Week 2- Surat Thani to Songkhla, Thailand

(note- this map is not our actual route, we’re working on getting our GPS tracks online but for now this is just to give you all some idea of what we did)

TOTAL distance of week 2- 418 kilometers
Total distance of the trip so far- 1,085 km
TOTAL hours cycling- 27 hours (and 2 hours of hiking)
Average speed- 14.4 kph
# of days on the bikes- 6
# of flat tires- 0


Day 8- June 12, 2015- Surat Thani- REST DAY

Today we took the day off because well, we’d been riding for a week straight, our butts were sore and we decided we deserved it. We spent 2 nights and 1 day in Surrat Thani where we did some bike cleaning and maintenance, took a few naps, and attempted to go on a date to a highly recommended restaurant that was celebrated for being “romantic and cheap”. This date never happened because the restaurant didnt exist and after over an hour of wandering we ended up by the docks with a pizza, pad thai, and a few beers. Which honestly might have been better than whatever this restaurant had to offer!


Day 9- June 12, 2015- Surat Thani to Khanom

78.2 kilometers in 5 hours and 45 minutes of riding time
Average speed- 13.6 kph

One of the monoculture fields of palm oil producing trees (we're guessing) that have been planted all along our route. While monoculture from deforestation is obviously a terrible thing, they've at least offered us some shade.
One of the monoculture fields of palm oil producing trees (we’re guessing) that have been planted all along our route. While monoculture from deforestation is obviously a terrible thing, they’ve at least offered us some shade.

We decided that it was about time to take a beach holiday! We’d been riding along the Thai coast for a week and the water did look beautiful, even though it was a little warm. We opted not to go to Koh Samui- the island off the Thai mainland that is a popular tourist destination. Instead we looked at a map and figured that if we could get ourselves out of this city and onto the Thai coast again we could find a beach bungalow and not be surrounded by tourists. Some quick research showed that there were nice beaches in Khanom and plenty of bungalow options. It seemed like an easy laid-back beach getaway.

We arrived to find many bungalows available (and many closed for the low season). After checking at a few and stubbornly sticking to a low price that we were sure we could get we settled on a hotel we still don’t know the name of. The wall was decorated with a picture of a half-naked Asian woman on one wall and a framed picture of a motorcycle on the other. Mike spent our first five minutes killing all the cockroaches in our bathroom. Turns out that right next door was a French man who had just opened up a complex of bungalows for a nice low price with great food and beanbag chairs to relax in, so we spent most of our time there. We decided this spot was probably not the spot we wanted to stay at for our beach vacation, and started to make a plan to continue south the next day for a shorter day on the bikes and more beach time.


Day 10- June 13, 2015- Khanom to Sichon

37.8 kilometers in 2 and a half hours of hiking and 1 and a half hours of biking
Average speed- no need to talk about it

Mike on a bike
Mike on a bike

Mike’s GPS showed a three kilometer gap between where one coastal road ended and the next began. There was a national park in this gap. Still, we could not understand why Thailand would be so forgetful as to just forget a necessary section of road. So we asked a French man who was living in the area about this seeming oversight:
“Is it possible to bike through this area?”
His first question was, “What kind of bikes do you have?”I think we made it pretty clear that we were on bicycles not motorbikes which is what most people here assume we are riding when we tell them we’re going all the way to Singapore.
He said there was a road. He said it was a “clay” road. He made a wavy motion with his arm to indicate that it was hills. But he did say it was possible.

Choose your own adventure
Choose your own adventure

The next day we were forced to walk our bikes up the steep inclines of the paved road that wound up around the cliffs that looked over the sea (mind you this is the road that still exists even on the GPS; we weren’t even on our imaginary road yet). We started to think this French man might not have been exactly an expert on this area.

We followed the paved road down literally to the “End of the Road” beach resort. In front of us was a beautiful beach. In the direction we wanted to go there were cliffs. Behind us was a steeply graded hill. We asked the friendly Thai owners how to get to the other side of this nonexistent road and they agreed that yes there was a road but said it wasn’t safe.

This homestay was our last sign that the road we were about to attempt through a national park was a BAD idea!
This homestay was our last sign that the road we were about to attempt through a national park was a BAD idea!

This was not the first time we had been told that a trail we wanted to go down wasn’t safe. And we really didn’t want to backtrack five kilometers just to get to a highway that we didn’t want to ride on. So we decided to turn onto this dirt road. We understood that for a change we would be carrying our bikes up and down steep mountains, not the other way around. These cliffs were made un-ridable by the loose dirt and large rocks littered across the path. We knew we were getting into at least a three kilometer hike with our bikes and all of our belongings. And then we started talking about the potential to find elephants in this park.

One of the bigger hills we walked up here, so we had to leave one of the bikes behind, at least for a bit.
One of the bigger hills we walked up here, so we had to leave one of the bikes behind, at least for a bit.

Downhills were slow, we wore out our breaks and our knees. Uphills were an ordeal. We pushed and pulled our individual bikes up steep gradients just struggling to keep some kind of forward momentum. At times we would team up to push one bike up at a time, leaving the other sitting there patiently at the bottom of the hill waiting for us to go again. Or we would portage the things- one of us would take the panniers and the other would push a slightly lighter bike. Through some combination of these struggles we emerged on a paved road 3.3 kilometers and 2.5 hours later. The first sign we found warned trucks to take the coming declines in a “low” gear.

The views from the tops of these hills were amazing
The views from the tops of these hills were amazing
Because taking pictures seemed more pressing than helping get the bikes up the hill...
Because taking pictures seemed more pressing than helping get the bikes up the hill…
The entrance to this dirt-road, cliff-filled, seaside national park that we were about to walk all the way through.
The entrance to this dirt-road, cliff-filled, seaside national park that we were about to walk all the way through

Day 11- June 14, 2015- Sichon to Nakon Si Thammarat

72.7 kilometers in 4 hours and 38 minutes of biking time
Average speed- 15.7 kph

Side of the road stalls that sell all kinds of  yard decorations that you can find all over the country!
Side of the road stalls that sell all kinds of yard decorations that you can find all over the country!

