All posts by David Lock

Day 9: Friday 13 January: Rest day in Kamphaeng Phet

It says in Exodus 34:21 that a man shall work for six days and on the seventh day he shall rest.  Women, it seems, were expected to follow suit!  So, after being on the road for 6 days, we had a rest day in the wonderful, ancient town of Kamphaeng Phet – hereafter referred to “KP” – not to be confused with a certain producer of nuts. We only belatedly realised this was ” Friday 13th”; but that does not appear to be a thing in Thailand – or not so far as we noticed.

We have covered about 350km from Bangkok so far and have about another 350km to get to Chiang Mei.  So, as this town has UNESCO World Heritage Site status, it seemed a good place for a day off and a look around.

The town of KP was founded in the 11th century and built up into a fortified town to protect the Siam kingdom from the northern barbarians – in this case the Burmese.  It’s heyday was the period 1350 to 1750 when the city was protected by huge and extensive walls, containing a massive area with numerous temples.  Water was diverted from the river Ping to create a moat and there were guarded gates every few hundred metres, protecting both the city population and the temples inside the walls.  The temples were mostly from the Theravadra strand of Buddhism which originates in what is now Sri Lanka, but there is also a Hindu shrine here; showing the cultural diversity of the town in its prime and the extent of trade between different parts of Asia.

It all fell when the Burmese swept south in 1767 – leading to the destruction of the then capital of Ayutthaya (which we saw a few days ago).  We ambled out on our trikes in the early morning sunshine to collect a few bits from a bike shop – where we met the owner, his wife, his daughter and her daughter – all bike nuts and keen to talk about the roads ahead.  It was a sophisticated operation and one that had everything we needed.

The KP Historical Park is over two sections.  The first involved a walk around an area of temples, Budda statues (both upright and reclining) and lots of chedi (closely related to “stupas” which we have seen in other places – the pointy up bits).  The buildings were made of laterite rock – a hard, reddish volcanic rock with holes like Dutch cheese.  There is extensive evidence of fire damage and all of the roofs of the buildings have fallen in, but the remaining stones are hugely evocative of a sophisticated civilisation.  The rest of the description is far better shown in photos than in text – so this posting is more pictures than words.

The afternoon was a time for getting a few niggles sorted on the trikes, mending a punctured tyre and lots of reading and drinking tea.  The guesthouse is very relaxed and is perfect to while away the hours in contemplation.  However, it is nearly empty.  Holidays to the Thai beaches have resumed after the pandemic but there are far fewer independent travelers than pre-pandemic.  That is great for us but a challenge for anyone whose livelihood depends on servicing the needs of those who travel under their own steam. 

Tomorrow we follow the River Ping northwards and, I fear, have more hills to climb than we have had to date.

Day 8: Thursday 12 January: Khanu Woralaksaburi to Kamphaeng Phet.  77km.  

We woke and packed up in our pleasant hotel watching the sun rise over the river. Then on to the bikes for a day which started on small roads and ended on a much more major road. 

The morning started along the small roads weaving along the south bank of the river Ping.  After a few kms a car pulled over and a woman jumped out waving at us. Wondering what we had done wrong, but she was just being kind and handed over a bag of food with lots of bowing and words that we interpreted as welcome to Thailand. We passed fields of rice in various stages of planting, sugar cane, cassava, oranges and other things we could not recognise. 

Our welcome donor of goodies

30km (at least on the flat) is about our ideal time for a stop.  By that point we got to the town of Khlong Khlung and found a smart cafe which did excellent coffee.  After this we fairly zoomed off; driven by cafine.  Soon though the choice of small roads disappeared.  We crossed the bridge to the north side to avoid the main highway 1 but the road we had to join proved to be quite busy.  This side of the river was much more industrialised, and we passed huge factories and a massive plant for processing sugar cane.   It belched out huge amounts of smoke, which did not help the air quality.

The River Ping

As usual there was a wide shoulder but we had to navigate motorbikes coming the wrong way – and the convention seems to be that the person who is on the right side of the road has to move out – into the path of the traffic of course.  

Picking routes in Thailand can be difficult because it is not always clear whether a road is a tiny back road or a big main road. We use Kamoot but that depends on an algorithm which is based on the records made by other users – and there are not too many other Kamoot users in Thailand.  

The road remained flat and the wind was low, so we pushed on for the 30km until we reached the outskirts of Kamphaeng Phet,a modern city surrounding an ancient historic site. This is about half way between Bangkok and Chiang Mai so a good place for a day off to see some culture, plan and recuperate. 

We stopped at the “three Js” guesthouse which was very relaxed and feels like the right place to stop for a couple of nights.

In the evening we went out to a colourful, thriving night market where stall after stall was stirring up delicious smelling food. We plumped for one that seemed very popular for a plate of fried noodles.   That was pretty good but who knows precisely what we were eating.

Day 7: Wednesday 11 January: Sawang Arom to River Green Resort on the Ping River at Khanu Woralsburi: 68km.

We woke as the only inhabitants of our guesthouse (other than the gekko we found in the sink).  The bed was rock, rock hard and the walls were bare plaster.  Not decorous and the bed’s hardness made sleeping a challenge so all in all we have had better hotels.  However, there were no other options in Sawang Arom!  

Every hotel needs a gekko in the sink

The freshness of the morning is always a delight.  It is so pleasant to ride before the heat of the day builds up.  Our route took us northwards along flat, minor roads with famland on both sides and the occasional village.  The roads were all quiet but the surfaces varied from tarmac to soft earth, with everything in between.  The trikes handle well on uneven surfaces – far better than touring bikes – but the going is slower.

The vegetation was lush, the people were friendly, we passed impressive temples and saw agriculture close up.  Thailand has 13 million farmers out of a total population of 71 million, and although agriculture is only about 10% of Thailand’s GDP, 40% of the population are concerned with agriculture.  Farms tend to be small, family run business with an average of 8 acres.  

