Ask someone in England to describe their vision of paradise. That place exists. It is in Thailand, and it is exactly where I spent a fortnight cycling, from Bangkok to Malaysia.
“Hug the east coast, stay off the highways and have fun!” advised my Australian friend, Paul, as he watched me devour my first pizza in a year. Paul probably knows more about cycling in Thailand than anyone. For his honeymoon, he rode a tandem with his newly-wed wife to all of the country's 77 provinces. Just one of his many cycling trips here. He gave me his map covered in green highlighter and written notes of his favourite roads and places to visit.
Unusually for a coastal road, this was flat, had little traffic, and remained close to the beach. Here, all the travel-brochure cliches came to life; 'endless golden beaches', and 'breathtaking views'. I even spotted a few hammocks slung lazily between palm trees. But amazingly, it wasn't touristy. The seedy Thailand most foreign tourists find (or search for?) was far away. Sure, there were occasional stretches of resorts and overpriced cafes all plopped on the same stretch of beach, but these mostly attracted visitors from Thailand, not foreigners, and that makes a big difference. Such resorts were separated by vast distances of peaceful fishing villages and empty beaches I could enjoy selfishly to myself.
For the tiny villages I passed, the sea provided everything. A tangle of fishing nets seemed to grow from each house and spill across the yard. Often an antique boat, was left rotting a slow death nearby. Fish were dried and shrunk in the sun on racks beside the road. A cat always lurked nearby, warily pilfering fish when no-one was looking. Each village was abandoned at low tide, as the whole village waded out to collect shrimp with nets, or scoop up shellfish which had beached themselves on the sand. Other times, the village was frenetic and pulsed with life, particularly when the day's catch was unloaded from rusty boats and displayed for sale at roadside stalls. At all times, the smell of fish clung to the air.Off the tourist track in Thailand - rather than bars and cafes lining the road, it was shellfish drying in the sun!
Slightly inland, some villages ran 'salt farms'. I had never considered where our salt comes from. How does it reach the supermarket shelf? Sea water was pumped from the sea and between large, shallow artificial reservoirs, at each stage being filtered, and evaporated, leaving behind a deposit of sea salt.
With Thailand's tremendous heat and humidity, it made practical sense to begin early. For the first time in two years I began setting an alarm. 5:15am, dark and uninviting, I'd be violently buzzed to life, and by 5.45, I was on the road. This close to the equator, the transition from night to day happens suddenly, and is over too soon, but while it lasts, it is one of the most beautiful displays on Earth.
Travelling solo I often wish I had someone with me; someone to talk to, to laugh with and someone to share moments with. These sunrises are not one of them. Each morning, I greedily sat on the beach, or cycled in silent reflection, thanking the universe for the spectacle it had prepared just for me. This is my favourite time; I don't yet have aches in my legs or pain in my bum. I'm not tired of the road, bored of my own company or enraged by heat and hunger. For now, my universe is exactly as it should be.
Thai people will proudly tell you, and their pride is justified, that you can always sleep in temples for free, and that the police will help you out. What a wonderful thing to be able to boast about your country's culture of hospitality. The police stations were incredible; several times a day I would stop at one to avoid the heat, make use of free wifi, and drink from the free tea/coffee. I would be received like a long-lost prodigal son, invited to stay as long as I needed, and have random gifts bestowed upon me.
In the evenings, I would consult my map, and head for one of the marked temples. I would gesture to the head monk that I would like to sleep here, and be led, without question or small talk, to somewhere I could sleep. It might be somewhere to put my tent, a spare room, or just up on the stage beside Buddha.
If anyone has been reading my blog or Facebook posts, and thinking they'd be interested in giving it a go – I promise you, you can't go far wrong, starting in Bangkok, keeping the sea on your left, and just keep pedalling! You can stay in hotels, stay in temples like me, or sleep in a hammock on the beach. Pedal 40km a day, spend afternoon's lounging on the beach, and reach Malaysia in 3 weeks, or cycle 110km and reach it in 1. Whatever happens, you'll have a great adventure, here in paradise.