Biking the backwaters

John Borthwick takes the slow coastal route to Koh Samui, village by village, on flat, smooth, traffic-free roads.

WE'RE free-wheeling down a back road beside the Gulf of Thailand. I ask the rider next to me what he does for a living. "I'm a dinosaur," he answers. "A Tyrannosaurus rex, actually."

"T-Rex" turns out to be Jeremy, an English actor from the stage spectacular Walking with Dinosaurs. We're on a 240-kilometre cycle ride from Bangkok along the western shore of the gulf to Chumphon but first we must slip the Gordian knot of the Big Mango's infamous traffic. Our Thai driver, Woody, points the van south-west to Samut Sakhon and an hour later, with bikes unloaded and helmets on, we're ready to roll.

Our guide, Australian Jason Williams of Grasshopper Adventures, leads us off the highway and straight into a Thailand untouched by mall sprawl, high-rise or happy hours.

Riding along in the breeze, we're soon reeling through a landscape of salt pans, fish farms, mangroves and curiosities. "Those are swallow condos," Jason says, pointing out a curious group of multistorey buildings that look like windowless apartment blocks. I see small holes in the walls and, indeed, swallows flying in and out. Inside, thousands of nests are "farmed" commercially for a Thai delicacy: swallow's-nest soup.

We bowl along on our 24-speed mountain bikes, a little farang peloton deep in the heart of Thailand. The backwater roads are flat and smooth and the riding easy but if anyone wants to wimp out - and no one does - they can just join Woody following behind in the van.

Our first overnight stop is at a little beachfront hotel near Pranburi, south of Hua Hin. Over dinner we get to know each other. Our passports might say England, Thailand, Korea, Canada and Australia but national identities soon become irrelevant. We set out next morning on a road so close to the ocean that spray is bursting across it. A tailwind helps us along and within a couple of hours we are amid the steep limestone ramparts of Khao Sam Roi Yot ("Three Hundred Peaks") National Park.

After seven years of leading cycle tours in Thailand, Jason, 40, knows these back roads like his own handlebars. He has chosen a route on sealed and occasionally unsealed roads that will keep us off main highways for all but 30 kilometres. Even better, there are almost no hills - I gratefully dub this the "No Hills Tour". We're pedalling through the long and lyrically named province of Prachuap Khiri Khan, with she-oaks shading our way and macaque monkeys skittering through the jungle. Pacing each other comfortably, we cover 40 easy kilometres by lunch.

At a beachfront restaurant near Kui Buri we demolish the first of our memorable meals - soft-shell crab, tom yam soup, pad thai noodles and Chang beer. After which, the afternoon's riding seems slow going. My legs are leaden, the heat bears down and I seem to be labouring in "catch-up" mode. Meanwhile Min, a young Korean-American businesswoman in our group, is doing it effortlessly, despite claiming that she'd only ridden six kilometres before in her life. Her trick? Slipstreaming helps a little and she's fit as a fiddle thanks to years of yoga but - let's face it - nothing beats being under 30.

Photo stops come thick and fast as we roll through a gallery of irresistible images. Fishing fleets framed by blue dragon islands. Watermelon sellers and meandering cattle, empty waves and half-moon bays. Plus curious place names such as Brassiere Beach, said to honour several aptly shaped nearby islands. We've ridden 88 kilometres today and it feels like it. With sore bums and aching calves, we wheel into a seafront hotel at the province's capital, Prachuap Khiri Khan town. It's a friendly place, flanked by two horseshoe bays and watched over by a temple mount. After a massage or snooze, or both, we head out for dinner at an open-air night market where the hawker spices are hot and the Chang is cold.

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Next morning we pedal across the runway of an air force base to reach a protected forest where we're greeted by a troop of langur monkeys. Sporting punk Einstein hairdos and white-framed eyes, they swoop from the trees to gently cadge bananas and pose for Jeremy's ever-rolling helmet camera.

This dinosaur is no low-tech T-Rex. On day one he rigs a tiny video camera to his helmet to record our adventures. In the evening he uploads the best footage to his YouTube channel so that, logged on to a notebook computer, over dinner we can already revisit the day's progress and pratfalls. Naturally he's also an avid Facebooker and Tweeter. Meanwhile, I'm up to speed with a pen and Jurassic-era notebook made of paper.

Besides Jeremy the dinosaur dude and Min the sprinter, our other riding companion is a Canadian, Meagan, the principal of an international school in China.

