Leaving BKK

19th February 2020

Today is the day I finally get to cycle out of Bangkok; one whole week after leaving Scotland. In reality, a few days of taking it easy was just what I needed to acclimatise and recover from jet-lag. Now it’s just my lack of fitness I have to work on.

My last Casa Picasso breakfast fills my belly, before Yorshi helps get my bike onto the pavement outside. He takes a couple of pictures of me in ‘about to depart’ pose and gives me his phone so I can find the Nine Miles Per Hour facebook page for him. My journey starts by following the same route I’ve already walked as a city tourist, past the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and over the Chao Phraya river. The road carries me South until a huge, complicated junction has me joining the Frontage Road that runs alongside the Rama II Motorway. This side road is for slow moving traffic like scooters and cyclists, but it also allows access to businesses that line the route. As I moved further away from Bangkok, I thought the glut of industries along the road would begin to thin out. They don’t. It’s a constant, built up trail of service, commercial and manufacturing companies all the way out of the capital.

For lunch I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe, which feels a bit like catching up with an old friend. It’s right beside the road, noisy and has a very home-made feel to it. I point to the rice cooker and the lady owner nods her head. She then points to some kind of meat and I nod my head, although I’ve no idea what she’s offering. Once I get stuck into the meal I realise that it’s pork strips with rice. Strangely, being surprised by what arrives on my plate is something that I’ve missed.

I struggle for the last 10km or so, devoid of energy, even though I’d only pencilled in a 40km day. Slowly I trundle to my accommodation at the New Friend Hotel, which is essentially just motel units right next to the main road. The thunder of traffic noise is destined to continue throughout the night. It’s not the most pleasant overnight stop, and it’s certainly not picturesque, but the main aim was just to get myself out of Bangkok. So, although I’ve not travelled far, I have achieved today’s objective.

The next morning I have a shower before leaving, due to the room getting stiflingly hot once I switch off the air-conditioning. I’d kept the air flow on all night, which I know isn’t the healthiest thing to do, but I just became too hot otherwise. Sleeping under air-con is probably the reason I spend most of the morning with my nose running like a tap. It’s a habit I’ll need to get out of. Breakfast is taken across the road from the motel, in the same Plastic Chair Cafe that I had dinner in last night. A simple chicken fried rice with fried egg on top does the job.

I’m back on the Frontage Road today, riding alongside the motorway but safely separated from it’s speeding mass of traffic. That is, until roadworks on the Frontage Road means that everyone has to join the main highway. My tactic is to keep as far left and out of everyone’s way as I can. I plod up a long sloping bridge over a river, noticing uneven bumps every few metres where the tarmac has begun to crack. On the down slope I’m particularly careful to freewheel slowly, yet still manage to jolt over one bump quite violently. I swear out loud using the worst possible combination of curses. It was such a bang that my mind turns to thoughts of punctures, and I check my rear tyre as I’m rolling along. Of course, if I’m ever having tyre issues it always has to be the rear wheel. Looking down it actually looks slightly warped. Fuck Sake.

Worrying about my back wheel means I take it even easier than before, lumbering along a road that’s still flanked by as much industry as when I left Bangkok. The bright side is that I do appear to have a lovely tailwind helping me along today. The ever-present Thai national flags at the roadside are all being blown to the horizontal in the same direction I’m heading. Being assisted by this wind is such a boon, as I start to wilt with about 10km to go again. It’s scary how unfit I’ve let myself become.

Just before the city of Samut Songkhram I stop for lunch. At a dirt floor Plastic Chair Cafe I’m supping my pork soup, thankful for the break and blankly staring at my bike. Absent-mindedly I notice the pattern of the spokes and see that one looks way out of kilter. It takes me a couple of seconds to realise that it’s become detached from the hub in the centre. I bet that was from the big jolt this morning. Double Fuck Sake. Although I’m annoyed, I know there’s not much I can do about it till I reach the bigger city of Phetchaburi tomorrow. I’ll just have to be a bit more careful until then.

My accommodation isn’t too far though, so I nurse my bike along and find a tranquil little oasis that’s the perfect antidote for two days of busy, urban cycling. I can still hear a dull traffic rumble as the place is only a few hundred metres from the main highway, but it feels like I’ve ridden into another world. The building is on wooden pillars, at one end of a large mangrove pond and sitting just in the water. As I push my bike along the walkway to my room I can look down and see shoals of large grey fish languishing in the shallows below. Every now and then something spooks them, and the quietness is broken by a frenzy of splashing.

