Cycling Stories

Chiang Dao Mountain Biking Adventure

During our recent trip to Thailand, we headed to the northern city of Chiang Mai for a few days to experience this unique region. After taking in the beautiful sights and great shopping offered by the city, we looked into whether or not we could explore some of the exotic attractions of the surrounding countryside on our limited time schedule. We approached NorthernTrails.com, a Chiang Mai based tour operator, which a friend living in Bangkok had recommended to us, and they came up with a superb 2-day 1-night package for the Chiang Dao area, a mountainous region 95 km to the north featuring plenty of elephants, caves, jungles, plantations and hill tribe villages.

We were picked up at our hotel in the morning by Khing, our bilingual guide / interpreter / cook for the tour. He arrived punctually in the pick-up truck that would become our support vehicle for the ride. Everything was supplied by our tour operator, quality bikes, helmets, water bottles, etc., and the truck also had plenty of drinks and snacks as well as an extensive first aid kit.

Our first stop, after picking up our support driver, was the Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre, about a 40 minute drive to the north. Here we watched the gentle giants bathing in the river, being washed, and performing various fascinating logging-related chores. The show was finished off by watching a tiny baby elephant paint a great picture by using its agile trunk.

Leaving the elephant centre, we travelled about another 40 minutes further north to the spectacular Chiang Dao caves. The caves are actually a Buddhist holy site, and the temple that is now situated at the cave entrance was once housed within the cave system itself. The moss-covered temple buildings at the foot of the towering Chiang Dao Mountain are a worthy attraction in themselves, however they paled when we entered the cave system. Just inside we were greeted with the marvellous sight of ancient Buddha sculptures filling the walls of the cave, lit by the electric lighting system that runs through the most popular cave route. Penetrating deeper, we passed through cavern after cavern full of incredible limestone stalactites and stalagmites. Even in these deeper sections of the cave there were a few Buddhist treasures such as the famous reclining Buddha at the very end of the main cave route.

Back out in the sunlight, we had a sumptuous lunch at a restaurant within the temple compound. By the time we had finished, all our bikes were set up and ready to go. Khing, our guide, would accompany us, while the support driver would follow behind on the paved sections of the route and dart ahead and wait for us to finish each off-road section.

From the moment we began, we were cycling in back-country paved roads surrounded by a panorama of magnificent jungle-encrusted peaks. The first section took us though an incredibly scenic valley to the main road, where Khing led us through a traditional meat, vegetable and fruit market and asked us our preferences for the night's dinner.

Crossing the main road, we continued cycling along paved roads with stunning scenery on all sides. Before long we reached the beginning of the off-road section, 18 km of undulating track passing plantations of rice, corn, longans, oranges and chillies, as well as sections of jungle. We passed through one tiny village of Palaung, friendly hill tribe people originating from Myanmar (Burma), where we stopped for some photos. The off-road section was strenuous, but we made good time and reached our destination, also a Palaung village, with plenty of daylight to spare.

While our guide prepared dinner, we enjoyed a well-deserved shower then relaxed with a cold beer on the veranda of our housing for the night, a well-ventilated traditional Palaung structure of wood, bamboo and thatch. After another excellent meal and enthralling conversation regarding the hill tribe people and their customs, we called it a night and had a restful sleep on our mosquito-netted mattresses.

We awoke to find that the hill tribe women had set up shop outside our hut - a great opportunity to buy some rare authentic hill tribe handicrafts at bargain prices. Following a delicious hearty breakfast, we were soon off on our bikes exploring the off-road countryside again. After 15 kilometres of breathtaking scenery and challenging riding though plantations, forests, ridges and valleys, we met up with the support vehicle for some welcome ice-cold refreshments. From here, due to the wet weather, we followed a 35 km road route through some more beautiful valleys, eventually completing a circular route and arriving back at the Chiang Dao caves for a shower, lunch and the drive back to Chiang Mai.

The trip was a fantastic once in a lifetime opportunity to experience first hand one of the most unique, intriguing and beautiful regions of Thailand and the fascinating ancient people that live there. Logistically, it would have been impossible to arrange the trip by ourselves in our short timeframe, and NorthernTrails did a wonderful job of catering to every need we had or might have required. To explore such remote regions with such peace of mind was a great comfort indeed!

Text and photos by John Wright.

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