Nong Khai (Thailand) to Penang (Malaysia)
5th January to 26th February 2019
Thailand is called the land of smiles and lives up to its name. Everyone smiles, no-one seems to get impatient or angry and the atmosphere is very relaxed. We had heard that the traffic can be chaotic and scary and that there is a high accident rate but we have found drivers to be courteous and patient and the back roads delightfully quiet. Occasionally I have known that Pete and I have got in the way or caused a driver to slow down which in other places would have caused angry hoots or scowls but here when I have turned round to apologise expecting rude words I have received a big grin instead. One lady on a motorbike sped away as she passed us only to stop at a shop and wait by the road to give us cold drinks as we went by.
“Thailand is the best place in the world to cycle” we read and I think we’ve almost come to agree. Superb smooth roads, beautiful scenery, back roads with little traffic, lots of places to stop and eat and drink. As we got further south we found deserted beaches and lovely but cheap places to stay. In nearly 2 months we have only camped twice which has made us feel a bit unadventurous but why camp when you can stay in a little bamboo house on a beach for £10 a night?
Our journey took us from the north at Nong Khai in a direct line down to Bangkok.
Nong Khai was popular with people needing to do a ‘visa run’, going over into Laos every 3 months to get an extension on their Thai visa. Most were middle aged European men settled in Thailand for various reasons but often accompanied by a beautiful and young Thai lady. Many complain about Europe and how it is inundated with migrants and seem to see little irony in what they are saying.
On our way south we passed through lush scenery with the sugar cane harvest in full swing. Fields of pineapples, bananas, coconuts and we passed stalls groaning with fruit where we could load up on pineapples costing 10 pence each.
We saw a wedding which was a very jolly affair with the bride and groom dancing down ‘the aisle’ with the whole village surrounding them.
We also came across a funeral which we thought at first was another wedding as there were flamboyant dancers and karaoke singers. It certainly wasn’t a sombre affair and we were invited in to view the body but politely declined and sped on our way.
Because of the heat we always set off before dawn. It has become our favourite part of the day and seeing the world wake up has been wonderful.
The cicadas would stop chirruping as if a switch had been pulled, the birds would start to sing and the stars begin to fade. As the sky turned pink we saw bare foot monks walking along the road gathering alms and stopping to receive rice every so often from local people. One morning we were surprised to hear fire crackers going off and were told it was Chinese New Year. Throughout the day we saw offerrings being made at the many temples we passed along the way.
Between 6 and 9am we could cover about half of our daily mileage but then life became hard. Sweat begins to pour and each turn of the pedal becomes slower and slower. As afternoon approaches most sensible people lie in their hammocks and either sleep or watch the world go by.
When they see us they raise a languid hand and sort of shout hello but it would usually be a half hearted croak and it is fairly obvious that they think that we are completely bonkers cycling in the heat of the day.
We were inclined to agree and by 2pm have usually given up and collapsed into a sweaty heap for the rest of the day. One place that we have rather guiltily become rather fond of are the ‘7/11’ stores. These are convenience stores that are everywhere in Thailand. The wonderful thing about them is that they are air conditioned and sell a very nice chocolate milk. They have a seating area where we have spent many an exciting hour just watching people come in through the door and listening to a robotic voice telling them that they are very welcome. Leaving is like stepping into a fan oven and the sweat starts to pour again immediately . I don’t understand why Thai people don’t sweat and always appear cool and non drip. I suppose it could be something to do with being sensible and not riding bicycles in 40c temperatures.
One beneficial effect of the heat is that the many dogs lining the road can’t be bothered to chase us. Some make a half hearted attempt, others bark while remaining seated. They almost look apologetic when they lollop after us pretending to snarl and be very vicious as if to say ” look, I have to do this, it’s more than my jobs worth not to but dont worry, it’s all a bit of an effort.”
