(Janice & Chris)
(1 111km - 21days)
13/03 – 02/04/2018
Day 31 - 13 March – Savannakhet – Mukdahan – 15 km
Checkout from our guesthouse was at 12h00, but I could only pick up my visa after 14h00; an excellent excuse for coffee and cake. Afterwards, I cycled off to the consulate while Janice and Chris proceeded to the border. I collected my visa and met them at the immigration checkout point. Cycling across the Friendship Bridge wasn’t allowed, and bus tickets were sold to ferry people across. Two buses arrived, but none had space for the bicycles. When the third one came, we were first in line and could load two bikes. I decided to make a break for the Thai border, and as the bus left, I sped across the bridge to great protest of border officials. I pretended not to hear and made it to the other side without being chased down, LOL.
Once checked in at the Thailand immigration, it was a short and pleasant ride into Mukdahan town, where a Buddhist temple provided a place to sleep, and food was had from the many available options.
Well-rested it was off at a good pace, and our route ran close to the Mekong River, and albeit hilly at times, it was comfortable riding to the small village of Khemmarat.
As always, temples made for convenient camping, and at Wat Pho, the monks didn’t only allow camping but promptly pointed us to a lovely room. The room even had an air-conditioning unit as well as plenty of mats and pillows. Comfortably ensconced in our abode, the heavens opened up, and it didn’t take long to discover why the mats were all piled up in one corner. The roof wasn’t only leaking, but water came pouring in as if through a misplaced gutter. It was a mad scramble to get all electronics out of harm’s way and to move our mats to the driest corner of the room. Fortunately, rain in Southeast Asia came quick and hard and soon it was all over.
Day 33 - 15 March - Khemmarat – Ban Pakhachomson - Ubon Ratchathani – 42km & 105 km by bus
As was the habit by then, we woke at 5h00 and headed out at around 6h30 following a pleasant rural road past the smallest of villages. I was always in awe of how peaceful these communities were. Cattle grazed in backyards, kids travelled to school on tiny bicycles, and women sold snacks at roadside stalls while men herd goats and cattle.
The map indicated a slightly hilly day, and it was no exaggeration. On reaching Ban Pakhachomson, we called it a halt and instead took a bus to Ubon. Once in Ubon, it was only a six-kilometre cycle into the city centre, where we tried our luck at sleeping at two of the local temples, but without any success. It was always far more challenging to get permission to sleep at temples in big cities, especially if there were plenty of guesthouses and hotels. Eventually, the Ubon Hotel, right across from the night market, made a perfect overnight stop. Albeit pricey, it was very conveniently located. It was also one of the few rooms where the water pressure was (nearly) high enough to blow me out the door. If I didn’t move very quickly, outstretching arms and legs, I could have been blown right out the door into the passage! I’m not kidding you!
Day 34 - 16 March - Ubon Ratchathani – Si Sa Khet – 86 km
It was a lovely day of cycling along small roads and rural settlements. On arrival in Si Sa Khet, we couldn’t sleep at the city temple but found camping at a more secluded temple about six kilometres out of town.
Day 35 - 17 March - Si Sa Khet – Khun Han - 78 km
The weather was good as it was overcast and perfect for cycling. Scrawny cows with long ears were grazing in dry rice fields, and smoke billowed from charcoal pits as our route headed south to Khun Han.
On arrival at Khun Han, we headed straight for the local temple known as Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew (The Temple of a Million Bottles). The temple was made of over 1.5 million Heineken and Chang beer bottles. The original temple was built in 1984, but the monks continued to expand the site, and at the time of our visit there were more than 20 structures, including sleeping bungalows and ablutions. Then it was off to the nearby lake in the hope of finding camping, but there was none to be found, and instead we headed to the local town temple where camping was allowed under a covered area.
Day 36 - 18 March - Khun Han – Surin – 120 km
We rolled into Surin just before six after cycling the megadistance of 120 kilometres. Needless to say, there were a few sore backsides. Saying that, I think all was chuffed with themselves for cycling such a long distance. After a quick shower, it was time for a Chang beer (or two) and dim-sum from the stall outside the hotel entrance.
Day 37 - 19 March - Surin
The following day was a well-deserved rest day in Surin as all had different things they wanted to do and see.
Day 38 - 20 March - Surin – Buri Ram Forest Park – 60 km
What a lovely day of cycling it turned out to be. As always, our path followed country lanes through rural villages where cattle had the right of way and were kept in front yards or under stilted homes. Old ladies worked in the fields while men collected animal feed. We cycled past rice fields and small communities where the main junction was the local well. The road abruptly ended at a railway line, resulting in us having to carry our bikes across; not an easy task. On arrival at Buri Ram Forest Park, basic camping was provided, and one could pitch the tents under a covered area. Although there was no electricity, there were clean toilets where one could wash.
Buri Ram Forest Park consisted of an extinct volcano which rose 265 metres and was home to the Devil Yoni Tree found only in volcanic areas. Chris kept the fort while Janice and I walked to the top and came down the 297 Naga Raj steps, with Buddha statues in various poses.
On a heavily overcast morning, we cycled out of Buri Ram, which made for easy biking. It was a fun day of cycling, and what I consider real cycle touring. We turned off to visit the Phanom Rung Historical Park, and as it was located up a steep hill, I offloaded my panniers at a shop at the start of the climb and cycled past Janice and Chris, who were both labouring up the hill loaded with panniers. They weren’t amused.
A good laugh was had at the silly situation while strolling around ruins dating back a thousand years. The park was located at the top of an extinct volcano situated 400 metres above sea level. It’s assumed the buildings were constructed in the 10th to the 13th century and that it was also a Hindu shrine dedicated to Shiva.
Karma nearly got me as it became slightly cold up on the hill, and I didn’t have a warm top with me. Phew! I almost had to ask to borrow a long-sleeved sweater, LOL.
Once back to our original route, it was a short five-kilometre ride to Ban Khok Mueang where the local temple, Wat Prasat Buraparam, again made for easy camping. The platform where they indicated we could pitch our tents first needed cleaning after which Janice and I visited the Ancient Prasat Muang Tam. We had the ruins all to ourselves as all visitors had left, and we were the only ones there. However, hunger pangs drove us back, and we were lucky to find a still open, excellent noodle soup restaurant.
Day 40 - 22 March - Ban Khok Mueang (Wat Prasat Buraparam) – Wat Mai Thai Thavorn – 65 km
Our packing up woke the temple dogs, which started barking continuously. By the time the monks began beating the gong, the dogs were in full swing and went from barking to howling. What a racket!
Our early start made for a lovely morning ride. Plans were to camp at Lam Nang Rong Dam, but we got there too early and decided to continue to Ta Phraya National Park. Once over the mountain, camping at the park was allowed, but the food stalls were another three kilometres down the road.
In the process of looking for food, we located not only the food stalls but also a temple to camp at. Wat Mai Thi Thavorn looked slightly forlorn, but the monks pointed us to a structure on the far side of the property. The hall was dirty and dusty, and it took sweeping and dusting for hours, and after cleaning the Buddha and lighting a few incense sticks, the place was transformed into a very usable hall. The monks must have been very impressed with our efforts as they provided us with water, extension leads, and even toilet paper! Before sunset, a quick cycle to the food stalls provided ample to eat and drink.
Day 41 & 42 - 23-24 March - Wat Mai Thai Thavorn – Aranya Prathet – 62 km
As was our habit by then, it was up at five and on the road shortly after six. An overcast day with a tailwind made for comfortable riding into Aranya Prathet where there was a planned rest day. The previous day I broke a spoke and needed to have it replaced. Aran Garden Hotel 1 was well priced and especially convenient for bicycle travellers as one could cycle straight into an undercover area.
It was time to do laundry and catch up on a few outstanding things before hitting the streets for our evening meal. The following day was a rest day, perfect for doing little repair jobs and stocking up on essential stuff.
The first stop of the day was the ruins of Prasat Khao Noi. The ruins (a Hindu shrine) were located on top of Khao Noi, a limestone hill. Initially, the sanctuary consisted of three prangs, of which only the one in the middle remained at the time of our visit. One of the lintels discovered here dates back to the seventh century. Excavations revealed exciting artefacts as well as a stone lintel with inscriptions dating back to 637 AD. The lintel was, most likely, reused. On leaving, our path led through the Sunday market, which was somewhat unusual, both for us and the locals.
We took to picking up seeds from the various trees. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be quite fascinating, and each one unique. Some were light and fluffy, others sticky or thorny, and some seeds were even inside a rather solid shell that popped open with a tremendous bang and shot them a fair distance away.
Eventually, we arrived at Khao Chakan Forest Park, with its three big limestone mountains and many caves. A rather steep flight of stairs led to a large hole in the mountain with a magnificent view of the countryside. The park would have been great for camping, but the thousands of monkeys made us look for alternative accommodation. In the process, we found an extraordinary resort, also known as the Bus Resort. It consisted of buses converted into overnight accommodation, all fitted with air-conditioning, fridges and bathrooms.
Day 44 - 26 March - Khao Chakan Forest Park – Sronlai Homestay – 94 km
It was another fantastic day on the road. The path winded over the hills and through Khao Ang Rue Nai Wildlife Sanctuary, where plenty of fresh elephant dung was spotted on the way but, unfortunately, no wild elephants. Once over the mountains, it was a downhill ride to the small town of Khlong Takao.
The plan was to camp on the opposite side of the dam, and the map indicated a shortcut via the dam wall. The dam wall was, however, flooded, making for a much longer day than expected. Sronlai Homestay provided idyllic camping, and as soon as the sun started heading for the horizon, we paddled out and had a most relaxing paddle around the dam.
Day 45 - 27 March - Sronlai Homestay – Phanat Nikhom – 76 km
What a fabulous day of riding it turned out to be. Country roads led us past rubber tree plantations and farmers preparing rice fields. Atop a hill and after scaling a steep flight of stairs, one could admire not only the view but also a dimly-lit sanctuary with many dusty Buddha statues tucked away inside.
On cycling into Phanat Nikhom, a sign pointed to the weaving market and factory. Some time was spent admiring their remarkable work as well as the largest hand-woven basket in the world. Then, it was off to find accommodation which we did at a temple outside the city. It was a busy temple with far too many temple dogs. A few broom and feather duster salesmen also pulled in to overnight at the temple. They were very well organised with sleeping mats and even fans and cooking equipment.
Day 46 - 28 March - Phatnat Nikhom – Chachoengsao – 65 km
It was a somewhat noisy night, partly because the dogs went ballistic every time someone went to the toilet, and partly due to the Wat being on a busy highway. The temple had extensive grounds, and during the night, a few trucks also pulled in. From early morning, there was revving of lorries, beating of gongs, dogs going wild, and the general noise from the highway. We packed up, waved goodbye to the feather duster salesmen and monks, and set off with the temple dogs in tow.
It took us precisely two kilometres before turning off and finding the most tranquil rural road. With a sigh of relief, we slowly made our way to Chachoengsao via small roads. Our country lane came to an abrupt end at roadworks, but a super-helpful farmer escorted us on his motorbike via a path not indicated on the map.
Once in Chachoengsao, we headed through the busy city to the old market situated on the banks of the Bang Pakong River. It’s said the market was over 100 years old. Unfortunately, the market was closed at the time, and all one could do was to wander around admiring the old wooden structures. As is the custom, some people live above their shops, and they were extremely friendly, inviting us to sample their specialities. After coffee at the little coffee shop overlooking the river, it was time to look for accommodation for the night.
Day 47 - 29 March - Chachoengsao – Bangkok - by train
The previous night a decision was made to take the train into Bangkok instead of cycling into the city through heavy traffic. As there were a wide variety of trains to pick from, there was no hurry, and we could cycle to the station at leisure. I woke to a flat tyre, and as Janice and Chris were already packed and ready, they cycled off while I fixed my puncture. Upon my arrival at the station, however, Janice and Chris were nowhere to be seen. Somehow, they cycled to the bus station about one kilometre north of the station. Eventually, they arrived, and it was on the train and into Bangkok. From the Bangkok railway station, it was a short six-kilometre ride to Banglamphu and to the Bamboo Guesthouse where Janice and Chris left their bike boxes. It was, as always, an unsatisfying way to end a cycling trip, but the traffic was far too hectic to try and cycle into the city centre.
Day 48 - 30 March - Bangkok
The following day a canal ferry ride took me to the centre of town to collect my new passport from the embassy, only to find it was a South African public holiday and the office closed until April 3. I took a walk around the shops and eventually walked all the way back to our accommodation in Banglampu. Afterwards, a short cycle to Bok Bok Bike where I handed my bicycle in for a service and to fit two new rims as well as a new front fork. My front luggage rack was broken and was being held in place by cable ties, which wasn’t a very stable setup. A rack for a fork with shocks was a rather difficult item to get hold of, and it was much easier to go for a fixed fork instead. As expected, it all cost a pretty penny, but there wasn’t much one could do about it.
In the meantime, Janice and Chris packed their bicycles back in the boxes for flying home, but there was still a good few days to explore Bangkok and the surrounding area. That evening we met up with Tania as well as Rodd, an amiable chap from New Zealand.
Day 49 - 31 March - Bangkok
The previous night arrangements were made with Rodd to join us for a day’s excursion to the Samut Songkhram Railway Market and nearby floating market of Amphawa. It was an early start to catch a taxi for the short ride to Wonwian Yai Station where the train was right in the middle of the road. The train to Maha Chai station was only 10 THB and once at Maha Chai station, we found one had to catch a ferry across the river as there was no train bridge; again, the fee was a mere 3 THB. A short walk brought us to Ban Laem Station from where it was another 10 THB train ride to Samut Songkhram.
The Railway Market was quite an extraordinary place where the market spilt over onto the rail tracks, leaving no space for a train. Once a train approached, the traders hurriedly picked up their wares, allowing the train to pass, and once the train had passed, everything was put back in place, and trading continued as if nothing happened. After a bowl of noodle soup, it was on to the floating market by Songthaew (or Baht Bus). Our arrival at Amphawa Floating Market was at midday, and in the sweltering heat. A 50 THB canal tour was the perfect option. The trip took more than two hours, and on our return, the weather was much more bearable, and one could walk around and sample the food at leisure. A minivan ride took us back to Bangkok where it was straight to the Gecko Bar for a beer.
Day 50 - 1 April – Bangkok
Together with Rodd, a bus was taken to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. As always, I spent more money than I had intended, but the stalls were all fascinating and inviting. After walking for hours, it was a relief to sit down for coffee before catching the bus back to Banglamphu. As usual, the search of a 70 THB beer was on, which was found right on Khao San Road and where one could sit on small plastic chairs outside the 7-11 and watch the world go by.
Day 51 - 2 April – Bangkok
Meanwhile, Janice bought me a camera backpack as a thank you gift. I was somewhat embarrassed by this very generous token of appreciation, but at the same time, I was over the moon about my present and had it on my back for the rest of the day.
Then it was time for Janice and Chris to hail a taxi to the airport for their flight back to Cape Town. So came to an end their bicycle tour of Southeast Asia.