Wanting to prove that we had learned a lesson from yesterday, we spent most of today on clearly marked, existent roads. This kept us on Highway 401 near the coast almost the entire day. Up closer to Sichon there were a few quiet back roads, some paved and some not, that took us in the direction we wanted to go in. After finishing with those we got back on the highway for 30 kilometers until we reached the town of Tha Sala. From there we had to stay on the highway to cross the river and after that we just stuck to the highway for the rest of the day. It is exhausting having semis blowing past you all day, and we tried to get off and find more back roads at a few points but those just ended up just bringing us back to the highway.

Nakon Si Thammarat is pretty much just a big industrial city, although there are some beautiful wats and gates over the highways, and lots of good street food. Once again we probably had a harder time finding a hotel than a Thai person would have because all the signs were in Thai and not many people spoke English. The only indicator that a hotel is a hotel here is the number “24” buried in the Thai writing. This is there to indicate that the “hotel” also has rooms that can be rented by the hour. There were definitely enough of those on the outskirts of town, as well as a few English guesthouse signs once we got further into the city.


Day 12- June 15, 2015- Nakon Si Thammarat to Hua Sai

90.96 kilometers in 6 hours of riding time
Average speed- 14.5 kph

The large chedi made for the buddha at the oldest buddhist temple in Southern Thailand
The large chedi made for the buddha at the oldest buddhist temple in Southern Thailand

We got a later start today again because we HAD to! Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan is the biggest sight to see in Nakon Si Thammarat. It is also the oldest wat in Southern Thailand AND it didn’t open until 8:30am. And we weren’t about to miss that!

Just casually enjoying a beautiful ride and ignoring the massive storm rolling in
Just casually enjoying a beautiful ride and ignoring the massive storm rolling in

In the later parts of the morning clouds gathered over us and a light drizzle started to fall on the road. Kiri noted that in Cambodia (where she had spent the last five months working) sometimes a drizzle is just a drizzle and sometimes it is a warning that you should take cover. We rounded a corner and saw the downpour we had been “warned” about waiting for us . We quickly pulled off and took shelter on the porch of a friendly Thai family home. When Mike was greeting the woman who lived there he pointed towards the sky and said “nam” (literally “water” in Thai- one of our few Thai words). He thought he was making conversation about the falling water that had trapped us there. A few minutes later she brought us a pitcher of water – the language barriers just keep on coming! Luckily the warm hospitality of the Thai people made nothing about this situation seem rude or intrusive.

View of the massive chedi from outside the Wat.
View of the massive chedi from outside the Wat.
Some of the decorations inside of the temple
Some of the decorations inside of the temple
The 170 odd chedis of Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan
The 170 odd chedis of Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan

Day 3, June 16, 2015- Hua Sai to Ban Kokud

82 kilometers in 5 hours 30 minutes of riding time (8:00am-4:30pm including a 3 hour stop in Ranot)

Average speed- 15.2 kph

Leaving the roads shown on the GPS to create our own route was a great decision today!
Leaving the roads shown on the GPS to create our own route was a great decision today!

This morning started with even more language barriers as we found ourselves at a Muslim restaurant for breakfast. As we entered the roadside venue, we received many curious and friendly looks and the locals warmly greeted us by clearing a table and getting us some chairs. Although we couldn’t communicate much with words, we have gotten quite used to non-verbal communication, and ordered our breakfast by pointing at other people’s good-looking food, smiling, and nodding. With the help of the other customers we were able to get a great breakfast of cold noodles in great sauce with a platter of greens to go with it all – a great way to start the day!

The morning weekly market in Ranot that we happened to be in town for!
The morning weekly market in Ranot that we happened to be in town for!

Today was a great reminder of why traveling with a flexible schedule in Thailand is a great way to enjoy not only the destinations, but also the journey. The goal of today was to go 110 kilometers to our next stop. However, our route happened to bring us though an unexpected gem of a town in the late morning that changed these plans for the better. Cobblestone roads and ornate lamp posts paved the way into the laid-back town of Ranot where we found a weekly morning market packed with clothes and food and fish from the nearby lake. We decided to scratch the plans of biking the entire 100 kilometers and spent a few hours soaking in the vibe of the town by wandering through the lively and colorful market, eating local delicacies, and napping and relaxing in the shade of some trees. After a relaxing late-morning visit in Ranot, we decided to continue cycling for a couple of more hours in the afternoon.

One thing other bikers had warned us about was dogs. So far we had a couple of minor incidents with dogs chasing after us and barking, but nothing too noteworthy. Today they were practically lining the streets waiting for us to roll through so they could chase us. Some were just short-legged yippy rat-like dogs but others more closely resembled wolves. We have found yelling and kicking at them to be effective ways to deter them. Ringing the bell seems to have the opposite effect.

Happy little sting rays!
Happy little sting rays!
Sharks or fish?
Sharks or fish?
Some of the clothing and food stalls of the weekly market
Some of the clothing and food stalls of the weekly market

Day 14, June 17, 2015- Ban Kokud to Songkhla

50 kilometers in three and a half hours

Average speed- 14.3 kph
Songkhla LakeThe three big tourist areas in Thailand seem to be the southwest coast near Phuket, the northern region around Chiang Mai, and obviously Bangkok. Since starting this trip 2 weeks ago, we have been traveling off this trail and were starting to get to the point where locals were starting to take a ton of interest in us. We’re guessing tourists almost never make it this far on the south-east coast. Mike tried to order breakfast in Thai this morning, and accidentally got us plain rice and a bucket of hard-boiled eggs, but his attempt caused all the Thai women to burst into giggles and request pictures with him.

Enjoying the free ferry ride into Songkhla! Wish we had brought our umbrella like everyone else!!
Enjoying the free ferry ride into Songkhla! Wish we had brought our umbrella like everyone else!!