The intense emerald green of a rice field

Rice is the main crop with over 50% of land being used for rice production.  However we also saw sugar cane being harvested.  Sugar cane production in Thailand reached a peak of 131 million metric tonnes in 2018 but halved the following year due to drought and farmers switching from sugar cane to cassava.   We also saw casava being dried in the sun to produce tapioca – another major cash crop.  The countryside is certainly not affluent but neither does it shout of absolute poverty.   I suspect there is more rural poverty than we could see but there were also new cars parked in drives and the shops were full of stuff that was far from essentials.  Farming tends to be labour intensive and, for some, involve long, back breaking days in the hot fields.  But this fertile land is still probably a better place to be a farmer than many neighboring countries. 

We reached the main “1” road, a dual carriageway with a wide shoulder which runs northwards from Bangkok, just before lunch time.  A few Km along there was the equivalent of a motorway services where we had noodles, vegetables and an undefined form of meat for 35 baht (less than £1) – Welcome Break take note!  It was delicious and filled a gap.  Bernie had been a fighting a cold all morning and we decided not to go on for too much longer, giving us the afternoon to relax.  The Ping River was nearby and so we headed for it and found the River Green Resort, a collection of bungalows at the river’s edge.  It was a lovely spot and just the place to relax.

Late in the afternoon we ambled across the bridge (the river being at least 100m wide at this point) and explored the town of Khanu Woralsburi.  There must be hundreds of similar towns across the central part of Thailand – clean, active and full of noise.  Not just the motorbikes on the main drag but the hubbub in the market where more or less anything was for sale and the long conversations at the roadside as if time were not pressing – which it may well not be.  We were – we confidently say – the only foreign visitors in the town but we were treated with kindness as we used google translate to buy food for our supper.  One of the changes since 2018 when we first visited is that there are more multi-lingual signs – Thai and English – than before.  It seems the government has decided that English should be the country’s second language, and there are far more people we encounter who have a smattering of English – even in the market.  We don’t pretend that it is the UK rather than the USA which is driving this but it is welcome to us.

The light fading over the Ping River
The main drag – usually motorbikes but cars in this picture
Looking South down river – this flows all the way to Bangkok

Day 6: Tuesday 10 January:   Near Wat Dom Neramit to Sawang Arom. 93km.

Today felt much more like our cycling days of old. We woke early in our pleasant comfortable hotel in a village of unknown name. Our morning coffee was delivered with 3 sugars so we declined but we were able to brew up and have our porridge, our usual cycling start to the day. Night turned to day in the space that it took the water to boil! We were off just before 8 in the cool slightly misty morning. The back road to Chai Nat was pleasant passing paddy fields and irrigation canals. David had to attend to more niggles with his trike but is learning more about the set up with each adjustment. An Australian passed in his car and passed the time of day.  He has lived in Thailand for 6 years and was astonished when we said that we found all the drivers extremely polite. ‘Haven’t you experienced the road rage?’ he said – perhaps he was the instigator of the road rage but it certainly is not our experience.

We crossed the massive Chao Praya river, which runs down to Bangkok and fills the irrigation channels of the central plains creating the bread basket (or rice and sugar cane basket) of Thailand. The road immediately turned into a 6 lane highway as we entered Chai Nat. Luckily there was a feeder lane along the side and it wasn’t long before we turned into the centre of the town. We passed a little bicycle shop and managed to get a hefty tyre lever (so we don’t have a repeat of the tyre problems from yesterday). Then with the help of googlemaps found a coffee shop selling ‘Italian coffee’ and had lovely coffee and cakes.

The road out of Chai Nat couldn’t have been more different. We took a tiny road that hugged the riverside and passing through pretty villages. This was more like it. As we crossed the Chao Praya river again towards Uthai Thani the road again got busier but stayed as two lanes with a wide shoulder (in fact most of the roads have a well paved wide shoulder, presumably to cater for the myriad of people on motorbikes). Uthai Thani was a characterful town where we stopped for lunch. We have learnt not to be put off by kiosks and plastic tables – this is where you can get a filling bowl of noodles with usually pork or chicken and vegetables for about £1. The one we chose was full of chatty women – only one of which could speak rudimentary english.  She dutifully repeated where we were from, where we were going etc to the oohs and ahhs of the other women!  

The noodle queens

Bikes seem the form of transport for those at the bottom of society here in Thailand – not many high end, carbon racing bikes on show here.  Push bikes generally have no gears and are only for people who cannot afford any form of motorbike – and some of the motorbikes here can carry 5 people without anyone wearing a helmet and without worrying about an MoT (or so it sounds).  There is a practice of wearing face masks and no helmet on a motorbike.  To us, wearing helmets on a trike but no facemasks, it seems strange but no stranger than lots of other things we have experienced. 

We hadn’t planned an end point to the day as we were not sure how we would feel.  We were 60km in but feeling good so aimed for a town another 30km on and booked into a guest house.

As we came out of Uthai Thani we cycled around the foot of a hill that emerged from the flat plain.  A buddist temple, wat khoo sakae krang, had been built on top and there were some impressive stairs for the faithful to climb (no doubt bare foot) to earn a step towards nirvana (the mystical state, not the rock band that is).  We still had 30km to go and so left the experience to those who wanted mystic experiences or maybe wanted to visit the nearby caves with 9 species of bat.  Neither was tempting enough to make us climb the several hundred metres to the top.

Our route took us away from the river with its main towns and struck more across country. The bird life was abundant and we began to see water buffalo. 

The last 20km or so began to get a bit tedious but the bite was going out of the sun and we eventually trudged into the town of Sawang Arom, very pleased to have covered over 90km. Admittedly it’s been as flat as a pancake but we are already feeling fitter (albeit from a low base due to age, winter in the UK and a small measure of laziness over Christmas).  There are, however, the beginnings of hills emerging from the flat plain.  Our days of only climbing 30m over 70km might be coming to an end and it might get tougher in the days ahead.

Saying farewell to the Chao Praya river

So far (at least) we have now come to see that the trikes are really comfortable.  The power is all in the legs so the rest of the body is relaxed. The fears that we won’t be seen are unjustified – partly because of our flying flags but we are so different from anything else on the road that we are hard to miss! 

We found the guest house we had booked into in central Sawang Arom – just by the police station.  But our spirits dipped as it was locked up and seemed completely abandoned. We were just wondering what to do when a lady turned up on her bike – presumably someone who had seen us knocking on the door and pacing up and down and had given her a ring. She duly opened up and turned on the lights – our online booking of lunchtime had not yet come through. We had the strange experience that we often get once we are off the beaten track of being the only people in the place. She showed us where we could make tea and coffee and left us to it – telling us to leave the front door key on the desk when we leave!!

Eating facilities in the one horse (or at least one main road) town of Sawang Arom were limited…..in fact we had the exact same bowl of noodles as we had for lunch!  Most of the world probably eats almost the same thing every day so we are spoilt when we expect an infinite variety of food.  We did get some cake and ice cream from the local supermarket though to fill the calorie gap after a long day!

Day 5: Monday 9 January :  Ang Thong to Caereen “Boutique Resort” on banks of River Noi : 68km

It is hard to describe what defines a day when travelling by bike in a foreign country – or travelling by trikes in our case.  Today was a mixture of delight and niggling frustrations.  I had my first puncture – and then failed for an hour to be able to put the tyre back on wheel as it was too tight (even following all the tips in the you tube videos).  The best of the day was the unexpected kindness of strangers – as to which below.  As always, the positives far outweighed the negatives.

We woke late.  Our basic hotel was made more basic by being next door to a bar where Thailand’s loudest rock band were playing a gig.  They persevered through to the end of the set to great applause – or was that cheering because they had finished.  Anyway, the noise kept us awake so we were relieved when it ended.

That meant we woke about 8.15 – not having set the alarm – and were not off until 9.30.  That is a late, late start for us but we were not 100% over jet lag and the uncertain nature of our route meant there was no need for a very early start.

The small town of Ang Thong is mega busy at 9.30.  It is plainly rush hour here and we went straight into competing for road space with people going to work, people travelling for work and numerous others, all bigger and faster than us. But Thai drivers are possibly the most courteous in the world and no one came near us, everyone gave way to us (and to others) and there was no road rage.  It was still a relief to get the other side of the town.

Outside town we followed the road through a small part of this irrigated delta.  Agriculture here is totally dependant on irrigation.  The land is flat, criss-crossed with dykes feeding from the rivers and numerous paddy fields are irrigated from the dykes.  Rice is a labour intensive but productive crop where the methods seem the same now as over hundreds of years.  We passed numerous farmers weeding, sorting and caring for this staple crop – and did our bit by eating the rice when called on to do so.

A lotus flower – a symbol of peace

After about 15km we came to Wat Khun Inthpramun.  A “wat” is a Buddist temple site (but you knew that already of course).  It has a 50m long reclining Buddha, which was originally housed in a temple hall but the hall was destroyed by fire, and the Buddha is now out in the open air.  It was impressive and is a centre of devotion, albeit there were only a few devotees there on an overcast Monday morning. 

Khun Inthpramun was a local tax collector who was too enthusiastic in his collecting and amassed enough of a fortune to be able to construct the temple. Khun Inthpramun was a local tax collector who was too enthusiastic in his collecting and amassed enough of a fortune to be able to construct the temple. Unfortunately for him, it was so splendid that it drew the King’s attention to his actions in over-collecting taxes (and not passing everything on to the King).  Khun Inthpramun’s vanity led to his execution, but the temple remains.  Equally impressive is the brand new building at the rear – probably a monastic centre but really impressive architecture merging the modern and ancient.

We plodded through flat agricultural land after Khun Inthpramun and, sorting out a few niggles on the trikes, arrived at Wat Pikul Throng Aram Luang, which has a massive seated Budda outside – even larger than Wat Khun Inthpramun.  We felt a bit “watted out” so admired from afar, but tried to mend a puncture, failed to get the trye back on and were guided by a lady collecting rubbish to a roadside motorcycle mechanic who had the right tool and got it back on within seconds – and would take nothing for his expertise.  I was humbled and grateful – and resolved to get a metal tyre lever.

After that the day got a bit hotter and, as we were going along, we were passed by a smart white car which pulled in at a roadside stall, a woman jumped out and bought two bottles of water for us from the vendor’s fridge, and held them out for us.  All she wanted was for us to know we were welcome in Thailand and to appreciate the kindness of people in Thailand – which we did profusely. 

We cycled on and experienced more flat, irrigated farming land, quietish (but often straight) roads and km to cover.  I hope I can download a video of the landscape which is pleasant but not stunning.

After 67km we got to our hotel for the night, tucked away down a series of back roads and not even on www.booking.com.  So we were relieved when we found it existed! A late start and lots of stops meant we did not arrive until 5.15pm, but the owner (who spoke some English) directed us to a basic restaurant where we got a meal (with the hotel owner translating on the phone for the “Maitre D”.  Yes a beer was possible – no problem – all he had to do was jump on his motorbike to go to the local shop to buy it!  The food was delicious – almost a given here – and we made use of our bike lights on the way back.

A passing local wat – like a parish church but more ornate

Finishing this now, we are both very tired but feel some measure of fitness and strength is emerging.  The trikes are heavier than bikes and so a bit slower but they feel far more stable, the views are much better and the ride is more comfortable.  So we feel content with our choice of transport but need to get stronger before we can tackle the mountains.

Day 4: Sunday 8th January. Half day in Ayuttaya then 43km to Ang Thong

By the time we reached Ayuttaya yesterday we were pretty tired and verging towards the incoherent. We had swung from 12 hours sleep to virtually no sleep again. We subscribe to the kill or cure treatment of jet lag ie set the alarm for 7 and get up and cycle 77km regardless of the number of hours sleep. That meant that we were in bed by 9 and woke at 7am but had 3 hours awake in the middle of the night because of the weirdness of jet lag. 

