We thought we had the immigration from Laos to Thailand sussed, enough Kip to cover the cost of a boat across the Mekong, a small amount of Baht for the port tax, then get enough Baht at the ATM just outside immigration to last us till Chiang Rai.
But that was all blown out of the water when we discovered that the new 'friendship bridge' to Thailand, over the Mekong, is now open. So it is no longer possible to take the boat. However, the bridge is about 10km south of Huay Xia and, more importantly, an equal distance from Chiang Khong on the Thai side where all the ATMs are. We decided to exchange $50 of our emergency cash into Baht at the exchange in Huay Xia to tide us over to the next ATM.
So it was a bit of a mystery what costs we may possibly incur crossing the border on the bridge. The ride there was strange, there are not yet any road signs on the Laos side to direct drivers to the bridge. At the Laos border we rode to the 'motorbike' lane but were re-directed to the 'pedestrian' queue. After the passports were stamped we came out into a bus queue. Only vehicles are allowed on the bridge, bikes have to go across on a bus. The ultimate insult is that this 750m bus journey over the bridge costs $25 each. A one month visa is only $35!
Coming through immigration in Thailand was straightforward but they had not installed an ATM there when we were there so we were pleased that we had exchanged some currency already. Also it is difficult to adjust to the sudden change of riding on the left.
Our plan for this first day was to head south on route 1020 as far as the turn off for Chiang Rai. The road was a newly surfaced four lane dual carriageway with a wide hard shoulder. We kept commenting on how wonderful it was to ride along a proper road at last after some horrendous roads in Laos. Even the passing fast traffic didn't bother us too much.
|Victim of the road works?|
They had sprayed so much water on the unsurfaced sections to keep the dust down that they were wash-boarded and pretty uncomfortable.
Ban Ta, the town where we needed to turn off onto the 1152, seemed to consist of nothing more than a big market and a few eateries but just on the outskirts was a small 'resort' with several small cabins. There were about five staff but, in a trend that would continue through Thailand, we were the only guests.
Ban Ta to Chiang Rai - 62km
Adjusting to the changes between Laos and Thailand was difficult. There were no children playing on the roadsides, no shouts of 'sabaidee' and no kids riding bicycles to school. Most houses have high fences and gates and few people are about on the streets. Wide expanses of rice fields were brown and dry, awaiting the rains to be cultivated, with no-one working outside.
Chiang Rai - Days off
|Wat Ming Muang|
|Dragon steps, Ming Muang|
|Chiang Rai Clock Tower|
|Temple window carving|
Chiang Rai to Suanthip Vana Resort - 75km
|Early morning exercise|
After 30km of relative peace we turned onto route 118 which appeared on the 'Google' map to be a narrow country road. As the most direct route between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, we should obviously have expected the broad, four lane dual carriageway with fast cars, huge sleeper buses and heavy lorries. At least it was well surfaced, with a wide shoulder.
A gradual uphill climb continued all day, at first through featureless towns, but later more scenic along a wooded valley. We headed for only resort marked on our map, called Suanthip Vana.
Suanthip Vana resort to Ban Pong - 83km
|Fairy tale house|
|How much further?|
Every 500m we had to stop, get into some shade, eat a banana and drink. At least there was a hard shoulder all the way, the road now was just two lanes.
There were no fanfares to mark the summit, not even a road sign giving the elevation (1,041m to be exact) and no views either. On the descending road there were long sections without any hard shoulder making the riding much more tense as the traffic squeezed us to the road edge.
While we ate lunch, Steve looked at the sat-nav and declared 'we're nearly there', so when it turned out to be another 15km it didn't go down well with Karen especially as there were several small climbs in the baking heat.
Finding accommodation meant turning off the 118 where there were signposts for several resorts. After searching along the narrow country lanes and asking directions we found a resort and, guess what? We were the only guests.
Ban Pong to Chiang Mai - 53km
There was a bit more downhill to do before the wide flat plain of the Ping river on which Chiang Mai lies. Our hotel was just inside the old walled city area. Outside the wall is a moat with a one-way road on each side, clockwise on the outside, anti-clockwise inside. It was one of the rare scary moments in Thailand, making a right turn on this very busy road.
Chiang Mai - Days Off
|Buddha image Wat Pan Tao|
Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand and was once the capital of the Lanna kingdom.
|City walls and moat|
|Decorated bridge Wat Pan Tao|
|Wat Chedi Luang|
The streets have many cafes, restaurants and hotels, a liberal sprinkling of colourful and historic wats.....
a few temples......
|Ethnic minority market produce|
In the evening we went for a 'Night Safari' at the zoo, driving around the various animal compounds in a bus with a spotlight, which was great fun.
|Waiting for business|
Chiang Mai to Chom Thong - 79km
Leaving early meant there were few vehicles on the road around the walls. We headed out following the general direction of the Ping river. Most of the traffic was commuters, heading into town.
|The Ping river|
|Wat Chama Thewi|
We were joined by three road cyclists, who slowed down to chat with us for a few kilometres. They had ridden into Chiang Mai from Lamphung earlier and were on their way home. We followed them into Lamphung, a slight detour from the Ping, to see the historic town.
|Wat Pra That Haripunchai|
|Tree with symbolic props|
Chom Thong to Li - 88km
The plan was to continue following the Ping River south along route 108. But having seen the amount of heavy traffic yesterday we changed our minds. Instead we backtracked about 7km to pick up route 1010 which follows one of the tributaries of the Ping.
|Barn full of onions|
Route 106 turned out to be a wide dual carriageway with fast, noisy traffic. We stopped to have a drink in the shade of a tree and a man came up to us to chat in Thai.
To escape the noisy traffic we turned off onto a cemented road which ran parallel to the 106. After 1km, uphill on a rough road and hassled by several packs of threatening dogs we gave up and returned to the main road. Over the next few kilometres the traffic thinned and the road went back to two lanes. Just as we were loosing hope of getting morning coffee there was a small cafe on a hill overlooking the valley. Sipping iced lattes we watched a group of agricultural workers preparing the ground for planting water melons.
At this time of year, the end of the dry season, everything is very dry, no flowers or green growth and a lot of the trees have no leaves yet. Along the roadsides all the undergrowth was burnt off, presumably to lower the risk of wild fires.
|Different style of Wat|
Li to Thoen - 53km
|Coffee shop hostess|
|Khruba Sri Wichai Steps|
Not long after leaving Li we met another touring cyclist travelling north, the first we had seen in Thailand. The road was quiet and climbed up to the head of a valley and over a low col, topped with a memorial. The descent down the other side was beautiful, snaking through forested hills and past a small reservoir.
Thoen is a small town divided by the wide dual carriageway of highway 1, a daunting road to cross. But with the hotel on one side and the restaurants on the other there was no choice.
Thoen to Thung Saliam - 71km
|Love these tree seeds|
|Gateway into Thung Saliam|
A couple in a 4WD stopped to offer help and then lifted our bikes and gear into the back and drove us to the hotel, which was on the main road about 1km from where we had stopped at the cafe.
Thung Saliam to Sukothai Historic Park - 57km
Oppressive heat kept us moving quickly and a few groups of children were getting ready at the roadside with buckets, hose pipes and water pistols for the beginning of the Songkram water festival. We had booked accommodation in Old Sukothai and arrived there in time for an early lunch.
Old Sukothai - Days off
|Wat Sri Sawi|
'water sprinkler' archway over the road to welcome us, hose pipes and water barrels ready for tomorrow.
|King Ramkhamhaeng Monument|
|Wet, wet wet|
From the sides of the road, backs of SUVs, hosepipes, water barrels, sprinklers the deluge was intense.
|Steps to Wat Saphan Him|
|Going for a goal|
|Wat Chang Lom|
|Chedi Chet Thaeo|
|Phra Si Ratana Mahathat|
|Helping the temple busker|
Sukothai Historic Park to Phitsanulok - 88km
|Hectic morning market|
|Getting nowhere fast, festival mayhem|
Getting into the city of Phitsanulok was a different matter. The roads were teeming with vehicles and the roadsides packed with water throwing crowds.
The Thais seem to have a belief that the volume of the music playing is a measure of how much they are enjoying themselves. So many families had set up their loudspeakers on the roadside, determined to be the ones having the best time. Deafening!
Dismounting from the bikes at the hotel, we deposited a trail of water all the way to our room. It would have been nice to visit some of the city landmarks, but the thought of a second drenching kept us hiding in the room until dusk, when it all stops for the night.
Phitsanulok to Sappraiwan Resort - 57km
We didn't sleep well, the constant noise of the hotel lift, the air-con and the fridge disturbed us but the bed was very, very comfy and it wasn't easy to find the will to get out of it. The morning was hot and very humid, following an overnight thunderstorm.
|Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat|
Throngs of people were lighting candles, offering gifts, praying, dropping coins into the begging bowls and pouring gallons of water over the religious images.
We could only spare a few minutes as the heat was already oppressive. Route 12 was our exit from the city, a six lane dual carriageway passing through endless retail outlets, shopping malls, garden centres, DIY stores and car salerooms thankfully all closed at this time in the morning. Even so, as it was the last public holiday of Songkram, the road was very busy.
Beyond the retail area the road narrowed to four lanes but the constant fast traffic had us examining the map to see if there were any minor roads to escape onto. There was just one possibility, from Wang Thong following the river for about 8km. It was a lovely, quiet, cemented country lane, through several small villages with plenty of shade and friendly locals.
|Novel tyre recycling|
|Rice cooked in bamboo|
There was just one small town to go through before we reached the resort. Having only received a few minor wettings during the morning, we now got absolutely drenched once again.
Sappraiwan Resort to Lamsok - 77km
|Boulders or elephants?|
Clear blue skies meant it was going to get pretty hot later and the road was now climbing more steeply. The roadworks were a constant problem. Not that there was any actual work going on, because of the bank holiday, but the widening meant that all nearby trees had been removed so there was not a bit of shade. Sometimes there was no hard shoulder, and only one lane in each direction. In some parts we escaped onto the rough, yet to be surfaced lanes, but riding up these consumed much more energy than on the tarmac.
Today was a normal working day so there were only a few SUV's with water tossing occupants and most of the traffic was in a hurry to get somewhere. Climbing on the northern edge of the national park, the 3 road has tall forest on the south. To the north the slopes were fairly bare.
|Scratch meal on broken plastic chairs|
What seemed like the top of the hill was followed by several steep down and up sections which were not fun in the midday heat. In some places the new road sections were much lower to avoid some of the steep inclines.This meant we were cycling along on the edge of the tarmac with a four meter drop on our left and traffic passing at speed on the right. On the final hill the thunderstorm which had been threatening for the past forty minutes hit and we had to dive for cover under a food stall awning.
Then came the reward for the effort with the long winding descent. Busy afternoon traffic and the constant need to avoid traffic cones and changes in road surface kept the speed down but we were cool at last. Down at 150m above sea level the air temperature was much higher for the last flat section into Lamsok where there was a fairly new and clean hotel. .
Lamsok to Pechabun - 52km
Pechabun to Bueng Sam Phan - 89km
|Long, flat, straight road|
|Typical tobacco farmhouse|
|Traditional water jars|
|Maybe it's just not completed yet|
It was Friday evening and the first place we tried was full. At the only other place we managed to get the last room.
