March 10th to 16th 573km
We were keen to get away early from Bangkok to hopefully avoid the worst of the traffic, so the alarm was at 5:30 and we were rolling by 6:15 just as the sun was coming up. It was a good move, we got away from the central area quite easily and it was only as we were into the outskirts that the traffic started to build up. As it was the morning rush hour, most of it was going the other way to us, so it was quite a painless ride out of the city. Until we got to the road running north past the old Don Muang Airport where we got caught up in roadworks, narrowing our road to a single lane which gave us a tough few kilometres, just as we thought we’d got away!
After that, it was all good. We found a small road running parallel to the railway line, (the same line we’d taken for our trip to Chiang Mai) and next to a small river. We were heading north, towards Ayutthaya, which we reached by lunchtime. We saw on the map there is a ferry that you can take across the river into the town, which would avoid a busy bridge. But it looked to be too much hassle, with carrying bikes down a load of steps to load a small boat, so we decided against it in the end and took the slightly longer route over the bridge, which was no problem in the end.
Ayutthaya is quite a tourist spot in itself. We found a hostel, left our bikes and then went for a walk around the town. The central feature is a large area of parkland with numerous temples and ruins, similar, in a way, to Angkor Wat. To enter a lot of the temples you needed to buy a ticket, but we were able to wander in the park and get a good view of all the ruins without actually going in to any. A lot of the locals were out, walking and jogging in the early evening. We spent a few hours exploring and then got some dinner at a street market.
The next day we were out early again. The heat in the middle of the day is getting more intense the further north we go, so we try to get the cycling done by 11 or 12 o’clock. Leaving Ayutthaya we went through the park again past a few more temples and monuments, then joined the road heading north towards Lopburi. We had a solid tailwind helping us along on a nice quiet road next to a river. Lopburi is known for its temples, and for the monkeys that run wild in the old town. Coming into town, we got caught in a one way system, but eventually ended up at a central roundabout with the main ruins which were overrun with monkeys. As with ‘urban monkeys’ elsewhere, they’re a bit of a nuisance, known for grabbing bags and cameras from tourists, but also for throwing their own shit at people. Nice. We kept our distance. After lunch, we continued another 5 kilometres or so into the new town area. It was around 1 o’clock at this point and the thermometer was reading 40 degrees so, even after a short ride, we arrived at a guest house dripping with sweat, heading straight in for a cool shower. One of the habits we’ve developed on this trip is ‘Foreign Food Friday.’ It’s a guilt free excuse to eat fast food or something familiar when it’s available. Last Friday we had pizza up in Chiang Mai. This evening’s guest house was opposite a big mall with a KFC, so greasy fried chicken was on the menu.
The next few days we were working our way gradually north towards Phetchabun, a route that the guys at Bok Bok Bike had recommended. We cut across from Lopburi, north east to join Route 21. This took us through some really nice countryside and, by chance, past some rocky karst like outcrops and a beautiful lake. The few resort bungalows around the lake looked deserted maybe as it’s low season, or maybe they’re out of business. The road was quiet and the area seemed empty other than a few fishermen out on the water.
We joined Route 21, quite a major road heading north to Phetchabun. We had a wide shoulder to ride in, so we were able to ride side by side a lot of the time and we stopped regularly at the many coffee shops and 7-11’s lining the road. Our first stop was at Chai Badan where we found a hotel, notable for two reasons. First the price, around £5, and second the fact that we were able to identify it as a hotel by reading the Thai sign. A useful Thai word to learn! When we headed out for dinner that evening, we saw a huge weekend market just over the road from the hotel. We got some chicken and sticky rice with a spicy sauce for dinner. Far superior to The Colonel’s offerings from the night before, at a fraction of the price!
The following day was all on Route 21, which started to go through some more undulating terrain. We knew it was only a matter of time before we hit the hills, and it wasn’t too bad on the gentle ups and downs. We still had the tailwind helping us along and we were enjoying the scenery either side of the road. Through the morning we started a game of cat and mouse with a father and son out for a weekend ride on their road bikes. They were quicker than us for short bursts, but they kept stopping for breaks, so we’d pass them again. Smiles and waves every time, and they kept taking photos of us, so we had to snap one of them.
Halfway to Phetchabun at a random crossroad town called Rahul, we called it for the day as the temperature was creeping over 40 degrees. We spotted a little motel type setup with air conditioned rooms for 300 baht, so settled in there for the afternoon. Not much around, but we walked about a kilometre up the road that evening to a noodle cart for dinner and a 7-11 for supplies for the next day.
Another day on Route 21 followed. Enjoyable cycling, sometimes chatting, sometimes listening to music but averaging well over 20km/h and getting the distance done arriving into Phetchabun before midday. Coasting through town on the lookout for somewhere to stay, a local guy on a bike rode up beside me and started chatting. The usual questions, where are we from, where are we going, wow aren’t we carrying a lot of stuff etc etc. He followed us, kept chatting, and pulled up with us when we spotted a hotel. He then came inside, tried to help us bargain down the price of the room, and then helped to carry out gear inside. We thanked him for his help, said that we were going to just chill now, so he said goodbye, but that he wanted to meet us later to show us around the town. He was real friendly and it could be interesting, we thought, so we arranged to meet up at 5.
