Total distance travelled: 8640km
Distance travelled: 1160km
|James Bond Island, Phang-nga Bay|
Tangles of wires buzzing and crackling overhead; new, unfamiliar bird calls; 12 hour days and 12 hour nights; stray dogs, wandering dogs, barking dogs, sleeping dogs, chasing dogs, dead dogs; coconut trees; bunches of bananas hanging from trees; pineapple plants; fresh watermelon; iced coffee; condensed milk; sweet, sugary drinks; fried rice; pad Thai; warm sea swims; limestone karsts; monkeys; hundreds of ‘free-range’ chickens pecking at the ground; cockerels strutting and crowing, others tied to perches or contained under wire domes; plastic waste strewn along the roadside; rotting, rancid smells; scooters; tuk-tuks; babies clinging to the mirrors on scooters; monkeys; mosquitoes; “Hello! Where you go?”; dead snakes; green, wispy snakes; ‘7-Eleven’; ‘Tesco Lotus’; air-conditioning; smiling; bowing; glitzy temples; simple and elegant mosques; the heat, the sweat, the heat, the sweat…
We experienced such an awakening in Thailand, the Land of Smiles.
We experienced such an awakening in Thailand, the Land of Smiles.
We arrived in Thailand late on 5th March having travelled back in time and been awake longer than I now care to remember. Our time in New Zealand came to an end so smoothly and calmly, largely thanks to Alex, Tim and Grace, that it didn’t really hit me that we had left until I walked out of the doors at Phuket International Airport at 10 o’clock at night and into an immense heat. My shampoo bar is in a bad way. Solids turns to liquids quicker than a bored dog jumping up to chase a bicycle, and that goes for humans too. I’ve never needed to hydrate and urinate simultaneously so often! I’m sure I’m sweating actual buckets.
But what a place to be sweating in! Thailand: it is quite surreal for me, being here. Thailand was always a tropical, exotic, faraway place that other people went to and now here I am advising people to buy talcum powder and to frequently stop in at 7-Eleven in order to benefit from the air-conditioning and 15 Baht ice-creams. (We do this almost daily. I justify everything with, “Well I’m sweating so much it’ll be fine”. A couple of days ago, we did decide to trade in our 10.30am ‘ice-cream and cold water’ break for a ‘pineapple pastry and chocolate milk’ break. It was great, but hasn’t caught on. We’ve since progressed on to 20 Baht ‘mango tango’ cornettoes…)
Many had grimaced in horror when we told them we were flying with JetStar (Australia’s Ryan Air equivalent, we discovered) all the way from Christchurch to Phuket, but the journey was relatively hassle free. That is, once we had opened up Olly’s bike box at Christchurch airport at four in the morning in order to ‘redistribute some weight’. Bleary eyed and miserably tired we grunted our way through the ordeal and only got away with having to pay $100 extra thanks to the kind lady dealing with us – and she was ‘dealing with us’ for we were less than gracious. We piled things into our pockets as she turned a blind eye to how heavy our hand luggage was becoming. We owe her big time. I’m so glad she waved us over to her before the jobsworth who had made us, and the cycle-touring, Dutch couple a few behind us in the queue, unpack in the first place. And it was a close shave.
When we arrived in Thailand we were grateful to see that our bikes and luggage had too, as we hadn’t seen them since ‘the ordeal’. JetStar had transferred our luggage for us and this was so much less trouble than checking in and out as we had done on our flights to New Zealand. The customs procedure was a lot less demanding too, we were simply waved out of the airport by smiling officials. I had had my remaining teabags at the ready and felt a bit miffed about how long I’d spent scrubbing pedals and tyres with a toothbrush.
|Waiting to board the long-tail boat to take a trip around Phang-nga Bay|
|Coconut shells: more photogenic than the plastic waste by the side of the road|
|Beautiful frangipani flowers|
We had booked two nights at ‘The Luna Hostel’, a supposed five to seven minute walk, to acclimatise. After about fifteen minutes of running across main roads and almost stepping on nocturnal toads, we made it. We were dripping with sweat and thoroughly exhausted. The Luna, however, was wonderful and although expensive by Thai standards, our two nights there were perfect for helping us to find our feet in this incredibly different place.
