Yet another puncture in the forest. I have a pump by now with me, but the inner tube doesn’t hold air for 2 minutes.
The Puncture and Friendly Thais
So, on a paved road I walk my bicycle towards the next village about 1 km away. In my experience, every northern Thai village has a motorcycle garage that will also fix bicycles. A service truck passes me on its way into the forest.
A little later the service truck passes me again, now in my direction, and stops right in front of me. The driver jumps onto the truck bed and shuts something that can only mean,
Come heave your bicycle onto the truck bed!
Soon we sit together in the driver’s cabin. I understand he wants to drop me at the next motorcycle/bicycle service, not far away. Luckily in Thung Luang I had just bought fine Chiang Mai oranges of the highest price category, 70 Baht per kilo. I drop some oranges on his dashboard, which he tries to refuse, but I refuse his refusal.
We discuss orange prices and tastes, from 25 to 70 Baht, sweet versus sweet-sour versus sour. We both don’t like purely sweet. Then a halt at the bicycle repair; the driver jumps onto the truck bed again, hands down the bicycle, and a curious little crowd surrounds me.
The bicycle man immediately starts repairing while the truck driver does another U turn back towards the forest. Suddenly from the temple on the other side three elderly, dignified friends of the house appear and welcome me with big Hello. We sit around a micro table on micro chairs and I am fed Thai sweets out of banana leaves.
I had been looking forward to arrive at the downtown pizza garden really hungry. But I have no choice and down the gooey Thai sweets based on coconut, rice, banana and kilos of sugar. Luckily I still have some Chiang Mai oranges left to distribute.
30 minutes and 40 Baht later, bicycle and I are on the road again, not without the promise to come back soon.
With both private bicycle and rental car, I spend 4 – 7 days each in the provincial northern Thai centers of Nan, Phrae, Phayao, Chiang Kham, Thung Saliam, Lampang and Sukothai in December 2022 and January 2023. On most days i find field tracks on GPS and cycle out till sunset. Here are some experiences.
More Friendly Thais and Me
On a hot noon, bicycle and I arrive at the lone forest temple of Wat Phra That Thin Thaen Luang. One monk, just watering the plants, cries “welcome, welcome”. Another one, grumbling, shoves a water bottle and a plastic-sealed pastry my way. Against my habits, I down both immediately.
Several times, bicycle shops insist on no payment after fixing my brakes or changing an inner tube. In one case, at least I manage to drop two Thai oranges on them, after having disturbed their dinner with my serially flat front tire. Another service, after replacing a lost screw and greasing the chain, when asked for the price, requests 10 Baht.
Yet more Friendly Thais and the Foreign Bicyclist
I push my flat again bicycle through empty Thai landscape, 6 km far from my hotel, around sunset. I meet a Thai family on an evening walk. Immediately they do a U-turn and join me in my direction until we reach their motorcycle. There they disappear and come back with a huge SUV. Bicycle and I and all 3-piece-family go into the SUV and they taxi me to my hotel; they also have a bottle of water for me. I say,
Chai dii khrap ching-ching, khop khun maaahk khrap
and I wai.
they reply (Glad to help).
Thai families do keep a certain distance though. I’m a lone unattached foreigner, past my prime, on a dusty bicycle with clothes perhaps not laundered and ironed in the last 4 hours – all that should not happen to a good person (I do wear long trousers and real t-shirts or long shirts always). I might pose a threat if they let me too close. Still, so often they are helpful, warm-hearted and concerned.
0ne thing is sure anyway. From the lofty heights of their SUV cockpits, through tinted windows, many Thais and expats alike look down aloof on dirty foreigners labouring in dust and heat on a, what, a bicycle, like any impoverished farm help. At least if you don’t have shiny well polished race gear.
But Unfriendly Dogs
In rural areas, dogs chase me down asphalt and dirt roads. They bark angrily, packs of three and five, but they never bite.
The Thai owners often bark after their dogs to stop barking after the bicyclist, and guess what the dogs do. Sukothai province seems to have the fiercest specimens.
