Around the world by bike
(899km - 26days)
7/8 - 1/9/2016
7-12 August - Bangkok
Shortly after handing in my camera and lenses for repair, I received an email from Canon stating that the repair work was going to take three weeks.
I was at a loss for what to do next, so I rented the room I was in for a week to give myself time to think. I soon got bored as, after a few days running, I picked up a bit of a running injury (arghhh) and could not even do that in the morning. My camera was also my only toy, and I, therefore, had little to entertain myself with. I had some clothes repaired, did the laundry, and spent more money on a rear rack bag. I always say that, if bored in Bangkok, it's one’s own fault, and indeed there was plenty to do, but I was not motivated to do much. Sometimes I just vegetate!
After much deliberation, I finally decided to head for China, as I could still have a few months of relatively good weather up north. As it is easiest to get a Chinese visa in Vientiane, Lao, the plan was to cycle to the border, via a route I have not cycled before, and hopefully, by the time I get there the camera will be fixed. The plan was to bus myself back to Bangkok, collect the camera, bus back, and then cross the border into Lao, get the Chinese visa, bus myself to Kunming, and cycle a route I have not cycled before.
I hope it all works out. In the meantime, I had my hair and feet done, had new sunglasses made, and made an appointment to take the bicycle for a service.
12-17 August - Bangkok
The 12th of August was a public holiday and the Queen’s birthday. Massive celebrations were held all over town, but in light of the recent bombings, I thought it wise to stay away. The touristy Khaosan Road area had a heavy police presence, but I still did not feel comfortable there. Instead, I decided to walk to the MBK building, which was not all that far away if I just walked straight, but with all my wandering about, it took nearly the whole day to walk there and back. I returned with a new Panasonic Lumix compact camera with which to entertain myself.
As I pushed my way passed garland makers, food vendors, and begging bowl-makers to the modern and busy MBK building, I once again realised just how fascinating and diverse Bangkok is. The walk back was rather enjoyable since I took the wrong turn and ended up amongst the people living next to the railway line. What a fascinating area! I found my way out of there with the help of the residents as I would never have managed on my own in that maze of narrow allies. Judging by their reactions, I don’t think any foreigner ever goes there.
The most amazing part of my walkabout with the new camera was not the camera but the fact that I found, right here in Banglamphu, a small community of holdouts famous for making and selling fireworks, breeding fighting cocks and making elaborate birdcages. The 50 households comprising the Pom Mahakan community have been facing eviction for years. In the meantime, life goes on as normal, and the area is still the place to go to in Bangkok to buy fireworks, although now, the fireworks are made in and imported from China. Some of the original homes are now well over 200 years old, and I understand that, in the old days, people from southern Thailand migrated here and brought their skills of making zebra dove and red-whiskered bulbul cages with them. In the centre of the community is a 200-year-old fig tree that people believe can protect them (it had better start doing its job). The oldest house in the community is a beautiful wooden house with a high ceiling. The house belonged to a gold merchant. Apparently, he had collected gold dust by buying clothes and rugs from gold ornament shops, then burnt them down, collecting the gold. How fascinating and to think that all of this was right under my nose, and I'd never known about it.
I was more than ready to roll out of Bangkok and could not resist having one more plate of wanton soup from Hong Kong Noodle. The plan is to bus myself back to collect the lens when ready, but it seems that the universe has other plans for me. The bike shop is still waiting for a derailleur jockey wheel from SRAM. It, therefore, seems that I will be here for at least another day or two. Arghhh, I’m not good at waiting; I guess I’ll just have another plate of dim sum then.
Phew, the bike shop messaged to say I can collect the bicycle tomorrow, bless them! Bok Bok Bike is the best touring bicycle shop in Bangkok, trust me!!! Time to head out of Bangkok as I’m not to be trusted alone in this city!!! LOL
Before picking up my bicycle from the bike shop, I first made a turn in Chinatown for a final plate of dim sum. As always, I was amazed how one can go from the most touristy of areas, where busses are parked two or three deep, to an area where people are still carting their wares in woven baskets and all that in a space of two blocks. I kept walking past traders burning offerings for a good day of business and passed shops selling incense and paper offerings for that very purpose. On I walked past food stalls, richly-decorated Chinese temples, and boy monks on their way to school. It is indeed a fascinating area.
After I had stuffed myself with dim sum, I headed in the opposite direction to collect my bicycle. I nearly did not recognise it as it looked brand new. Bok Bok Bike is one of the finest touring bicycle shops in town, and I’m always surprised at the effort they put in. It’s time to head out of Bangkok; I will bus myself back to collect my camera lens when I get word that it is ready.
