12: Reconnecting With Home & a New Beginning in Southeast Asia

Daniel and I finished our journey on the Pacific Crest Trail in October and knew we wanted to spend some time at home for awhile before setting out on another adventure. We were glad to have a couple months to reconnect with family and friends, take in the comforts of home–especially cooking and eating as many burritos and enchiladas as possible–and enjoy some time in the snow. My sister’s son was also born while I was nearing the end of the trail, so I was very eager to get back home and meet my new nephew! I was even able to make a short trip out to Missouri to celebrate an early Thanksgiving and a baby shower with my extended family, something very meaningful to me as I was unable to see my grandparents before departing for Paris a year and a half earlier and hadn’t seen extended family since my sister’s wedding just prior. The holiday season also was an ideal time to find something temporary. I worked as a customer service rep at Backcountry.com as the timing was too short to find an occupational therapy position and Dan stayed in Bend helping at UPS with package delivery.

We really enjoyed connecting with our family and friends at home, but we knew we still had itchy feet for more travelling, and figured we could swing at least another six months of travel. After hiking in the wilderness, we were both eager to switch things up and be abroad again bike touring to explore different cultures. After a lot of deliberation and planning, taking into account our budget, flight costs, places of interest, and climate in January, we opted to fly to Bangkok, Thailand and start cycle touring in southeast Asia. We weren’t sure yet where we would go from there, but flights were not too expensive and the location gave us a lot of flexibility to adapt plans and destinations as we went, so we bit the bullet and bought our flights for mid-January. Between the holidays, busy work schedules, and final trip preparations, the time came quickly and unfortunately had to leave without the chance to see many friends I’d hoped to reconnect with, and Dan had about a week in Utah to catch up with friends and my family. Though it was very tough to say our goodbyes, we were both ready to get back to bike touring and the experiences that come with it. We’ve found the pace and freedom of being on the bicycle is our favorite way to travel through different countries, meet the local people and learn about various cultures.

Daniel and I are both so grateful for the family and friends we have at home in the US. I know it’s difficult for everyone to part with people they care about and see them go for a long period–for us its the hardest part about travelling! Dan’s family and my sister both gave us a place to stay for an extended period as we were working and making plans for the next leg of our journey, my parents continue to work around my pile of things stored in their house and an extra car to navigate around in the driveway, Dan’s family met me halfway in Boise to save a long car drive, and my brother-in-law tested his luggage tetris skills to the max with our bike boxes to make sure everything could fit in his car to get us to the airport. To everyone back home, thank you so much–this kind of travelling would be much harder without your support and help and we count ourselves very lucky!

January 15th came and it was time to catch our flight and start the adventure. I’ve only flown this far a couple of times, and its always the part I’m least excited about. With the bikes too is added anxiety of hoping the bike makes it safely in its cardboard box to its final destination. This time, I was also dealing with some kind of food poisoning both the night before leaving for the trip and throughout the flight. Needless to say, we were very relieved to finally arrive in Bangkok. We got in very early in the morning so found a spot to rest in the airport until closer to our check-in time at the hostel. Lucky for us, Bangkok is one of the few airports I’ve been in that doesn’t have armrests on the seats so you can actually lay down! After a few hours, we headed out to look for a taxi into town. We weren’t too keen on trying to bike between our jetlagged state and the busy Bangkok traffic and it sounded like our bikes wouldn’t be allowed on the train into town. We stepped outside for the first time in over 24 hours to find a taxi and were blasted by the hot, humid air; quite the contrast from the cold snowy morning we had left behind in Salt Lake City.

In Taipei, Taiwan’s airport–best spot for a nap! Thank you Daniel for staying awake to watch our things!

We found a driver running a small van taxi and hoped our bikes would fit in–otherwise it would be a more expensive private shuttle ride. A game of baggage tetris ensued between the three of us and we managed to fit both of our large bike boxes and two boxes containing our other luggage–success!! Seeing the traffic and weaving of cars in and out, we were glad we had not attempted to bike. On the drive, I noticed many large billboards and photos of the king and the royal family as well as billboards educating tourists in how to respect the Buddhist religion during their stay, with a common message being that tattoos of the Buddha were very disrespectful and should not be displayed. Our taxi driver was very friendly and gave us a few basic Thai language lessons along the way and showed us how the tonal changes altered the meaning of words. At one point he told us one word spoken in 5 different tones; but of course to our ears it all sounded the same. I hoped I wouldn’t end up pronouncing anything in a wrong tone accidentally to mean something offensive, but also figured the locals would go a little easy on us as falang–the term for “foreigner” or “tourist” throughout southeast Asia. I noticed our taxi driver had collected coins from passengers from all over the world and were taped to his dashboard, though I saw no signs of US currency. Fortunately I had some US coins I hadn’t left at home so gave to him as a parting gift. Once at the hostel, our last chore before we could relax and sleep was to reassemble our bikes and get rid of the boxes. By 1pm we were done and passed out in our room. We didn’t get up again until 8am the next morning!

Excited everything fits in the taxi and we are not far from getting to sleep again!

