Because we ended up staying for almost a week in Siem Reap, rather than the two days we had planned, we had to cover the 400km to Bangkok by public transport. Much to our surprise and irritation, we were told that buses in Cambodia will not take bicycles on them – unlike in countries such as Laos where you can put anything, such as a box of chickens or your moped, on the roof of a bus for no charge, if you want. We asked several different people to confirm this information and they all said the same, so we ended up hiring a taxi as far as the border (150km), with our bikes in the boot. Fortunately long-distance taxis are common and quite cheap in this part of the world, and the 2 hour trip cost only $25. About halfway to the border we spotted another cycle tourist heading towards us, and as we passed we realised it was John that we had last seen in Tehran! He had taken a different route to us, flying from Tehran to India, cycling through India and then flying down to Singapore, before cycling up through Malaysia and Thailand. We managed to get our driver to stop and turn round so we could have a brief chat with him before continuing our respective journeys.
On arrival into Poipet, the Cambodian-Thai border town, we were greeted with absolute chaos and people surrounding us trying to sell us things, get us to change money etc etc. Plus the whole area was very busy and absolutely stank of rotten fish (we couldn’t work out why as the sea is a long way away!) So it wasn’t much fun reassembling our bikes and bags before finding our way to the border post. Thankfully it didn’t take long to get stamped out of Cambodia, but from there it was not at all obvious where the Thai border post was. By the time we worked out where to go a bus load of tourists drew up and beat us to the queue, so it took us almost 40 minutes to get stamped into Thailand, which was kind of annoying as we wanted to get to Bangkok before dark.
Anyway, formalities over, we cycled on to the nearby town of Aranya Prathet, from where buses leave for Bangkok. We were somewhat surprised to suddenly notice that most people were driving on the left side of the road rather than the right – we weren’t aware that the Thais drive on the left and there weren’t any signs warning us. Quite confusing as we have been riding on the right continuously since leaving the UK – there was at least one occasion in our first few days in Thailand where we went the wrong way round a roundabout! However, people drive so crazily over here that nobody even batted an eyelid when we did that. We got to Aranya Prathet just in time for a bus to Bangkok, so we jumped on – no problems this time for our bikes to ride in the luggage compartment beneath the bus. Although it was only 250km to Bangkok, the bus was quite slow, and as we got to the outskirts of the city the traffic practically ground to a halt. By the time we reached the Northern bus terminal it was 6.30pm and almost dark. Unfortunately this bus terminal is very out of town, and we had to cycle for more than 10km on dark, busy roads to get to the centre. Unlike many other Asian cities, the majority of traffic in Bangkok is cars rather than mopeds, and so for the first time in a long time we felt rather vulnerable and nervous on the roads. Eventually however we reached the centre, and after a brief McDonald’s stop (we had missed lunch so were starving) we braved the hordes of people on Khao San Road to find our way to the Rambuttri village Inn, which we had reserved in advance.
We were so used to people being very kind and generous to us that the cold, unfriendly service that we sometimes experienced in Bangkok came as a bit of a surprise. In particular the hotel receptionist was exceptionally rude when we were checking in. Despite us having used a credit card to secure our reservation on the internet, when we asked if we could pay the balance with the card the receptionist barked at us ‘no, you go ATM’, and wouldn’t talk to us again until we came back with the money! Not a very warm welcome. To be fair, it can’t be much fun working in an environment like that and I doubt they get a great deal of courtesy from their customers. The hotel was unatmospheric to say the least, but our room was nice enough and the rooftop pool was a definite bonus. After the relative remoteness of Laos and Cambodia, Khao San Road was certainly a shock to the system, however much we were expecting it. Crowds of tourists, endless busy, noisy, neon-lit bars and restaurants, and a plethora of street sellers combined to make it a rather overwhelming experience after a long day travelling. Still we managed to have a walk around and to find some beer that was not too outrageously priced, so that was good.
