Archive for April, 2011

All go in Kuala Lumpur!

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

(Em) Kuala Lumpur – what a cool city! And so bike friendly; no sooner had we hit the outskirts than we were getting waves and thumbs up from every man and his dog! Our first encounter with a super-friendly local occurred when we first arrived; we took an exit off the highway in what looked to be the direction of the Petronas Towers (without GPS or any pre-booked accommodation to head for, they seemed to be a good landmark) and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a housing estate full of dead ends! We flagged down a passing people-carrier to ask for directions and the guy – wife and kids in tow – just told us to follow him, heading back into the centre of town (he no doubt lived on the estate and was almost home) and a good 20 minutes out of his way just to put us on the right track! The spirit of helping strangers is alive and well in KL. Of course, we stopped for some photos by the Petronas Towers (James geek fact: until 2004, they were the tallest buildings in the world, and still the tallest twin building at a tad under 452m or 1483ft but are not actually as tall as the Willis Tower, formally the Sears Tower, in Chicago as the Petronas Towers’ masts were considered design features and not just an ‘antenna on the roof’) and amused passers-by with our attempts to get the shot of the towers with the bikes by lying in the middle of the road! (James: one more reason why I need a wide-angle lens, damnit!…)

It took a while to locate somewhere to stay – the budget hotels were way out of our price range and even the hostels seemed extortionate in comparison with Thailand (plus we were a bit concerned about leaving the bikes out in the street). In the end, we found a pokey little room – no windows, paper thin walls, smelled of mothballs (James: to the point that we were getting headaches within minutes!) – in an Indian run hostel and charmed the flash hotel opposite into letting us put the bikes in their underground carpark. Result! We couldn’t take our bikes over to the shipping agent until Monday so our first day in town (Sunday) was used for admin and wandering about. Kuala Lumpur is a really happening city, modern like Bangkok but somehow a lot more European; I guess we got that sense from all the English language signs and trendy pubs, bars and shops. It’s busy but immaculately clean so quite a pleasure to explore on foot (although there aren’t many sidewalks –public transport is great but it’s not set up for the pedestrian!) In the evening, we managed to avoid the temptation of euro-food in the many cool looking bistros (there were Spanish tapas bars like you might see in London’s Spitalfields market, i.e. very trendy) and went for some good ole tom yam soup. Can’t go wrong!

Our shipping agent was located quite a way out of the centre of town but we’d printed off a map of the location so it was all good. Or not. What we hadn’t prepared for is the complete lack of any logic whatsoever when it came to signage on the city’s main road network. (James: It’s not only the signs, if you miss a junction you can’t just ride down to the next one and turn around – the next one simply turns off and sends you miles further out of your way with NO option to EVER turn round!) I don’t think we’ve had a more frustrating navigational experience on the whole trip than the complete nightmare that was finding the right road out of the city that morning!… And as the projected forty-five minute journey got closer to two hours, we really started to panic: in order to get our crates on the end of week sailing, Henry at Crown Relo had really wanted the bikes in on Friday but had extended the deadline so long as we got to the warehouse first thing Monday morning… it was now fast approaching Monday lunchtime! Eventually, having been helped by two taxi drivers and an ever-patient Henry on the phone (he confirmed that the road system was almost legendary for its crapness of design!), we made it to the industrial estate that housed Crown Relo’s office and warehouse. It was quite different from Suraj’s little shipping company office in Kathmandu, that’s for sure! We rode the bikes up into the huge warehouse space, which was chock full of crates but extremely organised and utterly spic and span, and set about taking the front wheels off so the bikes could be measured up for crating. It would take a while for the carpenters to make up the crates and we were quite happy to sit on the grass in the sunshine but Henry had other plans and took us out for lunch! An unexpected treat, not least because it meant we got to try Chinese marmite chicken for the first time!

