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Thailand

The Practical Cyclists' Guide (1992)

Grace Newhaven

PO Box 3331 RUNDLE MALL SA 5000 Australia

The country: Thailand is about the same area as France, with a similar population, around 50 million. It is an overwhelmingly rural society, with around 75 % of people dependent on agriculture, living in villages and small towns - apart from Bangkok there are no other really big cities. Sizeable towns however were usually about 50 to 80 Km apart, providing most services I needed. 

The climate: in the dry season, November through to January, temperatures were ideal for cycling, around 20 degrees. I experienced only one day's rain. The nights were pleasant in a sheet sleeping bag, until the north when I needed a blanket as well.

 The attractions: Thailand is well endowed with things to see, from the beaches of the South, to the hill country and National Parks (some with elephants) of the North. While some coastal parts have come to resemble the excesses of the Costa Brava, you can quickly escape these over-developments on a bike, and find yourself in the village and small town environments the motor-bound tourists never see. As ever on a bike, it's the sights along the way, the small unexpected interactions that provide the greatest pleasures, and Thailand has them in abundance.

 Maps: were not easy to find, outside Bangkok's large English language bookshops. The Thai Highways Department issues a good series covering the whole country in four separate sheets, in a scale of 1 cm/10 Km. There is also the German "Nelles" series, 1 cm/15 Km, the whole country on one sheet. I saw several locally produced series of highly detailed and useful regional maps covering the more visited tourist areas. A compass was useful for the back roads. 

The roads: were much better than one might expect of a poor country. Highways, main roads and even lesser roads were always well sealed, with dirt tracks of varying quality leading off to small villages. Sealed roads were well sign posted in Latin characters, and I was pleasantly surprised that Thailand drives on the left. There are few cars, with most of the traffic utility trucks, buses of various sizes and whining, low calibre motor cycles, many of these latter used as taxis! Drivers were usually polite and seemingly careful, mercifully light on the horn. I would not however recommend the road into Bangkok, a nightmare of dusty construction activity and unending columns of bumper-to-bumper dump trucks. As for Bangkok itself, only the truly mad would attempt to cycle there - I did, and it was one of the silliest things I've ever done. 

Bicycles: Sadly, there weren't many push bikes in the provinces. The only cyclists seemed to be children, or the very poor, though I did once see a team of monkey-handlers travelling by bike from village to village for the coconut season.

On the other hand, I was surprised to meet a dozen or so foreign cyclists, quite by accident. All of them had come to Thailand "on spec", without any information about cycling conditions, but everyone seemed to have enjoyed the experience. 

Every town has a cycle shop, dealing in Chinese-style clunkers mostly. Ten speeds were not uncommon though, and some shops sold basic MTB's. While Bangkok had a very well stocked cycle market, dealing in Japanese racers, no-one outside Bangkok, (including myself at the time) seemed to know much about cotterless cranks, for example. A degree of mechanical self sufficiency is essential. 

Food: was usually a pleasure. A large, cyclist size meal could be as cheap as a dollar from a market take-away stall, or around two dollars in a restaurant. I became partial especially to "sticky rice", delicious with curries, or even on its own. Thai food is very spicy, and served cold, but you get used to it. Most "sit down" restaurants, however, seemed to be Chinese and the food there was less fiery. In tourist areas, there were usually restaurants serving European style foods, but at prices many times beyond the "local" cafes and stalls. There were markets for fresh vegetables, and I could always find tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. Fruit was an endless delight - Lady's Finger bananas, several varieties of pineapples , jackfruit and many other delicious kinds. Local lager beer is quite palatable, if relatively expensive, at about $3.00/lt. There is also a wide range of interesting and often delicious sweets, and some very exotic snacks - I once ate fried grasshoppers, tasting like corn chips ! Vegetarians would need to be careful , however - vendors had some difficulty understanding the concept. 

