"WE MADE OUR WAY BACK TO THE ARMY BASE IN BANGKOK AND SETTLED IN FOR THE NIGHT..."
Having spent an incredible 12 days cycling around northern Thailand earlier this year, when the opportunity presented itself to return to this cycling mecca, I couldn’t help but say 'yes.'
As part of my travels to Thailand in March, I undertook a reconnaissance of ‘The Great Mekong Bike Ride’s’ race route on behalf of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Due to road works, the race was postponed from March until May. Whilst I was there, I was asked by the race organisers to provide feedback to help them create a better event. The fact that the race was postponed was a blessing in disguise as it gave me a reason to revisit the region a second time, so that I could participate in the race.
My most recent travels saw me spend another 12 days in Thailand. The first 5 days were spent in the North East racing in the official “Great Mekong Bike Ride”, a sportive style event in its third year of operation, which attracts more than 700 riders from around the world. The remaining 7 days were spent touring ancient wonders, historical sites and culturally rich landscapes in the area just north of Bangkok, with good friend and fellow travel guide Sea Keong Loh from Venture Wander Travel.
The Great Mekong Bike Ride
Having not raced for several years (my focus is now on adventure and exploring the globe) the race acted as a welcome change and was fantastic fun. Broken into three stages, the race commences in Nakhon Phanom and showcases the very best of the region. Cities such as Sakon Nakhon are lit up with excitement as the race passes through the city centre and the economy boost this event provides is incredibly positive. I guided 15 Australians to the race and we agreed, as a group, that it was the best organised event we have ever participated in. To the organisers ‘Tri-Leage Thailand’ and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) a huge thank you and a big well done!
Some of my favourite things about racing and cycling adventure travel in general, is the cultural immersion that comes from travelling by bike. The people you meet along the way, the fragrant aromas of the local cuisine and the rich market life. During the race, the streets were lined with children at every school we passed, making it a truly amazing experience. Big grins greeted us at the start and finish of the race and many of the locals asked for photographs (a memory of a new friend from afar). As each racer finished, they were presented with food vouchers, so that they could choose treats from the many food trucks that were there serving us their local cuisine, fresh fruit smoothies and deserts.
The camaraderie between the local and international riders was unreal. We will certainly be back to race in 2019. In the meantime, I will do some speed work in the hope of ‘getting away’ in some of the decisive race moves! Unfortunately, this year my legs were still a little ‘diesel like’ and didn’t have the explosive power required to go with the winning moves. Seems like a good excuse to go back!
After a quick flight back to Don Mueang Airport near central Bangkok and goodbyes with friends, new and old, the second part of my trip began and what a week I was in for!
Ancient Wonders of Bangkok
I was collected by my guides Tintin and Patipath, (aircraft mechanics in the Thai Army). We made our way back to the army base in Bangkok and settled in for the night. I would never have imagined myself bunkering down in the Thai Army camp dormitory, but it was great fun. We built my bike and rode off to the local markets for some local cuisine to settle our rumbling stomachs. Despite most people’s warnings, I am huge fan of sampling the local street food wherever I travel and the Thai food is certainly up there with the best I have tasted. Dinner consisted of a spicy pork broth soup with pork bones and vegetables. I’ll be honest. It didn’t look great, but it hit the spot and served as a tasty, hearty dinner the night before our first day of riding. Tongues on fire from the fresh chilli, we treated ourselves to a fresh coconut smoothie as we wandered around the local craft stalls. Little did I know that I would later inherit the nickname ‘Mr Smoothie’ from my guides, because of my obsession with the fresh fruit smoothies.
The following morning, we were woken by ‘Army Radio’ being broadcast through the camp. My guides explained that every morning at 6.30am, the ‘Army Radio’ sounds as an alarm for all the soldiers. It was great not having to set an alarm, but it was difficult to press the snooze button…! Tintin whipped up a couple of Thai style omelettes and before long we had hit the road for our first day of riding.
Our destination for the day was Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient Capital City. Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya is home to many ancient ruins and as we arrived into town, we were greeted by spectacular, colourful stone temples.
The ride itself was 80km in length. Departing Bangkok, although busy, felt incredibly safe. The drivers in Thailand are courteous, unlike that of the western world. There is a sense of urgency, but very little risk is taken. After 20 – 30 km we were out of the mayhem and riding the banks of a small river system en route to our finishing point in Ayutthaya. There, we visited the floating markets, sampled the famous delicacies (coconut ice-cream, 20c noodles and fresh fruit smoothies) and then continued to our hostel accommodation. It was nothing like I would have imagined.
