The Long Goodbye

When we first arrived in Thailand we rode north along the east coast, so from Chumphon we now cut west across the peninsula to cycle the opposite coast heading south. The next couple of days were beautiful with the best views for ages on very quiet roads.

On the second day we met Damian, an Australian cyclist spending his retirement alternating between playing golf and bike touring. He’s mostly ridden in Thailand and Indonesia, and since we might head to the latter in the near future we were able to pick his brains about that.

It was probably the hottest day yet, which is saying something, so much so that my legs were cramping. Fortunately I’ve been carrying around a pot of salt which I was gargling when I had a throat infection a few months ago, and we usually have plenty of water.

I knew we had a bit of a hill ahead and wasn’t feeling up to it at all in the heat. We stopped at a shelter at the bottom of the incline, close to a waterfall. It hasn’t rained for ages though, so it was a bit lacking. It was tempting to cool off in the pool at the bottom as others were doing, but it would just delay the inevitable and get even hotter. A ranger came over to say hello and ask where we’re from and where we’re going. Richard really struggles with place names, so told him that we were going to Rangoon. We are going to Ranong. The confused ranger then pointed to the water bottles we carry and said “Water is good. Very hot. Very, very hot.” And then put on a coat. Any other country and I would think he was messing with us, but Thais seem to be made of different stuff.

We set off again to face the switchbacks, and it felt like life was happening inside an air fryer with a magnifying glass pointed at us. The heat was so intense I just wanted to get away from it, so focused on going faster to make the climb end sooner. The downhill wasn’t that much better though – the breeze from our momentum just seemed like the backdraft from a fire.

We settled in at a bar in Rangoon/Ranong, when we saw Damian again who came over and joined us for a few beers and a chilled evening. We’re going the same way and doing similar distances, so we expected to bump into him again but never did.

Beyond Rangoon, I could see a police check point on the road up ahead and Richard talking to one of the officers off to the side. I thought he’d been pulled over and was waiting for me since I have the passports and stuff. But they’d stopped him to let him cool off in their office, and had already given him an armful of cold energy drinks. They had a chest of cold drinks, and another with packets of food which they told us to help ourselves to. Best of all they had a cooler full of ice which I added to our water bottles.

The next few days we were treated to the most amazing scenery, through rolling jungle accompanied by the sound of monkeys and tropical birds. It does help that the air is clearer here in the south and the traffic quite light, but it was easily the most impressive part of Thailand so far and it managed to get even better in the week ahead.

One sombre part of this area of Thailand is the reminders of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. We stopped in the village of Ban Nam Khem and learnt that a quarter of the population of this place was killed and 80% of homes destroyed by the tsunami. It was one of the worst affected areas of Thailand. We visited the memorial park where there is a huge curved clay wall representing the wave that hit the shore here, opposite plaques honouring 1,400 of those who died.

Halfway down this wonderful coast we took a few days off along Khao Lak beach, a picture perfect piece of paradise. I’m not usually a fan of beach breaks, but I do love swimming and it was great to re-charge a bit and spend some time off the bikes. The downside was that the food in the tourist areas was not as good as the rest of Thailand, but having something to moan about can be cathartic.  

The road leaving Khao Lak took a turn upward to give nice views of the coastline and beaches, before reverting back to the rolling jungle scenery we’ve been enjoying on this road. Not wanting to go to Phuket, we instead cut inland through a couple of national parks which were particularly beautiful, before heading for Phang Nga. It’s a place with an amazing setting of karst cliffs jutting up with the town nestled amongst them. I saw a crested serpent eagle (I think) in the forest park after leaving the town, but after that had a bit of a huffy day. We’ve been a bit spoilt recently with the scenery and roads, so the traffic around Krabi was an unwelcome change.

The busy roads continued for the next couple of days, and combined with the very undulating terrain and the heat we found this bit of the ride to be deceptively draining. We had meant to have one long run to the border, but we were too tired so we took a day off in Trang for no reason other than to rest our legs.

