The Slog to Khampaeng Phet

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We knew the ride from Nakhon Sawan to Khampaeng Phet (second land of wats, after Ayutthaya) would be hard work, being approximately 130km. Once again City App Thailand said ‘no’. It did not like the rural river route that appeared, on the map, to run directly from Nakhon to Khampaeng Phet, it wanted to send us north, at a right angle, to the main road. We were not convinced, but there was that lingering doubt; what did the GPS know that we didn’t?

To ride 130km Nick calculated that we would be on the road eight or nine hours. That sounded like a loooong time and true to form, keen to shirk hard graft or at least get a discount on it, I was determined that our time on the road would be shorter. So, we left Nakhon when the roads striped with shadow and empty of cars and mopeds.

To begin with the pace was good, interspaced with doses of Red Fanta on the hour.

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Break time!

But the day was hot and the road was flat (and what I did not know was that soon I would be desperate for anything flat) and long. By just over half way I felt exhausted in the punishing midday head and the act of pedalling was like a constant uphill push.

When I finally looked down I noticed the flat and slightly squishy front tyre. Curses from me, desperate looks from Nick, this was flats numbering four for me. We changed the rear inner tube and pumped the front at Tesco Lotus, between eating our own body-weights in grapes.

Only the day improved very little. The shadows lengthened and we were uneasy. We had decided to defy the GPS and take the river route, so whenever I looked at my iPhone to check our progress it kept telling me to turn around. Flagging and with more than 20km to go, my nerves were frayed. The only thing that helped, other than fruit and sugar in little red bottles, were the constant greetings from the people working in the fields or on the roads. Honking, instead of a form of intimidation, had become something to raise smiles and spirits.

They sustained me just enough so I could not capture another animal wat – Zebra wat, this time, a curious choice of idol – or the Red Fanta shrine – if there ever was a God, then one that took offerings of Red Fanta would be the one I could understand (one who drank them would be even better).

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Zebra wat. I was confused by the dazzling display of wealth representing a religion that counsels against attachment to material possession and more confused by the representation of an animal found mostly in the savannas.

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All that glitter and gold – the startling gold buddhas

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And the Red Fanta shrine – I get this one

The day was nearly gone when we rolled into Khampaeng Phet and stumbled across our hotel. With over nine hours in the saddle we were both hot, tired and looking forward to a day off!

The detail:
Stayed at the Navarat Heritage Hotel, Khampaeng Phet
Cycled 131.8km, here are the stats on Strava
No rain
One puncture, rear tyre, plus suspected slow puncture at the front

Dirt Cheap Sophistication – Uthai Thani to Nakhon Sawan

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We left Payamai Resort early, waving to another group of cyclists suited in lycra, shades and helmets.

We paid a fond farewell to the town of Uthai Thani, and its disproportionate number of bike shops, as we made our way through the early morning traffic. As we waited at traffic lights in the town centre a Thai woman pulled her moped alongside, a child perched in front of her. She asked where we were from and an exchange followed that neither of us fully understood. As the lights changed she revved the moped and set off, calling ‘welcome to Thailand!’

The ride was short and unremarkable, save rivers and sparkly wats.

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The sparkling roof of this wat brought me up at the road side

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The obligatory river bridge photograph – nice job they’ve done on painting those flower pots

Perhaps I needed something to remark upon, because say 5 – 10km from our destination I noticed that both of my wheels were squeaking and shuddering, albeit almost imperceptibly. My brakes were sticking, moaning against the wheel rim, which meant I also began to moan.

The biggest challenge on the ride, aside from my moaning, was the final 500m; turning right across four lanes of dense traffic.

The Aramis Hotel, Nakhon Sawan, is gold and marble sophistication for little cost. OK, so the gilt edges show a little; the infinity pool is right beside the car park, for one thing, which in turn is right beside a busy road. But the place has a concierge (sophistication indicator), who insisted on wheeling the fully laden bikes into the marble lobby, unloading the the dusty panniers unto a luggage rack (indicator two) and gesturing that the bikes could stay in that large glass and marble space. We issued huge thanks and went off to raid the mini-bar.

Nakhon Sawan holds a special place in my heart. This is not for the bike ride, nor for the huge shopping mall, nor even for the lovely hotel, but for the great market that was setting up when we got there. By the time we had drained the mini bar of juice, showered, dressed and eaten, the market had begun to hum. And it was my type of market; hand made silver jewellery, t-shirts, foods, fruits, plants and vintage clothes. Along with cut off denim shorts, shirts, worn casually with the sleeves rolled up, seem to be a big thing over here. As do military jackets, vintage dresses and fashion sports shoes. NOt a Chang t-shirt in sight; more floral and well-worn canvas. Here, my long thwarted desire for ‘stuff’ was sated with two shirts, one crisp, stripy, a perfect fit, the other overlarge and checked, 180 Baht the lot. What I did not like into the bargain was being, once again, reminded by Thai market stall owners, that ‘lady, you are an ‘L”. The degree to which I was disgruntled did not compare to a Sing Buri department store encounter in the underwear section; I am still traumatised by this one.

