THAILAND #2 - NORTH ON THE BACK ROADS
It is cloudy as I leave Bangkok, but I am still sweating profusely as I weave through the chaotic and aggressive traffic for an hour before escaping onto a muddy single track dirt road heading out of town. I have spent a productive week in Bangkok getting my bicycle fixed up in preparation for the next leg of my round-the-world journey, a 3 month ride which will take me through Thailand, Laos, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to Bishkek.
Over the past 8 months I have ridden almost 9000km through Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. The necessity of long boat rides as well as delays such as getting Dengue Fever in Papua New Guinea have meant my progress has been relatively slow. My pace will have to be much quicker for this next stage – I will have around three months to cycle a distance of more than 7000km, and I will be crossing straight through the Himalayas, riding over several passes of almost 5000m.
After getting out of Bangkok it takes me two days to get off the major highways and onto the smaller and quieter back roads. The main roads are altogether fairly unpleasant to cycle on in most of Southeast Asia; the scenery is usually fairly uniform and there is always a lot of traffic. The back roads, by contrast, are delightful. Traffic is light, scenery is gorgeous, and the people tend to be far friendlier and more laid back. I ride through a mountainous national park for two days, then come back down to the plains and spend another two days on completely flat country roads winding through picturesque rural farmlands. It is still monsoon season, so almost every day I cool off by riding for a few hours in the torrential tropical rains.
The only caveat is that finding a place to camp becomes tricky – almost all available land is devoted to rice paddies which are perpetually waterlogged. Even if I can find some spare space that is suitably hidden from sight, I have to be careful to choose somewhere which won’t flood if it rains in the night. A lesson I learned the hard way in Malaysia when I woke at 2am to find myself soaking wet and camped in a pond. Ideally I try to find somewhere off the ground. I sleep for a number of nights in abandoned buildings along the way, which are well hidden and dry as well as exciting. I find I really enjoy these nights of ‘urban camping’. I also spend another night in a wat, where I am plied with gifts of food from the smiling monks. I ride off in the morning with my panniers full to bursting with sweets and junk food. Perfect cycling food!
One night I am awoken at 10pm by a man shining a torch in my face; the building I had taken for abandoned was in fact his house – I am camped on his front lawn. After eventually managing to explain myself with lots of hand signals and embarrassed smiles, he graciously permits me to stay and even goes so far as to wake me with coffee and breakfast in the morning. Such is the kindness of the Thai people. Several times I am overtaken by cars which then pull over and wave me down to give me food or bottles of cold water. When I stop for lunch at a service station I have a chat with the owner who then buys me a cup of ice coffee. Everywhere I am shown smiles, waves and thumbs up. Random acts of kindness and support are always so incredibly encouraging.
I started my time in Thailand by losing a race to two children on a motorbike, and it is fitting that I also end my time in the country by again losing a race, this time to a school bus full of excited schoolkids. I am able to overtake once, but after five minutes in top gear sprinting flat out into the wind the bus is able to regain the lead as my legs run out of steam, and despite the enthusiastic encouragement of the children I am unable to pass them again.
I have loved Thailand and its people, but I am also excited to be moving on to Laos. I cross the Friendship Bridge near Nong Khai and leave Thailand behind. I can see the mountains in the distance and feel them calling to me. After 5 months, I have now very nearly ridden clear through the tropics.