Our intention was to only spend one day in Bangkok, so we could get back on our bikes as quickly as possible. There were a few things we wanted to get done, such as fixing Pete’s glasses, replacing his front wheel (which had a big dent in the rim after he hit a rock on a road in Cambodia), and doing some Christmas gift shopping. Plus we hoped to have time to swing by Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok’s big tourist attractions. To this end, we got up early, and managed to get Pete’s glasses fixed nice and quickly. For his bike, we had the details of a shop (called ThaiCannonAsia) that apparently specialised in Cannondale bikes and stocked Mavic A319 (reinforced) rims – perfect, we thought. However, after spending 3 hot and sweaty hours riding to where the shop was meant to be located (Soi 3, Th Sukhumvit), asking around, checking every little side street etc, we concluded that the shop had either closed or moved. Very frustrating. We ended up returning to where we were staying and going to a much smaller shop that was nearby (Soi 2, Samsen Road). Although the shop was small and specialised in mountain bikes, they were able to provide a suitable new wheel as well as a service, for a decent price (they did a very good job with his bike so we would definitely recommend them. Only 5 mins by bike from Khao San Road so very convenient if you are staying there). However, it was going to take 24 hours to do this, so we ended up staying in Bangkok another day. Not a disaster though as this gave us time to do a bit of sightseeing and shopping. We have to admit that we didn’t particularly love Bangkok – we found it very busy and polluted, with little charm and relatively few sights to see. Plus in the tourist areas everything is way overpriced compared to other areas of Thailand. So we were defintely happy to move on.
Because of the delay with Pete’s bike, and because we were still a little concerned about Pete’s back (it had been quite sore on the journey from Siem Reap to Bangkok), we decided to take the train part of the way south to Phuket (where we were due to be meeting Christine’s parents for Christmas). We knew the train went early in the morning so we set off early to get there in plenty of time. Despite this though, we were disappointed to find out that there were no tickets left by the time we got to the station. The next train was not until 1.30pm so we had a few hours to kill. We decided to make the most of it, and after leaving our bikes and bags at left luggage we took the metro to Chatuchak market, a huge market on the edge of Bangkok, that is supposed to be good fun to walk around and a good place to pick up souvenirs. The market was great, better than we expected. It wasn’t too busy, there was a huge range of goods, and prices were reasonable. Plus there were lots of little coffee stands where we could revive ourselves with an iced coffee when it all got a bit much. We spent about four hours there and managed to complete our Christmas shopping, so all in all it was a good thing we ended up with a delay on the train.
Thai trains have three classes, and the only tickets left were for second class. This was actually quite good, as the chairs were pretty comfortable and spacious, and reclined a long way. There was no air-conditioning, but instead there were big, open, wide windows from which to admire the view. The journey was slow – 8 hours to cover less than 500km down to Chumphon – but it was pleasant watching the world roll by. By the time we arrived into Chumphon it was dark, but it was easy enough to find a hotel, grab something to eat and crash out for the night. The hotel we found was cheap (about 3 quid a night) but certainly on the basic side – there wasn’t even a bed, just a mattress on the floor! Still it was clean, as was the shared bathroom, and very spacious, so that was fine by us.
We had hoped to rise early the next morning to give us plenty of time to cover the 120km to Ranong, but the previous day’s early start, combined with the long train journey, meant that despite an early warning alarm call (i.e., the call to prayer) from the local mosque we didn’t drag ourselves out of bed until 7.30 or so (quite a lie-in compared to what we had been doing recently). Still, we got going quickly enough, and the road proved to be quite fast – good quality tarmac, no wind and only small hills. We were amused to note that Tesco have made it to Thailand (there was one in Chumphon) – we would have got lunch from there, but it was Sunday morning so it was closed until later on in the day.
A couple of incidents kept us amused on the ride. Firstly, as we had stopped to chat to a couple of other cycle tourists coming the other way, a lorry went by with an elephant on the back – we all did a double-take! Then later on in the day a pick-up passed with the back absolutely full of coconuts. Hanging off the back of the pick-up, in the same way that binmen hang on to the back of rubbish trucks, were two large and menacing looking monkeys! We honestly think they were ’employed’ by the coconut-pickers, either to pick coconuts or to guard them. It would certainly take a brave soul to face down the monkeys to steal a coconut from that truck.
Although it wasn’t too sunny on the ride, it was really humid, which when combined with some hills to climb, resulted in us feeling very hot and sweaty – not very nice. So we were delighted when later on in the afternoon we passed a waterfall right by the side of the road, with a big natural pool at the bottom of it, in which people were swimming (mostly fully clothed). We couldn’t miss an opportunity like that so we stopped, removed our shoes, and took it in turns to join in the fun. Unfortunately when it was Pete’s turn he got rather carried away and swam right underneath the cascading water, while forgetting he was wearing his rather expensive photochromic Rayban glasses. Predictably they were washed off, never to be seen again in the torrent of water. Thankfully he was carrying a spare pair, so all was not lost, but his old pair are not photochromic which is a pain in sunny weather.
