Cycling is a great way to explore Thailand’s Northern realms
Shortly after arriving in Chiang Mai almost two decades ago—after deciding that Bangkok was too claustrophobic and the beach towns were not conducive to salubrious living—I spent a good deal of my time renting motorbikes and heading off for a day, or sometimes days, into the hills. I soon discarded the motor for just the bike, and have been a regular cyclist ever since.
Cycle a few kilometres in any direction out of the city and you can find your own personal idyll—places that seem completely disconnected to the new neon-spangled malls where the parvenu dedicate themselves to selfies and window shopping. Cycling is, without doubt, the best decision I’ve made in Thailand. And as winter approaches, when the temperatures in Thailand dip ever so slightly, you have ideal conditions for riding.
Together with a few cycling companions we’ve put together a list of routes visitors can enjoy over the next few months (when conditions are drier). Many of the routes are in areas where there is a network of nameless small roads that may seem interminable, but it’s just as easy getting out as it is getting in. It would confuse matters and disfigure the story if I were to fill it with countless turn lefts and turn rights, so I’m giving you the landmarks and possible routes but the rest is up to you. We have included routes for all levels of cyclists, but you should at least be relatively fit and have cycled a bike in the past decade to attempt the intermediate and hard trips.
HUAY TUNG TAO: Huay Tung Tao is a small lake at the foot of the Doi Suthep mountain range. From the city centre it’s about a 13km ride (10km from the Nimmanhaemin district), but once you get there you can choose to cycle around the running track (5km) just outside the park, or go into the park and cycle around the lake itself (4km). Dotted around the lake are huts facing the water that serve food and drinks, and if you so choose you can swim. There is usually a 20 baht entrance fee, but they often allow cyclists to enter the park for free. It lies just off the Canal Road (121) as you head towards Mae Rim. If you head up Huay Kaew Road, in the direction of Doi Suthep, turn right at the last set of lights. The road to the lake is on your left next to a small bridge.
CHIANG MAI FACULTY OF AGRO-INDUSTRY: For some reason this scenic spot just outside of the city has remained somewhat untouched by tourism, and on most days it’s home to just a handful of runners and walkers. Cycling there from the city is easy enough, but it’s also just the beginning of much longer scenic rides. If you want to make it a short trip, start by entering Soi Wat Oemong on Suthep Road, and stop off at the temple—as its one of the best in the city. Follow the same soi to Wat Pang Noi, take a right and carry on. When you pass the football stadium take the next right. The views are always spectacular here and adjacent to the walking tracks there is a lake. Bring your own food and drinks as there are no shops. It’s about 8km from the city centre.
This ride can be continued in many directions, but keeping it in the easy category you can take the small jungle road from the exercise track towards Wat Doi Kham. If you choose to turn left in the direction of the temple it’s a very steep but short ride to the top of the hill. From there you can keep going and you’ll ride past Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Botanical Gardens, that is also close to the Chiang Mai Night Safari. In fact, any direction you cycle in you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you find. If you decide not to cycle to Wat Doi Kham you can keep going until you meet a V-section in the road. Turn left there and a 2km hill will take you to the road on the Samoeng Loop. Turn left and it’ll take you back to the Canal Road and you’ve done a loop of about 23km in all. There are lots of funky looking attractions on the way, and plenty of places to stop and eat.
To extend this ride you could also head towards the gate of the Night Safari and just before you get there take a left down the only major road—we call it the Bee Road because there’s a bee conservation centre down there. That will take you to the Sameong Loop Road again. As you come out turn right and take the first left about 20 metres down the street and keep going. You will then hit the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon. This used to be a quiet man-made canyon filled with turquoise water, but now it’s closer to a theme park.
DOI SUTHEP: Riding “up the hill”, as we say in Chiang Mai, isn’t quite as hard as it looks. You’ll see newbie cyclists almost every day riding up not much faster than walking speed. On the way up you can stop at waterfalls at the 2km mark (where they filmed part of Rambo III) and at the 3km mark. Wat Palad (4km) is also worth visiting, but there are plenty of scenic spots you can stop at if you need to rest. The journey to the top, from the zoo at the bottom, is about 11km. You can be up and down in a couple of hours while stopping at the temple at the top. If you carry on to the summit of Doi Pui it’s about 21km from the zoo, with the Bhuping Palace and the Doi Pui Hmong Village being highlights on the way. This is an excellent place to stop for the night and there are campgrounds and also houses you can rent for spending the night close to the summit. If you are going to cycle to the summit, then you should be in fairly good shape.