The accommodation owner gives me an iced welcome drink, flavoured with Butterfly Pea Flower and served in a dimpled, silver bowl. She shows me the type of purple flower that has gone into making the drink and even shows me it’s Google images too, just so I know what I’m about to consume. It’s refreshing, predictably flower-scented and has a subtle bubble-gum taste to it. I drink slowly, taking in the surrounds while sitting on the boardwalk above the pond. There are a handful of wading birds, standing motionless in reed beds until they shoot their beaks into the water like an arrow, trying to nab an inattentive small fish. Then I spot something swimming along the water’s surface, looking almost snake-like in it’s movements. Blimey, is that a crocodile ? It takes a few moments to realise that it’s probably some kind of water monitor, a large aquatic lizard that’s native to South-East Asia. I certainly wasn’t expecting that.

In the evening I go for a walk round the mangrove pond, just in time to witness an orange ball sun descending over a forest on the opposite side of the water. I return to the decking outside my room and sit down for prawn curry with rice and another flower-based drink, this time mixed with lemonade. All the while I’m eating there are about half a dozen geckos on the walls and ceiling, picking off any insects that are attracted by the lights. I sit there, quite content and happy to be in such a peaceful, idyllic spot. The battle to get out of Bangkok and the busy main highway already seem like a distant memory. Right then I make a vow to try and avoid the main highways as much as I can on this trip. If these sorts of destinations are my reward, then it’ll be worth cycling a few extra kilometres.

 

 

Temple Runs

16th FEBRUARY 2020

With my departure date put back until the nineteenth, I decide to pass my days by visiting a couple of Bangkok’s famous temples. On the first day I walk to Wat Arun on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya river, reckoning that being out in this heat is really the only way I’ll get used to it. It’s bloody roasting in direct sunlight though, so I spend most of my time trying to walk in the shade created by trees or buildings. An hour later I arrive to find that Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) is quite a spectacle, and well worth my effort. The main spire is a whopping eighty metres high, with two storeys of steep stairs to the top that are off limits to the public. Despite it’s huge size, the entire temple is decorated in minute detail, with hundreds of little mirrored shapes on nearly every surface. What sounds like clanking bells or windchimes act as a hypnotic soundtrack to my time there.

When it’s time to head back I really don’t fancy retracing my steps for another 5km, so I find a ferry that will take me back across the river instead. The two minute ride costs 4 Baht (ten pence). I wish I’d known about the cheap ferries this morning. After getting back I notice that there’s some live Muay Thai boxing about two minutes walk down the street I’m staying on. And it’s free ! I pop in to the venue to find that it starts at 7.00pm, which gives me enough time for some food before it begins. I stop at a cafe called ‘Street Food’ and have chicken noodles for 75 Baht and a bottle of Singha Beer that costs 150 Baht. This is the first time in my life that a beer has cost double my meal.

By 7.00pm the crowd has swelled at the Muay Thai place and I have to stand in one of the corners between the seating to get a view. It’s a very professional set up with a suited announcer and multiple camera operators. We’re also live on Thai TV tonight. I stay for the first three fights, watching as a vicious barrage of knees and elbows fly into heads and bodies. The first two bouts are decided on points, but the third sees a Cambodian guy with a mohawk smash his elbow into an Argentinean guys cheek, knocking him clean out. Because we’re on TV I can see the knockout being replayed again and again on a big screen. It’s brutal. The poor guy has to be helped from the ring by medics. Back at the hostel it occurs to me that I’ve had a day of contrasts – from the peacefulness and contemplation of a temple to the speed and ferocity of Muay Thai. It’s been quite a mix.

The next morning I’m downstairs at the hostel for another of their big breakfasts. I have the ‘Casa Picasso’ option of omelette, fried potato cubes, slices of tomato, toast and feta cheese. As a weird addition, this meal always contains a few sprigs of steamed broccoli too. Then, horror of horrors, when I’m back upstairs my early morning poo comes out runny. You have got to be joking ! I’m sincerely hoping this is just my system rebelling a little at the change of diet, climate and time zones, although this does seem a strange reaction if that is the case. Why would your body make you deal with the runs when it’s trying to cope with everything else at the same time ?

Today I walk to Wat Pho, which is on my side of the river, beside the Grand Palace and a distance of only 2km. I plod along quite slowly mind you, mindful of my guts now as well, on top of everything else. I pay my 200 Baht entry fee and start walking round a large complex full of temples, spires, sculptures and tourists. However, the real drawcard at Wat Pho is the Reclining Buddha, which has an entire temple to itself because it’s so blooming huge.

As with all temples, you have to remove your shoes before you can enter, but the sheer amount of tourists who want to see the Buddha means there would be hundreds of shoes left at the door. To get round this, everyone puts their shoes in a provided plastic bag and walks round with them. This temple basically has a procession in one door, before you walk past the front of the towering Buddha, round it’s massive feet and finally along the back and out another door. Once I get to see the enormous statue it is a genuine ‘Wow !’ moment. At forty-six metres long and fifteen metres high, the golden Buddha stares impassively ahead while reclining on his right shoulder. With so many visitors I have to wait my turn to take photos, and it’s impossible to get a picture that doesn’t contain other tourists. Normally this would be annoying, but on this occasion it actually gives a sense of scale to the colossal Buddha.