The crates turned up around four and it was nearly 8pm by the time our bikes were all packed up – these things always take longer that you imagine, even with a team of six (yes, six!) guys helping us. We felt bad to have kept everyone late as a result of our cock up trying to find the place that morning but far from being resentful, Henry (James: who as management had had no reason to stay at work beyond 6pm and even less to stick around for us!) then gave us a lift to the station (we were now bike-less of course) and even offered for us to stay at his house the following evening! What a legend! Our plan had been to head to the east coast the following day for some beach action on Tioman Island (our US visa interview appointment – yes, really – wasn’t scheduled until the beginning of the following week) but Henry was offering up an even better plan; to stay and his and then get a lift across the country with him the next day as he was driving over for a meeting anyway. Perfect! So the next evening found we found ourselves in the surreal, but wonderful, scenario of sitting down with Henry, his delightful wife Maz and entertaining son Jake to a slap up meal complete with steak and fantastic red wine at their local – which happened to be an ex-pat bar/club run by a South African fellow cricketer (James: Henry is a cricket nut so most things for him seem to involve cricket to one degree or another!) and came complete with Olympic sized pool – before scoffing blue cheese and port in front of a movie at their home! We felt thoroughly spoiled, which indeed we were, and were really pleased to have made such lovely friends; not something either of us had expected to come out of our shipping experience! (James: All we can say is if you’re looking to ship ANYTHING out of Malaysia, Crown Relo are where you want to be, although we should add, that dinner and hospitality are very much NOT part of the ‘standard’ service! We were just incredibly lucky! Thanks once again Henry and family!) Needless to say, we slept (er, passed out?) like logs that night – we’ve become complete lightweights on the trip so beer, wine and port pretty much finished us off! We were also relieved to have the bike shipment sorted and, with our US visa interviews not until the following week, we were looking forward to some beach time for the next few days….

Click here for photos.

Living it up in Penang!

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

(Emily) ‘Welcome to Malaysia’ was emblazoned in big bold letters as we crossed the border, and welcome is certainly what we felt! Customs was a breeze and while James was inside getting the carnets done, I chatted with one of the border guards who taught us a few useful phrases – this is how we usually get some initial familiarity with a few key words in the language of a new country, there never seems to be time beforehand (James: it also helps to ‘warm up’ moody officials – all part of our cross-border charm offensive)!  The border post deposited us straight out onto the highway and immediately it was clear that Malaysia is significantly more developed than rural Thailand; big cars and sports bikes flashed past us and things just looked more streamlined and planned out. Also, being a former British colony, we could quickly identify elements of this heritage in the propensity of English language signs and road names. The sky had been looking pretty thunderous all morning and on the way down to Penang, we got hit by a few very heavy showers – it comes straight down in this part of the world, no messing about (James: quite literally, it’s like something out of film. You can ride along in clear dry air, and up ahead you’ll see a wall of water through which you can nothing. You get closer and closer to it and because there is not a breath of air, you can pretty much ride right up to it, stop, get off and stand and wait twenty metres away without feeling a drop!) But the Malays have a great system to help bikers caught in wet weather; under each bridge, of which there are many, there are special sections marked out where mopeds and motorcycles can pull into gaps in the barriers to seek refuge from downpours. We were extremely grateful for this facility, especially after the third or fourth shower! We also loved the fact that at each toll station, motorcycles (who don’t have to pay) are diverted round on their own little narrow route through the undergrowth at the side of the highway. It didn’t seem entirely necessary – there’s always room past one of the end toll booths – but we enjoyed the novelty factor!

In Penang, we were very lucky to have been offered a place to stay with James’s brother Ben’s wife Jo’s (got that?!) cousin (James: our cousin-in-law?). Andrew lives in Bukit Mertajam in mainland Penang and we were surprised and extremely gratified to be given exclusive use of his flash bachelor pad while he went and stayed with family down the road! And Andrew’s generosity didn’t end there… He’s a self-confessed car nut and has a whole network of like-minded auto enthusiasts all over the city. The very next day, he led us down to a local garage where his friends gave the bikes a thorough going over (this was after we’d come out of the house to find Andrew hosing our grubby motos down on the forecourt!) This mini-service turned out to be just as well as we knew that James’s rear brake pads were on their last legs, but more fortuitously, one of the bolts that hold his exhaust on was apparently about to fall off! The guys at the garage sorted these issues (btw thanks Dad for bringing the spare brake pads when you came out to Thailand) and gave the bikes a general sprottle. They even wrapped some heatproof bandage around our exhausts (Andrew insisted on this after seeing James’s pink right leg from riding the sort distance to the garage in shorts!) And for all this we were charged the ridonkulous fee of just 30 ringits, which equates to about £6!

