Land of Smiles

We stayed up a hill by a farm on the Malaysian side of the border. On the walk back from getting food in town, the biggest monitor lizard imaginable crashed out of the undergrowth ahead, desperate to get away from us. Now every time we’re riding and hear movement in the undergrowth beside us, I tense up at what might be in there. We spent a night of non-stop chicken squawks and apprehension about the border crossing, which by land are always fraught. Richard’s a worrier and we’re both organised, so we turned up with all our proofs of funds, lodging and all the paperwork in order when called into the immigration office. Having biometrics taken, getting a passport stamp and an “enjoy Thailand” was all that happened. Sod’s law says though that if we didn’t have everything we’d be asked for it.

The ride to Hat Yai was half very rural rice paddies, small roads, and a Thai wedding, and half on a busy smog filled road. The city itself (third largest in Thailand) is chaotic and a pain in the arse to navigate with a one-way system confusing and frustrating to a foreign cyclist, not helped by endless stalls and carts spilling out onto the already congested roads. But decent hotels in Thailand are good value, and we booked one in advance in case we got asked for an address when we got our visas, so we had something nice at the end of the day.

Breakfast at hotels in Malaysia is very rare, but pretty normal in Thailand, so I filled my happy face with fried eggs, congee, fried chicken, rice and noodles. Once out of the city we crossed the longest bridge in Thailand, which was very impressive and thankfully not very high. We stopped at a small place on a deserted beach for a couple of nights, which was relaxing and very beautiful. We only took one day off in Malaysia, and that was when I was ill, so we decided we’d earned a break to just swim in the gulf and eat, and that we should do it more often.

After the rest we made our way along the coast on beautiful quiet rural roads, and then across a wildlife sanctuary where we saw loads of tropical birds and huge herds of water buffalo. We lingered too long and had to try and (unsuccessfully) outrun a storm. It’s reliably rained in the early to late evening so far, so the early onset caught us out.

We had a long but flat day into Nakhon Si Thammarat, where we stayed at a really lovely, friendly place. The food in Thailand had been amazing, so we were really looking forward to dinner. When we ordered a couple of dishes the waitress checked “this is spicy, is that okay?” We love spicy food at home, so how hot can it be? Well. Richard looked like he was going to cry, and I downed cold beer to the extent that I said hello instead of thank you when we left.

We hadn’t so far spent much time seeing cultural sights, but visited Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan temple, some of which dates back to the 13th century, and is a large complex of shrines and stupas. It was closed but lit up at night and very beautiful.

On the way into the city I’d seen stall after stall selling grilled eggs on sticks, and decided that I’d get some the following day for lunch, but never saw them again. Lots of foods are sold like this – runs of stalls selling the same things for a stretch, and then they disappear. Also the fruit is sold incredibly locally at the roadside stalls, so I kept a food watch (below) of where things were sold on our route.

For our next stop, we got a ferry from the mainland to Koh Samui. It was nice to relax and refuel with lots of food, but the place is much the same as any other holiday resort in the world.

For this initial part of our time in Thailand it’s been in the early 30 degrees, but unimaginably humid. We are both a dripping mess by mid morning, which is very unusual for Richard, and I am now on another level (TMI warning) where I can ring my t shirt out and can’t see half the time for the sweat running into my eyes. We turned up exhausted at a cafe in Surat Thani, and once we’d got our coffee, someone came out and gave us bottles of water to take with us.

As we headed further up the coast, the rain took over from the sun as our biggest enemy. It started to rain almost all day every day, and we were hopping from one shelter to the next to avoid the worst of it, often waiting out downpours until it was “only” raining normally before we cycled on. We decided to stick to the main road for days, because we were worried about getting stuck in floods if we ventured off it. It made for boring cycling, but was the right thing to do. Some of the side roads we rode by were impassable. People’s homes were flooded, we passed lots of stranded vehicles (even an artic lorry) and one car aquaplaned into a ditch in front of us as we were crossing the road. We spoke to a resident of one village we stayed in who said the weather is incredibly unusual for December, and he hasn’t known anything like it in decades.

We’ve been both lucky and made good calls when judging when it’s going to really tip it down, and finding shelter at its worst. But on one day we were frustrated at the constant delays and just went for it. The heavens opened on us. There were some overhanging trees at the edge of the road so we tried to huddle there, but the rain started coming down in sheets and within seconds the water was running in rivers up to our ankles, so despite the lack of visibility we had to get out of there. Fortunately we found a bus shelter less than a mile on, so waited it out there. Some guys on mopeds joined us, and one of them gave me a spare poncho before they rode off. We gave the rain a send off with one last wet day of undulating terrain and our longest distance of 125km. It was a day of only drizzle and light rain, so we hoped that now it would end and we would be flying along. Be careful what you wish for!

From around Prachuap Khiri Khan the clouds have cleared and the heat has ramped up, but what has really been a killer is the headwind. It has been absolutely brutal and riding in it has been exhausting and thoroughly awful. We haven’t had a run of cycling like this before, where every day is just relentless. It doesn’t help that for the northern part of the peninsula the only real road option is the main artery which heads to Bangkok, so the traffic and dust and dirt and noise make cycling miserable. Along the way, Hua Hin was an unexpectedly pleasant stop, except that the demographics of foreign visitors is really grim.

The food in Thailand has hands down been the best of any country so far, and most of all the people we’ve met have been wonderful. There are constant smiles and waves and good wishes. And the acts of kindness from strangers are even comparable to Turkey.

We had a horrendous day to get to Suphanburi. It felt like cycling for 9 hours in a wind tunnel, and honestly like it would never end. We took a day off and visited the Dragon Paradise park, with its beautiful temples, food stalls (my favourite kind,) pagodas and a giant dragon. It was one of the best days off the bike that we’ve spent, and restored our mojos a little bit.

Because of the rain and the dust, plus our exhaustion-induced can’t be arsed attitude recently, the bikes have taken a battering. We needed to just find somewhere we could get running water, but came across a shop that offered a motorbike cleaning service and gave it a shot. The guy there was happy to do it, and spent ages meticulously cleaning and lubing the chains and mechs, and then wouldn’t accept any payment.

It’s a couple of day’s ride now until we will take a few days off to rest, recharge, and hopefully get Thai visa extensions.

Our Christmas break divides our cycling in Thailand neatly into two, bridged by some long, tough days on busy roads. Behind us is the south, the palm trees and beaches, with either heavy rains or piercing heat and headwinds. Ahead, the mountains of the north, with their ancient cities and landmarks. The same country, but two entirely different adventures.

Food watch:

Rambutan – south of Nakhon Si Thamarrat

Grilled eggs and grilled fish on sticks – into Nakhon Si Thamarrat

Loads of durian – around Lang Suan

Pineapples and snakefruit – between Luang Suang and Chumphon

Smoked sausages – Muslim-run stalls in Chumphon (must be beef?)

Rice packets and sugarcane – south of Chaiya

Giant green beans – North of Chaiya

Dragonfruit – south of Hua Hin

Pineapples and homages to pineapples – around Hua Hin

Mangosteen and limes – around Phetchaburi

Thong yip and homemade biscuits – north of Ratchaburi

Red grapes – North of Suphanburi

Dried fish and pomelo – south of Nakhon Sawan

Bananas, coconuts and meat on sticks – everywhere

A playlist for the ride:

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