Let’s go cycling in Thailand this weekend! Rather than taking an organized cycling trip with other tourists, which is fun as well, this time we will ride our carbon road bikes to experience Thailand at full speed!
Medical-, wellness- and sports tourism are boosted by a greater focus on healthy living and when it comes to cycling Thailand is paradise. Here we find good roads, beautiful scenery, a lovely climate, food and drinks sold along the way, friendly locals amused by foreign cyclists and sometimes a few pretty ladies that ride along with you on their scooter! So pack your bike and come to Thailand!
Laem Mae Phim
This trip starts in Laem Mae Phim, a small fishing town in Rayong province, about 200 Km south east of Bangkok. To call it a ‘town’ is hardly deserved; Laem Mae Phim is simply a coastal strip with a beach and restaurants on the south side and some hotels on the north side. This is still a piece of undiscovered Thailand – at least for foreigners, or ‘farangs’ as they are called here – which is set to develop at a fast pace in the years to come. The farangs that do hang out here are mainly Swedes, looking for some sun and tranquility. Yet if the fast growing number of new hotels and condominiums is any indication, this peacefulness will rapidly disappear in the near future. But as of now, those looking for the famous Thai nightlife will find little of interest to them in this beach town.
Laem Mae Phim is situated about 25 Km east of Ban Phe, a town that will be more familiar to farangs as most boats to Koh Samed depart from there. Road number 3145 runs along the coast between Laem Mae Phim and Ban Phe, with magnificent views of the Gulf of Thailand and Koh Samed. There is a wide hard shoulder on this road used by slower traffic, such as scooters and foodcarts, which gives a relative feeling of safety when riding on it. I use the word ‘relative’ on purpose as there is no greater waste of white paint than road markings on Thai roads. At least on a road bike it is acceptable to be wearing brightly colored lycra clothing, so at least make sure you are visible to other traffic!
In Laem Mae Phim one can arrange for cheap accommodation at independent hotels such as Villa Bali and Tamarind Resort. Both resorts offer a small private bungalow for anywhere between 1,000 – 2,000 baht. Those with bigger budgets should check out the X2 Rayong Resort. This weekend we check in at the Tamarind Resort which is managed by friendly Tom and his wife, for around 1,500 baht per night.
At 7 am, after an early breakfast, we ride west towards Ban Phe. The beach is on our left hand side, and some fishermen are preparing this morning’s catch for sale. Traffic is very sparse, and we see monks from nearby temples collecting alms from local villagers. After a few Km the road turns a bit inland and the scenery is getting greener. We ride past weather-beaten road signs pointing the way to deserted beaches, past fruit vendors, temples, hotels and small convenience shops. Tourism has not yet left its traces here…this really is undiscovered Thailand!
A small truck, loaded top, bottom, left, right and center with inflated airbeds and toys is driving in the opposite direction towards the beach. As the windscreens are covered with product we can’t see the driver, yet we do catch a glimpse of a cigarette holding hand poking through the inflated toys. We wonder how the driver is able to see at all.
The many street dogs don’t really bother us, and we have a very effective weapon against the more aggressive species: a firm well aimed squeeze in the water bottle usually takes care of business. After 10 Km we pass the brand new Phuphatara condominium rises, situated next to a Marriott hotel under construction. After another 2 Km we pass an older Novotel, the first big chain hotel along this road.
The road now turns back to the coast and we see the sun being reflected in the water of the Gulf of Thailand. After passing another new condominium and villa project, Oriental Beach, we ride through a small town where as long as we can remember an old rusty car is parked by the side of the road. The model looks to be at least 40 years old. We notice the tempting smell of charcoal grilled chicken.
Beautiful view of Koh Samed
Not much further we join the coast again at Suan Son Beach. This is a beautiful tree-lined road with lush vegetation running parallel to the long beach. Whilst riding under the trees we have a beautiful view of Koh Samed in the distance. There are many small restaurants and bars along this beach. The beach is not the most beautiful or the cleanest beach in Thailand yet its undeveloped and rough character is appealing somehow.
We approach a busy fish market at 35 Km/hr and now we really need to hit the brakes. Thai usually don’t look for other traffic when crossing a road, and certainly not when there is food at stake. Those that do have trouble estimating the speed of a road bike. We ride a little further on the tree lined road and about 45 minutes after leaving LMP we enter the town of Ban Phe.
Although Ban Phe is effectively a small and friendly coastal town, after the tranquil 25 Km behind us it now feels as if we ride into a metropolis. We see travelers in transit, minivans, (disco) buses, souvenir shops, markets and even a real Tesco Lotus supermarket. This all causes the relatively heavy traffic to move in all kinds of unpredictable directions, everybody seems to have a different final destination. English signs near restaurants, hotels and bars are the silent witnesses of the presence of farangs here, who are often in transit going to or returning from Koh Samed. We ride through the town as fast as we can, stared at by scooter taxi drivers that quite likely ask themselves why ‘rich’ farangs like us choose to ride a bike, the typical poor man’s means of transport here.
