We usually do this tour on the weekend when the traffic is quiet’ our guide informs us as we grab our push bikes and head out onto the footpath before plunging into the stream of early morning traffic already bumper to bumper and creating more lanes than are marked on the roads. I am used to the Bangkok gridlock however my companion is not as the motorbikes weave in and out, adding to the chaos that both intrigues and terrifies visitors. We’re heading to the sea, the Gulf of Thailand and negotiating the streets and alleys is the only way to get to the train that will take us an hour to the coast. We carry our bikes onto a ferry crossing the Chao Phraya River and head to the station.
We missed the first train, given assurances by our taxi driver we were in the right place. We now know the difference between the Democracy Monument where we needed to be and the Victory Monument where we are dropped off and how far they are from each other. It’s less than an hour until the next train pulls into the station.
The station is more a train track that ends where food stalls and markets collide, lining the tracks where people refuel and grab take out for the journey. We have had an early start, too early for breakfast, as we dragged ourselves out of bed before the sun warmed the air. This time of year the mornings are cool, 24 degrees which lulls you into a false sense that winter has arrived before 32 degrees beats down on you by midday.
Stir fried noodles, sweet mini waffles jammed with raisins and fried banana and pumpkin provides the breakfast both of us need to the kickstart our bodies as we haul our bikes onto the train and sit facing forward ready for the journey ahead.
Air conditioning is provided by fans oscillating on the ceiling and through open, shuttered windows. It’s quite retro and the breeze cools sufficiently as we hurtle along. The tracks seem unusually narrow. Each carriage has a mind of its own as they sway from side to side and I decide against crossing into the next as the gangway slips and slides, the two sides drifting apart before slamming back together. We stop now and then as people disappear into the countryside and others join from villages hidden from view. Banana palms sprout up along the river banks as if seedlings dropped by the winds chose the waterways by which to flourish as a carpet of pink lilies hugs the banks.
At the end of the line we ride to the harbour and cross to the other side again by ferry. Side by side with motorbikes that drive straight on and off which is the perfect way to avoid hitting your head on the low ceilings.
At the fishing port of Tha Chin the boats sit idle restocking with supplies that will sustain a crew of 30 or so when they venture out to sea for 2-3 days later in the afternoon. The fishermen are Burmese. the owners are Thai. Meanwhile nets are laid out and repaired, sailors sitting side by side sewing and chatting. The catch will be bountiful with lobster, calamari, prawns, fish …
The nearby temple is home to Buddhist, Hindu and Burmese. In the grounds an open air crematorium which is more like a shrine displays a white coffin next to photos and flowers while the family gathers. Later, guests will celebrate the life of the man, the husband, the father and the friend. In the evening the open doors to the furnace will be closed as the coffin is placed inside as the fire ignites and passes the body onto the next life. The family allows us to pay our respects. Grateful and respectful we thank them before moving on.
We hit the dirt tracks muddied by recent rains, orange mud gripping our tyres and flinging it up. Just a bit here and there. My friend gets stuck reluctantly putting her feet down. It’s either that or end up being covered as gravity takes over. A stationary bike stuck in the mud has nowhere to go but down. We approach the mangroves which are vital for a healthy ecosystem the world over. This is a regeneration project where giant mudskippers waddle across the marshes. The habitat is being extended as women sit in the mud under the baking sun slowly planting seedlings into the ocean floor. This dedication will ensure future generations enjoy the spoils of their labour.
Down narrow paths between fields or surrounded by water we continue to the salt farms. Here and there solitary figures are grooming and preparing the plains for the sea waters that will fill the canals and funnel into the patchwork of holding ponds that will eventually dry leaving salt ready for harvest. Thatched sheds provide the shopfronts where buyers and sellers negotiate sales.
The smell of fish hangs in the air as we approach ladies sitting around buckets cleaning and gutting before laying out the flesh on drying racks. The sun catches the silver and white bodies and sucks out the moisture before they are bagged up and shipped to markets. Further along tiny pink shrimp are scattered over blue plastic that spills out on the road, a natural shrimp pink on one side and bright pink on the other, apparently more appealing to some tastes with added dye although not to our guide. It’s a little disturbing to see the windowless houses, aviaries where birds are kept making nests for soup.
We have worked up an appetite and lunch is just around the corner. The area is famous for seafood and here you’ll get some of the best you’ve ever tasted. Our restaurant sits along the water under a string of woven roofs. The table next to us is well into their banquet as we settle. Hot pots bubbling, grilled whole calamari and some clam like things they offer as a taste. Fishy and chewy, they don’t find their way onto our table. Whole white snapper with lemon and chilli, tom yum soup on the side, prawns, stir fried vegetables and some fried pork for good measure.
After lunch a forty minute dash and we are back at the station. We are running a little behind schedule due to our late start. The rocking helps lull us into a light sleep dozing in and out as we head back to Bangkok.
This journey was to discover a rural Thailand away from the city and as promised we see no tourists during our ride which has been flat and relatively easy. Our guide tells us we have peddled 52 kilometres. Sitting in the back of our taxi in peak hour traffic we appreciate the deserted pathways meandering through the countryside. Rural Thailand is alive and well and is knocking at your door. Slop on some sunscreen and a sense of adventure and get out there.