A tour of 7-11s

If cycling in Laos was like the holiday we always needed, Thailand was like being in a spa. There was a sauna included every day and cold showers were never too far away either, which was a good thing as Thailand is surely the country where we felt the stickiest, dustiest and grossest after just one day of cycling.

Getting back on the road after a much needed break with our favourite cycling Dutchies took some adjustment. But we were happy to be back on the bikes. From Hua Hin we cycled north and west, not the obvious choice for people that wanted to get to Cambodia but, the plan was to avoid Bangkok. We found ourselves heading towards and along the border with Burma – an area surprisingly devoid of tourists in comparison to the rest of Thailand.

Camping in the jungle and forest, we were treated to a daily evening orchestral performance by the birds, insects and bigger creatures living there. We could rarely identify the creature that went with the sound, which wasn’t a problem … unless the footsteps sounded particularly large and cumbersome as they did one night camping in between fat trunks of bamboo.

Pedro was struggling to accept my new found speed now that my replacement hub picked up in China had finally  been paired with a new chain and cassette so that I finally had high gears again. For possibly the first time in the trip I was the one up front and waiting for Pedro, very bizarre! It felt like flying.

The roads were beautiful, weaving through the jungle and super quiet as the road really didn’t go anywhere. Often we would turn a corner to find a troop of monkeys in the middle of the road for company. Thankfully none were aggressive, despite their reputation, and mostly just stared at us blankly as we pedalled past, probably wondering what the hell we were doing. In contrast to their boldness, we would also occasionally see the disturbingly large scaly tail of some unidentified creature disappearing into the camouflage-providing greenery at the side of the road…

We were heading towards a region densely marked on the map with national parks, which we figured was as good an indication as any that it would lead to some scenic cycling, even if we wouldn’t be going in the parks themselves thanks to the extortionately priced entrance fees. After crossing back and forth over the River Kwai (there is more than just one bridge), we stopped along our way for a chilling history lesson at the Hellfire pass – a brutal hand dug railway cutting through solid limestone and quartz built as part of the Thai-Burma Death Railway by forced labour, Allied prisoners and Malay labourers, during WW2. 

In the dark, sweaty and tired we arrived at the house of Warmshowers host Ja. Although we didn’t see the true extent of it until the morning, it turned out that Ja and her family lived in paradise. They lived in a house perched at the top of a steep hillside, which stretched down to a river at the bottom, secluded sections terraced with small bungalows offering accommodation for local tourists. We didn’t even have to put up our tent as there was a palatial tent (in comparison to ours) waiting for us by the river side. Quickly adapting to their relaxed lifestyle, we stayed several nights longer than we anticipated, floating in the river (being careful to avoid the water snakes), wandering around the market being shown all the tasty veggie bamboo wrapped treats followed by serene sunset paddleboarding outings. We spent our evenings enjoying the delicious food cooked by Ja’s mum, sharing tales of our travels and hearing about Ja’s solo bike trip around the south coast of the UK. 

Originally we had planned to stick to our visa-free 30 days in Thailand and to not pay the $60 each to extend, but we were enjoying ourselves so much, we decided to divert a little further north and a little further west and to deal with visas later. Unknown to us at the time, this would be the first of many plan changes in 2020… Oh the naivety of January.

As we left Ja’s and said our goodbyes, she made an off hand comment that it was hilly in the direction we were heading. Naturally that afternoon, we found ourselves on the steepest roads we had ever been.

At the top of one hill looking over to the next, the road looked vertical as it plummeted down and straight back up to the height we were at now. These hills in fact, were ok to cycle. Generally we would build up enough speed going down to get us atleast halfway up the other side without even pedalling, unless we were chased by a dog that is… The worst were those which came without a runup, which were far too steep for even Pedro to consider cycling the whole way up. Even stopping to take a break from pushing was hard work as the bikes wanted to just roll back down to the bottom. Firmly Type 2 fun.

These steep roads led us into some of the remotest areas we would cycle in South East Asia. Small villages would appear round the corner after kms and kms of dusty roads. Our lunchtime stops in the usually numerous roadside cafes which we had become accustomed to, were absent along this stretch and so lunch consisted of puffed rice crackers and bananas. Tired, hungry and dusty we reached the edge of the lake which we would cross the next day and after a swim pitched the tent to the crackling of burning forest in the distance. We couldn’t work out if it was controlled burning, but we were beside a lake atleast…

Our route had been planned in this region for the national parks, but also because of the possibilities provided by the ferries which crossed various points of the reservoir. We hadn’t however taken into consideration that the ferries would not depart until they had enough passengers and so, the next morning after rolling our bikes on to the ferry we napped on board for several hours until a few cars rolled up to make the crossing more worthwhile for the owner and less expensive for us. Thus followed a day of boats : a nap on a boat, followed by two ferry crossings on a boat and finally a kindly offered spot to pitch our tent on the terrace of a big house boat.

Here is possibly the point to mention, from our floating camp spot, that South East Asia was rapidly proving itself to be the best region on our trip for sunrises and sunsets. We have no idea why, but they were truly spectacular. Was it because we were often camped close to water? Or maybe because in other places, whenever the sun was not above the horizon it was simply too cold to be outside of our sleeping bags?

Anyways, having possibly relaxed a bit too much into the slow paced Thai life, our 30 days of visa-free time in Thailand was coming to a close. The official extension route felt rather expensive, but Ja and her partner had told us about a sneaky alternative. Having dashed to Kanchanaburi, we made a small adventure into Myanmar, following Batman and bounced back out with a fresh Thai visa exemption stamp in our passports for much less than the official fee. To top it off, that evening was followed with a dinner of cheese fondue (courtesy of a Swiss WS host). A bizarre day to say the least!

Feeling slightly over cheesed, having barely eaten any dairy products since we were in Almaty in Kazakhstan, some 3.5 months ago, we started heading east, now finally in the right direction to reach Cambodia. We would skirt around the top of Bangkok, making just the right balance to not go too south, close to the capital, but not so far north that our diversion became ridiculous. 

The going was flat, but not boring. We could spend the first few hours in the morning pedalling on small roads and tracks, weaving through fish farms or fields full of sugar cane and impossibly straight irrigation canals. 

After having got a taste over Christmas near Hua Hin, now all our bodies craved was som tam. Every day as it approached lunchtime, we would cycle past cafes and restaurants keeping an eye out for a green papaya or two and a giveaway giant wooden pestle and mortar, searching for somewhere likely to sell us a delicious plate of yum. Sometimes our request for no dried shrimp bits was understood, and other times we were left to flick the pink shells to the side ourselves, but we were never disappointed.

Although our first visit to a 7-Eleven had been somewhere on the way to Kanchanaburi, by now our visits had become daily. Often, we are ashamed to admit, twice daily. Given that there are more than 8000 in the country (2nd only to Japan with nearly 21,000), this was not difficult. What could be so interesting about a multinational chain of franchised convenience stores, I hear you ask? One word. Air conditioning.

Although we were in Thailand at apparently the coolest time of the year, it was nevertheless disgustingly hot and humid. Not as heat stroke inducing as Uzbekistan, but hot nevertheless. The cool climate-controlled interior of a 7-Eleven, with accompanied refrigerated hum, provided some much needed respite. Although we could probably have got away with not buying anything, we justified our clogging up of the aisles by buying the cheapest ice cream in the freezer and staying until it was gone. What a sacrifice. Thankfully the air conditioning meant the frozen treat lasted approximately 5 times longer than it would have done outside.

