This section covers two legs in Thailand – 1,550k from Malaysia to Myanmar and after travelling Myanmar for a month, 700k from Myanmar to Laos. The latter made me cross the 40,000k milestone on this trip...
11 – 25 February 2016
I only got a 2 weeks’ visa for Thailand crossing the land border – to cover the 1,500k from the Malaysian border to Myanmar. The Thai’s have become quite strict and besides the USD 15 fine per overstaying day, you allegedly risk going to jail for overstaying just one day as well as being blacklisted from later entry. Normally, the distance would be a piece of cake, but as mentioned in the previous section, my bike problems implied never getting to ride as much as expected in Malaysia and therefore being in less good shape. I didn’t feel confident making it to Myanmar in time and hoped to get a bit of a break – not too many bike problems, fairly flat and decent road quality and finally not too much headwind. As it turned out it no problem and I could take several rest days and still be in good time.
The time challenge implied not doing any detours or sightseeing along the way – just riding on big, busy, bustling, noisy and polluted highways with absolutely no views. I can honestly say Thailand was the worst long distance biking I’ve done (of 65,000k). People suggested taking the bus and spending some days in a nice place. Certainly a possibility, but this is not a holiday but a bike trip around the world. At some point, I might have to use public transport because of visa or bike problems but as long as the bike moves and the visa is valid, I’m going to give it my best. A little like life in general – most days are fun but a few times we face adversity and it’s less fun. In these situations, it’s about biting the bullet and overcoming the challenge.
With no views, I’ve taken very few pictures – some days none and the next day one or two just because I felt I had to. This will be obvious flipping through them.
Description of itinerary, road quality, weather and bike problems
I crossed the Thai border at Bukit Kayu Hitam – at the week of Chinese New Year so it took some hours with the thousands of people waiting in long immigration lines. Not the best start on a day where I got up early to do a good push but what can you do. And still – to my own big surprise - I managed to do 160k to Phatthalung.
I rode AH2 (Asian Highway) almost all way to Myanmar – only doing a 250k shortcut north from Nakhon Pathon to avoid Bangkok and then the last 100k from Tak to the Myanmar border (AH1). Some longish rolling hilly sections in the south and a crazy hilly last day but otherwise pleasantly flat. Almost all the way, there was a lane wide shoulder to ride on but it left no time for day dreaming. Constant oncoming traffic on the shoulder (trucks, cars and mostly mopeds) which was especially dangerous passing the countless parked vehicles where suddenly somebody popped out in front of me. The road was often worse than the shoulder so I also encountered lots of vehicles permanently driving the shoulder going around me and back on the shoulder – it takes little effort to imagine what could happen with only a split second’s lack of attention. Thai’s are very selfish and quite aggressive drivers – less than a handful times I experienced consideration for others adding to the necessity of staying 100% alert.
The advantage of the highway was the predominantly good road quality – probably 75% was fairly good while the remaining 25% was horrible; pot holes/bumps and long stretches of construction slowing me down not least to protect the weak rear spokes. And still, I had massive spoke problems the first week in Thailand (possibly also due to the uphills where most of the weight is transferred to the rear wheel). In Malaysia spokes broke after 750k and 350k and in Thailand the first week after 320k, 250k, 200k and 50k. Before the last one broke, I anticipated changing a spoke every second day and still “survive” despite the annoying element. Visiting countless bike shops around the world, I’ve concluded that getting the tension on a touring wheel right is a bit of an art form. I think the guy in Singapore did a decent job but just didn’t have the right spokes. The guy in Ipoh, however had no idea. He just straightened the wheel without paying attention to the tension leaving it very uneven on both sides of the wheel – probably also the reason why the rim developed a ½ cm bump, which put even more pressure on the spokes and tire. Because of the sensitivity, I didn’t want to mess too much with the spokes nervous to make it worse. But when the spoke broke after 50k it couldn’t get much worse so I loosened the spokes as much as possible at the same time trying to make equal tension on either side of the wheel. At the same time, I reduced the tire pressure, making the bike feel like a small boat being knocked around on a river with strong current. But afterwards, I had no more broken spokes, and my mood lifted. The problem is not only the actual problems but the anticipation of new problems occurring any moment - it removes all joy from riding.
