Asia LP: Track 7 (Thailand)

Homeward Bound

Thailand helped us clamber into its warm embrace from the word go: a Thai gentleman helped us navigate the border and the our own Australian instincts got us across the line… we’ve officially made it back onto the left (the RIGHT) side of the road! With that, we were heading southwards, a rather spiriting feeling after many months of riding in circles – enjoyable as those circles may have been – we are riding towards home.

A bike shop was our first stop and there we met Matt, an American on a four month South East Asia trip who is looking for a wife who’ll ride the world with him; he was very jealous of Alleykat’s antics. After a good chin wag, he invited us to his hotel, recommending its cleanliness and central locale, but upon learning the $20 per night price tag, we followed the budget advice from The Lonely Planet. This seven year old information turned out to be very wrong, the five dollar rooms recommended in its usually well-guided pages were also closer to $20 and so we were back on the hunt. A small sign reading Mut Mee Guesthouse drew us down a long, leafy driveway. There were sticky geckos on most vertical surfaces, a library and a quiet vibe emanating from the place. Upon meeting Dina the stunning, insightful, worldly Danish receptionist who charmed the pants off us (almost literally) and informed us of their extremely reasonable prices, we booked in. It turned out there were more than a handful of crazy cats like us staying at Mut Mee: a Malaysian bike tourer named Acid, three young Melbournians and enough characters from around the globe to make us feel as though we were all perfectly at home together.

Getting MutMee’d

The process of getting MutMee’d is one not unknown to many who cross its welcoming threshold. In fact, the whole Thai-Laos border town of Nong Khai is well known for being assigned a temporary destination, ‘oh, I’ll just stay one night’, quickly to be transformed into a semi-permanent residence ‘yeah, I work here now and I’ve extended my visa three times…’. This immediate feeling of ease and homeliness came ringing home with the great collection of people we met while there, we could have stayed on and on with our new team Dina, Grace (an emphatically passionate and whimsical Brit-girl who’s aspirations include becoming an actor and changing the way dogmatic religion dominates the world) and their buddy Tim (a Hugh Grant body double with keen wit, impressive Thai language abilities, and a deft hand at pool).

South East Asia, and specifically Thailand, seems to have a similar effect on many: the ease of living here surpasses most places we’ve toured. Even we, the tent-loving, wild-camp-happy Alleykats have been living it up in hotels, hostels and guesthouses: it is too easy! No more sweating it out in two day old clothes, no more waiting until nightfall to secret ourselves away in a sneaky wild camp, no more waiting three days between showering and digging holes for the loo. Yep, we’ve gone soft: South East Asia told us to! There is no difficult search required for convenience or homely familiarity, the language barrier only requires a few words to navigate and you’ll never, ever go hungry.

Mere minutes beyond informing Angali, the 17-year-old Indian receptionist (another brave, open-hearted and generous soul from Oritzville no less) that we’d like to stay a second night please, we had hired motorbikes and were whizzing our way towards a historical park. The first stop was at 7Eleven, of course, for Tim to get breakfast, our three motorbikes (two hired for Alleykat and Dina/Grace and Tim’s own) were in good nick and were admittedly pretty fun to buzz around on. Kat’s mind may have followed the ‘this really is much easier and quicker, than cycling’ path a few times on the way, Alee’s grinning face wrote a similar story on the speedy zoom up weaving mountain roads.

The historical park was peaceful and not at all well patroned, we wandered amongst strangely shaped boulders and thickly treed landscapes, chatting about family, politics, travel and Thailand. Grace and Kat stayed put for an hour to do some yoga and bonding while Dina led the boys to a scenic cliff and upside down foot-shaped rocks. The sky was darkening and rumbling warnings at us so we helmeted up and breezed back down the hill. Too soon the winds had changed from playful gusts to buffeting blasts, threatening to pull our tyres from the gradually dampening road, so we played it safe and drank hot chocolates for a while in a roadside cafe. Tim had an in depth conversation with the proprietress, demonstrating his finely tuned ear for the Thai language and humour alike, Alleykat were jealous of his skills, vowing we’d make good on our plans to properly learn a second language (and preferably live in the country of voice!). The last 50 kilometres were a storm chase: we watched the turbulent skies open over towns and rolling hills ahead of us and beside, but managed to stay dry (other than our tootsies which received a little splash-back from the road soaked ahead of us).

