Any serious hero setting out on an epic quest will find the going easier if he is equipped with an awesome weapon like a magical sword to aid him in his quest. King Arthur had Excalibur, the Wizard Gandalf had Glamdring, Emperor Elric had Stormbringer and even Frodo the hobbit had Sting. They are particularly useful when it comes to dispatching fearsome beasts and so it came to pass that we found ourselves in need of such a weapon on this great ride east. So far, our mighty journey had taken us from our lush homelands and cozy castles of Europe, across the arid wastelands of the Turks and the Persians. Then on around the great sub-continent, home of the illustrious Indian and now we are immersed in the jungled terrain of Siam. It was here, after many arduous episodes that we sought and gained entry to the legendary Temple of Tesco, where in Aisle Three we found our awesome weapon; Mozgrim; legendary eater of a thousand Culicidaen souls. We had but to part with the equivalent of four of our pounds to acquire this omnipotent foil, then wait for nightfall for the battle to begin.
One of the most horrible things inflicted on anyone who has ever travelled is having a good night’s sleep broken by the high pitch bizz-bizz-buzz of a Mosquito in your ear. A violent leap out of bead as if suddenly shocked by electricity, all the lights on and then a furtive but inevitably useless search for the intruder. Or if you do espy the little monster there is but the flimsiest of chances to squish him with a single handclap, knowing that if you miss he will somehow turn sideways in midair and simply disappear. Then a gritty-eyed return to bed, quaking beneath the sheets knowing, nay certain, that a restless night is due to follow with the certainty of a welter of red bites in the morning that will itch for days to come. I am pleased to tell you that the balance of battle has changed with the appropriation of Mozgrim; an electrified tennis racquet shaped ‘thingy’ that turns avian insects to smoke upon contact. Oh the joy! nay the ecstasy! of such an outcome is utterly delicious and I have been known to break out into the ‘underpants war-dance’ in celebration of a successful combat.
Our slouch in comfy loafers through Southern Thailand (see last post) has continued to progress at the pace of the flyby of a pair of butterflies let loose on a lush garden. We are quite simply travelling through one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. We followed the road south from Kanchanaburi and then rode west and inland through a landscape of hanging mountains that led us to the spectacular Khao Sok National Park. Again that chlorophyllic overdose of palm and fern on the senses as riotous explosions of dense jungle foliage threatened to engulf the road. We bunked up near the gate of the park and set out early the following morning for a 7km jungle hike up through the park to reach our goal for the day a small waterfall. The first half was easy to follow, ambling along a wide dirt road that ascended the banks of a fast flowing river, taking us into a shady wonderland of dense bamboo forest. Along the way a kaleidoscope of butterflies flitted through flecks of sunlight that had managed to penetrate the canopy. Off to our left we could hear the gentle rush of the river providing a telltale landmark should we happen to stray off the path whilst overhead our progress was carefully monitored by a troop of Dusky Langurs, silently peering at the intruders into their domain. These monkeys have a most peculiar visage with little white rings circling around black marble eyes, giving them the appearance of being somewhat mildly annoyed.
At a place called Bang Hua Rad we had to check in with a ranger station before continuing on to the second half of the trail. Signs at the ranger post advised taking a guide beyond this point but the guidebooks had assured us that the trail was well marked, easy to follow and a guide was not really necessary. We crossed a small river and proceeded along a narrowing jungle trail that quickly reduced to little more than an animal track, delving into dense jungle alive with the buzzing and chirping of insects. The trees above were so interwoven that they blotted out most of the light and it was hard to discern the exact position of the sun in the afternoon sky. The path split into three… which way to go? The right soon petered out into the forest so we took the left that led us to the riverbank after which, path and river diverged again. The comforting backdrop of river burble was now our only means of orientation. The path split and split again repeatedly and I began to wonder if we would ever find any waterfall. After about an hour on increasingly divergent trails we came once again upon the river only to find the way ahead well and truly barred by dense undergrowth and a sinking feeling began that we were now ensnared at a dead-end in a vast jungle maze. The canopy parted enough to let us see the sky above the river and to our dismay we set eyes upon a fuzzy blanket of dismal grey cloud. As we were taking stock of our whereabouts, the first spit-spots of what was soon to be a monsoon outburst splattered on the leaves around us; we decided to retreat.
