Thailand Southern Style

Ao Nang

The stunning rock formations of Ao Nang

After taking a day to rest up, do laundry, internet and watch more Aussie Rules in Trang, I hit the road again and hit it hard with my biggest day of the tour yet; 150km. This placed me in Krabi, a west coast town that acts as the gateway to the island of Ko Phi Phi, among others. Wanting to avoid the backpacker throng (I would be getting my fair share of that in the coming week), I headed to the more family-oriented Ao Nang Bay. The scenery along this coast was absolutely stunning consisting of huge limestone cliffs topped with lush greenery that dropped into the blue waters and white sand below.

This area was actually one of those affected by the devastating tsunami of 2004, something I talked about with several locals to get a first-hand perspective of the event. It is still spoken about with much solemnity.

Anyway, as I was walking along the beach, a voice boomed over a loudspeaker, “An earthquake has been detected in the ocean and a tsunami is expected. Please move inland and to higher ground.” This warning was repeated in 5 different languages. Alarmed, I wondered what I should do. I looked around and all of the locals were unperturbed and continued to go about their business. I decided that they know best but made a mental note to keep an eye on the ocean and be prepared to run. 5 minutes later, the voice boomed again, “The tsunami threat is over, please return to the beach and continue to rescue the victims”. Bizarre.

Thai monkey

A typical cheeky thief

After 2 days of lazing in the sun, I headed off with the intention of finally putting my virgin tent to use in Phanom Bencha National Park, but not before visiting the forest temple of Wat Tham Seua. After placing my bike in a shop in order to thwart the monkeys who were just waiting for me to leave so that they could rifle through my bags, I took a stroll through the forest and the endless interconnecting caves that act as shrines and monks’ quarters.

I then decided that I just had to see ‘Buddha’s Footprints.’ As if I’d expect anything less from the Buddhists, these just so happened to be spread out over 1,237 steps that led to, you guessed it, the top of a mountain. As I approached the summit after a long and arduous climb, I was hoping to find some vibrating recliners, but what was actually there exceeded that and all other hopes.

Thai Buddha

The enormous Buddha at the top of the 1,237 steps

Over a large area and several levels was a beautifully tiled floor upon which sat a massive golden Buddha, among other statues and ornaments, all enclosed within a superbly crafted fence. Beyond this fence and acting as a backdrop to the statues were stunning 360 degree views – misty cloud-encased mountains to the North, the vast Andaman Sea to the south and west and the pancake-flat agricultural plains of the east. What is not so easily described is the Buddhists ability to leave no space empty, be it filled with a 5-headed dragon snake or a strange little goblin man, all painted in an amazing montage of colours. This Wat was definitely a highlight.

After the even more tiresome walk down the steps, I headed for Phanom Bencha as the typical afternoon storm clouds began to form. I cycled 20kms north from the main road under the impression that my map was accurate, meaning the road would have continued through the park to where I was next headed. Something I’ve since learnt is that accuracy wasn’t high on my map-makers list of objectives. So upon reaching the NP gates, I was faced with a dead-end and a 250 Baht park entry fee. I refused to pay this much to camp in an imminent storm, so I cracked a U-ey and prepared for another 20kms in the dark and rain.

However, just as Mother Nature was about to go torrential, I came to another Buddhist temple and requested a place to sleep. They had no hesitation in offering me a tiled floor and mat, under the watchful eye of a statue of Buddha no less. After being fed and surrounded my inquisitive children for a few hours, I slept and slept well………..only to be woken up at 5am by roosters crowing, dogs barking, prayer bells ringing and monks chanting.

Ko Pha Ngan

My view on Ko Pha Ngan

I was sent on my way with a nice little breakfast package and after a couple of days cycling, I arrived in the eastern port town of Surat Thani, the gateway to backpacker island favourites; Ko Tao, Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan, the last of which is home to the famous full-moon parties.

Due to convenient timing and my love of dance, I decided to head to Pha Ngan for the full moon of the 31st July. Unfortunately, due to the ridiculous demand, I had to arrive a few days early in order to acquire accommodation. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I almost instantly hated the place. I can’t speak for the rest of the island but at the beach of Hat Rin, set back from the none too picturesque beach, was one generic restaurant after another, all with the exact same extensive menu so as to cater for any group who decided to dine there. Come 11pm and the streets became a flood of predominantly British backpackers, all carrying and drinking from buckets containing their liquor of choice (I went for the vodka-lemon lime bitters bucket personally), while the streets, beach and ocean became a sea of bottles, buckets and butts.

Come the 31st however, I did in fact have a really good night. Spread out along the beach were 7-8 DJ booths and stages, each pumping out a different genre, be it trance drum n bass, hi-NRG, hip-hop or chill out. Amongst these were many bucket and food stalls, a few extremely skilled fire jugglers and sucking it all up was a supposed 10,000 punters. Under the night sky, it made for an amazing atmosphere.

At one point, a group of fire jugglers lit a ring of fire and invited all of the pissed idiots to jump through it, which I thought was hilarious since this would be unheard of at any event in the first world. It only got funnier when one guy ran into it and sent the ring flying in the direction of the crowd.

Come the early hours of the morning and the beach resembled a war zone – littered with debris, boats lining the shore and strewn with corpses, some lay in one another’s arms and others were in whatever awkward position they had been felled in. Still, there were many survivors who battled on relentlessly. I myself danced through sunrise and on to 9am at which point my legs told me they only had enough left in them for the 20 minute stroll back to my bungalow. So stroll I did, rounding off a surprisingly awesome evening.

In saying that, I couldn’t get off that island fast enough and reinvigorated with some newfound strength, I packed my things, jumped on the bike and headed for the ferry and subsequently, the mainland. Eventually, after 36 hours on the go, I found a bed where I remained for the following 12.

Several days later, having fully recovered, I was continuing up the coast through rural Thailand when I came across a Buddhist temple that sparkled in the sun. They all sparkle due to the huge amounts of gold that adorns them, but this one did excessively so. Upon closer inspection I found that it was covered in thousands of mirrored tiles that reflected the light like a massive disco ball.

Thai temple

One of many extravagant temples

With no particular destination for the night and with the sky unusually clear of clouds, I requested of the head monk that I be able to camp in the surrounding grassy area. Success! I was finally able to put the tent to use and it did a stellar job.

When I awoke, a woman who fittingly called herself ‘Nan,’ said, “Hey you! Come Eat!” I followed her into a prayer hall where 10 monks were seated on a row of tables while large platters of food were placed before them. I joined Nan and a group of excitable women on the floor where we said a short chanted prayer, which I assume was to give thanks for the meal we were about to receive. I was then given a monks treatment of my own as dish after dish was placed in front of me. There were about 8 in all and I ate until I could eat no more at which point a bag containing about 5kg worth of fruit was given to me for my travels. I politely explained that there was no way I could fit this huge bag of fruit on my bike and after several attempts, we managed to cut it down to a still large 2kg.

Thanks to Buddhist hospitality I now eat fruit for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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