Thailand and Laos biking
Cycling and biking tour through Thailand and Laos
By Victoria Greenwood published on Financial Times
Published: April 25 2009 03:01
I found the perfect cycling trip through Thailand and Laos:
a tour billed as a 10-day, 650km journey from the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos, destination of the moment for the gap year student, the itinerant Aussie and the ageing hippy. As we are regular cyclists in both London and New York , this seemed a manageable distance. Little had prepared us, however, for the stunning beauty of region almost untouched since the 1970s.
We flew Bangkok Air to Chiang Rai. There are several connecting flights a day. At the end of the trip, we flew Lao Airlines from Luang Prabang to Bangkok.
The tour company provides helmets and water bottles but you will need padded biking gloves with open fingers to protect your hands. A small bike bag is useful for holding a camera, suncream and money for the day.
There is no need to carry a day’s supply of water with you: we found that there were enough stops to replenish the water bottles en route. Padded cycling shorts are a must, and gel saddle covers are advisable, together with either Vaseline or a chamois cream.
Ordinary trainers are suitable footwear. Alternatively, biking sandals provide protection for the toes while allowing extra ventilation.
We meet in the car park of a hotel in Chiang Mai. Once we have adjusted the handlebars and saddles of our Trek bikes and filled our water bottles, we head away from the tourist hubs into the bright sunshine – and oppressive humidity – of the countryside.
The first cycling day starts with a visit to the Chiang Dao caves, which offer little more than hanging bats but are at least a respite from the heat. Our guides then lead us through rice fields and soaring limestone cliffs before turning on to dirt tracks cut by hill tribes. There are frequent stops for replenishment; a luggage truck accompanying our group provides deliciously fresh pineapple and watermelon, cold water and iced flannels.
These pit stops take place nearly every hour, usually away from the dusty roads in the shade of bougainvilleas and lotus trees, at glorious red-and-gold local temples that provide a feast of colour (and a toilet). By late afternoon, we descend the mountain trail to a Thai inn. We dine on clear vegetable soup, fish, chicken and rice. The sounds of frogs and cicadas are everywhere around us.
We soon establish a routine. Most mornings we take to our pedals around 8am, after a carbohydrate-heavy western breakfast. We pump the tyres, oil the chains of our bikes and refill our water bottles. For those overwhelmed by the ascent or depleted by the near 40°C heat, the air-conditioned minibus travelling with us is a ready alternative.
But travelling by bike in Thailand is an irresistible experience, combining a mental and physical challenge. Without the protective armour of a car, the breeze and the heat can be felt, the smells of food and foliage mingle, and overall there is an easy connection with the local people. Our speed varies according to the terrain or our moods but there is a cadence to the pedalling: the legs turn and the mind unwinds.
On the third day of cycling, we head north towards the Mae Kok river, and face ostensibly the most daunting leg of the trip: 115km, including two formidable hills. The first stop is the stunning Tub Tao Caves , covered in wisteria. Inside is a vast golden buddha, enhancing the quiet beauty of this isolated spot.
From the caves, the ride is on small country roads through small villages. We are soon flying past rice fields, racks of drying tobacco leaves and corn husks that have been left to burn. Just as we approach our hotel for the night, the Huai Khum Resort near the town of Mae Salak , the ascent is long and tough. However, the exhilaration of reaching the top and the luxury of coasting down to our spectacular destination on the banks of the Mae Kok is unforgettable.
Next morning we opt to see the border with Burma rather than take a 15km off-track road. Mr Tee is obliging. Soon we are in the middle of nowhere, the villages infrequent but the locals ever curious. Sadly though, the scenery is often clouded by haze, the result of rampant slash-and-burn farming policies, which leave an acrid odour and a disconcerting tightening of the chest.
The town of Mae Sae , Thailand ’s most northerly point, has colourful and lively markets – but what lingers is an intriguing glimpse of Burma , a famously closed country. We lunch overlooking the mighty Mekong river, a view of Burma in one direction and Laos in the other.
The border cross over the great Mekong over to Laos takes us into a complete different world. The bureaucracy at the border is a little chaotic. Our guides short legs pedal fast, his head is just above the handlebars and he wears no helmet for protection. Baggy rip-off brand-name shorts and a “Pmua” (sic) hoodie complete the effect
Day six is for everyone to rest as we chug for five hours down the Mekong on a motorised boat. Our guide for the day is a member of the party faithful, the only visible sign of communism that we encountered in Laos . He bosses us around, all the while making disparaging remarks about Thailand . The low point is a visit to a hill tribe, where he rations out cheap sweets to the kids – while we cringe with embarrassment in the furnace-like heat. We pass makeshift electricity generators looking like fixtures out of Robinson Crusoe , and young boys with goggles spearing fish with penknives or trying to catch their supper with bare hands.
High in the hills we see rural life in Laos first-hand. The population is made up of an astonishing 23 ethnic groups. The hills are manageable and we enjoy a long downhill ride to Oudomxay, arriving at a cavernous Chinese hotel for an excellent lunch. The dining room could feed 200, and shelves of china line the kitchen, but there is not a knife to be found.
Well-rested, we face the greatest challenge: a 1,000m climb through the central highlands. We all agree to take the van through rugged mountain landscape extensively bombed by the Americans in the “secret war” against the Vietcong. And then it’s back on our bikes for a breathtaking descent of 800m, interrupted only by my husband sailing over the handlebars after missing a hole in the road, suffering bruised ribs and cuts.
With only 24km left until our final destination, we load our bicycles on to a boat and travel to the Pak Ou caves, cut into limestone rock and stuffed with buddhas of all sizes and shapes. After lunch, we reclaim our bikes for the final stretch into Luang Prabang, an unnerving experience as we weave between trucks and bikes.
Yet our sense of achievement upon arriving in the shabby French colonial splendour of this ancient city is overwhelming. Mr Tee checks his satellite navigation wristwatch: we have bicycled 560km. A farewell meal in one of the town’s many French restaurants – with Parisian prices to match – completes our return to 21st-century life...