(1 075km - 15days)
25/05 – 08/06/2018
25 May Savannakhet, Laos – Baan Rimkhong Guesthouse, Don Tan, Thailand – 67 km
We were slow in leaving as we knew it was going to be a short day. The plan was to cross the border back into Thailand, and we, therefore, had to cycle to the immigration office at the Friendship Bridge, which was about five kilometres north of town. We stopped for breakfast but somehow only received the coffee; the rest, I presume, got lost in translation.
Then it was onto the Lao immigration where we got stamped out and were informed that we were not allowed to cycle across the bridge (not such a friendly bridge after all!), but we were advised to take the bus. True to my rebellious self, I thought this was a load of bollocks and decided to cycle across the bridge anyhow. I had no problem in convincing Emiel to do the same and off we went. We peddled like the clappers to the other side where we, nonchalantly, arrived as if nothing happened. We were stamped into Thailand and were on our way to the nearest 7-11 where we found breakfast and means of topping up our Thai SIM cards.
With all that done, we set off again and even found a cycle path next to the main road. It, however, soon disappeared and we were back on the main road. We made our way further south until we turned off and found a guesthouse right on the Mekong River, also known as the Khong River. It was a lovely place with a great little bungalow but no shop or restaurant; although, those could be found about 1.5 kilometres away. We sat drinking our beer, watching the Mekong slowly (or not so slowly) making its way to where it finally discharges into the South China Sea.
26 May - Baan Rimkhong Guesthouse, Don Tan – Roadside Guesthouse – 75 km
We awoke to a drizzle that soon cleared, making for a fresh and overcast ride. It was perfect cycling weather as we made our way past water buffalo, temples, and rice paddies. Emiel was on fire, and in no time at all, we arrived in Khemarat where we stopped for a bowl of noodle soup on the outskirts of town. Needless to say, it was as always, delicious.
We cycled past rubber tree plantations where the rubber industry crises were clearly visible. Trees were tapped but the rubber was never collected. I heard rumours that collecting the latex costs more than the market price; how very sad.
The rainy season has started and all along the way we could see people working in the fields planting rice in neat rows in rice paddies. Throughout Asia, rice is still considered sacred and the ritual of planting and harvesting rice has shaped Southeast Asian traditions for centuries. It is very much a family affair, and everyone is expected to join in. May is a busy time for most farmers in Isan (the area we are in at present). Seedlings are cultivated in nursery paddies and later transplanted to the main paddy fields. I understand that the reason for doing this is that the young rice plants need to be separated at the root, which will then increase the yield by allowing each plant the space to grow. Rain is normally needed to fill the rice paddies and it was, therefore, no surprise that we saw dark clouds gathering. We tried to go as fast as we could but still got absolutely soaked.
Fortunately, we only had a few kilometres to go to reach the tiny settlement of Ban Kaeng Hi, where we found a guesthouse, albeit without any electricity. In fact, the entire village was without electricity due to the heavy downpour. Once the rain subsided we took a walk down the road and found a very basic restaurant, small roadside market, bus station, and a police station. By that time the entire village was aware of our presence and everyone seemed to know that we were traveling by bicycle and that we were staying at the “resort”. LOL. Although not a world of English was spoken, sign language for food seems to be universal and in no time at all we were seated with a bowl of noodle soup and a plate of fried rice. We were informed that we could get beer, Chang, from the “supermarket” across the road, which we did, and which rounded off the meal quite nicely. It started raining again and we were offered a lift for the 500-metre distance to the guesthouse. We politely declined the offer but did borrow two umbrellas that we promised to return in the morning. What a wonderful place rural Thailand is.
27 May – Roadside Guesthouse – Khong Chiam – 95 km
The previous night's rain cooled the temperature considerably, and I, for once, needed no aircon or fan, a rarity in Southeast Asia. We woke to an overcast day, and our first stop was 500 metres down the road at the same restaurant as the previous night, to return the umbrellas and have breakfast. Emiel, strangely, was not hungry, but I had a greasy omelette on rice, to which I added a healthy dose of chillies. I washed this down with a “three-in-one coffee”. Fearing that I would be like a fire-breathing dragon cycling up the first hill, I took a good gulp of antacid medication before we set off.
