Day 2 of Tak to Mae Sot

After our struggles yesterday we enjoyed a lie in and a lazy morning before setting off to complete the mountain pass to Mae Sot.
There was still some climbing to do but we held on to the knowledge that the majority of the 55km we needed to do would be down hill.

It was tough going initially but the road is MUCH better on this side of the mountain with a decent hard shoulder (although the other side going the other way didn’t seem to have one) and wider roads. The traffic was still busy. We are very glad we made the decision to do this stretch over two days. (A lot of cyclists try to do it in one)

We finally reached the highest peak marked by a temple complex (all the trucks and cars beep as they go past) and some impressive rock formations.

  
We have a short stop at the top. This sign gave us a sense of what was to come.

  
We reach the bustling town of Mae Sot at around 5pm and take some time to find a suitable guesthouse near the bus station (Green Guesthouse 240 baht). This will be our last night in Thailand. 

There seems to be a large Muslim community here and on the map we notice that there is a significant UNHCR centre. Yesterday Paddy also noticed that there was a refugee camp some miles south too. Both perhaps a stark reminder of what is still going on over the border in Myanmar.

The town is a good place to stock up on everything you might need. 

After washing clothes we head to the night market where we have an excellent dinner and finally get round to ‘celebrating’ being together for 3 years! 

Thai Stats

Total Days: 26

Total km cycling: 843

Trains: 2

Wild Camping Nights: 4

Warm Showers Stays: 5

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The tale of the campsite wild goose chase

Tuesday 8th March saw us ascend the hills towards the Mae Sot border with Myanmar. It’s time to say goodbye to Thailand and start a new adventure in colourful Burma.

In the previous two days we had covered the 150km from Phitsanulok to Sukathai (where there is a pleasant collection of 13th century temples) and onwards to Tak.

The day was a challenge in many more ways than one.
The week of rest days in Bangkok had softened my bum and by the end of the second day I had angry saddle sore which we had to soothe with Bikers Balm and Savlon.  

 We had had a frustrating evening the night before the climb, having had difficulty finding a suitable wild camping spot. We were forced to take cover on some bumpy, sandy farm land, where we were forced to duck down for passing traffic on the road. Our stove was very temperamental and it took an age to cook up our stew.

The evening was suitably rounded off when we woke at midnight to a perculiar crackling under our heads. We had pitched out tent under an ant/termite highway… We were forced to get up and move the tent, significantly interrupting our nights sleep.

Tired and grumpy, we set off in the morning aware that it would be a tough day of climbing. We were heading for a campsite marked on our map 80km away and 800m up. The prospect of this climb did not improve our mood.

It was unusually hot but we managed the first 50k without too much problem. The gradient was constant but very manageable and we pedalled on as the landscape around us became more and more mountainous.

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Our mood was significantly cheered when we stopped to chat to another touring couple from France going the other way and guess what THEY WERE ON A TANDEM. They had been on the road for long while (and looked suitably travelled) having cycled from France. We swapped stories and tips for the roads ahead before carrying on.

8th March 2016 happens to be International Women’s Day and so as we climbed we celebrated by exhausting our full list of women artists on both my iPod and Paddy’s phone.

Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Florence and the Machine, Ani DiFranco, The Albama Shakes and many more kept us company as we pushed on.

At 2.30 we had reached the beginning of the last 20k with still 600m to climb. I knew that this trip would really test my endurance and today confirmed it. By this time it had reached the hottest part of the day and we were sweltering as the sun beat down from above and the tarmac radiated from below.

Stretches such as these have a timeless quality about them. All you can really concentrate is the climb, staring at your sweat drenched forearms, griping onto your handlebars and willing your legs to just keep spinning. 

It was a tough climb, no let up the whole way, and it was a very busy road with extensive road works taking place on either side. Huge trucks passed us going both ways and there were more than a few scary moments. Paddy did a sterling job as pilot though and finally at 5.00 we reached the turning off which led to the campsite. There was still a way to climb but we were spurred on by the thought of a cold shower and pitching our tent in a picturesque camping spot. 

The road gets narrower and narrower and steeper and steeper. This campsite better be good.. but we can’t help noticing that the lane we’re cycling up seems horribly overgrown… 

The slope gets so steep that we have to get off (a first for us) and push the last 200m up the hill. No joke!

We pass an abandoned building which is crumbling into the jungle…

When we finally reach the top we’re faced with this glorious view…

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Yes. That is broken glass on the road!

There is nothing quite like the crushing feeling of despair you experience having cycled up a (very) long mountain and are faced with nothing but a dead end!

