When I was contemplating the alternative routes to Chumphon Simon chipped in with his suggestion. One of the routes went directly eastwards, on the more used highway, via Phang Nga. Simon said that the route via Ranong is more scenic and less used. He warned that it could be a lot slower than the first alternative. I did not have much to do in Chumphon and therefore, I had time to spare. So, it was to be via Ranong.
I packed all the stuff I had offloaded from the car and stuffed it back. I had a light breakfast of bread and jam with a large mug of coffee. As I was finishing the breakfast I saw a woman moving rapidly through the rubber plantation with a tapping knife in her hand. I was curious to see how tapping was done in these parts of the world. In Kerala the tapping table and the coconut shell are cleaned first, the scrap collected and then the bark is tapped. Here, the woman just cleared the tapping table with her knife, nothing that resembled what is used in Kerala, and tapped the tree. The shell scrap remained in the cup and sap started to drip into the half full cup. Evidently, either the sap had not been collected from the previous round of tapping or the process was to convert the scrap I not sheets! I could not ascertain it because the woman only spoke Thai and Simon did not know anything about it.
The B&B had been a fantastic experience. Simon had looked after every detail in the landscaping of the small facility from placing sculptures and paintings to water feng shui and even a pond. The room was quite comfortable and premises were kept neat and tidy. Simon was proud to say that the B&B is ‘totally safe’; the rooms were seldom locked. There was in house arrangement for breakfast while lunch and supper could be ordered from the hotel nearby – which belonged to one of his ex-wives. Moreover, Simon was wonderful company and his wide range of understanding and knowledge of Thailand, in particular, and the region was an added benefit to the curious traveller. After the two days there I understood why the B&B received such a high rating on travel sites. Before leaving I asked Simon if ever he takes a break, for he is such a hands on guy and looking after the facilities would require him to be on site all the time. He had not for more than three years! He wants to close down his B&B during the rains for a fortnight to travel. But I doubt if he will because he is so passionate about what he is doing right now.
The route suggested by Simon turned out to be more ‘lively’ than the highway. It took me through thick vegetation, forests, roads lined with konna and ashoka trees, incredible blind summits and beaches. I passed by Khao Lak, which had been devastated during the tsunami in 2004. Views from the car gave a glimpse of the lovely water front. The many resorts, spas and restaurants on the way indicated how popular it still is with tourists. Driving through the city I could not see any vestiges of the immense destruction and havoc that had been caused here in 2004. Flashes of videos showing beach front hotels being razed and people being engulfed by the massive waves crossed my mind then.
I reached Chumphon, nearly 400 km, in five hours of relaxed driving – there were many police pickets en route, perhaps due to the Myanmar border - and lavish stops to refresh en route. I had been for an oil massage when I visited Patong the previous evening. My limbs were a bit loose and I was overcome by sleep. Therefore, whenever I felt the eyes closing I would stop, wash my face and towel down. Besides, generous food supplies on the passenger seat and many bottles of drinking water kept the concentration going. When I was within 2 km of the Euro Boutique Hotel, where I was to stay, Google Maps went haywire. It took me through such small roads that I felt the car would get jammed. I figured that I had to cross the railway track somewhere and that the one on Google Maps had been blocked some time ago. I kept asking for directions and all the response I could get was, “No English”. It was frustrating – so near, yet so far. After nearly half an hour of wandering I decided to look for a police station and came back on to the main road. Suddenly, Google Maps showed me a different route and I reached the hotel in no time. Even Maps can be told to behave, or else!
The girl at the reception was polite but not quite able to explain what I could do in half a day in the city. Finally, piecing together what I thought she meant and a few scribbles on a map, the night market and food market that were in close proximity of the hotel were the only ones to ‘explore’ there. I relaxed in the room a bit over a couple of Chang beer cans and switched on the TV. I was appalled to see reports on the Nepal earthquake; the destruction and disruption that had been caused to human life and property was huge. I was proud to see how India reacted to the humanitarian crisis, as it had in Yemen recently. I came to know that borders were sealed except for international aid and workers. After shocks were still being felt in many parts of the Himalayan country. Locals and tourists were lining up to be evacuated from Kathmandu.
After concluding the South East Asian expedition in Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh I had planned to do a 14 day Himalayan Expedition. The route prescribed by Limca Book of Records passed through Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bhutan, West Bengal, Sikkim, Nepal, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. The massive earthquake and its aftermath in Nepal meant that I would have to recast my plans. So I went back to the original plan of concluding the South East Asian expedition in Cochin. The Himalayan Expedition had been an add on so that I would not have to, at a later date, make a long dry run to the starting point from Kerala. Anyway, the force majeure condition meant that I would have to plan the Himalayan Expedition later.
For lunch I tried KFC chicken – the first time during the entire journey that I tried out something western. The idea was to experience how different it is from what I had in India. It was quite different in that it was very much less oily, crispier, pieces more fleshy and served with some outstanding sauces. As I was having that my eyes fell on what was being served in the shop opposite – mango ice cream in a wide variety of ways! I would not let go of that, of course. Mango Supreme was a large helping of delicious mango ice cream topped with caramel and cream. When the waiters saw this elder tipping the cup to tease out the dregs of caramel they knew that they had had me hooked!
The night market was an ensemble of food stalls, souvenirs, footwear and clothes. Great bargains were on offer. I was not in a mood for a solid meal and the smell of street food made me nauseous. Then my eyes fell on a stall selling fresh cut fruits. I was amazed by the low prices of guava, mango, sapota and melon and picked up a kg of each; some for supper and rest for the journey the next day. The melon and mango fell prey easily and the rest I put into the car.