Swiss Family Reunion

“I want to see mountains again Gandalf, mountains!”

-Bilbo Baggins

If there is a polar opposite country to Thailand, it might just be Switzerland. Our first 5 minutes on the streets of Zurich were culture shock to say the least. It was best exemplified when we tried to cross the street the first time. We stood at a crosswalk on a relatively calm street when a Mercedes came speeding our way. We patiently waited for it to pass and were taken aback when the car abruptly stopped and waited for us to cross the crosswalk. Coming from nearly 6 months in Thailand, where crossing the street is up there on the danger meter with skydiving or the luge, we realized we were no longer in the land with no rules.

It might seem a bit strange that we decided to leave Thailand after the last post, as we were so happy. The circumstances for this trip were special though. Lauren’s family had planned a trip to Switzerland for vacation for their first trip outside the US. We agreed to meet them and decided since we were flying that far, we might as well get our plane ticket’s worth and stay in Europe for a few months.

We left Koh Tao kicking and screaming albeit excited to see family.  We had a wonderful sendoff and are looking forward to going back to the island in the fall. The turnout at Goodtime for our impromptu going away sunset was humbling as all of our friends gathered to send us off. We grabbed some dinner and then hit up the Beer Mason’s for some craft brews with those still standing. We said our goodbyes and woke up the next day to catch our ferry to Koh Samui.

Koh Tao means “Turtle Island” and describes not just the sea life, but also the pace of life for the people on land. After being used to this slow pace of a 13 sq. km island for so long, Koh Samui traffic was a circus! We rode the bikes from the pier to the hotel near the airport and then the scavenger hunt began. The packing tape had been no problem, but three bicycle sized cardboard boxes and bubble wrap were not easy things to track down at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon in Koh Samui! We rented a scooter and spent two days rounding up the necessary supplies. The island itself was a tourist trap to say the least so we were not sad to leave. We had trouble at the airport terminal when Lauren’s name was paged and we had to hitch a ride to the baggage terminal because you can not fly with power bank batteries in your checked luggage. We politely fished them out of our bags. As I plucked the third one out, I caught a glimpse of our fuel canister which most definitely was still at least half full of gasoline. It made it through security with no problem!

The flight to Bangkok was pleasant with fish and rice for breakfast on the plane. We transferred to Swiss air in Bangkok and had a lovely flight to Zurich. We finally watched “The Last Jedi”, relaxed and slept. As we flew over a part of the world full of so much turmoil, I couldn’t help but think about how good it felt to be on our way to see family and explore this amazing planet some more.

Which brings us back to Zurich. We landed and took a 30 minute cab from the airport to our hotel for the cost of 3 days living expenses in Thailand. Lauren cooked a delicious pork chop dinner, we assembled the bikes and set off on our journey into the alps. The first day was gorgeous. We got out of town and into the hills and were treated to beautiful deciduous trees, lovely weather and secluded roads. We pulled off on a path and set up our tent for a great night’s sleep.

Seriously… WTF?

The next day we awoke to freezing cold rain and snails everywhere along with the realization that we were not prepared for May in Switzerland. We literally had no pants! We froze our asses off the next day wet and cold and had a challenging day of constant climbs with little respite. At the end of the day, we were exhausted and had to resort to getting a hotel despite it being way out of our budget because we were soaked to the bone.

The next day we found a thrift store, bought some pants and more appropriate cold weather gear and continued on our way. Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve much for the next week and a half, but we made the best of it.

Switzerland is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in the world. The scenery is spectacular. After the second day, we literally ran out of adjectives to describe our surroundings. Also, it is one of the most bicycle friendly places we’ve ever seen. Everyone rides bicycles so the tiny cars are very courteous to cyclists.

As we progressed, I kept joking that Switzerland was the land of rules… and for some unknown reason, everyone there actually follows them… All of them! One of my big issues in the military was having to follow rules that I deemed stupid so this obviously presented a slight problem for me. I coped with little rebellions like jumping curbs and blasting through roundabouts the wrong way when no one was around just to make myself feel better. I was constantly humming “Signs” by Tesla because there were signs everywhere telling you what to do. Fortunately or unfortunately we couldn’t read them. Also, the people didn’t seem quite as welcoming to visitors as we had hoped. We ran into more than a few servers who scoffed when they found out we didn’t speak Swiss German. We learned basic phrases but it was not enough to please some people. 

Some signs made us happy!

On the other hand, we met some fabulous individuals who showed us so much kindness it offset the bad apples. One afternoon we were fumbling around a village trying to find some information about a yodeling concert that was supposed to be that night. We got a lot of weird looks until a nice young man yelled across the road and asked if we needed help. He and his friends invited us to have a beer with them in the yard and we chatted about our trip and their lives in Switzerland. It was funny to hear them mildly complaining about their government in a seemingly perfect country with no litter, where everyone dives either a bicycle or a brand new car.  We thanked them for their hospitality and ended up skipping the yodeling concert because the crowd was dressed in suits and ties. We pressed on and found camping for the night at the nicest (and most expensive) campgrounds we had ever seen.