Neither me nor Olly had been to Asia before and so we definitely experienced a big wallop of culture shock during our first few days: so many new sights, sounds and smells. That combined with jet-lag and our lamenting our time in New Zealand being over and we were a little confused and overwhelmed. Thoroughly excited too, of course, especially thanks to the enthusiasm of my friend, David (“Stales”), who lives in Bangkok and who was keenly our anticipating our arrival in the country he now calls home. This, along with the tea on tap and immaculately clean and cute Luna hostel thus eased us into our time in Thailand.
|First food experience: fried tofu with red pepper and cashew nut (would actually turn out to be hard to beat!)|
|Our first mango sticky rice!|
|Pad Thai time|
From Phuket, our route has been relatively simple: go north. After a hearty breakfast at The Luna, we reloaded our bikes and then immediately unloaded them again as we realised our new crank sets were on the wrong way around! Having got up early to try and avoid the heat of the day, we thus starting pedalling in the heart of it and quickly learned that our early was not early enough. The alarm now goes off at 5.30 as by midday the heat is extreme. Furthermore, Thailand is so alive early in the morning. The first few hours of cycling disappear as the hazy morning light lifts because there is so much to look at: children in uniform clambering out of the back of trucks, others riding to school on the back of a scooter; food vendors cooking and selling breakfast; fresh fruit being laid out in tuk-tuk carts; markets setting up or already in full swing. It would be a shame to miss this. By 11.30, most Thai people have retreated indoors or into the shade. We are trying to follow suit.
|Early morning mechanical|
The days are already blurring into one big, hot and humid adventure and experience. Our first day was a short one and a good means to measure what cycle-touring South-East Asia style would be like. We took a short diversion to Mai Khao Beach in order to watch the planes landing right above us. It was completely bonkers and explains why a few days before we had plonked down with such a bump and the overhead lockers had rattled like crazy. Recent news reports have stated that officials are considering increasing the security zone around the airport which would mean the ‘selfie-beach’, as it has become known, would close and people caught taking photos could face the death penalty!
Our second day was longer and fuller as we cycled to the town of Phang-Nga. It was an amazing day during which we caught our first, far-off glimpse of limestone karsts. They were absolutely mesmerising. We took a short diversion to a tiny village and cycled until the road ran out in an effort to get a better view of the karsts rising out of the water. The locals looked surprised to see us, their village perhaps rarely visited by sweaty farang on bicycles, not least because of how undulating the route back to the main road was. We cycled along busy roads lined with street vendors selling stick-meat from small, smoking BBQs and then performed crazy U-turns which required us to pedal across two or three lanes of traffic in both directions.
Cycling down a main road as we drew closer to Phang-Nga, we saw our first Buddhist temple. We were completely awe-struck by the huge, sparkling, extravagant structure. We took turns to walk around the temple complex, unaware of how common such temple sightings would become. It was that first temple that most impressed us though. Huge gold elephants flanked the entrance and a giant buddha sat peacefully in the meditative position. The temple itself glistened in the sunlight, the bold red, gold, green and blue colours were so splendid.
|People honked their horns as they passed the giant Buddha|
As we reached Phang-nga, we moved further into the heart of the karst landscape which was impossible not to state at, mouth agog. I was charmed by the green lampposts with elephant light-fittings and I shocked to experience a roundabout instead of a U-turn which we were already becoming accustomed to. Phang-nga was a lively town and being there made me feel excited. We had booked to stay for two nights at Phang-nga Cottage which was just off the main street and which afforded exceptional views of limestone karsts from the outdoor bathroom window. Our memories of the place have been somewhat tainted by the realisation a few days later that we had had money stolen from our room. We chastised ourselves when we discovered we had fallen victim to this rookie mistake and re-learned a valuable lesson.
|View from the bathroom|
We had two nights in Phang-nga so that we could take a boat trip around Phang-nga Bay to truly immerse ourselves in the karst landscapes. We took a long-tail boat ride on a full day excursion through mangrove forests and incredible caves, stopping at tiny, idyllic islands to swim in the warm, tropical sea and eat fresh tropical frutis. We saw wild monkeys and thousand year-old cave paintings in addition to being overawed by the karsts of all different shapes and sizes which jut vertically out of emerald-green waters. The most striking karst has to be the rocky pinnacle of Ko Tapu which adorns every poster, brochure and advertisement for the area. It was spectacular viewed from ‘James Bond Island’.
