Friday, 13 July 2012


8th - 22nd June 2012
5597 - 6617km
Kanchanaburi – Dan Chang – Nong Chang – Ta Marue – Kampaeng Phet – Tak – Mae Sot – Tha Song Yang – Mae Sariang

Oh wat a night!

The ride out of Kanchanburi was sterling. All the stress of trying to arrange a new passport melted away as we pedalled through back country roads in an area vibrant with agriculture. Great swathes of bright flooded rice fields, rows of leafy maize bobbing and whispering in the breeze, cattle here and there too, being very well behaved I might add. And of course the standard dose of yappy chasey dogs, but you can't have it all.

We had somewhere between three and four weeks to kill while we waited for the passport office to verify everything and send a new one out to Bangkok. So for the next three to four weeks we intended to pedal our way north to Chiang Mai, and then loop back down to Bangkok where the passport was to be delivered. We cycled a full 130km that first day, and were knackered as we rode through the final town, but rather than stopping and looking for a motel we pressed on out of town and up a series of short hills as the day dimmed into a citrus evening. Tonight, we had decided, we were going to try camping in a wat.

Thailand is the world's number one exporter of rice, so it's no surprise that there is a hell of a lot of rice growing everywhere. As far as crops go though, it is quite attractive to look at.
Knocking on the door of a temple and asking for shelter for the night may sound like the kind of things only medieval cyclists would do, but apparently it is fairly common practise out here in South East Asia. We'd heard from various cyclists we bumped into, or who's blogs we'd read, that monks are usually more than happy to let a couple of cyclists pitch a tent inside the grounds. It can mean shelter from the rain, and it also reduces the fear factor of whacking a tent up in some wild woodland where any vicious animal can come out and eat you, or draw a moustache on your while you sleep.

Lost in the corn field
Our luck finding a temple was marred by our inability to follow basic signs, so we dismissed the sign for a temple that clearly pointed down a small muddy lane in favour of pressing on, and ended up pushing the bikes through a very large and very muddy field of maize in order to get back on the lane we'd dismissed ten minutes earlier. Luckily for us a farmer there, who found it all very amusing, pointed out the way and got us back on the right track.

When we pulled in to the grounds of the wat itself we were warmly welcomed by a loud pack of dogs that circled around us barking, but thankfully a monk all dressed in orange robes saw us, welcomed us, and showed us an assortment of spots to pitch the tent outside, until another guy offered us a place inside one of the halls.

Inside the temple hall.
We quietly stepped inside to discover a group of monks and nuns sat singing solemn melodies, and Liv got to work stealthily unloading our blankets and inflatable mats. The bikes were a right state, with fist sized clods blocking up the derailleurs thanks to our corn field diversion, so I got to work hosing them down as best I could.

It was a very interesting experience spending a couple of hours in the company of these holy people. They did a lot of meditating, a little bit of singing, and offered us lots of food and hot coffee. It turned out the head monk of the temple had done some cycle touring himself in his younger days, we couldn't quite figure out where, but it was good to know he appreciated our plight. Anyway, everyone we met was very friendly, and we exchanged a few words as best we could as the singing petered out and the hall fell into silence, with everybody rising one by one and leaving for their chambers.

Unfortunately we didn't realise until too late that when everybody went to bed the mozzies swarmed into the hall. We woke hourly, by buzzing and itching, and we had an absolutely dire night's sleep. We woke, or rather, got up, very early and were leaving as the sun was peeping over the cornfield, with dogs barking at us as we rode up the track and back to the road.

The day started off extremely well, with more than an hour of freewheeling along a landscape of green fields flooded with barley sunlight. We happened across a little festival parade frolicking its way down the road, banging drums, playing trumpets, and necking shots of whiskey. It was 10am. We were coaxed off the bikes by the crowd who insisted we danced along with them. Why not eh? Ooo, a whiskey, I shouldn't really but, whoops, down the hatch. Cheers!

