We are finally riding! The trip from Bangkok to Samut Songkhram was very interesting. We caught the train from the station in Bangkok and loaded the bikes right onto the car with us. The train was an old noisy diesel train from the 1950’s, complete with antique fans on the ceiling, that felt like it was going to derail any minute. The route was just as unique. We left Bangkok and rode to Samut Sakhon for 10 baht a piece plus 20 baht for the bikes. We got off the train and had to catch a ferry to cross the river to the next train which was over a kilometer away and leaving in 20 minutes. Apparently the train system used to be privately owned to transport goods and was later purchased by the Thai government, but they never built a bridge over the Chao Phraya river. I’m sure there were easy- to-follow directions that led you to the ferry and the next train, but we sure as hell couldn’t read them. Instead we followed the crowd to the ferry and made the universal sign for train (Choo Choo) and somehow found our way. The next train was also an old diesel and just as rickety. Towards the end of the trip, the conductor motioned us towards the back door of the train for what we assumed was the last stop. Instead we found we were riding right through a market. No literally, people were folding up their awnings and sliding their stations back off the tracks by way of their own perpendicular tracks to make way for the train, then sliding them back on once we passed. The word was out about this unique market, and we ended up taking pictures of a bunch of tourists who were taking pictures of us. It was still pretty cool.
We disembarked awkwardly with the bikes and rode a short distance to the Hometown Hostel which was a great place. We met MJ and Paul from Canada and Ireland respectively, who were also on a bike tour. They had been on the road for a while, so we were asking all sorts of questions. We had a great night of beers and stories and also shared Thanksgiving dinner in the hostel with a group of English teachers from the US, Canada and Spain. Pizza and beer for Thanksgiving suited us just fine.
The next morning we got a late start as usual and planned a pretty easy day. Getting out of town proved interesting since we had to cross a divided highway, but we eventually made our way by picking through the side streets. Thus began the day of the dogs. We must have seen a hundred dogs in the first several miles, and most of them were either pregnant or about to be. The vast majority of the strays were harmless and seemed terrified of humans. We ran into a few that barked and gave a slight chase but no close calls, which is good since our rabies vaccines need a booster before they are effective. It was heartbreaking, but things are just different here. The silver lining was that most of them were well fed and seemed to be getting along just fine.
We ran into a roadblock along the way in the form of a small pond in the middle of the road that smelled like the bottom of a dumpster behind a seafood restaurant, so we elected to take a detour. Hooray for highway 4, a massive 6 lane interstate type highway that we had to parallel for a few miles to get back on course. We made a pit stop for snacks and met a sweet woman who was so happy we stopped in to her shop. We had aloe vera juice, Pepsi, strawberry milk candy, and dried magoes and agave which we stashed on the bike and are dealing with the wrath of the ants everywhere in our hostel right now!
We got back on track and the roads were not great for the rest of the day: semi-fast 2 lane roads with the occasional bike lane but not the dirt paths we were seeking. We got to that stuff pretty soon though. Along said road we saw what we thought might be a crocodile but turned out to be a giant monitor lizard (about a 4 footer) and our first glimpse of monkeys. (Not Davey Jones, actual frickin monkeys!) They were 3 feet off the shoulder and we heard they were aggressive and carry rabies so we had to keep rolling. Lunch was at a seafood place on the side of the road where the lady showed me how to peel the giant 6 inch prawns. They were delicious!
Our destination for the day was a supposed resort which turned out not to exist. As we stopped on the side of the road to figure out our next move, an old man walked up to us and started speaking in Thai. We managed to get the word for hotel figured out, but he just stared at us and smiled. We elected to turn back to the last town and found a “resort” which is a term used very liberally here. In reality we stayed in a spare room at a family’s small restaurant/fishing/lodging compound. We were the only patrons and were treated to beer on ice while they got the room ready. That night we had some fabulous giant prawns, crab meat curry, and deep fried seaweed.
The next morning we were off again. After a few more miles on the double lane road, we hit the ocean and had an awesome beach- side ride for a few miles. We elected to take a path I’d planned out into the country to get off the busier roads and the trip really started! Within a few kilometers, we were in a different world. There were rice paddies, farmers, cattle in the middle of the street and gorgeous views of the near vertical mountains in the distance. The highlight was when we took a wrong turn and ended up in a tiny villiage. We pedaled through what was essentially a driveway for a group of houses with people going about their business for the day. The elders were relaxing in the shade, and we looked equally confused to see each other in the middle of nowhere. In typical Thai fashion, they flashed us with big smiles and warm hellos (sawadee’s), and when we stopped to check the map, a nice young man appeared from nowhere smiling and pointing us toward the canal path. We thanked him and rode on. Once we were out of earshot, we stopped and just looked at each other. With giant smiles on our faces, we took in this awesome experience. We must have stood there for 20 minutes just grinning like a couple of idiots in the middle of the path reflecting on the moment and feeling grateful. Our trip had truly started, and we were right in the thick of things. Give me a dirt road over pavement any day of the week. All the research we did spoke of constant 7-11s and people everywhere. With just a few kilometer detour we wandered into another world and decided that big tires, no plans, and a slow pace is the way to do this.
We made our way back to the coast to find some lunch and had some incredible seafood once again. We ended the day in Had Chao Sam Ran with seafood at a restaurant 5 feet away from where the fishermen were hanging out with their families cooking dinner and having beers. Smiles were abundant, there were no cell phones or TVs, and the whole extended family worked, ate, and played together. We wandered back to our hotel along the beach and fell asleep to the echoes of karaoke from the beach-front stage.