To top it off we were nearly out of water and it was approaching dark fast.

Alls well that ends well – as usual, we are saved by the generosity and kindness of local people who replenish our water bottles and take us to a lovely home stay where we are given our own wooden chalet.

When our stove finally packs in (Paddy thinks he can fix it!) they let us use their kitchen so we can finish cooking our noodles – nothing can burst the bubble of relief, not even when Paddy accidentally drowns our dinner in fish sauce thinking it is oil…

More climbing tomorrow towards Mae Sot! 

Nos Da!

New wheels and upgrades in BKK

We are sitting here waiting for a train out of Bangkok, so I thought I’d take the time to write a note on some of our repairs and improvements that have happened in the last week. The most significant is a new set of Andra 30 ‘bomb proof’ wheel rims.

On a day off 2 weeks ago I went to fix a small buckle in the back wheel and realised it was caused by a cracked rim.

imageThere is a LOT of load on the back wheel and it probably cracked on one of the bumps along the way. It wasn’t an immediate disaster as the crack wasn’t down the side wall and therefore wouldn’t cause the rim to collapse – it meant basically the associated spoke was doing nothing (the internet is great for all this!). So I marked the crack and we continued on checking it as we travelled. It was fine for 5 days until Bangkok and I suspect it might have been cracked for a good while before…

We needed a new back rim.

First port of call was JD tandems who sold us the bike, Ruth was extremely helpful and fast on email answering all my questions – thanks! Eventually the Andra 30 rims were the obvious choice, not cheap, but the best hardcore touring rims around from a Kiwi company.

After weighing the risk versus cost we decided to replace the front rim also and each wheel needed 48 spokes plus spares. To round things out the braking surface on the rims is tungsten carbide finished and requires special ultra hard brake pads. The pads are a fancy bright blue colour and look really slick, which is nice. The idea is the rims are so hard they will not erode during braking and will never need replacing.

imageAll the work was coordinated by Ma at BOK BOK BIKES, if you are touring through Thailand these are the guys to call. Every other bike shop didn’t know where to start with 48 spike wheels and one of them said ‘just call BOK BOK’. Ma’s brother did the wheel building at KANGAROO BIKES (near Bearing, last stop south on the sky train). They are dealers for Rholoff, Thorn, Surly, CoMotion and the workshop is stacked out with more top end tools than I’ve seen in any London shop. They were quick on email and got the work done on time so we could leave for Myanmar on schedule, including importing the rims through customs. Thanks guys!

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We also took delivery of a spare tyre, after debating whether one was needed and deciding against it in London. In the end I couldn’t sleep thinking about that, so we’ve gone safety first and got one sent over in our ‘bike care package’ from Bren in New York. It is a foldable Schwalbe Marathon Mondial. He also sent spare tandem length gear cables and end caps and other small bits n pieces.

One upgrade Bren sent which we’ve been craving is our new kickstand. It is a Pletcher type that cleverly has two legs that fold to one side. No more leaning the bike on trees, posts, fences or one of us having to stand holding it like a lemon.

Finally we got a little Irish and Welsh flag!!!

Flying the flags!

We are both exhausted as we were up late last night putting the new wheels on. In the process we popped two inner tubes… Annie effected tube replacement and puncture repair expertly. 🙂 We were also hogging the Wi-Fi ordering more spares, downloading maps, books, guides, booking accommodation, route planning… Back on the road proper tomorrow.

Not much sight seeing in Bangkok

We have spent just over a week in Bangkok. It has been a very busy week, but we’ve not spent much time exploring the city as tourists. 

Now two months into our trip, it was necessary to spend some time planning the next stretch (Central Asia really doesn’t seem that far away now). 

Applying for visas and permits, replacing any gear and giving the bike a thorough service were also high on our list of priorities.

Bangkok is an excellent city for cyclists do all of the above, especially as there are LOADS of warm showers hosts dotted all over with good transport links to everywhere you need.

A couple of weeks ago we had noticed that our back wheel rim had cracked (it held up well for three weeks after). As we have 15000km still left to do we decided it was worth replacing both with new Andra 30 rims. For more info on how we went about ordering these parts and building the wheels in Bangkok click here.

The first 5 nights were spent with Mike (Joseph is his warm showers name) and his great friends east of the city. 

Mike has travellers turning up pretty much every day of the week (he’s also a couch surf host) and our stay crossed over with two Russian travelling musicians who had found each other online and hitch hiked the whole way from St Petersburg, and a family of four from Italy who were in their last week of a four month trip across Asia. There was plenty of space to spread out and reliable wifi. image

Their street was a real community and everyone was incredibly friendly. We cooked together every night and we both really enjoyed staying with them. 

