Monday, October 27, 2014

STR Adventure Day 7 - Kraburi for golden sunsets. 65km

Climbing a hill with Burma across the river!  Pic KC

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It was hard to leave Le Ranong! Khun Nok spoiled us rotten with a superb Western breakfast and thoughtfully got some special rice cakes for us to take along for energy. With such personalized and caring service, we could not help but promise her that we shall be back. 

We left reluctantly and painfully, but not before taking a group pic with Khun Nok and of course, dear old Butter. As we set off, it was so touching to see Butter pottering alongside us until he was called back.

Our destination today was simple - Kraburi. It sits at the halfway point between Ranong and Chumphon along Highway 4 and is just another insignificant town that most traffic just whizz pass, so we thought. Doing the whole 130km in one day was a bit too ambitious for us and we were not in any hurry.

We decided to take the scenic small road 4010 up north that hugged the Kra River as we hoped to see more of Burma. Just a few minutes out of Ranong, we passed by the largest tomb ever. There were people stopping their cars and paying respects. This belongs to Phraya Rattanasetthi (Khaw Soo Cheang), Ranong’s first governor, who made his fortune in tin mining, shipping and supplying labourers.

This section of the trip must surely be one of the nicest for cycling as traffic was almost non-existent and the roads were beautiful. Riding alongside Burma just across the river together, we felt a very special sense of bonding. There were enough hills to keep things interesting and although one or two were a bit of a challenge, it offered us spectacular views.

As it went into late morning, the hot sun was starting to bake us all alive and the only way to survive this was to ride faster, and take advantage of any shade possible. At this point, we were all wishing for rain. Riding in the rain in this part of Asia is actually very pleasant and cool. But alas for today, it was not to be.

At our first re-group and drink break, we were fortunate to witness a local religious ritual.  August is the Festival of the Hungry Ghost where the Chinese believe that the gates of hades are open and the spirits go wandering. Thus, offerings are put out to appease them in the hope that if they are happy, the spirits will not disturb anyone.

Highway 4010 soon joined up to the major Highway 4. Although we were expecting a whole lot more traffic, we were pleasantly disappointed. The Kraburi District of Thailand must be one of the least populated part of the country and that to us, is actually what makes this ride so attractive. Because of the stress free and easy going nature of the countryside, people here are always so warm and hospitable. 

Pic KC

As the temperature was hovering around 45c according to my Cateye cyclometer, we made it a point to hydrate ourselves frequently. We took refuge from the heat and drank lovely cold drinks at a local sundry shop, desperate to keep out body temperature down.

It was then that we saw 2 touring cyclists in yellow passing in the opposite direction and that got us all excited. When they saw us waving hellos,  they decided to U Turn to say Sawadee Kup. 

Pic KC

Turns out that these 2 interesting gentlemen were retired folks, one an ex-policeman. They were heading south across the mountain range and were fueled by beer! They carried a 6 pack on their rear rack. One rode the renown Surly while the other had a most impressive customized bicycle. Mr Fix It saw that my handlebar tape was coming loose and immediately went about to put it right, using a rubber band since we all did not have any tape. Kindness like this just makes touring Thailand so special.

Meanwhile our own Mr Fix Its, KC and George, could not but help admire the customized bicycle where it had a very unique cockpit. Obviously a lover of music, it had its own radio and special racks to house his different packs.

We did not travel very far before we were stopped in our tracks as we rode past a row of shops. My eyesight sharpened by hunger pangs, spotted Wanton Noodles and it was a no brainer to make this our lunch break. Turned out to be the best decision for the day as the noodles were amazingly "Aroy" (delicious in Thai) and the owner just gave us buckets of ice and cold water. You can say our joy was made full.

As we moved to another shop for coffee, a gypsy looking local on a bicycle showed up looking for a cold drink and respite from the heat. That got Jan a little worried but we were only too glad to buy him an ice milo as we were all in the same boat, united by the paddle, I mean saddle. This gentleman turned out to be a retired teacher and was very knowledgable and well travelled, having been to Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. He could tell us the Presidents and Prime Ministers of all these countries. His touring style was bare feet, loose clothes, a hat and a flute. His bicycle was also fascinating, a simple steel frame bike with 700c wheels that have probably seen more mileage than all 7 of combined.