I don’t think the dogs are actually dangerous, but they wreck my nerves. Twice I hit a dog on the snout with the sole of my sandal. Sensibly, the dogs I kick don’t bite my bare ankle, but fall back, obviously quite surprised and certainly not injured.
Buying a bicycle in Bangkok
In Bangkok, in a small, highly rated bicycle shop I buy a cheap mountain bike for the base price of 6,500 Baht. I also buy some add-ons including bottle holder, mud guards, reflectors, spare tube and lock. From Europe I had brought a seat pillow, a big foldable front basket and a smart mobile phone holder.
The vendor recommends a certain bicycle size that would be more common and easier to be serviced: 29″ instead of 27″, numbers I am not used to from Europe. He puts everything into a box and sends it off to my first pre-booked guest house in North Thailand. This delivery costs around 570 Baht.
I message that guesthouse, announcing a big box. They immediately reply that they would keep the box for me and include their full address in Thai script without having been asked for it. I knew then I had chosen a good, helpful place upcountry.
After flying up north, my guest house welcomes me with the big box, eager to get it out of the reception area and into my own room. Obligingly I carry it up to my own room. But for some days I am not motivated to open the box, as the guest house has free, decent bicycles for their customers and I am not a gear head, literally.
Assembling the Bicycle up North
When I finally open the bicycle box, I quickly realize that I’m unable to reassemble the bicycle – everything seems much more complicated than the vendor had described in Bangkok.
I ask the non Anglophone, but very helpful housemaid to fetch me a bicycle fixer. She calls one who needs 30 minutes, because he is just involved in some praying. But the man has no idea how to assemble my bicycle. So he calls another bicycle fixer who arrives by motorcycle.
This one can’t assemble my bicycle on the guest house’s car park. He instructs me to put the bicycle on my shoulders and myself plus bicycle on the back of his motorcycle. So we motorcycle back to his small motorcycle workshop. There after lengthy assembling on the sun exposed pavement, my Bangkok-imported bicycle is finally ready to use.
Gears and brakes aren’t well tuned, though. I search for a proper bicycle shop – not a motorcycle fixer – on Google Maps and cycle there on my imperfect bicycle. Luckily I meet a very meticulous bicycle doctor, an enthusiast, who is not mainly a motorcycle fixer, and he brings my bicycle quite in tune – as usual immediately and for a pittance.
He mentions that I didn’t have Shimano gears, but “China brand”, and that they would need re-adjustment more often. But actually neither brakes nor gears change much during my ensuing 6 weeks of rice field hopping. There is no more fine tuning for gears or brakes necessary (and I never have the spokes checked).
Whenever I show the bicycle fixers in the countryside that my front wheel doesn’t have perfect free wheel, they call it perfect anyway. They aren’t interested in a perfect free wheel. I wonder if the slightly inhibited free wheel has to do with the disc brake, which might have been deformed by loading the bicycle into the car regularly. For this reason, it might be more useful to have a bicycle with regular brakes, not disc brakes. Your thoughts?
I don’t know if next time I would buy that kind of bicycle in Bangkok and then have it delivered to a place upcountry. Originally I had planned to get a foldable bike in Bangkok and have it delivered upcountry. Only in the last minute I changed my mind to a regular mountain bike, instead of a foldable bike.
My bicycle from Bangkok proves quite strong in the northern Thai countryside and overall I am happy with it. Some vendors upcountry thought my bicycle should have cost only four or five thousand, not 8,500 including add-ons. In their shops, I didn’t see a bike that immediately appealed to me like the one I brought from Bangkok, but I didn’t look in earnest.
At the end of the trip I try to sell the bicycle in a provincial center. Local people I ask if they wanted it for 3,300 THB seem almost offended by my suggestion. I publish my offer on buy and sell websites for Thailand, but this doesn’t bring any serious inquiries: on Bahtsold it collects about 50 views in a few days, but no messages, and on Craigslist the same ad is immediately automatically blocked for violation of terms. Finally I give it away for free.
Bicycle and Car
I had asked my bicycle dealer if the bicycle with disassembled front wheel would fit into a Toyota Yaris. He said, yes sure. Well, now I know the 29″ bicycle fits only with some pushing and fumbling and it blocks the whole luggage space plus the whole back row of seats, and the front wheel must be off. My travel bag has to go onto the other front seat. So we are
- 1 man
- 1 travel bag
- 1 bicycle
filling the Toyota Yaris, an “economy car” by rental agency standards, to capacity.
When I had asked my bicycle dealer about the bicycle in the car, I did not even know whether I would get a Toyota Yaris. It was one of several economy models that the agency might give me. I was lucky to get a Yaris – a station wagon – with a big back door. I think in a sedan the bicycle wouldn’t have fit.
The Yaris gets very dirty from the bicycle, because not always do I have the chance to shower the bicycle with a hotel gardener’s hose before heaving it back into the car. So on the very last day of my trip I order a comprehensive car wash inside and out.
I mainly use the car to travel from one provincial center to another and bring the bicycle with me. Once established in the hotel, I often don’t use the car for 5 or 6 days on end. That’s because I don’t like car driving anyway, or the hotel parking is very awkward to get inside and out of, and where available at night I prefer Grab motorcycle or car taxis as is possible in Lampang.
In Phrae I actually use the car on most nights to get to live music venues 4 or 5 km out on the perimeter roads. In Chiang Kham I do the same nightly trips by bicycle because I pass through quiet residential areas and maybe early on in my trip I am more agile.
Anyway at least 60% of the booked days the car stands completely idle on hotel parking lots. I wonder if there is a better solution to bring your own bicycle around the country than by a rental car that you don’t need every day. Are there long distance taxis? I know that some buses will take bicycles, but others won’t. And I always have too much luggage and want to get from door to door, not from door to bus terminal to another bus terminal to another door.
On the last days of my trip, when the bicycle would not go into the car any more, I have to find a car wash near my last hotel. The first car wash is very rude and I seem to anger them. I leave the place in panic.
I find a bigger, cleaner car wash and their office lady explains their services in English. They are very considerate to my situation, offer delivery and show me a scratch on the car; after my asking, they offer to fix the scratch for a reasonable price. 1 day later they bring the car back to my hotel 10 minutes before the agreed time. The car shines.
Later at the airport, the car rental man says, “oh the car looks wonderful, no problem at all”.
The Pump Problem
Together with the bicycle from the Bangkok store, I also asked for a pump. The vendor brought a stand pump. When I said I needed a small pump – “lek lek” – to carry with me on the bicycle, he made a desparate face, but then he actually brought me a small pump.
Only much later, when I run into serial punctures, I understand that the vendor’s small pump doesn’t fit for my inner tube’s valve. My inner tube has a Schrader valve (car valve), and the small pump is for Presta valves (Sklaverand valves). In the last 2 weeks of my bicycling I have one puncture after the other, and I have a useless pump.
Asking various bicycle dealers, they never have a small pump for me, but always have a fitting stand up pump. It seems that small portable pumps are not popular in Thailand.
I tell this to a Thai family who takes me and my flat bicycle by car back to the hotel (see above). They suggest not to ask bicycle shops, but to look for bicycle pumps at the big stores of Tesco, Big C and HomePro.
On that evening, I go out by car to buy a small pump for my serially flat bicycle. Driving a 2 ton Toyota car to get a small bicycle accessory is exactly what I don’t like. But my bicycle is flat again, and motorcycle taxis cannot be had at night in Phrae.
I first drive to Tesco, where a polite employee scans many shelves with me, but no find. Then I steer the two tons car across town, to Big C, where a lady from the information desk goes out pump hunting for me. She returns with a small car pump, a step on type. She insists that nothing else is available. By that time, HomePro is already closed, so I buy the silly floor pump for 375 baht. But first I check if that pump works on my spare tube right there at the information desk, eagerly observed by information desk staff. Later that pump proves so wobbly that stepping on it is too awkward; it is easier to push the pedal by hand.