With this trail mix, our rolling conversation never lags. As much as the scenery and the cycling, it's the friends and yarns that make the trip memorable. We divert to see Prachuap's spectacular but unsung Waghor Aquarium. Then, back in the saddle, we cruise on beside the postcard-perfect arc of Ao Manao - Lime Bay - so named after its seductive, pale-green waters.

"That's Burma over there," Woody says, pointing to low blue ridges rising to the west. We've stopped where Thailand's isthmus pinches down to its narrowest point. Some time, I promise myself, I will come back here and in one day walk right across Thailand, from beach to border - all 12 kilometres. The riding today is steady if sweaty work but exhilarating. With stomachs rumbling, we find a beachside shack restaurant and knock over another wondrous country lunch - prawn soup, tempura, salad and tofu.

This pristine coast, a favourite of Thai families, strikes me as "Thailand for Thais" - not through any exclusiveness but because it remains mercifully overlooked by big developers. Small resorts nestle discreetly behind beaches that often have no name. I ask Jason the name of one glorious strand of space and driftwood that we're photographing. He dubs it Mai Rue - "Don't Know" - Beach.

Come late afternoon we reach our next overnight stop, the off-the-map hamlet of Bankrut, where we quickly drop our bikes and plunge into the sea. As we sluice off the sweat, grime and sunblock and let the waves massage our weary legs, Jason says: "You go through all those dreary days in the office but once you're out here, it's all worthwhile."

Our final day starts with a 15-kilometre ride, much of it beneath a grand corridor of fir trees that line an empty beach. The windless sea is almost powder blue, there's little traffic - and cycle touring can't get much better than this.

We push on, with paddies to the left, jungle to the right, byroads and backwaters rolling past. When we stop at a family rubber plantation, the farmer shows us how they tap the sap each day before dawn and then feed the collected latex through a mangle, squeezing it into sheets. "It's a good business. Always demand for latex," he says with a grin, surveying his forest of tomorrow's condoms and car tyres.

A road sign announces Chumphon, jumping-off point for Koh Samui and the end of our journey. It has been an easy, 54-kilometre day. Woody packs the bikes into the van and we settle in for one last blast of undiluted, 100 per cent Thai dining - seafood, chef, beach, beer, table, waiter and a menu that includes "criticise with vegetable".

We give the criticised vegetables a break and start with chicken satay. The talk is about how to best describe this trip when we get home. With difficulty, I suggest. After all, it starts like a joke: "A group of cyclists is pedalling down the road - a Korean, a Canadian, an Australian and a dinosaur ..."

Three stops to make on the way

Waghor Aquarium Just south of Prachuap Khiri Khan town is the spectacular but unsung Waghor Aquarium. Its huge displays pulse with electric eels, Siamese tiger fish, turtles and giant gourami, while rays and sharks dance above your head in walk-through tunnels. hua-hin-travel.com/huahin-attractions-waghor-aquarium. 

Elephant polo, Hua Hin With the King's Cup tournament coming up, Hua Hin is the best place in the world to see elephant polo matches. Now in its 10th year, the tournament has gone jumbo, from a two-day bash to a weeklong extravaganza that features about a dozen teams and 40 players representing 15 countries. The tournament runs from September 5-11. anantaraelephantpolo.com.

Don Hoi Lot The time-warp fishing village of Don Hoi Lot in Samut Songkhram, north of Hua Hin, is named for its tiny shellfish specialty. "It's the only place in the world you'll find hoi lot," a local says, as we tuck into this tasty mollusc, which is shaped like a bamboo shoot and is served stir-fried with garlic and basil. thai-tour.com/eng/samutsongkram.

Trip notes

Getting there

Thai Airways, Emirates, Qantas and British Airways fly Sydney-Bangkok direct. 13 31 33, flightcentre.com.au.

Touring there

Grasshopper Adventures' five-day Cruising the Coast to Samui ride costs from $US890 ($837) and includes support vehicle, guide, meals, mountain bike, helmet and accommodation. A nine-day itinerary from $US1760 includes all the above plus transfers, two nights in Bangkok, a Historic Bangkok bike tour, two nights in Koh Samui and return flight to Bangkok. In Australia, (03) 9016 3172; Thailand, +66 2 280 0832; grasshopperadventures.com.

Tour difficulty is moderate. This is a fully supported ride with few hills, travelling mostly on sealed back roads.

More information tourismthailand.org.

The writer was a guest of Grasshopper Adventures.

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