Cycling Thailand

Elephant crossing

Elephant crossing. And no, this is not a joke. They really do make their way down the highway.

Pedaling along a scenic mountain road, I waved at some rice farmers who were working the adjacent paddies. They stared, waved back, and broke out in big guffaws. Umm, bad hair day? Elephant standing behind me making funny faces? Or maybe it's the silly looking bike helmet? Hmm, that seems likely. In scooter-obsessed Thailand, hot and sweaty helmets are as welcome as Uncle Dave in the family reunion photo. Have you met Uncle Dave? Now there's a guy whose mug could benefit from riding without a helmet.

But I digress.

Scooters obviously play a huge role in the Thai's pursuit of happiness. Mopeds are ubiquitous, and a gazillion of these crazy little "phut, phut"-sounding two-stroke engines zoom across the streets in all possible directions simultaneously, weaving magically through each other like colliding army ant columns that have all forgotten their Wolseley pith helmets. I saw a moped rider merrily texting while swerving into the nearest paddy—no helmet. Folks would blithely do 50 kph while going down a crowded market street in the wrong lane without a helmet. And until my wife and I came to Thailand, we had no idea that entire families, babies, and dogs (yes, dogs) could all fit on one scooter at the same time. Still, no helmets. Not even for the dogs. So yup, my bike helmet must have made me look like a total lily-livered chump. A rank amateur. Laughable really.

Morning haze over rice paddies and sugar palms.

Morning haze over rice paddies and sugar palms. I watched a woman splash her scooter into this paddy while texting and riding. She was just fine and acted like this was quite normal. (Click any of the larger photographs for prices and sizes.)

Two chedi at night.

Two chedi at night in Bangkok. A chedi (or "stupa" anywhere outside of Thailand) can hold Buddhist relics, the ashes of a revered monk, or be a commemorative object with a meditative path around the base. These two chedi were particularly peaceful in the middle of an otherwise crazy (crazy, crazy) urban jungle.

Buddha and his faithful

Buddha watching over his faithful. Wat Phan Tao, Chiang Mai.

So I struck up a friendly converastion. "Umm, why are you laughing at me?" We were politely informed that the farmers were not amused by our appearance and that they just felt sorry for us. I mean golly, my wife and I must be so dirt poor that we can’t even afford a scooter and are therefore forced to tour around the country on bikes. Cycling in Thailand is the lowest of the low forms of transportation, and working or vacationing on a bicycle would be akin to torture or watching reruns of 70's sitcoms. Nobody does that if they don’t have to.


Buddhist gong. Each wat has one. All are very similar but each is painted slightly different. The sound is deep and beautiful.

Honestly though, I think the bikes worked to our advantage. As unintimidating riders, we were welcomed by monks to rest quietly in the gorgeous Buddhist wats that dot the countryside. These small temples see very few foreign visitors and have an entirely different feel from the famous but over-crowded spiritual centers of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The rural pace was slow, quiet, and revitalizing. We'd quietly admire the cool architecture and then eat lunch and a black bean ice cream (yup, you read that right) under the shade of some trees while the monks went about their day. We tried to blend into the background, but on one wiltingly hot day, a kind monk in his saffron robe took pity on our apparent poverty and handed us two unsolicited bottles of water. Buddhist monks eschew all possessions, so this was a phenomenally kind gesture from someone who was truly poor.

Michelle outside wat

Michelle outside of a village temple and small chedi (the round spire) with our touring bikes. Everything we need for our extended trip is in those red panniers. Notice the low bar on Michelle's bike, suitable for skirts. When in Thailand...

Thailand has stunningly good street food that's great for lunch and easy to carry into a wat. But a sanitation caution is in order because I really can't recommend rushing around on a bike in a strange town that speaks a different language while desperately seeking the nearest public toilet. Oh yes, I speak from experience -- that mysterious sticky rice treat was tasty but perhaps a little too dangerous. More than once I wondered if it's wise to have an adventuresome appetite capable of eating coconut and black bean ice cream. (In my defense, I thought those were chocolate chips.)

School chlidren

These laughing children are trying to figure out what to say from their primer, titled "My English Book". We all had a great time saying "Hello," and "My name is... "

But hey, food is a welcome hazard of international travel. I mean, who in their right mind would turn down Tom Yum soup prepared by a local Thai? Ok, perhaps I should have passed when I saw that woman casually brush a dead fly out of my bowl. But oh, that soup was soooo good, and I had absolutely no self-control. I feasted my way across Thailand, devouring Pad Thai’s and Khao Prig's from every street side vendor, exclaiming “Arroy, arroy!” (delicious) and making instant friends with the very pleased cooks. Thailand’s reputation for good food is of course well known, but I hadn’t truly appreciated that everyone north of Bangkok could cook like a five-star Michelin Guide chef.