Our ever-obliging host also made it his personal business to drive us around to see various sights in Penang while we were there.  Near Georgetown, we visited the Penang Clan jetties (a UNESCO world heritage site),which is a cluster of residential  piers on stilts that extend up to 80 metres out into the sea and are remnants of what was once a larger network of villages. Originally, each jetty was associated with a particular Chinese clan and those who shared the surname settled as neighbours; today the precariously appointed homes (some of which are surprisingly spacious) along each particular pier still house residents with a common surname. (Apart from ‘Mixed Surname Jetty’ – for all the odd stragglers, perhaps?!) While we were in the area, we also had a stroll around the star-shaped Fort Cornwallis – located on the point where Sir Francis Light first landed on Penang and thus began the colonisation of the island. There isn’t a whole lot to see nowadays but James and Andrew liked the cannons (boys, eh!) Later in the week, we visited the ‘military museum’, formerly a British forces training camp but used during the occupation by the Japanese in the WW2 as a prisoner of war camp (James: and one in which we believe my grandfather was held after being captured). There wasn’t much to see, as slightly bizarrely, those who run the camp have decided to make it dual purpose so it remains part museum and historical record, and part paintball centre! There were just old building left without much in the way of  any information to speak of so we left remembering it mostly for being perhaps the most mosquito ridden place we’d yet been to! Definitely not a place to spend years as a prisoner! We also took a gentle climb up a forest trail (lush rainforest is literally right on your doorstep even though Penang is a major city) replete with cooling fresh water pools and some very cheeky monkeys. (James: Although there’s only so far you can walk up hill when it’s 40 degrees and about 90% humidity!)

So, as you can see, Andrew was more than a bit of a star. And I haven’t even got to the best bit yet: during our ten days in Penang, he ensured that we sampled a whole smorgasbord of tasty local cuisine (James: and you know how we like our food!)which, due to the melting pot of cultures in Malaysia, comprised of Chinese, Thai, Indian, Indonesia, Malaysian or a fusion of food from different nationalities (even the British Isles gets a look in – chicken in Guinness anyone?! It was delicious, as was marmite chicken!) Finding places to try all these dishes with a local’s insight was just awesome – thanks Andrew! A particular favourite was guay chap (James: the spelling might be a little off…),  a rich duck soup just bursting with flavour,  plus James was rather taken with asam laksa, a sour but spicy little soup number. And let’s not forget the little breakfast parcels of rice with sambal that Andrew would bring over for us in the morning. It’s fair to say we were well and truly spoilt! Our time in Penang coincided with our first wedding anniversary (always good to still be on your honeymoon when that comes around!) and we somewhat lowered the gastronomic tone by consuming a bottle of wine and a bar of Dairy Milk in front of a movie that night – ah, the romance!

So, you may be wondering why we hung around Penang for so long. Well aside from the great time we were having with Andrew, really it was because our goal was to arrange the shipping of our bikes from Malaysia over to Canada while we were somewhere cheap (free – even better!) with decent internet access. We just didn’t bank on it taking over a week! I must have sent out quote requests to at least forty shipping agents and slowly but surely, they started to trickle back but there were days of endless dialogue back and forth about crate dimensions and optional services  and so on and so forth. What did become clear within a few days was that shipping by air was pretty much out of the question; as much as we wanted to get the bikes across the Pacific in the shortest possible time in order to get maximum touring time in the states, £4000+ (yes, really!) just wasn’t viable (and that wasn’t including our own tickets). So, half way through the week we did a bit of an about turn and started looking into sea freighting instead. To us, this was a far less desirable option: aside from the time issue, we’d just heard so many horror stories about horrendous delays or bribery at the port of destination. Still, it didn’t look like we had much choice, and at least we were shipping to Canada, more of a known entity. When we started getting yet more extortionate quotes and, worse, projections of  35 day sailing times that wouldn’t even be leaving port for several weeks, I began to get rather concerned. Maybe America was going to have to be ‘another trip for another day’ – at this rate we’d barely have time to cross the states and, more importantly, only a fistful of dollars left with which to do it.