Our accommodation for the night was 'The Busaba Ayutthaya Hostel'. Think 5 star New York Hamptons. White wood, lots of greenery and views of the river. An afternoon rain shower saw the hostel staff kindly cover our bikes with ‘rain coats’ before guiding us to our room. The three of us shared an 8-person bunk room so there was plenty of room for our luggage. After a quick shower and a change of clothes, we set off to visit some of the amazing temples. If you find yourself in Bangkok and looking for something to do, I would highly recommend Ayutthaya. The city is rich in history and the temples and monuments are brilliantly preserved.
The second morning we departed Ayutthaya in the car for around 60km to avoid the busy main roads in peak hour traffic. We commenced our day of riding on a local velodrome. I haven’t ridden on a velodrome for a long time. To say that it felt foreign would be an understatement. I couldn’t help but feel as though I was riding on the Roubaix Velodrome, Thai style! We then headed south west towards our destination for the day, Kanchanaburi. Famous amongst backpackers for the huge number of attractions in the surrounding areas, Kanchanaburi is probably most famous for the bridge over the River Kwai – the start of the infamous World War 2 Death Railway to Burma.
Our ride was 100km along predominantly flat roads. It was great chatting with my guide, Patipath as we rolled along the rice fields. I was intrigued by Patipath’s role in the army, so we spoke at length about how the Thai army operated and his role as a helicopter maintenance engineer. The topic of army/war was fitting. Rolling into Kanchanaburi, hot and sweaty from the days ride, I couldn’t help but notice the large war memorial in the centre of town. Patipath signalled that we would ride on and meet our host for the night Aum, and that we would return later in the afternoon after showers and refreshments.
Aum was a great host and spoke fantastic English. Racing for the Nich 100+ team, a high-level team within Thailand, Aum looked as though he knew a thing or two about bikes and after introducing me to his ‘bike cave’ at the Hostel 'Baan Ma Fueng' he runs, my suspicions were confirmed!
That afternoon we explored the war cemetery, the first portion of the Death Railway over The River Kwai and the War Museum. There was so much information to take in, that I would love to visit Kanchanaburi again and spend more time really getting to understand how the tragic events of WW2 unfolded there. With my mind full of information, I decided another ride was in order. Aum was heading off with a bunch of local riders for a fast 50km at 5pm. I decided to join in on the action. Unfortunately, due to the rain, the other riders didn’t end up joining us, so Aum and I rolled turns north for 25km and back, behind our scooter riding guides. As we got closer to the end of the ride Tintin and Patipath ramped up the speed and Aum and I slowly became their victims. A great ride, although hard and fast, was followed suitably by a chocolate banana smoothie and a large bowl of Pad Thai. It was then time for bed and a good night sleep.
We spent the next day exploring Kanchanaburi by bike and completed 110km through the luscious green landscape. The highlight of the day was visiting the Death Railway. Perched high along the banks of the Mae Klong River, the railway was an impressive feat of engineering constructed long, long ago. The train line, still active, requires visitors to be extremely wary when venturing onto the tracks. My guides, being local, chose the perfect time for us to traverse along the train tracks, in between trains, and we were able to capture some fantastic images. Had I been alone, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to walk there in fear of being mowed down by a passing train. With the signs being in Thai it would have been impossible to make sense of the train timetable!
The second portion of the day, and our finishing point (prior to transfers back to Kanchanaburi) was the Erawan waterfalls. A spectacular landmark made up of seven, different levelled waterfalls. We changed into our swimming shorts and set off hiking through the forest. The legs, a little weary our the morning on the bike, became slower and slower as we climbed higher into the jungle. We didn’t reach level 7, but decided to stop at level 6 and enjoy a swim in the rock pools. The views from the Erawan Waterfalls are fantastic and I truly felt as though I was living the life of Tarzan in the Thai jungle.
The next day we headed south toward one of Thailands largest 'Giant' bike stores in the city of Ban Pong. Working closely with Giant, I was eager to visit one of their flagship Thai stores. 50km under the belt and having sampled coffee at a small coffee shop overlooking rice fields with a magnificent temple in the distance, we arrived at the Giant store. It was huge, almost like a supermarket and the range of bikes and accessories on offer was mind boggling. One of my favourite things to do overseas (or at home) is window shop in local bike stores. I am transformed into a ‘kid in a candy store’ and could quite honestly spend hours just gazing at all the goodies.
