I always liked cycling. I started cycling in London- to work, and also around the city on my days off, that how I discovered how beautiful and green London was, how gorgeous narrow Victorian streets were.
I started to really discover the city only after I decided to dedicate each day of cycling to a particular area. Since then, there was no other city, that could compare to my dear old London. Or was it simply because I never cycled Paris or Rome? I am still to find that out, meanwhile I’m in the process of cycling Thailand. I’ve head an plan to cover as much of SE Asia on a bike as I could for a while. I liked the idea of taking it slow, meeting locals, getting to know their life, soaking up the atmosphere. May be getting into awkward and thrilling little situations along the way. Little wonder, that as soon as I arrived in Thailand I started looking for a bicycle.
It was decided to take a train to Chiang Mai and from there to go down the country to the south, hopefully ending up in Malaysia. I had about 2000 km to cover.
It was going to be a long and hard journey, but unfortunately I didn’t have much to spend on my bike. My budget was £50, since as soon as I got to Malaysia I would have to leave it behind, or sell it if someone would want it. In CM I cycled around on my rented bicycle in search of a good second-hand bike. For under £150 it was impossible to buy anything decent, as all new bicycles were made either in China or Thailand from cheap components and were not likely to take me anywhere. There are a couple of shops in CM that deal with used bikes, they buy them in bulk, take them apart and then put back together. From what I’ve seen they looked very good and reliable and cost from £60 at the shop next to Chang Puek bus station. I bought mine from a tiny bicycle rental, it was supposed to be a used Japanese bicycle, with no gears, lights or any other cool gadgets – very basic but with a strong frame and smooth run. I took it for a spin and liked the way it felt. When I told the sells guy, where I planned to cycle, he told me,that I wouldn’t make it and suggested another one, that cost three times more and had gears. I still insisted on mine for £54.
So far I have cycled around 600 km, so consider myself almost a cycling veteran and want to share some info with prospective cycling enthusiasts. First of all, you honestly don’t need to take a mortgage to buy an expensive pair of wheels. Before I left my country, I made a lot of research on cycling SE Asia. All threads I read pointed out the importance of having a really good expensive bike, costing hundreds and even thousands of pounds. Add to it appropriate equipment and tools. I never knew there was a special bicycle navigator! It put my hopes down quite a bit, as I had no chance of buying a bike like that. All I can say now is that it certainly helps, if you have a bicycle, that is light, runs smoothly and never lets you down. But don’t let it stop you, if your budget is 10 times smaller, than theirs. So far my trip was a success, I usually cover 100-120 km a day on my cheap, basic bicycle, despite everything I was told. People are much stronger, than they know. Remember medieval pilgrims, who walked for hundreds of miles practically barefoot amidst wars, famine and plague. You don’t need a state of the art bicycle made by NASA engineers from space craft components. Any strong bicycle, that runs the way you like, will do.
There are other specifics of cycling in SE Asia. Among the first ones is obviously the heat. I realised straight away, that leaving as early as possible was a must. Normally I wake up at 5.30 am, so that I would be ready to go by 6. This way I also discovered things, that eluded me before. As early as 4-5 am the streets turned orange with Buddhist monks. They walked up and down with huge round metal bowls collecting donations in exchange for a blessing. People bowed their heads and prayed with the monks. Donation could be anything, they were able to afford – a small sum of money, a few bananas, a bowl of rice. That’s how monks survive.
Day and night in Thailand are equal, and last 12 hours each. The sun goes up at 6am and goes down at 6pm. Waking up early worked for me well enough, while I was in the north. The mornings were crisp and foggy. The fog was so thick, that it left droplets of water on the surface and made it impossible to see even huge lorries’ lights, until they came very close.
Amazing north, how I miss it now! I would normally have about three hours of refreshing, cool ride, when finally around 9-9.30 I would feel the sun heating up. The observation I made past Bangkok was that the climate changed somehow. Now I only have until 7.30, before the sun starts baking me. Cycling in almost 40 degrees heat is really tedious, especially, if you have hills to climb, and in the north, they were plenty. Somehow I fazed this aspect out, when I was dreaming, how magical cycling would be. Thais themselves wear big, long clothes, including jeans and puffa jackets! When I saw it first, I was like “What?!!!”. The idea of wearing tight thick jeans on sweaty legs made me shudder. When I saw someone, wearing shorts and tiny tops, they were most definitely tourists. The only way to survive this sun is to cover up. I still do not wear jeans, but I did purchase a pair of wide, cotton Thai pants and as my top I wear my boyfriends old work shirt, which is white and loose. I also wear a huge, Thai style hat. This is the only way. The sunscreen simply doesn’t stay put, it gets washed down by rivulets of sweat.
