Sunday, October 12, 2014

STR Adventure Day 6 - Victoria Point, Burma. 0 km

Many people go to Ranong to renew their visa, as jumping across to Myanmar or Burma is a mere 1 hr boat ride. We had heaps of time left on our visa but nevertheless, the chance to visit one of the poorest and most secluded (& beautiful) country cannot be missed. No bicycles for today though, which no one seem to mind!

We had an easy morning at Le Ranong and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at a Muslim cafe selling delicious pratas or pancakes, eaten with curry. Washed down with Teh Tarik (sweet milk tea), it left us very satisfied.

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I made a mistake of forgetting to prepare US$10 bills for the Burmese visa fee so we spent the morning trying to find money changers. Unfortunately, despite our best attempt including a ride to Tesco some 5km away to await the opening of the local bank branch, we were unsuccessful.

Khun Nok helped us hail a Songtheow to the jetty and 20 mins of bouncing around in the 30 year old vehicle, we arrived feeling very excited indeed.

Immediately, we were pounced upon by boatmen touts who obviously spotted us "fresh" meat from a mile away. The opening price was 600B per person but I've been in this game long enough not to get our throats slit too badly.

So off we went for a walkabout around town, still looking for money changers but it was futile. Obviously, there is a great need for this and the law of demand and supply should have kicked in long ago but then again, this is Thailand/Burma border. They operate on different laws!

Returning back to the jetty, the brother of one of the boatman tout offered to take us to Victoria Point and back for 350B. Strategy of playing "I'm not desperate" paid off. We cleared Thai immigration and soon found ourselves packed into a Burmese long tail boat with friendly Burmese locals. It was good that life jackets were required and we zipped off towards Kawthuang, the local name for VP but not before stopping at several inspection points.

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Arriving on the most southern town of Burma, it was like being transported to another world. Though the basic infrastructures were there, it was obvious that people were much much poorer than their Siamese neighbours. Yet, across the town on an island is a very popular Casino frequented by rich locals and Thais. A young Burmese man of 19, wearing torn clothes, came to meet us and offered his sightseeing service. He wanted 200B but we managed to get it down to 150B each and he seemed pleased with that. His English was decent enough and his warmth endeared him to us. Our first stop was the immigration office, and we had to walk 50m from where our boat docked. There was no control whatsoever, so if one decided to just scoot off in the other direction, so be it!

The immigration officials were very friendly, and it was good to see their earnestness in trying to welcome visitors. Burma was formerly a British colony and many of the older Burmese can speak decent English. However, the standard of English has obviously dropped a bit since Her Majesty's troops left in 1948.

Our guide got us into a very nice Toyota Hiace mini-bus and our first stop was to see some important folklore statues at the waterfront. The lady is said to be the mother of the nation and her children the citizens. We gathered obediently to take the obligatory group picture as instructed by our young guide.

It was then back into our lovely aircon mini-bus, which struggled up some very steep hill to reach the park of King Bayint Naung where we once again, took another group picture. Playing the tourist was certainly starting to get boring.

Fortunately our next stop was very impressive, a huge Buddhist temple on top of a hill offering splendid views of Kawthuang. We had to pay a small fee to go in and being in the middle of the afternoon, we had the place pretty much to ourselves except for a courting couple.

Since Aug 9 was Singapore's National Day, KC was bestowed with the powers to grant honorary citizenship rights to all he met that day since he had brought along the Red and White. The zealous civil servant wasted no time to do carry out his duty to include everyone, and I mean everyone.

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Our guide wanted to usher us into some duty free places but we carried only 2 Orb panniers on our bicycles so shopping was a no no. Instead, we asked to be driven to a nice place for lunch. That he did and we enjoyed excellent local fare. 

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We were glad our guide joined us for lunch and we enjoyed getting to know him. Things apparently are much better now under Aung Sang Suu Kyi though "better" is relative. In the days not too long ago under the old Junta, protesters would be shot and citizens existed to be exploited. Though not out of the woods yet, I sense a glimmer of hope for the lovely people of Burma. It was a real privilege to meet the owner of the restaurant. She spoke very good English and had the most adorable kids. I felt very happy that we could support her business in a small way.

It was soon time to leave Victoria Point and once again we proceeded to the Immigration Office to get our passports stamped. Hopping into our long tail boat, we arrived at Saphan Phalar Jetty in Ranong feeling happy to be back to civilisation. After Burma, Ranong felt like New York City!

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Khun Nok was waiting for us at Le Ranong and we enjoyed afternoon tea at her excellent cafe. The agenda for the evening was to get a massage at the beautiful spa at the Siam Hot Springs before dinner. Nothing beats a great Thai massage after a hard day of "touristing".

