Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Fast lane to Cambodia

13th - 23rd July 2012
6981 – 7394km
Sukhothai –Kong Krailat – Banphot Phisai – In Buri - Ayutthaya – (Bangkok)

The scenic loop

Aaah country roads. Country roads.



We fell out with country roads on our way out of Sukhothai - after all the good things we had been saying about them on our last post too. No, country roads were off the menu, and for the most part our ride southwards was down a big fat multi-lane highway.

But not on our first day. Our first day leaving Sukhothai was country roads. It started out well enough really, with wispy white clouds up in the sky while we made our way through the dust and the horns of New Sukhothai city, right at the big roundabout and away. There was a highway that ran eastwards for 60km or so where it hit the city of Phitsanulok then dropped south, and led pretty much all the way to our next destination, another ancient capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya.

Of course, being the feisty little cyclists we were we had other plans. Our map showed a maze of lanes branching off directly south of us, which then wove their way south-eastwards allowing us to snip off several dozen kilometres from the journey while avoiding the highway for a few days. Absolutely perfect.

Except, it didn't quite turn out like that. We were well and truly “out there” down here. The whole morning was comprised of pedalling along a narrow tarmacked road that swerved left and right around fields awash with rice and herons, a few farmer's houses, and not much else. Kids waved at us by the side of the road, cows gazed at us, and there were absolutely no road signs.

Lunch was probably the turning point. Food can get a bit visceral out here away from big roads, so my happy-go-lucky attitude of just agreeing to whatever it was the woman said to me when I asked her about food didn't pay off very well. A plate of rice appeared before us and promptly wiped the hungry, eager expressions from our faces. The rice was smothered with dollops of veiny, slimey intestines. It looked like something from a causality unit, or the scene of some kind of terrible rice-based disaster, and suddenly we weren't that hungry any more.

Do you have a vegetarian option?
We didn't eat very much of it at all, and failed to find anything to pad it out with either. There was a fruit market next door but the chopping board they were using to prepare the fruit was covered with flecks of raw flesh, so we thought we'd probably better not.

Fruit wasn't the only thing we were after either. We needed a turning, a turning marked on my map but which could be any number of the small, insignificant little junctions we'd past over the last half hour. Certain little things convinced us to keep going, as is often the case when you wade deeper and deeper into that swampy marsh that is Getting Lost. It must be further on because that last town was almost certainly this one on the map and we haven't past that junction there yet which we'll know when we see it because it's the A396 and that one will certainly be marked by a sign. That kind of thing.

Well, after 5 hours of riding we finally came to a junction that we could identify. It was the highway that ran east out of Sukhothai, the very one we had been intending to avoid, and one that we were supposed to be heading in pretty much the opposite direction of. Worse still was the little road marker beside us which announced that Sukhothai was only 20km away. We had ridden about 60km, over 5 hours, doing a nice little horse-shoe shaped loop, and had come out in completely the wrong place only an hour's ride from where we started in the morning.

We gulped down our navigational pride (well, I did, I had the map and compass), and began forlornly pedalling down the highway to try and make at least some distance in the right direction before the day was over. We didn't get far, but we did find a wat that was willing to let us camp in their grounds, which was very nice of them.

The two of us were waiting for something dreadful to happen to us that night to round the day off properly, but in all honesty our night wasn't that bad. Just, could have been a little bit better.

These monks seemed to have a penchant for taking massive dogs in under their care you see. That, or there was a very neglectful breeder of dobermans somewhere in town. The temple grounds were guarded by a rather comedic pack of about four absolutely massive mutts, but ones who had jangled about in the sedentary life a little too long and now loped about like cows, and made a conga line as they did so – each gently holding the back leg of the one in front in its jaws. To compliment this dozy pack were a few smaller, yappier dogs, evidently emboldened by the size of their mates, who came scampering across the grounds to shout at us whenever we strayed from our designated zone beneath the corrugated roof.

Late that night, right on cue, the dogs surrounded the tent and began bellowing at us. We eventually drove them off by shouting at them, and those that stayed got rushed by me in my pants, yelling and shaking my fists in the moonlight. A fantastic scene, but unfortunately one that remains unphotographed.

Thankfully they left us alone after that, and we slept well for 5 hours. Count yer blessings.

In the hour before dawn we woke, dragged ourselves out of the tent and packed up, resigned to a few days of highways, necessitated by a need for speed to make up for the lost day, and also because we were now embittered by the thought of those treacherous country roads. Beneath a deep peach morning sky we scooched onto our bikes and pedalled out of the gates of the temple, a lively rabble of vari-sized dogs yelling at us as we went.

