Category Archives: Uncategorized

Monday 14th January 2019. Day off in Battembang.

We left home 2 weeks ago and have cycled for 10 consecutive days. Even though that has included some short days, that is a much longer stretch than we would normally do. But was just the way the days fell. However, we really felt we ‘deserved’ our day off and had a bit of a holiday day. Battembang (there various forms of the translation of the word) is a fairly chilled city with some old French colonial architecture and a good place to relax without being tempted to do too much….or so we thought.

We started the day with an American breakfast. Whilst we love noodles and rice, it was great to have something different. Our usual cycling breakfast is instant oat porridge with fruit – quick and easy and great for cycling, but not the same as a good cappuccino! Next we successfully booked a boat to Siem Reap with our bikes for tomorrow. That means we won’t have to cycle back the way we came along the 70km of roadworks!

We had read about a small NGO supporting women by teaching them sewing and selling handicrafts. It was on the edge of town so we took briefly to our bikes and found it tucked away at the back of a house in a little street. The choice was limited but we felt we were supporting a good cause and involved putting money straight into their hands.

In the afternoon we subjected ourselves to a full body Thai massage. OMG those women have strong hands. The hour of pummelling was about 90% on the edge of pain. Perhaps this is because our muscles were tired and overworked or maybe it is always like this because they know just how much pressure to use for maximum effect. We were in side by side beds, face down with our faces in a hole in the bed surface, and at one stage the masseurs were both sitting cross-legged on top of us, pummelling our backs whilst they chatted away with each other in Cambodian. I suspect they were talking about the weather, their children or the increasing price of noodles, but it did not appear to distract them from their task. Then into the sauna, the hot and cold tubs, the steam room and the hot and cold tubs again. By the end our muscles felt fantastic.

Our evening extravaganza was to go to the circus. Phare Ponleu Selpak is a performing arts school. The show is put on by the students a couple of times a week. It was billed somewhere as the “Cirque du Soleil’ of Cambodia.

Maybe not quite as swish and techno as that but full of exuberance and skill with traditional dancing, music on traditional instruments as well as acrobatics, juggling, incredible contortions by the girls woven into a story of village life. Great fun. A quiet day then!

Sunday 13th January : Banteay Chhmar to Battdambang : 127km and only 48m of climbing!

Today was a case of “getting the miles done”. It was flat but long – with a constant headwind and with the road surface being appalling for large parts of the last 70km. At one stage I remarked to Bernie that there must be an easier weight loss plan we could have followed and we both almost fell off our bikes laughing – not a great idea when there were large trucks on the road.

Anyway the day started early – earlier than we intended thanks to the “helpful” music coming from the Buddist Temple which was about 100 yards from our homestay. It belted out repeated rhythms from about 5am, making our 5.30 alarm call wholly pointless. We got up, did the last of our packing and said our goodbyes to our generous hosts.

Then, just as it was getting light, we left at 6.12am. We started by cycling on the left hand side of the road – as per Thailand and the UK – and soon realised our error when we almost crashed with a motorbike who was mega confused – our fault entirely. The air was light and calm, the morning rush hour to the fields was underway and we only stopped to take photos of the rising sun.

The next 60km were glorious – good surfaces, quiet roads and virtually no wind. We also went very, very gently downhill for 50km, starting at 90m height and ending at 15m. There were loads of people about in the small towns we passed and workers off to the fields. As we descended, the amount of water increased and paddy fields began to appear. We also noted that the ambiance took on a greater feeling of prosperity. Cambodia’s GDP has been steadily growing by between 6% and 8% per year for the past 10 years – an impressive but sustainable level of growth. 40% of the Cambodian population is aged 16 or below, so the economy needs to create lots of jobs just to meet the needs of those coming onto the labour market each year. This means there are schools and lots of young people everywhere. There are also a number of older citizens but a distinct lack of people in their 40s and 50s – due to the Pol Pot regime and the Killing Fields. So it is a country with a history of recent tragedy, but with a growing population and economy, and an obvious enthusiasm for the future.

