Thursday, 31 December 2009

Riding with the pack

As we rounded Chatujak Market, the sun began to rise and it felt like we were leaving the busy city streets behind us until I heard "Pshhhhhht". Suddenly it felt like I was pulling 30 coloured taxis along with my bike and realised it was time to change my first flat tyre.

Sucking in Bangkok traffic fumes at 6:30am was definitely not my ideal way to spend Boxing Day morning, but it was one I had to live with. While I got down to business, Chris and Gemma cycled ahead to meet the MTB Thai bicycle club team who were waiting to join us from Bangkok - Ayuthaya. I was proud of my turn-around time, and as I was putting the good-as-new tube back in a few of the Thai riders came to egg me on and show me to the place where our ride was to begin.

What was 15 riders to begin with, turned out to be around 35 total as we kept picking up others along the road to Ayuthaya. Cycling in a big group made navigating the traffic so much easier and there were plenty of different bikes/riders amongst the group, meaning the pace was well spread out. Chris (even with his 70kg of weight) managed to keep up with the speed demons at the front for most of the way, whereas I was happy to ride 'sabai sabai' towards the back of the pack, chatting in Thai as we meandered along.

Once out of the city we stopped at some markets which required you to bend down to pick up the items you wish to purchase and another where we watched a beautiful re-enactment of Thai life during the Ayuthaya period, acted out in the water.

At the end of the day we dropped in to see Ajarn (Teacher) Preechah, a Thai man who cycled to America from Bangkok 50 years ago to study. He is now in his 70's but still as fit and full of life as in his photos. He offered us a place to stay and some food saying ' I know what you bicyclists like - food, shower and a place to sleep' - exactly!

We said goodbye to the rest of the pack (who had to ride back to Bangkok) and spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Ayuthaya ruins. Thanks very much to everyone who joined this ride and especially to Khun Thanin, who was instrumental in pulling the gorup together and organising such an interesting program. We are extrememely grateful!

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Bangkok's Last Hurrah

We made it to Bangkok! The journey took 21 cycling days and covered approximately 1300 kms. We followed this route.

On the way here I was somewhat dreading getting back to the big city.
This city and I have had an romantic love affair, but since moving here over two years ago there are three things that I don't love about Bangkok: traffic, noise and pollution.

These three things do not make it very easy to cycle in the Big Mango. There are a few token
cycle paths scattered around, but most have been painted on the walkways in major shopping areas, where the foot traffic is just too condensed and you run the risk of running down strolling happy couples.

Lucky for me, there is a wonderful oasis in the middle of this concrete jungle - Phaya Thai Home. This is the apartment where I used to live (before setting out on this bike ride). Rose (my flatmate) has let us put our feet up there over past few days and we have really enjoyed reading our books, decorating the Xmas cactus, sitting on the balcony and watching the squirrels run around the garden. During this time I have caught up with friends, had a couple of massages and celebrated Xmas day by conquering one of my fears - riding in Bangkok traffic.

In Thai culture, it is common to do something good for someone else on significant days of the year - like birthdays, and public holidays. Christmas has never been very significant for me - but this year I woke up and decided
that I wanted to do something that I have been meaning to do for a long time - donate blood.

So I set out on my bicycle and rode the couple of kilometers to the Thai Red Cross, through Siam, the busiest part of town. I made it with my heart still beating, which is probably why it only took only five mins to fill the bag with deep red sugary cyclist blood. I was glad about that because the staff seated me right next to a glass window which faced the waiting room and I was a source of amusement for everyone else who was patiently waiting their turn.

Bangkok for Christmas was quiet but nice. I had street-side noodle soup for lunch this year with my close friend Nui, followed by some green mango whilst we sat chatting in Lumpini Park. Gem, Chris and I had dinner at Regan and Joke's place, where a mouthwatering feast combining several nationalities was enjoyed by all.

Today we will say goodbye to Bangkok and ride to Ayuthaya with some fellow Thai cyclists. For me, this parting feels more permanent. Bangkok has been good to me, but I am quite sure that 2010 has some changes in the midst. I am looking forward to some greener pastures - literally.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

A monkey stole my bicycle!

When we arrived in Petchaburi for second breakfast, we had already done 36kms and had another 54kms ahead to Ratchaburi. We decided to ride to a cave temple called Wat Tham Khao Luang which sits atop a hill 4km south of the city. I particularly wanted to go there as I had heard there is a beautiful sun beam which shines through the opening at most times of day lighting up the Buddha statues contained within.

As we pushed our bikes up the steep road to the temple, we noticed there were lots of monkeys being fed by foreign tourists, so we rode into the temple complex and parked our bikes away from the crowds. Gemma, the CSX veterinarian, offered to wait with the bikes while Chris and I climbed the staircase to the cave.