The first big town we visited on our way to Bangkok was Lopburi, famous for its many temples and it’s large population of monkeys. The macaque monkeys are revered as they are thought to bring good luck and every year a special festival takes place where banquet tables are laid out covered in fruit and dishes of sticky rice for the monkeys to enjoy. We found them a bit overwhelming as there were hundreds and they can be aggressive so we kept our distance.
Next on our trajectory was Ayuthaya which used to be the capital of Thailand until it was razed to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. We spent 3 days there staying at a beautiful guest house made from teak and raised up on stilts as many of the older traditional houses in Thailand are. There was a lotus pond in the garden and it was tempting to stay there all day swinging in a hammock but we were continuing our temple collection and Ayuthaya has plenty.
We chose to travel in and out of Bangkok by train as it seemed to be the most sensible thing to do in the heat and the heavy traffic.
We would have avoided Bangkok completely if our bikes had not needed some minor surgery and an overnight stay in the wonderfully named Bok Bok bike shop. This meant we were there two days, certainly not long enough to do it any justice at all. I’m sure it’s a great city to explore but the heavy traffic and the pollution didn’t make it very appealing. Four days after we left we read that 400 schools had been closed in the city because of the dangerous levels of pollution and face masks had all but sold out.
As usual I joined in Pete’s adrenalin sport of city cycling and had only one Crisis of Confidence when I veered off the road screaming “I can’t do this anymore”. The problem was that he didn’t hear me and I was forced by the traffic to carry on along a road in the opposite direction. We managed to reconnect with difficulty a bit later on. Even being a pedestrian is hard and we found out that in order to cross a road by foot you brandish a long stick with a red flag on the end. Even this has to be done with great determination to get the traffic to stop.
There are some very nice cycleways in Bangkok but they seem to be concentrated around the royal palaces which could be something to do with the king himself being a keen cyclist, or perhaps that’s just a rumour. The Thai people are very fond of their royal family and it is a jailable offence to say anything against them. A bit of cupboard love there I think.
We did however have a happy day wandering around China Town feeling nostalgic and then coming across a tourism festival in a park that allowed us to quickly visit every region of Thailand, sample it’s food, watch it’s dancing and see its arts and crafts.
I blamed Bangkok for giving me a bad cough and two days after leaving I lost my voice completely. This was as usual a relief for Pete but a nuisance for me and when we went into a cafe and I painfully tried to ask for 2 coffees the lady decided to give me a herbal cure instead. It tasted horrible but by the next day my voice had returned so who knows?! Rather foolishly I didn’t ask her what it was I had taken.
Once we had left Bangkok, the nature of our journey changed once again and the sea became part of our everyday life. It was exciting to see it again after so long and wallowing in the waves became part of our daily routine. Our accommodation nearly always comprised a little house of our own and some were quite quirky. We particularly enjoyed ‘Frog Bed’ and ‘Zebra Bed’ and only turned down ‘Elephant Bed’ when we found somewhere cheaper.
Many houses in Thailand have ‘Spirit Houses’ built in their grounds or at the entrance . These are sometimes simple one room apartments or for the more discerning spirit, detached or semi detached palatial residences. The idea is that the spirits who inhabit the land the house is built on need to be appeased and so regular offerrings of food and flowers are made to keep them happy. I really like the idea of thanking and being grateful for the land you live on and not just taking it for granted.
Travelling down the east coast was great and there were some superb cycleways and many quiet beaches. We passed through the Kra Isthmus where Thailand is only 12 kms across and then started to head over to the west coast and the Andaman Sea. This is a part of Thailand that was devastated by the Tsunami of 2004 and although there is no sign of its impact now we saw lots of signs showing escape routes in case the alarm was sounded.
We had now entered rubber plantation country the unpleasant side of which was the smell which was a cross between decaying flesh and sweaty feet. At first we didn’t associate the smell with the rubber and one evening when we were looking for somewhere to stay decided not to stay in one place (that was otherwise very nice) because it was smelly. I whispered to Pete that there must be an abattoir or landfill site somewhere nearby and we should find somewhere else. Sadly the smell permeated the whole town and we went back with our tails between our legs and asked if we could still stay.
