3 gold smiling Buddha statues

Bangkok: slight return

Three months ago, when we first arrived in Bangkok, the thought of cycling on the busy, fast multi-lane roads scared us, and we stayed off the bikes completely. We even pushed them from our hotel to the railway station!

A lot has happened since then. We’ve ridden the empty, mountainous roads of Laos, we’ve rode alongside thousands of scooters in Hanoi, we’ve experienced Vietnam’s notorious Highway 1, we’ve cruised around Phnom Penh on two wheels, and along Cambodia’s anarchic Highway 5.

So now the thought of cycling 8km to our Air BnB place in downtown Bangkok doesn’t frighten us quite so much. The ride is fine, it’s just the many one-way systems that are the problem, throwing us off the scent several times, but we make it to our destination eventually!

The following day, our last in SE Asia, we spend one final day on the bikes before our late evening flight. There are a few hairy moments, not least when we get lost in a bit of a dead end street and a huge but fortunately muzzled dog makes a beeline for my ankles but, by and large, cycling around Bangkok is actually not that bad. There are even a few cycle lanes, and they drive on the left, which takes a little getting used to after three months on the right.

We head to Wat Pho, lock up outside and spend a good couple of hours in this slightly surreal temple complex, home to the huge Reclining Buddha. When we enter the building that houses it – and the building was surely built around it – we’re gob-smacked at the sight of the huge golden face smiling down at us from somewhere near the roof beams.

From here, we head on to a local park via an indoor market, which we cycle through (the locals weave their through on motorbikes, so we feel absolutely fine trundling through on two wheels), to have some chill out time before Thip Samai opens at 5pm. Thip Samai does legendary Pad Thai for about £1 a dish, and we want this to be our last meal proper in SE Asia. Even at 5pm, there’s already a queue – that’s how popular it is.

We wolf down three plates of food (yes, it’s so good one each isn’t enough!) before our final, speedy ride back to our Silom apartment, where the only thing left to do is the sad task of packing down and wrapping up the bikes ahead of the flight back to the UK, via a 72 hour stopover in Beijing.

It’s been an absolute treat and a privilege to be able to cycle around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia for the last three months, and is an experience we’ll look back on fondly and never forget.

George, Rach and Alex with bikes at Bayon

Siem Reap and Angkar Wat

So, technically the cycling finished in Siem Reap, but of course we’re not ones to just stop riding our bikes!

We book a three day ticket for Angkor Wat ($80), and take a tuk-tuk on the first day to see some truly incredible sites on the longer ‘grand tour’ route (over 50km), including Preah Khan.

On day two though, we decide to take the bikes. Rachel and I are accompanied by our friends George and Alex, who were riding cranky old hire bikes and aren’t quite as confident on the Cambodian roads as we now are, but nevertheless they embrace the challenge with enthusiasm, especially given the heat.

The smaller ‘inner tour’ is definitely do-able by bike, but it’s still over 30km round trip (depending on the exact route you take) and, given the heat of the day and the extra energy you use clambering around the ruins, it’s a pretty demanding ride overall.

We don’t get going until about 9am, which is a bit too late because it’s already so hot by this time. Ideally, you’d want to be on the road by 6.30 or 7am so you have a bit of relative cool and shade on the ride out to your first temple, which will be at least 12km away, depending on which one you choose. An early start will also mean you get more interesting light and shade at the temples than if you’re there with the sun directly overhead.

Our first stop is Ta Prohm, also known as the Jungle Temple or ‘the one with all the trees growing out of it’. It truly is an amazing sight, as huge Silk Cotton trees do battle with the ancient ruins. There’s also a lot of restoration work going on during our visit, which raises some interesting questions in the debate around preservation and restoration Versus letting nature take its course. Currently, there’s a bit of both going on here!

