Topics include Dining Scene, For Foreign Visitors & more!
With quiet, well surfaced roads meandering through a picturesque landscape and generally courteous drivers, Thailand is a great place to ride a bicycle. In fact, there is surely no better way to get to know the real Thailand than by taking a cycling tour through it. The vast majority of visitors will take a one hour flight from one tourist hotspot to the next, missing out on all of the hidden treasures in-between. Instead, consider taking several days to make that same journey, cycling through the unspoilt Thai countryside. Travel along jungle-lined roads or through a rural landscape of rice fields discovering magnificent sites unknown to the tourist hordes and meeting genuine and friendly locals who will remind you why Thailand is known as ‘the Land of Smiles’. Best of all you will be travelling at a pace that allows you to truly absorb and appreciate all the wonderful things you come across.
The short answer is ‘fabulous’. Away from the major towns and cities the roads in Thailand tend to be relatively free of traffic compared to those of western countries and the drivers tend to be a lot more considerate than you may be used to. It is usually possible to find an alternative to the major highways (even travelling between two major cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai for example) but if your route does take you on a major road you can expect a lane dedicated for use by cyclists and mopeds.
The terrain will depend on the route chosen but there is something to suit all abilities and tastes from easy rural flatlands to vertiginous and winding mountain roads.
The cycling is particularly good in the north of Thailand, especially around Chiang Mai which has a thriving local cycling scene and is used by some of the professional Asian cycling teams as a base for training camps. However, the riding is really good throughout Thailand. Choose a start point and a finish point and you are reasonably sure to have great cycling between the two. There are some established routes with well documented itineraries and if you are going solo and it is your first time touring by bicycle in Thailand, choosing one of these routes would make the planning a little less complicated.
Chiang Mai to Bangkok (or vice versa) – This is a generally flat route with all of the climbing packed into the very beginning or end of the tour, depending on which way you go. You’ll ride through the rice-growing heartland of central Thailand and can visit historic sites such as Sukothai, Ayyuthaia and Kampaeng Phet along the way.
The Mae Hong Son Loop – This is a very challenging but spectacularly scenic ride setting off from Chiang Mai and taking you through the northern Thai highlands close to the border with Myanmar and visiting places like Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang before skirting past the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon and then returning to Chiang Mai. Riders doing this loop often take the opportunity to ride to the top of Doi Inthanon but this is purely optional.
The Golden Triangle - Strictly speaking, this isn’t a route but the point where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. There are several possible itineraries departing or ending in either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai that will let you explore the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, most of which will visit this spot and then take you back to one or the other potential start points. With rice fields, tea plantations and the Mekong River, the scenery can be spectacular. The riding can vary from the rolling to the challenging depending on the route taken.
Bangkok to Phuket - This is probably the most established of all the routes taking you from Thailand’s capital city, hugging the coast of the Gulf of Thailand before crossing the isthmus of Kra to the border with Myanmar and then following the coast of the Andaman Sea to the touristy island of Phuket. The riding is rolling.
That is entirely up to you and your budget. Most hotels and guesthouses will be only too happy to allow you to keep your bike in your room overnight or will store it in a locked room for you. Do check before you book and make sure you do this ahead of time. The last thing you want after a hard day in the saddle is to turn up at your planned destination to discover there is a convention of sunflower growers in town and all available rooms have been taken.
If you are sufficiently adventurous and well prepared it is perfectly feasible to cycle tour all over Thailand either on your own or as part of a small group travelling without any back-up. Doing it this way does require serious forethought and planning. For a start, you’ll want to carefully consider your route beforehand. You’ll need to ensure that you can realistically cycle the distance and terrain planned for each day and that there will be suitable accommodation awaiting you on your arrival. Try and figure out in advance where along the route you can get food and water and make sure you take on refreshments when you need them rather than when they are available. You’ll be carrying your own luggage so think carefully about what you bring. If you don’t absolutely need something then you’d be advised not to bring it, especially if you are likely to be encountering hilly terrain. Do though make sure that your bike is well maintained and that you are carrying a reasonable level of spares and tools. Finally, make sure that you have the time and resources to deal with the unexpected. If you are adventurous in spirit, are not tied to a strict schedule and are prepared to forego some of the finer comforts in life, then this is a highly recommended way of doing it. It will also generally be cheaper.
For those who do not have the time or the inclination to go it alone, those on a tight schedule or those that want a little bit more in the way of comfort, there are a small number of tour operators who specialise in providing supported road cycle tours in Thailand. All the operators provide a similar level of service with only minor differences between them. All of the planning and logistics are taken care of leaving you to simply turn up, ride your bike and enjoy the scenery. A support vehicle will follow behind carrying your luggage, providing refreshments, allowing you to take a break from cycling if you wish and ready to respond in case of an emergency.
There are currently four tour companies based in Thailand offering the kind of road cycling tours described in this article. In alphabetical order they are:
Crouching Tiger Cycling Tours - Based in Chiang Mai, this company offers owner-led tours predominantly in the north of Thailand. All tour briefings are conducted in English by the guide who is a native English speaker. All meals are included. Maximum group size is 12.
Siam Bike Tours - Based in Phuket, this company offers owner-led tours throughout Thailand although their main area of concentration is the popular Bangkok to Phuket route. Briefings are conducted in German although the Swiss owner speaks excellent English and will summarise in English for non-German speakers. Meals are not included. Maximum group size is 16.
Spice Roads - Based in Bangkok and much bigger than the other two companies listed above, Spice Roads offers road cycling tours throughout Thailand as well as mountain bike and standard ‘adventure cycling’ tours in other parts of Asia and indeed Europe. Local Thai guides are employed to run the tours but the official tour language is English. All meals are included. Maximum group size is 18.
x-adventure asia - Based in Chiang Mai, this company offers all mountain and downhill tours for one up to 12 days. It is also possible to have an individual tour-guiding with a mimimum amount of 5 people. They organise a full package service, without the flight, and offer a professional guiding via regional and german speaking guides.
However you decide to make your tour, whether solo or as part of an organised tour, your health will benefit too. As well as being fun, cheap and environmentally friendly, cycling is a healthy, low-impact exercise that gives your heart, lungs and blood vessels a good workout and burns plenty of calories. Someone weighing 60 kg riding at a steady 25kph on the flat is likely to be burning about 25 calories per kilometre. That would equate to a whopping 22,000 calories burned on a tour from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.