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Bangkok to Chiang Mai (on bike!), Thailand, 2nd – 12th March

April 24, 2011

Day 1: Bangkok – Ayuthaya (110km, after getting lost…)

I’d spent the last couple of days glued to online cycling forums and the general consensus was that riding out of Bangkok was a really really stupid idea. HOWEVER… I’m pretty stubborn I guess. I didn’t want to start what I hoped would be an epic journey on a bus or train, so I thought I’d chance it. This was just stupid.I left Bangkok very early on the Wednesday morning, looking to beat the traffic and get out of town. Lesson one: never, ever try and cycle out of Bangkok. (Or if you do, get a better map than the one I picked up for free in a petrol station). It took me an hour just to get over the river. I got to know this river very well over the next few hours, as I crossed it four times, which was three too many. I was planning to get a little west out of town, where a quieter looking B road went all the way to Ayuthaya, where I was stopping for the night. I found the road (I think) , then learned my second lesson of the trip: road signs aren’t always in English. I went past a series of turn offs and junctions, with the maybe 1 in 5 signs that had any English characters signposting suburbs that weren’t mentioned on my crappy map. Not fun. I’d left at 6AM, but by now it was gone 8 and rush hour was kicking in. I could probably spin a lot more out of this story, but in condensed form I crossed the river 4 more times, cycled over 50 km trying to cover the 10km out of town before giving up on any kind of quiet road and just hitting the motorway for 20km. Pretty sure this wasn’t legal, but being Thailand no-one cared, so I just got out of town as quick as I could. Eventually things got quieter and less smoggy, and I could feel my heart beat coming down. Stopped in Uttan Thani, only 20k north of town, and checked my bike computer to find I’d covered 65km to go 20km north. Lesson 3: plan a route in advance.

The last few hours were a lot more chilled, but still nothing special on the sights front, just flat fields and farms. At one point went through some wetlands, which had some big eagles flying above. 10km from Ayuthaya it gunned it down with rain. I would’ve stopped normally, but just wanted to get there, so I kept going. The rain here is strange. It bounces off the road, and the water steams off the road, meaning your feet are in a kind of steam bath.

Got into Ayuthaya, which is famous for 700 year old ruins. Saw a lot of these rolling into town, all very impressive. Checked into a hostel, cleaned myself up and relaxed for a while before heading out to explore the town. The ruins were pretty good, the usual set of wats, chedis and walls. The main set were in a big park, so went for a walk around this to stretch off a bit. The pond in the middle of the park had what appeared to be a baby dinosaur in it, which none of the locals seemed to mind:

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Had a big dinner and an early night.

Day 2: Ayuthaya to Sing Buri (75km)

Determined to learn my lessons from the day before, I sat down and studied the map carefully over breakfast, and worked out a route before setting off. Today was much better, B roads all the way with almost no traffic.

Got my first puncture after 20km, which worried me a bit. Luckily it happened right outside a shop/cafe, so I could enjoy a “Big Cola” (for some reason claiming affiliation with the English football team) whilst making repairs. An old Thai guy stopped to chat as I was getting sorted, and bought me a coffee before disappearing, which was wonderful. 

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For most of the way I saw more (mostly flattened) snakes  than cars. The road followed marshes for most of the way, so I think they were using the road to sun themselves and heat up. A few times I’d have to brake sharply and let it do its own thing; spent a bit of time wondering just what would happen if I ran a snake over at speed before concluding it probably wasn’t worth finding out. Stopped to buy some fruit from 2 ladies at a roadside shack 10km from the nearest house, where I was charged 20 pence for a whole chopped-up watermelon. The way they were laughing when they quoted the price made me think they thought they were overcharging me, which I was very happy with.

Sing Buri was fine enough, a typical Thai town with a main street and market, and not a lot else. By the time I’d got a room, cleaned up and slept a bit, eaten industrial amounts of food and checked emails it was time for bed anyway. Had a migraine in the evening, so guess I need to start drinking a lot more water.

Day 3: Sing Buri to Nakhon Sawan (95km)

Headache came back worse in the morning, but went away after drinking a lot of water with breakfast. The cycling was much the same as yesterday; pleasant and flat. Nice and easy stuff to build the fitness up on before hitting the hills near Chiang Mai. Realised today I really needed to pay more attention to diet, as I was feeling like crap after a few hours. Recognised the early warning signs of the “wall” from running, so the cycling took a lot longer than it should’ve. I’m not exactly on a rigid schedule, but I’d rather spend my time enjoying the places I’m at than riding slowly and having to stop a lot due to feeling bad. Walled really badly coming into Nakhon Sawan, so stopped and drank 2 Pepsis, which gave me enough fuel to get to a hotel.

