And so into Thailand, with its plentiful monkeys and striking temples …
… but more of them later – first, first impressions.
Happily, as we reach the front of the fairly chaotic queues to leave Laos, it turns out we can ignore the numerous no bicycle signs to cross the bridge to Thai customs. Phew, we won’t have to transfer all the baggage and bikes to a crowded bus, or ride several kilometres back to the railway station as feared. Across a criss-cross road layout we go and, for the first time in some 13,000 kilometres we’re back on the right (left) side of the road! So over the Mekong and, as with every new country, feelers out to gauge how it’ll be cycling here: Is the tarmac good? Will the ATMs give us some dosh? Do the motor vehicle driver’s harbour some deep grudge against cyclists?
And who’s this Dad bloke that everyone’s being implored (in English) to bike for? Well, it turns out he’s the king, a pretty popular figure in Thailand, and there were to be bike rides around towns across the country to celebrate his 80th birthday. This all seemed fairly cheering – even to us anti-monarchists, and despite the blatantly and patronisingly patriarchal language – until we started coming across Guardian stories about the military junta’s increasing use of lese majeste rules to quell political dissent (one man was facing a possible 7 year sentence for posting online a slightly sarcastic comment about the king’s favourite dog). A bit of fun for all the family on the pretext of a powerless monarch’s birthday, fine, but the carefully considered attempts of the unelected generals in power to generate a sense of national unity, no ta!
For us, though, it was nice to be riding in a place where everyone was certain that everyone was really into cycling – manifest in the donation of free bottles of water, energy drinks, bananas, and the like – even if we saw little evidence of this passion for biking actually out on two wheels (though this cafe owner turned out to have toured all over south-east Asia, let Ginevra do her laundry, and showed us his rather nice collection of bikes out the back). So drivers gave us lots of space and plenty of friendly waves, the tarmac was fantastic, even medium sized roads tended to have wide hard-shoulders, and no ATM problems. Indeed, electronic communications were similarly good to home, and at least we could access Western news outlets (unlike in China). Of course we’d expected good internet in this part of the world – it’s something of a cliche that Britain’s telecoms-infrastructure lags behind those of the “Asian tigers”. So how do these still poorer nations do it? Well, as you may have noticed already, it’s pretty difficult to photograph a road trip round here without tangles of cables criss-crossing every shot.
Perhaps in future I’ll wait more patiently for buried fibre-optics to finally reach our street. So, what else stood out? Well, more boring new white pickup trucks than in Laos, but balanced by some pretty stunning coach-work too:
There are quite a lot of those trucks about in the country-side, all with bespoke metal/paint-work. To my inexpert ear, as they struggle up hills overladen with farm produce they sound like they’ve got under-powered, single-cylinder, two-stroke engines. Whatever they in fact are, don’t sound as nice as they look. To those of our readers who like a nice bit of farm machinery (really – that’s not all of you?), sorry not to have got any pics of the rather cool multi-coloured combine-maize-harvesters.
We did record some fantastically colourful drinks though, for the first of which payment was refused …
… (artificial colourants really don’t get the positive press they deserve in my view), along with some other yummy things – fresh coconuts (which this family, whose monkeys are also in the coconut harvesting business, also wouldn’t accept anything for), and fresh coconut ice-cream with nuts and things, served in a fresh coconut-shell bowl.
Oh yes, and some really not very pleasant (or “throat clenchingly vile” as Ginevra put it), somehow jellified eggs. Its common names, “hundred-year eggs” or even “thousand-year eggs”, seem suggestive of something appropriately challenging, though for this blog post perhaps we should go with the translation of the Thai name: “horse urine eggs” – YUM!
And so neatly returning to matters of trepidation, there is the ongoing question of what unfamiliar beasties might be out to get us, especially when camping.
These rather endearing little guys, at one of the many temples in historic Lopburi, weren’t much trouble, maybe because they get regularly fed by the municipality but pushed away from tour groups by their wooden-stick-wielding guides. Indeed, as in Laos, the creatures depicted on the temples looked rather scarier:
As for the actual serpents, the closest we’ve come to living ones so far remains the tiddler we nearly put a tent peg through in France.The frequent road-kill evidence for what must be lurking in the long grasses continues to get bigger though. Happily, we have seen a few big monitor lizards assuredly alive and wandering about, running, and even swimming in the sea.
