The ended beach vacation

Posted on 2020-03-23

When we flew back to Bangkok, COVID-19 was already spreading but was not yet a global pandemic. In the previous few days, the Thai Ministry of Health had announced several contradictory statements about travel restrictions, so we hurried back to Bangkok by air instead of overland. To our surprise, there were barely any checks whatsoever at the airport, even though we had just arrived from Singapore, that was on Thailand's list of countries with ongoing transmission. Little did we know that, just within the next week, the epidemic would escalate so quickly that the whole world would start going into lockdown. If we had known, we would have stayed put in Singapore.

So we continued our trip as planned. We didn't want to cycle out through the busy city traffic of Bangkok, so we decided to take the train to Samut Sakhon (Mahachai station). This railway line is not connected to the rest of the Thai railway network - it starts from Wongwian Yai station across the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, and terminates at Mahachai station. From Mahachai station, one can cross the river and take another train along another unconnected railway line to Samut Songkhram (Maeklong station). We didn't take this second train, though we still cycled to Maeklong station to watch the train arrive through the so-called "Folding Umbrella Market", where the train passes so close to the market stalls that the vendors have to fold back their awnings and stand back for the train to pass.

The Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, also known as the 'Folding Umbrella Market', as the train passes right through the market eight times a day, forcing vendors to collect in their wares, roll up their awnings, and stand back to allow the train to pass

The Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, also known as the 'Folding Umbrella Market', as the train passes right through the market eight times a day, forcing vendors to collect in their wares, roll up their awnings, and stand back to allow the train to pass

The Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, also known as the 'Folding Umbrella Market', as the train passes right through the market eight times a day, forcing vendors to collect in their wares, roll up their awnings, and stand back to allow the train to pass

The Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, also known as the 'Folding Umbrella Market', as the train passes right through the market eight times a day, forcing vendors to collect in their wares, roll up their awnings, and stand back to allow the train to pass

We then continued on to Phetchaburi where we planned to stay the night. Arriving quite late, we just wanted to eat dinner and sleep early, but we learnt that an annual five-day festival was happening at Khao Wang, an old royal palace complex on a hill in the middle of the city. So we went there to enjoy some food at the night market and watch the fireworks over the palace buildings before calling it a night.

At some salt farms near Ban Laem, on the outskirts of Phetchaburi

At some salt farms near Ban Laem, on the outskirts of Phetchaburi

We happened to visit Phetchaburi during the five-day Phra Nakhon Khiri Festival at Khao Wang, an old royal palace on a hill in the middle of the city. In the evening, the hill was lit up and the streets at the foot of the hill were abuzz with food and entertainment.

We happened to visit Phetchaburi during the five-day Phra Nakhon Khiri Festival at Khao Wang, an old royal palace on a hill in the middle of the city. In the evening, the hill was lit up and the streets at the foot of the hill were abuzz with food and entertainment.

The next day marked the start of our beach vacation. From Phetchaburi, we cycled straight to the beach, and then followed the "scenic route" (many of the small roads here are signposted as such) along the coast all the way to Cha-am. The Cha-am beach is popular with local and foreign tourists alike, but was much emptier than usual in these strange times. After lunch next to the beach, we continued along until the beach road ended and merged with a branch of the Route 4 highway passing through Hua Hin. As there was no smaller road parallel to this stretch, we stayed on the highway until it turned away from the coast. Here, we turned off into a small village, Ban Khao Tao, where we found some accommodation close to the beach.

Taking the "scenic route" on a nice, new bicycle lane along the coast between Phetchaburi and Cha-am. We love the Department of Rural Roads!

Taking the "scenic route" on a nice, new bicycle lane along the coast between Phetchaburi and Cha-am. We love the Department of Rural Roads!

An empty Cha-am beach

An empty Cha-am beach

Khao Tao beach, south of Hua Hin

Khao Tao beach, south of Hua Hin

The next day, we cycled along several more quiet and beautiful beachfront roads as we made our way to Prachuap Khiri Khan. To be honest, we are not beach people, and we never plan typical beach holidays as we hate crowded beaches and find them boring. But cycling along the beaches of mainland southern Thailand was really relaxing, with no crowds (almost all the tourist beaches are on the islands), good views, good roads, cheap food, and cheap accommodation. It finally felt like the holiday we needed from the stresses of full-time traveling. The only hardship we faced these days was, unfortunately, pretty strong headwind coming up the gulf of Thailand.

