Bagan is Myanmar’s premier tourist attraction for good reason. It is a sprawling complex of over 2600 (I think) temples built over several dynasties and the reign of numerous Kings many, many years ago. I’m writing this without internet and can’t remember the details, but check it out. You won’t have heard about Bagan so much perhaps as Myanmar isn’t quite on the global tourist map in the same way as other countries with ancient sites of this calibre, such as Cairo for the pyramids or Siem Reap for Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but it is an equally mind bogglingly wonderful place.
I spent two and a half days CYCLING around the area (most of it is in about 20km square), stopping at countless temples of varying popularity and size. There are tourists sure, and there are restaurants and hotels in abundance, but Bagan manages not to be hectic really at all apart from one or two of the biggest temples for sunset when the crowds are in force. There are the usual handicraft stalls selling as you’d expect a bunch of well made beautiful things. The sellers obviously try and encourage you to buy but I didn’t feel hassled at all.
I loved Bagan. It was beautiful, provoked my imagination, languid and made me dream while I was awake. My legs appreciated the cycling (without any panniers) and I felt very smug on my nice shiny speedy bike compared to the other tourists on their less than dreamy, uncomfortable hire bikes.
There are SO many temples you can explore that it is possible to steal off and find a whole big temple to yourself. Go sit on the roof top and just absorb. I spent quite some time wandering off into the bush and stumbling across more awesomely crafted ruins where I couldn’t hear another soul and just took a seat at took stock.
Highlight is of course sunset and sunrise. I saw two beautiful sunsets with a lot of other people at the most popular and easily accessible site (I’ve actually forgotten which but it begin with S) and Pya Tha Da that was a bit deeper into the bush that was popular but less so.
In Bagan I also met THREE more cycle tourers in my hotel alone and Ramlan met another also. There really are a lot in Myanmar. Two guys from European countries that I can’t remember that were nice but didn’t want to chat too much. They had camped and stayed in monasteries pretty much the whole way through the country. You’re only ‘supposed’ to stay in registered guesthouses for foreigners, but because the distances are quite large between towns many cyclists ask for a place to stay in Buddist temples along the way and are usually obliged. If I cycled this trip again I’d be braver and do this, but I’m naturally a little cautious and prefer to stick to the easier path first time around. And also a Japanese older guy who cycles six weeks every year without a map let alone a GPS. He was quite a dude and we actually passed him cycling on the bus heading back to the Thai border on our last day.
I also got a slow puncture despite my allegedly bullet proof tyres. There is a lot of shrubby vegetation and the land is quite dry and a very small but hardy thorn had made its way through the cracks. Here I discovered a major cycling error that I was lucky didn’t cause me a major problem, in that the adaptor on the new pump I’d bought in Bangkok to replace my broken one didn’t actually work on my inner tubes. Whoops. I didn’t realise this until the morning of the second day when I’d gotten up at 5am to see sunset to find flat tyres. I was cranky with myself as there was nothing I could do about this until proper morning so I missed the sunset and went back to bed. Turns out Ramlan had the adaptor I needed and I temporarily pumped up and decided to fix the puncture at a later time.
I decided to stay one night extra than Ramlan so I could watch a sunrise at Shwe Gu Gyi and it was worth it. I love watching for the subtle gradations of the rainbow in the sky and watching the width of the bands of colour drift and change as the morning kicks in.
I didn’t get to enjoy it’s full glory unfortunately as I had to leave at 6:20am before I’d seen the full colour array from the site to get to the bus station via my hotel by 7:15am, which was cutting it very fine. The 5km cycle to the bus station to my hotel felt like torture with the panniers. Not sure why it was so tough but boy had I lost my fitness. And of course I got there and had to wait twenty minutes for other tourists to arrive, so I could have enjoyed the full sunset or at least not cardiac-ed myself trying to get there on time. Hey ho.
Yangon (rest days)
Spent three very leisurely days in the capital Yangon soaking it all in and generally being quite lazy. None of this is in any particular time order, apart from first things first was to get my bike seen to as I’d had a persistent click in the gears that wasn’t shifting despite being looked at by myself and other bike shops. This took me to the famous Bike World run by Jeff who kindly took myself and another woman tourer for a cup of tea and talked us through all the possible routes in Myanmar. One of the clicks was just some dirt in my pedal threads (silly me) and the second was misalignment of the derailleur which they sorted in no time. I repayed the favour by buying a UK priced new cycling jersey to diversify my sporting wardrobe. It is bright yellow and I look like one of those people in lycra and I like it.