However, we woke refreshed and got up leisurely ready to explore the amazing city of Ayuttaya.  Founded in 1351, it was the Royal capital of Thailand and had developed into a thriving city of a million people by the mid 1600s, double the size of London.  It was also a centre of international trade as the Siamese kings sought to maintain independence whilst keeping on good terms with bigger neighbours, notably China, and also deal with the emerging European interest in South East Asia, including the East India Company (a form of licensed, privatised conquest vehicle with built in deniability for the English Crown – the Wagner Group of its day) . The city developed a highly sophisticated court with amazing artwork and courtly forms of dress.  It was strewn with temples and must have been astonishing to European traders.  But it suffered an ignominious fall when the city was captured and ravaged by the Burmese in 1767.  Skilful diplomacy without brute force on the battlefield could only get the Siamese kings so far.

We visited the city on our first trip to Thailand, when we saw the main temples. Since then a new Chao Sam Praya National museum has built to house the treasures that had been found between 1956 and 1990 in various of the Wats (temples). These were found mainly buried in crypts up to 17m underground and miraculously had not been discovered. Thousands of gold artifacts were unearthed – relics and offerings to Buddha. The exhibition was very well laid out in the lovely new building. The detailed gold metalwork and jewelry was incredible.  It was paid for by selling off a proportion of the artifacts that were found – selling part of the family silver to create a permanent home for the rest.  An interesting approach which has produced a world class museum.

We then pedaled to one of the main temples slightly out of the centre, Wat Phra Maharat. As well as the beautiful if rather faded temple buildings, we were intrigued that the place was full of people dressed in magnificent costumes.  At first we thought it was a wedding but there were far too many people for that, as well as an absence of obvious brides and grooms. As we left we realised the street opposite was lined with shops hiring out the costumes – it seems to be a Sunday morning passtime to hire yourself a traditional Thai costume for the day and then be photographed by your loved ones in a multitude of poses!  

We managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost getting back to the guest house as google maps took us off in the opposite direction. All good practice for pedaling our trikes in traffic and responding to the numerous people who shout, wave and give us a thumbs up.  I suspect some must wonder what disability we have that causes us to use such a strange form of transport. The trikes get far more notice than we ever did on a bike and neither of us feels totally comfortable with being someone to look at and point.  I wonder if this like being a very minor celeb is like?  If so, count us out (not that we ever had a chance to be “counted in” of course).  We try to be unfailingly polite in our responses but we will probably get tired of it before long!

A quick lunch in a small hidden restaurant opposite the guest house which was full of Thais (delicious of course) then off we went for an afternoon cycle to Ang Thong. David plotted a route on the west side of the Chao Praya river, which looked the quieter side, and soon found ourselves cycling through paddy fields and small villages.

We stopped at a little village shop and brought bananas for a few pennies. I had forgotten these delicious small sweet bananas – like nectar for cyclists – much more healthy than chocolate bars and less likely to melt in the heat.  The wahoo said it was 36 degrees (in the sun) and it felt high humidity, so counts as a “challenging” climate but we know that we will adapt  to this as the days go on.

We rolled into the modern town of Ang Thong and to our basic motel. It was rather lacking in charm but being Thailand it was spotless and  we like it because there is space to set up our stove outside and brew up our tea and coffee and relax after a good day.  We have the delights of the longest lounging Bhudda early tomorrow and prepared for it by doing some lounging around of our own.

Days 2 and 3: Sorting out and Bangkok to Ayutthaya : 77km

I have combined these days into a single posting because yesterday was a sorting out day which is only really of interest to anyone who wants to try cycle touring.  So, what do you have to do when you arrive in a new country?  The answer is not get a visa as that is usually done in advance or at the airport.  Travellers who are in a country (where a visa is needed) without one have made a very expensive mistake (and over the years we have met plenty of folk who unwittingly fell into that category).  For Brits, Thailand is visa exempt for 45 days – so that is one elephant trap we avoided.

But once we arrive, the routine is largely the same for every trip namely, first rebuild the bikes or, in our case now trikes.  It always takes about 3 hours to do this.  It took 3 hours for the bikes and took 3 hours for the trikes – I suspect someone more competent could do it in far less time but we don’t have Malcolm Garner with us on this trip.  For those know Malcolm (and even those who do not), I recommend you store him away in your luggage for any future cycling trip.  We have never quite managed to do that – so bike rebuilding takes 1.5 hours per machine.

Where is Malcolm???

Then, buy a sim card and phone credit.  Local phone shops are now easy to find on googlemaps (℅ the guesthouse wifi) and are staffed by wonderful young people who know exactly what buttons to press to charge a 30 day sim card.  They can also put my sim card into Bernie’s phone (hers is a 2-sim phone) and can probably also turn water into wine (but we did not need to ask the young woman to do that).  That sorted us geriatrics out with a local phone with local internet access – an essential tool for all travellers this century.

Next we found a post office to post the bike bags to Bien in Hanoi, who has kindly agreed to hold them until we arrive.  Many thanks Bien who agreed to this even though we have not even met each other!   But he has met our daughter and my sister as both passed through Hanoi, so he feels like family already.  Bien, we owe you as you have avoided us carrying an extra 6kgs of weight.

Nearly ready to get going

That is about it.  Bangkok is a wonderful city but this is our third visit and so we have seen all the major sights – so decided to concentrate on logistics (as Steve Taylor would say) and push on as soon as we could.  But we did wander around the river frontage and found a marvelous restaurant called “Steve’s Cafe and Cuisine” which we entered via an alleyway at back of a temple complex.  Great food and a reminder as to why Thailand is somewhere you can never tire of.

Eleven hours sleep one night and then virtually none the next is a strange way to get over jet lag – but it hits us all differently.  I was still in bed waiting to get to sleep when the alarm went off – having finished my book, read the news, despaired of politics in the UK and USA (don’t get me started) and done the deadly killer sudoku.  Just the preparation for an 80km day.

We got up at 7, ate hearty breakfasts and then got on our way.  The first 30km were through the outskirts of Bangkok.  Flat, lots of traffic (even on a Saturday morning) and wide roads. I will try to upload a brief video which shows more than I could explain.  