Fellow escapees from the hot sun – sheltering under a tree

At about 10am we reached the major town of Sisophon, where we would turn East to get to Siem Riep (with the Ankor Wat temples) or go south on the road to Battambang. We knew the Battambang road would be busy, because it was one route to get to Phnom Penh but had no factored in that the whole route was in the (slow) process of being upgraded to a 2 lane motorway, but still being used as a main road. This meant the usable surface was smaller than usual, in pretty bad condition and there was a huge amount of dust from the new carriageways being laid out at the side. This is all Chinese money – part of the silk road development process – that will tie the government of Cambodia into China for the foreseeable future. The same thing is happening across Asia and Africa, Mr Trump may have his “America First” policy but China has a far more effective approach by investing in (and then owning) infrastructure for developing countries in many parts of the the world and creating long term economic ties as a consequence. China has invested more than $2billion in Cambodia in recent years, which buys a lot of new roads in this part of the world!

This is what the road was like for 70km!

The short term consequence of Chinese investment was a horrid 70km for us, but we rolled into Battdambang at about 3pm, and collapsed after a welcome shower. Then we strolled around this French colonial town for the early evening, ate and discussed life, the universe and everything. The market was colourful and had a feeling of activity that drew in locals and visitors alike – but we did not partake of the live eels that were being killed on demand – but they must have been very fresh (if fresh eels are your thing).

Live eels in the middle basket and one just being despatched off to the great eel farm in the sky!

It seems a long way away from the Brexit vote in Parliament, but the only clear thing is that Brexit-inspired chaos looks certain to continue. However, we feel well out of it here (knowing full well nothing will be any clearer when we get back at the end of February.

All dressed up – to sell vegetables!

Saturday 12th January. Samroung to Banteay Chhmar. 56km.

There were no more mishaps with our room and we slept well, waking with a 5.30 alarm. We said our good byes to our cycling compatriots and were on the road at 6.30 am. As always the early start was worth it. The town was also up an about. Children were on their way to morning school, which appeared to start at 7am.

We were turning west into the remote north east part of the country. The road was newly paved but with hardly any traffic – the odd motorbike or ‘mini tractor’ a ‘sit on mower’ type engine with a variety of trailers attached) and the very occasional car. The temperature was lovely and we climbed 1meter in the first 10km!

There was some agriculture – dormant rice paddies, many with the stubble being burnt, and cassava – and a lot of scrub land. Chopped up cassava was laid out by the side of the road to dry.

We cycled through small villages and the occasional town. Every small village had a primary school with the larger towns also having high schools. Schooling still seems to happen on Saturdays. We brought bread and donuts from a young chap with a laden motorbike which sat in the stomach as a welcome second breakfast as we pedalled along. The traditional wooden houses on stilts were in all the villages but some now had brick built bases. No doubt many are poor but most people were well dressed and looked well fed. The villages are clean and the shops small but seemed to have basic provisions. Every town of course had a variety of mobile phone shops.

We sped through 55km on the flat and with our early start we had reached our destination, Banteay Chhmar by 10am. We had read about a community tourism project that arranged tours and local homestays and soon found their office. Although they could not arrange a tour (we had not made any advance arrangements) a helpful chap soon arranged our homestay at a house in the village. We had a bedroom in the wooden upper floor and shared a very basic bathroom with the family who lived downstairs. Mosquito net, fan and even a kettle! Perfect.

The reason for visiting Banteay Chhmar was to see some pre-Angkor ruins of a temple complex dating from 11th-13th century. After a short clean up, we decided to go straight out to the ruins before it got too hot – the temperature was already rising significantly. The site was amazing – most had fallen into ruin and overtaken by the surrounding jungle but renovation had been going on for a decade or two. We were seeing much of the place as archaeologists must have seen early sites – piles of rubble with amazing stone carving peaking out. An outer wall with incredible carvings had been painstakingly reconstructed showing stories and many armed deities. It reminded me of Mayan carvings in Mexico 1000s of miles across the world.

The inner temple complex had small parts reconstructed giving a glimpse into how incredible the place must have been in its heyday. To start we had the place virtually to ourselves as we clambered about the stones. It was helpful that we had already seen some temple complexes as it meant we could imagine the structures and layout. A really memorable visit.