Despite the spoke problems, I managed to push 900k the first 6 days well helped on days with tailwind – the wind changed a lot but for the first time ever, I had more tail than headwind. So I took a deserved rest day after riding 190k the previous day where I suddenly ran out of hotels and had to push 35k/1 hour the dark before I finally found one. I had hoped the tire would survive all the way to Myanmar, but I had to change it the last day. The bump got so big the tire might exploded any minute – it smelled disaster doing +60 k/h downhill on a terrible road with no rear break, because the bump was too big for the break pads.
I will be very difficult to find good hardcopy maps for many countries along the way and the language barrier will be great (both signs and communicating). So before leaving for this trip, I spent days downloading offline maps. I don’t know if it’s the old phone or the program, but it can’t calculate routes and provide directions. However, the GPS is very precise so as long as I know where I’m going I can always find my way – until now it has worked very well.
Entering Thailand, it was not as warm as I had expected – maybe around 28-30C though the humidity was high especially in the morning. As I rode north of Bangkok the challenge increased with the higher temperatures (35C) especially from noon to mid afternoon. I used every opportunity to soak my sweatband and t-shirt and though it only helped a few minutes, it was precious. I heard about rain but fortunately never encountered any.
My memory of Thai’s was friendly and smiling people but that’s not what I encountered – few smiles and less than 5% greeted me. The language barrier was much bigger than anticipated - maybe I only travelled the tourist areas before because I remember being able to communicate at least a little; this time I was lucky to meet somebody who knew 5 basic words. It’s less fun but I got by anyway only needing help finding cheap hotels. I’ve never met an Asian person with a sense of direction or distance, so the only times I found the recommended places were when they kindly took me there. The drawings were absolutely useless as were the explanations entailing arms going in all directions.
Measured on the number of flags, I think Thai’s are more nationalistic than even the US. Flags are everywhere as are monuments/posters of King Bhumibol and his family – a bit strange as this is usually reserved for dictators. But he is immensely popular having an almost god-like status in Thailand.
Lots of dogs barking and chasing me, however usually only for short distances and never biting at me. And never I the middle of the day where they couldn’t bother getting up and out of the pleasant shade. Often being far away from civilisation on my way to Europe, I got a rabies vaccination so should I be bitten it’s not a big problem.
For several reasons I never wild camped. Firstly, it was difficult to get unnoticed off the big highway and unlike Malays’, Thai people go everywhere at all times of day/night so the risk of detection would be big. Should I be detected the risk of a big payment seemed blatant due to the high corruption and focus on making money any way possible. Also, I would have to camp very late and get up really early which I don’t appreciate much – also because it would leave too many hours a day for riding. Finally, camping would make sleeping difficult because of the warm/humid evenings/nights/mornings and I would have to battle swarms of mosquitoes.
So I stayed in hotels or rather bungalows/motels where I got my own big room with aircon and bathroom. The price was USD 8-10 except for a few places close to Bangkok where it was USD 12. Doing a boring ride in the heat this became the highlight of my day – a shower, aircon, a meal and a cold beer. It also had the upside of internet so I could coordinate bike parts with my mother and meeting up with my friend Sandy in Yangon. The downside with the aircon was a bit of a cold, though I don’t think it was the temperature itself but rather the bacteria from the aircon.
Food and water
Food stalls are not as readily available here in Thailand – only in towns and with fairly short opening hours so it never worked out. I stocked up at Tesco and had the “usual” food all the way. I had lunch at gas stations where I could buy cold soft drinks and enjoy some shade.
I saw some water dispensers along the way but they never worked, so I bought water costing around USD 0.10-15 per litre.
Despite the many long days, I had few problems with my butt. Some days were a little painful but in general it was unproblematic and I didn’t have to use Compeed. My bad knee struggled a few days (190k day and last hilly day) but the timing was good as they were followed by rest days.
Though it was mostly flat and I had lots of softdrinks/snacks I still lost weight being down to about 90kg – not too fat and still some body fat to burn.
