A slight sigh of relief crept over me as the wheels of the plane hit the tarmac at Suvarnabhumi airport, and I set foot in Bangkok for my second time in as many months.
Myanmar had been an incredibly interesting and eye opening experience, and what a privilege to have been able to experience it by bicycle, but monsoon season is not ideal for touring and with the flooding and landslides affecting the east, I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a small town again.
Surly Temple needed a good service and I had a few things I wanted to do, and the best place for all of these was near the infamous Khoasan Road, Bangkok.
Bok Bok Bike, run by Ma, is a brother shop to Triple Cats Cycles in Chiang Mai where I bought Surly Temple at the start of this adventure, and is an excellent bicycle shop, focused predominantly on touring.
Having spent 5 days in a non touristy area of Bangkok before cycling to Myanmar, this part of Bangkok felt very different. Streets lined with bars and its partying reputation now evident, with street vendors trying to sell you cheap souvenirs and restaurants trying to usher you in with cheap drinks deals. Suffice to say, I was looking forward to getting back on Surly temple and riding the 1000km south.
Of course I was going to make the most of my time here!
After nearly 2 months, I also had only my 2nd alcoholic drink, and my 3rd, 4th, 5th etc in the same night. It had been so easy to not have a drink in that time, yet, once off the wagon, it was so easy to sink a bottle and a half of red wine my first night back on. In 2017 I went for 5 months with out dinking a bit of alcohol and my first drink after that was red wine as well.
……“4 KO’s in 6 fights and 3 from elbows”…..
Every Sunday at Jaroenthong Muay Thai on Phra Athit Road, you can watch live, televised Muay Thai Super Champ, at no cost. It was my first experience of Muay Thai and I can’t recommend it enough as a cultural Thai experience. The discipline and the respect these fighters have for the martial art and for each other is inspiring. The familiar, traditional music played by an old man sat in a corner like a snake charmer seducing his serpents, is the same music you’d hear in nearly every Jean Claude Van Damme movie, and induced a slight nostalgia in me.
During my short lived martial arts career, one thing I always remember is my cousin explaining how “devastating” the elbow is when used in fighting, and this was shown in all its gory glory. 4 KO’s in 6 fights and 3 from elbows. Naughty and actually quite hard watching at times.
Food Glorious Food
My first introduction to the Thai/ Malay dish, Mataba was outstanding.
The food on offer around this area is as good as it is anywhere in Bangkok, if you are willing to escape the crowds and neon lights. The ol trusty “go where the locals go” will serve you well if you can smile at being laughed at and talked about when you walk in. “Farang…..” “….farang”
It was in a very small, casual restaurant called Karim Roti Mataba that I was introduced to Roti Mataba and Murtabak; same same but different. How I hadn’t heard of Roti Mataba or Murtabak up until this point of my life is a mystery. My first introduction to the Thai/ Malay dish, Mataba was outstanding.
Soft bready/potatoey pancake stuffed with meat and or vegetables, and spices, folded together and fried again in a naughty amount of what I think is ghee. Served with a sugar syrup pickled cucumber and onion and a curry sauce. So tasty, and as I was only a month away from Malaysia, the best was yet to come.
In roughly 2 weeks spent in Bangkok, I only saw two “Ladyboys”. I didn’t see “real evidence” that they were ladyboys, but there was an undeniable masculinity in their appearance. You know full well when you are in the parts of Bangkok that have the bad reputations like Khoasan road, but these are few and far between it seems. Within less than a 5 minute walk, you can easily be back in what feels like the real Bangkok.
The Chao Phraya River also allows for moments of quiet and offers an experience to see parts of Bangkok from a different aspect. The Chao Phraya River today remains the most important waterway for the people of central Thailand. The river is an important transport link for the shipping of teak and rice to Bangkok. Locals have made the banks their home since ancient times and created their livelihoods from its environment.
The only thing that was keeping me from moving on was the delivery a cycling jersey that I’d ordered from the shop I’d visited in Northern Thailand when my seat post broke. I was actually buying a replacement jersey for the exact same Jersey I’d bought in the exact same shop a month and a half earlier.