We got into Ranong around 4pm, and after spending a bit of time locating the town centre (this is often surprisingly difficult in this part of the world. They never think to put a sign saying ‘town centre this way’, and when asking it can be quite difficult to explain what you mean using sign language) we found a suitably cheap hotel. It turned out we were lucky to arrive on a Sunday, as on Sunday evenings the main street is closed off and becomes a bustling night market, complete with live music and lots of atmosphere. Unfortunately we missed much of it as we had a giant faff after we tried to take money out and discovered our bank cards weren’t working – odd as they had worked in Bangkok. After a big trek round town we found the only place with Skype, and managed to call our bank (Santander) to find out what was going on. They said a block had been placed on our cards, but they would remove it straight away. Relieved, we went and had dinner before going to try to take money out again (at this stage we had a total of around 80 pounds on us, not a lot), only to find the cards still not working. After another 20 minute phone call the hopeless security team eventually managed to remove the block – they never explained why our first phone call had not done the trick – but this time it worked and we had access to cash again – phew! Although overall we have had few problems with our cards while away, this episode was highly irritating and quite stressful. Thank you, Santander, for making our lives difficult and refusing even to refund us the significant cost of calling you several times.
Ranong is just a couple of miles across an estuary from the town of Kawthuong in Myanmar, and as such is a jumping-off point for people wishing to extend their time in Thailand. Under the current system, most nationalities do not need a visa for Thailand, but those entering via a land border are only allowed to stay in the country for 15 days at a time. If you want to stay longer, as we did, you either have to get a visa in advance (we didn’t really have the time), pay for an extension of 7 days (very expensive and a pain to organise), or hop across one of Thailand’s numerous borders – you can come back straight away, giving you another 15 days for free. Of course getting a visa for Myanmar is a bureaucratic hassle, but for just $10 the Myanmar authorities let people cross the border to Kawthuong without a visa, as long as you return straight away to Thailand. This of course has the benefit of being able to say you have been to Myanmar, and seeing as we were passing through Ranong anyway, we decided to take this option.
So the next morning we hopped on a sangthaew down to the port, which was all hustle and bustle and very smelly – lovely. Our Lonely Planet said you had to pay up to 300 baht (about 7 pounds) each for a return boat trip to Kawthuong, but this seemed rather expensive to us, and seeing as the LP is hardly an authoritative source of information these days, we decided to try negotiating with the numerous boat owners who assailed us the minute we approached the dock. Indeed it was worth doing this, as with minimal effort we got down to 100 baht each – the same as what the locals pay, it turns out. Other tourists on the boat had agreed to pay 300 baht each, and we were asked by the boat owner to keep quiet about how much we were paying, which we were happy to do.
The boat that took us across was just a small longtail boat, and, as the water was quite choppy, we soon understood why the boat owner had offered us all umbrellas when we got on the boat – we had assumed it was to keep the sun off, and had so declined as we were wearing hats – but in fact it was to keep water splashes off. In fact at times the crossing felt a little hairy, and we couldn’t help but think that it would be no fun, not to mention potentially hazardous, in poor weather. It is telling that before getting on such a boat, the locals put their hands in their pocket to make an offering to some sort of shrine by the dock – on the return journey we seriously considered doing the same!
When we got to Myanmar the formalities were very straight forward, and then the boat owner said we had half an hour to shop before the boat would return to Thailand. Apparently many things, in particular alcohol and cigarettes, are cheaper here than in Thailand, so locals come across to stock up. Lots of people offered to sell us whisky etc, but we weren’t tempted – not only did we not want to carry it, we were aware that we wouldn’t have much recourse if it turned out to be paint stripper when we opened it when we got back (containers of alcohol have to be kept sealed until you cross the border). So after a wander round the market we headed back to our boat and back to Thailand. We couldn’t help but think what it must be like for the locals living here, being in such close proximity to a country that is so much freer and more developed. Although it is clearly easy for Thais to pop across to Myanmar to do some shopping, it didn’t seem to be the case that people from Myanmar could easily pop across to Thailand – no doubt the authorities are aware that there would be significant temptations for them not to return.