After this, we cycle past Ta Keo and into the Angkor Thom citadel, heading to Bayon. There really is something thrilling about cycling around Angkor, under the ancient archways, over moats, and through the jungle, monkeys casually hanging around right by you as you ride. You also start to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, as the distances are much larger than you notice while being driven around by a tuk-tuk or minivan.

There are other advantages to having a bike at Angkor. For one, you can quickly cycle away from the funny vendors as they yell ‘hello, ladeee, buy something!’ at you from 100 yards away.

Cycling around Bayon is a fantastic experience. It’s surrounded by a big ‘ring road’ (effectively making it a traffic island!) so you can do a full 360 degree ride around it, just for the hell of it. Can there be a more unusual, spectacular or awe-inspiring little ride?!?

After a long lunch during the heat of the day, we leave the bikes and explore a bit of the Elephant Terrace and Leper King Terrace on foot, including a close-up inspection of some intricate, really well preserved stone carvings, before riding back into town at a snail’s pace – it really is hot – as local school kids overtake us! Well, it’s not like it’s a race.

After this, the only option to cool down is a dip in the pool at Alex and George’s hotel, and a can of Angkar beer, obviously.

So, overall, if you have a three day ticket for Angkor, definitely do at least one day by bike. You’ll appreciate its majesty even more, and feel a little bit smug that you can go where you want, when you want.

We were a little worried about leaving our bikes outside the temples while we explored. Would there be a safe place to lock them? Would they attract attention? The reality is that this place is patrolled and policed perhaps more than anywhere in Cambodia, and your bike will be safe as houses (or should that be temples?) here.

Our time in Siem Reap is really enjoyable; it’s the most touristy place we’ve visited since Bangkok, but this does mean there are plenty of good food, drink and shopping options, and we pretty much exhaust them during our 6 night stay. We stay at the friendly, family-run Angkor Wonder guesthouse, which is in a great location near Pub Street and offers comfortable $8 private rooms.

One of the highlights, away from Angkar Wat, is doing a Backstreet Academy half day course in bag making. By the end we’re the proud owners of tote bags made of recycled rice and cement sacks, and we also enjoy the interaction with our expert tutor and translator.

Siem Reap is obviously not without its problems – the hidden underage sex trade is said to thrive here, fuelled by the demands of Western tourists – but, on the surface at least, it is very tourist friendly.

We get out of the country by a Nattakan pre-booked coach ($28 each), which takes you direct from Siem Reap to Bangkok on the same vehicle, removing the hassle of having to swap buses at the border, or having to pay for the bikes twice. They cost an extra $10 each, and we have to take the front wheels off, but getting them onto the coach is no hassle, and the journey is pretty straightforward.

We cover the 100km or so back past Sisophon, that took us a day to ride, in about 90 minutes. It’s pretty fun spotting the places we stopped for lunch and iced sugar cane juice drinks as we whiz by in air-conditioned luxury, and we arrive in traffic-choked Bangkok around 4pm. As usual, the bus station we’re deposited at is about 8km from the city centre (standard Asia), so it’s time to get back on the bikes again…

Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong

59km, av. 13.2km/hr, max 48.1km/hr, time on bikes: 4hrs 27 mins

More than a week into our trip and we finally start cycling properly!  Under cloudy, muggy skies, we hit the road (pausing for obligatory fruit stop), taking route 118 towards Chiang Rai.

In our first hour on the road, we have to stop once for a badly-secured rucksack (won’t do that again) but, other than that, negotiating the traffic out of the city isn’t too traumatic and we make good progress; 20km on flat roads with no wind – this cycling lark is gonna be easy…

We shouldn’t have been so smug. In the remaining part of the day we only manage another 39km. The road, although very good, is mostly uphill, and in the afternoon as the cloud clears and the air freshens, a stiff headwind picks up. But the National Park scenery is lush and it feels good to be finally making tracks.

We lunch at Doi Saket hot spring, 2km off the main road. It’s a cute little place full of kids splashing around in the bath-temperature water, and the food is good too.