One distraction on the road has been the upcoming election season in Thailand, and there have been countless posters along the way advertising candidates. Thanks to photo editing, their faces have had all texture eliminated and their teeth any natural colour removed, so it seems that Thais have a choice between various uncanny valley dolls. I did a small poll of two people, neither of whom are Thai, or will be here for the elections, or know anything about it. But we both agreed that the woman dressed as a doctor or pharmacist seems very trustworthy and the guy who looks like he’s in a boy band deserves a chance.

After Trang the traffic gradually eased off as it diverted off to the main road east and the various ports and towns along the coast. We were left to take lesser roads, with our final destination being a small border crossing to Malaysia at Wang Prachan. The terrain continued to be undulating, and over the crest of the only incline of note the view that opened up was like seeing the Lost World plateau. Being able to ride this road was the kind of privilege that brings a bit of a lump to the throat. On the way into the next village a moped pulled alongside and the rider shouted out “Welcome to Trang, welcome to Thailand, welcome to our country!” We have just over one day left here and I think I’m going to miss this.

Richard’s lived abroad in the past, but I’ve spent longer now in Thailand than any other country outside the UK. When we leave there’ll be no coming back for a long time because we’ve exhausted any available visas, which almost certainly means we won’t be back here at all. It’s a wonderful country to travel in, and a great one to cycle in. We’ve become so used to the rhythm of being here that we missed it when we left for Laos and Cambodia and felt comforted when we came back. At the same time we’ve had some groundhog days, especially recently, and we’ve felt as though we haven’t really been moving and seeing new things. The building heat and humidity have really had an impact on the distances we’ve covered, and it’s been frustrating to not move along as fast as we wanted to.

For our final day in Thailand the humidity was at 93%. The border crossing we headed to is a small one, and a bit remote on the Malaysian side. The days of money changers at borders are gone, so we stocked up in Thailand with a huge amount of water and other drinks, fearing we might not be able to get money to top up on the way. It still was nearly not enough. The road to the border was amazingly scenic. There were signs warning of monkeys crossing the road. Previous signs threatening elephants have always come to nothing, but these ones delivered with a large troop swinging through the trees above us. There was a short steep incline leading up to the border which was annoying. I had hoped to not turn up looking like I’d been dragged through a river, but oh well. The crossing itself was easy, but we knew we had the biggest climb for a while on the other side.

The climb turned out to be horrendous, and one of the most physically crushing things I’ve ever done. In terms of gradient and height it was nothing compared to some of what we’d ridden in Turkey, but the conditions made it sickening. The only thing cooling me down on the way up was the sweat running off my arms and onto my feet. Which is disgusting. We were surrounded by monkey calls and thick jungle, which started to seem a bit oppressive as I crawled round the switchbacks. Richard’s right knee has been bothering him for a few days, and not surprisingly it flared up on the climb. The descent the other side was one of the steepest I’ve ever been down, so we had to take it a bit slowly even then. And a headwind for the last ten miles into the town of Kangar was a kick in the guts.

We arrived late in the afternoon exhausted and hungry. Lots of people at stalls were busy cooking, but it’s Ramadan so no one was eating yet, just getting takeaways for later. We hung around in our room until after sundown, but when we went back out everything was shut. We’d seen a local supermarket so we thought we could at least get some crisps and biscuits, but that was shut too. We wandered down the road feeling confused, when some people at a closed stall called us over from across the street. They bagged up some food and drinks and said that it was a gift to us. We had chicken curry roti, char kway teow (a noodle dish) fried egg and iced milk tea. It was all delicious, and not only the most wonderful welcome to a country, but the perfect antidote to the sadness of leaving Thailand.

A playlist for the ride:


Raging Inferno

We didn’t think much of the crazy border town in Thailand the last time, so we rode a bit further on to stay somewhere quieter. The short ride was on almost deserted perfect roads, and while Cambodia was a lot of fun at times, cycling in Thailand again felt like being given back a comfort blanket.