Eventually though, we struck lucky and were in a position where we had three viable options: Andrew’s friend who works in shipping (James: Andrew, seemed to know everybody in Penang!), a freight forwarder who two fellow bikers had recently used out of Kuala Lumpur, and an agent with a company called Crown Relo (much more big scale) who seemed to know what he was talking about, gave prompt replies to my queries and had some flexibility on rates depending on what we required. Naturally, it was a Friday afternoon near the close of business when things really came to a head and we were making frantic calls to all three parties trying to get a final quote so we could make our decision. Our bikes are our babies, remember  – putting them on a random ship and hoping they turn up where you want them to is not something to be taken lightly! (James: shipping by sea can also be a pretty torrid affair. Unlike air freight where the bike goes on a set flight and arrives hours later, the shipping world is far murkier. You’re never sure if your ‘low priority’ crate is onboard, whether it was unloaded at another port en route etc, so the estimated sailing and arrival times tend to be best case scenario. A good example is Fabian, who you’ll hopefully remember from China and Pakistan. He shipped his bike from the same port at new year. His projected sailing time to South America was 4 weeks so he spent them backpacking in Indonesia. Upon his arrival he went to get hid bikes but they weren’t there. In the end, he waiting 2 months in Argentina before he got his beloved bike back!) In the end, with the other two faffing about a bit and time running out (it was minutes before 5pm when they’d all be going home for the weekend), we went with Henry at Crown Relo. Henry, who it turned out was a Brit, (no bad thing as it means less room for losses in translation when agreeing details and fees!) was confident that as long as we got down to Kuala Lumpur by Monday to do the paperwork and crate up the bikes in good time, the bikes could sail on the Friday. Suddenly, it all seemed very real!

So, after abusing Andrew’s hospitality for well over one week, we prepared to leave for Kuala Lumpur. Andrew was gracious to the last, welcoming us back should we need a cheap place to kill some time once the bikes had gone, and as we rode off, we felt very lucky to have received such generous hospitality. Thanks Andrew! Our plan for the day was to head into the Cameron Highlands, an area of outstanding natural beauty famous for its old British colonial tea plantations, and stay there for one night en route to KL. However, those pesky storm clouds were at it again. We had to pull in at service stations and moto-shelters several times along the way to avoid heavy rain (at one point pulling in a tad late and getting absolutely drenched), and as we neared the turn of for the Highlands, it was clear that the miserable weather would pretty much render this scenic route pointless if we were cold and wet and not even able to see our surroundings! It was a shame to pass by – we were all too aware that we’d hardly ridden in Malaysia at all yet and the bikes would soon be nested in their crates, not to see the light of day again until they reached Vancouver – but we’re not gluttons for punishment! So we pressed on towards the capital and, typically, the sun came out in full force by early afternoon. We knew that KL was going to be busy and manic but once we saw the glimmer of skyscrapers in the distance and caught our first glimpse of the enormous Petronas Towers, we couldn’t help but feel rather excited!….

For photos click here.

Leaving Thailand – it had to happen eventually!

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

(Emily) All things considered, our night camping out on the floor of the service station really wasn’t too bad (that said, our standards have dropped significantly on this trip, a fact normally made apparent when we bump into other westerners!) As I mentioned in our last entry, the locals were remarkably relaxed about this unscheduled and unwanted event and were proceeding with the usual Thai spirit – remaining cheerful and helping each other out despite the fact that they may have just lost everything.  Many had either elderly relatives or babies and young children with them, all of whom were frankly astonishing in the manner they were dealing with the situation even though most had already been at the station for several days . As we looked for a spot to bed down, the family groups who had already set themselves up on the floor of the disused shop front voluntarily shared out the cardboard boxes they’d found and we were even given free ‘rations’ of rice and meat by the food stall owners! We tried to say we didn’t need it but they insisted (James: Can you imagine this happening at home? If anything the price of food would go up!) I think it was quite a novelty to have three’ farang’ bikers camping out with them! For us it was all very humbling. The night air was warm enough that we didn’t need to get our sleeping bags out so we just slept in our clothes, occasionally woken by the chatter of a new coach load of people turning up to wait it out for the night. The only problem, as ever, was the mosquitoes and cockroaches (an inevitable part of life in the tropics) but once we’d moved further away from the electrical lighting, we were only bothered by the occasional winged assailant.