In the evening I go to meet another Couchsurfing host, Nuch, who invites me over to have food with her and her friends. Their place is about 5km away, over the river once again, so I register with the Grab Bike app and am taken there on the back of a motorbike. We sit and eat at a makeshift table in her friend’s Hair Salon, while the occasional customer pops in for a haircut. It’s a tasty shared spread of mixed noodles, salads and a big, fried river fish, all washed down with a beer. I find out that Nuch is originally from Chang Mai in Northern Thailand and has been living in Bangkok and working in one of the hospitals here for seven years. She’s been a Couchsurfing host for ages, but prefers to meet cyclists – she once hosted a Korean lady who was cycling through Thailand and became inspired by her travels. Once the Hair Salon closes the hairdresser joins us at the table, expertly picking flesh from the river fish and making me look like a novice. It’s another good evening and interesting to spend it with locals, rather than fellow travellers.

On the day before departure I have my usual big breakfast, then head upstairs for a poo, slightly worried about what might follow. I’m more than a little relieved to find that things are becoming far more solid in the poo department. I’m definitely feeling like I’m ready to hit the road tomorrow.

That evening I’m able to take advantage of an uncanny coincidence. When I moved to Australia in the late 1990’s, my first flatmate was a guy from country Western Australia called Scotty. Remarkably, he is now visiting Bangkok at the same time as me. It would be amiss of us not to meet up. I get another Grab Bike ride to a Movenpick Wellness Resort where he is celebrating a friend’s birthday. When I arrive I find five half-pissed Aussies in shorts and t-shirts, the only customers in a gleaming, posh bar. The conversation flows, despite not having seen him since 2007, although this might be due to all the beer and tequila sunrises they’ve been downing. I have a couple of slow beers and one cocktail, but don’t accept the offer to continue drinking in their rooms once the bar has closed. I know if I go down that road, there’s no way I’ll be fit to start cycling tomorrow. We say our Goodbyes, with solemn promises not to leave it thirteen years between catch ups next time.

On my Grab Bike back to the hostel, the driver asks about my time in Thailand. Like most locals, he’s surprised and impressed by my upcoming cycle. Little does he know that I’m still trying to get my own head round the fact I’m leaving tomorrow.

 

Settling in to Bangkok

14th FEBRUARY 2020

It’s 11.43am when I wake on my first full day in Bangkok, which means that it’s currently 4.43am in the UK. My body-clock must be floating somewhere between the two time zones, wondering just what the Hell is going on. From previous experience I know that, sadly, it’s going to take at least a couple of days to re-adjust as jet-lag always hits me harder after flying East. On top of my jet-lag problem, I’ve also got to try and get used to a huge temperature increase – it was three degrees when I left Glasgow, and thirty-three degrees when I landed in Bangkok. Furthermore, I’ve not even sat on a bike for five months. Even by my shoddy standards, I’m woefully under-prepared. I know I’ll get used to the cycle-touring regime again after a couple of weeks, but those first few days are going to be painful.

My afternoon is very lazy, moving only as far as the 7-11 next door for munchies, and the roof terrace above to watch planes coming in to land. In the evening I meet up with Couchsurfing host Sairung, who had responded to a general Couchsurfing request I’d made before arriving. She insists on picking me up from the hostel, even though it’s well out of her way, and drives us into the city in a new, beautifully air-conditioned Toyota. We park at a temple and then walk past Bangkok’s Grand Palace, whose shrines, spires and temples are clearly visible above the tall outer wall. It’s a huge complex, formerly the Royal residence, and a stunningly colourful spectacle at night under lighting. Sairung says it is ‘too much beautiful’.

We take a tuk-tuk to Chinatown where, again, a lack of Chinese visitors have made it much quieter than normal. I notice a few street food vendors have mouth masks on, but most don’t. Sairung buys chicken satay sticks and three small bags of cut pineapple from stalls, before we go to an outdoor Plastic Chair Cafe and order soup that contains a weird mix of beef, pork and seafood. I’d already told her that I’m OK with spicy food, although she must think I’m lying when my nose starts to run after a few spoonfuls of this soup. Sairung says she would use SEVEN chillies if she was cooking a meal at home, whereas one would be about my limit. She then advises I should always specify the number of chillies I’d like in my meal if a Thai person is cooking for me. By simply asking for a dish to be ‘Not Spicy’, it’s still likely to arrive having been cooked with two or three chillies.

