December, 4th 2009
At around eight o’clock in the morning, I started my intrepid cycle ride in earnest, believing that I’d got everything that I needed. My rucksack, thankfully, felt relatively light considering what I was carrying. One could never really prepare oneself for the cycle conditions here, especially in this unbearable heat. Up to now, I’d never considered setting off early to take advantage of the cooler temperatures or the low volume of traffic. I’d always considered that cycling in the dark was too dangerous, always opting to cycle when it was light; believing it was safer.
My cycling was quite impressive, to begin with, as I made steady progress. Phetkasem Road was relatively kind to me, especially near the dreaded market areas, which was located some distance from my apartment. Once far west of the ring road, with my vitality and energy gurgling away from within, I started to put on a bit of a spurt and thus increase my speed, which I was able to do with ease for the first part of my journey.
I crossed from the district of Nakhon Pathom into Ratchaburi. There was nothing really of much interest except for the continuation of the urban sprawl. Once I started on my approach to Kanchanaburi, the scenery started to become exquisitely interesting, as the forested valleys came to life with the sounds and smell of the jungle’s flora and fauna: butterflies and dragonflies fluttered and darted crazily across my path on their silly inconsequential flights. At the edge of the forest, lianas attempted to make strangleholds on the teak, rubber and other oversized, evergreen giants. The teak tree’s face-sized leaves created small clusters of canopies at the tops of the trees, while other tree leaves just hung listlessly on the trees. For those trees that had fallen, well, they waited anxiously to decay and wither away as parasitic plants and insects made the most of a feeding frenzy.
There I was, immersed by nature. The sheer beauty seemed to spur me on, my pulse throbbing and my heart racing. I hardly got the chance to look at most of it being totally focused on what I was doing, but constantly aware of its strikingly beautiful presence around me.
I cycled on through what looked like small friendly villages, which were nothing more than a collection of some very crude looking small hovels. Eventually, I hit the town of Kanchanaburi. This was not my intended destination. I knew it would be far too busy and expensive for me to stay there. An impromptu plan came to mind that would take me further west, enabling me to experience the glorious, exquisite countryside, which I so eagerly wanted to witness.
So out of the town, I cycled, picking at random the most obvious route. Something told me that there was some sort of motorbike rally going on. The mountain peaks were difficult to cycle up; easier said than done. A noisy string of screaming motorbikes menacingly tore past me. Some of them looked like the meanest machines imaginable.
I followed the groaning noise, believing that, sooner or later I would stumble across the resort where they were all rendezvousing at. There were certainly enough riders, making it easy not to lose track of them. They couldn’t get away fast enough due to the fact that the road twisted and turned as it hugged the invisible contours of the mountainous landscape.
Persistently, those powerful, crazy machines came tearing up behind me. I could hear the roar and groans of their powerful engines from miles away as they attempted the unforgiving terrain and some of the hairpin bends. The sound just seemed to travel across what should have been a tranquil setting.
Some of the luckier motorcyclists didn’t have to endure the dangerous, winding, narrow roads in their uncomfortable, sweaty jeans and leathers in the intensity of the sun, as their machines were nicely strapped down in the back of pick-up trucks. As for me, well, I was getting accustomed to becoming saddle sore and having aching limbs, not to mention being matted in sticky sweat from head to toe.
The road seemed endless, as I became attuned to the landscape around me, but where were my energy and stamina going to come from to conquer those gruelling, steep contours was anybody’s guess. I pulled on the handlebars and pushed down with my legs while balancing a rucksack on my back. That in itself was a problematic task. I just summoned all the depleted vestiges of energy that I had left. If it meant scraping the bottom of the barrel, then so be it. I was certain that something would eventually give and no doubt that would be my sciatic nerve on my left side.
Eventually, the road levelled out and it was then that I discovered where all the motorcyclists were converging. I hastily followed the long convoy of mean machines into this undisclosed campsite. Some of the chalets looked more like small, alpine, wooden-clad cabins, wonderfully designed and certainly practical. There were hundreds of them; just a pity there was no snow. I cycled into the campsite and arrived at the reception office.
‘Hello, do you have any spare accommodation available?’ I knew that I was pushing my luck with more motorcyclists massing up behind me.
‘No. I’m sorry we are fully booked.’
She then redirected me to a brand new site where she was certain they would accommodate me. She even drew a vague map for me to follow. With there being so few roads out here, it was virtually impossible for me to get lost, the directions seemed so straight forward.
I followed the vague map and the instructions. My journey was slowed down somewhat by the increasingly narrow twists in the road that wound away in front of me. I just compromised with the oncoming motorcyclists as they screamed past me. Still, it didn’t spoil the tranquillity of the place.
