This ride represented my first real foreign challenge,
away from the comforts and predictability of Europe and very much
into the unknown. The usual rules applied i.e. to be self-sufficient,
to explore places of historic interest and natural beauty and wherever
possible to take the road less travelled. This third criterion proved
to be somewhat impracticable as maps are rarely used in Thailand
and the best I could find was a 1:1,000,000 scale i.e. 1mm = 1km,
utterly useless for exploring by bike.
Also once off the main roads the signposts were in the indecipherable
Thai script, and this along with the obvious language barrier and
the locals unfamiliarity with maps made for some interesting
detours along the way. It would seem that the average Thai is not
a well travelled fellow and asking directions to a town as remote
as 50 miles away from the seat of a kycal would be like
asking a London cabbie if he could show you the right way to Mars.
As ever I travelled as light as possible only this time I took more
spares and tools along with extra factor 30, mozzie spray and a
silk sleeping bag liner that proved invaluable. Id also packed
my i-Pod and had selected a long list of uplifting tunes to keep
my spirits high when the going got tough. It proved to be boon on
some of the long slogs, and Im sure the locals enjoyed the
sound of me singing along! So after hours of poring over maps and
double-checking distances I set my course.
|Bangkok - Malaysia
190 miles, 17 mph average26
Immediately upon stepping out of the air-conditioned airport, the
heat hit me. It was just before dawn and I was as far north as I
was going to be for two weeks. This was the coolest it was possibly
going to be; 25 degrees C. I decided on a days sight seeing
to get over the jet lag and start to acclimatize to what is officially
the worlds hottest city.
is manic; traffic of all descriptions, flyovers, underpasses, the
Skytrain and a million mopeds all battling for space in a state
of chaotic disarray. And yet I never saw any tempers flare; road
rage just isnt in the Thai vocabulary. Losing your temper
is a big no-no in Thailand and so the whole system relies on everyone
being cool in the heat.
My first port of call had to be the Wat
Phra Kaeo, the sacred resting place of the Emerald Buddha since
1795 and Thailands holiest temple. Its golden dome (Phra Si
Rattana Chedi) is said to house a piece of the Buddhas breastbone.
A typical Wat will contain several buildings such as the temple,
monks quarters and a library (ho trai) but is it often dominated
by the Wihan or assembly hall. Quite often there will be a Bodhi
tree, representing the tree under which Buddha sat as he attempted
to attain enlightenment. The most recognisable Thai architectural
feature, ever present on roof apexes is the Cho
Fa meaning tassel of the air. Its shape derives
from the garuda - a fierce bird featured in Hindu mythology.
Conveniently right next-door and also on the banks of the Chao Phraya
River is the Grand
Palace. Built at the same time as the Wat, it was the King of
Siams official residence from 1782 to 1946. Royalty is the
most revered institution in Thailand. Criticizing or defaming it
is deeply offensive to the Thai people and could even land you in
jail. Throughout Thailand I saw huge shrine-like posters of the
King. It was very often a far younger man depicted (the King is
rumoured to be in his 80s now) and nearly always with an expensive
Japanese camera slung around his neck. Passing through rural villages
Id noticed a PA system blaring in the mornings and early evenings.
This turned out to be the National Anthem, which is played at 8am
and 6pm daily.
Bangkok is chock-full of interesting sights, and is a shoppers
paradise. Street stalls loaded with fake gear rub shoulders with
the Real McCoy designer boutiques, all co-existing in that unique
And so the ride had to begin. My alarm rang out at 4.45am and I
met the taxi driver in the hotel lobby. Other cyclists who had made
the trip had warned me that there was no point doing battle with
city traffic, choking fumes and hopeless signposting, so I made
the first few miles to the edge of town in comfort. The driver dropped
me on Highway 35 from which it would be easy to navigate my way
westwards to Phetchaburi.
