Two nights in Old Si Satchanalai provided respite from ‘route’ cycling and the opportunity to visit the Unesco World Heritage Park, just half a mile away, where there are many more ruins dating back to the 12th centuary. The remains of the temples are set in beautifully kept parklands, and are somewhat reminiscent of the relics at Ankor in Cambodia, but without the hordes of people and at £2.50 each for us and 25p per bike, the hefty entrance fee.
The skill of the craftsmen who built and decorated these enormous temples is truly awe inspiring.
The ‘day off’ as Gavin insists on calling the day cycling between the temples and exploring them on foot, in 30+ degrees, had to be ‘paid for’ with an 80 mile ride north to Phrae. A 5.45 am start required the use of lights but was essential to get miles in before the heat built. The early stages along the Yom river, through miles of freshly sprouting rice, was delightful. The water filled paddies glistened in the early morning sun with the growing seedlings a vibrant green five o’clock shadow where flocks of egrets and the occasional grey heron feast.
The second half, after the busy town of Uttaradit (breakfast stop with 36 miles done by 8.15 am) was less fun as we had to take a major highway; the traffic noise, heat and the biggest hill we have encountered so far were quite wearing, despite there being a reasonable shoulder most of the way. We arrived in Phrae; the old town is heavily influenced by Burmese carpentry skills, at 2pm and were very happy to chill at the delightful Phoomthai Garden Hotel. Sadly neither of us had the energy to take a dip in the pool just outside our room.
Having only 30 miles to do today (Saturday) allowed us a bit of a lie-in and a very nice breakfast. In contrast to yesterday, our route to Song was on minor roads winding through delightfully named villages and open farmland.
What a joy; Kamoot, the bike mapping and navigation app we are using, has guided us through delightful, traditional villages in the agriculturally rich north central plain. The mapping is so detailed we can use older roads and paths which has the double benefit of avoiding faster traffic on the main roads and experiencing day to day Thai life.
We had a magical overnight stop at Old Sukhothai, the ancient capital of Thailand, in an air-conditioned, comfortable cabin set in a garden of banana trees and lotus flowers. The very sweet lady owner could not have been more kind or helpful. We spent Tuesday afternoon cycling around the various ruins of the wealthy 12th-13th centuary Sukhothai civilisation that ruled the region. Devotion to their religion is clearly evident with Buddhas everywhere, from small representations to huge monuments.
This morning (Wednesday) we cycled another 40 miles north, along the banks of the Yom river, where there is much water extraction to irrigate the largely horticultural crops grown alongside. We are now in Si Satchanalai, a satellite town from the 13th centuary, Sukhothai era. We intend to spend two nights here, for some rest, and to explore the many monuments in this UNESCO world heritage site.
Outside our air-conditioned, en-suite cabin at Sukhothai City Resort
350 miles done. We are now out of the Luang Prabang Range of hills, and have entered the north central plain. We are spending tonight in a Golf Resort set within an oxbow of the Nam River, just west of Phitsanulok. Sunday’s ride from Dan Sai to Chattrakan was a game of two halves, the first half being very hilly but relatively quiet. After a stops for coffee in Nakon Thai and exchanging tales with 3 cycle tourists from Utah in the US, the roads became much busier. Generally drivers are very courteous and give us plenty of room.
Today (Monday) we were back on quiet rural roads where most of the traffic was either locals going about their business on mopeds or farmers busy with harvest, at one point herding several water buffalo cows and calves across the road. Thailand has a huge agriculture sector accounting for circa 10% of GDP, much of it centred here in the, very flat, North Central Plain. The fields are much bigger and mechanisation much more evident.
We rode through acres of sugar cane, a significant amount of very healthy looking maize, banana and mango groves and a crop which appears to grow from ‘sticks’ planted in ridges – still trying to fathom what this is.
All is going well, with early starts (13°c v 29°c by 11.00am) proving both essential for pleasant cycling and allowing us to experience the mellow colours and tranquility resulting from the dawning light.
Whilst the terrain has got more hilly in the Luang Prabang Range the climbs have not been too challenging, whilst allowing for exhilarating downhills and some fun rollercoasters.
From Chiang Khan we followed the Thai – Laos border along the Mekong and then the smaller Hueang river. Eventually heading south west, away from the border, just beyond the little town of Tha Li where we spent Friday night. A delightful young Thai couple, with a cute little cafe, cooked us a tasty chicken and fried rice dish followed by waffles with local bananas and chocolate sauce – yum. They were very interested in our journey but left us feeling very old with their astonishment that we could undertake such a trip at our age (the Thais have no qualms at asking how old we are).
Most agricultural land is taken up with rice – typically three crops are grown each year, harvest is in full swing. Yesterday we watched as one farmer threshed the grains from the stalks by repeatedly beating the seed heads against the ground, back breaking work for hours in 30+degree heat. Today we passed a group feeding the sheaves into a threshing machine powered by the hydraulics on a small tractor. The chaff and ‘straw’ being blown into the air before landing in a big heap.
120 miles pedaled, heading north, alongside the Mekong since leaving Nong Khai. The first day to Sangkhom was relatively flat, with frequent detours through villages to see day to day life whilst avoiding the highway despite traffic being very light.
The river valley is clearly very fertile with acres of vegetable crops and swathes of tiny red hot chilli peppers variously being watered, weeded or picked by straw-hatted workers.
Setting off at first light, just after 6am, makes for much more pleasant cycling before the sun gets high and temperatures soar. Today we completed the 68 miles from Sangkohm by 12.30pm allowing time to chill in an air-conditioned room before venturing out to explore once the heat recedes.
Today’s ride was more undulating and scenic with views of beautiful, tree-clad hillsides in Laos across the river. Farmers are busy harvesting rice, mostly by hand, with small, hand-cut sheaves being loaded using pitch forks onto pickup trucks and curious tractors. However, two tiny combine harvester type machines on catapillar tracks were causing much interest amongst the locals, and no doubt putting many out of work.
Much time and effort appears to be expended in spreading the rice crop out on plastic matting to dry each day.
Unable to make our usual Jan/Feb escape to warmer shores in 2020, we are taking advantage of some very competitive flights to Bangkok to spend three weeks cycling in East and North Thailand. Some of which will be the trip we had to abandon in 2016 after Gavin broke his ankle.
Following a straightforward 12 hour flight (Boing 777) from Heathrow to Bangkok, we took a 1 hour internal flight, northeast, to Udon Thani and then a taxi to get to Nong Khai where the pedalling will begin. Nong Khai is located on the Mekong River, almost opposite the Laos capital city, Vientiane, which we visited on our 2013-14 South East Asia trip.
Tuesday was spent getting the bikes ready, exploring this delightful little, non touristy, town and acclimatising to the 32 degree temperature.
We plan to start tomorrow’s fifty plus miles at first light, closely following the river northwards, to get the bulk of the cycling done before it gets too hot.