Seeing Thailand on two wheels opens up a whole new world; the perfect way to see the sights, get away from the crowds, meet the locals — and stay in great shape as well!
By Dave Stamboulis.
I have lived in Thailand for almost a decade and certainly have seen my fair share of the country. Yet, on a recent vacation, I thought I’d do something different other than hopping onto a bus or train or taking a mini-van tour. I joined up with a Spice Roads bicycle trip, going to revisit some of the cultural highlights of central Thailand, and came away well rewarded, feeling fit, as well as delighted, having seen a part of Thailand that only a few visitors are privy to.
Spice Roads runs bicycle trips throughout the region, greater Asia, and elsewhere in the world. Their motto, proudly worn on the jersey of our guide, Tom, says “See the world by bike.” I’ve always seen bicycling as a kind of common denominator between people, breaking down barriers wherever one goes. It is a great way to see places normally not stopped at when traveling by bus or car.
We started our journey at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, probably the biggest tourist attraction near Bangkok. While the market itself is not very local anymore, being aimed strictly at tourists, it’s still a decent photo op and a place to stock up on a few souvenirs for the folks back home. What made the visit here far more interesting than on a regular tour was that after touring the market and taking a boat along some of the back canals, we started riding through the area, getting a bit more sense of just how locals lived and what the industries are that actually support their lives.
We meandered through coconut and banana plantations, stopping to see some coconut processing along the way. Having a Thai guide allowed us to gain access and communicate in every little hamlet we stopped in, learn a bit about the locals’ lives, not to mention not really having to concentrate on navigating. Knowing how awful the traffic can be in many parts of the country, I was quite amazed to find us sailing along on almost deserted backroads, even getting off road through the plantations on empty dirt tracks.
I have done bicycle tours before, and while it certainly gets one off-the-beaten path, it also comes at the expense of heat, dust, inclement weather, and one fairly sore body. Fortunately, Spice Roads has arranged their tours to take most of the discomforts of the road out, and let participants just enjoy themselves while getting a great workout at the same time. All of their tours feature several support vehicles, including a mini van equipped with a large ice chest, allowing riders pull in to the perfectly timed rest stops to find fresh fruit, cookies, and ice cold drinks, and even cold towels awaiting, really making it seem that every whim had been thought of and catered to.
On our second day we traveled around Kanchanaburi, visiting the top attraction there, the Death Railway built by POWs for the Japanese push into Burma during WWII. Not only did we pay a call in at the descriptive War Museum, but also the memorial cemetery, the famed Bridge Over the River Kwae, and then even went for a ride on the commemorative train, which runs up along the Burmese border through some lush mountain terrain. We finished our afternoon at the Mueang Sing Historical Park, site of some 13th century Khmer temple remains, looking right out of Angkor Wat, but without any of the tourist masses.
While our second day focused on some of Kanchanaburi’s history, our third day was all about the pleasure of rural riding. This was the hilliest day, and the excellent gear ratios on the bikes we had came well appreciated. We cycled past elephant camps, languid rivers, and past abundant agricultural areas, learning about the crops unique to the area such as tapioca, rose apples, and papaya. Tom made sure we sampled just about every product we saw, ensuring a further connection to the land we were cycling through.
One of the luxuries of touring by bicycle is the camaraderie that builds up between riders, and the vast amount of time available to get to know one another. Our tour included Germans, Russians, and even a couple from Greenland, from whom I probably learned more about the country in four days than I ever would from reading a guidebook. Our group was pretty close knit by the time we rolled into Ayutthaya, heading out on the town for an evening meal and celebratory beer.
On our final morning together, we toured most of the ancient city of Ayutthaya and its majestic temples. While the towering ruins were obviously a big highlight for many, I found myself gravitating towards the lesser sights; stopping at a local temple school to talk with the kids, or pedaling through a Muslim community that most obviously was not used to seeing foreign travellers, giving us big smiles and kind words of encouragement as we cycled through.
I thought I knew Thailand pretty well when I started the trip. But as we headed home, I realized that seeing the country on two wheels has opened up a whole new world for me: a perfect way to see the sights, get away from the crowds, meet the locals, and stay in great shape as well.