Published on December 2, 2007
Orawan and Charoen Othong certainly love living in the slow lane. They're just back in Bangkok after spending almost six years on honeymoon cycling around the world. That's a long vacation by anyone's standards - even newlyweds - but this couple had an odyssey to complete.
"It was a journey to promote Thailand and tourism to the countries on our itinerary. As goodwill ambassadors, we also wanted to promote self-sufficiency by using an environment-friendly mode of transport like the bicycle. And we've proved that with a bike, you can go anywhere in the world," says Wan with a grin.
The journey produces some impressive statistics: 44,000 kilometres, 43 countries, six continents, in five years, 11 months and one day, and all on a total budget of Bt5 million. They used 500 rolls of film, took more than 200,000 photos and 200 hours of video. They sent more than 1,000 postcards to their families, friends and sponsors. And along the way they did 20 interviews with television stations and more than twice that many for newspapers.
After a year of preparation, Wan, 37, and Mou, as Charoen, 36, prefers to be called, left Bangkok on November 30, 2001, heading south on the highway down to Narathiwat. That was before the present round of unrest beset the three southernmost provinces. "It was very peaceful and safe," Mou recalls.
After almost a month completing the Thai leg, they moved on to Malaysia, then Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand.
An 11-hour flight across the Pacific took them to Chile, where they began their Latin American journey, travelling north through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama, then moving on to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatamala and Mexico before crossing the border into the US. After one year and five months they had conquered the continent.
They cut across from California and arrived on America's east coast 10 months later to catch a flight from New York to Morocco, where they cycled for another three months before crossing the Mediterranean to southern Spain just in time for the European summer.
Over the next year, they visited Portugal, England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France for extended periods then cycled through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, Italy and Vatican City and onwards to eastern Europe, where they toured Slovakia, Hungary and Moldova.
The plucky pair pedalled on through Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China, on whose roads they spent almost a year. From there, the route veered southwards through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from where they crossed back into Thailand last October.
While they experienced the occasional terrifying encounter, most of the memories they hold are happy. Wan fondly recalls being offered free accommodation at a backpacker hotel in Adelaide once the manager discovered the couple was Thai.
"He said he'd been really impressed by the Thai hospitality and friendliness during his vacation in Bangkok. We felt very special. I was so proud to be born Thai!"
In Chile and Peru, they crossed the world's driest desert, the treacherous Atacama where there's been no rain for the last two centuries.
"Other deserts in the world are kindergartens in comparison," says Wan. "But we had a great time because there was just the two of us. At night the sky was illuminated with stars. It was great being alone with just my husband there."
"And Colombia is not as bad as it's portrayed on CNN," she continues, adding that during their 75 days in the country, they were looked after by 20 families.
The US was an even bigger surprise. Initially Wan had wanted to avoid America because of her dislike for the nation's foreign policies.
Their scepticism faded as the number of encounters with US citizens in different states grew. Americans, they discovered, invariably had " big hearts" and "broad worldviews", exemplified by Dr Naomi Sato, one of their hosts.
"She offered to drive her mobile home to give us some kind of back-up for seven days. She was concerned for our safety and gave us lots of useful information. She even flew to Bangkok to join the ceremony celebrating the end of our journey. I know now that I can't hold Americans responsible for their government's policy," says Wan.
But not everyone was as nice as Sato. Both still shudder as they recall being attacked in the Ecuadorian jungle by five armed men who took everything except the bicycles.
"They held guns to our heads and ordered us to get down on our knees. We were convinced we were going to die because the place was so remote and deserted. If they had shot us, no one would have known, let alone found our bodies. It felt like we were in an execution chamber waiting to be killed. And there was nothing we could say because we couldn't speak their language.
"We thought about giving up after that and going home. But I'd like to thank the robbers for sparing our lives - and not taking our bikes," says Wan.
In Ecuador the couple discovered that while a dish of curried rice costs US$4 (Bt130), the majority eke out a living on less than Bt5,000 a month. "A difficult life," Mou comments.
The bad luck didn't end there. In Moldova, the Russian-speaking police arrested them for being illegal immigrants, locked them in jail and asked for money.
"We were in shock. Everything happened so quickly, we were arrested, taken to a police station and locked up. There was no Thai embassy in the country, and we didn't know the language. After a few hours, their boss arrived and soon after we were released. But we were ordered to leave the country as soon as possible. We weren't even allowed to send our postcards."
There were other hard times too, but the couple prefers to remember the brighter sides of their travels.
"Everywhere we went, Thai communities and embassies would throw parties for us. We had free meals, free accommodation and support. They would offer us rooms in five-star hotels. When we didn't see them, we stayed in petrol stations' storerooms or in the tent we set up by the roadside," says Mou.
The world tour was a test of their relationship. They admit to occasional quarrels over trivial issues, from hunger and thirst to cycling speed and finding somewhere to camp. At one point, Mou got so angry that he wanted to throw away his wedding ring.
There was also the challenge of being together 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"It was hard to find personal privacy during the journey because we were together all the time. It's not that I didn't want to be with her, but everyone needs space. So I used to occupy myself with chores."
After six years of circling the globe, what has the couple learned?
"That the world is round!" laughs Mou, then more seriously, "having seen 43 countries, that there's nothing new - robbers, friendship, poverty, beauty are everywhere."