After a quarter of an hour of jigging along with them all we hopped back on the bikes and continued on our way. Not for long though. The dreadful night's sleep, coupled with the long day the day before left me absolutely annihilated by midday, so we slunk away into a little motel in a dusty junction town. Next time we stay in a wat – stick the mozzie net up. And probably don't have a shot of whiskey for breakfast either. Ever.

We spent an afternoon at the ancient ruins of Kampaeng Phet - but we'll bore you with that history lesson next time, when we visit the larger complex at Sukhothai.

Over the hills and faraway

Lots of fried rice, dogs, cornfields, blue skies, cheap motels, rice paddies, and an afternoon browsing some old ruins; that was about the sum of the days proceeding our night in the wat. We picked our way gradually north along fairly quiet roads, and knocked off a good distance – well over a hundred kilometres - almost every day. The terrain had been almost completely flat the whole way though, so it wasn't too hard to make a good distance, but all that was about to change.

We arrived in a small city called Tak on the fourth day, and could already see hills ganging around the horizon. Tak was surrounded on three sides by hills, and divided by a fat river. This was the point that we broke with the steady progression north, and cut west to take the back road loop along the Burmese border. We had about 80km to get through the next day, but we'd be climbing more than 800m, descending, then climbing a little more again. It was going to be tough, so we got an early night in a cheap room and were up for an early start and pedalling towards the rather ominous looking hills on the horizon.

As is usually the case with hills, despite our apprehension it turned out to be a brilliant day; with the pleasure far outweighing the pain. The slow ride up in the mid morning was along some staggeringly beautiful countryside – with pine trees (yes, pine trees), Hobbiton hills and views out across a landscape of untouched forested valleys that went on and on like some secret primordial paradise.

Then, of course, the downhill. Which is all of the above but at high speed with the wind in your face. It's about as awesome as anything can get really. Recommended.

Evrim, Elif, and Liv!
We also chanced upon some other cyclists coming the other way, brother and sister Evrim and Elif from Turkey who had spent the last few months biking their way around South East Asia too. They were really friendly and came dashing over the road all smiles, and we spent some time exchanging tales and comparing kit.

I asked Evrim what we had up ahead of us, he was quick in replying: some of the best but most difficult riding in Thailand. Harder than the notoriously hilly Laos. Woah. That was a surprise. The two of them also strongly recommended that we get our tent out more often too, telling us that police stations as well as wats had always been good to them and let them pitch a tent out the back whenever they'd asked. “They even sometimes have wi-fi that you can use, and you can take a walk down town and leave all your stuff there. It's safe. Nobody's going to rob a tent that's in a police station!”

After meeting these two we still had another hill to tackle, so we pushed on, until finally beginning the long, satisfying, churn down the other side to our final destination for the next few days, the slow paced border city of Mae Sot. It's position as a nexus between the two countries was apparent even to our knackered minds as we rolled down the high street, with Burmese style chedis and temples peeping out here and there. The difference, as far as a total amateur like me can discern, is that Burmese temples have more delicate patterns around their awnings, that look quite a bit like gilded lace doilies. Whether or not that is the effect they were going for I leave in the hands of experts.

We scored an absolute beauty of a guesthouse, some kind of converted plush wooden mansion – varnished wooden floors, carvings, weighty doors, all over decorated with expensive and really quite beautiful Burmese art – all this for a couple of baht more than we'd been paying for bottom of the barrel motels over the last few days.

A light lunch
We treated ourselves that night, and went out to a nice little restaurant run by a guy who had fled Burma, and who could also rustle up delicious dishes. Burmese curries, it seems, are jam packed with flavour, but without the chilli heat of their Indian and Thai neighbours. Moreover, it came with enormous chunks of chicken breast, which was just what the doctor ordered after all that uphill pedalling. A couple of days off were in order, and it looked like Mae Sot was just the place to take um!

