The rules of cycling are, usually, pretty simple. You put your head down, you turn the pedals. You try to keep a steady cadence. You watch out for cars on the roads and rocks on the trails, you keep your tires pointed down. And you don’t stop; it’s about the exercise.
But barely a kilometre into our ride through Northern Thailand, we were already starting to understand that biking in Thailand was going to be, well, different.
That first kilometre took me 10 minutes, and I stopped four times: Off the bike to marvel at an enormous banyan tree that arced over the road, its nearly five-metre-wide trunk wrapped in dozens of prayer cloths; off again to gawk at a huge golden Buddha hidden in the shade of a grove of rubber trees; screeching to a stop to avoid a squawking, flapping rooster; off again to snap a picture of a family of four passing me on a motor scooter.
And all that came before the giant jewelled chickens.
Thailand is emerging as a new destination for active boomers and any cyclist who wants a taste of the country’s exotic cultural side along with their exercise. Bike trips in Thailand have been few and far between, but that’s changing. Before we booked, our biking friends at home didn’t know that the hill trails around Chiang Mai were being developed. “Isn’t it kind of flat and hot?” they’d ask. The northern hills, in fact, are neither; they’re surprisingly big and more surprisingly temperate.
My partner Kathi and I wanted to try a combination of road and mountain biking, and we found a tour that offered relatively mild routes in length and level of difficulty. We’d ride from village to village and be met by a support van carrying our gear and supplies, spending our nights in upscale lodges along the way. It sounded perfect, though we didn’t anticipate cycling through tiger territory.
That first morning, I caught up to Kathi and our guide, King, waiting patiently at a gate in a long brick vine-wrapped wall. King – a wire hanger of a man, all cheekbones and tendons – is an evangelist for two-wheeled travel: He loves to show visitors the relatively unknown pleasures of Thai roads and trails. The company he guides for, Active Thailand, is one of only a small handful of outfits taking travellers into the hills.
I was already captivated by the strange beauty of our ride, so I was curious when King pointed through the gate and up a hill, and said “Very exotic temple.” Given what I’d already seen, I was curious to find out what he’d consider exotic.
As it turned out, “exotic” didn’t begin to cover the Wat Ban Den temple. The Thais do ostentatious temples well, with their corkscrew roofs and intricate carvings and brilliant colours, but this temple, Wat Ban Den, was in an entirely different category of flamboyance. This was Disneyland on acid, a hallucination of tropical trees wrapped in gold leaf, topiary beasts cut out of trees we’d never seen before, hundreds of tiny private prayer temples, and grand ornate halls of teak and gold. And scattered all though beautiful grounds, the characters of the Thai Zodiac carved and sculpted into life: 12-metre long, tile-scaled snakes chasing fluorescent-orange tigers snarling at giant chickens festooned with hundreds of jewels and mirrors, blinding in the brilliant sun.
We spent a bug-eyed hour taking it all in, and were the only Westerners for miles. But it was time to get back on the bikes, we still had 40 more kilometres to cover that day.
King walked us to the temple wall and pointed out our route on the broad sweep of the valley below. We’d head down to the brilliant green valley floor, ride dirt levees through crops and swamps and villages for a few hours, then climb steadily up along jungle-covered ridge lines for the rest of the day. We’d be following a mix of roads and Jeep trails and he’d add some technical single track to spice things up.
It looked perfect, and turned out to be even better. Down in the valley we zigged and zagged on mud roads, past rice paddies and fields of garlic and bok choy, sometimes in the bitter sun, sometimes blessing the shade given by lines of papaya and banana and tamarind trees. We passed by bamboo houses on stilts, stopped to watch the farmers in their coolie hats up to their thighs in slurry, pulling the crops by hand or yelping at their water buffaloes.
Though I’m usually more of a get-lost-and-figure-it-out-myself kind of cyclist, I did have to admit that the serpentine link-up of trails and back roads that we followed would have been impossible without King. We’d also asked him to not let us just ride past the lives of the people, and he beamed at the opportunity. His encyclopedic knowledge of the plants and the people added an unexpected layer to the trip. We stopped again and again, and his stories had us marvelling at the way the locals lived their land.
Our favourite moment came when King braked to a sudden stop by a mud hut in the middle of nowhere and took us over to a pair of men squatting in the baking heat by a small trench in the red mud. We got down with them, puzzled about why they were quietly and patiently scraping at the end of the furrow with sharpened sticks. King explained that the men were following tunnels of a particular species of red ant, hunting for the nest of their eggs, a delicacy that’s apparently the Thai equivalent of caviar. With a wry smile, King said, “This is their weekend. Maybe they’ve been here for hours. They sell the eggs for maybe a dollar. Not the same life as you.”
The ride up into the hills that afternoon introduced us to the rhythm and flavours of the rest of the trip. We’d follow well-graded red dirt roads that give farmers access to orderly copses of rubber trees and fields of corn carved out of the jungle, then we’d loop off into the backcountry on excellent single-track trails, sometimes along open rocky ridges with great views down to the valley, sometimes in tight and dim tunnels hacked through dense bamboo thickets. This was riding unlike anything I’d ever done – which was confirmed when we passed signs in Sri Lanna National Park pointing out that we were in tiger country. After that, I looked over my shoulder in those dark bamboo tunnels more than a few times. And we kept moving, “You really don’t want to see a tiger,” King said.
After a couple of hours in the hills, the day’s ride ended with a long descent. King popped us out of the jungle, onto a paved road, and the support van magically appeared. We hopped in and headed off to our lodge for a great meal, several Singha beer and a long sunset that turned all the misty layers of the valley the colour of butter. We collapsed that night under thick duvets that kept a surprisingly cold night at bay.
Our last two days kept us up in the high hills, covering about 80 more kilometres, and along the way encountering hill tribes that have run from Myanmar, once known as Burma. We rode through Palaung and Karen villages and fields where King stopped and got us off our bikes for natural history lessons. He’d sit us down with the villagers, show us the leaves the Palaung crush for soap, the wild garlic and ginger they’d root out from under the palm trees, and explain the spirit houses by every stilted home.
Travelling on two wheels gave us a unique advantage: We covered far more ground than we could trekking and they brought us into villages that usually never see Westerners. Often we’d be swarmed by black-toothed, betel-nut chewing women eager to sell weavings and jewellery that – if we hadn’t shown up – they’d have to carry kilometres to market.
The last hours of the expedition took us down and out of the hills, back onto pavement and across the valley, this time to the foot of the big peak that dominated our entire trip. Doi Chiang Dao is a jungle-covered fang of sharp black limestone more than 2,100-metres high, best known for a cave popular with tourists on its southeast flank. Again, King chose to avoid the obvious. He rode us around to the north edge of the peak to finish our trip with another temple – this time the more reserved Wat Tham Pha Plong. We parked our bikes and hiked 510 steep stairs up the mountain, arriving at the monastery which had been built into a cave. Here we enjoyed stellar views complete with swooping, chirping birds and chattering monkeys. But on our way up, every 20 or 30 stairs, we were also impressed with the wooden signs hung from trees offering Buddhist thoughts. “Look and contemplate within to see the truth”; “Do not grumble when you suffer”; and one that couldn’t have better summed up the whole ride: “The only journey you need to take is the one you are on right now.”
The writer was a guest of Active Thailand. It did not review or approve the article.
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