Our interactions with locals in this region has been one of curiosity and hospitality, and this will continue to become a common occurrence. When we are able to explain to people that we are biking from Bangkok to Singapore we get shocked, impressed, and confused looks from the locals who cannot understand why anyone would ever attempt that without a motor. In the last week though these looks also seem to come with free snacks or bottles of water either out of sympathy or a desire to help us in this seemingly ridiculous quest.

Highlight of the day- avoiding an extra 20 kilometers of biking by taking a free 5-minute ferry across clear turquoise water to the peninsular town of Songkhla.


Day 15, June 18, 2015- rest day in Songklha

The cat and mouse statue in Songkhla
The cat and mouse statue in Songkhla

Today we were planning to take a day off the bikes and walk around and see some of the sights in the city. After wandering around in the morning for a little over an hour we were so overheated and tired of moving at a walking pace. So we got back on the bikes in the afternoon and started our own scavenger hunt of Songkhla. We took a glorified overpriced elevator to the top of a hill that overlooked the town. We fed monkeys coconut shells until one tried to steal our water bottle and Mike tried to fight it off with a spoon. We found the mermaid statue, the cat and rat statue, and the mid section and rear end of the serpent. To top it all off, no day in Thailand would be complete without a night market – and the weekend market in Songkhla is one of the best we’ve seen so far!

Songkhla skyline
Love locks on top of Songkhla
Part 1- monkey eats coconut husk
Part 1- monkey eats coconut husk
Part 2- monkey steals our precious water
Part 2- monkey steals our precious water
Part 3- Mike fights back
Pad thai at the weekend night market in Songkhla
Pad thai at the weekend night market in Songkhla
Weekend night market in Songkhla
Weekend night market in Songkhla
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Bangkok to Bali Week 1: Hua Hin to Surat Thani, Thailand

Week 1- Hua Hin to Surat Thani

Biking along the Thai coast!
Biking along the Thai coast!

TOTAL KILOMETERAGE– 667.4 kilometers (414.7 miles)
Average distance per day– 95.3 km (our shortest day was 50.1 km, the longest day was 128.2km)
TOTAL hours cycling– 30 hours 30 minutes
Average speed– 15 kph (9.3mph)
# of days on the bikes– 7
# of flat tires– 1 (and it was a very slow leak)

Day 1- June 5, 2015- Hua Hin to Dolphin Bay

Breakfast on the beach at Dolphin Bay
Breakfast on the beach at Dolphin Bay

Distance- 50.1 km
2:30pm-6:30pm (3.5 hours of actual riding time)
Average speed- 14.3 km/h

After spending our morning getting our bikes checked out and looking over our routes one more time we still wanted to get started- this meant we rolled out of Hua Hin around 2:30pm. In general, it isn’t a great idea to be riding in the heat of the day in a place where it is around 100 degrees and humid every day. We had been advised to take a nice long break from 11:00am to about 2:30pm every day to avoid the worst parts of the day. As you’ll see, we still haven’t necessarily learned that lesson quite yet.

Outside our bungalow in Dolphin Bay
Outside our bungalow in Dolphin Bay

Despite the heat, we made it it Dolphin Bay relatively quickly. This is more of a touristy area which in this part of the world doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s geared towards western tourists. Many Thai’s travel locally, as well as Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and other Southeast Asian tourists. March through November is considered  “low” season, as the weather ranges from hot and humid to monsoon-like rains. For us this means either discounted prices on hotel rooms or less options for places to stay and eat because so many places are closed. So far that hasn’t really been a struggle. After checking at a few places we ended up at Moddang Resort (all their signs are in Thai but their logo is what really caught our eye- the jolly ant schlepinng the rolly suitcase around). We were the only guests at the resort, but the staff were friendly enough and the air conditioned room is exactly what we needed for a good nights sleep.

Day 2- June 6, 2015- Dolphin Bay to Prachuap Kiri Khan

Same same but different!
Same same but different!

Distance- 68.6 km
9:00am-2:30pm (4 hours 15 minutes of riding time)
Average speed– 16.2 kph

Today we fell back to our trip-leading roots and decided to implement the role of BOD (“biker of the day”). The BOD’s duties include setting the morning alarm, dragging the other person out of bed, remembering to take our malaria medicine, oh and paying for everything that day! Other duties as required. Since there are two of us, we just switch off every day. This should be a great way to balance out the expenses and to make the other person bring you snacks, water, and to find a place to sleep after a long day of biking. We are also going to try and learn a little bit of Thai, so the BOD’s responsibility is to find a word of the day.

Today as we stopped for snacks at noon we realized we were only 20 kilometers away from our destination. While the sun blazed down on us and heat waves radiated off the paved road we made the decision to just keep biking through the hottest part of the day. This led to many many sunburns.

Night Market in Kiri Khan
Night Market in Kiri Khan

We stayed at Maggie’s Homestay- Maggie wasn’t there but an older man whose done a lot of bike touring was. He gave us some tips for things to see around town including a Saturday night market where we filled up on chicken and noodles and fried fish cakes and ice cream! Night markets are everywhere in Thailand and feature some of the greatest street food we have ever had!

Coincidentally we stumbled into town on the same day as a jet skiing tournament. Unfortunately we were too busy napping to watch any of it.

Day 3- June 7, 2015- Prachuap Kiri Khan to Baan Krood

Dusky Langur SELFIE
Dusky Langur SELFIE

Distance– 73.3 km

10:00am-5:30pm (4 hours of actual riding time)

Average speed- 15.2 km/h

In case you haven’t noticed, our daily start time keeps getting later. You might be thinking that by now we would have learned that later starts mean hotter days. Today, however, we had an essential stop to make- we had to visit the dusky langurs at the airforce base outside of Prachuap Kiri Khan. These wide-eyed fuzzy playful hungry monkeys are what you would call “aggressively friendly” especially if you have anything that they think would taste good. One also played with Kiri’s iPhone for longer than expected, resulting in a curious monkey-selfie. Definitely worth the later start time on the road.

