Heaven on a bike

Published Jan 18, 2015


Thailand – I’ve become a big bicycling fan. Not the madly active mountain biker sort, but more of a ride-stop-and-Instagram kind of a cyclist, cruising along the Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town on my stylish turquoise two wheeler, with a smile on my face. For me, exertion needs to be at a minimum.

When it comes to bike trips overseas, I’m more about taking in the views at a leisurely pace. It’s a perfect approach to sightseeing, as nothing is missed.

On my recent trips to Tokyo and Kyoto, my conversion to cycle touring was a revelation and a real adventure. It opened up new ways to meet people from all over the world and expanded my travel experience in the most incredible ways. The routes follow lesser-known backstreets and take one off beaten paths into areas of a city that aren’t typically recommended in guidebooks.

Tour buses, on the other hand, annoy me – I have to strain to see out of a small window half-obscured by a curtain or another person’s large camera lens, while magnificent landmarks whizz past. It’s too frustrating and my pics turn out blurred.

I’ve been to Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand many times. It’s an island paradise that calls for serious beach time, but on longer visits even I find myself wanting to get more physical, so finding out about the new bicycling outfit there was great news.

Phangan Bicycle Tours, established last year, offers three tours: morning, afternoon or bespoke, the last of which is tailor-made to suit an individual or group. I chose the morning excursion because I liked what it had to offer in terms of the sightseeing, is rated as “easy” at 95 percent on the flat, and is the shortest ride, lasting three and a half hours. Now that’s my idea of fitness and fun.

From the start, after meeting owners Soren and Mark and our savvy tour guide, Yut, at Phangan Bicycle Tours’ base in Thongsala, the experience was excellent. The mountain bikes are top-quality Treks that are great on and off the road, which is crucial when negotiating narrow forest trails with loose sand, dips and twists.

Helmets are provided if requested (they’re not mandatory on Koh Phangan), and best to wear a peak cap and SPF50 as the sun is fierce from as early as 9am.

Yut explained our route on a clearly marked wall map, then meticulously gave us the lowdown on the mechanics of the gears and brakes, what to engage when going up and down hills (yes, there were a few of those), what to look out for and so on.

His seemingly bottomless backpack had everything from lightweight raincoats to mosquito repellent, sunblock, a first aid kit, rehydrating sachets, chocolates and even dry dog food for the many hounds he meets along the way that have come to know him and which expect a treat whenever he cycles past or makes a stop with his “bike gang”, as he calls the tour groups.

Our first stop was at the vast coconut depot where we watched a lone woman methodically dehusking the fruit, one at a time. Yut explained how macaque monkeys were trained at special schools to harvest the coconuts. Once collected, they are offloaded at the “farm”, adding to the sea of coconuts that stretches as far as the eye can see. To strip a coconut on a slick blade that protrudes from the ground takes under a minute – it’s fast, dangerous work – one wrong move and a hand is neatly separated from a wrist, which made me wonder why this wasn’t being done by machines.

At a conservative estimate, more than a million coconuts a year are exported from Koh Phangan and neighbouring Koh Samui to Bangkok. They are used for canned coconut products or processed for oil. The fibres from the husks are used to make ropes and fire starters or for coir to stuff mattresses. The shells are used for ornaments and utensils – no part of the coconut is wasted.

Delicious coconut milk, which we enjoyed fresh from the shell from a little stand across the way, is produced on a huge scale across the world and has grown into a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

We pedalled through Baan Tai village, wound through the lush Baan Na Suan countryside, past the school, stopping to feed bananas to an old elephant at the Phangan Adventure Camp, a highlight for me.

It’s sad that so many of these incredible and intelligent animals are trained for undignified performances in shows across the country. It’s something I’ve not yet seen on Koh Phangan. At this camp at least, the elephants are well cared for and the mahout in charge of the gentle giant we saw clearly loved his animal.

