PKK and an interesting encounter
So where had I left you, dear readers? Cha am, I believe. I finally managed to drag myself away from that delightful place somewhat reluctantly, and a short and fairly uneventful bus ride South again to the provincial capital of Prachuap Khiri Khan, known to travellers as PKK, although of travellers there were not many. I think I mentioned that Cha am was sleepy, which must put PKK in some advanced state of narcolepsy. It really is so laid back it is in danger of falling over. It boasts a decent strip of seafront with a working pier for the many fishing boats that ply the waters of the Gulf of Thailand bringing home the delicious fish that dominates the menus of the region.
On arrival I wandered along to the Tourist Information Centre where the extremely helpful lady suggested that the nearby Suksant Hotel had seaview rooms for 650B which is about my budget. I pitched up at the hotel, and was promptly offered a room for 390B, a bargain. Whilst it is never going to be five star, it was clean, ensuite and had a nice view. I tend to spend little time in hotel rooms anyway so as long as it meets those criteria, it is OK by me.
I decided to go for a bit of a walk and this is where things began to unravel a little. There is not a whole lot to do in PKK, but one of the "attractions" is to climb the rock known as Mirror Mountain, which dominates the local skyline. People who know me well know I have an aversion to gyms and the like, so what possessed me me to slog up 396 steps to the temple at the top I really don't know. It was pretty gruelling in the heat of the day. An added problem was trying to negotiate the literally hundreds of monkeys charging about the place. At that time of the afternoon local ladies congregate to feed them, and there is a veritable avalanche of hissing, snarling fur barelling down the steps making the upward progress even more wearing. You don't want to be accidentally bitten or scratched by them, as monkeys can carry rabies, like most warm blooded animals.
When I eventually arrived at the top, there was no-one there save for a lone monk sweeping up the leaves on the ground. He smiled at me in that serene way unique to Buddhist monks, and carried on with his task. Maybe they really do know something we don't. As I was entering a temple complex, I did the proper thing and removed my shoes, and it was then that I discovered another hazard. The areas the industrious monk had not swept, as well as leaves displayed considerable evidence that the monkeys here are not house trained. If you visit, tread carefully! I went back down the steps which is almost harder than ascending and retired to the hotel for a much needed shower, stopping on the way for a snack of barbecued sausage with pickled ginger. Sounds odd but as usual was delicious.
The evening was spent over a lovely meal in the seafront Demer restaurant with friendly people and a Gary Moore soundtrack. Absolutely ideal. The next morning saw me wake refreshed if a little sore, and it appears the lunacy still had not abated. Spurred on by my successful ascent of Khao Chong Krajok I decided it would be a really good idea to hire a bicylcle and go for a spin round the nearby villages. Admittedly, the roads here are all dead flat, in good condition and fairly free of traffic, but pedalling in the Thai midday heat is punishing. I did not believe I could sweat that much. Plenty of water required.
I cycled a few miles to the nearby bay of Ao Khan Kradai, which I had to myself save for a couple of fishermen tinkering about with boats. Then guess what happened. There is a cave temple containing Buddha images nearby called Wat Khao Tham Khan Kradai which I decided to visit. The only problem is that it is at the top of a very steep cliff. Cue another exhausting and somewhat vertiginous climb in the heat, althought the views were outstanding. I was expecting a few small Buddha images, but not a bit of it. There were two absoltely huge reclining Buddha images, probably each 30 feet long, and 27 almost life size sitting Buddhas in ranks like soldiers. It was very impressive. Again, I had removed my shoes which made the going a little tricky although it appears from the tracks left in the sandy floor that not everyone was as respectful.
Back down the hill, back on the bike and a good fast cycle back into town, straight out the other side to another interesting place. If you were planning a day on the beach, a military establishment possibly would not spring instantly to mind, although that is exactly the case here. There is a functioning Thai Air Force base here called Wing 5, complete with armed guards etc. who wave you through the impressive gate. Once inside, you seem to have fairly free rein about where you can go, and there is a fully functioning resort in the middle of the camp, complete with restaurants, bars and even decent looking hotels. It really is very odd. I decided it would not be prudent to take too many photographs in a foreign military base which is a pity as there are many old warplanes displayed about the place. Indeed, the next day I saw a military plane taking off, and rather closer than was strictly necessary, but more of that anon.