The remaining days were spent wandering around mostly the old town area, which is absolutely bustling and heaving with activity. It is a real mix of cultures, eras and activities, with a distinct China Town area, Indian curry sold all over the place, distinct colonial architecture, tourist and ex-pat oriented stuff, dockyards and lots and lots of traffic. It was colourful but drab and a bit tired at the same time. I really liked Yangon.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the city was the story the architecture told of the city’s history and the pace of change in Myanmar at the moment. Such a mix of old and new side by side.
As we parted ways with Olga and she headed to the beach, myself and Ramlan decided to skip some serious miles by getting a night bus north to Mandalay. I would quite like the two hours back it took me to cycle through Yangon traffic to the bus station 20km out of town at night back. I didn’t like it. Someone knocked my panniers off and as it’s not cool to get angry here I managed to hold my cool. I’d also like the week of my life back after eating something that was apparently fish but looked like chicken that I ate in Yangon bus station. More on that in a minute.
The VIP night bus was smooth and zipped us to Mandalay by 5am, even including a free toothbrush. We cycled the 5km or so into town to check in at the ace Ace Hostel by 6am. Which was good timing as at about 6:10am I started several days of aggressive toileting. I can’t comment about anything really about Mandalay as I was in the hotel pretty much exclusively apart from ambitiously trying to leave a day earlier before realising that wasn’t wise.
Mandalay – Hsipaw (by train)
The train to Mandalay leaves at 4am and helpfully we were only a few hundred metres away as it was fair to say I was still a touch fragile. The train takes 14 hours to cover about 300km into the eastern Shan state as the train network isn’t quite advancing into the modern era as fast as the rest of Myanmar is. But it was a very charismatic and scenic journey that I would most heartily recommend. It also only cost about £2 plus a bit extra for the bikes. The bikes were loaded into the storage compartments with some massive sacks and later goats. Turns out the sacks were dried fish and gave the contents of my panniers a bit of an aroma for a day or so.
The train stopped at several towns and smaller stations along the way where locals and tourists (it’s a popular ride) hop on and off and happily hang around while carriages are connected and goods are loaded on and off along the way. In particular we passed through the station of Pyin-of-Lwin, a town that was a key colonial location (not sure why) and the station most definitely still evidences it’s history… Again the clash of old and new is there right before your eyes. I find it so interesting.
The major highlight of the journey is the passing of the Giotek viaduct, an old school and impressive structure that takes the train over a demon of a gorge and is most certainly worth hanging your neck out of the window and getting paparazzi with the scenery for. Many people get the train just to the viaduct and then head back in the other direction.
The last couple of hours did drag a little and I was pleased for us to arrive in Hsipaw. There is a real satisfaction on arrival of skipping away on your bike much to the confusion of people and being able to politely decline the endless offers of taxis.
On the train we were approached by a young salesperson for one of the hotels who inventively got on the train one stop before Hsipaw to persuade tourists without a booking to stay at their hotel. It worked pretty well and we ended up staying at the Red Dragon. Apparently there is a bit of a monopoly on guesthouses and trekking companies in the town, so the diversification is perhaps a good thing. We were told along the way somewhere that over the past ten-fifteen years ago when the powers of the military have been gradually diluted and that the country has been opened up more to tourist that the rights to hotels that can host foreigners were given to former military families. So it’s definitely a good idea to avoid these hotels and monopolies where possible).
In Hsipaw I was still feeling not so good and still hardly eating and so it wasn’t the most adventurous time and we ended up staying three days (longer than expected). Key highlight in Hsipaw itself was to visit the former palace of a Shan prince where we heard the story of the prince’s disappearance (read execution) at the hands of the military many decades back and as told by a living family member, Fern, still living in the house. It was fascinating and absolutely worth a visit.
When I was back to almost normal health we hired motorbikes and bombed 70km though the Shan hills to the next big town of Lashio. We were pretty Far East by this point and only about 100km from the Chinese border. The the town was a weaving, windy network of hilly roads with a very clear Chinese influence so close to the border. Many signs were in four languages, of Myanmar, English, Shan and Mandarin. Here we ate an absolutely delicious Chinese lunch in a very modest looking restaurant but nearly passed out at the price which was almost UK like.
The ride was very memorable with the particular shapings of the Shan hills, almost hillock like, and also because it was ruddy freezing on the bike with the wind in the hills. Got back to the hotel after accidentally losing Ramlan and let myself defrost.
