We started our time in Thailand very slowly, having a few days off in Mae Sot while Verity recovered from a tough last few days in Myanmar and some heat exhaustion. Luckily with the help of some extra iron supplements and a cheap hotel room with air conditioning we were soon back on the road. Knowing we had 30 days on our visa and wanting to spend a few rest days in the south (where the beaches and islands are) we picked up the pace and cracked on through the lowlands.
One thing we had seen in our research was that camping in the Wats (Buddhist temples) of Thailand was easy and somewhat (pun intended) of a rite of passage for cycle tourists. So it was with great excitement when at 5.30pm, 45 minutes before sunset we pulled up to a 50m long reclining Buddha and asked the nearest monk if there was somewhere for us to pitch the tent. With not so much as a blink of the eye he smiled and waved us over to a flat piece of concrete under cover. A little worried he hadn’t quite understood, and that perhaps his gesturing for sleeping had been misinterpreted for the Buddha’s pose, Joe tried again, but this time with a picture of our tent. Again a simple smile, nod, and some pointing at the open space as well as the toilets we were sure that yes, it really was that easy! We proceeded to cook up some pasta and drink the cold filtered water the monk offered us and slept delightfully well in what would turn out to be the first of many temples.
Invariably the Wats would have some form of vat of water to wash, or at least splash various body parts in, sometimes a plug to charge up our phones, and, on the odd occasion, our own private carpeted room and fan!
Most Wats were populated with ‘donated’ dogs (as Buddhists swear to look after all animals, strays and unwanted dogs are often dropped off or left in the Wat compound) who would usually curl up to sleep around our tent once we had said hello to them. We would find out that, much to Verity’s delight, saying hello to the dogs was a crucial part of Wat camping as if the dogs found us in the middle of the night without having been introduced, they would bark continuously and understandably at these strangers sleeping on their patch.
We had also heard that police stations had been told (due to the King of Thailand being a cycling fan) to be hospitable to people like us turning up with bicycles! Another successful spot was at the hands of the Chai Nat Police force who kindly let us put up our tent on their volleyball court. It was the weekend and the first two policemen we met were off duty and had been enjoying a fair amount of local Thai whisky but they were super friendly and made sure we were looked after. A couple of hours later, after cooking and eating dinner as well as wandering to the “cornerstall” for an ice cream, just as we were preparing to bed in for the night two of them returned. Spick and span in beautifully pressed and clean uniforms and complete with an official looking photographer they had come to take some publicity shots in full get up! In the morning the two off duty policemen invited us to join them some sticky rice and coffee before we left. The whisky was already flowing, we weren’t sure if it was continuing or just restarting, but either way we declined their offer of a shot! Other camping highlights in Thailand included the car parking garage of a public library which had a great seafood restaurant across the road and a couple of nights right on the vast empty beaches, hidden from everyone including the night fishermen.
We also enjoyed some wonderful hosting – being generously treated to local knowledge and food. We were having a water break on a random back road one afternoon when a lady pulled over on her scooter and explained that she and her husband were building a house just round the corner. We were invited round, and found Neil an English expat boiling the kettle for a cup of tea! Never has Earl Grey tasted so good! Neil and Moet soon invited us to stay the night and we gladly accepted. We spent the afternoon being shown the exciting plans for the house (including chicken coop and allotment!) and even visited the natural hot springs round the corner for a quick dip.
Warmshower (couchsurfing for cycling) hosts were also around for the first time in a while and incredibly generous. Again confirming what a wonderful community cycling is, we spent fun evenings with Patti (who was hosting two other cyclists the same evening), at Cedric’s beautiful home (complete with pool and a kitchen – the first oven we have seen since Dubai!) and with Lewis (who let us sleep on the floor of his one room!). As always we are so grateful to all these people who have generously welcomed them into their homes and been so hospitable to strangers.
Avid followers may have sensed from the last blog post, we were raring to embrace Thai cuisine after the disappointment of Myanmese curries. Finally we got the fresh seafood pad thai, big bowls of coconut curries and mango sticky rice we had been dreaming of. Our route took us almost straight down south, skirting past Bangkok to the west, along the east coast and then cutting across to the other side. To begin with we saw lots of trendy and modern portacabin iced coffee shops, completely out of sorts with every other restaurant and shop along the way, but delicious all the same. It seemed that anything that was new was coffee based and American ‘white picket fence’ themed, sometimes bizarrely with coloured model windmills and cartoony animal gnomes. We also enjoyed numerous 7-elevens for their cooling air conditioning and cheap biscuits as well as many a roadside stall for vegetable ingredients for our evening meals.
As we moved further south the food got better and better and the modern portacabins petered out. The seafood along the coast – in particular from the night markets and bbq stalls – was incredible. Food and drink (beer especially, disappointingly for Joe) wasn’t as cheap as we were expecting, but it was hardly expensive and the free camping available more than made up for it in our budget.
However, one huge negative of the fantastic street food, iced drinks and night market scene in Thailand is the plastic problem it causes. Everything comes in a plastic container, wrapped up in plastic for safe keeping, and then put in a plastic bag for easy carrying. It didn’t take us long to realise how much of an issue this was and to try our best to use as little as possible. We have refilled our cycle bottles for water, always use our sporks, and now also carry our own straws (even if they are all still plastic, at least we only use one set – if anyone knows where we can get wide bamboo or similar equivalents – please let us know). The rubbish is often in burning piles by the side of the road and washed up on beaches, although surprisingly little given the amount we saw being used every day. Given that it appears that there is very little recycling infrastructure, we dread to think where the majority of the plastic waste is being put.
We also met lots of cyclists en route, the first time in a long time! At dawn and dusk we would see large numbers of locals who would probably be classified as MAMILs at the weekend on shiny new bikes with mysterious and or fake brand names. Often passing Verity and only speaking to Joe in broken English or repeating place names (Phuket, Bangkok, Myanmar, Singapore), they would try to work out what we were up to and where we were going. We met some other tourers, 4 going the opposite direction (rather randomly on both sets on tandems) and finally getting to cycle and camp with other cyclists when we met 3 others heading south. We can understand why Thailand is so popular for cycling (both for locals and others) – lovely back roads, beautiful scenery and never too far from a cold drink!
Thailand saw us pay for our first “touristy day” since the Taj Mahal when we visited the WFFT which was a elephant and wildlife sanctuary. It was heartbreaking to hear about the working lives of elephants and monkeys, particularly how they are trained and controlled, but amazing to see these animals up close and having such a lovely retirement home! There were also a number of colourful and exotic birds that had been rescued or donated, often by monks as they are understandably unqualified to look after them when they have been left in the temples.
We rounded off our time in Thailand with a very special stay on Koh Lipe, a small island in the Andaman Sea. Castaway Resort treated us to a few nights stay in their luxury two-story beach huts. It couldn’t have been a more perfect break from the bikes. Located on Sunrise Beach, each morning we woke to sunlight streaming through the windows and a beautiful view out across the sea. We spent our days swimming in the crystal clear water, paddle boarding (Verity’s new favourite) and reading in hammocks. It would have been very easy to stay in our little patch of paradise but one day we forced ourselves to explore the rest of the island. Although still fun, other parts of Koh Lipe were much more touristy and busy, and we were pleased to retreat back to Castaway which hit the balance between rustic and trendy luxury (hello festoon lights and metallic tumblers for our smoothies!) so effortlessly spot on.
It was hard to climb back on the speedboat to the mainland, but it was time to hit the road as our visa was about to expire. And so it was a final couple of days up into the hills and towards country number 20, Malaysia!