Be warned, this one is epic.
It was sad to say goodbye to Vari, who had so valiantly cycled over 500km with us, but the exciting news was that Marita had decided to switch from backpacking to cycling. Astrid and I were thrilled. She would take over the bike and panniers Vari had kindly left behind.
We made our home in the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road because it was cheap and convenient. It only took a day for us to start referring to it as ‘dirty khao san,’ not because of it being literally dirty but more figuratively. I would compare it to Kuta, Bali (the bad parts of Kuta anyway). Its full of backpackers getting drunk, rows of stalls selling the same touristy t-shirts, western chains stores, street food, massage places and Guesthouses. Perhaps it’s where the worst traits of the West meet the worst traits of the Thai’s. Our lewd Western behavior is almost matched by the constant hassles of the venders and the attempts to rip off tourists. Still, these places serve their purpose and are okay for a few days. Plus, in amongst the craziness you can still find quiet streets selling yummy street food and cute cafes where you can recharge and drink good coffee. Just like not all of Kuta has been destroyed, not all of the area surrounding Khao San is unbearable. We spent a day relaxing in cafes, catching up on emails and planning the next few days. After close to 10000km our bikes were also in need of a service and we dropped them at Bok Bok bike, a shop that had been recommended by other touring cyclists.
We were also in Bangkok at the time leading up to the election and a state of emergency had been declared due to protests. In short, the Thai government is deemed to be corrupt by the pro democracy movement. They believe the ousted prime minister (toppled in a coup) is running the country through his sister, who is the current prime minister. Although the demographic is wide, it is generally the wealthier and more educated south that support the protesters, while the more rural north supports the government. Most people will know that these protests were quite violent at the time that we were actually in Bangkok. For us this was quite strange because it was hard to get news, possibly because of censorship and because we don’t understand Thai. Our families kept telling us how bad it was and we had to check the BBC website to see what was going on a few kilometres away. In Khao San it was only apparent on one night when they ‘banned’ alcohol in a half hearted way because of early voting. Away from the ghetto, large parts of the city were ‘exclusion zones’ and blocked off to traffic but not to people. The first time we walked through them I felt a bit apprehensive but they were full of stalls selling ‘Restart Thailand’ t-shirts, tents with people relaxing in them, stages with people giving speeches and venders selling food. From the train we saw a damaged mall and rows of tents from people who appeared to have come into Bangkok to partake in the protest. We never saw any violence and certainly didn’t feel threatened. Although I cannot claim to have much more than a rudimentary grasp of Thai politics and feel slightly unsure that stopping people’s ability to vote (which it was reported was the aim of the protests) is the most useful way to go about achieving change, I certainly admire the Thais passion to change their country. Apathetic Australians could learn a lot.
Anyway, while these potentially Nation changing events were underway, we rode the buses and trains across the vast metropolis that is Bangkok, first to the dentist and then to the Visa Office. At the dentist, that was like a 5 star hotel, I was given the most thorough tooth clean of my whole life and reassured that I would not be at risk of needing a root canal without pain relief in Iran (this happened to someone in a book I read). Reassured, we continued on to the make shift Immigration Office to obtain our visa extensions. The office had been shifted due to the protests and was predictably chaotic and stressful, which appears to be a pre-requisite for dealing with beaurocracy. It was not helped that the overly relaxed officials way back on Koh Lipe had a) written 2 different dates on Marita’s passport, and b) failed to enter any of us on the computer system. Ooops. You could see them stressing and trying to figure out what the hell to do with us. Finally after some brain storming a solution appeared to have been achieved and we were granted access to Thailand for one more month.
Working hours can be strange in Bangkok (possibly due to the traffic congestion) and we found ourselves picking up our bikes at close to 11pm. It was wonderful to have them back and fantastic to have had the small things that needed repairing done. Astrid had a new gear shifter (busted in the Langkawi crash) and handle bar tape and my dynamo light had been moved back to a better position and the wiring fixed. Plus a general tune up. They felt great. I would recommend Bok Bok Bike in Bangkok for any touring cyclists coming through. The shop is bursting to the brim (you can hardly walk into it) with bikes, parts, tools, and they stock brands such as Brookes, Rohloff and Schwalbe (often hard to get in Asia). They had even heard of Velosmith and enthusiastically took photos of the bikes and us. The whole service, repair and rohloff oil (2 sets) cost $120 AUD (which was almost entirely parts, the actual work cost $10). We left them knocking back after work beers in the steamy Bangkok night, excited about what lay ahead.
So it was the three of us that set off the next morning for the approximately 80km to Ayutthaya. Astrid did an amazing job navigating us out of peak hour Bangkok traffic. At one point we accidently tried to cycle into oncoming traffic (it was not supposed to be a one way) and the drivers calmly went around us. That would never happen in Australia! Yes, the traffic is hectic here but people are very courteous and calm. The cycling was flat and mostly along uninspiring highway and we reached Ayutthaya around 2pm. What a great place – it’s spread out along large tree lined boulevards, with temple ruins dotted all throughout the modern town (a bit like Rome with its ruins). We found a beautiful a double story restored teak schoolhouse, which was now the Baan Guest house for the night. Initially the price was too high but the owner must have liked cyclists (another cycle touring couple were staying there) and lowered the price for us. I think we were all very relieved and grateful as searching for accommodation in the heat was not very appealing. After a rest we set off on the bikes to look at the stunning UNESCO listed 14th century temples of Ayutthaya. They were beautiful, especially when the sun started setting. We stopped in at the night market for dinner before hitting bed at the rather obscene hour of 8pm.
By 7am the following morning we were rolling out of our Guesthouse, enroute to the market for breakfast. What followed was a day of blissful back roads, through brilliant green rice paddies and along small tracks, with only the occasional worker and house (often pink) in sight. Thailand is amazing for these networks of back roads and I can understand why it is so popular with cycle tourists. We reached the bustling provincial town of Sing Buri in the late afternoon. I stayed with the bikes and Marita and Astrid searched around for suitable accommodation. They found it in the form of a Chinese/ Thai run hotel, which could have once been a hospital. Slightly creepy. The price was good though and they had a 3 bed room so we were happy. Dinner was followed by our now familiar ‘dirty seves run,’ which translates to obtaining a disturbing amount of snacks and chocolate milk from Seven Eleven (which are EVERYWHERE here). I must admit I have found a kindred spirit in Marita when it comes to food. While Astrid loves food she is not always as hungry as me, and not nearly as often. Marita however can be relied upon at any hour of the day for a sneaky run to seven eleven for the most atrocious snacks. What can I say, living in Asia has turned me into some kind of snack animal.
More delightful back roads through rice paddies, corn and sugar cane fields followed the next day. As there is never a shortage of food in Thailand, we snacked on fried treats, fruit and our new favorite – roadside chocolate and tea shakes (condensed milk and all) along the way. Uthai Thani, a beautiful town on a river was our home for the night and it was not long before we renamed it ‘hipsterville.’ Provinical Thai towns all seems to have their own individual flare and this one was full of hispters on road bikes. The town itself was quite beautiful and seemed quite wealthy (perhaps the Chinese influence?). It only took us 10 minutes to find another cheap Chinese/Thai run hotel (it was Chinese new year so we even had a ‘dragon’ enter out hotel to ward off evil spirits). The day was finished with Pad Thai and chocolate milk – another great day on the road.
A last minute change of plan saw us heading to Nakon Sawon in good time the next morning, picking up many snacks along the way. We then cycled along a minor road, which ran along the river. Houses, shops and Wat’s (temple’s) backed onto the river and we got to observe the ebb and flow of life in the suburbs. Marita and Astrid rode side by side chatting and I cycled in front, keeping an eye on the GPS (we have figured out how to secure the i phone onto our handle bars, which makes navigating much easier). It was a very pleasant afternoon’s cycle, even though all three of us struggled towards the end, having forgotten to eat properly. What a rookie mistake. Nonetheless we reached Khru Woralaksaburi in the late afternoon after 100km – an amazing feat for Marita considering it took us 3 months to work up to a 100km day! There appeared to only be two hotels in town, one resembling a brothel and one that had only been open for a month. After some price negotiation we managed to secure the cleanest, shiniest bungalow we have ever stayed in (hot water and all!). We celebrated with soda water and ordering 2 meals each from the restaurant across the road. Our cycling appetites have kicked in!
