Perfect tarmac and zero traffic Thailand's back roads

Perfect tarmac and zero traffic Thailand’s back roads

We spent three weeks in Thailand cycling from the border of Cambodia to the border of Burma. It’s a classic cycle touring route but we did it a bit differently – avoiding all major roads!

map

Please refer to our route map while you are reading this guide!

Logistics

Statistics summary:

Total distance: 900 km

Total cycling days: 10 days

Borders:

IN – From Cambodia to Thailand, 21st February 2017 Poipet (Cambodia) – Thailand

Border crossing posed no issues, but Poipet is hideous – try not to spend any time there.

OUT – From Thailand to Burma, 12th March 2017: Mae Sot (Thailand) – Burma

No issues, apart from having to stand still for while during the playing on the national anthem. Watch out for traffic switching sides! There’s no warning.

Sleeping

Just like Cambodia, in Thailand it is perfectly acceptable to ask permission to pitch your tent in a Buddhist temple. Thai temples are a bit of a step up in luxury from what we were used to in Cambodia – think fans, plug sockets, tiled floors, indoor bathrooms.

Not a temple - hot springs and a lake

Not a temple – Hot springs and a lake

Very much a temple - Under the watchful eye of a Buddha statue

Very much a temple – Under the watchful eye of a Buddha statue

One temple we found had been commandeered by the Thai army as an outpost. The soldiers were a relaxed bunch, occasionally running night-time raids on smugglers and the like. They were wonderfully intrigued by our bikes, “how many kay-gee?”, “how far in one day?” etc., and cooked us omelettes in the morning.

Goodbye and thanks for all the omelettes

Goodbye and thanks for all the omelettes

Best bits

Food markets are a sensation. On numerous occasions we went in intending to buy fresh veg and curry to heat up for supper, and left having eaten enough deep fried bananas and caramel-filled churros and laden with bags of bakery goods to sustain us for days.

A lesson in restraint

A lesson in restraint

7 Eleven is an institution, famous the world over, and it really is a cycle tourist’s best friend. The air conditioning is always turned up to 11 and they have free ice dispensers in every single one. Whether you’re coming from Burma or Cambodia, this is a total joy.

Bangkok – it’s ridiculously big and has no functional centre but the cosmopolitan feel and the quality and price of street food makes it a very welcome rest from days on the road. We stayed at Spinning Bear, the famous cycle tourists’ hostel, and were astonished at the number of excellent food options so nearby. It’s a good 20km east of the middle of town; in any other city this would serious limit your food options and general enjoyment. Not in Bangkok though.

From the Cambodian border to Bangkok

There is an obvious straight line on the highways that would take you directly from the border to Bangkok. We had a fantastic time taking an alternative long-cut south of this route – don’t be afraid to venture out into the unknown, almost all backroads are tarmac!

From Bangkok to the Burma border (at Mae Sot)

We went straight west from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, home of the famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, a lovely cycle along a canal for much of the way. Care to see the tallest stupa in the world? Take this route and be there for Saturday night – the night market around the stupa is heavenly.

The tallest stupa in the world

The tallest stupa in the world, Nakhom Pathom

From Kanchanaburi (or ‘Kan’, as the locals call it) was a five day cycle north to Mae Sot. We aimed to stay as close as possible to the mountains to the west, a valiant aim that we thought we achieved quite well. The route took us through dusty fields, past lakes and reservoirs, straight through rainstorms and to the bottom of the climb up and over the mountains and into Mae Sot, the border town with Burma.

Invited to give a speech to school children on a meditation retreat

Invited to give a speech to school children on a meditation retreat

The climb and descent to Mae Sot was partially under construction when we did it in March 2017. This was actually something of an advantage as it meant we could ride long stretches of new asphalt not yet open to vehicle traffic. We had stocked up on snacks based on advice we’d received about the route having sparse food opportunities – luckily we needn’t had worried, there was a little market complete with espresso coffee at the top of the first hill!

Mae Sot is nothing like a normal border town. It’s small and easy-going. There are many Burmese refugee camps in the vicinity, which means you’ll see a few foreign aid workers in the town and you’ll be able to go to the fantastic Borderline café, staffed by refugees.

Borderline Café - run by a fellow cycle tourist!

Borderline Café – run by a fellow cycle tourist!

Worst bits

There’s little to complain about in Thailand – all the normal Asian issues like terrible drivers or unpredictable road quality are far less severe. The real issue is that it can get too easy: lovely asphalt and multitudinous 7 Elevens don’t put up much of a challenge for cycle touring. That’s why we say stay off the main roads, which are really American style highways, and venture onto the backroads. Don’t stay in the clean hotels with the fast wifi: camp in temples and road-side police stations.

We also made a video about cycling in Thailand