All packed up – there is an EU flag below the Union Jack

Gradually the roads were smaller, the traffic was lighter and we got glimpses of rural Thailand.  We cycled to Ayutthaya along some of the same roads we had covered in 2019.  So please look at that entry for a fuller description.  Here are some pictures which show the landscape.

Lunch was FANTASTIC!!!  We stopped at a roadside stall with tables and saw the food cooked in a wok before our eyes.  As we arrived the lady “patronne” was delivering a plate of rice, vegetables and stir fried pork to a guest.  We asked for two of that in our basic sign language and then washed it down with cola and fanta.  Steve’s Cafe and Cuisine was good but this knocked it for six.  Mind you it was pricey – we paid £2.50 between us for our lunch including drinks.

Then we had just 30km to go to get to Ayutthaya.  The road was flat but the wind was steadily against us, so it was hard going.  But the wind effect is not nearly as pronounced on a trike as we are so low down.  We rolled into town about 4pm and Bernie collapsed.

Before I could do that, I had to tend to my gears and buy some petrol for the stove.  Neither proved too difficult and the restorative effects of a hot shower proved their worth (as ever). 

Day 1:   Thursday 5 January 2023

After a frenetic few weeks, during which we have barely had time to think about our trip, we have arrived in Bangkok.  Having deposited our dogs and cat around the country with willing (or at least semi willing) pet sitters we finally arrived a Gatwick even more fully loaded than usual (as the trikes weigh much more than our bikes). We arrived hours early after reading gloomy emails from Emirates advising us to check in 4 hours in advance because the airport was so busy.  We held our breath as the check in person weighed each bag but were relived to find we were under our weight limit.  There was also no problem with our scruffy bike bags containing the dismantled and folded up trikes. An eyebrow was raised at the even more scruffy canvass bags in which the panniers, wheels and other items were stowed, but fortunately there is no sartorial elegance test at check-in. Even the security check was fine.  We were not discovered with stray penknives, tent pegs or other banned items that seem to slip in to hand luggage and were through everything within 40 minutes.

The flights were fine – boring and dull with little sleep but no delays. We either looked very tired (we were), grey haired (I like to call it silver streaked) or otherwise pitiful (quite possible) but we were pulled out of the enormous passport queue into the priority line with families with young children.  It is possible the staff wanted the airport cleared of people with scruffy bags as soon as possible.

As when we seem to be frequently offered seats on the tube these days, we felt slightly affronted but also grateful and we were swiftly through passport control.  More breath holding as we waited for our bags, which appeared at the tail end of the very long lines of assorted smart suitcases and backpacker rucksacks.  On to ‘oversized luggage’ and soon after both trikes appeared. We hooked up with our transfer in a very jazzy minibus full of funfare lights and we were on our way into the balmy night.

The efficient road soon had us into the central area of Bangkok and dropped at Tavee Guesthouse, a couple of kilometres north of the centre of the city.  It is a warren of little corridors interspersed with pretty courtyards. Friendly, polite staff with lots of bowing…….yes we were back in Thailand.

After showers we ventured out and found a cafe with excellent pork and mushroom something or other (nearly all Thai menus thankfully come with photos so you have some idea of what to order) and had a celebratory beer before finally collapsing into sleep.

We are both a tad anxious about the challenges ahead including coping with heat, humidity, traffic and hills; but it feels good to be on the road at last.

On the cusp of the next trip : Trikes across South East Asia

The last posting on this blog was in March 2022 when David was starting a long recovery from his bike accident in Texas – after encountering dogs in the desert.  The next few months were a blur for him of continuing (but lessening) levels of pain, the onset of boredom and the slow re-emergence of normality. 

He gradually regained his biking confidence and by the end of the summer we were cycling again but also pondering life, the universe and future bike trips.  The experience in the States left us with a feeling of vulnerability but also the conviction that it was not time to hang up our helmets and stop exploring by bike.  The solution – at least for us – is to move from two wheels to three and to exchange bike seats for more comfortable reclining seats.  That makes it sound as if we will be cycling on children’s tricycles.  However,  instead of basic tricycles, we have invested in slightly more sophisticated recumbent “trikes” which ridden by a small but enthusiastic community in the biking world. 

We moved across to recumbent trikes for 2 main reasons.  First, they are more stable, especially with luggage.  We both hit the road off our two wheeled bikes in the USA and feel that a more stable alternative is probably a better long term bet.  Secondly, they are much more comfortable to ride and, although lower, the view is significantly better.  They are slightly slower than touring bikes (especially uphill) but as the title of the blog is “SlowCycling”, that did not seem to be a disqualification.  They are also slightly unusual and attract a modicum of attention and break the ice to start conversations.  We have got used to thumbs up from passing motorists and cyclists.

Bernie, being 152cm tall (or 4 foot 12 inches in old money), had a considerable challenge to get a trike that could work for her legs.  After lots of false starts, we ended up with an AZUB Tricon 20 for her and after a few months cycling around the Shropshire hills, she is confident that this is the right option for her.  David plumped for an HP Velotechnik Scorpion fs20, and is equally pleased with it.   Both trikes were originally set up with a wonderful e-bike system produced by Pendix.  This worked better than we hoped; the extra battery power helped us up hills and more than compensated for the additional weight.  Unfortunately, we learned that it is virtually impossible (and we mean really, really impossible) to ship ebike batteries to Thailand (and probably lots of other places as well).  We will not bore readers with the hundreds of hours we both spent trying to understand how this might be done before the combination of IATA freight regulations, import rules, custom duties and a million and one other challenges proved to be too much.  So a trip to our local bike store, Pearce Cycles (conveniently situated at the bottom of our hill) was needed to strip the trikes back to remove the efittings (but allow them to be restored when we get home).  So now it will be pure pedal power for the next trip.

That trip is due to start on 4th January when we fly into Bangkok.  The provisional plan is to cycle North from Bangkok to the ancient city of Chang Mai – about 800km.  Then we will try to cover the 700km to Vientiane, and then head north as we discover Laos, and working our way across to Hanoi (maybe another 1000km or so depending on the route).

