Thailand: Travelling South to North
Thailand is known for its beaches, tasty food and lady boys but it also has some descent riding as recently discovered. After spending two weeks in January winter hiking in the Everest Region, Usha and I headed over to Thailand for 4 weeks of vacationing and riding to kick off 2020 . We figured the boost from 17 days of trekking at altitude would translate into some good training in the tropical heat down at sea level. Originally the plan was for Usha to use this trip as preparations for the Asian MTB Championships, being hosted in North Thailand in early February, but a broken hand meant she was now in recovery mode. Unable to postpone our cancel tickets with Thai Lion, we opted to go ahead with the trip and make the most of it.
First off was the tourist meca and flat lands of South Thailand. Landing in Phuket we spent the first 3 days at Pattong beach. This place has some ok beaches, is party central, full of chaos, girls doing weird things with ping pong balls and some delicious Thai food. The riding was alright with some descent highways along the ocean and some dirt tracks throughout the jungle in the middle of the Island. The challenge was the heat which would reach low to mid thirties by 10 am, thus requiring early morning departures. The roads were busy with traffic so I would explore new tracks through the jungles, and surprisingly found some good options. The routes were rough, but coming across some local Thai homesteads in the middle of no where was a real cultural experience.
Next up was riding 150 km around to Krabi while Usha took a boat across with all our luggage. The first 100 km was on a busy highway before hitting some quieter back roads which meandered between stunning rock outcrops which this area is famous for. Having left a bit late, I hit the mid day heat at 2 pm, with still 30 km to go. It was scorching my white Canadian skin as I pulled over at 7 eleven to reload on water and grab some Coconut Ice Cream. With the air conditioner
blasting inside, I soon discovered these 7 Elevens were going to make the perfect oasis’s from the heat waves outside. It was tough, but I eventually built the courage to go back into the sun after a 20 minute brake, to finish off the ride to Krabi. Overall the riding in this area was pretty good with a mixture of dirt and paved roads with generally little traffic, except for the main arteries. Heat was again the enemy which I tried to turn into a positive, thinking it would come with the same benefits as sauna training. The real highlight was the food which included limitless fresh fruits, seafood, coconuts, pad thais and curries. The fresh fruit smoothie bowls were amazing, and so were the fresh Coconut Ice creams served in coconut shells. Their were some cool beaches in this area as well such as Tonsai and Raily which required boats to access, but their was no riding to be had in theses areas. This was vacation training, so I left the bike behind for a few days as we headed over to Tonsai beach to hang out with the hippy climbers and enjoy some ciders and sunsets on the beach.
The final area in South Thailand we explored was Ko Lanta. The 150 km ride there was pretty nice with lots of quiet backroads and one ferry to finally reach the Islands. Ko Lanta North is less touristy and has some good loops, mostly paved but with some dirt roads, and generally no traffic. Ko Lanta South, has paved roads down both flanks. The east side is quiet, especially the further south you get. The West side is flat and busy up north with flocks of tourists and scooters, but further south the road gets calmer, twistier and hillier with some real step pitches towards the south end. Down on this end are some great hidden beaches as well away from the throngs of tourists.
Up the middle of the Island are a couple of dirt roads through the forest which makes for some good riding but unfortunalty they are a combined under 10 km in length.
We set up in a small hotel just off the beach on the west coast of the south island. I’d head out early in the mornings for training rides then we would spend the afternoons scootering around checking out the local beaches. The most dangerous part of this trip was definitely the scootering as they give scooters to anyone that can afford $4 a day. When you get the street full of vacationing foreigners from all over the World, zipping around on scooters, many with there turning lights accidentally left on, it makes for some good practice at defensive driving! Too cap the trip we headed back to Phuket, catching a boat through Phi Phi Island. This place is a gongshow, better left for the partiers, with no riding available.
Overall South Thailand would be best with a road or cross bike, with some good back roads to be explored. It is flat and hot which makes for some good conditions to lay down base miles. Best of all the air quality is fairly good the people are friendly and you’ll never have trouble finding some tasty food! Next time I come I’ll be bringing the Kona Libre with 40 c tires, good for both the pavement and offroad.
Next up was a 2 hour, 60$ USD flight to Chiang Mai in North Thailand. If ever flying in Thailand I highly recommend Thai Smile as they give free 20 kg luggage (which includes bikes), lunch, and have friendly staff. Chiang Mai is a bigger city built next to some rolling mountains. It is well known for its
enduro riding but also has some solid xc loops, and a plethora of roads snaking through the hills. The temperature is also much nicer with cool mornings and a manageable 30
degrees mid day, that is for the cool season December-February. The real highlight of this area is the food with street markets everywhere and restaurants from all over the World. We relied on the street food, a couple smoothie bowl places, and two authentic Thai restaurants serving dishes at $1-2 a piece. From all my travels over the World I can’t think of a better place for food lovers!