The ride was flat and boring. Unremarkable scenery and the never-ending
city sprawl. On meeting Highway 4, I was relieved to turn south
as a breeze was picking up behind me and I was able to ride in the
shade of trees lining the route. One of Thailands oldest towns,
Phetchaburi has long been an important cultural and trading centre,
and in the 19th century King Rama IV built his extravagant palace
complex called the Phra
Nakhon Khiri or celestial city of the mountain overlooking
At Cha-am I was able to turn off the main road and follow the coastal
route towards seaside towns such as Hua Hin and Prachuap Khiri Khan
frequented by holidaying families from Bangkok. The sight of a foreigner
or farang was still a rarity and all along the route
greetings were shouted from delighted locals, occasional hellos
mixed with the Thai equivalent of how do you do
sa wah dee, to which I could echo sa wah dee kap
causing the smiles to broaden further. The greetings were universal,
be they from groups of immaculately uniformed school children, to
a team of construction workers in the back of a pick-up truck. Always
a smile, in this land of smiles.
By midday the heat was building but the wind had helped me cover
the first 100 miles of easy terrain. During December and January
the dry North-Easterly monsoon wind blows down this coast and Id
timed my ride to coincide with it to help me along.
The major roads often have a moped lane at the side
perfect for cycling on, and with the combination of flat,
smooth tarmac and tailwind I was able to overtake as many mopeds
as had passed me, cruising at between 20 and 25 mph. As well as
motorbikes with up to four passengers, some had an ingenious
sidecar that could carry yet more children all sat in style
beneath a neat sunshade.
I was beginning to fatigue as the heat rose, so I started looking
out for somewhere to eat. There had been no shortage of stalls by
the road selling dates, pineapples and a range of mysterious looking
fruits. Bottled water too had not been a problem to top up. I pulled
into a filling station that had an outside washroom to the rear
where I could rinse off the sweat that was beginning to sting my
eyes. Cooled and refreshed, I approached a lady who had a stall
displaying various dishes, a wok and a single gas burner. There
were two people in line so I figured she must be good. The guy in
front of me had a dish of fried rice with chicken so I motioned
that Id like the same but mai pet an essential
snippet of Thai meaning not spicy. The food was brought
to me where Id sat in the shade and she indicated the price
using two fingers. I handed her two hundred-Baht notes (about £3),
at which she immediately burst out laughing! It turned out that
she wanted 20 Baht (about 30p) for this delicious freshly prepared
meal. She could so easily have ripped me off, but this honesty and
of course the amazing low prices were typical of my experiences
in this wonderful country.
Before long a small inquisitive crowd had gathered. The garage owner
had been learning English at night school and we were able to have
a stinted conversation about where I lived and where I was going,
which he in turn relayed to the audience who smiled and nodded appreciatively.
Rested and refreshed I set off to climb through the limestone
outcrops of the Khoa Sam Roi Yot (meaning mountains of 300 peaks)
one of Thailands many national parks. It was almost a relief
to be climbing hills again after so much flat country, and although
it was hard riding at times the jungle scenery
kept my spirits high. From time to time Id catch a glimpse
of the crab eating macaque
monkeys, who astonished me by leaping into the water and swimming
off with great speed, their long arms thrashing at the water like
a Mississippi paddle steamer!
At Hua Hin I nearly came to grief. Peddling through the town, the
bough of a tree suddenly crashed down right in my path. I swerved
out into the road, narrowly avoiding it and luckily any oncoming
traffic. I looked back to see a man high in the tree with a pruning
saw, waving his apology to me. I can only guess that he didnt
think I was travelling so fast!
Darkness fell rapidly at about 6.30 but my lights were strong and
I was enjoying the relative cool of the evening, so I pressed on
checking the map for the most likely town to have accommodation.
There was nothing for miles, but I knew there was a minor road to
the coast coming up and I was in the small resort town of Bang Saphan
by 8.00. I had covered 190
miles (306km) breaking my previous best by 14 miles although
I was slightly disappointed not to have topped the double century,
which I felt I could have done had I been confident of finding accommodation
further down the road.