As I was walking away, I looked back and saw six monkeys converging on Gemma and the bikes. Within seconds monkeys were sitting on our bikes, drinking from our drink bottles, trying to eat my flip flops and trying to rip off the bags from Chris’s bikes. One even stole Gem’s mobile phone.

I don’t like monkeys at the best of times, but went back to try and help out. When Gemma (who loves all animals) picked up a big stick I knew it was bad. We tried to fend them off, but it only antagonized them further and at one point we were being chased away by the ‘big mamma’ monkey. They thought it was funny to push over our bikes one by one, and when they started eyeing off our tyres – enough was enough.

I yelled out ‘Help!’ and a Thai man came running over saying ‘You can’t park your bikes here – it’s the monkey condo’. He screamed at the monkeys, who immediately ran off, dropping our bottles and the mobile phone. This gave us enough time to move the bikes to a safer place, by which time Chris was coming out of the temple saying ‘I thought you were going to fend them off our bikes!”.

Friday, 18 December 2009

The monk, the chocolate muffin, and cat who loved me

This post roughly sums up one of the most interesting and hilarious nights I have had on this trip.

As we arrived in Cha-am late in the afternoon, we skipped the beach and headed straight to the local wat. On arrival, we were greeted by an energetic monk called Thanayuth, who showed us to a small room where we could sleep and told us ‘I take care of you’. We were grateful to have a quiet place to rest and I was especially excited to get some cuddles from the little kitten in the room, which followed me everywhere.

Thanayuth was impressed that I could speak Thai, and when I told him that we had ridden here from Malaysia and Chris was riding around the world, he gathered all his monk friends and explained what the ‘farang on bikes’ were doing. He told us that he would love to come with us, but he can’t because he doesn’t have a bicycle. Monks in Thailand do not have much money and are only allowed to use things that are given freely to them, thus, he would only be able to go if someone gave him a bicycle.

Later, when we were laying out our blow-up mattresses, he knocked on the door and asked if he could sit with us. This was fine, but unexpected, as at most wats the monks usually steer clear of females. He started asking all sorts of questions about Chris’s bike ride, which I happily translated. Chris had started showing him some photos on his laptop when all of a sudden the monk jumped up and said ‘I must take care of you’.

A few minutes later Thanayuth was back with some snacks, which included some strong iced coffee, fresh cakes and a chocolate muffin, with jam on the inside! We were finding it hard to contain our excitement when he rushed out again and came back with a huge bunch of grapes (they are very expensive in Thailand!).

Chris started to talk to him about Buddhism but Thanayuth had other things in mind. He explained some theories (complete with actions and sound effects) that he had about global warming and natural disasters. At times we couldn’t help giggling as they were pretty far out ideas (or perhaps my translation was off), but we really enjoyed talking to him and found him quite fascinating.

After this extremely animated conversation, we were very tired so went quickly to sleep and I found myself with a cat on my head for most of the night.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Oxfam Project Visit - Prachuap Khiri Khan

Part of the reason I joined the Cycle Strongman Expedition is to help my friend Chris raise $100,000 AUD for Oxfam Australia. Oxfam need your support, so please donate, and for those of you who have already supported us so far, thank you for your donation!

If you have ever wondered if your donation makes a difference, I can tell you that it does. Last week we were privileged to spend some time in a fishing village just north of Prechuap Khiri Khan. For a number of years, the people in these communities have witnessed rising sea levels, increased pollution in the oceans, and depleted fish and crab resources - which they depend on for their livelihoods. As a result, the local people have taken the situation into their own hands. They realize that if they are to continue living and depending on the sea for their income, they have to start looking after their environment and investing in their future.

I was particularly humbled by a project called the Crab Bank (“Tannakarn Booo” in Thai), which has been established with the assistance of the Federation of Southern Fisherfolk (a Thai NGO), and is funded by Oxfam GB.

The people in Ao Noi village are, for the most part, crab-fishing families. As little as five years ago they were able to fish from their boats only 100 metres from the shoreline, but now they are forced to go way out to sea to catch the same amount. The main reason for this is because the near-shore resources have been destroyed by large commercial fishing boats (from outside provinces) that are equipped with destructive fishing gear such as bottom trawlers, and smaller mesh sized gill nets. These boats took all the fish and crab resources from the bay and left nothing behind for the local fishermen. The community could no longer rely on coastal resources, nor afford the expensive fuel prices to go beyond their usual spots for long periods of time.

As a result, the local community members decided they would set up a reproduction system to bring their crab resources back home, by encouraging the fisherman to donate the gravid mother crabs and their eggs (outside the shell) to the Crab Bank, so that they can reproduce in a controlled environment. The new crabs are later released back to the sea, meaning that the crab population will eventually increase and that their natural habitat will be rehabilitated.

