To travel by bicycle is quite different

Thailand is the only country we’ll visit this year where I’ve been to before. Initially I wasn’t too keen on revisiting (why go somewhere twice if there are so many other places to discover?), but Dave hasn’t been in Thailand yet, and it just happens to be in the middle of the region we wanted to go. So we cycled a part of Thailand. And it has given me a good understanding of how different travel by bicycle is compared to the more common way of traveling around.

Highlights of a country

When planning a holiday within 1 country, you typically choose a few major destinations (the highlights) and try to connect them as quickly as possible. With a bus, a boat or a domestic flight.

When cycling around, you see where you’ll start (or enter a country) and where you’ll finish (exit the country). You try to find a fluid line between the places of your interest, but you quickly understand that they’re not necessarily close to each other. And a detour of 500km is taking you at least 1 week extra, so you’ll have to make choices and you’re very likely to miss out on some of the country’s highlights. (Unless you have an enormous amount of time of course, like the people from who cycled 9000km in Thailand alone!)

Our ‘limited’ tour of 3 weeks in the south of Thailand. No time to go to Bangkok, River Kwai, the golden triangle in the North, … – more details here

After 3 weeks in Thailand, we can confirm that the prettiest parts we’ve seen were developped for tourism. So travelling around the normal way does show you the best/most impressive locations.

Khao Sok National Park, also a tourist destination and absolutely worth it!

But then, on a bicycle, you get to see more shades of a country. You have time to stop in the middle of the small village, go to the local restaurant and you’ll eat truly local. You potentially see weddings being prepared and experience a local dinner party. You’ll see people doing their laundry and hear kids playing during their lunch break at school. You’ll wander around vast areas of agriculture and learn how people make a living. You’ll see the big fancy houses and you’ll see the simple wooden ones. You’ll experience the heartiness of the locals. You’ll end up celebrating local religious festivities. And you will not have to share these moments with tons of other tourists.

This lady passed us on her motorcycle, went to buy cold drinks, and gave it to us on the side of the road. She didn’t speak a word of English. Haven’t seen this happening yet in touristic areas 😉

Big contrast

We find the contrast between touristic areas and non touristic areas huge! You can taste it in your coffee (instant coffee vs trendy coffee bars), you feel it in all your conversations (outside tourist areas it’s hard to find a Thai who does speak some English, not even in a hotel. Thank you Google Translate for your offline Thai!) and you see it in the people you encounter (for days in a row we only saw friendly Thai smiles).

After a while we could recognise a hotel by the number 24 on the signage – meaning there is a reception that is open 24h/day

You easily recognise a tourist area when hotel signs start to be written in English again and you see other western people (who don’t cheer to you like the rural Thai do 😉

We like the variation

When cycling through a country, you get the best of both. Some days we want to enjoy the perks of a touristic area. But then after a few days we get fed up with the commerciality it comes with, and we’re happy to leave again. But then after a few days in rural areas, being lost in translation, we’re looking forward to a good coffee and an understandeable menu again.

But we also have to admit: 3 weeks in Thailand learned us that cycle touring can be a little boring too. Landscapes don’t change every hour, not even every day. You can be surprised by small unexpected discoveries, but they don’t happen all the time.

One day, the only exciting thing we saw was a siamese banana ðŸĪŠ

The nice thing however is, that you can daydream (if the road conditions are good enough – in Thailand they were perfect). You can use the time to overthink certain topics, let ideas grow, reflect over the past, and make plans for the future. So to conclude: travelling by bicycle is really ideal for a midlifetrip 😉

Island hopping from Malaysia to Thailand

OK, we’re having bicycles with us, but that doesn’t mean we have to cycle every kilometer. Especially if other (better?) alternatives are available to get around! So to get from Malaysia to Thailand, we discovered a nice route via the islands in the Andaman sea!

It all started with some research on the rainy season. Dave has always been interested in the meteo, and at home I often call him Frank (Deboosere – Belgian weather guru). He digged deeper into how the monsoon is travelling around South East Asia and it was coming down from Thailand to Malaysia, while we were going up. Our best chances to avoid it, was to travel via the west coast.

Luckily, on that west coast lies the Andaman sea, where you can find pretty islands so why not island hop our way up north!