Time was ticking, and we had a 2.30pm deadline at the Mae Klong Railway Market. For those who haven’t heard of this landmark, it is essentially a street market built on top of railway tracks. What makes it unique is that the railway tracks are still in operation, and every time a train approaches, the stall holders quickly pack up their stalls, allowing the train to sneak through and as soon as the train passes, the markets set up back on the tracks. We made it just in time to see the train arrive and the market vendors pack up. Something you would NEVER see in the western world; this memory will stay with me forever. The local people are so relaxed and blasé about the fast approaching train that quite literally misses their stalls by millimetres daily. I guess the key message to be taken away for this experience, is to stress less!! After a walk along the markets and (you guessed it) more food and smoothies, we made our way south to Hua Hin, our destination for the final two nights of the trip.
Hua Hin is a seaside resort on the Gulf of Thailand and located 200km south of Bangkok. It is one of the most popular Thai holiday destinations for those living in the country’s capital and home to the best 'Mango Sticky Rice' in the country, something I am well averred in sampling! Hua Hin is like Phuket but nowhere near as busy. I would say it’s about as busy as you would want a holiday resort to be, without feeling crowded. There is an array of offerings for tourists such as local craft markets, traditional Thai massage, shopping centres and fitness studios. Bordered by Myanmar to the west, there is an impressive mountain range, which is famous for its wine making. I’m a huge fan of Bali, however some would argue that in recent times certain areas have become too heavily populated with tourists. Hua Hin is just like Bali was 20 years ago.
After checking into the Ibis Hotel, we set off to explore on scooter. My two guides and I squeezed on to one scooter and shot off to go and explore the streets of Hua Hin. We came across the main market walk and spent an hour looking around before our stomachs got the better of us. The food offerings at the markets were quite expensive so we ventured down some smaller lanes and found a local restaurant offering the same food at half the price (the beauty of having a Thai speaking guide.) Being on the coast, fresh seafood is plentiful and so we indulged in a whole snapper, along with several small side dishes and rice. Full to the brim (as was the case after most meals in Thailand) we made our way back to the hotel to rest.
The next morning, I was joined on the bike by Sea Keong Loh, my good friend and guide from Chiang Rai. Tintin and Patipath followed us on the scooter as we set off south towards Dolphin Bay Resort and the roads we would complete our training on. Loh was preparing for the Tour of Korea and needed some harder, faster efforts to help prime his legs for the race. We completed 4 x 10km efforts behind the scooter. The final 3km of each effort was at full gas. Safe to say, following this 'torture,' we were ‘stuffed’ and ready to rack the bikes on the back of our support car and enjoy the coastline. We made our way slowly back to Hua Hin’s ocean shores for a swim and a snack at the Dolphin Bay Resort. The scenery in this part of Thailand is breathtaking. It is completely different to Thailand’s mountainous north. The south is flatter, and the seaside vibes reminded me of being back home on the beach.
In my opinion, a mix of Chiang Rai and Hua Hin is ideal. Mountains for climbing and a somewhat sleepy seaside town for relaxing. In saying this, the best thing about having two options is that it makes for a good excuse to visit Thailand at least twice a year!
Our final day was now complete, so we packed our bikes, enjoyed our final dinner together and then made out way back to the hotel for a well-deserved rest. The following morning, we drove back to Bangkok where I then made my way home to Perth.
Comparing my time in Chiang Rai to my time in Bangkok and the surrounding areas, I can honestly say that both are as brilliant as each other. The riding in Chiang Rai involves more mountains and lumpier terrain and would make a truly amazing base for a training camp. Bangkok and the surrounding areas, although not mountainous, make for a different type of riding holiday. Completing less kilometres each day we had time to visit some of the many attractions that are on offer and for those who enjoy a good mix of riding with culture and history entwined, I would highly recommend a trip such as the one I have just completed.
Later this year, I will be running a series of guided adventures to northern Thailand. In 2019 I will also run a trip from central Bangkok taking in the many sights I have spoken about above. If either of these trips are of interest to you then please let me know.
In closing, a very big thank you to the Tourism Authority of Thailand for affording me the opportunity to return and explore their beautiful country. The people, food, culture and history are truly amazing, and I look forward to returning to Thailand and sharing the beauty with my guests.