I was directed to the only hotel in town that thankfully had rooms
available. This had been a concern as it was the time of the Chinese
New Year and Id been told places could be busy with vacationing
locals. I say hotel, although in the western sense it would barely
have qualified. It had none of the hot water or flushing toilets
that we take for granted. Nonetheless it appeared to be clean and
I was very tired so it sufficed perfectly. I got cleaned up and
headed into the night in search of food, stopping at the first roadside
shack I came across. Shack is possibly an overstatement. The restaurant
consisted of someones open front room (complete with grandma
reclining on a worn out sun-lounger), the ubiquitous wok and gas
ring and some ramshackle plastic chairs. The whole place appeared
to be constructed from an assortment of wooden off-cuts clad in
left over corrugated iron. Id made better dens in the woods
as a lad! However I was made welcome, an ice-cold beer appeared
from nowhere and the wok was fired up to fry an omelette and rice.
|Bangkok - Malaysia
167 miles, 14 mph average27
Chumphon - Surat Thani
I was up early again and set off on the quiet coast road through
sleepy villages apparently untouched by time. Chickens ran in the
road and dozing dogs eyed me suspiciously as I glided silently through.
Time for some breakfast I thought so I stopped at the first stall
selling bananas - breakfast of champions! Thai bananas are typically
short and sweet so I bought half a dozen for just a few pennies.
The stallholder seemed so amused by the sight of me that she offered
a whole bunch for free. I felt awful to insult her generosity but
there were no way I could carry such a load on my bike.
There were very few settlements along this part of the journey,
but there were occasional clusters of roadside stalls all somewhat
bizarrely selling exactly the same produce from the neighbouring
fields. At one point I counted fifteen micro shops all
selling nothing but bananas. How did they decide on the price? How
would the buyer decide which stall to visit? Occasionally Id
pass a place to eat that looked quite reasonable
but more usually it would be a rural shack with the next days
running around your feet. One thing they all had in common though
were welcoming smiles and fresh ingredients. Whilst eating in such
surroundings I was constantly concerned that Id pick up some
horrendous stomach bug from the apparently unsanitary conditions,
however my fears were to be unfounded as my bowels remained as regular
as Phileas Fogg. I dined almost exclusively on cow pat
(a mildly spiced egg fried rice), as this was the only dish I was
able to pronounce correctly!
Chumphon is regarded as the starting point of cultural transition
between the Buddhist heartland and the south of the country where
Muslim culture is strong. Venturing out onto the first stretch of
rolling jungle road that was to last over 100 miles, I could see
a huge statue
up ahead, as I came closer I saw a giant golden Buddha
looking out over the hills. It was clear to me that this was still
a land dominated by Buddhism although even in the Deep South the
two faiths seem to be able to live harmoniously. I still passed
wats, and at one point met a monk
who stopped for a brief chat on his way to breakfast. He didnt
speak any English though.
North of Chaiya, the capital city of the Srivijayan Buddhist Empire
between the 7th and 13th centuries and once a pivotal port of call
between trade routes linking China and the India sub continent,
I turned off the main road once more and soon crossed the Eastern
Orient Express Line that I had been running parallel to but unseen
for so many miles. The station masters office
showed typical Thai pride and patriotism with its twinned flags
of the nation and monarchy. The road beyond obviously led to Chaiya,
but try as I might I could not get any meaningful directions, bearings
or signposts and rode up and down lovely empty lanes shaded with
magnolia, rhododendrons and wild
flowers, to dead end after dead end. Finally I gave up and headed
back to the main road. At least the wind was still behind me and
I slipstreamed a passing motorbike that had a sidecar converted
into an ice-cream van. Its rider didnt stop laughing for the
ten miles that I tailed him spinning away in my highest gear!
By sunset I was ready for bed having covered over 160 miles of rolling
hills, each village yielded no sign of accommodation, so I headed
down a lane towards the coast in the dark. The lazing hounds that
had kept watch over me during the heat of the day, obviously conserve
their energies for their evening fun. This mainly involves lying
in wait for passing cyclists then chasing them at full pelt, barking
wildly to alert the dogs in the upcoming houses. On the whole I
could veer into the centre of the road and keep a short sprint going
until I was away from their territorial reaches, but on one lonely
stretch of forested road my worst fears came to pass. A pack of
apparently wild dogs took a dislike to me and kept up their chase
for over two miles. Between their ferocious snarls I could hear
the scrabbling of sharpened claws on the road surface. Too afraid
to look back, I used every last reserve of energy within me to stand
hard on the pedals as they snapped at my heels. Thank God there
was a slight downhill gradient as they only gave up their pursuit
when I flew into the next village.
