There is no shortage of destinations in Thailand. Beaches, temples and mountains dot the landscape, and many places count on tourism as a main source of revenue for the area.
But for two expat friends living in Bangkok, the space between these places is just as important as the destinations themselves. In late February, Donovan Richards and David Savage set off on a 17-day, 1,800-kilometre bicycle ride from Chiang Mai to Phuket. They were accompanied by two other friends part of the way, but only Richards and Savage made the full journey.
Although both of them have competed in triathlons before, this trip was not about making a certain time or beating anyone to a finish line.
“It’s about the travel experience while you do it,” said Savage.
“I had been to all the major tourist places in Thailand, but when you’re on a bicycle, you don’t whiz past. The best times we had was when we just stopped at little places on the side of the road. We got to meet a lot of people,” said Richards.
A loose schedule, with no set stopping points for each day, allowed them to spend time getting to know the people they met.
“We planned a route on Google Maps, so we kind of followed in general, but in terms of accommodation, basically we just looked,” said Richards.
“In Thailand it’s particularly easy because there’s food and accommodation everywhere. We stayed in places we’d never heard of,” he said.
“A few times we had to be very flexible. Either seeing a place of interest where we’d stay a little bit longer, or if we felt very tired during a day, we’d decide to either make a long push or a short push,” added Savage. “Locals were always friendly and happy to see us. I’m sure we were a spectacle,” he said, referencing the colourful lycra body suits they cycled in each day.
“People come and talk to you pretty quickly when you arrive looking like that,” joked Richards.
As the two recount their trip, it quickly becomes obvious that the most vivid memories are of simple interactions they had with the regular people they met along the way. Take, for example, a night they spent in Kamphaeng Phet. Arriving at the town in the evening, the lads went down to the river to have a swim and joined the locals at football game on an island.
“We played football with them, and they invited us to their house that night. We ended up having quite a big party, with probably 50 people. That was a great night,” said Richards.
“Football, partying and throwing the odd shot of whiskey,” said Savage. Not surprisingly, the next day was the only one on the trip they decided to take off from cycling.
Days later, as they approached Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan, they made another connection with someone Savage described as “this frail old woman with a mound of watermelons and a big machete”.
“As we got there, it started to really rain. A full storm; torrential rain. We asked if we could buy one of her watermelons and we sat there under her shelter. She cut some watermelon for us and we ended up talking to her quite a lot. We had to pass about an hour there under that shelter. In the end, she wouldn’t let us pay for the watermelons,” said Richards.
They travelled light, with just one set of clothes each, which they would take turns washing each night.
“Often, if we arrived late to a place, we’d hand wash it and it wouldn’t dry properly, so we’d have to put damp stuff on in the morning,” said Savage.
The exact distance travelled each day varied. They began by doing about 100km a day. They would do most of their riding early in the day, beginning as the sun came up in order to cover as much ground as possible before the afternoon heat became too much to bear.
As they got closer to their final destination, they started pushing a bit harder, up to about 140 kilometres.
“We thought if we really hurried we could get a couple days on the beach in Phuket,” said Richards.
The final leg of their trip was from Phuket Town to Patong, where they relaxed on the beach until they had to return to Bangkok and go back to work. Unfortunately for them, as anyone who has travelled that stretch knows, the entrance to Patong is treacherous.
“I saw this mountain appearing and I thought, ‘Where’s the road going to cut through this?’ We were sort of counting down the kilometres, we got down to about two then suddenly there was this unbelievable hill,” said Richards.
“It was like, ‘Welcome to Patong!’ It was the final push,” said Savage.
They survived the final ordeal, up and down the winding road, even though in some spots it was so steep that their brakes wouldn’t hold them.
Although they made it with a day and a half to spare, they didn’t end up spending much time on the beach.
“We mostly just slept,” said Richards.
A few days later, they were back on the job, teaching in Bangkok. They’ve since done a smaller trip _ seven days in the hills around Chiang Mai _ but both men are anxious to embark on another longer journey.
They’re in the preliminary stages of planning a trip for October. This time, in addition to seeing the countryside, they hope to add a charity component to their ride. They plan to get sponsorship, and use the trip to raise awareness for some good causes in Thailand.
“We’re looking now for worthwhile charities. We’re both teachers, so we’re looking more at schools which need something specific. Maybe three schools across the country we could deliver something to,” said Richards.
Whatever their route ends up being, you can be sure they’ll take full advantage of their pedal-powered means of transportation.
“If you’re in a car you don’t see anything at all. If you’re on a train it’s a bit better, but if you’re on a bicycle, you can stop anywhere,” said Richards.
In their own words
Richards and Savage recount their experiences cycling from the north to the south of Thailand in sketches and letters.
”On the fourth day of the journey we found ourselves in Kamphaeng Phet. In order to enjoy a game of football with the locals on an island in the Ping River, we had to cross the river, with camera and phones, on a discarded inner tube we had found. The effort was rewarded with a delicious seafood barbecue and a celebration with the local chief of police that continued into the wee hours of the morning, prompting the only rest day of the trip.”
”After the excitement of our first glimpse of the sea, we were soon brought back to Earth almost literally as we were forced to battle our way through fearsome coastal winds laced with salt from the roadside pans before beating a torrential storm to our room in Cha-am.”
”On the road near Khao Sam Roi Yot, with a storm imminent, we sheltered under the thatched roof of an elderly watermelon vendor wielding a large knife. Fortunately it was only used to slice up the watermelon she shared with us.”
”Khao Sam Roi Yot was a very pleasant surprise. Surrounded by nature, we spotted dusky langurs and kingfishers before trekking the 3 hours it took to do the advertised 1km walk to the incredible Phraya Nakhon Cave Temple. Trapped in darkness for the return journey, we were forced to use a camera flash to light our way back to the safety of our bungalow.”
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