18-19 August – Bangkok – Kanchanaburi – 100 km
I finally left Bangkok, and instead of cycling out of the city, I thought it would be a good idea to take a taxi for 25/30 kilometres. Whether that was worth it or not, I’m still not sure. In any event, I was dropped outside the city and then continued on my way. I was still very much in the traffic but eventually found smaller roads.
I love these rural roads as they take one through some weird and wonderful places, to such an extent that I landed up at the local dumps (LOL). On a day when I should have felt full of energy, I had a most terrible day on the road. I had zero energy, aches and pains everywhere, suffered leg cramps, and generally felt unwell. I hoped I was not coming down with something again. I pushed on regardless and reached Kanchanaburi just as the food stalls started coming out, but I did not feel hungry and was more interested in finding a room and lying down. At least in that department, I was in luck and found a bungalow at Rainbow Lodge, right on the river Khwae, and all that for 250 Thai baht.
20 August - Kanchanaburi - Suphan Buri – 100 km
Before leaving, I first stopped at the famous bridge over the River Kwai. I did not think it all that scenic and can understand why South Korea was chosen as the location for the movie. At least it was a much better day on the road; I think partly because I had a tailwind instead of a headwind, and partly because I spent the entire previous day eating. I also invested in some multivitamins; not that I believe in them very much but just in case they actually do work. Whatever it was, I was flying along past rice paddies and fascinating ruins dating back to the Ayutthaya period.
The terrain was mostly low river plains, and therefore pan-flat, making for easy cycling. In U-Thong I stopped briefly to have a look at some old ruins and was astonished at the history of this part of Thailand (U-Thong was the first king of the kingdom of Ayutthaya reigning from 1350 to 1369, and the district is named after him). After that, I continued to Suphan Buri.
At first, I thought of camping somewhere along the road, but once again it turned out to be such an interesting city that I turned off into the town past the very striking Pillar Shrine with an immense statue of a dragon. Apparently, the shrine was once a Thai-style wooden shrine but later renovated in the Chinese style. Today, it houses a four-handed god Vishnu, worshiped by both Thais and Chinese. I easily found a room but was fooled by the appearance of the Mind Hotel. From the outside, it looked very nice, and I only had a very quick peek at the room, and because it was a ground floor room with air-conditioning for 400 Thai baht, I thought it a bargain. Once inside the room, I realized that it was not the bargain I thought!!! The curtains were so old, they were in shreds but still something I could live with. It was the bed that got me! The mattress was so worn that when I sat on it, I completely disappeared (LOL). I wanted to take a selfie, but you would not have been able to see me! The Snow White bedding was in no better condition than the curtains, and I feared that bedbugs would be part and parcel of the deal.
21 August - Suphan Buri – Sing Buri – 81 km
Before I left, I popped into a few temples. First up was Wat Phra Rup. It is said that the temple dates back over 600 years and that the rather large, reclining Buddha statue has the most beautiful face in all of Thailand—umm, I’m not so sure of that one. Next was Wat Phra Srirattana Mahathat, which was once situated in the heart of the old city and still houses a few lovely ruins. Wat Khae on the outskirts of town is home to a 1000-year-old tamarind tree, or so they say. The tree is now rather spread out and adorned with Buddha statues (as can be expected).
It was an exceptionally nice day because the entire route to Sing Buri was on rural roads and, although blistering hot, was an absolute pleasure. At first, I followed a river, and it was a fascinating ride through rural villages going about their daily business. I was kept company by butterflies and dragonflies as I cycled past rice and sugarcane plantations. It would have been a perfect day was it not for a puncture. Fortunately, I’m quite good at fixing flat tyres by now and was soon on my way again. As always, I was amazed at all the interesting things to see in the countryside. It was a day filled with very ornate temples and Buddhas, one larger than the other. I passed buffalo villages and the Monument of Bang Rachan Heroes, built in honour of the villagers of Bang Rachan who bravely fought against the Burmese army in 1765. Every day I learn something new. Unfortunately, I forget it just as quickly.
22-23 August – Sing Buri – Lop Buri – 30 km
What a surprising day it turned out to be! I left Sing Buri with the intention of heading out in the direction of the Lao border, which was about 560 kilometres away.
The route I chose looked like it had little in the line of facilities, so I made sure I had all I needed and was ready to camp along the way. I set off through the market area and soon found myself on a small rural road along a canal, which was beautiful. The closer I got to Lop Buri, the more I started dreaming about the food at NooM Guest House! Just like that, all my plans went out the door, and I turned down for Lop Buri and headed straight for NooM Guest House.