As markets go, it was one of the best I have experienced. The best thing was that it was not put on for tourists, as I suspect Nakhon Sawan courts and attracts very few. However, something we foreigners do tend to love are the famed bugs and maggot snacks and this place had several disturbingly popular vendors. A big ‘no thank you,’ from me.

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Market – yes please!

The fact stuff:
Stayed at the Aramis Hotel.
Traveled 45km.
No Rain.
No punctures but sticky, squeaky brakes.

Uthai Thani – The Thai Old West (sort of)

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The day started slowly. After breakfast (complete with heart shaped fried eggs – er, why? because they can?) we ambled to the hotel store room, now seasoned bicycle riders, ready to ride out. Not so fast; my bike clearly had a flat rear tyre (the second in three days). A stand off of ‘I told you so’s ensued, before the more industrious repair.

After we replaced the inner tube I checked the front tyre, consumed by squishy tyre anxiety, and decided more air was needed. Realising the tyre had one of those temperamental Presta valves I adjusted the pump (and congratulated myself that I knew how to do so), connected it to the valve and flattened the front tyre. More sad than the deflated rubber was the look of despair on Nick’s face.

When we set off, one and half hours behind schedule, it was beneath an already blazing sun and into heavy traffic. It would be hours before we rolled into sleepy Uthai Thani with its wooden shutters and porches, wide dusty streets and outlaw dogs that slumber like the (un)dead until dusk.

Heading first towards Sankhaburi we joined this road:

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The concrete was terrible, the scenery lush. Butterflies wheeled between plants and across the road, workers strode the paddy fields and wats stood proud beyond lily pads that barely stirred. And here, more than the last two rides, the vehicles honked, the drivers waved, stuck up their thumbs and on the roadside workers shouted ‘hallo!’

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Sankhaburi is a neat town and we weaved through the back streets, watching life happen and being a small part of it. Thirsty and looking for cheap sugary drinks I bore the weight of our bikes while Nick ducked into a small store, where a middle aged Thai lady was watching a soap opera. He looked unhappy when he emerged. Apparently the lady had charged 12 Baht for drinks that are clearly marked 10 Baht and for which, everywhere else, we had always paid 10 Baht. The extra 4 Baht was not particularly important, it only served as a reminder of our place; cash important, presumed to be ignorant and most definitely to be exploited. I hoped those four Baht would help to buy her an few extra coals to stoke her delicious fire in hell and necked my drink.

After riding what resembled the Thai equivalent of the A1 (the difference being that they don’t sell hammocks on the A1), we hit the 3183 with 33km to go.

Uthai Thani was a departure from the functional cities of Sing Buri and Lop Buri. It is nestled into a curve of the Sakae Krang River, which is the source of the town’s life. At 16:00 the shadows were lengthening; the shop fronts yawned, the dust crunched under our tyres and we headed straight for the river. The GPS took us on a loop, along a promenade that has been decked with trumpeting elephants and spotless crazy paving. Here, the shop fronts are deserted. Over a narrow bridge onto Koh Tepo, past Wat Uposatharum School, its dogs and into Paya Mai Forest Park and the Paya Mai Resort.

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The Sakae Krang, the blood vessel of the town

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The view of the river from the resort

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The closest wat and doggy playground, Uposatharum

It could have been the isolation of the island, the dogs that guard the quiet road to the resort and those that dominate the town, the absence of any other guests at the resort, or any other Westerners anywhere, but images from Dracula began to haunt me.

After arrival we had three hours of daylight to find food before the dogs came alive. The sun was low when we headed back to town, lower when we found a street-side eatery and asked the patient lady owner to give us whatever she was serving. Nick ate with great speed, having seen a large pack of dogs sprawled on the steps of the bank; his dog-sense always more acute. And before dusk had settled they began to shamble the streets, glassy eyed, with sleep in their limbs. As they began to gather we mounted our bikes and hit the resort track while the sky was still pink. Our door was pressed safely behind us while there was still more daylight than shadow.


The stats:

Stayed at Payamai Resort, Koh Tep, Uthai Thani
Cycled appx 90km.
One puncture, rear tyre, then I flattened the front.
No rain.

