First thing after breakfast, we headed out of the town to one of the nearby waterfalls. Along a track, through coconut plantations, I parked the K100 next to a hut, and we entered the forest. Nut was embarrassed by the amount of waste paper and plastic bottles dropped on the ground. Thangi waterfall, like much of non-urban Thailand, is a geologist's classroom.
Even I recognise the different types of rocks -- quartz, limetone, even some examples of pumice. There is evidence of both volcanic action but also sedimentary rocks, with the layers clearly visible. And in the cracks of the rocks, plants demonstrating the tenacity of Nature herself. Life will force itself through, although the mortality rate is high: only the fittest survive.
I was nearly a non-survivor myself, clambering up some of the rock faces. I slipped once or twice because my boots were unsuitable for such terrain, then fell heavily on my side. It was not until the next morning that I noticed the huge bruise that had come out.
Back at the bike we stopped and had a drink or two. It had been thirsty work climbing up the rocks and it was time for a rest. While there, Nut asked me if the bike could go up steep hills. I said that we would not know until we had tried. A few kilmotres away, Nut knew there was a road that went high up into the hills. It was mainly second gear work, but the bike was well capable of the gradient. All I heard from Nut was a long scream.
The climb took about 15 minutes and the bike was quite hot. At the top the view was non-existent. There was an antenna belonging to one of the Thai phone companies, but this was in a glade of trees and the greenery was too thick to see through. An engineer there suggested we go back down the hill -- which I did, gently -- and at one or two places it was possible to see through.
With the height and the humidity, the view to the sea -- several kilometres away -- was not sharp and clear. Once more we headed back to the Khanom road and stopped at a gas station for more liquids: for us; the tank was still quite full.
After lunch, we took an easy afternoon back at the resort. It was initially quiet and we watched an eagle fishing; but, as the afternoon progressed, first one family, then two, then three came and sat by us. Nut and I moved to the other end of the beach where there was just one woman and her baby. We sat in the shade and ordered drinks.
Nut had Saturday all planned. We headed out to the highway and then south to Sichon. At Sichon, we headed north on a coast road to a place called Khao Pai Dam ("Dam" is the Thai word for "black"). There was a signpost at the same place indicating "Dolphin Beach." As we came down the hill towards the area, it looked quite nice, but once along the access road, it was a huge building site: Thais seem either to do nothing or over-develop, and this was currently a mess.
We headed back towards Sichon, drifting. Coming up over a hill, we had a view of a the beach from near Khao Pai Dam right along to Sichon itself.
If you look carefully, you will see no one along the entire stretch.
Slowly, we headed along to the end of the causeway and then part of the way back, before turning into Sichon town itself. I had been here 17 years ago and (of course) recognised little. We made our way through the narrow streets, to the fishing port, opposite the causeway we had recently travelled along, then made our way up to the resort I had stayed at all those years ago. Unrecognisable.
Where there had been bamboo huts and an open restaurant by the sea, now there were concrete bungalows. In those days, the water was in huge concrete jars inside the huts -- before taking a bath, and splashing yourself with water, it was necessary to tap the jars a few times so that the tadpoles would swim away from the surface. Now the water was piped and probably heated too.
Southwards along a coastal road, we headed away from what might be thought of as tourist areas and into fishing villages where much of the population is Muslim. We stopped for a drink and I felt the locals cool towards us initially: Thai speaking westerner on a Bangkok registered motorcycle, with a Thai who spoke in the central dialect. There have been problems between southern Muslims and the central government for years -- some people are working for a separate state for the four provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla -- although some people also suggest that there are non-Muslims who have caused terrorist acts for their own benefit. The whole situation has escalated in the last few months and there is considerable distrust. I have travelled widely in those provinces in the past -- as well as Satun which is also predominantly Muslim -- and have much respect for these hard-working people. After our drink and a lengthy chat, the atmosphere was brighter and we were no longer seen as suspicious strangers: just a couple of people on a journey.
We eventually came out onto the main highway and, after a short time, turned west again and headed into Khao Nan National Park. Through a few villages, we began to follow a river bed. It was in the process of being dammed. In the area of the construction, high above, Nut saw an eagle soaring but it disappeared behind some trees and we lost sight of it.
