July 20, 2014 by melcogger
We entered the King of South East Asia, Thailand, with only a 15 day land visa on Jonty’s passport and 1200km to cycle to Myanmar while needing to do bicycle and visa related business in Bangkok. We were on a tight schedule and had carefully mapped out our itinerary while in Cambodia, leaving very few rest days and big distances to conquer. As soon as we crossed the border we were in awe of the powerhouse that Thailand is. In comparison to the other South East Asian countries we had visited, it stood apart in so many ways. We said goodbye to rickety old roads with no shoulders and welcomed a complex network of well paved roads and highways. Instead of DIY shops in front of houses we were now taking breaks at Tescos and 7eleven and indulging in iced ovaltine on tap and coca-cola slurpies, while getting our daily water intake from the many water vending machines. There were no children about waiting to greet us on the side of the road because all the children were in school during the day unlike Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines.
None of our planning came to fruition when on our first day of cycling 105km to Trat we received a message from our biggest fan on whether we would be up for a visit the next weekend in Bang Chang 330km away. Topping the charts at 50 comments, my dad had watched our route unfold until we got closer to his house in Thailand and arranged a flight from Brisbane to meet us. This was an opportunity we could not miss, so after researching visa extensions we decided to take a 4 day break on Koh Chang Island to wait for my dad to arrive.
On the way to the ferry we stopped by the immigration office to get a 7 day extension on Jonty’s visa. I’m not sure if it was Jonty’s good looks, white skin or big beard, but he was apparently accosted by a gaggle of giggling women at the immigration office who gave him 2 kilograms of Rambuttan and insisted on an impromptu English lesson as they gushed and remarked on his good looks. The excitement ended of course when I entered the office and we were given the extension after paying $60 as well as some welcoming coffee to escape the thunderous rain outside.
After a one hour ferry ride we arrived in beautiful Koh Chang. It was not our first time here, as we have visited the island 6 years previously together on our first ‘big adventure’ while still in university. We only had to cycle 7km on the island, but the hills were relentless, and the steepest we have encountered since the start of our trip. We had to push our 30kg fully loaded bikes in the pouring rain, practically on our toes up the mountain passes. An opportune time for my shoes to break, but we made it to the town and took full advantage of the 7eleven for some more iced ovaltine. Jonty practically begged a guesthouse to accept us while they were closed during low season, but after much persuasion we were given a bungalow on the beach with the waves crashing beneath our room for only 250 baht (R75) and we were the only guests. We took time to rest, collect oysters, build a fire on the beach, wash our clothes and indulge in the scenery. We spent countless hours in the late afternoons bashing around the waves on children’s blow up tubes at the mercy of ocean currents and swells.
After returning to the main land we started making headway towards Bang Chang. For irrational reasons we decided against the scenic coastal route and opted for the main road because we thought it would be easier and faster with the wide shoulder, getting us to luxury home living sooner. It was more of a mental challenge to entertain ourselves on the saddle with no scenery except fast cars and in hindsight the coastal route would have been much more palatable. We had relished establishing a base for more than just two days at a time and the niceties and familiarities of a home. The only thing that kept us going was the thought of buying groceries at Tescos and making a massive pizza. After a 150km cycle, our biggest distance and longest day, we arrived and met Ray who had the keys to our house for the next week. We splurged on buying 42 pieces of sushi for old times sake and pigged out while watching the phenomenon of internet t.v. on a big plasma screen. We took this time to catch up on watching all the movies we had missed out on this year while traveling, including Mandela, which made us feel homesick and emotional. Ray could not understand why we did not want to eat out everyday as it is generally cheaper to eat at restaurants than it is to self cater, but after eating out 3 times a day for 5 months, we jumped at the opportunity to cook food for ourselves. We even accepted the challenge of eating 2 kg of French fries during our stay. This may have been over kill but fortunately my dad’s friends helped clear it all up.