The bike shop that fixed Kiri's problem that wasn't even a problem
The bike shop that fixed Kiri’s problem that wasn’t even a problem

Today we learned an important lesson (which we’re sure we will be re-learning over the course of the trip)- any mechanical problems you are having are probably way simpler than you think they are. When Kiri’s rear shifter would no longer shift up she assumed a cable was clogged, or loose, or something was disconnected. After not being able to fix it on her own she just biked for the rest of the afternoon with it stuck in one gear. She was maybe a little cranky about this.

Before we stopped for the night we pulled off at a bike store where the owner (who spoke zero English but definitely knew what he was doing) took apart the changing mechanism on the front of my bike. After puzzling over it for a few minutes he started laughing. It turns out the bike bell I had recently fastened to my handlebar had been getting in the way of the gear shifter. All he had to do was turn the bell a tiny bit, the service was free of charge. The two of us now know a bit more about bike mechanics.

Day 4- June 8,2015- Ban Krood to somewhere outside of Chumpon town

Buddha watching over the bikers
Buddha watching over the bikers

Distance- 128.2 km

6:30am-6:00pm (8 hours of actual riding time)

Average speed- 16.2 km/h

For most of this week we have been following the routes that Chris, the owner of Tour de Thailand, gave to us. These are the routes he uses when he takes clients on trips. The GPS track that he gave us is lined with the resorts they sleep at (far outside our budget), places to stop and eat along the way, and over 100 kilometers of riding per day. His tours can do this because their clients aren’t carrying panniers and they are being supported by a van that can pick them up and drop them off wherever they please. Today we decided to attempt their suggested distance of 128 kilometers. Because we had no support vehicle and were on our fourth day of riding this wasn’t really that easy. That being said it was a beautiful day.The nice part about the routes he gave us was they got us off the highways here and took us through beautiful backroads that are much more beautiful and pleasant than the semi -filled highway. Every day so far we had spent rolling past empty beaches and palm tree forests and massive granite cliffs. And because we were cruising down quiet side roads we were able to ride side by side and make jokes about how our bike shorts make it feel like we’re wearing full diapers- as most mature adults do with their significant other.

DSC04885DSC04872DSC04871One interesting thing about the bigger roads here is that many of them have really good bike lanes and the drivers actually respect these lanes. The infrastructure for cyclists here is pretty impressive. You can count on a tire repair store (which is usually just a shack marked with a big painted tire in front of it) and a coffee or food stand (or a woman selling a bowl of her home made noodle soup) at least every 20 kilometers. The lesson we’ve learned so far is that whenever you really need it a bottle of water, cup of coffee, bowl of noodles, or bed to sleep in will appear for you in Thailand. This has so far made our first long-distance cycling adventure easier and smoother than expected, as we dont need to plan too far in advance.

Day 5- June 9, 2015- outside of Chumpon town to Kai Karnchang

Our private dock for the night
Our private dock for the night

Distance- 77 km

8:00am-3:30pm (5 hours of actual riding time)

Average speed- 15.3 km/h

Today we started out thinking we’d just take it easy. Then we started riding, and our legs and butts weren’t hurting as much as we thought they would so we just kept going. We didn’t know how far we were trying to go or where we would end up looking for a place to sleep. At this point we hadn’t had internet for four days, and were relying on the maps on Mike’s GPS- which shows roads but doesn’t really indicate towns. You kind of just have to guess if a place is a cluster of roads it probably has a guest house/hostel. Today we made an uninformed decision to follow one of these roads as far as it could go to a small fishing port marked on the map that looked like it was in the middle of nowhere. As we rode further and further into this town the road got skinnier and skinnier- the perfect biking width.

The "beautiful place"  in the Gulf of Thailand
The “beautiful place” in the Gulf of Thailand

We stopped at a few places that looked kind of like hotels- they also could have just been really lovely wooden seaport houses. After a few failures (which could have been translation failures- Mike was either asking for “water” or “hotel”) we got to the absolute end of the road. And there we found a woman who had a beautiful room balanced on stilts above the shore with a dock looking out over the sunset. So we went for a short walk around the edge of the port to a place she recommended- the “beautiful place” and watched the sun start to set on some beautiful islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It was an unexpectedly beautiful place we just happened to be lucky enough to stumble upon. Once again, our lack of planning was paying off.

Day 6- June 10, 2015- Kai Karnchang to somewhere north of Tha Chana

Biking into a storm that we never actually hit
Biking into a storm that we never actually hit

Distance- 78.2 km

7:00am- 4:15pm (5 hours 45 minutes of actual riding time)

Average speed- 13.6 km/h

Today was a slow day for many reasons- Kiri was not feeling like moving anywhere fast today. We probably haven’t done an adequate job of emphasizing how bloody hot it is here right now. When you ask any guide or guide book when to visit southern Thailand (or southeast Asia in general) they all tell you NOT between May and July. But here we are, sweating from sun up to sun down, finishing the day with heat rashes and exhaustion from the heat and sun. We have been covering ourselves with sunscreen that gets sweated off immediately, wearing silk black biking sleeves (they look like they would be extremely hot when they get soaked with sweat and the wind is whipping past you they actually cool you down). We’ve also been drinking loads of water and eating tons of snacks! To put this in perspective imagine that feeling you get when you’ve spent the day at the beach- you’re covered in a layer of salt and sweaty grime that you’ve locked in from multiple applications of sunscreen- that’s how we feel pretty much at the end of every day.

One of the small towns we passed through during this first week
One of the small towns we passed through during this first week

We tried to start this day earlier, in anticipation of the long route ahead of us. Going up a bunch of hills to start the day without much energy is a good way for someone to become cranky. We found a mini-supermarket after some of the hills and got our morning energy from a bag of peanuts, stale popcorn, and a cup of noodles.

After the morning of hills the afternoon leveled out a bit, although we faced yet one more challenge. There seemed to be a storm heading directly our way, and we were still some 30 kms from our destination.