What I Did Not Know – Lop Buri to Sing Buri, 25 June 2013

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What I did not know about the MDR Hotel, Lop Buri, was that it was 2-3km down a dual carriage-way with at least three lanes of hooning traffic in both directions. With each revolution of my pedals (no longer tired after the 87km now that the adrenaline had kicked in) I thought ‘f*ck’ as another car, truck or weaving moped sped by, until the word played on loop. But, we finally found the MDR, checked in, shackled our bikes and tucked into the mini-bar.

What I did not know then was that my relationship with red Fanta and the post-ride mini bar was to be a consuming and enduring one.

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Enduring Love.

What I also did not know was that to get north to Chai Nat, Uthai Thani, Nakon Sawan, we had to pass through Sing Buri. Sing Buri was 40 – 50km away and happy, exhausted, still consumed by trepidation (I speak for myself here), I realised the next day’s ride would be to Sing Buri. It slowly dawned on me that our first day’s effort had been in vain.

What I did not know (but would regularly be reminded of) when trying to plan the second leg, was that the GPS could not be relied upon. While it has a bike setting, the app could not devise a bike ride to Sing Buri that did not retrace kilometres of road towards Ang Thong. The only obvious road was the rather busy looking 311 but for some reason the app did not think it was suitable for a bike. Computer say no.

I’m lazy. The 311 is straight, sure and only 33km. Only, Nick did not fancy it. Instead, the next morning, while heading towards the 311 (because there was no way I was heading back towards Ang Thong) we stumbled across a set of side roads that run parallel with it, through lush, well kept villages that run along the side of the Lop Buri river.

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Rolling through the Thai countryside.

I think this ride was the one and only time that I felt part of one of those epitomous cycling scenes; gentle breeze through the hair, smiling, the world smiling with us (and waving and shouting in the case of the locals) and no gruelling effort-filled sweat drenching our flesh and clothes.

We continued to roll all the way along the Chao Phraya River, to the door of the Chaisaeng Palace; literally the only place to stay in Sing Buri.

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View of the Chao Phraya River from the hotel window. The silty appearance reminded Nick of ‘Nam.

What I did not know was that staying in Sing Buri would be like treating myself to a holiday in Mansfield or Grimsby. Whether it would have mattered, had I known, is another thing entirely. Both Lop Buri and Sing Buri are cities of industry. They really don’t see tourists, Sing Buri less than Lop Buri, I think. With its huge local market, a tarp and post labyrinth through a bounty of fish guts, squid, chicken legs, grinning pig’s heads, garlic, ginger, fruits, tools, bungee cords, ponchos, bagged up sauces, meat on sticks, deep fried chicken, its gaudy karaoke dining, rammed, disorganised department store and packs of territorial mongrels, it was clear that this was a functional town with no particular want or need for tourists.

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A functional sign outside a bar; my kind of place.

Mansfield, Grimsby or anywhere, that was what I came for. The smiles and good service were important and the place did not disappoint.

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The glittery fish of Sing Buri; the envy of Grimsby.

We stayed an extra day. Not because we were captivated, because we were trapped, by what turned out to be a very small amount of rain.

What I did not know is that while we ambled the market looking for the best bike specific poncho, eating meat on sticks and avoiding karaoke joints and Mister Donut, my bike was in the hotel store room with one flat rear tyre (the second so far). So the next morning, imbued with enthusiasm and armed with coloured ponchos for the third leg to Uthai Thani, the first task was puncture repair.

Important stuff:
Travelled 45km
Stayed at Chaisaeng Palace, Sing Buri. Lovely staff, can recommend the cafe and the iced cappuccino
No rain until the following day
No punctures on route

Wat Ifs – Ayutthaya to Lopburi, 24 June 2013

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So, the first leg of the tour took us to the city of Lop Buri, according to the GPS, some 80-odd kilometres north of Ayutthaya. It’s funny (firstly, its funny how people say ‘its funny’ to describe things that really are not funny, things that are frustrating, annoying, disappointing…) but I think I chose to go to Lop Buri over Sing Buri because of something I read on one of the bike tour itineraries. The funny bit is they have a support vehicle. Funnier still, they must have gone there because there was something to see, but I could not remember what. Anyway, on the map, Lop Buri and Sing Buri are a similar distance from Ayutthaya. I booked the MDR Hotel; Lop Buri it was. Approximately an 87km away according to the GPS, 67km, according to hallowed Google Maps.

