Cyclists’ Christmas

After overcoming the confusion of being on the left hand side of the road, the first thing we did after crossing into Thailand was to head for the train station. It was Dec 20 and we were due to meet our Dutchie cycling pals for Christmas just south of Bangkok. There was no way that we would make it in time if we cycled and so we had decided to take the sleeper train instead.

Bizarrely there were two trains that left within an hour of one another from Nong Khai to Bangkok, an Express service and a Rapid. Despite the names implying that the services were fast, both were indeed quite slow. The two trains were scheduled to take more than 10 hours to cover about 600km.

Although not obvious from their names, the slower Rapid service took a whopping 25 minutes longer to reach Bangkok. We decided to forgo the luxury high speed train and decided to pay half the price for the inconvenience of sleeping for 25 minutes longer.

Train tickets finally printed, on empty stomachs we began a hunt around Nong Khai trying to find a cash point which would spit out some Thai Baht without charging us 220 baht (about 7 Euro) for the privilege. Doing anything on empty stomachs is rarely a good idea, but given that we needed the baht to buy lunch we had little option. In the end, time ticking before we would have to return to the train station, refusing to pay the seemingly universal withdrawal fee, we rummaged in our panniers and instead exchanged a wrinkly 50$ note that had been stashed there since we were in Tbilisi.

Back at the station we met a French couple who had been cycling across from Burma, through Thailand and Laos. They were travelling super light on mountain bikes, and planned to fly home before heading off again to South America. Needless to say, there was plenty to talk about.

Bleary eyed and quite non-functional we arrived in Bangkok. Arriving before 6am had it’s advantages though. We cycled through the backstreets of the city passing markets that were packing up, having run through the night, and others which were mid-flow selling fruits and veggies and all of the tasty treats which make a hungry cyclist’s stomach rumble.  It was the perfect introduction to the city, giving us a glimpse of everyday life, breakfast and insight into the craziness of the traffic.

The following days, we stayed at the house of warmshowers’ host Supaporn. Imagine a woman in her 70’s, that looks like she is in her 30’s, wears blue heartshaped sunglasses, has the energy of a 10 year old and a heart made of gold. Supaporn was so excited that we were going to be meeting up with 6 Dutchies (her favourite country in Europe) that she made us promise that we would send a photo of us all together. Unfortunately we only met her once, but it was one of those meetings that will stay with us for a lifetime.

It was so hot and humid in Bangkok in comparison to the north of Laos that we began to question our sanity of deciding to spend the following few months pedalling in South East Asia. We could worry about that later, for now we could keep the heat at bay with street-side pineapple, we just had to try and sleep in a mosquito infested sauna. 

Bangkok was the first big city that we had spent any amount of time in since we were in Almaty nearly three months ago. Needless to say there were a few jobs we needed to do. We had hoped of giving our bikes an early Christmas and completely replacing the drivetrain, given that the existing components had taken us all the way from Bulgaria, over about 13000km. Our ambitions were somewhat dashed though, when we discovered the inflated price of bike parts here, and settled for just a new chain and cassette each.  As a consolation prize, Pedro splashed out on a new tshirt that didn’t have 27 holes in it.

Maybe we had adapted over the previous months, but the traffic in Bangkok wasn’t as crazy as we had been anticipating. It was even fun at times, dashing through the city on our missions from bike shops to lunch to markets to home. There was only one badly timed puncture, the first one in months when naturally none of us were carrying a pump or patches. 

Over the next days, two by two, we were reunited with our favourite cycling Dutchies as they too arrived in Bangkok. Back in Iran we had met Sabine and Tom. We cycled with them for a few days in Golestan before meeting again in Tajikistan where we pedalled with them again for a few days until Dushanbe. They had been in touch with Mari and Eva since meeting in Amsterdam in February, and then had repeatedly bumped into each other through Europe, having left Amsterdam only a few days apart. We met Mari and Eva for the first time in Dushanbe, when we had returned for a second visit following poo-gate. Little did we know at the time, that we would end up cycling together with them for nearly 3 weeks through Tajikistan!  

By the time we finally met Thijs and Nienke at the Pamir Lodge in Khorug, we already knew of one another through our Dutch cycling web. We were happy to finally meet the infamous Thijs : survivor of a dog bite in Georgia, which was treated with yoghurt by the locals (eventually followed by a rabies jab). We immediately relaxed into sharing tales and meals cooked on our camping stoves at the hostel.we already knew of one another through our Dutch cycling web, and so we immediately relaxed into sharing tales and meals cooked on our camping stove at the hostel.

We made a happy reunion at the train station, on the way to Hua Hin. With eight cyclists, six bicycles (two were being left behind to pick up on return) and all of the associated baggage, we made a bit of a scene and nearly missed the train with all of our excitable babbling. Despite all knowing of one another, we had never all been in the same place at the same time, and only Mari and Eva had the claim to fame of having cycled with all of us in one country or other. Over the last 9 months, there was always one or other of us a few 100kms ahead or behind, in Iran or Uzbekistan, or some in China and another pair in India, paths meeting and diverging as the wheels rolled. We talked of making a realtime map of our routes over the last year, weaving through one another… but we had relaxing to do.

For the following few days we stayed in what can only be described as the fanciest accommodation since … ever. Or in comparison to our recent standards of tent living atleast. We had rented an airbnb with room for all of us to sleep in actual beds, a kitchen and access to a swimming pool. What more could we need? 

Perhaps because we were all used to living so simply, and we all shared the same joy at now having a kitchen and access to a shower, that life was easy at chez Cyclists. You might think that throwing 8 people together in one house, that didn’t know each other that well bar the odd week of cycling together, would be a ripe environment for arguments and bickering but there was nothing of the sort (as far as we were aware anyways)…  Breakfasts and lunches were harmoniously concocted and bicycle shopping (beer) missions coordinated, film nights scheduled and secret santas revealed. Obviously we “went Dutch” with the expenses, there was even an app to do the maths for us.

Even though a lot of time was spent in the kitchen, crafting meals in more than one saucepan, there was still plenty of time for multiple swims per day; we were all the cleanest we had been in months. Our shared dodgy tanlines were proven to really be dodgy tanlines rather than just an ingrained layer of dirt on our skin. Only one inflatable flamingo was harmed in the process. 

We did occasionally leave the comforts of our cyclists’ compound. Our sight of the sea felt like it should have been more ceremonious given that we had last seen the sea was just outside of Antalya in Turkey, but somehow perhaps because we had caught the train there or perhaps because of the murky greeny grey depths, it felt like less of a landmark (oceanmark?) than we had anticipated. 

Although our cyclists’ appetite definitely diminished over our week off, our appetite for cycling did not. We could have stayed in our cosy lazy bubble for longer, but with most of us 15 days in to a 30 day visa it was time to pedal. We made our sad farewells and pedalled/scooted in four different directions not quite knowing where we would see one another next – maybe we would see Tom and Sabine in Japan or Thijs and Nienke in Cambodia – but atleast they all called The Netherlands home, and sooner or later we could reminiscence of our travels together there!

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