Chiang Mai, the culturally rich city in Thailand’s north has everything the travelling cyclist could want. Warm weather, an abundance of fresh food available day and night, a rapidly growing coffee culture – and plenty of lung-busting, leg-testing rides. Cyclist visited what might just be South East Asia’s cycling capital
words: Alex Malone
Photography: Damian Breach
It’s Chiang, not Chang, but don’t worry if you get the two confused. We did more than a couple of times prior to and during our trip to what is arguably the cycling capital of South East Asia. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s largest and most historically significant city, while Chang is one of the country’s most renowned beers and among the most popular in the region. See, it’s easy to get the two confused.
Recovery beverages aside, the city of Chiang Mai might not be the first that comes to mind when planning that next cycling destination, but it’s arguably Asia’s answer to Majorca in Spain or Gent in Belgium – both known as ideal cycling bases for amateurs and professionals alike. In a similar vein to these well-known locales, Chiang Mai has all the ingredients for making it attractive for cyclists: mountains, fantastic (and cheap) food everywhere you look, bike shops stocking the latest gear, an abundance of varying types of accommodation and, believe it or not, a bustling and rapidly developing coffee culture. We’re not just talking about your standard high-octane ‘black oil’ either. Espresso-machine coffee stops are popping up anywhere the avid cyclist and caffeine addict may look, so it seemed only fitting, given we’d just crowned the Cyclist Coffee Stop of the Year for 2015, that we had to go – at least to compare the state of the country’s coffee to some of our prized brews Down Under.
Chang and now coffee were on our hit list but the real purpose was to take on the climbs we’d heard so much about. After meeting with the local Tourism Thailand department we were recommended two wicked loops, both with their own set of challenges, in the shape of Doi Suthep, just outside the city, and Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. However, as we’d discover, even the best-laid plans need a contingency and shortly after landing and meeting with Nok, our local guide from Thailand Tourism, we modified them slightly to suit our requirements. While not necessarily on a cultural journey, we were extremely interested in two of the local temples (wat in Thai) conveniently located near or at the top of two towering peaks. With a few days to take on both, we were in for a literal climber’s paradise.
Looping the loop
It’s 6am and we (photographer Damian Breach and I) are set to take on what locals call the Samoeng Loop, a 120km circumnavigation of Doi Suthep National Park. It’s our first day in Chiang Mai city and, with little knowledge of the landscape, we decide to upload the GPS file to our Garmin Edge 800 to keep us on track. A follow vehicle is our day’s shadow, carrying Damian’s all-important camera equipment, and we’ve got local Sert Charoen as our on-bike guide, but still, it’s nice to have some idea where you’re heading displayed directly in front. Depending on where you’re staying, it’s about 10km from the city to Highway 1269, the road that takes us off the beaten track and away from the city in a steady upward direction.
Today’s ride is in a clockwise direction but, rather than finishing back in the city, we’ll finish at our night’s accommodation, conveniently located within eyesight of the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. There’s plenty of cultural significance around the mountain of Doi Suthep and the temple, apparently founded around the late 1300s, but we’re equally excited to take on the 11km climb to our cabin’s doorstep. It might not have the altitude of Mount Teide in Tenerife but we can’t help but feel a little ‘pro’.
With an esky-stocked van of cold drinks and freshly cut watermelon, pineapple, papaya and guava, we’re ready to go. Our lunch stop would be a relaxed affair, but we’d have to get through nearly 2,000m of vertical before getting to enjoy the local cuisine. We roll through the flat part of Chiang Mai city and start heading upwards. Sert, whom we’ve just met this morning, gives the usual spiel about spending most of his time off-road. He downplays his pace-setting ability today and casually drops that he lives near Doi Inthanon.
We’re a short way in and, true to form, Sert bolts up the first steep incline, prompting a look between Damian and myself that goes along the lines of – well, you can figure it out.
