The Isthmus of Kra

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A fact unknown to me up until a few weeks ago: this world has an Isthmus other than that of Panama.

I can’t make any comparisons about the scenery, food, or culture along the way, but I feel justified in saying that that little strip of land that connects Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur has a much sweeter name.  I wanted to scream it at least twenty times a day – any time I came across a spectacular beach, any time I found myself squished between groves of coconuts on the left and mangoes on the right, any time I woke up to the sound of the waves, any time I saw a bunch of monkeys monkeying around, any time I felt the joy of being outdoors, free of obligation, and having all the time in the world – at these times and more, the words forced themselves up out of my guts, through the rest of me, and out of my windpipe, Braveheart-style:

ISTHMUS OF KRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

Preamble

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Before we get started, a note of thanks to the Lunlana hotel and the family that runs it  – Gai, Chumsri, Noo, Sun, Sai, and Sea.  They put me up and, much harder, put up with my fauxbo ways (i.e. “no need to wash the sheets every day….how about twice a week?) for a whole week while my posse and I took care of some business in the big city.

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It’s a sweet little hotel right in the heart of Bangkok, just one street over from where my parents and I stayed back in October.  I had an exhilirating, death-defying, daily 40 minute bicycle commute to the Korean guesthouse where Chris, Minsung, and all my other buddies were staying.

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But with a lobby like this

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And a room like this

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I think I made the right choice.

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 www.lunlanahotel.com

In case you or anyone you know wants a nice place in Bangkok.

Scenery, Sites, Sightings


View 3RR in SEA in a larger map

The eponymous Isthmus, a good 650km of totally flat roads.

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One thing is sure: there will be beaches.

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Especially because I made sure to take the scenic route (which, in this case, turned out to actually be marked “Scenic Route”).

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The beaches didn’t start until a few hundred km south of Bangkok, though.  First: salt fields and headwinds.

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Hua Hin, land of pudgy, 50-something Russian tourists slathered with about one bottle of sunscreen per limb.  Someone recently pointed out to me that all that grease has to go somewhere – either into your body or into the ocean.  Yeck.

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Beach, December, Vietnam: argue with owners at overpriced restaurant, pitch tent under grey sky, get rained on, get hassled by the police.

Beach, February, Thailand: hang hammock under perfect cloudless sky, feel perfect breeze blowing under my back, allow vendors to deliver me perfectly sliced perfect papayas.

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That’s what I’m talkin’ about.  National Highway 4, full of trucks and honks and all that other crap, was only about 10-20km away, running parallel to all these country roads for most of the length of the Isthmus.  Every once in a while these coastal roads dead-ended and I had to head back to civilization, but for the most part it was just me and the elements.

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Mutant banana tree?

 

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Coconut husks.

 

 

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Khao Sam Roy Yot National Park.

 

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The king is a big supporter of small-scale, organic, environmentally- and traditional society-friendly agriculture.  Maybe he’s a proponent of cycling, too?  Actually, most roads in Thailand have shoulders that are fine for cycling on, so the difference here is mostly a matter of paint job.  Whatever, it looks sweet and might keep the motos out of my lane.

 

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Little canals, colorful boats.

 

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A slightly unconventional temple out in the middle of nowhere.

 

 

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A little strange, but it beats billboards.

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Not in any particular hurry, I decided to play a little game: every time there’s a smaller road that goes where you want to go without taking you way too far off course, follow it.  For the first six days, this kept me on the royal road, next to the beach and away from the highway.  It didn’t work so well when I tried to cut across the Isthmus from West to East, though.  Trusting my map over the explicit warnings of locals and taking a shortcut to a shortcut to a shortcut resulted in my half-pushing, half-carrying the bike up narrow, unpaved, sandy, steep, remote roads at about 2km/h rather than simply breezing along in my highest gear.   I think it was the first time in Thailand that I’ve seen houses not connected to the grid.

 

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Some sort of bunker I passed by on the mini-odyssey.

 

 

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As usual, though, the story had a happy ending.  The country road dropped me off on a rural road which then dumped me onto a major highway just as it was getting dark.  I thought it better to camp right away rather than try to cover more ground looking for a temple or beach.

 

 

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Luckily, the chef/owner Por had lived in LA for a year or so, spoke good English, and was looking for an excuse to have some cold beers and chat once the restaurant had emptied out.

 

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Turns out that he had once been nominated to the president of Cheerthai, the official fan club for the national soccer team.  Feeling a need for a little more quiet in his life and space to concentrate on his new baby daughter, he moved back to his wife’s countryside hometown and opened up a steak and spaghetti diner.

 

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Por had an affinity for pithy English wisdom.

 

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One afternoon, I came upon a Mosque with about twenty men in front, all reciting prayers and doing prostrations.  I watched for a bit, then went down to scope out their village.

 

 

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That mountain straight across from the pier?  It’s Burma.

 

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I was just there for the pickledmango-ade and the banana snacks (food post coming soon…), but some old ladies insisted I come into their house.  Or rather, place of business.  So this is what all those fishermen were after.

 

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I asked the price out of curiosity.  They told me that they sell it for $50/kg to a man who exports it to the USA.  I found this pretty amazing, as the village seemed to contain no more than about ten houses in it.

 

 

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Adorable morning assembly with the best school uniforms ever.

