11/20/2022 – 12/28/2022
After a short flight from freezing Kazakhstan, we arrive in the morning in sweltering Bangkok. We are relieved when we are reunited with our bicycle kits. As soon as we step outside, the heat slams into our faces. Right back to the arrival hall of the airport with air conditioning to rebuild the bikes. What a heat, it is 33 degrees.
The first miles on a new continent
After a few hours and a change of clothes (hello sandals!), we set off toward downtown Bangkok. The first traffic circle Audrey immediately goes in the wrong direction and everywhere we see signs “No Cycling”! Oh right, we have to drive on the left! Oops! It takes some time to get used to it and airports are not always bike-friendly, but traffic is quite slow due to the crowds and they seem used to slow vehicles and two-wheelers here. Tip: especially don’t make any unexpected movements and take it as normal that there seem to be no rules, frustrations soon give way to moving along with the orderly chaos.
Something that makes traveling by bicycle different is that you often ride through different neighborhoods of large cities and do not always see beautiful or pleasant things along the way. The outskirts of big cities often consist of poorer neighborhoods or slums and these are often weighed down by large amounts of trash and poverty. It is estimated that about 1 million people live in Bangkok’s slums. In total, about 10 million people live in the city.
The next day we set out on our own on foot through Bangkok. We are a bit overwhelmed by the crowds. We decide to go to some famous temples, including: Wat Pho and Wat Arun. To get there we take a boat several times. Never before have we seen such detail in buildings and this gigantic amount of Buddha statues together! Wat Pho is the largest temple complex in the country and is about 80,000 m2 in size. It contains thousands of statues. The most impressive is the reclining Buddha measuring 46m long and 15m high, bizarre!
To end the day, we strolled through busy Chinatown. It is one of the largest “Chinatowns” in the world. What all is sold and traded here is incredible. Food we have never seen before and a maze of small alleys crammed with stuff. Even if you were to walk around here for hours you have only seen a small portion. What amazes us most is at the way everyone moves through the small alleys and no one seems to bother the other.
And now a remarkable fact! Bangkok is called Krung-Thep by the Thai themselves, BUT the official ceremonial name is the longest place name in the world, which is:
“Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit“, aka Bangkok or Krung-Thep.
In the evening we have to deal with the very local weather in Bangkok. It is pouring from the sky and the thunderstorm is of a different magnitude than we are used to. We run soaking wet through the streets to the first store to do some more shopping and as soon as we get outside it has already stopped. After a few days in Bangkok, we say goodbye to Sean and Emma and get to leave a big bag of winter clothes with them. We plan to cycle towards Bangkok again in a few months.
For now, we say goodbye to downtown Bangkok and attempt to leave the metropolis by bicycle. Often there appear large traffic arteries with 6 or 8 lanes next to each other, which we cannot cross because of a concrete median strip. It is possible via several footbridges, but it is quite a struggle in the heat. First get all the luggage off the bikes and carry it to the other side of the bridge. Then lift the bikes, one at a time and together, up the stairs and down the other side. We cycle only 20 km that day, but it feels like 80. In Nonthaburi, a town on the outskirts of Bangkok, we stay with Toom that night.
Toom has welcomed more than 2,000 (!) people into his home over the past 10 years. He lives with his brother and the whole house is full of cards, photos and flags of travelers from all over the world. The cottage is simple, packed and several travelers share one of the 2 bedrooms. Tonight Toom even shares his bed with a traveler and we sleep on the kitchen floor. At dinner, we ask him how this all started. He tells us that one of the first visitors created a profile for him on Couchsurfing (and later Warmshowers). “I just never stopped“. And when we say to him that we are cycling on again the next day, he says: “so fast, you should stay a little longer“. We can hardly believe it, but his smile tells enough:
In the evening there is another heavy thunderstorm and because of the high humidity our laundry smells like wet dog the next morning 😉 We tie the laundry on the back of the bikes so it can dry a bit more. We don’t know yet where we will sleep today, but notice that we have really left busy Bangkok behind us now. Via rural roads we meet the first Asian cows (those ears!), wild monkeys and monitor lizards. The first monitor lizards give us a bit of a fright, gigantic crocodile-like animals that quickly slip into the water as you cycle past them. Also, every kilometer we see a toilet bowl next to the road, connected directly to the sewer, so very creative. We already don’t have to worry about that either, privacy is another story.
