Words and photographs by Dave Stamboulis.
I have lived in Thailand for almost a decade and certainly have seen my fair share of the country, yet I thought I’d do something different on a recent vacation other than hopping onto a bus or train or taking a mini-van tour. So I joined a SpiceRoads bicycle trip to revisit some of the cultural highlights of central Thailand and came away well rewarded and emotionally invigorated from seeing a part of Thailand few visitors are privy to.
SpiceRoads 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 Bicycle”. I’ve always seen bicycling as a kind of common denominator between people, breaking down barriers wherever one goes. And apart from the fact one isn’t hidden behind a pane of glass, a bicycle is non-threatening and takes the rider to the villages and towns normally not stopped at when travelling by bus or car.
We started our Central Thailand Explorer journey at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, probably the biggest tourist attraction near Bangkok. While the market itself is not very local anymore, 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 this visit far more interesting than that 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 as well as learning 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 back roads and even getting off road through the plantations on empty dirt tracks. SpiceRoads has obviously done an extensive amount of planning and research to come up with these routes, and they make it a joy to ride a bike without having to worry about heavy traffic.
I have bicycle toured 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, SpiceRoads 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, both a mini-van and a truck. The truck is used for transporting the high end bicycles that the company gives travellers (doing a perfect job of sizing each guest prior to the trip and personalising his/her bicycle) and the driver also thoughtfully stations himself at any tricky turns or busy road crossings to ensure that fast traffic is slowing down or that everyone does not miss a turn.
Additionally, there is a mini van used for transporting riders who might get too fatigued or in our case, taking us between sights, as we covered three different areas of the region on our tour. The mini van is also equipped with a large ice chest, and 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 travelled around Kanchanaburi Province, visiting the top attraction there, the Death Railway built by POW’s for the Japanese 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 Kwai, and then even went for a ride on the commemorative train, which runs parallel with the Burmese border through some lush mountain terrain. Most of the tourists here headed back the way they came with the train, but we saddled up and started riding, going single track through some verdant hills, sugar cane plantations, and along the pretty Kwai River. We finished our afternoon at the Mueang Sing Historical Park, a site of some 13th century Khmer temple remains, looking right out of Angkor Wat, but without any of the tourists.
Days out on this trip ended about as perfectly as they started, rolling in to a peaceful riverside resort where hot showers, an excellent Thai dinner, and comfy beds awaited. Bicycle touring might not seem synonymous with style, but this was about as good as it gets.
While our second day focused on some of Kanchanaburi’s history, our third day was all about the pleasure of rural riding. Today 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 abundant agricultural areas, learning about the crops unique to the area such as tapioca, rose apple, and papaya. Tom made sure we sampled just about every product we saw, ensuring a further connection to the land we were cycling through.
Come late afternoon, after we’d satisfied our riding cravings, we piled into the bus and headed to Ayutthaya, the former royal capital of Thailand and home to some of its best preserved ancient ruins. 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 the course of 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 pedalling 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.
You know a tour has been good when the ending is bittersweet. When it becomes hard to say goodbye to the other travellers and excellent guides because you’ve shared a bonding experience. When you regret having to leave the road and all of its constant surprises and great scenery. While I was looking forward to a day of rest, I also realised just how much fun it is to see the world from the seat of a bicycle, and how I was looking forward to doing it again soon, preferably for far longer of a ride.