Not impressed with the over use of plastic at all the food stands, we bought reusable straws, cutlery, and two coconut shells to use as bowls. The over use of plastic in Thailand is appalling. At the food stands, at the convienence stories, it’s everywhere and it seems that most tourists didn’t give a damn about the mess of plastic they are leaving in their wakes. Thailand has no way of dealing with the garbage and it ends up in the ditches, rivers and throughout the countryside. This is something we all need to take responsibly for as our mother earth cannnot continue to take this abuse!
From Chiang Mai we made our way further North into the hill town of Pai. Usha took a 3 hour van ride with the luggage while I road around the back way, 200 km of roads snaking through the rolling hills. It was a great ride with little traffic although the hills never stopped with the total elevation gain of the day being over 4000 M. It was one of the tougher 200 km I had ever done on my mountain bike. Having underestimated the ride, I lost daylight about 20 km from town. Luckily Usha came out with a rented scooter to guide me in the rest of the way. Pai itself is a tourist heaven with backpackers from around
coming in to enjoy the hippy lifestyle of hanging out in the hills, visiting waterfalls, eating street food and practicing yoga. Every night the main street in town closes down and the street food comes out. It is heaven to head here after a long day of riding around the hills 🙂
Leaving Pai we had a 130 km ride back to Chiang Mai before catching a 3 hour bus to Chiang Rai, the sight of the Asian MTB Championships. We sent the luggage ahead to Chiang Mai, Usha rented a one way scooter, I hopped on my mountain bike and away we went. This road is great as it travels over the jungly hills with exactly 762 curves! For riding it’s amazing, if in a vehicle I imagine the car sickness would be epic. Just before hitting the final 50 km straight highway to Chiang Mai, we turned off on a side road to visit a waterfall. Instead of heading back to the highway afterwards, we kept on the
backroad, which soon turned to dirt as it snaked through rural Thailand. This part of Thailand is amazing to explore on a bike, a mountain bike is good for this although a gravel bike with 40 c tires would also do just fine. The options looked endless out here in the hills but we were on a schedule so left the exploring for another date. It took a bit longer then expected to get back to Chiang Mai, putting some pressure on us time wise to catch our bus to Chiang Rai.
Reaching Chaing Mai starved, we quickly grabbed smoothie bowls, then split ways as Usha went to return the Scooter and grab our luggage which was sent from Pai, while I went to our old hotel on the other end of the city to grab my bike box and the luggage we had left there. Quickly packing the bike, I
ordered a taxi, and was soon on the 7 km, 40 minute journey to the bus stop. Chiang Mai is a crazy city to get around as it’s full of tiny one way streets
which makes it necessary to zig zag around to get anywhere. Arriving at the bus stop 7 minutes before departure, Usha was hopping out of another taxi from her mission, as we scambled onto the bus just as it was taking off. Chiang Mai, and Pai were solid places to ride a bike, although the air quality in North Thailand was very hazy from all the burning of crops combined with traffic pollution. This put the air quality in the 140-180 range most days, which isn’t good for long term training.
Last up on our trip was a week in Chiang Rai. This is another large city in North Thailand which is less touristy then Chiang Mai but still attracts a large crowd who come out on day trips to check out the Temples. The first few days were spent road riding North of town to watch the Asian XCO Mountain bike Championships. I quickly learnt it was a road riders paradise up here, although the smoky air was tough on the lungs. After the games were done I spent the days riding west into the jungly hills. It was great to explore back here on a mountain bike with endless loops to be had on the dirt roads and
connecting trails. The climbing was steep, with much of it requiring the full 32T-51 set up I have on my Kona Hei Hei. There was also one mountain bike park called the Singha park. It had some good little loops
and combined with some sightseeing of the local Temples, the training days were quickly filled with entertainment. Overall Chiang Rai is better known for
its road riding but if you have an adventurous spirit the west hills would make for a good 7-10 days of exploring.
My old tree planting friend Darren, from Canada, was around town so we hung out with him and his girlfriend in the evenings. It’s great to catch up with long lost friends in random spots around the globe. We went to a huge night market one night that took up the whole runway of the old Chiang Rai airport. It’s amazing how much good cheap food they have in these markets, although again the binge use of plastic is tough to see.
So North or South, which is better for riding? Overall the riding is better up North, the temperatures are a bit cooler, and there are more interesting options. The problem is the poor air quality. Down South the air is fresher, there are beaches and an ocean for post ride chilling, and the riding is great for the fitness if you don’t mind peddling flat roads all day in excessive heat.
With our time running out in Thailand we boarded a domestic flight back to Bangkok before catching our international flight to Kathmandu. Their was a new virus coming out of China called the Corona Virus. Almost everyone at the airport was wearing a mask, most the flights to China had been cancelled and there was a creepy feeling around the airport. Little did we know but this was the beginning of a global pandemic that would essentially shut down our World in the coming months…
As we are in lockdown in Nepal, their’s time to catch up on long lost travel stories. Check back next week for the adventures of travelling through the Wild West of Indonesia, Sumatra, quite some years back!