It takes a little while to adjust to being on the road again and all three of us woke up weary the next day. Still, we were in good spirits as we had 120km to do followed by a rest day afterwards to motivate us. It all looked pretty simple on google maps. How wrong we were. This day will forever be etched in my memory as ‘a very long day to Sukhothai.’ It started off great, a small highway followed by some dirt road to take us to another highway (by cutting across the country in this fashion, using small roads to link us up to bigger ones, we were significantly reducing our kilometres). Then it all started to go wrong. Marita’s bike, Clementine started to show her quality, or lack there of, and earned her new name that day – ‘dirty Clemmie.’ Not only was she slowly murdering Marita’s bum, some way down the road I heard a commotion behind me and turned around to see Marita with Clementine on top of her. The pedal we had replaced the previous day (it had bent because it was plastic) had come off and subsequently caused Marita to fall off. Luckily she was mostly okay, aside from a massive graze on her elbow. She took it like a trooper though. In fact, we are both so impressed by Marita’s cycling. Not only has she never cycled distances like this before, her bike is basically more appropriate for a child riding around the block than for crossing a country. After having cycled on ‘dirty clemmie’ for a week,whne we rode with Vari, getting back on the ‘Green Fairly’ was like sitting in a familiar armchair after having been subjected to a child’s stool (the kind you sit on all cramped and giant-like in street side food places in parts of Asia).
Anyway, we fixed Marita and the pedal and continued on our way. Then it happened again (minus the fall). More fixing, more time wasted. Further down the road and we noticed Dirty Clementine’s back wheel shaking in a rather disturbing way. It was also rubbing on the brakes. Another bush mechanics episode with Astrid and I trying to figure out how to adjust the unfamiliar rim brakes. Luckily this is Thailand and a man with an ice box attached to his scooter rode passed and we waved him down (perhaps a little hysterically) and were able to enjoy ice creams while trying to fix the bike.
Back on the road again (partly fixed) and it was alarmingly late already. We pulled over for a quick lunch and then smashed out 20 fast kilometres. Google maps then directed us off the faster highway and down a dirt track. Usually this is great. Usually google maps doesn’t fail. Unfortunately it was not a usual day. I was navigating and watching very closely to where we were, determined not to get lost (or go 10km in the wrong direction). Suddenly the blue dot moved off the road into the field and stayed there. Weird. Arriving out into a village, clearly on a road, the GPS still showed us in a rice paddy somewhere. Then my front tire went flat. It was almost 5pm. We had 50km to go. Bugger.
Luckily, fixing a flat is easy and fast these days. We pulled everything off my bike and were instantly surrounded by what appeared to be the whole village. They seemed quite fascinated by our actions and we left with a gift of strange looking fruit. By this time I had had enough of navigating (well, actually I cracked the shits), so Astrid took over. We had finally figured out where we were, although it was still a mystery as to how exactly we got there. We cycled as fast as we could, stopping for water and snacks one last time as the light faded. It was a beautiful sunset with a mountain range now to our left. Not long and it was dark. Then the phone died. Then the dogs came out. Every couple of minutes a new lot of dogs would race out in the dark, barking and chasing us. I got very good and yelling/growling/swearing and cycling straight at them. It seemed to work. Thai dogs are not that hardcore. It was exhausting though. All three of us were tired, hungry and feeling like this night ride would never end. There was no sign of ‘Old Sukhothai’ anywhere. We finally got the phone charged enough to check our kilometers, which was demoralising. Somehow, even though we had cycled flat out for almost an hour, it appeared we had only done 12km. I wanted to scream, but kept reminding myself of ‘impermanence.’ Deep down I knew this would end and I would laugh and write about it later but at that moment I felt hopeless and exhausted. Finally, out of the darkness the beginnings of a town appeared. Then we were cycling through one of the gates of the old walled city and passing temples we couldn’t quite make out in the dark. Lights appeared and then shops, restaurants, guesthouses. Filthy, sweaty, hungry and exhausted we found a cute guesthouse (Old City Guesthouse), showered, ordered two meals each and fell into bed. What a day.
