Travel story: Thailand
Vail, CO, Colorado
THAILAND ” The black city grit covering my face, arms and legs had hardened into an itchy cast by the time we reached the base of the lush jungle mountains leading into Pai in northwest Thailand.
Eighty miles prior in Chiang Mai, at the very onset of this epic cycling tour, the sky unleashed a fury of rain and my bike tires hosed me down with mud and oil from the city’s filthy streets. My newlywed husband, being more than a foot taller than me, managed to dodge the nasty spray, and his clean face was fueling my already bitter self. With 10 miles left to ride, exhausted and angry, the prospect of a shower was the only motivation keeping my legs cranking.
Pai ” (pronounced “bye”) a small, albeit guidebook town and our final destination for at least the night ” is surrounded by some of Thailand’s largest mountains within the country’s Doi Inthanon National Park. Even for dedicated bikers like ourselves, the final miles that stretch up and over into Pai are a sheer ascent of paved torture.
We pedaled upward, clicking away hair pin turn after hair pin turn, passing several scenic outlooks, but we did not stop. At this point, having miscalculated how long the ride would take us, we were racing the sun, and dusk was closing in on us fast.
We reached the top and without hesitation began our descent ” a steep, spiraling and spectacular roller coaster-like plunge on two wheels. Adrenaline kept our hands from the brakes, but when we did reach the final flats into town, the sun had already vanished. We were too late, three miles shy of town, without lights and in the throws of Thailand’s unsettling countryside blackness.
We had no choice but to hitch a ride into Pai, and after waiting about 15 minutes, a beat-up red truck pulled over. We waved the money, and he waved us in. Even sitting in the back seat, I could smell the rice whiskey on the driver. So very quietly I clicked my helmut back on my head and watched in fear as the driver navigated the dark roads, slamming the brakes several times to avoid smashing into a few stray dogs.
“Pai is very romantic,” I said, referring to all the candle-lit homes lining the edge of town. After all, this was my honeymoon and I was going to make the most out of the situation.
Without a word spoken, the driver dropped us off at a restaurant, it too lit by candles. I was secretly happy for the dim light, as my dirty, sweaty body was in no shape for spectators.
We sat down, bewildered and starving and disappointed to find out that it was a cook-your-own-food restaurant, the one and only of its kind we encountered the entire month in Thailand. After 90 miles of biking, the last thing you want to do is cook. Feeling somewhat settled in, sipping on a couple of giant Heinekens, there was still the problem of getting into town in the dark with our bicycles and finding a place to sleep.
I spotted a fellow farang (foreigner) sitting with some Thai women across the way and stared him down until he had no other choice but to get up and say hello.
“Can I help you? You look confused,” he said in a thick German accent. “There is a blackout.”
No wonder we couldn’t see anything.
After some chatting, the German, his Thai girlfriend and her sister escorted us via their motor bikes into town to the bungalows where they were staying. Because of the blackout, the whole town seemingly went to sleep, including the lodge owner.
Without hesitation, the sister screamed something high-pitched in Thai at the second floor window of the main lodge, and a few seconds later, a set of keys flew out of the window. We were in.
No electricity meant no running water, so there I found myself on my honeymoon … in a Third World country … in a tiny shack … rinsing off black city grit with bottled water.
Whiskey was in order.
So off we went with our new friends to hit the town for a night cap.
It was the Thai woman I met in Pai who said it best: “You’re doing what? You’re biking on your honeymoon!?!” Giggle, giggle, giggle. “Why would you do that?”
She thought we were crazy. Our parents thought we were crazy. Our friends thought we were crazy. And at times, I thought we were crazy.
We’re not the type who can lay on a beach for seven days, and the thought of an all-inclusive resort makes us sick to our stomachs with boredom. So a typical honeymoon wasn’t for us. Together we took up biking and thought it a perfect match to celebrate our eternal commitment. But we had never toured a country on bicycles before, and in the end, Thailand proved a great introduction to traveling on your own power.