Heiko on a 2D sailboat on Sam Roi Yod beach

Heiko on a 2D sailboat on Sam Roi Yod beach

We took a rest day in Prachuap Khiri Khan, when we finally found the time to swim in the sea. Just south of Prachuap Khiri Khan is the narrowest point of Thailand along the Isthmus of Kra, where we joked that one could almost throw a stone into Myanmar from the coast (Thailand is just 13km wide at its narrowest point). For a long stretch here, we had no choice but to take the Route 4, that has a good hard shoulder like Route 2 in the northeast, but is relatively less built-up as it passes through fewer towns. Nevertheless, with busy traffic on the highway, we were happy to turn off onto quieter roads again at Thap Sakae. We followed the scenic route again along the coast to Ban Krut, one of the more well-known beaches of mainland southern Thailand. We cruised past the tourist resorts and then continued further past Bang Saphan Yai to a small village, Ban Suan Luang, where we found a cheap and friendly bungalow on the beach and jumped into the sea again. The village had an unexpectedly expat vibe, with a number of retired Westerners living there.

Our bicycles on the beach around Ban Krut

Our bicycles on the beach around Ban Krut

Heiko relaxing in a hammock outside our beachfront bungalow at Ban Suan Luang

Heiko relaxing in a hammock outside our beachfront bungalow at Ban Suan Luang

Continuing south from Ban Suan Luang, the landscape became a bit more undulating and the scenic route no longer hugged the coast as closely as before. Instead, we passed through many coconut, rubber, and oil palm plantations on our way. We stopped for a night at Tung Wua Laen beach, the closest beach to Chumphon, that was surprisingly busy with mostly local tourists. We stayed in a bungalow just across the road from the beach and, of course, swam in the sea again. The next day, we continued on to Lang Suan, following the railway line closely for most of the day. There, we found a really cheap and basic bungalow right on the beach at Pak Nam Lang Suan, run by a friendly fisherman. We were practically the only ones on this stretch of beach, and, as usual, we jumped into the sea again. Unfortunately, the water here was not as clear as it was further north, possibly due to the currents around this corner of Thailand.

Cycling through coconut plantations after leaving the Route 4 near Thap Sakae

Cycling through coconut plantations after leaving the Route 4 near Thap Sakae

Our bungalow on the beach at Pak Nam Lang Suan

Our bungalow on the beach at Pak Nam Lang Suan

The next morning, we awoke to the news that Malaysia had announced a lockdown and was closing its borders, starting the following day. Just the day before, Singapore had also announced additional travel restrictions for travellers entering from any ASEAN country. With the recent surge in the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide, we were already asking ourselves if it was responsible to continue travelling, although we rationalised that, of all the different modes of travel, bicycle touring is probably one of the safest as we are in close contact with only very few people. However, once Malaysia announced its lockdown, we knew that we had to end our trip. We didn't see the point of rushing into Malaysia before the borders closed and cycling through a country in lockdown, and we also didn't want to risk spending more time in Thailand, as things were changing too quickly and would only get worse before they got better. 

So we bid goodbye to the endless beaches of southern Thailand and planned our fastest escape. This involved a day's ride to Chaiya and a night in a hotel there (as there were only trains early in the morning, that we had already missed, or overnight, that we didn't want to take), a slow local train to Hat Yai the next day, and then a flight out of Hat Yai the following day in the evening so that we had enough time to pack our bicycles (with the help of a local bicycle shop). With all the new travel restrictions in Singapore, we were worried that we would be held up at the border or that Heiko would be denied entry, but immigration was surprisingly smooth for us. 

On a tuk-tuk with our packed bicycles on the way to Hat Yai airport. An abrupt end to our trip :(

On a tuk-tuk with our packed bicycles on the way to Hat Yai airport. An abrupt end to our trip :(

We are now serving a 14-day Stay-Home Notice in Singapore. We didn't want our trip to end this way, but extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. We are not particularly sad about skipping the rest of southern Thailand and Malaysia as we have travelled these parts before, though it would have been nice to complete our trip as planned. We are sure we will be back on the road again when this crisis is over :)