Hsipaw – Mandalay (by bus)
Despite my protestations that I wanted to cycle and I wanted to cycle now, we didn’t cycle and instead got the bus to Pyin-oo-Lwin with the intention of staying one night and then cycling (mostly downhill) back to Mandalay. I’d spent days while I’ll looking into easier cycling routes as I was desperate to get off buses, but unfortunately by not eating properly and not cycling for what felt like ages I just didn’t feel strong enough. It’s not like you can just hop on and go, you kind of have to be pretty fit to manage the heat and the hills and carrying the weight, so I felt pretty disappointed.
So we got a fairly priced bus and got overcharged for putting the bikes on (no choice at this point) to Pyin-oo-Lwin. Upon reaching the town we tried five hotels and everywhere was full for a national holiday. The only place left was a one room shared with another two people and it was really skanky, so Ramlan had the bright idea of getting another bus to Mandalay to save time and give us another day somewhere else. I relinquished the idea of cycling again and agreed this was a good idea as our visas were running out and hadn’t even been the the two main tourist spots yet. So we were in Mandalay by evening and on a bus the next day to Bagan, the pearl of Myanmar and the 8th wonder of the world.
Fortunately Olga and Ramlan were healed and so we were all able to cycle to the next destination of the pilgrimage site of ‘Golden Rock’ up a bloody big hill at Kyaiktiyo. However we would aim for where the cheaper accomodation is at the bottom in a tourist den called Kinpun. Think ‘I’ve been to Kinpun’ t-shirts. I have no recollection of the first 70m of this journey at all but I know I cycled it as here are some pictures of some things.
I do remember being very tired and exhausted by the sun when we pulled over for lunch at the turn off for Kinpun in Kyaikto (not to be mistaken for Kyaiktiyo).It is riotously hot between 12-2 and it sucks the energy right out of you.
The last 14m of the journey to Kinpun were frankly unwelcomed in their hillyness. When our prebooked hotel was not where we’d marked it on the map I almost had my first cycling induced hissy fit and refused to pedal a step further without triple checking with passers by in case I may glide down a hill only to have to go back up it again. After about ten minutes of trying to pronounce the word ‘Lotus’ in a comedic range of accents and facial expressions we eventually found our hotel. Which was awesome.
Went for dinner and saw the double sights of some very cute cats and a confusing tourist strategy of putting a big wheel that nobody wants to ride because they’ve mostly come on a spiritual pilgrimage and not the fair.
Kinpun (for Kyaikthiyo) rest day
So the story with the ‘Golden Rock’ is that there is…a golden (not gold) rock high up on a hill that is said to contain one of the hairs of Buddha. Buddha gave one of his hairs to a hermit, who gave the hair to the King and asked for the hair to be enshrined in a rock shaped like the hermit’s head. The King had supernatural powers and found this specific rock that was indeed shaped like the hermit’s head and raised it out of the waters and found this cracking spot for it on the hillside. The rock looks like it’s going to fall off any minute, but it won’t. The site is one of the most special pilgrimage destinations in the nation and the vast majority of visitors are Myanmar Buddhists coming to pay their respects. And Chinese tourists.
You can get a really overpriced and seriously fun 40min truck ride up a very, very steep windy hillside or hike for like four hours. It’s windy, wiggly and the drivers go rlly, rlly fast. It was wicked. Someone was sick on Olga’s bus. Up top I went for a wander first before checking out the rock as I was more bothered about the views and than the hermit’s head. There are quite a few hillside villages and it got me really thinking about practical things like sewage and how much of a pain in the ass it must be to transport things you need bac and forth. Guessing the majority of people don’t travel down the hillside that often and work/school in the hills.
Back to the rock. Actually, before the rock please remember to remove your feet before entering and say hello to that famous Buddhist figure Santa.
The rock! Is not really shaped like a (hermit’s) head but it is pretty neat. It’s not solid gold but covered in gold leaf. There are thousands of people who make the pilgrimage to the rock, including very many who bring sleeping kit and stacks of food and their families to sleep overnight for the double purpose of maximum sunrise/sunset views (spectacular) and more praying time. It’s kind of a weird thing being at such a special site for many people but it also being pretty touristy.
Not much to say about the rock, it looks cool. I’d like to have gotten closer but I wasn’t permitted because I am a woman. My womanly wiles and different body shape obviously mean I, and other women, are not suitable candidates to pray and place gold leaf upon the rock in the same way as chaps. Ramlan did not find this amusing either, despite his glee below.
Kinpun – Bago (about 80km of 103km)
Okay and back on the bike again (can you tell I’m writing up several weeks in one go? get me a beer pls) the next day for a long one of 100km. This was Christmas Eve! The first 40km or so were undulating but smooth. The stretch afterwards is straight, boring and with quite a lot of trucks, a headwind and few snack stops. Once you turn a sharp bend to head left with about 40km to go the wind eases up a bit and you have more, but not many places to stop.