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ack at our homestay the afternoon heat was now full on. 1-3pm are meltingly hot. We lay on the bed with the fan on full blast. By 4pm it was getting pleasant enough to sit out on the balcony in the shade with some breeze. I knew it was going to be hot but had not anticipated quite how hot and with a humidity which we have not cycled in before. We will have to work out how to manage the afternoon heat – an even earlier start tomorrow! I read and David checked the bikes over, tightening up things that had worked loose on the bumpy roads and sorting a few minor things. But overall the bikes are proving to be really reliable.

By 5pm the temperature was pleasant and we took a stroll through the village and round the edge of the ruins again. We had arranged to have dinner at the CBT office (which has fans and wifi) and had a tasty meal with plenty of fresh veg (although I think they left out all the chillies of us!). Have done some more useful planning today so our Cambodian chapter is taking shape.

Friday 11 January : Prasat, Thailand to Samroung, Cambodia: 79km

Today we crossed into Cambodia, met a lovely Dutch couple who were also travelling by bike and managed to fuse a hotel’s electricity system – all in 24 hours.

We started early and were on road by 7.15am. I have now found the temperature setting on the Garmin so know it was 21C when we started (and climbed to be well into the 40s by the early afternoon). We plodded along for 30km, had some coffee and then braced ourselves for crossing the border. We had read all manner of horror stories – mostly involving the need to pay copious bribes – but actually it was efficient, we were charged $35 for the visa (which is either the right amount or only $5 over) and then crossed into Cambodia.
Cambodia is poorer than Thailand but the people are more engaging with visitors, especially those on bikes.

We got numerous waves, smiles and “hellos” from children (who we think are partially taught in English). The road surfaces was good and we dropped 100m over the first 7km – so it was a fast start to a new country. First impressions are that this is young country, with loads of children. It is dusty, developing at a great pace and has an enthusiasm that is perhaps missing in Thailand.

However 20km from the border we were feeing very hot, and needed a rest. So we stopped at a bus shelter and drank water and ate doughnuts – bought from “Tescos” or 7-11” in Thailand the day before. We carried on through this agricultural but arid scenery and stopped to take some photos.

Then, to our utter astonishment, we saw 2 other cyclists coming towards us. Wilma and Will are a Dutch couple of about our age who are on a 5 week cycling tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. They stormed up to us and were as amazed by meeting us as we were meeting them! We were both going the same way so we teamed up and chatted as we rode. The flat countryside whizzed by and we soon reached Samroung, the town where we all had marked as the end of the day’s cycle.

It was astonishing to hear them putting forward exactly the same reasons as us for embarking on this madcap adventure. They spoke of the peace, the quiet, meeting people and seeing a country at a slow pace – all things we have tried to explain in our own words. So we are either both mad or we are onto something.

We found a hotel by the lake and then showered. A new country means a new Sim card – but at $1 it was not going to break the bank. I then spent several hours reading up on Cambodia’s past, including the Khymer Rouge period when millions died. It was more complex than I had recalled (as is always the case) but there are very few people our age since our generation lived (and died) in the terror,
We then had a pleasant meal out with Wilma and Will and learned that they tried to cycle every day in Holland, despite the winds. They were certainly faster than us and this may explain it. As we walked back music was booming across the lake and we were treated to a firework display that reflected in the lake waters – not to welcome us to Cambodia we think but probably a wedding celebration.

Then back to the hotel with its amusing signs. However the act of turning on the bedroom light fused the hotel’s system, resulted in young boys spending a long time fiddling with live electricity wires. I could not bear to watch but, having failed to mend them, we were moved to a room with functioning lights!

Thursday 10th January.  Nang Rong to Prasat via Phnom Rung Historical Park. 98km

We slept in slightly later than planned as David had an unfortunate incident with bed bugs last night when he woke up with his back covered in bites. Urghh! Luckily I had some anti-histamines to settle the itching and there was a sofa that he could decamp to and we had sleeping bag inners that we could cover ourselves up in. We had even splashed out on a 3* hotel so it just goes to show (something).

It was bright and sunny when we set off and our spirits brightened as we cycled through the morning market. All those delicious fresh herbs and spices that are a part of the cooking on display.

We had a pleasant 30km ride to the Phnom Rung Historical park, through pleasant countryside and a paved road (hurrah). At least it was pleasant until the last couple of km. Prasat Phnom Rung is an amazing Khmer Hindu temple built between the 10th and 13th centuries. It sits on top of an extinct volcano that springs out of the surrounding flat landscape. For us that meant another lung busting steep 200m climb. This time we did not have to get off and push so must be getting fitter but it still wiped us out by the time we got to the top.

