2 Chicas Bike Thailand #8 Top Tips
Cycling Thailand rather un-prepared! Our top tips… & things we wish we had known…
My Mate Jules and I set off with a rough plan to cycle from Bangkok to Phuket in 2 weeks. Slightly unprepared but with a spirit of adventure here’s our top tips…and things we wish we had known…
1. It’s bloody hot in March
Most days it was 35 degrees with 65% humidity. Even on the flat it’s gruelling so the best time of the day to cycle is from dawn until around 9.00 a.m./ mid morning (Not that we made it up and off by dawn many mornings!) After that there is a real danger of overheating especially wearing helmets. The best thing we had on the whole trip was my camelback… We filled it with ice several times throughout the day and it was a complete Godsend not just for drinking but for draping on the back on your neck. It was poo-pooed by many a male road cyclist along the route – “too much weight and hurts your shoulders” – until their water bottle got warm and nasty or they ran out of water between hard to come by local shops. Not so cocky now hey thirsty, sweaty, overheating bike man? Air conditioned “7 Elevens” (yeah they get everywhere!) also became a favourite hang out in the mid day heat and we stole a tip from a fellow British cyclist – the lovely Geoff – to try the blueberry shakes at the chain of petrol station cafes called, “Amazon”. Also air conditioned.
2. Maps, GPSs or keeping the sea on your left…
When we say we were slightly unprepared one key factor was navigation. We rocked up with one map each – both pretty large scale and pretty useless for finding “off the beaten track” routes. We were loosely following a route undertaken by ‘the Vagabonds’ in 2008 that Jules had downloaded from the internet but it soon became apparent that if we stuck with this we would mostly be sucking petrol fumes from Thai trucks on the main road to Malaysia so we needed a plan B.
We lucked upon a bike shop on the outskirts of Hua Hin where the wonderfully welcoming staff (whilst trying not to laugh at the state of the bikes we had hired) sold us squishy, comfy bike seats – another great tip to at least take your own bike seat if you can’t take your whole bike – and recommended a great map that covered the area as far as Chumphon. We dashed to purchase said map before leaving civilisation and trying to be ever enterprising, I also bought a Thai roadmap to cover the rest of the trip. We ripped out the relevant pages, googled the place names and translated them into English. The Thai roadmap also meant we could ask locals for directions as we could point to the Thai name even if we couldn’t actually pronounce it! Pretty enterprising we thought but somehow every male, European long distance cyclist we met appeared smugly horrified that we could even contemplate this trip without a GPS. We regained our sense of pride upon meeting Geoff from Cambridge who was cycling from Hanoi to Singapore and who told us we were wonderful. Thanks Geoff. We think so. . Who wants to rely on technology anyway… how hard could it be… keep the sea on your left until you get to Chumphon then cross over the country and keep the sea on your right until you hit Phuket. Doddle.
3. When the going gets tough…. or…. It’s not about how many miles you do… its about how much fun you have along the way.
This trip was always about adventure and fun. We wanted to something personally challenging but also have a giggle whilst we did it – not take it too seriously. Thus when faced with a punishing 45Km cycle along Highway 4 (equivalent to M1 in places) we felt we again needed a plan B and to dig into our resourcefulness. So trying hard not to look like scary, scantily clad western girls in our cycling gear we used excellent sign language to hitch a ride in a pick up truck. The bikes in the back and us inside being driven by a bemused Thai man and his rather shocked looking son. The slightly difficult atmosphere & cultural barriers came down when they noticed us pointing at a group of German cyclists ahead on the busy road and giggling. They took great pleasure in beeping the horn ferociously and joining in on the gag. Some things don’t need translation.
As well as saving us from a horrid bit of cycling the hitching was a very attractive option in other ways. The group of aforementioned German cyclists contained one particularly arrogant Alfa male sporting lycra of a tightness that should be banned under international law. He had overtaken us earlier and informed us that according to his GPS there was no alternative route other than Highway 4. He also delighted in enlightening us that we clearly amateur as we A) had a camelback B) We didn’t have GPS and C) We had rubbish bikes and could have bought new ones for hire price. An international incident almost took place as although Jules found it all rather funny I have minimal patience for arrogant, know it all, male cyclists who weren’t invited to talk to us anyway. So later that same day when he found himself passing us again his chin was almost on his knee. “How can zis beeee?” We took great delight in smiling, waving and shouting back…… “we found a shortcut mate”. If you are not precious about cycling every mile then hairy rides in the back of pickups are great fun for many different reasons.