When my dad arrived he treated us like it was our birthday. He took us to restaurants where meals cost more than two nights accommodation and booked us in for a two hour body massage. We met his expat friends, cooked sausages and chips, drank beer and sat on the beach. He gave us a Daazer, an ultra sonic sound device that wards off dogs, but more about that later. At the end our time with my dad he gave us a lift to Bangkok and we said our goodbyes. We were on our own again after a very surreal homely experience. After scouting around for a place to sleep while the monsoon rains poured down we bumped into Isaac, a tour cyclist we met in Laos two months earlier. He was at the end of his trip and leaving the next day. After more goodbyes we eventually found a guesthouse in our budget, a serious downgrade from the three bedroom home we had been enjoying. We took the next day to visit the Myanmar embassy to get our visa as there are none available at the border. It was a whole day affair of standing in queues, filling in forms and returning to collect the visa for $60 each.
Our biggest regret so far was not bringing a tent to South East Asia. We did not think we would need one and we were told that there was no where to camp. We had grown tired of staying in guesthouses and parting with money every day for simple necessities. We felt disconnected from the people around us and a clear divide between cycling in the first half of the day and checking into guesthouses in the afternoon. We were envious of other tour cyclists getting off the grid and wild camping or staying at temples in between towns and meeting locals. We were also fed up of the limitations of having to cycle to towns with guesthouses, often dictating how far we could cycle each day. For the past three months (since entering Laos) we have been desperately searching for a tent, mattresses, gas stove and front panniers. We nearly bought two children’s tents in Cambodia of questionable waterproof quality but thankfully persisted in our endeavors to get off the grid. We knew that Bangkok would have it all – a Mecca for all cycle tourists. We could not get enough of the camping, outdoor and bicycle stores and mapped out each one we could find. We were like kids in a candy shop trying to figure out how much we could afford, and what we could fit on our bikes. We splurged and bought everything we needed to become as independent as possible and we were on our way again.
We only had 5 days to cycle from Bangkok to the border town of Mae Sot, 580km away. I decided to help Jonty choose a route, the easiest and most direct I could find while Jonty worked out the finer details of my chosen route. In future, all mapping will continue to be done by Jonty as I had chosen the worst possible roads out of Bangkok. Jonty did a stellar job of navigating out of the busy streets of the city, but I managed to land us on a four lane highway that we could not get off for 60km. Think N1 south and that is where you would be correct in picturing us cycling, not the most ideal cycling route and cycling was probably prohibited, but we saw no other alternatives after cycling for 50km out of the city other than turning back. Turns out the orange roads on our maps are interchangeable between main roads and highways. While cycling I thought of what I might say to Jonty in my last dying moments and I told him how to phone our insurance in case I die. Not exactly the best conversations for the road, but we made it off the highway alive and back onto the rural quiet roads again.
We spent our first night in our tent at a temple. We were quite unsure of how it all worked and how they felt about a women staying at a monastery and the monks we approached did not speak English. We set up our tent outside so that we would not be in their way and tested out all our camping gear. Eventually the only English speaking monk approached us and asked us to sleep inside because it might rain, but we insisted on sleeping outside as we were already settled. This turned out to be a big mistake. At all monasteries, monks take kindly to stray dogs and feed them, so naturally many packs of stray dogs roam temple grounds at night. This was something we found out the hard way as dogs sniffed around our tent, growled at us and barked and howled all night. Our only protection was the Daazer, given to us by my father and I laid down in the tent with the finger on the trigger scaring off dogs and watching them skirt off in the opposite direction. We made it through the hot sticky night without a wink of sleep and got on the road once again for another 100km. The Daazer has proven to be a thing of miracles. Almost everyday dogs take joy in chasing us down the street, and without any rabies shots we always have to out speed them. The Daazer on the other hand lets us cruise through towns and if any dogs get any ideas of chasing us I simply push the button and off they go. I would recommend a Daazer for anyone tour cycling.