Thailand is a biker’s paradise for several reasons. The country is traveled enough by foreigners to be comfortable. Even the most luxurious places are still cheap by U.S. standards, and almost everyone speaks English. Plus, for those travelers who like to feel like they’re experiencing something no on else has, there are still plenty of do-it-yourself adventures left to be had in Thailand.
Most of the country is Buddhist, and aggression is something they don’t practice. Road rage is nonexistent in Thailand. Even the packs of wild mutts roaming the streets are gentle and take little interest in passing bikers.
Biking is a common form of transportation in Thailand. People are used to it and respect it. Thais, however, are still surprised to see a woman pedaling her heart out. But it works in your favor. Passing cars and trucks are instant morale boosters as their passengers enthusiastically salute you with a thumbs-up or a “hello, hello,” and they refuse to stop until you’re out of sight. Even an ancient field worker will flash a toothless smile at the female farang on a bike, and the support is priceless as you rack up mile after mile in the heat.
Streets in some of Thailand’s busiest cities, like Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Chiang Rae, can feel claustrophobic, due to both the smog and traffic. The roads are loaded: cars, trucks, busses, entire families (including Fido) piled on motor scooters, farmers on bikes balancing chickens, their day’s yield and a machete, tuk-tuks carrying tourists and single-gear rickshaws clogging the curb side. A single biker can feel like a very tiny fish in a big ocean. But as you get used to the sensory overload, including the amalgam of smells wafting from street vendor carts, you will notice that all vehicles move as peacefully as a school of fish, effortlessly weaving in and out of traffic.
The best place to bike is in the North on rural roads (see “Recommended Loop” in box), and it’s wise to take a bus or taxi outside the city to get started (i.e. to avoid the black city grit.) In the countryside, clicking along slowly, you witness everyday Thai life: Women battering and frying bananas in huge silver caldrons, men beating rice out of their hulls, and naked children making a slide out of slick, muddy road.
Biking with a big pack is never fun under any circumstance. The less you have to carry, the better. In Thailand, food and bottled water is everywhere, even in one-ox towns, which means you don’t have to carry extra rations. Two liters of water per person is all we carried and a couple energy bars, but the food is too irresistible and clean in Thailand to cling to your Cliff bar.
Little women in roadside huts can whip up a tasty meal of Pad Thai Power, as we lovingly called it, in minutes and to order. We avoided meat the entire month in Thailand. But Thais do love their meat, and as one old grumpy woman responded when I asked for no chicken: “Don’t blame me if it doesn’t taste good.”
The best place to eat is at the open-air markets, especially if you pedal better on a light meal. Every town, no matter the size, has a market, and here you can purchase fresh-cut pineapple, deep-fried bananas, coconut rice flour pancakes, rice crackers and green coconut milk, which is a natural electrolyte. Every market offers a different hometown specialty, and no one in Thailand is shy about food. They’ll tell you, even if through hand gestures, what is best.
In fact, Thailand has their own version of the power bar. They stuff coconut sticky rice, and, if you’re lucky, smashed bananas and black beans, into a bamboo cylinder for a perfect traveling snack. You eat it much like a banana by peeling away the bamboo wrapper. It’s tasty and biodegradable.
I would be lying if I said I was completely confident about riding my bike through a Third World country. Confident biker, yes, confident Third World traveler, no. Part of the compromise between my husband and I was that we would hire a guide just for a couple days until we got the hang of things. This was our best decision.
A guide helps you get accustomed to things you take for granted when riding your bike in the U.S., like traffic laws, mileage signs, back roads and how to tell if a restaurant is clean. For the first week in Thailand, we thought we were avoiding the fried chicken when it was really fried bananas. Our guide showed us how to tell the difference as they are often served at the same stall.
There are plenty of companies offering organized bike trips (see box), but in fear of being held back by tourists who only bike on vacation, we opted to hit the streets of Chiang Mai and find a personal guide. In Asia, making arrangements like this is easy and inexpensive, as everyone wants to make a buck. We hit guide office after guide office asking for recommendations until we found someone who fit the bill.
Our guide, who asked to remain anonymous as he also works as a commercial guide, took us on back roads we would never find on our own. We road single track through elephant camps and tribal villages, met medicine men and watched families weave baskets, but the conversations I had with the guide while pedaling was where I learned the most about the country’s people and its geography. Our guide gave us the confidence to continue on our own, and he helped us plot a loop perfect for our skill level and expectations.
You’ve heard of the travel bug, that insatiable, yet joy-giving, creature. Thailand gave us the bike touring bug, and since this trip we’ve vowed never to journey without our two-wheeled horses. For us, there’s just no better way to travel.
For specifics, get a detailed map or a good guide.
You can take an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where your loop will start, but your bike boxes must travel in your train car. “Splurge” for first class, as even in an upgraded space, there still won’t be much room. Tip: The train station has really good stir-fry ” don’t forget to stock up for the ride. Where to stay in Chiang Mai: River View Lodge. (Address: 25 Chareonprathet Soi 4 Muang Chiang Mai). It’s quiet, yet in the middle of the city, and the owner is a bike fanatic himself. Poke your head into his garage while he’s tinkering and he’ll show you his prize collection of vintage cycles. Sick of Thai food? It’s hard to believe this can happen, but after a month, even the best coconut curry gets old. A must is Giorgio Italian Restaurant (address: 2/6 Prachasamphan Rd., Changklan Muang Chiang Mai). We went back twice for the homemade gnocchi.
Chiang Mai to Pai (HWY 107 to 1095): A grueling, beautiful 90 miles through jungle mountains. Tip: Begin very early because by mid-day you really want to be off your saddle. About Pai: Pai was a little too westernized for our taste, and there is some foreigner angst, but if you’re homesick for some classic rock and Bob Marley, Pai is a hippie haven that will do wonders for the soul. Where to stay: Puravida Pai. Artsy indoor outdoor showers cannot be beat after 90 miles. Ask around to find it.
Pai to Soppong (HWY 1095 to 108): A moderate ride for about 26 miles.
There is another brutal climb, but it ends in a rewarding descent. About Soppong: Just a stopping point between Pai and Mae Hong Son, but you have to spend the night when on bikes. Spend time shooting rice whiskey for 5 cents with the locals at Soppong’s only real attraction ” the market. Where to stay: Little Eden Guest House. There’s a great hammock along the river and a nice Thai hostess who speaks many languages.
Soppong to Mae Hong Son (HWY 108): A moderate 45-mile ride. About Mae Hong Son: My favorite of the northwest towns, Mae Hong Son has plenty to do and many places to eat and drink, but it’s not touristy at all. Spend time at Wat Phai Doi overlooking the city or catch a vegetarian festival around lake Nong Jong Kham. Where to stay: Piya Guest House. It’s near the lake and has a great fruit-tree garden.
Mae Hong Son to Khun Yuam (HWY 108): You’re riding into the mountains here about 45 miles so prepare for some difficulty. About Khun Yuam: Quiet mountain town. Just a mid-point in your journey. Where to stay: Ban Farang.
Khun Yuam to Mae Sariang (HWY 108): About 62 miles, but the land is starting to flatten out around the rivers and it’s a beautiful valley. About Mae Sariang: A quiet riverside town with a good market and some interesting wats. Where to stay: River House Resort, by far the nicest place in town. Must try: The Isan-style sticky rice.
Mai Sariang to Chom Thong (HWY 108): A tough 90-mile ride of climbs and descents. Road gets very tight and crumbly at the end. Where to stay: Hold out for the “resorts” just outside of Chom Thong along the main road.
Chom Thong to Chiang Mai (HWY 108): An easy 30-mile route. We decided to skip riding into the city and hitched a ride just outside.
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