Bit of route planning:

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Loving the accommodation you can get outside the tourist spots- for 300 baht (about 6 quid) I’m staying in 3 star hotels, confusing the Thai businessmen who they’re designed for. Ate even more than the day before, and felt a lot better.

Day 4: Nakhon Sawan to Dannang Menang (65km)

Woke up with a new plan to take it easy for a couple of days, and pay (even) more attention to nutrition. The headaches had still come yesterday with 4 litres of water, so decided to try for 6, of which I had two with a very large breakfast. The plan for the day was to head towards Phitsanulok on what looked like a nice, quiet B road. Luckily I bumped into two Aussie lads on the way out of town (the first non-Thais I’d seen since leaving Ayuthaya), who lived in the area, and told me that that was a main road and would be awful. Recommended a much quieter road heading slightly east that would add a bit more distance on but would be a lot quieter. So I headed off on a fantastically quiet country lane, again with more roadkill snakes than cars. Tried to keep count, but lost track somewhere in the twenties. Felt a lot better today, and got 3 litres of water down before 11am. The riding was beautiful, heading alongside rice paddies all day. Lunch:

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Got into Dannang Menang (helpfully spelt in 3 very different ways on road signs) mid afternoon, and set about finding the hotel marked on my map. Spent about an hour looking but eventually found the place, which was lucky as was the only hotel in town. They didn’t even have a sign up, and looked a bit surprised to see me. In keeping with the easy-going theme, I watched a film and slept for 11 hours that night.

Day 5: Dannang Menang – Phitsanulok (25km, plus some cheating on the train)

Made the wise decision today to catch a train for part of the day. Could’ve made it on my own steam, but after a couple of days of feeling rubbish I wanted to give myself a bit more time to recover. So I cycled the 20km north to the next train station on the line, and bought a ticket for Phitsanulok. The bike’s ticket cost twice as much as mine. Had two hours to kill, so sat in a cafe reading. Was a little concerned about whether the bike was meant to go in a luggage carriage or something, but as soon as the train came in a lad came running up and pointed me towards the end of the train. Here another guy helped me load it on and tie it up so it wouldn’t fall over, then gave me a seat in the adjacent carriage, with a big sign up saying “for monks, pensioners and soldiers only”. Wasn’t quite sure what category I was in, but was decent of them, plus I got to see a succession of people going up to the monks and offering food in return for blessings and chants. And a monk drinking Pepsi, which was kind of weird.

Phitsunalok was an hour or so’s ride away, where I found another awesome hotel, then went out to explore the town.

Day 6: Phitsanulok to Sukhothai (65km)

Woke up feeling much better, none of the lethargy I’d been feeling for a few days. Guess I’d got a bit over confident, which after 7 months on no exercise just wasn’t sensible. Also finding that getting the big meals in early in the day helped a lot, and got in the habit of keeping bananas and cereal bars in the handlebar bag for in-ride munching. I’ve never eaten so much, even during marathon training. Still lost 6kg in 6 days, which was pretty worrying. Apparently you get a couple of weeks of big weight loss before it stabilises again.

Found that listening to music whilst riding livened things up a bit. Obviously not the safest idea ever, so I only do it on quiet roads (of which there are very very many here), and then with one earphone unplugged. Stopped for a coffee en route, but otherwise fine and got into Sukhothai early afternoon. Again I fell victim to not checking the map properly, and after thinking I was done I had to go another 12 km to Old Sukhothai, where the famous ruins are. Stopped for some noodles on this leg, and managed to leave my compass in the restaurant, adding another 5km on to the ride by the time I’d realised and gone back for it. View from the bike:

 

Checked into a guesthouse in Old Sukhothai, where I took an overdue rest day. Spent the afternoon doing exciting things like laundry, before walking round the old city a bit. Watched the sun set over a monastery while eating a pineapple, then sank a couple of hard-earned beers and got up on the blog a bit.

Next day I had a big lie in, then explored Sukhothai, which was a collection of ruins from about 700 years ago. According to Thai history, the Thai king won a one-on-one elephant battle with the Cambodian king here to establish Thailand. Fortunately the truth doesn’t get in the way of some impressive old buildings/temples etc. Came out of a temple to find a couple looking at my bike with interest; saw they were carrying handlebar bags and realised they were cycling around the country as well. Went out for lunch with them and swapped tips, as we were headed in opposite directions. (Admittedly, they had come all the way from Belgium and probably had a few more tips to give than me). Went for a gentle ride around the old city walls in the afternoon, then had a bit of map time and worked out the route to Chiang Mai and beyond (including some hefty logistics for China).

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Day 7: Sukhothai to Si Satchanalai

Had an easy 70km or so north, along the quietest roads I saw in the country. From here I could see some big hills looming in the distance, although it was largely flat. I missioned it in one go this morning (the idea was to spend some time checking out the ruins  south of Si Satchanali as well), eating bananas from the handlebar bag in lieu of stopping. Made it around 11:30, which was awesome as gave me plenty of time to look around before heading on to the town to sort accommodation etc.

The ruins here come from the same time as Sukhothai, the main difference being that they haven’t been tidied up as much. I haven’t been, but it felt a bit like how I imagine Ankhor Wat to be, with big vines and trees growing into temples. Spent a couple of hours here, pedalling about and enjoying the sights.

From here it was an easy 20km into town, or at least it would have been without a dog chase. I’d read about this a few times but had figured I could just cycle away. Luckily this time I was on flat ground, so I just about managed it, but the little bugger was pretty close to my ankles (later in Chiang Mai I bought a water pistol and filled it with a combination of water and chilli oil, which I’ve been told works a treat). Stopped to have an ice cream and calm down a bit before heading off on the last bit. I saw a sign almost immediately saying “Guesthouse”, and went inside to find a very kooky elderly Chinese man. Did the usual shower/lie down and groan thing for a while, then got the energy up to go for a walk. Not much going on here, a one street town with a market and not much else. Used the time to give Mary her first bath (officially christened today; as it’s a Merida bike it was going to be Fran for a while after Fran Merida, who used to play for Arsenal, but as he’d left I just went for Mary instead. Luckily I don’ think I know anyone called Mary, but if I do, its nothing personal…), minus wheels:

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Day 8: Si Satchanali to Den Chai (98km)

Headed north today on the ominously named Route 101. It wasn’t quite an Orwellian nightmare, but these were definitely the biggest hills I’ve been on so far, and a nice taster of what I’ll be facing over the next few months. There was only one nasty climb in rather, and no flats at ANY point, meaning I spent the whole day either climbing or descending. Thanks to the bike computer I can see just how pathetically slowly I’m going at any given time. More than once I was using the lowest gear, crawling along at 8km/h or less. I was climbing for an hour or so just after lunch, being helpfully warned by the following sign of what was coming up

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Thailand is pretty laid back about everything, including road signage, so when they tell you a hill is going to be steep, they really mean it. The only thing that matters is whether you’re at the top or bottom of the hill. After a brutal hour, I got to the top and was rewarded with another steep hill sign, meaing I got to ride for a good 10km without having to touch the pedals once. Bliss. Slightly irresponsibly, I got up to 64km/h on this point, but Mary handled it without any problems. After this things I joined route 11, and things levelled out for the last few km into Den Chai. Looked around for a hotel and couldn’t find anything, so I was debating throwing the bike onto a train here for Lampang (it was 100km of highway that didn’t look like much fun to ride on), but the next train wasn’t coming for hours. I asked the lad at the train station if he knew of a guesthouse, and he drew me a map showing me how to find one, which was really kind of him.

The guesthouse was fine, and after a shower I went out to explore the town and get some dinner. Wasn’t much in Den Chai, so used the time to check some emails. Internet cafes in Thailand are often full of teenage boys playing video games, which is annoying as I had to wait around for a while. Had a big plate of pad thai, walked around a bit then went to the hotel to watch a film.

Day 9: Den Chai to Lampang (90km)

Didn’t have high expectations for today, largely due to the fact the whole day was going to be on Highway 11, the main road going to Chiang Mai (2nd biggest city in Thailand). Was pleasantly surprised by quiet roads and not much traffic at all. Got hit by 3 nasty uphills, the longest with about 10km of straight climbing, but otherwise a good day. Scenery starting to get a lot more interesting now, with some rainforest, big hills and stunning views from the top of said big hills. Stopped for a coffee and a bread roll at the bottom of the biggest one; found the middle of the roll was full of sweet green flourescent goo (really missing proper bread out here- this kind of thing is surprsingly common). Giant Buddha, and a reassuring sign for when you’re alone on a road in the forest.