Lop Buri, or Lopburi, is an ancient town with plenty of old ruins, and the old city is still occupied by ordinary Thai people living and working amongst ruins dating back to both the Khmer and Ayuthaya periods. Even though I have been here a few times, I still marvel at the idea that you can cycle into a town and slap-bang in front of you is a 600-year-old temple with its resident troop of monkeys. Even more remarkable is that people live amongst these ruins, and one can see them jutting out behind modern buildings. It is therefore not strange to find them forming the main roundabout in town. Remarkable! I spent the rest of the day eating, doing laundry, and fixing punctured tubes.
My laundry only got back quite late so I stayed another day doing very little.
24 August - Lopburi – roadside camp – 96 km
I felt amazingly good; it must have been all that eating I had done. It was a lovely ride, at first along a canal and then along Route 205. It was not an area where much was happening, except for farmlands and small villages. There was, however, more than I had expected, with plenty of roadside stalls and shops to keep me fed and watered.
In the afternoon, dark clouds started forming, and soon I could hear rumbling, the tell-tale sign of an approaching storm. Soon big drops started falling, and I took shelter in a nearby police booth. Although there was no one there, it looked well used. After looking around, I discovered a perfect camping spot behind the building; it was undercover with an electrical point. On the other side of the building were two toilets, one with a large drum of water, and that, coupled with the fact that there was a small restaurant right next door, made me decide to camp right there. It was still fairly early, and I had only done 96 kilometres, but it was such a good spot that I could not pass it by. I asked the lady at the restaurant for permission to camp, and it appeared that I was not the first one with such a request, as she understood quite well what I wanted. Ideally, I would have loved to have done another 20 kilometres or so, making it two even days to the next town.
I set up camp, got a beer and a mosquito coil from the restaurant, and at around 18h00, I was called to join them for supper. How sweet of them, and how interesting the food was! A salad of fresh green beans and bamboo shoots was served with fried fish, a pork and cassava dish, as well as an omelette, accompanied, of course, with rice and a very spicy chilli sauce. The food was delicious, and once again, I wished I spoke the language.
25 August – roadside camp – Ban Kok– 106 km
I was up early as my camp was next to a busy and noisy highway. I packed up, waved my family from the restaurant goodbye, and headed for the misty hills. The road stretched out in front of me, and once again, I had that feeling of an immense sense of freedom. The road is my home, and I was happy about it.
At one of my water points, a lovely Thai couple stopped and said that they had seen me along the road the previous day and wanted to inquire where I was from and where I was going. Where I'm from is easy to explain, but where I'm going is not always so. They kindly gave me their phone numbers in case I ever needed help in Thailand. How sweet of them!
The weather looked threatening all day, and at around 15h00 hours, there was no escaping it anymore. I waited the worse out under one of the bridges and then continued to the next town. This time, I took a room as I was dripping wet and started feeling cold. Afterwards, I took a walk to the market to get some food, and I felt that I was the main attraction in town. LOL, maybe I was as I’m not sure if any farangs ever stop in Ban Kok!
26 August – Ban Kok – Kaeng Khro – 108 km
Some days, I can't get myself going; if it's not one thing, it's another. Yesterday, every 10 kilometres or so, there was something I wanted to adjust. Then, I stopped to take some pictures and then I popped in at a supermarket, and before I knew it, it was midday, and I had done hardly 50 kilometres. Not that I was much in a hurry as I had received an email from Canon, and it sounded like they expected to repair the lens only after the first week in September! I'm less than 300 kilometres away from the Lao border, so I will be dragging my heels for the next few days. I also could not make up my mind as to what direction I wanted to go, and after passing by Chaiyaphum, I took Route 202 but then changed my mind, turned around, and headed out to Route 201.
The path I chose crossed a beautiful part of Thailand with rolling hills and rocky outcrops. The day was blistering hot, and not a cloud could be seen in the sky. The mushrooms sold at roadside stalls were a clear sign that I was in a wooded area. A road sign indicated a 1000-year-old cycad forest, but it was 45 kilometres off the road, and I was not sure whether it would be worth it, so I continued on.
As I neared Kaeng Khro, clouds moved in, and soon it started raining. I asked around for a room, and after much difficulty, I was pointed in the direction of SK Place, a lovely hotel with good quality rooms behind the local school for 350 Thai baht. The local corner restaurant provided the usual noodle soup and beer. All this happened to the great amusement of the locals, as no word of English is spoken in this town. Not even the word “hotel” was understood! Sometimes it’s really nice to go into a room and close the door behind yourself, just to be out of the public eye. There is no hiding if you are a farang woman on a bicycle – you stick out like a sore thumb, and the entire town is aware of your whereabouts.