Having being granted another 15 days in Thailand – all that we would need – we returned to the hotel to pick up our bikes and continue on our way. Considering it was 2pm by this time, we only managed 50km, to the small town of Kapoe. The next day we got as far as Takua Pa, where we stopped as it was clear a thunderstorm was getting very close – indeed we timed it perfectly, as we got as far as our hotel room door before the heavens opened and it absolutely chucked it down. On our way to Takua Pa we visited a museum about the 2004 boxing day tsunami. This whole area was absolutely devastated by the tsunami, with whole villages wiped out. The museum provided lots of information about what caused the tsunami, the impact on the area, and what has been done to prevent such a disaster from happening again. It was chilling watching some of the footage available of when the wave struck, particularly as of course we were going to spending boxing day 2010 on Phuket, which was similarly devastated – it certainly made you think. It was particularly poignant learning that when the waters receded prior to the main wave hitting, many locals, not understanding what was happening, ran out to catch crabs that were left exposed. Of course they didn’t stand a chance when the wave came in.
The next day the weather was back to normal – hot and sunny – and so we found the time to stop at a lovely beach north of Khao Lak (another area devastated by the tsunami; literally every building here is new as nothing was left standing), where we had a leisurely lunch, a swim and a snooze on the sand before continuing down to the town of Thai Muang. When we arrived into this town we were absolutely starving, and stopped to wolf down rice and fried eggs at a small restaurant on the main street. As we were doing this we were approached by another foreigner, who tapped Pete on the back and asked if we were really cycling from London to Sydney (our cycling tops say London to Sydney by Bike on them). He turned out to be an expat who had married a local woman, and settled down in the area, teaching English at the local school. After a brief chat he volunteered to show us the way to a cheap hotel (great, as we would never have found it by ourselves) which was right by the beach – lovely. He and his wife seemed quite interested in our trip so we asked if they would like to meet up for a beer later on, which they were happy to do.
After settling into our hotel, we just had time to grab a beer with which to watch the sunset on the beach. Thai Muang, despite having a great beach and being only 50km or so from Phuket, is completely untouristy – we saw only 3 hotels, all of them small, and saw hardly any other tourists. Just the sort of place we like. Being the only people on the beach certainly made the fabulous sunset seem all the more special. After sunset we went to the beachside restaurant where we had agreed to meet Anders and Nat (apologies if we have got the spelling totally wrong there!), the couple from earlier. Over a tasty pizza we had a good chat both about our trip, and what it was like for an expat living in Thailand. We were also able to ask lots of questions about life in Thailand in general, such as how good the healthcare and education systems are, what are the main problems facing people in their daily lives, etc. It is rare to have an opportunity to ask such questions, and so we really enjoyed our evening. We were very touched when the couple insisted on paying for our dinner, despite the fact that we had only just met. Definitely the sort of act of kindness that leaves us with a very positive impression of a place.
The next day – the 23rd of December – we cycled the remaining 70km to Phuket. En route we picked up a small Christmas tree, to go with the tinsel we had put on our bikes – very festive! We had arranged to meet Dean in Patong, on the west side of the island, for pre-Christmas drinks, before meeting our parents at the beach resort on the 24th. We thought it would be nice to get some snacks and drinks for Christmas from the large Tesco’s we passed en route, as we knew everything would be very expensive in the resort, and we figured it would be nice to be able to enjoy a gin and tonic on our hotel room balcony. Unfortunately we went a little overboard and ended up with very heavily laden bikes for the last few kilometres into Patong – and of course it was just our luck that there was a massive steep hill to get over first! We were definitely hot and sweaty by the time we had navigated our way into Patong and around the bizarre one-way system to the hostel we were staying at. Much to our disappointment we found out when we got there that as Dean’s friends (who were meant to be coming out to spend Christmas with him) hadn’t made it out to Thailand because of the snow back home, he had decided to head home early. As he was flying from KL his only chance of getting home in time for Christmas involved him leaving Phuket before we got there, so we pretty much just missed each other. A shame as we were looking forward to seeing him, but we will have plenty of time to catch up when we are back instead.