The National Park is also full of roadside strawberry sellers, sometimes also offering pick your own. As teatime snacks go, you can’t really beat a punnet of freshly picked strawbs.

As our first full day of cycle touring draws to a close it becomes apparent that we’re not going to make our planned overnight stop. We might not even make it out of the national park area (er, is this our inexperience showing..?!) We enquire at one roadside lodging but are quoted an astonishing 3,500 bhat (75 pounds), so we cycle on, despite fast running out of options.

As dusk descends with worrying speed we finally see a modest sign for accommodation 1km ahead (uphill, of course). Some 300m off the main road, this hidden homestay turns out to be a godsend. For 800 bhat we get a friendly welcome, comfy bed, hot shower, dinner by an open fire, and breakfast the next morning, all in a peaceful, picturesque riverside setting far from the main road.

We got lucky!

84.4km, av. 16.8km/hr, max 54.6km/hr, time on bikes: 5hrs 1min

Bidding our forest retreat farewell, and with a full tummy of Thai porridge (like savoury garlicky rice pudding; tastier than it sounds), we make good progress on day two, helped by a lot of downhill followed by a lot of flat. The speedometer shows a top speed of 54.6km/hr, which is kind of scary when you think how much weight the bike is carrying.

Tourist attractions en route do their best to distract us – more hot springs (bigger but more ‘built around’ than yesterday’s) and then the frankly bizarre yet breathtaking White Temple.

A word about the roads and traffic on Route 118: Once out of Chaing Mai, traffic is relatively light, but fast. So far though, we’ve not felt in danger  or intimidated by it. Most of the time there’s been a hard shoulder and even when there’s not been (most usually on bendy hill climbs) traffic has generally given us good clearance. This is in part due to the mix of traffic on the road, from bikes and scooters to chugging, ancient lorries and executive coaches.

We overnight in Mae Suai, a wee little place where we end up drinking lots of whisky with some locals in a small restaurant, who really want us to help them celebrated New Year, however belated it is!

Next day:

51.9km, av. 15.8km/hr, max. 36km/hr, time on bikes: 3hrs 16 mins

I don’t appear to have any notes about this part of the ride apart from “sunny, 21c, sun burn!”, so can only assume it was relatively straightforward and uneventful other than this. What I do know is that we continue on Route 118 from our overnight stop (possibly with a bit of a hangover), before joining the slightly busier highway, AH2, into Chiang Rai, which is dual carriageway but not too scary.

We arrive in Chiang Rai in good time and head to the bus station in the centre of town, to enquire about buses to the border town of Chiang Khong. We are quickly pointed to the right bus, which leaves at 3.30pm. Before we can blink, our bikes are on the roof of the bus and we’re off. 330 bhat is also the cost of the bus – 65 bhat each, plus 100 bhat per bike, which feels a bit excessive for a 2hr bus journey but we’re too late to haggle. The terrain is mostly flat rice fields, but we’re too keen to get to Laos to spend a full day cycling it.

car drives through puddle

Rained in in Chiang Mai

On our first full day in Chiang Mai the weather is glorious, and typical of January here. In my head I mentally note the threat of heavy showers the following day, but don’t expect them to amount to much.

First thing, we head to Top Gear Bikes, just outside the Old City, to get stands fitted. Everyone here have stands and we kind of feel left out. They’re also incredibly useful. Although not especially cheap, the shop is well stocked and the service friendly, and the mechanic happily fits our stands for free. Feeling smug that our bikes will now rest upright as if by magic, we ride off to find lunch.

In the afternoon we set off on a local test ride. The plan is to visit Doi Suthep, a spectacular temple on a hill overlooking the city. We head out of town on the Huai Kaeo Road, stopping at another bike shop, the excellently named Velocity (in a city which boasts some cycle lanes, lots of cyclists and an annual car-free day), this time to get a wing mirror fitted. Again, everyone seems to have them here and it also seems like a good way to keep an eye on approaching traffic and Rach, rather than having to crane my neck every 5 minutes to check what’s there / check she’s still there. They only have a model that will fit my drop handlebars so Rach remains mirror-free for now.