The west coast of Thailand felt very different to the east. It is the area most popular with tourists and has picture book beaches and Islands that one associates with every tale of shipwreck and Bounty adverts. Pete and I filled in many a happy hour discussing how we would survive here if shipwrecked and decided we probably wouldn’t last very long as Pete doesn’t really like coconuts.
One of our favourite places that we stayed at was The Bananas near Krabi. We called it Bananarama and it was a bit ‘hippy’ and laid back and I kept wanting to call everyone ‘man’ and ‘dude’. We spent a lot of time in hammocks and swimming in a sea that at night has the natural phenomena of bioluminescence where if you swim or disturb the water the algae glows – a bit like fireflies. Pete and I didn’t swim but one night waded through the water in the dark and it was like walking through fairy lights – rather special.
We had our own little bungalow set amid the mangroves and found it very difficult to leave this gorgeous place. We had a mini adventure while we were there when we hired a kayak for the day and set out to visit three small, uninhabited islands.
We could see the first island from our house but the other two were hidden from view. We were told that the second one was inhabited by a ‘mad monkey’ who had been banished there 12 years ago because of his bad behaviour in the town. We couldn’t make out if this was myth, as some said he hadn’t been seen for years and others said they thought he had died. Someone else told us he had attacked someone last year. Whatever we heard we thought it would be a good idea not to land on that particular island. However as often happens with descriptions of where things are, the reality doesn’t always match up and we ended up amongst little islands not knowing quite which one might be Mad Monkey Island. Then we spotted a strip of sand which was too irresistible not to take a rest on and pulled up our kayak, had a swim and then got out our bananas to munch. Perhaps that was our first mistake as both of us had a growing sense that we were not alone and sure enough there he was sat on a rock looking rather large and eyeing our bananas with interest.
We entered a zen like state of controlled panic and tried hard to convince the monkey that we never intended to stay and invade his space and if he didn’t attack us he could have a share of our bananas. We quietly packed up our things into the kayak while he remained sitting and yawning. As a reward for not killing us we threw him a couple of bananas as we left.
The journey back was a bit hair raising as after we visited the third island and had an undisturbed picnic a wind started to get up and we had an hour and a half of difficult paddling against the outgoing tide, high waves and a strong headwind. It is at times like this that Pete and I go very quiet and try not to induce panic in one another but at the same time wondering if we should let nature take its course and just hope that someone would come and rescue us as we drifted over to Indonesia.
After reluctantly dragging ourselves away from Bananarama we had over a week of island hopping, jumping on and off ferries talking about fore and aft and port and starboard, trying not to get sea sick or worry about the bikes as they were thrown on and off the boats by people who didn’t love them as much as we do. We snorkelled and swam and joined in being normal tourists and letting the bikes have a rest too.
Thailand has been wonderful and despite the heat has been quite a tonic to our tired bodies. It is a fun and happy place and the place names have given us a few giggles and become like a game of verbal ping pong. An imaginary conversation between Pete and I might go something like this:
Me: Where are we heading today Pete?
Pete: We’re going to Ban Tung Din Lum via Ban Tha Pa Yam.
Me : Aaah. I thought we were going to Ban Ta Ma Prang via Ban Kuan Mo Tong.
Pete: Don’t be silly, that was yesterday and tomorrow we’ll be going to Ban Kling Klong and also taking in Ban Tong Mong Kan.
Me: It’ll be good to get back to Hallbankgate.
A dog’s life. Is it for real or has somebody gone to a huge amount of trouble with hair dye. It definitely wasn’t paint . Chris thinks hair dye. But what about the roots! We did come across another dog that looked maybe halfway there. But a zebra dog! And no, I didn’t hear anybody laughing themselves stupid the other side of the hedge.