Sleeping at a temple
Toward the end of the afternoon we drive past a special temple. A giant reclining Buddha, but without the tourist crowd of the reclining Buddha in Bangkok. We also see 3 bicycles and a tent. We greet the cyclists and they ask if we are also staying here in the temple. We look at each other doubtfully and decide to join them. A little later, more cyclists join us, and more and more…. It is an organization in which 30 Thai cyclists cycle for a good cause (Tiny Wheels). Disabled cyclists also participate. We get to take a shower in the monks’ washroom and the cycling group hands us their team shirts, water and food. We sleep next to the giant Buddha under our mosquito net, but it remains a clammy short night. At 4:30 a.m. we are awakened by music. The cycling group is already busy packing, and after a few more selfies and a donation, we say goodbye to them. We slow down a bit and take the smaller roads, they cycle on the highway. At 5 minutes to 7 we are on our bikes, a record perhaps.
We are struck by how diverse the flora and fauna is and how unimaginably green the rice fields are colored. Palm trees, rice paddies, and the occasional giant golden Buddha rising far above the landscape. We learn that we often sleep in rooms with salamanders, large spiders also make an appearance, and we hear bird sounds we have never heard before. Everywhere, people are working in the rice fields. Sometimes with very modern technology, sometimes with animals pulling the cart. Several times we see a big noisy drone flying over the rice fields to spray, other times people walking through the water with a small watering can.
The further north we cycle, the more mountains come into view. It should also cool down a bit, but we don’t notice much of that yet. We hear that you can often camp for free at national parks in Thailand, so today we try that for the first time in Khao Luang National Park. There is a camping field, there are (cold) showers and there is even a friendly guard. Perfect! Sleeping is another story, it doesn’t cool down and we almost float out of the tent in sweat after blaming each other for the heat. Especially when we realize that there is also a frog jumping around in the tent. As soon as we are outside, we are literally eaten by the mosquitoes. So, camping in Thailand, we are definitely going to remember it!
One of the Thai cyclists we met at the reclining Buddha gave us a thick green booklet. This is apparently a booklet to collect stamps from all of Thailand’s national parks, and there are quite a few! In 2019, Thailand had 156 national parks, 56 wildlife sanctuaries and 120 forest parks, covering a whopping 31 percent of the territory. Let’s see how many we can visit on a bike!
The second park on our route north is Doi Soi Malai National Park, in Tak Province. A 72.22m petrified tree (~ a 20-story building!) was discovered in this park in 2003. The tree is at least 120,000 years old and has been known as the world’s longest petrified tree since July 2022. While the tree was buried, the wood was transformed into stone over thousands of years, with even the annual rings still visible.
Since we’ve been in Thailand, we’ve been eating all kinds of things for the first time and often don’t really know what to order. We rarely cook ourselves, as we often eat lunch or dinner for 2 people for €3. In the smaller villages, hardly anyone speaks English and we often point to vague pictures on a poster hanging on the wall. For example: rice with holy basil and pork, pad thai, crispy blackened angel hair pancakes, shabu-shabu (a pot of broth on the table and you cook everything in it yourself) and the spiciest noodles ever. We are often asked to have our picture taken with the restaurant owners. For snacks we eat a lot of bananas, which grow everywhere and are very easy to get. A bunch of 10-15 bananas costs about €0.50. One banana seller doesn’t give up. As soon as we pay for the bunch, she adds another kilo, just like that…
Countrymen in Thailand
At the beginning of December we arrive at the home of Mieke and François. They are a Dutch couple who have been living in Thailand for several years. They have designed and built their own beautiful house and garden. Their own bedroom is made from rice straw. They live as sustainably as possible. We get to stay in their cosy little wooden house in the garden and wake up every morning to a beautiful sunrise over the rice fields. It’s nice to speak Dutch again (Mieke even speaks Limburg dialect!) and learn more about life in Thailand. For example, we won’t soon forget the story about the snake under their bed. Apart from the occasional snake, they also have several small dogs, a horse and many special birds flying around the garden. And once we fell victim to a giant bee (10 times the size of a Dutch bee). It flew into the room just before we went to sleep. The fan finally knocks it out temporarily, so we can still sleep with some relief. François warns us about the route we want to take to Chang Mai. “Are you sure you can cycle up “Khuntan”?”, “Uuuh Khuntan?, we think so…“, we reply. So much for our route preparation…
A pool of sweat
After a few days we say goodbye to Mieke and Francois and start a tough stage with renewed energy. The route is beautiful, there is plenty of greenery and shade and we only encounter the occasional lost car. Soon we realise what Francois warned us about. The gradients are particularly steep, always 16 to 20% up and then down, it feels like a thousand times. We are sweating like crazy. The last kilometre takes no less than an hour of pushing and complaining. Some parts are even too steep for Audrey to walk. Eloy literally has to push her. BUT at today’s destination, Doi Khuntan, the mountain top, there is a nice campsite in the national park. It takes only a few minutes for Thai cyclists, motorcyclists and other visitors to stop and chat with us. Other campers hand us bags of food and a bamboo stick filled with purple, sweet, sticky rice. Thai hospitality goes straight to the heart!
