We entered Thailand as innocent cyclists looking for adventure.
We leave as criminals.
Our crimes are worth between three to fifteen years, per count, in Thai prison - but in the past this has risen to up to 30 years.
The crime is called lese majeste, and we didn’t even know we were committing it.
Lese majesete literally means “injured majesty” and makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten any member of the royal family.
The 2016 Thai constitution, and every version since 1932 carries the clause:
"The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."
It goes on:
“Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”
And they’re not messing about…
Between 2006 and 2011 more than 400 cases came to trial, some of the outcomes are staggering:
Patnaree Chankij, the mother of a pro democracy activist was brought to trail last year for writing “ja” (yeah) in response to a private facebook message she received which was critical of the royals.
A nurse who wore black on the King’s birthday was charged with lese majeste in 2014. She was detained in military camp for two days for “attitude adjustment” purposes.
Thanakorn Siripaiboon, a factory worker faces 37 years in jail for a sarcastic remark he made about the King’s adopted dog. He was granted bail of 500,000 baht (£12,500) in March 2016 – only 12 months ago.
When someone is charged for lese majeste, the details of the charges are not read out or printed in papers, for fear of compounding the offence by repeating the original words
Even talking about repealing or reforming the lese majeste laws, could in itself be a breach of lese majeste.
The lese majeste laws in Thailand are no joke, and have been heightened after the passing away of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016. At the time of his passing he was the world’s longest serving monarch, serving for 70 years and 126 days.
As soon as you enter Thailand it’s evident how big a deal the king passing away is.
He watches you from everywhere. Inside every shop. Inside every house. Every roundabout, every motorway, every bus, restaurant and bar.
He is watching.
We didn’t quite appreciate the gravity of how Thai’s felt about the king, and the strictness of the laws, until we went out for a drink with Ewan’s Thai friend Poramet and his mates.
Sat around a table in a bar, after being in Bangkok around three days:
“We’ve seen picture of the King everywhere – he must have been a popular guy?”
“And the new guy that’s taking over – is it true that he's not as popular as the guy who’s just died?”
To say that the incoming King is unpopular, is a crime punishable with jail.
Thankfully, none of our Thai friends have reported us to police.
Talking to some of our ex pat friends who now live here has been fascinating. We haven’t used any names for obvious reasons…
“A few years ago, I took the kids to see the king go by in one of his parades. Before he drove past in his car, a soldier came up to me in a rush and said I must get my son down off the wall he was standing on immediately. I said he wasn’t doing any harm on there and was perfectly safe as it wasn’t high. The guard insisted I take him down immediately, as under no account was there to be any person’s head higher up than the King’s when he drove past, not even a four year old boy.”
A teacher in Chiang Mai:
“I’ve never seen anything like it when the king died – people crying and out on the streets. They almost think of him like a god.”
“There is now an official year of mourning. Our Christmas party last year had to be cancelled as we weren’t allowed to have any celebrations. I even had to cancel my birthday drinks!”
Although the King doesn’t have any outright political authority, he is seen to have influence over the army and is seen as the spiritual leader of the country.
Thailand is a constitutional democracy, similar to the UK, but has been affected by numerous military coups. In Bhumobol’s reign alone there has been 30 Prime Ministers, and 19 military coups, he is largely credited by Thai people for holding the country together. The latest coup occurred in 2014, our friend Andrew described it.
“It was crazy, the army marched into Bangkok with tanks, and essentially arrested the government and prime minister. Ever since, they have been running the country.”
It’s like some military guy from the UK rolling a load of tanks through the streets of London, marching into Westminster, arresting Theresa May, dissolving parliament and declaring himself ruler.
And if you don’t like it, he has a load of tanks and guns at his disposal… so tough.
Thankfully we’ve not had any bother from tanks, just a few mosquitos.
The road from Bangkok to the Myanmar border was (mostly) dead straight, flat and a beautiful road surface. Throw in a gentle tailwind and you have the perfect combination for some big distances.
We broke our trip record for distance in one day with 206km, average speed 26.4km which is fast for us.
Sometimes when we arrive in a place you just get a terrible vibe straightaway, places like Poipet from this blog. Thankfully Nakhon Sawen was the complete opposite. It’s a city of 1 million people, north of Bangkok that neither of us knew anything about.
Arriving just before sunset (above), and after 206km we were in search of food. We pulled over to the roadside and within about five minutes a man came up to us:
“Hi how may I help you?”
“Erm, hello, we’re looking for somewhere to eat”
“Okay you follow me”
He hopped on his scooter and off he went.
We shrugged our shoulders… didn’t have any other ideas so followed him. About five minutes later he pulled up outside “April’s Brasserie”
“This very nice place for food okay bye”
He put his hands together as if praying, did a small bow, then rode off again on his scooter before we could even thank him.
He didn’t tell anyone in April’s he had brought us, and it wasn’t the sort of place where there were reps “getting you in” so we’re sure he wasn’t on commission, and didn’t want a tip, just wanted to be helpful.