Since being away, I’d had nothing stolen nor lost anything so of all the places I’d least expected to have something stolen, a confined Vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar was at the top. I’d left my cycling jersey outside my room to dry having washed it, and it disappeared, much to my dismay and that of the Dhamma Joti management who were very apologetic. There had been workman in and out of the retreat all day fixing a few things and maybe one of them decided he like it. Good taste. I hope he wears it lots.
It was a simple reminder to me to ask my self question; Who does this do more harm to, the victim or the thief? The cheat or the cheated? This question has been a big part of my mindfulness practice since I have been away.
Jersey received and bags packed, Surley Temple and I hit the road and started exploring southern Thailand; the start of wild monkeys!
I hadn’t encountered Monkeys yet, but southern Thailand seemed to be their patch. My first encounter almost resulted in a flattened monkey, as it darted across the road in front of me. From here on, I’d see monkeys nearly everyday, sat on the side of quiet roads, staring at me, watching me with curiosity as I rode past, much like the people of Southeast Asia I suppose. Unlike the people though, these monkeys felt mischievous, cheeky and not entirely friendly. I would, a month down the line, learn the do’s and don’t of monkey encounters and realize where I had been going wrong.
It took a good 5 days to get my legs back after I’d hit the road from Bangkok. The aches and pains kept me alert to what my body was telling me.
The east coast, in southern Thailand is largely flat and much quieter than I had expected with small fishing villages along the route drying fish outside their houses.
I continued to meet such friendly people along the way, with conversations had with locals on the sides of the road in all kinds of different places, and meeting other tourists along the way.
I hadn’t planned for it to be, but reading has been very important to me during this adventure. With so much introspection, comes the opportunity to dig even deeper. Marcus Aurelias ‘Meditations’, Lao Tzu’s “Toa Te Ching”, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind are 3 of 6 books I’ve read, and will read again. At Thanyachatra Boutique, in Petchaburi ( don’t let “Boutique” fool you), a small guest house, I was sat at a glass table eating toast for breakfast and planning my route for the day when I see a book staring up at me from the shelf below the table, with the title “Everything is Teaching Us”, by Ajahn Chah. It was the only book in English amongst the magazine and books sat there, so I picked up the book and started reading. The back read “This book is not for sale, it is by donation of Ajahn Chah”. It also read “Not for Muslims”, which I found strange, considering the context of the book. As I continued to read, I thought to myself “I need to read this book” , so I slipped it into my pocket, and stole it.
Just kidding. I asked the owner if I could buy the book and after an unnecessarily long conversation with her husband, and inspecting the book, as if I’d found a golden ticket to Mr Wonkas chocolate factory, or the secret to the meaning of life written inside, she agreed.
Hua Hin, 100km down the road, is a popular seaside destination for tourists, which was very evident as I cycled in. Bar and restaurant employees, and massage parlor masseurs would be standing outside, ready to pounce on any “farang” that walked past. “Massage Mr?” and “welcome my friend” with an arm held directing me into their restaurant would gratefully declined with a raised hand, bow and a “no thank you”. No harm done.
I was very tempted to just carry on going to the next town, but it was late and I was hungry. Having cycled around the town once to find a place to eat, I stopped at a nice Japanese restaurant and ordered a beer and some udon noodles and gyoza. A long haired guy walking past stopped and gazed at my bike as if he knew a thing or two about bikes. “Hello my friend” he said in an unmistakable French accent. “Where are you going?”. This unexpected encounter lead to a 2 hour conversation and beers.
Eve from France was also touring around the world, but indefinitely, and having been in Africa for 1 year, had some stories to tell.
“ I spent 2 weeks in prison in Mozambique” he explained. “ I had some medication from Tanzania which was perfectly legal in Tanzania, but when I crossed the border, the border control took me aside, questioned me, then put me in prison for 2 weeks awaiting trial” “I had to bribe the judge and the policeman, who then deported me”.
“No way” I said in disbelief “What a story to be able to tell”.
“Then, 2 weeks after I got out of the prison, I contracted malaria and typhoid, and then spent 6 weeks in hospital”
“Holy shit dude, that’s a heavy couple of months, but in hindsight, what a story to tell” eyes wide, as I sat listening to this story.
“Do you take malaria tablets when in malaria zones?” I asked
“No, they make me feel funny. I’ve had malaria 8 times!” he added “It has got to the point now that I know the symptoms and when I’ve got it and take myself to hospital”.
you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink
We continued chatting then said goodbye and good luck, as we headed in different directions.