The temple of kittens

After all of that our ride south towards Ayutthaya was straightforward enough. We made good progress, and occasionally opportunities arose to dip out of the multilane speedway, escape the whoosh of speeding lorries, and take a few uncomplicated back country roads for a couple of hours.

Although the ride was on the whole uneventful, we did stay the night at one of the nicest, friendliest temples we've ever come across. We'll call it the Temple of Kittens, because by some mad chance of fortune none of the street dogs had taken residence there, and instead the temple grounds were home to a tipsy gang of kittens that tottered about chasing frogs and insects, mewling, and gazing at you in an adorable kitteny way.

Better than that they lacked both the will and the way to wake us up in the middle of the night by yelling at us. I imagine if they tried we'd probably stay fast asleep, and wind up having lovely dreams about frolicking in a pasture with a basket of kittens, or something. We had a fantastic night's sleep there.

The monks at the temple were exceptionally kind hearted also, and as well as letting us sleep inside with them they also stocked us up with an enormous breakfast the next morning, and loaded us with gifts of dragon fruit, vegetables, eggs, a sticky-sweet slab of nuts, and some tinned rice meals. When we left that morning we were stocked up and ready for anything.

Everybody eating breakfast

I say anything. We handled the eight hour ride down Thai highway well enough, but nothing could have prepared us for the dogs the next night. We found ourselves on the edge of a riverside town overrun with the beasts. Competition was fierce on these dog-clogged streets, so only the most aggressive, loud and persistent bastards survived.

A gang of about twenty had taken over the temple, lording it over the compound like cider swilling scallies lord it over Kwik Save carparks in England. They barked at us as we rode in, as we set up the tent, as we showered, as we got ready for bed. Some of the larger, scarier animals were ushered behind a gate and up some stairs by the head monk, but these ones, when they weren't barking at us, took to sniffing and scratching at the floorboards directly above our tent. There's something fundamentally unsettling about trying to sleep with the sound of a large mammal just above you sniffing you out and clawing at the floorboards. Sleep was not forthcoming, and didn't last long when it did.

We don't have a photo of the dogs but here's a photo of a toilet by the
side of the road they popped up about every kilometre along here. Nice!

Problem solving

Even with our meandering in circles at the start of the push, by the afternoon of the fourth day we were on the approach into Ayutthaya. Highways may be dull, but they do get you there quickly.

Nestled almost within the outer ranges of Bangkok city, the ruins of Ayutthaya are of considerable pride to historically minded Thai's. The kingdom sprang up around the same time as Sukhothai in the north – so around the middle of the fourteenth century - but after just a few decades it had swallowed up Sukhothai, and was expanding to control an area that would cover most of south east Asia down to Malaysia, the edges of Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.

Most notably though, Ayuthhaya was the first to draw its swords on the mighty Angkor Empire – for centuries the incontestable superpower of the whole region – draw its swords, and win. In 1431 Ayuthhaya's campaign against the colossal city of Angkor ended with the city sacked and Khmer territory annexed by the new boys in town.

The modern day city is built around the site of the old kingdom, spread across an island several kilometres wide at the confluence of three rivers. The modern city is a busy place, with a clay haze kicked up by all the tuk tuks and motorbikes that grunt and whine their way between the rugged, multistorey buildings. Traffic surges around the arterial roads, but away from these the city relaxes a little into a quiet arrangement of back roads dotted with food stalls and cafes. At its centre, and spread across a large area filled with parkland, sleep the old ruins of its former glory; a series of large temples, chipped by conquest and eroded by the centuries.

Finding the tourist area in town proved exceptionally difficult, especially for such a popular place, but after an hour of pedalling around we eventually found it – a short run of restaurants and guesthouses halfway up a minor road by the bus station. Obviously.

What it lacked in size it made up for with character though. We came across a little “Jazz cafe” which never played any jazz, but who's owner was a fantastic guy from Bangkok, infamous for his infectious good nature, and for serving up trivia while you waited for your meals.

“Where you from? England! Ah great. OK, so England has 'land' in it's name. What are the other twelve countries that have land in their name? No cheating now!”

He'd then leave us to it and go and chat to another table, coming back to check on us from time to time. Hats off to him, Farang Street was not exactly bustling, but every night he managed to coax a bunch of people onto his roadside tables and stoke up a nice atmosphere – introducing one table to another, or bringing tables together to work on his latest trivia quiz.