A reviving cup of decent coffee and then we visited the temple. I won’t describe all the detail but the setting was fantastic, the approach was along an amazing walkway and series of steps and the stone carvings beautiful. Hopefully the photos will give some idea. The complex is one of a whole series of temples that line an ancient Khmer highway between Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Phimae a bit further north in Thailand. It gave us a taster of what is to come. I must read up about the link between Hinduism and Buddhism but the temple was reminiscent of some of the ancient temples we saw in India.

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Time for a second breakfast (omelette on rice -nicer than it sounds) and off to our second temple at the bottom of the volcano. Today the skies were clear and the sun much hotter that we have experienced so far. Prasat Muang Tam was a less visited monument in serene surroundings next to a lake. The main temple building flanked by 4 L shaped ponds guarded by 5 headed Nagas (serpents). A 100 year old mango tree gave some shade. We were now at the height of the sun (mad dogs and Englishmen etc) and melted our way round. The only leaflet we had was in Thai but the setting felt calm and evocative.

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We now had 60km to get to the next main town with some accommodation. It felt rather daunting in the heat, although bizarrely it felt less hot cycling at a nice steady pace (flat) because it generated a 20km breeze. Luckily no more hills. After 20km we dived into shade for a sticky sugary drink and after that the main bite of the sun had gone. We were back on the main road, although now much less busy, and the next 35km was rather like riding an exercise bike – just keep the legs whirring round. We even overtook a couple of very heavily laden old trucks/tractors! Tedious but the km ticked down until we reached Tescos in Prasat – yes Tesco (supermarkets as we know them have been sown up by Tesco and 7-eleven). A quick stock up of supplies then off to find a homestay we had seen on one of the hotel websites. We had decided not to book as for the last few days we have been almost the only people in the hotel so going direct meant more money for the owner. The sun was starting to fade as we rolled in – “full’ the owner said “sorry, sorry”. In fact everything looked closed up rather than full but she directed us to another hotel a couple of km away, which was perfectly fine.

98km and 2 temple visits – quite a day. Just 40km to the Cambodian border tomorrow.

Wednesday 9th January : Pak Chong Chai to Nang Rong : 114 km – mostly flat

This will be a short blog posting as not a great deal of interest to anyone else happened on our trip today! Well, apart from cycling 114km which is the longest we have cycled so far, and shows we might just be regaining some lost fitness.

We woke at 6 and were on the road before 7 (again a first for this trip). The morning air is cool, the light is low and the air is fresh. It means that early morning is a lovely time of the day to cycle. We were soon out of the town and ambling along tiny paved roads through small villages. The soil is a deep red colour here and it seems to be a really productive agricultural area. The buildings indicated people were not poor – but not well off either.

The roads got a bit more bumpy as we went East. Thailand has a north-south industrial corridor which starts 50 miles to the west of us (or so it seems). But this part is rural Thailand and the roads are of poor quality – which seems to be a pattern all over the world. Eventually the potholes gave way to hard earth with no tarmac at all. We ploughed on – though maybe using the word “plough” to describe cycling on dirt roads may not be the best choice going – but it was pretty tough. Our average speed dropped from about 20kph to about 12kph, as we navigated the road ahead of us.

At least it was flat .. and then there was a significant hill to climb on the dirt roads. This part of the country is not short of quiet paved roads. In fact there are plenty of them. The problem is that, apart from the No24 (quasi-motorway), they all go north to south and we were going west to east! So we bailed out and headed for No24. Just before we got there we stopped for a brilliant lunch with an effeminate Thai man who conjured up the most marvellous fish soup plus an omelette – a combination that worked in the heat and humidity.

Then it was 37km on the hard shoulder of a busy dual-carriageway. The less said about that the better – save that it was far better than the No2 motorway we had struggled with a few days before.
At about 4pm, after covering 144km, we rolled into Ban Nang Rong. “Ban” seems to mean town so it was Nang Rong town – and a mighty fine town it was. This is the stopping off place before visiting the famous Khymer ruined temples of Phanom Rung, so we have that delight tomorrow.