Just before we arrived ‘home’ (yes, it already felt like home) we spied some strange plumes of smoke squirrelling into the cloudy sky. These, it turns out, were rockets, part of a Thai festival which celebrates the beginning of the wet season and the rising of the rivers. The ‘traditional’ activity we’d witnessed was actually homemade rockets being blasted into the sky: their intended purpose is to blast the clouds apart and make it rain.

On the road, expecting nothing – everything is delivered

We attempted to leave early, but had our plans thwarted by not wanting to leave – it was really hard saying goodbye to Grace, Dina and Angeli who’d become those firm friends we seem to accumulate on the road. We then were introduced to Acid, a cycle tourer from Malaysia who gave us some excellent advice for the roads ahead and extended an invitation to us once we reached his home, a town called Muar of the coast of Malaysia. When we finally pushed out onto the road, the heat clung to us, sweaty little fingerprints on our arms and legs and faces. The hills rolled and undulated along the Mekong’s tree-lined banks, the riding was varied, each little climb rewarded us with a short downhill luxury and the hours passed easily.

Just after lunch, we rounded a corner and paused to suck down a few litres of water, a Thai fellow on a motorbike pulled up right next to us and began chattering away at us in Thai, using his hands to gesture something about two: two this, two that. It was easy to allow him to entertain us, but we weren’t prepared for quite so much entertainment: moments later, an unmarked car full of policemen pulled up right next to us and jump out to accost this motorbike rider. He had a second to think and jumped astride his still running bike and attempt to ride off. Two policemen grabbed a hold of the bike and they went careening off into the bushes, effectively incarcerating the man in cuffs and stuffing him into the car. An accountable audience, we stood rather shocked watching the events unfold – a policeman eyeballed us and we rode off, wondering what it was all about!

Farang! Farang!

From every direction, every mouth, every day comes a word thrown at us: Farang. Farang means guava in Thai, a seemingly innocuous term to be described with but don’t let the innocence of its translation fool you; ‘guava’ or ‘white on the inside’ means foreign, alien, wrong. For the most part, Farang falls into everybody’s lexicon just a way to indicate to your mates that a couple strange people are riding through the town. It wasn’t often we were called Farang out of spite, however, on occasion we felt the sting of ridicule or dislike simply for the colour of our skin: it’s racism plain and simple. It can be appropriated, like ‘processed Farang’, used between Thai friends to make gentle fun of their half-Thai, half-European friends.

It is glaringly obvious how fitting the term is when used to describe your average tourist: fat, white (but for the pink sunburn) and utterly oblivious to the culture they’re prostituting with their mere presence and expectations, but that doesn’t make it right. We didn’t feel like Farang, and Kat objected to being called Farang in any circumstances, but with the right frame of mind, it was a part of Thailand fairly easy to accept.

Each little town we rode through seemed to have its own community feel: some were super relaxed, some bustling and noisy, others almost ghost towns; we didn’t however see many non-Thais. Occasionally a face would stick out like an albino rhino among the grey – a westerner or two might live secretly among the beauteous people and streets, but they’re rare. We pulled into one such town, which had a market and a police station and happened to house a river-adorning hostel commonly frequented by cyclists and motor tourists alike: we do have a habit of accidentally stumbling into such places!

Robert was sat, plucking out a rolling harp-like tune on his guitar, thickening the already beautifully full atmosphere, he called out to us on our way to the river shacks that would be our bedroom that evening and we ended up out to dinner upon his recommendation that evening. Robert was a colourful character whose extraordinarily adventurous life still didn’t preclude his disbelief at our own trip, his late-in-life antics were aligned with the rather typical genre of behaviour of Westerers in Thailand: escapists, adventurers, desiring an alternative lifestyle without much of the challenge of dealing with anything difficult – a life on the periphery of reality.

Our hut on the river was… interesting, dirty but ok, mostly natural rubbish: a tokay (giant gecko) or two lived in the walls and we had clearly invaded his space, not the other way around. We slept quite well within its flimsy walls, the natural world was practically inside with us, but the weather, the smells, the sounds in Thailand, especially in small towns are all rather agreeable – a good a reason as any to live the quiet, unassailable life available to most visitors to Thailand.

The King And I

A royal by any other name would smell as sweet, and despite his surely fast approaching use-by-date (he’s been serving since 1946), sugary must his scent be for the Thais do love their royal leader. Billboard after billboard, placard after placard, photos in shops, framed painting in homes: this royal Siamese fellow graces seemingly every available flat surface – his gaze unescapable, his youth immortalised by revitalising visual incantations dotted densely around the country. The man is more than his royal status, he plays many a role in politics and daily life: ‘long live the…’ is more respectful and widely accepted than most beginnings of conversation.

As we rode, it became harder and harder to ascertain the reality this gold-rimmed demigod: was he a figurehead? Was he a thirty-something play-acting at reigning or an octogenarian hoodwinking the world? Is he deserving of the love that is bestowed with such uncategoric frequency?

Perhaps similar to a musical version of the bejewelled ruler, this living relic (he was born in the 1920s) remains firmly uncrossable, inviolable, never to be dishonoured. We aren’t entirely sure who he is, what he does or whether we’re even allowed to write about him, but safe to say his presence in Thailand is everywhere and while living within his plentiful lands, dare not be an accidental iconoclast, simply state Long Live the … and continue living under his all-encompassing golden cartoon stare.

The riding and resting over the next few days took us through areas of nearly unbearable, sweaty heat and of strange recognition: a Castlemaine for Bangkkokians was our home for a night. We rode up hills steeper and longer than any we’d encountered for a good while (excluding Al’s adventures in Laos of course) and with the hour-on, fifteen minutes-off for yoga -technique (to help with Kat’s back), the inclines were more than manageable, they were fun!

Modern Practicality

Our slight detour across the country (as opposed to our strict diet of southwards movement only) was inspired by online friends, Haley and Matt, world bike riders and budding organic farmers of the infamous Modern Practicality. By a good dose of luck, we were riding into Thailand while they were still in the country, having already been paused living on a farm in a small town called Chat Trakan for a few months. Four days and almost somewhere between four and five hundred kilometres later we were rolling into the outskirts of their little town.

Guinevere greeted us at the door, the young princess she is, she had already been telling us all about her every movement of the day through the closed partition, we could hear her loud and clear but we couldn’t understand a single word she said: Guin is a cat. Haley and Matt’s new baby cat, a noisy little ebony bundle of joy and whiskers, found on the side of the road a few days before our arrival. That evening we dined locally on veggie tempura, pad thai and good conversation – discovering quickly why going out of your way to meet fellow cycle tourers is ALWAYS a good decision!

Aquaponics involves a special mixture of sustainable farming techniques – beginning with fish farmed in tanks, the nitrogen from their waste are filtered out and used to water plants, these plants are all hydro-based specimens which are grown without soil and can thus be grown in larger, denser quantities: vertically or in layers on top of tanks. Matt and Haley have studied the principals of this type of farming (it’s a lot more complex than I’ve described, involving a lot of symbiotic relationships between animals, water and plants) and their journey is being shaped by a series of semi-long-term farm stays (like WWOOFing, learn more HERE). They source opportunities like this that they can learn from for later application, but more than that, much more, is that they give back to the countries and communities they visit. We were very impressed with the whole shebang.

Not only did we learn about aquaponics and life on a farm, but we tried some new things like durian paste cake and Thai hot cocoa (the cocoa was markedly better than the cake, but despite its garbagey sweetness, durian cake is surprisingly ok!). Our presence inspired a rare day of rest for Matt and Haley, it’s not uncommon to find them at the farm eight days a week, not because they’re earning money (they’ve done most of their work for free) but because, as anyone who farms knows, there’s never a time where there’s “nothing” to do! We planned to go our riding, but mooched around instead; chilling out, feeling good and relaxed.

