Cycling Doi Pui (Doi Suthep National Park)

While pedaling placidly through the numerous country lanes outside of town in the Chiang Mai valley is always agreeable, it is sometimes interesting to ratchet up the excitement and exchange level paths through rice fields for steep jungle trails in dense forest cover. After all, Chiang Mai has mountains, and they are called mountain bikes! One need not travel far to pursue this activity; the Doi Suthep/Pui National Park just West of the city offers a superb network of trails serious enough to challenge the most enthusiastic rider. A modicum of physical fitness, as well as logistical preparations are required to keep the adventure a safe and amusing one. Most rides of this type are around 30 kilometers with both climbing and descents involved. When the rains have stopped, the foliages are verdant and the air is clean and crisp, so come along on a ride we took recently, and then decide if you're ready to try it yourself.

We are met at our hotel by the Northern-Trails Thai staff, a driver and our guide, khun Som. We climb into the back of a covered pick-up truck where our steeds for the day await us. After crossing the quiet streets of early morning Chiang Mai, we are soon speeding up the winding road to Doi Suthep. While this climb is certainly doable on a mountain bike, we're anxious to get off the beaten track and spend time deeper in the wilds. Well-maintained bikes with front suspension and helmets are supplied by Northern-Trails, but cycling gloves, sunglasses, cameras, sunscreen, all are a matter of personal preference; the goal is to be comfortable while keeping the load as light as possible.

After passing the temple of Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, the traffic thins and the air cools as we wind towards the palace. Descending from the truck at a roundabout just beyond the Phu Ping royal palace, we unload the bikes, make final equipment checks and start riding towards the tree line. The first part of the ride is a gentle climb, allowing us to warm up and stretch our muscles for the day's exertions.

The road forks soon and we turn right to Doi Pui. Turning left leads to the village of Baan Doi Pui, a Hmong hill tribe village often visited by tourists. It is possible to cycle down the West of the mountain via that route, but today we're going for a simpler loop taking us down the Eastern face. The rains have only just ended and the side getting maximum exposure to the sun is least likely to turn into a mudslide. Bearing right, we climb another kilometer and take quick break at a viewpoint overlooking the Hmong village. Far below roosters crow and looking north we can count dozens of ridgelines. A heated discussion emerges as to whether Doi Chiang Dao is visible in the distance. Various local experts postulate; no one really knows. A final push and we are through the climb and descend to San Ku, a mysterious ruined chedi still revered by local worshippers. An official plaque placed by the Fine Arts Department postulates that the chedi was built in the 13th century. No one really knows.

Now the road winds gradually down, snaking though immense teak trees. All thoughts of the pain of the earlier climb are forgotten as we glide through the cool forest. Wildflowers line the road, at this altitude blooming much sooner than in the city below. Rolling through the switchback bends, the occasional whoop of an excited rider is the only sound. A few kilometers further we arrive at a kiosk and sign announcing the summit (1670 meters) of Doi Pui. The summit is currently not open to the public, and in any case our route leads to the right and marks the end of paved road. The descent steepens and we proceed carefully to avoid patches of loose gravel and deep ruts that can send the unwitting skidding into a case of "road rash". An experimental tree farm, and rows of temperate weather fruit trees in bloom, all remind us that this natural refuge provides many uses aside from the pleasure it now gives us. Our guide leads us from the main dirt road down a side track that winds trough fruit trees and into a coffee plantation. Here awaits our driver with a fully prepared lunch.

After enjoying our lunch, we pedal back to the main trail and continue a few more kilometers of winding through first growth forests, occasionally fording small streams that cross our path. We follow our guide off the still unpaved main road and detour to the right into Baan Chiang Khian, (inexplicably signposted "Sri Nehru School") a village of the White Hmong hill tribe. It's a good place to stock up on cold drinks. During a ride like this in hot weather, two liters of water is a reasonable intake. Back to the main road, and now a seriously steep descent commences. Consider lowering both the seat (to lower your center of gravity), and possibly lowering tire pressure (for better traction). About five kilometers below the village turnoff, the road forks and we take the right, which is sign posted to Huay Thung Thao. Going left leads eventually to the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden in the Mae Sa valley, but only after a grueling climb and lengthy descent.

We continue our descent, now the strength of our upper bodies and hands tested, keeping balance and the correct pressure on the brake levers. The first sign of human existence is a lychee orchard and terraced rice fields in a lovely hidden valley. We feel the heat as we return to the lowlands and the massive first growth forest dissipates; now we ride through scrub and a sandy trail. Now is the time to pause look back at the mountain behind us During the last 12 kilometers we have descended over 1000 meters, and the mountain looms above us. Next, we see the blue waters of Huay Thung Thao, a local reservoir and nature reserve on the horizon and below us. Huay Thung Thao is a popular weekend venue for Chiang Mai residents. Fishing off bamboo rafts, drinking whiskey, and eating grilled chicken are favorite activities.

At the reservoir, we are met by our driver, who has wisely doubled back down the paved road that we used to reach the trailhead. From where we commenced our climb at the Phu Ping Palace, my odometer shows a mere 25 kilometers, but the varied terrain and superb scenery we've enjoyed has made for a full day's adventure. All in all, a great way to spend a day in Chiang Mai.

NOTE: This ride should not be undertaken alone or without the necessary tools to repair a flat tire or broken chain. There are many small trails leaving the main dirt road down the back of Doi Pui to Huay Thung Thao. Use prudence on the descents. Keep in mind that there is some car and motorcycle traffic on this road.

Text by Peter Holmshaw.

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