I don’t want the pump for serious repair work, only to pump up flat tires temporarily to cycle a bit more to the next repair shop (who charge 30 to 50 Baht to fix or replace a flat tube, in some cases they insist on no payment). So I carry the rather heavy floor pump around in my front basket which is challenged anyway by its contents, including water bottles etc.
I hadn’t brought my own, small pump from Europe, because I didn’t know what kind of tube valves I would get when buying a bicycle in Bangkok. Is it always Schrader valves (car valves?).
Very close inspection shows that several times very tiny thorns in the tire break the inner tube. One mechanician hadn’t noticed the thorns and his new inner tube was also flat after 30 minutes. The thorns are barely noticeable, but seriously disturb my holiday fun. In one case we also find very small steel parts sticking inside the tire, looking like broken stapler hooks.
I wish I could do more to seal my tires against thorns. Are there solid rubber tires? Are there unflattable tires or tubes? And do I get them in Thailand? If I bring them from Europe, I don’t know if they will fit onto a bicycle I buy in Thailand.
Thais’ Sense of Orientation
A Thai hotel owner, a local, tells me,
that restaurant is only 1 km away, it’s an easy walk.
The restaurant is actually 2.4 kms away and the walk is mostly along a multi-lane highway with a dusty shoulder. Of course I double-checked it online and didn’t walk.
I stand with my mountain bike at the entry to a forest trail in Sukothai province. A Thai farmer tells me,
that trail is not possible to do.
I tell him I will try it and I will U-turn if it gets too difficult. He agrees – we both like a consense, I guess. The trail is actually okay to do for a mountain bike or for a sturdy motorcycle, it’s not that problematic.
Looking at the map, the non-urban side of Phayao lake seems to have a lovely bicycle road. But locals and expats warn me:
That bicycle road is one construction mess, they will need another 3 years before it becomes usable. Better bicycle along the highway on the urban side; it’s noisy, but it’s smooth.
Actually, only the Northern entry to the bicycle road has construction, about 100 m of broken road, and that’s still easy by bicycle. The other 8.9 kms are a lovely, smooth bicycle road, by Thai standards anyway.
The locals and the expats who warned me off the supposed 100% construction mess of course never saw the whole bicycle road. Overweight as they were, they only saw the broken entry from their tinted SUV windows.
Ask a Thai for the next bicycle service or laundry, they will point vaguely in some direction or other and say,
that way, it’s easy, 5 minutes, then turn right.
It’s not that easy, and maybe they just want to get rid of you.
Much better ask Google Maps. Even if Google Maps has many false positives in Thailand, maybe due to Covid or due to company policy, it does find laundries and bicycle services much better than any local.
Google to the Rescue
Google has a huge impact on my trip. Google Lens can translate photographed Thai script into English or German. You photograph a Thai script road sign or food menu, and Google Lens will overlay another language. Some translations are plain funny, especially in country restaurants, still it helps immensely.
Often you don’t even have to photograph a restaurant’s Thai-script menu, because it is pictured already in Google Maps. And if the menu isn’t pictured, many dishes from the restaurant may be pictured in Google Maps – very helpful to point out the desired food to staff.
Speaking of Google Maps, erroneous as it is, I can switch it easily to a Thai keyboard and then Thai people can type in Thai Script all the places they want to show me. Google Maps also speaks out place names including those that are spelled in Thai only, very helpful as well.
My new phone with Google tech translates easily anything you speak into it, offline. That’s much faster than typing. Whenever Thai people speak into it, they confirm Google’s resulting Thai script is correct. Actually I can even speak Thai words that I heard somewhere into the phone, and the phone produces a plausible translation. Or I speak English or German into the phone and I will get Thai script, that the phone can also read aloud to me and to others around.
So the Google phone really functions as a dictaphone also for very long texts. When you talk into the phone, you must first select the proper language on the on-screen keyboard.