Part of me always wonders why people act as Couchsurfing hosts, giving up their time to show foreigners around their city or even giving them free accommodation in their home. Some have benefited from being hosted themselves while travelling and just want to ‘give something back’ and I suspect some are just genuinely proud of their city or country. Sairung says she started when she met some Western tourists at a temple and asked whereabouts in Thailand they would be visiting. She was really disappointed when they replied ‘Pattaya, Patong and Khao San Road’ – basically the sleazy cities and Entertainment Strips where many Westerners spend their entire holidays. She decided there and then that she would like to show foreigners the real Thailand, far removed from the standard, tacky tourist traps. When she went home she had to google ‘How to show foreigners round your city,’ which led her to the Couchsurfing website and she soon joined up as a host. I’m very glad she did !

Despite the extra spicy soup, it’s been a good meal and an interesting evening. It’s also been quite handy for me to come right into the city, giving me a bit of a Head’s Up for cycling roughly the same route tomorrow. Sairung drives me all the way back to my hostel, although I’m struggling to keep my eyes open by the time we return. She now faces a 70km drive back to her home on the Northern outskirts of Bangkok, and I’m quite humbled that she’s gone to such lengths. She really has gone above and beyond.

The following morning I’m awake at 9.30am, but only because I set my alarm. It would appear that my brain is still a time-zone or two behind my body. I take all my gear downstairs and pump up the bike tyres, still moving extra carefully in case my back twists again. It’s been so long since riding a bike that the first few pedal strokes feel odd as I roll off towards the city. I had a small, crappy bike that I occasionally cycled to work last summer, so now my bike feels massive, almost luxurious, in comparison.

I’ve only got a paltry 33km to cover today, but my lack of practice means I’ll be pacing myself as if I’m about to ride 100km. It’s baking hot and very busy, with no respite from passing traffic. I’m stopping all the time to check Google maps and trying my hardest to stand in the shade any time I have to stop at traffic lights. As I get closer to the city the buildings become taller and their density increases, till I feel like they’re crowding around and over me. At least they’re providing plenty of shade. I’m able to recognise Thailand’s tallest skyscraper, complete with revolving top floor, as a result of last night’s drive with Sairung. With 10km to go I begin to feel tired and almost a little woozy, the heat taking its toll on my soft, ill-prepated body. I slow down to a crawl and just plod lethargically forwards.

When I start to recognise temples and a fort from last night I know I’m nearly there. I Google map my way to the Khaosan Art Hotel, which is basically a Backpackers with private rooms. I’m told I can put my bike down a set of stairs, outside what appears to be a basement office. A young lad from reception, Yorshi, watches me put a lock through the back wheel of my bike and asks where I’m cycling to. He’s amazed when I tell him Singapore. In fact he’s so amazed that he takes a selfie with me right there and then tells another staff member where I’ll be travelling to. Pretty soon half the reception and bar staff know what I’m up to. I decide I might as well bask in the attention and eat at the hotel’s restaurant, enjoying my first Pad Thai of the trip washed down with a Fanta. In the evening I can’t help but crash out between 9.00pm and midnight, and thus ruin tonight’s chance of any jet-lag re-adjustment.

I was going to start cycling from Bangkok in two days time, but now I’ve elected to stay an extra two days on top of that. Today’s feeble cycling effort has shown me that I need more time to acclimatise before I start riding for hours in this heat. I’m a little frustrated by the delay, although this is tempered by me gaining more time to be a tourist in Bangkok.

In Between Trips

MAY 2019

After finishing my trip I fly out to Phuket to spend two wonderful weeks with my kids, before heading back to the UK in Springtime. My first month or so is spent with family in Scotland, which is therapeutically good for the soul like it always is. Then, the remainder of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 are spent back on the Isle of Wight. I pass my time working in a Call Centre which, inevitably, turns out to be as demoralising and tedious as it sounds. Nevertheless, I keep my head down and just get on with it, quietly hatching my plans of freedom as I pretend to empathise with a tiresome barrage of moaning customers.

Unsurprisingly, work seems to improve when I book my escape flight to Bangkok for February and give myself a definitive finishing date. My intention now is to carry on cycling from where I left off last April, heading South this time and aiming to make it all the way down to Singapore. Once again, I’ll have the goal of coinciding the end of my journey with meeting my kids at Easter. All I have to do is sort out a rough plan for cycling the 2,500km in between.

I have a final two weeks with family in Scotland, organise a Thai visa, get some spares for the bike and buy all my sunscreens, lotions and repellents. Everything appears to be going really smoothly until – medically speaking – I fuck my back up. Somehow I manage to twist myself whilst getting up and trap a nerve in my lower back. It’s like two bones in my spine have collapsed on each other and are squashing the nerve. It’s bloody agony, and can only be remedied by me hanging from a door, stretching my spine and thus releasing the problem nerve. This injury leads to me walking round like a cripple for days, in wincing slow-motion, and having to postpone my flight by one week. Then, just as I’m recovering, Storm Ciara blasts in from the Atlantic, cancelling trains between Oban and Glasgow and scuppering my intended method of bike transportation to the airport. Luckily, very luckily, my sister happens to be driving to Glasgow and saves the day. Miraculously we cram the bike, a plethora of luggage and two small children into her family car.