What a lovely day it turned out to be. The road led partly through the Pha Taem National Park, making for a shady albeit hilly ride, with dense forest on both sides of the road (thank goodness for the cloud cover). Butterflies and dragonflies darted around us as we slowly made our way up the hills. By that time, Emiel was getting hungry, but there were no roadside stalls along the road, such that by the time we reached Khong Chiam, we were starving.
We found a lovely guesthouse right on the Mun River, had a shower, and then took a walk to where the Mun River meets the Mekong. If we had been there earlier, we would have seen where the two rivers meet as they differ in colour and flow side by side without mixing. It was, however, already nearly sunset, and we headed for the nearest restaurant.
28 May - Khong Chiam – Ubon – 85 km
The northeastern part of Thailand, where we find ourselves at the moment, is known as Isan, bordering both Laos and Cambodia. This is a large, agricultural area of rice fields and small villages, consisting of 20 provinces. The majority of the population of the region call themselves Thai Isan or Lao Isan as they speak a different dialect, which, I understand, is very similar to that spoken in Lao.
I love cycling in this area and always claim that no green is greener than that of the rice fields of Isan. Although the rainy season has just started, the luminous green rice fields were already visible.
We cycled not only past rice paddies but also past large areas of cassava and rubber tree plantations. Meagre roadside stalls sold just bananas and mangoes, while others offered only two pumpkins or dried buffalo hide. We encountered many businesses selling temple paraphernalia, i.e. gongs and drums. These are the areas where these items are produced and sold, and the larger they are, the better. As always, we passed some Bodhi trees, or sacred fig trees.
The sacred fig is the tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment (Bodhi). Animists in Thailand believe that the sacred fig tree is inhabited by spirits and lost souls and cannot, therefore, be simply cut down. To do so could invoke fury and possible revenge from the resident spirits. Before a sacred fig tree can be cut down or removed, the spirits must be forewarned and appeased by monks or other appropriate religious figures.
We soon cycled into Ubon, where we headed to the Ubon Hotel as it was not only inexpensive but also, more importantly, across the road from the night market.
29 May – Ubon – Kantharalak – 75 km
A short and easy ride brought us to Kantharalak. I was, however, slightly disappointed in my choice of routes as the road was much more extensive and busier than expected. Along the way, we bought flower garlands for good luck/safe travels, and I’m always surprised that one can purchase these garlands for a mere 10 Thai baht. The amount of work and flowers must surely be more than 10 THB.
Although not the most exciting of routes, there was, nevertheless, some interesting things along the way. I usually compare days like this to diving in poor visibility. The reason for this is that I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad dive or a bad day on the bike, one only needs to look more closely. This day was no different, and I found the scrawny cows with their long ears even more amusing, as they always seem to have a somewhat superior attitude, looking down their noses at us as we cycled past. We also spotted a remarkable number of midgets (or “little people” may be the more politically correct term) in this area. They all seem to be well proportioned except for very short legs.
We also noticed more and more scarecrows in the rice paddies. In Bali, women make rice figurines which watch over the rice but today was the first time I saw a straw figure in Thailand, maybe it was only decorative and has nothing to do with the rice rituals.
In Kantharalak, we found a comfortable room for 350 baht with air-con, something that is always considered a bargain. On our walkabout, we discovered that it was a Buddhist holiday and no beer sold, except at a restaurant. Ordering a meal was slightly more difficult as most of the dishes we pointed at was answered with a “No have”. Eventually, the only “Yes, have” was fried rice and a spicy mango salad. I love these small towns as they are so typical Thai and the lack of tourists makes for a very genuine experience.
30 May – Kantharalak – Phu Sing Guesthouse – 70 km
The easiest was to grab a bite to eat from the conveniently located 7-Eleven, and then we were on our way. It turned out a fantastic day on the road as we followed a rural lane that was in excellent condition and which meandered through farmlands with views of the distant mountains forming the border with Cambodia. The traffic was light, and there was ample water and food along the way. Add to that a slight tailwind, and it was a perfect day for cycle touring. In the small settlement of Phu Sing, we found a guesthouse with lovely timber bungalows. Later that evening, we took a walk down the road looking for food, and the rural Thai people found it somewhat strange to see “farangs” in their midst.
