The Cambodian/Thai border was up there with one of the busiest we have crossed on this journey. Fortunately we did not have a repeat performance with any corrupt officials as we exited Cambodia, although they did insist on recording all our fingerprints on an electronic machine. The only place I think I’ve had this before has been transiting in the USA – I can’t imagine what the Cambodian authorities want with all that data, especially from people leaving the country.
We took it in turns to queue up for the Thai immigration whilst the other watched the bikes. As I stood in the line with all the other tourists and looked around at the mainly Western backpackers, I realised how clean they all looked. I felt very self-conscious in my sweaty, mud stained, hole-ridden clothes, a mixture of dust and sun-cream smearing together on any exposed skin. I think we have officially reached new lows on the cleanliness front, which no amount of washing seems to fix. For some reason the border guards saw fit to let us through in spite of our appearances and we cycled off into the very unwelcome headwind that stayed with us for the next three days all the way to Bangkok.
We seem to go through waves of being able to deal well with the heat and humidity; at times we are fine, but at others we are completely floored by it and it is a real struggle to carry on pedalling. The few days into Bangkok were exceptionally tough, perhaps because of the headwind drying out our mouths and making us perpetually thirsty. You know you are lacking in salt when you find yourself constantly licking the sweat from around your mouth, the backs of your hands and your forearms. I knew it was especially bad when I turned round at one point and Steven had one foot up on the frame of his bike and was feasting on salt from his shin! Needless to say we hastily pulled into a Seven-Eleven store and stocked up on some crisps and Gatorade.
This part of our journey was particularly significant to us as it was on a stretch of busy road approaching Bangkok that two RTW cyclists whose blog we followed a few years ago, Peter Root and Mary Thompson (twoonfourwheels), were killed when a truck veered onto the hard shoulder and crashed into them. Although what we are doing is probably less dangerous than cycling in London every day, it is sometimes good to remember how vulnerable one is when riding a bicycle. This brings me to the only real downside to cycling in Thailand; the driving. Thailand is notorious as having one of the worst road fatality rates in the world. It is not really surprising given we were told on our first night in the country that there is no practical driving test or requirement to have lessons in order to obtain a drivers licence and that driving under the influence of alcohol is rife. From our observations, the number of motorbike riders in their early teens, the lack of helmets worn by the majority and the incredibly annoying habit of motorbikes, scooters and sometimes even cars driving down the wrong side of the road all probably play their part too. The latter is our ultimate annoyance as it mainly happens on really busy roads and the “rule” is that whoever is going the wrong way gets to hug the curb forcing us out into the traffic. Thais in general are so polite that in most cases they will either stop or drive off the road (with an apologetic smile) so we don’t have to pull out, but there are the odd obnoxious riders (always horrible teenage boys) that drive towards us at full speed, waving their arms at us to move out into the traffic. To this they are usually met with a barrage of abuse, which they seem genuinely shocked by… we can only hope that they are shocked enough that they slow down for the next cyclist they meet.
It was after a particularly tiring day on a busy road crowded with speeding trucks on the way into Bangkok that we pulled down a side road and found what looked like a brand new hotel. I did the usual asking for the price and checking the room which was all pretty standard for Thailand – 500 baht (about £10) and a spotlessly clean, spacious room with air-con, wifi and a hot shower. As we were preparing to pay, a man who had been sitting outside pointed at our money and shook his head. We didn’t understand what he meant until I tried to pay and our money was refused. It turned out that the man was the owner and he had given us our first free hotel of the trip. The generosity of strangers continues to astound us on a regular basis.
We didn’t have much planned for Bangkok but we were pleasantly surprised by the narrow, winding alleys of the old town and the ramshackle food markets perched on the banks of the pungent smelling canals. We spent most of our time wandering the backstreets and eating plenty of delicious snacks from the food carts that block every pavement. We also managed to locate a Kiwi Sports Bar playing the All Blacks vs. Samoa game. It was safe to say that Steven was in his version of heaven surrounded by photos of Ritchie, Beaver, and co.