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Rolled into Lampang early afternoon, and spent the afternoon mooching about town. Was a pleasant place to be, with a massive market. Spent a good few hours walking around and Didn’t eat enough again today, and was feeling a bit light headed walking around town, so made myself eat two meals and a lot of snacks before getting an early night. This was rudely interrupted by the guesthouse’s dog deciding to sit outside my window and howl for a while…

Day 10: Lampang to Chiang Mai

Gave myself a bit of a lie in after being kept up by dogs in the night, then set off around 8:30. The guesthouse owner recommended a better way to Chiang Mai, bypassing the busier “11” for some quieter roads. This went fine, and had 30km of excellent and very quiet B roads (including a massive breakfast from 7-eleven), before rejoining the highway. Charged on a bit more, getting overtaken by a group of Thai road cyclists out training, with a lot of smiles exchanged as they went by me. Ah, to not be carrying all my stuff…

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Around 10:30 I saw a sign saying “Thai Elephant Conservation Centre”. I’d read about this place, famous for being pretty much the only elephant centre in the country that treats the animals well. I had loads of time spare, so went to take a closer look. Was only a pound or so to go in, a bit of a bargain, and this let you walk about and watch the “Elephant Show”, where they all paraded and picked up logs and so on. Today was a Saturday, so the place was full of Thai families out for the day. All good, clean fun.

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Got back on the bike anxious to get going, with ambitions of cold beer and premier league football in Chiang Mai that evening. Wasn’t liking the look of the sky either, which had suddenly turned a lot darker in the last two hours. Rode for an hour more before it started raining really hard. Put up with it for 1km or so, but with the usual steam-bath from the rain hitting the hot tarmac and not being able to see properly, I hid in a cafe and waited for it to pass over. Here I enjoyed a couple of coffees and a Thai sitcom, set in a Yamaha motorbike shop, with every character prominently wearing Yamaha-logoed clothing and making great efforts to put Yamaha motorbikes in every shot. After this was over, the same cast took part in a life-sized version of “Pop Up Pirate”, where large plastic swords were stuck into big barrels with people in them; when the sword went in the wrong hole the person inside was flung in the air on a reverse bungee cord. Utterly brilliant televison.

The rain cleared up, and I was keen to get to Chiang Mai. Was inspired on by a large sign welcoming me to Chiang Mai province, and was soon in a really built-up area south of the main city. Stopped for chocolate milk and bread with about 30km to go, then nailed the last bit. Stopped for the obligatory photo with the “Welcome to Chiang Mai” sign, then soon found myself in the suburbs of the city.

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5 Comments
  1. Ginny lee permalink

    Wow- great blog. I’m considering doing the same trip. Would be great to get some advice from you. I’m ginnylee99@hotmail.co.uk – please find me on FB!

  2. Hi Mike,

    I am currently travelling in Thailand and have thought of doing this journey alone. Am young ish female. Currently looking at availability of bikes to hire or buy in Bangkok, other equipment and itineraries.

    While I usually have a reasonably good level of fitness, I am by no means super fit. I spent the winter working in the French Alps and snowboarding everyday but have not done standard cardio exercise since last November. My plan is to take the ride easy and attempt to complete in say 12-15 days rather than the standard 10…

    Is there any advice you could offer me?

    Well done on your travels…

    Jo

    • Hey Jo

      Sorry for late reply… This trip ended two years ago and didnt realise people could still comment on the blog.

      Re fitness/general advice: the only relevant training you can do is on the road. I used to run marathons before starting this, and found it counted for very little. Just get on the bike and do it! Youll always get somewhere. Perhaps have a tent as a back up. It is really hard at first. Watch your water intake- I found I needed minimum 8 litres a day. Food can be hard as well; staarchy white rice and noodles are pretty crappy cycling fuel, and I did suffer much later on in China with severe weight loss (to the extent where I took a month off to eat and sightsee off the bike!). That being said, you just need to get on the bike! Everything else will work itself out from there.

      The Thais are incredibly friendly and lovely people. Think I was bought lunch/a coffee/ a beer every day there by a complete stranger.

      Good luck!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Tour of Thailand: Prologue 22 June 2013, Bangkok to Ayutthaya | The Wrinkled Balloon
  2. The Journey Starts Here | The Wrinkled Balloon

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