If we have time, we then plan to amble south through Vietnam with the aim of ending up at Ho Chi Minh city, probably another 1600km.  We are pretty sure we will not have enough time to do the whole route and get flights back as planned in mid-March, but we shall just see how it goes.

We plan to blog on a daily basis (or as nearly as we can) as we go along.  We hope this will amuse, entertain or infuriate our family, friends and even the other readers who kindly follow us even though we have never met you.   We are not seeking to collect money for charity but, if anyone feels inclined to support a charity which is close to our hearts, pleas contribute to either Prisoners of Conscience (where David chairs the Trustee Board) or Freedom from Torture (for whom Bernie works).

Postscript :  On the way to recovery

This is just a brief update to reassure everyone that I am on the mend.  We are now in Austin, sitting out the time before we can fly home.

I was diagnosed with a broken collar bone, 7 broken ribs, a punctured lung and very extensive scarring and bruising.  Certainly my worst injuries in over 50 years of cycling.  They kept me in hospital for 6 days – mainly to drain the lung and make sure the puncture was mended.  More complex than applying a sticky patch which is what we do for inner tubes.

The draining procedure involved giving me ketamine – so I had a multi-coloured psychedelic experience as part of the treatment.  It was a pretty bad trip and I will not be seeking to repeat it in a nightclub.  Many thanks to the wonderful staff at the Del Sol Medical Centre, Mission Valley.  They could not have been more professional and were endlessly encouraging.  I sought to keep my natural role as the curmudgeon under wraps.

The16 hour train journey to Austin on Amtrak was a Challenge but it is good to be here.  IATA guidance says no flying within 14 days of a pneumothorax, so we will probably not get back to the UK until about 9 April.  Meanwhile the pain is under control (most of the time) and the healing process has started.

Sunday 20th March:  Canine induced disaster

I am sorry to report that the observation at the end of the lost posting that nothing is certain on a bike trip has proved sadly prescient.  About 10 miles into our ride back to E Paso a group of large, probably wild dogs appeared from nowhere and started to attack us.  We were riding side by side and both speeded up to avoid the jaws that were trying to bite our legs, and somehow our bikes came together and I fell to the ground and slid along the road.  Strangely the dogs were so shocked by this that they backed off.  We later learned that another cyclist who came to the same hospital this weekend was not so lucky and suffered serious dog bites after being attacked.  

The pain from my left shoulder and arms was instantly excruciating and I knew straightaway that this was serious.  A farmer who was ploughing his field and saw everything stopped and caused a truck to stop.  This heroic guy, called John, took us 30 miles to the nearest Emergency Hospital and helped with all the gear – a really nice guy going way out of his way.  

I was treated by the lovely medical team and diagnosed with a broken collar bone (clavicle), 7 broken ribs and extensive bruising and scarring.  This is frankly not a great place to be but the pain has eased over the last 36 hours with copious amounts of morphine.

I was transferred to a larger hospital and after X-Rays and CT scans, hope to be discharged tomorrow.  We have not yet inspected the bike but it will need repairing – a job for Mark Young when we get home.

But that is the end of this trip.  We both feel pretty gutted but hope you have enjoyed the blog so far.  

Adios.

Saturday 19th March :  North of El Paso to Fort Hancock

When the London Underground (which is mode of transport in London and not revolutionary sect – best joke in a “A Fish called Wanda”)) reaches Kennington tube station, the message comes over the tannoy “All change, all change …”.  That is how we felt after today.  Today started like any other cycling day. 

We cycled 10 miles south to central El Paso. As we went along fairly main road a young man looked across at us from the sidewalk and said “You must not do that – it is SO unsafe”. Well meant but what was the response? There was minimal traffic and a bike lane on the road – so we respectfully disagreed. But it voiced a common perception here that cycling was really, really unsafe. For me, sitting in front of the TV consuming junkfood was far more unsafe – but that is just a perspective too.

At the centre of El Paso we joined the third section of the Southern Tier Route going South East out of El Paso along Mission Valley, following the Rio Grande and with the Mexican border a few miles to our West.

We stopped for a totally superb breakfast at a Mexican Restaurant and, as soon as we entered, it made us want to speak Spanish.  The Mexican Spanish character is so loud, in your face and fun loving.  As reserved English people, we wanted a part of it.

Then we pressed on through flat irrigated fields and shopped at a Mexican food store in Fabens – friendly, much lower prices and able to buy small quantities.  Much better for cyclists than the larger supermarkets.  

The wind was light, the road was flat and it was not too busy.  Occasionally we saw a border patrol vehicle but it was pretty low key.  That is in comparison to something we saw yesterday when we were on the major dual carriageway out of El Paso.  All of a sudden we saw three young men running across the carriageway – vaulting the central reservation in an impressive way and dodging the traffic.  They made it across unharmed, I am pleased to report and then we saw a Border Force Patrol car pull up to the side of the motorway and a patrol officer got out.  There was just a moment when we could see indecision in his mind – do I risk my life by following them or is this “one that got away” or, more accurately, three that slipped through.  The prospect of running across a motorway having abandoned his vehicle was too much and the young men were not pursued – at least at this point.  Goodness knows what will happen to them next because the streets are not paved with gold in El Paso, but it may be years before anyone official catches up with them.  All that was yesterday – today we saw parts of the wall and other sections where there is no wall but there is electronic surveillance – including a truck with a collapsable viewing tower.  All very technological but, so it seems, no match for young men who can vault central reservations.

After 65 miles we got to Fort Hancock and checked into the only motel – just off the I10.  The woman at the desk was Indian and spoke English with a strong Indian accent – the first time we have come across this in the US. She asked where we were from and we said “England” – and she responded “Leicester?”.  Not London but Leicester – demonstrating the fame of that East Midlands city for the Indian diaspora throughout the world.  I sadly said no but remarked that my late father was from Leicester, which was something at least.

Once we got to our room, we started to think about the next few days and the problems facing us loomed large.  A major weather system is coming in and the winds on our route will make it impossible to cycle for the next 5 days or so.  Although it is quiet now, 60-70mph winds are predicted.  That will cause sandstorms in the desert and there is a severe weather warning.  The winds are all over the place but that is pretty irrelevant – since we cannot cycle against winds of that strength and it’s too dangerous to cycle when they are cross winds or in our favour.

We are idiots to be honest.  This weather was predicted a few days ago (albeit not the severe weather warnings) and we had not thought through the implications.  We are on a route and we just thought – “we’ll get through” – but of course we will not.

So what to do?  We vexed for an hour or so and realised we had a few options, none of which seemed great.  The best option by far seemed to take a train across the area of rubbish weather and replan our trip.  For all  the downsides of splitting the journey, in fact this has some attractions because (a) most people describe the Texas desert as a “challenge” and some of the most boring riding imaginable (with 89 miles between water points in one place), (b) the next part is the Texas Hill Country which is fine but it is reported to us that it seems to go on for ever, and c) if we take a train across part of Texas, we could start again in Austin and make it all the way to Florida rather than finish in New Orleans as planned. 

So – on balance – it’s the Kennington tannoy call.  Tomorrow we will ride back to El Paso and then get the train on Monday to Austin, Texas.  That means tomorrow’s blog might be very boring (if we write it at all) because it will be the same route we followed today in reverse.  Sunday night will be back in El Paso and then Monday we will load the bikes onto Amtrack and have a 15 hour/overnight train journey.  

The one thing we can say for certain is that nothing is certain on a bike trip.

Friday 18th March.  Day off in El Paso.

We had a good relaxing start to the day as Mike had generously let us have the use of the house while he was at work. The first job was to mend the puncture on David’s airbed – one leak was duly found and patched. We then planned the next few days on the bikes and wondered about the level of remote desert that we were heading into.  Still, it has to be done if we are to get to the Texas Hill Country. We then had an enjoyable time catching up with home –  talking to the children, David’s mum and and with friends via the wonders of WhatsApp.

About 11.30 we wrenched ourselves off to do something with the day and cycled to downtown El Paso – about 10 miles away.  We stopped at an outdoor shop and stocked up with more water bottles as preparation before heading into the more remote desert areas.  The route wiggled through the hills then down into the downtown area.

We visited two free museums – the History Museum and the Museum of Art. We learnt something about the history of the area and the complex interactions between indigenous tribes, the Spanish and Americans.  The art museum had a beautiful exhibition of modern ceramics and some interesting pictures by Texan artists. We skipped through the latin-american rooms that were dripping with religious artworks – beautiful in their own way but not what we were in the mood for. 

The Theatre at El Paso

Opposite the museum was the El Paso theatre – a lovely modern building.  After our dose of culture we got something to eat and found a delicious ‘healthy eats’ place that showed that the US can do lovely healthy meals.

As we came out of the cafe we were unlocking our bikes when a person passing by asked us where we were travelling to.  Mark Lynch is an Irishman who is cycling the Southern Tier in the other direction to us – starting in Florida and heading to San Diego.  Like us, he had hardly seen another touring cyclist and he too was having a day off in El Paso (also visiting hte same 2 museums).  What a coincidence that  our paths should cross when neither of us was cycling with loaded panniers.  We had a good chat and exchange of information. It would have been great to spend the evening with him but we were committed to having dinner with our hosts.  Culture and then multiple invitations for the evening!! 

We had an ‘interesting’ cycle back,  I was sure we could take a more direct route back and google maps showed us what looked like a reasonably straightforward route. It started well enough but then we turned onto a road that was like the M25, flanked by the M6, the M1 and the railway line. Once we were on there, there was no turning back as a multiple array of spaghetti junctions weaved down and up and over.  There was a very wide shoulder and no signs saying ‘no bicycles’ but we were definitely the only cyclists on it!  Come to that we did not see any other cyclists all day, it’s really not a mode of transport in the US. We put our heads down and pedalled hard and eventually we managed to get ourselves onto a saner road….but by then my phone was running out of battery and finally died.  Luckily we were near enough to work out how to get back!  I’ll never complain about the Komoot routes again, even if they seem to be ridiculously long winded – it was for good reason!

We arrived back with our host family just in time for the evening meal.  Mike’s daughter-in-law is from Honduras and produced a delicious Honduran meal.  The family are Mormons and we were joined by 3 ‘Sisters’, young women who were doing their 18 months missionary work in the El Paso area. We regaled them all with our travelling tails and they sweetly prayed for us.

After the Sisters left another friend arrived and a Ping Pong competition commenced! David was beaten but not humiliated.  I ducked out pleading complete ignorance of the rules!

A nice family end to the day before hitting the road again.

Thursday 17 March : Radium Springs to outskirts of El Paso : 57 Miles

Today was flat, with the wind mostly behind us and was only 57 miles – so a pretty gentle day overall given the challenges of recent days.  

The road wound its way down the Rio Grande valley and occasionally crossed the dry river bed. 

The dry river

Most of the traffic used the interstate and so traffic on our road was pretty light.  We passed numerous Pecan trees with signs which left us in no doubt that the absence of a fence did NOT mean help yourself.  The trees were bare and so we were not tempted to be violators but pecan theft is clearly perceived to be a problem.  

Bare Pecan trees – must be marvellous when in leaf.

The signs saying that this was the chilli capital of the world continued on both number plates and outside farms.  This was therefore the “Chilan” valley or the “Pecli” valley depending on how one wishes to see it.  One interesting feature was the increasing evidence that this is a bi-lingual area where a large part of the workforce are of Mexican heritage.  Signs were in Spanish everywhere and there were lots of Catholic Churches.  Also, as we moved from rural areas to the suburbs, the affluence levels notably increased.  Yards were tidier, there were fewer abandoned vehicles on show and more houses and less trailers.  

We also met John Sumo, our first “Southern Tierer” going in the opposite direction.  John is a teacher from Maine and did the Southern Tier route as far as El Paso in 2020 when Covid forced him to abandon the trip.  He had driven down to El Paso, parked his truck and was starting again to complete the remainder of the route to San Diego.  As the wind was mostly in our favour, it was inevitably mostly (totally) against John.  He was on his own and breaking himself in on day 2 of a trip – a feeling we know so well.  It is always tough at the start before the body adapts to the unusual amount of effort needed to cycle 50+ miles a day!  We exchanged notes, gained valuable information about the route South of El Paso and wished him well.  We also reflected on how fortunate we were to be traveling together.  We are together 24 hours a day and really enjoying each other’s company.  Doing this trip together is infinitely more enjoyable than doing it on one’s own.

As we came towards El Paso the wind got up and was against us in parts, but still mostly in our favour.  We followed a bike path along the river bed, and then joined a main road.  By this stage we were nearly at our warmshowers host’s residence but he was not back from work until later.  So we had an hour’s stop at a lovely coffee shop, and did “stuff” like renew my Bar Practising Certificate (dull admin needed even on holiday) and more enjoyably spoke to Ant about his possible new job and the process of leaving his present employers on the best possible terms.

Then we ambled across to a lovely house where Mike, our WarmShowers host welcomed us and fed us a lovely meal.  Mike is a radiologist with the US military and is posted to El Paso – the military’s choice not his.  He was warm, interesting and a keen cyclist.  

So not a spectacular day or one with any major challenges – just ambling along gently and experiencing dry, rural America.  The desert south of El Paso will bring larger challenges but that is fine for now.

Wednesday 16th March.  Hillsboro to Radium Springs. 65 miles.

We dawdled up in the morning because 1) we wanted to wait until the sun was right up and it was a bit warmer before starting with a descent 2) the first 15 miles were downhill and then it was flat so although we had over 60 miles to do we thought it would be easy.  It didn’t quite work out that way; but not knowing the future at that point we enjoyed our first cup of coffee in our sleeping bags and packed up gradually and were off at about 9.

After a small climb we probably had the easiest start to a day so far as the first 15 miles were indeed downhill – fairly steep at first then a gradual downhill across a wide plain to Caballo Reservoir – a reservoir on the Rio Grande. 

The lake was not particularly picturesque; the water was some way away from the road and we wondered if the water level was particularly low (as it turned out, we were correct).  We made our way south on a quiet road (the main traffic being on a parallel interstate).  There were lots of RV parks and boat parks, but it all looked a bit scruffy and untidy – as if this was a dying area for tourism and permanent trailer residents were taking over.  One of the things that has repeatedly struck us since starting this trip is just how many people in the USA end up living full time in trailers.  We knew that this was the bottom end of the American housing market but, until this trip, had not realised quite how massive that section of market is occupied by trailer-dwellers.

Passing numerous parks, all was still going well when we stopped at a nice Mexican cafe in Array and had burritos and apple pie.  Every sign we passed was for a chilli farm and the burrito made our lips tingle with local chillies.  Soon after we set off again the road crossed the Rio Grande – and we were astonished that it was virtually dry – just a small trickle.  There is water further up but it all seems to have been diverted for irrigation – growing more chillies!

Things had now suddenly changed – a brisk wind against us had sprung up while we were eating.  The next 20 miles to the town of Hatch was therefore a battle against the wind. It felt far worse than the climb from yesterday as the gusts pummeled us relentlessly.  In fact the gusts seemed to last longer than the brief lulls between.  By the time we reached Hatch, we were pretty exhausted and sat inside a supermarket cafe to recover and then stock up on provisions.

When we set off again the wind direction had changed a bit and was mostly a side wind and at times even slightly in our favour.  We felt better but now we were dealing with heat, sun and lack of shade.  This was the first hot day we have had so we are not acclimatised to cycling in 30 degree heat yet.   The road started to  twist and turn alongside the Rio Grande – now completely dry. The wind got even stronger.  As the road turned sometimes it was slightly in our favour, at other times against us. The side gusts were also tricky to deal with, knocking us about on our bikes.

At last we reached the rather worryingly named town of “Radium Springs”.  It wasn’t obviously glowing as we approached and it was home to Leasburg Dam State park. We gratefully turned into the state park, where camping is usually not an issue.  We found the campground host to ask where we could pitch our tent and he told us all the pitches were full.  We must have looked extremely crestfallen as he said he would take us to the group site, as long as we paid our 14 dollar campground fee, which of course we did.  

The site was ideal with a covered eating area, a pit toilet and a water tap and a flat sandy spot for our tent. It overlooked the river and the dam – unfortunately completely dry.  The campground host told us that there would usually be water at this time of year but there had been little snow in Colorado so little was coming down to fill the river and what little water there was being held further upstream in the reservoirs (as we had seen in Caballo). If there wasn’t significant snow fall in the next month or lots of rain in June/July they would be in trouble. It was a sad, sad sight and one likely to continue with climate change.  Although one place and one year is not evidence this is one example among many. Who on earth could argue against the need for action with this in front of our eyes. 

We revived ourselves with a ‘bucket shower’ under the tap and a brew and rested our legs while the sun got lower. Next to our camping area was a large RV and the occupant arrived just after our dinner so we went over to explain why we were in the group area.  Sorry can’t remember his name but he kindly invited us in for coffee.  It was interesting to be in one of these huge RV’s – a real home from home – but more importantly it was great to meet someone and have an interesting conversation.  He was an Army Veteran and had spent a long time in Europe, and had interesting and thoughtful observations about the differences between life here and in Italy.  After retiring from the military he was in the final stages of training to be a police officer with the Department responsible for Fish and Game Regulation.  However, as a law enforcement officer, he also got summoned to cover anything else from vehicle accidents to domestic violence.  

He was a generous, interesting and interested man who we warmed to despite very clear differences of perspective.  Indeed, coming across well thought out differences of perspective is one of the things that makes this trip so fascinating.

We bid goodnight to a new friend and went back to our tent.  The most notable feature of the night was that David’s airbed developed a puncture (not that he told Bernie about this until the morning) and so he woke feeling like he had slept badly on a bed of concrete.  Another thing to try to fix on our day off in El Paso.