We were up early in the morning and noticed immediately that some of the cars were starting to leave – perhaps we’d missed an announcement that the road was open? Sadly not, it was people who’d given up and were heading back north. In the end, we decided we’d probably have to do the same after a stroll back down to the flooded road showed no change, in fact it was possibly worse after some more heavy rain in the night. Aid lorries loaded up with small plastic boats lined the road at the edge of the flooding and occasionally a huge truck, complete with snorkel, made it through from the other side, laden with cheering passengers elated to have gotten across (only the vehicles with an elevated exhaust – the aforementioned snorkel – and high road clearance could make it through the neck-high water). It would have been great if we could have got our bikes onto one of these trucks – by all the accounts the impassable stretch was several kilometres long – but aside from the fact that there was no way to mount them, there were other people who needed the transport far more than we did. So we left, having said goodbye and good luck to German Harley guy (he was on the phone to his ‘contacts’ – other Hell’s Angels -  to find somewhere to stay and was getting worried about his dog – a pit-bull naturally – who was alone at his house on Koh Phi Phi, a house which may or may not still be standing…) Our vague plan was to head back in the direction of Chumphon and hopefully find a guesthouse along the way to wait it out for a few days. To say the plan was vague was an understatement – how would we know that the road had become clear when even down here at the floodzone, there was little communication about the state of it? Still, doing something was better than doing nothing, even if that something was riding in the opposite direction of Malaysia and it was now only four days before our visas were due to expire…

Just as we were getting to the tail end of the queue of traffic (which had built up considerably since yesterday when we’d arrived), James noticed an impromptu police shack that had been set up at the side of the road, all but hidden behind parked trucks, and suggested we stop to ask for an update. There didn’t seem much point to me – surely alternative routes would have been communicated to the thousands of stranded motorists  – but as we pulled in, they did seem to be pinning up a makeshift map. No one spoke much English but from what we could tell, this was indeed a diversion route up through the mountains  (now draining of flood waters) that 4x4s were being advised they could take in order to continue further south. One of the police officers gestured that we follow a family in their car who were just about to set off – it was all a bit of a rush, and I was still dubious as to whether we’d got the right end of the stick but James convinced me we should give it a go so off we went!

All too soon, we turned off the main highway and onto a much narrower road, overhung with trees and riddled with potholes. Convinced that we would soon be riding through mud and all sorts (after all, this route had only just reopened after being flooded itself), I turned each corner with a sense of trepidation. However, fortune was smiling on us and apart from the potholes, occasional broken surface and the odd very temporarily repaired bridge, it was a lovely route that climbed up through the green hills. The traffic was all 4x4s and occasionally it ground to a halt convincing me that there must be a really bad bit ahead, but each time we’d simply ride down to the front and find it was something we could get through. Eventually James indicated that he could see roughly where we must be on the map (up until this point, he’d been using geographical features such as hills and rivers to gauge where we were in the absence of any road signs)and we were able to find our way to a marked road running along the hills in the direction of Krabi. The road was made even lovelier by the lack of traffic; clearly not many people had either found out about this route yet or simply hadn’t made it. Slightly more painful was admitting to James that he had been right!! (James: Given the regular practice you have, I’d have thought you’d be used to it by now…..)

At one point, we’d stopped to photograph some spectacular thunder clouds that were gathering rather too close for comfort when a motorist pulled in ahead of us and he and his wife came over to say hi. Tim’s a Yorkshire man but was over in Thailand to visit his wife Lek’s family, and had spotted the foreign plates on the bikes. A biker himself, he’d done his fair share of overlanding so we had a good chat and swapped details before continuing on our respective journeys – so, Hi Tim, hope to catch up with you in Richmond at some point! It wasn’t much later that we were rather surprised to find ourselves in Krabi, a popular beach resort and gateway to many of Thailand’s island getaways; just that morning we’d expected to be spending the evening back in Chumphon waiting anxiously for the flooding to relent and possibly facing the headache of getting a new visa whereas now, here we were, under 400km from the Malaysian border  with four days to spare! And, perhaps most miraculously of all, the sun was actually shining! Staff at our guesthouse confirmed that Krabi too had suffered the unseasonable rains and cold weather experienced by most of the south in recent weeks but that the forecast was set to improve… this might finally be our chance to hit the beach! It was bliss to get a shower and clean away the grime of a night on tiles (literally rather than in the fun way!) and we spent the evening relaxing (after an obligatory pad thai), enjoying a fantastic sunset from the roof of the hotel, happy hour G’n’T in hand!!

