Thailand, “The land of smiles”, oh boy does it live up to its name.
Landing in Saturn, the southwestern coastal city of Thailand, by ferry was an exciting time as we had a new outlook on our journey or a new “lease on life”. Instead of taking the easy and expensive route by staying in paid accommodation, we decided to put ourselves out of our comfort zone by finding more opportunities to camp. After meeting a cycle tourist named Walter in Langkawi, Malaysia (see our Travelling Malaysia Blog), we were determined to change our way of travel and create opportunities to experience something completely different. This meant we could travel for as long as possible before having to stop to work or return home to Aus.
Our first day riding through Thailand happened to fall on the Thailand New Year holiday ‘Songkran’. It can be loosely described as a massive country wide water fight. The festivities mainly take place on the street at the curb-side where family members of all ages fill buckets of water, use hoses and water pistols or clamber into the back of Hilux ute trays with super soaker in hand and pop music blaring out the cabin of the truck searching for others to drench from head to toe. The “gentle splashing” of water actually symbolises cleansing and renewal in their culture which was quite sweet. Although, cycling through the festivities meant we were saturated practically all day. They also smear coloured face paint all over you and give blessings, but after some time the paint starts to sting and burn. Luckily at every 20 metre stretch down the road there was someone new to throw water on us to wash it off.
After riding 100km that day we made it to Hat Yai, located along the eastern coastline of southern Thailand, and cycled into the Buddhist temple which hosted the 3rd largest reclining buddha in Thailand (Wat Hat Yai Nai). We had decided to test out our nerve and ask if we could camp at the temple. If permitted by the monks, you can camp at the any of the thousands of temples in Thailand. I’m not sure if it was the convincing hand gestures or the fact we were still covered in face paint/still drenched in water from the days celebrations and they felt sorry for us, but the monks decided to let us stay for the night. We were kindly given a place to stay inside with a fan, in a large room along with other visiting monks from other monasteries. Additionally, we were provided a place to shower plus a bunch of bananas by one of the monks. At 5am, we were woken to the strange sounds of chanting monks. A daily morning occurrence which, if you are lucky enough to experience this melodic yet entrancing sound, is something that leaves you feeling in a lucid and peaceful state. This was our first of many temples that we slept at during our time in Thailand and we really cherished every experience.
We were also told that the Highway Police were very kind to cycle tourists too. They could offer a place to camp for the night or perhaps could provide a room with facilities. As we rode we found Highway Police road side stops that were specifically created as public rest stops and a symbol of a bicycle on the wall identified that they were made with regard for cyclists. They were perfect for cycle tourers to stop at during the heat of the day for some free water, ice, coffee and bathroom breaks. There were nights when we even stayed at highway police stations. The police were surprisingly helpful and very generous with providing places to stay, water and amenities.
After just over 4 weeks on the road cycling almost everyday, making the decision to take some time out and learn to dive was an easy choice. Leaving the ferry/port city of Surat Thani we soon arrived on the island of Koh Tao, ‘The Turtle Island’, a small island off the eastern coastline of southern Thailand. Almost instantly we were taken in by a great group of friends by whom were newly accredited free dive instructors. It became quite evident to us that everyone who came to the island was either learning to dive or learning to become an instructor. A fellow cycle tourist, Nicholas from France, who was taking a break from the road and living in Koh Tao, was our link to this group of friends and he was also a huge source of information regarding cycling touring.
We had a choice to make on the Island: learn to scuba dive or learn to free dive. Each choice had it’s own unique, appealing characteristics and by the second day we had decided to try both. Within one week we were accredited ‘SSI level 1 Free Divers’ and ‘Level 1 Scuba Open Water Divers’ which meant we are qualified to free dive and scuba dive to depths of 20m. After the free diving course were now able to reach 20 metres in a single breath which we were pretty stoked about. Koh Tao ticks all the boxes of a beautiful tropical island. Even though it is overrun by tourists and party animals, it has a relaxed feel to the island. Learning to dive, particularly free diving, we see in hindsight was an important individual goal for both of us and the island had some superb diving spots. For the price and the location, it is no wonder this is one of the most popular places to learn to dive in the world.
Departing Koh Tao, we caught the overnight ferry to Champhun, exiting the ferry at 5am in the morning. We rode for 9 hours through sporadic torrential rainfall that slowly drowned our excitement of being back on the road. The rainy season had well and truly started in Thailand at this stage. The days following were pretty rubbish comprising of stomach bugs and so many flat tyres that John can now change a tyre blindfolded.
