Friday, August 21, 2015

VSTR Day 2 – Satun to Thung Wa (75km)

I woke up early to pouring rain. The skies opened relentlessly through the night but for me, that only made my sleep sweeter. Pooh of Ti Baan recommended an eatery in the next alley for breakkie and I left at 0730 to check it out, donning my rain jacket. Turned out to be a jackpot! Not only was the elderly lady selling my fav Kau Tom (rice porridge), she did Wanton noodles as well which I bought back for Celia, who was too comfortable in bed.

The team was excited as soon as we entered the simple restaurant and formed a line like school children, placing our orders obediently. It was great that the elderly lady could speak some Chinese and she prepared the food with so much passion, thrilled to feed 9 hungry cyclists. I could not help but feel like a grandson having a special birthday breakfast made by dear old Por Por. Washed down with robust hot sweet Thai tea, Chai Ron, we were all ready for some serious wet weather riding.

It took us some time to get ready our bikes and gear where everyone had their own version of what worked. Celia "Glad-Wrapped" her shoes in the hope that it would keep out the water, otherwise it could be a heavy and soggy affair for her. Shower caps were also the order of the day. Many don on their newly purchased colourful rain coats. But for me, what works is a Da Brim fitted with a shower cap, a light jacket not to keep dry but to keep warm and Kroc closed type plastic sandals.

After a prayer of blessing, we rode out of Satun at about 10am passing the obligatory Clock Tower of every mid-size town and braved the rains. Fortunately, the weather improved and within 5 mins of riding, those who were thoroughly waterproofed with their thick raincoats were soon throughly overheated. Those raincoats became an unwelcome sauna. The newbies started stripping at a petrol station feeling a bit silly. I very wisely kept my mouth shut and we carried on, feeling much much more comfortable.

Just as we were nicely settling into a rhythm, a quick left turn into Highway 406 just 8km saw a stall selling fried bananas, sweet potatoes and jackfruit. It's sight and aroma attracted us like bees to honey. Foodies VT, Claudine and Papa did their bit to generously shore up the Thai economy that day and we were not complaining. Chomping away merrily, I was wondering if this was an eating trip rather than a cycling one.

I was glad when we started spinning again and the cool morning air coupled with fresh rain drops really invigorated me. It is always hard to ride together as we all had different cruising speeds and the team fell into its "natural" order. YC would lead mostly as he had the Garmin GPS and Lance very graciously took the role of sweeper. Claudine was another rabbit, preferring to dart out happily in front with her faithful bodyguard VT while the rest of us just went on our own pace. Uncle KC renowned Legend (for his 117km/h downhill record) was also taking it easy which made us glad. He had some weeks ago suffered a small neck fracture due to a despicable hit and run accident at Singapore's ECP.  It really wrecked his brand new Bike Friday Haul-a day's front fork. The fact that he recovered enough to join us truly is a testament of God's grace and goodness.

This route was very enjoyable as it was relatively flat and we were moving a good clip. As the distance grew, the team grew apart literally. The opportunity to regroup presented itself when we chanced upon a beautiful bed of flowers just by a motor workshop. Someone had made great effort to add colour and brighten this drappy neighbourhood and it was photos galore by the creative Uncle KC.

It's surprising how easily the stomach empties when cycling and just 7km later, we stopped for a simple lunch break at about noon. One thing about this group I quickly learned is that everyone is passionate about food. I was seriously contemplating changing my blog to Lovethefood Adventures, at least for this team. I ordered one of the my fav Thai dishes, Kai Jeow, a simple omelette with rice but was a tinge disappointed that there was no minced pork due to the religious requirements of the people here. Those who ordered Pad Thai and other dishes fared better.

What I truly appreciate about these humble Thai eateries is the amazing hospitality which is 2nd nature to these wonderful folks. There is always a large and often unlimited supply of complimentary ice and water, which we thirsty camels truly need. The people in this region are happy and family orientated and when we were about to leave, a little boy came out with his own bicycle wanting to join our ride. His parents wanted a picture of us with their Prince and we were only too glad to oblige. We wish that kind family all the very best.

It is always a challenge to ride with full stomachs and from the numerous stops we did, I wondered if we will ever get to Thung Wa before sunset. "20km before our next stop!" I urged but I knew this was wishful thinking as that was met with polite smiles with the "Yeah right!" expressions. As we set off, we were punished for our relaxed attitude by some serious headwinds and moderate climbs. At about the 10km mark, we waved the white flag for yet another stop and George took this opportunity to grease his chain at a motorbike shop, hoping this would somehow miraculously make cycling a bit easier.

Continuing on, we finally reached the beautiful town of La Ngu, which was the last town before our destination. A quick stop for drinks and some Otak Otak got us revived. YC suggested we explore this town and that was a big mistake. Just 1 min on the saddle, we spotted a mango sticky rice stall on our right and I had to stop. This is my fav Thai dessert after all, and nobody complained. We laughed at ourselves as we truly are the Lovethefood Riders. It was enjoyable to chat with the elderly Muslim owner who spoke in beautiful English and both he and his young wife showered us with warm hospitality and sweet treats.