SAN KAMPHAENG: This is arguably the place to see the most eye-catching panoramas of rice fields, but it’s also one of the worst places to get to as the major roads are hectic and frustrating—even by Thai standards. It is, however, worth visiting and you can explore many smaller roads on the way. Head to the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs (about 38km from Chiang Mai city centre) and go as far as you want from there. You can also head up into the hills in the direction of Flight of the Gibbon. With the distance in mind to reach there, and hills on top of that, it can be quite a long ride. There are numerous resorts and attractions in the area, but if you decide to explore make sure you can loop back or you may end up in Lamphun.
CHANG DAO AND PHRAO: Riding to Chang Dao can also mean dealing with fast moving traffic on major roads. However, there are less chaotic roads, one of which is in the Maejo area. Most people head towards Mae Taeng though, and once you are over the hill (not a difficult hill) the roads are very quiet. You can either stay for a spell in Chang Dao—the Chang Dao Nest is great as a stopover—or keep going to the quiet district of Phrao. The road to Phrao from Chang Dao is a great ride, and there are no steep hills. It’s a harder ride only because of the distance. It can be done in one day, but even for a fairly good cyclist it will take at least six hours to get there and back. You should explore the many smaller roads around the Sri Lanna National Park, or even stop at the houseboats at Mae Gnat Lake. It’s rustic, but blissful under the stars at night in the winter months.
OB KHAN: Much closer to the city is Ob Khan National Park. Follow the Canal Road out of Chiang Mai towards Hang Dong and the turn off to the park at about 14km from the turn off on Suthep Road. That part is easy, but the smaller road to the gate of the park is up and down all the way with a few fairly steep hills—none of which are longer than a few hundred metres. Inside the park you can sit about by the river or lock up the bikes and go for a stroll along the track. It follows the fast moving river along a cliff edge. There is a restaurant and tourist office there but a couple of the times that I’ve done this route they have both been closed. From the city centre to the park and back is about 50-55km.
DOI INTHANNON: If you read the comments on cycling website Stava, riding to the summit of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthannon, is difficult for the best of cyclists. Getting to the foot of the mountain in itself is quite a long ride and getting to the 40km summit is not easy for any amateur cyclist. You could take your time and stay a night in accommodation inside the national park, visiting the waterfalls and other attractions on the way. In winter it will actually be cold close to the top of the mountain.
SAMOENG LOOP & THE MAE SA VALLEY: There are, obviously, two ways to ride around this famous loop located in the Mae Sa Valley. Some people think the steeper hills are going north, which means entering the loop from the road to Mae Rim. You can’t miss the turn off as it’s signposted on the Mae Rim Road. You can also take the opposite route and enter the loop from the Samoeng side on the Canal Road.
There are many things to see on the way, including snake farms, elephant camps, numerous cafés and restaurants, as well as the scenic spot of Mon Cham. All around the loop you can take detours to mountain top villages, but how many you visit will depend on how many hills you can handle. Samoeng itself is beautiful, especially in winter with its early morning fog, but going there will add about another 12km to your journey. You should be a strong rider to take this on, especially if you want to do it in one shot. It would take most cyclists about 4.5 hours, although serious amateurs might do it in 3 hours. You could also do the Mon Cham Loop, which is still hard but shorter.
MAE WANG/MAE WIN: Head down the Canal Road in the Hang Dong direction and 23.5km after the turning on Suthep Road take the right about 70 metres before the lights. The road will lead to Wat Bo Luang, but that’s a dead end. Instead turn left and take your first right. This road, if you look on the map, forms a kind of triangle. We call this the Mae Wang Loop. You can expand this into a square, which is what we call the Onion Loop as you’ll find spring onion farms on the way. There is a network of roads you can follow, but if you ride along this triangle it’ll lead you back to the main road and you can make your way home to Chiang Mai. The views are spectacular; the epitome of the sleepy picturesque postcard Chiang Mai. You’ll see few cars, which is bliss after dealing with the busy—under construction—Canal Road.
This is a favourite ride of many local cyclists, and a day out to remember. It’s in the hard category as you can easily ride over 100 km and meet a few small hills on the way. As you’ll see on any map, you have the option to stray much further into the wilderness. That could mean 200km, so it’s a good idea to put your bikes in a red songthaew truck and ask the driver to take you to the aforementioned intersection. If your anodyne for some of life’s woes is getting back to nature, then this ride should be the perfection prescription.
If you don’t have your own bicycle, or don’t want to bring it to Chiang Mai, you can rent bicycles at Spice Roads, starting from B500 per day for city, hybrid, and mountain bikes. All the bikes are in good shape and are of a high standard. They also have just about every size. Spice Roads is a bicycle tour company, so an organized tour with guides, and vans if need be, is also an option (call 053 215 837 for more info). Speaking for myself, I prefer the opportunity to get lost.
By James Austin Farrell