Things continued this way as we made our way south towards Murren. At one point, my poor route planning left us on a trail we thought was for bikes but it ended up being a challenging hiking path. It turned out to be a pilgrimage path with stations of the cross every few hundred meters. The terrain was steep and at one point as Lauren was struggling to lift her bike up onto a ledge on the path, a kind old woman in her 70’s appeared out of nowhere and started giving her a push. It was a hilarious scene and we laughed as we thanked her profusely in broken German. A few minutes later the path turned rough again and another even older gentleman came by and did the same. Towards the top of the path, we found a ledger for those making the pilgrimage and signed our names with pride.

We made it over pass after pass and continued on, subsiding on Baguette, Salami, Rugen Brau beer and swiss mountain cheese. If it hasn’t become apparent yet, Switzerland is really expensive and our budget was stretched pretty thin.

How much you wanna make a bet i can throw a football over them mountains?
Never did see the bird, but apparently this is good luck.

We finally arrived in Interlaken which is a beautiful city placed between two gorgeous lakes… Get it? Interlaken? They also had the only other incline train I’d ever seen outside of Pittsburgh. We were lucky enough to have a response on warmshowers and our host Matthius was very kind. We waited for him in the park drinking wine and watching paragliders landing. He met us at a cycling cafe after work and rode with us to his village a few miles away. We were treated to a much needed shower and some lovely meats and cheeses. The later of which was from his family’s cow! We shared stories of traveling and looked at maps of the world together talking about the places we’ve lived, visited and wanted to see. At the end of the night, he brought out a book with his villiage’s history dating back to the middle ages. It was complete with family sigils and drawings of the old farming methods used in the mountains. He explained his families sigil to us and pointed out that the star in the corner meant that someone in the family had been a knight. He said the remnants of the castle on the nearby hill were still standing. It was an amazing evening and reinforced that the best part of traveling is interacting with the local people. We forgot to get a picture together but we did get a few in his awesome hundred year old house.

Somehow we always manage to match…  Nerds!

We left Interlaken and still had a day to kill before Lauren’s family arrived in Murren. We rode through a beautiful valley to Lauderbrunnen where we froze huddled under a bike parking area outside of a convenience store for a few hours. We debated riding up the mountain in the sleet but instead stopped at a bar which happened to have a hotel upstairs. The next day, we elected to take a cable car instead of climbing the mountain in the freezing rain. We arrived in Murren and while it was incredibly touristy, we enjoyed riding through the streets on our way towards our lovely camping spot. We set up shop in a shack on the side of the road and slept soundly although a bit cold. The next day, we killed time drinking beer and wine on a bench and playing gin rummy waiting for her family’s train to arrive. When they did, we upgraded from a pathside shack with three walls to a beautiful Swiss Chalet for 7 days. It was a welcome change to have hot water and warm food.

Saw a sticker from Catalina brewing in Tucson

We spent the week with Lauren’s family checking out the local tourist attractions and playing Settlers of Catan and other board games at night. I tried going mountain biking one afternoon, but the trail was downhill Redbull style so I ended up walking down most of it. We ate well and had good company although the time was too short. Before we knew it, they were off on their way back to America and we were heading south for Warmer Climes and all the Wines in Italy!

2 Weeks in Bangkok

We originally planned to stay for one week but if you’ve read this blog at all, by now you know that we don’t follow our plans and we are always late!  One of my biggest concerns about arriving here was the airport and how we would get to the hotel.  This turned out to be one of the simplest things with only a few hiccups.  We started by going to the wrong line in customs and filling out a bunch of paperwork before realizing that Americans do not have to do any of that stuff.  We found the right line, waited 5 minutes and made it through with no issues even though we only had half of the actual paperwork filled out.  They didn’t look through our bags and didn’t seem to care about the bike box.  Only one bike arrived with us, but the other one was delivered the next morning.  
Qatar airways made 25 hours of travel with two flights and tons of issues that we caused a relative pleasure.  These were credit card points well spent and if they fly to where we are going in the future, we will not hesitate to book with them again!  
We grabbed an Uber which was cheaper than expected and were treated to our first glimpse of Bangkok traffic.  The best way of describing it is courteous chaos.  Lane markings are merely a suggestion and scooters routinely drive on the wrong side of the road, on the sidewalk and between cars at ludicrous speeds.  Sometimes there is a passenger sitting side saddle, sometimes 3 or four people on one bike, and once I saw a mother holding an infant side saddle on a scooter whipping between cars in traffic.  Speaking of sidewalks, apparently there are no wet cement signs because there are constantly scooter tracks, human footprints, and I’ve even seen a few paw prints in the dried cement on the sidewalk!  It is chaotic, but the people are courteous and it somehow works.

