Limping to Laos

After the exertion getting to Chiang Mai, we took a few days to rest. Usually this means some beers. On the first evening we went back to our hotel intending on an early night after dinner, but a group of  Thais were singing and playing guitar in the bar/garden, and they were so good we decided to have a few more drinks there. One of them absolutely LOVED Richard, for some reason. A German couple joined too, and we ended up having an early morning instead of an early night. We met the German couple, Rafael and Sabine, for dinner the following day. They’d rented motorcycles to travel round northern Thailand, and have travelled in many countries this way. Their adventures sound amazing, and it’s given us more ideas of places we’d love to see.

Chiang Mai was a nice and relaxed place to spend a few days, with lots to see and some great places to eat. Although Richard had his worst haircut of the trip so far, costing a whopping £8.

Leaving Chiang Mai we headed east/south east, and some of the scenery in this part of Thailand is amazing. Off the main roads in the Khun Tan national park was stunning. It is also mercifully cooler, which has been almost as good for me as the landscape, after the furnace of the south.

Our next main stop was Lopburi, which is home to the several ancient ruins. Most famous of them is the Khmer temple of Phra Prang Sam Yot, which is populated by hundreds of wild monkeys. I am pretty happy around most animals, but most animals won’t attack unless threatened or provoked. Monkeys are the ones I think would fuck you up just for the sake of it, so I had a bit of trepidation walking round. I made the mistake of kneeling down to get a good picture of the temple, and immediately had one jump on my back, and another on my head trying to pull my hairband out. When we got back to our bikes one of them had undone a frame bag, taken out and unscrewed the cap of a water bottle, and was sitting casually drinking out of it. The other ruins (without the monkeys) were much tamer.

After that we hit the industrial heartland of Thailand, with all its aggregate plants and factories, and the accompanying heavy traffic, noise and endless dust. The night food market in Saraburi was good though, at least for me. Richard had a pizza from 7-Eleven, since he is not keen on sticks of unidentified meat like I am, and doesn’t like the roulette of “what item might the deep fried batter be hiding” (rice balls as it turned out this time, like a Thai version of arancini.)

Leaving Saraburi we had one of our more horrendous days. At the start we tried to get off the busy roads, but what started as some simple dirt road riding, then deteriorated into mostly grass and mud, and then became impassable due to being so overgrown. It meant a few miles of backtracking on what would be a long day. We thought we’d left the climbing behind, but it turns out that getting from west to the east, there’s one day of hills comparable to riding in the mountainous of the north. But this time it’s on busy roads with the constant roar of lorries and a face full of dust all day. It’s sweltering hot again, and the main climb was almost unbearable. I hate everyone and everything at this point. As we get to the top, the road is lined with stalls and people waving, smiling and giving us the thumbs up, and I mellow a little bit. Thailand is probably the best country to be in when you need that kind of lift. The people here are just so wonderful.

Richard noticed that his pedal cranks are very loose, which almost certainly means there’s a problem with the bottom bracket. It doesn’t really affect the riding, and leaving it won’t do any damage, so we decide to just put it to the back of our minds and try and get it sorted when we get to a city with a good bike shop. Slightly more worryingly, he smacked his head on a low doorframe and has had some problems with dizziness and memory (even more than what’s to be expected at his age.) And then I’ve paid the usual price for eating indiscriminately, so it was a tough and wobbly week of heat, headwind, hills and Imodium.  

The highlight of this section was the huge covered food night market in Nakhon Ratchasima. It was great just to wander around for ages, because now I am being a bit cautious. I restricted myself to khnom buang, which is a small wafer-like crepe folded and filled with soft meringue and topped with shaved duck egg yolk, and I only had nine of them.

We finally had a gentle ride to Nong Khai, just beside the Thai border with Laos. The day still had a headwind, but was mostly flat and not as busy so was much more enjoyable. Near the town we stopped in the shade for a drink, and afterwards I cycled off as Richard faffed around, knowing he’d catch me up. Ahead of me was a cyclist wearing a luminous yellow top like mine. Richard said that he saw the cyclist way ahead on the road and thought it must be me, so wondered if he had passed out temporarily in the heat and came to with me a long way ahead. I am speechless that he thinks the most obvious explanation for this is that he passed out on his bike without realising, and not that I might be riding faster than he thinks.

The Mekong river divides Thailand and Laos, with the Friendship Bridge spanning the distance between the two countries. Our first stop was Thai customs to get our exit stamps. We assumed it would be a formality, but was much more faff, and even more forms, than entering the country or extending our visas. The Laos side meant more forms and some waiting around. It seems the only point to getting our e-visas ahead of time was to pay slightly less. Leaving immigration controls, we were offered tuk tuks several times by a few jokers, with the assurance that we could just throw our bikes on the back and save us the bother of riding. On any other day of the past week it would have been sorely tempting, but we had a flat and easy ride from the border to the capital, Vientiane.

First port of call when we arrived was for beer. We were offered weed in the first bar we walked into, but I’ve seen Locked Up Abroad and I know how that ends. We intend to spend a few days here resting, getting me well and back to my full eating capacity, getting Richard’s bike fixed and his hair cut again, before riding out into the rest of Laos.