Main roads, back roads, maps and people. I think l’ve said it before but I’ve got to say it again: finding our way through the back country roads that wind through the plantations and villages would be almost impossible without digital maps. Touch a screen and the machines will give you a route, back roads or main roads, whichever you want. There is a cost. No longer do we need people’s help. When we did ask we were invited in for tea. I guess the machines come at a price.
Clean air. Trucks and cars and busses all have air filters. The internal combustion engine has to have clean air. Then it belches out clouds of noxious smoke. I need clean air too!
Produce. As we slowly moved south through Thailand so the fields by the roadside changed too.
Tobacco was one of the first “crops” we came across. We paused and looked Into a warehouse where it was being bagged up on a very small scale presumably for retail sale.
Sugar cane came next. In different fields we were able to see the various processes. Once mature, the field of cane were set on fire which seemed to burn all the excess foliage off. It was then cut, often by hand, sometimes machine and huge trucks transported it to processing plants.
We passed fields of pineapples. And we gorged on them!
Coconuts came next. It seems there are different ways of harvesting coconuts. A blade on a very very long pole seems to work, as does climbing the tree and throwing them down but by far and away the best we saw was the monkey method. Trained monkeys on 30 metre leashes shimmy up the trunk and disappear into the foliage. A minute or two later the coconuts start to rain down. And they only throw down the ripe ones. How on earth can you train a monkey to do that! I did manage to catch a photo of the monkey being taken home at the end of the day in a pick-up but didn’t manage to catch one of them going home by motorbike- with their owner – obviously …
Bananas. A banana is technically a berry. And they grow on plants, not trees. No, i didn’t know that either. I don’t think we saw any fields of bananas but they would often be on the borders of fields. We ate a lot of bananas too… sometimes with large, black, hard seeds inside, always small and always delicious!
Palm oil. Huge amounts have been written about palm oil. I think the main problem is that it becomes a monoculture. From what we saw this wasn’t the case in Thailand.
Rubber. Do all of our tyres on all of our buses and bicycles and cars start off dripping into ½ coconuts wired to the bottom of a tree? From what we have seen there is no alternative. No modern 21st century computerised method. A person has to visit each tree and empty the container into a larger container. Sometimes it seems that the latex solidifies before it is collected but more usually it seems that it is collected in liquid form and then taken to a roadside weighing station where the latex is pumped into a tank and the owner of the trees is paid.
And Catamaran… why isn’t it a bimaran?
Coffee. Occasionally we would find a coffee shop. Air conditioned. A bit of a treat. A bit expensive. But a very welcome break. But why when you order a coffee do they bring you a pot of tea as well? What would happen if you asked for a pot of tea?
Motorbikes. Everyone has one. Or so it seems. How many people can you fit on a 100cc Honda? Well 5 was the most we saw. Infants and toddlers, well dressed ladies riding side saddle, 3 children on the school run, sometimes a 10 year old driving himself to school – everywhere there are motorbikes. Sadly around markets too. – We ambled around a night market one evening. At virtually every stall the bikes pulled up and motor running ordered their pancakes or chicken wings. The smell was spicymonoxide.
To be or not to be. It took us a while but we got there in the end. It’s art! Upside trees! To be or not to be. Live or die. Get it? Actually I liked it. It made me laugh.
Bridal wear. It took us a while to find this bike shop. It was a bridle wear shop too. Or was it a bike shop too…
Driving. It’s good in Thailand. I’ve seen cars pull off the road to take a phone call!
It took a while to work this one out…….
Chris went a bit overboard with the sunbatheing.
Luckily we found Pete’s brain before we left the beach.
We’ve reached Malaysia! We’ve a thousand kilometres to go and about 3 weeks to reach Singapore. We’ve said goodbye to Thailand, we’ve had a break on Penang and now we’re turning our wheels southwards again. Our ship is calling!