Then there are the smaller creatures: we came across a spider as big as your face when taking a wee break in the undergrowth (sorry, no photo), had another encounter with leeches after bathing in a fresh-water lake (larger than the Laos ones, and found clinging on very close to the worst of all places possible – again, no photo you may be pleased to hear), and also some perhaps lovelier things. While setting up camp in one bit of woodland we were transfixed for some time as a humming bird flitted from flower to flower. And some of the insects are lovely too.
But the only trouble makers – everything big, from the boar of Italy and Azerbaijan to the wolves of Kazakhstan, let alone Laos’s elephants and tigers, having kept well away from us scary humans – were a hoard of leaf cutter ants that wanted to colonise our tent and so decided to make extra entrances straight through the porch’s groundsheet.
Not a great night’s sleep that, but our sincere thanks nonetheless to these church-folk who fed us in addition to letting us camp on what had really looked like a perfect patch of grass. (Ginevra had for ages fancied staying at a temple, which we’d been told by locals one can generally do for just a small donation towards services, but a church was what we happened upon as the sun approached the horizon that day. At night the cross was illuminated in bright neon, so not entirely unexotic.)
Of the larger creatures, we were particularly taken by the big floppy-eared cows …
… and by the thought, at least, of whoever once inhabited this extraordinary shell (now in a museum at a palace, again in Lotburi):
It perhaps seems strange not to have visited Bangkok, but it can be everso nasty getting through the outskirts of very big cities unless you really know the back-streets, so we headed further west (something of a novelty for us, riding towards the sunset) to Kanchanaburi, and had a look at the bridge over the River Kwai, and read in a museum about the building of the infamous “death railway”, horrific though nothing much like in the novel the film is based on.
And then it was south-east, every day battling to get Colonel Bogey out of our brains, until finally we hit the coast again, for the first time since the Caspian – several months, thousands of kilometres, a couple of wide deserts and some pretty high mountain passes ago.
Hurrah! Cycling and camping on coastlines is not always as stunning as inland-, especially upland travel. But, there’s something a bit special about reaching the end of a great land mass, even though travel restrictions had stopped us climbing over the Himalayas and crossing the Tibetan plateau. We found a cheap guest-house above a restaurant, and the lovely lady running it (a former French-embassy employee with broad language and culinary skills) didn’t just let us use the kitchen to cook the octopus we’d bought in readiness for camping: she cooked it for us in two contrasting dishes, then the following morning insisted on giving a pad thai (Thai-style stir-fry noodles) cooking lesson in preparing breakfast.
From there it was down the east coast then off towards Krabi on the west coast, enjoying great scenery, campsites and sunsets …
… and some nice rock formations, along with the odd oddity, such as a Cowboy themed noodle-bar cum ladies hair salon:
We spent Christmas Eve with a Russian Warm Showers host Andrey and his daughter. Although substantially better than a cowshed and a manger, our plan to stay another night was scrapped over the course of the next day, as a seemingly endless stream of Couchsurfers showed up to shelter in our generous host’s little bungalow – totalling 8 by the time we decided to leave. Squeezing that many people onto the modest living-room kitchenette floor would have been a stretch, even without us having 10 bulky bags and a violin between the two of us.
From Krabi we were to catch a ferry to Koh Jum, the small quiet island where we’d booked a place to stop for a month and do a bit of proofreading. It turned out, though, that the boats from town would stop out in open water for a transfer to smaller boats that would then drop us on the beach. This all sounded like it might be quite a fun adventure – for anyone without two heavily laden bikes. We instead headed 50 km round the coast from where the boats actually go jetty to jetty, arriving after dark and, on this occasion too, thinking we might camp in a temple: no temple, no guesthouse, but a guy in a cafe said “oh, you can camp in the police station: come”. And so we did, enjoying access to their water-cooler, flat grass, bathroom facilities and profound feeling of safety, he turning out to be an off-duty cop, and his mates turning out to be very interested in and keen to assist with erecting the tent. They even checked ferry times and the price of taking on the bikes for us. (What is it with these oppressive regimes and their amazingly friendly police?)
And the next morning, an early start for the boat to our island paradise, Koh Jum.
For now, we’ll skip our stay on Koh Jum, with new friends and an unlikely reunion with an old friend, as Ginevra’s keen to put it in a separate post (coming soon). So, jumping forward a month, and back to the mainland, it’s south for a few days to Satun in blazing hot sunshine, apart from one very welcome afternoon downpour.
And from there it’s a fond farewell to Thailand, and a short ferry trip to the Malaysian duty-free island of Langkawi, full of optimism that finally I’ll be able to use some Indonesian (which overlaps massively with Malay), and that we’ll be in Java in just a few weeks time. That was over three months ago, but more about our prolonged Malaysia stay another time.