About 3km into the climb we get distracted by a sign for some waterfalls. It’s hot, and it’s too tempting not too, so we investigate. The falls themselves are not especially spectacular and, at first sight, there’s no obvious place to swim. We eventually find a path which goes higher up and does eventually lead to a second waterfall and plunge pool. We’re rewarded with our own private swimming pool and refreshing shower. It’s totally lush, and has pretty cool views over the city too.

Back on the road, we continue to climb. The road is good, almost too good, with massive cambers on the snake-like bends – it’s more like Monte Carlo than a hill pass and bikes coming down are going so fast they’re overtaking cars!

Alas we haven’t quite gotten used to the hours of daylight yet, and dusk gets the better of us. We stop at a viewing point about 8km along, where the smog or haze (not sure which) obscures the sprawling city. The thought of careering down the hill in darkness isn’t one we’re comfortable with, so we turn back before reaching the temple.

Now I love a good bit of downhill as much as the next fool on a bike, but when you add in constant hairpin bends and darkness (it really does get dark quickly here!), it’s more of a challenge. Constant braking and the concentration required to stay on the road and on the bike mean it’s not as much fun as I’d hoped. Maybe this is why people go on about the power and superiority of disc brakes? By the bottom, hands are a little numb and we’re both feeling a bit apprehensive about what’s to come once we hit the mountains of Laos…

The next day is cloudy and oppressive – it needs to rain, and boy, does it rain. Once it starts, it doesn’t really stop for about 24 hours. We’re rained in, effectively, as we don’t want to start our adventure in a monsoon. January is supposed to be slap-bang in the middle of the dry season, so to have such heavy and prolonged rain is, we’re told, pretty unusual. It means an extra night at the super-friendly Junior Guesthouse, another evening of excellent food, and an entire day playing Shithead and Monopoly Deal… ah well, could be worse!

Saturday’s forecast is better, so we hope we can finally start bike-packing (yes, it’s an actual thing).

monk statues in the park

Bumbling around Bangkok

Pretty much the first thing we do on Friday, our first full day in Bangkok, is head to the train station. Our email requesting a reservation on the Chiang Mai sleeper had met with no reply, so we thought it best to just do it over the counter.

A guy who randomly started talking to us at the airport (with bikes as accessories, suddenly people start talking to you unprompted, we are quickly learning) said they’d be booked up for a week, but luckily we’re able to get a couple of berths in the sleeper carriage on Monday night, only one day later than planned. It’s all very easy (thanks partly to helpful station staff) and we’re told taking the bikes on will be no problem, just arrive two hours before departure to load them on.

Even though we don’t really mean to, and despite spending much of the daylight hours sleeping off jet-lag, we end up cramming a heck of a lot in to three days of Bangkok – all bike-free, sadly (the roads are just too big and busy to take on, even though we see a few brave locals doing just that… there are even a few cycle lanes! Ok, two.)

We wander through night markets, queue for the best pad thai in town, surf the Sky-train, play cards in the park, ride a ‘boat bike’, narrowly avoid an elaborate 50 quid boat cruise scam (but get a fun tuk-tuk ride out of it), use the legitimate river ferry and eat a riverside meal while listening to the Beatles, watch families fly kites, get pooped on by a pigeon (a first, but lucky, right?), go to the travel clinic for malaria tablets (only to be told the biggest risk we face will come from other road traffic), watch everyone in the park stand frozen in motion to observe the 6pm rendition of the national anthem, visit Jim Thompson’s house (interesting and great value at only 100bhat/£2 entry), drink in hipster Sukhumvit to a soundtrack that veers from Italo-disco to Locamotion-era Kylie, visit almost every 7-eleven in Silom, and sup a beer while watching tourists buying and then using ‘selfie-sticks’ on the Khosan Road.


