A Taste of Things to Come: Uttaradit to Phrae, 4 July 2013

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The impending hills…

It was becoming a habit; leaving late, slow, sated on the hotel buffet breakfast. This day, we were also late because we mended yet another puncture; my front tyre this time, for a touch of variety.

And for a final bout of fussing we had to move our saddles. Google diagnosed that we were both suffering from Handlebar Palsy; a common cycling condition where the ulnar nerve becomes compressed due to constant pressure on the heel of the hands, causing numbness and pain. The advice suggested was as follows:

Overall, the cyclist should not be leaning and resting on the bars, the grip should be light;
The seat may need to be moved further back;
The handlebars may be at the incorrect height;
Core muscles should ensure a good position on the bike, rather than leaning.

Eventually, we left, seated a little further from our handlebars, crunching our stomach muscles and crossing our numb fingers in the hope that this would lessen the pain.

Thereafter, the ride to Uttaradit can be categorised by two things; the first of the hill stages and highways lined with durian fruit vendors. The durian is part of the Thailand right of passage due to being an indigenous fruit and for its disgusting odour. Inside the hard, spiked jacket, the fruit is akin to a sulphurous custard. Uttaradit is the principle producer in Thailand. And believe it or not, these fruits are pretty popular. Allegedly, once you get over the smell, you’ll love it. I did not.

I already knew I did not like the stuff when we pulled up at the side of the road to get sugary drinks. When a pleasant woman, one of the stall holders, held out portions for Nick and I on a plate I tried to decline, that is until it began to seem rude to do so. When all I needed was water, I was left smacking my tongue against my cheeks, trying not to gag, trying to push the yellow goo down my throat. All the time smiling, because don’t get me wrong, I was grateful.

The hill came shortly after, first of many on Route 11, as it turned out. It undulated to begin with, small climbs followed by rushing descents, lulling me into a sense that it was actually quite fun. Then someone forgot the drop. The carriageway split into two, leaving a crawler lane for trucks, and soon we were grinding upwards, HGVs chugging and wheezing past us. The road wrapped around the mountain and it was hard to see for more than a few hundred metres. Each corner bore hope that the summit was around it, but yielded only despair when it finally revealed another section of unrelenting climb. Nick was much stronger than me (and he told me later he attacked that hill as much for his Dad as anything, as it would have been his birthday that day) and I watched him push further up the mountain. I hated my body for how tired it was, how it could barely balance at those painful, slow speeds, how it let the front wheel to weave, using up vital energy, while my lungs felt like brittle shrink wrap.

I was later to realise that this hill was actually short. But at the time I was elated when I got to the top – elated, red and drenched in sweat. And then it was all downhill to Den Chai, the outpost some 20km west of Phrae (pronounced ‘prayer’).

We stopped halfway at a small coffee shop, drawn by the regular signposts and the promise of caffeine. Its young female proprietor welcomed us with a huge smile. It turned out she’d been ‘on the ships’ (this means working on a cruise liner, as Nick did for a number of years) before she came back to Thailand with enough money to begin her business, so Nick chatted to her while I thought about how inspiring that was. A cozy wooden cottage, flowered garden, a mural of the mountains painted by her brother and those ubiquitous emblems of travel (frogs on bikes and campervans) displayed on the counter, I felt a warmth from the coffee shop that didn’t come from my mug.

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Coffee Heaven

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It says it all, frog on a bike

The coffee was great and we left there with new hope (not least because the young owner had confirmed there were no more hills!).

Technical Stuff:

Stayed at Thai Phoom Garden, Phrae.
Cycled 74.4km, check out what Strava says.
No rain, no punctures, balanced by smelly fruit and upward cycling.

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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

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.

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

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?