Smiling Albino, the masters of luxury adventure travel, offer unique and customizable cycling trips in and around Chiang Rai
Although the province of Chiang Rai boasts some impressive mountains, the landscape around Chiang Rai city is relatively flat. The town is built around the wide, shallow, and slow moving Kok River, and this river basin topography is great news for cyclists, as it makes the area in and around the provincial capital great for bike trips.
One tour company capitalizing on this bike-friendly geography is Smiling Albino, a Thai-based group of hardcore, extreme travel enthusiasts offering high-end, personally-tailored adventures throughout Asia. In Chiang Rai, their range of customizable or set-route cycling trips covers the gamut from 20 km local excursions, to all-day adventures such as the ‘Bikes, Boat and Cave’ tour which includes a scenic riverside cycle, a visit to hill tribe towns, and stops at cave temples.
I joined these fun-loving Canadians on one of their newly charted journeys which takes in several notable local attractions. Starting at US$240 per person—although considerably less for larger groups—it includes bike rental, equipment, guide, vehicle support, lunch, all admission fees, and elephant camp visit. It began promptly at 9am with a pick up at my hotel. From there we drove to Fat Free, a local bike rental shop with a great selection of well-maintained mountain bikes (Tel: 086 430 5523). After getting set up with a suitable set of wheels, we set off to the site where we would begin our two-wheel trek, a little ways outside the busy downtown core. The tour guide, Khun Eak, made sure I was outfitted with helmet and padded cycling gloves, and assured me that the song taew (a converted pick-up truck with passenger seating in the back) following us on our journey had plenty of drinking water should I need it. And though it was not even 10am, I could feel the heat of the day coming on strong.
After cycling along the undulating twists and turns of Highway 1211—past rice fields, forests, small townships, roadside temples, and plenty of greenery—we made our first stop at Singha Park. Also known as Boon Rawd Farm, this is agro-tourism destination spans over 12.8 sq.km of fertile land, growing everything from tea to ornamental flowers. Strangely, outside bicycles are not allowed in (you have to rent one of the park bikes instead), but cars and trucks are welcome and so we parked our bikes across the road and made a quick overview of the park from the back of our song taew.
The immaculately manicured tea plantations are beautiful to look at, but the biggest draw seems to the park’s Bhu Bhirom Restaurant (open daily from 11am till 10pm). There’s also a visitor information centre to check out—with Thai and English signage—but we were content to just take in the scenery briefly, and get back on our bikes. But not before a pick me-up in the form of a hot cappuccino from Mama Café, located in a strip of shops directly across from the park entrance. The café proudly uses Doi Chang coffee, which is grown locally (on a clear day you can actually see Doi Chang mountain from here, about 20 km due west).
Once back on our bikes we took a smaller series of side roads, passing more rice fields and country homes, as well as some beautiful tall teak trees and lychee trees with almost-ripe bunches of fruit hanging from their boughs.
Our next stop was the majestic Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, which is a magnificent structure to see in person, as long as you don’t mind hordes of fellow tourists enjoying it alongside you. It’s hard to see it all in one visit, but there’s definitely enough time to stroll over the bridge—past claw-like hands, mammoth pointed fangs, and glaring demonic gate guardians—and pause inside the main structure where the walls of the interior are painted with a gruesome, surrealistic depiction of hell. Entrance to the Wat compound is B50 (included in the tour price) and shoes must be removed before entering the inner temple.
Our next stop was the recently opened Elephant Valley Thailand, a nature retreat and sanctuary for rescued and abused elephants. We made it just in time for lunch, which consisted of a tasty array of Thai dishes, and then spent the next 90 minutes peacefully observing the sanctuary’s four pachyderm inhabitants as they went about their daily elephant lives. This particular elephant camp is not a place where elephants do tricks and take tourists on rides around the jungle. Instead, it’s a peaceful park where humans stay a respectful distance away from these gentle giants and merely observe (see side bar).
The last leg of our journey took us down more quiet country roads, eventually doubling back and culminating at the bus depot on the outskirts of the city. After a rejuvenating iced coffee we travelled by song taew back to the city, dropping the bikes back at the rental shop and me back at my hotel (arrival time of about 4pm). In all we had covered about 25 km by bike, but I didn’t feel tired at all. At least, not until I got back to my room where I promptly dozed off on the balcony after taking a quick shower.
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Visitors to Elephant Valley Thailand, described as the first true elephant sanctuary in Chiang Rai, have the opportunity to experience a unique kind of interaction with the camp’s four resident elephant inhabitants. Unlike other elephant parks there’s no actual physical contact with the animals—except during the twice daily feeding—as the emphasis is on watching from a safe distance and gaining a true understanding of what a “wild” elephant is really like.
The man running the show here is Managing Director Jack Highroad, who spent the last number of years running the similarly-modelled Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia. He’s a wealth of information on elephants, and is on hand to answer questions and make sure that guests don’t overstep and get too close to these mammoth mammals.
The sanctuary covers an area of about 40 acres and visitors can choose between the Elephant Lovers experience (B2,400) which entails spending a morning or afternoon at the park and includes lunch and return transport, or the Volunteer Experience (B3,000) in which guests spend a full day at the park, have lunch, and help with elephant maintenance chores. The park also offers overnight stays in the property’s newly opened guesthouse (packages starting at B2,800), which include meals while on-site, and transfers within the Chiang Rai area.