Long Live the King: Bikepacking in Thailand

The Vitals

Dates: January 11 – January 31, 2562 B.E.

Location: Anlong Veng, Cambodia to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Distance: 992 km

Photos by Brittany

Total Route

Downloadable GPS track for this section is at the bottom of this post.

The Trip

Thailand has shown up as a strong contender for a better cycling destination than Yunnan province in China. The variety of foods on offer is similar, the dirt road riding more accessible, an extensive road network offers lots of choice to avoid highways, and ubiquitous water machines give you a litre of safe water for about four cents.

Dirt in the flats of the east

The first five of fifteen days riding in Thailand were mostly a cruise on flat roads with good pavement with occasional detours onto dirt roads in the more rural areas. The only significant hill we have faced since northern Laos a month and a half ago was the small mountain pass that forms the border between Cambodia and Thailand, but at the high point the “pass” was still less than 400 meters.

Rice in the east
More rice late on a turbulent day

Outside of the cities it’s really common to stay in “resorts” where you get your own little cottage. The first time we stayed at a resort was after asking around in a small city for a hotel and a man saying, “I’ll take you. Follow my truck”. He drove slowly to the edge of town so we could keep up on our bikes and then turned on to a dirt road that led out of town. We kept following but were starting to question our choice when we reached a little oasis of trees and cottages called “Moonriver Resort”. Each of the cottages was built in a different style and had little private porches. We thought surely this was out of our price range, but it cost exactly the same as a hotel room the night before. We had both caught a cold (in 30C weather) and the cottage was so cute that we spent an extra day lazing around in the shade of the trees and checking out the owner’s oil paintings. Our cottage had original art and he also had a little gallery to showcase his work. There was a construction crew on-site building an even bigger gallery. We were impressed!

One of the cottage resorts. Unfortunately not at Moonriver.

From Khon Kaen, where we stayed with a Canadian and his Thai wife at the craft beer bar they own, we took a bus to Phitsanulok to cut off about 300 km. We wanted a chance to ride in the mountains next to Myanmar and, just as in Laos, 30 day visas are on the short side.

Market fare in Khon Kaen. We tried the silkworms (on the right).

Just west of Phitsanulok is the city of Sukhothai, the former capital of the Sukothai Kingdom (in the 13th century) and a current UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ride from Phitsanulok was a dream on a huge network of intersecting dirt roads through the countryside south of the highway. We were able to spend most of the day on dirt, finding our way to the modern part of Sukhothai sometimes by looking at the map and sometimes by just doing our best to ride west. Only a small portion of the roads were mapped. The historic part of Sukhothai is west of the main city and is best visited by bike. The crowds are a fraction of those at Angkor Wat and touring the zones by bicycle is not only permitted, it’s encouraged.

Night Market fare in (new) Sukhothai
Sukhothai by night.
Sukhothai (historic city)
Sukhothai selfie
Ponds in Sukhothai

The gateway to the mountains was the city of Tak on the Pai river. The first day from Tak was spent almost entirely on the quiet highway 12. We had our first real mountain pass in a long time, reaching just shy of 1000 meters and passing several police checkpoints looking for drugs or illegal immigrants out of Myanmar. Once we sped down the pass, we reached our turn off from the highway onto the minor roads through the hills. There was another checkpoint and the police were very kind to us, letting us fill up our water bottles, but they also tried to dissuade us from taking our selected route. They tried “The road is very bad” to which we said “Our bikes are big”. Then they tried “The road is very steep” to which we said “We like climbing”. Last they tried “It’s dangerous because elephants come out in the evening” to which we said “We’ll stay in the towns”. We should have heeded at least one of those warnings…

Mountain corn terraces.

We turned off the highway and followed a little river for about 10 km before finding a very suitable camp location. We had yet to camp in Thailand but we were surrounded by forest and felt comfortable setting up our tent and washing in the river. While eating dinner we heard a projectile whip through the trees and impact a dirt wall just a few feet above our heads. There was a pause for a few seconds while we tried to comprehend what was happening. I started yelling “Hello!” because the origin was clearly human. After I yelled, we heard a truck start and then saw it through the forest leaves as it drove away. We think it was an airgun (no bang) from someone hunting birds in the evening (we’ve seen this exact activity in Laos) and they just didn’t see us. This is at least the story we concocted to convince ourselves it was still safe to camp at that site. It was now getting dark and there was too much uncertainty if we tried to move. We survived the night with the biggest obstacle to sleep being a very bright full moon.

The next day we rode another 15 km next to the river on a mixture of broken pavement and dirt before crossing a bridge to start climbing into the hills. Here we started to learn our lesson. In the next two days we spent way more time pushing our bikes than riding. Much of the surface was dirt, but if you saw pavement it was a signal that the angle was about to ramp up. My GPS reported grades of 27% but it performs some averaging so peak grades were even higher. Here’s a summary of what different grades mean according to theclimbingcyclist.com:

  • 0%: A flat road
  • 1-3%: Slightly uphill but not particularly challenging. A bit like riding into the wind.
  • 4-6%: A manageable gradient that can cause fatigue over long periods.
  • 7-9%: Starting to become uncomfortable for seasoned riders, and very challenging for new climbers.
  • 10%-15%: A painful gradient, especially if maintained for any length of time
  • 16%+: Very challenging for riders of all abilities. Maintaining this sort of incline for any length of time is very painful.
Sweat saturation
Push and push and push til it hurts
One of the last climbs

We gained about 1600 meters, mostly by pushing, over the next 25 km. Along the way we met a man leading a scout camp. He said he was actually a teacher at a school 10 km down the road (or up, as the case may be) and said we would be able to sleep at his school. We pushed our way to the town as the sun began to set and we asked around for directions to the school. The building and grounds were beautiful, obviously the beneficiary of some serious money, with a tiny farm with cute little hand-painted signs indicating what each crop was. We found another teacher who showed us some simple shower facilities, the toilet, and unlocked the chainlink fence that enclosed the cafeteria. She told us it was safer if we slept inside the fence because of the elephants. This was the second time someone warned us for fear of us being crushed. After a comfortable night in the cafeteria, we were seated at the tables eating our oatmeal when the teacher came back with a tray of eggs and coffee. It was an incredible gesture for a couple of tired cyclists.

Cooking in the entrance to the cafeteria
Setup to sleep
Sunrise from the school

The third day after leaving Tak was another round of pushing the bikes until a long, incredibly steep descent took us down to the town of Mae Tuen. In Mae Tuen there is a small hotel and another resort with two types of the aforementioned cottages. In the late afternoon we cycled to each but a wedding in town meant that every room in the town was booked and the next town was 80 km away. We rode around a bit more looking to camp before returning to the hotel to see if we could pitch our tent on the lawn. Fortunately for us, an old man on a scooter overheard us and told us we could come stay at his house for a small fee. We accepted and spent the night in the former bedroom of one of his adult daughters. We ate dinner and breakfast with the man, his wife, and their very sweet granddaughter. In the morning he showed us a 10 year old magazine (in Thai) that featured a picture of the house we had just stayed in. The article was about a cyclist who had stayed there while doing a 10-day offroad tour from Bangkok to the north. That seemed like an interesting piece of trivia to have held back all night.

From Mae Tuen to Chiang Mai, the end of our trip in Thailand and SE Asia, we enjoyed rideable climbs on good pavement and a long descent out of the mountains. We spent a third night camping at Op Luang national park where we went for a night hike to a viewpoint on a granite mountain and slept next to a loud, soothing river. On our very last day we woke up 55 km from Chiang Mai but noticed that if we managed to ride 80 km, we would end with a total of exactly 4000 km from Kunming way back in China. We made a nice tour of the countryside, first riding too far west, then riding too far east. We judged from the map that we had done enough wasting of time and rode into the city to our hotel in the old part of town. When we arrived we had ridden 78.9 km, falling 1.1 km short of our goal.

Sunrise in Mae Tuen

We had arranged to get some bike service done in Chiang Mai, so while the bikes were in the shop we travelled to the town of Pai even further north.

Pai is supposed to be relaxing but on our first day we got caught up in a situation that was quite the opposite. On our way into town we saw the police pulling over every foreigner on a scooter. We were about to rent one, so when we got to the rental place we asked what the deal was. They answered that the police were just checking that everyone was wearing a helmet and had a driver’s licence. I showed them my licence and asked if it was acceptable to which they said yes. We rented the scooter and 100 meters later reached the police checkpoint where we were pulled over as expected. Turns out they did not accept my BC driver’s licence and issued us a ticket literally one minute after renting the scooter. We refused to take the ticket and left the scooter with the police. We were about to take a stand on principle.

Last night of camping at Op Luang National Park

We were pretty angry that we specifically asked the rental agency if our licence was valid and they had said it was. We went back and demanded our passport (the collateral) and rental fee returned to us and said they could pick up the scooter from the police themselves. After about 20 minutes they returned the passport but told us to walk away without the money. We insisted and it escalated to the point where the rental agency called the police. When the police came they seemed utterly baffled that we expected our money to be returned to us. It was very clear that they considered us just more “farang” and were wholly on the side of the rental agency. It had now been an hour and we felt like we had pushed our luck enough so we did walk away out the rental fee (only about $8).

Durian in Pai

That night we met a nice Swiss man and I was venting about it when two Floridians walking by overheard and stopped to complain too. The whole checkpoint had an air of sleaze. They told us they paid the fine which required going into the police station, joining a long queue of other angry tourists, and getting a receipt which now allows them to drive for three days without getting harassed again even though they still don’t have the “proper” licence. Given that, it’s clearly not an endeavour to keep unsafe drivers off the road, just a way to collect a fee.

So we didn’t get to scooter but we had a great hike (20 km roundtrip to a small waterfall), spent the next morning in the garden of the guesthouse, and topped off the visit to Pai with an afternoon at the laid back pool. After a dip I was drying off in the sun and eavesdropped on our neighbours as they explained how they had gotten pulled over by the police and had to pay a fine for not having a proper licence…

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With just a few days left before our flight to Auckland, we returned to Chiang Mai and injected nearly $1000 into the local economy when we got our bike service bill. We had each cracked our rear rims so we got two new hand-built wheels, new cassettes, new chains, and other little fixes. The bill was reasonable but we still suffered a small shock when we got it. To ease the pain, the owner threw in a couple of T-shirts that immediately became my favourite by virtue of being my cleanest one. Other victims of months on the road were our stove pump (emergency fix with a bike pump worked to cook our final meal) and my “good” shirt developed a sizeable hole in the elbow (fixed by a seamstress in Chiang Mai).

So we’re done riding in Asia and ready to amp up the camping in a big way in New Zealand as we complete the Tour Aotearoa starting on February 15th.

Finished in Chiang Mai! At a pretentious restaurant with a lot of rules regarding how to “properly” eat pizza.
Celebration beer

SE Asian Awards

Best Food: China

Cheapest Hotels: China

Best Value Hotels: Thailand

Best Dirt: Thailand

Best City: Cambodia (Phnom Penh)

Best Sidetrips: Laos (Kuang Si Waterfall, Champasak, Bolavan Plateau)

Cutest Cats: Thailand

He’s so fluffy I’m gonna die. Bookstore in Chiang Mai.
Cloth outside the school in the mountains.

GPS Tracks

Days 15

I don’t know how to fix my GPX plugin but the end of all my tracks are always truncated. Things were very flat until Tak, where the mountains started and we pushed our bikes a lot. We took a bus between Khon Kaen and Phitsanulok in order to have more time to ride in the mountains.