This day was the day of the cycle tourists however, in which we cycled past FIVE other tourers heading in the other direction within 10km of each other. First an English couple on a TANDEM with an Austrian guy who are cycling the entire globe, followed by a German couple who cycle for one month a year come hell or high water.
This day was the day of the cycle tourists however, in which we cycled past FIVE other tourers heading in the other direction within 10km of each other. First an English couple on a TANDEM with an Austrian guy who are cycling the entire globe, followed by a German couple who cycle for one month a year come hell or water.
Myself and Ramlan there in the towel at about 80km I thin and got a pick up and put our bikes on top. It’s hard going carrying all your stuff in the heat and as we keep stopping to see cool stuff I don’t think my legs are up to the grade of pumping out 100km or so yet. That will come I’m sure. Plus I wanted to get to Bago and ring my mom as it was her birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY DIANNE.
Bago – Yangon (bus)
Christmas Day! To celebrate Christmas I went to visit the ‘world’s biggest SNAKE’ (liars) in a temple and put my bike on another bus into the capital city Yangon to avoid mega skanky traffic that we were warned of. So this is a quick update as actually very uneventful, apart from the snake below which seemed drunk. CLOSE YOUR EYES IF YOU DONT LIKE SNAKES.
Got my bike off the bus at one of Yangon’s out of city bus depots and made the cycle approx 18km into its throngs. I was warned that Yangon traffic is evil and initially I was like, what’s the fuss about, and then realised what the fuss is about. It’s not just that there’s a lot of cars, but that often they seem to stop exactly where they are for twenty minutes at a time. The traffic lights seem to change at very long intervals and if this is on purpose I’m not sure it works.
But actually I was quite happy and liked what I saw of the city so far. It’s immediately obvious that you’ve hit a big city as less people wear the traditional ‘longyi’ (wrap around skirt type clothing) and some women wear skirts and even sometimes shorts above the knee. Checked into Agga hostel in Yangon which was brilliant. Didn’t do much apart from call home and have some ropey street food for Christmas dinner.
This section might be a bit briefer and patcher than previous as it was written erm 5 weeks after the event… Got a bit sick in Myanmar and dropped the blog ball already.
Note: There’s not that many roads in Myanmar so I’m not noting which roads we took as we took ‘the’ road.
Mae Sot – Kawkareik (70 hilly kms)
Olga and myself managed to drag ourselves away from our beautiful hotel and swimming pool to head out and meet Ramlan our third travelling companion by the Thai-Myanmar border for 8:30am. The morning started with a gentle 8km or so through the last fields of Thailand for a while to snake a back way to the border point, passing schools and work crews kicking into action for the day.
A promising start perhaps to meet at a cafe called Heaven. I would not be saying this in about three hours time. We zipped through the border crossing pretty swiftly, although the immigration guards took fine time chewing through Olga’s non EU passport. Much smoother experience than many internet searches would have you believe. Myanmar is experiencing significant tourist growth and this land border crossing has only been open for a few years, so a lot of the travel advice online is pretty out of date.
Instant impressions cycling across my first border into the town of Myawiddy were how although things were kind of the same there were already some differences just from having crossed that line that some dude drew some time ago. Your cycling on the other side of the road for starters, but Myanmar is instantly dusty and there seemed to be a lot of building going on. Times are changing fast in this country.
We had about say 15kms of smooth riding, stopping only once to give roadside police photocopies of our passport that we were advised to come prepared with. All smiles, no stress. Once you pass out of Myawiddy there aren’t really many drink/food stops along the way to Kawkareik so stock up. The ‘new’ road from the border into Myanmar is now open and thankfully it’s in very good nick. The previous ‘old’ road was apparently absolutely shocking and was so bad that vehicles were only permitted to travel one direction a day at a time. If you got the wrong day you just had to wait.
Then there was a hill-mountain. I knew it was coming and I am not surprised how it felt. It felt bad. Rlly rlly bad. I can’t actually remember much of it, but I know that cycling and then getting off and pushing a bike and luggage up a fuck-nut of a hill for about an hour in midday sun with no shade isn’t a pleasant experience. Fortunately there was a summit where we took shade in this hut next to an army/police stop. The dudes with guns were friendly despite their stern faces and have us a crate of water which we demolished while our blood cooled by like 30 degrees or whatever. This was a big hill for sure, but for better initiated legs I imagine it would be not so traumatic at all.