At the park, we were waved through the barrier and I parked the bike. We decided to have some lunch and headed up a small hill to the Ranger station. The couple of Rangers there were most helpful and, after lunch, showed us round a tidy, but small, display room they have there. We had a look at the photographs of this and other parks in the area, and were handed a brochure about the parks in Nakhon Sri Thammarat run by the National Parks Division of the Royal Forest Department.
After lunch, we bought some drinks and headed into the small park. The main attraction here was a waterfall, but one of the ladies, sort of apologised, saying that at this time of the year, there was not much water. She suggested also that I buy some prawn crackers, "The fish love these," she said. And she was right. It reminded me of feeding the fish in the Japanese garden at the St. Louis Horticultural Society (Heaven knows if that is still there -- my mother loved it): hungry fish swarm to get even a tiny morsel.
We followed the path through the well-kept gardens here, and Nut noted the difference between the litter here (zero) and what we had seen the day before. After the garden, it was along a narrow path towards the waterfall which must be about 60 metres high with a huge pool beneath. There were many people swimming in the pool, and some kids were jumping off the rocks into the water. We sat on a shady rock above the pool and watched.
Four schoolboys went into the pool near us, but after a couple of minutes one came out shaking his wristwatch. And then nearby, a young man took his mobile phone from his shorts pocket. He turned round to go back into the water and then removed his sodden wallet from his shorts and peeled back the contents.
Nut had been intrigued by some photographs in the Ranger station of some caves not too far away. We headed back to the highway and turned south for Tha Sala. I almost came to work here some years ago when a new university was opened. I got a fright when, a year before teaching was due to start, I saw the multi-laminate bureaucracy already in place and the materials that were to be taught. After it opened, I discovered that a Nemesis from my first job in Thailand -- with many scalps (Thai and western) on her belt -- had also applied. Sometimes Fate deals us the right hand.
Although the road between Sichon and here had been widened in places, Tha Sala itself was sporting a new dual carriageway. At the four-way intersection we turned West again towards the hills and into the bottom part of the Nan Park. I found this one of the most exhilirating rides I had had for a while. Not overly fast, the mixture of curving roads, forest, and spectacular views made this a superb afternoon. Deep into the park, we finally came to the end of the road and to the Hong Cave.
The Ranger on duty explained that we would have to wait for a guide -- I smelled a rip off immediately, but was totally wrong -- as there were already several groups inside the cave. He also told Nut that we would get wet, so suggested we change. I had shorts and sandals but Nut was going in with his jeans. We put the mobile phones inside the bike's panniers; but I took the camera (of course).
Finally, one of the groups returned and off we went with our guide and two torches: no on-off switch; just twirl the wires together. The photographs had suggested a large cave, but when we got up to the entrance, it was just a hole in the ground, large enough for one person at a time to pass through. As I waited, 20 came out. All wet.
The guide went in and Nut followed. I slid down the stones into the cave. There was water everywhere and the guide just marched on through. Sometimes the bed of the stream was sand and sometimes it was slippery rock.
Within a short time I was wet up to the naughty bits. If you look at the photo of the guide, you will see that his experience -- even after several trips into the cave within a short time -- kept him dry above his thighs; and he was no taller than me.
As we went deeper into the cave, I was awed by the singular beauty of the work of millions of years: stalactites and stalagmites, all created by the steady dripping of water through limestone. The guide went on ahead as I took photographs. The roof began to get lower and lower, and I found myself in a long chamber with the cave roof touching my head. I was crouched over, holding the camera out of the stream, with my nether regions dipping into the cold flow of the water. And I started to sweat.
I suddenly had a dread fear of being trapped: millions of tons of rock above me, water inches below. The problem with an irrational fear is just that: rational thought and analysis will not help. Even though I knew what the problem was, I had to turn back. I apologised to Nut and asked him to call the guide back. The guide smiled politely and made no gesture or comment. He had obviously seen this many times before.
Once I got back into the larger chamber, I was fine; and we stayed for several minutes taking more pictures. It was just that narrow little pipe.
As we neared the Ranger station, I reached for my sunglasses that had been fixed in a buttonhole of my shirt but they had gone. I cursed myself again. At the office, I dried myself, changed back into my jeans and put my boots on. Another party of troglodytes arrived and a guide led them towards the cave. I signed a visitors' book: "Beautiful . . . but small," I wrote.
