In an effort to clear as many of my bills as possible, I took on some extra work this year and this left me with only a small window of time for my summer break. Slap, bang in the middle of it is the Thai New Year celebration, called Songkran. There are three options for this period: leave the country; get immersed (literally) in the celebrations, which include much water throwing; or stay behind locked doors. I choose the latter, and am using the second day of the holiday to write this.
As it is a long holiday, people not only celebrate and get drunk, but it there is a major exodus from Bangkok and the highways are badly congested at certain periods. The death toll is also high. This year, the police are confiscating (temporarily, I hope) those vehicles used by drunks. I noticed an anomaly in the first day's figures. With 90% of fatalities being riders and their passengers, according to the Bangkok Post, "More than 14,000 motorcycles were impounded nationwide after checks found riders were drunk or did not wear crash helmets. A total of 40,528 vehicles, including cars and motorcycles . . . had been seized during April 9 - 11."
Any sensible person travels before or after the main rush. I decided to travel before, so took the K100RS in for a small service and to have the seat re-covered. This normally takes a couple of days. I left it with the Old Man on Tuesday (30 March) and said I would pick it up on Thursday or Friday.
On Friday, he rang me and told me that they had had a problem with the seat cover and that it would probably be ready on Monday. I saw my time evaporating and had lost a major travel opportunity already. Monday came. And went. I stayed in Bangkok all day Tuesday, Chakri Day (a public holiday); but still nothing. Two things occurred to me: I was not going to get away this year, so would be stuck in the city; and my driving licence was up for renewal. As I cannot read Thai, I had a worry for a couple of hours until I went into the World Trade Center (where I do most of my shopping) and asked the young lady from whom I always buy my coffee. "April" she said. "28 April."
With time on my hands, I decided to do the license renewal on Wednesday morning, then wander into the city. I prepared copies of my passport and work permit, plus two sets of photographs (one for the car licence and one for the motorcycle), then took a taxi into the Transport Department Office which was not too busy. I signed and dated all the copies (a legal requirement here) then picked up a couple of forms and wandered over to some students on work practice who are there to help those who cannot write. Literacy is high in Thailand but a few old folks and us westerners have trouble with the script. At 5 baht for each form, this is not a great expense: four forms, and the students have enough for lunch.
Then to the bureaucratic process. Window 1 to submit the form and let the officials have a look at the original passport and work permit. Window 2 is next for paying the fee, which is normally 150 baht for the two licences. The lady surprised me when she asked for 720 baht (lucky I had it that early in the day). When I asked why, she told me that the licences were for 5 years. After 10 years of annual renewals, I finally exist.
While waiting for Window 3 to produce the licenses, my phone rang. "It's done," said the Old Man. So were my licences. I made a quick decision to go right away to the South, so walked outside and hailed a taxi. I was at the shop by about 1030 and heading home by 1045. It was hot. I think the official temperatures that week and this are high 30s to low 40s, Celsius. In congested traffic, on tarmac roads, stationary at trafficl lights, that seems awful hot. I grabbed some clothes and other stuff I would be needing, took a shower and was out of the door by 1230. I went into the office to arrange with the cleaning lady that she would feed the dog and I was on the road by 1300.
As far as Nakhon Pathom, traffic was quite heavy, so I was keping the engine speed down to around 4,500 rpm. At the few sets of traffic lights, the hot warning light came on. The fan is not a BMW fan and it does not have the muscle to deal with temperatures here. I have to take it a bit easy and after a couple of kilometres, the light is extinguished. Once past the turn off for Kanchanaburi, the traffic lessened and I increased the speed to about 5500rpm (the speedometer does not work, but this is Thailand). Between Rachaburi and Cha-Am, traffic gets heavier as there is a link from the expressway and the suburbs to take Bangkokians to their summer breaks at the beach. Once past Cha-Am, and the nearby Hua Hin, the road has serious travellers only.
A few years ago, most of the journey south was on single carriageway. Bit by bit dual carriageway was built as far as Chumphon, then extended south. I last used this road three years ago and now the worst stretch of all -- approaching Surat Thani -- is all dual carriageway. On this stretch, I had a pleasant ride when a driver of a Honda Civic decided to keep pace with me, matching my speed, occasionally passing, then being passed in turn at the few sets of lights, and giving me a good clear distance when I moved out to overtake other vehicles. These drivers are rare, but do exist.
Approaching Surat Thani, I found the signposts a little confusing. I did not want to go into Surat Thani, so kept on the main road, watching the Honda driver go down the slip road -- with a wave to me. I realised that, to bypass the town and head towards the east coast, I should be heading that way too. It took me a couple of kilometres to find a U-turn, and then trace my way back onto the route. The last time I had come this way, it was a two-lane road, now it was five lanes each way, with new bridges over the rivers. The two-lane dual carriageway that cuts the suburbs of Surat Thani, near the railway station, is the same, but the rest is all new and wide.
By this time, it was dark, and I was wondering about stopping as I still had a fair distance to travel. I was aiming for Sichon, where I had last stayed some 17 years ago. A friend from Bangkok had moved down here and, I thought, was selling kanom (Thai desserts) with his mother here. I intended to stay a night, or perhaps two, then continue to Songkhla. I spotted the Big C shopping centre and made the signposted right turn towards Nakhon Sri Thammarat (Nakhon means city, and Thamma (or Dhamma)... indicates a place of religious significance). This also was wide dual-carriageway, so I decided to continue for a while. But the highway went on and on: past the road for Don Sak where the ferry to Samui is located; over a major range of hills that used to be somewhat exciting but is now merely stimulating; past the road for Khanom; past a sign that said Sichon 32 kms.; and past the turn off for Sichon. All this was new.