Breakfast of cup of noodles and instant coffee at a roadside shop
Breakfast of cup of noodles and instant coffee at a roadside shop

We both wanted to push on until we got there, but we ended up finding a reasonably priced bungalow on the beach and decided that we would finish the remaining 30 km in the morning. The storm never actually rolled our way, but we were both happy that we pulled off to relax for the evening. Turns out that we were the first Americans to visit this resort as well!

Day 7- June 11, 2015- outside Tha Chana to Suratthani

One of the many roadside temples
One of the many roadside temples

Distance- 94.8 km

8:00am- 6:00pm (6 hours of riding time)

Average speed- 15.3 kph

Our one goal today was to get to Surat Thani, a larger city near the coast where we could at the very least rest, do some bike maintenance (Mike’s rear tire had a slow leak), find some wifi, and take and a day off. There also is still the possibility that we can use this city as a jumping off point to get to Koh Samui- an island in the Gulf. And so the miles kept rolling along and before we knew it we were here.

After a few days off we’ll be setting off further south through Thailand. Another ten days should see us at or near the Thai-Malaysia border. But we’ll let you know what we’ve stumbled on in a week.

We're not sure what the story with these is but we have been riding past these coconut collection centers daily!
We’re not sure what the story with these is but we have been riding past these coconut collection centers daily!
Noodle soup with tiny shrimp that we got at a local mamas house
Noodle soup with tiny shrimp that we got at a local mamas house
Artsy fartsy picture at a dock after lunch
Artsy fartsy picture at a dock after lunch
Bike maintenance on our off day
Bike maintenance on our off day
Off the dock in Prachukap Kiri Khan
Off the dock in Prachukap Kiri Khan

How (NOT) to Start a Cycling Trip in Bangkok (hint: go to Hua Hin instead!)

So we’re meeting up in Bangkok- I’m coming from Cambodia, Mike’s coming from Tanzania. The plan is to embark on our first bike trip together- from Bangkok to Bali- 2 months- just us and the bikes. Half of that equation was still missing.

Starting a month before getting to Bangkok I spent HOURS online trying to figure out if this plan was really possible. Could we actually find bikes in Bangkok that would carry us for at least 2 months? And I read many blogs like this one that said “yes, of course” which reinforced my pre-perception of Bangkok being this magical place where you could find everything your heart desires!

Bangkok skyline on the loveliest of days
Bangkok skyline on the loveliest of days

Initially we were looking to buy used bikes because that was much more “in” our price range. To do this we would have to go through Craiglist or one of the many local markets. This was going to be difficult for the following reasons:

  1. I don’t speak Thai
  2. I don’t know my way around Bangkok AT ALL so couldn’t find people on Craigslist even if I tried
  3. The local markets are really hit-or miss. People report finding great deals on there, they also report finding unicycles. Cute one-speeders are the most popular city bikes in Southeast Asia which was not really what we were looking for.
  4. I didn’t have a ton of time to devote to this search

So my last option seemed to be to visit all the bike stores I had found (again, through blog posts like this one) to see if I could find us some new bikes that weren’t outrageously expensive. In three days (in between site-seeing and searching for a bagel) I managed to visit 3 locations:

  1. Probike- located near Lumphini Park- this store mostly offered Trek bikes- all were new and shiny and beautiful. The cheapest hybrid/touring bike was around  $500 but that price went up quickly as you looked at road bikes or mountain bikes. They sold Ortlieb panniers for around $200 for the pair. They also had racks, tools, apparel, etc. They were busy and no one in the store seemed terribly concerned that I was there, and I was terribly overwhelmed so I left.
  2. Just an example of one of the crazy malls in Bangkok that you might have to sift through to find what you're looking for
    Just an example of one of the crazy malls in Bangkok that you might have to sift through to find what you’re looking for

    BikeZone- located next to Amarin Plaza right off the Chitlom BTS stop- this store was actually closed when I visited but I didn’t feel any great desire to return primarily because it didn’t look like they sold bikes there. It did sell cycling accessories but from what I could tell from pressing my nose against the glass peering into the dark store- their prices were comparably high to ProBike. This visit was worth it because there is an AWESOME bagel cafe- the BKK Bagel Bakery– which I highly recommend!

  3. Grasshopper tours- located near the Democracy Monument- this stop was more out of desperation. I remembered reading somewhere that sometimes Grasshopper tours sells their used touring bikes and/or accessories so I stopped in. They weren’t selling anything at the time, and didn’t seem like they ever did. The women working their gave me the name of a local market and that was all I got out of that.

Backup about a month before I even arrived in Bangkok- I had put a message out on a Bangkok Cycling Forum looking for a class or someone to teach me basic bicycle mechanics (I figured it would be important for one of us to have some knowledge of this before we headed off on a two month trip). I had gotten John’s name- the mechanic associated with a company called Tour De Asia– a touring company/bike shop based out of Hua Hin- a beach town that’s a 2.5 hour bus ride south of Bangkok.

After setting up a two-day course with John (which was an amazing decision- it was one-on-one hands-on instruction on everything from changing a tire to identifying and mitigating issues with the front or rear derailleurs to daily preventative upkeep of a bicycle) he offered to set me up with one of his company’s lightly used touring bikes for around $500. Because that price seemed kind of high and I hadn’t even tried looking in Bangkok yet I turned that offer down.

The Hua Hin skyline- just a tiny bit calmer!
The Hua Hin skyline- just a tiny bit calmer!

Fast forward to a few days ago- I have found NOTHING in Bangkok, Mike is getting here in a week, we’re trying to start this trip in a week in a half- I was supposed to find us bikes and panniers and I had found nothing. I am supposed to be learning how to fix this imaginary bike in a few days and I had NOTHING. I asked John again if he has any leads- he connects me to Chris- the owner of Tour De Asia- who offers up some great deals from his shop- which I realize is in Hua Hin. So rather than spend the next two days frantically scouring local markets only to probably end up buying a fancy new bike and fancy new panniers- I jumped on a bus down to Hua Hin- which turned out to be an AMAZING DECISION!