Tuesday 8th January . Pak Cheong to Pak Thong Chai. 93km and 700m of climbing.

(Bernie) After my 4th Day-itis I woke feeling rested and refreshed. We had lovely coffee and Othmar’s special Swiss style muesli – delicious and perfect for cycling. We said our goodbyes and hope to return the Othmar and Jackie’s hospitality sometime back in England. We were on the road by 7 and it felt good in the cool of the morning.

We had directions to get us onto the road out of town (not the ‘2’) but paused at the junction to check we were on the right road. I cycled off ahead and David suddenly shouted “you’ve only got one pannier!”. I looked behind and sure enough – one pannier was missing. I knew I had put both on the back so one must have bounced off. We immediately retraced out steps. I felt sicker and sicker as no pannier was seen by the side of the road, trying not to think what was missing and how we would replace things.

We bumped along the back road near to the house and just before the turning up to the house a cry came from David “there it is”. To my enormous relief there was the pannier, someone had carefully picked it up and put it by the side of the road. In our goodbyes and chatting I couldn’t have closed the clips properly and, on the bumpy road, the pannier bumped off. During breakfast Othmar had commented to Jacky as she gave us directions “you are speaking to professionals you know”. Well maybe not – or possibly even ‘professionals’ make pretty dumb mistakes sometimes. A hard lesson learnt with a lucky ending. You do need an element of obsession when travelling to check everything and check again.

Back we went again, having lost half an hour, but the morning was still cool and we were soon pedalling out of town. The road was wide and busy for about 20km but then narrowed down and became much quieter. We did not turn towards ‘Kensington’ or “My Ozone’ but passed through many small villages passing fields of sugar cane.

We stopped for a fizzy drink as the day started to heat up – not my favourite beverage normally but gives a boost of sugar and liquid as we turned to climb a range of hills. Off the well tarmacked main road we were on a bumpy potholed road reminiscent of many in India.

The climb was sharp – too sharp for us at 16% at its steepest, particularly on the poor road surface. We had to resort to pushing the bikes for a couple of short, steep sections. It was short but massively heart pumping and exhausting. We then cruised through a jungly section and by luck the road surface improved as we glided down a gradual descent the other side.

We cycled on through fairly non descript country, the highlight of which was our lunch stop (yes food is becoming a recurrent theme here) . A really tasty beef broth with a large handful of the most amazing basil which you pulled the leaves off and straight into the bowl with handful of bean shoots. Luckily the chilli flakes and chilli oil were separate condiments with which others liberally covered their meals but we declined and savoured the other subtle tastes.

Then a long flat, flat stretch. The sun was strong and it was hot. We are still adapting to the temperatures. Flat sounds good but the legs get mechanical and we were tiring. Just before the next town an elderly Canadian on an even older Harley-Davison motorbike flagged us down to chat. Within 30 seconds we had his life story; about how he had lived in Thailand for 30 years but the Canadian dollar was now worth half what it was and he couldn’t understand it as surely there is no functioning economy in Thailand (where has he been?!). All a bit of a bore but he did joke that we were travelling to escape Brexit – a common theme amongst anyone who knows we are from the UK. We just roll our eyes and say its all madness at home – which is about the only answer. However we soon managed to escape from this conversation as we soon rolled on.

A few km later we rolled into Pak Thong Chai – a modern town which was no doubt like many, many others in Thailand. It was only 2.30 but we had done over 90km and had been on the road since 7 and were hot and tired, so decided to call it a day, especially as we knew there was a hotel here.

We were soon booked in and cooling down and resting in the A/C. Later we strolled out but found there was little of note in the town – but to be fair it has no write up in the Guidebook and there is nothing other than its location noted in Wikipedia. We strongly suspected tourists were not a staple of the local economy.

However the plus side of a town only catering to locals was that there were a multitude of street food stalls. We then had to decide what to eat and settled for a ‘starter’ of seafood kebabs, followed by Pad Thai -the classic noodle dish of Thailand. We had been told that many Thai families do not have kitchens and so buy all their meals from cheap street stalls and markets. Obesity is just starting to become a problem as some of these are replaced with ‘fast food’; which is really just junk food compared to the traditional healthy diet. Let’s hope they can draw a halt to it before it escalates as it has done in so many other countries.