After we had umpteen servings, we pottered through the busy town lined with shops, a school and government buildings. Making a right towards Thung Wa, we were like a Boeing 777 just accelerating for take-off when heavy rains like enemy fire from above pelted us. We were forced to take evasive action and duck for cover to don our wet weather gear.

We braved the rains which mercifully, became lighter and it was good to find our momentum again. Unfortunately with all the drinks, our bladders were getting heavier and I spotted a petrol station with a cleanish toilet. This was a real blessing stop because most unexpectedly, opposite laid a rather upmarket bicycle shop, Keem Bikes!  Like kids in a candy store, we all trooped in to ogle at its tempting offerings. The young sales lady with her baby was overwhelmed by us smelly, smiley folks on small wheels. This shop was started by a cyclist with good taste as demonstrated by his choice of personal bicycles. A fully kitted Surly LHT as well as stylish Brompton in the corner of the shop. It was nice of the kind lady to lend us her foot pump and we all filled our tires to optimum pressures, something a hand pump struggles to achieve.

Our last 20km or so felt so much better with harder easy rolling tires. We whizzed into Thung Wa through intermittent rain and this small town was a big disappointment compared to La Ngu. Most of the few shops were closed except for the 7-11 near the market but it made sense to stop here strategically as it laid exactly midway between Satun and Trang, 75km each way. While the team re-grouped, I rode off to explore dinner options and the choices were grim. A nice lady recommended us to go to a restaurant 500m south of Thung Wa and it was more than acceptable. The staff welcomed us warmly and as we were getting seated, an unexpected full blown monsoon occured. That got us scurrying further inside and we were led to a Blue Room where it was most comfortable, especially when Papa took out his Creative Boom Box to fill the room with good music. 

I was in a bit of a dilema as we had booked another hotel some 4km out of town. With the monsoon and darkness upon us, nobody felt like doing any more riding. Fortunately, the restaurant owner also ran the Captain's Resort, an abode for Officers and Gentlemen we would hope. A quick recce with Claudine and Lance proved successful and we negotiated a very special rate of 350B only. But what was I to do with my initial booking? A quick call to Prim my uni-mate in Bangkok sorted the problem. The kind owners said we could cancel the booking with no penalties. I felt so bad about this but once again, deeply touched by the kindness of the Thai people.

It was a mere 200m to ride into Captain's Resort, located along a dirt road behind the highway. The secluded location served an amorous purpose, that of being a "love hotel" condoms included. But we didn't care one bit. With basic but clean, functional rooms, we were truly blessed once again by He who looks after us so well. The owner too very thoughtfully provided a coffee and tea stand outside VT and Claudine's room, remembering a request made earlier.

The free Wifi which was working upon inspection was strangely out of action when we checked in after dinner but nobody complained as we were all dead tired. Sleep came easily for most of us. It was another wonderful day of cycling and eating, or is it the other way round, despite the rain. Hopefully, the weather tomorrow will be better but it does not really matter as we are the all weather Lovethefood Interceptors!

Friday, August 14, 2015

VSTR Day 1, 5 Aug - Over and across the sea to Thailand (30km)

Someone's happy!

To actually meet together at Changi Airport after months of anticipating excitedly for our adventure was an exhilarating experience! But for VT and Claudine, it was to be a stressful one. Despite leaving their house in JB at 7am to make it for the 845am meet, they were stuck in an unexpected horrendous traffic jam at the Causeway. Our prayers were answered and we breathe a sigh of relief when they finally showed up at 935am at the Air Asia check in counter only to find that somehow, they booked luggage instead of sports equipment for their foldies. This mere administrative error (the charges were about the same) resulted in a penalty of another S$120+ which was absolutely unreasonable despite our earnest pleas.

*Note to all for checking in bicycles with Air Asia, please remember to book Sports Equipment!

All that drama was soon forgotten when we boarded the plane for the short 1.5 hrs flight to Langkawi Island in NW Malaysia. The plane was packed with passengers like us taking advantage of the Spore National Day holidays but we didn't mind it one bit. As we descended, the plane was pelted by heavy rains and that reminded us of what was to come. The laid back atmosphere of the airport was most welcoming. It took us about 30 mins to assemble our foldies in the airport and it was great to see everyone helping each other.

I was here in Langkawi with Papa some 5 years ago and it was great to be cycling across this beautiful island again. Our destination was Kuah Jetty some 20km away to catch the 515pm ferry to Thailand. There were a few hills that caught us but nothing to be worried about. We rode through quiet green rice fields and open spaces enjoying the serenity until a noisy Ferrari with engine problems crawled past us like a injured rodent.

We arrived safely and had a comfortable 2 hours to spare at the Jetty. Our tickets costs RM$30 for passengers and another RM$15 for our bikes. A late lunch of Malay food at a nearby local eatery as recommended by the ticket lady was enjoyed hungrily but so did the irritating mozzies who enjoyed our exposed legs. Our Thai ferry to Thamalang Jetty has seen better days but at least it was big and the staff handled our precious bicycles very well. Crossing the sea took about an hour and we were rewarded with splendid views of the many islands. It was great fun to hang around on the breezy top deck of the ferry and we were in the highest spirits until it started raining and that got us scampering into the deck.

