Across Thailand for the Holidays

Before setting out towards Bangkok we spent a day resting at Yun's place in Mae Sot. We had intended to do some touring around the area but I didn't feel well and slept for most of the day. When I woke up in the afternoon I discovered Yann, Yun and another friend Toon working away at my bicycle which had been completely disassembled and spread across the yard. The three of them spent the entire day cleaning and tuning up our bicycles. I can't say that Yann looked entirely in control of the situation, but everything worked out!   Yann and Toon working away at our bikes

  The mechanics after a long day of work: Yun, Yann and Toon

We left the next day, on a Saturday, so Yun and Toon were able to ride with us. The climb wasn't any easier leaving Mae Sot then it was in the other direciton, especially with our Thai friends setting the pace. They accompanied us to the top of the mountains separating the cities of Mae Sot and Tak where we camped at an isolated forest ranger station. It was a beautiful spot and a nice way to end our time with our new friends who had housed us, fed us and even took apart and cleaned our bicycles!   Campsite at Doi Muser

Our next week of riding across central Thailand was almost too easy. We had a tailwind the entire time and stuck to the main, (extremely flat) highway. We were on our way to Bangkok where we had a date to meet my cousin Margaux and her boyfriend Arif for Christmas. The ride wasn't very beautiful, but it was relatively effortless. Since we were making such good time, we felt pretty content despite the utterly uninspiring highway riding.   It doesn't get any flatter than this

Between Mae Sot and Bangkok we broke up the ride in order to visit three historic cities, Kamphaeng Phet, Lopburi and Ayutthaya. All three were interesting, but we were really eager to meet up with Margaux and Arif so we were maybe not the most committed tourists. And the closer we got to the Bangkok the busier were the tourist attractions. We only saw two other tourists in Kamphaeng Phet (also cycle-tourists) and in contrast, Ayutthaya, a popular day-trip from Bangkok had hundreds, if not thousands of visitors.   The Buddhas of Wat Phra Kaeo, Kampheang Phet Historical Park where we were the only visitors

  In Ayutthaya, we waited in line to photograph this famous Buddha at Wat Mahathat

In between the two was Lopburi, famous for its temple monkeys who are served an elaborate feast once a year in a popular festival. We only visited the main temple, Prang Sam Yot and had to be accompanied by a stick-wielding guard for the tour. Despite his presence, a member of our tour group had an earring ripped right out of her ear by a resident monkey. It was definitely more scary than it was cute.   The three Khmer-style towers of Prang Sam Yot, Lopburi's most famous temple

  Fighting for food that has just been dumped in a parking lot outside Prang Sam Yot Temple in Lopburi

We were dreading our ride into Bangkok but we rode in on a beautiful Sunday on small back roads with a strong tailwind once again. We knew we had chosen the right route when we were passed by packs of cyclists on their weekend ride. We were told by one of them that it was the coldest Sunday ride he'd ever been on. Amazing! The traffic intensified as we approached the city, but nothing particularly scary. We were probably helped by the anti-government protests that had forced a lot of the downtown traffic to be rerouted leaving the streets around our hotel almost completely empty (also the fact that it was Sunday was probably had something to do with the quiet streets).

We spent five days, including Christmas, in Bangkok with Margaux and Arif. They had flown in from India to meet up with us and were still recovering from some pretty serious stomach issues when we arrived. So they were not exactly ready for full-out Bangkok touring which was totally fine with us as we were more interested in spending time with them. We did lots of catching up and exchanging stories of travel misadventures (they seemed to have a few more than we did) and while they rested, we were able to run a bunch of errands, the most important of which was tracking down a new back wheel to replace the used one that we bought over 2000km earlier (and was still miraculously intact).   Christmas in Bangkok!

Happily, by Christmas Day, Margaux and Arif were on the mend and we had an indulgent self-catered dinner on the roof of our hotel. Our menu included most of the things we'd been craving and were too cheap to buy: wine, cheese, olives, roast chicken, baguette, ham, chocolate, gummy bears and cheesecake!   Another holiday indulgence: poutine!

For the next few weeks, we made our way south with Margaux and Arif. We rode and they followed along by public transport. We were grateful to have such accommodating travel companions. They took trains, mini-buses, taxis and motorbikes and ended up in a fair number of random destinations.

Leaving Bangkok, we had four more days of flat, tailwind-assisted riding. Although the ride out of Bangkok was a fairly unpleasant one and considerably worse than the ride in. It took almost 60km before we were able to clear the city traffic and get onto a secondary road. One of the worst riding days of our trip.
We met up with Margaux and Arif in Petchaburi and Hua Hin on the way to a beach resort where we were planning a longer rest. We were only in Petchaburi for one evening, not really enough time to visit anything. And we gave ourselves two days in Hua Hin, which was more than enough. We inadvertently booked rooms in the "old gross white man sitting at bars all day neighbourhood" where old gross white men outnumbered other tourists by a ratio of about 10 to 1 and bars outnumbered other business by a similar ratio. The weather was also unusually cold and windy, great for cycling but not so great for the Hua Hin beaches.
  Trying to keep warm at Khao Takiab Beach, Hua Hin

Riding south from Hua Hin we were able to stay off the main highways and had a few really lovely stretches of coastal riding on small back roads before meeting up with Margaux and Arif again at the isolated Sananwan Beach, 240km south of Hua Hin.   Morning along the Gulf of Thailand, Prachuap Khiri Khan

We spent five days, including New Year's Day vacationing at Sananwan Beach on the Gulf of Thailand, 7km away from the closet village, tiny Bang Saphan Noi. We swam everyday, got massages, ate seafood purchased fresh every morning and polished off 4.5 litres of boxed wine. Renting the guesthouse scooter to go shop at the village was the most active we got. Total rest and relaxation!   Our own private beach, Bang Saphan Noi

  Taking it easy at Sananwan Beach, Bang Saphan Noi

Margaux and Arif got an extra day at the beach while as we got a head start to Krabi, seven days away. We rode south, then crossed over to the Andaman Coast. The cold spell that we'd been enjoying had passed while we lounged at the beach and it was now hot and 100% humidity. We made our way from one sweaty, musty guesthouse to another, the low point being the discovery of a giant bed bug on my arm one morning. Being in the narrowest part of the country, we were stuck on the national highway, with all the other traffic, for most of the ride. The highway is a few kilometres from the coast so we rarely got a glimpse of the sea except for our few failed attempts at finding budget beach front accommodation. We were tired and relieved when we pulled into our Krabi.

Krabi is a jumping off point for many of the nearby islands and beaches so transport prices are a bit inflated, but accommodation and food are relatively cheap. We had originally talked of an island getaway, but the high peak season prices kind of turned us off so we ended up staying in town instead. Seeing as our most enjoyable daily activity tends to be eating, this wasn't a bad decision. There were lots of great food options and a huge weekend night market. Food in Thailand has consistently been delicious and the city's dining scene didn't disappoint .

Margaux and I decided to splurge on a cooking class at nearby Ao Nang Beach, Arif and Yann paid an accompanying fee so that they could watch and eat. The course was fairly basic, but we had fun and our food was delicious, especially our curries. I came out vowing that I would buy a giant mortar and pestle to make my own curry pastes at home. We'll see how that works out.
  Making our own curry pastes at the Thai Charm Cooking School, Ao Nang Beach, Krabi

  Chicken with cashew nuts by Margaux

After three weeks together, we parted ways with Margaux and Arif whose pace required a bit of acceleration. It was sad to leave them as we had perfected a balance of riding and relaxation while they were around (they were really helping with the relaxation part).

It took us four days to ride from Krabi to the most western Thai-Malaysian Border. We were no longer in tourist territory, we were in rubber territory. We spent a lot of the time riding through rubber plantations. Locals seemed a lot happier to see us, there was a distinctly more friendly vibe in the area.   Rows of rubber trees in Satun Province on the way to Malaysia

We spent our last night in Thailand camping at Thale Ban National Park, a few kilometres from the border. When we arrived at the head office we were told that we would be joined by over 100 students on a class trip! The incredibly nice staff, who kept saying “it's going to be loud, you should think about it”, as if we had somewhere else to go, offered us a place beside the head ranger's home instead, away from the main campsite. The students only found us the next morning for an extended (and adorable) photo session after which we packed up and made our way into Malaysia.

Mae Sot to Thale Ban National Park (Malaysian Border)

Days of cycling: 21
Days of rest: 16
Kilometres cycled: 1837
Metres climbed: 9300m
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 7
Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Around Mandalay and Hpa-An (Our Last Week in Myanmar)

We enjoyed Mandalay a lot more than the Lonely Planet would have had us believe. Sure, it's a bit ugly and not exactly what we had pictured, but the downtown core was a pleasant alternative to some of the other popular tourist destinations in the country. The reality is that we probably liked the city so much because of the Indian food stand that set up right in front of our hotel every night and the ice cream parlour a few blocks further down.   Our favourite dinner spot, across the street from the ET Hotel in Mandalay

Despite multiple touts hanging around our hotel ready to take us on a motorbike tour around Mandalay, we opted to do the 60km loop on our own. This involved a fair bit of city riding, navigating crazy four-way intersections with no traffic lights, and an equal amount of ugly highway riding. The rest of our day, thankfully, was spent on the quiet countryside visiting two of Myanmar's former capital cities: Inwa and Amarapura.