Still shaking and dripping with sweat I made enquiries about places
to stay for the night. Each time I asked about a rohng rairm
(hotel) I was greeted with a smile and an outstretched arm pointing
down the road saying Surat Thani. The city of Surat
Thani was over 30km away and even if Id had enough batteries
in my lights I had precious little energy and there was no way I
was going to risk being caught by more dogs. A group of men sat
drinking took some empathy with my plight and invited me to sit
on their porch to join them with a very welcome cold Singa (the
local beer). Shortly the village headman came over and as he spoke
a little English I was able to explain my situation in a combination
of single words and sign language, making barking noises and biting
movements about my legs. Eventually we agreed that what I needed
was a lift to a town with a hotel. A pick-up with a driver was placed
at my disposal. The driver downed one more large Thai whisky and
we set off, swerving and bouncing along the road. He dropped me
off some miles away from my route but at least outside a hotel.
Such was the luxury of the accommodation commensurate with its 200
Baht (£3) per night tariff, that I could probably have halved
that had I the energy to negotiate. A real 5-cockroach place, complete
with missing windows and complimentary filth! I washed off in the
bucket provided and headed to the store across the road for provisions.
Luckily Thailand has a mixture of local shops (for local people)
and international 7-11 stores (like our Spar shops). The local shops
were a great adventure, looking for items that were actually recognisable
as food, but not always ideal when you need to carbo-load. 7-11s
on the other hand sell stuff in packets just like at home! I didnt
risk using the bed linen provided and was very happy to settle into
my sleeping bag liner for a bug free night.
|Bangkok - Malaysia
110 miles, 14 mph average28
The Isthmus of Kra
Getting back on my route before the dawn, I was faced with a dilemma.
In order to cross from the east coast to the west, I could take
the marked route through the high mountains or opt for a new road
not shown on my map and shown as incomplete on others. My legs were
sore from so many miles and the thought of battling up high passes
in the heat of the day didnt appeal, so I took a gamble on
the latter. I found the new road without too much difficulty and
too my delight it was virtually deserted. It cut through virgin
rain forest and climbed steadily to about 1,000m over a distance
of some 50 miles emerging eventually in the characteristic limestone
crags of the Khao
Phanom Bencha national park, home to rare species of black bear
and the clouded leopard. Sadly I didnt see any of these but
I did almost become an endangered species myself when I nearly hit
a four foot long copperhead
snake sunbathing in the road.
The road was eerily
quiet as it passed through no villages or towns. Its only purpose
seemed to be to link the tourist areas of Phuket and Krabi with
Surat Thani the departure point for ferries to the holiday
island of Koh Samui. I must say I felt rather smug later thinking
about those intrepid backpackers who shuttle between
resorts and say they have done Thailand - from the comfort
of an air-conditioned coach!
In fact too quiet can be a problem as by 11am I had run dry and
with no stalls or village shops to buy water I was starting to get
edgy. Once my water had run out, the sun beat down remorselessly
and with no shade I was consumed with dipsomania. The next 5 miles
seemed like 50 as I was still climbing as the temperature also climbed
into the high 30s. Up ahead I spotted a group of farm workers
setting out a lunch table under some trees. They were pleased to
see me but not half as delighted as I was to see them and their
great urns of fresh drinking water. They filled my bottles twice
over as I glugged back the first cool litres and wouldnt accept
any money even though they were clearly penniless manual labourers.
I wondered if Thailand would be able to resist our capitalist material
pressures, to which these generous people would doubtless be exposed
I wanted to make Krabi for the last ferry to the Andaman Islands
at 2pm, but unfortunately the humidity had affected my mobile phone
and I was unable to switch on my only means of timekeeping. As such
I felt I had no choice but to keep riding at as strong a pace as
I could manage and thankfully the road soon began to descend towards
the coast. The payback for all the climbing was 25 miles covered
in less than an hour.
