Old Si Satchanalai to Phrae to Song

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.

Way Phra Si Ratana Mahathat – Old Si Satchanalai

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.

Phoomthai Garden Hotel – highly recommended. A Thai lady singing Carpenters songs, in English, in the restaurant was bizarre, she was surprisingly good though.

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.

Rotovating the paddies, must be firm ground beneath the flooding

Prompiram to Si Satchanalai

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.

A very wobbly suspension bridge over the river Yom – one of our ‘off the beaten track’ Kamoot discoveries
Early morning Water Buffalo Market

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.

Buddhas at Wat Saphan Hin, Old Sukhothai. Photo taken as we watched the sunrise over the old city

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

Dan Sai to Prompiram Suannam

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.

Dan Sai – famous for masked rain-making ceremonies each June

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.

Beautifully decorated tractor lorries hauling rice grains from the combine harvester

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.

Water Buffalo having a wallow
Mid-ride snack sheltering from the sun amongst sugar cane

Chiang Khan to Dan Sai

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.

Quiet roads and lovely scenery

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).

Cow and calf grazing alongside the road

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.

Mechanisation comes to the rice paddies. My Grandad had a mobile threshing machine (for corn), powered by his steam engine, in the 1920s
‘Towel Art’ in our room in Tha Li all for the princely sum of £15.41
Collecting sap from a rubber tree at one drip every three seconds

Nong Khai to Chiang Khan

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.

Red hot chilli peppers

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.

The traditional …..
… and the modern

Much time and effort appears to be expended in spreading the rice crop out on plastic matting to dry each day.

Rice drying in action

Escaping the cold …

A rough approximation of our route c. 800 miles

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.

Park of huge Hindu & Buddhist concrete sculptures – Nong Khai

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.

Water spouting dragons beside the Mekong River Nong Khai

Arrivedeci Bella Italia …

On Sunday, with a day in hand before heading back to Venice for our flight home, we cycled 25 miles northwest of Verona to Lake Garda. Nested in the foothills of the Dolomites, the lake is one of the premier tourist destinations in Northern Italy. It is easy to see why, the location is beautiful and despite the huge number of tourists, is very tranquil by the water.

Garda Town, Lake Garda

There are plans for a dedicated cycle path all around the 34 x 10 mile (at its longest and widest points) lake but currently it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Pedestrians, holiday makers almost exclusively on electric bikes, sandy paths, coarse stoney sections, diversions on to roads and a bridge requiring riders to carry their bikes up and down the steps either side are just a few of the obstacles encountered. It took twice as long as it should have to get to Peschiera Del Garda, at the southern end of the lake, where we spent the night.

Building in Vicenza designed by Andrea Palladio, a 16th century architect considered to be one of the most influential in his field

To avoid a repititious, return, journey to Verona on Monday we caught an early train to a village just east of the city. We had a very enjoyable ride, largely following bike route I1 alongside the river Bacchiglione, through vineyards and farmland. A 250 metre climb up a long hill gave glorious views of and a heady descent into the city of Vicenza, where we passed a couple of hours viewing the architectural legacy of the city’s most famous son, Antonio Palladio. His palladian coloumns and facades grace many fine palaces and public buildings. A star exhibit in a gathering of vintage cars in the main Piazza was made in 1908.

Typical cobbled Street in Padua

Our penultimate night was a very comfortable ‘Agriturismo’ B&B at the small village of Montegalda. Paulo, our charming host, runs the oldest Grappa Distillery in Italy, it has been in his family for 179 years, with the farmhouse dating back to the 1400s. Today’s ride continued on route I1, with a small detour to visit Padua. We enjoyed its cobbled streets, fine old Piazzas and the amazing carvings and frescos in the Basilica of St Anthony.

A further 30 miles this afternoon sees us about 3 miles from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport for our flight home tomorrow.

Another wonderful trip, 1,038 miles pedaled, through five countries with just one puncture and a wobbly mudguard.

A couple of happy pedallers leaving Paulo’s Distillery.

Spot the Crop …

The past three days have centred on the Adige, Italy’s second longest river, which rises in the Austrian Alps and flows south and east to the Adriatic. We joined the river at Cavarzere, having cycled the length of the narrow islands of Lido di Venezia and Pellestrina via a short vehicle ferry ride between the two. A second passenger ferry took us from Pallestrina to Chioggia on mainland Italy.

Chioggia – a delightful surprise, a mini Venice with canals and bridges

From Chioggia we found quiet roads through fertile farmland with almost no population until we encountered the river, which is dotted with small villages.

There is a choice of cycle paths on either side of the levee above the river or the quiet roads winding alongside. We chose the roads for greater rolling speed, seeing the villages along the way and avoiding hoards of flying ants near to the water. We were concerned that despite the clearly productive land, so many houses and farm buildings are abandoned and falling into disrepair.

One of too many houses now deralict

After a night in the tiny village of Concadirame, at a family run B&B we continued another 65 miles up river on Thursday. It was a day of ‘spot the crop, as maize and soy beans gave way to horticultural and orchard crops. Acres of apples, so ripe we could smell them, kiwi fruit, pomegranates, some hi-tech, high rise, hydroponic strawberries, polytunnels full of peppers, tomatoes and chrysanthemums to name but a few. The only livestock in evidence was the odd horse.

The river provided a very easy run in to the beautiful city of Verona with its wealth of Roman antiquities. Today (Friday) was spent walking around the historic sights which included the 14th centuary house where Shakespeare’s Juliet lived, fine old bridges across the river, a Roman amphitheatre and the famous 1st centuary Roman Arena. Once the setting for gladiators and lions, it now hosts opera and other musical performances. The shear scale of the engineering defies imagination, especially in the knowledge that even though a 12th centuary earthquake destroyed all but four of the outer arches, the main body was unscathed.

Inside the Arena, seating 30,000 people, the four remaining arches on the far side
Outside the Roman Arena in Verona

Water everywhere …

We seem to have left the hills behind. Our journey, once away from Trieste’s urban sprawl, mainly followed bike route I3 through flat, open farmland (maize and vines) and small villages, many with ancient Roman pedigrees.

Trieste to Lido De Venizia

The 120 miles to Lido di Venezia took two days with an overnight stop in Portogruero, an interesting, non touristy town, with many fine old buildings including a bell tower that can match the one in Pisa when it comes to leaning.

Both rides were marred by rain, Sunday afternoon was warm with persistent drizzle. Yesterday, at 11 degrees Celsius, was fully 10 degrees cooler than previous days. A couple of ominous claps of thunder heralded a huge downpour with the rain bouncing back off the ground soaking our feet in no time. Curiously, the water spraying up from puddles felt warm, the effect of tarmac heated over previous sunny days?

St. Mark’s Campanile (Bell Tower) behind the Ducal Palace. Venice Waterfront

With a nod to our purse strings and as bicycles are banned in Venice, last night (Monday) and tonight we are staying on the Lido di Venezia a long, thin, outer island accessed by a 20 minute ferry ride from Jesolo. This morning we caught a vaporetti, a bus service by boat, to San Marco, to explore the wonders of Venice.

West Door St. Mark’s Cathedral

The half hour queue to enter St. Mark’s Cathedral was well worth it. Colourful mosaics, depicting biblical scenes, cover the ceiling vaults and cupolas. A jewelled, golden alter-piece, The Pala d’Oro, commissioned in Constantinople in 976, and four lifesize copper horses dated as Roman works from the second centuary are highlights.

Canal between the Ducal Palace and former gaol, Bridge of Sighs in the far distance

Three countries in one day

Our ride up the Istrian Peninsula has continued over the three days since leaving Rovinj. Hugging the shore wherever possible has allowed us to marvel at the glorious, clear blue, sparkling water of the Adriatic sea. On occasions we have found ourselves on rough, stoney tracks to avoid busy roads, safer, but very much harder going. After cycling around the Lim Kanal, a fjord like inlet, the next major town up the coast is Porec.

The old town of Porec

Porec is home to the earliest, best preserved site of Christian worship in the world. Now a world heritage site, The Euphrates Basilica, dates back some 1700 years to the fourth centuary. A wealth of mosaic floor and wall decoration dating back to that time has been discovered; well worth the visit.

Fourth centuary mosaics – Porec, Croatia

Following a night at a room in a private house, just outside Porec we followed the coast north to the last sizable town in Croatia, Crveni Vrh, (no we don’t know how to pronounce either). Needing to use up our remaining Croatian Kona, we stayed in a room at the superbly located Pizzaria Laura, which is right on the shore with views to Slovenia’s coastal gem, Piran, and the mighty Dolomites in the far distance.

Pizzaria Laura. Our last night in Croatia

Today (Saturday) after eight miles or so, we found a windy little road that avoided the lengthy queue of traffic crossing the border from Croatia into Slovenia. We were waved through with hardly a glance at our passports and immediately picked up a paved bike path which lead us around Slovenia’s pretty but short coast; through Portoroz, Piran, Isola and Koper.

Isola on the Peninsula, Koper in the distance

We crossed the now deserted border contol between Slovenia and Italy this afternoon. Then peddaled on through the charming town of Muggia, to the city of Trieste, which boasts some large squares, fine architecture, Roman antiquities and narrow streets.

Waterfront at Trieste