An enormous bruise spread across the sky with the sound of a thousand punches, the storm rolled in for the rest of the day. It tempered itself for a moment, creeping out long enough to allow us time to relocate to a fancy cafe around the corner in the least likely of places: behind a petrol station, where not only did they have a barista, but she knew what she was doing! There, we were once again assaulted by the power of the Thailand might, the tropical weather is more furious than anything we’ve had before. While cowering inside, we played Monopoly Deal (a card game slightly less competetive than the original bordgame) and drank copious amounts of coffee and hot chocolate to make up for being a bit wet and chilly in the storm. Storm front after storm front thundered through the skies like so many bands of wild horses racing through the rolling hills of clouds, occasionally deafening our open ears as we spoke about phobias, the future, chocolate and of course, riding bikes.

Moving Southward

Unfortunately, we had to keep moving, as is the life we lead and began our southwards momentum once more. The ride to Phitsanoluk was largely uneventful, except for eating what Kat hoped would be the last bland noodle soup for a very, very long time. The markets held a few treasures but were mostly like the bulk of South East Asian markets we’d visited: carbon copies of varying quality current fashion goods. The hotel we stayed in cost us a sum total of $3 for the two of us, and was even clean – we hoped this would be indicative of the kind of hotel we could expect for the next few weeks of riding.

A long day on the road doesn’t happen all the time, but it does make a nice difference to simply saw off a good chunk of the trip rather than shaving it inch by inch. An easy 130 or more kilometres swept us into a town called Nakhon Sawan and had us riding around a round about, chock-full of trucks, cars and motorbikes… and cyclists! A small group rounded the bend with us and we flagged them down to help us locate a cheap place to stay. After visiting a few nice-but-definitely-not-cheap places with the four charming Thai riders, their ‘leader’ Thanin took us to a set of little apartments which cost less than $10 a night and are located in most towns (we thought, maybe we could take Thanin along with us to help us in the evenings!) and then invited him along to dinner with us. One of his group members turned out to be vegetarian too (what luck!), and we supped on fine street food without fear of meaty, leggy, eggy contamination of our food.

Vegetarian food in South East Asia is a strange thing, red bean buns pop up occasionally, and one does sight the occasional restaurant clearing its meat-free intentions, but the majority of what we ate has been meat-based dishes, ordered meat and egg free, which doesn’t leave us a lot to chow into! We’d recommend learning very specific dishes in the local language that are already vegetarian and designed to be eaten that way – otherwise the dishes can be lacklustre and don’t convey an accurate picture of how rich the cuisine really is!

Food is never far away in Thailand, street food literally lines many streets and is being cooked constantly. The Thais traditionally eat six times a day – consuming small meals each showcasing a specific flavour or texture profile, using different kinds of ingredients at each session. This way of eating is still practised by a good number of Thais, but the small portion sizes and plant-based menu seems to have changed. The result is a huge number of overweight people, Thai nationals who don’t fit the slim mold of what one might assume is an average shape.

The diabetes and heart disease levels are increasing at an alarming rate in Thailand where people can afford more meat, more processed foods and street vendors can afford to serve up larger meals too. This trend was voluptuously obvious in the next town we visited, Chai Nat, such a cute town with a relaxed vibe, but the sheer number of larger locals (more than 50% of the population were overweight, if not obese) was staggering. We joined the hungrily dining masses in the evening, dining out at the gloriously colourful and salivation-promoting markets conveniently placed opposite our evening’s residence.

Next morning, as was very much our habit in Thailand, we awoke early, packed up our junk in record time and rode 40km before breakky: nothing like it to make you feel righteous and fighting fit for the rest of the day! We reached a tourist town called Ayutthaya, the roads thick with elephants, tourists and temples.

The way the elephants were being treated as objects, rather than sentient beings, made us feel sick and sad – the elephant riding industry is a disgrace. Of course it’s easy to narrate individual tales about elephants and kind carers: sure the people who tend to the elephants are often kind, caring and compassionate people doing a wonderful job with what they’ve been given, however, elephants simply haven’t been placed on the earth for our entertainment, they’ve been here since before the ice ages, evolving for the best strengths they need: to protect their families, to forage in the rainforest and to travel long distances in tight herds. Their spine is weaker than what it seems. They haven’t evolved to carry great loads on their backs, carrying instead with their trunks and heads, using their sheer size and strength for purposes other than human enjoyment. It’s something we just cannot bare and should not be something tourists, especially those aware enough to think twice, are paying and therefore supporting.

Bangkok Breeziness: Free Hotels and Friends All Around

Via crazy roads for the last 30 kilometres adorned with imaginative graffiti we made it into the mammoth city of Bangkok. A few crazy turns and riding on large, heavily-trafficked roads through the outskirts we pulled up to Buddy Place Hotel where our mate Bright’s friend was giving us FIVE nights of accommodation for FREE! Of course it wasn’t quite that simple: the hotel staff didn’t quite know what was happening and we stood around in lycra for longer than strictly necessary, but no matter, with Bright on the phone, all was well and a beautiful, spacious, clean place opened out in front of our eyes. Are we lucky or what?! That evening, we smashed some amazing bibimbap for dinner at a Korean restaurant around the corner. This is what city living is all about.

The next day the military called a coup d’etat, and such it was our entire time in Bangkok. Luckily for us it didn’t really affect our stay. We rode TanNayNay the tandem into town and left it with the very capable staff at BokBok Bike, met Bright and his friend Arthur (ostensibly to do an interview, which we performed in Bright’s car) but really to go and eat amazing food, such as mango cheesecake to die for! Our evening continued in a splurging fashion with free flowing beer and food at Moonshine Cafe, where we met Tay and a lot of their crew and drank beer, talked shit, learned to swear and played pool.

In Bangkok, we did as one does in Bangkok: went walking, window shopping and people watching in the city centre, Chinatown and at Paragon at Siam Square. Our evenings were often with Bright and Tay, or Bright and Sarah, with whom we went to fancy restaurants like Limoncello for pizza and craziness. Without the bike, we were forced on one occasion to take a taxi home during which Alee nearly expired due to frustration (bike riding in cities and all the freedoms it lends you has a spoiling effect!)

A day before we were due to head out of the city, we picked up TanNayNay and had dinner at Natasha Restaurant – middle eastern Arabic fare made to PERFECTION. Alleykat were so in love with the food – the hummus, the felafel, the bread, the tabbouleh… that the next morning we ordered a whole lot to take on the train for lunch and probably could’ve stomached it for breakfast as well. We planned to take the train to Chumphon instead of riding there along the massive coastal freeway, and so met Bright and Tay to say a final goodbye at the train station so we could finally pay for something for them (coffees) and said a warm ‘until next time’. Mere moments later, we’d hopped on the train after paying a TanNayNay bribe (only $3 but Al fumed so hard smoke began pouring out of his head) and we were ready to rock.

We somehow broke the Airstash. I don’t know if you know this about us, but we occasionally need to zone out: we have a magical device called an Airstash (you can read more about it HERE) which allows us to download movies onto our iPads via a wireless signal. We’ve come to depend on it quite heavily and like to joke ‘what if it broke’. It definitely wasn’t a jocular situation when that day finally came…

During our one night in Chumphon we dined on the first bad food we’d encountered in Thailand; we didn’t dispair though because Thailand had been too consistent otherwise to worry. Next day we rode through a steamed bun town and were quite suddenly transported to Jeju Island, South Korea. What a heaven! We devoured eight on the spot and could have easily spent hours there with Maya and Ma’an the two gorgeous girls who expertly pulled out bun after fluffy white bun for us to injest, all the while asking us questions and giggling sweetly to themselves.

The next night our dinner was payed for by a sweet man who didn’t speak much English (and with barely any Thai we couldn’t make ourselves understood well enough) so he popped his English teacher sister on the phone and then explained through her just how much he liked what we were doing and insisted upon paying for our dinner. Our interpersonal luck continued in the next town we paused in: Khura Buri where we met bike tourer Tim from North Carolina with whom we talked about mosquitoes, polyamory and of course riding bikes (is the a theme here?!).

MAJ is almost with us!

Our ‘wife’, as she is known, a best friend from Melbourne named Maj had decided to take some time out of her extremely busy schedule (a 90 hour week is common practice) and spend almost two weeks with us in South East Asia. We’d known about her impending visit for most of our time in Thailand and it kept us warm at night, it kept the fire in our bellies burning hot and made us a little goal-focused! MAJ WAS COMING!!