The first leg was always going to be hard, for the following reasons, as I remember:

1. I was worried about my tyres, I had already had one puncture and barely ridden the bike. Punctures hold a certain mystique for me. When I was a child they put an end to bike riding for weeks until Dad got around to fixing it;
2. The GPS, downloaded from iTunes for £21.99, produced by City App. This app had no reviews and I was about to follow it into the Thai countryside;
3. The traffic worried me. I fairly wobbled along on the bike, proud that I was carrying all my luggage. But I also felt vulnerable; a snail or a tortoise (I saw a fair few of the latter cracked open like water melons on the highways), bearing the full weight of my life and vulnerable to it being smashed to smithereens.
4. The owner of Luang Chumni Village worried me further. Watch out for the traffic, it is dangerous, she said. A British couple had both been killed, she reminded me, during a bike tour as a pick-up had ploughed into them, the driver’s attention distracted by something he wanted in the footwell.
5. Dogs, dogs, dogs, everywhere. Could I out-pace them, weighed down by the burden of my life? Or would I have to stand and fight?
6. Could I actually cycle long distances? A big question that should have come nearer the top of the list.

I left on this wave of ‘what ifs’ and we made our way out of town through back streets, me increasing my chances of making my fears reality by brandishing and reading my iPhone as we went. Soon the town fell away to flat countryside and the odd wat. Already, wats had begun to wain for me (not least because of the packs of dogs that languished in the ruins in Ayutthaya), only the cockerel wat brought me up short.

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Cockerel Wat.

The day was flat, hot and we were chased by dogs. Mercifully, a Thai lady called them off. They have this bark (Thai women) that stops dogs in their tracks. So, on we cycled, increased adrenaline helpful if anything, through ramshackle villages, proud, lonely wats and sparse green and brown paddy land where water birds lifted from the fields as if shaken from a blanket.

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Sorry, I missed the birds but managed to steal this image.

At say 40km, I began to get hot. I had not put on my sunglasses, the sun was penetrating through the ridges of my helmet and the helmet itself had begun to make me feel like my swollen head was in a vice. Under sufferance I swapped the helmet for a baseball cap, put on the glasses and slugged warm water. On we went.

We made it to the centre of Lop Buri unscathed (and refreshed following chocolate milk at the 7 Eleven), cycling goggle-eyed through a huge teak furniture market to a huge roundabout. But then we were lost. I had booked MDR Hotel as I had read that it was refurbished and of the scant choice of accommodation in Lop Buri, it looked the best. Furthermore, the dogs reared their scabby heads, because I was sure I had read somewhere about the presence of large packs in the old town, which was enough to convince me I was not staying there.

Important details:
87km journey
Stayed MDR Hotel, Lop Buri
No rain until safely inside hotel room
No punctures

Breakfast Anxiety

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As we make our way by bike from Central to Northern Thailand, breakfast is proving to be a big part of the day.

From Lop Buri to Sing Buri, Sing Buri to Uthai Thani and onwards, we have stayed in hotels and guesthouses that serve us breakfast before our day on the road. The smaller places tend to serve an individual American Breakfast (the assumption is made that that is what we want and if I don’t I am at least going to have to do away with my baseball cap!) but the larger ones are buffet style.

A buffet can be looked at as an invitation or a challenge and is great if you want to pack in the calories. I am good at the calorie packing, but most mornings I also meet a huge amount of choice and an equal helping of anxiety.

How much is it socially acceptable to eat? Is it really ‘all you can eat’?

Personally, when no-one is looking (I do like a poorly staffed buffet) I have at least three courses. Thai food, followed by a couple of fried eggs and toast, followed by fruit, with two or three helpings of juice and two coffees is normal. However, I am not sure if it is ‘socially okay’.

What should you eat your food in and with what?

Sometimes the receptacles and implements are cunningly set out somewhere other than with the food stuffs for which they are meant. This leads to a degree of confusion on my part. I also wonder whether I can offset how much I eat if I economise on tools, bowls and plates? I doubt it, but in an obsessive, compulsive way I use the same bowl or plate, mixing a variety of tastes. Which brings me on to…

What is it acceptable to eat?

Obviously, if you face an array of Western food you know the answer to that. But in Thailand, where breakfast is the same as lunch or dinner, the array of choice is at times disturbing and the combinations endless.

Never before have I seen fried eggs, salad with Thousand Island dressing, noodles, soup, chicken curry, fried rice, toast, cornflakes, omelette, watermelon, minced crab, chilli sauce, strange fried things, croissants, rice soup, all occupying the same space. I rely on the way that the foods are arranged, so things that go together are in close proximity. If the hotels are not using this system then I am likely to be committing the Thai equivalent of putting a fried egg on top of my muesli…

What do you do when the staff say something to you that you don’t understand?

Smile politely and cluelessly? Yes, but they probably just told you that having those things together on your plate is disgusting and could you please leave some food for the rest of the guests. But what choice do you have?