I arrived and called Chris- he came by my hostel and drove me over to the Tour De Asia shop which was filled with almost new Marin bikes. He started talking about his company- they lead tours across Thailand and through other parts of Southeast Asia- they’ve got a ton of experience with cycling in this region- they’ve got routes that get you off the main highways and onto more scenic back roads. They’ve got accommodation recommendations for the whole Thai peninsula as well as the names of bike shops across Thailand. They sell used bikes, used panniers, rear racks, helmets, multitools, hand pumps, cycling jerseys, butt cream, bike locks, etc. All of these “used” items have been “used” once or twice on one of their tours, impeccably maintained by John, and are resold at a great price. He offered me the bike, panniers, rear rack for a great package deal and threw in a free water bottle- all for around $550.

The Marin bike that I ended up buying! She's a beauty!
The Marin bike that I ended up buying! She’s a beauty!

As if all that wasn’t enough- they offered to let me store my bike there while I had to go up to Bangkok to extend my visa and pick up Mike, and also offered to let us keep all of our extra baggage at their shop which is much better than our original plan to leave them at our hostel.

So our current plan is this- once Mike get’s here we will take a bus down to Hua Hin, pick out a bike for him, pick up my bike, and start off on this trip! Easy peasy!

Here are the biggest reasons why you should go to Hua Hin before starting a cycling trip in Thailand- especially one that is going south:

  1. It is NOT  BANGKOK- you don’t want to cycle in Bangkok- it’s a huge city with insane traffic that you don’t want to navigate on a bike. Hua Hin is more laid back, there’s only two huge roads going through it and those are avoidable, and once you get past those you are on to the pretty cycling of Southern Thailand (so I’ve heard).
  2. Tour De Asia is based here! I seriously cannot emphasize enough how wonderful Chris and John were- they were like our trips guardian angels. No one knows cycling around this region better! (Even if for some reason you want to check out your other options- I saw three other bike shops along the main road going through Hua Hin).

Approximately one week until take off!

(Some of those blog posts I was relying on are listed below:)

Stung Treng Tourism Plug

Early morning sales of endangered (and non endangered fish)
Early morning sales of endangered (and non endangered fish)

Come to Stung Treng! You can be greeted by this happy fish who unfortunately will not sing for you like his cousin- Big Mouth Billy Bass- would. singing (If you’re traveling from Laos to Cambodia, or the other way around, or if its a destination on the trip organized by your job that you have to go on, well you really won’t be able to avoid this northern Cambodian town.) Come and check out the fish market- located on the dock- which located on the only cement strip jutting out into the river is impossible to miss. Here  you can find fish for sale from all of the 3 rivers that converge on this town (if you’re lucky, or just looking, you could even find some endangered species, not that this matters to anyone selling them, nor should it).

Stung Treng main streetExplore the main road that is currently subdivided by piles of sand and gravel- which everyone knows are the key ingredients for making a road.

Be excited by the familiar jingle of an approaching ice cream truck- only to realize its just a cart selling freshly grilled bite-sized mollusks with a deceptive sound system. The iced coffee is a good, sweet, highly caffeinated way to cool yourself off. It’s also a good way to pump yourself with the special Cambodian caffeine that makes you feel that you HAVE TO RUN SOMEWHERE RIGHT NOW!!!! Or you could just walk along the river and grab some cold coconut milk that you can sip straight from a cup that is the coconut where that milk came from- doesn’t get more local than that!

If you’re looking for a little more beauty go and wander around one of the many obligatory wats (temples) sprinkled all over the area. If you’re looking for a different kind of chaotic fish-scented beauty go and check out the large main market and practice the art of non-verbal communication as everyone here surely does NOT speak English.

Really can't miss it can you
Really can’t miss it can you

If you’re looking for a hospital you can be asked to wait at the referral clinic where you will almost definitely not be served unless you are bleeding out of an obvious orifice. Come while is see it while its hot- which is ALL YEAR LONG!

Visible from the 6am fish market
Visible from the 6am fish market

Travel in Rwanda and Burundi- What You Need to Know

Rwanda

Getting in– you can get your visa upon arrival either by land border crossing or through the airport. You have to pay a fee but don’t need a passport photo.

The volcanoes of Volcanoes National Park that you can see from the guest house (even if you don't trek em)
The volcanoes of Volcanoes National Park that you can see from the guest house (even if you don’t trek em)

Getting out- again, check the land border crossings or airports- this is a pretty simple process as long as you’re not going to or coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo

Money- This is the second-most expensive country in East Africa (right behind Kenya). $1=700 Rwandan franks (roughly). Just be prepared upon entry that you will be paying more for your hotels and meals, and that is just the way it is.

Tranportation

Buses– get your tickets in advance for longer trips. Even for shorter trips you have to buy a physical ticket which is very different from the other countries we had been to, but they like it to be official. Steering wheels are on either sides of the cars and buses, so you’ve been warned.

Motos– you HAVE to wear a helmet when you ride a moto- which is the easiest way to travel around inside of a city or town. Moto drivers have extra helmets for you to wear. You should bring something to protect your head from whatever may or may not be living in that helmet that I’m sure hasn’t been cleaned in a while.

"Hotel Rwanda"
“Hotel Rwanda”

Accomodation– we found all of our hotels either by chance encounter or from web searches. The LonelyPlanet East Africa guide is fine but hotels change names or location or go out of business so quickly here that this book is not the most useful. For examle- the hotel we wanted to stay at was listed on one of the main streets in Kigali next to the “Heineken” sign. We found that street, we found the block it should have been on. And wouldn’t you know it, there were no less than four “Heineken” signs in the vicinity.