It was a unanimous vote to have dinner at the same Thai Chinese eatery as the previous night and this time, we had the honour of Khun Nok eating with us. How often does one get to eat with the hotel owner? She ordered the most delectable dishes for us and her hospitality knows no bounds. After dinner, she brought us to her friend's soya bean stall for dessert, and gave all of us a treat.

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What a day of contrast this has been. So special entering impoverish Burma for the very first time for all of us together and ending the day with a luxurious massage and superb dinner with a VIP Host. This is what touring is all about - rich (& poor) and unexpected experiences!

Kawthaung - Pic KC

Thursday, October 9, 2014

STR Adventure Day 5 - Ranong at last! Easy 55km.

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Pic from Le Ranong website

Its nice to wake up to deep blue skies and bright sunshine. We were not in a hurry to leave as today's distance was an easy 55km or so. Loading up our bikes, we made our way to the town market for a spot of breakfast. It was great to see smoke, which meant BBQ chicken satays and we had that with sticky rice. Though this was the cheapest and simplest meal we have had so far, Pete reckoned this was the best breakkie of the entire trip so far, and he was not wrong. As we chomp on our food, we had good conversations with the locals including a policeman who was having coffee too.

Pulling out of Kapoe, there was a song in my heart at being able to cycle on this brand new day. We must not take our health for granted. One downside of a non rainy day in the tropics was the humidity, o yes and the heat. This was fine until it got nearer to noon where temperatures hit 33c. Fortunately, the roads we took were largely shaded and this made it so much more pleasant.

We rode together often side by side just enjoying the scenery whiz pass before us, with not a care in the world. Knowing that we would be in Ranong by lunch time was a comforting thought and sometimes, it is just nice to ride short distances for the day.

Ranong is located near the mountain range and it is good that the road skirts around these otherwise, it will be a hard slog climbing. We passed by a lovely lakeside area (which I regretted not stopping) and some waterfalls. There was also this interesting area called Bald Mountain.

Upon arriving in Ranong, Ying Chang with his trusty Garmin took over the lead. It was strange to be riding through busy streets after being in the quiet country for so many days but civilisation = good food. 

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Our destination was Le Ranong - a charming boutique hotel that our friend Chris Wee highly recommended not just for its good value, nice amenities and friendly owner, but for Butter, the pet dog. Here he is as a puppy when Chris was there 2 years ago.

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Butter as a young adult. Still playful!

The charming lady owner of Le Ranong, Khun Nok, welcomed us with a warm and open heart, and many opened mangosteens, all carefully cut and served with a plate and fork.  Giveaway sign of an uppity upbringing which we appreciated very much. 

There were also welcome drinks all round and for US$32 per night with 2 breakfasts, we were all absolutely in love with Le Ranong. Le Ranong also boasts of a beautiful bakery on site and looking at all the amazing pastries and Danishes, we were bowled over. The expression on these faces say it all when we checked into our rooms!

There are heaps of eateries in Ranong and just around the corner of our hotel. We chose a bright and cheery Thai eatery that had a Som Tam (papaya salad) kitchen just outside its shop. The friendly owner really knew how to make a great Som Tam and we enjoyed every piece of it!

Ranong is also famous for hot springs and we cycled there after a short afternoon siesta. As we were cycling there, we saw a little Nissan Micra honking at us. Turned out to be Khun Nok who wanted to make sure we got there safely. If there ever is an award for Hospitality of the Year, Le Ranong will certainly win hands down. 

We were amazed that the beautiful Raksawarin Hot Springs was free! No charge, opened to everyone to enjoy. A rarity indeed and it was obviously very well maintained. Kudos to the Thai local government. It was so good to soak our aching legs in hot 40c water in the cool evening of the day. We all voted that Ranong is certainly worth another visit and some of us even wanted to retire here!

Khun Nok recommended us to have dinner at a hole in the wall eatery, run by a Thai Chinese family. It was just 1km away from the hot springs area and easy to find. Just look out for the flaming wok! As it turned out, this was by far, the best meal we ever had. All the dishes we ordered were amazing in taste and quality and I discovered my fav dish of all, fried cat fish in spicy sauce called Pla Too K. 

The service was also first class, very attentive without being intrusive and kudos to the Burmese waitresses. What was even more astounding was the price - 750B or US$25 for 7 of us for 7 dishes with beer. We nearly fell off our chair and reported excitedly to Khun Nok when we returned to the hotel, who was pleased as punch to hear that. More eating followed when we discovered some dessert stores just before reaching our hotel, and this was truly food paradise!

