Asia by Bicycle

Written by Julia Tregaskis-Allen 20 December 2013

Natt & I on 'one' of river hops Natt & I on 'one' of river hops

From +30 to -7 was certainly a shock to the system. Back to the Alps following a superb action packed 3 week trip to South East Asia with time in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I'm still savouring what can only be described as 'a land of smiles'.

It's fare to say that I am never happier than when i'm exploring new territory under my own steam – be it on foot, skis or snowshoes the world offers the wonder lust mind endless opportunities and itineraries for every mode of travel. Working seasons in Europe gives us November our main holiday month making Asia the perfect destination for some exploring. And how...this time by bike!

Asia has been on my cycle touring wish list for some time but with restricted time, itinerary choice overload, thought of travelling alone and wanting to make the most of my time I was doubtful I'd ever realise my long awaited plan. In the past I've done plenty of travelling on a shoestring and am lucky to be paid to work in exciting locations but always as the planner, organiser & guide – and we all need holidays. So this Autumn, when a different opportunity came up it didn't take much time to say YES. I was offered the chance to join an organised bike tour partially as a 'recce trip' for one of our partner agencies but also as a client. The trip was to join a fully supported guided biking group in Chiang Mai, Thailand and cycle to Luang Prabang in Laos. So without much persuasion I found myself looking at flights ...and piecing together a plan! Two weeks later I was flying to Bangkok......

Bangkok is like people say pretty busy but certainly worth a look. It has an unusual mix of old & new everything. I spent a day walking the main sights of the old town (Royal Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun), amulet market and along by the river where the ferry boats continually roar up and down then an evening at Golden Mount temple and night market – where if brave enough you can sample local cuisine of deep fried anything: beetle, bug or frog? An internal flight then took me to Chiang Mai where I was lucky enough to arrive for the Loi Krathong full moon festival & carnival parade where the tradition is to put all your troubles in a candle and float it on the river or in the air making the most amazing sights.

My link in Asia is Spice Roads an experienced tour operator specialising in bike trips across Asia. Having got a little more used to the humidity, 36 degrees and time change I was now ready for some exercise. When I met with our local Thai guide, Natt, and the rest of the group (who were from all parts of the globe) the fact that others were on their 2nd, 3rd even 6th Spice Roads' trip was definitely a good sign. Our tour was 11 days (9 days riding) joining two historic cities in what's known as the 'golden triangle' via 730km's of very undulating terrain! As we were partially on road but also a good amount off-road we used mountain bikes. You could hire bikes locally or take your own. Everyone hired and was really pleased with the quality – they have a stock of well maintained basic front suspension Trek mountain bikes and a mechanic on tap all day to deal with any problems.

The ability level was mixed too but as we had the luxury of two back up vehicles. Riders could choose as much or as little as they wanted to ride making it ideal for mixed ability couples. I quickly settled into the luxury of having a guide, snack van and someone to sort my accommodation surprisingly easily!

Following a warm up ride outside Chiang Mai we began our ride towards Laos mixing up quiet back lanes, trails along by rivers and then some single track & dirt roads in the mountains. On average we were riding 70-90 hilly km's per day, the furthest day was 145km but this was mainly on tarmac. It was so refreshing for me to take part in a trip like this as a group member. I was fully appreciating our guide Natt for his local knowledge on food, the people, the history and culture. Not to forget the language and instant ability to communicate with locals along the way. We stopped at temples, sights, to chat to villagers cutting rice & peanuts crops, collecting natural rubber, basket weavers and whole families sorting corn not to forge meeting children wanting to say hello around every corner!

We reached lesser visited hill tribes near the Myanmar (Burma) border and settlements only reached by bike or on foot. Some trails led us to a rivers edge when out of nowhere a small boat would appear and ferry us and our bikes down and across a river to continue our way or to reach our hotel. Our accommodation was a mix of high standard hotels and gorgeous eco-lodges many of which even had swimming pools. With organised snack stops every 20km (and a man to fill your water bottle!!!) it felt very luxurious! Lunches were either pre-packed noodle or rice dishes or we'd stop in a small restaurant on route. Evening meals were so tasty, fresh & healthy – our guide would choose 3 or 4 different dishes of Thai or Laos curry, stir fried vegetables, rice, chicken or fish....the perfect 'activity detox'.

The Thai/ Laos border is split by the mighty Mekong. At the border we swapped guides and met Mr. Joy and took a small ferry boat to visa/passport control. After the formalities we enjoyed spending the rest of the day cruising along the Mekong with views of the limestone cliffs and jungle as a backdrop – also a welcome pause for the legs! In Laos the pace of life certainly felt slower, more relaxed and seemly less used to tourists in the places that we visited. Villagers would appear to see us ride through and children would put their hands out for a 'high five' on our way past. Friendly faces were everyone with an immediate warm smile.

Our second rest day was also in Laos and certainly a highlight of the tour. We stayed in a small town, Nong Kiau in a gorgeous eco lodge on the river's edge – the perfect place to relax, get a massage, do some washing, read a book and enjoy some down time before reaching Luang Prabang. There was an optional ride too where we cycled out to some caves that were used as a hide out during the Vietnam war and then went onto a school where we met the children and exchanged some songs! Finally reaching Luang Prabang was the perfect place to end the tour, one of Asia's most picturesque towns equipped with many welcome treats like cake & coffee shops, fine dining and the night market.

Direct flights and buses connect Luang Prabang to many parts of Asia making it easy to explore on further. So as I said goodbye to my fellow bikers I continued onto Vientiane, then to Cambodia (Phnom Penh and to Siem Reap) and completed my travels by joining friends to run a memorable and atmospheric Ankor Wat half marathon. A fantastic end to my autumn Asia adventure.


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