Island 1: Penang

Just a 20 minute transfer from mainland Malaysia and easy to get to on your bicycle alongside the scooters on the big ferry. And it only costs a few Malaysian Ringgits. There’s also a bridge connecting Penang to the mainland, but it’s a highway (with toll) so not that recommended by bicycle.

Ferry from the mainland to Penang

Penang doesn’t really feel like a tropical island with all the skyscrapers. Its main city George Town is big and bustling, and has a pretty Unesco protected old town and some streets where you’ll feel like you’re in China or India. But the rest of the island is one big contruction site. On the north side of the island, you can find a few beaches, but most of them are connected to a big beach resort (again skyscrapers).

Island 2: Langkawi

2 times a day, you can take the boat from Penang to Langkawi. Only the one in the afternoon allows you to take bicycles (as in the morning, some other goods are transported on the boat.) It’s a reasonable sized boat and your bicycles are stored on the roof. Best give some fasterners to the boat crew who will take care of your stuff. Price: 60 + 30 Ringgits for the bicycle per person (about 20₮) and it takes approx. 3 hours to arrive in the south harbour of Langkawi: Kuah Jetty.

Ferry from Penang to Langkawi

This is still Malaysia but it’s a completely different island that Penang. Lots of lush green nature, only low-rise buildings and many different beaches. And a lot of activities, both on water (parasailing, banana boats, snorkling, …) as on land (wildlife, bungee, waterfalls, a sky bridge, horse riding, …) to keep you busy. It’s also a tax-free island so if you’ re interested in alcohol and cigarettes, you can have a good and cheap time too! We stayed 3 nights in the very south near Pantai Tengah beach, a very quiet area with many good options in accomodation and food. I could definitely imagine staying here longer!

Island 3: Koh Lipe

Just a little northwest of Langkawi lies the sea border with Thailand. The first island you come accross is tiny Koh Lipe, part of the Koh Tarutao National Park and Thailand’s most southern inhabited island. In Langkawi you can take a boat from Telaga Harbour Marina or Kuah Jetty. We preferred the first one as it was smaller (more relaxed to handle the transport of our bicycles) and a shorter boat trip. It costs about 30₮ per person incl. bicycle, and during low season the boat goes once a day. Before departure you still have to pass by Malaysian immigration and hand over your passport to the captain, but that process went really smooth. We were a little stressed about our bicycles as Koh Lipe doesn’t have a real harbour/pier and everything has to be moved on a longtail boat to arrive on land. Let’s see how that goes…

2 hours later, you arrive on one of the 3 beaches of Koh Lipe. We saw our bicycles being carried from the boat to the longtails to the beach. Just relax and let the boat crew take care of it! The Thai immigration office is by far to most relaxed border crossing I’ve ever seen. Feet in the sand, a friendly smile, a stamp, and you’re 30 days allowed into Thailand!

Happy to arrive on the beach in Koh Lipe

Koh Lipe is tropical paradise! Touristic, but paradise. 3 pristine beaches on walking distance of each other. Sunrise beach in the east, sunset beach in the west, and 1 Walking street in between where you can find everything you need. For us this mainly meant: delicious banana pancakes and a snorkling trip. But you can also find the typical thai massaaaaaaaage. Maybe it’s because of low season, but it was great to share the island, the beaches, the water, … with only a few other tourists (just enough to have it cosy iso empty). But unlike Langkawi, not a lot of cycling opportunities.

Island 4: Koh Lanta

Best stop before going back to the mainland! You can get to all the Andaman islands with a speedboat, but we choose Koh Lanta because it was warmly recommended by our friends, and because it is connected to the mainland with a bridge and a short ferry (5 hours on a speed boat for approx 40₮ incl. bicycle per person.) This would be (for now) the last boat adventure for us and our bicycles!

‘Pier’ in Koh Lipe

We spent only 1 night on Koh Lanta. We were too eager to start cycling again! And we already had some beach bum time in Langkawi and Koh Lipe. A quick ride by Ko Lanta’s old town and then to the mainland, up north!

Our tactics worked! We didn’t had a drop of rain while we were on the islands. Best proof was that it started raining (only small drips, but still) as soon as we checked in our first hotel after Koh Lanta. And we definitely got to see a very pretty part of South Thailand!