Our final stop of the day was to the Muslim fishing village, Koh Panyee, which is built entirely on stilts and which boggled my mind and overwhelmed my senses! Constructed in shallow waters, a huge monolith is the backdrop to the village which has a mosque, a school, a football pitch and a health centre as well as a handful of seafood restaurants overlooking the bay and countless souvenir stands. As we wandered around the labyrinthine town following picture markers on the floor, I noticed cats lazing in windowsills, chickens pecking the litter-strewn ground and men pulling on their football socks and lacing up their boots ahead of the Saturday night practice. I also watched as a bottle of fizzy drink was dropped and rolled away over the side of the stilts and into the muddy waters below. I wondered what else had been lost this way.
We chugged back to solid ground as the sun started to set and as the fruit was passed around once more, I relaxed into my wooden bench and closed my eyes enjoying the refreshing taste of watermelon and the warm breeze hugging my body. When we got back to our accommodation we were greeted quite frantically by the owner who explained that there was a market taking place where we could find “many, many eats”. She kept pointing to and tapping her watch implying that we didn’t have a minute to lose before the market closed. We’ve since replayed the episode in our minds countless times, wondering if it was at this moment that someone was in our room, working their way through our stuff. The lady took me by the arm and guided us through town before leaving us at a straight road leading to the river and the market.
The market was completely alive and absolutely not about to close. We walked up and down the stalls marvelling at all of the different food available. We sought out bits and pieces for a vegetarian picnic and ended up with such an unusual combination of goods that we ate on some big stone steps. We had little idea if what we had bought was sweet or savoury and so we nibbled at bits of everything, passing them back and forth between us. We had sickly-sweet rice that had been cooked in a sugar cane and served in bamboo; we had sticky friend onions that glued our jaws together; we had tofu stuffed with mushrooms and sesame seeds; and a rice-paper bread that we just couldn’t fathom. The whole thing came to about £4 and that includes the mango sticky-rice we bought with eyes bigger than our bellies and so ate for dinner the next day.
Revelling in the memories of a brilliant day, we set off for the town of Takuapa. We hadn’t travelled far before we left the bustling town life of Phang-nga behind and we were winding our way along good, paved paths through the jungle. Fascinating, new bird-calls rung out from the treetops and every time the breeze blew a leaf or a twig we swerved nervously for from a few metres away on a bicycle everything looked like a snake! About 10km in to the ride, we spotted a metal structure pertaining to be a toilet and decided to stop to avoid having to bare our bottoms in the open! Regardless, we sung our ‘snake song’ in a bid to eliminate the risk of unwanted attention from slithery serpents whilst going about our business. (Full renditions of the song available upon request!) Upon emerging from the not-too-unpleasant shack I spied, through the thin trunks of the forest trees, two elephants! Sadly, though, these elephants were not wild and they didn’t seem happy either. They were being ridden by their mahouts and geared up, it seemed, for other riders. More upsettingly, the elephants were mere metres away from a group of ten or so tourists on quad-bikes who were revving their engines and laughing as fumes bellowed out of the backs of the vehicles. Despite being captivated by the majestic, slow-moving elephants, we couldn’t bare to watch for long and so headed on our way.
We had our first taste of an iced-drink that day, commencing a dangerous habit for the cold, sweet, sugary slushies that we quickly had to kick for the sake of our teeth. A little hut selling crepes tempted us over and we enjoyed an Oreo and Nutella pancake with our iced-coffee for Olly and strawberry slushie for me. Made with syrup and condensed milk, these drinks are a lurid colour, but quench your insatiable thirst so well in the hot tropics of Thailand. In addition, they were only 20 Baht, 50p, each! However, they were also served in a plastic cup with a plastic lid and a plastic straw, wrapped in a plastic bag or ‘plastic handles’ so that you could either dangle them from the handlebars of your scooter or sip safely as you sped along. It was these cups, along with plastic bottles and plastic food packaging that littered the roads and verges. I lamented the loss of natural beauty as a result of plastic waste to Andy, a Swiss cyclist that we met in Ban Krut, and he ruefully told me to get used to it because plastic was now going to follow me all the way home.