There’s been crop burning and clearance all over Thailand which has been a pain, partly because of the terrible air quality and partly because it spoils the views, but in this area we got to see it up close and personal. On the road west from Cambodia, the smouldering vegetation and sometimes even crackling fires were right up to the sides of the road. It was never too remote, but being on a small rural road surrounded as far as the eye can see by dry fields ready to become kindling didn’t feel all that comfortable. It only lasted a couple of days before we were in the realm of verdant rice fields though, and I could put to rest my worries about both border crossings and fires and default back to thinking about food all day.

The heat from above has also really started to crank up, with even Richard finding that he needs to drink water rather than just cola during the long days on the road.

Election season has been creeping closer here. One of the few annoying things when travelling by bike in Thailand is the advertising vans. They drive slowly along with loud speakers blaring slogans and music. Usually they advertise products or shops, but some of them are now advertising election candidates. We were followed by one for most of a morning. It would play someone chanting a phrase which sounded like “burning, Burning, BURNING” then an irritating jingle, followed by a very aggressive sounding speech. When I first heard the chanting, I thought it was a voice in my head triggered by the delirium of riding in 40 degree heat. This van would spend a few minutes catching us on the road, with BURNING getting gradually louder, then dip off the road to do a loop of each village, and then slowly catch us up on the road again.

Our second day back in Thailand I hurt my back again pretty badly. Weirdly, my riding position on the bike is usually manageable, so it didn’t slow us down too much.  I just struggled to get off the bike and couldn’t really walk when I did. Fortunately we were on flat terrain for a few days, so I could cruise along a bit without really straining it too much.

The roads we took in this part of the country were spookily quiet. There was one place near Nakhon Nayok which was a complete ghost town, with a closed factory and rice mill, boarded up homes and roadside stalls covered in weeds. Further on was an unfinished section of motorway with a flyover leading to nowhere, and around it lots of restaurants and resorts closed, even though they looked new. Presumably this was intended to be a major junction and new businesses opened to take advantage of the location and traffic, but events of the last few years have delayed or cancelled its completion.

As we headed towards Ayutthaya we took lots of small higgeldy piggledy roads which cross-crossed the waterways feeding the vast rice fields here. It was surprisingly rural considering how close to Bangkok we were. That only changed in the last few miles, with the huge number of tour buses and taxis everywhere. Ayutthaya was the second of the pre-modern Thai capitals, and most people visit as a day trip from Bangkok since it’s such a short distance away. That means that the place gets very quiet in the evenings, so with the heat and the crowds leaving, it was the perfect time to walk around. It’s a very beautiful place at dusk, and even though the main temple areas are shut at 6pm they are all lit up and can still be seen by walkways around the parkland of the city. Plus there is an impressive night market with a heavenly row of various food stalls.

Leaving Ayutthaya the ride was through increasingly remote farmland, with rice paddies all the way to the horizon. Previously they had been sectioned off into squares, but here there is an endless sea of rice. The surfaces here got a bit rough, which is unusual for Thailand even on the backroads. We turned up at one of the most off the beaten track places we have stayed. An elderly woman greeted us and seemed to find the whole thing hilarious, wanting to take our pictures and laughing and shaking her head the whole time. After showering we had a bit of a walk to find somewhere to eat, but when we found a place with pictures of food and sat down, a neighbour came over and phone-translated that the chef had gone to market. We forlornly walked back to our room, where the owner now had a friend with her who spoke English, so we were quizzed about where we’d been walking to and what for. We snuck back out later to the restaurant, or so we thought, because shortly after the woman from the hotel turned up there and waved. This time the chef was there too. There wasn’t a menu, which isn’t unusual – we always have some translations and pictures ready. I think the guy running the place didn’t believe that we wanted as much food as we asked for, as we only got the last couple of things we pointed to, either that or it was just lost in translation. He brought out plates of enormous vegetable omelettes with rice. That sounds a bit crap, but it was some of the tastiest food we’ve had.