But what goes up comes down, and the way down was delightful. This was followed by about 20km of uneventful flat before arriving in the small town of Kawkareik where we stayed at the better of the two guesthouses open to foreigners (foreigners have to stay in a limited range of registered guesthouses in Myanmar).
Later that evening I met with the lovely SuSu who lives in the town and who I’d been in touch with the cycling site via http://www.warmshowers.com, but a combination of language barriers and tiredness meant we agreed to rearrange for a morning tour instead.
Kawkareik – Hpa-an (approx 55 kms of 90km journey)
Wrenched by body awake to meet Ramlan and SuSu at 7:15am for breakfast at the local market and a tour of a rice noodle factory. Kawkareik doesn’t get many/any tourists apart from the odd cycle tourer so we were the source of some intrigue that morning. Visiting the rice noodle factory was interesting. It looks laborious and my conclusion was it would be much easier to just eat the rice as it is.
SuSu is from the town and takes cycle tourists around to see the sights and answer questions about the area. If you pass through then you can contact her via Kawkareik on warmshowers.com.
We finally got going about 9:30 which was too late really as it was going to be another long day. It was an okay ride through villages and small towns along the only road towards Hpa-an, but it was a bumpy ride with A LOT of dust with road crews working on the surface. A bad road surface makes it much more energy consuming.
Myself and Ramlan had cycled ahead of Olga and by about 3pm were pretty tired with still 25km to go and so we decided to hitch a lift, only for Olga to rock up just in time. We flagged a car taxi and loaded the three bikes onto the roof and rested easy for the remaining ride. As we approached Hpa-an we saw the stunning karst limestone mountains that surround the town and I felt a pang of disappointment for not cycling this stretch, but I’m not in a cycling competition and decided to take it easy on myself.
We stayed a day and a half in snoozy Hpa-an as there are many sights to see and it’s turnbacktime vibe is very soothing. Definitely quite a few tourists as it’s a key spot on the trail, but the integrity of the place is certainly retained.
The next day may have been my favourite in Myanmar where myself and Ramlan hired a motorbike and headed out into the countryside to zip around paddy fields chilling at the feet of mountains and visit some very cool caves. It really was stunning and felt such a treat being so free to explore. I felt very alive that day.
We visited a few cave sites with the Saddan Caves being particularly memorable. You can walk deep into the caves and play with the echoes (no photos as it was dark obvs), but most people stick with checking out the amazing carvings into the rock face that adorn the temple inside.
Hpa-an – Moulmein (boat ferry)
The following day we eschewed the bikes again to take the much recommended river ferry to the nearby town of Moulmein and we weren’t disappointed. It was a glorious three hours nipping along inbetween mountains either side. Felt pretty boss this day too 🙂
Moulmein (rest day)
Moulmein – Thaton (70km)
Er we didn’t cycle again as wanted to see Moulmein… So we took another rest day here but in reality could have skipped this as while it’s a nice town to chill I’m not sure I’d spend a day there again instead of cycling. It’s one of the places in Myanmar where the British colonial architecture remains in clear sight and which was of great interest to my inner geek. I would have bloody loved a museum about this shit but museums aren’t a thing in this area so much.
We stayed in a very cool old colonial hotel that was more than a touch The Shining. I whiled away a very happy afternoon working my way through Orwell’s Burmese Days in the hotel sitting on an old teak armchair that some rich old colonial dude probably puffed imported cigars on back in the day.
Orwell lived in the town briefly (I think) and I visited a quintessentially quaint English church where his family practiced. Very odd to see such a familiar sight shrouded in palm trees. This was a few days before Christmas and I stood outside and listened to a youth choir sing joyously along to Hark The Herald Angels sing translated into Myanmar.
Moulmein – Thaton (70km)
Finally back on the bike again and I must have missed it as I zipped 70km and arrived at our planned hotel by 12 noon on the dot. This was 70km in pretty much bang on 3.5 hours which was good going. Well done legs. Olga and Ramlan were feeling ropey so got the bus and I met them there. I thoroughly enjoyed this solo cycle and felt very liberated whipping through this unfamiliar place with confidence. Well done me. The road was smooth and fast and there’s small towns pretty much all along the way if you did want to stop for lunch and plenty of hillside wats you can visit or rest in.
We stayed in the only foreigner guest house in town and got charged for the pleasure at a whopping $45 a night for the three of us in a shared room. Olga and Ramlan killed their illness with sleep and I spent pretty much the entire evening on the balcony just listening to the sounds of the town, feat motorbikes, never ending and most relaxing undulating chanting from the town’s central temple and of course dogs. Thaton has great historical significance in the development of Buddhist civilisation across the old empires now spanning Myanmar, Thailand and India, but the details of this are lost on me. This is where a tour guide would actually be really useful.