Rest stop: pai nai?
A rest stop or any other interaction with the local Thai gives great but by now predictable conversations. The guaranteed first question is ‘pai nai?’ which translates into ‘where are you going?’ When, in simple Thai, we share our route of just under 100 Km, we are stared at in utter disbelief. Another tough sell here is explaining that we will finish at the same point where we started. ‘Thamaai?’ or ‘why, what’s the point?’. We try ‘okkamlangkaai’, ‘exercise’ but a resolute shaking of the head signals a total lack of understanding of what these crazy farangs are up to.
Next, the bikes are subjected to some thorough research, which always starts with the bravest Thai feeling the tires. These must be pumped up a lot harder than expected, because usually other bystanders are invited to really squeeze those tires, accompanied with loud expressions of surprise. The next guaranteed course of action is lifting the bike. This too gives an unexpected result, although most Thai are familiar with ‘carbooooon fibuuuuuuur’ material, with that typical charming Thai emphasis on the last syllable.
After everyone finished lifting the bikes, it is time for the ultimate question that must have been on everybody’s mind. ‘Taorai?’ or ‘what does it cost?’. This is always a difficult moment. Should we give them the real price of the bike, an unimaginable sum of money for the average Thai onlooker which would confirm all prejudices against ‘rich’ farangs, or should we go really low and run the risk of disappointing them? Knowing that in the end it will all be compared to the price of a scooter, we decide to go middle of the road here. ‘Muen gan motosai’, ‘the same as a scooter’ it is then. ‘Peng mak!’, ‘very expensive!’, is the immediate reply. Those crazy farangs. They spent such a fortune on a bicycle, and for that same money they could have been riding a brand new scooter.
And further we go. We now ride over a small hill that is a natural divider between Ban Phe and the next coastal strip Mae Rumphueng. Nothing to worry about here, it is only a small incline of around 6% – we change gears and soon we leave the hill behind us. With a sharp right turn we enter the 10 Km long road along Mae Rumphueng beach. The sea here is known for its strong undercurrents; people drown here quite regularly.
We ride past unfinished buildings and half empty condominiums, the sad remains of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. This coastal area looks rather desolate, and it is referred to as the ‘Gaza strip’ by a befriended restaurant owner in Laem Mae Phim. For around 600,000 Baht you can call yourself the owner of a small beachfront condominium here. On this strip we have seen quite a bit of development lately, just like with the rest of the Rayong coast. So who knows if that cheap condo will turn out to be a great investment.
Towards the end of the beach road we take a sharp right turn, past the local weather station, and we head north towards main road number 3 that connects the cities of Rayong and Chanthaburi. When we reach the town of Taphong we can turn left towards Rayong, just another 8 Km. As traffic on the road into Rayong is quite heavy today we decide to turn around instead and repeat the ride in opposite direction. Laem Mae Phim, our home base, is situated 42 Km to the east. That is 42 Km with headwinds from here!
Today I am lucky as I am passed by 2 ladies on a scooter doing around 45 Km/hr. I speed up, get right behind them and for a few Km I make a nice positive contribution to my average speed for that day. The girls think it is hilarious that I am able to keep up with them, and of course they also want to know where I am going: ‘pai nai’? Unfortunately they turn off the road not much later (careful: Thai brake before indicating, if they indicate at all) and I am facing the headwinds in full force once more. In Ban Phe we stop at the pier for a quick coffee, and about 3 hours and 85 Km later we ride back into Laem Mae Phim where we finish the ride with a little sprint.
Rest and relaxation
The rest of the day is spent with a Thai massage, a lunch on the beach with fresh seafood, a little swimming and some reading. In the evening Laem Mae Phim is rather quiet, but there are enough restaurants and little bars to still have a good time. Apart from excellent Thai seafood there are quite a few other options. Our favorite is the small Italian restaurant La Capanna, where Marco serves the best pizza in Thailand. Sausage and sauerkraut lovers can visit Tequila Garden. If your idea of fun is sipping cocktails on a deck overlooking the sea, then the Phish Café should be on your ‘must do’ list. It’s a beautiful teak wood bar with great staff!
If you really want to party all out, then head to a nightclub in the city of Klaeng, 16 Km north of Laem Mae Phim, where without doubt you will be the only farang visitor. In the other direction, go around 15 Km towards Ban Phe, and you will find a typical Thai country style karaoke bar named ‘Sabai Sabai’. There is a serious party here every night; don’t miss out on watching the local lady boy brigade dance to Thai tunes. We’re going to skip on all this and have an early night though…tomorrow morning is the next cycling ‘stage’!