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March 19th - March 24th: Cycling with Edwin and Louis, The road to Ko Samui, South Thailand

March 19th: Kota Bharu, Malaysia to Narathiwat, South Thailand, 70km

After a blissful few days on the idyllic Parhentian Islands, where the sand is as fine as an hourglass and the water is lukewarm, I headed back to the mainland once more. There I met up with cycle tourer/cake connoiseur Andrew back in Kota Bharu - Hilary has been struck down by the dreaded 'Rotten Roti,' and is looking peaky. Tonight, Edwin and Louis, who I met in Kuala Lumpur, are flying over to cycle up to Ko Samui, Southern Thailand. I meet up with them at their hotel and lighten them of some gifts - a great T shirt with 'The Long Ride Home Malaysia to Thailand' written on it, a baseball cap and some bike gear. Edwin is a very experienced rider and holds a distinguished position in the Malay biking fraternity. Despite an injury-induced retirement from racing, he still holds a couple of the country's track records. Louis is from the Phillipines, a keen cyclist and part of the Kuala Lumpur bike club. It's the first time either have toured by bike, and their steeds are looking slick.

The next morning Andrew, Louis, Edwin and I cycle down to Razanni's bike shop, where all the local bike club riders are gathering to join us on a ride to the border with Thailand. A throng of cyclists, all kitted with bug eye shades and lycra leggings, (expecting an early winter?) are ready to leap onto their steeds and hurtle down the Malay roads...Most are on high spec mountain bikes, a few are on wire-thin racers. Young and old, they number perhaps 45 - as a huge fleet we speed towards the border. Then it's time to bid fond farewells to this friendly group. I exchange manly hand shakes with Andrew, whose company I shall miss.

The Three Amigos begin their journey...

Crossing the border on the car ferry, passports stamped, our Thai adventure is ready to unfold. It's not far to tonight's stop - Narathiwat - and there we meet Yorkshire Jo, an English girl travelling around Thailand. It's Edwin and Louis' first time doing the 'backpacker thing', and I wonder what they will think as we approach a Rough Guide recommended budget digs. At the Cathay Hotel, we are lead to a sparse room by an ancient and mumbling Singaporean. He proudly points to his bike, a Raleigh that he's owned for 50 years, back when there were just horse and carts, and (jabbing the air with his finger in the direction of the tarmac surface) no roads. My first sample of Thai food bodes well as we tuck into a DELICIOUS supper. Noodles, rice, fish and chicken spill over the plates.

Thailand's biggest sitting Buddha is just out of town, so leaving our steeds, we flag down a communal pickup and head over. Standing a lofty 24 metres high it is lit up divinely by the setting sun behind... Upon closer inspection, we notice it is made up of thousands of gold tiles, each catching the light. The pickup costs 5 bart (around 8p for the 20 minute ride) - how much money am I saving by cycling?!

March 20th - March 21st: Narathiwat to Pattani, 110km

Just arrived in the predominantly Muslim town of Pattani. We are all pretty tired after a hard day's ride and having descended on a noodle shop for a feeding frenzy, are back in the hotel, collapsed under the roof fan in various states of exhaustion.

After leaving the quirky Cathay Hotel, we eventually found our way onto the coastal road. Almost devoid of any traffic, it ran by the edge of the sea and was dotted with villages of wicker-walled huts, naked children, cows and goats, and table upon table of drying fish - for meals such as Nasi Lemak. A warning to the heat that we're heading into? It's already blindingly hot as we come into the aptly name 'hot season.' These roads are wonderful roads for cycling, at times crumbling into dirt tracks unexpectedly and forking off in random directions. We are really venturing into areas that we could only visit by bike. We regularly get lost, and friendly mopeds steer us back on course, though we have to be careful not to be rerouted back onto the main highway. The Thais don't understand our quest for quieter alternatives.

