Cycling in Isan was something that I had done very little of, since arriving in Thailand over ten years ago. I decided to choose Loei as my destination. Why? Well, the scenery just looked so beautiful. Loei means extreme, and for a cyclist like me, that couldn’t have been nearer the point.
I flew to Loei with my bike, and after getting picked up, we drove the 40+ km to the place that I was staying at a hotel called Le Bar Tarry in the small town of Tha Li. It had everything I needed, three 7-ELEVEN stores, a few small restaurants scattered around, but no cycle shop. The roads at first glance were amongst the best you could imagine. A vast improvement on the roads in Bangkok, quiet too, what more could a cyclist ask for?
The first full day, I watched the sunrise. The orange coloured sky silhouetted the greyish looking mountainscape. Breakfast consisted of rice soup and a plate of basil leaves. The owner chattered with me, offering me advice on where to go, but I had already decided where I was heading out for.
Just before eight, I set off on my first solo cycle. I stopped first at the Big Monk statue and then cycled off to see the Phra That Satcha Pagoda. My aim on my first day was to cover as much distance as I could.
I cycled up the 2099 road and followed the Hueang River, for the duration of 20km. It was tough going with steep, narrow roads, but the river was beautiful. Eventually, I hit the 2294 road and decided to head south. I was unaware of it at the time, but I was cycling around the Phu Ruea National Park.
I was running out of water and liquid refreshments very quickly, and there wasn’t a shop in sight. The temperature was high, and at times I wondered how long it would be until I collapsed. I had started off with over a litre of different drinks, most of it being water. I eventually spied a small market, and they directed me to a place where I could stock up again.
The mountainous scenery was beautiful, but for a solo cyclist, probably deadly too. I simply didn’t want to weigh myself down with liquid refreshments. With a litre replacement onboard I continued, the cycle trail was certainly interesting, but my thirst eventually got the better of me. Cycling in the tropics around noon was dangerous enough, to say the least. Luckily, trees offered me amples of shade.
For about thirty-five kilometres I cycled along this road. Sweat poured off me. I could feel it dripping onto the road from the end of my nose, chin and elbows.
At one point, the 2399 junction came into view. As the crow flies, this would have cut my journey duration by easily a third if not more, but the mountainous terrain put me off. ‘Cycling up those hills will kill me.’
Eventually, I hit the much smoother running 21 road. Surprisingly it was quiet. This took me into the city of Loei, but not before topping up again with refreshments.
Loei gave me the impression that it was a sleepy town. There didn’t seem to be much to it; the main junction, and that was it. I cycled off towards the 2115 road.
I knew I was dreading this road, but there I was, there was nothing I could do about it. Somewhere around 46km NW was my hotel, and most of it was uphill. I reckoned in the state I was in it was going to take me at least 2 – 3 hours to cycle and I wasn’t too far wrong.
After about 8km I reached the 2115 road, this would lead me to my hotel, but with everything taken into consideration, this was going to be a hell of a cycle. For the first 34 km, it was all uphill, then it went downhill for around 6km. I managed to get some crazy speeds on these quiet roads, 63km/h at one point.
Eventually, I got back. I had dinner at an exciting place. They thought I was crazy after cycling a round trip of 163 km
The second day, I cycled again up to the Hueang River, which was the border between Thailand and Laos. After a brief mix up with the road system, I eventually headed east following the river. The route was very good and interesting if you like cycling through a forest, looking at the flow of a river and cycling up and down on the contours that followed. The river was a vibrant brown colour, no doubt full of nutrients that the monsoon rains had washed away. The trees offered me welcomed me some shade from the sizzling temperatures. At one point there was a confluence. I zoomed my camera in on the only person on the river. He seemed to be enjoying himself, especially pinned in on both sides by so much vegetation, God only knows what lurked in that forest.
Eventually, the Hueang River merged with the mighty Mekong River. This river took up a totally different colour. It was much broader too. Again there were very few places in which to buy refreshments. So I just had to take the opportunity as and when they arose. There was a cycle track that followed the river, but how far it went was anybody’s guess.
I followed this river for about 15km until I hit the 201 Road. This was a pretty boring road, being an urban one. The only reason why I cycled down this road was that it ran straight into Loei city centre. Just before the centre I saw the sign for the 2115 road, the road that would lead me home. The only problem was, was that I had all the uphill cycling to do.
Around an hour and a half later, I arrived back at the hotel, feeling worse for wear, thinking that there were better cycle routes around here where I could miss out this road. It wasn’t even the slightest bit interesting, apart from the downhill parts, but that was after 26km.
The next day I set off to be on the top of the world, well, as far as Thailand was concerned. The idea was to cycle to the top of Phu Ruea, I had been advised that this was the highest point in this vicinity.
I set off being all enthusiastic about it all. I knew that there would be lots of hill cycling to do. Thanks to GPS on my mobile I was able to figure out the roads, as all the signage I saw was in Thai, and these were rural roads, the only traffic I saw were motorcyclists in the small villages that were scattered along this route.
I got to a point where the road seemed to go up into the heavens, and although knackered from cycling, I didn’t think my time was up yet. Through the rolling valleys, I could see that the weather was quickly deteriorating and the storm clouds were heading this way. All the mountain tops were shrouded in mist, and the rain was beginning to fall. So much for the high point of my stay in Loei.
The following day, with weather conditions being fantastic, I set off, remembering the road system as best as I could. I finally got to the place where I had reached yesterday, before turning back. Now, the problem with Google maps (that I hate) is that it doesn’t show the gradient of the landscape. In fact, for a map reader they are useless. I set off cycling not too sure what I was about to encounter. The mountain roads were steep, and they twisted. Once I got to the top of one hill, there in front of me there was another, and then another, and another, there was simply no letup. I was undoubtedly climbing, exhausted with it.
These hills just kept rising, behind me, I could see the valley bottoms, and the road that I had cycled up, the 2399 road just twisted away. I continued cycling on this never-ending road up into the heavens, or at least it seemed that way. I had no cover from trees. It was me, the hills, and the sun and the sun was not forgiving.
Every now and then the four-wheeled drives came up behind me groaning away as they went down their gears. This was damned hard work.
Eventually, I reached the top, exhausted. I had reached 896 m above sea level and had climbed over 644m over 9km. I could have cycled down the other side to the town of Phu Ruea, but that would have meant cycling on the 21 road and then heading north to Loei and then back on that horrible 2115 road.
Cycling back down was going to be fantastic, and after a rest I set off, not before ensuring my wheels were screwed on tightly. I passed a group of youths on motorcycles, I sure I dented their egos, I knew the road condition in parts were terrible. For nine kilometres, it was all downhill, I reached 75k/p/h I knew I could have done 80km but wasn’t prepared to risk it. Over the bad parts, it was really tricky, talk about ‘shake rattle and roll.’ I was just glad I tightened everything up.
To say that I had only cycled 38km in 2 hours was enough for me. Loei is undoubtedly a challenging place to cycle, especially if you are not in top form condition, as I was.
Now I could look forward to flying back home tomorrow, with memories of cycling in beautiful Thailand to reminisce over for years to come.