Michelle and I are vegetarians, but for the sake of convenience, I’d try almost anything and then inform her of the meat/no meat verdict. Of course, we did our best to say “no meat please.” Unfortunately, in Thai, the words for "no" and "new "sound very similar. So every time I asked for “no meat”, the Michelin-rated street vendors would grin and nod vigorously with complete understanding, and then throw in a double portion of pork balls. D'oh. Did I just order “new” meat?

Scooter heaven

Dream of a scooter. (Scooter heaven in Chiang Mai.)

After months of studying the Thai language from CDs in our car (a quality education, ahem), our ability to communicate was only just good enough to confuse everybody. Never the less, shaking our heads and flapping our arms usually got the point across ("no chicken please"), and I would definitely have been exceedingly fat within a couple of weeks, except that we were burning a crazy number of calories hauling our panniers up steep hills in thousand degree heat with 100% percent humidity.

Turns out that biking Thailand in the middle of the day was just plain silly, and the country’s innumerable dogs showed us a far better strategy for dealing with the heat. They'd simply lie around in the streets, play dead, and make everyone else get out of the way. Somewhere in the hills around the nearly-non-existent town of Baan Rai, Michelle decided to adopt this doggy strategy. "Go on," she panted. "Have fun. I’m not moving anymore."

Uh oh… It was time to look for some bananas, that potassium-filled "Michelle pick-me-up" that grows on every street corner in Northern Thailand. I biked into the nearby village and inspected each little shanty on the side of the road, but nobody sold bananas because fresh fruit and veggies are something you purchase at the crowded open-air markets on the weekend. However, just about every tin-roofed shack did sell beer (pronounced "beeeeeeer"), so using my best Homer Simpson imitation, I picked up some tasty beverages and started biking back.

Giant banana seeds

Giant tooth-breaking banana seeds.

That’s when I noticed the shed selling homemade furniture, rugs, and bunches of bananas. Ah hah! It was an odd mix of retail products, but the price was right. Five baht for twenty bananas. That’s like zero cents. So I delivered the goods to Michelle and grabbed one of the tiny little bananas, took a bite, and just about broke a tooth. What the…? Yummy tangy taste, check. Standard mushy banana flesh, check. Giant one centimeter banana seeds, check. Wait, huh? I had no idea that bananas could harbor giant seeds. I suppose everyone else in the world is nodding sagely; but not me. I was slapping my forehead and thinking, yup that’s why these cost zero cents at a Thai furniture market.

At the beginning of our overheated tour, the map indicated “Stunning Himalayan foothills to your left!” Sadly, we couldn’t see squat through the thick reddish smog of Chiang Mai. This is a photographer's nightmare scenario ("Oooh, look at the pretty pictures of smog"), but as we cycled further from the city, both the roads and the skies cleared and we noticed a pretty carpet of surprisingly yellow trees on the highland peaks. I was shocked. Shouldn't Thailand’s jungles be green? Was the smog killing the trees? No, a local explained, it was just the dry season. Whoa! My preconceived notions of verdant jungle photography had to be jettisoned. Bummer. Everyone back home would think I was taking pictures of New England in October. Well, except for the gorgeous bamboo. And the seed-ridden banana trees. And, ok, the ornate gold-plated wats. Not quite New England.

Mae Sa Waterfall

Early morning at Mae Sa Waterfall in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, Northern Thailand. The fall-like colors are from the dry season when (surprise) tropical rain forests aren't always green. See what I mean?  Looks kind of  like New England in October. Who knew...

Mork Fa Waterfall

Mork Fa Waterfall in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. It's a nice quiet park with relatively few visitors, tucked away in Northern Thailand.

Mork Fa Waterfall

Mork Fa Waterfall in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, Northern Thailand. This part of the park sees very few visitors and is well off the beaten path. The quiet trails were surrounded by groves of meditative bamboo that would occasionally make a pleasantly hollow creaking noise in the light breeze. Definitely not New England.

White bamboo.

White bamboo near Baan Rai.

