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Published: October 8th 2008
We arrived in Thailand caked in dust and mud, with Robin half blind. The Thai border post was the smartest building we had seen in ages, covered in portraits of the Thai King and the Red, White and Blue flag. We would soon learn these are omnipresent. Everything was just so much cleaner and tidier than Cambodia, something we felt highly conscious of as we stood stinking and covered mud in a queue of smart, clean, and perfumed backpackers to clear immigration.
Our bikes looked little better than us and about 2km into the country Erika's chain broke in protest. We felt it was trying to tell us something. That fixed we dived into the Market Motel, Aranyaprathet and headed for their swimming pool. We were going to like Thailand, there was so much more stuff in the markets than in Cambodia. There was tonnes of food everywhere and the beer was fraction of the price. This always goes down well with us.
Straight away though we noticed that the town was hotter than the places over the border, there was just so much more concrete about. There were a lot more cars on the roads and just a
lot more roads than anywhere in Indochina. There were still a lot of moto's but they were outnumbered by private cars. Another strange sight was a noticeable amount of fat people - and we mean seriously overweight people, often children too. We suddenly realised how much of an unusual sight this is in most of the world - it is generally a western phenomenon - and it highlighted how much more developed Thailand is compared to its neighbours.
One of the advantages of all this development was that the roads were smooth, fast and well signed. We set off for Bangkok on the beautiful back roads. Even deep in the countryside the level of development was obvious, there were a lot more people around and everything was mechanised. The countryside was totally refreshing; softly undulating but with trees and birds everywhere. Compared to Cambodia it was a 3-D world and something of a sensory revelation. The roads were lined with thick belts of trees giving only a very short and confined view at times, but somehow this felt strangely reassuring after the stark openness of Cambodia. I found this weird - in the desert or the mountains, in Tibet,
Kaeng Krachan Nat Park
I loved this huge wide open feeling, but now I realised how much I had not liked it in Cambodia. I could only conclude there was some subconscious recognition that in Cambodia it was very unnatural and therefore not good, whereas as in the deserts etc. it was natural and an amazing thing.
There were also so many different crops in Thailand; sugar cane, yams, various vegetables, fruit trees and others. In Cambodia there was only rice. It was not so surprising this is one of the few countries in the region to have not had a major war in the last 50 years (though Thai troops fought alongside Americans in Vietnam) and it markedly showed in the level of development .
Our route followed undulating farmed countryside but gradually the landscape began to get emptier with less villages and we began to climb slowly up into low forested hills. It felt great to be cycling through rainforest again and we realised how harshly we had judged the landscape and nature back in Laos. We passed a warning sign for Elephants! Then further on there was fresh elephant dung on the road, surprisingly close to human habitations. We
couldn't really grasp the fact there was a real chance that we could cycle round the next bend and come face to face with Elephants, but another big billboard sign showed pictures of herds on the road at night and the damage that a collision with an elephant will inflict on even a huge SUV. Sadly another picture showed the elephant didn't come off too well either. Perhaps fortunately we didn't have any close encounters and were soon dropping downhill out of the forests again.
That night we stayed in a bungalow place on the edge of the forest, perhaps a bit unduly freaked by the elephant thing to free-camp in the area. The 'resort' had a caged Dhole - Asian Wild Dog - in the yard that was sadly running round and round in a clearly stressed out manner. The owner was keen to indicate to me it was not a normal dog, unfortunately lack of common language meant we couldn't really express our true feelings about keeping endangered wildlife like this. We later watched one of the workers there using his moto to move only 30m from one building to the next - he never walked, always
got on his moto for the tiniest of distances and saved no time because of it. We would see a lot of this kind of thing throughout Thailand unfortunately.
We dropped down further into the central plains of Thailand - a much more urban area with city after city and many, many roads everywhere. It seemed strangely western in a way - the level of development and infrastructure, the number of roads, the fact traffic is on the left, it was a bit like a tropical Asian version of SE England. Although there are many differences or course.
We got to Chachoengsao and the mid afternoon heat was getting to us. Bangkok city centre was still over 50 miles away but it was all city from here on in. At a junction on the ring road a Thai woman was begging from cars waiting at the lights, but as they pulled away she started puffing from a bag of glue. Development doesn't cure all ills, and for every success story in this 'Tiger Economy' there are many who are left behind.
We decide to call it a day and head into town looking for a cheap room.
Disorientated and clueless we stop at a noodle cart on a side street to ask for help. We ask the old lady for directions to a cheap hotel in over-simplified pidgin English, and are stupidly surprised that she answers us in perfect, flawless queen's-English. Even after over 3 years on the road we still have to be reminded of our own prejudices and ignorance at times, but that is one of the great things about travel - it is the "enemy of bigotry and ignorance". Anyhow she starts a conversation with passers by and before we know it a retired policeman has jumped in his car to guide us the right way through the city and even makes sure we get the right price! Strangely the motel had no key for the room though, so one if us has to stay there all the time while the other goes out to buy supplies and we cook in the parking bay outside!