Pic KC

Khun Chuchat hails all the way north in Chiang Mai some 1000km away and invited us to visit him when we are there. He was hilariously chatty and obviously a man of many talents. He entertained us in ways which we least expected!

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When Chuchat finally left us, it was time for us to hit the road again. Not willingly I must add as the heat was still very oppressive and our stomachs were full. We all would much prefer a siesta but the thought of riding in the dark got us all spinning once again. We were not too far from Kraburi so we just bit the bullet and pushed on.

Pic KC

After just one more drink break, we cruised happily into the outskirts of Kraburi town. My research on Crazyguyonabike informed me that there was a bicycle friendly resort called Pannika just 1-2km from town. And to look out for a bicycle sign, literally. Sure enough, we spotted it easily.

The owner Aungkana, a gregarious lady, seemed very thrilled to see us and treated us like old friends thanks to the many touring cyclists that have "smoothen" the path before us. Pannika is certainly not a 5 star resort but more a very simple local family run business. What was important for us was that it has cold air-conditioning, clean rooms and sheets, is bicycle friendly and has attached bathrooms. With all these boxes ticked and for a very reasonable 500B or so, we checked in happily.

Aungkana showed us proudly the guests book of her many satisfied cyclists and offered to take us sightseeing on her own bicycle. That was awfully nice of her. Problem was that her bicycle was a bit crook but with all the talented mechanics we have in Pete, George, KC and Ying Chang, it was soon good to go.

It was quite interesting to ride through the town centre with Aungkana because everyone seems to know her. The circus was in town and we were the colorful clowns! We would ride and then stop to have a chat, for more than a few times before we arrived at the town's jetty along quiet roads. 

Pic KC

Facing us just 200m across the river was none other than Burma! We were told that this was one of the closest points along the river and that locals often go across without needing any papers. Our timing was perfect as the sun was just 30 mins before setting and the lightning for photography was absolutely divine. 

I took every opportunity to take as many pictures as possible and had fun doing couple shots for Pete and Jan, as well as George and Wendy. Capturing such special moments is very important.

Many of the Kraburi folks were at the jetty as well and certainly, watching the sun slowly set here is one of the star attractions of this town. We enjoyed mingling with the locals here and some enterprising hawker was making good business selling some sort of food.

Pic KC

The sheer beauty of the golden setting sun got all of us truly mesmerized. Here we are with not a care in the world, together, just enjoying the divine artistry before us. Moments like this remind me of the goodness and blessings of our Creator who loves us dearly. 

Indeed the words of Psalms 113:3 ring so true...  
From the rising of the sun to its setting, the Lord is to be praised!

Aungkana then brought us to her friend's restaurant in town for a well deserved Thai dinner and we gobbled every grain of rice and all the delicious curries. It is always nice to eat with a local who knows what are the delicacies to order. 

As we made our way back to Pannika, we spotted a Thai spa some 700m before the resort near the hospital, but it was closed. "Don't worry!" exclaimed the helpful Aungkana and she went knocking at its door. The owner was obviously a friend and was happy to oblige us with Thai traditional massages that turned out to be one of the best we ever had. This gentle and kind lady was a master of her art and all her certifications proudly hung on the wall attest to that. Khun Sahnguan's treated us like gold and it was obvious that this is her passion. She was so good that Ying Chang will be driving his whole family up just for this experience later in the year.

As if we did not have enough adventure for the day, it turned out that our humble resort had a power failure at about 9pm. So it was challenging to take a shower in the dark, change in the dark and just go to bed in the dark. The incident caught both KC and Pete midway in their shower so they came out wrapped only in their towels, wondering what went wrong. Their curiosity led them to somehow stand along the highway half naked much to the amazement of the passing local traffic, perhaps wondering if they made enough offerings to appease the wandering spirits. Not only was there an Asian "ghost" but a Farang one as well grinning to everyone in the dead of the night!

Fortunately, power was soon restored and the aircons kicked in. Poor Aungkana worked so hard to resolve it that she had to miss a local gathering of her friends. I really appreciated her hospitality and in gratitude, design her a simple website which I hope will bring her some more business in the future.

All in, it has been a truly magnificent day and Kraburi surprises in more ways than one. The spectacular golden sunset will forever be etched in my mind and my heart.

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.

Pic KC

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.

Pics KC

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. 

Pic KC

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