Moving on, we took a breather at the Maduawan Temple, a quiet spiritual retreat built in 1606 that has only two monks in residence. A very impressive, steep staircase, with ornate naka or Thai dragon’s heads at the bottom, leads to a viewpoint on Khao Ra, the tallest point on Koh Phangan.

Passing through a farmers’ village, we stopped at the Phangan Animal Care facility, whose team see to the basic needs of many of the island’s animals, particularly stray or soi dogs that need critical care. Many have been hit by speeding cars (if only there was a speed limit) – and have had limbs amputated.

It was a sobering visit, but it was encouraging to know these strays are being looked after and to see the dedication of the volunteers who work at the centre.

Next on our route was Wok Tum Beach in Hin Kong, to see the famous hanging coconut tree that has grown out over the sea, parallel to the water, making for a popular photo opp.

Another thing I’d missed on previous visits was the huge warship docked permanently at the main pier. Originally known as the USS Stark County, it saw action in World War II, the Far East, North Korea and the Vietnam Wa. It was brought into the Royal Thai Navy before being decommissioned.

Our final stop was at the food market back in Thongsala, the port and main town that is a busy hub, with shops, banks, pharmacies and clinics. The market is where many Thais come by in the early in the morning to pick up their fresh fish, fruit and veg. We were treated to a feast of mangos, miniature bananas, litchis and sweet tangerines. Some fruit, like the mangosteen, is available about August and September, so I was lucky.

Back at HQ, the hospitality continued – we were given icy towels for sweaty foreheads, bottles of chilled water and, even better, ice-cold Chang beer.

I loved the combination of riding on the busy main road of the small town and then, a few minutes later, finding myself in the rainforest and jungle riding on country paths past old wooden houses on stilts, grazing water buffalo, groves of cashew nut trees, rows of pineapples, lemongrass and, of course, coconut palms.

Yut took his time explaining all sorts of fascinating facts, such as how people shell cashew nuts by hand, then picked delicious, weird-looking fruits like wild rambutan and longan, and even showing us, along the roadside, a bed of thigmotropic ferns whose tiny fronds retracted to the touch, much like a sea anemone.

There is no rushing this tour – Yut has too much interesting info to share that one doesn’t want to miss. He’s an enthusiastic and considerate tour guide, aware of the various fitness levels among the group, and checks repeatedly to see if people are coping and taking regular breaks as needed.

Koh Phangan, known as a major full moon party destination, is a small island of 125km² in the Surat Thani province, 15km from Koh Samui, and home to just under 14 000 people. It would take 10 hours to walk its 40km perimeter.

There are only two seasons in a year, and the hottest time is January to April, when the temperature is a maximum of 36ºC.

The rainy weather begins soon after, but the heaviest downpours fall in October, November and December, with temperatures dropping slightly.

I personally love being there in March, April and August when there are fewer tourists. The heat is never a problem for me – I’m a hot weather girl and love the perpetual summer as it means I can pack light.

No one believes a diva can get through a month comfortably with only the contents of a single carry-on bag for an entire month. True story though as you need minimal outfits on a beach culture island where no one does posh. It’s all about flip flop couture, as I like to call it.

More than half of the island is a national park. About 80km² of Koh Phangan is covered in pristine rain forest with a diversity of flora and fauna.

There are stunning walking trails through the jungle and forests that wind up past waterfalls that are particularly impressive after the monsoon rains.

For the energetic, there are hikes to stunning viewpoints and slow walks under emerald green tree canopies, and dips in waterfall pools.

There’s no shortage of things to do on Koh Phangan – from kiteboarding to snorkelling, kayaking, wakeboarding, cooking classes, Thai boxing lessons and, of course, outings further afield to the exquisite Ang Thong National Park and other gorgeous islands like Koh Tao.

Seeing Koh Phangan by bicycle offers an authentic experience that gives you an exercise boost and makes a refreshing change from more typical tourist to-do lists.

As they say at Phangan Bicycle Tours, “one island, two wheels, more fun”.

I’ll vouch for that.

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