We spent a few very low key days in Bangkok to get over jetlag, acclimate to the hotter climate, and for myself, bounce back from the food poisoning. Our hostel was full of friendly travellers either starting a trip, like us, or just finishing to go elsewhere or home. Everyone was happy to give us recommendations of favorite places in the region–much appreciated as we hadn’t actually planned much where to go, and we concluded the best course for us would be to take a train to Chiang Mai, a provincial capital in the north, where we could start biking in cooler weather. We befriended Viktor, a young guy from Switzerland living in China and Scott, a man from Seattle, as well as several others at the hostel. Viktor had spent a lot of time on prior trips to Bangkok and was happy to take us to some of his favorite spots in town. He took us all out to a free Muay Thai boxing match our second night. We watched several matches between men and women from Thailand and boxers from around the world, including Australia, France, and the Middle East. It was fascinating to watch their athleticism and their commitment to keep fighting after getting knocked down, though the occupational therapist in me cringed thinking about the injuries they were sustaining.

Viktor, Scott, and Daniel on the river boat
Muay Thai boxing match
Images of the king and other royal family members found all over Thailand

The next day we took a boat down the river for a different way to see the city and to get to the train station to buy tickets. Boats are common for local transport both on the river, and along the few canals still remaining in Bangkok. I appreciated having a place to sit with a breeze while watching the city pass by instead of walking in the sticky, sweaty heat. Viktor, Scott, Dan, and I found a cheap and delicious noodle place to stop for lunch in Chinatown on the way to the station. We also passed by a Starbucks and went in out of curiosity as well as to enjoy the cool AC for a few minutes. It seemed to be the only place I saw in Bangkok where prices where the same as in the US. We arrived at the train station to find it bustling with travelers and locals alike and saw a row of benches reserved for the Buddhist monks.

Waiting on the dock for the river boat
We like to see what Mexican food is like in different countries. Viktor hadn’t tried it before so it was a good excuse to try some! Introducing him to the deep-fried burrito–a.k.a. chimichanga

That night we headed to Khao San Road, the area famous for nightlife and partying and basically the Las Vegas Strip of SE Asia. Viktor again played tour guide, negotiating with bartenders to get the right drinks and to make sure everyone got the right number of shots in their “buckets”, the infamous drink along with road w/ small plastic buckets (think kid’s sandbox bucket) filled with several shots and some kind of mixer. We opted to split a bucket to save me from a hangover. The music was loud but was entertaining for a bit to people watch all of the other tourists.

Getting delicious hot pot with a couple from Quebec–meats are grilled on the hot platform. Our table was slanted and not the most stable–using the bottle cap to keep the very hot object more secure…
Bucket time on Khao San Road
Nighttime on a Bangkok canal

The next evening we headed to the train station. We first stopped at a 711 to grab a dinner for the train. There are 711s everywhere in Thailand and at this point seemed to be the closest thing to a grocery store we could find, as most people seem to eat the plentiful, delicious, and cheap street food. There are a lot of to-go dishes that they heat for you, mostly noodles, rice and simple sandwiches with cheese (which were great for fulfilling cheese cravings), and had already found a spicy basil pork spaghetti that was pretty tasty.

We only had a few kilometers to bike to the station, but weren’t sure what to expect in Bangkok traffic. Fortunately the experience went better than we thought. It looked very hectic as a passerby, but bicycling in it there was more of a flow. Dan referred to it as being part of an organism. Scooters and motorbikes are a common mode of transport here, so drivers are already used to sharing the road with vehicles of every size and we were basically just very slow scooters. Though we were biking only a few kilometers and would be staying in Chiang Mai for a week before properly setting off to bike tour, I already felt a surge of exhilaration and freedom as well as a sense of returning to a place so familiar to me pedalling on my bicycle with all of my belongings for the next several months in tow. I was eager for this way of travel again and excited that we were one step closer. Checking in at the train station was pretty straightforward so we had time to just relax at the station. The Thai version of American Idol played on the TV, and at one point audio was paused for music that everyone stood for–we figured it was the national anthem and stood as well.

On the train, we sat by a young guy from France hitchhiking through SE Asia and another man who was deaf who was also travelling by bike. We enjoyed getting to know them and watched out the window as the endless city of Bangkok passed by. After a few hours, our chairs were converted to flat surfaces for sleeping and I tucked into my tiny top bunk for the night. I barely fit and wondered how the very tall guy from France was fairing across from me. The rocking of the train put me to sleep and awoke the next morning to watch the last scenes from the window before getting to Chiang Mai; we passed rolling hills covered in trees, farmland, and small communities, but did notice the sky was hazy–a result of pollution from slash-and-burn agriculture in the mountainous north.

