Gravel Culture: Travel Gravel - Bikepacking along the Bamboo Byway
Gravel Union On
29 March 2021
Dogs. Quite possibly my favourite creatures on the planet and that’s a good thing. With the number of dogs you encounter bikepacking in places like South America and Southeast Asia, it really helps to be a bit of a dog whisperer! They’re unpredictable at best, rarely vicious – protective at first, sweet in the end.
No strangers to the perils of bikepacking amongst dogs, my good friend, Leslie Kehmeier and I, decided to travel to northern Thailand in January 2020 for an escape from our winter homes of Colorado and British Columbia, Canada. Little did we know that Covid-19 was already rapidly spreading and was close to where we’d be riding. Within a few short months, the entire planet would be in lockdown. Looking back, the trip was a bit of a dream...
We planned out our ride from a portion of an already established off-road route called the Bamboo Byway. The complete version is 1500 miles in total and equally split between Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. We decided on a small portion of the Thailand route - only a few hundred miles in total. We gave ourselves a generous 8 days to make our way from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong. The goal was to soak in equal parts gravel and Thai culture. Getting places quickly was not our mandate - between photography, videography, eating, drinking coffee and petting dogs – we moved slowly. After all, it’s Thailand, the land of smiles and the best food – these things cannot be rushed. It’s what makes bikepacking so lovable - a move away from schedules, routines and the hyper organization of our ‘modern’ lives.
Outside of the necessary preliminary planning of our basic route, gear and logistics, we left space for the unknowns. We didn’t know where we’d spend each night, just a general idea of where we’d land. Having this detail undone led us to some of our best memories - a stay with a local family in the middle of nowhere, a 40km boat ride down the Kok River, a hotel in the epicenter of Chiang Rai, a closed resort on the Kok River…opened just for us as we pleaded for a room that night.
Staying in guesthouses and hotels, and eating at road side stops and restaurants, enabled us to pack light. No tents, no stoves, pots, pans or sleeping bags, we managed to travel simple and sleek aboard our Evil Chamois Hagar gravel bikes. We used a digital route planning app to follow the route, and thankfully so, using analog maps would have been next to impossible. We literally rode through backyards, rubber tree plantations, and pineapple fields with abrupt lefts and rights that would have made no sense on paper.
Some of the terrain warranted the slack head angle of the Chamois Hagar; steep, loose, rough and fast pitches…and then suddenly miles of smooth pavement where a fast carbon hard tail and 700C wheels reigned supreme. The ability to carry everything on the bike and nothing on our backs was a God send, especially in the heat. On previous trips to Nepal and Croatia by mountain bike, our back packs often weighed in at a soul crushing 30+ pounds (15kgs). We got it right in Thailand.
I can hardly wait to get back to traveling again, to dogs running after me on lone dirt roads in foreign lands. I will never take for granted the freedom of movement that I’ve experienced for a lifetime until now. I’ve always been grateful for the opportunity to do these trips, but there’s another layer of appreciation slathered on top. Returning to Southeast Asia one day is a goal of mine - maybe to ride another segment of the Bamboo Byway in Laos or Vietnam. If it works out, I guarantee I won’t be in a hurry.