Although we did camp along some of the most stunning coastline in the world, there was still the heat and random noise to deal with. We planned to wake early to catch the sunrise about three days in a row but realised once the alarm went off, we were too tired from the restless night’s sleep, so we would turn the alarm off and fall back to sleep to miss it each time. Comparing the camping of Thailand to Australia, it’s really quite different. In Thailand it is always hot. You go to bed sweaty. You sweat in the tent even more. When you wake up, you sweat again. Then you get rained on, but it doesn’t matter you’re already drenched by your own sweat. You don’t wake to the rays of the morning sunshine and the birds singing like you would in Australia, you are generally woken up multiple times in the night by packs of dogs barking and fighting, truck driving past, motor bike engines with the mufflers removed because the kids think it’s cool (which let me tell you its not!!!), or just the locals speaking loudly somewhere close by. It can be difficult camping at times, but we still say the views and people we meet from camping are so worth it.
We had read that the traffic in Bangkok was hectic with cars, motobikes and tuk tuks making it impossible to navigate the city. So we decided to catch a train from Hua Hin, located about 100 to 150 km south of Bangkok, into the centre of the city. We arrived mid-morning, approximately 10:30am, at Hua Hin train station where we thought we could catch a train straight away and arrive in Bangkok in time by nightfall. Now we were told by multiple cycle tourists and cycling blogs that catching a train with your bikes in Thailand was easy and you don’t necessarily have to wait for the cargo train as they will put your bike on a normal passenger train too. However, what we experienced on that particular day was a little different. We all have nightmare travel moments which are sometimes hard to forget... for us this was one of those. A train station in a non-english speaking country can get a little confusing at times. The information we received from station staff was very contradictory… “you wait…train at 2pm”…. We come back at 2pm…”no not this train wait until 4pm”…We come back at 4pm…”No not this train you come back at 12:30am”….It continued a few times like this with no much help from the public transport staff. Usually Thai people are very friendly but the interviewer for public transport staff in Thailand must only choose the most obnoxious and rude people that Thailand has to offer. After 14 hours of waiting, we finally got to catch the train with our bikes on a separate cargo carriage at 1:30am the next morning. We were exhausted but relieved to finally get onto the train and be making our way to Bangkok. I managed to get about an hour of sleep amongst the insanely loud clanging of the carriages and the awful smell of the toilet as well as the loud yelling of the sales people walking around at every stop. Why people need to eat snacks and full meals at that time I don’t know.
Prior to arriving in Bangkok, we had organised a ‘work for accommodation’ deal at a friendly little hostel. At 5am we arrived in Bangkok and were lucky enough to get a sleep once finally arriving at our destination of Fu House Hostel.
We planned to work for our accommodation for the next 2 weeks while we worked out what we needed to do next including visas and our basic route. John took duties at the hostel working on the front desk checking in guests and some cleaning tasks whilst I cycled 30 minutes each day to and from the hostel through Bangkok’s crazy traffic to a Restaurant called “Tasty Healthy”, that I worked at making and serving food and drinks. The manager of the hostel ‘Red’ was also helping to manage the restaurant, hence why I was there.
During our 2 weeks in Bangkok we were lucky enough to meet some unforgettable people (Red, Agha, Yousif, Wade, RJ, Mark and Chay) through both the hostel and the restaurant. We were able to go sightseeing with our new friends and our good friend Agha convinced us to go to Pakistan, through all his great stories and recommendations. Unfortunately, we couldn’t obtain the visa for Pakistan as it needs to be completed in your home country, but it is high on our list of places to visit upon our return home to Australia. We had some great adventures especially one specific day with a local Thai cycle tourist who we had met back in Malaysia ‘Kitiphong’ and his daughter ‘Bright’. These two kind souls took us on a day tour of a selection of the great sights and experiences that Bangkok has to offer.
For a traveller there is so much to see and do in Bangkok, from fantastic markets, lovely parks and lakes, beautiful temples and our favourite thing was the boat rides along the canals of the rivers through the city (see our ‘5 Best Free Things To Do In Bangkok Blog’).
During our down time at the hostel we were working out our route and applying for visa’s. We had determined that our initial route through Myanmar to India was in fact not possible. Unless of course you were an Indian returning to your home in India from Myanmar, this was not able to be achieved passing across the border in Myanmar. So instead, our new route was produced which consisted of us cycling the ‘Old Silk Road’ passing through Laos, China, the ‘Steppe’ countries, Iran, Turkey and into Europe.