It’s not long before we go from false flat to the first climb proper, a little under 10km at a constant 4% gradient. It’s enough to calm Sert a little, which pleases the legs of Damian and me. After a regroup at the top, Sert provides us with a much-needed heads up before a twisting descent. ‘Take this next bit easy,’ he warns. ‘We’re about to drop off the back of this climb very quickly.’ He’s not wrong. The road plummets downward and spits out six sharp and steep hairpins in quick succession.
After hitting the final hairpin we pull over so Damian can ascend a small road to our right. He’s spotted a viewpoint of the road below and, after clambering up a small wall to get the shot he wants, he’s back down showing us the spoils from his pit stop. Damian is a perfectionist of his craft and isn’t always satisfied, but he’s content with the outcome.
It may sound strange, but there’s something a bit sexy about a twisting or S-bend road. Perhaps it’s because the perspective is so far from what you’ve felt first-hand – weight behind the rear wheel, fingers hard on the brake levers and eyes forward searching for the apex. It serves as a reminder to look up, across or sometimes even behind.
We jump back onto the relatively car-free road and enjoy the sweeping downward run towards Doi Huay Chok, our next climb that arrives almost as soon as the road flattens. ‘It’s like this all the way to the Samoeng Forest,’ Sert tells Damian shortly after looking at his chain, which hasn’t moved from the big ring today. ‘It’s his thing,’ I explain to Sert. We carry on.
It feels like we’ve ridden much further than we really have, such is the uphill nature of the first 40km, so when an opportunity for refreshment arrives we jump at it.
An outdoor café, situated on Hwy 1269 with a view looking down towards the valley below confirms that we’ve made the right decision. Aptly named the Rak (love) Samoeng Kafe, the modest setting is actually part of the Royal Project in an attempt to support the production of local goods including coffee and fruit. We’re served an interesting mix of black coffee with milk on the side, a shot of water and a cupcake patty filled with savoury biscuits. Packets of dried bananas are sitting on the counter that taste just like banana bread, just without the tablespoons of added sugar. We take a few and stash them in our jersey. As they say, ‘Support your local.’
We’re not far from the first real summit of the day and after a short descent make a sharp left-hand turn, which Damian misses and has to double-back and head eastbound onto Hwy 1096. It’s a steady 6km climb that takes us to 1,100m above sea level. Most of the roads have been in good condition, but this particular road seems well-worn and makes the going a little tougher. By this point the sun is well and truly bearing down, and as we hit the peak, signalled by a Samoeng Forest sign, it’s another opportunity to fill up from the van before making the 20km downhill run back towards the city.
We’re greeted with a valley view and a backdrop of mountains, but at this time of the year, when farmers are often burning off in preparation for the hotter months, visibility can be a little poor. Haze aside, it’s always satisfying to look down and appreciate how far you’ve travelled vertically. A glance down at our Garmin and the motivation drops a tad after seeing the average speed. Sert reaffirms that it’ll pick up significantly over the following 20km descent and following 25km flat run towards Doi Suthep.
‘We’ve also got the option to stop for lunch before taking on Suthep,’ says Sert. Given it’s likely to be late in the day once we’re fully wrapped up, we take his
offer to pull into the Sai Nam Phung Orchid in Old Mae Rim. We push our average speed back towards a morale-boosting figure over the next 30mins. The ride has been relatively traffic-free up until this point, but as we approach the bottom we notice there are a few more vehicles on the roads.
Despite the slight increase in traffic, the motorists have a very different approach to cyclists over here. It’s a refreshing feeling to have no animosity at any point on the ride. If a vehicle wants to get past, they simply go around you. If that means a slight crossover to the other side of the road, any oncoming cars simply shift slightly to accommodate. It sounds like chaos and in some ways it is, but over here that’s simply how it works. We’ve never felt more safe riding foreign roads.
‘Want to stop at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp?’ asks Sert. It’s clearly a popular spot for tourist-bussing groups, and while we’ve got bigger fish to fry, we stop briefly to pick up a couple of items including a musette and a small stuffed elephant for those back home. Presents – tick.