Thankfully obtaining water was also never a problem. Most towns and even villages had several catchily named Reverse Osmosis water machines. For not very many thai baht we could fill our water bottles with enough water to spare to tip a bottle over our heads. Not all machines were created equal however. Given that some locals relied on them as a way to refill their 25l drinking water dispensers, the flow rate of some machines was significantly greater than others. Choose badly and half of the 1.5l we paid for, would be sprayed right back into our faces.

All in, Thailand was probably the best country we had been in for food. Yes, there were Calipos widely available but more importantly there were all of the delicious tropical fruits. Jackfruit, pineapples, mangoes, papaya and endless supplies of bananas were everywhere, making our breakfasts significantly more interesting than they had been in Tajikistan! On top of that there were countless bamboo leaf wrapped offerings, a firm favourite being a steamed banana in sticky rice and some slightly weirder gelatinous coconut concoctions. The only problem was, given our lack of Thai, the contents were somewhat a game of lucky dip – sometimes we’d lose that game and end up with some steamed meaty thing inside instead of yummy banana.

Like much of South East Asia, wild camping in Thailand was not easy. Thankfully, if you ask nicely at one of the many Buddhist temples, the monks will invariably invite you inside to pitch your tent somewhere quiet inside the temple grounds. Although these stays would often start in the same way, by showing us the toilets and a place where we could wash, after this our experiences in each temple were completely different.

Sometimes the monks wanted to stay and talk for a while, and sometimes they would leave us to it. Generally if there was a monk who could speak some English, he was pushed to the front of the group to act as translator. Almost always they helped us with directions, once even telling us the way to Japan 😉

A few temples stick in our mind as particularly memorable:
We were pedalling along a relatively inhabited road with no luck of finding some place quiet. No monks were around when we arrived, but a lay person living at the temple showed us to a spot at the back of the grounds in a patch of trees by an artificial lake. We didn’t meet any of the monks until the morning, when an unexpected pair came to sweep up the leaves. There was an older monk and a younger teenaged one and they really made quite the duo. As the older monk lit up a cigarette, the younger monk took out his phone with a semi-naked woman on the cover to use Google Translate to chat with us. Not the stereotypical image we had in our minds of devout monk-life! 

At the same temple, as we were eating breakfast looking over the lake, we saw a head break the surface of the water. And then, 2m further along, a tail. We watched these creatures for ages, intrigued as to what they could be and trying to get a closer look. It turns out they were Monitor lizards, and they explained the scaly tails we sometimes saw disappearing into the undergrowth at the sides of the road and the heavy, cumbersome footsteps we heard that night camping in the bamboo forest. They are not deadly to humans, but they do have an alarming similarity to a crocodile.

Another temple we came across when looking for a place to camp by a lake, but could only find soggy mud to pitch our tent on. The monks at this monastary were from the Forest Monk Tradition, the branch of Buddhism which holds the original monastic rules of discipline the most strictly. Luckily for us, at the time there was a British monk visiting from Italy, and he invited us to join them for their meal the following morning and to stay for a chat afterwards. It was somehow ironic that that morning, we woke up to find that several of our pannier bags had turned black overnight and were now completely covered in a writhing mass of ants. 

With our minds fully stocked with thoughts for the days cycling, thanks to our mornings conversation, we set off due south. Finally we again reached the coast, this one (unlike Hua Hin) with water of the colour we were expecting from Thailand. Our last few days here were spent along the coast until we reached the Cambodian border. Carefree, we filled our time with swims, unintended 4 hour hammock naps and even a well coordinated catch up with Thijs and Nienke who were now on their way back to Bangkok to fly back home. We camped together at a small Red Cross holiday resort right by the beach, which was previously a refugee camp for Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge. In contrast to the large resorts we had seen on other stretches of the coastline, it was nice to share the spot with locals having picnics and splashing in the water all day long. Swapping some tips for our respective paths, we had one last calippo together with Thijs and Nienke and pedalled the 1km together back to the main road. Now we had finally cycled together, at least a little bit, with all of the Dutchies!

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