South East Asia part 12: Koh Kong, KH – Perhentian islands, ML
We reached the Cambodia-Thailand border in the morning expecting a quiet and rather empty crossing. However, there was a lot of action going on near the border with a new and super fancy hotel and Chinese supermarket on the Cambodian side. From our experiences, countries always beef up their infrastructure within the first 1 km of their border to try and give a good first impression to people when they enter the country. This is never a reflection of the country, just a waste of peoples money for the ego of the government. The Cambodian border official took my Irish passport and told me he wasn’t going to give me an exit stamp until I had gone over to the Thai side of the border to confirm with them that I don’t need a visa. “Wait let me get this straight, you want me to go to Thailand and ask them if they will let me in?” I asked. “Yes”, he said sternly. I explained I had entered Thailand before, and EU passport holders get 30 days visa free twice in a calendar year at land borders. Luckily, I think my previous Thai stamp swayed him and he reluctantly stamped me out of Cambodia and we crossed the narrow patch of wet mud and gravel that was the border between the two countries.
Back on the left side of the road for the remainder of our trip! Thai roads are in immaculate condition compared to the likes of Cambodia and Myanmar. We had also returned to a land where healthy, tasty and cheap food was available again. Although we forgot how spicy Thai food is and Josephine struggled to eat her first plate of pad thai. The part of Thailand we were cycling through was very narrow, only about 500 meters across in some places and the road rolled up and downhill gently with the ocean a few meters away on our left. We gathered some food from an extremely well stocked market (and grabbed some ice from a 7 Eleven!) and set off towards a camp site we had found marked on an app called iOverlander. If you haven’t heard of this app before you should check it out, its free!
The rain had started and didn’t subside for the rest of the day. We thought it was best that we found a shelter for our tent that night and we struck gold at a centre run by the Thai red cross. It was basically a free campsite and we could put our tent under the roof and use the facilities for free. The only downside was my very upset stomach which had me running back and forth the 100 meters to the toilet all night whilst it was bucketing it down. When we arrived there was a family setting up a picnic but they soon sacked it off after the rain became beyond torrential. At one point we were worried the flooding streets would come over the tiled floor where our tent was.
We had non-stop rain the next day as well. We considered stopping to ride it out, but there was no point as we had booked a train from Bangkok to the South of Thailand for a few days time and needed to get a wiggle on. We went to a Tesco which was quite an odd experience as it felt like being back in the UK again. Luckily they had all the ingredients for us to make pasta and tomato sauce, one of our favourite meals. SE Asian food is good don’t get me wrong, but sometimes we just need something European in our culinary experiences. The same way you would sometimes have a Chinese or Indian in Europe. We wanted to wild camp that night, but the rain was so bad that the streets were flooded, so we pulled up at an abandoned looking monastery to ask if we could put our tent under their roof. The only guy I managed to find could not have cared less and left us to it the whole evening, much to our delight. The rain on the roof was super loud all night but it made it cool enough to sleep comfortably.
We were still 400 km from Bangkok and had a train booked for 2 days from now, so we did another 40 km the following day to the town of Chanthaburi and hopped on a bus the final 350 km to Bangkok. Getting the bus was horrendously easy; the ticket lady spoke English, the bikes fit on easily, and the busses left every 25 minutes. We boarded the bus completely drenched as it had been raining that whole day too and shivered a bit in the AC until we dried off. The roads leading into Bangkok were unbelievably big. There was a flyover for 100km leading into the city and you could see from the top just how big this city is of over 12 million people.
We jumped off the bus and grabbed some food before reaching our warmshowers hosts Cindy and Thibault. Whilst we were having lunch I got a phone call from my mum telling me my grandad had past away in the night. I had a hunch it might have happened during our trip and I was unfortunately not able to make it back for the funeral, but I did have some nice catch-ups with my family reminiscing of all the fond memories of grandad playing football with us in the garden and taking us swimming. I could not have asked for a better grandad. It’s hard being away from family for so long (15 months at time of writing) especially in times like this. These moments are when you really take modern technology for granted and the ability to effortlessly pick up a phone and talk to family on the other side of the world for free.