Early the next day we are on the 4-lane highway bound for Bangkok. A bike appears alongside my shoulder and a voice says hello, I am about to say something to Erika when I realise it's not her
OK, so the hills are back in Cambodia, but the difference is still pretty obvious.
- it's a local Thai guy out for a Sunday morning burnout dressed in full lycra racing gear on the fanciest bike I have seen in a long time. This really is a different land....
We had been warned that Bangkok was a nightmare mega city with bad traffic and terrible fumes. Many cyclists avoid riding in or out of it and jump onto trains instead. In fact there is a fair body of opinion in the cycle touring world that riding into Bangkok is tantamount to suicide. Perhaps we are just old hands now but we found it easy. Robin got the job of navigating and pulled it off with ease by studying our photocopied maps. The drivers were very courteous. Frankly we couldn't work out what all the fuss is about - compared to Cairo traffic Bangkok is a piece of p*ss. Erika had been here back in 1995 and compared to then the air is much much cleaner - there are a lot less moto's now as more people can afford less polluting private cars or opt for the many new and clean public transport options - metro and sky train. Apart from the fact it
A dragon fruit orchard.
took a long time to cross this massive city we found the tourist area of Kho San Road easily and checked into a quiet guest house nearby in a residential area by the river.
Kho San Road however was a site in itself. Not for ages had we seen so many farang (westerners). There were tonnes of backpackers and bars offering serious drinking deals. We were stunned by skimpy clothing or simple lack of clothing parading around the tourist area. It made us wonder how much nudity we usually did not notice at home before we came away and how much we have changed since we used to live in the west. In the evening the street is like one giant circus freak show, music blaring out from every side trying to drown out the competition, huge flashing neon signs doing the same, scantily clad bar girl touts (or are they girls?) trying to lure you into their particular establishment, crowds of drunken farang, street hawkers selling everything from pirated CD's and DVDs to cheap clothing and underwear, to fake ID's, driving licenses and University degrees, to fake dreadlocks and tattoos you can have done in the street. It
is pure madness but not necessarily in a good way, and if we had been feeling a bit homesick recently this full frontal with the drunken lout British scene put things in perspective a bit. Robin spotted some British papers and eagerly scampered off to read the headlines in the shop windows only to come back horrified by the blatantly xenophobic headlines and depressing tone of the UK tabloid press.
This area of Bangkok is very un-Thai, but we had jobs to do and ended up staying over a week. We had to apply for new passports at the British Embassy since our old ones were now full. The new ones would take 2 weeks to be issued. We checked out the local bike shop and discovered that our bikes were really in need of a major service. Robin's bike in particular - virtually all the moving parts were almost seized with dust and corrosion. The shop guys couldn't believe we had been riding them without realising how bad they were. A couple of days later we were astounded at our 'new' bikes - regreased hubs and bottom brackets, cleaned shifters, new cables and housings, and a new headset
for Robin. Really we had forgotten that they were supposed to feel that smooth and easy to ride! Thanks Velo Thailand! We also had to get new saddles as our original ones were totally knackered.
We filled our days doing shopping for essential bike bits and repairs and some site seeing. The Reclining Buddha at Wat Po was very restful and we enjoyed the fact that we were there late in the day with hardly any other tourists and great light changing on the beautiful temples and stupas all around. We zoomed up the river on the public boats and whizzed around amongst the skyscrapers in the sky train. We were totally amazed by the fancy shopping centres with state of the art touch screen computers. There were even TVs outside the ladies to keep your guy amused while he waits for his Missus! Less impressive was the abundance of specialist shark-fin restaurants in these malls. Once our bikes were on the go again we enjoyed pedaling around the old city, especially in early evening past the Wats and Royal Palaces and down to the flower market area.
Although Kho San road is such a weird place, only
a few blocks away we were living in quiet neighborhood of narrow pedestrian lanes (well you can always get a moto down them) with a really nice atmosphere. In the mornings groups of women would be out selling food from street stalls with their young kids being the centre of attention from all the older ones. On Friday night all the old guys sat in the street with their guitars getting drunk on Chang (that's beer here - not the Tibetan stuff) and singing away late into the night. Across the canal was a small riverside park next to an old fort that at sunset became the venue for open air dance aerobics classes. The high speed Asian techno was truly terrible but the lady-boy instructor managed to keep pace in a style that was so hilarious it had to be seen to be believed. I'm sure he/she was on something....
