Do you think this has got bugs in?

It was fun arriving back in Thailand from Cambodia. For a start, our border police officer was quite the comedian as she stamped us back in. The next officials we met wanted a photo and by lunchtime we had found a functioning ATM and an appropriate roadside restaurant. Just when we thought the day couldn’t get any better our motel room had Hello Kitty soft furnishings.

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Welcome to Thailand. Smile.

We were aiming for Vientiane, Laos, but decided to take the scenic route via the Mekong to visit a few tourist sights. The next overnight was Ubon Ratchathani, still a way from the river. UR had a brilliant evening food market area – great meals and possibly the best fruit shakes of Asia. We headed East, to a point where the Mekong and another river confluence and are different colours. The different coloured water was clear to see, but it was possibly not worth the detour, especially when we found another similar confluence a few days later. It was fun cycling though, all small roads, hardly any traffic, and even a few hills. Strangely it also seemed to be Autumn, gold and brown leaves fell around us. Can’t explain that one.

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Night market in Ubon Ratchathani. Loved this lady’s TV. Even better when the soap started and her mates came over from their food cart to watch.

 

This whole area was completely different to beachy tourist Thailand. There wasn’t much English spoken, but there were awesome markets, pleasant towns, good hotels and a lot of monks. Our standard day involved mangoes and bananas for breakfast, eggs or veg and rice for early lunch, then a night market feast in the evening. We tried to squeeze in either a fruit shake or an iced tea too. Life was pretty brilliant, even with some long riding days. The only hazard was that we seemed to have entered a new food region – grubs. We started to approach banana leaf wrapped snacks with more caution…

A real highlight was visiting Wat Phu Tok, a temple built into the cliffside. It was an incredible network of wooden walkways, small shrines and many stairs. If you’re in the area, it’s unmissable. That evening we also had the best Pad Thai of the trip. It was in a town about 40km west of the temple, a total bargain from the smiley lady with the cart opposite the convenience store, (she’ll even do one without the peanuts). If you’re in the area, it’s unmissable.

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Tiny Jo at Wat Phu Tok

Nong Khai was our last stop in Thailand. We spent a few days relaxing, doing some bike maintenance, and treated ourselves to some Cadbury’s chocolate in the last Tesco of the trip. We were ready to cross the river we had followed for a week and start our Laos ride. Thailand is a great place to cycle. I would highly recommend it for any tourers, even for a first time bike tour. The distances between towns aren’t unmanageable, there’s plenty of reasonably priced accommodation and food, and the road surfaces are excellent. What are you waiting for?!

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Evening boat ride on the Mekong in Nakhom Phanom
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Cycling from the beach to Bangkok

Bangkok was 700kms away from Phra Thong. We thought it was about time we did some “proper riding” – covered some distance in the direction of home rather than just cruising around – so gave ourselves until the following Sunday to get there. Sundays are good days to arrive in cities by bike. Not that this made any difference with Bangkok as it turned out, but it was worth a try. 700km in 8 days would be tough in the heat, especially given that our average over the past few weeks had been around 50/day, but we were up for the challenge. 


The first couple of days helped, as the spacing of the big towns made our first two rides 110 and then 125km. After lifting the bikes and luggage off Mr Choi’s boat, getting some breakfast at the marina and being pointed and laughed at by a small Thai child it was 9am before we hit the road proper, and already el scorchio. It was an uneventful sweaty highway ride to Ranong, though the traffic was light. Finding food that evening was a bit more of a challenge than usual as the Ranong speciality seemed to be all-you-can-eat buffets, outside Asia we would jump at the chance of this for around £5 but when you can get a large, decent meal for £1 the buffet seemed pricey. We ended up at our usual favourite plastic table and chair type restaurant full of groups of Thais enjoying their Saturday night, not for the first time we walked in and sat down and watched the ladies working there look at each other in a “no, you go and talk to them” way, mentally playing a game of paper, scissors stone to see who has to go and try to understand what the white people want. The loser came over and helpfully showed us some pictures. We are fine with pictures, although a few chilli symbols to denote spice level might help.