Cycling long distances, just like any excessive excersise is tiring. On my first day I cycled 100 km from Chiang Mai to Lampang. To add insult to the injury, there was a huge mountain on my way. I had to jump off my bike and lead it up for about 2km. It was just so steep, that my legs were on fire. The sun was in its zenith. Even cars were grunting while driving past me. If they struggled with their hundreds of horse powers, what about my, one and only, weak female power? I almost had a meltdown and was only minutes away from collapsing on the road In tears. Going down was the sweetest thing ever, I didn’t need to peddle once, just kept my bike straight and enjoyed the wind in my face. Never did I want a glass of chilled champagne more to celebrate my achievement. When I saw a little cafe a few km later, I knew I needed to take a break. When the owner asked, where I cycled from and heard the answer, he just looked at me incredulously and said:”Chiang Mai? By bicycle? It’s 75 km away! I would never! Did you pass the mountain? You are a very strong lady!”
When I arrived at my hotel, I could hardly stand up, all my body was hurting – my knees, my back, my wrists. Don’t forget my bits and pieces, that hurt from sitting on the hard seat.
The next day I managed to cycle only 50km, and even that took me the whole day, I needed to take little breaks all the time.
I made my research, and found out, that it was unhealthy to cycle every day. Unlike our bikes, we are not made of steel, and our tiny muscle fibres get torn from excersise. They need to heal, and when they do, they get stronger, and we get fitter. For every day of big excersise you need one day to recover, otherwise you will only accumulate tiredness. I tested it out myself. Now I cycle for one day, and either stay in the same place for two nights, if I like it, or take a bus to the next point on my map.
Thailand is just full of dogs. Many families have got at least one, frequently 2-3. Add to it stray dogs. All of them get bored silly, and sometimes find it entertaining to run after bicycles. It can be terrifying to have a pack of barking dogs running after you. It happens often enough to me.
Another thing, that I found somewhat disappointing was cycling on big roads. I always imagined, that I will only cycle through fields, and tiny villages, and hidden forest paths. Now I know, that it is simply impossible. I do get to cycle through side streets quite a bit, but the roads I mostly take are wide, paved motorways. The small roads, that divert from the motorway often go one way, and you will have to turn around and go back, when this tiny road finishes by someone’s house. What I do, I enter myself as a pedestrian on google maps, and it gives me walking directions from one town to another. Sometimes it takes me to places, that are off the beaten track indeed. I was once surprised, when google maps asked me to turn right and all I could see was the most narrow, half overgrown with grass path, that later proceeded to be a cattle path, covered with cows dung. I was endlessly shocked, that such tiny roads could be on google maps.
5 star, google maps! Now I know I will never get lost. A few days later I needed to carry the bike in my hands over a tiny river bridge. This way I have seen loads of things, that I would never have seen, if I were a regular tourist and took a bus or a train, or a car. I passed through numerous palm tree and banana tree plantations. I have never seen people hacking at sugar cane stalks with huge machetes before!
I even passed salt fields! I had no idea, what they were, I asked a few workers, what they were doing, but they just smiled and tried to clarify something in Thai. Later I was explained by a local lady, that they were salt farms, where they evaporated sea water, pumped from Gulf of Thailand. It takes one month to evaporate a batch of salt, and each year Thailand produces one million tons of this important product.
Most importantly, I got to know Thai people. Not the ones, who give you a massage, drive a tuk-tuk, work at 7/11, or at your hotel. They are all lovely, I’m sure, but they primarily see you as a customer.
I had a chance to stop wherever I liked, or whenever I was stopped. I was asked a few times, if I travelled alone, and then heard back:” You are very brave! But you are a lady and it’s very dangerous. There are good people and there are bad.” Fair enough, but the same could be said about any country in the world. You just should be careful and use your common sense and intuition.
So far all I have experienced was unbelievable kindness and a healthy share of curiosity. Thais are just so extremely nice. They would always wave their hand and shout hello, even if it was the only English word they knew. I was frequently asked, if they could take a picture of me. Drivers would give me a honk and show me thumb ups from the window. One day I stopped for lunch at a local market, and shortly found myself surrounded by locals, who wanted to find out where I was from and were I was bound to. When I was ready to go, they presented me with a big bunch of bananas and a bottle of Pepsi in a bag, so that I could take them with me on my bike. I was so touched, when they asked me to be careful and sent me on my way.
Another time after lunch, I was overtaken by a teenage girl on a motorbike, who stopped me and gave me a plastic-wrapped cotton towel, wet and chilled in the fridge, so that I could use it to wipe my face in the heat. She was the daughter of the cafe owner and wanted to be friends on Facebook. Very often I had old Thai ladies approach me and say “Swyngam”. I didn’t know, what it meant, until someone translated it as “beautiful”. Isn’t it just great, to be complemented by complete strangers?! I can continue endlessly, how many great people I have met.
Now I know, that cycling Asia was the best thing I ever decided, I am looking forward to cycling Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Sri Lanca next, and somehow I know, that it would be an experience I will cherish forever.