Thai Highlands

Thailand part 1 | Bamboo Byway | Day 210

We were catapulted in and out of the wonderful country of Myanmar for the last few weeks, it was a whirlwind of awesome experiences we’ll never forget. But time to get back where life comes easy. Basking in the fruits of Northern Thailand, a land full of diverse markets, adorable bamboo bungalows, every kind of fruit, nice people, and easy travel. I didn’t fully grasp the value of Thailand until we had left; it’s a magical place which people have long been traveling, exploring and enjoying its’ many luxuries.

In Chiang Mai, the first place we could actually see ourselves living in, we hunkered down for a few days to plan the next section of our trip. I had long been scouring the interwebs for a good gravel route in SE Asia, but accounts of dirt roads were sparse. People have been touring here forever, riding almost every imaginable paved road. The most popular routes being the Mai Hong Song Loop to the west, and the Chiang Sean Golden Triangle loop to the east, but neither of those interested us. 

Left to our own devices, we began building our own SE Asia bikepacking route. 

The Bamboo Byway is a 1,500 mile bikepacking route through the northern hill tribe region of Southeast Asia. A tropical jungle parted by dirt roads riding amongst bamboo shoots three stories tall with shafts as fat as your thigh. The route, so far, is filled with small hidden pathways through banana farms and rice fields, with enough punchy climbs to have you sweating by ten o’clock. The Bamboo Byway is evenly divided: 500 miles in Thailand, 500 miles in Laos, and 500 miles in Vietnam. Linking together a few major cities: Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai, Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Nong Kiaw, Sapa and Hanoi. 

Our Route Finding Process

(skip italic section if your not into geeky route talk)

SE Asia dirt roads are out there, but they aren’t very well documented, so it took some time and scouring to find them. We were able to find off-road maps in Chiang Mai for Thailand and Laos due to the popularity of off-road motorcycling in the Northern region of these countries. After figuring that out, we began searching for reports on 4x4 and dirt biking websites and forums. We also found local mountain bike tours in the area give a vague itinerary or maybe a map which may help reveal dirt routes.

We then use RideWithGPS to plot points of interest, and long sections of dirt roads. RideWithGPS is a great route building website, which shows more roads and trails than google, it gives elevation charts, and has all sorts of other route building tools. Note: RideWithGPS has many different types of maps you can view, the “Snap to Road” works differently depending on which map you have selected. RideWithGPS also has a satellite imagery which is useful when plotting roads that don’t have the snap to feature or are not shown on any map. 

Google Earth is great for cross-checking, by using the photo feature. This can sometimes confirm what roads are paved, dirt, or trails. Google Earths satellite imagery is also great to confirm areas of question that other maps may not have documented. We also use google earth to search for photos in obscure places to help get an idea of what types of villages we will be going through to give us an idea of what the chances of resupply would be, if any. 

Next, we figure out our days: mileage and elevation gains, potential resupply points, camping spots or towns. There is a constant… “What about this road?” or “What is the elevation here vs. here?” We are always fiddling with the route, trying to gauge the most scenic route. After we ride a section, we make adjustments if necessary and marked places of interest. 

Once the route is finished, it is loaded onto our Garmin Etrex 30, using OSM maps of the area ( download here.) A phone is a much better navigation tool, but its’ battery life is low. The Etrex30 uses rechargeable batteries and can run all day every day. If we ever question the route, need a more detailed map, or for easier user experience than Etrex30 provides, we turn on our phone and use the Gaia app.

Most of out tricks were learned from the best, and Pikes on Bikes. Tales on Tyres also has a helpful article which talks about their navigation approach here

"...riding amongst bamboo shoots three stories tall with shafts as fat as your thigh."

It never fails to surprise us how many other people are cycling the world. Thanks to social media, Henley and Katie a couple who hails from Austin, our hometown, were also touring in Thailand. A coffee rendezvous was scheduled in Chiang Mai and they ended up peddling the first few miles of our new found route together. 

We waved goodbye to our short lived Chiang Mai biker gang, with the wind to our backs we began the Bamboo Byway. The first days were hot and heavy with steep climbs and lots of hike a bike, but Thailand never fails to provide a reward at the end of the day. Turns out, everywhere in Thailand is equip with roadside coffee, cute little bamboo bungalows, and roadside markets. 

We had gotten used to traveling in Thailand and had it down pretty well. We’d arrive in town, find the local market, try a few odd foods, grab the usual 1/2 kilo of tangerines, maybe a banana pancake, some pad thai, and then a grape leaf packet of sticky rice with fried chicken to pack out for tomorrows lunch, it was good and cheap.

Although there was a little more pavement than I would have liked, overall the Thailand portion is about 60% dirt. There are some great wooded sections of flowy single track used by scooters and foot traffic to get from one far out village to another. While riding a steep section of single track i was shocked to see a man on his scooter plummeting down the bumpy hill with his wife chasing him on foot. the road was too steep to cary both of them on the scooter. 

"...a man on his scooter plummeting down the bumpy hill with his wife chasing him on foot."



Ah, the learning curve of planning your own route, hurts so good. We had remorsefully planned a few too many back to back days with 5,000ft+ steep climbs. A few sections we couldn’t quite make out in satellite view, but plotted through anyway with hopes that “Oh, the road probably goes through…” did indeed, not go through. It always sucks to have to turn back especially after climbing a good 4,000ft.  



The Thailand portion of the Bamboo Byway brought us through five different National Parks, green-spaces with quaint quiet villages, and a whole lot of bamboo. While reaching the top of a mountain on a beautiful undulating jeep track we ran into Huay Khai, an organic tea and coffee farm village nestled in the jungly hills of Si Lanna National Park. It was about lunchtime and we took a seat with the friendly neighbor, who was a handsome devil of a Thai farmer with ear to ear smiles. He showed us his two huts overlooking a creek he had stashed away in the back of his property. He actually ran a homestay where people book tours to  “stay with a farmer in the middle of nowhere” experience with him, and we just stumbled upon it. Practically every nook and cranny of Thailand has some get away or accommodation for tourist.

" organic tea and coffee farm village nestled in the jungly hills of Si Lanna National Park."

After some elaborate pictionary, haggling, and laughing, we managed to cut the price of the overpriced room in half. The man and his wife invited us to come see their tea farm and we gladly joined. cycling along their secret pathways, we weaved between the narrow corridor of overgrown bamboo, through a couple valleys and to their own hidden plot of Tea treas. We handpicked every leaf using a razorblades strapped to our pointer fingers, leaving the skeleton bushes ready for new growth next spring. Something productive was happening besides riding bikes: it was good ole’ fashion work, and it felt oddly therapeutic.  Back at our new home, we sipped on the fruits of the day and learned how they dried the leaves, while enjoying the serenity of the hills. 

"Ah, the learning curve of planning your own route, hurts so good."

Our first stab at a long distance dirt-centric route felt like a success, the paths we found are beautiful and the route brings you through some less explored places of Thailand. After going through the tedious process, hovering over our computer in search of the “road less traveled,” we came to a further appreciation of the many routes that do exist, the hours and days of route building put in by Pikes on Bikes,, While Out Riding, and Gypsy by Trade. They have championed bikepacking routes all over the world, doing all the heavy lifting so that others can enjoy the same route. its a whole hell of a lot easier to ride routes other people have come up with, but it was surprisingly rewarding riding one of our first routes to fruition and having only ourselves to blame. 



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