The day before departure then sees me engaging in a similar performance to that of the previous winter. Once again I spend a cold hour in my sister’s back garden, wrapping my bike with bin bags and packing tape so that it’s deemed acceptable as aeroplane hold luggage. The big difference this year is that I have a dodgy back and hail showers to contend with.

My Wednesday flight to Dubai is an hour late taking off, but makes up most of that time due to the remnants of Storm Ciara blowing us along. I notice that in the plane, and especially at Dubai airport, there’s a good number of passengers wearing mouth masks to guard against the Chinese Coronavirus. In departures, a French woman sitting opposite me coughs once and I move away, immediately suspicious of her. On arrival in Bangkok every passenger is ushered through two separate temperature check stations, so at least I know I’m Coronavirus-free at this point. I retrieve my bike from Oversize Luggage, withdraw some Thai currency and head outside for a taxi to my hostel. It’s mid-afternoon by this time, but my taxi driver tells me I’m only his second fare of the day. Apparently everywhere in Bangkok has become a lot quieter without Chinese tourists.

Last year I finished my cycle at the Best Bed Suvarnabhumi Hostel, and that will be the exact same location for the start of this year’s cycle. The owner family recognise me from before and tell me I can chain my bike to the stair railing like I did last time. I move all my gear upstairs in a weird twilight zone of consciousness, half wired and half jet-lagged, until sleep and a shower perks me up. So, despite an obstacle course of back injuries, winter storms and potential global viruses, I’ve made it to the starting line. I just need to acclimatise now.

 

 

 

 

To Be Continued …

11th APRIL 2019

My final cycling day of this trip begins with an exotic mix of 7-11 sandwiches and a pineapple pastry. I ride back towards the wide, busy expressway, knowing that I can follow it all the way to Bangkok by using the quiet ‘Frontage Road’ that runs alongside. This is such a bonus, as travelling into a city on a bike can be a right pain in the arse. My only issue is having to haul my bike up, over and down the same footbridge as yesterday to reach the correct side of the expressway. So, although my day looks reassuringly straightforward, I’m sweating buckets within minutes.

I follow this Frontage Road all day, the main body of traffic on the noisy expressway to my right while I trundle up the quieter road alongside scooters and local transport. With about 25km to go I stop at a roadside Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch and a break from the scorching heat. This establishment is precariously close to the road and is basically a series of benches on the pavement under a corrugated iron roof. I’m wistfully happy that my final lunch will be street food in a simple, family-run shack with a bit of language barrier confusion. I think I’ve ordered chicken today, but who knows what will be served. It turns out to be a tasty chicken soup, with real strips of chicken meat instead of the usual bony, gristly offerings. Mercifully, there’s no sign of chicken feet either. I’m going to miss that weird feeling of jeopardy and never quite knowing what will arrive on my plate.

After travelling North for the last few days, I’ve rounded the top of the Gulf of Thailand this afternoon and am now heading West towards Bangkok. The traffic continues to build as I get closer to the capital and the expressway junctions get ever more complicated. My turn off to Suvarnabhumi Airport involves a sweeping right hand curve that manages to rise up over one road, while at the same time dipping under the massive concrete expressway. Then, for a couple of kilometres, I have the cool experience of cycling right under the flight path as planes are taking off. As one particular plane roars directly overhead, I look up and notice the orange Jetstar Asia logo on its undercarriage. I have the strangest moment of realisation and stop to check my phone. It’s just after 12.50pm, which is the same time my own Jetstar flight will take off from here in two days. What are the chances of me arriving at the airport just as the flight I’ll be on in two days time is thundering over my head ?

Continuing round the airport’s perimeter, I ride parallel to the take-off runway for about 5km while being blown along beautifully by a hot, strong tailwind. I get a few greetings from maintenance workers resting under shady trees, while a plane hurtles down the runway every five minutes with a loud, heavy rumble. At the roadside I notice a couple of ‘No Cycling’ signs, but I’m not sure I can see any alternative route options. I’m now so close to my destination that I can’t be bothered detouring, so I simply ignore them and keep going. Once I’ve ridden the length of the runway I turn left past the main airport entrance, through hordes of taxis, buses and yet more signs saying that I shouldn’t be cycling.

On the opposite side of the airport I pass under a different flight path – this time for planes coming in to land. I stand for a while on a road bridge, videoing planes as they descend noisily over my head, before they land a few hundred metres ahead of me. Once I resume I’m able to freewheel effortlessly down the curved bridge and I’m at the Best Bed Suvarnabhumi Hostel within two minutes. It’s a clean, modern building that exists primarily as an overnight stopover for people arriving in, or departing from, Bangkok. I check in and chain my bike to stair railings on the ground floor, where it’s destined to remain for the next two weeks while I’m in Phuket with my kids. The family who run the hostel are lovely, and have been extra helpful in agreeing to store my bike until I get back. They even offer to do a free clothes wash for me, which is a really nice touch, but might also say something about my appearance.

To celebrate my arrival I pop to the 7-11 next door, buy a large Chang Beer and make my way up to the hostel’s roof terrace. I sit there, slowly supping the cold beer while watching a steady procession of planes coming into land on the runway ahead of me. They start as tiny specks in the high distance, way off to my left, before looming larger and touching down just past my vantage point. It’s the perfect spot to relax and mull over the journey I’ve just undertaken.

It’s almost three months since I left a Scottish midwinter and flew to a Hanoi midwinter, which turned out to be only slightly warmer and completely unfamiliar. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of Vietnam, but after cycling it’s length and spending half my trip there it has now become one of my favourite countries. One of the joys of cycle touring is that you get to know a country a lot better by travelling at such a slow pace. Now, almost 3,000km later I’ve made it to Bangkok, grateful as always that I’ve managed to reach my target without any major calamities. It’s not all been plain sailing of course, but I would have to say that this cycle trip has now jumped to number one on my list of favourites.

I stay on the roof terrace until sunset, which brings welcome relief from the exhaustingly hot afternoon. By dusk, the street below is coming to life with food stalls, and beyond the runway the Suvarnabhumi Airport sign has now been lit up in giant purple letters. I go back downstairs, enticed by the street food stalls, and on the way get chatting to some of the family at the front desk. They can still barely believe that I’ve cycled all the way from Hanoi, and ask if I’ll ever return to Bangkok. I reply that I might come back next year and carry on my adventures. They have a laugh and seem to think that I’m joking. I laugh too, but with the insight to know that I’m not joking.

To Be Continued …

 

Counting down to Bangkok

8th APRIL 2019

A constant din from the street two floors below continues into the wee small hours, although by daybreak the road is almost deserted. Shutters are pulled down over bars, restaurants and massage parlours, whereas in a normal city Monday morning would mean a return to work. I guess Pattaya isn’t really set up for working nine to five.

The reception and massage at my accommodation are closed too, so I just leave my key on the reception counter and head off. I have a couple of options for leaving town, including a trundle along the sea front which might actually be quite pleasant at this early hour. In the end I just take the most direct route onto the busy Number 3 road and leave Pattaya as quickly as possible. It’s a long time since I’ve been so underwhelmed with a destination. If you’ve ever seen a Thailand episode of Banged Up Abroad, you can almost guarantee it will feature Pattaya at some point.

Today I’m on the main Pattaya to Bangkok road, which means that although my cycle is busy, at least it’s straightforward. I plod along slowly, with a constant stream of traffic at my right ear, until I’ve reached the coastal town of Si Racha. My accommodation is just before the town centre, a modern six storey hotel with a coffee shop on the ground floor. It’s room rates are more expensive than my normal outlay, but I know that I’ll get my money’s worth by comprehensively abusing their All You Can Eat breakfast buffet tomorrow.

The second big plus for this hotel is the shower. I’m not really sure where to begin when I step into a large cubicle that looks to have more controls than a PlayStation. It’s a complicated affair, with an array of dials for different lights and water pressures, as well as half a dozen jets that shoot water into your side from various heights. I spend a while twiddling all the knobs and trying to suss it out, discovering that every time I change settings I get blasted by cold water for the first five seconds. There’s also a seat attachment in there, so I’m able to park my arse on that, close my eyes and have the side jets blast me from close range. It’s a real effort to drag myself away.

In the late afternoon I make for the seafront, through a peaceful green park with families, kids and joggers. It’s all very civilised. I can’t help comparing today’s genial scenes with yesterday’s awful first impression of sleazy Pattaya. I’ve come down to the sea as Google maps had shown a little island sitting just offshore that’s home to a temple complex and a sea turtle pool. Koh Loy island is connected to the mainland by a five hundred metre long bridge, which I walk over in blazing sunshine, having underestimated the need to apply extra suncream so late in the day. The main hilltop temple, complete with bell-shaped golden dome, sits at the summit of a short, steep climb and is occupied by an odd mix of monks and tourists. I’m not sure if I’m becoming a bit templed-out, but I’m just as impressed by the panoramic sea view as I am with all the holy shrines. Back down at sea-level I make for the sea turtle pool via a Chinese temple that looks like an architectural blend of pagoda and bandstand. Disappointingly though, the sea turtle pool seems to be missing an important feature. The turtles.

By the following morning I’ve decided to spend an extra day in Si Racha, with the All You Can Eat breakfast representing a grand start to the day. Strangely, although I could choose any option with these unlimited feasts, I still always begin with a bowl of cereal. It somehow feels like the right thing to do. However, after my cereal, the floodgates open to a gluttonous food binge that includes fruit, pancakes, cakes, noodles, fried eggs and rice. Then, Oh My Goodness, they even have sushi and pigs in blankets. I eat like a fat, contented hog. Shamefully, I’m feeling hungry again by lunchtime, so wander out for some 7-11 sandwiches. It seems these cycle trips always make me eat excessively, even though exercise is meant to suppress my appetite. The upside is that I can now eat greedily and know I’ll still lose weight. If I consumed this amount of calories in normal, day-to-day life I’d be obese.

Most of my afternoon is then spent trying to find a way up to a temple and viewpoint that overlooks the whole of Si Racha. I’d seen the temple from my room last night, lit up spectacularly like a beacon on the hillside above. Ultimately though, my quest today is unsuccessful, due to a combination of wrong turns, roaming guard dogs and a baking hot day. Eventually I find steps up to the shrine by accident as I’m heading back to my hotel. I also find a group of around twenty feral pigs raking around the path leading to the stairs, some of them so big and bulky that they look like wild boars. Bloody Hell, could they actually be wild boars ? This thought makes me chicken out and avoid tempting fate. I don’t want to be gored trying to walk past feral pigs with only two days of cycling to go.

My penultimate day in the saddle sees me departing Si Racha after gorging myself silly on yet another mammoth breakfast. The girl at reception asks for my water bottles before I leave and returns them full of refreshing chilled water, which is a nice touch and hugely appreciated. This cold water turns out to be a blessing, as the morning heats up horribly within the first few kilometres. I’m still trying to ride for an hour without cycling gloves in a vain attempt to match my pale white hands to my brown, tanned forearms. Once again though, my bare hands can scarcely grip the handlebars as they are sweating so much. My gloves are back on within minutes.

I’m back on the busy Number 3 road again, with traffic increasing steadily as I get ever closer to Bangkok. Things get even more hectic through the city of Chon Buri, and then 5km later my road morphs into an expressway. This is essentially a motorway so it’s off limits to cyclists, although there is a separate, minor road at the side that I’m able to use instead. I discover this smaller roadway is called a ‘Frontage Road’ – a local route that runs parallel to the expressway, allowing traffic to access regional villages and businesses. I’m now able to follow the most direct route, while being able to avoid the scary speeding traffic. It’s the perfect solution if you’re a cyclist who’s trying to get into a city.

Less perfect is when your accommodation happens to be on the opposite side of the expressway. There are traffic bridges for doing U-turns across the busy lanes, but not within easy reach of my turn-off. My only option is to walk my bike and gear over a footbridge. I detach the panniers first and trudge up forty steps with them, before leaving them at the top and traipsing back down to retrieve my bike. This time climbing the same forty steps, in sizzling heat and with a bike slung over my shoulder, nearly does for me. I stand at the top, leaning over the railings like a sweltering asthmatic trying to get my breath back. Once I’ve recovered, I carry both panniers whilst walking my bike over the ten lanes below, then haul everything down the opposite steps in two movements again. I have sweat running into my eyes and dripping off my nose by the time I’ve transported everything up, over and down the footbridge.

My accommodation in Ban Kao is a further 3km from the expressway, which is ridden in weary slow motion on this scorchingly hot afternoon. At reception, the family who run the hotel look surprised and a little bewildered to see this sweaty, dishevelled Westerner at their front desk. After trudging to my room I spend ten minutes just sitting on the cool tile floor, staring blankly, while the air-conditioning operates at full blast. By early evening the temperature outside has dropped slightly, so I go hunting for the first food I’ve needed since this morning’s gargantuan breakfast. Oddly, I stumble upon a Plastic Chair Cafe that has English signage and pork steak with chips on the menu. I know that on this South-East Asian trip I’ve been actively avoiding Western food, but tonight I quite fancy some. Plus, it’s been three months since I’ve eaten any chips so I think ‘Fuck It, Why Not ?’ It’s bloody delicious. The side salad is far from Western though – a grated coleslaw base is topped with a peculiar mix of apple, kiwi, sweetcorn and dragon fruit. Weird, but tasty.

Back at the hotel I reflect that, all being well, tomorrow will be my final day’s cycling for this trip. A culmination of 2,700km across three countries has left me within 60km of my goal. By this time tomorrow I should be in Bangkok.

Sleazy Pattaya City

7th APRIL 2019

There’s no breakfast option at The Halabala Resort, despite the claims of my accommodation website. Instead I cross the busy main road and visit a 7-11 on the opposite side, stocking up on mayonnaise-themed sandwiches, pineapple pastry and nut snacks. Well, technically I don’t stock up; I scoff the whole lot in the car park outside.