At Sichon, I phoned Nut. "Where are you," he said. "Sichon, at the crossroads."
"I don't live there, I live at Khanom. Near Sichon."
In our earlier phone calls, he had told me Khanom, which I had misheard because of the tonal nature of Thai, and said that it was near Sichon. Standing outside a village shop, I went in and handed the phone to the shopkeeper. He spoke to Nut and I got directions, thanked the man and turned the bike round.
Khanom itself is neither one thing nor the other. It has a couple of hotels, some beaches, but also some light industry. It is also in the middle of some beautiful countryside. Once in the town, I phoned Nut again but was not having much luck with directions, so I went into an open restaurant and did the phone trick again with a customer. A few minutes later, I saw my friend standing at the side of the road. His mother got me into a small beachside resort (700 baht -- $17.50 -- a night) after we had something to eat; and I fell asleep to the sound of the sea.
Next morning I had breakfast by the sea. I had decided overnight that I would stay here for a few days and then head back to Bangkok before the Songkran festivities began. An early run Sunday morning would get me back to the city before it got too crazy on the roads. I was on a fairly tidy beach with a quarry and jetty with cranes to the nothern end; the crescent of the beach and a rocky headland to the south. This shape, and the rocks, are common to many beaches here.
Nut came at about 0900 and we took a ride to another set of beaches where he had built some new beach houses.
Other workers were now in doing landscaping and electrical wiring. We took a walk along the beach and across the roacks. While there we saw a palm-like tree with a fruit that looked something like a medium-sized pineapple. Nut, being a city person, did not recognise it but his grandmother later identified it as a type of fruit that only grows by the sea.
We headed inland and stopped at a small shop to take a drink. The lady and her daughter were eating an early lunch (or perhaps a late breakfast -- difficult to tell here), and returned to their meal after serving us. We sat and talked for about half an hour in the shade, then headed along the lane which came out on the road between Khanom and the highway. All around Thailand these days there are blue signs indicating sites of interest to tourists. Khanom has more than its share.
Two kilometers along the road, we turned right and headed down another lane into rubber plantations -- a feature of the south -- where the air is always cooler. At one of the many limestone outcrops was a cave, called Khao Wang Tong. I parked the bike at the foot of the steps and we made the climb up to the entrance. The cave was locked.
A concrete observation platform had been built by the cave mouth and this looked out over the countryside. We sat and got out breath back. A sign in English described the various chambers within the cave. Another sign in Thai also had details but added that, to enter, you had to contact the keeper of the key. This is after you had ascended the 139 steps.
As well as the quarry, within the town Khanom also has fish processing factories: anchovy, shrimp and squid. Occasionally one of the trucks passes carrying waste, with the pungent odour trailing. Some of the fish is processed into a paste, with chili -- 100 baht for IKg here -- to be mixed in while cooking.
The northern end of the town has a small port where the fishing boats are based. Past the port, at the edge of the inlet, is a small electricity generating plant. As with other EGAT operations, this includes an area where the public has access -- this has a beach and a pier. The opposite side of the narrow inlet is a sheer cliff. As well as the ggreen and red navigation lights, there were two huge white disks on the cliff-side -- red ligts at the centre. Align the disks and there is a safe run into the port.
The power station must use both oil and natural gas (the latter is sensible as this is one of Thailand's natural resources -- offshore, of course). The containers for the respective fuels are different. While we stood in the shade at the sea-shore, a LPG boat manoeuvered while smaller fishing boats scurried about.
As we were leaving, my phone rang. It was one of my former students who needed help with his Masters' thesis: data OK; English not. I will be back next week, I told him. Instead of going back into Khanom, we headed out, north, along a raod that ran parallel to the coast. Nut took me to a pier that had once been a ferry to the island of Samui. The main one is at Don Sak and there are a couple in Chumphon that particularly serve the northern islands in the group favoured by divers and Full Moon Party-goers.
After this ferry, we rejoined the road and headed up to Don Sak where the main ferry to the islands is located. This was fairly busy. As we stood watching, a ferry disgorged and, among the vehicles, were two motorcycles registered in Malaysia. We grabbed some free maps of the islands and found out how much the fare was: 97 baht for a bike. The ferries to Samui run hourly from 0500 to 1900; and to Koh Pha-Ngan there are four a day each way. There is no website. The Don Sak office has a fax number at (0) 7747-1154.
We stopped for a drink at one of the stalls and saw a Harley-Davidson parked nearby. This had police stickers on the side but the only police Harleys here are a fleet of gold-coloured Electraglides used once a year to escort the King to a religious function. As much as I am lukewarm to Harleys, these look magnificent. The rider of this one was nearby and, although I nodded, I got zero response.
We left the ferry environs and found that the road was in the middle of major construction from Don Sak itself all the way back to the highway -- about 25kms. Currently single- it will soon be dual-carriageway. As we approached the highway, the sky had not so much as got cloudy as thickened. It looked as if it was getting ready to rain. I put on some speed and we were back -- in the sun -- in Khanom within half an hour.
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