Day 7: Nakhon Sawan – Khanu Woralaksaburi (62km)
The best cycle so far. Every km was lush and the roads straightforward. We covered 62km in four hours of cycling with plenty of photo stop offs.
Get out of Nakhon Sawan as fast as you can and head north towards the smaller roads shouldering Ping River again. We stuck to the left side of the river for the entire 62km, with only very minor twists and turns until reaching our destination. The whole ride was quiet on the roads and with most charming countryside, from the probs more middle-class river side suburbs of the city, the almost continuous roadside settlements and the sugar cane/tea/corn/coconut farming of the more remote final leg. One highlight included cycling past about hundred school kids doing an organised ‘Bike For Dad‘ ride as part of the King’s birthday celebrations. Not so many 7-11s or fancy stop off points but plenty of decent smaller shops and restaurants, including the sweetest mother and daughter restaurant about 5km north of Kae Lieo who indulged our terrible Thai with encouragement and good grace.
The ‘town’ of Khanu Woralaksaburi was not on our map much to our surprise, especially to find an entire fun fair and Chinese New Year celebration including Thai covers of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Bit odd. Convinced this was actually a zombie town and we were going to be eaten by nightfall. Local people the most perplexed and astounded to see westerners so far. Interestingly this is where we saw the first other white person for a week.
Day 8: Khanu Woralaksaburi – Kampheang Phet (67km)
Crikey this day was hard, but for no particular reason. The road was flat, good and straight the whole was but especially uneventful scenery made for a hard slog and a bit of a boring day. And it was really hot.
Turn right and over the bridge through Khanu Woralaskaburi (actually great views over thw wide river) and then just keep heading up the highway just to the right of the river until you reach your destination of Kampheang Phet. Pretty simple. Not too many towns along the way to break up the monotomy but there are loads of smaller settlements along the road with ample pit stops for food and shady rest. We stopped at a very good BBQ place about 45km before Kampheang Phet and were glad to be able to diversify our meals by learning the words ‘salad’ and ‘grilled’.
Highlight of the day was being honked at and pulled over by this very naturally hospitable woman who listened with great glee to my wonky Thai explanation of what we were doing, where we’d been and where we were going. She then have me some of her home grown bananas and then drove off to do the same for Olga who was a little behind me. Thai warmth at it’s best.
Kampheang Phet itself is a nice spot and I would recommend it. It seems to be quite a large town that has at least some passing tourist trade. Pretty sleepy and quiet with a no stress vibe. Ate at a very good Vietnamese restaurant opposite Three J Guesthouse where we stayed and topped up on vegetables.
Day 3: REST DAY: Kampheang Phet
Kampheang Phet has quite a few attractions within a short-ish distance so makes for a good pit stop. Defo recommend. You can hire motorbikes and head west to the hills for a variety of waterfalls, or head towards Sukothai for hot springs and more Thai massage as we did to soothe very aching muscles. The hot spring was so soothing but also quite a challenge not having heart palpitations in 50 degree water when it’s already 34 degrees.
Was too zoned out to remember to take a photo of the massage experience but it was memorable. The foreigners were pretty much pounced on by about ten trainee masseuses who could not have been older than twelve/thirteen but claimed fifteen. They didn’t quite seem to know what to do or what was going on, creating quite an odd hour of being prodded by a team of laughing children who kept trying to ask you how old you were. Some grown ups took over after a while for the real pain, giving us a two and a half hour massage for £3.50.
There is also a historical park with ruins of the Sukothai empire era that sadly we didn’t make it to as we were held in traffic for hours because of road closures due to more en masse Bike For Dad celebrations. What is all these cyclists problems ffs, can’t they just stay inside and develop diabetes like everyone else?
We also found a pizza restaurant called Oasis on tripadvisor just outside of town and could not have been happier to turn up on a motorbike and fill our faces with the familiar and delicious wheaty based foods of home. Rice is nice but it’s very repetitive.
Day 9: Kampheang Phet – Tak (81km inc detours)
This was a real belter of a beautiful cycle that my eyes and legs embraced whole heartedly. Today Olga and me cycled separately as she wasn’t feeling on top form and I had itchy legs so we agreed to meet in Tak. I whizzed almost 50k before stopping for more than a few minutes and was feeling in fine fettle, I think from a new strategy of eating something every 45mins to keep energy up.
A 40min stop and what was almost a conversation at a roadside spot with these lovely women and then I finished the final stretch in good time before 1:30pm! You can leave Kampheang Phet many ways to get onto the not mega highway of Tesa 2 that is smooth and whips you along. There are various options to get onto even smaller roads closer to the river (right side) and that will take you through more lush villages and very friendly folk (and a high proportion of dogs…).
Pictures won’t do this gentle journey justice, but it was about 60km of a combination of almost zero traffic, enthusiasm from locals, banana planatations and the final stretch of winding around the first low lying hills before hitting the smelly Tak highway.
Bit of a polava with hotels as both of the ones we had pre agreed were fully booked and neither of us had phones to communicate while we were a far distance apart. Safe to say that my holiday Thai app was insufficient in this situation, but short story is we settled at Domethong Residence in the highway infested town of Tak, right opposite a giant Tesco. We didn’t go into Tak as the presence of massive scary highways with shit loads of traffic put us right off.
Day 10: Tak – Mae Sot (70km or so BY BUS!)
Having thankfully listened to (Olga’s) reason we decided not to cycle to Mae Sot as it is not only a mega long shlep up a very steep mountain but it is a bit of a vile road also. So glad. Please, cyclists just get a bus. I don’t think you’re missing that much unless you’re someone who is absolutely adamant that they won’t travel more than a metre that isn’t pedal powered. You can’t even really see the mountaneous glory of the mountains as there’s too many bloody trucks and minibuses trying to cut each other up for at least the first narrow laned 20-30km. The road does get better and thankfully wider but despite winding through mountains it isn’t so scenic.
Instead we loaded out bikes onto the roof of a minibus for an extra 100B (£2) and saved about seven hours of pain and fear and arrived in lovely Mae Sot in about an hour and a half. Buses from Tak bus station go very often. Dead easy.
Days 11-12: Mae Sot REST DAYS
Inspired by the previous day’s avoidance of cycling we took our feet of the pedals in style and checked into a suprisingly cheap hotel, Raimaneethip Homestay, about 3-4km out of town in the surrounding rural areas. It had a SWIMMING POOL and a farm where all the food you eat is picked and grown. It was proper lush and would have been perfect if either we spoke Thai, the Burmese staff spoke Thai, or English, or we all spoke any other common language as it was quite an effort to order any food. All in well humoured good grace however.
Mae Sot is a bit special and we were very glad to stay and be lazy somewhere very friendly and easy for a few days. Got overexcited about finding a curry restuarant with chapattis and also got my bike gears tweaked and a kind mechanic erased a click I’d been fiddling with all week in about eleven seconds. So quick he didn’t even charge. I tried to watch and learn but he was too quick
As a border town between Thailand and Myanmar the town is a bit of a mish mash of things. The Burmese (Myanmar-ese?) influence is strong, to the point that it’s harder to recognise Thai spoken on the street, the food available is quite different immediately and there is a very notable increase in ethnic diversity.
Over the years the western hills of Thailand have become home to large numbers of Burmese refugees, many of whom lack proof of identity of citizenship and the human rights this affords. Maybe this will change with the political shifts occuring in Myanmar and perhaps many of the Burmese refugees and working migrants will choose to move back over the border. Early to say perhaps. The town is also home to a booming NGO scene, resulting in a higher proportion of westeners and non local Thai/SE Asian workers and the luxury businesses that follow (loads of coffee shops).
Leaving Thailand feeling I’ve only just gotten started and that the dominance of the cycling and adapting to the new ryhthm has meant I’ve not learnt anywhere near as much as I’d like about the country. Hoping that I’ll be less physically exhausted once I get in my stride and will have enough juice left to learn about Myanmar more meaninfully.
Stepped off the train around 8:30am and found a side street to finish the last final tweaks to our bikes before putting pedals in motion. It was already hot, like 32 degrees before 9am. A few whoops and ear to ear grins and we were off heading north along a poker straight local road that runs parallel to the train line all the way until Bang Pa-in. After about 10km we stopped off for our first roadside breakfast and effort to communicate with good humour but without common language. A pretty and straightforward stretch with a very decent road and a 7-11 closer to the Bang Pa-in junction. We took respite from the midday heat at a Wat somewhere along the way. Change roads and head right through Bang Pa-in and just keep going until you hit Ayutthaya. There are no photos to capture the sweaty, dirty and hysterically laughing mess we were in at the end of Day 1. I better get fit fast.
Day 2: Ayutthaya – nr Pho Tong (52km)
Headed north out of the city on a semi busy highway and kept going over the junction for the 347 Thanon Asia main highway. An open, straight and wide stretch of paddy fields along tarmac and running parallel to the river. Within a few km we came across Chai, a fellow tourer heading the other direction. Chai is Malaysian and is heading home after touring China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Language barriers and eagerness to get going stopped mor conversation but his advice was ominous, “Enjoy tired legs.”
