Arriving mid-day, we ate a delicious coconut green curry pizza and set out to cycle to the north end of the island. A few miles out of town, Matt came to a sudden stop, I caught up to him, and we both stared at his bicycle's chain lying in the road. He had already repaired the chain once in the same spot where it had broken again, so we accepted the fact that it was long overdue for a new one.
Now for getting to a bicycle shop. It would be a long slow walk or a hassle to put the bikes and bags in a taxi, so we decided to giving towing a try. We hooked some webbing around a bar on my rear rack to Matt's front rack with about five feet between us and it worked like a charm. Plus, we got a lot of funny looks, cheers, encouraging honks, and thumbs up. By the time we got the new chain taken care of, it was late in the day and the historic district of Phuket town actually looked like an interesting place to wander around. There is always tomorrow to get to where you are going anyway.
We were indeed successful in getting to Siranath National Park the next day, where we set up our tent under some towering sea pines just off of the beach. We had heard that there was some good snorkeling as the coral had gradually recovered from the 2004 tsunami, but the murkiness made it difficult to see the underwater life. We selected some snacks for dinner from the vendors as they were just packing up their carts and stalls for the day and carried them over to the beach for a sunset picnic. We couldn't bear to keep the sea breeze out of our tent that night and without the buzz of mosquitoes around, we left the tent door open, only to discover we had been nearly sucked dry by morning. Apparently, we had been sleeping very well.
We reached Khao Lak that evening and headed directly to the office of Wicked Diving, hoping to jump on a liveaboard dive boat within the next couple of days. The taste of diving we got in Koh Lanta had set off the craving for more and from what we understood, the Similian and Surin Islands were worth a special splurge. Perhaps due to their excellent reputation, Wicked was booked up until early April. While they offered to get us situated with another dive shop, we decided to wait in order to go with this company. We had singled them out for their commitment to environmental responsibility and positive contributions to the local community, which is particularly relevant with the Khao Lak area being the hardest hit in Thailand by the 2004 tsunami.
Looking around at Khao Lak's main street bustling with tourists browsing shops and restaurants largely oriented toward them, it was difficult to imagine the devastation of just over one decade ago. Evidence is there, if you seek it out, such as visiting the memorial that has been created around Police Boat 813 at its resting place a few kilometers inland. We learned more about the specific impacts of the natural disaster and its aftermath at an eclectic little museum afterward. The rest of our time was spent enjoying the ambiance of the newish Monkey Dive Hostel where each hip room has natural history facts about the marine organism painted on its walls.
From Khao Lak we had a nice ride to Khao Sok National Park. Even the steep, sweaty one-thousand-foot-high hill was scenic enough to be enjoyable going up and more so on the way down in the cooling evening light. We took a bungalow near the village at the west entrance of the park and did a combination of biking and hiking within its boundaries the next day. The main attraction on this side of the park is waterfalls, none of which were more than a trickle after an extended dry period. The other big draw is seeing the largest flower in the world at up to a meter in diameter, the rare and putrid Rafflesia, a parasitic plant with no stems, leaves, or true roots. Besides being informed that the flower was not currently blooming, it sounds like the environmental ethics of seeking it out are also questionable. Sites that have previously received a lot of foot traffic have yet to re-bloom.
Instead, we took our time looking for wildlife in the dense forest that the visitor center notes has been growing there uninterrupted for an estimated 150 million years. Being the middle of the day, we didn't see much except for abundant and ever-present lizards, but we did hear the whooping calls of gibbons, which I would liken to friendly Martians from an old-school sci-fi movie. We tried to locate them, but stands of the thickest and tallest bamboo we have ever encountered kept us from venturing far off the trail. We made our turnaround point a refreshing swimming hole, but we were already soaking wet with sweat by the time we got there.
The east side of Khao Sok is popular for boat trips on a tremendous reservoir that has artificially created many karst islands, as well as spending the night on rows of floating raft houses. Despite the temptation of allegedly better wildlife sightings and unique lodging, we decided that the combined cost of the boat transport, raft house, and pricey daily entrance fee was not worth it. We simply overnighted in a town near the east entrance and moved on without ever setting eyes on the fake lake.
The amount of food opportunities that line the roadways is Thailand is generally a blessing, but occasionally it is a curse. We managed to shamelessly snack our way to the Gulf Coast, stopping for bowls of noodles, meticulously cut baby pineapples, kettle corn, and iced coffees. We learned our lesson, or perhaps it was just an unfriendly reminder, that sharing three bags of deep-fried battered bananas followed by ice cream does not make for happy riding. Quite nauseated, we lurched in to Suratthani, home of the night boats to the Gulf islands of Koh Tao, Koh Pha-nang, and Koh Samui.
We could have rolled up and instantly gotten on a boat to any of the three, but that would have been far too simple. You see, along with over-abundant food offerings, Thailand simply has too many combinations of possibilities. We had recently been faced with one agonizing decision after another. North or south? To liveaboard or not liveaboard? If so, now or later? How much or how little should we do at Khao Sok? Are we on a cycle tour or are we on a boat tour with the extra baggage of bicycles? Will we ever make it back to Bangkok? Now we had to figure out which island(s), with or without the bicycles, and whether to take the night boat in front of us or research the specifics of day boat departures from distant piers east of the city.
My poor husband, already fatigued from carefully considering options A through Z, was now paralyzed with dread of getting on a night boat. The final straw was rolling up to the night boat going to Koh Pha-nang and being quoted the same price for each bicycle as our personal passage cost, no negotiating. That just seemed wrong, so on principle alone, we rode away with as much indignity in our pedal strokes as we could manage to convey. With the ticket offices of the day boats already closed for the day, we turned our attention towards finding cheap lodging instead. After a long night of hemming and hawing and not enough sleeping, Mr. Kohn was still not satisfied enough with any of the options to commit to a decision. It was only by putting on my cycling clothes and definitively announcing that "we were no longer going to go to any islands on any boats, we are just going to cycle north, plain and simple," that he suddenly came to his senses. He agreed to the night boat to Koh Tao with the bicycles, thus saving us three days of riding since we would return to the mainland at Chumphon, a city decently north of Surat Thani. By taking the night boat in the city center, we wouldn't have the hassle of getting out to the day-boat piers with a full day of riding or trying to get the bicycles on the crowded shuttle buses. Now we just had to contend with a very long day of waiting for 11 p.m. to roll around...