The only choice I see is to become horrendously spooked. There was the soy-milk man in Nakon Sawan and then there was the omelette man in Khampaeng Phet, where as I perused the large buffet at the Navarat Heritage Hotel and my anxious eyes fell as usual to the tin of fried eggs, a distinguished looking, Thai chef approached me. The fear hit immediately and a thousand thoughts fired at once, meaning I was not able to understand that he was asking if I wanted a freshly made omelette. Instead, I fought to grasp my understanding from the paranoid thoughts in my skull. Was he saying I was not allowed a fried egg? Perhaps that my reputation had been sent on ahead, he knew my game and I was to leave some of the fried eggs for the other guests? All I could do was stare with open mouth and gesture at the shiny white and yellow food. Eventually, he got a message (not the message) and walked away.

When I sat down Nick suggested that the Chef might have been the more traumatised by the event than I. I have since avoided all omelette chefs, for their sake as much as mine.

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Nick posing with the chef from Phoom Garden, Phrae (done mainly to wind me up).

However, with my chicken curry breakfast (with personally applied garnish of parsley, onion, noodles and crispy fried things) still making its way through my tummy I can honestly say that the breakfasts in Thailand are an absolute treat. The only advice I would give, to me as much as anyone else, is smile and tuck in! Who cares if you just put yoghurt on your sausages?

In honour of huge, delicious breakfasts, here are the top three (so far):

Phoom Thai Garden Hotel, Phrae – they have an omelette woman and a lingering chef who scared me out of my wits this morning as he suggested I eat his chicken curry, but for variety, the option of outside dining and indeed the immense chicken curry, they come top of the breakfast podium. Polite note: the coffee is so thick it might give you a coronary having blocked your arteries with sludge. However, the staff are very friendly so should this happen they will be sure to do all they can.

Thai Thai Sukhothai, Sukhothai – a surprisingly varied and delicious breakfast. It was a surprise because despite the guesthouse’s exceedingly positive reviews on Trip Advisor, reviewers were less than positive about the breakfast. Perhaps they are responding to criticism, because it is served in a spacious, covered restaurant and the food was good and varied and included real coffee and milk.

Navarat Heritage Hotel, Khampaeng Phet – trauma aside, there was a huge amount to chose from. My only regret is that I did not get to try an omelette.

Tour of Thailand: Prologue 22 June 2013, Bangkok to Ayutthaya

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Er…by train…

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It was clear we should start the Bangkok to Chiang Mai bike ride in Ayutthaya. Mike D did it from Bangkok but suggested it was crazy. You might say catching the train is cheating; but that is only if you consider staying alive to be cheating.

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Ride it if you dare…

In Bangkok the pavements are fair game for any small vehicle and the roads are akin to a war zone. This is a place where size matters and not a place to try to balance on a bike you have never ridden, using panniers and carrying luggage, which you have never done, amid traffic customs you have not experienced. So the bikes were transported to Hua Lampong Train Station by Siam Taxi Van and loaded into third class.

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Never have I travelled so cheaply (the bikes, however, were many times more expensive at 100THB per bike – still nothing to grumble at though).

It would have been an enjoyable ride, had I not been worried about disembarking. It was somewhat olde worlde with the open windows providing the ventilation and the open spaces between the carriages where Indiana Jones would have been chased onto the roof to do mortal battle with some villain. Now people risk their lives by standing out there having a fag.

This is a bicycle tour, the operative word being tour as much as bike, so I wanted to stay in places of interest. Ayutthaya appeared interesting; once the capital of Siam and a major trading port before the city was sacked by an invading Burmese army in 1767. Ayutthaya is almost off the wat scale and one of the things to occupy tourists (didn’t I say I wanted to get away from the tourist trail?) is to hire bikes and cycle the city, visiting old wats and new. It seemed obvious that already having bikes we should spend some time there, so we stayed for two nights.

In Ayutthaya, at the beginning of our ride, several themes began to emerge – punctures, wats, wats and wats (including cockerel wats), karaoke and dogs – each to be endured, admired or avoided.

Sorry? What did I say about wats? So, perhaps I was angling for my full wat dose: my wattage. In any event there were no wats on day one. Negotiating the howling dogs at the train station and the slightly less intimidating traffic, when we arrived at Luang Chumni Village we were asked to wheel our bikes through a waste land. After unloading we prepared to head out to investigate the ‘island’ and buy a puncture repair kit and I found I had my first flat. One new inner tube of three used and more self-flagellation about having forgotten to buy the puncture repair kit in the first place. That was my first realistic Thai experience; trying to buy a puncture repair kit from a very rudimentary bicycle shop, across a huge language language gap and with several Thais watching. I couldn’t manage a whole kit, but I did achieve four patches and some glue for 20THB.

