As I write, I’m just over a month into a wonderfully unstructured bike trip in ‘the land of a thousand smiles’, a country idolised by generations of travellers as a paradise on Earth; a destination to where 35 million people journeyed last year, a million from the UK alone.
I’m talking, of course, about Thailand. And while many arrive in search of tropical beaches, golden temples and full-moon parties, I’ve been looking at a very different picture.
For one does not generally check in at the airport for a beach holiday with a touring bike and panniers. No, I did not come here to participate in the human zoo of mass tourism – I came here to bypass it on a bicycle and see what else was going on.
As long-term readers will know, I will readily admit to being afflicted with a deep abhorrence of the kind of tourism that happily dehumanises both visitor and host in pursuit of profit (i.e. most of it); of the whole merry-go-round of jaded, uncaring locals serving up carbon-copy experiences to an endless parade of blithe, unimaginative visitors in exchange for cash. I go through the fuss of dragging bikes and luggage onto planes, trains and buses so that when I reassemble and start to ride I can get as far the hell away from such travesties as possible.
Over the years I’ve come to recognise this as a rather condescending and indignant – not to mention self-reinforcing – narrative. Honestly, I really was curious, when I booked my stupidly cheap long-haul flight to Bangkok (the first of many phenomena that could be either the cause or effect of Thailand’s attractiveness): how would the ubiquity of mass tourism interface with my experience under a mode of travel I habitually consider its antithesis?
First impressions. We’re here. Out of arrivals at Suvarnabhumi International. So begins 48 hours in the world’s most visited capital city.
And the strongest impression is, in fact, the absence of something I take for granted. From the cabbie loading our bikes into the back of his Toyota Innova, to the receptionist at Oldtown Hostel, the checkout girls at the 7-Eleven round the corner – heck, even the old lady stirring up an eternity of pad thai on the corner of Khao San road, said to be the global epicentre of all that is awful about the banana pancake trail (I just had to go, strictly to observe, of course, not at all like the others) – not once do I detect even a hint of that tired, ‘seen it all before’ contemptuousness you so often see flashing from behind over-rehearsed greetings and false smiles of people you are the millionth person to whom they’ve said the same thing.
No, not even upon scrutiny. Such pretences often (and indeed are designed to) fool shell-shocked new arrivals. Having been on the other side of many of those jobs, and in my 11th year on the road, I’ve got pretty good at seeing through them. Yet when I look into the eyes of the Thais who deal with hundreds or thousands of backpackers and barbecued-scorpion-selfie-snappers each day, I keep seeing a non-judgemental kind of contentment where I expected to find dispassion and carelessness.
This pattern carries forward and establishes itself not as some freak occurrence or glistening deception but as the norm. The hostel owner doesn’t bat an eyelid in saying ‘yes’ when we enquire politely about leaving our bike bags in storage for more than a month, which quickly turns into a long chat about our lives and travels. Booking the night train for a 13-hour journey south is possibly the quickest and easiest ticket-buying experience of my life, anywhere, as is loading our bikes onto the dedicated cargo wagon the following evening.
Whether in a Chinatown bottleneck or the only farang for miles around, this gentle, good-humoured courtesy does not relent. It is wonderful and at the same time almost irritatingly inexplicable. What secret has been discovered and embedded deeply enough and for long enough in Thai culture that now expresses itself so glowingly, setting the stress and seriousness of the modern Western attitude to life in such stark contrast? And why the hell haven’t they shared it with the rest of us?
Tenny and I flit over a map of the country and decide to begin riding from the fairly arbitrary point of Hat Yai (meaning ‘big tree’, I later learned), simply because it’s a big, faraway city near the end of the southern railway line. From there, our plan is no more complicated than to ride north until it’s time to catch our return flight to London; a day I’m already wishing was significantly further off than we’d booked it to be. We are motivated by the prospect of the vast amount of coastline of Thailand’s narrowest sliver, and, yes, beaches to flop on; very much needed after two years of trying to make history in the Lesser Caucasus.
