The applause from a family of ten aboard a pickup as the fifth litre of sweat leaves my face. Breezing through scenes seemingly outside the laws of urban or rural. Watching the sunset over peaks I had traversed from a tent atop Huai Nam Dang National park. Watching the sunrise ‘cloud sea’ form around a distant mountain that was to be my day’s destination from the same tent. An inability to stop without somebody checking if I was okay. Descending a mountain parallel to electric blue birds. Trundling through the villages of Lisu tribes. Constant attention and interest by friendly locals. The sensational first cheap lager after a 20km climb. Glancing down an alley to see a child wearing huge headphones, dancing solo at golden hour. True freedom.
Northern Thailand is phenomenal touring country.
I began my loop last December in Chiang Mai, initially following the famous Mae Hong Son tour loop, but backwards, and with plenty of off-piste add-libbing. It would give me a looking glass into worlds so different from mine, passing through luscious farmlands with a consistent yet sparse population. There’s the buzz, the sense of happening that only an urban environment can usually give, in the most rural setup possible. In the tiniest, most isolated groups of huts in the mountains there’ll be people everywhere, playing games, having group breakfasts, drinks, working, chilling. Perhaps I’m over romanticising lives I know nothing about, but the sense of community was always profound.
The route is well-travelled, so you’re never too far from a cheap bed or meal, but it’s very easy to get onto remote dirt tracks where your presence will be greeted with astonishment, admiration and (more than anything else) confusion, as a solo western cyclist.
After eight days on the Mae Hong Son I pedalled North, spending a further eight days exploring the provinces of Chaing Rai, Phayao, and Lampang.
Many of these days were fairly uneventful, being made up of blissful mile-munching and general chilling, so I’m not going to talk to you about all of them. But one evening was too good not to share…
“Oscar! Three more bicycle riders have just arrived! Come meet them!”
The lady in charge of the Jungle guest house kindly shows me to the reception hut where three guys are chatting to a couple of other travellers.
“Hey” goes my sheepish introduction. I haven’t had a proper conversation for at least five days and my social skills are decidedly awful.
“This is the other cyclist from hut three!” says one of the other travellers.
The three guys, two Cambodians and an Irishman, turn out to be political activists in Cambodia and easily the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Their insanely successful campaign sees them make the national news, stop huge dodgy government deals, and expose cases of environmental exploitation which will drastically affect peoples livelihoods. They’re also incredibly welcoming, and quickly invite me to go into the village in search of dinner.
I find out they’re also on the Mae Hong Son trail, heading the opposite way to me, and that we’re following the same website’s route plan. We marvel in the coincidence of all being led to the same place at the same time by the same guide, then two more people sit on a table next to us, also cyclists, also on the Mae Hong Son, also following the same guide!
There we were; Spanish, Italian, English, Irish and Cambodian. We chatted as friends, filling the tiny restaurant with talks of Catalonia, The Mafia, and how good it is to travel about on a bike.
That was definitely a high.
Low points? My worst day was definitely when I decided to take a rest day, with the opportunity to do a leg of my trip by boat. It sounded really fun, but was actually just really loud, and everybody on the boat thought I was odd for taking my bike on the boat. There were also sweet dirt roads lining the riverbank, which weren’t on my map…
All in all, a pretty good time. I’d recommend North Thailand any day to someone looking for a friendly place to tour. Roads are generally quiet, it’s beautiful, all the infrastructure for travellers is there, and I can’t stress enough how I truly always felt safe and looked after, even as a solo kid who looks about twelve in the middle of nowhere.
A word on the bike- supple tyre casings are not to be underestimated! When hitting sudden roadwork sections/cracked roads/gravelly bits at speed they soak it all up, even at high pressures, so you can have an efficient, drag-free ride for long periods of smooth road and still retain comfort on the rough stuff. Overall, I was super impressed with how the Pathfinder– which I used on my last trip as a mountain bike- faired as a rig for a more conventional road-based tour. It feels satisfyingly heavy-duty, but never sluggish.
Some thanks go to…
The Woods Cyclery team for putting up with me asking loads of questions about my own bike while they’re trying to work/letting me buy all our stock/putting up with me generally.
Colin Roth- a family friend living in Chaing Mai who so kindly let me stay in his apartment before and after my tour, and gave me a ton of priceless local knowledge. Words cannot do justice to how lucky I am to know him!
Tak- a friend of Colin’s and resident to Mae Hong Son, who let me stay at his for the night and showed me the sights whilst I was staying in Chaing Mai.
David of Painted Roads. I had just turned up in Chiang Rai and was looking at a city map on the side of a busy road, when a very friendly cyclist pulled over, asked how I was doing, and recommended me a guesthouse where he was staying with his wife. The next morning we got to chat properly, and I found out about his awesome guided bike tours. At the time he was scouting for his upcoming ‘Thailand Gravel Grinder’ route, but has done tons of tours in Mongolia, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka… the list goes on. He then kindly recommended me an all-gravel ride to Phayao, around 100 miles away. It’s clear he knows these places so well, check out his website!
Sven Cycles for making such a sweet bike, and Compass Cycles for amazing rubber.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more really big bike rides. Next one will be the really biggest yet.
The UCC challenge: Find a company that could help us build our own bespoke bike.