Translated by: Pal Capewell
On the fifth of January, Eni and I still had our lunch in Cambodia, just a few km off the border. We were busy stuffing our faces when the e-mail arrived from our dear American friends, Anna and Paul, saying they are expecting us on the other side in Thailand, in Khlong Yai, in a hotel named after the town. The two of us were afraid we were going to be bullied around like we were at the border upon arrival, but luckily (maybe due to the Thai authorities), there were no incidents whatsoever. They did question the lack of address on our arrival cards (Hungarian citizens have 30 days visa-free if arriving by plane, but only 15 if coming in otherwise. Even a full month wouldn’t have been enough for us, so Eni and I applied for a 60 days Thai visa in Laos). I informed the officer that since we are on a biking tour, we don’t really have ready plans as to where to spend our nights.
“From where did you bike here?” came the next question.
“Hungary...?” I answered. That’s all they needed. When they learnt Eni and I biked all the way from Hungary, they clapped and whistled, congratulating us on such an accomplishment. Well, this is the mood in which the officers returned our passports, with a “Very warm welcome to Thailand, have a wonderful stay!”
I already tried to make friends with the idea in Cambodia that in Thailand, people drive on the “wrong” side (from a Hungarian perspective, that is). I shouldn’t forget that. I asked myself whether I will forget that - of course I did!! Eni reminded us to cross over, we are on the wrong side. It took quite some time till we got used to it. Not really the departing on the left hand side, since the traffic reminded us, but when crossing lanes I always ended up in the wrong lane. The other aspect that I needed time to get used to was, however weird it’s going to sound, to balance the bike towards the left instead of the right. Total opposite to what we were used to, as the traffic was on our left side and we had to pull towards the right. Now that changed. Our rearview mirrors got worn out a bit over time (it’s quite the challenge to find sturdy, reliable mirrors), so we attached new mirrors on both sides. (Back home I never used rearview mirrors on my bike, but I got so used to them that there is no way back!)
The town where our dear American friends awaited us was 15km away from the border. The road leading there however was a nightmare, going up and down mountains. Eni and I arrived exhausted to the little bungalow style hotel, where Anna and Paul waited for us with chocolate filled pastries - you know, since that’s one of our favorites. It was so wonderful to see each other again, though we really only skipped one night from seeing one another. Everyone reflected what went on with them the past 36 hours, and how their health was - unfortunately for our friend Paul, he still wasn’t feeling his best. The four of us walked over to the local nightmarket and filled our tummies with delicious Thai food, accompanied with Chang beer. Eni and I knew we must press on the next day to Bangkok, since another Anna expected us with our stuff from back home (more on that later). Turned out Paul might be worse than his appearances. He had some tests ran to see if he caught malaria or dengue fever, as he wasn’t recovering all that well. The results turned out to be mixed up or confusing somehow, so he had to do them again and wait for the results. Thus, our American friends had to stay another day.
The next day the American-Hungarian crew went for “see ya soon” coffee, Eni and I with our bikes well packed, ready to depart soon afterwards. Anna was the lead with us three behind, as we headed for that coffee. Peacefully biking behind her, all the sudden we see her slam into a motorbike that made an illegal turn. We were shocked, scared and ran right to her, who fell off her bike poor thing, repeating “I was in the right lane, I was!” between sobs. And yes, Anna WAS in the right lane: the biker turned right in too small of a turn and crashed with Anna who was somewhat hidden by the roadside shrubs. Everyone was shocked to their core, including the young driver who stayed with us the whole time. He only left when Paul determined no damage was done really, nobody is hurt and he can leave. No damage, except a disheartening crash that grabbed our hearts which skipped a beat or two. Luckily though, both Anna and her bike survived with a few scratches, despite how awful the incident seemed when it all happened. After things calmed down, the four of us went for that coffee we set out for originally and talked for another hour. Tried to decide which is going to be the fourth country where we will see each other. Maybe Eni and I will visit them, maybe they will visit us - who knows which will come first. One thing is for certain: the four of us grew really fond of each other and will stay in touch. (By the time you are reading these lines Anna and Paul are back to the U.S., preparing for a trip they will lead to Tucson). Had a huge bear hug, then Eni and I set off for the 400km afar Bangkok. Our Warmshowers host was expecting us there for a few days.
