When we headed East out of Bangkok we started the part of our trip that is entirely unnecessary to get us to Europe – a loop through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos then back into northern Thailand. We go this way for two reasons, firstly we are enjoying south east asia and want to see as much as we can while we are here and secondly because we won’t be able to make any of the high passes on the Pamir highway before winter anyway, so have some time to kill waiting for spring (provided our money and enthusiasm lasts that long!).
We planned our departure for a Sunday, and the traffic was very manageable, if not somewhat exhausting. There wasn’t too much navigation, so all we had to do was hold our line down the left of an endless stream of traffic and try not to accidentally end up in any turning lanes. On one occasion we did go left, but one of the traffic cops used his baton to stop traffic and wave us back in. Eventually we made the left hand turn that we needed and were on a straight road for the rest of the day. The road got narrower and narrower, but unfortunately not much quieter and it was a hot, dusty afternoon without much shade. We found a little resort near the main road to Chachoengsao which was ideal, because we didn’t plan to go into town at all. It was the perfect antidote to busy Bangkok with bungalows amongst a lime orchard and a short walk to a restaurant overlooking a pond with huge ducks, catfish and some noisy geese. There was a spectacular thunderstorm at night, with fork lightning and thunder which shook the room.
In the morning the road was just as busy and it took us 5 minutes to cross, then another 5 minutes to cross back just down the road where we’d spotted some breakfast. Luckily it ran out shortly after breakfast and we turned onto a quiet country road. The road quality was mostly great, punctuated with periods of huge potholes to weave around. In the morning we passed through rice paddies, but after lunch we started to see a new crop at various stages of production everywhere. It wasn’t until we could look it up that evening that we discovered it was cassava. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant run by a very enthusiastic lady, but somehow managed to end up with noodle soup with no noodles, just piles of different pig organs. Not the most appetising lunch, but we pretended to enjoy it. Late in the afternoon, about 10km from the town we were hoping to find accommodation, Bryony’s rear tyre went flat, not 2 days after deciding to leave the other tyres behind! Patched up we went another 100m down the road before it was flat again (along with our moods, if we are still riding after 4pm we both get a bit touchy). This time we changed the tube and discovered later that the source of the leak was actually the valve, so nothing wrong with the tyre this time.
Khlong Takrao is a tiny, dusty town on the edge of what was once a reservoir, and now looks like a huge cassava plantation. Luckily it had a cheap resort which we were very pleased to see at 5pm. Especially when about half an hour later it started bucketing down. The dusty streets had turned to mud by the time we went out to find some wonton soup for dinner, and later the rain was so loud we had to watch a movie with subtitles because we couldn’t hear it at all.
The morning was dry though, and we had breakfast at the restaurant next door to our dinner place, from a lady with great english who had shifted from Bangkok 4 months earlier, but had worked in hospitality in Phuket prior to that. James was still waking up when 5km down the road his front tyre starts making a thunking noise, which turns out to be made by the roofing nail that is now lodged in it. Luckily there doesn’t appear to be any damage to the rim and James patched both holes in the tube while Bryony tried to communicate with the old lady running the store. She was very concerned about James being out in the sun and getting too hot. She must have taken pity on us because she gave us both a free fruit juice. Not 2km down the road the tyre started going flat again, and we pulled over outside another shop to change the tube. This time Bryony was in charge of trying to distract the 2 ladies and the man they summoned from trying to ‘help’ a very grumpy James. Again they must have taken pity on the frazzled foreigner bringing a chair for James to sit on and giving us some bottles of water. Finally we managed to get going again, and this time the tyre stayed up.