Monday 7th January: Khao Yai National Park to Pak Cheong: 44km – lots down but little up.

(David) Today was not the day we planned. We started it by waking up in a campsite and ended it having a lovely meal with new friends, staying at their villa having swam in their pool and completely changed plans for the next few days – and only cycled 44km, most of which was downhill.

To try to explain how all this happened by fortuitous accident, I need to explain that Bernie was not feeling 100% up for a long day cycling. A lurking cold and putting her body through yesterday’s climb (on top of the last few days) was taking its toll. Day 4 of these trips is often a low point where our limited fitness means that we don’t quite recover from the physical exertion of each day’s cycling and so tiredness accumulates. Add a big climb and this was the day Bernie’s body was objecting – and it was probably fair enough.

Anyway we broke camp, breakfasted and cycled off as best we could in the early morning cool. The jungle is never quiet but the roads were empty and the only sounds we heard were the birds and the occasional unidentified animal in the undergrowth. It was peaceful and calm as we rode up to the Visitor’s Centre and then began our descent along the same road we had climbed the day before. We knew there were some 16% sections – going as slowly as we could, gripping the brakes with all our might and praying that the cables did not break (they didn’t). Then the gradient eased and we whizzed down the 7% sections, reaching the park entrance in no time. Humphhh said Bernie – that took us 2 hours yesterday and we got down in about 15 minutes.

We then pottered northwards, passing the road where we had joined the day before and heading towards Pak Chong. It was hot, busy and seemed to involve more “up” than we expected. Bernie was doing fine but not enjoying herself.

As we crossed over the motorway we were overtaken by 2 local cyclists – on road bikes with no panniers and all kitted out for an early morning ride. The man introduced himself, said he was Swiss and invited us for coffee. He then spoke in a hugely impressive way to his riding partner, who was a tiny Thai lady who he introduced as “Moo” meaning a pig in Thai. He explained that Thais are given nicknames as very young children and they have them for life. Moo was beautiful and graceful, and seemed the most un-pig-like person imaginable, but was stuck with the name. Othmar explained that he was a retired Swiss gynaecologist and that he lived in Pak Chong with his wife, Jackie for part of the year.

Part of our rules for travelling is to accept offers of hospitality unless it is clear we should not do so. So we gratefully accepted Othmar’s offer and followed him and Moo for about 5 km. Moo peeled off to her own house a few blocks from the finish, and then we entered the quiet, serene atmosphere that Othmar and Jackie have created for themselves in their beautiful villa. It was reminiscent of staying at Adit and Archie’s house in Delhi – a calm oasis at the edge of a bustling city.

We had coffee and chatted, and soon made up our minds to accept their offer of an overnight stay. After a sleep, a bracing swim in the outdoor (unheated) pool and a few hours planning, Bernie felt a good deal better. Having time to consider the maps and guidebooks we decided to change plans and not head north east to the Laos border but go back to our original plan and head due east to the Cambodian border. It’s good to have plans but such a joy to be able to change them on a whim once we were finding our feet and got more information.

Moo and her husband, Eddie, came over for a beer in the early evening and then Othmar and Jackie took us to a wonderful restaurant for scrumptious Thai food. I could not begin to describe the delicate balance between the different flavours, but it was wonderful. We also had long discussions about Thailand. Othmar and Jackie have lived here for good parts of the year for nearly a decade and were informed and intelligent observers of all things Thai. It was a total privilege to listen to their views and understand more about the country in which we are travelling and its people.

Meeting with the Othmar on the road was, of course, a pure coincidence. If we crossed the motorway 5 minutes later or they had not lingered at their tea stop (where Moo had amusingly got herself locked into the Ladies toilet), we would have missed each other. But fate was on our side.

Once we had met, there was no limit to Othmar and Jackie’s hospitality towards people about whom they knew nothing apart from the fact that we were touring cyclists who came to their town. Perhaps hospitality comes more naturally from one cyclist to another, but it was really Othmar’s innate kindness that meant he immediately offered hospitality to us, and only found out about us later. It was a memorable day.

Sunday 6th January. Muak Lek to Khao Yai National Park: 44km and 750m climbing.