There are far fewer cars than in Malaysia, but less than 200km from the border, its influence is still strong - language has not been much of a problem with Edwin around as many of the Thais speak Malay. Stopping for noodles and cakes in a fishing village, we head down to the beach, trapesing our bikes through thick sand in pursuit of a refreshing swim. The boats in this area are intricately painted - the detail that covers them is staggering, and they all have coloured scarves tied to their bows to appease the spirits of the sea. Some naked kids come rushing over to stare. We all have squeaky horns in the shape of animals on our bikes, and they delight in squeezing them!

Rejoining the main road by way of a rickety bridge, we arrive in Pattani. Totting up the totals worriedly for the next few days, we'll have to get up real early to beat the sun, a reminder of the old Oz days. We cycle fast, often averaging around 30 kms and hour, taking it in turns to take the lead and cut through the wind. A child leaps out in front of me and gives me a huge fright as he bounces off a rear pannier. Luckily he's ok, though a little dazed. We observe the Chinese New Year ritual of placing firecrackers in an ornate cylinder with vents, to expel any of last year's bad spirits. The Muslim influence is still very much evident - Mosques with their upturned turnip shaped cones painted brightly are a reminder of the Islamic faith. The end of the day leaves us tired and sunburned, but appreciative of the beautiful roads we rode, and a side to Thailand far removed from the tourism that will no doubt be evident elsewhere.

March 22nd: Pattani to Songkla, 118km

A new battle plan was formulated today. We rise at 5am and leave as soon as the first rays of light permeate the night sky. I call it 'Operation Daybreak.' With no alternative but to take to the mainroad, we cycle quickly, breaking once for two enormous platters of noodles. On the flat, we reach up to 41kms per hour, arriving at our destination by 11.30 am. The afternoon is spent relaxing,sleeping, avoiding the burning sun and resting for tomorrow's Big Day.

March 23rd: Songkla to Nakhon Si Thammarat, 180km

We rise at sunrise: this is the hour to catch the monks padding around in their bright orange robes, eye-catching even in this half light. Shops offer them food, for the Thais hold these monks in the highest esteem. Indeed, it is very common for Thai men to spend some time, from a month to a year, shedding the trappings of society for the simplicity of a monk's life. Places of work will even give employees a month's paid leave solely for this purpose. At one point a pickup cruises past us crammed with monks, their robes flapping in the wind.

A morning ferry deposits us at the very beginning of a long straight and flat highway flush to the coast. We stop in the only place we can find, a little shack serving food on an empty stretch of highway. Chicken and fish appear from a cupboard, {refrigerated?!?) ingredients for one of the best soups I've ever tasted. Later we stop at a store where a withered old Thai starts jabbering away to us. He's dressed entirely in brown - flares, shirt and trilby - all but for his Nike Air sandals. Indifferent to our incomprehension, he unleashes a torrent of words and we nod and smile. Content with this, he polishes off his Nescafe coffee shake, professes me to be a lucky person and wanders off down a dusty road...

At Nakhon, the night market is a hive of activity. An array of dishes are on display to mix with the 'base'. Noodles, for instance, have their own subsection - string thin rice noodles, flat 'lasagna' noodles, glass noodles... I watch as the stall holders deftly scoop, boil and fry these tasty carbohydrates, chopping and sprinkling in this and that, adding splashes of dark liquids from murky bottles which at times causes the whole wok to flare up. Watching them is like watching a video in fast playback, such is the speed of their movements - every little time saving device had been learnt and used. We return with bellies pleasantly stretched.

March 24th: ...and finally, Ko Samui, 136km

We've arrived at the ferry terminal near Khanom, and the look of elation on Edwin and Louis' face is worth remembering. Louis discovers some inner strength deep within and sets the pace over the last stretch, a beautiful 14km ride through a valley by way of a meandering road. Coaches arrive and unload stiffened bodies after their long ride, and this makes us feel all the more content with our form of transport. Aboard the ferry, we lock up the bikes below and stretch out up on deck, watching the land slowly fade into the sunny haze. Chatting to other travellers whiles away a few hours and we arrive at Ko Samui as the sun begins to set. It's been a long ride and tomorrow it's time to take a rest...



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