4. Spicing it up
The best thing about cycling, we think, is that you can eat as much as you want (which in my case needs to happen every 4 hours otherwise I get crabby) with no danger of piling on the pounds. In Thailand we found it is also almost always true that the cheaper the food the better it was. Double whammy. An undoubted highlight for us were our stops at roadside noodle bars and “hole in the wall” restaurants. We would ask local people “where do you go and eat” to find the best joints in town and one day literally fled from a backpacker café with moody staff and arrogant “traveler” clientele.
In the more remote areas not only was the food great but we were treated like minor celebrities. The ladies wanted to mother us and practice their English, we got chatted up (mostly by the old men but it still counts) and everyone wanted their pictures taken with us for Facebook. The spicy, yummy food was always out of this world and usually cost no more than 50p. We initiated a ritual 11am coke and peanuts stop which was typically in a homey local store and involved sharing life stories with the family living there and answering the question, “why on earth are you doing this??”.
5. The road less travelled.
We were nervous of cycling directly from the bustling major streets of Bangkok so we started by getting the train down to Petchiburi (only certain trains take bikes so check – Becky bought the wrong ticket twice. It’s amazing we got anywhere!). The coastline south of Bangkok is very built up until quite a long way south of Hau Hin. There are extensive developments of holiday homes and condos for the upwardly mobile local and Asian market and it’s hard to get off the busy main roads. After Hua Hun it starts to get more rural and that was the point that we could really get off the beaten track and enjoy the cycling, meet people and find some beautiful quiet beach stays. We loved Ban Krut (Rachawadee Resort) but only managed lunch there and stopped at Thung Wua Lan beach just north of Chumpon for two nights for a fabulous $5 massage (careful though… Thai massage can hurt and Jules almost had a rib broken by one over enthusiastic lady!) some sunbathing, few cocktails and a well earned rest. We loved it – Chumphon Cabanas a very low key Thai resort with the most pristine beach and hardly a tourist in site. ()
6. Highway Dogs and marauding monkeys
It’s a well known fact that all dogs in Thailand look the same, they never stop barking and they love to chase cyclists and it is scary. Our only tips for dealing with this are to pedal faster, lift up your feet and scream like a girl. There are also a lot of deceased dogs on Highway 4 and you soon get used to the pungent smell of dead dog mixed with frangipani. It’s fun to count them. Look out for monkey hangouts (usually around temples). Beware, these monkeys are evil and will mug you for food, money or your bicycle bell!
7. A roof for your head
The great thing about Thailand is that there is accommodation to suit every budget almost everywhere. We stayed in an eclectic mix of hotels and hostels, which again was one of the fun parts of the trip – everything from $5 backpacker rooms where we blocked up “rat holes” with the guide book to the coolest boutique beach property with our own private pool. So you don’t need to pack a tent and this certainly lightens your load. If you don’t fancy splashing out on a room it’s always worth popping in to some of the more luxury hotels for a coffee or a cocktail at their beach bars. One hot day as we were severely flagging and there was no accommodation to speak of so we joked we would spend up to 500 pounds if we could just please find something soon! The next place we found was the Relais Chateaux property – Wanakarn. How much did their villas cost per night? Yup – 500 pounds. We decided a cold drink and relaxation with a great view would have to do and kept on truckin’.
8. Anything is possible
Neither of us had ever undertaken a trip like this before. I had never even changed a tyre or mended a puncture before and Jules had never broken a bike down and packed it up ready to go on a plane. We didn’t have any of the right gear whether it was clothing, maps, technology, GPS, bike boxes, tools or whatever. We didn’t even really know where we would get to in two weeks and how we would get back. Foolish you would be forgiven to be thinking and perhaps you are right, but it meant that when we met and overcame challenges those moments became personal highlights, great learning and have meant that we can set the bar even higher on our next trip. We all learn from experience and from getting things wrong and having to be resourceful and problem solve. I think we both learned a lot on this trip about ourselves and each other, grew much closer and had a wonderful adventure that we will always remember.
Perhaps our favorite challenge was how we were going to get the bikes back from Phuket as we were running out of time. We decided we would fly them back, even though we had no tools to break the bikes down fully and no bike boxes. We did however have google, (search on “how to break a bike down”), winning smiles and enough cash to trade mechanical assistance and some boxes for a few beers. We managed to get the hotel owner’s cousin to bring his toolkit and substantial muscle over to help us remove rust encrusted pedals and seats and rotate handlebars. We delighted in the fact that we could wrap up the bikes in beer boxes. We breathed a sigh of relief that the bikes fitted into the airport transfer minibus and bought a celebratory beer in the airport terminal once we had remembered at the last minute to take the air out of the tyres and somehow blagged our way to get them to take the bikes on the plane in the midst of Phuket airport’s complete, sweaty chaos.
A miracle but yes they did arrive in Bangkok airport and in one piece and the bike hire company – rather foolishly in my opinion – gave us all the security deposit back. We made it!
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