 

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Unlike the kids in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Thai children actually seem to do something at school.  None of them freak out and run around screaming “Foreigner!  Foreigner!”  None explode out of the school building.  None even really want their picture taken.

 

 

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I half-expected the staff to chase me away lest I get the kids all riled up right before class.  Quite the opposite – they left the kids to their own devices for a few minutes and came over to talk to me about my trip and my flags.  Thankfully, they didn’t ask me to stay and give a presentation to the kids.

 

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I left my bike near a police stand so that I could head to the market across the street and fill my face.  When I came back, the officers were poking around at my bike.  They sat down with me to eat, taught me the names of the snacks that I had bought, and insisted on giving me a cold can of coffee.  Thanks, dudes!

 

 

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In my peripheral vision I spotted a guy walking some sort of animal.  All I knew for sure was that it wasn’t a dog.

 

 

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Upon closer inspection: it’s a monkey!  The guy had a leashed monkey, which he sent up into the tree canopy.  I couldn’t really see what the monkey was doing, but as its owner barked out orders, clumps and clusters of betel nuts started dropping down from about 30 meters up in the air.

 

 

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After the work had been done, the owner hydrated his helper and helped to pick all the fire ants off of his body.

 

 

 

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A yellow wax apple giving birth?  A jackfruit taking a poo?

 

 

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No, it’s the fruit of the cashew tree!  That’s right, the cashew  is a fruit – pungent, sticky, and a little sweet – and the thing that we eat is actually its seed.  Only one seed per fruit, and it can only be eaten once it’s been fried.  Now you know why they cost so much.

 

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A Buddha in an underground cave maze.

 

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I passed by several of these buildings.  They looked like solid concrete blocks, but they all emitted a constant stream of mysterious chirping sounds.  At first I thought they were just recordings intended to bring back wildlife that might otherwise fly away, but later I learned that they’re actually farms for “Bird’s Nest Soup,” a Chinese delicacy made by cooking the nest of a special bird that builds its own with spittle rather than using leaves and twigs.

 

 

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A mural nearby.

 

 

 

 

 

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Who needs a dryer when it’s hotter than an oven outside?

 

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See that clump in the middle there? It’s a dude tightroping across the cord tangle.  Not a job I’d like to have.

Obligatory Sun Shots

 

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I managed to see the sunrise from the beach almost every morning on my way down.

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I’m Not the Only Crazy Guy on a Bike.

More foreign cyclists sighted this week than in my entire nine months in China and Taiwan.  I didn’t even take pictures of the first ten, since I didn’t expect there’d be another twenty.

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Sergio from Italy.  When I gave him my email address, he said: “I don’t know what to do with this, I’m going to have to give it to my grandson.”  Turns out he was 69 years old.  Hell yeah!

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Richard from the UK.  Owns an RV camp back home and comes out to Asia to cycle while it’s closed for the winter.

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German couple.

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Czech dude with homemade bamboo digeridoo and an uncouth habit of saying “F*CK!”  when what he really meant was “oh, cool.”

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Sabina, born in Germany, former business exec in Singapore, current consultant in NYC.

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Four Americans!  From Portland, riding from BKK to Singapore and back.  Apparently if you have $50k in a Thai bank, you can get an indefinite retiree visa.

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Igel

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Paola

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On the road for fifteen years or something.

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And in the trailer….their two dogs!

http://www.grenzenlos.ath.cx/

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Last but not least, Horst.  An older German gent who is determined not to let his polio hold him back.  He spent two or three decades as a sailor and a Special Olympics regatta coach, retired, and is now living in Mallorca and traveling every now and again.  He flies to his destinations, then takes his wheelchaircycle out on daytrips.  “Pedalling” this thing with one’s arms is no easy task.  When I said at dinner that I loved the feeling of pushing my limits by cycling hard, camping every night, avoiding trash, and all that, he commented that just making it through a day is generally a challenge for him.  Humbled and impressed, I got out my chain cleaning equipment and gave his drivetrain some love.

 

Camping

I set a new 3RR record by camping eight nights in a row – two at temples, one at a police station, one in a forest on the beach, one at an abandoned school, two at a guesthouse, and once at the steakhouse.   Good for my mental health, good for my pocketbook, good for my sponsor.

 

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The monks gave me so much food that I started to feel guilty.

 

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Free wifi at the popo station.

 

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Actually, it would’ve been nine or ten if Kristin and Eric, whom had met on top of a mountain in Vietnam a year previous, hadn’t followed my blog and offered me a place to stay when I passed through their neck of the woods.  Free bed, free rides to the best restaurants in town, and my first ever victory at Settlers of Catan.  What a way to end the week!

 

 

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Breakin’ a rule.

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Riding a boat.

 

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Next stop: island paradise.

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4 Responses to The Isthmus of Kra

  1. mingyulee says:

    으하하하!!!! 룩 앳 더 독!!!!
    저 개 같이 다니는 자전거 여행자가 최고다!!!!
    어디냐 지금?

  2. wd says:

    Nice post. What does your last name mean in Thai? (Khao Sam Roy Yot)

    • Michael Roy says:

      It’s kind of hard to say, since the meaning of the word depends as much on the tone as on the sequence of consonants and vowels. I also don’t know whether “r” and “l” are separate letters in Thai or whether they’re two aspects of the same letter. If I were to venture a guess: “sam” can mean “three” and “loy” can mean “hundred,” so maybe there are khao three hundred somethings. Maybe you should come investigate.