Not long after we got going again we entered a national park with some serious looking, but illegible to us, signs warning about elephants. The cultivated land dissapeared pretty quickly, and our shoulder was eaten up by overgrown jungle. We saw plenty of poo, but no elephants on the road as we rolled up and down long rolling hills through the park. Again the road quality was great, except for a 50m section riddled with potholes which slowed all the vehicles down, and had us going about the same speed as the utes. The park ended at the top of a hill and we rolled down into a town and stopped at a petrol station for snacks. Bryony loves the chips shaped like french fries that come with tomato ketchup. The afternoon was spent riding through interesting cultivated land – lots of cassava, corn and rice, plus other crops we didn’t recognise. At one point we decided to take a more direct route to the highway we were aiming for than was suggested by any of the maps we use, but it turns out that since the maps were made a giant dam with a very big body of water had been put where we planned to bike and our direct route was now submerged. We bounced over new dirt roads around it and got some very odd looks from the locals.
We stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch and were told we were having khao pad, which wasn’t a problem with us. We were given more water and honeydew melon for afterwards, then when we went to pay she wouldn’t let us. So despite being James’ grumpiest morning, we met the friendliest people and many free drinks! Not long after lunch we turned right onto a major road heading south. Not doing much detailed route research means that sometimes we get surprises, like the quite steep, long hill right at the end of the day. It had a restaurant at the top so we stopped for iced tea and to enjoy the view, which was soon covered with very dark clouds blown by a strong southerly. We time trialed the 6.8km into a headwind to the nearest resort in Thap Chang. There was a market in town so we stocked up on some interesting snacks while waiting for the rain to pass. Decided to skip the live toads and trussed up crabs and have popcorn, tiny coconut crepes and a watermelon instead.
From Thap Chang we headed east again, to a small road running south about 2km from the Cambodian border. It was a surprisingly hilly day, with the strongest headwind we’d encountered for the trip. We still made good progress though because we got to go down most of the hills we went up. The road conditions were great for the first part – brand new seal with people out putting in the cats eyes. This suddenly deteriorated into human sized potholes and overgrown jungle encroaching on the road. We passed a number of small army posts with soldiers watching the border and the few vehicles passing. We joined a slightly bigger road just before lunch and after a huge iced coffee carried on to the border. As we got closer it got a bit confusing – I don’t think too many tourists pass this way so there aren’t many signs in english telling you where to go. We got waved into the departure area with no queue at all and were stamped out then rode over a wide concrete bridge and all of a sudden we were riding on the right hand side of the road. Getting the Cambodian visa on arrival was easy, again no other people waiting so a speedy process.
As we rode out of Prum the rain started, but it wasn’t heavy as we pedalled up towards Pailin. Keeping right was difficult, but luckily there wasn’t too much traffic. Even things like giving hand signals with the other hand felt odd. Riding into Pailin hotels and guesthouses were much more obvious than in Thailand with english signs and large multi story buildings. We stopped at the Pailin city hotel as we were entering, sure that it would be out of our price range judging by the big parkin area, fancy doors and ornate wooden furniture. It was on the high side, but for $15 US we had a big comfortable bed with nice linen, air con, a jug and a lift to cart our panniers up.
All up we spent 29 days in Thailand which was surprisingly exactly the same time we spent in Malaysia. It was brilliant for cycle touring – great roads, heaps of route choice, plenty of food and great accommodation. We’re glad we are planning to return via northern Thailand so that we can see more of this country. One thing we wanted to write about Thailand, in the off chance that any cycle tourists decide to read it, is the water. The RO filters became much more common towards Bangkok, although we weren’t able to work out where in a town we would find them. It was mostly good luck when we saw them. But the longer we travelled in the country the less we relied on them because nearly everyone uses bulk bottles of filtered and UV sterilised water for cooking and serving in restaurants and roadside stalls. These 25L bottles only cost 10 baht to refill, so no one we asked begrudged us filling our bottles with it. They usually gave us ice too. The only thing that made us question this was spotting someone filling the same bottles with a hose outside his house one day, hopefully he was using them to clean his car or something rather than selling! We didnt get sick from the water in Thailand, and it didn’t taste gross either.
For now we have a new country to adapt to – 2 new currencies (cambodia uses a mix of Riel and USD), new people, new language and a new alphabet to learn. From Pailin we are heading towards Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat with a stop in Battambang to pick up our Vietnamese visas.