We knew the 125km ride to Chumphon would be hilly as well as long, crossing the country from west coast to east coast (Thailand is very narrow at this point so it is not as impressive as it sounds. In fact it’s about 12km at its narrowest so it’s not impressive at all). The road skirts the Thai/Myanmar border for a while, so we could gaze over in a “look but don’t touch” way that seemed strange after cycling in Europe and crossing from country to country often without even realising. Most of the hills were early on in the day when it was still cool (which means 25 degrees here) so were easy enough other than the fact that Debs’ front derailleur didn’t like changing down to the lowest gear so she kept having to get off and do it by hand. After weeks of flat riding this was annoying timing. We hadn’t been kind to the bikes recently with all the boats and beaches, and we vowed to give them a good clean to get off the salt and sand. There wasn’t much to see other than a decent waterfall right by the road, we passed signs to other waterfalls but these are now one thing we do not detour to see – without wishing to sound like Tony, we’ve seen loads, and it takes something big to impress us now. Oh there was something to see, pork bun alley. It’s fascinating here how you can pass stands and stands of vendors selling exactly the same thing at exactly the same price, presumably due to availability of produce. We’ve ridden past pineapple alley, watermelon alley, dried fish in baskets alley, kite alley, large ornamental rooster alley, salt alley (see below), but pork bun alley might have been the most impressive. We passed maybe 45 of exactly the same stalls on both sides of the road selling steamed pork buns, easily identifiable by the massive steamers (and the identical red signs). There’s no diversification in product or pricing. How they can all make any money we have no idea. Do locals have their favourite stand? How do they choose? We picked one at random and ate 5 between us, that will have tasted exactly the same as their business rivals next door. 


From Chumphon we were riding up the east coast to Bangkok and got into a good rhythm of riding early, stopping for food mid-morning, snacking on whatever was available (unfortunately pork bun alley didn’t stretch this far so those were off the menu) and finishing up some point in the afternoon at a beach town. These towns were usually small and mainly frequented by Thais at the weekend so mid-week were quiet with nice, empty beaches.


 There was a definite holiday feel to our evenings that you don’t get away from the beaches, with a few Westerners on holiday drinking beer as the sun set, kids playing in the sand, locals parked up in their trucks and sitting on the beach eating a feast. As we had dinner in beach front restaurants and walked along the wide beaches it felt a bit like we were gatecrashing a different holiday every evening, having a similar experience in each town but with slightly different surroundings and people. It was easy to find small, perfectly smooth roads, often right by the sea, and even the odd cycle path. 


We had swapped west coast sunsets for east coast sunrises, which was fine with us as we could watch the sun rise over the sea as we started riding. Early morning cycling is really nice, it’s a chance to see people going about their day – people start early here and then mostly tend to be resting in hammocks by lunchtime. We shared the small roads with farmers going to work, kids riding to school on mopeds and monks doing their morning alms walk, collecting food from villagers who wait with their offerings in woven baskets. The first couple of times we rode past monks in their orange robes it was quite mesmerising but it soon became a normal part of early morning life in Thailand.


We had a great evening in Prachup Khiri Kahn as it seemed to be some kind of special event, we love a good night market and this was one of the best, there were fairground rides and everything. We had some great scenery as we rode through Sam Roi Yot National Park with its huge limestone cliffs. It’s quite amazing how you can ride through mountainous scenery like that on a totally flat road. Other than that it was just very pleasant riding. 


After the sleep, eat, ride repeat routine and not much else for a few days, we then had one day where so much happened it was hard to believe that it was all still the same day. After leaving our typical beach hut as the sun rose, we rode our 25,000th trip kilometre and then met some Malaysian cyclists who had stopped on the road by a wedding. It was 8am, and the party was in full swing. They suggested we go in and have breakfast with the guests. Even though we had only just made the most of a free toast breakfast at the hotel (8 slices each, they are only small…) we wanted to experience this and thought we could squeeze in an early second breakfast so accepted our invitation from someone who appeared to be in charge of the eating arrangements. We arrived just in time to see the bride and groom emerge from a room holding hands and having things thrown at them before going to the shrine to pray. We were very sweaty, the groom had definite beads on his forehead yet the bride looked as dry as a bone. Impressive. We were told to sit down in a marquee area and tuck in. There were two eating areas – one with people dressed smartly, and the other (where we were) with 150 seats at least where other people came and went. We were seated on a table of ladies who helpfully instructed us which order to eat things in and kept us topped up with water and coke to counter the spicy sauces. They didn’t seem to think it strange that two very sweaty women in cycling kit who couldn’t speak Thai had sat down at their table. This part of the wedding is very much a community affair, people came and had their breakfast and then went to work. A few looked to be making themselves more comfortable, particularly tables of men where the whisky bottles were already half empty. We left at 8.30am smiling at how things like this just happen out of nowhere. 


An hour later we passed a hill that you could walk up for good views of the coast, it looked shady so we thought it wouldn’t be too hard at that time in the morning. It wasn’t too hard, yet the humidity meant that by the time we had walked for half an hour we both looked like we had stepped right out of the shower fully clothed. Any thoughts of doing walks in the middle of the day were banished. This heat isn’t too bad for cycling as you create your own breeze, but we find walking or even standing in the full sun really uncomfortable. Back on the road we passed a park where Thailand really shows the love of its royals, with seven massive bronze statues of former kings towering over a beautifully sculptured park. We were in the Hua Hin area, a trendy beach resort for Bangkok residents and ex-pats as the royals have their summer palaces there. After riding through small, sleepy resorts with a scruffy charm, Hua Hin was a major assault on the senses – fancy malls, huge posh hotels and big highways to cater for all of the visitors. We had a great tailwind so flew through, stopping only at Tesco to stock up on a few essentials. Tesco was in one of the biggest, fanciest malls we had seen in Thailand, surrounded by Western chain restaurants and coffee bars selling food and drink at Western prices. We saw at least 8 middle-aged white men sitting on their own at a table with a beer. It’s a popular place for wealthy ex-pats to retire to, and after seeing so many beautiful, quiet places in Thailand we couldn’t help but wonder why you would want to move to what seemed to be a Western bubble that looked very little like Thailand to us. But, each to their own. 


Once past Hua Hin the coast became a bit less polished and we stopped for a late lunch at the less trendy beach town of Cha’am. There seemed to be a lot of kite sellers around, we were definitely in kite alley, but we just thought this was normal on such a windy stretch of coast. At the top part of the beach loads of cars were parked up. On investigating we found the beach to be fenced off and behind the fence, loads of huge, colourful kites in various animal shapes flying madly over the town. We had stumbled upon the Thailand International Kite Festival, music was playing and the crowds were gathering to admire the kites. It was pretty spectacular and we had a fun half an hour wandering around. We still wanted to do 100kms so rode on and found another beach town for our last night by the sea until we get back to Western Europe. We treated ourselves to a room with a view and took a walk along the beach. Were we really at a Thai wedding that morning?


From here to Bangkok was two days of increasingly busy roads. We had one morning of quiet roads left that wove through salt farms where we could watch the salt being piled up and collected and marvel at the early morning reflections on the pools. Unsurprisingly we then rode through salt alley, where stall after stall sold various sized bags of salt (all price matched of course). Then it was the highway all the way into the big smoke. It was horrible, busy, smoggy, loud and offensive for most of the way. At one point we were on a road with four lanes and a two lane frontage road on each side, so twelve lanes in total. After a night in a Bangkok satellite town (setting an alarm for 12.30am to watch Lincoln’s FA Cup match with Arsenal) we downgraded to a “smaller” six lane highway for the 40km ride to the city centre. This had a variable shoulder but it didn’t really matter because the lane closest to the outside, be it a lane or the shoulder, was a nightmare as it was used by various vehicles for driving, parking, pulling in to pick up/drop off passengers, and even for mopeds and the odd car to drive in the wrong direction so we were constantly pulling out into traffic. It was probably the worst riding we had done since Napoli and we were relieved to get to our Bangkok hotel for a couple of days off the bikes.


I’d like to say we spent our time in Bangkok wandering round the sights but apart from a morning visiting a couple of the more famous temples and taking a boat along the river, we were too tired to venture far from our hotel and it’s air conditioning unit. Bangkok was having a heatwave and wandering round was really unpleasant. Luckily we seemed to be on massage alley, there were at least ten massage parlours within a 50 metre radius so we treated ourselves to a Thai massage (only a massage) which was painful and amazing at the same time. The two women who did our massages were chatting away and laughing to each other, again we imagined the conversation as “wow have you seen these amazing leg muscles?! These girls are in great shape!” when they were probably saying “Jesus I have never known anyone to be this inflexible! And have you seen these ridiculous tan lines they have?” After an hour of being prodded, dug into with elbows, bent in ways we didn’t think we bent and being walked all over we emerged rejuvenated, more flexible (we could now lay flat on our backs with both shoulder blades on the floor, impressive huh?) and only slightly sore ready for the next leg – to Cambodia! 

Th-island hopping – cycles in SW Thailand

Another instantly different as you cross the border experience. On our ferry there was a monk and a ladyboy. On land, the forests looked wilder, not the regular rows of plantation palms we had seen for much of Malaysia. People no longer wore motorbike helmets or their jackets on backwards as they zoomed around on mopeds. There were A LOT of pictures of the King. The alphabet is crazy and we were not totally clear how much a baht was, but the road was good and Satun seemed a friendly town. Most importantly, we found a motel with cable TV, to watch the mighty Imps play Burnley in the FA Cup. 

Two of whatever’s in there please.

After a winning first dinner of pad Thai and banana rotis, we enjoyed watching the winning Imps and looking at some island options. Tiny Bulon Leh caught our eye, so we pedalled to Pak Bara for the ferry service. It was a scenic boat ride, with towering limestone stacks, blue sea and Bulon’s beautiful curve of white sand. Getting on to the beach was a little trickier. We had to transfer to a long tail boat (just like in every travel brochure picture of Thailand) to get from the speedboat to the sand. Getting the bikes off the long tail needed one person on the boat passing the bike to the other, stood in the sea, to carry above the water and up the beach. Two bikes and eight panniers took a few trips. 

Travel brochure Thailand I – arriving on Bulon Leh

We hadn’t booked any accommodation as we had heard that you could make a donation to the school and camp just back from the beach. This turned out to be true, so we put our tent in one of it’s best spots of the whole trip. There were a few downsides to camping, mainly the ants and the heat, but the location made up for the discomfort. White sand, turquoise water, blue sky – like an episode of Death in Paradise without the ‘impossible’ murder, only four suspects and Ardal O Hanlon. (That’s right, we are fully up to date on all the big changes back home). 

Bulon is a great size for exploring and I would recommend a visit if you are in the area. It’s small enough to walk all the ‘roads’ in a few hours, yet developed enough that there’s a good range of accommodation and choices for eating. We snorkelled, saw lots of fish, and circumnavigated the island by kayak, only getting a little bit seasick. We also enjoyed hanging out with Andrew and Marcy, two cyclists we first met on a train in Kuala Lumpur. (They are on instagram @convenientlylocated where you can see some much better photos of some places we’ve been and lots more that we haven’t). Apart from the sweaty sleeping arrangements, it was like a real holiday.

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Travel Brochure Thailand Ii – one of the Trang Islands on our speedboat ride

It was tough to leave but the speedboat ride to Koh Lanta helped. Massive chunks of rock sticking out the the sea, dreamy islands and beaches, finally mangroves and precariously built restaurants as we approached the port. There were no cars on Bulon, only the odd motorbike and a few handfuls of people around, so it had been a very quiet island getaway. Arriving on Koh Lanta was the exact opposite. We had to transfer the bikes and bags to the main jetty via two other boats. Once on firm ground there were hundreds of people in vague queues with either extremely large backpacks or wheely suitcases. The wheely suitcase crowd seemed averse to rolling their suitcases for our ease of passage. Or perhaps we just make lifting 45kg bikes around them look so easy it appears there’s no need. We eventually emerged into taxi driver alley. They all thought they were the first to make the same joke. Point at bikes, say ‘Taxi?!’ Laugh. At least it wasn’t ‘How do you cross the ocean?’
Super cycling Krabi to Phangnga. Tiny cyclist in view

We escaped the port town and found a nice beach further south for dinner and sleeping. It was much busier here but brill to have a shower that wasn’t the sea and a room with fan still in earshot of the waves. Refreshed, we spent four days riding to our next island mini-break, via Krabi, Phang-nga, Khao Lak and Khuraburi. On the way there were some great little roads between limestone cliffs, villages with friendly people who thought we were nuts, mosques, temples, giant buddhas and all manner of other stuff to look at. We stopped regularly for fruit or iced tea or rice and vegetables. It was very hot. There was a bit of drag of touristic development along the Khao Lak coast. Imagine Skegness with tailored suits and massage instead of slot machines and chips. And a much better beach. We weren’t sure where to stay, and ended up at a bar with camping on the most scenic of the beaches. The downside was the ominously grey sky and thunder out at sea. The evening improved when my coconut shake arrived in a coconut. It then got even better when the bar staff said we could sleep on the massage platform so we didn’t have to put the tent up in the rain. We fell asleep to the sound of waves on what was essentially a school gym mat. 

Lightning from the beach at Khao Lak

In Khuraburi we spent some time finding out how to get the boat Phra Tong, our next island. Excitingly, we would see someone we knew there, a good friend from university on her own Asia adventure. We were given some detailed directions and a hand drawn map. 

“Turn right at the 7-11 (there were three), go past the school, 12km, turn right at the…Muslim?”

“Mosque?”

“Yes, for Muslims, 200m, ferry. Get there early, 9am. Sometimes if no water, 11am. Be early.”

We took the advice and rode early. At 8:15am there were two English cyclists and a small crowd of fisherman at the… port? Boat area? There wasn’t any water though, and the boat would clearly not be going at 9am. Jo went back up towards the Mosque to find some second breakfast. The water started rising, and some little fishing boats paddled in, adding to the crew hanging out drinking tea. A larger boat arrived, we established that this was our boat and keenly lifted the bikes on. A truck arrived with what seemed like a year’s supply of juice cartons in. These were also going to the island. Eagerly, we helped with these, thinking that once the loading was complete we would set off. In fact, once the boxes were on, the captain told the three Thai women waiting we would leave at 12 or 13. It was 9:55. Another couple who were waiting got on the boat ready. We retired to some shade, but didn’t leave the area completely as we didn’t trust the ’12 or 13.’
Our captain wandered around for a while, checking out a boat that was being built nearby, getting a snack, chatting to some fishermen. We wrote our diary, read some of our book, wondered about another trip to the breakfast place. All of a sudden, at 11:15, he pointed at us and the boat. It was time. Unlucky the three ladies who were coming back for twelve.

No departure boards here

We toured through mangroves and saw monkeys swinging around. On Phra Tong there didn’t seem to be a great deal. We found the road from the jetty village, not so tricky as it’s the only one on the island. It is concrete and just the width of a pick up. More mangroves, more monkeys. We rode for about 45 mins and saw one lady on a moped. There were no signs anywhere, our offline map helped us to identify that a sandy side track should take us to an area with a couple of accommodation options. We selected Mr Choi’s. He is quite the character should you be passing. Our bungalow was on stilts, the floor made of thin boards with big gaps between. Great for air circulation, rubbish if you drop something. Or several things.


It was weird but awesome to walk down to the beach and find someone we knew. This was one of the least easily accessible places we have been on the trip, there was hardly anyone else there, yet one of them was someone we had known for many years. As with the rest of the country the tap water is not drinkable but 4g and wifi was excellent despite the sparsity of population. We spent four days walking the long, empty beaches, kayaking to other small islands, eating pineapple fried rice out of a pineapple, and laying in hammocks reading. Now this was a holiday. Even on the last night, when there was no electricity to our row of bungalows (usually running 6-11pm) because as Mr Choi explained, the generator was “kaput” and he had to choose between keeping the electricity for our row or the row with a family and baby in and “I choose baby of course”. The next morning we joined the kaput generator on Mr Choi’s boat for a private ride back to the mainland, to the real marina this time with other boats and everything. If the dream of an unbroken cycle to China by 2nd May (last entry date for our visa) was still on, it was time to stop lazing in hammocks and start pushing the pedals round. Fast.


Sliding doors: Cycling home from Bangkok

The other day we saw the sea for the last time in a long time. This will be the third major land crossing of the trip, and the biggest by far, after Netherlands to Italy (1 month) and Boston to Anacortes (3 months). Right now I’m not even sure where we will next find the sea. Best guess, visas allowing, it will be in St. Petersburg.

The bikes have had enough salt water, so our feet got a ceremonial dunking

Before the trip, it was never our intention to ride all the way across Asia. A long distance train was always part of the plan, and it is only every so often one of us says “Well, we could ride all the way…?” We could. For sure. Bangkok to London is less than half of the distance we have ridden so far. Google tells me I could walk it in 98 days. The thing, is I don’t really want to cycle it and neither does Jo. There are a few reasons for this, mainly time. China is extremely big. We would spend a long time riding there. This is not a life ambition, and doing something to say you’ve done it isn’t often a good motivation. We have reached a point in the trip where we have started to think about doing other things, like cycling LEJOG, going to an English pub, seeing live music, riding our fast road bikes, eating a roast dinner, going back to work (just me) and – most importantly – seeing our family and friends.

China: chuffing huge, 1 month visa. Those sums don’t work.

I’m still excited about the next bit of pedalling. I’ve even spent some time today looking at a route in Southern China with some big mountain passes. It’ll be great to eat Chinese food. Though remember there they just it call it food, Friends fans. In the shorter term, we’ll visit Angkor Wat next week. Lucky people indeed. There are also still lots of places I’d like to cycle in the future. This probably isn’t the only long tour, though I suspect it will be the longest.

Choosing to start going home has been easy. Choosing a route home is a bit more problematic. Visas are tricksy, especially as Jo has only a few clear pages in her passport. We really don’t want to fly so are page-saving where possible. Some visas have expiry dates (China by May 2nd, the race is on) and for some we need to have booked train tickets etc., but as yet have no idea of dates. Roughly, we’ll get trains from China to Russia via either Kazakhstan or Mongolia. From St Petersburg there’s a ferry to Helsinki. Helsinki to Hook van Holland is about 2500km with some ferries. We’ll be in Harwich eating fish and chips in no time. Or more likely, in July.

Pedalling along, looking out for crazy stuff.

With all this in mind there a lot of decisions flying around at the moment. It is hard not to see them all as super important trip changers. I think this happens at home too. Luckily, every so often the universe has a way of helping to put these things into context so you can concentrate on the ones that really are important. Like, when to cross the road in Bangkok traffic. THAT is important. A slightly longer route to Vientiane? Probably not such a big deal. Stopping early one day because you see a nice beach? Definitely ok. It’s like sliding doors, you just get something else instead. Because we stopped early (3pm, not really that early, but we could have got one town further) the next morning was different, and it turned out to be brilliant different because we went to a Thai wedding with some Malaysian holidaying cyclists. If we’d ridden on, we would have missed it. Who knows though, if we had ridden on, there might have been a cake festival in the next town… So whatever route we go, it will be great trip home.

Enjoying the wedding breakfast.

I still love riding my bike every day and seeing new and awesome stuff. I’m just starting to get a feeling of needing to contribute more than instagram pictures to the people who are important. For us, the cycle touring lifestyle has an expiry date. It’s not even about the home comforts, though I can’t deny it will be delightful to make tea with real milk from a fridge and I absolutely cannot wait to turn the tap on and drink the water that comes out of it. See you in July UK!

Saving the world, one plastic bottle at a time. Race you to the tap in Helsinki.