The roller coaster of a road continued for a bit after leaving, then eventually smoothed out. Thai monasteries were equally welcoming as Laos and Cambodian ones. It took us four days to get to Bangkok, with our newest record of daily completed distance, 168km. This included winds working with and against us, up and down, rain and sunshine. It was around 2pm when I asked Eni if she is willing to finish this thing off, to which she replied “Gimme a Gatorade and a coffee”. From then on the enthusiasm drove our bodies more than anything, ignoring tiny annoyances like “exhaustion”. The energy boost worked and despite a little pain in our knees, Eni and I weren’t too worn out upon arrival. Arriving into Bangkok saw the rise in traffic, but luckily Thai drivers are far better than their reputation. A very pleasant surprise, to say the least. They paid attention to us, were very careful and courteous, but of course we made sure we ride logically, following the rules.
Getting in wasn’t the easiest because the Maps.me GPS app doesn’t let you eliminate certain routes (like highways that we can’t bike on), so some improvisation was needed, taking us through tiny alleys and streets. Our arrival was from the south side, while our host was on the north side of town, not the best combination. But what can one do, huh? Truth be told we were only supposed to arrive the next day, but if Toom can’t have us, we will just crash in a hostel or something. If we knew how hard this approach was going to be, we’d have thought twice before rushing in with early arrival. “Listen to the story now,” would say Tina Turner....
Eni and I decided to give Toom a call, for which a kind local girl lent us her phone. Unfortunately, like we feared, Toom wasn’t ready for us but was glad to receive us the next morning. Fine, let’s go to a hostel then. Next came the hostel’s refusal to allow bikes, saying it’s safe outside with plenty cameras. Mwuahahahahahaha, that’s funny, great sense of humor... really... Have our dreams finished off in Bangkok? No Thanks! The next hotel gave us a ridiculously high price, despite being advertised dirt cheap online (the kind local girl helped us check the two cheapest hostels in the area). Having had no alternatives, Eni and I embarked on a tour around the city, looking for a place to finally collapse at. Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh hostels - all full. Eighth? Unspeakably expensive, ninth again wouldn’t allow bikes. Exhaustion and hopelessness started to take the best of us: it was after 9pm, we woke up at 4am and though we love biking, these two exhausted Hungarians started to realize what people mean by the “fine line between love and hate”. The solution came as a protective guardian angel from the sky: the Flying Cow Hostel. In this psychedelic, elegant little hotel, the price was right and though ten bunk beds per room, we finally found a safe and comfy spot to lie our heads down. Little did we know that the challenges weren’t done for the day... Turned out, the bikes were only allowed into the hostel’s bar/reception/cafeteria AFTER midnight, when check-in services finished. Until then, all bikes had to stay outside. You can imagine, with all our stuff attached to them, we didn’t want to carry everything all the way up. As a solution, Eni and I took turns watching the bikes from the reception, while the other took a shower and prepared for bed. Now, writing these lines with a month behind me in Thailand, retrospect dictates much more chill approach, but who knows, it still is a big city. Then at midnight we could finally bring our stuff inside and go to sleep after twenty hours not only up, but mostly biking! I don’t know what I dreamed, or whether I dreamt anything at all, my brain was so dead. But what I must highlight here is that Eni did this whole trip with me, being girl with a superheavy bike and all (not that I am sexist, but from her this is an even bigger feat than from me)! Hats off to her, I am so proud and celebrate her achievement!
The next day we’d have slept till noon if it wasn’t for Toom’s request to arrive before 10 in the morning because he had somewhere to be. Headed north through the city with somewhat busy Sunday traffic. The business and tuk-tuk noise of the town from last night was still asleep. So close to arriving, another problem arose: a 2x4 lane highway, because Toom lived on the other side and there was no way to get over there except a 2x30 steps flyover. Let me tell ya, carrying the bikes up and down those stairs was the least ideal. Another choice was to bike a few km till a proper crossing. “Nehhh,” we thought, and decided to cross right then and there, against the roaming traffic. While it was relatively easy on our side, the opposite direction was challenging. Luckily for us, the drivers were really supportive and stopped without a swear word or middle finger, letting us cross safe and sound.