The road turned out to be complete and linked up with the Phuket
Krabi highway. Suddenly I was just another tourist. Gone
were the bemused looks and waved greetings as I blended in with
other westerners for the first time in over 400 miles. I made the
docks at the Krabi River by 12.30 in plenty of time for the ferry.
Once the bike was secured on deck I settled back to enjoy the fabulous
views of deserted tropical
islands. After a couple of hours we came into the harbour on
Lanta Yai, in the channel between this and its virtually uninhabited
northern sister Koh
|Bangkok - Malaysia
30 miles, resting29-30
being blown well ahead of schedule, and having found paradise I
decided to rest up for a few days. The island was everything you
could dream of in such a place - deserted
beaches backed by tropical
flora overhanging the white sand to provide some welcome shade.
A had a look around for a suitable place to stay for a few nights
and settled on a beachside
bungalow with a quite sumptuous
interior. I had air-con, hot water, a huge western bathroom,
daily maid service, a fridge and ample cycle parking all for the
princely sum of £10 per night. I whiled away the hours snoozing
on the beach, feasting on masaman curries, king prawns and barracuda
and watching the sun
slowly slip into the Andaman Sea.
I took a ride around the island to see the Sea Gypsies or Chao Ley.
Found in villages
of a temporary
nature around the Andaman Sea and Nicobar Islands they speak
their own language and have their own animistic beliefs.
On the second day I indulged myself in a Thai massage from a lady
in a wooden shelter on the beach, and for 200 Baht I had a full
hours work-over with intense therapy on my aching legs. As
well as applying pressure to key points this involved a complex
system of manipulation during which the masseuse pinned me down
with her feet whilst stretching and twisting my limbs. Whilst always
on the verge of actual pain, the treatment certainly did the trick
as the next day I was itching to get some more miles under my wheels.
|Bangkok - Malaysia
145 miles, 13 mph average31
Trang & The Deep South
start to beat the heat. However by the time I had reached the
north shore of the island my lights had begun to flash a warning
of low battery power. This would apply enormous pressure to make
my destination by nightfall as I had been assured to find a hotel
in the town of Langu but certainly nowhere else. I had recharged
my lights two nights before and could only come to one conclusion.
Thai people, as lovely as they are, are incessant fiddlers. Whenever
my bike was left unattended someone would sidle up, check the tyre
pressures with a squeeze of the thumb, nod knowledgably and proceed
to look over the rest of the bike. As soon as the computer was spotted
I had to intervene for fear of them pressing the reset button and
losing all my precious data. The only explanation I could find was
that the maid had been fiddling with the headlight, turned it on
and left it burning as it requires just the right sequence of clicks
to extinguish. It probably overheated and cut out leaving just enough
power for the first hours riding.
At the crack of dawn I hailed a passing fisherman who happily took
me on his long-tail
boat to the north island for a handful of loose change. I was
due to meet the vehicle ferry from the mainland at 7 a.m. but on
arrival there seemed to be little action at the quayside. By 8 a.m.
the queue had grown significantly and locals were busy making animated
phone calls. It was clear the ferry had broken down. Already the
sun was beating down as I sat helplessly feeling the best part of
the day slipping away from me. Time for radical action. I stepped
towards the edge of the dock and shouted out to the first passing
fishing boat. He soon got the message and hoved-to, delightedly
eyeing the 100 Baht note I was waving in the air! The bike was lowered
onto the boat but I lost my footing on some algae, slicing open
the tips of both thumbs and three fingers on some razor sharp barnacles.
To add to my woes an elderly
gent also boarded but although he was sprightly for his years
he sat squarely on my crash helmet breaking the peak Id relied
on as a sunshade. It was going to be a bad hair day.
I had to head north back to the highway from here, and as I did
so the wind started to pick up, full in my face. Even when I turned
east towards Trang the wind veered round to resist me once more.