We woke and in our ‘homestay’, which was in fact a complex of several buildings rather than a room in someone’s home, although it is true it was very much a family run business. We had an average breakfast. The mum carefully whizzed us up 2 types of smoothies – one spinach and one a mixture of beetroot, carrot and apple. David spurned both but I gulped down both, holding my nose a bit for the spinach one but I felt healthier just drinking them!

Then off again on our bikes. We knew we had some climbing to do as the map indicated the National Park was in a ‘pink’ coloured area of the map i.e. somewhere between 500 and 1000m but we had no idea where in that range.

The first 20km were mainly gently climbing along a beautiful valley lined but steep tree covered cliffs. It was still quite humid but at last the air felt fresher. We had an expensive but delicious coffee at the last town before the national park entrance then paid our 400 bhat entry fee (about #10). It was then 14km to the visitors centre…..and we found a 450m climb, much of it steep. The 18% gradient at one part defeated us and we had to get off and push! It was really tough, this was meant to be our short easy day! No more guest houses or coffee shops, just dense jungle either side of the road. The last few km to the visitors centre were flatter but up and down and we rolled in exhausted!

The visitor’s centre was modern and well run. We had soon sorted out how to get to the campsite (which we were keen to do, having brought all our camping kit this time but was the only available accommodation anyway as we had coincided with the weekend). We had something to eat and tried to revive a bit before the last 4 km to a large, well kept campsite. A snip at 75p each!

After a brew, a cold shower (so refreshing) and a rest we decided we had to make more of the day. But first we had to “monkey proof” our tent. This involved packing everything into panniers (apart from food) and then leaving the tent open. The slightly dubious theory is that monkeys will break into tents if they suspect food but probably cannot get into panniers! I remained wholly unconvinced but, given a lack of an alternative plan, followed the instructions. 2 hours later it was all just as we left it which means either that the plan worked or the whole things was totally unnecessary. However there were monkeys in the vicinity and so it was probably better to be safe than sorry.

After storing our food at the reception area (“no we don’t rent lockers – all the lockers are for staff – yes we can mind a food bag for you” …. and then we saw it placed for safe keeping in a locker). C’est la vie. Job done.

It was a 2km up and down ride to the other campground where the trail started. This was a 4km trail which took in 2 waterfalls – or at least there were 2 in the wet season. In the dry season it was more a case of one and a bit waterfalls. But the delight was walking through the dense forest, with bird noises constantly in the background (but not a single bird seen).

The frogs were also in full throat and there were numerous signs encouraging people not to swim because of the crocodiles. We were not tempted but didn’t see a single croc despite carefully looking. Whether any crocs saw us is, of course, another matter. But the fact that I am back at the campsite typing this means that any that did spy us decided that we would not taste nice enough to be worth the effort. On the whole, I was with the crocs on this assessment. It was surreal to be in the jungle, with a single path leading us along a beautiful river in the late afternoon sun. The temperature fell a bit and the oppressive humidity dropped off. We met a few walkers going the other way – French, German, Chinese and even a few Thai! The French woman seemed to be suffering quite a lot. We met them about half way and she asked in a pained expression “is it far”. The answer was “No” but it may have been a long way for her. The jungle is not for everyone.

Finally we got to the end of the trail and saw the second waterfall – well the first really – which was a pretty good sight. It must be magnificent in the wet season.

We hitched a lift back to the campsite, in the back of a pick-up truck, clinging on between the suitcases of a large, friendly Thai family. This travelling business gets us into the strangest situations.

The back to camp for tea (noodles and chicken – wonderful) and then this “full” day was topped off with a night safari. We sat in the back of a jeep with a guide who had a powerful torch. As we started I wondered if we would spend an hour looking at shapes of trees in the eerie light from the torch, but in fact we had a bumper evening.

We saw varieties of deer, a fox (more elegant than the Kennington variety we see on the way back from the tube), two elephants – one close up – and a black bear. We also saw some small animals I could not identify – one looked like a large mole and another indescribable but jumping away from the light.

Am finishing this blog in the tent with Bernie saying “what a relief to be horizontal”. Yes indeed, but a great and varied day.