The other side brought us a lovely little (by Asian standards!) suburb with quaint stores, charming little restaurants and grocery stores open only at night. Toom lives in a rather big house with his cousin and older brother- and the countless guests whom he keeps looking after for quite a while now. Toom, being on both the couchsurfing and warmshowers sites, receives guests for quite a few years now. This large villa’s second floor was Toom’s “residence”, where a lovely sight welcomed us: thank you notes from his guests, postcards from shared memories, souvenirs of all types and sizes one can imagine. One could seriously spend hours reading all the thank you’s he got. Eni and I got a large mattress for the two of us in a room with a balcony, and... a German roommate, Felix. The sweet and very smart 26 years old is on a Southeast Asian biking tour for a year. The three of us had great cooking and chat sessions! In just a few days upon meeting him though, he was scheduled to fly to India. Other than us, there were Ukrainian, Polish and two other German guests. Bikers like Eni and I were a Polish guy biking in the opposite direction, to Laos, and a German guy who had a serious incident about an hour from Bangkok. He had to spend two weeks in a hospital - wasn’t in life-threatening condition but damaged both his body and bike pretty badly. He doesn’t remember exactly what or how it happened, only the fact that someone drove into him from behind. Truth be told, it’s not certain he was biking on the right side, at the right place, with the rules in mind...
Toom turned out to be a very kind, open-minded and curious, and helpful guy. Just like with Felix, we had great cooking and chat sessions, he taught me the local way of preparing rice. Fortunately I am getting better at rice cooking, with the rice not sticking together so bad lately. Hopefully I can continue this trend back home, but I have my doubts as rice back home is nowhere close to this quality.
Eni and I met up with Anna on Monday, in downtown Bangkok. Anna was so kind and offered to help if needed, as her son lives in Bangkok and she planned to visit for Christmas. What a superb timing from faith, we could ask her to bring a few things from home. Anna and her daughter in law, Viki (the others were at work and kindergarden) welcomed us with coffee and a typical Hungarian X’mas dessert, poppy seed bejgli (bhay-glee). Only people who have been away from home for a long time can understand how sweet moments like these can be. The four of us had a wonderful chat. Anna could not have been sweeter and more helpful - not only did she pamper us and give us what she brought but also offered to take everything we no longer needed back to Hungary. Can’t wait to meet up with her again once back home! Anna was just a day before flying back, so we didn’t want to impose, but before leaving she led us up to the roof to show us how Bangkok looks from above.
Said our “see-ya”s (literally: in Hungarian hello is ‘szia’, pronounced “see ya”), then went to an IT mall to look around, but ended up buying nothing. Somehow a cheap but copy phone didn’t seem so appealing. It took over an hour to get back to Toom, using lightrail and a bus. Eni and I only planned to rest and fill our tummies during our stay in BKK. Recharge. Now some of you might be wondering how can one rest and refuel in a hostel-like, heavy-packed environment that is Toom’s villa. While you may be right, may I say it cost us nothing and have been treated wonderfully, for which Eni and I cannot be grateful enough. The one way the gang thought to return the favor to our wonderful host was to cook for and feed him; Eni and I gathered the “villa residents”, put together the money and cooked meals together. This way not only did we treat Toom but also had wonderful shared meals and conversations with each other. Oh, and everyone could cut on food costs too - not the least important for backpackers.
There was a cute little hole-in-a-wall kitchen nearby Toom’s, what Eni and I frequented. One gets their tummy full for just one Euro, which we thought we can allow ourselves. They cooked very well, the service was superb and Pad Thai grew to be my favorite. Stone me if you want to, but we didn’t visit downtown Bangkok again after our visit at Anna’s. The two of us were exhausted, and didn’t want to spend our days on buses and subways. Needless to say, biking around downtown BKK isn’t the healthiest and most logical. Don’t get us wrong, Bangkok is very appealing, but one needs time (and energy!!!) to properly get to know the city. Maybe we will return in the future for one or two weeks dedicated just for Bangkok, with a downtown accommodation. Besides the cheap and delicious food, there was another reason Eni and I couldn’t wait to be at Thailand’s capital: the ideal location to select through our clothes and send back stuff we no longer needed (warm stuff like sleeping bags and jackets) through post. After Anna’s help and our trips to the post office, our bags were around 20kg lighter from no longer needed equipment and souvenirs.
The Thai Post Service seemed the most reliable and reasonable price-wise. After having handled everything, our next task was to decide: where next?
The first plan was to go south, along the seaside. Then the plan got a little detour to the west, to Kanchanaburi. This is a city crossed by the Thai-Burmese railway line (no longer running in this form) and quite a few museums are situated there as well. This railway line is also referred to as the “death railway”. Japanese invaders built it during the Second World War, using British, Australian, Dutch and American prisoners, and some paid Asian workforce. You might have heard of the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, which is somewhat based on this story. Unfortunately the real story is way more saddening than the one the movie portrays. Don’t worry, you can read about it in our next post.