We also observed and learned the Thai colour code. Yellow is for the King and on Mondays many many people would be wearing yellow. Monday is yellow day, it is the King's day we were told. There was also a green day but this a bit less popular,
and either Tuesday or Wednesday (can't remember) was Pink day. Again this was for the King - Pink is a colour for good health and so people wore pink to wish the King good health and long life. The Thai really love their aging King, there are photo's of him everywhere, often with his camera (photography became very popular after that started) and others showing him with pet dogs - apparently prior to this it was rare to keep dogs as pets, now it is really common. The pink thing was fairly new and started after he had to go to hospital for an illness. Then huge portraits showing the King wearing a full suit in bright pink appeared everywhere. It seems if you are a clothing merchant and guess which the colour the King will be pictured wearing next then you are guaranteed a fortune!
One day riding around in search of cycle shops we stumbled into the Parliament area, full of fancy buildings and more Royal Palaces but only a few hundred metres from canal side slums of tiny wooden sheds. Barriers and police lines blocked our route and beyond we could see crowds of people clad
in yellow and waving Thai flags and banners and chanting, behind TV cameras and makeshift stages. We had seen footage of this on Thai TV but unable to understand had guessed it was some kind of free music festival or something. We soon learned that this was a major political protest against the government of Prime Minister Samak (surely one of the world's ugliest politicians....). The people had occupied the streets illegally and many feared there would be bloodshed when the police and army finally moved to break up the demonstrations. The TV station showing 24 hour coverage of the protests had just been subject to unsuccessful attempts by the government to shut it down. The protesters were campaigning for democracy, even though ironically demanding the overthrow of the democratically elected regime of Samak - which only months earlier had replaced the military regime that had ruled since last year's coup ousted then PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Slogans demanded "Samak Out" and "No to Thaksin". Thaksin himself was meanwhile busy making headlines buying Manchester City FC with his personal fortune - money that many Thai believe he acquired through mass corruption and abuses of power during his term as PM. The
Khao San Road
The least Thai part of Thailand and the part most heavily visited by farangs.......
protesters in Bangkok and elsewhere saw the Samak government as a proxy for Thaksin and claimed Samak's main agenda was to amend the constitution and interfere with the judiciary in an attempt to get Thaksin off the numerous corruption charges he currently faced. All this was taking place a few blocks from Kho San road, but the vast majority of tourists in town seemed oblivious to the increasing political chaos taking place.
One of the best moments in Bangkok though was that even in this hectic big city in one of the filthy canals we saw a 2 metre long monitor lizard! I couldn't believe it. It was so beautiful and was just calmly swimming around and since then I have had a few cool dreams about dragons!
A week of city was enough though and we left the heat of Bangkok without passports. The early morning ride out of the city was more hectic than the ride in, but then leaving cities always seems harder than entering them. Soon the industrial suburbs started to fade and we were riding across flat plains of saltmarsh scrub and occasional saltpans. We could smell the sea for the first time
Ah, fried crickets, yum...
in years but the map showed the real sea was still a long way off. All day we rode on a busy highway west towards the hills slowly rising ahead of us like some magnetic mirage. From atop a high river bridge we looked downstream and saw the river banks come to a stop - our first view of the sea for over 2 years. We turned south onto a different highway through lush coconut plantations, before turning off this and riding up into the hills. Open countryside all around beckoned us to stop and camp, but lack of water forced us on further than we would have liked. Eventually we found water and after more than 80miles a camp in a rubber plantation.
It was good to see the stars again and sleep outside. We were up at dawn and moving on towards Kaeng Krachan National Park. The countryside was pretty with lots of trees and rolling roads, even if many were unsurfaced - our newly cleaned bikes were once again soon covered in a fine layer of dust. There were enough villages around though and every one seemed to have a little shop or restaurant so it
made life easy as we didn't have to carry too much in supplies. It was also very quiet and colourful birds flitted everywhere, and Robin spotted a snake rising up out of a hole on the roadside verge, before sliding back in as soon as it saw us.
We were really excited to arrive at the National Park having stocked up with food for a four day expedition to hopefully see some colourful wildlife. However the Park Staff refused to let us cycle into the Park. No amount of persuasion was going to budge them - they wanted 2000 baht (over 60$) for a 15km taxi to the camp site inside the park! This was extortionate for Thailand and they knew it. Eventually they said we could camp by the gate and use the toilets and wash room there and try to hitch in with other vehicles in the morning. That night though we were paid a visit in our tent by a scorpion. I took quick effective action; "Robin!!" then I legged it out of the tent! Probably a bit of an overreaction since straight away the scorpion hid itself in our bags and I sent in poor
Robin to find it. Once located we tipped out the bag and the contents including the scorpion landed on the road. I reasoned that the scorpion was definitely now more frightened than me. At that moment one of the quite friendly little dogs that had been hanging around chose to come over and have a sniff. Before we had time to pull the dog away we heard a yelp and watched as the entire dog elevated about 1 metre into the air before running off whimpering and howling for the rest of the night. We were pleased to find the little dog alive and well the next morning and seemingly holding no grudges against us for introducing this little unfriendly stinger into her patch.