The Sukhothai Kingdom was around from 1238-1438, comprising of many beautiful and impressive temples (which are now ruins). These days it’s a UNESCO listed Heritage Park and 12km from ‘New Sukhothai’, the modern Thai town. You can however stay in ‘Old Sukhothai’ a small town just outside of the historic park, which was where we stayed. A single rest day is never actually that restful and we spent the day catching up on washing, emails, bike maintenance and the other odds and ends that needed doing, before checking out the temples at sunset. I have a new temple rule – sunset or sunrise due to the colours and the temperature. The temples of Sukhothai are indeed very beautiful and cycling around watching the colours change was a suburb way to finish our rest day. But then Astrid ate a mushroom. That is not such a revelation in itself, Astrid often eats mushrooms, but this was the mushroom of doom.
It resulted in a stunning case of what we now suspect was bacterial dysentery. Poor Astrid was confined to the bed and toilet for the next two days. We were not cycling anywhere anytime soon. So Marita and I spent time working out our route north, writing, reading, going for an occasional run and making sure Astrid had enough water. She basically slept for two days and lost a huge amount of weight. It really took it out of her and she would have needed at least 5 days or so to fully recover and be able to tackle the cycling in the heat. Unfortunately we didn’t have 5 days as my parents were arriving soon, plus we had Georgie’s 30th birthday to attend in Bangkok. So on day three we hauled our bikes (minus ‘dirty clemmie, who we shamefully abandoned) onto the bus bound for Chiang Mai. It’s always disappointing not to cycle but that’s life on the road, things don’t always go to plan.
We arrived in Chiang Mai on the Thursday before the flower festival, which meant finding accommodation was a little challenging but after trying about 8 different places I found us a home for the next week. It was down a quiet soi, surrounded by a few guesthouses, bars and restaurants. After an explore and some food we went for a fruit shake at the bar directly opposite, a cute little place called Maiphai Bar. This was to become our hang out for the next week, and almost a second home. It was owned and run by Clive, a man as dedicated to healthy smoothies as he was to making a great cocktail. Oh and his food was awesome too. A perfect combination.
So after having spent the last week or so cycling (well mostly cycling) to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, on Friday afternoon Astrid and I took an Air Asia flight back to Bangkok. Crazy I know. But it’s not often that a friend is having her 30th Birthday only 700km away when you are cycling around the world. Georgie (whose birthday it was) and Jess (her partner) had flown to Thailand to spend a week there for Georgie’s birthday. Lot of Georgie’s friends work in SE Asia and she told us it was easier for people to meet in Bangkok than it was in Melbourne. A total bonus for us. And what an amazing weekend it was. We had brunch at the Sofitel, which included all you can eat and drink and was a total food lovers paradise. Cheeses, breads, sushi, chocolate, dips, cakes, Champagne… the list goes on. We live in a world of $10 accommodation (or camping) and street food – being there and looking out on the skyline of Bangkok was like being in a parallel universe. We are very lucky to have such generous friends and had such a fun weekend with Georgie and Jess. Thanks guys!!
We returned to Chiang Mai on Sunday night and met my parents who had flown in only half an hour later than us. It was so wonderful to see them. I have missed them a lot. The next 6 days was spent exploring Chiang Mai and being spoiled by mum and dad. We explored a Buddhist cave, marveled at beautiful handicrafts, shared drinks on the balcony of their fancy resort, treated ourselves to massages and simply enjoyed spending time together. Mum also came with an assortment of cheeses, bread, dehydrated goods and other treats from home – how lucky are we? All too soon our time together drew to a close however and it was time to say goodbye. It was a tad tearful and I was reminded again how lucky Astrid and I are to have such caring family, who will come and visit us while we are on our adventure. Both of us feeling very loved.
So that concludes this rather long installment of our blog. We face north and east now, towards Laos. Marita has a new bike and Viktoria, a friend from the retreat has also joined us. Till text time.