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Thailand: The Land Of Smiles

Thailand: The Land of Smiles

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Day 240 – 19,854km

Solo travel has a habit of bringing many memories to the surface, good and bad. We all know a place in our memory with positive memories – maybe a romantic holiday with a loved one, a moment of great achievement or a place of reassuring familiarity. We also all have those places that trigger negative emotions – the time we heard of a bereavement, experienced a breakup or discovered an uncomfortable truth. I believe the process of reflecting upon these moments is a healthy one; it develops self-awareness and is essential for us to move forward.

The reason I’ve started on this subject is that Thailand has been one of those places. I visited Thailand when I was 18, in March 2008, exactly 11 years before returning on my bike. I could show you a beautiful array of photos, from kayaking with a shimmering sun-filled background, to group shots of guys revelling in the joys of youth on pristine beaches.

I could also show you a hastily re-arranged itinerary – I’d switched it at the earliest possible moment after deciding, after a mere two weeks, that Thailand was not the place for me. It’s amazing what a photo album can do. There was a whole host of reasons why it wasn’t right for me to be there and if you’ve read In Search of Sisu then you might understand more.

Thailand, therefore, was a place I felt a little ambivalent towards. I knew returning would be, as much as everything else, a time for contemplation over the past decade while making my way south.

On the Road Again

It was a real bugger to leave Vientiane and Laos. I had a wonderful time there with my friend Celia, being totally relaxed, so the idea of hitting the road again, of grafting in the midday sun and sweating in my tent just didn’t fill me with that much enthusiasm. I delayed my departure bit by bit but finally knew the time had come, packed my panniers and gingerly edged towards the Thai border feeling a bit deflated.

I knew I had another friend waiting within a week but after so long without, it seemed illogical for me to leave. “The trip has to go on” is what I continually told myself and is a sentiment I also wholly believe in. I don’t want to aimlessly wander for year upon year so momentum is needed to sustain motivation: personal preference. I’ve met some that pedal away without specific focus other than to explore a particular area. I respect that level of authentic and unpressurised travel enormously but for me, at this moment in time, it just wouldn’t tick the right boxes. Alas, my passport stamps and entry process was complete pretty swiftly and the Thailand flags welcomed me halfway across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River. An old country in my memory but a new one on this trip.

Capital Gains

2,000km lay ahead but, as usual, I wanted to make a big indentation in that figure early on to reassure myself of positive progress having been stationary for almost a week. I pushed pretty hard from Vientiane to Bangkok and covered that 700km stretch in four days. Physically tough and some long days in the saddle in intense heat touching on 40°C – but it was worth it.

My mind was kept occupied by a number of things that often accompany a new country. As a traveller, you’re almost seeking differences from what went before and taking pleasure in the recognisable. The design layout of Tesco Lotus shops was a friendly reminder of the UK but it was the 7-Eleven stores that really became a theme stretching across Thailand. 7-Eleven is the convenience store in Thailand. The free Wi-Fi was a bonus but the Slurpees (Slush Puppies for UK readers), iced coffees and cool, air-conditioned interiors were the points that sealed the deal. These became the focal points of my stops. I began to question, for the first time this trip actually, the detrimental impact on my teeth but hey, when in Thailand…and in Thailand, they love an extra dollop of sugary ice.

Beyond that though, I took a total delight across the country at the street food (no change) and fresh fruit (no change). I can assure you that freshly sliced watermelon or pineapple at the side of the road when the sun is bearing down is hard to beat. Another theme was the opportunity to shamelessly embrace the variety of ice creams; this is a serious weakness of mine and has been for many years. It’s immensely easy to justify when cycling in Thailand due to the perfect mixture of a sugar hit and a refreshing chill to keep the legs spinning away.

(Fyi, lollies are great but melt alarmingly fast unless they’re a Calippo, which is wisely encased in a tube. The Minions ones are banana flavoured and I devoured them too fast but are a nice novelty. The chocolate-encased ones – think Magnums – benefit from having a harder exterior to decrease melting but, like with the Minions, they disappear too fast. In conclusion…Calippo makes the ideal ice-cream/lolly variant for a cycle tourer who wants to eat on the move. End.)

I was also very happily distracted in that initial stint by all the campaign posters. The 2019 Thai General Election was fast approaching and I had 40 candidates all vying for my attention on the roadside. It’s a fascinating process actually: trying to analyse different people, guessing their policies and making judgements on the image they are trying to present to the world. There were clearly some green candidates, some military veterans and those trying to fully legalise marijuana. Have a look below for a few of the ones I came across and make up your own mind as to who you would and would not trust to lead your country.

Friendly Faces

I was hugely excited to pedal through the craziness of Bangkok in order to reach the home of Freddie and his wife, Astrid. Despite being hot, sweaty and dehydrated after that intense four-day period, getting a hug from an old mate and sharing a beer was fantastic. Throw in some peanut butter, a coffee machine, a pair of puppies, a nearby golf course and it’s reasonable to say it was pretty relaxing stint out of the saddle.

I really underestimated the impact of seeing friends on this trip. I miss my friends and family at home, of course I do, but I find, and it’s the same with other solo cycle tourers I’ve come across, that you re-adjust your mentality to being away. That adjustment is a tough one but I am a long way from the UK now, yet feel very connected still through WhatsApp and Instagram. However, for me, genuine friendship is feeling at total ease in someone’s company, and I’m thankful I’ve had that at different stages of this venture.

Warmshowers

I had a few interesting stays with Warmshowers hosts in Thailand. Warmshowers, for those that aren’t aware, is essentially Couchsurfing for cycle touring. People offer their homes to stay in for a night or two for cycle tourers in the knowledge that, as is often the case, they’ve been on the other side of the fence previously. It is a wonderful community based on trust and mutual acknowledgement of the journey we’re on when pedalling through a foreign country with nought but our panniers and a sense of bewilderment. I avoided this site at the beginning of the trip because I wanted to learn the self-sufficient side of cycle touring without relying on others. My perspective has now changed slightly and, beyond the obvious benefits of a bed and shower, it provides a great opportunity to meet up with locals and better understand the environment and culture you’re cycling through.

I met with Manoon after he invited me to join him and his friends for dinner soon after I arrived in town; a very kind gesture. Before I even had time to shower and change my clothes, we had dropped the bike off at his home and were off again to a bar. This time it was live music, more food and more beers which went on well beyond midnight. I was hugely appreciative of Manoon going out of his way to show me a good night in Thailand. It was also met with the emotional tug of knowing that I had to be up at 6am for another 150km on the bike and not wanting to be rude. All in all, it was another evening that will remain with me and another example of the kindness of strangers.

A bizarre Warmshowers evening occurred in Central Thailand. I was informed the host would be away but his Brother-in-Law was around; he wasn’t. Instead, I rolled through the gates, saw three tents erected, four bikes and some smiling faces coming up to greet me. It was an odd sight, the five of us having a few cold beers on the porch of someone’s house when they weren’t there.

It was nice to compare notes with Thorve (Germany), Jamie (UK) and Remi & Helena (France). We had all navigated our way from Western Europe to Thailand over different time periods and different routes. With that comes a range of amusing anecdotes, total relatability and familiarity. I will continue to have total respect for anyone who packs up their bike, leaves home and ventures off to lands unknown.

Land of Smiles

Cross some borders and the difference is unambiguous – Bulgaria and Turkey along with China and Kazakhstan spring to mind – whereas the transition occurs far more fluidly with others. Laos is known to be hugely laid back and friendly, Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”. Unlike in China, the locals I met in both made me feel hugely welcomed. The cynic might say this is because in Thailand especially, tourism is a huge industry and so another Western European warrants positivity to generate future wealth for the country. I tend to avoid touristy spots, I actually find them quite hectic and unrelaxing especially if I’ve been by myself on the bike for a long stint. The people I meet in the remoter parts of these countries do not smile because they see dollar signs; a glance at my means of transport, grubby clothes and general demeanour do not indicate a profligate traveller. They smile because they are intrigued, they want to help and often want a foreigner to come away with the best image of Thailand. I prefer that argument, it is based on authenticity and natural kindness which I’ve become a huge believer in.

The climate in the UK is not suitable to grow palm trees. There’s something about them, alongside coconuts, that created a psychological impact I was on holiday and thus able to enjoy the process. Winter and China were about enduring and clinging onto fleeting moments of hope and brightness. Being in Thailand, however, suddenly felt as though a great pressure had been alleviated. By this point, I had covered over 17,000km and was enticingly close to my next major goal of Singapore. A journey through Malaysia awaited, a friend in Kuala Lumpur would split up that leg, and then I was there, out of land and stationary for a period of time. With time pressure removed from my shoulders, I didn’t mind stopping to savour fresh fruit juice or coconut water from street sellers. I was perfectly happy to take a detour along the shoreline and stop to swim in the midday heat to cool down.

For so many hours, an embarrassing amount really, I have thought about swimming off the coast of Thailand. It represented finally being in a place of beauty and stillness; I’m grateful I built it up and grateful I was not disappointed. In the touristy spots I avoided, I know busy and crowded beaches are the norm. However, hop on a bike and potter along the coastline and you’ll come across mile upon mile of isolated beaches with white sands and the calming sound of gentle waves lapping onto the shore. It felt like a rare privilege to embrace this side of Thailand. It showed the beauty of travel by bike that these opportunities were available to me.

Thailand Conclusions

I visited Thailand when I was a teenager in search of something wholly removed from the land of full moon parties and hedonistic spending I found myself in. I fully understand why that appealed to so many, and still do, but for me, it was neither the time nor the place. I had the Seven Summits ambition in my spotlight and I’m appreciative I decided to follow my instinct and head to Kilimanjaro alone instead of remaining in SE Asia.

To return a decade later and feel such internal and external enjoyment is hugely rewarding. It is an example of a perspective change as you mature, develop your character and understand your strengths, weaknesses and motivations. Unsurprisingly, solo bike travel generates a lot of time for self-reflection which can be an enlightening and difficult process. If, however, it allows for a thoughtful appreciation of one’s journey over the past decade, as well as the past eight months, then it once again reaffirms to me that this is a worthwhile journey that continues to stimulate thought and encourage progression onwards.