The next day was more back roads and beachside riding. After lunch in Ban Bang Ket, we took a trip past the fishing boats out onto the pier to see the dueling giant squid statues and then continued south. We rode inches from the beach and made arrangements with Paul and Natt, our Warmshowers hosts for the night. If you are not familiar, Warmshowers is basically Couchsurfing for bicycle touring. I highly recommend signing up, even if it’s just to host.
We made it to Paul and Natt’s home with plenty of time to spare. Their place was right up our alley. It was a compound of sorts built around 2 shipping containers and an open air living area complete with a guest house and swimming pond. We got cleaned up and shared a beer while meeting the dogs: Hans, Wookie, Tiny and Hiccup. Paul was interested in our bikepacking setup and big tires, and we chatted about everything from Thai culture to cycling and a little bit of politics. They took us in the truck to the market in Cha Am and we sampled some awesome Thai food, fruit smoothies, banana roti sweet bread, and a unique and delicious ginger soup with some sort of dough (tapioca?) balls. The company and food were perfect, and we shared another beer and plenty of stories. People like Paul and Natt are what make these trips so amazing, and we made plans to stop by again on our way back north.
The next morning we were late as usual and decided to have a cup of coffee before we headed out. Paul decided to join us for a few kilometers and showed us a great dirt road that got us pointed in the right direction. He was hauling (kicking our) ass on an unloaded skinny tire touring bike so we got a great workout for the first part of the day. We thanked him again and parted ways. For some reason, we chose to ride more pavement to get to Hua Hin quickly, and it wasn’t nearly as great. If you’ve never been on a cycle tour and only read about them, you’d think it is sunshine and rainbows all the time. In reality, sometimes it sucks and a lot of time is spent on miserable roads trying to get to a town for a desperately needed meal or just hoping you don’t get hit by a car or attacked by a dog! Most days are great, but not all. By noon we were both exhausted and the city traffic in Hua Hin was getting to us. We decided to call it quits early at about noon and settled into a hotel to rest up for the rest of the afternoon. We almost went to the beach, but instead spent 40 minutes figuring out how to order pizza delivery and ate pizza in bed and relaxed. This flexibility is great. There is nothing wrong with an 18 mile day. If things aren’t going well, we just stop and relax.
In the morning we headed out again for a scenic day that consisted of riding right along the beach. The parts that were not on the water weaved through dirt roads right at the foot of the most beautiful mountains. We put in our biggest mileage day of this trip which was about 50km (33ish miles) give or take. I’ve been trying to perfect my route planning, and I think I’ve got the system down now. It’s a little more challenging to do it all on a mobile phone, but with the right apps I can make it work. Gaia GPS is by far the best app I’ve found. I’ll get around to writing a route planning guide soon. We rolled up to our campsite in the early afternoon and pitched the trusty Mutha Hubba tent right on the sand at San Phraya Beach. We decided the rainfly was not necessary and spent the day eating the food at the campground kitchen and wandering up and down the beach. A few hundred yards away from the park was a group shooting a movie and on the other end were fisherman and their families coming and going on their longtail boats all day. It was a wonderful day, and we had the park practically to ourselves. We fell asleep a few feet from the waves, and although it was a bit hot, it was nice to stay in a tent again.
The next day started off a bit rough. We overslept and were both a bit hangry. It took some thinking before we realized, oh wait, we have no schedule or destination, why are we upset? The riding started off great through some dirt roads, but after a few hours we ended up a little far out from civilization right about the time we needed to eat. The best part of the day, picking through dirt paths and riding the canals, was overshadowed by our hunger and exhaustion. We could have easily stopped and cooked up some rice on the road side, but our stubborness got the best of us. Lesson learned! We tried to press on to the next town which had a restaurant that did not exist. Then we went to the next town which had a restaurant that didn’t exist. By the time we got to food we were a couple of deshevled cranky bastards. We drank some Coca-Colas to get our sugar levels up, and I had some fried mackeral while Lauren had some less than steller crab curry. At this point, we were only a few miles (Sorry for jumping back and forth between miles and kilometers, we are trying to learn KM since everyone except Americans use them) from Prachuap Khiri Khan which was to be our resting point for a few days.
We ate and rode the last few miles into town. About 1 mile from the guesthouse where we planned to stay, I pulled a giant shard of glass from my tire, and we sat on the side of the road spinning the tire to get the sealant to seal the hole. We rolled up to the hotel ready for a shower and a beer. Out on the porch we met “Betty” and “Matt” from Austria and Germany. We hit it off immediately and started drinking Singha and telling stories. We ended up spending the whole evening together and ate dinner and walked the beach, discussing travel and work and a little politics. I was a few beers in at dinner and feeling adventurous, so I ordered the fermented crab papaya salad. It was… crabby. Everyone had a bite and Paul and Betty both fist bumped me and said, “Respect” for eating it all. I’m glad I tried it, but one fermented (and apparently raw) crab is enough for me for the forseeable future. It was all great fun, and we hope we can meet up with them soon either in Thailand or Bavaria.
We are taking a few days off here at Maggie’s guesthouse. We are right on the water and next door to Mr. Bong’s amazing pizza. The other guests have been great and the weather is fine. We are going to stay here until Lauren’s birthday in a few days and then decide our next course of action. We thought we might go south, but apparently it is raining a lot right now so we might flex… Who knows?!?!
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.
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!