Bueng Sam Phan to Si Thep - 71km
|Family preparing a money tree|
|Caution mud on road|
|Cassava cuttings ready for planting|
|Si Thep ruins|
|Small mountain of a ruin|
Si Thep to Chai Badan - 72km
|Roadside oil well|
Chai Badan was a frustrating city in which to try to find food on a Sunday lunchtime. All of the restaurants appeared to be closed and we covered about 5km more just looking for something to eat. Across the road from the small railway station was a very welcome food stall and starvation was once more prevented.
Chai Badan to Muak Lek - 83km
To get a really early start we purchased breakfast from the 7/11 just up the road and were off by 6.15am. The roads were really quiet at this early (for Thailand) hour and we exited the city along a couple of back roads onto the 2089. Having planned the route on Google maps we were not sure what to expect. There seemed to be no towns of any size, with few services and it was not even clear whether some parts of the route were even surfaced.
|The Muak Lek valley|
|Muak Lek waterfall|
The biggest challenge of the day was crossing Highway 2, a wide and busy dual carriageway with no traffic lights or footbridges. We stayed at the Valley Garden Resort, and got a fabulous room with four poster bed and an outdoor shower. The first night we ate in the resort restaurant as it was so far from anywhere there was little alternative.
The next day we had a relaxing day swimming in the resort pool and sunbathing. We were the only guests of course. At 7.30pm we wandered over to the restaurant to eat and found both that and reception closed and in darkness. The only person around was the night security guard and he didn't understand any English. Our carried food reserves amounted to a couple of packets of nuts and a chocolate bar. So that was our evening meal.
Muak Lek to Thao Yai - 32km
We were still feeling a bit miffed about last night as we went for breakfast. The receptionist met us at door and apologised profusely but it didn't help much. We asked her to ensure that all future guests are informed about opening hours of restaurant and given an emergency number for nighttime. There was no way we were going to stay any longer so booked into another resort not far away.
|Just the head of the planned Buddha statue|
Nearer to Khao Yai national park an enormous amount of building work is going on, mainly blocks of condominiums and villas as holiday homes for rich Bangkok residents. We pretended to be prospective buyers so that we could have a look at one of them.
|There really is a line of bats, just below the top of the central cloud|
Thao Yai to Prachin Buri - 64km
|River near the park gate|
It was still cool and pleasant as we started the 10km to the visitor centre, climbing a smooth two lane road.
|Views from 600m|
|Cogon grass plains|
|Lizard on the path to Haew Suwat|
|Not as impressive today|
Ahead of us now was 40km of downhill through tropical forest. There were lots of waterfalls signposted off the road at regular intervals, but all the watercourses were dry. The park information assured us that Haew Suwat waterfall, the one made famous in ' The Beach' had water all year. After climbing down the 197 steps they were right but it was such a little trickle it hardly shows on the photo.
|Descent to Prachin Buri|
Prachin Buri to Nong Khae - 74km
Nong Khae to Ayutthaya - 45km
Today, our penultimate riding day in Thailand, we managed to take a course along the canal sides until the suburbs of Ayutthaya. The houses and villages were noticeably poor, just small wooden shacks with outside toilets and blocks of showers shared between several households.
|Wat Phra Ram|
|Wat Si Samphet|
|Buddha's head encased in tree roots|
Ayutthaya to Bangkok - 103km
With our last travelling day ahead of us and quite a distance of flat riding ahead we decided that rather than plan a back road route we would take the shorter main roads, riding on the hard shoulder. Getting out of Ayutthaya was the worst bit.
We were off by 6.30am but already the traffic was heavy. The city suburbs seem to have endless hospitals and care facilities. The night staff had just finished work and were waiting at the bus stops to get home. The buses would approach at speed and then suddenly cut cross the hard shoulder just in front of us.
It soon got very hot and there was very little to take the mind off the long road and boring terrain. By 2pm we were checked in to the airport hotel with plenty of time to pack the bikes and gear ready for our lunchtime to Portugal the next day for the start of a new adventure.