For me, the people and small villages you pass when cycling are what makes bike traveling such a different and unique experience to normal travel. Even by motorbike, I imagine you miss so much.
The small villages along the south coast were perfect to stop at for some lunch and to take in the surroundings. Some providing a real ‘sense of place’. Of every country, Thailand has been the country where I’ve felt most comfortable stopping anywhere along the road to eat.
Sam Roi Yot is one of those villages, but, this one had a few more westerners than expected, but most lived here, and you can instantly see why they chose Sam Roi Yot.
I had planned to stay for a night, but this quickly turned into 3. Sam Roi Yot village sits along the beach, and due to it being out of season, was very quiet. Small restaurants and guest houses dotted the small beachside road, with a number of larger, but traditional and sympathetic resorts in between.
Sam Roi Yot is also home to the Sam Roi Yot National Park and Phaya Nhakon Cave, which was a good reason to stay for a few days.
The surrounding area is stunning, with karst limestone formations and woodlands all around.
Once at the site of the Phaya Nakhon cave, there are 2 options; either get a boat to take you to the foot of the path leading up to the cave, or to walk the up and down and sometimes steep path that leads you to the same place. Not one to miss an opportunity for adventure, I hit the hike.
For me, hikes are always worth it just for the reward of reaching the goal, but add beautiful views to that, and I would always suggest hiking if you can.
Rewards come in many guises, but this day, Phraya Nakhon Cave was mine.
Phraya Nakhon cave is mystical and beautiful and due to it being hidden inside this this large land formation and tricky to get to, is seldom visited by tourists, with only the dedicated rewarded with this outstanding piece of nature.
Visited at the right time of day, around noon, you will be graced with one of the most outstanding sites as the sun cascades through the opening in the ceiling, which brings to life the golds and greens, which wouldn’t look out of place in a movie like Avatar.
Like many of these incredible caves through Southeast Asia, in the centre, sits a shrine. This one however is a Pavillion, dedicated to King Rama V, built in 1890.
The caves sheer size can only be appreciated in person, but from certain angles, and with the help of people for contrast, a picture can offer a slight feel of size.
After a sweaty ride and hike, my afternoon was spent writing, enjoying lunch and the moment. That was until the weather turned. The wind picked up slightly, which I’d become a tuned with the sign that the weather was coming in. Soon enough, the warm sun had disappeared and the wind and rain thrashed in, which was equally as enjoyable.
A nice English man and his Thai wife sat next to me and we started talking.
He was asking question, so I explained my journey and found it quite funny when the man said “One day, when you have enough money, you can ditch the bike, and get taxis everywhere and stay in nice hotels”. We both received very different memos about life.
They were very friendly, and kindly offered to buy me a drink, and were surprised that I asked for a lemon iced tea and not an alcoholic drink.
The next few days riding were awesome; quiet roads, beautiful scenery and riding through an army base and airport which was super cool.
I took some awesome back roads, hit a few obstacles and got chased by about 15 gnarly dogs in one day, which is the experience.
Cycling along a back street through a largish town and I see what looks like a Thai guy on a bicycle up ahead on a bridge. As I approached I hear, “Hey man” in a very American accent.
John definitely looked Asian, but was most definitely American. John worked as the Medical director for the army in Thailand and was making the most of a few days off. We had a cool chat and he seemed like a really cool guy. He also new Ma from BokBok Bike who I’ve mentioned at the start. It was a brief but sweet meet.
The beautifully quiet roads soon turned into larger roads as I neared the tourist hub of southern Thailand, Surat Thani, the gateway to Koh Samui and the islands.
I stayed in one town just off the main highway south, which I’d ridden for the last 20km’s since the quiet back roads and hangry (hungry&angry) dogs.
It is actually difficult to find bad food in Thailand. Everywhere you go, even the places the UK EHO would have a field day in, serve outstanding food. The recipes are never the same. Thais don't get their recipes from cook books or the BBC website, they are handed down, and always different from another; one extra t-spoon of this, one extra piece of that. One thing that is always different is spice levels. In this small, quite naughty looking town, was a restaurant that served quite possibly one of the spiciest, but most delicious seafood Som Tam salads I’ve ever tasted. The owner took a liking to me as I explained that I was a chef and stood watching her every move as the ingredients were added bit by bit . “You like spicy mister?”