Food- Rwanda is really into buffets. When we arrived in both Musanze and Kigali ALL we could find were buffets. At first that made us kind of nervous because who knows how long that food had been sitting out there. But then we remembered that every other restaurant we had been to in Uganda had probably had a buffet-style set up featuring their limited menu options- they just kept it out of sight of the guests. So at least Rwanda was being up front about it. Plus we had been subsisting largely on street food for this trip

The pride of Rwanda!
The pride of Rwanda!

Language- French wasn’t terribly useful. Kiswahili wasn’t either. If you happen to be fluent in Kirwanda then you will be good to go. Otherwise you get to go back to the universal language of hand gestures and pantomiming.

Communication– you should get a SIM card because they are cheap and useful. But when you get a SIM card you need to register it within 24 hours of getting it or it won’t work. To do this I believe you need a passport photo. Just make sure that when you buy the SIM card you buy it from someone who can register it too. Wifi wasn’t really common here, except in cafes.

Burundi

The one that we walked back and forth across at least twice
The Burundi-Rwanda border

Getting in- getting a transit visa upon arrival was not a terrible hassle, you just show up at the border and walk back and forth a bit, twiddle your thumbs, pay $40, and you’re on your way.

Getting out- because the transit visa is only for 3 days you do need to have an exit strategy. This is why we both decided to fly out. (I imagine it would be just as easy to catch a bus to the Tanzania or Rwanda borders. It sounded like the Democratic Republic of Congo was another, more complicated, story).

 

Money $1=1600 burundian franks (roughly). Hotel’s were expensive in Bujumbura but everything else is comprable to the prices we saw in Uganda (Western style food like pizza was between $5-$9 and fancy drinks were closer to $5 but local beer and street-side food.

Safety...third?
Safety…third?

Transportation- Buses seem to be the way to get into the country. Once you’re in Bujumbura taxis are the easiest and safest way to travel around (there weren’t a ton of motorbikes available anyway).

Bujumbura special traffic warning– the drivers in Bujumbura were absolutely terrible. Nobody seemed to be looking where they were going or caring really about anything around them on the road. Everyone just kind of did what they wanted and they did it at a high speed. You need to be on your game to cross any of the main streets or you might just find a car speeding towards you and yourself frozen in place until it lightly taps you to get out of HIS road.

Food-The rice, beans, and grilled meat delicacies of east africa were staples here as well. Nothing terribly exciting to write home about.

The most central point and where Mike almost got hit by a car
The most central point and where Mike almost got hit by a car

Accomodation- We made reservations in Bujumbura before we got there which seems pretty par for the course for western visitors. Again read online reviews (although the Lonely Planet guide did help us on finding the hotel we ended up staying at. Heed other travelers advice on these hotels!

Language- French was utterly useless (or at least I think it would have been. At this point our travel companion who spoke french had left us so we didn’t really get to try). Kiswahili actually came in handy here though. At the more western-style restaurants english worked just fine for ordering food and drinks.

Held together with long sticks and twine
Held together with long sticks and twine

Communication: we didn’t bother getting a SIM card here because we were only there for two nights so no advice on how to do that here. Our hotel did have really spotty wifi which seemed to be standard from the reviews we read of similar hotels in Bujumbura.

SAFETY– at the time of our visit (January, 2014) Burundi was relatively safe and stable. However they are still building after their civil war that only ended in 2007. At the time of writing (April, 2015) Burundi is coming up to a presidential election which has brought on some unrest as the sitting president has announced his intention to run for a 3rd term thus violating the new constitution of Burundi. The point here is that you should do your research before entering Burundi.

Strangenly reminiscent of a bar in Star Wars- this airport was easily the most organized and logically laid out airport of any that I have been to in Africa.
Strangenly reminiscent of a bar in Star Wars- this airport was easily the most organized and logically laid out airport of any that I have been to in Africa.

Rwanda and Burundi- the route

From Bwindi Impenetrable Forest our driver drove us through Kisoro to the Uganda-Rwanda border where he let us off at the Uganda side.

Getting into Rwanda from Uganda:

A cow crossing from Uganda to Rwanda- he didn't even stop to get his passport stamped
A cow crossing from Uganda to Rwanda- he didn’t even stop to get his passport stamped

Crossing this land border was very easy. You visit the police station and present your passport, get a receipt from them, walk to the “exit” window in Uganda- present your passport and that receipt, it all gets stamped and you are free to go.

Walk about 100 yards through no-mans-land and you will find yourself in Rwanda. Go to the immigration window, pay your visa fee (I believe it was $30 as of January, 2014).

You’ll be surrounded by people trying to change money for you- make sure you check the exchange rate before you go so these guys dont rip you off. There is a bureau de change next to the immigration office so you can always use that if you’re not confident going through this transaction at the side of the road. (You will need to change some money to pay for your buses)

Kinigi, Rwanda:

The volcanoes of Volcanoes National Park that you can see from the guest house (even if you don't trek em)
The volcanoes of Volcanoes National Park that you can see from the guest house (even if you don’t trek em)

What to do here– trek some volcanoes in Volcans National Park- you can also gorilla trek here but it is about $100 more expensive here than it is in Uganda. Other side trips- visit Lake Kivu- take an hour bus ride from Musanze to Gisenyi where you can hang out on the shore of Lake Kivu- a lake that has a very spring-break-Rwanda feel to it. As with all lakes in East Africa you need to worry about shistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia- a parasite that lives in freshwaster snails spread from contact with contaminated water that includes the stagnant water found in almost every lake in East Africa). We still went swimming in it and we are ok, we also didn’t really consider this particular risk, a couple of Primus beers will have that impact on your judgement I guess. Still, a good day trip!

Swan boats on Lake Kivu!
Swan boats on Lake Kivu!

Where to stay: The Kinigi Guest House is a great low cost option located a 10 minutes walk outside of the entrance to Volcans National Park. It is a 5 minute motorbike ride outside of Kinigi, or an uncomfortable half hour walk (if you are shlepping backpacking packs with you). It’s got great food, comfy rooms, and a nice overall atmosphere.