We only had one more day of cycling after that before we planned to take a rest, but the temperature was becoming ridiculous and it was really hard going. The forecast was for 41 degrees, and getting up to 43 in the week ahead. We made it to Kanchanaburi a pair of over-heating sweaty messes. We’d booked a place to stay at a “resort” a thing which can be a bit hit or miss, and are never resorts in the way I think a non-Thai would understand them. As we approached down a road we passed some abandoned buildings, saw what looked a bit like a half finished building site, and we both exchanged a despairing look. We’d had high hopes for this one. But out popped a woman who looked as happy to see us as if we were long lost relatives. She commiserated about the heat, sat us down, brought us cold water over, invited us to have coffee. Even though the place had great reviews, I don’t think there were more than two other guests for the nights we stayed, but the family running the place still put on a breakfast buffet and I did my utmost to justify that. Round the back of the hotel was really nice, and it was probably a bustling place a couple of years ago judging by the empty swimming pool, BBQ area and even stage for live music. But despite the beautiful riverside setting, most of it sat empty. It hit home a bit how awful the effect of Covid on tourism must have been for a family-run place like this, where they can put in all the effort in the world but people are just not coming to towns like this anymore.

The following day we visited the Khwae Yai Bridge, better known as the “Bridge over/on the river Kwai” thanks to the book and film. The bridge was a crucial part of the Thai-Burma “Death Railway” constructed by POWs and other forced labour during WW2. It was targeted a couple of times by bomber aircraft until it was put out of commission in a raid in June 1945. The bridge was not completely destroyed though, and has since been re-constructed and is fully operational and in use as a railway bridge today. Afterwards we took a sombre trip to the Death Railway museum and the nearby POW cemetery. The former contained an extraordinary collection of personal items donated by POWs and their families, such as hand-made chess pieces, letters home, camp money and clothing. The latter was immaculately kept. The following day we rode the train that plies part of the old Thai-Burma railway, which was reconstructed in the 1950s. 

It’s savagely hot and crushingly humid in this part of Thailand. It’s almost indescribable to a north European, and if I’d come here first at this time instead of getting acclimatised to it I don’t think I would have managed. We spend the day cycling in it and it’s brutal. But we can stop and rest, get cold drinks, sleep in a bed with the air con or a fan on, treat mosquito bites easily. Having to do hard labour on rations in terrible conditions is unimaginable. Approximately one person died for every sleeper of the Death Railway that was laid. The POWs were mostly Australian, British and Dutch. Plus there were about four times as many forced labourers from the South East Asian population, and they don’t have marked graves.

We intended to get an early start to avoid the heat, but I can’t resist breakfast. As we left, the hotel owner was fussing around me like a mum, making sure I’d put sun cream on and had lots of water. We took turns to have horrible rides as we went south east. We were both worried that we’d come down with something nasty, as we had the same wheezing and tight-chests. Then Richard found a BBC article about the extreme air pollution in Thailand, which is worse than ever this year, so we think it’s probably that. The pollution is mostly thanks to the farm burning and forest fires. There have even been protests in the north to try and force someone to do something about the air quality. The respiratory problems are obviously the most serious issue here, but I had read that many Thais consider this part of the country to be one of the most beautiful. That is high praise, but, like in the north, it’s not possible to confirm it because the scenery is so often obscured by smog.

We decided to get a train from Ratchaburi to the south of Thailand. The peninsula gets quite narrow around there, and we cycled it going north and don’t want to double up on the bits we’ve already done. Plus we don’t want to be in any hurry with the visa, in case we want to spend some time by the beach before we leave. In the style of London Stansted, train stations in Thailand are often nowhere near the town they serve. But Ratchaburi is one exception, so we chose there.

Richard is fastidious in his planning, so we knew to expect that we’d have to load and unload our bikes to and from the freight carriage ourselves, and that we had to be on the same train as them. So when a train pulled in half an hour before ours was due and platform staff started loading our stuff on, there was some panicked rushing about and frantic words. We were assured that our bikes would be waiting for us at our destination and we just needed to show our receipt to collect them, but were still a bit reluctant to see them go. When we arrived in Chumphon they were just sitting outside on the platform, not in the freight room, and no ticket needed for us to just take them. Richard was seething about it. I was tired and hungry so couldn’t be arsed to get annoyed. We had some amazing Thai Muslim food to ease us back into southern Thailand and all was well again. We now set off to cross the peninsula, and then ride south on our very last leg of Thailand.

A playlist for the ride: