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.