We managed to hitch a lift with a friendly couple the next morning and arrived at the beautiful campsite 15 km into the jungle. The campsite made a good clearing to watch hornbills flying high overhead and if we sat quietly a small orange deer kept peeping out of the surrounding bushes, while giant squirrels and monkeys crashed around in the trees overhead. We spent a great few days exploring the trails around the campsite.
Wat Po, Bangkok
Robin even got us on a good old Pitta hunt. This involved walking quietly and patiently through thick seemingly empty jungle until he heard a distant whistle. A few mimic whistles later and I am madly rushing up the near vertical jungle clad slopes of a gully following Robin as he pauses momentarily to whistle to the Pittas before diving through the next thicket. All of this was done whilst trying to be a quiet as possible and actually creep up on the birds. Easier said than done! Anyway it was with great satisfaction and a ripped trouser later that I caught a brief glimpse of a Blue Pitta. Luckily Robin had been quicker on the chase and had had quite long relaxing views of the little fellas. I on the other had had got lost in a thorny thicket and had to crawl along the jungle floor, snagging myself and clothes along the way, but this is the stuff of wildlife watching and we were both loving it.
We were happy to find a good group of rangers at the campsite who helped us with photos of the many fantastic bird species around and tips of where to
see them before beckoning us out to shine torches on the scavenging porcupines that were nightly visitors to the camp. Robin even managed on one walk to come across two mating tortoises and he was quite impressed with how fast the male could run after that female, thus displacing the myth that they are slow all the time. The forest was a magical place to live for a few days. The air was cooler and we woke daily to the mysterious screams of gibbons echoing around from high in the hills above. We had lovely views of the very cute Dusky Langurs and once watched with amusement as a very pissed off Green Magpie effectively saw off an inquisitive young Langur who was trying to pick up the noisy bright green flapping thing!
Every evening we would head back towards the campsite to safely get back before dark since there was a lot of elephant activity in the Park. We loved being out at dusk though to watch the nightjars swooping high in the sky and then as we rounded a corner only 700m from the campsite we almost bumped into a female elephant! She was only 15 metres
Democracy Monument, Bangkok.
After an election to end military rule following last years' coup, the government is already facing huge protests for being 'undemocratic'.
in front of us with her back to us and hadn't heard or smelled us. She was busy munching and crashing though some bamboo at the roadside. We quickly backed up and hid at the roadside. My heart was thumping, this was amazing - a wild elephant was just metres away, but between us and the camp and it was rapidly getting dark. Robin knew the drill; we should just wait quietly until she went away, but how long would that take? It was getting darker and darker and we were not sure if there were more elephants with her or not. We kept peeking round the bend to see her and wondering what to do. After a while she turned and headed straight for us but then luckily went off the road further into the bamboo and from all the noise we reckoned that she was 30 metres off, so we started to creep along the road. It was only when we got level with where we had first spotted her that we realised that she was only about 2-3 metres away. At the same moment she shrieked and we saw her whole body jump (in exactly the same
way you or I jump when you get a fright!) - we covered the next 200m at Usain Bolt like speed and ran and and ran hoping like mad there were not any more elephants round the next bend in the road. It sounded like she took off in the opposite direction, just as scared as us! and once we had calmed down we actually felt quite bad at scaring such a remarkable animal in this way. The rangers told us that she was a peaceful old loner and thought our tale was hilarious.
After all the excitement it was time for us to get back to the coast, retrieve our passports and make some progress towards the Burmese border crossing at Ranong, since our visa was fast running out. The jungle had some more surprises for us though and as we were taking the tent down a small viper like snake emerged from under the fly, none too pleased at being evicted from his new home, and causing our hearts to race again! We have no idea how long we had been sharing our shelter with it.
We were reluctant to leave Kaeng Krachan, since everyday had
Giant Swing Bangkok
Apparently it really did used to be used as a ceremonial swing!
brought more amazing sights and slightly hair raising experiences! We also had shared the camp with lots of Thai people who were interested in their own wildlife too. It was so good to be in a country where the local people also appreciated their natural heritage and had leisure time to enjoy it. There were tonnes of Thai birdwatchers and photographers in the park and we enjoyed swapping tips and were envious of their massive telescopes and serious lenses.
It wasn't long though before we had a lift back to the park gate where, reunited with our bikes, we enjoyed a beautiful mostly downhill ride through the quiet countryside to the beach.
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