And there are still traps, for instance when you include Thai words into an English text. The polite Thai syllable khrap/khlap/khap comes out as crap, club, or cub (but never cup or crab).
Interesting, Short Bicycle Routes – Lampang
Lampang: some parts of the small road on the Northern side of Wang River (more personal impressions of Lampang etc in my non-bicycle related notes on provincial Northern Thailand)
Interesting, Short Bicycle Routes – Phayao
Phayao: the non-urban, western side of Phayao lake, including the winding little canal side road (along Mae Tam, here on Google Maps) which at its northern end connects to the park just south of the lake (this connection is useful for bicycling, and not shown on online maps). Only the Northern end of that paved, lonely, shadeless bicycle lake road has some construction; but on my visit that was only 100 m of disturbance. Go there from the tourist area around the lake’s southern end, which is much more quiet than the Northern end, even if you have to negotiate one highway. You can combine that quiet western lakeside with lunch at the expat Nature Farmers Friday to Sunday or any day at Huen Oui Aey Phuket Foods (เฮือนอุ๊ยเอ้ย น้ำยาปูภูเก็ต อาหารปักษ์ใต้เมืองพะเยา) in a delightful rambling wooden structure.
Interesting, Short Bicycle Routes – Si Satchanalei Historical Park
Si Satchanalei Historical Park: eerie quiet bicycling under huge trees and surrounded by very old temples on smooth asphalt. I recommend also cycling to the temples outside the main historical park and to the rice fields further outside. The area has bicycle lanes not filled with parked cars or construction debris.
You can rent simple half decent one gear bicycles at the historical park’s parking ground for 30 Baht without a time limit. They are okay for the flat and quiet well paved roads, but don’t go into the rice fields. You could bring your own packed lunch and a picnic mat.
If you have your own, private bicycle, the elder of the two bicycle rental brothers (phichai) might be your bicycle repair service (speak Thai). Just a little outside the Historical Park is the remarkable Chomprang Café overlooking the remarkable Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat Rajaworaviharn and a long foot and bicycle bridge connecting the two.
This leisure cycling is also possible in the historical parks of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, which are much more busy and not eerie at all.
Interesting, Short Bicycle Routes – Anywhere
Any countryside: any little winding creek or canal has tree-lined dirt roads often on both sides, which are lovely to bicycle. Check upfront which side offers more shade and view and where there are crossings. These little creek side roads are often not marked as roads on the online maps. You have to find them by satellite picture, that’s easy.
Interesting, Short Bicycle Routes – Phrae
Phrae: lovely sealed mini road towards Wat Phra That Cho Hae, southwest of Phrae (here on Google Maps)
Interesting, Short Bicycle Routes – Sukothai
Sukothai: the bicycle route just north of route 12, easy to find, connecting Old Sukothai and New Sukothai. A bit east of Old Sukothai on that road you could visit the cute, sprawling Sweet Rice Café, serving about anything edible including homemade cakes and ice creams, run by 2 charming elder sisters.
Just north of this bicycle road are lovely rice fields. In January 2023, I saw rice in all states of ripening. Going from the quaint village and bicycle route into the commercial mayhem ahead of the Sukothai Historical Park entrance is shocking.
In New Sukothai, this bicycle route absurdly starts on busy multi-lane highway 101 with a proud sign “Bike for All”, to be found between restaurants Tow and เจ๊เป้าโภชนา (Jao Pao, here on Google Maps (I didn’t eat there)). You might want to find yourself a more peaceful entry. I also tried small roads south of route 12, which are duller, except for the especially angry dogs.
No Interesting, Short Bicycle Routes – Sukothai Historical Park
Sukothai Historical Park itself is not one of my favourites for leisure bicycling. There are whole flotillas of bicycling tourists, constantly selfieing, photographing and chattering, while cycling and overrunning you. You can’t stop at any temple without getting in the way of 200 selfie artists and photographers. The park also seems less green and charming than Si Satchanalei. (Of course it’s a prime selfie prop.)