Everyone knows South East Asia and bikes are a match made in heaven. But do they know that Southern Thailand is the best cycling destination in the whole region?
This may be a controversial comment – one at which the highlands of Bali or the temple-filled lands of Myanmar may balk. But if you want an accessible, leisurely and eclectic cycling trip in Asia, there’s no better place to start.
Here’s what to expect on a two-wheeled tour of Southern Thailand:
1. Superb beaches
We’re talking about Thailand, so this may be stating the obvious. But how good is stripping off your sweaty cycling gear, swapping it for swimmers and taking a dip with the fishes? Those who complain that the water in Thailand is too warm probably haven’t ridden a bicycle down Australia’s Great Ocean Road at dawn in June. I’ll take the beaches of Khao Lak for a pit stop any day.
A longtail boat ride off the Andaman Coast is an essential experience here, especially since many of the best- beaches and limestone islands are tucked away. Phang Nga Bay is a great example, home to the iconic James Bond Island and an incredible Muslim village built on stilts over the water – Ko Panyee.
Southern Thailand has a higher population of Muslim people than other parts of the country, a fact many travellers don’t know until they go there. So if you’ve come down from say, Chiang Mai, it makes for an interesting contrast to an otherwise largely Buddhist culture. It’s a delight for the palette too, as you start to see dishes like khao mok gai (turmeric-infused chicken pot roast) and massaman (a rich beef curry with soft-cooked potatoes) really come into their own.
These kinds of dishes, along with fresh seafood, are what the south excels in, but even typical northern dishes are done beautifully down here. The best som tum (papaya salad) I ever had was at Krabi Night Market. A thirteen-year-old made it.
3. More diversity
Then there’s the breadth of landscapes. Just when you thought you were in for an endless reel of karst islands and turquoise water, you find Khao Sok National Park. A friend of mine described this place as a real-life Jungle Book for adults, and I have to agree. It’s so vividly green and alive with monkeys and birds, it’s like it’s been digitally enhanced. Khao Sok is a great way to get a taste of Thailand’s immense jungle life without heading north of Bangkok.
The capital itself, a common jump-off point for a trip down south, is a different story again, with backstreet cycling routes down alleyways and along canals, revealing a whole different side of the hectic megalopolis most people know Bangkok to be.
4. Smooth roads
Frank Cheshire, manager of Intrepid’s range of cycling trips, told me with a straight face that the number one complaint for their Cycle Southern Thailand trip is that the roads are too good. I guess some people like a few potholes and rough stuff – something to dramatise the sense of adventure or justify the front suspension. But in these parts, you’ll find your bike’s shockers can stay mostly in lock mode, as the roads are generally smooth and well-sealed, with soft bends and only gentle inclines.
5. Local experiences
Let’s be honest, you don’t want to be cycling the whole way across the country. You want to stop for a swim here and there, sample the roadside pad see ew, maybe take some photos and videos. More importantly, you want to get amongst the locals, and there are few better ways to do so than on an overnight train. First-timers may be nervous about taking a sleeper train in Asia, but people are always surprised at how much fun it is. For me, meeting both locals and other travellers on the train allowed for a slower and more in-depth interaction than what you’d get in a hostel, at the market or in a bar. There’s nowhere else to go, so you stop and engage. Bangkok to Surat Thani is the way to go.
6. Coconuts (and lots of them)
Hydration is a whole different science in Thailand. Forget about your vitamin water and your artificially sweetened sports drinks – it’s all about the fresh coconuts. A tried and tested natural source of hydration and an endless novelty besides, they have an exotic appeal that seems to amplify ten-fold when you’re on the bike. For those that do need something a little more supercharged, 7-11s and other convenience stores in Thailand tend to be locally owned, and stock a range of hydrating drinks.
7. A few surprises
It’s important not to underestimate the warm climate when you’re riding in the tropics. The balmy conditions can take even a seasoned cyclist by surprise. As someone who has copped a dose of heatstroke in Thailand, my advice is not to stay out in the water too long on swim stops (certainly not in April or May) because you will warm up, and keep the fluid intake up – all day and well into the evening. Along with the obligatory sunscreen and swimming costume, some electrolyte tablets are a good thing to pack, in case things get dire.
Need more ideas for top cycling destinations? See Intrepid’s full range of cycling trips here.