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Bicycle Touring Thailand – Koh Lanta to Chiang Mai

After spending 8 months locked down on Lanta during the global pandemic I was ready for an adventure. I ordered an inexpensive mountain bicycle and touring gear from Decathlon, assembled everything, gave notice at my apartment, and packed my panniers to set out for a test ride the day before departure. Snapbang! I hadn’t even mounted the bike before the entire rear rack assembly broke off and smashed onto my patio.

My propensity for a No Plan Plan and lack of technical preparation often leads to interesting initiations (like starting the Appalachian Trail with a backpack that didn’t fit or flying to Asia for a river rafting trip with no boat), but luckily a few zip ties and a length of paracord had the rack fixed in no time. I left the panniers out all day in the rain with my bed pillows packed inside to test the manufacturer’s waterproof claim. That night I slept on damp pillows and picked up heavy duty trash bags, hoping they would keep my laptop and clothes dry.

On the morning of October 12th I woke before sunrise, opened my door to a torrential downpour, and considered waiting another day. I decided that somewhere in the 1,000 miles between Koh Lanta and Chiang Mai I was going to get wet, so I might as well start now. I spun north to the ferry terminal, paid 25 baht ($0.80), and a few minutes later was back on the mainland for only the thrid time since the pandemic began.

Koh Lanta Ferry

I rode for an hour until the rain stopped and pulled over for a cup of coffee and a look at the map. I didn’t make any plans for the bike tour, except to head north, so each day I gauged my progress and consulted Google maps for towns with potential accommodations.

I picked a little resort just outside a town 100 km (62 miles) from Koh Lanta and spent the rest of the day getting used to my new transportation. I swerved around giant monitor lizards, spotted an elephant working in the lush jungle, and rolled into my destination after 6 hours of pedaling. Following a shower, sink laundry, and a bit of bike maintenance I rode downtown and had dinner in a cozy cafe before retreating to bed.

Bike Tour Cafe

Day 2 kicked off with creaky legs and a sore behind, but that was to be expected. In the morning I wound through quiet countryside and past tranquil temples in the drifting fog. I found my first gravel road and was just getting used to the jostling of a fully loaded bike bouncing over rutted terrain when the route abruptly spilled out onto a busy four lane highway. I settled in to spin slowly on the shoulder next to speeding cars, my first experience with the Thai freeway system.

Morning Temple Views

I began the tour by locking my bicycle during bathroom breaks or food shopping, but with all my valuable gear (laptop, camera, passport) stowed in easily removable bags the lock was only protecting the bike frame. Eventually I only locked the bike in big cities or busy truck stops, the rest of the time I left my phone attached to the handlebars and bluetooth music playing so if I was in a bathroom or 7-Eleven and the connection dropped I’d know that my bike was moving away and it was time to chase it down.

The first few days I stopped for dirtbag picnics, making sandwiches to use the rest of the bread and Peanut Butter I’d packed, but once that was gone I ate most of my meals from 7-Eleven or fast food joints. Day 2 spanned 6 hours and 104 km (64 miles) of biking. Unfortunately the hotel I checked into was 2 miles outside of town so I had to ride back for a late lunch and then again in the evening for dinner, adding a few clicks to my tired legs.

Dirtbag Bicycle Tour Lunch

On day 3 I avoided the highway and stuck to smaller side roads that meandered through the jungle and eventually led to my first view of the Gulf of Thailand. It was cloudy and I had the entire beach to myself. In search of an open restaurant for lunch I spun north, crossed a bridge, heard a pop, and felt suddenly sluggish. Flat tire.

It’d been awhile since I’d changed a flat, but after a few minutes I had the punctured tube swapped and new tire pumped, now to remount the wheel. Although I’d assembled the bike I couldn’t figure it out. After several attempts from multiple angles the wheel, chain, and sprocket were back in place with a few new scratches on the frame. My first flat fix wasn’t pretty, but unfortunately I got pretty good at it over the coming weeks.

Flat Tires

By the end of day 3 I’d covered 113 km (70 miles) and checked into a luxury bungalow resort. After doing sink laundry and hanging my clothes out to dry in the landscaping I rode downtown and enjoyed pizza and beer at an American style biker bar with live music.

Day 4 started with some four lane action, but later I was stopped at a roundabout considering which direction to exit when I noticed a Scenic Route sign, my first in Thailand. I followed the road, which included my first dedicated bicycle lane, as it made its way to the coast and eventually led me to the fanciest stay of the tour, a beachfront resort in a room with an ocean view, which was a great place to spend the afternoon catching up on work after covering another 115 km (71 miles). It was also the most expensive stay of the tour at $40 USD for a night.

Working Beachside

The morning from the beach resort started slow, mostly due to the incredible breakfast spread for guests, but eventually I got on the bike and lumbered away with my belly full of dense calories and coffee. The day dragged lethargically on due to digestion and by early afternoon I took a break at a beach, bought a big Chang and sat with a couple of sandy dogs while I listened to the surf and contemplated my sleepy state.

Bicycle Touring Thailand - Chris Tarzan Clemens

I decided to call it an early day and cycled toward town with the intentions of finding a hotel and taking a nap. While navigating the city streets an older English gentleman on a bicycle pulled up beside me and started chatting about my route. He checked his watch and nonchalantly remarked that he thought I could make it to a specific town that would put me over 100 miles for the day. Always one for setting silly goals I decided to try.

I turned north and spun along the highway for several hours and finally tipped over the 100 mile mark for the first time in my life at the crest of a small mountain pass in the middle of nowhere. I continued to ride for another hour as the sun set and I got drenched in a downpour before checking into the first room available in a small village just off the highway. Soaking wet I walked next door to a family store-restaurant-mechanic shop and devoured a large helping of fried rice and a celebratory beer before returning to my room and passing out exhausted from the 108 mile day.

The next morning with no silly goal in mind I decided to leave the fast freeway behind and take winding side roads and along the coast. I cycled through Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, dodged monkeys crossing the road, and snapped one photo of beautiful Wat Khao Daeng before mosquitoes nearly sucked all of the blood out of me.

Wat Khao Daeng Thailand

I spent the afternoon enjoying dedicated bike lanes and passed under looming karst cliffs shrouded in mist before entering what appeared to be a high end resort town on the coast with Malibu vibes. I spun past luxury cars parked in front of beachfront mansions along a beautifully manicured brand new bike lane. Unfortunately it was painted bright red and incredibly slick, especially in the soft drizzle, and as I rounded a curve I felt the wheels slide out from under me.

In a blink both me and the bike were crashing onto the pavement and sliding in the direction of the sea. When I came to a stop I slowly got up and climbed down the small embankment where the bike was resting, tires still spinning, just feet away from the rocky shore.

I got lucky. Nothing was broken on me or the bicycle, but throughout the afternoon my side started to ache and I spent the next few weeks gingerly moving my torso trying not to aggravate my bruised ribs.

While the crash put a damper on the day, one positive was my first McDonald’s meal in 8 months! When I got locked down on Lanta I was cut off from the golden arches and after riding 6 days and 600 km I finally sat down to have a Big Mac and fries. I was definitely lovin’ it!

Chris Tarzan Clemens - McDonald's

With my stomach full and a few more hours of daylight I cycled directly into a massive rainstorm that flooded the highway, making the outer two lanes virtually impassable. My feet dipped into the water with each revolution while I braced for the waves crashing over my head as cars and trucks sped by. Bruised from the crash and soaked with storm water I pedaled to a hotel, which by no coincidence was across the street from another McDonald’s where I devoured a second Big Mac meal before bed.

Bicycle Touring Thailand Flooding

I spent one final day riding along the Gulf of Thailand through small fishing villages and across vast stretches of perfectly flat salt ponds offering little reprieve from the strong headwinds. By noon I left the coast and turned inland, navigating dirt roads through jungle to the Amphawa Floating Market. Tourism had yet to bounce back so the market wasn’t busy, which made for a nice evening spent walking along the canal and getting a feel for the local vibes.

Amphawa Floating Market

The next morning I felt a bit sore from covering just over 500 miles in the first 7 days so I decided to take a day off and catch up on work. I was the only guest at the small hotel near the center of town and enjoyed a relaxing stay before hitting the road for week 2 of Thailand Bicycle Tour 2020.

Work Day in Amphawa

Bicycle Touring Thailand 2020 Film

Day 1 – 100 km (62 miles)
Day 2 – 104 km (64 miles)
Day 3 – 113 km (70 miles)
Day 4 – 115 km (71 miles)
Day 5 – 173 km (108 miles)
Day 6 – 108 km (67 miles)
Day 7 – 100 km (62 miles)
Day 8 – 0
Day 9 – 133 km (82 miles)
Day 10 – 168 km (104 miles)
Day 11 – 127 km (79 miles)
Day 12 – 251 km (156 miles)
Day 13 – 105 km (65 miles)

TOTAL = 990 Miles

Week 2 Blog Post

 

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