We started the day in Mandalay, stopping at a gold-pounding workshop where we watched the traditional gold-leaf making process. Young sweaty men hammer away at sheets of gold, their shifts timed with coconut shell water-clocks (when the shell fills with water and sinks it marks the end of a shift). Women sit in a nearby room counting and packaging the sheets of gold leaf for distribution.   Gold pounders hard at work

  The finished product, sheets of gold leaf, are counted out and packaged for distribution to temples around the country

We then rode over to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple nearby (where much of the gold-leaf appears to be consumed). Over the years, male devotees have applied a layer of gold-leaf over 15cm thick to the Buddha image. Women can watch the gold-leaf application from an adjoining hall. We weren't motivated enough to wake up for the 4:30a.m. daily tooth-brushing and face washing ritual of the Buddha image.   Men applying gold leaf to the Mahamuni Buddha (note the bumpy areas where gold leaf is applied)

In the afternoon we made our way to Inwa, taking a small ferry across the Myitnge River. With no guidebook, we didn't know what we were supposed to see, so we started by following the horse-drawn carriages that whisk tourists from sight to sight. We abandoned this plan after riding to Inwa's most famous teak monastery in a cloud of dust and arriving with a huge group of tourists and touts. We set off on our own and enjoyed the car-free dirt roads, coming across a few crumbling pagodas and small teak monasteries before ending up at the impressive Maha Augmye Bonzan Monastery, constructed in untraditional brick and stucco (also known as the Brick Monastery).   Inwa is virtually car-free

  Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery (Brick Monastery) at Inwa

We ended the day in Amarapura, site of the U-Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world at 1.2 kilometers. It is immensely popular with tourists and is at its most busy at dusk. We still thought it was wonderful.   Our bicycles under the U-Bein Bridge, Amarapura

Still hoping to cycle across Kayin State back into Thailand, we only stayed in Mandalay two nights before catching our third overnight bus, this one to Hpa-An. We had originally planned to partially cycle there from a city about 200km away, but with less than a week left on our visas we decided we were being too ambitious.

When we arrived in Hpa-An we found that the blue skies of a few weeks earlier had been replaced with a thick smog from the burning of surrounding fields. The area was not exactly at its best for visiting nor were the conditions ideal for cycling. Despite our disappointment with the weather, we cycled a 75km loop around the countryside after which we concluded we would be taking a bus over the mountain to Thailand.   On the way to Saddar Cave, outside Hpa-An

We started the day by riding to Saddar Cave. It took us 40km to get there, even though it's only 20km away, so I was grumpy. I was in a better mood once we got un-lost. The cave is immense and we had been warned of total darkness and floors covered in bat poop. Apparently it's seen an upgrade since the last guidebook write-up and there is now a string of light bulbs lining the several kilometre long path through the cave. It is slippery and shoes are prohibited but the cause of the slipperyness seemed to be condensation and not bat poop, so we were relieved. We didn't make it all the way to the end, we were pretty caved-out after about half an hour of slowly scrambling our way through.   Light shining in through the entrance of Saddar Cave

We spent the afternoon riding through small villages which would have been even more picturesque had the surrounding karst scenery not been obscured with smog. We stopped at the kitschy but fun Kawt-Ka-Thaung Cave amidst a sort of “Buddha theme park” complex, complete with statues, a swimming hole, restaurants and a maze. The highlight of the day was stumbling upon a rowdy procession making their way to a village temple. It was hard to miss, you could hear the music from miles away and traffic was backed up along the highway. We joined the crowd of onlookers as groups of costumed,skinnyjeans-clad young men, danced their way to the temple accompanied by trucks blaring techno music from their piles of speakers.
We were lucky to meet another traveller in Hpa-An who agreed to share a taxi with us to the Thai border. He had local contacts and organized everything, including finding a taxi with a roof rack. All we had to do was show up at his hotel on the morning of departure. The ride was slightly more comfortable than when we came in by bus, but it was still slow and the road incredibly busy. Amazingly we crossed three cyclists making their way over the mountain, against the one-way traffic. Tougher than us.

Back in Thailand we headed straight for the border market to our friend Yun's stall where we found his wife closing up for the day. We hadn't had access to internet for days, so we hadn't been able to warn anyone of our arrival. Despite our surprise appearance, we were once again warmly welcomed to her family's home in Mae Sot. Everyone was happy to hear of our adventures in Myanmar and we were equally happy to be back.

Stats for Mandalay and Hpa-An:

Days of cycling: 2
Days of rest: 3
Kilometres cycled: 132
Metres climbed: 638
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 5

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support