“Chai Kap”, meaning “yes ” I responded, with a thumbs up and a smile.
Another thing I absolutely love about Thailand is the food centres at the gas stations. The food is always excellent and just confirms how much pride the Thai people take in their food.
I’d learnt early on on in this trip that it was ill advised to take directional advice from Southeast Asian people. Thai people especially love asking where you are going and seem compelled to explain the distance every single time. This would often be comical. One particular day, stood outside a shop, a man approaches “Where are you going?” he asked. “Surat Thani” I replied.
“Ah, 100km that way” he continued, like I’d been the one who has asked how far it was.
One minute later, another older Thai man approaches “ Where are you going?” he asked.
“Surat Thani” I said, smiling and knowing what was coming next.
“Ah, 180km that way” he responded.
I said thank you, smiling to myself and giggling inside. This simple moment made my day!
It was now raining season in the south of Thailand, so you could almost be certain of some rain at some point in the day; usually in the afternoon.
It was 5pm as I approached Surat Thani and, for the past 30 minutes, had watched some very moody clouds moving in. I was now on a busy highway with just 3km from my aimed accommodation for the night. I knew I was racing against the imminent rain, and as the wind picked up, knew I’d come 2nd. Things got moist very quickly, as the wall of water blanketed everything it touched. Fairly damp already I saw a rather rickety looking structure with a tarpaulin over next some industrial buildings and made a b-line straight for it. I was soon ushered into one of the open sided industrial workshops by a man in overalls. “Come come”. The very nice man pulled up a chair and put the kettle on for me.
The road that links the east to the west coast, from Surat Thani, to Krabi started off winding through small villages and lush woodland, but quickly turns into a long straight of up and down main road, which was very quiet with traffic and amenities.
The only food option was a very small shack on the side of the road who looked very surprised to see me roll up and ask for a plate of fried rice. As funky as this place looked, the fried rice was excellent and cost about 65 pence.
Soon after I had another incredible experience, when a man and his family drove past in a well used car, stopped ahead and waited for me to reach them, then the man walked across the road an handed me a large cold bottle of coke which again, left me speechless.
A night stay in a rural and friendly homestay, and I was back on road.
Once on the west coast, the scenery becomes more dramatic with a sense you’ve just ridden into jurrasic park. Roads sweep through cracks in the karst formations as if strategically placed there for ultimate effect.
Having spent a few days in Krabi, I hit the road again and instantly saw a change in Thailand that I hadn’t seen anywhere before. I soon knew I was nearing Malaysia as mosques started appearing and woman wearing Hijabs and men wearing skull caps.
For the next 300km, the change in culture becomes increasingly evident. Mosques sing out prayers and the clothing changes, but the friendliness doesn’t.
I am reintroduced to Mataba in another small restarurant which was better than the one I tried in Bangkok. It was so tasty, I couldn’t resist having another, much to the delight of the girls working there.
The further away from Krabi I got, the quieter it became, with scenery continuing to amaze.
In a fairly remote, rural area I was surprised to pass a German lady named Anette on a recumbent bike. Anette had cycled from Germany, but more amazingly, Anette had had a stroke 6 years ago, which still affects the left side of her body. A great, inspiring encounter.
Satun in Southern Thailand was my last town before entering Malaysia. The ride in to this lively town was amazing, with such friendly people calling out and waving. At one point I rode past a badly flooded road, with one lane completely flooded, which was full of people playing and swimming in the water, with rubber rings.
Hot and tired, I stopped at a restaurant on the side of the road and had an outstanding plate of pork noodles. This again was so delicious, I had two plates.
The following day I made the 10 km cycle to Satun ferry port, where I loaded Surly Temple onto the ferry to make the 1.5 hour journey to Langkawi Island, Malaysia.
So, having spent the last month cycling the 1000km south from Bangkok, I finally reached Malaysia and the paradise that is, Langkawi Island.
As always, thank you for reading.
Hope you are well and happy.
Ps. Sorry this took a while to post.
I had planned to not continue this blog after Malaysia, and instead, start a Youtube Channel. This plan has now changed, and I will continue to post blogs of the rest of my journey as I travel through Korea, Japan, and Europe. I will also be creating some small videos, that I will post on here instead of Youtube.