Our second night in a temple proved to be much better. Without hesitation the monks agreed to host us and invited us inside their festival room with ceiling fans. We were taken care of by an old monk named Amnoi who knew about 8 English words – monk, Buddha, paper, Afrique, pagoda, water, name, and you. A younger monk approached us to give us a packet of bottled drinking water and boxes of soy milk. We had the best nights sleep away from the packs of dogs. They invited us to stay for breakfast the next morning but we were keen on visiting 7eleven and went on our way after Amnoi wrote down his address, telephone number and full name in Thai, which of course we could not read. We thanked him and gave him our South African phone number, not sure what he can do with that, but we didn’t know our Thai number and we weren’t sure of what kind of telephone conversation could be had with 8 English words.
After another hard day of cycling we were again welcomed into another monastery and put in a festival hall. For the first time we met a monk who spoke very good English and told us about his life. He had previously been a mechanic and ordained as a monk in his early twenties. He lived as a monk for 10 years before returning to his job and finding a wife, but unfortunately his wife died and three years later he returned to the monastery to live the rest of his life as a monk. His daily chores include collecting alms, cleaning, sweeping, meditating, chanting and repairing the monastery’s truck. The monks provided us with two new toothbrushes, toothpaste, two towels, two bottles of coca-cola, soy milk and drinking water. That night they were feeding the local rowing team and invited us for dinner with the students. Nobody spoke very good English but one student remarked on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and said that Thailand may be ready to qualify to host the 2024 World Cup (not sure how correct this is).
We have been astounded by the generosity of monks we have met on our way. Monks live simple lives and live by the generosity of lay people’s monetary, food and medical donations. Everything they own has been given to them, yet they so freely part with food and drinks with strangers and provide a safe place to sleep for anyone who asks. A monk is only allowed to own a watch, a simple phone, an umbrella and a torch and cannot have the luxury of a soft mattress. From dawn to midday they are allowed to collect alms and to eat. They are unmarried and have no children and some spend their entire adult lives and even childhoods in a monastery.
While cycling along a main and busy road I was being followed slowly by a pick up truck for about a kilometer. It made us feel a bit uneasy as it could have been any psychopath, but it turned out to be Mr Sun chine (sunshine), a cycling fanatic who pulled over and showed us photos of his Surly Touring bike and Brookes saddle. He owned a guesthouse nearby and told us of an alternative route along the river. After a few photos, he gave us a hat as a parting gift and we took his advice about cycling along the river.
We spent another two nights at monasteries towards the border, all under a roof with ceiling fans for very comfortable sleeps. At the last monastery we did not even have to ask whether we could sleep as they saw us cycle in we were beckoned with “you sleep here yes?” We had planned to stay our last night in Thailand with Pisut, a cycling host we contacted on warm showers, an online cycling community that hosts cyclists in different countries (similar to couch surfing but only for tour cyclists). It unfortunately did not work out because of the distances and our time running out on the visa. Our last 100km out of Thailand was met with mountainous and difficult terrain with very few drinking and rest stops. We didn’t anticipate the climbs and had to pull over after 10km to eat whatever food we had on us before carrying on. After 5 hours of cycling uphill, we reached the summit and enjoyed views of rolling hills and forests. We still had 60km to cycle before the border closed at 5pm and we began the descent, unsure of whether we would make it in time.
While enjoying the well deserved down hill a man pulled over and to Jonty’s utter surprise called out “Jonathan?” to which he came to a grinding and curious halt. To hear a complete stranger, in a foreign country call out your name on a mountain pass was out of this world. It was Pisut, the warm showers host, who was on his way with his family to Mae Sot and offered to give us a ride. We could not believe our luck. We loaded the bikes in the back of the truck, chatted about cycling and our love of bicycles and sped off. We felt like we had been teleported to Myanmar as Pisut dropped us right at the border. We said goodbye to Thailand and to Pisut and headed for the unknown. We had overstayed on Jonty’s visa for one day, but to our surprise it ain’t nothing but a thing.
We will be posting a video of Thailand in a separate post as our internet is failing us.