SRI LANNA NATIONAL PARK, Thailand. For too many tourists, a visit to Thailand means tiki bars on the beach blasting Bob Marley, or falling prey to the Bangkok "touts" who dupe visitors into buying fake gems or overpriced tailored clothes.
But there's another way to see Thailand that is far more authentic while at the same time extremely unlike the typical Thai experience: A trip where you bicycle _ and snack _ your way past rice paddies and Buddhist temples, through jungles and farming villages, up steep mountains and around verdant lakes.
"I feel like someone who has been tricked into doing something very exhausting," joked Dhana Kucivilize, a 33-year-old Thai business owner, after the first leg of a three-day 125-mile bicycle trip organized by the Thai Cycling Club.
But with plenty of rest stops and hourly munching thrown in, Dhana who prefers motorcycles admitted he would be willing to do it again.
The club's monthly trips may be one of the best and most affordable ways for foreigners to glimpse the Thai way of life from the locals' incessant snacking habits and laid-back attitudes to peaceful temples and the lush countryside.
"With the TCC, there's always food. We always eat," said Bob Usher, a fit 74-year-old Briton who has lived in Thailand off and on since the 1950s and frequently joins the trips.
I joined Usher and about 40 Thai men and women ranging in age from 22 to 74 on the trip in Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand. Some were avid bikers and regulars on the trips like Usher, but all had a common goal to escape to off-the-beaten-path Thailand.
We paid a grand total of $53 for the trip. The price included an overnight 435-mile bus ride from the capital Bangkok to Chiang Rai; a double-decker truck for our bikes; basic accommodations at national park facilities or campsites for those of us who preferred our tents, and Thai food for dinner every night. For the other meals, we snacked as we biked, an average of 30 miles a day on paved roads and dirt paths.
After kicking off the trip with the long bus ride and a quick breakfast in a small town, we set off into the mountains of Sri Lanna National Park, biking 6 miles past rice paddies and jungles, then made a rest stop for mangoes and pickled garlic bulbs.
Another 6 miles up and down the foothills of the mountains, then a bowl of noodles. Six miles more through villages and past waving children and rice farmers, we arrived at a longan farm, where we ate as much of the sweet tropical fruit as we wanted, for 25 cents a person.
The way the trips are organized or not is very Thai, said Usher, the only Westerner on the trip not counting me, a Thai-American.
"We seem to have a flexible program. We're never quite sure how far we're going to go. We were supposed to do 100 miles, but I've booked about 125 miles, so we got a bonus," he said.
But then, as Usher pointed out, "it's not a racing club, it's a sort of family deal."
In addition to the food stops, we took breaks to photograph women working in rice paddies, to chat with children in the villages, and to take dips in the spring-fed Bua-Tong Waterfall and a manmade lake surrounded by trees.
Of course, swimming was done the Thai way: Men wear shorts, but women must be fully clothed in this case, in T-shirts and biking pants.
The trip was also a way to meet an interesting cross-section of Thais. The group included two forty-something businesswomen who had perfectly coiffed hair and makeup, despite biking all those miles; a hardcore cyclist exuding an air of Buddha-like serenity who always had the energy to backtrack down steep hills to push those huffing and puffing; and a potbellied 74-year-old who occasionally took a break from the biking by hopping a ride in the truck that accompanied us.
Our stops included an ornate Buddhist temple on top of a hill, with a clear view of palm trees, rice paddies and mountains, and an eerie, ramshackle monastery deep in the jungle, where a monk has been living alone for a few decades.
There, after a meal of fresh fish, we hauled our bikes onto a boat and crossed the reservoir created by the Mae Ngad Somboonchol Dam. And we resumed the trip by biking up yet another mountain.
If You Go...
PRICES: The Thailand Cycling Club organizes free day trips around Bangkok as well as modestly priced out-of-town excursions ranging from two to four days, covering a different destination every month. A four-day trip costs $53, including bus transportation from Bangkok to the start of the biking journey.
TIPS: The trip begins in Bangkok, and the club can recommend local stores that rent relatively new mountain bikes for about $9 per day.
CONTACT: Thailand Cycling Club can be reached in Bangkok at (011) 662-612-4747. For details in English, call Bob Usher at (011) 661-555-2901.
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