The advantage of the summit is that it is pleasantly cool in the tent, which usually means a good night’s sleep. Another advantage is that we can cycle down the mountain again today! Further down the map we see another national park (Mae Ta Khrai) and so we cycle there. It turns out to be less well known, because every time we say we are going there, no one knows what we are talking about…. When we get there it seems a bit deserted. There are no other people, although there is a beautiful lake and a small dilapidated hut with a toilet. We cycle around for a while and then meet a ranger. He leads us on his scooter to the nearby ‘house’ to sleep. We pass a ‘hotel’ sign and cycle up another hill. There are some dilapidated huts and 2 ladies start sweeping and packing sheets. We get to spend the night for free! We cook our instant noodles and bake bananas, which are getting soft from shaking in the bags. The cold shower makes us feel fresher and we sleep under our mosquito net as we share the room with some insects and geckos. We wonder where we have ended up. Tomorrow, Chang Mai!
Life of a cyclist
Audrey realises she has a flat rear tyre just as we are about to leave. The backpack comes off the bike again and we fix it! In Chiang Mai we stay with Stuart and his girlfriend. Our first attempt to find his house ends up in front of a zoo. A little later, in the dark, we arrive at the right place. Over the next few days we give the bikes a well-deserved and much-needed service: new brake pads, oil removal from the leaking hub, a scrub and a new rear-view mirror for Audrey. We also manage to pick up a kilo of peanut butter, which will keep us going for a while!
Chiang Mai is known for its many temples. There are as many as 300 (!), more than in any other city in Thailand. We manage to visit 5 of them, all impressive, colourful and decorated with lots of gold. Here are a few impressions of the city:
Hands pitch a tent, but only hearts can make it a home
After a few days, we leave the city and head towards Chiang Dao. Our navigation sometimes takes us down roads that shouldn’t be called roads at all. It is always a surprise and Eloy is beginning to wonder if Audrey (the navigator) has a hand in it! Today these antics lead us onto a steep muddy track through a section of jungle as dusk falls. The alternative is the highway, so we decide to follow the path. The jungle comes alive with all sorts of sounds, but after 15km we come to a few huts and guesthouses. We ask if we can sleep in one of the guesthouses, but it is full. We can camp in the garden. The owner is so excited that he immediately brings a torch and helps us pitch the tent. He says ‘Wait, you sleep on that? Wait, wait!’ when Audrey wants to put the sleeping mat in the tent. Moments later he returns with a big smile on his face, a sleeping mat and lots of blankets. “Now you will sleep on a Thai bed, so as not to be cold at night”. A welcome and comfortable shelter for the night.
Meanwhile, Eloy tries to get some instant noodles from a convenience store around the corner, as there is nothing else to eat nearby. The shop is closed, but the watchdog has spotted an intruder in Eloy. Amidst loud barking, his eight other foaming canine friends join in, chasing Eloy away with the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. Meanwhile, the owner of the guesthouse says, “You can use my shower and toilet, and I’ll cook you some rice.” What a hero!
The next morning we cycle along a river past some hot springs. After a hot, sulphurous bath we cool down in the cold river and get back on our bikes. Today we have a lot of climbing to do and we plan to stop in the mountains. There is a resort of some kind with a lot of potential, but the cottages are in a state of disrepair and the electricity is out. It looks like there has been a fire in the past. We get one of the cottages, but it all looks a bit creepy and dark, so we decide to camp in the huge garden. The family who run the resort cook the 2 meals they have in the restaurant. We find out that we are the only guests in the whole park, and probably have been for a while, but they do an incredibly good job. Maintaining such a huge place seems to be a difficult task and probably Covid has left its mark here too.