|Iced-drink stand at the side of the road|
We passed gilded temples and stupa structures before arriving into Takuapa Old Town where there is a Sunday food market. We arrived just as the stall-holders were setting up. It was whilst hunting for a couple of tasty treats at this market that I first experienced a scam, admittedly on a very small scale, but which nonetheless dented my pride and threw up a few questions concerning fairness and morality. Can I blame the lady at the dumpling stand for charging me double what she did the local customer before me? I sensed it would happen, but knew I didn’t have the vocabulary to argue, and she knew that too! I felt the same stirring of shame and frustration when this happened a few days later when I bought a pancake from a street-vendor. I’m quibbling over pennies, at most a pound, but there’s a principle there too. Now writing a month later than when I started this post, I’ve been reflecting more on our time in South-East Asia. It has been quite hard having to occasionally fight the image held here of white, westerners being ‘walking wallets’, as Marcelo, a friend of one of David’s housemates in Bangkok put it. He said we had it good in comparison to him, a Brazilian. By speaking English, he said, he avoided being considered a drug-smuggler and instead often got asked who he played football for.
By this point, we were settling into a rhythm of rising early and hitting the road before seven, and it was making us feel good to have finished our day’s cycle by lunchtime which meant we had a whole afternoon ahead of us for exploring, educating (by means of books, podcasts and stream-able shows) or, as was the case more often than not, napping. It was still quite fascinating to us how suddenly night fell at 6.30 in the evening. It suited our new routine nicely, though, as by 9 o’clock it felt like the middle of the night and we had no issue in going to bed. We had developed a habit of spending 40 Baht after 40km, and so often between 10.30 and 11 in the morning. Our ’40 for 40’ was often an iced-drink or an mixed berry calippo and a banana cake from a 7-Eleven. The pause provided a welcome relief from the heat and the pedalling, though the terrain was mostly flat and easy-going. Sometimes our accommodation provided breakfast: sometimes this was eggs with bread and others it was a watery rice soup with balls of meat floating in it. When we fended for ourselves we had porridge, an old favourite, that we garnished with a small box of chocolate cereal available cheaply from 7-Eleven stores too. For lunch and dinner we sought out street food and pad Thai was a favoured, regular fixture. We only wish now that we had kept better score of each different pad Thai dish that we had. Vendors were obliging in omitting the shrimp and so providing us with a protein-packed egg, tofu and peanut noodle affair that we ate sat on little plastic stools behind their stands. This often cost no more than £2 for the two of us and it was hard to get bored of the dish given the flair with which it was made each night.
Our route through southern Thailand was mostly flat and this enabled us to travel 80km or 90km a day without too much difficulty. We had just one hilly and more challenging day when we did ‘The Thai Coast to Coast’ (our own name), crossing from just south of Ranong to Luang Suan. It was a relentlessly undulating day and the sun beat down relentlessly too. I remember being so thirsty and at every opportunity we stopped to hydrate. When we arrived in Luang Suan we found a stall where a lady was making iced, fresh orange juice and without hesitation I handed over notes in exchange for a cup of the cool goodness. We were so greedy we got brain freeze a few times before admitting we might need to let the drink thaw just a little. That night we stayed at a real cool hotel called Pugdee. It was newly renovated following a flood in 2017 and I loved how open and fresh-feeling it was. Just around the corner from the hotel was a night market that we strolled along as the sun set. Thailand was alive with the rising and the setting of the sun. For the hours in between, most sought solace inside or in the shade.
|Giant Buddhas watching over the land and providing guidance to the faithful|
|Night market in Luang Suan|
From Luang Suan we hugged the coastal road, Scenic Route 2021, and headed north. It was brilliant to cycle beside beaches up the Gulf of Thailand and often in designated cycle lanes too, which we believe were installed during the reign of the former king, King Bhumibol the Great, who was a keen cyclist. It’s true that as we approached the city of Hua Hin, where the royal family have their seaside, summer residence, there was definitely an increase in the quantity and quality of cycle lanes. Looking back, these were dreamy days of covering significant distances and reaping the rewards for early starts in the form of early evening strolls along the beach where there was almost always a night food market that all the locals frequented. We had a day off in the town of Pak Nam as Olly had been feeling a little weary (a few days later I announced to him that he had all of the symptoms of Dengue fever… He was also tired, dehydrated and had a heat rash, but it’s good to stay vigilant!) and here watched a sunset Zumba session whilst we waited for some French fries and also sampled fiery papaya salad, that I have since become addicted to, for the first time. It wasn’t too difficult maintaining our vegetarianism in Thailand, though, interestingly, upon learning and using the word ‘vegetarian’ (“mangsawirat”), more people turned us away than when we had simply explained “no animals” and I think this is because the Thai word contains the understanding that fish, shrimp and oyster sauce are off the menu too, and we’d been turning a blind eye to those.
|Visiting a Chinese temple in Pak Nam|
|The Buddhist temple in Pak Nam - we got chased away by dogs...|
|Exotic, tropical fruits|
From Pak Nam we continued our scenic journey north. We stopped at Ban Krut for a night staying at a place of Warm Showers legend: a container behind Kasama’s pizza place. We arrived early and met Andy, a guy from Switzerland heading in the opposite direction to us, who was sleeping off an upset stomach. We said a quick hello before going for a swim in the sea, perhaps our final sea swim for a significant amount of time. We then lounged on the beach listening to a podcast before heading back in search of some dinner. Later in the evening, we met Katie (@you’ve_got_to_wander), a British cycle-tourist heading in the same direction as Andy. The two had crossed paths a couple of times on their trip already, including in the Pamirs, and they had met up again a few days previously. Katie was full of life and seemed to withhold judgement as I chatted to her, topless, but lying in my sleeping bag liner, on the floor and trying as hard as possible not to move so as to regulate my body temperature. We talked about her epic, solo adventure to date and her upcoming plans to walk the Te Araroa trail. Her enthusiasm was infectious and made me feel excited for all that was still to come for us.
|Night food markets at the beach. One of the many benefits of cycling along the coast in Thailand|
|Cycling along the Gulf of Thailand|
After a very poor night’s sleep in the stifling container-house, we woke up to rain! The four of us waited it out for a while before Olly and I bit the bullet, deciding that cycling in the rain in Thailand would probably feel very nice in comparison to the heat and intense humidity (think Monica from Friends) we had started to learn to work with. You can’t beat this heat, only bend to it. We were heading for another Warm Showers stay that night at another place which is becoming seeped in Thailand Warm Showers legend: The Coconut Tree Homestay. We had a frustrating final few kilometres that day, cycling through a deserted national park with dead ends at every turn and big, barking dogs on every corner, but we eventually made it and boy, was it worth it. We opted to stay in the guesthouse in lieu of camping given our previous night’s poor sleep, and so we had to pay a small fee. However, we also had access to the most beautiful pool which we happily splashed around in all afternoon.
The night before we had arrived at Ban Krut, Andy told us he and Katie had shared the space with four Argentinians. One of them had left his powerbank and as we were heading in their direction, we took it with us and Katie put us all in touch and said we would definitely meet up with them as they were very chilled out. We hoped so. As we turned in to the Coconut Tree Homestay near we were welcomed by four topless dudes, two of them excited to see us and speaking both at the same time. In those initial few minutes we didn’t realise who each other were, and then it became very clear that we had met up with the Argentinians, better known as The Bikings (@thebikingsproject), three amigos and a stray pedalling around the planet, busking as they go. They were full of stories, passion and admiration and it was infectiously exciting sharing a few hours with them before they cycled 13km into town to play at a bar that evening in the hope of earning their noodles. They asked us what the craziest thing we were carrying was, and we really struggled to come up with something superfluous at this point, suggesting our chairs as a luxury item. Each “biking” was carrying panniers and a trailer as they had musical instruments and lots of photography and cinematography equipment too. What made me laugh though, was when Franco told us that they had carried 9kg of mate, South-American tea, and were hoping to replenish their supplies soon.
