This post covers our time cycling in northern Thailand across to Laos, in a very hot March.
Thailand is a travellers’ paradise and has been popular with backpackers for decades now. Cycling is also enjoyed here making it is top cycle touring destination. There is a 30-day visa free period for many nations and options to extend if you plan to stay longer. With smooth roads, free camping, good bike shops, all kinds of cuisine, English spoken in many places and cheap water filter machines, biking here is a breeze. The only downside is the heat during March-May (think saturated clothing) and the rainy season between June-October (think mouldy panniers). So avoid if possible.
After almost nine months of being on the road, we had made it to Thailand. Both of us had visited the country before and welcomed the familiarity after months of exploring the unknown.
The border crossing into Mae Sot was a breeze, with a 30-day visa free period. The first change was switching to the correct side of the road - the left of course. Secondly, the locals didn’t bat an eyelid at us two heavy-ladened cyclists. We were once again invisible. Thirdly and most importantly, the sounds of violent hawking and spitting that we’d become so familiar with had come to an abrupt stop. This we were extremely glad about. We chose to stay the night in Mae Sot to enjoy some Western comforts (thank you 7Eleven) before heading north to Chiang Mai.
The following morning we headed for the undulating route 1175 which would take us through the Khun Phawo National Park, avoiding the motorway. The heat in northern Thailand took us by surprise and before long we had to strip right down, our clothes quickly saturated with sweat. We also misjudged the convenience of Thailand and were shocked to find very few shops on the way for food and water. Eventually we made it to the national park entrance and decided to spend the night in the well-maintained park for 200 Baht. We hiked the 3km to a nearby waterfall for a refreshing natural shower only to get sweaty again on the steep climb back to camp. Pot noodles were on the menu for dinner as we had failed to find gas for our can stove.
The next day we completed the demanding route 1175 and treated ourselves to a guest house in the scenic town of Ban Tak, located on the Ping river. The following few days were some of the most enjoyable kind - quiet, flat and well-paved roads winding through small villages and banana plantations, to the tune of birdsong and smells of fresh laundry. As a treat to celebrating our 9th month on the road, we enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip in the town of Lon Raet (see photo below).
We enjoyed a few nights of stress-free wild camping, which is very easy in Thailand. The only downside is the heat which attracts the irritating flies and nighttime humidity which makes sleeping more difficult. The heat also means more irritation in the saddle and obvious side effects.
After five days riding we made it to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, also located on the Ping river. Approaching the city from the motorway, we were greeted with glaring signs of modern civilisation: Tesco, Decathlon, Boots, McDonald’s. Of course we visited all of the above, stocking up on cereal, inner tubes, sun scream and Chicken Selects®.
The approach into the centre was far less problematic than most. The well-laid out centre around the historic city walls and moat made for a pleasant entrance and zero arguments. We did notice however how touristy it felt, particularly in comparison to my previous visit (now a decade ago!). There are now as many foreigners as there are Thai people (plus many more old white men with beautiful young Thai women). I’ll say no more. We weren’t complaining though; we found yet another cheap hotel with a small pool and good breakfast. We had three days off the bikes to rest our weary legs and indulge in plenty of creature-comforts.
After 10 months going without, I treated myself to a haircut at the most prestigious salon in the city. For the agreeable price of £17, I was treated to a delirious head and shoulder massage, a thorough hair cut and professional blow dry. That evening we met up with British cycling couple, Molly & Haydn (@cycleforlove), for Khao soi and mango sticky rice. They’ve been cycling for much longer than us but happened to be in town at the same time. One of the biggest highlights of this adventure is meeting like-minded people that you instantly get along with and it is certainly one of the greatest things about travelling. Another traveller, Anton from Beligum, that we originally met in Bagan was also in town so we met up with him the following evening for more delicious Thai food.
After an extra, unplanned rest day in Chiang Mai, we hit the road towards Chiang Rai. This stretch of road was less enjoyable, owed to the extensive roadworks taking place. It’s funny how something as simple thing as the ground conditions can impact on your mentality when cycling. We passed some interesting hot springs on the roadside and found a quiet spot in the evening to camp.
With a Warmshowers host lined up for our final night in Thailand, we put in a big day in the saddle. This meant we only passed through Chiang Rai briefly. Unfortunately cities tend to lose their excitement once you’ve been on the road for an extended period (aside from the promise of western food after an extended period without). The quiet, authentic and affordable places ’in between’ are far more interesting to us.
Kong, our Warmshowers host, lives in the district of Wiang China Rung, around 30km east of Chiang Rai. He is a coffee farmer and roaster with his own shop called RoastFriday. Why? Because he only opens on Fridays. We had such a fun time with Kong. He is such a sweet and generous guy - the perfect host and the embodiment of what the cycling community is all about. We champion Warmshowers for the opportunity to meet people all over the world, providing an insight into cultures previously unknown. Kong took us to the local market to pick up fresh produce for dinner, the village temple with an uninterrupted view over the town, and cold beers at the local hangout on the lake. We finished the evening back at his place cooking up a storm - Khao Jeow. He set us to work picking fresh herbs from his garden and cutting up a load of garlic, before giving me responsibility over the stove. Safe to say it was one of the best dishes of the trip and we came away with yet another great recipe to impress family and friends back home.
Kong invited us to stay an extra day so that we could visit his coffee farm in the mountains. Sadly though, we had to press on towards Laos. We didn’t have long to cycle to Hanoi to meet Matt’s family who would be visiting in early April. We instead spent the morning at his coffee shop in the town, where he entrusted us to roast up our own batch of coffee, teaching us the importance of timings, temperatures and every detail in between. Matt’s batch was only a slight improvement on my own, which admittedly was a little dark. The whole morning was so fun and insightful, and we left high as kites after one too many coffees, our bags packed with our hand-roasted coffee and coffee bean tea gifted from Kong’s farm.
The journey towards the border was picturesque through rice fields and banana plantations. Despite leaving just after 11 o’clock, we made it to the Thai-Laos border before 4pm and boarded the compulsory coach across the mighty Mekong river towards Laos customs… B
Current Stats (as of 11.03.19)
Total days cycled: 190/280
Total rest days: 90
Total distance completed: 12,473 Km
Favourite podcast: They Walk Among Us