We arrived at True Siam Rangnam Hotel in the Sukhumvit district near the “Victory Monument.”  The hotel was very nice, and had a rooftop pool.  Not bad for 40 USD a night.  

At this point, we both had colds and were very jet lagged so we spent most of our time in the room sleeping and resting for a few days.  Before we left the States, we debated on where we wanted to stay in Bangkok.  We chose the area we did because it was away from major tourist areas while still being safe with lots of options for food.  We made a good choice.  The street food was phenomenal and hardly anyone at the markets spoke English so we had to work hard to accomplish the simplest tasks.  It motivated us to learn some basic Thai quickly just so we could get water and food.  Most backpackers tend to gravitate towards Khaosan Road which is basically Bangkok Bourbon Street.  We went out once which was plenty.  If you want to drink, eat a fried scorpion and buy souvenirs from The Hangover movie then this is the spot for you.  I recommend checking it out just to see it, but I don’t think I’d stay here unless I was a freshman in college.  

Santiphap Park

Khaosan Road
That’s not Nirvana!

One interesting thing we found about Bangkok was the complete lack of pad thai anywhere.  The only places we found pad thai were on Khaosan Road and at the restaurants near the malls that catered to westerners.  More common was crispy pork, salt fish, duck soup, fish balls, chicken satay, roasted chicken with rice, and a myriad of things we could not identify.  There are usually 2 menus, one in Thai, and one with pictures for dumbasses like us who came to Thailand and can’t speak Thai.  Nothing made us feel worse than someone apologizing for not speaking English.  We are the ones who came to your country, why are you apologizing?  Can you imagine that happening in America?  It was different around Khaosan though, they spoke enough English to do business and had no qualms about ripping off tourists.  I can’t say I blame them based on some if the westerners we saw.  We did miss out on an amazing opportunity when we were sat next to a kind old man drinking a glass of Chang beer on ice at a food stand in a gas station parking lot.  He smiled at us and knew enough to introduce himself in English.  We wanted so badly to communicate and learn from him, but instead just pointed and smiled a lot.  This was motivation to practice our phrases in Thai.  At one market, Lauren was so excited to try out her new phrase.  She walked up to a lady and said, “Hong naam yu nai kha” to ask where the bathroom was.  The lady responded in Thai.  Having no clue what the directions were but being so excited she understood, Lauren forgot how to say thank you.  Instead she grunted, nodded, turned around and walked away in the wrong direction smiling with no clue where the bathroom was.  We eventually found it a few minutes later and realized these signs we had been ignoring were for the bathroom.  I’ll give them points for accuracy.

The first few days were a challenge but it got easier.  A lot of the stress came not from being in a foreign country, but rather just big city life in general.  Neither of us are city folk so we had some adjusting to do.  As concerned as everyone at home was for our safety, we actually felt way safer in Bangkok than we did in New York!  Eventually we got over our colds and started venturing into other districts.  It is crazy how you can go from the street where a meal is less than 1 USD and walk through a door into a mall selling Rolex watches and Gucci clothes.  They even had restaurants in the mall selling “Thai street food” for 10x the price…  we passed.  

We did more shopping here in the first few days than we have done in the last several years at home.  I was on a quest to find a folding bluetooth keyboard to type this blog on the bike and we ended up at a bunch of different malls selling everything from electronics to used clothing and silverware.  We quickly got used to the pace, although having no kitchen meant going out to eat for every single meal, which sounds awesome until it is raining or you are tired and want to stay in the room.  Poor us, having to walk 50 yards to eat amazing authentic Thai food for next to nothing.

We took a day trip to the “Government Complex” which is a massive building that houses dozens of government agencies in order to get extensions on our Visas.  We could have done this in the states but big surprise…  we didn’t.  It wasn’t too difficult of a process and had we not arrived right around the lunch break it would have only taken about an hour.  The lunch break was not so bad though because the food there was fantastic.  For US citizens, you can extend your visa for a fee.  You just need to fill out some paperwork, attach a photo to said paper and wait in line.  If you need to go through the process, check out the state department website or this blog.  While in the building, Lauren had a bit of trouble in the bathroom.  I waited outside the ladies room for 15 minutes wondering if everything was ok to find her walk out soaking wet and laughing hysterically.  She tried to flush the toilet, but instead hit the pedal for the bidet which proceeded to spray all over the place!  She tried to stop it with her hands like a cartoon character which clearly did not work and the result was a soaking wet Lauren.  To make matters worse, they don’t use paper towels or hand dryers here so options were limited.  So there she was, at the immigration officer’s desk soaking wet and hoping no one noticed.  We did get our extensions though so we were happy about that.