Monks waiting for the train
Ready for bed on the train

We planned to stay in Chiang Mai for a week to get a few vaccines taken care of at a local travel clinic (hundreds of dollars cheaper than in the US), get our bikes tuned up at a local shop, and just explore the area. We were excited to learn we would be there for Chinese New Year and excited to see what celebrations we’d see though uncertain what to expect with the influx of Chinese tourists and news just starting to appear about a new coronavirus spreading in China. Our hostel was close to the inner square of the city full of old temples and markets to check out and also close to a market where street vendors set up stalls throughout the day for food. Each day, we enjoyed walking to the market to try out different food from various vendors and then wander through the inner square after, always stumbling upon something new each time. My favorite places we found were ruins from an old Buddhist temple and a small area with a beautiful pond reflecting the Buddha and trees, and a series of colorful streamers and lanterns hanging nearby. And the food was cheap, often only a dollar or so per meal, and all really good! I was excited knowing that fried noodles, spicy stir-fried meats and veggies, yummy noodle soups, and and fruit smoothies would be my diet over the next several weeks.

Our hostel was very relaxed with a nice places to sit outside. Unfortunately, we’d find every evening at dusk the outside area would be inundated with mosquitos. Fearing both malaria and dengue fever, we’d cover up and pour on the bug spray, only to find that the moment we’d leave the hostel to go to the market or wander around town, there would be no more mosquitos. Looking back, in almost two months of travel since then, it is still the spot we encountered the most mosquitoes!

We noticed a handful of other bike tourers as we walked through the city though most we didn’t stop to talk to–bike tourers only know they are in the company of other tourers when both parties have their bikes. One night, we met a guy named Tam at the night market who was coming from Vietnam to bike the Mae Hong Son loop, the same bike loop we’d be starting our tour on in a few days time. We shared a few beers together and got to know each other, with Google Translate, Facebook photos, and several Chang beers to help us out. He was going the opposite direction of us on the loop, so we said our goodbyes hoping we’d eventually see him again while biking.

On another night, as we were wandering through the city, we passed a tiny laundromat next to a hostel where a guy was playing guitar. Out of the corner of our eyes, he seemed familiar to us but it took retracing our steps and doing a double take to realize it was Tosh, a friend of Dan’s from high school who lives in Bend! It was quite surreal to run into someone like this in SE Asia, and even more so when we learned he was also in Thailand to do some bike touring on the same Mae Hong Son loop! We chatted for awhile and then made plans to get breakfast with him at the market the next morning before he headed out on his tour.

Hanging out with Tam, another bicycle traveller from Vietnam
Rendezvous with Tosh, also from Bend, Oregon

After a few days staying in the city, it was time to get out of town. We caught the cheap taxi out to a trailhead leading into the mountains to some Buddhist temples; however we ended up being dropped off at the zoo instead of the hike. We did a pretty half-assed job of communicating with the driver that we were in the wrong place, and decided we’d just pay the zoo entrance fee to walk through for another way to the trailhead. We wondered how the mixup happened, but noticed when we bought our tickets, the woman behind the counter asked us how we got there, and had a look on her face when we said by taxi–so maybe a bit of a cut for the driver to take folks to the zoo. It was interesting to see a zoo in another country, and found the African animals exhibit to by very interactive, with stations set up to feed giraffes and hippos.

The hike was steep but beautiful and it felt good to get some more intense exercise after days of being pretty lazy. The first temple was half way up but I had not planned well and did not have long pants on to respectfully go inside. We kept walking to the temple at the top, where young girls were renting out pants for tourists like myself who forgot to bring something. After adding our shoes to the pile just outside the temple, we headed in and wandered around beautiful golden spires and Buddhas and took in the views. After returning to the edge of town from the hike, we were having a hard time finding a taxi back to our hostel–each taxi seemed to want to drive elsewhere–so we opted to start walking the 5 km or so back. This brought us by the main street in the university district which was lined as far as the eye could see with street food stands and bustling with students and other locals. We passed one tiny stand that smelled spicy and delicious and decided to stop. Here we could order fresh spicy pork basil stir fry (instead of the 711 version) made on the spot and for only 20 baht–much cheaper than the night market by all the hostels! It was delicious and a whole other level of spicy and decided maybe this was the best place for food! The local Thai students probably know more about good street food than all of us foreign tourists.

Monks robes hanging to dry
Buddhist shrine. Drinks like Fanta are a common offering.
Hungry hippo at the zoo

We also biked out to a reservoir near town, as a recommendation from Dan’s friend Tosh, which seemed to have a lot of locals and local tourists along with falang. The reservoir was filled with restaurants with thatched huts along the water to eat in. Dan and I grabbed our own hut and enjoyed our lakeside fried rice. After, we set out to explore Armyland, a series of large animal sculptures that were made with some kind of hay. You could even climb up inside and check out the views from the eye sockets of the giant ape.

Although we were ready to get biking, we really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai and enjoyed everyone that we met and connected with. We were even lucky to see our friend Scott from Bangkok again! After our final vaccine was completed we revisited the delicious restaurant next door to the clinic for another yummy Hainanese chicken dish and set off (somewhat hampered by a long delay as I wandered through a large mall looking for the ATM with the cheapest withdrawal fees). We hadn’t really biked much in months, and knew we’d have some seriously hard terrain ahead on the notoriously challenging Mae Hong Son loop, but I couldn’t be more excited to finally be back on the road, getting to know the world around me a little bit better each day from the seat of my bicycle.

Final chilling before some tough cycling
We are all set to ride thanks to great staff at the local Chiang Mai bike shop!
Ready to go!

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