There was often a regional food speciality of interest to the cyclist - dried sticks of buffalo meat, peanut toffee, dried fish are fond memories. Supermarkets in most towns carried non-perishable supplies, eg instant oats, instant coffee, milk powder, canned sardines, honey, tea bags etc. I found the local breakfasts of fish ball soup a bit much, and was happy to start the day with porridge. Lunch most days was a picnic in one of the bus sheds along the highway ; this was a minor economy, but also prevented becoming bored with cafe food, as well as giving a sense of self-sufficiency: in a relatively poor country, the sight of too many Westerners waited on for three meals a day was sometimes unedifying. 

For some reason, there were very few tea and coffee shops, and those that did exist usually served only lukewarm and thin instant coffee at very inflated prices. I came to value my immersion heater greatly, as all hotel rooms had power points. A small thermos was also very useful for tea time on the road. 

Water : nobody, local or foreign, drinks from the tap. Plastic bottles of cold, "filtered" water were available from provision stores everywhere along main roads, but the resulting mess, as the non-returnable bottles were discarded, put me off buying it. Fortunately, most houses had large containers for collecting rain water, and were very happy to give me as much as I could want. Only once did I run out of water -in the middle of nowhere, on the steep road skirting the Burmese border, quite unpleasant but my own fault. Generally, negotiating for water brought me into contact with the locals in a way the motorised tourist would never experience, and I became very appreciative of the kindness I was shown. 

Accommodation: Basic, but reasonably clean hotels in the provinces were around $ 5.00 for a room for two with your own "bath", ie a dipper and large water container, and a squat toilet. Hotels were not always well signposted, but were not hard to find even so, especially with the increased mobility of the bike, which made scouting about so much easier. When in doubt, a local cycle rickshaw will guide you, for the usual fare, about 25 cents. There are also so-called "guest houses", catering exclusively for the Western clientele of backpackers, with micro-rooms, sometimes in palm leaf huts, for about the same price. I found these had an uncomfortable, "golden ghetto" feel to them, with an obvious, if unspoken, barrier between the locals and the hedonistic "travellers". Contact with some of the latter seemed to have had an unfortunate effect on the people operating these establishments: the guests seemed to be over-serviced with expensive, pseudo Thai food, day tours, souvenirs and so on. I found after some experience, sadly, that the more English someone spoke, the more likely they were to be trying to sell me something I didn't need. 

However the "guest houses" had the advantage that one could get a better night's sleep than in a hotel, where the Thai and Chinese guests tended to be rather noisy. Thailand generally seemed to go to bed late and wake early, having several naps in the day to make up! 

Some towns were too small to support a hotel, and on those occasions I learned to approach the local Buddhist temple or "wat", where I was always well received, even if the monks were sometimes at a loss to know what to do with such a strange apparition as a foreigner, on a bicycle of all things. However, temples mostly had at least rudimentary guest facilities, and staying with the monks was always a happy and calming experience. It proved useful to ask the monks to autograph my diary, and to use this as an introduction at the next wat

A sheet sleeping bag enabled me to sleep easily anywhere - even when the laundry standards were not quite what Australians might be used to ! I didn't have a mosquito net, but it would have been useful to have one, especially when staying away from the hotels, which were usually screened in Thailand, unlike in Malaysia

Camping: I meet a number of European cyclists who'd carried camping and cooking gear, sometimes for months, without using it. Camping didn't seem worthwhile, given the number of snakes we saw trying to cross the roads (including a live cobra about five feet long one day in Malaysia!), the insects, heat, lack of safe water etc. While there would have been pleasant places to camp, there were also places to stay if you used imagination. 

Trains : there is a very good railway system, with trains lines radiating out from Bangkok. Fares are very cheap in the Third Class even with a reserved seat. Trains were slower than buses, and are less popular, but looked much safer. For the cyclist, procedures were straightforward: you put the bike on, and you take it off, after paying a flat rate fee. Bikes can usually only travel on slower all-stations trains, but this is no great problem. 

The People: While per capita income is low, few people are hungry, though there are other unmistakable signs of poverty. Most people were generally friendly and easy to deal with. There were a very few crooks and cheats about, but these were greatly outnumbered by helpful and generous people. Simple English was widely understood, and Thais had a great appreciation for any attempt to speak their own language. In between, pantomime filled the gaps, to everybody's good natured amusement! While people were curious about foreigners ( who, among other things, are incredibly rich compared to rural Thais) this curiosity did not extend to staring or crowding. My lasting memories are of a great deal of kindness, warmth and laughter. 

One curious social phenomenon was the "ran sur pa gow-gow" (second hand clothes shops) of the South, where the locals bargained over used T shirts and cowboy clothes imported in large quantities from the US, ~sometimes with their charity shop price tags intact. Younger poorer Thais valued these greatly as status symbols of a culture otherwise quite beyond them economically, and it was common to see people wearing T shirts from long ago "Fun Runs" in, say, Montana or Arizona. Ironically, we found a few with cycling motifs. 

There were negative aspects sometimes: the tendency for curious bystanders to fiddle with the controls of my bike if I left it alone somewhere on the street; and, in the South, the chorus of shouts of "Yu! ... Yu!" in each village , from groups of macho layabouts on motor bike taxis who seemed to find the sight of a hot and tired cyclist overwhelmingly hilarious - in fact they were giving me a traditional, standard greeting, meaning "Where [ do you go ] ? ". I managed to lose my temper on occasions with these jerks, and perhaps I shouldn't have - I don't think they meant harm. 

Thai men seemed to drink quite a lot, whiskey mostly, and semi-drunk people were quite common at stops in the villages. Fortunately, they were rarely more than simply obnoxious, and I never felt seriously threatened. 

There were regional variations, too, gradually revealed to the cyclist - from the Muslim South through to the increasingly Buddhist centre and North-East , and the non-Thai minorities of the North. Stopping for a cuppa one day, I found myself in conversation with a pleasant school teacher who told me how the last village had been Cambodian-speaking, the next would be Lao, the one after perhaps even Vietnamese: the populations were very mixed, but apparently without the racial animosities of other countries in SE Asia. This is generally ascribed to their Buddhist tolerance, combined with the absence of any post-colonial resentment - Thailand was never actually colonised. 

Services: Banks and Post offices were quite straightforward and reliable: I had no trouble using my Mastercard to draw cash, and international telephone calls were simply arranged at larger post offices. Pharmacies in small towns were well stocked, with helpful staff, and I passed frequent hospitals along the highways. There were also police boxes every 20 Km or so, and mostly the police were cooperative, if sometimes officious and occasionally drunk.

Security : As a single male, I never experienced anything resembling a security problem, in a journey of ten weeks in Thailand, despite the stories I had heard about lawlessness. On advice though, I didn't ride after dark, and made sure I could park my bike inside my room each night. I also carried my own small padlock for hotel doors. You could get into trouble if you really wanted to, though, and you soon notice the paramilitary style of the police stations, and begin to appreciate how things might be for locals. 

Guides : We used a "traveller's" guide book most of the time but came to regret carrying the extra weight, as the information about hotels was often out of date, and much else irrelevant and even misleading. You'd get by much better spending a night with an atlas, a coffee table book on Thailand, the giveaways from the Thai tourist office or a travel agent, and a small notebook. Once you realise there are roads everywhere, and that Thais are such friendly people, you need very little else.

 Grace Newhaven , Adelaide 1992 - revised 1998 & 2008

Links

Brain DeSousa's Thailand site (99/04)               http://alum.wpi.edu/~desousa/cycling/

Mr Pumpy's Thailand http://www.netspace.net.au/~mrfelix/bsa/index.html  

Grace's Vietnam : Hanoi to Saigon 1994


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