The following afternoon, after a long lie in and a sublime banana/coffee shake, we rode two up to the beach at Noppharathara (just 15km away). The tide was way out and we took our time strolling along the deserted sands,  then indulged in a bit of sunbathing before,  once again, watching a glorious sunset. Perfect! So perfect in fact, that we decided to stick around for one more day and this time actually moved from the guesthouse in Krabi town to some accommodation on the beach front – and why not, eh?! The ‘Blue Banyan Bungalows’ seemed suitably fitting. We were a bit on the pink side by the end of our second day on the beach (we may have been away for a year and look all ‘weathered’ but from the neck down we’re still pretty much whiter than white!) so it was just as well that our time as sun-seekers was short lived. That evening, outraged by the prices at the local bar, we bought some beers at a convenience store and sat on the beach to watch yet another stunning sunset. We both agreed it was a great way to spend our last few days in Thailand.

With our visa entering its last 24 hours, we aimed to ride to the city of Hat Yai which, at just over 300km away, would leave just a short hop to the border the following day. Unfortunately, I’d slept terribly and felt decidedly dodgy for the majority of the journey – it was a case of enduring rather than enjoying the ride. But at least the weather was great and we rode through some spectacular scenery. Hat Yai itself is a big, rather ‘grey’ town and decidedly un-Thai, with a large Chinese and Muslim population; it felt rather like we’d left the country already. It took us a while to find a hotel with secure parking and we rejected several places when confronted with rather rude proprietors (which often seems to be the way with Chinese-run businesses here) but we did have a great meal that evening which was a relief: our last repast in Thailand was a sad event indeed and it would have been gutting not to get a good farewell dinner! We were up bright and early on D-Day; we were already cutting it fine to be leaving it until the last day of our visa so didn’t want to push our luck and invite any unforeseen delays by being too cavalier. That said, I’m sure a visa-overstay wouldn’t be quite the same disaster it had been in Uzbekistan (when, you might recall, we were put under house arrest…) We road south west towards the border  under a really hot sun, but were periodically cooled by an incredibly black storm cloud that sat above us almost perfectly dissecting our route, allowing the sun to shine on one side of the road whilst drenching the other! All too soon we were at the border post and having to say good bye to Thailand for good. It’s fair to say, we were really sad to be leaving after all this time (surely we qualify for residency by now?!) but knew we’d be back some day…

Latest photos.

Bangkok (again!) and the road south

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

(Emily) Bangkok was only about 150km away from where we’d crossed in from Cambodia but we knew it could take hours to negotiate our way into the centre so given the hour, we resolved to find a guesthouse en route and do the remainder of the journey the following morning. Typically, for the first time and, of course, now that we really needed it, there were no hotels to be spotted along the way. The sky was looking decidedly grey and we really didn’t fancy making our way through the capital’s congestion in the rain but it looked like we might not have any choice. However, about 80km from Bangkok I spotted what looked like a little cluster of chalets near to the roadside on the other side of the highway. James was dubious as to whether it was actually a place to stay, being as we really were in the middle of nowhere, but we turned around to check it out and sure enough found a very recently constructed development of chalets, complete with their own individual driveways and landscaped lawns! You’ve got to love Thailand! We bartered down to a decent price, got some noodle soup from a shack further down the highway and settled in the for night before the rain started. Job done!

The next morning, it took us a while to find our way back to Lub-d, our favourite hostel in the Silom district of Bangkok, as the last few times we’d been to the city it had been by train and the first time, when we’d rode in, we’d come from the airport in the opposite direction. However, with James’ bloodhound skills and a little help from a passer-by (who, totally unprompted, told us how much she loved the king – obviously important information to impart to strangers to whom you’re giving directions!) we got there without too much trouble. We only intended to be in Bangkok for a few days, just long enough to get some jobs done. Our primary task was to go to the US embassy to speak to someone in person as we had lots of questions about getting our bikes into America that so far the internet had failed to answer (or rather it had come up with conflicting advice – useful!) It turns out that the guy we ended up seeing (not in the embassy itself but at Homeland Security across the road) was pretty much none the wiser and ended up just printing stuff off the internet to give to us! Oh well. In the end, the trusty HUBB (the Horizons Unlimited forum) came up trumps and someone with recent experience pointed us in the right direction. With that ball rolling (we had to start by applying to the US Environmental Protection Agency to ask for a letter of approval), we set about the rest of our to-do list: getting James’ shorts fixed (again – Marcus, he’s still wearing the ones you passed on to him and is loathed to let them go!), getting a new special non-standard sized batch of passport photos for our US applications, buying a road map for Malaysia, me having my haircut – I went to a place in one of the flash malls and was blow dried to within an inch of my life! (James: Em looked like something out of some early 80’s American show, think one of Charlie’s Angels!) and getting our recently purchased external hard-drive replaced (following a little incident in Laos where I ‘may’ have accidently dropped it…)