Cost– If you want to trek these volcanos you will need to hire a car to drive you to your trekking point. This was where we decided we did not want to trek because we stubbornly did not want to pay $80 for a car for a day (this does not include the cost of a guide or the park fees). You can’t use public transportation to get into the park, so unless you find a fellow traveler with a vehicle this is a hard activity to do on your own. Visiting Lake Kivu didn’t cost more than $15 per person including transport there and the food and drink we enjoyed on the lake shore.

Getting there: from the border grab a bus headed to Musanze- there is a big bus terminal here so there will be tons of buses! From Musanze you can grab another bus to Kinigi, and once in Kinigi I highly recommend getting a motor bike to carry you and your stuff to the guest house because it is a far walk and its slightly uphill.

Kigali, Rwanda

Kigali City
Kigali City

What to do: Kigali is a great city, impressively developed and modern considering Rwanda’s traumatic recent history that almost destroyed this city only 20 years ago. Walk around and explore the city for a day, there are malls with movie theaters and cafe’s with delicious iced coffee. Definitely take an afternoon to visit the Genocide Memorial- it is a heartbreaking yet necessary stop that will allow you to begin to attempt to wrap your mind around the atrocities that happened in this city so recently. You will definitely view the city in a new light after making your way through these powerful exhibits  (get the audio guide!!). Hike up Mt. Kigali for great city views. Visit the Hotel Des Milles Collines (the hotel from Hotel Rwanda) which is now a 5-star hotel that has the only draft beer I have found in East Africa and had live music the night we went. There wasn’t a ton of nightlife the four nights we were there, but we also weren’t there on a weekend.

Also doubles as a traffic circle
Also doubles as a traffic circle

Where to stay: This was our biggest struggle, we couldn’t find any good hotel recommendations that were in our price range online (we were also struggling to adjust to the fact that Rwanda is significantly more expensive than Uganda). Popular guest houses like the Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel looked a little too far out of the town center for us. Another one that was advertised was the One Love club- which was almost totally abandoned and far away from anything and very creepy. We ended up staying in the Muhima neighborhood where there were a couple of poorly marked guest houses that averaged $15 a night per person (I’m not mentioning names here partially because I forget what they were and partially because guest house turnover is high in this region). The hotel we stayed at we lovingly named “the dungeoun” because our room was half-underground, but it was central. We were an easy walking distance from the downtown business district and it was never hard for us to find motorbikes or taxis to drive us around.

Pictures of the victims were used to essentially wallpaper this room.
Pictures of the victims were used to essentially wallpaper this room.

How to get here: Much like in Uganda where all buses lead to Kampala, all buses in Rwanda lead to Kigali, so if you can’t find a bus you are not trying hard enough. The bus rides here are really spectacular too, they take you through the massive hills that make up almost all of Rwanda.

Getting into Burundi from Rwanda:

Our ride for 8 hours
Our ride for 8 hours

Get a bus to Bujumbura from Kigali. I would recommend buying your tickets for this bus a day in advance if you are on a tight schedule which we were at this point. I would then recommend getting to that bus at least half an hour before it leaves because it does leave on time. Before you are allowed on the bus your conductor will take your passport- I guess to photocopy it- but follow him while your passport is in his posession and not yours. Getting there this early will also let you pick a comfortable seat- a luxury that we did not enjoy as we stumbled onto the bus in a hungover haze five minutes before the bus departed.

The border- the border is kind of a mess, but your buss conductor will help you out, because you are obviously a foreigner and if you take a long time to cross then his bus will be held up. You need to go to an exit window on the Rwanda side, then to a visa window on the Burundi side (where your visa is actually just a printed piece of paper rather than a stamp in your passport that costs US citizens $40). Then you return to the Rwanda side to present this paper, are permitted to officially cross the border (even though you already did this once to get that visa), present the paper once again, and are finally in.

A transit visa is only good for three days. We didn’t do any research on getting any other visas because we only had a 2 day window to be there but if you are interested in staying longer I would venture the visas are probably a bit more of a hassle to obtain.

Bujumbura, Burundi:

I've never seen more barbed wire in any any other counry.
I’ve never seen more barbed wire in any any other counry.

What to do: wander around the city, get some drinks in the evenings, spend some time lounging (or partying) on the coast of Lake Tanganika. We only had 1 full day in the city so we spent the day wandering around looking for Burundi soccer jerseys (which don’t exist) and just exploring the city that is still rebuilding from a devastating civil war in 2007. Theres a big central market, a stadium that is closed off and probably should be condemned because it looks like it was bombed yesterday. There are plenty of places to eat and drink and most of the areas seemed relatively safe. We spent an evening at the Bora Bora beach club where we walked along the shore of Lake Tanganika and hired a guy with a wooden rowboat to take us out and paddle us around the lake a bit- we asked him to paddle us over to the Democratic Republic of Congo because it looked so close, he declined (a week after some fishermen were killed because they got caught in the middle of the Lake during a massive storm so he was probably smart to deny us). The coolest thing about Bujumbura was that local people actually went out and partied at night also- it wasn’t just a tourist scene. Friday and Saturady night the bars that we went to were happening and it was a lot of fun feeling like we were doing exactly what local Bujumburans would do on their weekends. They definitely know how to party here.

Shooting for the DRC!
Shooting for the DRC!

Where to stay: accomodation is expensive here if you want to stay in a place that is really safe which should be a priority because the country still isnt 100% stable. It also seemed like a good idea to make reservations before we arrived, so we did that. We stayed at the Shammah Hotel which was right in the center of the city. $50 per night for 2 people. This hotel does not let men and women share a hotel room unless they are married, so for 2 nights I got to be Mrs. Albertini- which is where all of Mike’s absurdly cutesy nicknames originated. The room was nice, the satellite TV kind of worked, it was a short walk down the road from some good restaurants and bars- short enough that we felt comfortable walking it at night, although I would advise against walking around the city at all after dark.

 

By bikes, boots, or buses- how did we get here?