On day two we set out to explore the floating market and the wats. Close to Bangkok, steeped in some history and grandeur of days gone by, Ayutthaya still draws the tourists. Even though it is low season there was much evidence of that. Tourists meandered the roads on bikes. Their coaches and mini vans lined the streets. And there was still that Thai attitude to tourists that I had so longed to escape from in the south. Take the floating market (no longer a place where trade takes place on junks, just another t-shirt tourist trap), we were asked to pay 20THB to park our bicycles on the street. Never in my (not that extensive) cycling career have I been asked to pay to park my bike; that is one of the beauties of bicycles, is it not? No fuel, no parking fees. No, thank you; we dumped them outside the 7 Eleven.

On the same day we paid a visit Wat Phra Mahathat, central to the island and opposite a food market. After having had my feet savaged by ants while parking my bicycle (for free), I was not in an understanding mood. A sugary drink helped but could not rescue the situation when I saw the ticket booth for the wat; in plain English there was a ‘Foreigner’s’ price. I watched throngs of tourists, clearly happy to pay this, trailing from the booth towards the ruins. No. Interpreted in its most negative light (a skill of mine), it was a blatant declaration that the foreigners or tourists were there to be taken advantage of.

We still saw wats. In Ayutthaya it is hard not to. And as we cycled further afield we noticed that as well as wats there were dogs (I had encountered many dogs in the south of Thailand and up until then was unafraid). In the road, under cars, enjoying the shade of a tree or a nook of a wat; but one thing was clear, they had the run of the place. Strolling around Wat Kudi Dao a whole pack trotted and circled, outside the low walls, one with a mouthful of road kill. Other dogs appeared and joined in. They were some distance away when we entered the ruin, until one dark one (small, but in my mind resembling a hound of hell) slunk inside. We watched from the stairs of an old pagoda as the dog began to wind its way through the fallen stones. The question really was, were these old bricks his territory?

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Sadly I left my khaki shorts, white vest and huge gun in Ao Nang.

I felt like I was on the set of Tomb Raider, but with none of Lara Croft’s bravery or ammo. Quietly we tiptoed across the court yard, retreating under the dog’s narrowed eyes.

Dinner was a marked contrast to the day’s exploitation and dereliction. We had scoffed on the train while reading a Lonely Planet paragraph on Gahn Glooay. Effectively a bar/restaurant/karaoke venue; although from the look of the female staff it appeared to have a fourth function. Purely by chance and driven by hunger, we stumbled in there. Never have I been more uncomfortable as when, having asked for Singha Beer, the staff hovered pointing out what we should order. My brandished two fingers and menu pointing, were not understood. But to my surprise, when my hastily ordered food arrived it was some of the best I have tasted in Thailand. And the karaoke? Well it wasn’t great, but hey, the people in there were having fun and there were no dogs.

The final theme was kindness. While Ayutthaya left a spicy-sour taste in my mouth, Luang Chumni Village (at 1000THB per night) was a truly lovely stay. The owners leant their pump (after the wasteland incident), gave towels to dry the bikes and prepared a lovely breakfast; the staff were friendly and kind. The rooms, rustic wooden stilted things – some with the bathrooms located under individual houses – were a delight and are surrounded by well tended garden and what resembles a small moat. Ok, so we shared the room with a lizard that had the awful habit of chattering in the dead of night night but as I was later to find out, he was to be the first of many. I left there with regret and some anxiety about the 80km of road to the city of Lop Buri.

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Lizard home stay, I can’t recommend it enough.

The Journey Starts Here

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The journey starts here…

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…on a train.

Having done some research and read several blogs (Mike’s Travels in Asia being one of them), I decided it was not safe to cycle out of Bangkok.

22 June 2013

Train from Hua Lampong Train Station to Ayutthaya. A bargainous 15THB for people, a not so bargainous 100THB for the steeds. The first puncture and the strangest dining and Karaoke experience, ever.

23 June 2013

A day of consolidation in Ayutthaya. Spent taking in the floating market (a heavily tourist-driven attraction where a woman tried to charge 20THB each for parking our bikes – er, no), the wats (complete with special ‘Foreigners’ price – again, er no) and avoiding the roving dogs.

24 June 2013 –Ayutthaya to Lop Buri (approximately 87km

Hot hot hot. Sweating, squinting to read the GPS on my iPhone and more dog avoidance. And another strange dining experience at The Broiler, Lop Buri.

25 June 2013 – Lop Buri to Sing Buri – approximately 50km, but the GPS was having none of it)

After GPS said ‘no’ we made our own route. This was a better day of cycling, winding through rural villages, stopping occasionally to snap a wat and buy 10THB orange drinks at the side of the road. Beautiful greens, soggy paddy fields and big smiles.

26 June 2013 – cop out in Sing Buri

Despite the plan for the longest ride so far, woke up, took in the grey sheets of rain against the silt brown of the Chao Phraya outside the window and booked into the hotel for another night. Once again nearly attacked by dogs.

