In cycling heaven

Posted on 2020-03-09

Thailand has been one of the best countries we have cycled in. Traffic is calm (no horns - our only standard these days), drivers are considerate, and the quality of the roads (big or small) is so, so good. On top of that, people are quiet and friendly, and food can be found almost anywhere, anytime. For once after a long, long time, cycling has been completely stress-free, and the aggression that had been building up inside us for months has completely dissipated. The only hardship we face these days is the heat, and we have adapted by waking up and starting to cycle much earlier than we have ever done before (but still about an hour after sunrise).

Massively oversized kilometre stone between Nong Khai and Udon Thani

Massively oversized kilometre stone between Nong Khai and Udon Thani

When crossing the border from Vientiane to Nong Khai, we changed from driving on the right to driving on the left, something that we needed a few days to get used to (thankfully only once on this trip). From Nong Khai to Bangkok, most of our way was through northeastern Thailand, a region known as Isaan, where most of the people are ethnic Lao. On our way, we ended up eating all the Lao food we missed during our short stay in Laos, especially sticky rice.

Typical lunch break in Isaan - sticky rice at a roadside restaurant-in-a-shack

Typical lunch break in Isaan - sticky rice at a roadside restaurant-in-a-shack

We initially wanted to take smaller roads on a more direct route from Nong Khai to Bangkok, but we found a few interesting sights on the way that were close to the main highway Route 2, so we chose to go that way instead. The highway is busy but has a hard shoulder, so cycling was not stressful. The highway also passes right through towns and villages, so roadside food and rest stops are abundant. Once, an ice-cream man even stopped by on his motorcycle while we were taking a break in a roadside shelter. So, despite the traffic, we really didn't mind cycling on the highway.

We got ice-cream from a passing ice-cream motorbike as we were taking a break at this roadside shelter!

We got ice-cream from a passing ice-cream motorbike as we were taking a break at this roadside shelter!

Nevertheless, it was still nice to get off the highway when the route made sense. We cycled from Nong Khai to Udon Thani on Route 2, and then turned off onto smaller roads to get to Thale Bua Daeng, or the Red Lotus Lake, a lake that is covered with pink lotus flowers from around December to February every year. Since we were passing by at the right season, we took the opportunity to see it. We left Udon Thani early in the morning to cycle the 40km to the lake, as we had read that the flowers close in the afternoon and so it's best to arrive early. When we arrived, we took a boat that took us out to parts of the lake where the flowers were growing densely - a beautiful sight. The lake was also full of birds, flying around our boat or walking around on the dense floating vegetation on the lake. After our boat ride, we cycled on the dyke around the lake to Kumphawapi, a small town on the southern end of the lake, where we spent a night.

Our boat on Thale Bua Daeng (Red Lotus Lake)

Our boat on Thale Bua Daeng (Red Lotus Lake)

Egret on Thale Bua Daeng (Red Lotus Lake)

Egret on Thale Bua Daeng (Red Lotus Lake)

For the next few days, it was back onto Route 2 to Khon Kaen, and then to Phon, after which we turned off onto smaller roads again, following several canals as we headed towards the town of Phimai. We took a rest day there to explore the Phimai Historical Park, an ancient Khmer temple complex built in the 11th to 12th centuries. Phimai was an important town of the Khmer empire, and its main temple, Prasat Hin Phimai, was connected to the capital Angkor by an ancient highway, as well as oriented to face Angkor as its cardinal direction. The temple predates Angkor Wat, and bears strong resemblance to its more famous counterpart.

The inner sanctuary of Prasat Hin Phimai, part of the Phimai Historical Park. The temple was built in the 11th to 12th centuries, when it was an important city in the Khmer empire, and is oriented to face the capital Angkor as its cardinal direction. The temple predates Angkor Wat, and many design elements were later used at Angkor Wat.

The inner sanctuary of Prasat Hin Phimai, part of the Phimai Historical Park. The temple was built in the 11th to 12th centuries, when it was an important city in the Khmer empire, and is oriented to face the capital Angkor as its cardinal direction. The temple predates Angkor Wat, and many design elements were later used at Angkor Wat.

Hannah looking out a window of the gallery, that surrounds the inner sanctuary on all sides, of Prasat Hin Phimai, part of the Phimai Historical Park

Hannah looking out a window of the gallery, that surrounds the inner sanctuary on all sides, of Prasat Hin Phimai, part of the Phimai Historical Park

Adorable kitten in Prasat Hin Phimai, part of the Phimai Historical Park

Adorable kitten in Prasat Hin Phimai, part of the Phimai Historical Park

From Phimai, we continued on smaller roads until Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Korat in short. Korat is the largest city in Isaan, and the traffic on Route 2 became noticeably busier from Korat to Saraburi (where the Route 2 merges with Route 1 to Bangkok), but there was no good alternative along this stretch of road across the foothills of Khao Yai National Park. From Saraburi, we turned away from the highways and headed towards Ayutthaya, following small roads along canals almost all of the way. We were surprised to find it noticeably more humid once we crossed the hills of Khao Yai National Park, as we sweated our way into Ayutthaya.

Bicycle lane on a small road next to a canal, on our way from Saraburi to Ayutthaya

Bicycle lane on a small road next to a canal, on our way from Saraburi to Ayutthaya

We arrived at Ayutthaya early enough to visit the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. The museum contains artifacts and treasures (mainly gold) that were found in the crypts of Wat Mahathat and Wat Ratchaburana, two of the most important temples of the ancient capital. Unfortunately, the crypt of Wat Ratchaburana was famously looted in 1957, and most of the gold was melted down and sold on before the thieves were caught. Only 10kg of the original 75kg of gold treasures could be recovered. The next day, we spent a full day cycling around, temple hopping the ruins of the ancient capital. Thanks to the current coronavirus outbreak, the temples were not crowded at all, missing not only tour groups from China, but from other countries avoiding travel to Thailand as well. We were awed by the size and number of temple ruins scattered in and around the city, and it was easy to imagine how impressive the city must have been at its heyday.

Buddha head embedded in a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

Buddha head embedded in a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

The main prang of Wat Ratchaburana, Ayutthaya. Unfortunately, the crypt inside the main prang, decorated with faint murals of the Buddha, was closed for restoration when we visited. The crypt was famously looted in 1957, and the thieves were tracked down, but it was too late for the priceless gold artefacts, most of which had been melted down and sold on. The remainder are on display in the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.

The main prang of Wat Ratchaburana, Ayutthaya. Unfortunately, the crypt inside the main prang, decorated with faint murals of the Buddha, was closed for restoration when we visited. The crypt was famously looted in 1957, and the thieves were tracked down, but it was too late for the priceless gold artefacts, most of which had been melted down and sold on. The remainder are on display in the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.

The three chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, believed to contain the ashes of three Ayutthaya kings

The three chedis of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, believed to contain the ashes of three Ayutthaya kings

Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya. The temple is one of the main locations of the hit Thai TV series "Buppesannivas", and inspired by the characters, Thai tourists have been flocking to the temple dressed up in traditional clothing (which you can rent from a string of shops across the road) to take photos.

Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya. The temple is one of the main locations of the hit Thai TV series "Buppesannivas", and inspired by the characters, Thai tourists have been flocking to the temple dressed up in traditional clothing (which you can rent from a string of shops across the road) to take photos.

From Ayutthaya, we didn't want to cycle all the way into the dense city traffic of Bangkok, so we cycled only halfway to Rangsit, and then took the train the rest of the way into the city centre. We still had to cycle a few kms through the city centre to reach our host's place, but the traffic was not as bad as we imagined - apparently much less than usual these days because of the coronavirus. We then celebrated Hannah's birthday with dinner at the curiously-named social enterprise restaurant Cabbages & Condoms.

Hannah and a giant condom made from condoms at the curiously named social enterprise restaurant "Cabbages & Condoms" in Bangkok, where we celebrated Hannah's birthday

Hannah and a giant condom made from condoms at the curiously named social enterprise restaurant "Cabbages & Condoms" in Bangkok, where we celebrated Hannah's birthday

We had to interrupt our trip again at this point for Heiko's visa appointment in Singapore, but we didn't want to fly so much, so we opted to travel back overland (by train and bus), a roundtrip that would take a week in total.