Carrying on I’m able to leave the crowded main highway after 5km, turning inland through bustling Ban Chang and it’s mad tangle of overhead telecom wires. Once I’m through town things become quieter, and for a while I cruise along effortlessly on minor roads fringed by jungly forest. When my small road is bisected by a busy dual carriageway I’m left with two choices – I can either detour 8km to get to the other side or walk my bike across and lift it over the central reservation barrier. I’ve made more difficult decisions; I take all of five seconds to choose the laziest option. The last time I pulled this trick I struggled like a skinny weightlifter, straining to hoist my fully loaded bike over two sets of barriers. This time I simply detach the panniers and lift everything over in instalments. Why the Hell didn’t I do that before ?

Once I’m across the highway, my road rises sharply through a section of thick, shaded woodland. It’s intimidatingly steep, so I feel no shame whatsoever in jumping off to push. This gets me thinking about my first forays into cycle-touring, where I would almost ruin myself just to say that I cycled every inch of the way. However, I’m far more relaxed about cheating nowadays, and I’ll happily hop out the saddle to push if I need a breather. As it happens, this steep little climb has me stopping for a break anyway, despite the fact that I’m pushing. At the top I see that I’m heading towards an ugly band of dark clouds, but at least I’m rewarded with some easy freewheeling past forest and farmland to get there.

A pointy, triangular mountain is looming large up ahead. As I cycle closer, it almost looks like a giant gold Buddha has been carved into one face of the mountain. Then, when I reach the landmark, I realise there actually IS a giant gold Buddha carved into the mountain ! The area was originally used to quarry rock for road construction, which left a sheer cliff face on one side of the mountain when the mining stopped. In an attempt to beautify what remained, laser technology was used to carve a one hundred metre tall Buddha image into the rock face. All the laser carving took place at night, while during the day gold leaf was painted into the freshly cut grooves. Today the place is swamped by dozens of tour buses, some selfie-taking tourists and a few Buddhist types who have come here to pray. It’s an impressive, yet magnificently surreal sight.

I leave the Carved Buddha Mountain for a straightforward glide down to the coast, rejoining the main road about 10km South of Pattaya. By now conditions have become horribly dark with heavy, fat raindrops splattering all around me. I notice two kids with scooters are already sheltering under a bus stop, so I pull over and sit below the awning of a shop that’s closed on Sundays. For the next thirty minutes I watch as the dry road out front becomes inundated by small cascades of streaming water. Within an hour it will be bone dry once again. That seems to be the pattern with rainshowers here – heavy and intense, but only for a short time.

When I move on again I’m cycling past luxury hotels, resorts and condominiums on the Southern approaches to Pattaya. This must be a more affluent area that allows richer residents and tourists to put some distance between themselves and the sleaziness of Pattaya city. I’ve never visited the city before, although I feel I know what to expect just by reputation alone. Pattaya is most famous for seedy sex tourism, which is perfectly illustrated by the tacky range of businesses on the street where I’m staying.

My accommodation is right next door to Ping Pong Beer Bar 3 and opppsite the tastefully named Beaver Bar. To access my second floor room I have to go through a ground floor ‘massage parlour.’ A couple of the girls offer me a massage and say it’s safe to leave my bike outside as they will watch it for me. Nonetheless, their chatter doesn’t inspire much confidence, so I chain the bike to railings outside a language school across the narrow street. What a language school is doing in the middle of all this debauchery is beyond me. Once I’m through the massage parlour I realise there’s an alleyway and rear entrance to the building, so I walk straight back round to retrieve my bike from outside. Despite all the surrounding depravity, my room turns out to be surprisingly nice.

After showering I go for a bit of a wander, just to see if Pattaya is as awful as it’s reputation suggests. As I walk down my street towards the beach I must pass a dozen massage parlours and receive plenty of “Hello, you like massage ?’ offers. The street also houses English Bars, Norwegian Bars, Swedish Bars and a further two outlets from the Ping Pong Beer Bar franchise. The next street along is predictably similar, with another horde of massage parlours and a handful of Western-style bars advertising Premier League football matches. It feels like I could be on the Costa del Crime in Spain. The place is swarming with Russians, chavvy tattooed Brits and creepy old foreign guys with very young Thai girls on their arm. It’s an absolute shithole.

On the way back I have seafood fried noodles in a Westernised restaurant surrounded by other Westerners. Why the Hell would I travel to the other side of the world to that ? I had toyed with the idea of possibly spending two nights in Pattaya, but my short stroll tonight has already convinced me otherwise. Tacky sex tourism surrounded by a depressing herd of drunken Westerners really isn’t my scene. I’ll be out of here tomorrow.