Moving on from Bangkok we soon started making our way directly south again. Quiet back roads meander down the east coast through enormous salt farms and we really enjoyed being away from the traffic again.
We had been planning on staying in the town of Cha-am but when we arrived there we discovered it was like our worst nightmare; busy, hotels piled on top of each other, beach covered with so many deckchairs we could barely see the sand. After inquiring at one basic looking place and discovering that the room rate was triple what we paid in Bangkok we decided to push on. Something else always turns up.
And only a few more kilometres on something did turn up – a motel type building with large sliding gates across the parking space in front of each room allowing complete privacy. On entering the room we were immediately under no illusions about what usually takes place in this establishment (probably on a by-the-hour basis). Large mirrors adorned each wall as well as the ceiling and to top it off, the mattress and pillows were made of a sort of faux leather (think 1970s couches). Interesting!
Since then we’ve actually ended up staying in a number of similar motels, mainly because they are located right beside the road and thus very convenient for us, but they are also clean and good value for money. We have never had any issues staying in these places and would recommend them to any cycle tourist. Unfortunately the only “story” we have is that on one occasion we were awoken by a banging on the door at around 2am. Steven sleepily got up to see who it was, expecting a lady of the night with, “you want massage?” To his immense disappointment and horror he was met with genuine room service and plates piled high with steaming fried rice… “Umm, I think you have the wrong room”.
Prachuap Khiri Khan bucked the trend of the rampant development we had seen further up the coast. Here we found a gorgeous fishing town on a huge crescent bay flanked by sentinel peaks at each tip jutting out into the open sea. This was a relaxed place with few tourists, great cafes and a bustling night market – the perfect place to hang out for a few days. It really sums up how relaxed Thailand is that there is an air force base at one end of the bay here that anyone can enter to visit a beautiful beach and a colony of hilarious Langur monkeys that reside on one of the hills. There was no requirement for us to show any identification, the guards just waved and smiled at us as we cycled around the base, past a shed containing armoured vehicles, across the runway etc.
From here we carried on pedalling down the east coast of the peninsula, taking the quiet roads close to the sea where we could. We saw locals harvesting coconuts and marvelled at their skill in wielding an extremely long bendy pole with a sharp sickle tied to the end of it and the noise of the resounding thump of a cluster of a dozen of so coconuts hitting the ground.
At the sleepy resort town of Ban Krut we watched one evening in amazement as hordes of Thai tourists arrived in brightly painted, pimped out coaches with disco lights flashing inside. They proceeded to perform some of the worst karaoke I have ever heard on a small stage set up on the beach complete with audience participation in the form of dancing, whooping and screaming. They disappeared into the night as fast as they had arrived with the karaoke continuing on the psychedelically lit coaches, leaving the beach to the stray dogs and the few bewildered Western tourists.
A few more days of the east coast and we were getting bored with the never-ending flat cycling. The scenery wasn’t anything special, the heat and humidity was making us sluggish and we didn’t have the excitement of a tight deadline to keep us motivated. The beauty of being on such a narrow peninsula though meant that we could be on the other coast within two days cycling. The Andaman coast was meant to be very beautiful and dramatic – there was always the threat of being caught up in the southwest monsoon rains but we decided it was worth the risk.
Almost as soon as we started traversing the peninsula we were very happy with our decision. We ended up having a couple of our best days on the bikes since the mountains in Laos. The undulations increased as we started through Khao Sok National Park – said to be the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world. The scenery was spectacular with the road winding between towering karst formations disappearing skywards into the morning mist and dense, varied jungle stretching as far as the eye could see. It was a welcome change from the endless palm oil plantations that dominate the vegetation in this region. After one short, steep climb we were treated to a long swooping downhill on a quiet road that just seemed to go on forever. The sun was shining, the vistas were stunning and we were both grinning madly. We were absolutely loving it once again.