I stopped at the food centre, which boasts a great variety of outlets, and it was here that I first noticed that I had gone pretty far South. The South of Thailand, approaching the Malay border is more Muslim than Buddhist, and indeed, there have been a few incidents in recent years. One of the foodstalls announced "Muslim food" and the lady serving was attired in the traditonal hijab, the headgear that covers the head but not the face. This is extremely prevalent in Malaysia, and the menu reflected that country's Muslim cuisine. A quick snack was in order so I orderd a roti with egg for a few baht. The roti is not as we understand it in the UK when served in Indian / Bangladeshi restaurants. It is more like a savoury crepe. The lady rolled it out by hand, threw it on a large flat skillet and then cracked an egg on top before folding in the sides to effectively make an egg sandwich. A couple of minutes cooking time, onto the plate and cut into bite sized morsels. Now comes the interesting bit. A savoury crepe with an egg, so what does she cover it in. Carnation condensed milk. No, the sun had not gone to my head, condensed milk. Try it, it is absolutely wonderful.
Suitably refreshed, back to the hotel for a little dozette, shower and off out in search of the nightlife of PKK. Well, that amounts to a choice of a few restaurants or maybe a walk round the night market. It really is not a party town. As is my way and excellent as the Demer restaurant had been, I usually like to try different places so I took myself off to the Ploen Samut, a larger restaurant I had seen earlier. Up comes the server with the rather extensive menu, whose name I subsequently discovered to be May, which was my paternal grandmother's name, really. Long hair, lipstick and long nails but I can assure you that May had not been born a little girl. In fairness, transgenderism in all degrees is completely tolerated and you will regularly see people like this in bars and restaurants. He had not gone in for the breast implants etc. and was dressed fairly androgynously. He also spoke the best English in the place, a product it turned out of having worked for over 20 years in Bangkok tourist bars.
Ploen Samut closes fairly early, and May asked did I want to go for a drink. Now before all your smutty little minds go into overdrive, forget it. There was nothing improper so much as ever even mentioned and I am not going to return to the UK with a bloke wearing lipstick. What was, however, mentioned over a beer in the Demer was that he had a day off next day and would I like him to show me round the local area. I am always in favour of having a local guide, and a native speaker is useful, so we agreed to meet the next morning at the hotel.
The next day was a great day out. Firstly it was obvious that May's little 90cc minibike would not be up to the task of carrying both of us so I went and hired a Honda Click scooter which subsequently turned out to be a right nippy little piece of equipment and was well-maintained. Suitably motorised, off we set. Back through Wing 5 and Ao Manao, a lovely little bay, then onto Phetkasem Highway and heading South. First stop was the wonderfully named King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science and Technology. The King, a keen astronomer, came here in 1868 with his son to witness a solar eclipse. Unfortunately, he got more than he bargained for, contracted malaria and died. There is not much in the park itself but the aquarium is very good with a huge selection of fish and marine life. It also has a huge selection of the noisiest schoolchildren I have ever heard, but that's life, I suppose.
Suitably scientifically enlightened, back on the road South again to the Huay Yang waterfalls in the national park. There are seven falls over a fairly steep ascent (more bloody climbing!) although more of that later. We started the walk up which was nice and gentle, and again, absolute hordes of schoolkids. If I was stopped once to have my photograph taken with giggling 12 year olds, I was stopped twenty times, always very politely. It appears that having your photo taken with a very tall white man is part of a good school trip. It was quite fun. By waterfall three, May had declared himself exhausted and said he would wait there if I wanted to go on. Well, I had the climbing head on now, so off I went. All was fine until waterfall five, when the path appeared to peter out. I picked what looked like it might be a path and started scrambling up through fairly thick forest, perspiring profusely all the while. The "path" came to an abrupt end at a cliff which did provide a decent view but was clearly as far as I was going.
Whilst slogging along in the heat I could not help but spare a thought for the troops who had to fight through conditions like this in the last war including a couple of my uncles, one of whom did not survive his POW captivity at the hands of the Japanese. As a little sidebar, it was at PKK that the Japanese invaded, on the same day as Pearl Harbour, thereby violating Thai neutrality. Slightly miffed at not making it to the top, I retraced my steps, collected my guide, and off we set again.