April’s was great, we ate and drank a lot… and booked a guest house to stay in that night. We’d mapped where it was on our phones, but it wasn’t obvious where to go as everything was in Thai.
At the side of the road we were debating whether to go left or right when a man came up to us on a bicycle this time.
“Hi how may I help you?”
“Hi – we’re looking for this guest house (showing him the phone)”
“I do not know wait here”
He then cycled around the block asking people where the guest house was, eventually got someone who knew where to go and came back to us.
“Okay you follow me”
And he took us to the guest house.
Once we arrived it was:
“Okay thank you have nice night goodbye”
We knew to expect this so before he could cycle off we asked for his email address so we could thank him properly, and explained to him that we were cycling to Myanmar which he was very excited about.
We got this picture before he left. He doesn't look particularly impressed but be assured he was very excitable!
The guest house was great and we left the next morning well fed and rested and smashed out another 186km.
It’s funny how only two or three people can influence your opinion of a city of more than 1 million people. It’s totally irrational really… Nakhon Sawan could be riddled with crime, corruption and disease for all we know – but thanks to those few people we will always talk of it favourably.
Other cool places we’ve been this last week include Chiang Mai, below.
We left our bikes at the Myanmar border and got a bus there and back to chill for a few days and stay with our friend Jacques.
Chiang Mai is in the Thai north, and full of temples and history. We spent a few days walking round the old town and checking out the temples.
Unfortunately Katie wasn’t able to visit all the temples… The major concern was that her menstruation would “humiliate and ruin the sanctity of the city”… (see below for context)
Temples big and small are a large part of Thai culture. Almost every house, restaurant and shop has what is called a spirit house out the front. It’s a mini version of the temples monks live in.
Our friend Jacques who lives and works in Chiang Mai explained:
“Thai people are very superstitious, and believe every house is inhabited by the spirits of people who lived on the land before humans moved in. If you want to have a peaceful life living in that house, shop etc, you need to have a spirit house for the spirits to live.”
It’s not a religious thing, and is separate from Buddhism, which the majority of people practice. It’s more a Southeast Asian cultural tradition and we’ve seen them all over Thailand and Cambodia.
People often leave offerings to the spirits, like cans of juice, or rice meals.
Whilst waiting for a shop to open one day in Bangkok, we saw a couple of girls leave some Fanta outside this spirit house, which was already well stocked with offerings. We asked them what they were wishing for, and they said a good job and good health.
If the spirits enjoyed the offerings half as much as the wasps then they should have no trouble!
After 420km on the long, straight, flat road from Bangkok, the final day towards the Myanmar border was very different.
We turned off the Highway One, onto Highway 12 which was a thoroughly different proposition.
The road is 87km of steep climbing (1,678m) and descending with rollercoaster-esque twists and turns. 30 people died on it in a 2014 bus crash, and it was dubbed the “Highway of Death” by the Thai Media.
Throw in 36 degree heat and it is a challenging bike ride.
There is a particular 200m section that is especially dangerous - apparently 100 motorists were killed last year alone. It has charmingly been nicknamed, “the curve of 100 corpses”.
Thankfully Thai authorities have recognised Highway 12 as a dangerous bit of road, and are in the process of re-doing the entire 87km. It’s about half way finished, the bits that are done look great. The curve of 100 corpses section has now been painted red as a gory reminder for drivers to slow down.
There is another unique part of the road called the “magic hill”. It’s an illusion where the road appears to be sloping uphill, but when you stand still on the road, you roll not backwards, but what looks like upward!
It’s very cool, here’s an article about it with more of an explanation. There was a queue of cars with their ignition off and hazards on testing it out in the shoulder – seemingly rolling up the hill. You can see the guy at the end filming Katie as she was rolling "up" it.
Thankfully we made it through Highway 12 without incident, although did have to take regular shade breaks due to the heat.
It was a certainly a lot more interesting than the straight highway, but we’re happy to be out safe and sound!
We’ve only been two weeks in Thailand but it’s been a brilliant experience and great to meet so many Thai people and learn about their culture. It’s also been great to catch up with friends Jacques, Robert and Nat – (quote Robert: “you better include me in the next blog!” - so I hope you're happy), and a fantastic few days at Elsie’s, the mother of a university friend, who very kindly hosted us in her beautiful house on the coast south of Bangkok.
We’ve just crossed the border into Myanmar, - a country that only opened its borders to foreigners in 2011 so will no doubt be another interesting place to travel through.
Myanmar will be the end of our Southeast Asian leg, and will see us cycle over the 10,000km mark for the trip, sometime in the next few days. You can keep up to date with our progress via the live map.
Asia has been brilliant so far, and we can't wait to get into Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and on from there...
We've been taking great care to be safe on the roads and in the elements so far, but just to cover all bases we left an offering of some water at a spirit house before we left Thailand.
It seemed fitting to leave something healthy for them as we're on our bikes.
Hopefully the spirits will grant us safe passage through their lands and all the way home.