Since the Crab Bank was established two years ago the fisherman are again able to catch swimmer crabs (the size of your palm) along the coast each time they go out and are actively participating in the rehabilitation of their local environment.

In addition, this project encourages community members to invest part of their earnings to a community Fishing Cooperative - allowing them to purchase new fishing supplies, fuel, rice and other household items at wholesale prices as well as keep the Crab Bank project running efficiently. The community also established their own Savings Bank - where members get interest on their savings, don't have to pay bank fees and can learn about saving money for their future.

P’Pet, the manager of the Crab Bank, is a woman in her sixties but I was amazed by her passion and energy. It is not an easy task to convince local people in the community to change their fishing habits, but she is someone who really believes that the Crab Bank project is going to help them in the future.

I was very lucky to stay with P’Pet in her house on the beach, and before going to bed she said to me in Thai with a big smile “Even though I might be poor, my body might be old and my eyes may look tired, my heart still has energy”.

Chris and I are extremely grateful to the wonderful people at Oxfam GB - Bow, Nuch, Took, Kang, and Baljit - who have helped us to organize visits to various Oxfam projects during the course of our ride through Thailand.

If you would like to support Oxfam Australia to continue to fund more projects like these please sponsor my ride to Pai...Straight Up.

Monday, 14 December 2009

All in a day's ride!

I am an adventurer now (as Chris keeps reminding me) and today was jam packed with exciting adventures!

Last night we slept in a beautiful wat, which topped all of the previous wats we have slept in (even the one with air conditioned room and internet access!). This one was on a peninsula, surrounded by two quiet bays and the monks here were extremely 'sabai sabai'. When we rolled in they smiled and said 'sleep wherever you want', so we chose to pitch our tents undercover with a view of sea.

It was already piping hot by 8am, so we stopped for second breakfast in Ban Krut, a quiet beach in Prechuap Khiri Khan Province. With food in our bellies and glucose in our legs, we were able to make the steep climb up to a BIG buddha on the hillside and visit the Phra Maha That Chedi. We were really glad we did, as it is a stunning temple with surrounding views of the beaches below.
Continuing along the beachfront meant we were riding into a headwind, so eventually we turned off onto a dirt track which took us through coconut plantations - a great spot for filming. While standing there (in the middle of nowhere) an ice cream man passed us and so we indulged in a a paddle pop - Amazing Thailand!

Lights, camera, action! We set up the shot and started to ride down a side path into the distance, where there was a dog sleeping. Chris had already turned back for his solo performance, when the dog jumped to it's feet and started telling his buddies that there was a new toy to play with. All of a sudden I found myself surrounded by a pack of eight angry, gruesome, teething mutts (at least that's how they seem when your heart is racing at a million miles per hour and you are backed up against a tree, fending for yourself with your bike as a barrier).
The dogs did not seem happy to see me, and unfortunately the small rocks that I keep in my handlebar bag only served to amuse them. Eventually they got bored of growling at a petrified white lady, and by that time Chris was coming down the path with some large coconuts. They made a pass at him, while I made my escape, and with sheer luck no man or dog got hurt. I was a bit shaken, and rode with a bigger sized rock in my hand for the rest of the afternoon.

We continued along the small roads and came across a very odd beach where all the signage was in Swedish and there were lots of older foreign men, shuttling their wives around on motorbikes with sidecars. Figured it must be the word on the street in Scandinavia that Prechuap Khiri Khan is the place to be!

Eventually we made it to the town and found a nice guesthouse to stay in. It's been so long since Chris and I have paid for accommodation that we obviously forgot how to behave! First I locked the key in the room which caused a stir, as the hotel didn't have a spare. In the end they called in someone to pick the lock - so we were able to get out of our sweaty bike clothes.
When we eventually got in the room, we were so tired that we went straight for the showers. Chris grabbed his towel and said 'Wow, check out how big the towels are in this guesthouse!' I was equally impressed and while showering in adjoining cubicles we were still talking about the lovely over sized towels supplied by the owners of this (cheap) establishment. These same owners were shocked when they realised that we had been using the blankets as towels, and were perplexed that we hadn't seen the smaller versions on our beds!

These type of adventures occur on a daily basis when you are riding to Pai...Straight Up!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The shortcut that nearly wasn't

After two beautiful days riding along coconut tree lined coastline, enjoying the sea breeze, we popped back out onto Thailand's infamous "Superhighway" which really isn't that super when riding a bicycle. We rode 45 km into a headwind, along a dusty section which is currently under construction when we noticed a sign sent from heaven!

It actually said 'short-cut': We couldn't believe our eyes. The enthusiasm quickly dwindled though, when after 15km there was no short-cut in sight. Never mind - there was an icecream shop ahead - and just past another sign, telling us where the shortcut was. Ahh.

We are currently, staying in another wat (Thai Buddhist temple) and hoping to follow the beachside roads all the way to Prechuap Khiri Khan, where we will visit our first Oxfam project on Tuesday.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Lesson learned: but not much English

During the course of this trip, Chris and I have scheduled some visits to schools, bike clubs and various Oxfam projects – to promote the Cyclestrongman Expedition and sustainable living. A friend in Surat Thani needed some English teachers for a three-day English camp, so Chris, Gemma and I happily volunteered, thinking it would be a good way to make a bit of money as well as get some media attention.

However, my expectations again came back to bite me. It was obvious that the camp was fairly unorganised from the outset and the students (15-17 year olds) knew very little English meaning the activities and lessons we had planned were pretty much useless. We resorted to our repertoire of ‘fun’ games such as Simon Says, Eye Spy and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – and most of the time I felt like a circus clown rather than a professional English teacher. Thankfully we had Gemma there, as her enthusiasm and rapport with the students helped us to overcome the filthy looks that we were getting from the other teachers all weekend.

I was so relieved when it was over, especially since most of the weekend was spent driving around various tourist destinations on one of those extremely colourful and noisy Karaoke busses that Thai people love. Since returning to Surat Thani, I have had several annoying Thai pop songs ringing in my ears.

This experience has taught me a valuable lesson though. To never do something just because you are getting paid for it. I would rather have spent the time riding my bike up steep hills, sleeping on the hard floor in a wat and smelling like I’ve been sweating for three days straight without a shower.

Generous Hosts

Whilst in Phuket we stayed with a friend-of-a friend-of-a-friend,
Nick and his wife Maple in their home in Surin Beach. Nick is a property developer turned environmental activist, and has recently negotiated with the government to introduce a charge for plastic bags in Phuket. Awesome!

We really appreciated Nick and Maple’s generosity. Staying with them was an unexpected luxury, especially Maple’s wonderful home cooked (healthy) meals and Nick’s assistance to get media interest in Chris’s journey.

While Chris was doing radio and newspaper interviews, I spent this few days catching up on emails, having massage and swimming in the ocean. To be honest though, I was glad to be back on our bikes after 2 days hanging out.

Throughout the journey so far, we have had some other wonderful hosts and I just wanted to make mention of them here. I will continue to update this list as the journey continues. We are extremely grateful for the hospitality shown to us by:

Din and Rizal – Langkawi island; Alex, the ladyboy who cooked us a spicy Thai meal and showed us the sights - Trang; Nick, Maple and their dog Sausage – Phuket; Jom, the fun loving restaurant owner and everyone’s mate -Phang Nga; Ram, Ton and their families (Jom’s friends) – Ban Tha Khun
Na Ang, P’Bon and P’Gae (Nui’s Family); as well as Fon and Boy – Surat Thani
P'Pet and Family - Ao Noi Village
P'Nong, Meaw and Family - Gang Kradai Village
Greenpeace Organic Rice Farm Project - Ratchaburi

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Reflection in Thailand's Deep South

One thing about camping in a Thai Buddhist temple is that you are woken each morning at 4:30am. But instead of being woken by monks chanting, each morning we wake to the calm singing voice of the Muslim call to prayer. Surprisingly in Thailand’s South, these two religious building are often situated within walking distance of one another, and in the areas that we visited the two religions seem to live in relative harmony.

Having lived in Thailand for over two years, I thought I had a general awareness of Thai people and the culture of the country. But over the past week riding in Southern Thailand, I have learned a great deal about the people of the south, and been surprised at the rich Muslim culture that exists in what I thought was a primarily Buddhist country.

We have eaten different foods (by now, you should know that it is all about the food!), greeted people with ‘Salaam Malakum’ instead of ‘Sawadee Kha’ and been humbled by the beauty of the landscape and kindness of the people.

I have spent the last two nights camping on Koh Yao Yay Island, as large, rugged piece of land in Phang Nga Bay between Krabi and Phuket, which is almost entirely inhabited by Muslims. The notable difference I found when visiting this island is that there were very few resorts, bungalows, beach bars, not to mention little tourists. This made for a beautiful, well preserved piece of nature which was easily explored by bicycle.

After 6 days riding, at an average of 70-90km per day, it was time for a rest. Gemma and I found the quietest beach on the island and set up camp amongst a mangrove forest, away from the roads, cars and people. It was so lovely to have some time alone with nature. In the past, I have really enjoyed going to the more popular islands to get away from the big city, and have a break, but this experience really reminded me what ‘peace and quiet’ was really like.