All these things were easy enough to sort in Bangkok, so within a couple of days we were good to go. We were also mindful that this time we were on the 15 day visa-waiver so needed to make sure we didn’t outstay our welcome (we had no time for a repeat visa run to Laos like we had to drag Darren along for the first time round!) However, we then heard from Dave (the Texan overlander we’d met in Thailand) and John and Kelly (biking couple we’d met around the same time) that they’d be turning up in Bangkok the following day so decided to wait around to see them… which turned into two days… then we randomly bumped into Will and Kate (not of the royal variety), a couple riding from Australia who had been in touch with us via email so wanted to stick around to see them… then Juan arrived and it would have been rude to leave straight away… You get the picture! Needless to say, some great nights out were had and many a beer imbibed. One night there were about ten of us overlanders crammed round the table – everyone just seemed to be in town at once!

The day came, however, when with just seven days left on our visa, we really needed to tear ourselves away and continue on towards Malaysia. Unfortunately, when we read the papers that morning, they were full of reports of widespread flooding and resulting road closures in the south, exactly where we were heading. Ah. We’d known that the region was suffering from unseasonably heavy rain but hadn’t realised that the situation had gotten so serious: the flooding and resulting landslides had destroyed homes, buried villages, caused the airports and ports to close and stranded thousands of locals and tourists on the islands of Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. The whole of southern Thailand had been declared a disaster zone and people were being advised not to travel in the area (most of the roads were closed anyway!) We deliberated for an hour or so (decision-making wasn’t coming easy to us in our hung-over state!) but in the end decided that we’d just have to go for it and if we had to, just as before on the trip, stop wherever there was a blockage or the road stopped and wait it out. If we stayed in Bangkok, not only would be it be more expensive (and we’d likely succumb to liver disease if we carried on drinking every night…) but we’d likely have to apply for a visa extension (not cheap) or do a visa run back into Laos or Cambodia (not again!) Once the old adage ‘let’s risk it for a biscuit’ (James: it’s always served us so ‘well’ in the past!….) had been uttered, there was no going back…

James navigated us out of the city as if he’d lived there all his life ( I just don’t know how he does it!) and we hit the road south. After a hundred kilometres or so, we started to look out for signs of flooding but there was nothing obvious yet. I was finding it a bit disconcerting being back on fast paced, heavily trafficked roads for the first time in a while and the grey skies weren’t helping (when we stopped for soup at lunch I had to put a long sleeved top on – it had been months!) James, meanwhile, was more disgruntled by the fact that our ‘beach week’ had been thwarted: aside from the sailing at Christmas, we hadn’t really had any beach action yet and had been saving it for this week when we made our way down to Malaysia. The plan had been to rise early each morning, follow the coastal roads and then find a quiet beach spot to stop off at each afternoon… not looking likely now! We stopped at a small gulf town called Cha Am that evening, which to all intents and purposes is a beach resort, but although we did have a stroll along the sand we were wearing fleece tops at the time! It turned out to be a lovely stopover though when, after balking at the prices of the hotels (which all seemed empty anyway), we were led by some locals to a small café/homestay up a side street where the lovely Ancham mothered us with tea and homemade profiteroles and made us feel right at home. It’s really great when you stumble a little gem like this and you’re reminded how you’re often rewarded for not booking anything in advance and just seeing what turns up when you get there. (James: just as well as we pretty much never plan ahead!)