We went out for a quick walk to get some lunch, and stopped into a bike shop, Raymondwide (www.raymondwide.com), on our way. We got talking to the owner who told us about his shop and about his cycling group who go out on several rides each week in the surrounding hills. Like us, they always start early as it gets too hot to ride in the middle of the day. Apparently this area is the hottest, and also the coldest in Thailand. The mountains around trap the heat or the cold, depending on the time of year. Interestingly, it’s one of the few places in the country to have recorded a temperature below zero. We then headed back to our hotel for a bit before meeting our mate from earlier.
Turns out he’s a teacher at the local primary school, and loves speaking English and meeting foreigners. His name was Thamnu, and he showed us around on our bikes, first to his school, then to a few temples, on through the centre of town, the market, and then to meet another one of his teacher friends. Then he showed us to a restaurant next to the river where we had a really nice dinner, talking about his family, career and his hopes to travel when he retires in a couple of years time. He wouldn’t let us pay for the food, treating us to the meal. He really wanted us to stop by his home the next day as it was sort of on our route (but also a bit out the way..) which we tentatively agreed to.
As it happened, when we left the hotel the next morning, he was there waiting for us to apologise that he wouldn’t be able to be at his house when we cycled past, so he wanted to say goodbye to us properly. He added us on Facebook and took a load of photos, then cycled with us as far as the main road before wishing us well and leaving us to go on our way. Not before getting his wallet out and trying to give us some money for our journey, which we eventually persuaded him that we weren’t going to take, especially after his kindness with dinner the previous evening. It was a bit of a strange start to what turned out to be a very tough day.
We had a rough idea of where we wanted to stop for the day, 75km away, we thought. But after taking a shortcut on some smaller roads running next to Route 21, we arrived mid morning, after only 55km. We got a drink and an ice cream at 7-11 and looked ahead on the map. As we were feeling good, we decided to push on and continue into the hills towards Loei, our next major destination. We weren’t sure if we’d find anywhere to stay, but up till now, we hadn’t had a problem.
Leaving Route 21 finally, we turned onto a minor road, cutting north east into the hills. At first, we were pleasantly surprised that the windy road on the map wasn’t really very hilly, it just had a lot of corners. Slowly the gradients increased and we were working our way through our gears as the road started climbing and descending more and more. The first 20km on the small road went by quite quickly and we enjoyed the change of scenery after a few days on a much bigger road. We stopped for lunch in a little hill town at a crossroads and asked if there were any hotels nearby. There was a place, but only if we headed 6km in the wrong direction. So we again decided to push on as, so far, the climbs had been more than manageable.
Leaving the town, we coasted down a mellow descent, rounded a bend and then faced a long and very steep climb. Granny gears engaged, we slowly worked our way up at walking speed, sweating in the midday sun. We were committed now and, with a good lunch inside us, felt strong enough to keep going. At the top, we had an equally steep descent, winding down into the next valley only to be faced by another wall, climbing back onto the ridgeline again. And so it continued, screaming descents getting us over 70km/h at times, followed by brutal climbs, sometimes with us both pushing our bikes, something we haven’t done since the ridiculous gradients in Korea. It was an energy and morale sapping ride, the temperature rising to 42 degrees and our water bottles quickly running dry. We had to rely on the kindness of strangers for water, first from a hill farmer, and then in a small village where a kind woman let us fill our bottles and refused any payment.
We were at 104 kilometres for the day and making painfully slow progress. By now it was obvious we weren’t going to make it through the hills to the next town before dark. We had a packet of biscuits, a few snacks and a little bit of water left, so we started to look around for somewhere to camp. We pulled off the road onto a small track and saw two deserted shacks on a flat area overlooking the valley. Initially we planned to pitch the tent there, but then we saw a covered bamboo platform beside a shack and figured we’d be fine sleeping right there under our mozzie nets. We collapsed onto the bamboo and rested, eating our Oreos and rationing ourselves to sips of water. It was a beautiful and peaceful spot, which we eventually started to appreciate as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the moon and stars came out.
It was a hot night, we found it hard to get to sleep even after a tough day. A cool breeze started blowing at around midnight, making things feel more comfortable and allowed us to get a few hours. But when it started to get light at 6 o’clock neither of us felt like we’d slept much at all. The view was still good though and we couldn’t deny it was a spectacular place to spend the night. We packed up, and got back on the bikes, our legs feeling slightly refreshed. We had a couple more climbs before we reached a village where found a shop that was open. We bought several large bottles of water, necking one immediately, followed by a cold bottle of Sprite that I’d been fantasizing about all night.
We worked our way out of the hills over the next couple of hours, the gradients getting mellower the closer we got to Loei. The road met a river which we rode next to until we got to the flat valley floor and a main road. We’d covered 40 kilometres by this point, and still had another 40 to go, but they went by quite quickly on a flat road. At the outskirts of Loei, we saw a Tesco which we dived into for some air conditioning and the hope of getting some wifi to look for a hotel in town. No luck on the internet, but we cooled down and had a drink. The last stretch was on a nice cycle path, separating us from the traffic and taking us into the town centre, a hotel and a much needed shower.
We still have another week or left on our visas, and our plan is to use it. We’ll continue north from Loei to Chiang Khan which sits on the Mekong River and the Laos border. We’ll then follow the river (which marks the border) east for a leisurely few days, getting us to Nong Khai where we’ll cross the border, over to Vientiane in Laos. Here’s our route from Bangkok: