Riding our trip in reverse - Unchained Melody - CycleBlaze

February 11, 2024

Riding our trip in reverse

Surat Thani/Phunphin to Bangkok by train

Dear little friends,

I set the alarm for 6 but we were both awake before that. Bruce got up and set to on the two luscious mangoes he had picked up in the market. It was our last muesli breakfast for the trip and we savored it quietly, thinking about our day ahead of us on the train back to Bangkok. 

This little train station town, Phunphin, is the furthest point south on the planet that I’ve ever been. There is a lot to think about as we make this pivot back north, on a several day journey to our homes in Portland. I get very excited thinking about all that I miss about home, my family, my gardens, my cozy comfortable bed. I’m really sick of the hard beds in Asia, I have a persistent shoulder pain that makes moving my right arm while I’m sleeping super uncomfortable. I guess I need to get that looked at.

But for now, back to the little coffee shop we went to yesterday. It’s just around the corner from the Queen Hotel, which has its own little coffee shop that we slink past because it doesn’t look nearly as nice as the coffee shop we’re aiming for. Inside, there’s a lot more action than was happening yesterday, more foreign travelers both arriving and getting ready to leave. This station has elderly orange buses that take people the ten miles into Surat Thani, from there they find transport to the ferry terminal for Koh Phangnan and Koh Samui and other islands. So the general look to most of these travelers is “just off the island” beachwear, funky hair, a little hungover, or “off to the island” with them popping into the coffee shop in confusion, trying to figure out how to get to the ferry. 

We sit back, sip our lattes, enjoy the fray. A tired looking hipster is charging a lot of devices in the next booth. The crew of baristas is chipper, polite, and helpful, directing customers to the buses, tuk-tuks, and their restroom. It’s a fun little scene.

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A mural in the coffee shop, the train here looks suspiciously like the one we're going to take.
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Then it’s back to our room to pee and pick up our panniers and haul them down to the station, a mere block and a half but still kind of a drag, with six panniers, a backpack, and a  handlebar bag to carry. We’re so grateful we could leave a bunch of stuff at the hotel in Bangkok, otherwise this would have been more to complain about.

As we stated earlier, the frazzled ticket agent in Chumphon had printed our corrected train tickets in Thai. It was a font I could sort of read but I didn’t know the words for seats and wasn’t sure if there was assigned seating or not. So when we entered our train car we just sat where we wanted, which wasn’t where we were supposed to be. Polite passengers directed us to the right seats and we settled in. There were some other confused passengers too, who wanted to sit together so various shuffling happened, and seat trading. 

Freshening up the train beforehand.
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Each car had its own driver's seat.
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Eventually a Swiss man and his teenaged son ended up in front of us and they were friendly and talkative and were ending a several month trip in Indonesia, even flying back home the same day we were. It was fun to talk to them and hear about past adventures and trips. He had ridden a bicycle in Europe, India, and other places and so we had a lot to talk about. René and Elio made the trip go by much quicker, we really liked them.

René and Elio.
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This train was comfortable and air-conditioned, we booked right along. It was very striking to be riding our trip in reverse, so quickly. And it really helped us get a scope of just how far we have ridden. It took six hours to get back to Hua Hin where we started riding, and another three hours to Bangkok. Six hours! 

You got one guy to ring the bell and one to wave the red or green flag. I love how old-school these stations are.
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Most stations are nicely kept, with plants and seating.
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Since we had occasionally ridden right next to the train tracks and of course had climbed several of the flyovers, it was fun to look out the window and see exactly where we had been. A highlight was the large unnamed karst mountain we had photographed from the Millions coffeeshop just a few days before. 

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It's really hard to capture the scale of this formation.
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There was the little road to nowhere Bruce had photographed. There was where we met a Dutch couple just starting their bicycle trip. The shady coconut groves, the winding roads, the man who warned us about cars, it was like a reverse dream of where we had just been.

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We looked out the window like children looking at an album of our journey.

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The last part of the train into Bangkok is kind of dreary, this is why we take the train in and out of Bangkok because riding in and out would be a total drag and take forever. It was also our first time to be in the new Krungthep Aphiwat station, previously known as Bang Sue. There’s another small Bang Sue station right next door which is a slightly different commuter/milk train line. You can see why people get confused about it all. 

We’d been tracking our bikes and they were, indeed, quartered at the old Hualamphong station just as we hoped they were going to be. All we needed to do was to detrain, grab the free shuttle to Hualamphong, pick up our bikes, load the panniers, and walk across the arched khlong bridge to our hotel. Easy peasy.

Being the last ones off our train car as usual, we stood on the vast, deserted platform in complete confusion. A helpful station employee pointed out an elevator, we went down to another vast deserted area, followed some vague signage toward buses and shuttles. The door which was to lead to the shuttle was barricaded. Oops, this didn’t look good. 

Time to reverse course and go toward the bus exit. Inside there was an information table, with two perky employees who declared, “Shuttle canceled”. What? A mere month ago we saw the blue shuttle buses at Hualamphong waiting for customers. Were they permanently canceled? Didn’t run on Sundays? What? There was no answer to that. Canceled. They advised us to take bus 49 to Hualamphong. Ugh. 

Walking to the curb loaded down with panniers and uncertainty, we were approached by a guy with a large taxi, and decided not to wait around for a bus, just let him get us to the old station. He flew through Bangkok at breakneck speed, dodging congestion, taking an elevated freeway we had seen from the hotel, ducking down the back street, landing at the station with a flourish. Okay, that was money well spent. 

[Trip postscript: in the four days we spent looking out the window of our hotel at Hualamphong station we never once saw the free blue shuttle, so it would appear that they really are permanently canceled. Visitors take note.]

In the parcel area, there were our cute little bikes jauntily leaning against a palette and ready to roll again. I was loading mine up and Bruce was at the parcel claim window when I heard something in his voice signaling me that it was SCAM TIME. I scurried over.

He was signing the release forms and the lady behind the window had conspicuously placed a large calculator with “80” displayed. He turned away to leave and she pointed at the calculator and said, “80 baht”. WHAT?

Bruce is by nature a quiet, affable person. But he can surprise people when they realize that he doesn’t take any shit. We had already paid 360 baht back in Phunphin, which was way more than we’d been quoted when we rode there to inquire. He stood his ground with Calculator Lady. “We paid 360 baht for them already,” he informed her in a firm voice. She looked at both of our stern faces. She knew we’d already overpaid for the bike transport. We knew we’d already overpaid for the bike transport. It was a standoff. Sorry, lady, you’re not getting coffee money from us this time.

Backing off, she waved us away and we stalked back to our bikes. So annoying.

But it was fun to return to our hotel, we’ve stayed there several times now and it’s starting to feel like a home in Bangkok to us. The city was roaring around us. It was the day after Lunar New Year and still felt like Party Time with garishly lit tuk-tuks bleating up and down the streets bearing tourists to who-knows-where. We dumped our stuff in our 6th floor room, which seemed pretty small for the packing business ahead but what are you going to do, took a pee, washed our hands and faces, and went out to find some food. There is an area a couple of blocks away where several vendors sell street food with tables and chairs set up behind. We ordered pad siew muu (pork) and sat down and watched the scene. There were a lot of people wearing red.

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It struck me suddenly. We’d been watching the weather forecast in Bangkok for days, seeing the temps soar into the mid, then the high 90s. It was at least 92 out there on the street, my sandals were soft with heat absorbed from the pavement. But I wasn’t miserable, there were no beads of sweat running down my cheeks, causing concern for locals who thought I might be weeping. Down south the humidity was still going strong, things were lush and green. Up here in Bangkok we were definitely in the dry season, it might be hot but it was not muggy and I was not suffering. That’s not to say that I still didn’t have to wash my clothes in the sink when we got back to our room. Three showers a day and daily laundry for this sweathog. That’s yet another home thing I miss, a washer and dryer.

No visible sweat, weird.
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Rachael AndersonHow wonderful!
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2 months ago
Wat Traimit Withayaram Worawihan - Bangkok
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Back in our hotel room the street far below was lit up and noisy with vehicles. After our quiet beaches and small towns and even our Chinese New Year firecracker neighborhood in Surat Thani it felt very urban and grinding out there. I had to put in earplugs to go to sleep on my stiff little bed. Outside the night wore on noisily but inside my head things quieted down, for once, and just for the night.

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