“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu, Philosopher & Writer
After an ungodly amount of flight time and a restless night sleeping on uncomfortable lawn-style chairs in the Hong Kong International Airport, we safely landed in the riverside city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
With cramped legs and heavy eyelids, we began to re-assemble our bicycles in a patch of grass just outside of the airport doors. It had only been about twenty minutes after we had touched down in Thailand and us Westerners were already drawing attention to ourselves.
Other tourists stared questioningly as they passed us working, while Thai locals stopped in curiosity to watch, ask questions, and take photos. It was both awkward and entertaining — a feeling, I imagine, similar to how a celebrity would feel when they leave an airport – except they usually know beforehand to expect photography and therefore look less disheveled and have, at the very least, brushed their hair.
After a half hour or so, both of us sweaty from the humidity, we were finally ready to cycle to our nearby hotel. Being my first time in Asia, I was nervous about cycling in Thailand traffic. While we had both heard good things from other cyclists about the road quality in Thailand, we had no idea what to expect of drivers and motorcyclists.
We soon discovered though, that even though the roads are hectic with heavy traffic and quick moving motorbikes weaving through the lanes, the drivers in Thailand are extremely considerate of cyclists and most main roads had a lane designated for cyclists and motorbikes. It is more difficult, I think, to be a pedestrian as crossing the street can often feel like you are playing a real life version of the game Frogger. Nonetheless, looking back now after having cycled surrounding countries, I would say that Thailand served as the perfect introduction to touring Asia.
Having just cycled through New Zealand, Thailand proved to be a drastically different experience for both of us with a lot of firsts. It was our first time traveling by bicycle through a country where English isn’t the first language, our first time experiencing tropical weather, and our first time touring without a well thought out route or plan of action.
All we had were our bicycles, our gear (with heavy winter clothes we no longer needed), a Thai language handbook that we would rarely use, and absolutely no idea what we were in for or where we would be heading after.
And not having these set plans, not stressing about time — except for the expiration date of our visas — and with no strategy except the basics for survival: find SIM card; find coffee; find food — in that order, has helped me learn how to slow down. To appreciate these once in a lifetime experiences and to recognize how privileged I am to be healthy enough to travel by bicycle, have the financial means to travel (well, kind of), and to experience life without routine.
This truly hit me during the first two days that we spent getting over our jet lag and exploring the city of Chiang Mai and its gorgeous temples –“wat” in Thai. We tried durian, Thailand’s famous and notoriously pungent fruit (which Christopher loved, but I thought tasted like a dumpster smells), and spent most of our time tasting any street market food we could get our hands on.
While I was eating my mango with sticky rice and drinking guava juice near a century’s old city, it hit me that I was in a country I had always dreamed of traveling to since I had seen pictures at a dentists office when I was nine. And now here I was, just turned the ripe age of 28 and in a country where I didn’t speak the language, was still figuring out to pay in Baht, and was sweating buckets before noon every day — and I was going to somehow bicycle through it with my partner in 90 degree heat and no set plan?
Yeah — that’s exactly what I did and it turns out, it was a wonderful and crazy idea.
It was on our third day in Thailand — our first full day of cycling – that I realized I had no idea what we were in for when it came to cycling through Asia. Having just come from a New Zealand winter/early spring, my body was not ready for the humidity and heat. And while it’s been surprisingly good for my hair, it has not been good for my nervous system nor for my heat-rash ridden legs.
While our first day wasn’t difficult in climbing, it was long in length and so hot it led to me sitting under a sliver of shade on the side of a busy highway, while Christopher dumped the last of his sun-warmed water on me. Fortunately the lightheadedness passed quickly and after some rest and getting over my anxiety, as I had never experienced heatstroke or fatigue before, we continued on only to face another delay – but a good one this time: an elephant sanctuary.
As elephants bathed in a river and, using their trunks, held brushes to paint images of elephants on a canvas, we watched with the same eager eyes as the children around us. And while I have never been to the circus, I imagine that an elephant energetically playing in its natural habitat is a million times more magical and magnificent in its nature than seeing an elephant perform in a tent.
But the best part of it all for me though, was getting to check a box on my bucket list as I fed corn and other veggies to an elephant while trying to keep myself from crying and gently running my hand along their trunk (platonically and after getting permission, of course). To say it was incredible would be an extreme understatement.
The giddiness from our elephant encounter put me in good spirits –enough to motivate me through the heat and the dog chases. And while the days brought a lot of sweat and salt stains, they also offered beautiful scenery and serenity.
We awoke most days before the sun to beat the heat and were treated to picturesque sunrises over palm trees and rice fields.
We ate fresh fruit on roadsides and went for walks through jungles to explore waterfalls, and we swam in the warm ocean water of the Gulf of Thailand until our bodies became prunes.
We were also able to camp, and being the tent-life lovers that we are, it was one of the best parts of our trip.
Camping at Thailand’s national parks, it turns out, is quite the experience in itself. Whether it be the views, price, or offerings — all Thailand’s National Parks are a little different. One thing they all have in common though: they charge extra if you’re a foreigner. Now when I say, “extra” know that means like $8 USD or so, but if you compare it to what the locals pay, it’s twice the price (if not more). That aspect was quite annoying, but the staff and the views at each park usually wiped away the annoyance fairly quickly.
