On the bridge you drive on the right, like in Laos. On the other side the road splits, then the two lanes cross over! In Thailand we ride on the left again. There are traffic lights flashing red. I wonder what that means. Having cleared the Thai border I head into Mukdahan to change my remaining Kip into Baht. As the bank is closed a lady in a market stall changes it for me. Judging by the big smile on her face she is getting a very good deal here. Still, outside Laos Kip are toilet paper. As I hit the road a sort of culture shock hits me: the roads are wide and in excellent condition, the place is fairly clean and modern, there are more people and traffic than in Laos, many motorcyclists wear helmets and even have their lights on during the day. Some road signs, too, look strangely familiar, as if they had moved them from NZ to here. Are there AA emblems on some of them? Most other signs, however, are in Thai only, so I can't recognise hotels and restaurants. This will be a small problem. An American I met several times recommends I go via Ubon Ratchathani, so I can ride on dual-carriageway. After about 1/2h there is a turnoff for it, but the road seems to head roughly South, basically almost back towards Laos. Instead I decide to follow the route I had picked. As I see later on my GPS map this was the right decision or I would have made a big detour.
At dusk I stop in Kuchinarai. Just as I suspected I have to ask for directions. At least it's easier to talk to people here, some English is spoken. Most people are very friendly, including staff at the border. I think I'm going to like Thailand. The hotel (unrecognisable as such) is full, but I get a very nice room at the "Heartbeat Bungalows". The lady who shows me the room is a laugh a second. She takes me by the hand (!), calls me darling... Hmmm, there is a large mirror on the wall right beside the bed... Unfortunately, there is a big fair being held in the town (amazing I could get a room at all) and there is live and recorded music, all very loud and several bands at the same time. Cacophony for most of the night.
13/12 An uneventful, boring ride until I reach Bangkok. At this point I have neither road map nor guide book for Thailand. But I have a waypoint for a guesthouse. My GPS indicates distance and direction as the crow flies, but practically no roads at all. Not surprisingly, I get lost several times in dead-end streets, only 3km or 500 m from the guesthouse, but no roads leading there. It's also impossible to turn right off the main road as there is a median. But I find it in the end and I get a nice room.
14/12 Thanks to GPS and some tracks I downloaded from the net finding my way out of Bangkok is a lot simpler than I feared. What follows is a very long and boring ride South along mostly dual carriageways. The sky is getting darker and it's getting cooler, I think I can smell rain. This is supposed to be the dry season? I turn off the main road towards Chumphon and about 5 km before I get there it starts raining. Never mind, at least it is warm.
15/12 It's a 1 1/2 h ferry ride across to Ko Samui. The sky looks threatening at both ends. Ko Samui is a tourist trap, especially Chaweng, where Ulla is staying for the first few days. We soon relocate to a quiet place at the opposite end of the island, where we meet a few people and have a good time. No touts here, but not much to see, either, apart from plenty of coconut palms. I do find out why it rains here: this part of the country gets another monsoon than the North. On one occasion we get thoroughly washed coming back from Nathon. This monsoon seems to linger around a little longer than it's suposed to...
On the other side of the little peninsula we meet Frank and Claudia, a German-Swiss couple and have a lot of fun together, mainly swimming and going out for dinner. Xmas is a bit of a non-event, which doesn't bother me, as my family is not here, but New Years eve is quite memorable. It was all but washed out by continuous rain, but Claudia and Frank organised transport. The rain lets up just long enough for the locals to let off some impressive fireworks. This is followed by the launching of a lot of simple hot-air balloons. As it is very still they rise up almost vertically, the white paper lit up in the dark by the flaming torches inside. Once they have risen a few hundred metres they pick up an air current and all head out to sea in a long line of fires. It's very romantic. The ritual apparently has something to do with the departing of the souls of the recently deceased. (Sorry, too dark to take photos of.)
4/1/2008 I bid farewell to Ulla, our new friends Alan and Egon, as well as Suvani and her sister from Emerald Bungalows. I make my way along what turns out to be the nicest road I have seen on the island, hugging the coast, to the Raja Ferry pier, where a slightly decrepit ferry soon drops me off outside Donsak. The weather is mostly overcast, but otherwise perfect. I trundle along small and smaller roads along the coast, without actually getting to see it. There are lots of fish farms around and in some inlets there are colourful fishing boats. On dusk, just as I am wondering where I could find a place to stay in this area devoid of tourists I find an empty resort and the day is saved. Dinner in a simple restaurant on the beach and this is in fact the first time I see the coast since I left the ferry.
High tide in "our" bay. The water is barely deep enough to swim in.5/1 I continue to try to ride along the coast with varying degrees of success. Several times I end up on fishing piers with only forest on the other side. At one point I get stopped by a bunch of young kids staffing a police checkpoint. Nobody wears uniform, but they are very anxious to prevent me from going down a particular road: it's a dead end. It would have been quicker for me to go down the road and find out myself, instead of waiting for a lovely young lady to arrive to explain it to me in English, but never mind. Everybody is just soooo friendly. In Chumphon there is a brand new 6-lane highway which I have all to myself, because it's so new they haven't yet removed the concrete blocks which stop cars from using it. I'm a VIP! Dream on, Peter!
6/1 Morning swim. Surprises: the water is cool and not very salty. Must be all the inlets I had to dodge emptying freshwater into the sea. Then more of the same as yesterday, slowly making my way North. At lunch time I stop at a signposted "View Pot". There is quite a temple complex on the hillside with lots of brightly coloured animal statues. There seems to be a restaurant, but no, it's a family sitting outside having lunch and quite naturally, it seems, I'm invited to sit down and eat. There is quite a variety of foods, some a little undefinable, but also very tasty. I guess they are the temple caretakers cum souvenir vendors. There is also a resident sage giving lectures to a rapt audience. He has a very friendly demeanour and I get to meet him a little later, although we can't talk much, due to lack of common language. As the family naturally refuses my repeated offers of payment I buy a CD of the music they are playing on the loudspeakers. It comes from Tibet, it seems... Later, as Thailand gets tightly squeezed between the Gulf and Burma I am forced to use the dual carriageway for a while. All attempts to find other roads end in dirt and deep sand and peoples' back yards. I end up in one of many resorts on the beach. But this one is in a small town which has a small port and my evening swim doesn't get me very far: as I wade into the shallow water I suddenly sink into very soft mud almost up to my hips. Swimming is unpleasant and almost impossible. Outside of the port it's the same, but the water is dirty to boot, so I give up.
7/1 Finally, the main highway runs very close to the coast and I am forced to use it. As I find myself veering well inland I decide to head for a large reservoir. As I ride mostly on roads that aren't on my map I end up in a place that my map says is a dead end. I try for a long time to find a way through the plantations and over the hills and finally my perseverance pays off. Over a couple of rough and very steep sections of track I suddenly pass an open toll gate and I'm back on a road proper. What the toll is for I don't bother to find out. I stop at a place called Samarn Bird Camp, where I pitch my tent. There is a resident hornbill trying to eat some paper. I have never seen such a bird in the wild and when it flies it's quite impressive. Its wings make a sound a bit like the big NZ woodpigeons, but without the crash landings they make.