We had an early start the following morning, cycling through Prachuap Khiri Khan as the town came to life which was a feast for the senses. As we cycled out the other side of town, wild monkeys dangled from overhead wires and leapt from trees to road signs, slowing traffic as they sauntered across the road. It was amazing to see, and a little bit scary when they got really close too! We cycled through Sam Roi Yot National Park which was vast, open and baking hot and on to the small, seaside town of Sam Roi Yot where we stayed at the Blue Beach Resort and met Molly and Haydn (@cycle_for_love) and shared stories over dinner and breakfast. It was great to meet Molly and Haydn who are cycling to raise money and awareness for Help Refugees UK. The pair have recently left university and it is clear that they are really soaking up everything this experience has to offer and are passionate about learning and sharing as much as possible along the way.
|Relaxing in a bamboo hammock at Blue Beach Resort|
Edging ever closer to Bangkok, our next stop was Hua Hin and we had a Warm Showers stay with Bert lined up. Our cycle to Hua Hin, a big city and fashionable escape for residents of ‘The Big Mango’, was really straightforward, largely thanks to a good cycle path that took us most of the way there. We arrived at Bert’s place and were immediately reminded of the kindness and generosity of the Warm Showers community, which we hadn’t experienced in this capacity since leaving New Zealand. Bert is a sexagenarian who, at the age of 62, decided to cycle from his home in Holland to Hua Hin and he recounted such treasured tales from his trip during our stay with him. Bert was really inspirational. Having experienced an unexpected change in his life circumstances, Bert realised he loved Thailand and decided to move out to Hua Hin after his trip. We were his first WS guests in his new, wonderful home. We were treated to pasta for tea, something we really missed, and I think Olly had four helpings! Before dinner, Bert offered to give us a quick tour of town and the hour we spent visiting the Statues of the Seven Kings and ‘Monkey Hill’ remains one of my favourite evenings from our time in Thailand. I found Thailand to be a very pretty place: from the temples to the statues; from the palm trees to the sunsets and the evening in Hua Hin with Bert was really beautiful in every sense of the word.
|Statues of the Seven Kings|
|Bert cycled us out of the city in the morning. We stopped to look at the Hua Hin train station|
From Hua Hin, we had two more cycling days before we rode into Bangkok with David as our trusty guide. We stopped in a small, middle-of-nowhere kind of town one night where I again considered the discrepancy between what some people give for free and what others charge you for as I chased a gecko out of the small bathroom at the place we stayed. And then to Samut Songkhram, which included cycling through enormous salt farms in Samut Sakhorn that captivated us: the piles of salt the same shape as conical, rice hats. The farms stretched as far as the eye could see.
|The Mae Klong Railway Market|
The following morning, we set off from our hostel and cycled towards Bangkok, and the next part of our adventure, hoping that we would meet David along the way. I loved our time cycling in Southern Thailand. The one thousand kilometre cycle was not too strenuous and provided us with an amazing introduction to South-East Asia: the pace and way of life here; the intense sights, sounds and smells and all of the smiles. I asked Olly for his roundup of this leg of the trip and our 7-Eleven stops really stood out for him! He enjoyed cycling beside beaches and the opportunities to swim in the sea and in lots more pools than we had anticipated too. He was also happy to feed his pad Thai addiction! We were buoyed by the enthusiasm of fellow cycle-tourists on this leg of the trip and enjoyed meeting Instagram friends and putting faces to names. I also loved it when Shona and Jody sent messages to exclaim that they had stood where we were and had seen and appreciated the same things.I think Thailand is a great place for cycle touring as it is a country that thrives on tourism and so warmly welcomes travellers and I say this despite our money mishap and the couple of times I was overcharged for food. In Thailand there are traditions that are fun to experience, such as super street food, bustling night markets and serene Buddhist temples. Thailand is a well-developed country, but you don't have to wander far from the main path to find a slower and more rural way of life. I'd love to come back one day to visit northern Thailand and the temples of Ayutthaya. I'd definitely come back with my bicycle, but perhaps in the cool season for it sure was hot in March.
Be sure to ask us about the man with the epic back tattoo and coca cola, it's a great story but one best shared in person.