The next day we cycle further north, visit a date farm and finally arrive in Thaton. For us, this is the northernmost point of Thailand, as on the other side of the mountains lies Myanmar (Burma). The land border with Myanmar has been closed for some time, so we will not be cycling there. As our legs still have some energy left, we visit the colourful Wat Thaton Chedi at sunset. This is a temple complex on a hill with 9 different stations.
Along the River Kok
From Thaton you can take a boat to Chiang Rai, the last major city before the border with Laos. But we decided to cycle. On the way, we pass a temple that is particularly pink, but also a little eerie, with moving skeletons. We do not regret our decision to cycle along the river. It is a beautiful hilly area. Meanwhile the road changes from tarmac to dirt and suddenly we find ourselves facing a tributary of the river without a bridge. This is going to be swimming with the bikes 😉
Eloy is a gentleman and takes Audrey and the wheels across the river. A successful ford is followed by a rickety bridge. Meanwhile, several pick-ups with dozens of children in the back are passing by. School is out! Loud shouts, laughter and all sorts of attempts to speak English are picked up.
Nearby is a national park with hot springs and a camping site: Lam Nam Kok. The hot springs are too hot to swim in, but you can boil eggs. Apparently this is a thing in Thailand. Wherever there are hot springs you can buy eggs. We pitched our tent by the river and found a couple of other Thai campers. They bring us a cup of coffee and some sausages with bread. When it’s pitch dark, some forest rangers come to have a look. They seem to want to take photos with us….
Elephant camp and having coffee with detainees
After a good night’s sleep we cycle to Chiang Rai today. Suddenly we see elephants on the road, one limping but carrying tourists on a chair. It turns out to be an elephant camp where both local and foreign tourists can ride the elephants. The camp is super small and the elephants are tied up on a chain. They can barely turn around and their tusks are broken off. The elephants used to work in the forest and on the land. This makes it difficult to release them back into the wild and it costs a lot of money to feed them properly. Unfortunately, these are often the consequences. Elephants are not meant to be ridden. If you ever want to visit an elephant camp, make sure you do your research and don’t ride the elephants. Also, playing with elephants in the water is something they would never do. To come into such close contact with humans, the animals are often abused from a young age.
We are then surprised by the ‘Inspire Project’ that is being run here. Prisoners who are about to be released are trained to work as baristas or gardeners. Rice and vegetables are grown, there is a rubber tree plantation and a plant centre for sale. This gives them a better chance of reintegrating into society. The six men in the café are very warm and try very hard. They are also very interested in the cycling trip.
We spend Christmas in Chiang Rai and visit some famous temples. It is the last major city before we head into Laos and we are certainly not the only foreigners here. We have breakfast in a small restaurant. A retired man speaks to us in English, but his Dutch accent is recognisable among thousands. One thing leads to another and he turns out to be from Sittard. We chat in Limburgish about the good Thai life he leads here. Then we set off for Wat Rong Khun, better known to foreigners as the ‘White Temple’.
The thousands of mirrors on the stark white walls reflect Buddha’s purity and wisdom. Reflection is a major theme of the temple and the bridge to the White Temple shows the path to heaven. According to Buddhism, you get there by renouncing temptation, desire and greed (represented by the hands, see photo). The temple complex is not expected to be completed until around 2070, which is not surprising as even the smallest corners are very detailed. The bizarre architecture (including strange heads and lurid figures here and there) makes it difficult to compare the building with anything we have seen before. Without sunglasses, Audrey can barely keep her eyes open because of the building’s reflections. Judge for yourself:
More cyclists and the Blue Temple
The next day we went for a bite to eat and suddenly saw a couple with panniers entering the restaurant. We heard that they spoke Dutch and were looking for a cycle route. They turned out to be Jacqueline and Hans. We get to talking and apparently they had heard of us in Thaton by word of mouth. We decide to have dinner together in the evening at the night bazaar, where there are perhaps 100 food stalls to choose from.
The next day we visit the White Temple’s little brother: the Blue Temple! Or Wat Rong Sue Ten. The architect of this temple is an apprentice of the designer of the White Temple.
Flower festival in Chiang Rai
We are in Chiang Rai when the flower festival starts. We decide to have a look and are amazed by the huge works of art. We even see tulips and windmills and for a moment we think we are in Keukenhof. The number of selfie sticks in the park is extraordinary and so are the iced coffees and other sweet drinks at the spirit house….
