In keeping with tradition, we arrived to the island in the dark after watching a lovely sunset from the ferry. Luckily, we didn't have far to go and we only had to push our bikes up one ridiculously steep hill, all the while telling ourselves that this did not validate Frat Boy Reject's unsolicited comment. We were aiming for a place called The Jungle Way, which was not surprisingly a bit tricky to locate and get to, being tucked away off of a side road in a dark patch of forest. The final push required walking our bikes down a slippery trail, carrying them across a pile of uneven rocks serving as a "bridge" across a stream, and pushing them up a steep concrete ramp on the other side. It was then a bit magical to wander in to a glowing open-air yurt shaped lodge and snag the last rickety bungalow available, cooling off with a shower in a stone room full of lush vegetation and open to the stars twinkling through the jungle canopy far above us. We fell asleep to the strange hiccuping call of the loudest and largest gecko imaginable (or nearly so, as I later learned the Tokay Gecko is the second largest gecko species) with only a thin woven bamboo wall separating us from all of the nature surrounding us.
The next morning we decided to cycle the quiet eastern side of Koh Chang as a day trip. We took our time, stopping for iced coffee and coconut ice cream along the way. We noticed a theme of a sticker on the back of every official road sign reading "The New Treehouse at Long Beach" and the number of kilometers to get there. We though it would be fun to send a photo to Matt's parents from there, since they live on Long Beach, New York, and decided to make it our destination for the day. The rolling hills were mellower than expected considering the overall topography of the island, at least until we reached the far southeastern tip late in the afternoon.
Then the road suddenly shot straight up and didn't seem to stop, but we had grown too curious about this remotely located place that only advertises itself for free using pre-existing road signs. Our novel photo idea now became an arduous mission as the road plunged back down to sea level after a stunning viewpoint of the many islets off of Koh Chang. Then it turned from pavement to dirt on the next rise and we got off for yet another push of the bikes. Between huffs and grunts, we learned that we had each independently come to the conclusion that we would have to spend the night at this mysterious Treehouse given the late hour and all the effort required, making a decision whether or not to keeping going an easy one. It felt liberating to be this spontaneous, carrying barely more than a wallet, camera, and swimsuits with us and not really needing anything more. The worst consequence would be paying for a cheap room at the Jungle Way that only our belongings would be staying in, followed by Matt sleeping in his eye contacts, and myself missing one dose of a daily thyroid medication.
Four kilometers of extreme rollercoaster terrain took us about an hour, so relief does not quite accurately describe our feeling upon arrival. Exhilaration might come closer, considering we had "discovered" a secret laid back hippie paradise! We moved in to a beach front shack in a matter of minutes, and changed for a joyous first jump in ocean of our entire journey. Our tan lines made it brutally apparent that we spend way more time in spandex than swimwear. We joked that we might be the first tourists in Thailand to travel along the coast for over a week without coming in to contact with either sand or sea.
Food and drink were our next priority and we conveniently sat in the restaurant next to a couple of gay European circus performers who were also staying at Jungle Way. They assured us they would deliver the message when they returned that evening on their motorbike that we were okay but wouldn't be making back until the next day.
We weren't really ready to leave the next day, but it didn't make a whole lot of sense to stay either. Besides, I was really looking forward to brushing my teeth when the next morning I could still taste the intensely garlicky and oniony papaya salad I had eaten the night before. It took us most of the day to get back to the Jungle Way, but the steep hills we were dreading didn't seem half as bad when we took care of them right off the bat.
Cycling down the west side of the island explained Koh Chang's overdeveloped reputation. Just as we crested a major hill, gasping for breath, we observed a minivan pulled over a ways down the hill and tourists piling back in after throwing their last scraps of food at a troupe of begging monkeys. The van drove off but the monkeys stayed, waiting for the next one to stop, no doubt. A couple of days later, the insightful website and our de facto guide IAmKohChang.com posted a photo of a dead monkey hit by a car near White Sands Beach. It is highly likely that we saw that very monkey alive, getting fed by brainless tourists with a careless tour guide.
Anyhow, once at White Sands Beach we embraced its touristy-ness long enough to find The White Elephant, a "sports bar with a Scandinavian touch" or something to that effect. Our motivation was their claim to have the best beer selection on the whole island. The menu of around one hundred imported beers was impressive, but their actual inventory was not. After many tries, we eventually selected two that they had available and Matt got to enjoy his first dark beer since Beijing, an oatmeal stout from a Danish brewery.
Besides the pricey beer treat, this area was not for us, so we continued on to the more mellow but still quite developed beach called Kai Bae. We adopted a bungalow set back off the beach at Porn's, which is a common Thai nickname by the way. Perhaps only to procrastinate facing the lung-busting hills in our immediate riding future, we stayed there an extra day before reaching the Southwest end of the island. It took us several hours to cover about six miles on the final and literal push. Half of the distance was spent straining against gravity with each step up the insane hills and the other half screeching our well-worn brakes down the other side. At the port town of Bang Bao, we secured the last cabin at the Hippy Hut, a Rasta place with a convincing number of Bob Marley portraits glowing under black light. On Koh Chang, bikes are an ideal mode of transport, as long as they have a motor. I can't argue with the fact that bicycles--loaded or unloaded--are not, but ultimately we survived. I wished that Frat Boy Reject was around to see us roll in, but I don't think the Hippy Hut was quite his style.
Now we faced a different, but perhaps equal, challenge of getting our bikes on a boat to the next island of Koh Wai, because there was no way we were going to cycle back north to the car ferry. We figured the small speedboats were not an option, so we approached one of the many agents selling tickets for the "big wooden boat." He had to call the main office who only gave a conditional okay for the bicycles depending on how full the boat was the next morning and of course charging an extra fee. We could sense that an ordeal was developing so we would need to proceed carefully. We went to a different agent and bought tickets without mentioning anything about bicycles. The next morning, we showed up early before the boat filled up and, with feigned confidence, wheeled our bicycles past the guy at the ticket counter without pausing to ask any questions and down to the pier. The boat crew looked very unhappy to see us, but did not say anything. Our sense of entitlement had worked; everybody assumed we had gotten permission from someone simply because we were acting as though we had.
Loading and unloading our gear was indeed a pain, but once again it really didn't inconvenience anyone except ourselves since we did all of the work, even though we were paying extra for the bicycles. The boat double-parked at both piers, so we had to carry the bikes and bags across the deck of one boat and heave them up to the bow of our boat, later doing the same process in reverse. Matt got into a tiff with a surly, muscular, tattooed deck hand who insisted we lay our bikes down on top of each other, taking up much more space than if we tied them to the railing, which made absolutely no sense to us. His contempt only grew when I politely inquired about his belt of thirty or so carved wooden phalluses of all shapes and sizes. From what I can deduce via the internet, the phalluses are likely amulets for personal protection and good luck, and likely an expression of some animistic beliefs. Since the belt seemed to be the most upbeat feature of his many defining characteristics, we henceforth dubbed him Phallus Belt for reference in future conversations about him, and trust me, there were many. However, we did relax a little bit once we realized the special grudge he reserved for us wasn't completely personal as he treated the other tourists on the boat with almost as much disdain as us. Land of smiles, yeah right...
Despite the fact that we would have to deal with Phallus Belt again and that there was no where to cycle on roadless Koh Wai, we didn't regret going there for a second. The super friendly host at Good Feeling led us from her pier side restaurant on a five-minute walk down a rocky path to a stilted bungalow over the water with a secluded white sand beach as our neighbor. We did the beach bum thing fairly successfully for a couple of days, with our biggest exertions being a two-hour shoreline snorkel (cuttlefish and seahorses!) and a meandering hike through the forest to a not-so-secret secret sunset spot on the other side of the little island.
All too soon, it was time for the "big wooden boat" to pick us up. I had secretly hoped that Phallus Belt would refuse to let us on board, thus marooning us on Koh Wai indefinitely. Not that our next destination of Koh Mak was so bad either. We were careful not to criticize Phallus Belt's directions and in turn he let us put our bicycles in a slightly less bizarre configuration. We were thrilled to see that the pier was free of boats as we approached the new island, no double-parking to contend with. Then, our boat stopped short of the pier and dropped anchor. People started piling in to a little longtail. Phallus Belt glared at us, gesturing at our stuff, "See? Very difficult!" The bags were tossed into the front of the little boat, with our bikes wedged at interesting angles on top of them. We waded from the shallows to the beach, holding the hefty steel frames as high as we could to escape the crashing waves of corrosive saltwater. As a goodbye to Phallus Belt, we admitted defeat and vowed, "Once we get off this island, no more bikes on boats!" He seemed to like that. In fact, I think he nearly smiled.
We had our sights set on a bungalow at out-of-the-way Baan Ing Kao, but they were all full. Fortunately, they had a perfect spot for our tent that was even closer to the beach. Unfortunately, we would discover that night that the mesh door on our tent does not allow the level of cooling ventilation one would hope for from a breeze coming right of the water. The mosquitoes were out in force so we had no choice but to endure the sauna.
Enjoying the comparatively flat topography of Koh Mak, on our first day we explored many of the island's back roads on our bikes. We encountered the remains of an abandoned interpretive bicycle route that led us through an extensive coconut plantation to a little-visited beach where hawksbill turtles used to nest in their more numerous days. On our second day, we stayed closer to home except for taking a kayak out along the rocky cliffs west of our simple backpacker resort in search of decent snorkeling. A second paddle at sunset, with the additional passengers of a bottle of Thai rum and a carton of orange juice, was dubbed "Casey and Matt's Low-carbon Booze Cruise."
Leaving Koh Mak, we simply wheeled our bikes on to a catamaran and strapped them to the railing, making it an uneventful return to the mainland. We cycled an easy sixteen miles to Trat. That night we were excited to experience a pillar of Thai food culture at our first real night market, but sadly we did it all wrong. We bought a bunch of food from the take-away stalls, and then noticed there was another section of open-air cafes with tables set up. We bought a beer from one of them in order to be allowed to sit down to eat our food, then felt horrible about the amount of plastic waste our dinner had generated as the other patrons ate similar foods from that stall's reusable dish ware.
Sometimes a dose of guilt is just what is needed for motivation though. Since our initial fail, we always arrive to a night market with our collapsible camping bowls and spoons, our trusty Chico reusable shopping bag (thanks, Kerri!), and a metal water bottle. We watch vendors put plastic bags of pre-portioned food, taut with air like a clear balloon and sealed with a rubber band wound around in a uniquely Thai method, into plastic grocery bags upon purchase. It is not uncommon for each item of plastic-encased food to get its own plastic shopping bag. We generally make our food selection based on the least amount of packaging involved, often asking the vendor to put it directly into our camping bowls. They are generally willing to comply, although usually a bit bewildered as to why.
With the dinner adventure wrapped up, there was no avoiding decision time. We could either leave the bicycles on the Eastern Seaboard, travel as backpackers to meet up with Danielle and Erik, then return to continue cycling east into Cambodia, or throw everything on a bus to Bangkok and then another bus to our southern meet up point in Krabi, cycling our way back north to Bangkok. We debated both options for longer than was healthy and in the end the second option won out, despite our dread of putting our bikes on yet another form of transport.