You know a country is good for cycle touring when your biggest complaint is that everything is just a little “too easy”. If you’re considering embarking on a cycling holiday yourself and want to explore a destination a little more exciting and exotic than Europe without forgoing comfort and convenience, book yourself a flight to Thailand. Delicious, cheap food, plenty of camping opportunities and Warmshowers hosts, beautiful beaches and smooth, quiet roads made our month in the “Land of the Free”, as the country’s name translates, feel like we had arrived in paradise.
26th March – 20th April 2019
The border crossing from Cambodia was quick, straightforward and without any scamming attempts. We time-travelled to the year 2562 BE (Buddhist Era) and after having cycled in countries with right-side traffic for about a year, were back on the left, on perfectly tarmacked scenic country roads, often with a cycle lane. Gone were the days of having to choose between an uncomfortable amount of traffic on one hand or bad surfaces on the other, meticulously researching and weighing up route options in advance; in Thailand, you just put your destination into a routing app of your choice, select the cycling mode, and start pedalling. We spent our first night by a reservoir with a wooden shelter and a hammock, after having obtained permission to camp there from a dude lazing in another hammock outside an adjacent building. We were off to a good start.
“You’ll love 7-eleven”, we had heard from every other cyclist we had spoken to that had already been to Thailand. “Maybe we’ll treat ourselves occasionally but it’s probably too expensive to make it a habit, and besides, they’ll surely only be in bigger cities”, we had thought. The reality is: 7-eleven is everywhere in Thailand – at around 10,000 stores across the country, there are more than in the US – and they offer enough cheap options to be a viable go-to place for everything except fresh produce (which they don’t sell and we therefore still bought at local markets). Needless to say, like all the other cyclists before us, we quickly became regulars and barely a day went by without a 10 o’clock 7-eleven snack break. We soon had our favourite, best value-for-money items: black bean paste buns, Fun-O biscuits with a 3 for 2 promotion, salted mung beans that tasted like the crumbs at the bottom of a Pringles tube, and self-service iced coffees. We made sure to always have a carrier bag handy and signal to the cashier that we didn’t need another one, and mostly managed to interrupt their gesture of reaching for plastic lids and straws to put onto and into our drinks, but we still went through a number of disposable paper cups that we’re not proud of. Such is the price of convenience and indulgence – a bad conscience lurking in the back of one’s mind and a negative impact on the environment.
Almost as ubiquitous as 7-eleven outlets were images of King Vajiralongkorn, a.k.a. Rama X. However, despite criticism of the king being strictly prohibited, it’s clear that he will never be as beloved as his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who had been regarded as a national father figure and benevolent ruler. After his death in 2016, the demand for black clothing exceeded supply and large dyeing vats popped up around Bangkok and other cities.
Another common and the only cautionary type of tale we had heard from other cyclists was that the dogs in Thailand were somewhat aggressive, more so than in other Southeast Asian countries at least. We discovered that there were indeed noticeably more stray dogs here than in any country we had visited in a while, and that a north-south divide in dog behaviour exists: during our first few days, we did experience a fair bit of barking and a few brief chases, whereas later on, all dogs we met fell somewhere on the friendly-to-lazy spectrum. Even the northern dogs generally let off pretty quickly after a bit of shouting on our part though, and after Greece, Turkey and Georgia, our threshold for getting scared by dogs will forever remain at >9000, so there was no danger of these episodes negating our enjoyment.
The prospect of a more exciting type of wildlife encounter was established by the presence of “elephants crossing” road signs. The elephant is the official national animal of Thailand and carries great cultural and historical significance, being worshipped as a religious icon as well as having been used in warfare, as a form of transport and to carry out heavy labour in logging. Today, there are around 3,000 domesticated and 1,000 wild elephants in Thailand, so the chances of seeing one of the latter category are pretty slim; it wasn’t something we realistically expected would happen. On our second day in the country though, after having been turned away at another reservoir we had asked permission to camp at, we heard rustling coming from the jungle beside the road. Tim paid it no mind, while Linda stopped to have a closer look, and lo and behold, staring at her from about 20 metres away, partly obstructed by trees and other vegetation, was an actual wild elephant. For about half a minute, Linda and the elephant just stared at each other, neither of them moving, until, heart pounding, she fumbled for her camera to snap a quick picture, before frantically but silently signalling Tim, who had now also stopped about 100 metres ahead and had been looking at Linda looking into the jungle, to come back; all the while prepared to pedal off as fast as possible if the elephant were to make any move into her general direction. Tim arrived back at the scene and saw the elephant too, and as abruptly as the encounter had begun, it was over: some sound we made must have startled the animal, causing it to run off back into the jungle. The detour to the reservoir that we hadn’t been allowed to camp at had definitely been worth it. We made sure not to camp too close to the area and found a workers’ shelter in a nearby palm oil plantation to spend the night in and process what had just happened.