Our accommodation didn't start out quite so well unfortunately. Our first night was spent under the tyranny of bed bugs, but luckily, thanks to the excellent company to be found at the jazz cafe, we were pretty plastered when we got back that night and slept through their nibbling. The next morning though we realised our predicament. All our gear had to be packed back up, loaded back on the bikes, and we had to move out. Just down the road though our luck changed, at the aptly named “Good Luck guesthouse”. Excellent value, lovely staff, and absolutely no bed bugs.

And yet despite finding ourselves in such a lovely place, with excellent people, and with plenty of ruined temples and history to submerge ourselves in, our thoughts were very much on the increasingly urgent matter of Liv's passport. It had been over four weeks since she had applied for a new one, but it had still not arrived in Bangkok for us to pick it up.

Our visas expired in 10 days, and we needed three or four days to ride to the border. So we still had a few days grace, but it was getting tight, and pretty soon we'd have to start looking at a contingency plan. The British Embassy in Bangkok were great, and explained when Liv called that they could help her arrange a special circumstances extension for her visa if the passport didn't show up, but they wouldn't be able to do the same for me.

Basically I would have to cycle ahead and meet her in Cambodia if it didn't show in the next five days. We both loathed the idea, but it was our only option.

We had a bit of a gloomy conversation that afternoon, agreeing to give ourselves three days before we would start putting this plan into operation, getting a visa for Liv and then splitting up for a week... two weeks? Who knew!? Then, literally just a few minutes later, an email came through.

Please be informed that your passport has arrived at the Embassy. ”

We let out a gale-force sigh of relief.

Bangkok day trip

We had toyed with the idea of riding into the capital, but since we still had the ruins of Ayutthaya to explore, and since we didn't fancy tackling the chaos of a big city if we could avoid it, we decided to leave all our gear in our guesthouse and take a day trip down to Bangok to grab Liv's shiny new passport. And what do you know, we had still had a little more more good luck left as well, because our trip was going to coincide with the arrival of two of Liv's friends from home, Claire and Bruce.

This lady was selling cages of birds. For a small fee
 you can buy one to release them into
 the smog of Bangkok.
We woke painfully early and caught a twelve seater minibus for the ninety minute ride into the city. Bangkok is a busy city, with railways layered above clogged walkways on top of heaving roads. It's like a scene from The Fifth Element with lots of tuk-tuks super-imposed in. Thankfully a series of walkways clamber up and around the hectic roads, and after catching a ride from the bus station to the general area of the embassy we used these to navigate our way above the seething traffic.

After four and a bit weeks of stress, uncertainty and worry, collecting the new passport went as smooth as butter. Within 10 minutes we were out of the compound again, Liv clutching a brand spanking new passport. Shiny red cover, exciting new pictures of rural British scenes printed on the pages, and pages enough for all the visas we'd be needing in the coming six months.

Could the day get any better? Yes it could. Bruce and Claire were absolutely lovely. Just landed in town for their first time travelling, but they were quite happy to join us for a dirty burger king lunch in one of the eye-wateringly bright shopping malls. Sounded like a good idea at the time. But as is the standard with fast-food, it was actually a bit shit and failed to satisfy us, but succeeded in making us feel a bit ill. Not to worry though because what had just come out at the cinemas, only the new Batman film, which we were all well up for seeing.

Bangkok graffiti
Yes there are temples to see in Bangkok, yes there are markets and restaurants to savour. Yes to all that. But sometimes, and especially after being barked at by dogs for half of the week, leaning back on a cushioned cinema seat and watching Batman punch baddies and fly about was just about the most enjoyable thing imaginable. Bliss!

The whole day was great actually. We all went out and found a little cafe serving beers afterwards, and chatted about adventures gone and adventures ahead. Bruce and Claire had just graduated, and this was their first time out backpacking in Asia. They had six weeks of jungle treks and temple spotting and river boat cruises ahead of them, all throughout East Asia. Although it was sad to have to draw a line under the day so quickly, because we had a bus to catch, it looked like our paths would be crossing again before too long. We leapt out of the tuk-tuk, waved goodbye, and dashed off into the bus park just in time to catch the last bus back.

Mission accomplished. Bring on the rest of the trip.

Remains of the day

The following day we thought we'd better have a look around the old city ruins of Ayutthaya. Yet more ruins, I know! We were a bit exhausted of ruins to be honest, after an overload at Sukothai, and a sprinkling at Chiang Mai. We had the Angkor ruins ahead of us too. We might get the archaeological equivalent of indigestion. But Ayutthaya was alright. We pedalled our way around the sites over the course of the day, and they had some pretty spectacular stuff. Great leaning towers of an old temple, now crumbling into the earth. An enormous Buddha-figure reclining across the scattered remnants of some of his old faithful.

A wax Buddha melting in the heat of the sun
Ayutthaya did take a knock during its time. It was those naughty Burmese again. Always causing trouble back then. They swept down in 1767 at the end of a long and brutal back and forth, and finally sacked the city, sending the land into utter disarray. I'm sure they couldn't resist it though, when you call your city Ayutthaya, meaning “invincible city”, it's just asking for trouble isn't it.

But Thailand did alright for itself. General Phraya Taksin fled from the ruins and began work restoring Thai sovereignity at Thonburi – close to modern day Bangkok. From this new base of operations the Chakri dynasty emerged to fend off further attacks, and then grew to achieve something unique in the region – it managed to avoid being colonised.

I think you can tell as well. Thailand comes across as a culture very confident in itself, and the people are very proud of it. It's there in their reverence towards their king – from the same line that emerged from the new capital after Ayutthaya's fall. The king is seen as the focus of Thai identity. Through all the military coups, democratic reforms and demonstrations that plague the recent political history of this country, it is telling that none of them seek to call an end to the position of King, although it is true he does not wield anything like absolute power any longer.

Although I must confess it does seem a slightly strange situation, since everybody does genuinely appear to like the King, and yet they deem it necessary to have laws forbidding anyone criticising or insulting of the monarch. Surely if everyone loves him then... But who am I to judge.

23rd - 26th July 2012
Thailand - Cambodia
7394 - 7684km
Ayutthaya – Nakhon Nayok – Sa Keow - Aranyaprathet – Sisophon - Siem Reap

Bordering on criminal

Here's one for the Engrish fans
Ayutthaya lead us neatly out to our final push out of Thailand. A main road trailed east, missing all the bustle of the capital to lead us to the land border crossing into Cambodia. The ride there was pleasant enough, but unremarkable. I got a little dose of something or other that culminated in an unhappy emergency toilet stop at a provincial bus station that offered only squat toilet facilities and zero bog roll. I was forced to go native, and came to the conclusion that despite what people say about squat toilets the downsides of having to splash water out of an old margarine tub up your arse, and then scrub out the rest with your fingers far far outweighs any good derived from the so-called better posture while you're doing it. Frankly I get back ache, and regularly nearly slip over on all the wee. There wasn't even any soap.

Yeah, I know.

Always nice meeting other cyclists on the road.
Weirdly I still felt a bit peaky after all that, so we took an early stop at a pricey motel, before pushing on towards the border the next morning. We met a fellow cyclist on the way though, parked up outside a 7-11 with all his gear. His name was Hori, a crazy but thoroughly likeable guy from Japan who had cycled all the way down here, and still reckoned he had another couple of years of riding ahead of him. He was going it pretty light, so he had no tent or sleeping bag, but was quite happy spending his nights in bus shelters, or indeed on the benches outside 7-11s, like the one we found him on that morning. He gave us the heads up on the road across Cambodia we had ahead of us: it was going to be very flat. And we told him what we could of the road towards Bangkok. After a long chat and some fizzy pop we said farewell and zipped off down the road.

It was a short ride that day, and we pulled into the border town of Aranyaprathet around midday, hauling our gear up a few flights of stairs to a nondescript hotel room. We would take the afternoon off, get some money exchanged, then cross the border the next morning.

Although it seemed like a pretty normal town, we soon discovered that Aranyaprathet was as bent as a bathtub. Dubious activity to siphon money of unwitting tourists was the name of the game at the border crossing, if Wikitravel was anything to go by. Kept us on our toes as we wandered about town, but Aranyaprathet itself actually seemed pretty alright. The border was where the action was, and that was 5km down the way and reserved for the next morning.

Changing money in town proved staggeringly difficult, considering the fact we were in a bloody border town. There were no dedicated money changers, and three out of the four banks we tried had no dollars in stock at all. No dollars – in a town bordering a country that primarily runs on dollars. Finally, after much too many hours we found a bank that had a couple of hundred to exchange with us. We did find it funny though, and wondered whether this might be a knock on effect of racketeering money lenders at the border causing trouble. Because tricks, cons and scamming were the name of the game at the border. Yes siree.

We pedalled out early the next morning, determined not to get ripped off and pretty excited at the prospect of a new country. 5km out of town the side of the road thickens up with food stalls and shops, more traffic appears, often hauling outrageously large piles of goods, and then ahead the mayhem begins.

We hit a crossroads. Somewhere ahead was the border. Signs painted up on the junction tell us that the Cambodian visa office is this way. Another sign tells us all foreigners must go that way. Motorcyclists descend on us and tell us to follow them, they will lead us the right way. Trust them. If we hadn't read up about the professional level scamming that goes on here, we might very easily have made any one of these wrong moves and wound up spending $50 on a useless bit of paper, or paying extra special fees that we didn't need to.

Bye bye Thailand!
Don't expect any help from the police here either, they're either paid off or in on it, and if reports online are anything to go by the unwary can be duped out of small sums by the border officers themselves.

No, the trick with this one is to keep going forward on your own like you know what you're doing. Once you get past the murals of fake signage the proper border comes into view. A huge concrete arch three stories high. Not even the conmen here could fake that. We pushed our way up the pedestrian queue with our bikes, came to a turnstile and had to turn back, all the while with locals kindly offering to take us to get express visas, or to show us the right way, or to take our passports and do it for us. All scams. Ignore.

We went down the motorcycle lane next, got to the barrier to find that we'd somehow skipped the entire process of getting stamped out of the country. The guard wanted us to leave our bikes and bags with him, because we couldn't take them inside the building. He may have been right but sack that, there was no way we were leaving our things unattended round here. Inside a large office – imagine your local post office - we hauled in our loaded bikes and joined the queue, but nobody said anything.

Stamped out of the country we were half way there, all we needed now was the visa for Cambodia. Squeezing the bikes out the back of the offices we came out on the Cambodian side, and made our way to the immigration office. All went well until they discovered that Liv had two passports - one new one and one old one with the Thai visa in – so they insisted that she go all the way back and get the new one stamped out of the country too. So, back she went, I stayed with the bikes, and half an hour later we were ready to try again.

Goodbye enormous Thai crocodile-people!

Getting the Cambodian visa was actually pretty straightforward. Fill in the form, pay the $30, pay the $5 unofficial fee/bribe – this one is unavoidable I'm afraid - don't complain about it, get your visa.

One final superfluous queue to fill another form in, a quick look over by the guards, and we were through. Cambodia baby!

The change from Thailand, even just stepping across the border, is enormous. It felt like perhaps we'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and come out in some quiet rural Indian township. The buildings look much more ramshackle, and the air is choked with dust whenever vehicles go by, thanks to the fact that the roads are only quasi-paved, covering the centre but cracking and splitting up into compressed dirt, dispersed with litter and foraging dogs. We pedalled out of the bustle of the town, dodging motor-tractors and mopeds hauling stacks of goods, and away from the yells of tuk-tuk drivers offering us a lift.

We really weren't sure what Cambodia was going to be like. Everyone knows about its appalling recent history, with the destruction of a quarter of its population under the Khmer Rogue in the mid-seventies, and the road to recovery from such a trauma is bound to be long. Huge signs on the way out of town asked us to report any child abuse we saw, and recommended we don't go on tourist trips to orphanages. Another announced in Cambodian that there was some kind of armistice in operation, and showed someone handing in their rocket propelled grenade launcher and M16. The darkside of the country was present as soon as we arrived.
Once out of the dusty border town Cambodia was beautiful. We had views like this all the way to Siem Reap.

Whatever Cambodia was like we were going to find out soon enough. The buildings petered out as we hit the limits of the town, and before us lay a long straight road that went on and on. Not a bend in sight. On either side of us the grassland lay flat and uninterrupted right up until it faded out at the horizon. Miles away to the south we could see distant storm clouds spilling a grey haze of heavy rain. Palm trees dotted the horizon like blackened dandelion clocks, the road was almost empty, and the sun beat down hard above us. She was beautiful, she really was. We loved Cambodia already.  

The Cambodians are exceptionally friendly people.


  1. Fantastic again. Love your account of getting into Cambodia. They love their scams do the Thais. Can't wait till seeing you and hearing a blow by blow account (will take forever, I realise) x

  2. This edition certainly contained some of the more dubious and smellier corners of the travelling life! Great stuff! Pax