“Oh, cycle touring is such a hard life,” we complained to each other whilst wading into the warm turquoise sea at sunset, anticipating a seafood dinner and a glass of chilled white wine for good measure.
“Yeah, I know what you mean- every day’s a struggle here isn’t it”?
After only a day and a half of riding, we’d reached our first stop in Thailand- the island of Koh Chang. Last sighted in Tajikistan, our friend Jonas had also made it to Thailand on his bike and had lured us to the island for a week of relaxation and catching up. He was much hairier and much smellier than the last time we saw him, due to his strict cycle touring regime of camping every night despite the suffocating tropical heat, and he spent most of the week berating us for becoming slack in South East Asia. Looking at (and smelling) the alternative, we both felt pretty pleased with our way of doing things!
Jonas (left)- as stinky as a Swiss cheese
Sometimes you find yourself unexpectedly attached to a place, and this was definitely the case with Lonely Beach on Koh Chang. Nine days of socialising, swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, barbecuing, partying and relaxing later we managed to drag ourselves away, but before that we’d already made two failed attempts to leave. Each time we decided we’d better get riding again, we’d make some new friends and forget to go to bed early. The small town seems to be a magnet for quirky characters from all over the world, and we spent a happy few afternoons thinking up lines for the script of our imaginary comedy series “Expats”, based on all of our hilarious interactions there. It’s just begging to be written.
They even have mermaids on Koh Chang- who knew?
Riding west towards Bangkok took us through some of the more ‘sexpat’ coastal areas, which we weren’t particularly enthralled by. Lots of grey haired European men looking pleased with themselves, accompanied by young Thai women. High rise development sprawling along the coastline. We made it as far as Chonburi and then decided to take a bus into the heart of the city to avoid the monstrously busy roads, pollution and what would have been a very uninspiring day of cycling.
We’d originally planned to avoid Bangkok, but ended up being glad we popped in, just to witness the craziness. The city is strangled by huge roads, making it unappealing to leave the small area we were staying in, but there was enough there to keep us occupied for a few days- namely the street stalls selling delicious Thai curries and fruit shakes, and the VW vans converted into rock’n’roll bars. We did pay the customary visit to the famous Khao San Road for a sensory overload. It wins the award for the loudest street on our entire trip, with each bar blasting out club music at full volume, resulting in a screaming clash of rhythms, bass lines and synth. Sat down for a beer to take in the surroundings, and realised we were surrounded by vest-wearing, gym-busting Brits shouting their travel stories to each other over the racket. One beer was quite enough.
Sensory overload on the Khao San Road
Makeshift rock n roll bars are much more appealing!
Whilst walking down this road, we were pretty shocked to witness an enormous, bright blue fireball streak across the sky, really close to Earth. Joe was convinced it was just some extravagant laser show put on for the tourists, but the next morning, the Internet confirmed it was in fact a meteor exploding over Bangkok! We felt pretty lucky to have been out on the street and facing the right way at that exact moment.
Now it was time to turn south for the final push to the Malaysian border. Well, I say ‘push’, but we weren’t about to ride down the peninsular surrounded by the most paradise-like islands of our entire trip without paying a visit to a few along the way. That would be mental.
We did start by making a concerted effort though and cycled for nine days in a row, and what delightful cycling it was! Once we’d cleared the tourist towns just south of Bangkok, our ride down the east coast took us through quiet villages, past deserted beaches and karst rock formations (one of my favourite things about South East Asia), and through national parks with monkeys playing in the trees and limestone caves.
“I think there might be a storm coming…”
Cycling through the Khao Sam Roi Yot national park
Careful to avoid other road users
We’d stop for the night in quiet towns and enjoy getting a feel for the ‘real’ Thailand (away from the vests and selfie sticks). Our favourite places to be in the evenings were the night markets, found in pretty much every town and serving all sorts of spicy noodle and rice dishes, (and an inventive selection of coconut-based desserts, to Joe’s delight). Looking around at the astonishingly high obesity levels of fellow diners, it was clear the Thais enjoy their own food just as much as we do!
Always something new to try at the night markets
“Baby chicks for sale: natural colour or rainbow chick, as you prefer…”
Cycling in Thailand is pretty stress-free compared to many other countries in this region. The roads are great, there are cycle paths everywhere, the drivers are quiet and respectful (i.e. no honking frenzies here) and cycling itself seems to be a popular sport, so we were constantly passing groups of friendly lycra-clad riders. Everybody was in training for the big cycling event of the year in December- “Bike for Dad”. ‘Dad’, in this case, referring to the King of Thailand (who else?). Most of the riders, and in fact, a large portion of the general population, were proudly wearing their bright yellow “Bike for Dad” T-shirts a whole month in advance of the big event that will celebrate His Royal Highness’s 88th birthday. Even the more XXL kind of moped riders were dressed in their “Bike for Dad” gear, although I’m concerned they may have missed the point slightly.
