTs, it has been transformed into a thing of, if not beauty, then at least a source of amusement.

The world's ugliest wetsuit....

The world’s ugliest wetsuit….

...transformed!  (With Lio, one of the instructors, aka "The French Tickler".)

…transformed! (With Lio, one of the instructors, aka “The French Tickler”.)

We think we’re the luckiest people in the world at the moment.   Days start at 6.30/6.45 with some sit-ups, press-ups, stretches and occasionally a little jog along to the end of the island before the sun gets too high.  We then have breakfast on our little verandah, often accompanied by one of our dogs, and then, depending on when the boat’s due out, we head along to the dive school for sometime between 7.30 and 10am.  We check the roster, prepare kit bags for customers and ourselves and then, one of my favourite parts of the day, we jump into a little longtail boat for the short trip across beautiful Chalok Bay to the Sea Cutter: our very own pirate ship.  I cannot imagine a better commute to work.

Once on board we prepare the boat for the instructors and customers – turning all tanks so the valves face towards customers for easy set-up, setting up the white board to show who’s on board, where each instructor is setting up and which dive sites we’re going to, and making sure all customers’ bags are in the correct location and each has a regulator.  We then sort out weight belts according to each instructor’s needs, and finally set up our own equipment.  The day’s diving ranges from observing and assisting instructors, to practicing our navigation, buoyancy, ‘demonstration skills’ and dive briefings, to simply enjoying ourselves on a fun dive.  After the diving’s finished and the boat’s tidy we either take the longtail back to shore or, if we’ve got the energy, we swim back, and then get stuck into washing and putting away the customers’ and our own dive kit.  Back in our room we wash our swimming costumes and rinse our masks, computers, compasses, camera etc, then we open our books and try to complete another chapter of dive theory before heading out to dinner, or back to the dive school (accompanied by pointy-eared dog) to watch movies with our new friends.  Our time here is passing so quickly: each morning seems to arrive only a few minutes after the last one has just been and gone, and keeping track of the day of the week is a completely lost cause.  We could of course decide to take a day off from diving – it’s not compulsory, we just need to be sure that by the end of our time we can demonstrate we’ve mastered all the necessary divemaster skills – but what if the day we don’t dive is the day everyone else’s sees a whale shark??  We just can’t risk it.  So even though we’re knackered and in a way miss the cycling, we love it here and don’t want this lifestyle to end!

We’ll leave you with a few pictures that really don’t do justice to the amazing world that we visit every day:

Two pairs of butterfly fish and a sergeant major fish.

Two pairs of butterfly fish and a sergeant major fish.

A white eyed moray eel.

A white eyed moray eel.

A pair of longfin banner fish.

A pair of longfin banner fish.

A marbled sea cucumber.

A marbled sea cucumber.

A large porcupine fish.

A large porcupine fish.

Five juvenile bat fish watching some divers on a safety stop.

Five juvenile bat fish watching some divers on a safety stop. 

A scribbled filefish.

A scribbled filefish.

A Tamar fish...off exploring.

A Tamar fish…off exploring.

Surat Thani to Kota Bharu 15 – 22 September

Heading south and east from Surat Thani brought us into a very different part of Thailand to that which we were used to, and a steady increase in sightings of mosques, hijabs, goats and the occasional use of Arabic script heralded our entry into Pattani, one of the three southernmost and predominantly Muslim provinces which form an area known by some as the ‘Red Zone’.

As we crossed the province border the Thailand we had become accustomed to ended and it felt like we were in a completely different country.  Obviously with our somewhat unusual mode of transport even in places that are used to lots of tourists we still cause a bit of a stir, but in Pattani, and the following day in Narathiwat province, there was an intensity behind the ready smiles that made us feel like it wasn’t just the bike that was an oddity.  Given that the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) advises against all but essential travel in this region we guess they probably don’t see too many westerners.  Our arrival in a cafe one lunchtime was greeted by a chorus of giggles from a group of teenage girls (and many of the waitresses), and frequently men on motorbikes would ride alongside quizzing us at far greater length than anywhere else in Thailand (where there are usually so many farangs that the locals are long past caring where you are from and where you are going).  We also found that our mobile phones no longer worked and Tesco Lotus had disappeared from the landscape (although the ubiquitous Seven Elevens were still a reassuring presence).

In Pattani and Narathiwat we were often subject to friendly scrutiny.

In Pattani and Narathiwat we were often subject to friendly scrutiny.

Historically, the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of the Sultanate of Pattani (along with much of the northern part of what is now Malaysia).  In 1785 the Sultanate fell under the control of Siam (now Thailand) and later on, in 1909, the British (who were the colonial power in the Malay peninsula from 1874 – 1946) decided they wanted to extend their hold north and take the southern Thailand provinces for their own.  An agreement was signed with the King of Thailand giving Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat to the Thais who in return gave Kelantan (northern peninsular Malaysia) to the British.  Needless to say no-one asked the residents of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat what they thought.  Separatist unrest has rumbled away for decades but the level of violence has escalated significantly since 2004 with bombings, shootings and grenade attacks a depressingly regular occurrence.

Similar signs also ask the populace to 'Stop Bombs' or 'Stop Violence'.  Sadly, the advice isn't always followed.

Similar signs also ask the populace to ‘Stop Bombs’ or ‘Stop Violence’. Sadly, the suggestions aren’t always followed.

Given the FCO’s advice you may ask why on earth we went there.  Fair point.  As we travelled through Thailand we quizzed any Thais, expats and other cyclists who we thought might have up-to-date knowledge of the situation, and the feeling we got was that as tourists passing through we would be unlikely targets for anyone wishing to further their cause.  In addition we’re not using public transport nor staying in up-market hotels, which are sometimes bomb targets. The general opinion was that if we stuck to the coastal route we’d be fine; an opinion which has been backed up by our experience and corroborated by a conversation with a local man who chatted to us in Narathiwat province and told us it wasn’t dangerous so long as we avoided the mountain villages where shootings are more frequent.  Keith said it reminded him of growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s.  Life goes on as normal for the most part and the razor wire, police or army checkpoints and the occasional armoured personnel carrier just become part of the scenery. 

Armed personnel approaching a checkpoint in Narathiwat province.

Armed personnel approaching a checkpoint in Narathiwat province.

Keith chatting to a local man about our travels.

Keith chatting to a local man about our travels.

We have no regrets about going to the Red Zone but other travellers should do their own research and make their own decisions about whether they feel comfortable going there.  For us, we think it’s good to get away from the tourist areas and see a bit of the real world from time to time. 

It only took three days to pass through Pattani and Narathiwat and we crossed into Malaysia at the Tak Bai border point – a crossing that’s not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet but which definitely exists.  We were stamped out of Thailand, took a six or seven minute river crossing by ferry and were stamped into Malaysia with minimum fuss.  We’re currently in Kota Bharu, a conservative Islamic city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia.  Most banks, shops and government offices close on Friday and Saturday, but an unexpected bonus is that everywhere is open on a Sunday so we were able to get started with our application for another Thai visa a day earlier than we expected.  So far Malaysia feels a bit like Pattani and Narathiwat but with a Latin alphabet and British 3-pin plug sockets, and without the armed guards at every corner.

British sockets!  It's been a long time since we've used one of these.

British sockets! It’s been a long time since we’ve used one of these.

 So, for now, it’s goodbye Thailand.  We’ll finish this post a few random pics from the last few weeks:

As we travelled south we saw monkeys being kept as pets/helpers.  Some were tethered in the back of speeding pick-up trucks (and apparently enjoying the ride), others travelling by motorbike, and some helping their masters with more mundane tasks like pushing this car.

As we traveled south we saw monkeys being kept as pets/helpers. Some were tethered in the back of speeding pick-up trucks (and apparently enjoying the ride), others traveled by motorbike, and some helped their masters with more mundane tasks like pushing this cart.

Money really does grown on trees in Thailand.

Money really does grown on trees in Thailand.

Tamar's rather extreme approach to avoiding comedy sun-tan marks (and skin cancer).

Tamar’s rather extreme approach to avoiding comedy sun-tan marks (and skin cancer).

The view that Tamar was admiring in the previous photo.

The view that Tamar was admiring in the previous photo.

A floppy-eared cow.

A floppy-eared cow.