There was no mention of any fee at all, so I determined to give the guide a tip. Entering the cave would have been dangerous without a guide. Nut misunderstood me and, before I knew it, he and the guide were off again heading back to the cave. In about 15 minutes, Nut came back and handed me the sunglasses. The guide had found them in the water. I was overjoyed as they had been made for me in Bangkok, and I really wanted them in the strong sunshine here.
The ride back to the highway was every bit as enjoyable as the ride into the park had been; and heading back towards Khanom I felt that the day had been one of the better days of the last few months, despite the fear in the cave. Odd that: I had no idea I was claustrophobic. On the highway, back in my own element, I opened the taps and used the road -- it used to be fun, now it is much safer too -- to its fullest, arriving at a gas station outside Khanom, in exactly an hour.
That night Nut, I and a couple of Nut's friends ate at an open-air restaurant then we all said goodbye. It was my inention to leave as soon as I could in the morning, so that I could ride when it was cooler and miss some of the traffic.
I managed to leave the resort at 0710 and was back in Surat Thani before 0800. Already, it was clear that traffic was a bit heavier than I wanted. I got through Surat Thani fairly quickly, and made my way onto the main north-south highway (International Route A18). As I mentioned earlier, the route used to be a single carriageway and it was this stretch I often had problems on with car drivers -- impatient with mile after mile stuck behind slower vehicles -- pulling out into the road directly ahead of me, perhaps misjuding the speeds at which I was moving: motorcycles are small, less easy to judge and, anyway, should get out of the way (so wisdom has here). That is past with the safety of a central reservation keeping such miscreants at bay. On one occasion, with the opposite carriageway at a standstill, a TV crew was filming the aftermath of an accident. I noted the event, but did not see what was involved.
By Chumphon, the traffic was slightly heavier but, with a couple of sets of lights, I was able to get way ahead of vehicles that had been running with me. At the lights I thread through to the front and then, with significantly better acceleration, reach my cruising speed more easily. Between Chumphon and Prachuab Kiri Khan, I saw a police escort ahead. It was not a Royal escort -- too few vehicles and the traffic was not being stopped -- but it might have been a politician. These are averse to being passed and recently one member of the government took his police escort to task because a motorcyclist dared to catch up and overtake. I caught the escort slowly and, holding my speed steady, took advantage of hills and other places where the convoy reduced its speed slightly. I saw that it was a medical unit -- part of a program organised by the King's sister. Once level with the police car, I drifted slightly ahead and gradually increased my speed until I caught some traffic, threaded through, then opened the taps and disappeared.
By now I was beginning to catch some Bangkok registered vehicles and these guys stay in the outside lane all the time, although one or two did become aware of my approach and move over. I acknowledged these courtesies. With a fast pickup truck some way behind me, I caught up with another pickup as it was preparing to overtake some other vehicles: another truck and two German registered bikes, which I think were Transalps. As the pickup got close to the bikes, first one moved out, then the other moved out alongside. The pickup might have been able to slide past one, but the pair, in line abreast, made it essential for it to brake. If they were doing this in the south, the riders might never make Bangkok. I waited for the pickup to pass, then made my own move and disappeared.
All too soon I was past Prachuab Kiri Khan, then Pranburi and on my way to Hua Hin then Cha-Am where the traffic inevitably got heavier with Bangkok-based drivers who are only able to use the outside lane. Although it slows me down, I still squeeze past -- in some cases I have a kilometre or more of the inside lane to myself -- and make progress.
The only place that really irks me is Rachaburi where there are several sets of traffic lights. A double set takes several minutes to go through the sequence and this always heats the bike up. At the Bangkok end of this town, there are roadworks where a new overpass to avoid two road junctions and a railway crossing, is being built. That slows things down right now, but will smooth the flow in a few month's time.
After Rachaburi, Nakhon Pathom and the last section before home. As the traffic was heavy, I decided to take the Petchkasem Highway (A18) all the way in and cut across at Phutthamopnthon, Sai 4, where the large Buddha statue is not far from my home. A quick run along Sai 4, cut across Thanon Utthayan to Sai 3, and I was home, exactly 7 hours after setting out. I phoned Nut to let him and his family know I had reached Bangkok, had a shower after a serious licking from the dog, and walked across the road to buy some lunch.
Monday took me into the office to collect mail and a check, then it was into Bangkok for bills and shopping. I was home by early afternoon and I have not left the house since. I have another 36 hours to go before the festivities -- and the water-slinging -- cease.
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