At Chumpon, we left the familiar Gulf of Thailand and crossed over to the Andaman Sea side of the peninsular (it’s so narrow on this part that it only took a few hours to get across). A memorable evening was spent at the the riverside in the small town of Kraburi, watching the rowing boats on the narrow stretch of river separating Thailand from Myanmar. On the day we were there, the votes for Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory were being counted, and we spent hours imagining different possible outcomes whilst gazing across to the jungle-covered hills of this country that was until recently such a closed and secretive place. The cycle tourers we’ve met along the way who’ve ridden through Myanmar have told stories of being forced to stay on main roads, and being reported and intercepted every time they tried to stray onto a more interesting, quiet village road to get a real look around. Perhaps that will all change now as the power changes hands.
Sunset over Myanmar
Our route down the west coast showed a gradual transition from Buddhism to Islam, which meant a nostalgic reunion with the call to prayer, headscarves and mosques in every village. It was also marked with hundreds of tsunami warning signs and evacuation routes, as we were now passing through an area that was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami. You wouldn’t have been able to tell were it not for the signs; for most people, life carries on more or less as normal here now. One guest house owner on the coast recounted to us how his family were given three minutes warning and told to get to higher ground. As they piled into their car and sped inland, they could see the surge of water following them in the rearview mirror. Terrifying.
After our nine day push, the pace relaxed considerably, and we interspersed cycling with relaxed beach days on the mainland and island hopping. We knew our days of freedom were numbered and intended to enjoy the paradise-style setting as fully as possible before returning to rainy England. Soft sand, clear turquoise water, karst rock formations towering out of the sea and killer sunsets every evening followed almost nightly by a dramatic lightening storm…you can’t really go wrong with that combination! Oh, and reggae bars of course. Lots of reggae bars.
Koh Yao Noi: Joe getting excited about the karsts in the distance
Koh Rok: the closest we came to an island paradise
Our bamboo bungalow ‘resort’ on Koh Lanta- creatively designed using washed up debris from the sea, coconuts and old tyres
We spent a lot of time snorkeling and appreciating the beautiful coral and rainbow-coloured fish. As somebody who’s never swam in tropical waters before, this was a completely amazing experience for me. Unfortunately we don’t have an underwater camera (unlike many tourists we saw with their underwater selfie stick set-ups…) so as a special treat, I’ll share my artist’s impressions with you, taken from my diary. I think you’ll agree this paints a fairly accurate picture?
Cycle touring throws up lots of bizarre coincidences, and for a while, earlier on in the trip, we seemed to be cosmically linked to a couple called Veronika and Fernando, also on a long bike trip. We spontaneously bumped into them three times in three different countries, always in the most unlikely of places (round the back of a Turkish petrol station was the last example…), and if it wasn’t us bumping into them, other cyclists we met would reveal that they’d also crossed paths with them unexpectedly! After heading in completely different directions after Turkey however, we didn’t expect to see them again, and for fourteen months that was the end of it. Until the owner of the guesthouse in Kraburi asked us to write in her guestbook. One guess as to who the last entry had been written by? It was happening all over again. We didn’t even know they were in Thailand, and now it seemed they were mere days ahead of us heading south!
There was a nice sense of rounding off the trip full circle when we caught up with them on the island of Koh Lanta and shared stories of the past year. Watching their videos of riding in the mountainous north of India made us realise that we are definitely not over travelling by bicycle, and still have so many places that we want to explore (but calm down Mum, we like the idea of short mini-trips for the foreseeable future). Oh, and Fernando fixed my bottom bracket, which meant the bikes could definitely limp to the finish line of the Malaysian border. Thanks Fernando!
Thailand had been good to us. In addition to the beautiful scenery, food and company, the local people we met and rode past along the way were crazily friendly, and we always felt welcome wherever we went, both in the touristy areas and in the regular villages and towns. The time had come though to make our final border crossing, and on Friday 4th December, one year, six months and 26 days after leaving London, we pedalled up to the Malaysian border and out the other side. We’d finally made it!
You can’t see it from this angle but there was of course a big band and champagne reception waiting for us at this point
With a pair of big silly grins, we climbed the small pass through the national park on the Malaysian side of the border and then bumped into a cycle tourer from Sydney going the other way. As soon as we told him we’d just crossed our finish line, he produced a can of beer from his battered pannier bag and we had a mini celebration on the side of the road. (Of course it goes without saying that he’d spontaneously met Fernando and Veronika two days earlier…).
Now we’re celebrating George Town-an old British colonial town on the island of Penang, surrounded by a labyrinth of colonial architecture, street art and a fusion of Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures. Our bikes are resting like tired horses while we take some time to reflect on everything we’ve experienced along the way before coming home in time for Christmas. Stay tuned for some final posts (don’t worry, we promise they’ll be short ones)!
Our route often took us through rubber tree plantations. Each tree has a pot to collect the latex as it drips from the incisions in the bark.
Typical coastal fishing village scene
The Zahir mosque in Alor Setar, Malaysia
Being pulled over by the Thai military for cold water refills and coffee
“What are you looking at?”