We drop into the Orchid restaurant and take shelter from the imposing sun. This is also the place to pick up additional take-homes, but we’re more concerned with lunch. Nok takes care of the ordering. ‘Everything here is good,’ he explains. It seems Nok has been here more than a couple of times. Within a few minutes a piping-hot spread of barbecue pork, chicken red curry, vegetable stir-fry and greens is delivered. It’s a good thing there are 20km of flat roads before Doi Suthep.
After lunch we’re greeted with an option to make it a true epic. We decide to save it for the following day’s ride, but if you’re feeling strong then head up towards the Nong Hoy Royal Project and Mon Cham, just off the 1096. You’re best off planning this into your GPS route the day before if thinking about taking it on. Open the Strava app and search for HC climbs in the area. It’s easy enough to find. It’s a 17km climb that will top up your elevation count by over 1,000m if you go up and back down. For our part, we decide to continue onwards to Doi Suthep.
One of the great things about riding here is that, unlike much of Australia – where you quickly find yourself without support once outside city limits – Chiang Mai and its surrounds offer top-up locations for water and energy fuel no matter where you might be.
With an average temperature in the low 30s, this is something to seriously consider when taking on a loop that features close to 3,000m of ascent. It feels like our initial argument labelling this the cycling capital of South East Asia is gaining some traction.
With lunch slowly burning off as we head towards Doi Suthep, we’re comforted knowing it’s just one more ascent before the day’s end. Suthep is one of the most popular climbs in Chiang Mai, and it’s not hard to see why.
From our hotel, it’s barely 10km to the base. The base of the climb has a huge ‘11’ concrete block that signals the distance in kilometres to the top. Smaller versions of the countdown would follow us all the way. It’s early afternoon by the time we start climbing and we’re taken aback by the amount of people, from across the entire cycling spectrum, who are taking it on. By this point Damian is feeling the pressure as I decide to give it a little bit of sauce and, just as he’s about to unhitch, the vision of a local climbing on a mountain bike – with a shopping bag looped around the bars – pushes him to stay on a bit longer.
With a near perfect road surface the top comes sooner than expected. There’s a buzz of activity around the steps that take visitors to the ‘golden’ temple but, after nearly 3,000m of climbing over 120km, we’re quite keen to sit and rest before heading to our mountain lodge accommodation. It’s clear this is a very popular tourist location – there’s a huge market area with all sorts of food and touristy items for sale. Lunch didn’t seem that long ago, and after talking about his ‘reward’ for most of the day, Damian heads to the closest drinks stall. ‘Six Changs, thanks.’ Now that’s how you finish a ride.
It’s worth putting an itinerary together if you’re planning a trip to this part of the world. We aimed to pack about as much riding in as possible and ensured we still had at least a couple of nights in the city in order to explore the busy night life. As noted, one of the other standout rides – and one that’s certainly bucket-list material – is Doi Inthanon. It’s a little way from town but it’s Thailand’s tallest mountain and a climb you simply have to take on to truly realise its epic-ness.
How we got there
We travelled to Chiang Mai using Thai Airways. The flight time from Sydney to Bangkok is approximately nine hours and the connecting domestic flight to Chiang Mai is just under an hour. Thai Airways offers a simple luggage add-on for those traveling with a bike, which is the stress-free way to fly. The airline has fairly strict policies in place for luggage that is over limit so remember to weigh your bags prior to arrival at the airport.
You can book a cabin inside the Doi Suthep National Park, a little beyond the entry to Wat Doi Suthep, that sleeps up to six people.
Food & Drink
You’ll never go hungry in Chiang Mai – as long as you like Thai food. There are an unlimited number of Western options within the city but you’ll find this runs a bit sparse in the rural areas. Depending on your location a meal can cost anywhere from A$5 to A$20. Some of the least expensive meals were in remote locations. Our best ‘score’ was six Chang beers for 200 THB, less than A$10.
To the Tourism Authority of Thailand for hosting us during our time in Chiang Mai, along with Nok and Sert for providing outstanding on- and off-the-bike service. Thanks to Focus Australia for providing a Focus Cayo 1.0, our clothing partner Pearl Izumi and our luggage partner High Sierra.