10 Reasons Thailand is a Great Place to Cycle-Tour
…. and 4 reasons that it can be difficult. We spent 28 days total in Thailand and covered 560 km (348 miles) in 9 days of riding. It’s been more than a month since we left, and I am finally getting around to writing down some thoughts on cycle-touring there. Thailand was our first cycle-touring destination, and we chose it in large part because we had heard that it would be a good place to get our feet wet. It absolutely was.
1. Seafood, curries, and soups.
The food in Thailand is both delicious and ubiquitous. Food stalls in markets, sticky rice cooked inside bamboo from a man along the road, noodle soups in Chinatown, and fresh cut fruit made it so that we never went hungry. Thai cuisine aims to hit the perfect mixture of spicy, sweet, sour, and salty – and it certainly works for me.
In fact, the only bad meal we had during our monthlong trip was at a “tourist” restaurant in Bangkok. We even learned to make some Thai dishes ourselves.
2. Oh thank heaven for 7/11.
Never offer to meet someone at a 7/11 convenience store in Thailand – there are frequently 2 or 3 on a single block. Not that I would complain about that: 7/11 was the perfect stop along the road to grab a cold drink, have a snack, or even just wander around in blessed air conditioning for a few minutes. 7/11 provided many breakfasts on the road (yogurt drinks and nuts) as well as celebratory beers once we reached our destination. I never had any particular emotion toward 7/11 before, but post-Thailand I get a warm feeling whenever I see that green and orange logo.
3. I love broad shoulders.
With the exception of Bangkok (which is a crazy place to ride a bike, even for a cyclist trained in Manhattan), Thailand has incredible roads. The shoulders on the major highways are nice and broad, the pavement is smooth, and the drivers are remarkably considerate (much more considerate than drivers in the US). Compared with Sri Lanka, where we are now, the roads were silent (so much less honking!) and the air was clear (so much less smog!).
Thailand also has Google Street View, which makes planning routes easier. We did come across construction on smaller roads where that forced us to walk our bikes for a few kilometers, but this was rare.
4. Iced coffee: Possibly the best thing that is.
Dmitry and I usually take our coffee with a little milk, no sugar. But in Thailand, iced coffee is made with lots of condensed milk, and lots of sugar – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is cold, it is refreshing, and it wakes you up like nothing else. A stack of Carnation condensed milk cans – the herald of an iced coffee cart – always brought a smile to our faces. If the coffee purveyor doesn’t speak English, the magic words are “boran yin” (boran = very strong coffee; yin: ice). If the purveyor does speak English, the magic words are “espresso ice.” Try it, you’ll love it.
Traveling now in a place where iced caffeinated drinks are not widely available (no, sodas do not count) makes me appreciate iced coffee all the more.
5. From coconut groves to soaring limestone peaks.
The landscapes in Thailand were varied and gorgeous, from days riding along the ocean to jaunts through the forest with monkeys swinging overhead. We even went through one area in the north that looked like western New York – fall colors and everything.
6. Trains, buses, and tuk-tuks.
Public transportation was remarkably comfortable, affordable, and easy to figure out. We took four ferries, three trains, two bus-rides, and one truck-taxi – and we never had trouble taking our Bromptons along. On day trains, the bikes went into the overhead and fit under the seat (just barely!) on the overnight trains. For the long-distance buses, they fit handily into the luggage compartment underneath the bus, along with larger backpacks/ suitcases. Even the minibus, which we were the most nervous about, ended up being no trouble – they just strapped the bikes to the roof.
7. Travel plazas – cafes, AC, and clean bathrooms.
We prefer to take smaller, quiet roads. But on days that we did travel along a major highway, we appreciated being able to take a break at a travel plaza. Not only was there usually a 7/11, most also had a cafe (for iced coffee and snacks), and very clean bathrooms.
8. Data Coverage. Everywhere. For cheap.
We have unlocked phones and got SIM cards at the airport – a 4.5 GB AIS data plan for about $30 each. Okay, not super cheap, but less than we were paying in the States. Not only did we have constant email and Facebook contact with family and friends, we could check Google Maps as we went along. Super helpful – we had a good signal in most places.
9. Water Refills with Silly Names.
One thing that was completely new to me was machines that give you filtered drinking water – so that you can reuse plastic water bottles. For only 2 baht (about a nickel), we could refill a 1.5 liter water bottle along the road. And these were frequently called either “Pu Water” or “PP Water,” which always made me giggle.
10. Smiles everywhere you look.
Thailand is called “The Land of Smiles” for a reason: people here are serious smilers. They smile when you pass by (and often call hello), they smile when they see our silly bikes, they even smile during arguments. It is hard to be tense when everyone is smiling all the time. It just makes everything feel nicer.
1. It’s not as cheap as we expected (but not exactly a fortune).
Our travel-style is somewhere above backpacker (we never stayed in a dorm room) and somewhere below mid-range (we are willing to share a bathroom – but would prefer not to). Based on these parameters, our budget was a little higher than I would have expected for SE Asia, but we were traveling in high season and in a lot of very touristy spots. Hotels ranged from about 400 Baht (~$12 USD) in the least touristy towns to 1000 Baht (~$30 USD) on Ko Lanta – which was an amazing room, but did have a shared bathroom. By comparison, we consistently pay under 2000 Rupees in Sri Lanka (~$15 USD), even in the most touristy spots, and our “luxury” hotel in Colombo is $40 USD. Food is also a bit more expensive – a big lunch for two in Thailand was often around $10 USD, whereas a giant lunch for two in Sri Lanka is usually less than $5 USD at a local place.
2. With tourists comes touristiness.
We wanted to start off in a place with good tourist infrastructure, basically a spot where it would be easy to find hotels as we went and where we wouldn’t feel terribly out of place. Thailand is great for this, but it also made it a bit hard to feel like we were off the beaten path (and to find non-tourist prices). It is no surprise that we were best able to do this while cycling, as we went to a few towns that were definitely not “destinations” (and where hotel prices reflected that).
3. Even in “winter,” noon heat is not comfortable.
I am a pale and fragile flower, and riding up a hill in the midday heat and sun will make me turn beet-red and sweat buckets. Riding days were therefore circumscribed by my conditions: start riding at dawn in order to avoid possible sunburn/ sunstroke at midday. Also, frequent breaks to drink water and to pour water all over ourselves.
Once we got to the north, we were able to start a little later in the day and ride past noon – but the sun was still oppressively hot.
4. Barky/chasey dogs.
At one point, as I was furiously riding up a hill to get away from the snarling beast nipping at my heels, I came up with a brilliant work-out plan: It’s a spin class, but you use a soundtrack (and maybe video?) of attack dogs to motivate you to ride faster. Shhh – don’t tell anyone. I am sure it is going to be the next big fitness fad.
The vast majority of the dogs we met were either friendly or timid, but there were a few times when I quickened my pace quite a lot to get away from the barking dog behind me, and once when I felt legitimately scared (fortunately, a truck came between me and the growler). We did see many locals on scooters carrying sticks, which I assume was to swat away unfriendly dogs. We also heard that some cycle-tourists carried a small bag of pebbles to chase them off. My advice: Don’t make eye contact, and hope you don’t meet one on a steep hill.