27 June 2013 – Sing Buri to Uthai Thani

Getting into it now. Arrival at the most striking town so far. It still retains its strong connection to the Sake Krang River, Delightfully exudes an Old West feel with its wooden shutters and wide dusty streets and has a huge amount of bike shops. Most of all, it is a friendly place.

The Big Wat

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Actually a small, shiny wat.

A ‘wat’ is a monastery temple in Thailand. A ‘what’ is a type of question that I have many of, scattered among my ‘whys’, ‘wheres’ and ‘whens’.

People told me I would see lots of temples on my trip to Thailand, so many temples that the next one would just be another so w[h]at? I’ve seen a few and having been in Thailand for just over a month, having snorkelled, ridden, rowed, walked and on the verge of bidding goodbye to my brother and his girlfriend, Kelly, I asked myself what I was going to do with my second month in the country.

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Bye, bye…

I had been bused, song thaew’d and tuk tuk’ed from venue to venue and during these journeys I had been anxious that I would get where I needed to go, and in one piece. But was I really ‘travelling’? I didn’t think so. I had had a lot of Thai people approach me because I represented income – restauranteurs, drivers, tour companies – and I had tried my best to master a limited amount of Thai of their language with which to respond. I had met some lovely people, but I felt like the country was being brandished in front of me, like gilt covered tack, made ‘pretty’ like people think you want to see it; you like this? And this?

I felt dissatisfied.

I’m not sure exactly where the idea came from. Those ideas that possess you are like that. They have an energy of their own – my life has changed direction on the back of these ideas. I would cycle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, alone. I had looked at the tour companies who offer that sort of experience months ago (I guess the seed was sown then), I would be looking at £1000-plus (a complete budget-blower) and would I really be getting anything different, asking yet another tour company to hold my hand around the country and show me what they thought I should see? I was not convinced. The cogs of my stubborn mind bit.

I travelled to Bangkok with Robert and Kelly and set about finding everything I needed…

The bike. The Trek 7.2x. Yes, golden. This has been provided by Spice Tours of Bangkok for 370 THB per day (including rear rack). They were not the cheapest but they communicated well and considered all my requests. Bangkok is a huge city and all the bike rental/tour companies are scattered about it. Without wanting to pay the hungry tuk tuk drivers to shuttle me around the city, I was compelled to stick with what I had found.

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Steed (trustiness has yet to be established).

Luggage. It is rainy season and in any event it is important to have good panniers, both for balance and for keeping the stuff dry. While one blogger, By Misadventure, had mentioned using the dry bags that you see for little money at the beach resorts; I was not convinced. Having no idea what I was letting myself in for, I needed the real thing. I found two shops in Bangkok that stocked them – Probike and Bike Zone (or at least the shop next door in the Amarin Mall). Bike Zone gave the best service, so I got my 40L Ortlieb City Roll Back panniers and small handlebar bag there. Both shops gave 10% discount in any event. This cost in the region £135.

I could not forget my amazing Chinese shopping bag and six bungee cords. The bag is huge and sits on top of my panniers. It just holds stuff – my helmet, extra bottles of water, sugary drinks, sunglasses case…stuff. It is jazzy (not heard or used that word since the 1980s) and you can just chuck loads of stuff into it if you are at a train station or unloading the bike to check into a hotel. It cost the equivalent of £2 – bargain.

Tools. Multitool Topeak Hexon II (Bike Zone, the owner of which told me he had done Bangkok-Chiang Mai in five days – nothing like feeling inadequate), pump (Blackburn Airstik), puncture repair kit (forgot to buy this – big mistake given the puncture on T-1), Swiss Army knife (I already own this – good for opening packs of peanuts and raisins). Two spokes and three inner tubes (provided by Spice Roads, to be reimbursed if used). Bike lock.

Maps. Thinknet Maps of Thailand and Northern Thailand. Thailand GPS (by City App) app for the iPhone. Google Map screen shots. Strava bike app for emergency GPS assistance.

My stuff. A pair of padded shorts; a must. Walking shoes, good socks, T shirts and vests. A bandana for all round usefulness, although these uses have yet to present themselves. And my engine driver’s hat, courtesy of Tesco Lotus (yes, Florence and Fred are in Thailand), because you really must keep the sun off. Sun glasses, for the same reason.

And at the last minute, and much to my relief and the preservation of my life and sanity, I have company!

The journey starts here with lots of wats on the way and likely more what ifs?

Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW)

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Sometimes travelling does not teach you new things; it confirms the things you already knew; if not now, one day I will be a crazy cat lady.

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Introducing Barbara, ninja cat. She has just eaten, hence the wise expression.

