Sunday 23 December 2012

Touring Cyclists are Tempting Treat for Thailand's Dogs

Best Christmas Wishes Everybody!

Current Location: Khanom, near Koh Samui, Thailand

Dead snake count: 13

Odometer: 6,482 km

From Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: 1,253 km

"With the stick I almost feel brave and fearless," Judy the Stoker on dealing with dogs.

At the end of a long driveway a black dog stood watching us. As we drew closer on the tandem, it became clear there was something wrong with the animal. It was unsteady on its feet, and closer still, we could see the drool, the bubbles of spittle running down its jaws. It never took its eyes off us, but as we came within three or four metres it backed away, slinking to the edge of the driveway where it joined the road. Suddenly the dog’s hindquarters gave way and it collapsed, slewed on its side but with its front paws still on the ground. Its look never wavered, its eyes always on us. With an effort, the dog regained its feet and moved towards us, then away, then towards us again as if testing us. It began to collapse again, but this time managed to stay upright. We slipped past and suddenly the road ahead was clear and we accelerated away, Judy still clutching the walking pole we use as a bicycle stand but now doubles as a weapon.
Alright, so it looks harmless enough,
but just wait till it gets 3 or 4 of its
mates along and they launch an all-out

Did the dog have rabies? We don’t know and never will, but plenty of dogs in Thailand do carry the virus despite efforts to reduce the rabies risk.  

The dogs have put the wind up us. In Malaysia and the far south of Thailand -  Muslim areas - the dogs weren’t a problem. Now in Buddhist territory further north, destruction of stray dogs is often opposed on religious grounds and so they roam and keep on breeding.
At times, the dogs seem to be around every corner, and give chase one or two or three and four at a time. On every occasion, we’ve managed to out pedal them, but with two sets of legs on the tandem we feel a bit like a double Mac nicely packaged and just waiting to be eaten.

"Let's go walkies with the bull."
We’re trying to outwit them with psychology – sometimes slowing down as we approach to allow them an opportunity to move away (occasionally they do). Then there’s the more aggressive attitude where a dog stands firm waiting for us. I try to make myself look as big and domineering as possible - sitting up on the bike, pushing my elbows outwards and yelling in my deepest, most threatening manner. I steer straight for the dog. It’s an approach which doesn’t seem to work, but makes us feel better as our hearts race and we bend forward and pedal as hard and as fast as we can.
The best approach seems to be that walking pole/bike stand. Judy’s taken to carrying it in one hand,  usually on the side that has the most dogs. She waves it about and tries to look menacing. I don’t think the sight of Judy with a stick looks very threatening it all, but it’s working better than anything else we’ve tried so far. The trouble is, it’s hard for her to carry the pole long distances as we cycle so we are trying to devise a way of securing it to the bike so it’s instantly available when needed.

The open road and there's not a dog in sight. We've found the
worst problems are on the smaller roads - the ones we cyclists
enjoy. The dogs are less familiar with bikes and enjoy the thrill
of the chase.
Before we left New Zealand, we both had rabies vaccine shots. It means that if the worst happens and we do get bitten, we only need two more jabs and don’t have to be turned into pincushions. But who wants to get bitten – rabies or not. The only touring cyclist we’ve met in S.E. Asia told us he’s been bitten twice, both times here in Thailand.

Both of us have always been anxious around stray dogs, and before we set out on our travels we knew that at some stage we would have to face up to them. Now it’s happening and neither of us like it. For the first time we have had our confidence shaken.

Judy the Stoker says … 

The only way I could go to sleep last night was to be realistic about ‘the problem’.  The situation was either going to remain the same, get worse or improve - the same number of dogs, more dogs and more risk of being eaten or fewer dogs and less risk. Meanwhile, I’m reading a racy novel and watching the sea roll in at a resort hotel where we have retreated in the hope of avoiding becoming dog tucker. We could be anywhere - there are coconut palms and frangipani and a warm breeze.  I can pretend I’m in Samoa or Aitutaki, until tomorrow when we are back on the road.
Lonely Planet's Thailand guide describes Khanom
as a “pristine region". This is the beach beside
the swimming pool at Talkoo Beach Resort
- one of the book's recommendations.


Banana pancake cook (right) in Trang - a nice little town
with a business heart overlain with a few tourist trappings.
This couple (Kee on the left and Aud) have returned home
recently from five years in Sydney. They have a new baby
and have just opened this restaurant. We were among the
first customers.
"I like you," this woman told Judy and insisted they have
their picture taken.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Day in the Life of Touring Cyclists

Day's ride: 108.9 km
Average speed: 18.3 kph
Snakes spotted so far (road kill) 10; live 1

"Talk about taking one day at a time. One thing cyling teaches you is that you never quite know what's going to happen next," Judy the Stoker.
6.30 am: The alarm wakens us in "The Happy House", Pak Bara, southern Thailand. It's been daylight for half an hour. Pack up gear, drink a bottle of water each and purify some more for the day ahead. Trudge downstairs with baggage and unlock tandem from its resting place in the entranceway.

Our water purifier is a Steripen and it
lights up like Darth Vader's light saber.
Loading up the Beast of Bridgwater outside the Happy House.
The camera has been in an aircon room overnight and
condensation has built up on the lens to soften this picture.

8.00 am: On the road. A quick ride for 11 kilometres to La-Ngu.
8.35 am: Breakfast stop for Roti Canai (pancakes with curry), our order taken by the manager who fusses over us after spotting the bike. Throughout breakfast, Mike keeps an eye on the unlocked bike which is only just in sight through the throng of other diners. We shake hands with the manager as we leave, and Judy raises a laugh from the Roti maker as she tries to thank him in Thai.
9.15: Judy buys a pre-pay topup for her phone and we're on the road, which is heavy with traffic but eases after a few kilometres.
11.00 am: Stop in a street market in Thung Wa for coconut juice. Mike buys six bananas "for playlunch".
11.00 am: Drink stop
11.20 am: Resume cycling through flat, pleasant country. Lots of people wave and call hello from the roadside. We wave and/or call back sometimes answering the most common question put to us here in Thailand,"where are you going". We answer Trang, or Ko Samui, Bangkok or even Cambodia or Laos depending on our mood. They are all right, all on the grand plan if things go well.
11.50 am: Traffic police in very military looking uniforms have a road block in place. They wave us through smiling as they do, and two of them salute us.

Rubber trees, sthn Thailand
12.45 pm: Light rain starts to fall and looks as though it may get heavier. We seek cover in a bus shelter. Mike takes pictures of rubber trees.
1.10 pm: Resume cycling through large scale plantations of rubber trees.

Holed - left rear pannier after it fell from the bike.
1:40 pm: Rain resumes and we take cover outside a small, rural grocery where we have green honey tea and icecreams.
2.00 pm: Resume cycling. We debate whether we should try to reach Trang this afternoon, a day's ride of about 110 km. We push on, uncertain whether we can make it but not sure where we can stay on the way.
2.30 pm: In some roadworks we hit a bad bump and the left rear pannier falls off and somersaults along the road. We push the bike out of the traffic, Judy fetches the pannier and we repack the back of the bike, using a bungee to try to stop the pannier coming off a second time.
2.40 pm: Resume cycling.

Bonker's delight - bbq pork
3.00 pm: Judy "bonks" - cyclists' word for "hitting the wall". She needs food but nothing immediately available.
3.30 pm: We spot a very average looking foodstall and pull over. A man comes out and puts traffic cones around our bike so that motorists won't hem us in. Judy orders a bbq pork dish with rice and vegetables. She declares it's delicious. Mike insists he's not hungry and orders two Cokes. Mike unpacks bike to get Kindle to check out accommodation options and scoffs three bananas from his handlebar bag.
4.15 pm: Resume cycling, rain threatening. Have decided to make Trang our destination.
4.50 pm: We pull over to check the GPS but it doesn't seem to have heard of Trang (pop 65,000) and it says the nearest accommodation is over 50 km away. We have the name of one hotel however and set off for the town centre.
5.10 pm: Somehow we manage to cycle straight into the city centre and quickly find the hotel. Its full. The receptionist phones another hotel 150 metres away. They have a room. We go there. It's getting dark. Both hotels are near the railway station - the cheap hotels usually are.
6.00 pm: We are checked in, the bike's securely locked in a passageway, the room's nice and Judy has the first shower. Mike turns on the computer. It's working despite the somersault down the road in the pannier.
7.20 pm: Leave the hotel on foot to have dinner. Find a street market instead and wander through it until hunger drives us to a nearby restaurant.
8.40 pm: Return to market and buy five small cakes for dessert. Scoff them sitting under the verandah entrance to our hotel. The temperature is pleasant, but the chilli in our meals has us both sweating.
9.00 pm:Mike uses wifi in room to check out routes for the coming days, Bike Route Toaster. Googles,"how do I stop my Ortlieb panniers falling off?" There's quite a bit of discussion on various forums, it's not just us. Judy is reading a Thai phrase book. Decision is made to stay in Trang the following day to sort out pannier problem. We need to buy some tubing and some more bungees.
9.40 pm: Judy does emails while Mike surfs news channels - for once there is a selection. Settles on excellent documentary about Al Qaeda in Yemen.
10.30 pm: Retire to bed. Judy announces that the Thai phrase for "no chilli" is "mai prik".

Sunday 9 December 2012

Ghost Island

View South East Asia in a larger map

Distance Cycled: 5,936 km
Snakes as Road Kill: 8. Live: 1.
Backsides when 10 equals bliss: Judy 5.5, Mike 7.0

According to one of these fishermen,
 "ghosts" were the reason no-one
 lived on the island.
Ping went the spoke, the sound of stainless steel wire giving up was new to us but unmistakeable.We pulled up and sure enough a spoke on the front wheel was broken. I wasn’t sure what to do, but already an audience was gathering and we didn’t feel like being the entertainment. We twisted the spoke around its neighbour, climbed back on the Beast of Bridgwater and pedalled off along a stunningly designed bridge that we were about to learn led to nowhere.

Replacing our first broken spoke.
As we pedalled we passed a number of fishermen, dangling their lines off the bridge which stretched into the distance – all 2.3 km of it. At the end, the bridge and road stopped abruptly on the edge of a jungle-clad tropical island. There was no sign of life, but four motorbikes were parked in the dust. An empty drink stall lay abandoned.

Chye came to our rescue on Langkiwi
getting the wheel trued for us, so it
spins perfectly in a vertical plane.
We pushed the tandem into the shade of the drink stall and unloaded some of the bike’s luggage so we could retrieve one of our Kindles. I opened up “The Bike Touring Guide” by Friedel and Andrew Grant and looked up “Fixing a Broken Spoke”. It looked simple enough, so while Judy checked out the surroundings, I untwisted the broken spoke and replaced it – tightening the new one but not too much.

When I looked up, Judy was talking to two men – owners of two of the motorbikes. Why she asked, doesn’t anyone live on the island? “Ghosts,” said one of the men simply. You mean myths, old stories? “Yes,” he said but didn’t seem in a hurry to elaborate. He did tell her the bridge was part of a failed business venture by an oil company, something which appeared to be only partly correct when we checked later. Completed at a reported cost of RM7b in 2005, the Pulau Bunting bridge was going to enable the island to be developed as a tourist resort and stopping off point for yachts sailing between Penang Island to the south and Langkawi Island to the north. For some reason the plan never went ahead and now the bridge is used only for fishing. It is regarded as a complete waste of taxpayers’ money, but little is said publicly in this country where the media is cautious of criticising politicians.

At the Babylon bar on Langkawi, the drinkers clap as the
sun slips beneath the horizon.
With our wheel repaired for the time being, we retraced our tracks back to the main road, then to a ferry and Langkawi where we have joined the backpacker hordes in search of duty free beers and air conditioned rooms.

Saying Goodbye - Judy the Stoker says:
Leaving Penang was a wrench. Annabel and Suku’s hospitality was so inclusive of neighbours, friends, fellow business owners and us that if we hadn’t gone when we did we would have had no choice but to try to stay permanently under the Malaysia My Second Home visa scheme.
Penang Farewell: Steve, Suku, Akiyo with stray cat, Annabel and Judy. Missing from the picture are Jim, Jo and George the Dog.
The worst moment came as we cycled from their street and I glanced back - there were our new friends standing with their hands raised in farewell. It brought a lump to my throat. We were on our own again after enjoying weeks of stimulating conversation and lots of laughter.  
Notes from the Road
We split the ride from Georgetown to Langkawi into two days – staying at Yan, a quiet coastal resort where Malaysians seem to be the main visitors. From there, we could see the Pulau Bunting bridge in the distance and the next day couldn’t resist turning down a side road to check out the island. Our coastal route was flat, apart from a couple of short steep hills – one of which we walked up. It was just too hot. Traffic - even on the smaller kampung roads - was heavier than we would have liked but still quite manageable.

We hired a scooter so we could get our wheel repaired at the
other side of Langkawi Island.
Happiness is bringing a repaired wheel
back home.
The northern Malaysian states
of Kedah and Perlis are
the rice bowls of the country.