Christmas in Thailand
The hostel maid tells us about a night market on Christmas Eve. We walk into town and see a huge decorated Christmas tree. It turns out to be a Protestant church and from the church comes familiar Christmas music. Before we knew it, we were handed a candle and a booklet and led into the church. The mass is complete with children dressed as angels and Father Christmas, disco lights and fog machines. All we understand from the Thai priest is ‘Amen’ and the melodies of the songs sung by the children are probably recognisable anywhere in the world. At the end, all the candles are lit and, as if that were not enough, there is a huge market next to the church with free food for everyone in the area. Locals and chains have all cooked incredibly delicious things. Some poorer families also enjoy the food they can get here on Christmas Eve. A nice gesture from this church community. It is estimated that around 1% of Thai people are Christians. The percentage is higher in the north than in the south. 95% of the population is Buddhist, so Christmas is not really celebrated, but there is no shortage of Christmas trees and decorations. Many people just find the atmosphere cosy, and as we cycled along we heard several cheerful shouts of “Merry Christmas”!
Last days in Thailand
On Boxing Day, we cycle towards the Laos border, but not before making a final stop at Tiansak and Nisan. A Thai couple who have made many far-flung journeys by bike. They are both in their 60s, but still dream of cycling in Alaska, among other places. Surrounded by ‘jungle’, as Tiansak puts it himself, we have to use a bamboo stick (to scare away snakes) to pass through his garden of bananas and papayas. At the end of his garden, we overlook the Mekong and Laos on the other side of the river. We pitch our tent next to a giant bamboo bush. We also meet 2 more bicycle travellers.
Then, when we walk back to Tiansak’s house, the table is set outside. We are going to gourmets Thai style, a real Christmas meal on this Boxing Day. Bacon is fried, but also squid, prawns, mushrooms, etc. Next to the griddle is a basin into which broth is poured to cook food. Here are the meatballs, thick noodles and cabbage. Delicious as it is, Eloy’s headache has come to a head and he feels bad. He lies down and when a little later Audrey comes to tell him there is dessert (papaya and cake) he happens to feel a lot better again. We all chat a lot together.
Tiansak talks about his cycling trips and says he still wants to do a lot, but he doesn’t want to go for more than a few months. Then he misses the Thai food too much! Tiansak urges us to sleep in and stay an extra night. And so it happens.
Eloy is refreshed after a somewhat restless night (5 times out of the tent to water the Dutch papayas). Tiansak takes us to a nearby village where the Hmong tribe celebrate New Year. The boys and the girls from the mountains get together and dress up in traditional costumes to hit on each other. There is a real Miss Hmong pageant and the women in costume toss balls back and forth. It didn’t take us long to join in. This is one of the activities boys and girls do to find a suitable mate. The Hmong are an Asian people who live mainly in the highlands of China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
When we return, Tiansak’s wife has prepared another feast. We start with rice and duck, fried fish and soup. Next comes sushi and we finish with mango and stuffed pancakes. Tiansak is in full voice again and we listen intently. He also has a kettle of water on the fire so we can wash ourselves with hot water.
We only snooze once when the alarm goes off at 6am. We have to get up in time to cycle to the border (10km), cross the border and cycle another 15km to catch the boat. Audrey takes the shortcut, so we ride off-road through fields and past rubber plantations to the border. The ‘Friendship Bridge’ over the Mekong separates Thailand from Laos. We get out of Thailand quite quickly, buy a bus ticket and change money. Yes, a bus ticket! It is forbidden to cross the bridge by bike, a bit silly, but we have no choice. The bikes are hoisted into the bus and when we reach the other side after 2 minutes, we get in line for the ‘visa on arrival’. Thanks in part to some tour groups cutting in front of us, we spend a total of 2 hours in various queues before we can cycle again. With only 15 minutes left on the clock, the first few kilometres into Laos are covered in record time. When we arrived, it turned out that the boat was leaving half an hour later. We had to go down some stairs to the boat and then lift the bikes onto the roof. With the luggage they weigh about 50kg, but with the help of a few people they are on the roof. Now let’s hope they stay on for the 2-day (yes, really) trip up the Mekong! A slow boat they call it, welcome to Laos!
A brief summary of the route through Thailand and the map above:
- Cycling days: 24
- Rest days: 14
- Kilometres: 1292
- Kilos of bananas: uncountable