Travelling through places which are strange to me, I’ve found my brain automatically seeks things that it recognises and understands; things with which it can help to build a map of its surroundings. So new tastes, smells seeping from street-side stands and open fronted shops, weather that makes water ooze from me or drenches me with its own warm torrents, dead eyes, strange customs, odd language (even the altered twangs of English, drawled by young Americans or sun-soured ex-pats), rush hour that is hours and ferocious hours long, where even the side-walk becomes fair game for enterprising motorcyclists. First comes alienation. Then threat, under the onslaught of taxi drivers, tuk tuk drivers, motorcycle taxi drivers, restauranteurs, tailors, all the while ignoring the beeps of the horns, the roar of the traffic, the angry gunfire of the rain. And all the time my brain looks looks looks for anything it knows.

Animals. Barbara here, she is ‘same same, but different’ (a tried Thai-tourist expression); a cat of a different culture. Never has a cat been so quick to identify a sucker, follow them and hassle them until they break them down and get what they want. Along with Barbara I have met some heart-warming pets and some rough dogs, but I had little to say about them until I visited Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW)

Funded by donations and the profit from founder Junie Kovacs’ business, Time For Lime Restaurant and Cookery School, LAW has been helping animals on Koh Lanta since 2005.

I had read about it before I arrived on the island – Thailand Lonely Planet features a paragraph – but it was not until I saw a Western looking woman walking a dog on a lead (a rare sight) that I remembered and knew I must not be far from the LAW base. Armed with directions from the dog walker, I set out to visit.

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The first thing that struck me was that people had time. Busting at the seams, LAW still want you to visit, to show an interest and they want to show and tell you about their work. One of their main principals is education and they will talk to anybody who will listen. So, although it was too late to help walk any of the dogs, Terri, a volunteer from Edinburgh, took me on a tour.

We started in the hospital ward. Here, abandoned kittens, poisoned dogs and animals recovering from operations languished in fan-cooled air. Terri knew everything about them, sharing their sad stories and opening some of the cages so they could share cuddles.

The main surgical work that LAW do is neutering of dogs and cats. The organisation believe that one of the principal ways of reducing the abuse and cruelty caused to animals on Koh Lanta is to neuter them, reducing the stray population. But, they will help wherever needed. Amputations on dogs and cats that have been hit by cars are not uncommon – there are no orthopaedics on Koh Lanta, a specialism demanding money, a highly trained professional and long term care – and the reactive treatments for poisoning are regularly required.

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A new, young inmate.

As I had travelled the south of Thailand the presence of stray dogs was almost immediately remarkable. Aloof creatures; by day they move with purpose or languish in shade and by night the streets belong to them. Terri told me that the guesthouses frequently acquire puppies; a great draw of tourists. As dogs, they no longer have the appeal and anyway the low season descends and the dogs are turned out to the monsoon rains to fend for themselves. They seem to do pretty well. Only they are at odds with the significant Muslim demographic on the island, many of whom believe that dogs are unclean and feel justified in causing them pain. They are poisoned, burned, starved, left by the road to be hit or on a cliff to be drowned. LAW takes these animals in and if they can, they rebuild their bodies and their trust and hopefully find them a new home.

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In fact, many of LAW’s inmates find new homes all over the world, greatly assisted by the fact that the organisation can fulfil quarantine requirements. Others aren’t so lucky. Meet Woody and Oscar, part of the same dog pack, long term inmates, chilling on the beach part way through our dog walk.

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Just Chilling…

Much to the affront of my ‘good deeds’ ego the pair did not seem that excited about our walk on my second visit to LAW. I couldn’t blame them, because, as I took my tour a day earlier, for all the tens of dogs and cats it housed, it was remarkably quiet. There was none of the ricocheting, incessant barking you might hear at an RSPCA home. The dogs at LAW are separated into packs and they all have their discreet areas to roam, take shelter and eat; Oscar and Woody had got lazy, they had everything they needed right in their own living room.

The cats are the same. They roam around the courtyard, wash, bask, greet visitors when it suits them. In the evening they converge because it is feeding time, which takes place in a large concrete floored room with different levels, sleeping areas and scratching posts, where they are locked overnight.

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Ian the Cat.

Many moons ago I used to work in animal welfare. I was young and had a naive idea of what caring for animals as a job really means. But I learned a lot. And seeing how LAW is run – with care, time (largely from volunteers like Terri) and great organisation – I was impressed with how they have harnessed many of the positive features of UK animal charities and still in relative infancy, LAW is alive with a new hope and generosity.

With its established place on Lanta and its intention to care for the island’s animals and educate its people, LAW was something that I could make sense of in many ways. But don’t just take my word for it, visit their website to find out about their work first hand.