27 August - – Kaeng Khro – Ubolratana – 109 km
It was a typical day on the road in Thailand. Rice fields, sugarcane plantations, temples, Buddha statues, and cattle with very long ears abounded! I passed the ever-present noodle and chicken barbeque stalls, after which I turned off and headed in the direction of Ubol Ratana Dam. What a magnificent ride it was! With the dam on the one side and a national park on the other, it was a very scenic ride.
Tiny villages, where the main roads smelled of cow dung, lined the road, and farmers looked up in surprise from their afternoon naps as I cycled past. I thought of finding lodging overlooking the dam, but that, unfortunately, did not work out. However, I found perfectly good digs in town at the Reaun Araya Spa; so called, due to a rather nice swimming pool. Sometimes I live the good life!
28 -30 August – Ubolratana – Udon Thani – 115 km
I first had breakfast (included in the price, how nice) then loaded the bike and slowly made my way to Udon Thani—not that I initially planned to go there, but that was where I landed up at the end of the day. Three times I got rained out and had to take shelter, and as I cycled into Udon Thani, the heavens opened up again. This time, I had no patience for waiting it out, so I donned my bright orange poncho and pushed on into the city centre—cape flying in the wind like I was some superhero.
What a mess it was! The streets were totally flooded, traffic came to a standstill, and shop owners were frantically trying to divert the water away from their doors. I was in search of a hotel but had no signal on my phone and could not, in any case, risk taking it out in the heavy downpour. Hectic stuff. Eventually, it was safer to push the bicycle along; even then the water was getting stronger and stronger, and I feared I was going to disappear down some hole! Phew, what a mission it was!! Eventually, I found the Kings Hotel, where one can get a huge room (albeit on the worn side) for 270 TBH; I was more than happy for the warm shower and dry clothes. Time for a beer.
I spent the entire day eating! I started with a huge plate of Thai curry from the market in the morning, then continued snacking through the day on doughnuts, chocolate brownies and pastries. As the sun was setting, I was down to my last bag of fruit, and had no intention of giving up, and intended finishing it off before nightfall.
31 Aug – Udon Thani – Nong Khai – 54 km
I only woke after 08h00; it must have been all the eating from the day before that exhausted me! Fuelled by an excess of calories, I flew down the road to Nong Khai, which was only 50 kilometres away. Nong Khai is a border town (with Lao) and is a pretty location on the Mekong River.
All the way, I practised the speech that I was going to deliver to Canon on arrival in Nong Khai. The repair work on the lens was only supposed to take two weeks, and it was now nearly a month. I was ready for them!! Nevertheless, it was once again an enjoyable ride past huge Buddha statues, feather duster and broom salesmen, and delicious coconut stands. The juice of these roasted coconuts is wonderfully sweet, as cooking concentrates the natural sugars, as well as loosens the flesh. The meat can easily be peeled off and eaten without the need for a spoon, and I was still chewing on it a good couple of kilometres down the road.
On arrival in Nong Khai, I headed straight for the Mut Mee Guesthouse, as it is famous for its good location on the Mekong, its large variety of budget rooms and its lovely garden restaurant. What more could one ask for? However, the speech that I had so carefully practised along the way, came to nothing, as there was an email from Canon, stating that my camera lens was ready for collection! Hallelujah! They must have heard that speech coming!! There and then, I jumped on a tuk-tuk to the train station and bought a ticket on the night train to Bangkok.
1 September - Bangkok
The train arrived at 6h00, which was right on time, at the Bangkok station. The MBK Centre (where I was headed) opened at 10h00, so, first, I had a cup of coffee at the station and, then, walked the two kilometres or so to the city centre.
It was still too early when I reached the city centre, and I decided to have another cuppa at Starbucks. I strolled around the mall, amazed at all the products that were on sale. I picked up the lens and, then, headed to the Human Body Museum, a truly bizarre place. It is easily one of the weirdest places I have ever visited. There were 14 dissected human bodies on display, and I found it to be a wee bit disturbing, seeing them life-like but without skin! Weird! I spent a whole lot of money on things that I needed and on things I did not need at all (but, at that time, I thought that I could not live without); that’s what happens when one wanders around shopping malls. My train back was, again, the night train, so I had a whole day to kill in Bangkok. As always, Bangkok never failed to amaze as I strolled past sweet-smelling flower garlands, street musicians and a one-armed lady, who was noisy, selling small birds for release. Back at the station, I had a shower for 10 TBH, drank more coffee, and updated my photos.