We also delayed our immunizations and were not planning on getting them at all until Lauren decided to at least get the Hepatitis A vaccine.  We went to the tropical disease clinic and the doctor suggested she get several more based on the nature and length of our trip.  She got a little bit of a flu for a day or so from the vaccines so we decided to extend our time in Bangkok by a few days.  I had most of mine up to date from the Air Force, but decided to get a few additional ones:

Hepatits A – Not super common but can be transmitted by people not washing their hands which is not as normal of a practice here.

Japanese Encephalitis – Only prevalent in rural areas, it is transmitted by mosquito bites so we figured this one was worth it.

Tetanus – Can be transmitted by a wound so we went for it as well.

Typhoid –  We passed on this one because the vaccine was only 60% effective.  It’s passed through food/water so we are just going to be careful

Rabies – Dogs are not vaccinated here so we elected to go for this since we are on bikes. 

We should have taken care of these in the states but we didn’t so we ended up spending some extra time in the city.  The good news was the price.  Mine were about 60 USD and Lauren’s were 90 USD since she got the hepatitis shot as well.  It is a pretty cheap and painless process overall if you decide to get them here and have the time.

We decided to move to another part of Bangkok to granny bike.bed which is a little guest house hostel that caters to bike travelers.  Parn and Neemo, our hosts are two of the kindest people we’ve ever met and their home is a great clean and quiet place to stay and assemble your bike.  Our private room was cozy and reminded us of our tiny house.  The room had AC and the showers were open air.  We put our bikes together and spent some time wandering about learning a new area of the city.

On the cab ride from the hotel to the hostel we had a very interesting experience.  We thought we would be better off calling the cab through the hotel since we needed a van to hold the bikes.  He showed up in a small van and it was entertaining to say the least to watch the driver and the bellhops playing tetris to get our giant bicycles and luggage into the back of the vehicle.  Eventually it sort of worked and Lauren was tucked into the back with the bikes quite cozily.  Then the real madness ensued.  The hotel gave the driver the wrong address.  He was headed to “Bangkok bike and bed” while we were supposed to be going to “Granny bike.bed”.  They are literally 2 blocks from one another but explaining that proved impossible.  We tried google translate but were failing on an epic level.  The next thing we knew the driver was calling his relative to put us up in his house for 250 baht a night.  We kept trying to explain we wanted to go to the hostel but he was insisting it is bunk beds and we do not want to stay there.  Keep in mind, all of this is being done very poorly on google translate.  The word confused came up at least a dozen times!  I kept trying to show him the map on my phone but after awhile it became apparent that he was trying to give us the runaround.  Eventually we got the point across and he got us where we needed to go, but the last 15 minutes was a very awkward silence with a pissed off cab driver.  Oh well, we got there and were met by Parn and Neemo who were fantastic!

We finally put the bikes together and found out Lauren had a bent spoke and a wheel that needed trued up.  Why not another 2 days in Bangkok?  We went on another scavenger hunt to find a wheelbuilder who fixed the wheel.  He dropped it off the next day, but the tire was no longer mounted and all the sealant I had just put in was gone.  Thus began the quest to find a compressor and more Stan’s sealant.  We went all over Bangkok and eventually got everything squared away right about the time the last train out of the city was departing for the day.
We stayed one more day and were not upset that we did.  We meet Arne, from Germany, at the hostel and spent a nice evening with him.  He was also cycling and had been all over the world.  We picked his brain and shared stories and explained several of the dumb phrases that I use without thinking like “hauling ass” and “knock yourself out” which I said while offering him beer which confused him.  It was a nice evening.  The next morning, we procrastinated again and missed our intended train in the morning.  We caught the next one though and it was quite an experience!

Parn gave me directions and said that it would not be a bad ride… only a few kilometers.  We got a grand total of 20 feet from the door and had to stop to adjust straps and a rubbing brake pad.  Then we tried to go the wrong way down a one way street and had to turn around.  Next we found an impossible intersection and had to push across a roundabout up a 1 foot curb to get on our bridge which was actually quite nice.  Finally we got off the bridge and merged onto the next road.  We went under a tunnel and popped out onto a 10 lane circus of soot spitting busses from the 1960’s, taxi cabs, cars, and scooters flying by us on both sides with no shoulder on either side and no other choice but to press on.  It felt like the New Jersey Turnpike and LA freeway combined and we were on 70 lb bicycles on the first mile of our trip!  I have no footage of this portion because I was task saturated and in survival mode however this scene is an accurate reenactment…

Our plight must have been obvious because some good samaritans gave us a break and allowed us to change lanes 4 times to get to the outside and eventually into a scooter lane.  We crossed through the worlds largest roundabout and somehow made it to the train station.  It was the most insane 2 miles of my life on a bicyle and I’ve been T-boned by a crazy lady pulling into a trailer park in Mississippi!  What a start to the trip and what a ride!