We were rather surprised to find one stall
selling Goliath's willy.
Our two days off in Mae Sot were some of the nicest days off we'd had yet. Our room was bloody lovely, and we were the only guests there so it felt like we had a whole enormous chateau to ourselves. Just a few minutes walking distance up the road was the centre of the city, which was lively without being rushed or hectic. A market stretched out beneath canvas covers down one of the lanes, where all kinds of strange, interesting, delicious and disturbing foodstuffs could be obtained. Live eels writhed in buckets, brightly coloured sticky rice sweets glistened invitingly, netted bags of frogs hopped around at several stalls, while at another you could skoop out a few hundred grams of crispy fried insects like pick-n-mix. When in Rome, as they say, although I wonder if Rome had live eels squirming about in buckets. Anyway, I had a go at one of the insects, got to really haven't you(?). It tasted like fried fat, with a bit of something crispier going on in there too. Not outrageously unpleasant at all, but we won't be adding crickets to our trail mix any time soon.

A single fried cricket didn't quite satisfy our consumer lust, so we also made our way to the raincoat stall, and bought ourselves two heavy duty waterproof ponchos. Our expensive raincoats from Melbourne had been struggling to do their one duty properly lately, and it was lucky for us that we bought these new waterproofs when we did, because we were going to need them before long!

Myanmar lady visit the Burmese border

We got quite a lot done during our few days in Mae Sot. As well as stocking up on food and spices we completely emptied and repacked our bags, and I bought a stylish blue teddy bear pillow for camping.

New crankset. Clean bike. $#*% yeah!!!
My bottom bracket was rattling again too – that's the same bottom bracket that failed as we left the Cameron Highlands and was replaced in Georgetown. These hills were obviously too much for it. Luckily for us there was a proper bike shop just up the road, and I got the whole system removed and replaced by a vastly more expensive but hopefully vastly more reliable Shimano one.

These guys also offered a bike clean for a hundred baht, so we treated our bikes to a luxurious once over with power hoses and pressurised air.

So when we came to leave on the morning of the 15th of June we were well and truly ready. Stocked up with food and spices, drom bags full of water, new waterproofs, clean bicycles, and a dandy blue teddy bear pillow. Bring it on!

The plan was to ride north out of Mae Sot along a border hugging road that wound along a river valley for 150km before the surrounding hills got the better of it and would cast us up into a tough ride through jungle hills and villages. Over the other side of these jungle mountains we'd arrive at the next big town, Mae Sariang, where we could recover for a couple of days.

That morning we started by heading west out of the city in order to have a look at the border crossing into Burma, a rather bleak bridge over the river. Access into Burma overland is limited – if you want to travel there you basically have to fly in, although an exception is made here. During daylight hours tourists are allowed to venture into the town of Myawaddy on the Burmese side, but they must return before nightfall. Owing to our passport situation though, we thought it better not to risk any problems with invalid passports at a checkpoint under armed guard and heavy scrutiny. We ate breakfast there, then cycled back along the road and cut north to begin our hinterland adventure.

Within 30 minutes riding from the border bridge we were out of the city limits, and found ourselves cycling along a quiet road surrounded by wide expanses of olive green hills and fields. Traffic became non-existent, save for a lone local bus that overtook us with a consignment of faces smiling out of the back.

You could hear the silence around here, it was just lovely. Fresh air, wide open views of fields, and a cloud marbled blue sky. Occasionally the stillness would be broken by a distance buzz of motorised farming engines, or the chick-chick-chick of someone working at something in the field. We knew that there would be hills to come within a couple of days, but for the time being we had a wonderful day to ourselves, along a flat road, surrounded by grassland and green hills.

We stopped for lunch in one of the small towns along the way, and happened upon a German fellow who was volunteering in one of the local schools. We chatted about our ride, and his posting for a few minutes before he sat back down with the nuns and local teachers, but then rose and came back to us with one of his friends.

The guy knew the area quite well, and wanted to know if we had any questions for him. We thought about this for a moment, but couldn't really think of anything. He asked us where we intended to sleep and we proudly announced that we would be setting up our tent where ere our bicycles came to rest.

You should find somewhere safe.” he said, “Not just anywhere. There is a lot of trouble in Burma at the moment. During daylight you are safe, but at night people cross the river to escape the country. They can rob you if they find you.”