I found the destination I was looking for. I just seemed to simply stumble across it, as if by accident. On first impressions, it looked very crude and quite basic, as if it had simply been knocked up that very afternoon. There were workmen outside, putting the finishing touches to it.
‘Hello! Are you able to take guests yet?’ I asked the owner, not really sure if they were ready or not.
‘Oh, yes! Please come and have a look – you’ll be impressed by it.’ The owner wasted no time in showing me how modern the chalets were inside. He seemed exhilarated that I was his first potential customer. Inside, it certainly looked comfortable with a double bed, hot shower, sink and flushable toilet. It also possessed a spacious living quarter with a television. The local area seemed quiet too, which suited me down to a tee.
‘There are no curtains up, yet.’ I pointed out to the owner.
‘Don’t worry the glass is tinted so you can’t actually see in from the outside.’ At that moment, I didn’t really think too much about it.
‘OK. I’ll take up your offer,’ I said, ‘for a few days,’ not really knowing how far I would have had to cycle before I came across more accommodation. I might have had to cycle miles, possibly for the rest of the afternoon and into the night, which wasn’t really my intention. I settled into one of the end rooms. The cost per night was 750 baht (£15) which seemed reasonable.
It was now two o’clock in the afternoon. Surprisingly, I’d not made a single stop for refreshments on the way and I’d averaged a speed of 32km/h. I was impressed by my achievement and of my prowess in completing such a perilous 140km journey on my own, much of which had been cycling uphill in implacable heat. The latter part, I must confess, had been the hardest.
I showered and refreshed myself and after doing my stretching exercises, I decided to settle down to recoup my energy. With no curtains up, I felt a little uncomfortable, exposed as you could say, but I soon fell asleep.
The bed was comfortable, but I was woken when the second batch of guests arrived. Thankfully, they took up the far end chalet. This was a family with two very young, delightfully inquisitive girls who initially woke me up with their excitement, so rather than attempting to go back to sleep again, I decided to venture out to explore the local vicinity and hopefully, find somewhere to eat before it got too late. Eating out here meant cycling into the local villages and hamlets. With more directions given to me by the owner, I cycled off into the great unknown with a glorious tropical sunset to accompany me.
By the time I reached the designated eating place, twilight had besieged me. The meal was good, consisting of chicken and garlic with a refreshing glass of Coke to drink which just seemed to just hit the spot.
By the time I got around to cycling back again, my legs were aching after all the miles that they’d endured. A few stretching exercises should rectify that, I thought. I found my way back without any problems and relaxed, by watching the good old BBC World News.
Later, the neighbours came back from dinner and the young girls started their joyful games by running up and down the front of the chalets. This didn’t bother me, as I knew that if I had children of my own, I’d much prefer them to play outside than to sit inside watching television or playing computer games.
After a while, the girls suddenly ceased playing. I continued watching television; but, that was before I suddenly realised that there were two, innocent faces peering in at me from the outside. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but then I realised that they probably could see everything that was going on. Of course, I wasn’t annoyed with them, they were only up to a bit of harmless mischief like most kids get up to at that age. I decided to test out my theory by getting up and seeing what their reaction would be. Just as I thought, they scampered off down to their end. I decided to go out to investigate and sure enough, I was right. The tinted glass had become translucent now that the dominant light was coming from within. I decided to improvise by designing some makeshift curtains from a spare bed sheet, which had been left in the room.
As the night progressed into the early morning, things started to go wrong. Some of the lights stopped working and the water from the sink wouldn’t go down the drain.
The next morning, I decided to wash my cycle jersey in the sink. I gave it a jolly good wash before putting it out on a makeshift line to dry. I had breakfast, which was bought locally and then I headed out on my ‘mission impossible.’ My intention was to explore Thailand’s Wild West by bicycle. I felt like some intrepid explorer – Dr Livingstone; I presume.
The weather was full of promises, which just complimented the breathtaking scenery. More to the point, it was verdant. The only noise came from the rasps of the irritating cicadas. As usual, there must have been thousands of them. There was not as much forest as I imagined here, but I was aware of its presence as in the far-flung distance as it carpeted the vertiginous landscape. I was hooked on the serenity of the place, not really wanting to leave the beauty spots that I’d discovered in any great hurry.