Celebrating someone's promotion to Full Professor... Sshhh! 

If Langkawi was relaxed, the Thai immigration was even more so. The officers were fascinated to see our team of 10 but the pace of their work was soooooo slow. I supposed that is one way to fill up a boring day. When we all were finally cleared, we got together to take a group pic but a sudden monsoon broke out like there was no tomorrow. As daylight was fast fading, we got our wet weather gear and braved the rains after a 10 minute wait. The Immigration Office had closed too and the staff waved us from the comfort of their cars as we pedalled merrily the easy 10km quiet road north to Satun town through dark and damp weather, all with lighted smiles.

It was quite a drama when we tried checking into Cliff Man Guesthouse all wet and grotty. They claimed that they have not received our reservations despite confirmation from and it didn't help that we had language challenges. Chris, a French man who ran Ti Baan Bistro was called to mediate and he recommended another hotel which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A call to confirmed that indeed, the story from Cliff Man was true and kudos to them for their service recovery. However, we were all happily settled into the comfortable Sinkiat Hotel and I had to remind myself that God always walks in front of us. This "mistake" was truly a blessing in disguise as the rooms were spacious, clean and had attached bathrooms unlike Cliff Man's shared toilet, something that the ladies were irking about slightly.

Unknown to the team, I had organised a welcome dinner at Ti Baan Bistro and when we stepped in, we were greeted with "Welcome Lovethefold" signs. They have closed the whole restaurant for us! Chris and Pooh really put up a first class 4 course meal starting with yam salad with salmon, green curry pork with fish cakes and rice. Dessert was none other than mango sticky rice and all these served in a 5 star dining experience that only a Frenchman can deliver.

With Papa's boom box belting out songs of our era and sipping Bailey's Irish Cream on ice, we were luxuriated and relaxed. We also celebrated George and Wendy's birthday with a cake organised by Ti Baan with Celia on the guitar.

Our amazing dining experience at Ti Baan truly was a fitting start to our adventure. I cannot thank Chris, Pooh and their staff enough for this very special evening and the least I can do is to write a deserving review on Tripadvisor of our amazing experience.

After dinner, we took an easy walk around the quiet town to the river despite the drizzle. What an adventure it has been getting here and we slept that night with great anticipation on what the next day will enfold for us. Yes, it started to storm again but we were in the comfort of our dry airconditioned rooms with not a care in the world as we are after all, Team VSTR, whose sole mission is to explore Southern Thailand on our foldies and eat well.

And we know that all that happens to us is working for our good if we love God and are fitting into his plans.  Romans 8:28 TLB

The VERY South Thailand Ride (VSTR) Aug 2015 - Prelude

Our inspiration for this ride came as a result of our amazing South Thailand Ride in 2014 from Phuket to Chumphon where we crossed the Kra of Isthmus. Starting from the very south of Thailand at Thammalang Pier, 30km south of Satun, the plan was to inched our way north through Thung Wa, Trang, Pak Meng, detour to the beautiful island of Ko Lanta and fly back from Krabi, which is near enough to Phuket.

Planning began some 6 months ago and our last STR team of Ying Chang, KC, George, Wendy and I signed up immediately. New additions were Papa Mike, Celia, Lance and newbie tourers VT and Claudine, making the team a rather large but incredible 10. We managed to get air tickets for under $150 return, flying Air Asia into Langkawai, then catching a ferry into Thailand. Return was via Tiger Air from Krabi and the super value airfares certainly brought big smiles upon our faces.

Being a history buff, this region fascinates as its predominantly Muslim. Although Muslims make only 5% of Thailand, they reside in these parts for good reason. Satun province was once part of the Malay Kingdom, the state of Kedah to be precise and culturally and ethnically, these people are the same as their Malaysian brethren save for the colour of their passport. Hence, it was so easy for us who speak Malay to communicate and understand the "Thai" people here. The reason for this anomaly was the Anglo Siamese Treaty of 1909 where the British made concessions with the Siamese Kingdom. With the stroke of the pen, these poor people switched from Selamat Pagi to Sawadee Kup! But this can only mean the best of both worlds for us who love both Thai and Malay cuisine and we were in for a gastronomical treat. Our fears of gaining weight proved real in this trip.

As with all Lovethefold Adventures, we use folding bicycles for the simple reason of going multi-modal. For this trip, we travelled on planes, large and small ferries, train, van and even a pickup truck.

Though July August period is generally the wet season, we strategically chose this time as the monsoons meant riding in the wet and much cooler conditions as compared to the scorching tropical sun. The rains also comes predictably at certain times of the day and when it stops or becomes just a light drizzle, it is truly a marvellous riding experience.

Anyway, what's with a little water seeping through your bottom bracket and hubs? With the right attitude, we can forge ahead through anything!

We hope you will enjoy reading our adventure and sharing this beautiful journey through the quieter part of Thailand and its incredible people!

Pics - YC, KC, Lance