What followed was a hateful period of being totally lost. We retraced our steps back along the path but quickly became confused after the first few intersections. The rain by now was hammering down and the jungle floor quickly flooded so we could no longer see the path as we splish-sploshed through a soupy carpet of leaves and twigs. We were rapidly soaked to the skin in spite of donning our waterproof jackets yet were grateful that we had brought these as they kept us warm; it’s incredible how quickly your body loses heat when it gets continually wet. To compound things, the roar of the downpour was absolutely deafening so we lost the reference sound of the river. The hike now degenerated into a horrible exercise in disorientation as we tramped around looking for some sign of a way out. I recognised a half chewed mango on the floor but had it been on our left or our right when we came through? Eventually we bumped into a couple of French guys with a local guide. “You guys going back?” we asked… “Mind if we tag along?” When we met them we were actually heading the wrong way, walking further into the jungle…
The rain brought one advantage in that it cleared the air for the following day when we awoke to blue skies stuffed with billowy white clouds that made our trip to see the vast expanse of Chiew Lan Lake all the more spectacular. The lake was formed in 1982 by the construction of Rajjaprapha Dam, a hydroelectric project that also aids flood control. The entire Khao Sok National Park encompasses a vast wonderland of Karst mountainscape, pointy peaks that rise right out of the ground all draped in a soft texture of velvety jungle that draws the eye in and can hold your very soul in rapture for hours on end. If they ever made a live action version of the movie ‘Avatar’ then surely this would be the location for it. Flooding a section of such terrain, as at Chiew Lan Lake, has made one of the most beautiful paradises on this planet. We spent three hours up front in a long-tail boat zooming amongst gigantic sunken limestone peaks not knowing which way to turn for the best photo shots. And paradise is the word for the rest of our time in Thailand. Bounty-bar beaches, if you remember the old TV ads, on the islands of Phuket and Ko Lanta. A short stay in Phang Nga with another boat trip through fabulous mangrove swamps to see the island location from the James Bond movie Goldfinger. A week in a shack just off the beach in Krabi… We found what was perhaps the quintessential hub of all beauty in Southern Thailand when we abandoned the bikes and sailed to the twin islands of Ko Phi Phi for a couple of days. At this point I’ll just let the photography take over as words fail me here to describe the staggering beauty of that place.
We are now well and truly travelling in the monsoon season, which means more rain but if you check out the photogallery it also makes for spectacular skyscapes and the wet lends a certain extra luminance to everything. This plus the fact that we are well and truly off-season also gives us relatively empty landscapes and heavily discounted accommodation. We could have stayed in Thailand forever but time and more importantly, our visas, were running out. It was time to make plans for Malaysia, next country on our trip. Sadly too, as we left Thailand, the country was effectively closing the door after us. Last year saw a notable increase in Chinese motor-tourists visiting Buddhist shrines in Thailand after transiting through Laos. Thailand has a poor road safety record and this peaked after a number of incidents with Chinese drivers, several of which resulted in fatal road traffic accidents involving Thai nationals. In response the Thai Department of Land Transport (DLT) issued a new decree at the end of July 2016 requiring all foreign vehicle owners to apply for a permit well in advance of their intended visit. There is also a requirement to obtain a letter of authenticity from your local embassy, basically guaranteeing that you are who you say you are, ignoring the fact that this is the role of a passport.
We were fortunate enough to have re-entered Thailand only days before the new legislation came into effect but we corresponded with a number of Swiss and Australian bikers who were effectively stranded in Myanmar / Laos / Cambodia / Malaysia and had to act as guinea pigs to negotiate the new rules. One affected overlander, Lawrence Michel, set up the Facebook page “Thailand – New regulation affecting overland travellers”. Lawrence flew from Cambodia to Bangkok, personally met with the DLT to plead on behalf of all overlanders and involved his Swiss Embassy. He then created a guidebook document on the new process. The rules have been slightly relaxed but the outcome is still a complicated entry procedure with a couple of tour companies jumping on the bandwagon to make a few quid from processing the new permits. The new process is already having a marked effect on tourism in Northern Thailand with small businesses reportedly closing down at the Laos border crossing at Chiang Khong, which has become a ghost town since the new rules came into effect. Thailand may reconsider the rules, so expect further revisions… Just to compound things, we heard that Laos have introduced a similar system and Myanmar, where a tour guide is already mandated for overlanding vehicles, have just announced that all overlanders must enter and leave by the same border crossing (i.e. if you enter from India you have to go back to India!). If not revised soon, these new legislations will effectively kill all vehicle overlanding in SE Asia as overlanders will simply ship directly from India / Nepal to Malaysia. This is a tragedy as some of the finest overlanding routes on the planet are being denied to responsible overlanders through senseless legislation. We feel really privileged to have travelled these roads and hope that the SE Asian countries can sort this out for all future overlanders otherwise this is surely the end of a little piece of paradise.
To view the photogallery for this post please click on the link: Thailand – End of Paradise