Someone (I forget who) tells us, somewhat disparaging, that nobody goes to Hat Yai because there’s nothing to do. I figure the city’s 150,000 inhabitants must have found something to pass the time with by now, so we go anyway; 13 hours in a blast chiller disguised as an air-conditioned sleeper car. As well as a generally youthful and energetic vibe, downtown Hat Yai turns out to be a popular spot for Malaysians and Singaporeans to come shopping for cheap Thai-made products (who knew?). There’s also, strangely, an English pub, with a genuine British person having a pint outside it. I rub my eyes when a food cart trundles up and cooks up a plate of fish & chips for him too, suspecting a jetlag-induced hallucination.
We like the vibe so much, in fact, we stay two nights longer to engage in the subtle arts of aimless wandering and people-watching, endless (and free) sources of fascination the world over, for which the stall-lined streets of Hat Yai serve plentiful opportunities the following day.
Most standard cycle touring advice for Thailand – and South East Asia in general – encourages us to leave our camping and cooking gear at home, travel light, and make use of the abundant cheap accommodation and roadside food instead. Personally, travelling without a tent produces similar feelings of unease as does travelling without any underwear. Yes, I could probably get away with it, but there’s a risk I’ll end up in a sticky spot as a result, if you’ll excuse all sorts of totally unplanned wordplay.
The tent, mattresses and sleeping bags therefore make the cut. The cookset does not: we can always make a beer can stove, I figure, as, jetlag conquered, we pedal north out of Hat Yai and into the countryside. And I believe that’s the last time I thought about cooking. When people said there’d be food on every street corner, I hadn’t quite grasped how literally they meant it. As the city turns to suburbs, suburbs to villages, and villages to scattered farmsteads among neat rows of rubber trees and oil palms, it is revealed to us that a standing army of mobile cooks patrol the roads of Thailand each day from dawn to dusk.
Perched upon cheap Japanese scooters ingeniously decked out with sidecar-mounted kitchens, these culinary nomads seem hell-bent on feeding Thailand’s native population with maximum efficiency, serving up everything from fried chicken to barbecued meat skewers, deep-fried sausages and fish balls and tiny eggs in wonton wrappers, spicy salads, noodle soups, crepes, smoothies, freshly peeled and sliced watermelon or pineapple, tea and coffee – something for every occasion or whim.
They swarm with particular zeal – we note after observing the patterns for a few days – around school gates at home time, the equivalent of the canny ice-cream van owner positioned outside a school in Britain to hoover up some extra revenue on a hot summer’s day. We are constantly overtaking or being overtaken by these trundling trolleys of tasty treats, on their way to or back from setting up shop with remarkable dependency at times and in places where working Thais can grab breakfast on the go, take lunch at work, or pick up dinner on the way home. They are supplemented with permanent noodle stands which verily litter the streets of more substantial settlements, sending a steady stream of scooterists off with their handlebars festooned with little plastic bags containing all the components of a good family meal.
As guests passing in and out of these interlinked pockets of life, it is easy to imagine that these roaming street food artists have been put there just for us. But on reflection it seems to be a tangible outgrowing of an approach to life in which much of the daily routine is shared, the boundary line between public and private life shifted well beyond our own. Eating out isn’t just for those who can afford it, a personal treat or a break from the norm: it’s almost as if the chefs are duty-bound to feed everyone, and that’s why they are there, while others operate communal outdoor laundromats, fix broken cars and bikes, teach the kids, and take on all the other tasks of running a stable and functional community. Inject into this equation the mind-blowingly high quality of Thai cuisine itself, and you may begin to get some idea of how it is to be on the road in Thailand as an always-hungry cyclist.
And – as I may have previously mentioned – everyone is so damn happy about it all! If people do have their personal hang-ups, they never seem to let it seep through. There is simply no tangible discontent – no noticeable friction between any individual and the place they occupy in life, no constant undercurrent of grumbling, no simmering resentment in people’s faces, no feeling of being around distant, disengaged people who would rather be elsewhere, no yearning for things to be different or better. Just folk gliding more or less effortlessly through the exact same lives people from other cultures seem to struggle with and fight against and seek to change. And when you look around, the question hits you – what the hell is there not to be happy about anyway?
Our days in Thailand turn to weeks. There are jungle-draped mountains and sunsets of fire silhouetting giant limestone meteorites landed smack-bang in the Andaman Sea a million years ago and massaged ever since by gently rippling bathwater. We eat things so tasty I can only describe them as outrageous, even tear-jerking, and half the time I don’t even know what it is I’m eating, let alone what it’s called.