But even when we were island hopping in low season, it’s all very touristy though. We look forward again to see some more rural parts, this time of Thailand. To get to know the ‘real’ Thai way of living, the Thai people and the countryside!

!! Tip for when you spent quite some time on a boat: eat something fatty. Like banana pancakes. With chocolate sauce! Always keep you stomack full, putting a thin layer of fat on the inside. It will make you feel good instead of seasick!

Pleasantly surprised by Malaysia

“If you don’t expect anything, you will always be pleasantly surprised.”

I heard this phrase about 2 years ago when going to a toilet in Jordan, and asking our guide whether there would be toilet paper. This was her answer and it was one of those phrases that stick. It’s also very appropiate to describe our second country.

Malaysia has never been on our dream destination list. After Nepal we just wanted a smooth country with smooth roads, preferably with a direct connected flight from Kathmandu, and into the direction of Thailand. After a little reseach, Malaysia seemed to tick those boxes and we just booked the ticket. After 2 weeks in Malaysia I can defenitely say it was the best decision! We didn’t have any knowledge nor expectations towards the country, and just discovered it on the go.

First stop: Kuala Lumpur! A great mix of modern skyscrapers, Indian areas and Chinese streets, a melting pot of cultures with 60% being muslims, but you have hindu temples, christian churches and chinese buddhist temples in the same street. A city of contrast and diversity, and it seems to work well together!

We finally started cycling, like real cycling. It took a while to leave the vast city of over 8 million inhabitants where still a lot of construction and expansion is taking place. Direction: the sea. Because this is a tropical destination so the beaches should be scenic. This one expectation I had, proved to be wrong as mainland Malaysia’s coastland on merely used for fishery. For the nice beaches, you need to be on the surrounding islands. So that’s were we headed! North, through the immense green lush nature and palm plantations.

And we loved it! The roads were pure bliss. Smooth asphalt, a little hilly and curvy so you never get bored. This country has some serious race bike potential!! You often get to see animals on the side of the road (monkeys, turtles and a sporadic lizard/varaan). Some monkeys were pretty cheeky so they made us pedal a bit faster from time to time.

And the people are the kindest! We read somewhere that Malaysians find cyclist cute, and indeed, we received plenty of encouring honks, thumbs ups and waves. Almost every where we stopped we had a friendly chat and often got offered a drink or a meal. Sometimes it made us wonder if it was because we created some animo or because we just looked so sweaty and piteous.

at a stoplight we received this bag of delicious duku’s from a stranger, and he rode off before we even could say thank you.

I’ve never seen so many palm trees together in my life. The country is filled with palm plantations, so it’s good to read that the Malaysian government has decided to stop that expansion and keep at least half of the territory as unspoiled nature. Palm oil has a bad social and environmental reputation. But reading myself a little into the topic, it’s not all that bad and many initiatives are taken to make it more sustainable, like keeping wildlife in the plantations (have you already seen a lot of wildlife on our potato fields ?) and giving good working conditions and a decent life standard to the local people. For sure we could limit the amount of palm oil in our food and cosmetics, but the alternative is not better or more planet friendly (did you know that coconut oil, that also could be used in e.g. tooth paste, takes 10 to 20 times more territory to deliver the same amount of oil?). It kept my mind a little busy while cycling these magnificent green plantations…

We also discovered some new food in Malaysia: Roti pisang and Thosai for breakfast. Fresh sugarcane juice and coconuts during the day. And Indian or Chinese for diner. Overall we prefer the Indian cuisine, but regularly went to a Chinese eatery because in the rural areas, that’s the only places that serve a refreshing beer (which we definitely prefer over the sweet milk tea you get served everywhere else!). The restaurants had the most funny names, and almost all off them had a buffet – not so our favourite as it stands in the sun all day. They have other food hygiene standards here I guess!

A short ferry ride and we arrived on our first island: Penang. Still many skyscrapers and a lot of construction, like a booming economy. It’s main city George Town is Unesco world heritage because of its pretty architecture, that protects it from vertical expansion. Great, because the houses are really cute and there’s a lot of street art adding a a certain coolness to the city.

We decided to keep islandhopping our way up to Thailand. First Langkawi (still Malaysia), then Koh Lipe (a tiny Thai island) and then up north. Maybe we can try to avoid the rainy season that way, that is currently coming down from Thailand and mainly active on the east coast. Fingers crossed!