Cindy and Thibaults (our Warmshowers hosts) apartment was on the 34th floor of an incredibly fancy apartment block (it even had an infinity pool on the 42nd floor!). However, they were very “normal” people who also did a year-long cycle tour themselves. When we arrived, all our stuff was soaking wet so it was the perfect chance to dry everything out on their balcony. When I opened my front pannier bags I was horrified to find a huge puddle of water at the bottom of both of them, one of which had my laptop in it. I have no idea how this happened as there were no holes in the bags and all the other 6 pannier bags on both our bikes were fine. Fortunately, nothing was damaged apart from about 50 % of the contents of our first aid kit. Some of our stuff had also began to smell strange and grow mould which was not a good sign. We washed everything and soaked the things which had mould in vinegar and brushed them vigorously which worked quite well to remove most of the mould.
I don’t think we quite comprehended just how big Bangkok was. We had 2 chores to do the day before our train. Firstly, we had to go to an outdoor shop to get our tent pole fixed which snapped in Cambodia and secondly, we needed to fix Josephines tablet as the charging jack was broken. How long could it take to get both of these things done? Over 5 hours. The metro in Bangkok is not very good. It’s far too busy and has very few stations and doesn’t cover nearly enough of the city. Add this to evening rush hour and a maze of 3D pedestrian walkways and shopping centres to cross through and it makes for a very stressful journey. We were very glad to be leaving this city the next day.
Bangkok Central Station is small and we quickly found the ticket counter to pay for our bikes to go on the train. They needed to go on the cargo carriage of the train and required their own special ticket which cost about £3.80. The train went all the way through southern Thailand to Sungai-Kolok at the border with Malaysia and was scheduled to take 21 hours. We paid an extra £5 for a bed in an AC carriage which was surprisingly comfortable. We brought enough food with us for the duration of the train expecting food to be expensive on the train (which it wasn’t at all) and actually only had about 100 Baht (£2.50) left when we got on the train, hardly enough for 1 meal. Pretty bad planning by us. The train left 2 hours late and by the time we had arrived in Kolok it was 3.5 hours late and we were starving. Luckily in Southern Thailand your money goes far and we picked up some food for next to nothing.
The final 200 km or so towards the Malaysian border was marked by an increase in the number of Mosques and people dressed in Muslim clothing. Islam is quite prominent amongst the ethnic Malays in Southern Thailand and in the South-East, there is an active military insurgency against the Thai government with several killings every year. We were even told there was a shooting this year in Kolok, the town where our train arrived in. The UK government website advices against all but essential travel to this area, however we only spent 30 minutes here before crossing the border which was 400 meters from the train station.
The border crossing was our quickest and easiest yet, the border guard on the Malaysian side was having a laughing fit on the phone with his mate the whole time and took no notice of us. Because of our delayed train, it was very late by the time we crossed the border. We planned to cycle 40 km to the town of Kota Bahru where we would find a guesthouse as it would be well past dark when we arrive. Malaysia is a rich country by SE Asian standards. It has a well-developed economy and infrastructure with a GDP per capita higher than Thailand. It is also incredibly ethnically diverse with 60 % of the population Ethnic Malays (muslims) 24 % being ethnic Chinese, 7 % Indian and the remainder consisting of indigenous peoples. The Chinese and Indians were brought in by the British during their rule to work in the mines and plantations and this has led to both a delicious cuisine and a very good level of English amongst everyone. I don’t recall meeting anyone who couldn’t speak English, it reminded us of India.
We had our first roti canai (fried bread with a gravy sauce) on the outskirts of Kota Bahru which started a trend of eating about 10 each per day for the next 2 weeks; absolutely delicious. We arrived at a hostel at what we thought was 7 pm, but we were informed that it was in fact, 8 pm. The clocks had gone forward an hour when we crossed the border and we didn’t even realise. We also didn’t realise that Malaysia uses British plugs which we obviously didn’t have any of. We have used the European style plugs basically the whole trip and had dropped our guard a bit now when it comes to plugs. We went out on the hunt for some converters and were gifted one for free by a man in a shop, how kind. We also hit up the local night market and had some tasty but artery blocking food, and found ourselves a well-stocked second-hand clothes market where we managed some good finds. We are not far off reaching New Zealand now and would like to have some semi-presentable clothes as most of ours are stained, ripped and sewed back together by me, baggy or see-through. Not to mention stinky as hell.
We bagged ourselves another sim card the next morning and made our way south along the coast to the town of Kuala Besut where we would get a ferry to the Perhentian islands and do some SCUBA diving. There were plenty of parallel roads right next to the sea which were quiet and very scenic. There was an abundance of places to put a tent and we couldn’t wait to start wild camping again after months of sleeping in monasteries and/or guesthouses. At first, we were struggling to find drinking water in Malaysia. Petrol stations and eateries don’t have water dispensers like they did in Vietnam and Thailand and we were not sure how we could find drinking water without buying plastic bottles. It didn’t take long until someone showed us the water machines for filling bottles. For £0.05 you can get 3 litres of purified filtered water and these machines are everywhere. They always seemed to pop-up when we needed them most as well, as if they knew we needed them. Malaysia was fast becoming an absolute pleasure to cycle through.
We arrived in Koala Besut and paid/booked our diving and accommodation on the Perhentian islands for the morning. After scouting out some food at an eatery in the town we followed the coast a kilometre or so and found a small patch by the beach to sleep for the night. The lady in the house next to us saw us pitching our tent but could not have cared less. She did have a family of cats who hung around us all night like a bad smell and crapped outside the tent which I stood on in the morning in bare feet. I hate cats, I’m allergic to them as well and I think they know that and taunt me about it. It was strange seeing so many cats in Malaysia, in Islam dogs are considered dirty and on par with pigs, so cats make up the majority of domestic animals. I prefer dogs.
We had our breakfast at sunrise the next morning on the beach and cycled the short 1 km into town to jump on the 30 minute ferry to the islands (we left our bikes at the dive centre in town). I had visited the islands 5 years ago with some mates and remember having a nice view of the islands as the boat sped towards them. However this time our view of the islands was obscured by a thick haze which had blown across the South China Sea from the annual burning of the palm oil crops on Borneo. This haze stuck around for almost our entire time in Malaysia and at times you could actually smell the smoke in the air. Luckily for us we had ventured to the islands to go SCUBA diving, so the haze did not obstruct our visibility underwater. Although there were some easterly winds which led to a couple of dives in murky water. The diving was great there and the reefs are a lot more diverse than the ones we witnessed in Vietnam. Vietnams coastal reefs have been badly overfished leading to an ecosystem dominated by organisms lower down the food chain such as worms, shellfish, sea cucumbers and corals. In comparison the reefs we saw on the Perhentian islands are abundant in an array of fish and big predators such as groupers, sharks and turtles giving the ecosystem more balance across different levels of the food chain. I did my PhD on small marine creatures so from my point of view, I think the reefs in Vietnam had more to offer if you were up for looking more closely at what was around. But if you like turtles and sharks (which let’s be honest, most people do), then Vietnam is probably not the best place to go diving. Oh, we also saw an octopus scuttling across the seabed trying to disguise itself as a piece of floating seaweed. We were all fooled.
We met a friendly cycling couple on the island as well; Lukas and Ellis from Italy and Germany who we had a few evenings chilling with and chatting about our trips. We returned through the haze on the speedboat back to the mainland after 2 nights on the islands and headed off down the coast towards Singapore. After A LOT of back and forth we finally decided to skip Indonesia and fly to Australia from Singapore. At this point we were fed up with South East Asia. Fed up with the heat, humidity, pollution, overpopulation, noise, lack of wild nature and often boring cycling. There were pockets of beauty and genuine enjoyment, but overall, we felt that SE Asia is a bit over-hyped. Although, we felt a bit disappointed to not be going to Java and Bali, we were relieved when we finally booked our flight and also super excited for the coming change in scenery, culture, language and climate. However, we still had an action-packed couple of weeks left in SE Asia so stay tuned for the installment of our Asian leg.