All in, it took us a day longer to reach Ranong and in some sense, I wish we had come here earlier. But we still had another day in Ranong to enjoy and tomorrow, we shall be going for a spot of boating across to Burma. Ranong rocks!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

STR Adventure Day 4 - To Ranong! Well... almost. 75km

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We woke up to pouring rains but that didn't deter us as it just meant we could eat at Greenview's excellent restaurant once again for breakkie. They made excellent rice porridge which we all enjoyed thoroughly. The rains continued and when it eased a little, we took the opportunity to fly downhill to Kuraburi, some 10km away.

It was great to be on the road again this time at a faster than average speed thanks to gravity. As we entered Kuraburi, we were blessed to be welcomed by a huge procession of school children all dressed up. I believe it was some Royal festival, perhaps the Queen's birthday.

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With loud music and lots of pomp, we were taken in with the excitement together with the large crowds, all lined up on both sides of the road. It is moments like these that make touring so special.

We stopped at the local 7-11 to top up our supplies and proceeded to a local cafe to enjoy amazing coffees and teas. As usual, we were greeted with much curiosity and warm smiles. The clouds were still dark and the roads still wet but that not deter our caffeine-nated spirits that were so bright and high. Our ambitious aim was Ranong, straight up north along Highway 4 for another 110km.

The ride up for most part of the morning was excellent as the rains were light and intermittent. Despite the slight rolling hills, we were able to move along at a good speed. I appreciated the wide bike lanes, not that they were needed as traffic was almost non-existent and that made for a most pleasurable ride.

The heavens soon began to pour about 30km into the ride and we had to take shelter at a Muslim family's house that had a small business selling drinks. The kind lady offered us unlimited supply of mangosteens and was rather shy about taking pictures. With the rains pouring, we were literally stuck there for hours but the family didn't mind it one bit. We appreciated their warm hospitality very much.

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We decided to press on as the rain was relentless and cycled till about noon when we chanced upon a lovely resort for lunch. Business was obviously slow during this low season and the first question the staff asked was would we need rooms. We didn't but we do need a big lunch! What fascinated in this restaurant were the owner's collection of 2 Harley Davidson motorcycles and a postie bicycle.

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As we were taking off our footwear, poor Pete realised a very slimy leach enjoying a Bloody Mary on his account. That got everyone to check themselves thoroughly! A simple flame thrower courtesy of KC's ciggie lighter soon solved the problem. Strangely, that didn't affect our appetites one bit.

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With our bellies full, it was hard work to be on our foldies again and it didn't help that we were greeted with a climb. Poor George realised Wendy's water bottle was left behind in the restaurant and turned back, accompanied by our good ole dynamo powerhouse KC while the rest of us pressed on.

With the weather getting a bit challenging, we were not making good time. Riding in the rain and sometimes muddy roads really took a toll on our bikes.  We encountered some road construction too that caused some delay. Our goal to hit Ranong today was fading as it meant riding in the dark, something we were not keen to do. So we aimed our sights at Kapoe, not knowing if there were any hotels in this small town.

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We took a break at a coffee shop and waited for George and KC to catch up. However, after 30 mins we got really worried and Ying Chang turned back to look for them. As he set off, there they were cycling with bright smiles coming around the bend. Apparently, the ever friendly George had a chat with some soldiers at the road block.

Riding into Kapoe at about 5pm with heavy rains, I got KC to wait for the rest while I went to scout for hotels. At the 7-11, a very kind lady hopped on her Honda scooter and led me to one. It was really hard to communicate as the hotel staff could not speak any English. That hotel turned out to be unsuitable and as I rode back 2km to town to meet the rest, my Bike Friday hit a patch of slime on the road while making a turn. Before I knew it, I was on the floor in amazement. Tried standing up and the road was so slippery I fell again. Really thank God that none of us who had spills were injured! Gingerly, I picked the bike up and met the rest of the gang taking shelter at the local goldsmith shop, drinking hot teas and munching happily on fried chicken.

While waiting for our sumptous dishes to arrive at dinner, Ying Chang and I went to check out a newish place called DD Resort. This is located about 1km from the town centre at the back of the big school field. We struck gold! It was spanking new and ran by a lovely Thai family. I immediately paid a deposit and returned excitedly to the group who were just about to start eating.

Everyone was so happy to check into DD Resort as we all had beautiful chalets. Most importantly, we could wash our bikes and gave it a much needed lubrication. The 3 single boys shared the VIP one, and that had large, comfortable beds with cold aircon. We somehow managed to un-VIP the room with all our hanging laundry but no one minded one bit.

Though we didn't quite make Ranong today, it was perfectly ok as we were not in a race. Such is a beauty of a tour, where sometimes it's great to just go where the wind blows or in our case, where the rain falls.