Leaving Prachuap Khiri Khan, we adopted a leisurely pace essential to survival in the 90-degree-plus sunshine and made camp on a beach at Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park. The following morning we cycled in between dramatic karst pinnacle formations to reach the trailhead for another famous feature of limestone: mesmerizing caverns open to the sky. We hiked up to the entrance for Tham Phraya Nakhon, featuring a pagoda-like "meeting hall" built for King Rama V's visit in 1890. In our typical fashion, we arrived about ten minutes too late to see the structure illuminated by rays of light filtering down through the opening, but the tree-filled cavern was a lovely blend of nature and culture nonetheless. Next we explored the aptly named Jewel Cave (Tham Kaew), featuring the usual cave formations but with the sparkly addition of calcite crystal deposits and the bonus of bat colonies and a whip scorpion sighting.
We had just packed up our gear the next morning when a storm of unusual intensity caught the family off guard. We helped them clear the tables of their open-sided restaurant as the rain flew in horizontally. We had just unplugged and relocated the TV when the wind ripped off a piece of the corrugated roof. As quickly as it hit, the storm passed, so we pedaled away on the slightly-flooded road now strewn with debris. The rest of the day provided a steady yet warm rain, so we made it all the way to Phetchaburi with only a cruise-through of Hua Hin, a popular weekend getaway for folks from Bangkok.
In Phetchaburi, we took a day to visit Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park, built by King Rama IV as a retreat from Bangkok where he could pursue his interest in astronomy. The extensive grounds comprise three hilltops of eclectic yet iconic structures, mostly built for religious purposes. We tried to be lazy by taking a tram to the top, but still ended up tackling enough stairs throughout our exploration that it hardly counted as a rest day. It also didn't help that next we cycled up a respectable hill at the other end of town only to descend down a steep staircase into the Khao Luang cavern complex, a continuation of the religious cave theme with rays of sunlight enhancing the spiritual atmosphere created by Buddha statues of various sizes and poses.
It was a short and easy ride in to Amphawa the following day, just in time for the weekend floating market to be going in full force, fueled by the appetites of Thais on a foodie weekend getaway. We settled in to our pre-booked "homestay," which we quickly figured out was more like an AirBnB rental than our definition of a homestay. Regardless, we had a cozy room in an old teak wood house, which was in a prime location at a quiet end of the market. The canal was lined with floating feasts and sidewalk shops with yet more delicious treats and temptations. It was here that we first heard the (heart) breaking news of the massive earthquake in Nepal, so our enthusiasm for culinary exploration was dampened as we waited for more details to come in.
When we couldn't handle scouring the news and social media any longer, we distracted ourselves with immersion in to the bustling market scene. We pushed our way on to a set of concrete stairs leading down to the waters edge and sat on little stools in front of a little table facing a cluster of wide dugout canoes at the foot of the stairs. We ordered some classics such as pad thai, as well as the less common snack of fried banana blossoms, and watched the cooking show unfold before our eyes. It was amazing to see what the women could turn out while seated in their boat with all ingredients and implements within arm's reach. The dishes were passed to wait staff in a basket attached to a long pole, and the cooks received payment through the same method in reverse. The only bummer of the unique operation was the oodles of styrofoam and disposable plastic involved, but this aspect was no different than any other food market in Thailand either.
We got up early the next morning and walked the canal before the market was in full swing, giving us glimpses of regular daily life here and there. Fruit vendors paddling by, a monk collecting alms from shopkeepers by boat, and even a large monitor lizard taking a swim before the hazardous long tail tour boats revved their motors through the canal for the rest of the day.
With the market dying down that Sunday evening and more substantial reports available about conditions in Nepal, we had some down time at our canal house. We decided to make our donation to Himalayan HealthCare, an NGO who has been working for over two decades in a remote area that was highly impacted called Ganesh Himal and/or Ruby Valley. We feel particularly connected to this area since we had several wonderful and real homestays while trekking through it last November. Himalayan HealthCare outlined a plan for both immediate relief efforts and long term assistance in recovery with the funds raised.
