Tag Archives: safety

Deep Southern Thailand- Songkhla to the Tak Bai border (Thailand) into Kota Baru, Malaysia

(once again this map doesn’t show our exact route since google maps can’t be that precise. There were tons of unmarked back roads through this section and they were incredibly enjoyable!)

Distance– 287 kilometers

TOTAL distance of the trip 1,372 kilometers

# of flat tires still only 1 this entire trip (….annnnnd we just jinxed it)

The “deep south” of Thailand is quite a bit different from the areas that we have traveled thus far. For starters it is a more politically charged region. There are a couple of separatist groups that want various degrees of autonomy from the Thai government and law. Over the years this region has seen its share of conflict amongst the Thai authorities and the mostly Muslim population. There have been attacks across the region to create chaos and make it difficult for the Thai authorities to control the region, but these attacks haven’t been targeted at tourists. Still the presence of military tanks and regular police checkpoints gave this area a different vibe than anywhere else we had traveled through in Thailand. In fairness many of these checkpoints were unmanned painted blockades made of old logs.
All of the people that we met along the way were very friendly and very curious about our journey. They were excited to see foreigners traveling to this part of Thailand. Even those who spoke no English were able to express their amusement with our trip. We even got to take part in a couple of photo shoots with women working at our hotels who all  on us wearing our helmets and standing with our bikes  for the full effect.

They're all matching! Mikes photo shoot with the women working at our hotel in Yala.
They’re all matching! Mikes photo shoot with the women working at our hotel in Yala.

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Day 16- June 20, 2015- Songkhla to Sakom

Distance: 49.3 km

Since the real bridge was out we got to use this alternative route instead.
Since the real bridge was out we got to use this alternative route instead.

We woke up this morning to heavy rain storms, which was a great reason to extend our rest day for a few more hours. By the time the storms cleared up it was nearly noon, so we got some delicious sandwiches from a shop as we headed out of town. The ride was unremarkable and uneventful – flat and hot. The sandwiches were the most remarkable thing about this day actually! We knew that we were not going to be able to make it to our intended destination because of the late start, so we started to look for hotels on the side of the highway.
During this ride we started to notice that many of the road signs were now marked with another language in addition to Thai characters and the rough English translation we were now seeing Arabic on many signs.

The welcome sign at Leela Resort- seemed pretty self explanatory
The welcome sign at Leela Resort- seemed pretty self explanatory

We ended up staying at a Muslim resort that was not only welcoming and comfortable but also quite conservative, another reminder that we had entered a new region of Thailand. Our room was discounted because of the Ramadan holiday, which coincidentally started on the day that we started cycling in a Muslim region (more to come on this in Malaysia but suffice it to say that we will be spending ALL of Ramadan cycling in Muslim areas). We shared the empty beach with a lost herd of cows that afternoon as we enjoyed one of our first days on the beach.

Day 17- June 21, 2015- Sakom to Yala

Distance: 83.7 km

One of the first roadside tanks we saw outside of Yala
One of the first roadside tanks we saw outside of Yala

Today we made a game-time decision to change our route and head inland for a bit towards the land-locked province of Yala. Coming off of the large highways we were able to stay on back roads almost the entire day. These roads wound over and around farmlands and past the bases of some beautiful hills. The best part was we didn’t have to share them with any other vehicles for most of the day.
We chose one of the first decent looking hotels when we reachedYala. As we began to do some long-overdue maintenance on the bikes, we came across our first big technical challenge of the trip – one of the spokes on Mike’s rear tires had broken!

Finding the broken spoke in Yala
Finding the broken spoke in Yala

We knew that this was an issue that had to be fixed before going on any further. However that evening as we read the recent news in Yala and learned of explosions that had been going off last month in the town we were a little wary of venturing around the town to fix it.