For a stretch on the way to Bangkok, we took a main road, which – while not as visually appealing and serene as the quiet country roads – was also not unpleasant due to a wide hard shoulder and generally very considerate driving. We came across a Highway Police station that had a sign with the picture of a bicycle and the words “Travellers rest area”, which seemed a good place to have a break. We refilled our water bottles and sat down to use their free WiFi for a few minutes, when two policemen came and gave us each a fresh, open coconut – our first of the trip! They proceeded to offer us a room for the night, which we declined as we already had a host to stay with, so after some obligatory group photos, we waved goodbye to them and were on our way. Thailand – where the police give you coconuts, (and, at a different police station a few days later) coffee and mangoes.
The roads going into Bangkok were busy, unsurprisingly for a capital and the world’s most visited city. Still, the traffic wasn’t crazy in the same way that it had been in big cities in other countries; there was a lot of it and without a cycle lane, progress was only as fast as we could squeeze through the gaps between the waiting cars and tuk-tuks, but at the same time, everything seemed quite orderly. While the tuk-tuks and abundance of street food stalls made it clear we were definitely still in Asia, Thailand’s history as the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonised by Europeans sets it apart and paradoxically makes it feel more familiar than Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – it’s a capitalist society with malls and international chain stores catering to a relatively large middle class, also making it an attractive country to expatriate to – or, more specifically, retire in – for many westerners.
We stayed with a Bangkok local whose doors are always open to Warmshowers and Couchsurfing guests, and over the course of our stay, besides us he was hosting no fewer than seven other travellers. During the four days we spent in the Big Mango – the tropical equivalent of New York – we stocked up on some gear from Decathlon (and suddenly half a day was gone), got some vaccinations at the travel clinic, indulged in amazing street food and, of course, did some sightseeing. We got a boat down the Chao Phraya river from our host’s neighbourhood into the centre, walked around the Grand Palace area, and visited Wat Arun, an iconic temple decorated with small porcelain pieces.
From Bangkok, we would make our way to the east coast and follow it south towards Malaysia. Not long after we had left the metropolitan area behind us, we were surrounded by the vast salt pans of Samut Sakhon. As described in this Atlas Obscura article, “Sea water is pumped into the fields and is allowed to gradually evaporate during the dry season between January and April. When the water disappears and leaves behind dazzling white crystals, laborers step in. The work is backbreaking and labor-intensive. Women are typically engaged in scooping the salt into baskets. The men carry a pole with the baskets attached to both ends on their backs to storerooms and godowns.” The workers completed each trip from the field to the storeroom, having carried two heavy baskets in the heat of the day, by pouring a bucket of water over themselves, illustrating the physical exertion of the task.
For the first time of our trip, we would now spend an extended period of time cycling along a country’s seashore, and relished it from the day we reached the coast by finding a quiet beach to camp on, going for a swim in the Gulf of Thailand and savouring the beautiful sunrise the next morning. In the town on Pran Buri, we found another fantastic Warmshowers host in Dui, who cooked us a delicious dinner followed by a mouthwatering dessert of mango sticky rice. The food in Thailand was some of the best we had eaten on the whole trip: Pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles), the return of papaya salad, which our taste buds had fallen in love with in Laos, fried rice, and, much to Linda’s delight, the concept of jay – Buddhist veganism. In every sizable town, there was at least one jay restaurant that served incredible buffet-style vegan food at a cheap price. Another notable food-related observation was the beginning of the disappearance of chopsticks, which had been our main eating implements for half of our trip and which we had got so used to that eating noodles with a fork and spoon just feels weird and wrong now.
Just down the coast from Dui’s place lies Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, the name of which translates to “mountain of three hundred peaks”. It combines limestone hills, pristine beaches and caves; the most popular attraction and the reason for our visit being Phraya Nakhon Cave. We reached the cave entrance after a short walk along a path hugging the cliffs and overlooking the coastline, followed by a hike up a forested stone trail, at the start of which we spotted a dusky langur in a tree. While descending into the cave, a spectacular view opened up in front of us: The roof of the cave collapsed at some point in the distant past, turning it into a sinkhole and allowing sunlight and rain to reach the floor, where tall trees are growing, and a beam of light atmospherically shines onto the Royal Pavilion of King Rama V, built in 1890. After spending some time exploring the cave and making our way back to our bikes, we took the opportunity to camp at nearby Sam Phraya Beach, which our friend Alice called one of her highlights of when she cycled through the area two years ago. We didn’t regret having an early finish to the day while watching yet another stunning sunset (even though we were on the east coast, the sunsets were just as on point as the sunrises) and were temporarily joined by a group of monkeys in the evening. We saw another group of monkeys in a town the next day, where we made the mistake of still being amazed enough to stop and have a look, while forgetting about the bunch of bananas that was attached visibly on the back of Linda’s bike. Thailand – where monkeys steal your bananas.
Our next Warmshowers host was a Swiss man called Cedric who lives in Thailand and owns a homestay at which he lets cyclists camp for free. Cedric himself was currently abroad, but told us his brother-in-law would take care of us and that we were welcome to use one of the bathrooms, kitchen and pool. Yes, there was a pool. His gorgeous home provided an ideal place to take a rest day and catch up with old friends: Pablo and Guillaume, two Frenchmen riding a tandem whom we had first met in Turkey about eight months prior, then met up with again in Tbilisi, before our routes diverged and we thought we might never see each other again. Much had happened since then: they had been to Iran and India, before flying to Singapore and making their way north through Malaysia and Thailand, up to where we now met again; we had cycled through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia before making our way south through Thailand, down to where we now met again.
After saying goodbye to Pablo and Guillaume once more, we continued along small roads lined with coconut trees, camped on beaches while hundreds of green lights from squid fishing boats lit up the horizon, made friends with a gang of friendly stray dogs and commenced operation “rehydrate dogs”, and stayed at a swanky temple with a neatly designed garden and better, cleaner facilities than in many hotel rooms we had paid for in other countries. We then stayed with our first female Warmshowers host in Thailand, a woman named Patty who also owns a homestay and, being into cycle touring herself, is happy for bike travellers to camp there. We received an incredibly warm welcome and were made to feel part of the family by Patty, her mum and her sister, who was visiting from the US. Once again we were given some excellent food, Patty took us to a nearby cave with lots of Buddha statues, and we made plans to cycle together for a few days, which sadly didn’t work out in the end as one of her dogs got ill, so we said our goodbyes after she rode with us for 14 kilometres to the edge of her town.
If we thought Warmshowers couldn’t get any better, we had reckoned without Krit, yet another homestay owner (and the owner of one of the biggest, fluffiest dogs we’d ever seen that was usually chilling next to a fan) who also kindly offers cyclists to camp on his premises for free. His home was located on the outskirts of the city of Surat Thani, by a river in which we went for a refreshing swim shortly after our arrival. Krit had found out about Warmshowers through his dad Lek, who’s into cycle touring as well and told us he’d like to join us for a few days. There was plenty of camping space around the homestay, but as there were no other guests – and probably in exchange for taking his dad out on a trip – Krit offered us one of the air-conditioned rooms, which we gladly accepted. Apart from his homestay business, Krit is also in the process of starting a boat tour along the river that runs past his house, and he was going to do a test run of the tour which he invited us to join. The tour took us down the river to the homes of some locals who use traditional methods to produce palm tree syrup, vinegar and sweet treats made from coconuts and sticky rice wrapped up in palm leaves, all of which we got to sample, and we were able to watch the fascinating process of palm thatch roofing panels being handmade. The long-tail boat then took us through a natural tunnel created by overhanging nipa palms, before we headed back to Krit’s place.
Our stay in Surat Thani also coincided with the date of Songkran, the Thai New Year, and our fourth new year celebrations of the trip within a year – after the Yi New Year, which we had spent with a Yi family in China, Gregorian New Year, which we had spent in the city of Baise during our second entry into China, and Lunar (Chinese/Vietnamese) New Year which we had spent with a family in Vietnam. Water plays an important symbolic role in the context of Songkran, as it represents purification and the washing away of one’s sins and bad luck. Because of this, Songkran today is mainly known for its water festivals: in every Thai city, major streets are closed to traffic and become arenas for lavish water fights. We cycled into town and were drenched within five minutes of leaving Krit’s place, after receiving our first bucketfuls of water from some people by the side of the road. In the city centre, the celebrations were in full swing: revellers of all ages threw water at each other from barrels carried on the back of pickup trucks or positioned by the side of the road, others used hose pipes or, of course, water guns. Those that weren’t throwing water were carrying tubs of colourful paste, called din sor pong, which they were smearing on people’s faces, a practice that originated from monks marking blessings with colourful chalk. As the only Westerners among the crowd, we were happy that we received no special treatment and weren’t spared any soakings nor colourings. Especially the many instances of having paste rubbed onto our faces created brief, intimate connections; the bearers of the tubs weren’t in any way crude about getting the colour onto people’s faces, instead, they looked into our eyes, smiled and gently placed a handful of paste on our cheeks. We left with a feeling of having been part of the community for the afternoon and wagered a guess that we had witnessed a more authentic version of the festivities than if we had spent them in a place such as Bangkok or Phuket.
We left the next morning with Krit’s dad in tow and spent the next three days cycling together. Contrarily to our usual routine of finding somewhere to camp in the afternoon, Lek preferred to make a more exact plan for where to spend the following night on the evening before or in the morning at the latest, so knowing the area well, he decided how far we would go each day to arrive at camping spots that he had been to before. We stayed at two municipal shelters, one by a beach, one by a river in a national park surrounding Khao Luang, the highest mountain in southern Thailand. On our third evening together we arrived at Thale Noi, a lagoon which is part of Songkhla Lake, the largest natural lake in Thailand. The wetlands of Thale Noi serve as a breeding habitat for thousands of native and migratory bird species, although we didn’t get to see too many of them due to the time of year of our visit. In the evening, we rode over Ekachai Bridge which crosses the lake at the intersection of the lagoons of Thale Noi and Thale Luang and provided some nice sunset views of the wetlands. We found a temple that we wanted to camp at and made friends with some young monks while waiting for someone with the authority to decide if we would be allowed to stay there, and to our delight the boys started singing the song that we had been hearing everywhere in Southeast Asia for months now, but Lek didn’t seem too keen on camping at a temple and instead organised for us to camp on the terrace of a bungalow at a nearby resort, which we unfortunately had to pay for.
We said goodbye to Lek the next morning as he was being picked up by his wife, and carried on south. Our last Warmshowers host in Thailand was a woman named Joy who owns a café and guava farm in a village near the city of Hat Yai, situated just off the banks of one of the rivers sourced by the southernmost lagoon of Songkhla Lake. We camped on the covered terrace of Joy’s café and spent a wonderfully relaxing last couple of days there, including canoeing on the river and seeing hundreds of pretty but glad-we-didn’t-go-for-a-swim jellyfish, before making our way to the Malaysian border. We had originally planned to stay on the east coast of the peninsula all the way through Thailand and down to Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur, but had to change our plans due to an ongoing conflict in the southernmost Thai provinces that arose from ethnic Malays’ discontent with Thailand’s annexation of the area, which prior to the conquest in the early 20th century was part of the Malay Sultanate of Patani. In the past fifteen years, separatists have been carrying out frequent violent assaults – mostly targeting military and government institutions and individuals, but also repeatedly supermarkets and Buddhist temples – in which around 7,000 people have been killed, around 90 percent of them civilians. Even if we had disregarded the possibility of being caught in the crossfire of an attack carried out by separatists – despite not being the target of it – our governments currently advise against all but essential travel to these areas, meaning our travel insurance would have been invalid – a combination of risks we decided not to take.
So we took a slight turn west and pedalled towards the border town of Padang Besar, where our time in Thailand was briefly in danger of ending on a low when we were turned away from two temples we asked to camp at, but were eventually allowed to stay at a third, after a fairly unforthcoming monk made Tim pray to the Buddha. As awkward as the situation was – we don’t know how to pray to the Buddha – in hindsight, the gesture embodied the gratitude we feel towards this country that will remain in our memories as one of the most pleasant places we have cycled through. As much as a long journey wouldn’t be interesting if everywhere was as easy and accessible as Thailand, we will always fondly remember our month in paradise.
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Thanks to our hosts in Thailand: Pichit in Chachoengsao (not pictured), Toom in Bangkok, Dui in Pran Buri, Cedric in Prachuap Khiri Khan (not pictured), Patty in Thachana, Krit in Surat Thani (picture is of his dad Lek) and Joy near Hat Yai (not pictured).
- We cycled 1,700 km through Thailand, making a total of 22,800 km for Tim since leaving England and 22,300 km for Linda. Between blog posts, you can check our current total distances on our Stats page which we update a bit more frequently.
- In Thailand, our average distance on cycling days was 92 km, compared to 83 km for the whole trip since Germany.
- In Thailand, our average day-to-day spending was 5.07 € per person per day, compared to 6.59 € for the whole trip since Germany.
- We camped on 10 nights (2 of which at Buddhist temples) and stayed with 7 Warmshowers hosts for 15 nights. From Germany to the Padang Besar border with Malaysia: 144 nights camping/empty buildings/temples, 87 nights paid accommodation (hotel/hostel/guesthouse/homestay), 82 nights WS/CS/friends, 16 nights invited into people’s homes/places of work, 4 nights ferry/train.
- Puncture score: Tim 1 – Linda 1. Total from Germany: Tim 12 – Linda 5.
- Bike and equipment problems: We finally managed to buy new camping mats in Bangkok, ending about six weeks of sleeping on the bare tent floor. We’ve now gone for foam ones so will have to suffer no more punctures. Tim bought a new handlebar bag and had his outer front gear cable replaced.