Perhaps it was the time of year (as it was just the start of the tourist season), but we found the parks to be surprisingly quiet, well taken care of, and they all offered food and ice cream. Additionally, we never saw any campervans and, whether it be oceanside or high above the forest, the designated camp spots always promised beautiful scenery.
It was also in the national parks that we learned about the extremely loud evening and morning village news announcements – a way to share news for those without television/internet, in addition to two important essential life lessons on traveling in Asia:
- When entering a building or pagoda in a jungle, look above you for snakes — particularly pythons late for dinner who fall to the ground, land where you were just sitting, and slowly slither away like the snake she is.
- Never leave any food or packaging on a picnic table offering easy access to a monkey just trying to feed his family as they will steal your dried prunes (even if you only turn away for less than 30 seconds).
But when we weren’t camping — some adventure cyclists would say glamping — we often stayed at small, locally owned homestays and guesthouses as we headed South hopping from quiet villages, to ancient cities, to modern bustling ones. Guesthouses were heavenly after a long day on the saddle and when we were in serous need of a cold shower.
Whether we were cycling under palm trees, through packed street markets, or alongside busy beaches and giant Buddha statues, every different location offered new faces, but familiar welcoming smiles.
Children often jumped up and down waving as we passed yelling, “hello, hello” and sometimes asking, “where are you from?” We spent our days making pitstops for milk tea, stopping at one of the many small roadside stands for coconut crackers, bananas, and literally any cold drink they were selling, and we dined on dishes like fried minced catfish, pad thai, and even some sort of animal testicle.
We posed for photographs for strangers — most likely now plastered on a wall in a pizza place in Nakhon Sawan, and overpacked our panniers with red bean buns, bread, and peanut butter — because we know what a balanced diet is.
We bicycled through the ancient city and relics of Sukhothai, rode through Bangkok traffic on a tuk-tuk and got a Thai massage — like the tourists we are, and we even braved Bangkok traffic by bicycling into the city — when most sane cyclists would just catch a train.
Everything we did, in just under a month, we did because we wanted to, because we had the time, and because we wanted to experience everything Thailand had to offer us. If we wanted to stay longer at at an island bungalow because it was inexpensive and beautiful, we had the freedom to do so and for once, no social responsibilities weighing heavily on us. For me, having lived a life of routine since high school and having most recently balanced three jobs, an internship, and a masters program, I felt this freedom (no matter how brief it may be in my life span) was something that I had duly earned.
The love of touring through Thailand and the positive experiences we were having only encouraged us to see more of Asia and, after leaving the city of Bangkok, we decided to follow the coast and head towards Southern Cambodia and then into Vietnam.
As we continued on with and with new direction, we continued to be awed by Thailand. We spotted monkeys with corn cobs on the roadside, swam until the sun set on Kho Chang Island, drank fresh juice from a coconut, and spent our rest days appreciating the feel of an often-cold shower and the taste of pineapple smoothies. Compared to the freezing rain and rolling hills of New Zealand, Thailand was like paradise (though it was disconcerting see so much plastic lining the roadsides).
In short though (ha, short), Thailand was an absolutely amazing place to tour and — though it wasn’t all perfect, for example my credit card info was stolen in Bangkok, we learned, ate, and experienced so much in just under a month. The people were patient, generous, and — living up to its nickname of the “Land of Smiles,” — often grinning and waving hello. It had the perfect balance of flat streets and side-roads with smooth, sometimes steep climbs alongside shorelines and mountains — it truly is a landscape for all types of cyclists. Not to mention that the roads were the safest and most welcoming of cyclists that I have ever experienced.
But I believe that what truly made our travels in Thailand incredible was that we had the privilege to travel slowly and freely. When we first quit our jobs and boxed up our stuff in Washington to begin our bike nomad life, we were afraid of what would happen and where we would end up.
Now, after being on the bikes for six months, there is a newfound sense of comfort with the “figure it out as we go” attitude that we have learned. And while there is still an underlying anxiety in the questioning of the future, I’ve discovered that the best way to enjoy our travels and experiences is with patience, optimism, and no plans that are set in stone.
While we may create a general route to follow, I’ve learned that change will happen, nothing will look like it does in my imagination, and that it’s okay if you don’t put in over 40 kilometers in a day.
After traveling now for a period of time, I feel more comfortable with changes and still having no idea of where we will be in another 6 months — It’s scary, but most changes in human comfort usually are. Also, I’ve recognized that though I love to plan, my plans don’t usually work out as I imagined anyway, so I may as well stop trying so hard.
According to Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, “a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving” and, while I don’t totally agree about the intent on arriving part — because sometimes it truly is about the destination) – I do agree that the freedom Christopher and I have to travel to a new location every single day and our privilege to have no set plans allows us to be better, more attentive travelers and bicycle tourists.
It’s a way of traveling, a way of life, that I wish more people could experience without limitations and looming responsibilities.