I cycled on further, with my curiosity driving me forward if only to know what was beyond the next bend in the road. The view across the valleys was spectacular; a vast, panoramic view of a rugged, precipitous, mountainous landscape, completely unimaginable – like something out of a dream. This was my newly adopted country trying to seduce and impress me with what it had to offer. I stopped for a moment, which no doubt would develop into a minute and given the chance an hour, just to take in the scenery and to listen to the noise of the mountains. There was no wind singing through the crevices or creeks. All I could hear was the racket of the pestering cicada insects. Nor did I see any snakes or any animals on my cycle jaunt, maybe the area was completely denuded of wildlife. Nothing stirred just the occasional bits of cloud, which gracefully crossed the lazy pasty blue sky.
I cycled around on the quiet roads. The motorcyclists had all but disappeared from the mountainous roads, leaving just green pastures, peppered with trees. Thankfully, the weather was kind to me. The rainy season had all but dried up, leaving us with a fresher and cooler season to contend with, which seemed to complement the surreal setting.
The plan of the morning’s adventure had been to go out, to get a feel of the terrain before planning a more challenging route for the afternoon. I’d spent three hours cycling adventure before decided to venture back before fatigue set in.
I was tired and needed a shower and some sleep, but when I got back, I discovered, to my dismay, that the water had been turned off; yet again. So I just sweatily snuggled up on my bed and went to sleep. My makeshift curtains were still precariously hanging there. They’d done the job, as I’d intended them to, which, consequently, had made the room somewhat darker than it had been previously.
This time, I managed to get some sleep, but I didn’t dream about anything that I could recall. I was woken up by the sound of water gurgling through the pipes, to which, I presumed, that they’d turned on the water again. So, into the shower I went, eagerly wanting to wash my cycling gear too. I pensively wondered what exciting experience I might encounter in the afternoon. I had no real plans about where I might end up going. Heading out for the Myanmar border sounded an intriguing idea, but cycling there would be fraught with trepidation, especially when you started to consider the potential problems of bandits, illegal border crossings and people smugglers.
Up to now, my weekend had gone relatively to plan, but whilst I showered, my day dramatically changed. I’d only just started to dry myself down when the sink basin fell from the wall, smashing into three main chunks and scattering thousands of sharpened fragments of porcelain in every direction imaginable. Some of them, needless to say, found my feet an easy target. I suddenly became very despondent with the whole place: no curtains, a lack of water and now a broken sink. The only thing I needed now was for the roof to collapse in on me or to be swallowed up by a sinkhole. I went to seek advice over the condition of the unit to the owner.
‘My sink has fallen off the wall and shattered into a thousand and one pieces. What can you do about it? Can you move me into the middle chalet?’ I asked.
‘No, the middle chalet has been taken, but we can fix your sink for you.’
On that note, I thought of all the other recurring problems and decided that I’d move on, seeing as I was in such a disgruntled mood with everything.
‘OK, I’ll pay you and then I’ll return back to Bangkok.’
‘Bangkok! You’ll never make it before it gets dark. Why not stay here for another night? We’ll rectify everything. Seize the moment of this unique setting in this wonderful peaceful land.’ He was certainly adamant in his stance.
‘I’m an experienced cyclist,’ I said. ‘If I set off now, I’ll be back around dusk – believe me. I don’t mess around once I get going,’ but I didn’t think he was aware of my cycling capabilities.
At around two o’clock, I set off. I first headed off for the centre of Kanchanaburi, which was around 27 km east of where I was. I knew that most of it was downhill, but it still took me the best part of an hour to get there, thanks to the contours of the landscape and the winding roads. Some of the bends were worse than others.
The weekend hadn’t gone as planned, but it had been nice to get away from the drab scenery of Bangkok and to do some strenuous cycling up country for once.
From Kanchanaburi, I cycled down the road 323 and out towards Phetkasem Road. My legs were going like the clappers. It was another hour and a half before I hit Phetkasem Road, making good progress. I eventually cycled past Nakhon Pathom, heading east. In less than an hour, I was cycling over the Tha Chin River and soon, I picked up directions for the Rose Garden, which was a good sign, knowing that the local 84 bus service terminated there. The sun was slowly getting lower in the late afternoon sky as my legs pounded away crazily in a race against time. I was determined to get back before it got dark.
Within half an hour, I hit congestion, which only slowed my progress down as I approached the ring road. By the time I got home, the sun had already set and it was early evening. The time was quarter past seven. I’d only stopped twice for refreshments and averaged a speed of 30 km/h.
Now in the comfort of my own apartment, with curtains that hung correctly and the pleasure of running water as and when I required it. Oh, the joys of home comforts! If only the scenery here was as tranquil and as sublime. Oh, one can dream! It was not long before I was tucked up in bed, dreaming of the day when I might actually step up to the challenge of cycling to Chiang Rai or Krabi, but for now, it was sleep; lots of deep sleep.