Cycling the Golden Triangle

Sop Ruak - Chiang Saen - Chiang Khong

One of the highlights of our trip to Northern Thailand was to explore the famous Golden Triangle region in the north of the country, on a cycling tour. From our experiences in the country already, we knew that to rely solely on the inaccurate Thai maps and hope to make the trip unaided would most likely result in considerable delays, and as we were on a strict time schedule we asked a local biking tour company, to come up with a package to suit our needs.

They turned out to be an extremely professional outfit, and they handled all the logistics of the trip, allowing us to enjoy our cycling more fully than if we had tried to arrange everything on our own. They arranged accommodation, meals, transfers, guides and even a support vehicle, a great piece of mind when exploring these remote regions.

Day One

Having spent the night in Chiang Rai, our Thai guide khun Pan picked us up at our hotel, The River House, and took us to our starting point, a few kilometres along Route 1290 from Mae Sai. The route initially wound through pleasant rice paddies where we could observe the traditional farming lifestyles of the local Thais. After climbing up through the foothills, we dropped into Sop Ruak and got our first sight of the majestic Mekong!

Sop Ruak is basically a string of souvenir shops forming a promenade along the river. There are several spots from which to take photographs of the confluence of the Mekong and the Ruak rivers, which form borders for Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. You can hire boats for short runs along the river if you want to experience the Triangle close up. After snapping the obligatory photos, we took a well-deserved lunch break at an excellent restaurant recommended by our guide.

Rested and sated, we continued on to Chiang Saen, another ten kilometres or so to the south. This section of the route was relatively flat with nothing too steep to bother us. We were intent on getting into Chiang Saen with plenty of daylight to spare so that we could spend some time exploring the ancient ruins of this historically important river port. We made good time, taking in more magnificent mountain scenery and periodic views of the Mekong.

Chiang Saen is a fantastic town, perfect for exploring by bicycle. Set right on the banks of the Mekong, there are numerous places for eating and drinking along the riverfront. There is also an interesting market area on the town's main street, where we headed to get some cheap, delicious local refreshments. After checking in at our hotel, we cycled out to the Chiang Saen Historical Park to take in some of the 140 ancient ruins that the town is famous for - crumbling temples, restored ramparts and spectacular Buddhist statues. Before it got too dark, we headed a few kilometres out to Wat Phra That Pha Ngao, whose temple chedi is set on a hilltop overlooking the town and the Mekong. The ride to the top of the hill was a little challenging but not long, and the sunset views from the top were magnificent.

Back down in the town, we had a relaxing shower then dined by the river and reflected on the day's rewarding cycling and looked forward to the challenging ride awaiting us the next day.

Day Two

We had another excellent meal, this time at a small restaurant in the market area, and started off along the long flat stretch toward the mountains following the course of the river.

There were numerous small charming villages along this stretch, but before long these gave way to green expanses of farmland. After about 20 kilometres we left Route 1129 to follow the old route to Chiang Khong along the Mekong. This stretch of road was so much fun - almost no traffic to speak of, fantastic views of the river, and undulating low hills that were challenging but not difficult. There was a lot of interesting subsistence farming on the alluvial plain of the river, and it was possible to observe Laos fishermen and villagers on the opposite bank. River traffic was less than we expected, just a few long-tail boats plying the water between Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong.

As we approached Route 1129 again, the road became hillier, offering stunning vistas of this stretch of the Mekong which was filled with rocks and rapids. The road then left the river to meet up with Route 1129 again, where there was a very steep climb to a lookout point above Chiang Khong. We stopped here to admire the view before continuing toward the town and more undulating hilly terrain. We arrived into Chiang Khong feeling rather exhausted but elated after our 65 km ride!

After we had explored the small port town, Pan and our support vehicle transferred us back to Chiang Rai, where we would spend another night before flying to Bangkok and the beaches the next day.

We all agreed that without the assistance of a professional cycling tour company, our trip would have been much longer, less comfortable and more troublesome. We thoroughly recommend for those on a tight schedule wanting to solely concentrate on and enjoy their cycling!

Text by Paul Smith.

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