Next stop on our tour of PKK province was the little village of Ban Sing Khon which marks the border with Burma. At this point on the isthmus, it is only 11 kilometres from the sea to the frontier. Ban Sing Khon was a quiet little place with that border town feel. There were a few shops and eating places so we stopped for a cup of coffee, which was strong and delicious. It was a little odd looking over the border into a country where I had had such a wonderful trip a few years ago. Still, there is nothing to stop me going back this time if I want. Actually, I knew that Friday was not the best day to visit, and I had planned to return the next day for the weekly market, of which more later. On the way back, we stopped at a roadside stall in the middle of the pineapple plantation, and had the freshest, sweetest pineapple I have ever eaten. Well, it should have been fresh as it came from the field across the road. No fear of food miles here, food yards more like.
Back to PKK for another excellent seafood meal in a little place just North of town and then May suggested that I might like to listen to some live music, which seemed an excellent idea, so off we headed to the wrong side of the tracks. When I say that, I mean it literally as the main railway line from Bangkok to Surat Thani fairly effectively cuts the city in two. To the seaward side are the tourist, administrative and commercial districts whilst the landward side is the residential area. There are only about three crossing points in the place and one of them is what looks like a cross between a road and a storm drain. At two metres clearance, I know men who could not walk upright through it.
We arrived at the venue, the name of which I have no idea as it is in Thai, but is pronounced something like Seeds Bar where we were joined by a couple of May's friends. I was certainly the only European in the place, and would not be at all surprised if that was generally the case. It was then that I was introduced to the largest beer dispenser I have ever seen. It was simply huge with a central column for ice and a tap on the bottom. It was served by a young Thai girl, the Beer Chang girl which reminded me of another SE Asian custom. In certain bars, each brand of beer is represented by one or more girls, so your waitress depends on what you are drinking in contrast to the European way. This was the first time I had seen it on this trip, and as luck would have it, the Beer Ghang girl turned out to be the waitress from the Demer restaurant from a couple of nights previously and she greeted me warmly. Before any of my more legally minded readers takes exception, I should point out that I had no intention of driving home.
The band took to the stage and set about knocking out a selection of Thai rock and pop songs. In fairness, they were young and enthusiastic rather than technically brilliant but they did a decent show and were well received. The night wore on and I was eventually deposited back at the hotel for a good night's sleep.
Up with the lark the next morning and back on my trusty steed (well, 125 cc scooter) and back off to Ban Sing Khon. What a difference a day makes, as they say. The place was absolutely humming in contrast to the day before. What happens is that Burmese people come across the border and set up stalls selling virtually everything at prices which are ludicrously cheap, even by Thai standards. There were a few travellers there but the vast majority of the visitors were locals looking for a bargain, and there were certainly plenty of them. The most ridiculous price I saw was one stall selling mens underwear at five baht each, which is about 11 pence. How they can physically produce goods at these prices is beyond me, although there must be a profit in it somewhere. A pair of cargo pants could be had for about £3, and when I checked the label on a denim shirt that caught my eye, I was amazed to find it had been made in Egypt of all places. In the end, I settled for a pair of RayBan sunglasses, obviously the genuine article, for the princely sum of just under £2. I think they look rather good on me, setting off the whole bandana, open face helmet look. All very Easy Rider, well except for the bike.
It was then that I had another one of my strange thoughts. Whilst lingering over a coffee I noticed a Buddhist monk in full robes walking up to the border post and into Burma. Due to the distance I couldn't actually see what if any interaction there was with the border policeman. I could not help but wonder if, in a Buddhist area like this, monks are required to carry a passport. If so, surely that owuld negate the concept of them having virtually no personal possessions. I know they are allowed about five things, alms bowl, robe etc. but the idea of a monk fishing about in his robe for his passport just seemed very bizarre to me.
Having had my coffee, time to move again. Whilst riding back down to Highway 4, I saw a little side road and a sign stating there was a village (Ban) there. Well, that is like a red rag to a bul to me so off I went. The road quickly deteriorated with potholes everywhere. Proper Southeast Asian road, and due care exercised in the riding. A few miles of driving through coconut, banana and pineapple plantations brought me to the village. Well, I say vilage and I use the term loosely. A few houses along the side of the road, and then slightly incongruously, a quite sizeable supermarket affair. Time to take on water again so I stopped there. A delightful lady nursing an equally delightful infant served me. There was also a very shy toddler in evidence about the place. Anyway, the first instance this trip of beard pulling. Infants in this region seem obsessed with my beard, probably because so few local men wear them. As I was offering my finger for the infant to grasp and making the usual baby cooing noises you do, wallop, he had me, a good chubby fistful of my facial adornment firmly gripped. Not a major worry and I soon disentangled myself but he seemed most taken with it.