I rarely do architectural photography, but I couldn't help capturing the ornate and enigmatic wats. The Thai flavor of Buddhism is very inclusive, and a few of the temples even sport Christian crosses. Everywhere we biked, the Buddha sat side by side with the multi-armed and elephant-headed god Ganesha. Let's see -- that's Buddhism, Hindu, Christian... Now that's a cultural grab bag that has to be experienced to be understood. Occasionally the iconography seemed to go right over the top (see image below), but I loved it.

Crazy blue greedy Earth eater.

Crazy blue greedy Earth eater. Wat Doi Saket. This particular temple was a bit over the top, but very interesting. Notice how the Buddha sits well above this demon, and how the three-headed Naga (mythical snakes) protect the Buddha and the temple entrance.

In Northern Thailand, the giant snake god Naga protects each wat from evil. Just in case the semi-divine Naga isn't enough,votive offerings of flower necklaces and Orange Fanta (always opened and with a straw) protect nearby residents from mischievous spirits. The votive offerings are popular, both with the faithful Buddhists and with the semi-homeless dogs who enjoy the free feast. (I was pleased to see that the monks care for the dogs.)

Votive offering

Hey, do I have something caught in my teeth? A votive offering of flowers at Wat Arun.

Broken promises at the spirit house junkyard

Broken promises at the spirit house junkyard.

The ubiquitous votive offerings have spawned a whole industry of dollhouse-sized shrines or “spirit houses” that sit on the front lawn of most homes and businesses. Appeasing the gods ensures prosperity, but ironically this is big business, and it seems that only the wealthy can afford high quality spirit houses with high quality icons. Poorer homes have poorer looking icons, and I was bemused by the piles of unwanted and rotting spirit houses jumbled in trash heaps on the sides of canals and roads, sometimes with animistic figures still inside. I got the sense that these spirit houses hadn’t properly delivered on their implicit promise.

Good karma for a price.

Good karma for a price. Expensive new spirit houses for sale in Bangkok. Keep out.

Figures in the window.

Figures in the window. For the Buddhist faithful, a small spirit house can bring prosperity and can help protect the owner from mischievous sprites, imps, and gods. Each spirit house is shaped like a miniature Buddhist temple and resembles a dollhouse covered with votive offerings of food and flowers. Small figures (both human and animistic) frequently live in and around the spirit house.

When Michelle wasn't looking, I left a little offering of food at a neighborhood spirit house. I figured it couldn't hurt, especially because we were biking into the insanity of Chiang Mai. After so much time spent cycling through pleasant mountains and rice paddies, it was jarring to pedal back into the scooter-crazed din of a Thailand city. Poor planning on my part. We should have skipped the return flight altogether and spent a peaceful year (or more) cycling around the whole of rural Southeast Asia, generating guffaws for the locals far and wide. Maybe someday. Instead, Michelle and I spent our last couple of hours visiting spectacular temples and orchid markets, and in my case, tempting fate by devouring as much street-side Khao Prig as humanly possible. Yum.

Roses at the Bangkok orchid market

Roses at the unparalleled Bangkok orchid and flower market. It's a votive-driven industry.

An elephant and his mahout cooling in the Ping River

An elephant and his mahout cooling in the Ping River.


Three chedi at Wat Pho, Bangkok.

Wat Arun

A Buddhist temple at Wat Pho, seen between two chedi. Bangkok.

Reclining Buddha.

The head of the famous and immense Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, Bangkok. This statue is so large it requires its own building. I can't help but wonder what Buddha would think about such opulence.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) and the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok. Magical place. I was hoping to photograph from a ferry dock, but there was something about  (1) the abandoned river docks, and (2) that very dicey looking guy following us down the street... Bangkok is the only place in Thailand that I didn't feel safe flashing my camera gear at night. I photographed instead from a rooftop bar across the river, which worked out perfectly.


Sawhadee krup.

That's Thai for goodbye, assuming it's pronounced correctly. Try it, but don't blame me if you get an extra helping of pork balls.



p.s. If you are feeling in the mood for some interesting Thai murals, check out these Buddhist frescoes.


The King

A poster showing His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej watching over his flock. The people are near drowning and are beset by beasts in the water. Interesting.

Buddha watches over a dog

Buddha watches over a dog. Many of the wats have semi-homeless dogs or cats (rarely both) for which the monks care. The dogs would often have the run of the place. In one amusing instance, we watched a dog letting folks know (growl, bite, grrr) that "this entrance to the temple is now closed." Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai.