Welcome To The Jungle

Temple in the jungle

After 16 days toiling in the saddle we were exhausted. We were still racing to get to Chiang Mai to meet friends for my birthday. Twelve hours cycling in 40°C became common place but my body could not adapt to this. My muscles ached and my joints complained but still the alarm went off at 5am every day. The only thing I dislike more than a 5am alarm call is cycling in 50°C, so early starts and late finished with midday siestas were soon routine.

We set off for the border under cover of darkness. It’s natural to become reflective when a significant milestone is reached and as we approached the border with Laos I began to think about our many unforgettable experiences in China. I was also aware mainstream tourism would be far more prevalent in South East Asia. I became nostalgic at the challenge in China to simply buy mosquito spray, order lunch or get a hotel room. Life in many ways would be easier but does that necessarily mean better?

The Chinese side of the border was high tech and impressively efficient. In contrast the Laos side was a tin shack and a ruck. However it only took five minutes to have a ‘visa on arrival’ stamped into our passport, making a mockery of the ordeal to acquire Central Asian visas.

Before long we were gliding along a well paved road as children called out sabai dee and waved. The road was surrounded by thick rainforest, it twisted and turned surrendering to the jungle. Just a narrow strip of tarmac parting a sea of green.

The next day we cut west across the country along a quiet road to get to Northern Thailand. We passed a series of immaculately kept villages with huts on stilts.

We entered Nam Ha national park where tigers, leopards and elephants roam free. An encounter was unlikely but still the thought plagued my mind. At mid-afternoon on an especially long climb I began to hear a raucous noise. However it was not a wild animal but a wild party in the middle of the jungle! As I drew closer I saw Andy’s bike parked outside.

I was welcomed in like an old friend and quickly plied with enough moonshine to take down an elephant. It was not long before Andy and I were ushered to the dance floor:  I was paired with a woman, while Andy took a young chaps hand. In a surprising twist, the only wildlife we met that day were cougars.

We spent a couple of hours drinking, dancing and making friends but by late afternoon the party was drawing to a close. I donned my helmet and we got on our bikes. As we cycled off the heavens opened and the monsoon rains began to fall. We cycled until nightfall, then set up our mossie nets under the roof of a dis-used market.

We were woken at first light as oxen and cows wandered past just a couple of meters from where we lay.

Three more days of mad pedalling and we arrived in Chiang Mai. I vowed to myself I would not again be forced to cover so many miles in such a short space of time.

We celebrated my birthday with friends. It was great to relax and spend time with people we knew before life on the road. The following day Andy set off to race south and meet his girlfriend on the islands. It could not have been more different for me. I spent two, lazy weeks in Chiang Mai.

Another friend came out to see me, together we pitched up in a 5 star gin palace complete with rooftop pool, jacuzzi, sauna and the best buffet breakfast I have ever seen! However the days flew by and soon it was time to say goodbye and move on.

Cycling on my own was quite a different experience. I loved the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted but I sorely missed some good banter.

As I slowly pedalled south I took in Sukhothai, the ancient Thai capital and the floating markets at Damnoen Saduak. I saw the sea for the first time in eight months and had a long awaited, cooling swim. I came across scorpions, snakes, giant lizards and lots of monkeys but sadly no pink dolphins. I was eaten by bed bugs. I went to monkey training school and climbed monkey mountain.

Thailand frustrated me though. I found it very difficult to adapt to the extreme heat and humidity. On the bike I would sweat profusely this would mix with sun cream and run into my eyes making them sore and permanently bloodshot. Off the bike I mostly wanted to rest anywhere I could find air-con. Thailand was the most expensive country we had visited since Europe and I constantly over spent. I had to increase my daily budget from $10 to £10 per day to have any hope of keeping it. I also found Thailand sanitised and less exciting than the countries we visited prior. I apologise now if you are reading this in an office somewhere cursing me. You have to consider the context of where we had come from: Iran, the ‘Stans’ and China were like nothing I had ever seen before, wild and wonderful. I have come to realise I prefer the desolate, remote places. Imposing mountains, vast deserts and strange lands appeal most to me.

I was reunited with Andy in Nakhon Si Thammerat, a city in Southern Thailand. After more than a month apart we excitedly swapped stories and I treated him to a candle lit dinner.

The change in culture as we approached Malaysia was noticable, especially in Nakhon. A mixture of religions and people come together in this region. We saw women in hijabs and found ourselves excited to be entering the Muslim world again. You will also find Buddhists, Hindus and Christians in this area. A couple of days later we crossed into Malaysia where we would learn how this striking mix of cultures have come to live together in relative harmony.

Here is Andy’s take on Thailand in the Telegraph: Eye of the Tiger

This is the masterpiece by GnR: Welcome to the Jungle

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