This story is about my adventure in Thailand over the 3 month period NOV-DEC '09 and JAN '10. I am an Australian aged 65. Sadly the story doesn't include anything about sex (65 and all that goes with that!). The part of the adventure I want to tell you about is how I got around the country, which was by push bike, and things associated with biking it. The push bike idea germinated in my brain after a 2008 chance meeting with a German bloke in Luang Prabang who was riding his bike from BKK to Vietnam. He showed me the requisite equipment for such an adventure, and being a keen rider myself I decided right then what I would do next visit is . . . ride my bike!
I'm must be a nutter, right? Right! Most westerners understand that nutters can co-exist with other people and are quite common in their own countries ('cos they've seen 'em and probably know one). Most Thai people have difficulty with the notion of a 'rich' person (I'm not rich but am a Caucasian foreigner and therefore RICH BY DEFINITION) who chooses to get around using the type of transport used by poor people (if you ride a bike you are POOR BY DEFINITION). This made reactions of Thais to me during my travels an interesting sideline.
The first reaction of a Thai person is of course to ask how much it cost. The bike I bought in BKK was a Trek Fuel EX5.5, nice bike, near the bottom end of a range of Trek mountain bikes –
see pic. At the time of purchase it cost 37500B ($A1250). That price is half what I would have spent in Oz for the very same bike, and small bickies if you are a serious cyclist. That Baht number is interesting, because if you walk into a Honda
shop in Thailand you will find a brand new 110cc fuel injected motorcycle for . . . 37500B. These numbers beg the question – why is it so? Any reader who has been involved in mass production manufacture, especially automotive, will be aware
that 'parts count' is king, so why is it that the Honda with xxxx number of parts can cost the same as the Trek which has xx number of parts? Somebody please give me an answer!
First the bike – given the advanced age of my bum I need a comfortable ride. Means the bike has to have good quality front and rear suspension. Light weight is an advantage, and puncture-proof balloon tyres essential (Thai roads being fairly scrappy and those gratings over drains have wide spaces between the bits of steel). The Giant Trance X3 I have in Oz was my first choice but I got worried about it being wrecked during transport, people stealing bits or the whole bike, so I decided to buy a similar thing in BKK on arrival. Turned out I needn't have worried, no harm even looked like coming to the Trek.
I bought the bike at 'Probike' (on north boundary of Lumphini park). I was based in Korat at the time so got them to box it and I bussed it up there. ( I said “ how will I get it to the bus station?” – they said “in a taxi”. Hang on a moment, bike box across the back seat of a Corolla?? – Yep, it fits!!).
In the pic you see the rack, Schwalbe balloon tyres (2.00×26 Marathon Supreme) and Ortlieb handlebar bag I took with me from Oz. These tyres are great – low rolling resistance, and not one puncture! I replaced the seat with a local squidgy model soon after the pic was taken. I also took a pair of clipless pedals with me from Oz – just as well 'cos the bike came equipped with conventional pedals and clips. All the discarded parts were happily and conveniently received by the mae baan (housewife) in my hotel, presumably she sold them! In a Thai bike shop, empty bike boxes go for 100B, and small pieces of bubble-wrap, used 1000 times already, go for 5B!!
Important Technology – It's Thailand, therefore maps are a difficulty. One needs maps of course to plan routes, but MOST importantly – when I set off in the morning – where am I going to sleep that night? For me this meant I needed a GPS.
I used a Garmin etrex Legend Hcx mounted on the handlebar, and a complimentary NETBOOK computer with maps loaded – this was a terrific Eeepc 601 that fits into the Ortlieb bag. The computer means that you can plan a route (including your proposed accommodation) prior to your ride, and download this into the GPS. You can also upload where you've been from the GPS, look at elevation profiles, even send files of your travels to family (to be viewed in Google Earth – see more on this below). Also required is a decent digital camera, an unlocked mobile phone so therefore able to use a local card, some form of backup for pics and data, and USB internet (inexpensive in Thailand and signal everywhere – great). I made a point one day to prove to myself that you can sit in a rice paddy and send emails. Yes you can! (Take your repellent though).
How much to Carry? – Always a vexatious question, but having much experience with motorcycle touring in the past I was able to quickly come up with the essential requirements and discard everything else. Tools for the bike, spare tube, patches, pump, sharp knife, cycle nicks, clipless cycling shoes, hat, gloves, 30+, sandals, 2 changes of quick-dry clothes, drugs (legal) and toiletries. With bike drive trains it's important to lube and clean regularly for reliability, so rather than carrying stuff for that, I made a practice at least every second day of buying from 7/11 a pressure pack of CRC which I then emptied on the chain and sprockets, thereby cleaning and lubricating very effectively. 7/11s – everywhere in Thailand! Oh, and space for a good book.
I split this stuff between the Ortlieb bag and a backpack which I carried on the rack. Sandals I taped to the upper frame bar on the bike. Carrying water is important, but with the easy availability of water all over Thailand I carried just one bottle – was enough. I carried passport and plastic cards in a belt around my waist, while money was OK in secure pants pockets.
For the record the milepost says Khon Kaen 17, Udon Thani 137, it's national route 2 and 426 from BKK (I think!)
On the Road
I hung around in Korat for a while doing language lessons, and during that time did many day trips as circuits from the city – enabled me to relax about riding in Thailand. Then I mapped out a route from Korat to Udon Thani with as little main highway as I could manage. Not always easy to stay off the main drag, as sometimes it's difficult to find accommodation a day's ride from where you happen to be. My first stop involved a home stay, and I was so stiff and grumpy next morning from trying unsuccessfully to sleep on the floor I decided to give those a miss! Usually stayed in cheap hotels – around 400B, never booked ahead except for the home stay. It was great to have the device direct me right to the door of the my chosen accommodation – even when it was hidden in a back street and not obvious when only 10m from the entrance!
If the GPS is set to make a route avoiding main roads, you will find yourself on 'roads' like in the pic below . . .
Great stuff and no worries with the type equipment I had. That sand is only about 5cm deep with solid ground underneath. I did have to turn back on a couple of occasions though . . .
Pic below is the type of pic you need at least once in such a trip, just to prove you actually were there (Ubonrat Dam).
It's easy enough to ride between 50 and 100k in a day depending on the route, topography etc, but I was not out to set any records and did not attempt to ride every day – after all it was a holiday and I'm not a masochist, and if I found a nice place to stay with some interest, I'd hang around for a while. I spent Xmas at Udon Thani, then bussed the bike (in a box) over the ranges to Chiang Mai where I enjoyed their huge new year party. Can't believe the lanterns, fireworks etc they have there – totally impossible to do anything like that in Oz.
I did day rides as circuits from Chiang Mai including up the hill to Doi Suthep – quite a pull that one, then rode up to Chiang Rai, more circuits, then down to Lampang, more circuits, and back to Chiang Mai. Typical of data available from the GPS is elevation profiles, the one shown below is the route Lampang to Chiang Mai (highway 11). I did this 101k in six and a half hours including a stop for chow in one day, pretty fit at that stage.
You can upload the track file from the GPS into your computer ('track' = the GPS data recorded as you moved along) and save it in .gpx format, and that file can be opened in Google Earth. The track shown below is a three day (consecutive days) ride Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. Family and friends enjoy these, for they can zoom in and see actual roads travelled. They can even see where you left the road for a pee! Great technology.
Two rules I made for myself were never to ride in the rain or to ride after dark. Rain was not a problem. In the three months I encountered rain only a hand-full of times, and never when on the road. In fact it was almost always dry, and when I commented on that fact to Thai people they invariably looked at me stupid and said sagely 'that's because it's the dry season' . . er OK. Riding in the dark would have to be silly even with lights, not only because there is a greater chance of being taken out by a drunk driver – lots of these in Thailand, but also because you've just cranked up any problems you may encounter finding accommodation. What about the temperature? At that time of year not too hot in northern Thailand. Sure I sweated a bit, but overall quite pleasant conditions for bike riding.
One of the pleasures of being in Thailand for a foreigner is massage. Let me tell you that that pleasure is heightened by a having your 2hr Thai massage as soon as possible after a good workout on the bike. All that stretching, pushing and shoving – wonderful for the body, mind and spirit!
Riding a push bike allows you to get up close and personal with many aspects of a country and it's people. And so observations are made and conclusions inevitably drawn. No, I'm not an expert on Thailand but I have seen things that some other tourists may have missed.
One conclusion is that the country is something of a paradise – a wide variety of food can be grown all year round because it's always warm, it rains a lot, plenty of water, and soils fertile. All manner of useful stuff grows as well, banana leaves, bamboo etc. This partly explains why even with a large population and not a lot of mechanisation in agriculture they can still be the worlds largest exporter of rice and . . . prawns – yes, they farm them. Compared to my country which in the main is as dry as a nun's nasty, their output is prodigious. Thailand has a lot going for it. However, partly because of all this production and for many other reasons, some cultural, on average the place looks like a junk heap!
It's the humans stuffing it up (this stuffing up situation is not unique to Thailand of course, 'cos that's what we homo saps do best).
Another conclusion is that I did not feel it to be particularly unsafe on the roads. Somehow nothing ever happened to make me think I shouldn't have been there. Naturally there were some scary moments, but no more than I have riding in Oz. Thai driving is however by and large horrifying. I saw many incidents where drivers displayed a total lack of concern for life and limb, their own included. On two consecutive days I saw buses that had slid along the road on their sides and crashed, another a truck ran straight up the back of a stopped truck, and lots of other smaller incidents, crashed cars etc. I did not see any motorcycle incidents, although given the way many of them ride I don't know why! I soon caught on to the etiquette of how to handle the motorcycles and even cars coming at me on the extreme left of the road (my side of the road) – I had to allow them to stay on the extreme left, while I had to diverge right, sometimes into the stream of traffic coming from behind me. And I can't stand the way Thais will stop their vehicles half on and half off the roadway! Again I had to enter the traffic stream to get around them.
Until the police and indeed the whole judicial system has a complete change of culture, driving habits will not change. To get Thais to use even crash hats when on motorcycles is a major challenge. See pic below and note the helmet straps flapping in the breeze. If the cops can't be bothered doing it, what hope is there? (and by the way, what happened to the bike registration procedure?).
Would I recommend to people to do this?
Yes, but be well prepared, test your body, test your equipment, and test your modus operandi at home before you go. You don't want to have failures ruining your holiday. Take your own bike, it's not hard to do and make sure you have balloon tyres. Would I do it again? Probably not as a method of transport around the country (been there done that), but I am considering some organised bike tours in SE Asia. How about Myanmar? It's a great way to see the world up close!
If any reader would like more info, please feel free to email.
Sounds like you had a great time!