Kept going straight before stopping for lunch in the small Thai town that epitomises small Thai towns of Ang Thong where we successfully learnt the essential words for rice and toilet and stocked up in the glorious air conditioned delights of a 7-11. Tried not to fall asleep and pushed on for another 15km or so before spotting a sign for Bang Chao Tourist Village and pulling in for advice on accommodation.
Here we had the good fortune to meet Nang who would escort us to a homestay and spend much of the following evening desperately try and form a conversation using only her sincere enthusiasm and our ‘Learn Thai’ iphone app. Something to do with a peanut, two eggs and a pregnant woman. She actually brought popcorn, sat down and just watched us.
The homestay was very cheap and decent in a beautiful village definitely worth staying in. Note Nang’s ‘Bike For Dad t-shirt’ to commemorate the King of Thailand’s birthday the following day (see other pic).
Day 3: Pho Tong – Sankhaburi (60km)
More straight road ahead (just keep following the river) and several ice coffee cans later and we were in our stride. Thankful for cloudy skies today that really took the oomph out of the sun and made for a much more relaxing journey through sugar cane plantations and more waving at strangers. There are food stops and 7-11s very often on this easy stretch.
Best lunch so far by miles at the biggest restaurant we could see in Ban Channasut where things were done with peanuts I never imagined. Just kept going, kept going through a challenging headwind until hitting Sankhaburi expecting a tiny nowhere place and struggling to find a guesthouse. We stopped at a petrol station to ask for ‘homestay’ and seeing our clear lack of understanding of directions two women hopped on their motorbike and escorted us at least 5km to a resort of sorts just on the edge of the very charming Sankhaburi town. Tried to find “I love you” in my phrase book but was too slow before they drove off. Thai hospitality is the BEST. We nearly cried with joy when we turned up here.
Day 4: Sankhaburi – Uthai Thani (58km inc wrong way)
A refreshing breakfast of three slices of bread and marmite, milk, half a pineapple each, a yoghurt, half a bag of peanuts and two cups of tea and we were off.
Some of the cutest road so far if you head out of the town on the local roads that hug the river on your right. All colours of the rainbow used on painted houses, fishing and very friendly and surprised faces for about up to an hour before the quiet roads end as you have to enter the highway and head left towards Chai Nat.
Then it’s more of the same following the road north parallel to the river and avoiding the main highway but unfortunately we missed the small junction on the right that allows you to hug the river (just before Chai Nat and just after the bridge for 340 highway) and got stuck on a fairly busy and uneventful main road all the way until Uthai Thani. It would have been less eventful if I had not gone left instead of right one one of the junctions before Wat Sing and added 10km to my travels. Made up for boring road by pushing my legs and hitting 30km an hour at one point. Finally caught up with Olga with a very red face in Wat Sing for lunch, coffee and wifi at an Amazon Cafe by the last petrol station in town.
Kicked off again and just keep going until you hit the cute river side town of Uthai Thani. Tried a couple of out of town hotels (a new and not attractive from outside one beginning with K but good rooms) and an overpriced resort with a skanky overprices room before settling for a hotel modelling itself on 1984 or Clockwork Orange for an 8:30pm sleep. Last foreigner (farang) to check in was in October. Very pretty town by the river that is worth visiting.
Day 5: Uthai Thani – Nakhon Sawan (42km)
By this point 42km didn’t feel a stretch at all and so the day passed heading north and slightly east on more tarmaced and straight roads to Nakhon Sawan. Uneventful views compensated by me being a melon and getting my foot stuck in my pedal strap and therefore my pedal stuck in my leg and falling off twice. A nastyish gash, reducing some of the weight of my first aid kit and about ten people trying to stop and help and we were off again.
Lunch and a few snacks at a couple of roadside stops and some more paddy fields before arriving in the industrial feeling barrenness of Nakhon Sawan. On first glance, not impressed, but fortunately the hotel had the good sense to create a haven of beautiful yellow flowers, shade and hospitality that made you forget you were actually in the Slough/Milton Keynes equivalent of Thailand.
Day 6: REST DAY
Basically sat on high speed wifi and went for thai massage all day. Oh my god did it hurt good after the first week of touring. Nakhon Sawan itself is not a pleasant town with loads of highways everywhere. Highlight was being amused at how the park in the centre of town is so conformist that cyclists have to go one way and runners have to go another.
Jacked in London to cycle SE Asia for a while. I'll capture my experiences here. How long will I last? It's bloody hot and I already want a cup of tea.