There’s something to be said about being free to meander through the world on two wheels, physically and emotionally exposed to the elements. The raw and visceral immediacy of the moment is accentuated by your sense of vulnerability, that blends excitement and fear into a heightened state of presence, clarity and focus. I find the adrenaline-laced euphoria of riding, especially in spectacularly exotic landscapes and delightfully curvy roads, to be irresistibly addictive. The alertness and excitement of being so exposed to the world around you, and having almost all of your senses directly engaged simultaneously; vision, smell, touch and hearing, serves to propel you into a far more mindful state than you would otherwise be if traveling in a moving metal cage, be it a car, plane, bus or train. Paradoxically, I find the thrill of riding to be both exhilarating and calming. The more I ride, the more zen I feel.
So when I was approached by freelance travel journalist Duncan Forgan and photographer Aaron Joel-Santos to take them on an epic multi-day journey into the south of Thailand, my gut said when? A few dozen or so emails later, two months flew by and I found myself on my bike picking up our intrepid duo in Khao Lak and Takua Pa respectively, both small coastal towns in southern Thailand’s Phang Nga province. Unlike most touring motorcyclists who ride all-terrain enduros; we set out from the onset to do things a little differently. We eschewed the go-anywhere touring beasts more commonly seen, and instead rode in retro-style on classic-looking motorbikes, a Royal Enfield Classic 500 and a Kawasaki W800.
Don’t get me wrong, enduro’s are fantastic bikes that will take you places our bikes can only ever dream of, but this was no off-road adventure. We chose to take a more relaxed and nostalgic journey across three southern provinces of Thailand, explicitly wanting to escape the overwhelmingly popular tourist hot spots of the region. Instead we were in search of the Kingdom’s lesser known natural and cultural sites, small towns and villages, which might offer a small glimpse into Thailand’s illusive pre-tourism past, if such a thing was even possible anymore… Our choice of retro-style bikes lent itself to the experience, despite the rarity of our wheels on Thailand’s roads, we seemingly blended in with the historic towns and stunning locations we visited, to the delight of curious and admiring locals.
Over four nights and 5 days, we took a quixotic journey through the coastal and rural countryside of Phang-Nga, Surat Thani, and Krabi. During the course of our trip, we encountered quaint historic towns, forested mountain passes, tiny villages, a secluded waterfall, prehistoric cave paintings, old growth mangrove forests and delightfully peaceful islands. It was one of those adventures where you definitely meet far more locals than tourists, having avoided the majority of tourist traps that readily await you here in Thailand. For us, a tourist trap is any place with loads of tourists and where the prices of most things are inflated. The higher cost of living pushes poorer locals further out, replacing them with an ever growing number of tourists, contract workers and mass tourism-based businesses. To be fair, we certainly enjoy the comforts and luxury that mass tourism can also bring, but sought to avoid those overcrowded places despoiled by their overwhelming popularity with travel agents and tourists.
Khao Lak – Takua Pa
Our trip began unhurriedly at the charmingly secluded ThaiLife Homestay Resort in Bang Muang, a small, quiet coastal area between Khao Lak and Takua Pa. The resort is a great example of community-based tourism, explicitly fostering local jobs and training opportunities for its dozens of staff. Though containing over 35 villas, the size of the land parcel it’s built on makes it a delightfully low-density resort, complete with its own private beachfront.
After checking-in to our luxurious villas, we all enjoyed dinner and drinks at the resort’s beachfront restaurant.
By the end of this first encounter, we knew we were going to enjoy traveling with these two enigmatic characters; Duncan who was writing an article for Travel and Leisure and Prestige Thailand magazines, and Aaron who accompanied him as his professional photographer.
We set off early after a hearty buffet breakfast towards the nearby Sino-Portuguese town of Takua Pa. A town eagerly trying to attract tourists, but fortunately not quite succeeding to do so in any significant way that we could see. Locals still outnumbered the odd tourist by well over a hundred to one.
We visited the historic old town, walked among the old city ruins, and admired the fascinating architecture not too dissimilar from Phuket’s old town or even the heart of Penang’s historic district, but on a much less grandiose scale. My personal favorites were the hidden open-air cafe’s that seem to only open on random days of the week, and the master Chinese herbalist shop that also operates as an informal cafe.
For the rare visitor, Takua Pa offered a delightful blend of old and new, with an abundance of street art strewn upon antiquated buildings and crumbling walls, and some of the friendliest locals I’d encountered in Thailand, and that’s really saying something when your consider Thailand is affectionately known as the land of smiles.
The first local we chanced upon on our stroll of the old town, a lovely old lady possibly in her eighties, was happy to show us around her home. Her informal tour give us a rare and intimate glimpse of family life in an old coastal town of Thailand’s Andaman coast. When we completed the tour of her home, she steadfastly refused the small payment we offered as a token of our appreciation. This simply wouldn’t happen in big cities like Phuket.
Somewhat surprisingly given the extensive deforestation in lowland areas of Thailand, an old growth mangrove forest lies at the edge of the historic old town. Here you can rent a rubber raft with a guide to take a leisurely cruise up into the river estuary system. We encountered large numbers of crab-eating Macaques, various tree snakes, giant lizards, horn-bills and numerous waterbirds. Though definitely a tourist venture, it’s locally run, reasonably priced and a good example of the community-based tourism we support. Moreover, most visitors on the day we went, were Thais rather than overseas tourists. After a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, we rode away from the coast and into the gently winding hills towards Ka Pong.
The scent of the forest drifting into our helmets grew stronger as we went deeper into the forested areas looking for a seldom-visited, secluded waterfall. The sun was strong, but fortunately the waterfall lay in the rainforest, and the final 800m or so we walked under the shade of large native trees to find we had the stunning swimming hole all to ourselves – a rare find anywhere in Thailand these days!
After enjoying the powerful current of the waterfall, the spa-like rock pools and sandy bottom we ventured back onto our bikes to spend the night in a tree house in the peaceful and quiet, jungle-covered Khao Sok Paradise Resort. Along the way we passed large herds of water buffalo, living tranquilly on the grassy plains of the district.
We arose to the calls of endangered white-handed Gibbons high up in our tree houses. The beautifully haunting sounds of the rainforest in Khao Sok would make the best alarm wake-up call – note to self – make a recording next time! The staff at Khao Sok Paradise were among the nicest you’ll meet anywhere. Eric (the owner) kindly explained how the Gibbons mate for life, and only sing to each other. If one passes away, they stop singing and live a lonely, solitary life till the end. We were grateful for the numerous couples we could here singing love songs from our treetop balconies whilst enjoying our morning coffee.
After breakfast we set off to meet Lek and his 40 year old Asian Elephant, Bon-chu. Lek is a mahout or elephant rider, as his father was, and his grandfather before him. Though torn by the continued use of elephants in the tourism industry, we wanted Duncan to hear Lek’s interesting story and to meet Bon-chu in person.
Being in the presence of such enormous and majestic creatures made me tingly and a tad nervous. Though incredibly gentle, friendly and even a little curious, Bon-chu could easily crush me to a pulp if he were so inclined
We soon discover that deaths are not too uncommon, with two mahouts killed in the province last year by their elephants. The relationship between mahout and elephant runs deep. Lek admits not all mahouts treat their elephant with the respect and reverence they deserve, which can lead to catastrophic consequences for the mahout. Lek explains how he’d like to stop using Bon-chu for elephant trekking as it can be uncomfortable for the elephant. The large and heavy seating platforms can cause bruising, infection and scarring at the points where they are strapped onto the elephants body. The only elephant i’d ever consider ‘riding’ would be bare-back sitting on her or his head.
Instead, Bon-chu genuinely appears to enjoy being bathed and scrubbed in the river, and definitely loves being hand fed delicious bananas and pineapple off-cuts. It is Lek’s family’s intention to open an elephant homestay in Khao Sok where Bon-chu can live out the rest of his years being pampered by tourists, and never having to make another tourist elephant trek again.
After our time with Lek and Bon-chu was up, we jumped back on our bikes and rode towards Krabi on quiet countryside roads. Our route took us through very scenic roads past small villages where locals still made brooms from reeds, and dried their chillies out in the sun as they have for centuries. Khao Sok is renowned for its many lovely river swimming holes, and for good reason. The water temperature is perfect, not too cold or warm, leaving you feeling utterly refreshed.
We made a quick detour up a tree-covered mountain-top temple with incredible views of the surrounding farmland and hilly countryside. This was the Kingdom of Thailand that mass tourism seemed to have left behind.
After a quick stop for some very spicy but tasty street food at a roadside restaurant, we arrived at our next resort, The Elements in Krabi. Following check in, we treated ourselves to to a spa treatment that made me melt into the massage table in a scented bliss-ball of delirious rapture. I arose so relaxed and rejuvenated that I was happy to just lush out for the rest of the afternoon with a drink in hand, by the private swimming pool just behind our room. Dinner was top notch, and the service impeccable.
We left The Elements for our final destination, the tranquil island of Koh Yao Noi. We hugged the quieter coastal roads as much as possible to avoid the choking traffic of the highways, to get to Khao Pru Tee Mae cliff in Mount Chong Lom, near Ao Luek, Krabi. The cliff, only reachable by boat, contains recently discovered prehistoric rock art of elephants, humans and marine creatures dating back around 5000 years. Only found last year by Thai archaeologists, the site is still pristine and fortunately not that easy to find and access.
After stepping back into the kingdom’s prehistoric past, we returned back to our two wheeled time capsules and rode past dozens of jungle-covered Karst outcrops that this part of Thailand is famous for, cruising towards Thalane Pier.
Koh Yao Noi
At the Thalane pier we booked our own boat and helped the captain and his crew to load our bikes onto his long-tail. The boat trip to Koh Yao Noi took about 35 minutes, but I kind of wished it took longer, as the views across the bay were simply spectacular
Koh Yao Noi is a small, picturesque island, inhabited mainly by Muslim Thai’s that migrated there centuries ago from Malaysia. Again, we were struck at the low density of tourists on this laid-back and tranquil island, and the very friendly locals that seemed to have a smile permanently etched on their faces. This really was the land of smiles you keep reading about in travel brochures and blogs ad nauseam.
I always appreciate that secluded island experience where you can ride to a deserted beach, and be alone with the wind brushing lightly against you skin and hair, as the ocean waves crash gently at your feet, and no other human being is anywhere to be seen. These kind of places are becoming harder and harder to find in Thailand, and we grateful that they still exist.
Was a blessing to finish our trip in five star luxury, at the fabled Cape Kudu Resort. Impeccable rooms with stunning views over the bay, great food and such a relaxing ambiance one could readily become accustomed to.
Circumnavigating the island on our bikes took less than an hour, with stops for photographs and a coffee at one of the many artsy cafe’s that have sprung up in the villages of the island. We possibly spent a bit too much time at the poolside bar, reminiscing already about the last few days, and the strong bonds of mateship that formed between us.
You’ll have to wait till mid-year to see the stunning photos Aaron took of our journey and for Duncan’s detailed account of the trip in the upcoming feature articles for Travel & Leisure and Prestige Thailand magazines.
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