(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.