Published September 14, 2012
“This is Thailand,” said Noom, dramatically. He’s called Noom because his real name is Ratthapoom Worasutpisan, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Particularly for a first-time visitor to the country.
Noom stopped his bike, spreading his arms, widely, as if to wrap them around the scenery that surrounded our cycling group of four.
Behind us, a lush, green rice paddy stretched out to the blue-hued mountains in the distance. Next to us were banana trees. On the road ahead, giant stalks of sugar cane towered. Rows of eggplant lined the nearby river, its banks full of fragrant Thai basil plants. It certainly was something to look at.
“Paradise,” Noom pronounced.
During the winter months, many a traveler to Thailand hits the country’s renowned coastline. Eager to avoid crowds — crowds we could do at home in New York, beaches we could do in Florida — my husband and I opted for Northern Thailand instead. By bike.
We flew to Bangkok, but couldn’t wait to get out of the noisy, overcrowded city, staying at the airport hotel just long enough — 36 hours — to almost recover from jet lag.
Our six-day trip, booked through Spice Roads, a cycling specialist, offering moderate-level trips for leisure cyclists who exercise regularly. Our trip was to include 25 to 35 miles on a bike per day, about 135 miles total, on a week-long adventure between the cities of Sukhothai and Chiang Mai.
Our guides — Noom, who biked alongside us, and Sirikarin Chuchun — him we called Rin — followed us in a van loaded with supplies, our luggage and snacks. They showed us a side of Thailand we never would have seen without them.
We dined on outstanding food at hole-in-the-wall restaurants so local that Noom didn’t know their names; some of them didn’t seem like they had names to know. We took our sneakers off countless times to enter temples adorned with Buddhas of all shapes, sizes and colors. We wound our way along riverside dirt paths among rice fields and farmers, to get a true feel for what is Thailand.
Our pace was quick enough to keep everyone energized, but leisurely enough to stop, snap a photo, or try a local snack, such as deep-fried bananas and yams from a family stand. Sometimes we’d drop in on a small museum — like one built around a kiln from the 13th century.
As we rode through the countryside, we examined the wares of a wood carver and a pottery-maker. Closer to Chiang Mai, our destination city, we bought handmade wooden vases and embroidered wrap skirts at a blocks-long handicraft mall with hundreds of vendors. We also shopped at a more traditional outdoor market where Thais buy everything from tube socks and CDs to food. (Pungent fermented fish was intriguing, but I didn’t try it.)
“You can buy everything here, except true love,” said Noom. Even roosters for illegal cock fights, apparently. (We witnessed the start of one fight, but quickly moved on to eat fresh waffles.)
Along the way, we slept in family-run hotels and local resorts. At meals, Noom would translate for us: not too spicy (mai ped), super spicy (ped ped), vegetarian dumplings please. He’d guide us to dishes traditional to the region, including glass noodles, crispy fish, dessert dumplings with sweetened condensed milk on top. (“The Thai have a sweet tooth; that’s why we are so romantic,” says Noom.) We guzzled far too many Thai iced teas and indulged in Thai massages after long days of biking (I quickly learned that bow bow means not too hard.)
Spice Roads offers reasonably priced (and well-guided) cycling tours across Asia.
For our many temple visits, Noom explained the rules: Walk clockwise around it, no photos of the monks in their saffron robes and stay far enough away so there’s no danger of brushing up against one.
In our 135-mile ride, the terrain changed a lot. On day one, we glided on fairly flat roads, through paddies of jasmine rice where the air smelled nutty and delicious, past morning glories growing along a river, heading to ruins outside Sukhothai, the first capital of Thailand from the 13th-century “golden age” of Siam. Towards evening, the sun set behind the statues, which cast long shadows. We had dinner, including fried morning glory (kind of cross between spinach and asparagus), in the small town and watched the Southeast Asian Games games on TV — Thailand was playing Indonesia in badminton.
Day two, we painfully bumped along a red dirt path, following another river, passing banana, eucalyptus and teak trees, as we waved to farmers resting in the shade. Day three, we rode through Thung Saliam — with good cars and houses compared to bikes and shacks, it felt very suburban — on our way to the Wat Phra Thart Doi Suthep, or the Golden Buddha Temple, which is up a massive red staircase lined with dragon sculptures.
Day four was more strenuous as we made our way through the mountains, a stop for fresh coconut milk giving us a needed energy boost.
On day five, we drove — finally, a break — up the highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Topping out at over 8,500 feet in elevation, it was a chilly 40 degrees at the summit; we watched happy Thai tourists in their cold-weather finery group up for wintry photo-ops. After visiting nearby 50-meter-high waterfalls, Rin and Noom set up lunch from the small, festive outdoor food market — papaya salad, fish stuffed with herbs then steamed in a banana leaf and served with sticky rice, another regional favorite.
As we neared our final destination, the city of Chiang Mai, pedaling along a quiet, almost lonely, riverside path, the sun was low, the shadows long and a golden light washed through the fields. Wood fires scented the air as the day wound down.
“Paradise,” Noom said, one last time. Like all the other times, he was right.
Spice Roads offers a variety of different cycling tours throughout Asia; the author’s trip — a by-request Sukhothai to Chiang Mai ride — cost $1,250 per person, land only. A similar, 7-day, 6-night Thailand Heritage Ride takes riders from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, with monthly departures. More at spiceroads.com.