23 March – 3 April 2016
I got to Yangon bus station at sunset and the bus left on time at 20.00. I was lucky not only to get a seat in the first row so nobody in front would put the seat down and squeeze my legs, but equally fantastic I had two seats to myself all the way. All night music and talking, and still I managed to doze off a couple of times though without really getting any sleep. The bike was half way lying down in the trunk, so I was far from happy when I discovered they had put some heavy packages on top of it, despite promising not to – I could only hope there was no damage to the wheels. I got so agitated that I forgot a plastic bag with a few items most importantly my mosquito net. I went to the agent where I had bought the ticket to Yangon when I first arrived in Myanmar and they sent me to the bus parking, where I retrieved the bag. Easy border crossing and then a short 10k ride to Mae Sot. I had already decided not to repeat the tough ride to Tak, so I had to find a bus. The big buses either had no room or wouldn’t take me (?), so I ended up taking a mini bus. However, I had to wait many hours (4 buses) before there was room for the bike on the roof – the locals had first priority even though they arrived after me. Luckily, I was not in a hurry, and I knew too well not to piss the drivers off (kind of a mafia with only one company that all drivers’ work for). While waiting, I briefly considered biking, but as we drove over the mountains with the countless steep sections, I was happy to have dismissed the thought. In Tak, I got the same room as last I was there a month’s before and stayed for 4 nights to do many practicalities: finish updating my blog; uploading pictures to my cloud; preparing a new itinerary to go to Vientiane and papers to apply for a Chinese visa the same place. Only alternative was going to Hanoi in which I had no interest.
I headed out early morning riding east. Completely out of shape and on a very heavy bike, it was fortunately fairly flat and I made the 140k to Phitsanulok late afternoon. It was a secondary highway with somewhat less traffic, noise and pollution compared to my first leg in Thailand and generally the road quality was good - only problem was a lot of broken glass. The early morning humidity was very high but decreased with the rising temperatures during the morning – again terribly hot riding the first half of the afternoon so I appreciated the breeze. Besides a few small towns it was all countryside with little to see in the haze, likely caused by the high temperatures and excessive scorching of the dry fields – a few places irrigation allowed cultivation of various crops. Accommodation in Vientiane is much more expensive than Thailand, so I wanted to time my arrival on a Sunday to find an agent and go to the Chinese embassy Monday. As a result, I had 3 extra days of which I spent the first in Phitsanulok.
Continuing east was more of a challenge implying rolling uphills before finishing with a 20k steep downhill to Lam Sok that I reached late afternoon after 140k - I was very happy not having to ride the other way. I considered another rest day but the place I stayed was not very nice and I felt ok in the morning. I headed out at 7 after a morning shower – the first rain since Malaysia almost two months’ ago. A 15k flat intro before the long (mostly) double digit climb to the top above 1,000m. The first 12k were particularly demotivating when 3k up was followed by a similar down – I was sweating profusely as if taking a shower and had to stop several times every kilometre to get my racing pulse down and my shivering legs under control. I couldn’t get the word “ridiculous” out of my mind and kept repeating it over and over again. Finally, it began to be more up than down but the crazy inclines and heavy bike, were not good for my bad left knee. At some point I considered getting a ride but decided against it – hindsight probably not the right decision considering the swollen knee and agony - I want to bike the whole way around the world but not at the expense of my health. Completely battered I arrived in Chum Phae late afternoon after 12 hours and 120 strenuous kilometres.
As before when I’ve had massive knee problems (e.g. Australia) I knew it would be better to exercise than sit around, so instead of a tempting rest day I biked the 140k to Udon Thani knowing it would be mostly flat - not a particular pleasant ride but the knee survived. In Udon Thani, I stocked up expecting that certain food would be impossible to find or - if I could find it - much more expensive in Laos. Unfortunately, I forgot my new pump in the trolley and when I came back an hour later nobody had seen it – if they ever understood what it was about. I had little hope finding it as Thai people are notorious for taking things, but I still spent the whole evening looking through hundreds of trolleys. No luck - I was so angry with myself because I knew it might be impossible to find a new good pump – and without a pump no trip (because of my heavy load I need to pump the tires every morning)! I spent the following day riding 40k around town looking for bike shops – out of 15 only 3 matched google’s location, while I randomly found 4 others biking around – the rest I never found. I was lucky to finally find a small foot pump that worked, though it’s poor (plastic) quality so I have to be careful not to break it. For that reason, I went back to the shop the following day and bought another pump – just in case. Besides getting the new pumps, the 2 rest days were good for my knee and butt.
A thunderstorm passed by in the evvening and night, and next morning it was an easy 60k to the border, where I crossed the Friendship Bridge to Laos; immigration was surprisingly efficient - 5 minutes filling out forms and 5 minutes processing the visa. The second Thailand leg was slightly better than the first but in general, Thailand was a very un-interesting biking experience – just passing by for greater adventures to come. Or so I hope, when finally getting my Chinese visa in Vientiane. I’ve had so many challenges since I left Singapore that it could easily be interpreted as a sign not to continue this trip – countless bike problems, broken and lost things and not least being hit by a bus. All of this has been overcome, so I’ll let my third and last Chinese visa application attempt decide my destiny.