A playlist for the ride:

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The Sting In The North

We got up before dawn, knowing we had a big ride to our Christmas rest stop. We are mostly clear of the chaos of roads leading to Bangkok, so the cycling is getting more enjoyable. We’d stayed in a small village surrounded by rice paddies, and the start to our day was a sunrise through the mists and a beautiful rural landscape. We had a tail wind that day for the first time in many weeks, and it was wonderful.

We stopped in a random town for a few days over Christmas, and the people at the hotel seemed puzzled that anyone would be there more than one night. The time off gave us a chance to fix some things that we’d let slide – a big hole in one of my panniers and in a pair of Richard’s shorts. We took the bikes to a business for car and motorbike cleaning, to see if they would just be able to power wash the bikes and get some of the grime off. They took this very seriously, and the bikes were given a full valet, with the tyres even sprayed with tyre dressing. Most importantly though we got our visa extensions, so we now had enough time to go further into the north west before we have to leave Thailand.

Before heading into the hills of the north, we cycled to a couple of the many historical sites in this part of Thailand. First stop Sukhothai and a visit to the Kingdom’s ancient capital, which dates back to the 13th century. The park in which the core of the old city sits is beautifully maintained, with moats and lakes full of water lilies in full bloom.  The park lends itself to cycling, and the entrance had hundreds of bikes available for rent. There were few visitors, except a group of school kids on a trip, cycling around laughing and racing each other. Cue an endless stream of “Hello!Hello!Hi!Hello! and waving. It was a concentrated example of cycling in Thailand every day, where people call out hello and wave to the extent that Captain Miserable actually said at one point “I’m a bit fed up of waving.”

We chatted at dinner to a restaurant owner, who confirmed how empty of tourists this place is. He says that the planes are full coming into Bangkok, but they all must be going to the beaches in the south. And of course even if the planes are full, there are still less of them than pre 2019, so tourism here is nowhere near back to normal.

We took small roads out of Sukhothai and stopped at a couple of even less visited ruins a few miles from the town. The sites were completely deserted, and there is something special about total silence amongst ancient things. The dirt roads then wound through head high sugarcane, before we could see through the morning haze the mountains we’ll be heading to. The hills, sugarcane, and rice fields dotted with some coconut palms and ancient tualang trees were like a greatest hits of Thai landscapes.

We had been told that wasn’t much in our next stop in Kamphaeng Phet, which wasn’t true at all. There are two main collections of ancient temples, monuments and palaces. The park in the town by the river was well preserved and very impressive. The park slightly out of town now sits amongst woodland, with roads and paths winding between the temples and monuments. It isn’t as neatly curated as the other but the quiet woods make up for that.

The next day’s ride was partly along quiet roads beside the river Ping. We had lost track of the days and forgotten it was New Years day. In the villages we rode through there were lots of people gathering together around food and music. The scenery was amazing, with corn and sugar cane fields and a backdrop of mountains. However, I’d decided to have pork rib soup and a panang curry for breakfast before a long ride with very few amenities, and spent the afternoon regretting my life choices.

We’d had a run of good cycling days, but they came to an end with a return of a headwind on a very long day of dusty towns and constant undulations. The terrain hadn’t looked that bad on the route profile, but it really took it out of us. Setting off the next morning, the instant sting and then burning in the legs on a small incline was worrying, but the main climb that day was only 10km, short enough to manage mentally. Day three in this stretch was the main event, with the climb going on for nearly 20km. The road was uphill all the way, but with a steep section at the start of the hill proper. Those are the worst ones for me to deal with; the stinging pain immediately, while knowing that it’s barely even begun. There were a pair of old tankers (not me and Richard) that barely made it up this section. Before the gradient eased off, Richard overtook them. I did not.

After most of the climbing was done we diverted into the countryside and stayed that night out in the sticks amid the most stunning scenery we have seen here so far. There is a downside to this. That night Richard went into the bathroom to clean his teeth, but shortly after backed out exclaiming “Oh God, what the hell is that?” He grabbed a shoe and inched back into the bathroom, then ran out again with an “Oh no, I missed it and it’s gone.” As someone with a paralysing fear of spiders, I know the answer to “Is it a spider?” And the answer is: “Yes. I’ve never seen anything like it, not even in a zoo.” These are not the right words to say to someone with a paralysing fear of spiders. He shut the bathroom door, and (now standing far away on the bed) I point out that the door has quite a large gap to the frame. I have mixed feelings about being told “Yeah don’t worry, it’s far too big to get through that.” Away goes anything I needed the bathroom for, and any sleep.

By my standards Richard is a fussy eater, and that is especially true at breakfast where he’ll eat toast and maybe an egg, but nothing more. This benefits me at situations like this. The grandma of the place we were staying made us plates of fried rice, which means I got to eat them both.

Our goal in northern Thailand has always been Chiang Mai, one of the main stops on the travel trail of South East Asia. After some more scenic riding, and over 2,000 km of cycling from Thailand’s southern border, we made it to the city. We are now looking forward to spending a few days seeing the sights and enjoying the food before we move on again.  

Food watch:

Green guava – North of Nakhon Sawan

Pomelo and Papaya – South of Phitsanulok

Corn and sugarcane – north of Kamphaeng Phet

Ceramics (not edible) – Around Lampang

A playlist for the ride: