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(updated: april 2018)


the 411 on bicycle touring in thailand

     I remember when I first came up with the idea of buying a bicycle and touring Thailand on it, a lot of people kept discouraging me, telling me it would be extremely difficult, that I'd have to install special handlebars, that I'd need proper bike gear.. In the end, I threw their comments aside and just rode.
     My first day cycling out of Bangkok... - I'd neglected everyone's advice to take a train out of the city and, as a result, spent 3 days biking on a dusty highway, my little backpack strapped to my bike with bungee cords, bags of carrots and other groceries dangling haphazardly from it, barefoot, sweaty, but 100% ecstatic anyway.
     In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been so stubborn as to ignore every single piece of advice - sometimes even going as far as countering it - but I'm glad that I didn't let myself get scared out of the adventure. You don't need a bike computer. You don't need to plan out every route. You don't need special cyclist clothes, or special shoes. And you definitely don't need to change your handlebars. As long as you're not a professional cyclist looking to conquer to world or whatnot, you'll be fine without these things. Whatever you're told you might "need" is load of bull. All you really need is an open heart, a positive attitude, and a whole lot of spirit.
My girl Whiskey, decked out - first time bicycle touring
     When I first came up with the idea of buying a bicycle in Bangkok and travelling on it, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was in Myanmar, completely in love with the country and dreading the flight into Bangkok for my first visit in Thailand. I'd heard some pretty unappetizing things about the tourist scene in Thailand and, especially after magical Burma, I wasn't ready to face the typical South East Asia backpacker party culture again. Having had crossed paths with the same cyclists 3 times in a month (two of which were a couple that had been bicycle touring for over 7 years!), by the last time I decided that it must be some sort of sign, and told myself that I'd buy a bicycle the minute I got into Bangkok. My friend Minsung, one of the bikers I met in Myanmar, gave me some heads up on how much a bicycle should cost me, the bare bones of how I should prep it for a long trip, as well as listing for me the 5 places I can sleep at should I not find a guesthouse while touring in Thailand.
     Thailand is probably one of the easiest countries to start a bicycle trip in. The people are super friendly and super enthusiastic about bikes, and there are 7/11s everywhere (not to mention the fact that they sell electrolyte beverages, too), so you don't have to worry about starving.
1 baht water dispensers
     A great country for a first-time bicycle trip, and Bangkok is chockfull of places to buy a decent bicycle (see my post here on buying a bicycle in Bangkok) and anything you might need for your trip. It makes a great starting base. On the road, it's easy to find parts around the country as many locals are experts at bicycle repair (even if sometimes they don't know how to ride one themselves!) and there is always a little bike shop or two in every town. When it comes to water, I personally would buy a large bottle every few days and fill it up for just 1 baht at local waterbottle-filling machines (that's less than one Canadian cent! ~ 0.03$) or under any tap. Locals may say the water is unsafe to drink, but I believe it is only the case when it is consumed for extended periods of time, so I drank it anyway. With regards to the scorching heat? Yes, it's hot. Plan to do most of your cycling before 11am and after 3pm, as the hours between the two are the hottest of the day. Hide out under a tree and read a book, or make friendship bracelets for children. Some cyclists I met in Myanmar gave me some tips on where to sleep when you're touring Thailand by bicycle, and I spent many nights squatting in 24h gas stations (after asking permission, of course) if the nearest accommodation was too far/too expensive.

     People were always so nice to me; gas station attendants brought me food, water, and anti-mosquito lotion, and sometimes passerbys would offer to let me sleep in their homes. One time, just outside of Hua Hin, I was getting comfortable near a gas station, edging myself close to the outer wall of the store in fear of the rainclouds looming above. I knew I was doomed, but I didn't have a tent at that point, nor did I have 75 CAD to spend for a night in the nearby resort. As it turned out, there was a military base camp a few meters away, and some soldiers would come to the cornerstore to buy themselves snacks. A couple of them saw me crouching in dark, covered with my sarong, and insisted that I can't spend the night there. As they couldn't speak much English, and I couldn't yet understand much Thai, I gathered from their tone of voice that it was illegal for me to sleep there. They continued to tell me that I couldn't stay, and I got a little agitated, thinking, "Well, where the hell am I supposed to go then?!" They asked me multiple times to follow them, but I was a bit wary, as I was the only woman amongst the group of 8 or 10 army men. So they proposed that I take a bungalow in the resort: "Only 2,000baht!" Right. That's 3/4's of my budget for that month. Tempting, but no, I'd rather sleep in a bush. I don't know what persuaded me, but in the end I gave up and followed them back to the military base camp. They led me to the reception area, where 2 women worked away behind the sealed off glass windows, and told me that I could sleep there, on the couch. I was so grateful. They went to fetch their commander or other, who came to tell me that I could only spend one night and would have to leave in the morning. I nodded fervently, that was all I needed, one night to recuperate and I would be off again in the wee hours, cycling southbound. He asked me a few more questions: where I started, where I was going, etc. and translated my answers for everyone else in the room. A couple of them came back with armfuls of packaged sandwiches, bottles of tea, and other little snacks. The commander handed me 300baht, which he refused to take back when I told him that I couldn't accept it. I have money, I explained, I just don't have enough to spend 2,000baht on a night in a resort. He insisted I take it, saying I'll need it some day, and there was no way out. He told me that, on my way back up to Bangkok, I would be more than welcome to stay with them again.
     The lights in the reception were on all night, as was the TV. I had an awful sleep, and I awoke to rain. Waiting it out for a few hours, I decided that it would be impolite to overstay my welcome and our agreement, so I headed off. I had thought that spending the night in a Thai police station was weird - but sleeping in a military base camp definitely matched, if not topped, on the eccentricity scale.
I digress. 
     Once I'd acquired a tent (from a lovely couple in Chumphon, whose wedding I had the honour of attending) and a sleeping mat, I was able to camp [almost] wherever I liked, but I found that this was generally not the safest best, especially as a woman alone, and from then on preferred the safety of guesthouses or friendly gas stations. 
Whiskey, 2nd time around, armed with saddlebags
     When I returned to Thailand and to my bicycle after a 2 month break in the Middle East, ready to cycle through Myanmar to India, I decided to saddle up. I'd bought a pair of 100% waterproof saddlebags in Poland, as well as a new set of Kenda tyres. [What I didn't realize was that my bicycle got completely destroyed in the hostel that I left it in, and there was a lot more replacing/fixing to do!] Of course, while saddle bags were much more convenient, it is certainly possible to do without.
     I armed Whiskey with front/back lights, a dirty cloth from which a plastic compass dangled, a roadmap, and a seat bag that I found lying around. I also purchased additional inner tubes, some basic bicycle tools, and a little pump (which I ended up losing anyway) to carry around. So don't fret about preparing for a bicycle trip - all you really need is some basic gear, willpower, and to be comfortable enough spending copious amounts of time alone. In my experience, the solitude that comes with cycling is far more intense than that of merely backpacking alone. When you're backpacking, it's easier to meet other tourists - whether in hostels or on busses, - and it's easier to tag along and travel with somebody. On my bike, I hadn't so much as met another bicycle tourist, let alone one heading in the same direction as I! In fact, this was probably one of the only things I wasn't prepared for.
     All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I highly recommend this mode of adventuring. The places you can go, the things you see, the people you meet... Travelling by bike heightens any travel experience you may have. So hop on the saddle and go explore!

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