He was right, of course. Western Burma was in the grip of ethnic violence that had already resulted in dozens of deaths. Bangladesh had closed its borders to the refugees so those looking to flee had to find another way out. Since the military forced their way to power back in 1962 Burma has become one of the worlds most impoverished countries, and one with tense relations between the various ethnic groups that often spill over into violence.

There were check points every few miles along the road.
This latest round of fighting was triggered by the apparent rape and murder of a Buddhist woman in the west, apparently by three members of a Muslim minority there. Revenge killings began, and the violence snowballed until the whole area was overcome by fighting and bloodshed.

Desperate, dispossessed refugees were now escaping the country, and if they ran into a tent with two wealthy westerners in it, snatching a wallet might make the difference between their family making it or not.

Rather taken aback by the warning, we thanked them both for their help, and set off along the road once more. It was strange to imagine that such a beautiful place could have the shadow of violence over it, but then again those staggeringly beautiful unspoilt stretched of grass and hills over to our left was a part of Burma, and while it looked pristine from where we were sat, it is a country still struggling in a quagmire of ethnic tensions and oppressive military rule.

The extent of people willing to risk their lives by fleeing from Burma became apparent to us as we came to the refugee city along the road that morning. A city made of sticks, spreading out for miles along the base of a line of hills. Thousands of wooden huts, with roofs and walls made from leaves, and tens of thousands of Burmese refugees living inside. How long they remain here for, or if indeed they can ever leave, we weren't able to find out, but it was huge, and for half an hour's riding the view to our left was a blur of stick huts and children playing in the dirt.
Burma on the left, and Thailand on the right. The area was stunningly beautiful.

Spending a night at the station.
As the afternoon sank into a balmy evening we pulled into one of the few towns along the road, and made our way to the police station to ask them for somewhere safe to pitch our tent. They were a bit surprised at our request at first, wondering why on earth we didn't just stay in a guesthouse, but they were quite happy for us to sleep in one of the training rooms beside the garage if that was what we wanted to do.

We set up our mosquito net in this small room, that seemed to double as traffic cone storage. After a foray into town for dinner we turned in for the night, and slept soundly.

The next day we continued on, setting out early after an interesting camping breakfast of variety pack cereal with “milk” made from cofee-mate. Out of the town the houses gave way to hills and we found ourselves riding along the river valley, with farmers toiling in their fields, friendly children waving at us - or staring in open mouthed amazement – the whole while with the jungle hills of Burma sat just on the other side of the river to our left.

It's cereal, but not as we know it.
It was a wonderful day's ride, and reminded me of trips along the dovedale valley as a kid, except this one had lots of palm trees and gargantuan insects. Two locals on their bikes joined us for an hour or so, they were Karen people, an ethnic group from Burma, who now lived in Thailand and helped to run a school teaching refugees English. We struggled along as the ground began to rise here and there, while these two fellas darted about and chased each other up the road ahead.

We said farewell as we came to their school, and unfortunately had to decline their invitation to come and visit. We had a long ride ahead of us and were falling behind on time. The next day we knew we had some killer hills to contend with and unless we got started on them this afternoon then we'd never make it to Mae Sariang the next day.
Check out the incline, and this was one of the easier bits.
A small town marked the base of the first of these knackering inclines, so we stopped for a late lunch and debated the best course of action. It was extremely tempting to just call it a day and spend the night here, but we also knew that although the next day was only 100km to Mae Sariang, it was going to be much more punishing than anything over the last few days. Maybe even anything since the dreaded Prigi incident. Reluctantly we decided to hit the hill for a few hours and get some of it out of the way before nightfall. We could see a temple perched part way up, and figured we could make it there and find shelter for the night.

Nearly at the top... until the next hill.
The hill was indeed steep. We had to stand up and haul ourselves down with the handlebars to get enough weight down on the pedals to keep them turning, and then stop every few minutes to catch our breath and wipe the sweat out of our eyes. The road wound up, each bend revealing an incline even more brutal than the last, until we were faced with tower like edifices of tarmac that reduced us to pushing and panting our way meter by meter, inch by inch.

We missed the turning for the temple, and as the sun sank away a veil of grey fog descended on us. Rain came hard and suddenly, although luckily just as we came across a vendor of mustard nuts on the side of the road. We huddled under their shelter, and out of politeness bought a little bag of whatever it was these people were selling. Through a combination of our inability to understand one another, and the bitter and unholy taste of the things we were unable to figure out whether they were edible raw or not, so we gave them back. The rain subsided, and we pushed on.

Dusk was fast approaching, and our legs were growing tired. Apart from the mustard nut vendor an hour before, and a couple of diggers abandoned by the side of the road, there was no sign of anyone or anything up in this foggy ghost realm. Although we were anxious about pitching a tent by the side of the road, our situation didn't leave us with any other choice – although we were pretty sure that any refugees would not take the trouble to climb up this hill, and even if they could, would not make it the 10 kilometres, that we had just ridden, before dawn.

Our one bit of luck was that we did manage to find some shelter. A mainstay across Thailand and Malaysia has been little shelters for motorcyclists to dodge the heavy rain. They're very simple affairs, just two benches and a roof but they're everywhere, even way up here miles from the smallest little village. We pulled in, put up the tent and cooked ourselves dinner. Our exhaustion got the better of our nerves and we fell straight asleep.

Our accommodation for the night.

Storm Drain

Despite being woken by trucklights, that stopped at the brow of the hill and shone into the tent for some forty, uncertain minutes at midnight that night, we slept relatively well. We were up with the sun, packed away our things and made a makeshift breakfast by sprinkling sugar on the left over pasta and soyballs from the night before, and substituting this with the equally grim coffee-mate and corn flakes combo.

Thankfully for us though it seemed like we had made it nearly to the top of the worst of the hills the afternoon before, and our morning started by thundering downhill having the sleep blasted out of our eyes by the rush of morning air.

It wasn't all downhill though. More like a humped summit, easing down a little way then grinding to a snails pace up another round of uphill. Along this fluctuating top the smooth tarmac of the previous day gave way abruptly to dusty track, as the road was still under construction. A herd of cows welcomed us to this rural section of the route, and then the clouds that had been gathering for the past few hours burst and a loud, hissing downpour began that would set in for most of the day.

We donned our new ponchos and sailed along these jungle tracks like pac-man ghosts – our legs and arms hidden underneath, leaving only our heads peeping out of this mound of gliding wet plastic.

The area was beautiful, with tightly bunched hills glistening with jungle and peppered with little villages, so it was a bit of a shame to get hit with such heavy rain really. Even our ponchos couldn't hack it, thanks to the water that ran down our faces and necks, and splashed up at our legs, but they prevented us getting completely saturated.

It was foggy, and rainy, and very tiring, but it was one of the best rides we've had on this trip so far.

We stopped for a snack at a roadside shop, and spent half an hour chatting with a fellow who was looking after the store, and the baby, for the owner. Locals living here find work in agriculture, or they have to leave the area to find work in the cities, he told us. The owner of the shop, who was the mother of the child he was caring for, was in Bangkok, working to save enough to feed her family. Although beautiful, this area must be a tough one to live in. The guy told us that a local girl had caught malaria the week before, been unable to afford health care, and died. The guy was very jolly though, and this, coupled with his offers of barbecued bananas, had us pushing on in good spirits.

As the day wore on the downpours became less frequent, less heavy, and the final few hills were completed without exhaling sprays of rainwater. It turned out that we made the right decision in pushing on the day before, because the hills and rain had kept us from getting anywhere quickly, and the final twenty kilometres, upon ground that gradually flattened out once more, was a race against the setting sun.

But we made it, pulling into Mae Sariang with just enough light left to find a hotel, a full twelve hours since we'd left that morning. We were shattered, hungry, and very damp.

Mae Sariang is a sizable junction town that connects the road between Mae Sot and Mae Hong Son with the route the runs east to west from Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai. It's a quiet place, and although we only saw one other tourist there the whole time, there was plenty of choice of accommodation, and lots of different riverside restaurants and cafes to choose from for breakfast the next morning.

A local market ran most mornings, where we picked up a few odds and ends that we needed to replenish our supplies. We had plans to do some treks in the area during our break there too, but we were zonked, and spent most of the first day lying in bed recovering from the legwork the day before, and most of the second day pulling our bicycles apart to give them a thorough clean.
Mae Sariang had a smattering of lovely temples.
Both Mae Sariang and Mae Sot had cheap
water refill stations to help  us avoid using
plastic bottles and save a few baht.

Our route in to Chiang Mai saw us heading east now, and there was another big hill to tackle. We woke early but found the town consumed by a heavy downpour, and were toying with the idea of taking another day off as we ate breakfast. The weather let up for long enough for us to decide to make a break for it, but before long our morning was awash with rainwater dribbling down our faces as we slowly pedalled our way up the hill out of town.

It was a bleak old day, and very slow going. We had half expected it to be something like the previous few days ride, with tough hills but beautiful views, but this road was much more populated, and any views that existed were smeared by the constant haze of heavy rain. Despite the weather we were adamant that we would carry on camping whilst on cycling days, and as we neared the top of the hill in the late afternoon we came across a small restaurant for dinner, which had a roofed area where we might camp. We asked if they'd mind, but they insisted we take a bedroom inside the house instead. By the time we realised we'd have to pay for it we had already committed, and we sort of felt obliged to do so – although minutes later we also realised it was the kids bedroom and he was getting hoofed out for the night. We protested, but the woman made it quite clear it was fine. Not sure what the little lad made of it though.

It wasn't a very nice night's sleep. The bed was stained, and water dripped from the ceiling right onto me until we got up and dragged the bed out of the way. It was filled with mosquitoes too, which all conspired to give us a dreadful night's sleep. We woke, unrefreshed, and began the long down hill into the plains of northern Thailand.

After so many hills it was quality freewheeling for
 an hour first thing in the morning.
That day's riding into Chiang Mai turned out to be one of the longest days we'd ever done – about 140km by the end of it – but since it started with about 20km of winding downhill, and remained flat for the rest of it, it felt in comparison to what we'd been up to lately. And yet it was busy and dusty, pedalling along a narrow highway surrounded by roadworks.

It was lucky we gave ourselves a proper work out that day though, because it would be the last bit of exercise we'd do for a while. Chiang Mai is a lovely city, and we caught up with some excellent characters there and... well... took it pretty easy for 10 days. The thing is with cycling is that once you get all adventurous and go camping up hills and cycling through jungles, when you wind up somewhere comfortable again it's very hard to leave. You appreciate everything intensely, from food to bedsheets to lethargy, owing to its absence over the past few weeks.

More tea? Ah yes, don't mind if I do. Darling, shall we have Italian or Mexican for dinner tonight? This is the life!


  1. Hey Guys, I absolutely love reading about your adventures, I must say you write extremely well, as always we are very envious of your tales and so so glad to see that you are both travelling along safely. We did receive your post card a couple of weeks back that was a real surprise. Bye for now, & looking forward to see what else you will get up to. But please keep away from those wild animals that draw moustaches on your faces, I've heard that they can be quite deadly.
    Hugs from your friends The Perry Family xx

    1. Aww thanks Tracee, really glad you're enjoying the blog. Good to hear the postcard reached you (eventually!). Hope everything is well your end. We've just entered Cambodia, and what a fascinating place it is too. Really delightful people, mind blowing temple ruins, but a very very dark recent past, and extremely murky modern politics. Should be an interesting four weeks here!

      Loads of love, Robin and Olivia xxx

  2. Shunichiro Hori1 August 2012 at 02:59

    Hi. How are you? I'm a perosn that we met in WATTANA-NAKON Thailand about a week ago. Although I tried to find you on FB, I couldn't. Probably I cannot recognize letters that you wrote my notebook. If possible, could you tell me your FB address?

    1. Hey Hori, yes we remember you! :) How was the ride towards Bangkok, hope you made it safely along that long deserted road! My facebook email is Stick that in the search and you'll find me (Robin) right enough. Just search my friends for Olivia Blockey and then you have the set! Best of luck with your travels, maybe see you in a couple of years :D