But I find it is the oceanic sense of calm among the people to be the thing that gets infectious; a subtle and unimaginable type of energy that the best postcard picture could never inspire. It is hard to get stressed out when everyone around you would respond only with puzzled curiosity: it reminds you that the source of your stress is yourself. It is hard not to smile when all around you are smiling. And it’s hard not to mean it when everyone else clearly does.
Come on – a few weeks of pedalling puts me in no position to determine the causal roots of the uniformly well-balanced demeanour shared by some 70 million people. But I will note two observations.
The first is the omnipresence of Buddhism. This is a practice that (correct me if I’m wrong), rather than focusing on atoning for the essentially sinful nature of man beneath the gaze of a supernatural deity, places focus on examining one’s inner life, reaching a place where one can recognise and thus subdue ego-charged emotions and thoughts such as fear, judgement, dissatisfaction, anger and the like, with the ultimate goal of ending suffering. I’m no Buddhist, but my suspicion is that training the entire population of a country how to be happy from an early age is, well, probably a good way to create a happy population. (Am I stating the obvious? If so, are happiness lessons on the National Curriculum yet?)
The second observation is simply about the day-to-day experience of cycling here as compared to any number of other countries I could name. I am spending my days pedalling happily along roads made of good asphalt that have been carefully designed to accommodate not just buses and trucks but also two-wheeled road users in their very own dedicated lanes, including myself and the many millions of mopeds that scurry the lanes and byways of the country. The police and the military are as good as invisible; I am pestered by no personal security detail, nor proffered by officials a tirade of ‘problems’ with my paperwork or personal decisions regarding the way I travel. I am neither hassled nor ripped off at shops, restaurants, hotels, ferry ports, tourists attractions; the currency is stable, cash easily accessible, prices predictable; there’s a newly built health centre in every district (not that tropical diseases are an issue any more). Every natural and cultural heritage site I might wish to visit is signposted in Thai and English with distance markers that are only occasionally very inaccurate.
Also: the mattresses in Thailand are consistently amongst the firmest and most turgid in the world, which alone is enough to make this lower back-pain sufferer never want to leave.
As we ride joyously north, Tenny and I touch only briefly upon the quieter and less obnoxious fringes of ‘regular’ tourism, by hopping on a longtail (a slim wooden boat with a long articulated propellor shaft to navigate shallows and reefs) to the island of Koh Jum, an island of perhaps 10 kilometres in length split neatly down the middle between local villages on the east side (better fishing and safer piers) and tourist-dominated beach hut clusters on the west side (better beaches and nicer sunsets). There is one hostel, in which we make friends with the staff and are studiously ignored by a steady stream of white twenty-somethings clutching Quechua backpacks who spend day and night staring silently at smartphones and laptops and failing to create any kind of conviviality whatsoever.
Subduing the urge to go on an arse-kicking rampage and throw all the electronic devices into the sea, we retreat to sheltered spots on beaches to read, sketch, rest, and think about how, in a future blog post, the observation that today’s mainstream backpackers appear to be completely self-absorbed and totally shit company might be communicated delicately.
And we have a damn good rest – so much so that we repeat the exercise a week’s ride further north on Koh Chang Noi, where the ‘packers are replaced by ageing German hippies who appear to have arrived in the early ‘70s and never left.
I find myself wanting to thank everyone in Thailand for being so bloody wonderful – but I don’t know how, other than to parrot kap-khun-kap!!! at every opportunity, dragging out the final syllable for as long as possible as if doing so will somehow convey the unusually zealous nature of my gratitude.
So, before relating the very different story of our ill-fated onward journey into Myamnar, I’d like to readdress the original question: is Thailand actually the best cycle touring destination in the world?
Well, I’ve only been here a month, and only in the south, and I hate it when people ask me silly things like ‘what’s your favourite country?’ or ‘how many packets of ramen did you eat?’.
But in this extremely rare – nay, unprecedented – case, I admit that I’m tempted to say, simply, yes, Thailand is indeed the best cycle touring destination in the world, and leave it at that – because the truth so far is that I’ve almost convinced myself it is.