The timing was also unfortunate as if we had known earlier, we would have not chosen to go to Patong, which is not only a diversion over a huge hill, but is a right dive of a place. The beach is nice but you can hardly see the sand for all the hundreds of deckchairs squeezed onto it (which cost more to rent for a day than we are used to spending on a hotel room!), and the town is loud, brash and seedy. Everywhere you look there are adverts for ‘willy massages’, ‘ping-pong’ shows, tattoo parlours etc. And virtually all the bars are full of young and pretty Thai ‘escorts’, keeping the male tourists company. Everything is super expensive, and nothing is nice. What is worse is that hordes of tourists seem to actually enjoy this type of thing. We were amazed to see families, including young children, out for a stroll in what is blatantly a red-light district. We certainly could not wait to get out of there. Unsurprisingly the restaurant where we had dinner tried to rip us off – the old trick of upping the price on the bill compared to the price on the menu, followed by not enough change. Why do these ‘mistakes’ never happen in our favour?!
After an early night we were very happy to get back on our bikes for the final 20km over to Rawai beach, where our resort was located. Unfortunately we did not quite appreciate what was in store for us – the hills on the west side of the island are truly immensely steep. In places we really struggled to even push our bikes. It was really hot and sunny, and everyone else was whizzing past on mopeds, making it feel even tougher. By the time we had struggled up the hills, stopping frequently to ‘admire the view’, and had a spot of lunch, it was almost 2pm by the time we got to the resort, the Evason Phuket. To our dismay, after lugging bottles of gin and tonic, not to mention two pineapples and some other stuff all the way from Phuket town via Patong, there was a Tesco’s just up the road from the resort! The resort was at the top of a small hill, so by the time we pulled up we were hot, sweaty and out of breath – not the sort of arrival that most guests at a resort like that would make! The staff took it in their stride though, providing us with cool flannels and a cold drink, and getting us checked in very quickly.
We were certainly happy to get into our room to relax, and what a room to relax in. We are both pretty sure we have lived in flats that were smaller. Definitely a step up from our usual standard of accommodation! We quickly washed and unpacked, used the bath to do some laundry (what a luxury, a bath in which to wash our clothes – oh how our living standards have dropped during the trip!), before retiring to the reception area to wait for Christine’s parents to arrive from the airport. That they were coming at all was remarkable – they were booked to come out on the 20th of December, just a day or two after the snow chaos started in the UK, closing many airports including Heathrow. Their carrier – EVA – only has one flight a day to Bangkok, and that flight had been cancelled on both of the previous two days, along with the vast majority of other flights leaving from Heathrow to Bangkok. So we knew that if their flight was cancelled, their was no way that they would get seats on another flight, as there were huge numbers of people wanting to do the same. We kept a close eye on the internet around the time they were due to take off, and were absolutely gutted when on the 20th the EVA website announced that that flight had been cancelled. Facing up to the grim reality of Christmas by ourselves on Phuket, with no hotel reservation and no-one to celebrate with, we were feeling pretty down. But much to our delight we found out a few hours later that in fact the flight had taken off, albeit after a 16 hour delay, and so my parents were among the lucky ones whose Christmas plans were not destroyed. Phew!
The one good thing about the stress of thinking Christmas would be cancelled was that it certainly made us appreciate our good fortune. Christine’s parents arrived safely in Phuket (after a few days in Bangkok), and it was really great to see them after being away for so long. We spent an idyllic four days relaxing either by the fabulous infinity pool, or on the beach on the private island that is a short boat ride from the resort. For us the breakfasts were a particular highlight as they were buffet style, with just about everything imaginable available – after months of ad-hoc and often rather random breakfasts, this was great and we certainly made the most of it. In the evenings we left the resort to walk down to the village of Rawai that was nearby, where we found a very nice, relaxed restaurant with excellent food – we liked it sufficiently that we went back every night! Christmas day at the resort was quite good fun – great buffet breakfast followed by a trip to the beach for the day, where Santa even made an appearance – admittedly looking a little hot and sweaty! An amusing highlight was when we were returning from the beach to the resort, via the longtail boat provided by the resort. About halfway the propellor unexpectedly broke leaving us stranded, a little unnerving as a huge fishing boat was headed our way (it missed us, but only just!) and it was quite wavy. We got a tow from the other resort boat which, much to our amusement, contained Santa. So Santa really saved Christmas day for us!