Two nights before we were due in Phuket we stayed in a little, cheap hotel in Khao Lak, there meeting Francis – a nice man who from hello, did not stop talking and although Kat found out many outrageous things about Francis’s crazy life, he didn’t ask her a single question in two days of talking. Kind of sad, to be so involved in one’s own fanciful life that a lot of the external world is missed. It was here, wandering through more magical food-laced night markets that we discovered the greatest dessert food in Thailand: crumpcakes: a 25cm diameter circle of half crumpet, half pancake, heavily dusted with thinly shaved coconut, black sesame and honey/palm sugar. Heaven, sweet heaven, we ate about six from the same vendor over our time there. Delectable.

Needing to leave early the next morning in order to complete the last 110km to Phuket we rode off in the rain. Francis was very confused. Our first 20km were rainy heaven, through gently winding, heavily forested areas, beautiful and lush. After arriving and settling in Phuket we were driven wild with expectation: Maj’s flight was about to land, it was going to land any minute… it landed! We jumped up and down on our beds in our plush hotel room for three… getting ready, not knowing where to stand, fussing over everything and sitting waiting. And waiting. And waiting, and hoping that Maj was ok, she surely wasn’t so far from us, only 27km from the airport to our front door, not more than an hour needed to do that, right? Five hours after her plane landed, there she was!

She’d been taken on a rather around-about ride of the island of Phuket, relying on bus drivers to know where our hotel was, only to find herself disembarking an extra 40km around the coast at the largest beachside resort, thinking, ‘surely this isn’t right…’ She was right, it wasn’t the right spot, and after another two community bus rides and an expensive motorbike taxi journey, she’d arrived at the sister hotel of ours, luckily within walking distance. We hugged and smiled and hugged some more. Maj was a sight for sore eyes, such was our anticipation, two years in the making. We hugged and laughed and sat on each other and the bed and held hands and felt overwhelmed and happy and ready to spend every single second of the amazing eleven days Maj had incredibly taken off from her hugely demanding job as one of the two founding lawyers of her own law firm. What a boss, what a boss indeed.

In Phuket, we discovered we weren’t in tourist town, Phuket Town is very much run as a normal Thai city, with Thai people running the shops as well as frequenting them. We ate well, of course, dining on lots of fresh fruit, traditional dishes like Pad Thai and Pad Si Yew, more fresh fruit and lots of random coconut based delicacies. After a few days of unbreakingly wet and stormy weather, we had the decision made for us: instead of seeking to dive on the islands of Koh Phi Phi, as we’d thought about, the storms, the wind and rain deterred us and we moved around the coast to Krabi, destined to arrive in Malaysia a few days early and make the most of our time together in Georgetown, Penang.

Krabi was similar to Phuket in that we were definitely in real Thailand, not simply a technicolour version painted for tourists. We spent a few days here, delighting in entirely vegetarian restaurants, colourful/ambient markets stuffed to overflowing with fruit, vegetables and delights (more crumpcakes than it was possible to devour!) We rode around to Ao Nang and discovered we’d made the right decision for accommodation types again: here were all the tourists and their attractions, here were the old white men leering and letching on young Thai girls, here were the stalls that stretched on for street lengths, full of low quality clothes made to be worn to stretching point by fat tourists and there they were, paving the streets and sanding the beaches, everywhere. Maj and Kat got new piercings together and named them after one-another, as is tradition.

We rode back feeling happy with our location, ready to take a few ferries (land and sea) across the Malaysian borders the next day to Penang. We stopped overnight in Satun and went market dining for dinner. Perfect pad thai was met with gusto and the night got richer with deepfried banana balls and oodles of fresh mangoes and pineapple.

Don’t forget to catch our film on Thailand!

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More of our Asia LP

⇒ Track 1: South Korea

⇒ Track 2: Japan

⇒ Track 3: The Philippines

⇒ Track 4: Cambodia

⇒ Track 5: Vietnam

⇒ Track 6: Laos

⇒ Track 7: Thailand

⇒ Track 8: Malaysia and Singapore

⇒ Check out our Central Asian series HERE

⇒ Try out our European series HERE