Ancham kept calling us over to the tv whenever there was a news article about the weather and from what we could tell, it was still looking pretty bad to the south. More rain was forecast and we were convinced that we’d wake up to torrential downpours and have to stick around in Cha Am for another day (not such a bad prospect in light of Ancham’s homemade cakes but our visa expiration  was fast approaching). Neither of us slept too well, constantly mistaking the rustling of leaves for rain. In actual fact it was dry when we woke up and Cha Am was almost sunny but the sky to the south didn’t look too promising so we covered the backpack with a bin liner and donned our waterproof jackets liners. We fully expected to get wet it was just a question of how many kilometres we’d be able to get  under our belts before the inevitable happened and so we placed our bets. But despite constantly threatening, the rain just didn’t materialise and the 300km+ ride went pretty quickly – time flies when you’re storm dodging! Our target was Chumphon,  which we were led to believe was the start of the flood zone, so we figured that from there we’d get a good idea about situation further on (that is, if we managed to get as far as Chumphon!….) Sure enough, we began to spot telltale ‘large puddles’ about 50km away from the town but nothing disastrous yet and luckily the road remained clear. Even more fortuitous, the rain held off until we’d safely unloaded our kit into our comically small and windowless room and were parking the bikes up at the hotel opposite!

The next morning we hit the road once more, again hoping but not expecting to stay dry. We were amazed to clock 50km, then 100km without getting wet, although the evidence of flooding from the recent heavy rains was now much more apparent  – the lower ground to either side of the road was completed saturated, water rising half way up the tree trucks. At one point James yelled into the intercom that there was a large snake in the middle of the road. He wasn’t sure whether he hit it or avoided it (James: it’s hard to see the road below when you’ve lifted your feet and legs up to the tank to avoid getting a stray fang!) As usual, I didn’t see it! The flooding continued to get worse and worse, with many homes half submerged or even washed away completely. Many times we passed people by the side of the road who were evidently trying to retrieve belongings from the water. Very sad, and it certainly put things in perspective – all we were missing out on were some days on the beach, whereas here were people who’d lost everything they own. We got to about 10km from Surat Thani, our target town for the day and the reported epicentre of the flooding, and were just starting to think that the waters must have receded sufficiently for the roads to stay open when we hit a standstill. Now, in our experience the roads in Thailand are never congested (apart from in Bangkok) so we knew there must be trouble afoot. After parking up behind some lorries on the hard shoulder, James strolled off in the direction of the start of the jam to see what the deal was while I stayed with the bikes, and he returned fifteen minutes later to confirm what we had suspected – we’d reached the flood zone. Apparently, the approach to the upcoming flyover was impassable due to the river breaking its banks. Encouraged by the fact that people were hanging around, we waited for an hour or so too, hoping that it was a temporary delay but once we got curious and went to see the flooded area for ourselves, it became clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.

Looking for somewhere a bit more comfortable to wait, we made our way through the stationary trucks and cars and rolled into a petrol station forecourt. Unsurprisingly, we weren’t the only ones to seek shelter there but, despite the crowds, everything was remarkably calm and orderly:  the convenience store was already running low on stocks but still everyone bought only what they needed and waited patiently in the long queues; some families with elderly members had set up ‘camp’ in an unused shop front but again, no one else was clamouring to get their own spot despite the ever-increasing possibility that it would be at least morning before the road onward was cleared. It was really refreshing to witness this collective mentality of calm in the face of adversity  (we could just imagine the hard done by moaning and restless children’s screaming had we been back home…) and unlike us, for many people stranded there it was more than  a case of simply not being able to progress to their next destination. One woman, along with her gorgeous and impeccably behaved young daughter, lived in Surat Thani and was unable to get back home after visiting relatives further north. Many others were trying to get to the south to see family members who had potentially lost homes in the flooding.

The hours crept by and by late afternoon,  the inevitable rain had started. We’d been joined by another motorcyclist, a weathered old German biker with his equally weathered black Harley who said he’d been living in Thailand for almost 20 years because ‘there are less rules’ – turns out he was a fully fledged member of the Hell’s Angels and was ‘not welcome back with the German authorities’ whatever that means!… (At least, I think that’s what he said – he didn’t have a whole lot of teeth so it was hard to make out the words!) The three of us rode our bikes up onto the pavement by where we were sitting so we could keep a better eye on them while we waited. There wasn’t a whole lot of information coming through about the road block but just as it started to get dark, a police car with a loud speaker did a lap of the carpark. James went off to find someone who could translate and returned with the news that essentially, they couldn’t project when the road might be opened it (it depended largely on the rain ceasing and allowing time for the waters to recede) but that in any case, it would be happening that evening and that all roads south were closed. So, it looked like we’d be settling in for the night then……

For lastest photos click here.