Saturday 5th January: Ayutthaya to Near Muak Lek: 104 km

We both slept much better – nothing to do with 85km cycled the day before of course, but welcome nonetheless. Porridge with bananas and coffee set us up for the day and we were on the road by 7.30. The traffic was just as busy as on a weekday. As we crossed the bridge from the sleepy old centre of Ayutthaya where all the tourists stay (like us), we found there was a thriving modern city of the same name. We battled our way through the traffic and had our first encounter of the trip with a Thai motorway.

Thai motorways are similar to their European cousins but have a number of key differences. First, there is always a relief road at the side of the motorway – so with 4 main lanes each way there are another 2 or 3 lanes of the relief road running alongside the main carriageway, with a hard shoulder on the edge of the relief road. Secondly, there are no restrictions for bicycles – but we stayed on the relief road rather than venturing onto the main carriageway. See we do have some residual sense left. Thirdly, the hard shoulder is effectively 2 way – in that if you go in the direction of the traffic, you keep meeting motorbikes going in the other direction. Thirdly, there are only a few junctions but the occasional “U Turn” space in the middle for those who wish to cash in their life insurance. Finally, there are lots of trucks, pushing out lots of fumes and so the air is pretty horrid. Having said that, there has been some impressive investment to create a network of roads that carry a vast amount of freight around the country.

The first motorway we encountered was outside the modern, busy Ayutthaya and was impossible for us to cross. So we had to do a 20km diversion before we finally got onto quiet roads. Then we left the main roads and suddenly the air was clean, there was less noise and we were ambling through paddy fields. It was all flat in this part of Thailand and rice seemed the staple (if not nearly the only) crop.

The landscape was criss-crossed with canals to provide water for the fields, with little pumps constantly at work to draw the water out of the channels to irrigate the fields. It was idyllic cycling, albeit we had to stop frequently to check the map (thanks Mr Google) to make sure we were moving in the right direction.

We stopped for a brew about 11, having covered about 45km. It was easy going apart from the irritating but not strong headwind. People looked on as we passed, generally without initiating any contact. However if we smiled, waved or made any small gesture which indicated we were friendly, smiles would break on the faces of men and women and they waved, called and encouraged us on. Rural folk appear to be quite reserved at first, but very friendly if we made the first move.

A few km outside Saraburi we stumbled across a lovely Buddhist temple, which was clearly a cherished part of the local community. It looked stunning in the late morning watery sunshine.

After 60km we reached the town of Saraburi and so hit the inevitable traffic jam. We stopped for a quick lunch at a cafe and then found a bike shop to replace the tyre lever we had misplaced in Bangkok – a boring story which is best left untold.

After Saraburi we knew that we had a tedious afternoon making a close acquaintance with the “2” motorway as it was the one road going where we wanted to go. The hills started and this was the road – the only road – so it was the “2” or nothing. We clung to the hard shoulder – mostly with a relief road but sometimes not – for about 35km. It was noisy, polluted and not much fun. But eventually we climbed our way into the mountains and found the exit we needed. It even had a road under the motorway and so we didn’t need to take our life in our hands with the exits.

The road climbed up to 250M with climbs of about 5% at worst. However, even at that gradient, we found ourselves going about the same speed as some of the larger trucks. Not that we were going fast of course, but they were working hard to go at 10kph and pushing out vast quantities of fumes just to show how hard they were working. So not ideal cycling!

Then all changed in an instant. We were off the motorway and into a joint venture area between Denmark and Thailand involving a model dairy farm which was set up for “agro-tourism”. Black and white cows replaced trucks as our scenery. The road suddenly deteriorated and I nearly rode into the cow dip which was in the middle of the road. We then found the road deteriorated further, and we found ourselves cycling along a dirt track which was a new road under construction.

Eventually we found the main road again and reached our “Home stay”. All very confusing with owners, using google-translate to try to say “yes we have booked” – looking at emails on the phone and eventually reaching a consensus. 105km was more than we wanted to do today as we are not yet fully fit, but feel like we might be getting there. Our lives in the UK already seem to belong to a different life. Cycle touring is totally mind absorbing – because if one loses concentration for a moment, there will be a motorbike coming towards one on the wrong side of the road and expecting us to move!

Another first – we cooked for ourselves. A single pot meal of noodles, tuna, carrot and cashew nuts. Anything tastes fantastic when we have cycled for over 100km in the humidity of the day.