Leaving our bikes in our room and then in storage for the day at our friendly Silom guesthouse, Sunflower Place, proves no problem. Pushing our bikes the mile or so from there to the station, in the dark (many streets aren’t lit), and around countless obstructions and huge kerbs – this city really isn’t designed for those on wheels – is more challenging, but we make it with plenty of time for the 10pm sleeper.


The cost for the two bikes is 360bhat – about £7 – and the bikes are stored in a third class ‘cattleshed’ carriage no longer used by passengers. The guard encourages me to lock the bikes securely, which I willingly do – let’s hope they’re still there tomorrow lunchtime when we pull into Chiang Mai…

…They are, of course. The 15 hour journey goes surprisingly quickly, with a decent night’s sleep gained as we rattle through the Thai countryside. Come about 10am, attendants walk through the sleeper carriage to take away the bedding and convert the beds back into seats, allowing us a view of the fields and hills as we approach Thailand’s second city.


A friendly German couple give us the lowdown on the city (they’re regular visitors), whetting our appetite. Tyres pumped up and bikes checked over, we finally take to the roads on two wheels. 5km from the station to the Old Town isn’t too hairy; they drive on the right side of the road (left, that is) and, although it’s busy, it’s not crazy busy or aggressive. Everything just kind of flows.

We can’t wait to take the bikes for a proper test run tomorrow, up to Wat Doi Suthep.


Happy New Year from Bangkok!

Girl with bike at Heathrow Airport

Rachel outside T2

So, it turns out Air China don’t do much to mark New Year’s Eve. We *think* we crossed into 2015 somewhere over Russia but can’t be sure. By midnight GMT most of the plane are snoozing and Rachel and I are struggling to stay awake. We manage a toast using two empty beer cans, then fall into an uncomfortable half-sleep for the next 4 hrs.

Joe, Rachel and some beer

Happy New Year

A few hours later we arrive tired and frazzled in Bangkok and head nervously to the oversize baggage desk. This is our first time travelling on a plane with bikes and we’ve used the CTC transparent bags to do the job. The Air China man looked like he’d never seen anything so absurd, and made us sign a damages waiver (along with a 90 quid fee) before he’d accept them. We have no idea if our bikes will have even managed the short transit in Beijing (we almost didn’t), let alone turn up in one piece in Bangkok.

Imagine our relief, then, to see both bikes sat awaiting us! Our panniers made it too. Before we crack open the belated bubbly, we inspect the bikes. Both have damaged front mudguards but apart from this look basically OK. Since we took the front tires off in a bit of a rush, then left the mudguards on with no protection, it’s perhaps not surprising they both got damaged. Lesson number one learnt.

We quickly learn lesson number two: don’t try and put your pedals back onto the bike while bike is upside down. We take about an hour to figure out that we’ve put them back on the wrong way, and are lucky not to damage the threads.

Bikes re-assembled (three hours after getting off plane, and much to the entertainment of the oversize baggage staff), we head to the train station, where a huge queue looks ominous. We are told only one line is running and that bikes can’t be taken on board. Taxi it is then.

The taxi queue is even worse (and full of fumes and irate people) so it’s a relief when a kind lady gives me a ticket to jump the queue in order to get an extra large taxi. It’s still only large enough to take one bike though, so the driver straps Rachel’s to the roof with a couple of bungee cords. We then have a nervous ride into town hoping the bike will still be on the roof-rack when we get there. It is. We’re so relieved that we give him a huge tip and later realise that we were pretty generous with the fare too (1,500 bhat – more than our sleeper train to Chiang Mai will cost), but hell, he saved our bacon big time and was a nice guy. We get the bikes into the hotel room and crash; it’s been a long day but we all – people and bikes – just about made it in one piece.

Happy New Year from Bangkok!