Setting off from Bangkok in the early morning we felt free again. We were back on the road and were soo happy to be, even if it was a whopping 36 degrees outside. It was difficult to ride as we were experiencing some overheating, but it was great to be continuing our adventure that the heat could not burn out our spirits. Our second day back on the road it was my birthday, we had decided to sleep in a little then visit the famous Wat Mahathat (Temple of the Buddha head tree) in Ayutthaya which was one of the highlights of the trip. This day we rode only 40 kms, with no plans for a place to sleep for the night except that we would try to camp at a temple. A common theme on our travels through Thailand, was that most days we just rode in a certain direction, towards a city, until we were too tired to keep riding, or it was late in the afternoon. Then we would rely on the generosity of the Monks or highway police, who would let us pitch a tent for the night somewhere in the temple or station. During this particular afternoon, we were riding along when all of a sudden, the wind picked up dramatically. We were frantically looking for a place to take refuge as the sky grew very dark, we crossed a bridge, but we were almost being pushed backwards as the winds were as powerful as a miniature hurricane. Luckily, we spotted a temple, which wasn’t on the map, but we turned into the gates and proceeded to watch the intense electrical storm that took over the sky. Once the rain stopped, we ventured out to find some dinner but soon noticed that the storm had taken out the power to the village. Walking for what seemed a lifetime, we finally found a restaurant that was cooking. It grew dark as the sun went down and as we ate we were lucky enough to have a candlelit dinner. Plus, I got to blow out a candle on my 31st birthday.
Chiang Mai was our first opportunity to relax and recuperate. There we spent 3 days with John’s cousin from Australia ‘Monica’, who was also visiting Thailand and had flown in to spend some time with us. The city of Chiang Mai can be described as the modern cultural and arts capitol of Thailand. It is famous for it’s relaxed, reggae feel and, unfortunately, it is famous for captive tigers, elephants and other exotic animals of Thailand. They say that these animals are well treated or held in a sanctuary which maybe true but in Thailand it’s hard to see through the mist of lies in tourist areas. The tuk tuk driver also told us we have “special discount”…we both didn’t believe him.
During our time in Chiang Mai we decided to enjoy a yoga class and have a well-deserved traditional Thai massage. I also managed to get my bicycle serviced and upgraded my seat to a Brooks leather saddle. This might have been one of the best choices on our trip so far.
Moving further northwest of Thailand from Chiang Mai, the weather became cooler as we drew closer towards the mountains and the border with Laos. We were lucky enough to experience a couple of cool nights in the tent, although still never using our sleeping bags, which we’d been carting around for the past 2 ½ months. Just outside of Chiang Rai surrounded by mountains and farm land, we ended our last week in Thailand experiencing the countryside and mountain top views with a new friend and generous coffee farmer, Kong. We met Kong through the famous cycle touring website “warmshowers”. Kong let us stay two nights and took us around his small village located between the cities of Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong. He taught us how to make the local cuisine of thai spicy pork with basil (Kun Put Kapow Moo) our favourite thai dish, as well as brewing us some sensational coffees that were fresh from his farm on the mountain.
To end our trip through Thailand, before the border crossing at Chiang Khong, we stayed at our last temple. The monks here spoke a little bit of English and we decided to give them some Australian souvenirs that we give to our friends we meet along the way. This was to say thank you to all the kind monks that had let us stay in Thailand. However, in return they gave us two books in English that detailed the story of Buddha and two metal good luck charms that can be worn on a necklace or bracelet. This last stay at a temple summed up the mentality of the Thai people we met while traveling. Always giving and always kind except at train stations.
Thailand to me had to be one of the most welcoming places to travel through. All day long hearing “Hey” or “Sawadee” (meaning hello) being yelled out to you from the Thai people, accompanied with a huge grin spread across their faces. It’s called “The land of the smiles” and behind the smiles are not fictitous, tourist battered Thai locals, but people whom are as kind and hospitable as their smiles indicate. I’d been to Thailand twice before but never experienced it in the way that I had as a cycle tourist. The enormous amount of generosity we encountered along the way was sometimes overwhelming. Gifts of food, water, places to sleep, sometimes trinkets or perhaps just a gift of their time showing us their local village or how to cook the traditional dishes. The overwhelming hospitality of the Thai people we encountered whilst cycle touring through Thailand was something that was not expected.