Off the Beaten Track – Cycling in Southern Thailand
- by James Goyder
- Published: 12 June 2013
To describe the path to Phuket as well worn is something of an understatement. Over a million tourists visited the island in 2012 and Phuket will certainly not be high on the list for those looking to leave the beaten track.
However it would be a mistake to write the number one tourist destination in all of South East Asia off altogether. A million people can’t really be wrong, can they? What Phuket does offer in abundance is a quality of service, an international airport, world class hotels, international standard hospitals and an existing infrastructure that you will not find anywhere in Thailand outside of Bangkok.
This gives visitors the perfect base from which to explore beyond the mainland and what better way to do it than by bike, I hooked up with Amazing Bike Tours who specialise in bike tours in this area. The company was founded by an Englishman, James Hembrow, who had grown up cycling in his native Somerset and was frustrated by the lack of opportunities to do so in Phuket. He thinks that there is far more to Phuket than meets the eye of the average tourist,
“Most visitors to Phuket think it is too busy and there are too many vehicles on the road for safe mountain biking. While this may be true in many areas of Phuket you don’t have to look that far to find great biking. The north east of Phuket offers some nice trails and roads with much less traffic. If you go inland where there is less development because of mountainous terrain, there are some fantastic trails suitable for experienced mountain bikers, although they can be difficult to find,’” he said
For those looking for a less temporary respite from the hustle and bustle of downtown Phuket, Amazing Bike Tours organizes trips to some nearby islands. I elected to go on the Koh Yao Noi day trip. Koh Yao Noi is only a short boat ride from Phuket but it is a million miles away from the creeping urban sprawl which is threatening to overwhelm the so called ‘jewel of the Andaman’.
From the second you step off the boat you get a sense that things are slightly different here. Armies of touts competing for your custom are notable by their absolute absence; there is a very different pace of life on Koh Yao Noi.
The cycling takes place at a very gentle pace to accommodate all members of the group, who range from a Frenchman wearing full lycra cycling gear to a couple of British pensioners. Everyone is relaxed and contented to take in the scenery as we meander gently around the island.
It is classic Thai countryside as entire families sit outside houses supported by stilts. One such family was busy peeling a collection of fruit and gesture for us to stop. Our Thai guide, who is extremely proficient in the English language, informs us that this is a ‘Ma prang’ also known as a plum mango.
It tastes quite unlike anything I have ever tasted in my life and manages the trick of being both sweet and sour at the same time as well as appealing immensely to the taste buds. At first the group is reluctant to take advantage of the fruit being offered. Once people have started to taste the Ma Prang their reticence dissolves and soon everyone is greedily stiffing them down their throats. When it is time to go an elderly Thai lady attempts to encourage us to take some Ma Prang for the road. Everyone is too polite to accept her generous offer with the notable exception of myself, ensuring the jealousy of all the other cyclists at the next refreshment stop.
The heat is oppressive but fortunately almost the entire route is in the shade. It also seems to be almost entirely downhill, with the exception of one steep uphill climb, which is the price which must be paid for a leisurely day’s cycling. Everyone in the group, even the more elderly and overweight amongst us, manage to conquer this hill without too much undue effort.
A young Australian couple is astounded by the beauty of the place, ‘We can’t believe we were only in Patong this morning and now we are here. It is so different from down town Patong that now that I have been here we really don’t want to go back,’ they tell me.
After a lunch so leisurely that I actually fall asleep in a hammock, we reluctantly begin the final leg of the journey. By the time the boat comes to collect us for the return trip to Phuket we have completed an entire day’s cycling, although it has been at such a relaxed pace that there is not a sore limb to be found between us.
Mountain bikes also provide an ecologically friendly form of transport but according to James the environment is not the only winner when you choose to make a journey by bike, ‘It’s really good exercise. It’s good for people that have problems with their knees, for example, because biking is a great alternative to running as there is much less impact on the knee joints. Personally I find exercising outdoors much more rewarding than in a gym, especially with the great ocean views Phuket has to offer, I know many people love gyms, but for me biking in the outdoors gives me a much better feeling.’
My one day biking in the Islands gave us a real insight to Thailand away from the tourists; I saw rice paddies, buffaloes, fishing villages and small Thai communities living off the land and sea. If you want an alternative view of Thailand, and you don’t mind getting on a bike for a day, then this will give you a break from days lounging by the pool or shopping for tourist souvenirs.
My kind host James Hembrow of Amazing Bike Tours offers mountain bike tours in Phuket and southern Thailand and you can find out more about his tours online: www.AmazingBikeToursThailand.Asia or get in contact via email: [email protected]