But as we had said before, these smaller attacks weren’t new to the region, we knew what we were getting into, and across the board our experience in the region had been positive. In general world news tends to focus on the negative and scarier aspects of a region, and those stories end up overshadowing the many bright points of a place and the people who live there. That’s not to say one shouldn’t be wary of these reports, as we obviously were. It is to make a point that if you go into a place with a sound knowledge of the recent events, and the underlying tensions with the understanding that events like these are out of your control and shouldn’t control your actions (and don’t stay in the sketchy areas of the city) you could end up coming out with some really wonderful experiences.

Day 18- June 22, 2015- Yala to Narathiwat

Distance: 79.8

A view of downtown Yala from the hotel room
A view of downtown Yala from the hotel room

We identified some good cycle stores in Yala that would hopefully be able to fix Mike’s broken spoke so that we could get back on the road today. Mike rode Kiri’s bike around town with his wheel looking for cycle shops. He passed by people casually opening up their shops as pickup trucks carrying armed policemen whizzed by. Although most of the cycle shops weren’t open at 9 am, he was able to find one later in the morning – and the mechanic did a great job fixing the spoke! Turns out that absolutely no English is needed to get such a job done, cyclists all over the world are always willing to help out.

Our hotel for the night. When we checked in we were asked how many hours we wanted the room for.
Our hotel for the night. When we checked in we were asked how many hours we wanted the room for.

Once this was fixed we were eager and ready to get on the road so even though it was noon we loaded up the bikes, took some pictures with the excited hotel staff, and cranked out 80 km in the afternoon! The ride was scattered with some gentle hills but was absolutely beautiful, minus the military compound that was directly outside of Narathiwat. For our last night in Thailand we stayed in one of the Thai “24 hour” hotels that was on the outskirts of town – clean and cheap!

Day 19- June 23, 2015- Narathiwat to Kota Bharu

Distance 74.4

Our last breakfast in Thailand was yogurt, peanuts, and a pastry on the side of the road- in honor of Ramadan.
Our last breakfast in Thailand was yogurt, peanuts, and a pastry on the side of the road- in honor of Ramadan.

Our last day in Thailand was filled with mixed emotions. We were sad to leave a place that had been so hospitable, friendly, and even forgiving in the most difficult of situations (rainstorms, broken spokes, etc). Regardless, we were excited to experience a new country. The ride to the border brought us through a series of police checkpoints along a highway and was pretty unremarkable, as we were pretty used to seeing these by now. The border town of Tak Bai seemed pretty interesting and we stopped for our last Thai iced coffee 😦

The border at Tak Bai was not only extremely easy and straightforward, but was also lots of fun! But when you get to take a ferry to cross a border and don’t have to pay anything to enter a country, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a great experience.

Exiting Thailand for the first part of what we agreed was the easiest border crossing we've done.
Exiting Thailand for the first part of what we agreed was the easiest border crossing we’ve done.
The ferry border crossing that connects Thailand and Malaysia
The ferry border crossing that connects Thailand and Malaysia
Enjoying the ferry ride
Enjoying the ferry ride
The big buddha statue about 10k in from the Thai-Malaysia border
The big buddha statue about 10k in from the Thai-Malaysia border

During our ride to Kota Baru we found ourselves passing more buddhist temples than we had seen in our last three days in Thailand, which we hadn’t really expected since, you know, Malaysia is known for being a pretty highly Muslim country.

Later that evening once we had arrived in the conservative Muslim city of Kota Baru we found ourselves at a night bazaar that, despite the different food, looked suspiciously like the night markets in Thailand. Starving from a long day of cycling where we hadn’t been able to find too much food we bought all the new treats we could find-  murtabak (a malaysian stuffed pancake), fried noodles, blended drinks, grilled fish, stuffed squid- all ours for the buying! But unlike in Thailand, people just seemed to be sitting down and staring at their food. So we settled in and joined them in the countdown to sundown when this Ramadan fast-breaking session could finally begin. No we certainly weren’t in Thailand anymore.

Some Malaysian treats at the Bazaar
Some Malaysian treats at the Bazaar
Counting down the minutes until we can break the fast
Counting down the minutes until we can break the fast

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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.