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: