Biking the
coast of Thailand

Hua Hin and Koh Samui offer glorious beaches, tasty seafood and busy night markets, but few visitors explore the coastal strip between these popular tourist destinations. A bike trip is an exhilarating way to take in the Thai countryside.

 

Many roads on bike tours pass through lush coconut plantations.

Text and photos by Yaroslava Troynich.

Our mountain bikes roll effortlessly along the flat, quiet road. We zip past a massive golden Buddha sitting peacefully by the roadside, surrounded by gorgeous limestone hills covered with lush forest. We stop for a moment to watch a group of curious macaque monkeys and then continue a few more kilometres. A road stall displaying fresh pineapples announces it’s time for a break.

“These fruits are so tasty because the salty soil gives them a special flavour,” explains Krisada Klimhom, our 43-year-old cycling tour guide from Grasshopper Adventures. Better known as “Tick,” he is leading our group of seven Nordic cyclists on a five-day trip from Hua Hin to Chumphon, exploring what the east coast of Thailand has to offer.

Our route covers more than 200 kilometres, and already the first half was quite an experience: we have sampled superb seafood in Hua Hin, enjoyed the isolation of Pranburi beach, and watched dozens of fishing boats attracting squids with their green lights at night.

Tour leader Tick owns dozens of cycling shirts. The Burmese flag on this shirt is a tribute to the migrant workers we meet on the way.

Cradle of Thai cuisine

Our coastal route takes us through Prachuap Khiri Khan Province – not the most picturesque area in Thailand, but definitely great cycling country. The quiet back roads offer an authentic slice of country life in an agricultural province dominated by coconut, pineapple, vegetable and rubber tree plantations. It is the cradle of the fresh produce that defines Thailand’s highly prized cuisine.

Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park was established to protect marshes, mangrove forests and salt pans. Around it, football field-sized pools dot the roadside for kilometres. These are shrimp farms – some run sustainably, others set up illegally on protected national park land. It can be tricky for eco-conscious travellers to know whether the shrimps on a restaurant menu are farmed sustainably.

We stop at one of the pools. In a covered area workers wash the shrimps, kill them in a mixture of water and ice, and then grade and pack the catch into a middleman’s truck.

We cycle on, passing coconut farms where old women sort huge piles of coconuts. Here every part of the coconut is used. Coir – the fibre extracted from the husk of the coconut – is turned into mattress filling, while the hard shells become handicrafts or charcoal. Copra, the dried meat of coconut, is refined to produce oil and cream used in Thai cuisine.

Pitaya or dragon fruit looks gorgeous, but its mild flavour cannot compete with local pineapple and mango.

Burmese labour

The narrowest part of Thailand is only 11 kilometres wide, a thin strip of land from which the mountain ranges on Myanmar’s side are visible. We take a break at a fish farm on the seashore. Long rows of tables are covered with tiny silvery fish, their pungent odour starting to burn our nostrils.

Workers in large hats are separating the fish by size into big baskets. Tick explains that most of these workers are Burmese, some of them paperless. For eight hours of hard labour they earn an average of 5 to 6 euros. This is barely enough to pay for a diet of simple rice dishes, but labouring in Thailand is still a better alternative than staying home. The workers are not used to tourists, but they pose for pictures with wide smiles.

We stop at one of the pools. In a covered area workers wash the shrimps, kill them in a mixture of water and ice, and then grade and pack the catch into a middleman’s truck.

We wave goodbye and hop on our bikes. The sun burns through our clothes and our eyes sting with a mixture of sweat and sunblock. Pedalling gets harder by the kilometre. I glance at my beeping heart rate monitor. Have I really spent 2,300 calories in only three hours?

A well-deserved dinner awaits us after a day of heavy exercise. With a gruelling 81-kilometre ride behind us, we hungrily tuck into a groaning buffet of irresistible Thai delicacies, from soft shell crab curry and fried snapper to spicy papaya salad and gentle coconut rice pudding.

Buddhist monks in saffron-coloured robes are a common sight.

Monkey business

Next morning we stop at Wat Kloeng Wan Temple, located a few minutes from beautiful Ao Manao Bay. After blessings from a monk, we continue our journey with lucky amulet bracelets on our wrists.

A small population of spectacled langurs (also called dusky leaf monkeys) live on the slopes of Khao Lom Muak, a small hill surrounded by an air force base. We are lucky: a whole troop of punk rocker-looking black monkeys sporting funny white spectacles are hanging out on the side of the road. Tick points out that some of them have splashes of purple dotting their bodies – an antiseptic solution applied by local vets.

It’s a little disappointing to learn that the monkeys are human-fed, no longer wild, but Tick explains that this tiny hill is their only habitat and there is not enough natural food for them to survive. The conservation status of spectacled langurs is “near threatened,” and the on-going rate of habitat loss places the whole population in danger.

After robbing food from our guide – fortunately quite gently, compared to cheeky macaques – the langurs disappear into the canopy. We continue our journey south.

Cycling culture

Finally we see some local cyclists: first an old lady holding a pink umbrella above her head, then a man transporting a bundle of grass on his bike rack.

Unlike some other Southeast Asian populations, Thai people prefer to ride motorbikes. “But cycling is getting more popular, especially in the Bangkok area,” says Tick, pedalling next to me. “I’ve worked at the tour agency for four years and remember having only two Thai tourists on our tours. Thais prefer to cruise in large groups with their bike clubs. The majority of Grasshopper Adventures’ clients come from Europe, the United States and New Zealand.”

I love riding slowly and chatting at the same time. Nothing is more rewarding than discovering a new place with a local.

Tick talks about himself, too. He has studied economics, worked as a producer in an advertising agency and sold popcorn machines. But his passion is bikes: he has more than a dozen restored old bicycles in his collection, and an even larger number of cycling shirts. “I took about 20 on this trip. It’s boring to wear the same clothes every day. My wife has told me to stop buying shirts, so when I order a new one I get it delivered to my office address.”

On a deserted stretch of road we meet two foreign cyclists. Nadja Khouhl, 37, and Neil Chantler, 37, are travelling with their five-year-old daughter Noella.

The French-British family doesn’t look tired at all. “Thanks to fruit power!” exclaims Nadja, fishing a small banana out of a large bag stuffed with fruits. It turns out the whole family are vegans.

The family moved from France to Thailand four months ago. “We came to look for an alternative lifestyle,” says Nadja. “It’s easier to be a vegan here than in Europe.”

On arrival in Bangkok, the family bought two fully equipped bikes. They roam eco-consciously, trying to minimise their ecological footprint.

I wish them a great journey. After finishing the banana offered by little Noella, I start dreaming of the seafood platter with which I plan to reward myself at the end of this trip. One more day on the road and I take a ferry to start a new adventure on the island of Koh Samui.

Maybe I should rent a bike there, too?

On your bike

Grasshopper Adventures organises 2 to 15 day cycling tours in Thailand and Southeast Asia.

A five-day trip from Bangkok to Koh Samui costs 1,000 euros per person, with a maximum group size of ten. The price includes quality mountain bikes, a support minivan with a mechanic, an experienced English-speaking guide, four-star accommodation and tasty local meals.

Most of the 222-kilometre route between Hua Hin and Chumphon consists of flat, quiet back roads, with only 30 kilometres of highway. The trip is suitable for anyone of average health. Long-sleeved shirts, sunglasses and heavy-duty sunscreen are essential.

grasshopperadventures.com

Five-year-old Noella and her parents are in search of an alternative lifestyle.


This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.

Flight offers to Bangkok

Check out our best offers to Bangkok and book your flights today.

See offers