I decided to press on, working on the principle I couldn't really get lost. I have no doubt the Burmese military would have had something to say on the matter of me straying too far West and if I ventured too far East I would be looking at a dip in the Gulf of Thailand, so away I went. The road soon disappeared to be replaced with a dusty track. Ideal. I bounced my way along, eliciting some very incredulous looks from people working in fields, and eventually regained the Highway. It was beautifully rural and I did not pass another vehicle on that whole stretch.
Back North again, and disaster struck. The handling on the scooter, previously quite good went completely and the cause wasn't hard to find as the back tyre was completely flat. Luckily, there was a filling station just ahead and I limped in there to use the air hose. Not that that was going to help much as the thing was completely shot. They did not have the wherewithal to fix it there but luck was with me again and there was a tyre place a couple of hundred yards along. In I went but now there is a problem. I do not even know what the Thai word for tyre is, never mind asking about fixing it. I need not have worried. An old guy wearing a filthy singlet, shorts and flip flops came out and greeted me. "Sabhadee khap", I replied, therefore expending most of my Thai vocab. A bit of pointing and a kick at the back tyre gave him the idea and he smiled, nodded and set to work. About 20 minutes and £3 later I had a new inner (it had blown at the nozzle rather than punctured) and was good for another few miles.
I took off North again and headed towards the sea, stopping off at a couple of delightful little fishing villages where the men were readying the boats for that nights trip. Again, not places I suspect they get many Europeans judging by the looks I was attracting. A very pleasant ride took me back to the highway and headed South towards home. Actually, I had managed to get myself about 30 miles North of PKK, so all in all it was a fair day on the little machine, although I have to say it was not uncomfortable.
On the way back, I decided to see what the thing could actually do and got a little bit daredevil. The highway is very good and there was little traffic because of the weekend, so I cranked it up and at one point managed a creditable 100. OK, that is kph rather than mph but I was impressed enough with that.
Back in PKK I fancied a beer and plumped for a place I had heard about and seen but not visited, the MC Club Thailand Clubhouse. I am not sure of the provenance of this club. I know there is a probationary chapter of the proper Hells Angels in Thailand, and the photos and memoribilia on the walls did not suggest these guys were part of that, nor indeed, Piston Heads, Outlaws, Barbarians or any other sort of outlaw club. I felt a little sheepish parking a scooter outside but others had done it. I wandered in and ordered a beer from the friendly barman who spoke good English. We had a chat about the place and he informed me that the boss would be back from Petburi soon. Sure enough, a while later, the unmistakable note of a Harley Davidson announced his arrival. It turned out to be a beautiful Electraglide, not chopped too much. In he walked, hair halfway down his back (I was instantly jealous), full bike colours, bike boots, the whole lot. He really looked the part. In he walks, sees me and immediately makes a wai (the placing of the hands in front of the face and a bow), smiles broadly and says, "Sabhadee khap." His manners were certainly at variance with his appearance, which must say something, I suppose - books, covers and so on.
After a friendly discussion about bikes, I decided it was probably about time to leave mine back, so I did, and back to the hotel. I was flicking through the channels on the TV, to quote from Fish, and found some rugby, which was good. It is odd, even the most inexpensive rooms here seem to have about 30 satellite channels, minimum and some many more, so I settled back on the bed to watch the Wallabies UK tour. Big mistake. The long day, fresh air and heat had obviously taken it's toll and when I woke up it was half past eleven. Far too late to get a meal, so I had to content myself with a few snacks from the 7 - 11, a chain that seems to be ubiquitous here. I do recommend the orange swiss roll, and the oatmeal cookies are gorgeous. No point in going anywhere then so I went back to sleep for my next trip. Much as I enjoyed PKK, I had decided to move South again the next day and try for Ko Tao, a little island near Ko Samui by way of Chompurn.