We had been warned that the ride approaching Bangkok would be a drag, but we found it to be quite the contrary. We enjoyed taking a network of back roads that led us along canal villages and all sorts of plantations, thanks to a couple of route finding apps we find to be fairly reliable called Forever Map and RideWithGPS.
As seems to be our unbreakable pattern in Thailand at least, as soon as we had gotten used to being back on the bikes, we arrived in Bangkok, where we would spend the next week off of our bicycles. We settled in to the Lamphu House, a good value institution near the (in)famous Khao San Road. Our first impression of Khao San was that it was pretty disappointing for all the hype about being an obligatory backpacker mecca, but we tried to keep an open mind. After all, Thamel grew on us after we spent a good chunk of time there. Second and third walk-throughs did little to improve our opinion and we concluded that there is simply no redeeming qualities to write home about.
In contrast, the Old Town neighborhood just north of Khao San was nearly charming. We dropped our bikes off for a tune up at Velo Thailand (which we unfortunately now know should be avoided altogether) and headed that way for meals and some errands as well. We ventured further into Bangkok via canal and river boat taxis, as well as by bus and sky train lines. We checked off another quintessential Bangkok experience by spending a whole day in the world of its air-conditioned megamalls. After upgrading our photography options by investing in a Nikon Coolpix P610, we grabbed a bite in the massive food court, and caught the latest Avengers in 3D. It was a shock going in to this artificial world but even more of one emerging ten hours later to suddenly return to the humidity and chaos of the real city.
We had a great afternoon catching up with our friend April over expertly prepared coffee at a trendy cafe named Rocket Coffee. We had all worked at the Keystone science School together ten years ago and she has spent the last four years teaching at an international school in Bangkok.
And speaking of ten years, we also celebrated our ten year anniversary of our first kiss by tracking down some of Bangkok's elusive craft beer. Technically illegal, my research led to the discovery that there is a community of home brewers and semi-professional brewers who use social media networks to distribute on a small scale and host pop-up events at trendy locales. Without insider knowledge and the ability to read Thai, the best we could do was find Mad Moa, a restaurant openly promoting its selection of Udomsok brews. We tried all four along with a long lost dietary staple: gourmet burgers and curly fries! The dark Belgian rye was our favorite, but all were an exciting break from the ubiquitous mass produced light lager known as beer in this country.
Somehow, we never got around to seeing the main attractions of Bangkok, like the Grand Palace and various famous Wats (temples), but we did at least make it to Chinatown. Not too surprisingly, the main reason to go there is to eat, and specifically to eat the Chinese delicacies of shark fin and bird's nest. Not wanting to support the sale of shark fin even indirectly, we stuck to sampling street food as it seemed that more restaurants advertised it than didn't. One even had a tremendous fin on display in a window.
Shark populations have plummeted worldwide as an estimated 100 million are killed each year. The demand for shark fin soup by an increasingly affluent Chinese society is largely responsible for this decline, but sharks as bycatch from other seafood harvest certainly has a significant impact as well. As sharks are often the apex predators in their respective ecosystems, they are essential in keeping other species' populations in balance. Upsetting this balance has cascading effects on everything from algae growth on coral reefs to the functioning of commercial fisheries. Perhaps the hardest part of the shark fin phenomenon to grasp for a Westerner is that the fins are cartilage with little nutritional value and no flavor, so the significance comes from the texture. Consuming the expensive soup is not only a demonstration of status, but of course has a slew of health benefits according to traditional Chinese medicine.
The demand for the even more expensive bird's nest soup has also threatened the populations of swiftlets that create the edible nests from solidified saliva. However, things are looking much more hopeful for the swiftlets since a commercial "farming" industry has developed as a viable alternative to wild harvesting. Windowless concrete buildings with narrow pipes for entrances have been built in coastal areas to replicate the natural nesting environment of a limestone cave. We actually cycled past several of these odd and very noisy buildings before reaching Bangkok!
Catching a bus out of Chinatown, we passed through a flower market just gearing up for its all-night production of the fragrant flower arrangements featuring jasmine, orchids, and marigolds that adorn and bless so many objects in daily Thai life. After just getting a taste of this metropolis, we were about to completely switch gears for an amazing opportunity to return to Bhutan!