31 May - Phu Sing Guesthouse - Chong Chom – 80 km
We reluctantly left our wooden bungalows, and after a quick stop at the 7-Eleven, we headed onward to a still unknown destination. Again, the road led us past somewhat rural areas with plenty of rice fields, temples, and small villages where there was no need for mowing the lawn at the local football field as cows did the job for them.
In our wanderings, we came upon Prasat Chumphon. The sanctuary dates back to the Chenla period (550–706 AD); a pre-Angkorian Khmer state whose capital was seated in the present Cambodian province of Kampong Thom. The sanctuary is one of the oldest known Khmer temples in Thailand. What made it even more amazing was that there was no entrance fee, and except for cattle grazing, there was no one around.
I love days like this, and we marvelled at the simple things of life in this part of the world. Each rice field we passed had a shrine, some rather rudimentary and other more elaborate, and people were incredibly friendly, always waving and shouting “Sawadee”. Eventually, we landed at the small village of Chong Chom, well known for its large cross-border market, and easy border crossing into Cambodia. The market sells an extensive range of goods, including clothes, kitchen equipment, tools, electronic and electrical goods, food, used bikes, DVDs, handbags, and just about anything one can think of. We found another lovely guesthouse consisting of wooden bungalows for a fair price. All in all, another perfect day on the road.
1 June - Chong Chom – Prasat Muang Tam – 94 km
We slowly made our way back to Pattaya, sticking close to the Cambodian border. This was a wooded area and all along the road-friendly ladies were selling colourful mushrooms stacked neatly on plates. Temples were equally colourful as the recent Wesak day made for new ribbons and fresh paint.
We passed more Khmer ruins as well as an ancient kiln dating back to between the 9th and 13th century. The kiln was a cross-draft kiln with three parts and excavations revealed that green and brown glazed ware was produced here.
A short while later we stopped at a roadside stall for pineapple. The lady peeled and cut it up for us, and it was one of the sweetest pineapples I have had in a long time. We filled our bottles with water, added a few ice blocks from the large plastic ice box on the pavement, and then we were on our way again.
We arrived at Prasat Muang Tum, a 1,000-year-old Khmer temple at around 14h00. Muang Tum is one of the temples built in Angkor style during a time when large parts of Thailand were controlled by the Khmer empire. It is situated on the ancient road from Angkor Thom (present-day Siem Reap in Cambodia) to Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima province (further North West).
We found a guesthouse, had a shower, beer and a bowl of noodle soup. We decided to visit the ruins in the morning as it was already fairly late and still boiling hot.
2 June – Prasat Muang Tum – Non Din Daeng – 41 km
We had a lovely breakfast at our guesthouse, consisting of rice porridge to which one could add ginger, chillies and coriander. I absolutely loved it! There were also a few side dishes including steamed palm cake in banana leaves and fried dough or doughnuts.
We loaded our bicycles and cycled the 500 metres to the ruins of Prasat Muang Tum, which date back to the 10th and 11th centuries. Muang Tum was built in Angkor-style during a time when large parts of Thailand were controlled by the Khmer empire. Interestingly, it is situated on the ancient road between Angkor Thom (today Siem Reap, Cambodia) to Phimai in Thailand. This was once a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva in the days when this area was Hindu and not Buddhist, as is the case today. The fall of the Khmer Empire is a puzzle that archaeologists and historians have struggled with for decades. Although I believe that there were many reasons for the weakening of the empire, it is thought that one thing that contributed was the change of religion. The introduction of the Buddhist religion in the 13th century apparently (and understandably) sparked a controversial disagreement throughout the monarchy. The new religion out-ruled the “God-king” system and encouraged people to seek their own beliefs and abandon worldly things. Phew, I think that could be the end of just about any modern country today!
We marvelled at these magnificent ruins, took more than a few pics, and then we were on our way again. We did not go very far, and after about 40 kilometres, we reached the tiny village of Non Din Daeng, where we spotted a somewhat comfortable-looking accommodation. Upon closer investigation, it turned out even better than expected, as it had a ground floor, motel-style rooms, a restaurant, and a large and beautiful garden. Even though the rooms were 400 baht each, we looked at one another and without any hesitation agreed to take it.
3 June - Non Din Daeng – Aranyaprathet – 87 km
Being well rested and fed, we set off again, but first, stopping to buy flower garlands from a roadside stall for good luck. It was an easy day as we were, in fact, on a plateau. After about 20/25 kilometres of cycling, we reached the rim of the plateau and sped down the hill at breakneck speed like two teenagers. With flower garlands flapping in the wind, we were lying flat on our bicycles and going as fast as we could, knowing full well that if we came off, it would spell disaster (we trusted in those good luck garlands). We made it in one piece to the bottom of the hill and then continued in a more mature fashion to Aranyaprathet.
We headed for the very inexpensive Aran Garden Hotel (without a garden) where one can get a room for 230 baht. We wasted no time in having a shower and then took a walk in search of cold beer. Later that evening, we took a walk to the night market, and, as always, the food was delicious.
4 June – Aranyaprathet
A rest day in Aranyaprathet and we did nothing except for laundry, updating the journal and eating everything in sight.
5 June - Aranyaprathet – Khao Chakan Forest Park -76 km
With a pannier full of clean clothes, well-rested legs and a belly full of food, we set off in the direction of another ruin known as Prasat Khao Noi. Prasat Khao Noi was inhabited around the 12th – 13th Buddhist century. Today the ruins sit on top of a small hill of about 80 meters and is accessible by a stairway of 254 steps. A lintel and inscription found here dates to 637 AD, but it was most likely reused.
Once done we headed in the direction of Khao Chakan, a beautiful ride through the country side. The weather looked threatening and once we stopped in anticipation of heavy rain, but nothing happened, and we continued along the way. Although a strong wind picked up and dark clouds gathered around us we, miraculously, never got wet and arrived in Khao Chakan bone dry. We found a room at the Bus Resort, where old busses were converted into overnight accommodation – a real novelty.
6 June – Khao Chakan - Sronlai Homestay – 94 km
The section between Khao Chakan and Sronlai Homestay is one of my most favourite rides as one gets to cycle through the Khao Ang Ruenai Wildlife Sanctuary (for the protection of wild elephants). We looked carefully but never saw any elephants, only plenty of curious monkeys. We did, however, see more than enough evidence that they were there. We spotted elephant dung both old and fresh and tree branches broken which I though was, most likely, the work of elephants.
We headed for Sronlai Homestay situated on a dam and where one can either camp or stay in bungalows. I opted for camping while Emiel took a room as he had no tent. I like camping there as one can rent canoes and row on the dam. Emiel claimed that he had no intention of becoming sportsman of the year and suggested we have a beer instead. My rubber arm was easily twisted, and that was exactly what we did.
7 June – Sronlai Homestay – Pluk Daeng – 90 km
We had no fixed destination in mind and it was, as always, a pleasant ride through the countryside, we gave way to water buffalo and watched ladies catching fish in the small ponds. Along the way, we stopped for a breakfast of noodle soup at a very basic roadside stall and (as always) the food was delicious! We passed large pineapple plantations as well as cashew and rubber tree plantations. The very odd-looking cashew with the nut growing on the outside never fails to surprise me!
The road was what I term gently undulating, but Emiel had other terms for describing the day! Eventually, we found a room in Pluk Daeng, a town that was much larger than the map suggested. We had a shower, and then took a walk to a nearby restaurant where (quite understandably) not a word of English was spoken. We pointed to a picture that looked good and waited. Eventually our food arrived in the form of soup with a strange-looking head and eye!! We had a good laugh, ordered more fried rice and ate everything! Eventually, we concluded that it could have been eel, as it did not taste like chicken.
8 June - Pluk Daeng – Jomtien, Pattaya – 46 km
In a light drizzle we slowly made our way back to where we started. It felt strange to cycle into what I call “Sodom and Gomorrah” after spending so much time in the countryside. It was, however, nice to arrive back, and our first stop was at Glen’s Bar for a quick beer to celebrate Emiel’s 1635-kilometre ride through Laos and Thailand. Well done, Emiel, you did amazingly well and it was a relaxing and fun trip!