We then headed north to spend four nights with Tim, an old friend of Annie’s who currently teaches at Harrow International school, his boyfriend Mick and their little beagle ‘Stevie Nicks’. It was a treat to have our own bed and great to spend some time with a familiar face. 

Tim had very kindly received a package for us (with our kick stand) sent from a friend in America (took 4 days with US postal service, roughly $80 with a 500 BHT custom charge the other end). If you’re having trouble finding an address to receive a package try asking your embassy. The Irish embassy confirmed they would have done this for us.  

day time walk
Tim and Mick are avid game players and shared a range of new dice and card games with us including Perudo, Yatzy, Diamonsters and speed Monopoly which is the most ruthless game either of us have ever played! (must get a pack for George)

 

Yazi scoring card!
 
Visas took a good chunk of time as did dropping off and picking up our wheel rims. We also made a trip to Outdoor Unlimited in Amrin Plaza where there is a range of outdoor and sports gear, although, in the end, we didn’t get much except a second sports bra for Annie. 

We also met up with another cycle touring couple who we contacted via the warm showers forum. We have been desperately trying to find some up to date info on the Myanmar/China border crossing at Muse – in the past it has not been possible to cross here without a special permit and guide due to regional fighting. Geart and Sytske also want to take this route and will be in Myanmar at the same time so hopefully we can team up and cross together. We’re still exploring the options but are pretty sure already that it’s possible and safe enough to cross.

We have both been reading books about Myanmar. Paddy has nearly finished Orwell’s Burmese Days and I’m deep in the midst of Letters from Burma written by Aung San Suu Khi. We’re both keen to cross the border now and will meet up with the Mum and Dad Sheen in Mandalay/Bagan which should be fun!

So, onwards north to Phitsanulok (by train) and then a four day cycle to Mae Sot border.  

No need to hold the bike when parked with the new kick stand!

Applying for your Chinese Visa in Bangkok

The application process for a Chinese visa is a lot more time consuming than any other Asian country we have been to. 

We considered applying via an agent but in the end decided to fly solo with it all. 

We felt we just needed to get organised with prolonged access to a computer and printer.

 While we waited for the Myanmar visas we made our way north to the Chinese Embassy to pick up the forms.

  

First things first, the visa application centre is NOT in the Chinese embassy like it is in every other consulate. You need to go to New Pretchaburi Road to Level 5 in Thanapoom Tower (10 min walk). 

  
Going to the embassy first did prove quite useful in the end because they showed us examples of some of the supporting documents we would need to submit.

 It seems that the Embassy, no doubt because the application process is so onerous, has subcontracted the management of the first phase of the application procedure out to a private company. http://www.visaforchina.org

This company offers advice, information and runs a first stage tick box exercise on your application before its sent to the Embassy for final approval.

In a way it’s sort of good because they give your application a thorough once going over before you handover and wait for the outcome… Also unlike other consulates you pay on collection.

They are open 9:00am to 15:00 Mon-Fri. But if you want the 2 day express service you need to drop off before 11am.

We were told it was only possible to apply for a 1 month tourist visa in Bangkok, although we have heard of others successfully applying for three months in other cities… (we hope to extend ours at least once when we’re there).

The form is very detailed and requires supporting flight bookings (!), accommodation bookings (!), a detailed day by day itinerary, bank statements and a ‘Letter of Certificatin of myself’ which details your intent of travel, employment status etc. Having a bank statement was important, especially if you are currently unemployed.

  
Everything has to be done on a computer and printed off. You also need photocopies of your current immigration exit stamp (Thai in our case) and passport page.

We had also read that including other supporting documents like our travel insurance document was a good idea, but these weren’t needed in the end.

The detailed itinerary itself took a long time to write out and then there were flights and accommodation bookings to organise.

If you want more information on any of the above and how we went about it please leave a comment and we can try and answer your query.

Anyway, everything was good and efficient and we submitted on Tuesday and collected on Friday morning paying 3200 baht total.

Applying for Visa for Myanmar in Bangkok

One of the main reasons for coming to Bangkok was so apply for our next two visas – Myanmar and China.

We wanted to be as efficient as possible with our time as staying in big cities always blows our budget. 

We made sure we arrived into Bangkok on a Thursday afternoon with the aim of getting our Myanmar visa sorted before the weekend. 

We just had enough time to cycle to the Myanmar Embassy (closes at 4:30pm) to double check the procedure/supporting documents needed, make a copy of our passports (there’s a photocopier there) and pick up the visa forms.

We planned to complete the forms that evening and get back early the next morning to apply. 

The current visa drop off times (Feb 2016) are 9am-1pm. I had read a number of blogs and posts saying that you needed to arrive really early if you wanted to be in with a chance of getting a visa and that people were known to start queuing at 7am…  

We set off at 8am but didn’t actually arrive until 10.15am due to traffic and waiting for busses. This wasn’t a problem. The office was very busy but if you have your form completed (front and back) and you already have your 2 photos and passport photocopy ready then you simply pick up a ticket near the door, sit down and wait until you’re called up. 

We waited for about half an hour and there were lots of people who arrived after us who also got seen. It was all very efficient and easy!

We coughed up the additional fee to get our passports back the same day (3000 baht total for both) and this wasn’t a problem either, she didn’t ask us why we needed the same day service. We were all done by 11.30am. There was no need to mention we were going by bicycle or entering/exiting via border crossings.

Pick up is between 3:30-4:30pm which meant we had time to make our way to the Chinese visa office and pick up the forms there in between. (Bus 514).

There is a lot to organise for the Chinese visa but we will have the weekend to prepare itineraries, book accommodation etc and print everything we need ready for application on Monday.

Pick up at Myanmar office took a total of 3 mins.

Kao Yai – Saraburi – Ayutthaya

After saying our goodbyes to the Gang Zu Club we have a great morning relaxing in the campsite, enjoying water on tap! Simple pleasures! 

The trees all around us start shaking and a number of monkeys appear poised and ready to grab anything they can. We turned our back for 2 seconds and one of them is off with our packet of rice. He shamelessly rips it open in front of us and starts stuffing his face. A couple more join the feast.

  

beware the monkeys!
 
There is a big family next to us and before they pack away to head home they bring us some leftover chicken soup for breakfast. Thai people are so nice!

In the middle of the day we escape the sun and head down one of the jungle walks which leads away from the camping. The track follows the river for the majority of the way. 

We come across a clearing near the river and we contemplate a swim but there are large signs saying ‘No Swimming, Crocodiles!’

I start telling Paddy that the signs are probably there to just prevent people from going in the water and there can’t be that many wild crocodiles so close to a campsite. He raises his eyebrows at me, smiles, and points to the river bank. I peer over and see this fella basking in the sun. 🙂

  
The jungle walk is great and we see some amazing butterflies, lizards and the secret twitcher in me is roused when we catch a sight of some amazing birds. Our journey is accompanied with a soundtrack of distant gibbon calls the whole way too.

  
The evening is passed quite happily cooking near our tent and before bed we feel the time is ripe to watch the first programme in the 1973 BBC TV series The Ascent of Man presented by Jacob Bronowski. 🙂

Paddy’s brother included the whole series on the external hard drive he gave us for Christmas and we’ve been waiting for a good time to start it. The book of the same name was a familiar object in both our homes while growing up… (This will make Kate And Em laugh!)

After another night at the campsite we pack up our gear and carry on through to the other side of the nature reserve.

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The road on the other side is even more spectacular than what we’ve seen so far and we have to stop more than once to cool down our breaks during the decent. We’re glad we didn’t come up this way!

Onwards to Muak Lak, this is the most picturesque scenery we’ve cycled through and on the way a guy flags us down on his motorbike so he can give us some ripe mangos.

Onto 3224 where we join up with the Pa Sak river. We find a suitable camping spot under a large bridge and set up camp.

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Another friendly Thai comes down to check out our set up, give us a bag of apples and take a quick selfie.

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We set off early the next morning and keep north of the river all the way to Saraburi where we find ourselves caught in the big interchange with the M1! Bit of a hairy stretch but Paddy keeps his cool and we manage to get away from the motorway soon enough. 

We stop to cook for lunch next to the canal and then get going again onwards to Ayutthaya. It is very flat again by this point and we follow the canal pretty much the whole way. We pass a HUGE snake on the road. 

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We arrive into Ayutthaya at 3 and locate the train station so we can suss out how to get the bike on a train to Bangkok the next day. We’re told to come back the next morning at 11.30 to catch the cargo train at 12.15. 

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We cycle past some of the celebrated temple complex while locating a cheap hostel, it’s nothing to Angkor but it’s still a shame we’re not planning to stay to explore for at least 1 day.

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We need to get to Bangkok ASAP to organise our visas though.