Across a Metropolis, Halfway Across a Country - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

January 17, 2017

Across a Metropolis, Halfway Across a Country

Ekkamai, Bangkok, to Chiang Mai

10.5 miles in BKK, 10.5 in Chiang Mai

Dear little friends,

We know hotels in Bangkok that do not cost $30 a night but we were far from them when we landed at Ekkamai, the eastern bus station. Our spendy hotel was nice and we liked our room and we like Bangkok but our job was to get ourselves out of Bangkok and save its numerous charms for our packing-up days in a few weeks, so I woke up early trying to figure out a way out of there.

Step one: eat the provided breakfast at our hotel, which was pretty good and of which we ate a lot of as people will do when they feel their rooms are overpriced. The hotel staff had refused to let us keep our bikes inside, much less in our rooms, the first time in our entire trip. That was pretty serious and we could not see staying here another night and pressing our luck, fortunately they were still around in the morning.

Step two: go back to Ekkamai and see if there was a bus going north from there. Nope. Not surprising but nonetheless disappointing.

Ekkamai Station where there were no buses to Chiang Mai.
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Ekkamai Station on Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok, Thailand
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Step three: find a booking agent who could maybe book us a train or bus ticket. This was surprisingly difficult and for a neighborhood crawling with foreigners there was only one travel agent and while they were kind they weren’t able to help us unless we were flying somewhere. Okay.

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Bangkok is a very busy city.
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The problem was getting across the heart of Bangkok to Mo Chit, the bus station for northern destinations. Ten miles across Bangkok. Our hearts sank at the prospect. The colorful taxis in Bangkok were not going to be able to fit us and our bikes, and would be expensive and slow. Not an option.

We went back to our room and I opened Pocket Earth on my iPad and it mapped a cycling route for us across the city. We looked it over carefully and it actually seemed doable. We would take our time, follow it carefully, and be there in time for the fleet of night buses heading north. We hate night buses but whaddya gonna do?

Starting on Sukhumvit 63 northbound, we then turned onto a frontage road, then onto a “cycling path” next to a klong (canal), which had a few unexpected obstacles but not insurmountable ones, and so on. There was no way to avoid a few busy roads but those were mercifully short-lived. At one point we were in a quiet, rather ritzy neighborhood, and suddenly started seeing soldiers with machine guns on corners. Wow, we were on an army base! Soldiers on guard duty have pretty boring jobs, they tried not to look interested in us but I think we were a welcome distraction. We smile and do our best to look harmless, if not hapless.

Our route took us along a nice khlong or canal.
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At times along this khlong we were riding seemingly through people's living rooms.
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Not exactly a bike path with this thing.
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Another obstacle.
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It was actually a wonderful tour of the city. Traffic was polite to us, and sometimes so congested we were traveling faster than the taxis and trucks. They let us slip into the right-turn lanes, they gave us a wide berth. We saw places and types of neighborhoods we never would have seen on our own. And after riding in Hanoi we were both calm and confident we could handle Bangkok’s road conditions so we were pleasantly surprised when we entered Mo Chit bus station. And very proud of ourselves. And grateful to Pocket Earth, bravo and well done.

A pretty interesting route for sure.
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Checking the route dozens of times.
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The problem with riding a bike across Bangkok is that I wanted to stop and eat every five minutes.
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We have used Mo Chit before but it had greatly expanded since the last time eight years ago. Because it is near the legendary Chatujak Market, everybody and his dog has turned into a selling machine so instead of just entering a parking lot full of buses like a normal bus station we had to go through a tunnel of selling, flip-flops, clothing, souvenirs, all kinds of crap.

Finally we were in the large bus area, and each bus has their routes stenciled on their sides, Bangkok-Phitsanulok, or Bangkok-Khon Kaen, etc. It was not even 3 pm, too early for a night bus, we didn’t want to end up in Chiang Mai in the wee hours. But of course, we were offered a good deal on a spacious-looking bus for ourselves and our bikes so we bought tickets for the 4 pm.

The tunnel of crap for sale leading to the Mo Chit Bus Station.
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Lots of flower leis on these buses for good smell and good luck.
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We had some time to kill in the station, which was fine, lots of good people watching, plenty of snacks, free toilets. Free toilets are a definite plus, it seems stupid to me that they charge you for a toilet even if it’s only about 3 baht. For some reason I have found that the more they charge for a toilet the dirtier it will be and the ruder their staff. Who wants to interact with toilet staff? They are hanging around pretending to be helpful, ick. Go swab out that squatter I just saw that looks like… okay, I’ll stop now. The toilets at Mo Chit are a-ok. They’re clean and they’re free.

There was a toilet on our bus which I managed to avoid using. They put the four foreigners up front with the very loud television but turned it off after an hour of us putting our fingers in our ears as obviously as we could. Thai bus television is horrid, the worst, stupidest variety shows with completely obnoxious sound effects and canned laughter you can imagine. Torture.

This guy looked like the Thai Fred Armisen.
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Totally stupid TV show which they subjected us to for awhile. We were seated in the best seats on the second story of the huge bus. Lots of leg room for sleeping however I (Bruce) didn't sleep one minute.
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Other than that the bus was great. There was room to put our feet up, there was an included meal in the middle of the night at a bus stop that was quite nice, and we went through some interesting looking places, such as Nakhon Sawan, all decked out for the upcoming Chinese New Year with hundreds of lanterns and a huge illuminated dragon.

Buses from Bangkok to Chiang Mai always stop in the middle of the night for dinner. I love these stops. The food is included in the ticket price and it's always great food. Some people find it hard to wake up, stumble out of the bus and eat in the middle of the night. We find it exciting.
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I must have slept, finally. Suddenly we were in Chiang Mai. Two a.m. Not what we wanted. We felt like we should hang at the bus station for awhile with some other people hanging at the bus station, rather than ride around at this sketchy time of night. After several mosquito bites and a conversation with a kind of annoying guy from India, we decided we needed to move on.

For the first time since Hanoi we pulled out our fleece jackets. Let me repeat that. We were wearing JACKETS. It was so incredibly refreshing to be pleasantly cool.

Bruce knows Chiang Mai like the back of his hand. I kind of know it. We rode toward the Old City, which is surrounded by a square moat with each brick wall about a mile long. Remarkably, at 3 am, the barflies have gone home, every door and window is closed, and it is as dark and quiet as a graveyard. Nobody was awake except us, some stray dogs, and the trash collectors. It was awesome.

We rode around the dark city feeling as free and naughty as children. We had no choice, really there was nothing open and it would be stupid to try to get a hotel at that hour. We stopped to take a look at some temples, we did a lap of the moat, we went up and down the adorable lanes we knew and a lot we didn’t know, and even found the house Bruce lived in in 1974 when on St. Olaf College’s Far East Semester. It was a blast. When we stopped we were set upon by mosquitoes, so we kept on.

Temple in Chiang Mai at 3AM.
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It seemed like we were the only people awake in Chiang Mai. The only way to view ancient temples.
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Biggest tree inside the moat area of old Chiang Mai.
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Chiang Mai temple at night.
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Old city walls.
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Finally we saw a restaurant opening and we could stop and eat some jok, rice porridge, and drink some fake orange juice. We lingered as long as we politely could and then found a guesthouse that had a room for us if we wanted to wait for it to be vacated and cleaned. This guesthouse does trekking tours and the tour guides were hanging around waiting to go out so we had a good time with them looking at Google satellite views of their Karen villages. They had done well for themselves and had working farms they lived at during the rainy season, homes they had built for their parents, children going to school. They were great guys, and very funny and lively.

Karen hill tribe guys showing us where their houses were in a remote village in the hills west of Chiang Mai.
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Finally we got the key to our room and dragged our stuff upstairs, took showers, and collapsed for a nap. The window was open, the sun shining brightly, the breeze cool, and smells of coffee roasting and frying ginger drifted in. Welcome to the winter north of Thailand. We were thrilled to be here.

Today's ride: 21 miles (34 km)
Total: 1,585 miles (2,551 km)

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