The eastern lowlands of the Deep South are among the most fertile
in the country. The year round heat and humidity making ideal conditions
for coffee beans, pineapples, cashews, oil palms and of course rubber
trees. Since the first rubber tree seedlings were brought to the
area by the British in 1901, Trang has been one of the worlds
leading trade centres for this everyday commodity. The regimented
plantations line the road and once the sap is collected it is
laid out to dry forming oblong rubber mats ready for market. Trang
is also famous for its Vegetarian Festival held each September and
in which ascetic religious rites are performed by devotees who have
worked themselves into a trance in order to rise above physical
pain. Those of a squeamish disposition should look
By now I too was riding in a trance having transcended all pain!
The miles ticked by and just south of Trang I crossed the towns
river soon after which I was treated to a short refreshing rain
shower. Further south and hotter still. By midday my shadow had
all but disappeared beneath me, as by the border post I would be
just 5 degrees north of the Equator.
As the afternoon rolled on I approached the Banthat
Mountains. These verdant hills rise to 1350m and are home to
the Sakai tribesmen who still maintain a hunter-gatherer existence,
living in simple leaf shelters and talking their own ethnically
unique language. The mountains are also home to many rare bird and
reptile species as well as tigers. It did occur to me that I probably
couldnt outpace a tiger in the way Id beaten those dogs.
Climbing through one of several
passes, I was overtaken by a loggers truck. As it was
travelling only slightly faster than me, I grabbed hold and got
a free ride to the top. Unfortunately the rubber tree logs were
still fresh and sprayed me with a droplets of white latex to which
the sawdust flying from the back of the lorry then became stuck.
Talk about being tarred and feathered! No wonder the lorry driver
was roaring with laughter when I temporarily overtook him on the
way back down.
I made Langu with about an hour to spare before nightfall and headed
to the Pharmacy. I wasnt ill, but a trick I had learned from
another traveller was that the chemist is likely to be the most
easily accessible well-educated person in any town. True to form
he emerged from his office and gave me concise directions in perfect
English to the best hotel in the area. Id already seen two
places that made my night near Surat Thani look like the Ritz and
I wasnt about to endure the company of sewer rats again. The
resort hotel was just out of town and consisted of a number of attached
bungalows in the American motel style. At 350 Baht (about a fiver)
for the night I wasnt complaining as it was basic but spotless.
|Bangkok - Malaysia
68 miles, 14 mph average1
Thale Ban national park & the Malaysian
The night in Langu had been a success. Id found decent accommodation
and later a great little coffee bar that prepared meals and sold
freezing Singa, that I swigged down in the company of the local
chief of Police who seemed to use it as his regular watering hole.
On the way through the chaotic town streets Id spotted two
westerners on bikes so immediately introduced myself. By an amazing
co-incidence the Italian guys were due to set off for the same destination
as me the next morning, so we agreed to meet at 6am.
After so many miles in my own company I was delighted to have someone
to chat to. They both spoke perfect English and we exchanged stories
of our travels whilst spinning inland towards the mountains. The
first 20 miles in the cool of the early morning were fine, but as
the gradient climbed so did the thermometers needle and it
became clear we were on different agendas. Robbie and Carlo
were planning to make the trip over two days, whereas I wanted to
get my head down and be at the border for lunchtime. After knocking
out such colossal miles in the previous days, Id forgotten
that 60 plus miles in mountainous jungle terrain can be quite a
challenge. We parted company at the next town and I set about the
climb, happy to be on my own once more.
The road twisted and turned through banana
plantations and lush, dense
jungle of great
diversity, but the gradient never exceeded more than 1:10 so
for the most part it was a steady rather than a gruelling climb.
As I counted down the KM posts to the border the air started to
clear and the temperature fell slightly as I gained altitude. Finally
the rather quaint colonial buildings of the border
post came into view.
The border guards all spoke a smattering of English and as it was
still early in the day, they had time on their hands and met me
with a great deal of curiosity along with the obligatory tyre pressure
checks and nods of approval. One ventured to comment that my bike
was very heavy for such a long trip Im not sure if
he meant light or if he had simply not spotted the laden pannier
rack. In any event, they all took turns at sitting on the bike accompanied
by great shouts of laughter as not one of them could reach the pedals
from my lofty saddles perch.