Trekking through Northern Thailand

Two newly wedded Vancouverites pedal boldly into the cheap and heavenly wilds of Northern Thailand.

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By Ben Coli

We could tell we were nearing the summit of the pass, because the drivers of passing cars and trucks had started slowing down to wave, give us the thumbs-up and shout incomprehensible words of encouragement. Down in the valleys, Thai drivers are generally courteous and respectful of cyclists, but apart from that they didn’t pay us much attention. Any time we got near the top of a high pass, however, they turned into our cheering section.

We were riding from Pai to Soppong in Northern Thailand, a short 40-km ride that happened to have a 1000-meter ascent in the middle of it. We had spent the last ten kilometers climbing, first through terraced rice fields, then through a mixture of maize fields and jungle, and finally up steep switchbacks, where the tropical vegetation of the valley gradually gave way to stands of pine. By the time passing drivers started cheering us on, we were more than ready to reach the summit. We were sick of getting our blood sugar from the packages of cookies we bought in Pai and we were eager to celebrate our conquest of the pass with the Noodle Soup of Victory, which would inevitably be sold at the viewpoint.

The viewpoint would also afford us the opportunity to bask in the admiration of the locals. We don’t ride our bikes for the admiration, but when you’re grinding up the side of a mountain in the full sun and you’re starting to bonk because you didn’t have a big enough breakfast, every little bit of encouragement helps.

At a restaurant near the summit of the previous day’s ride I was called a “superman” by a local man who’d asked about our itinerary. I blushed demurely and shrugged off the compliment, but I wish I’d have told him that if he started cycling now, he too could be doing this in a few years’ time. Three years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying anything like this, but cycling has a way of changing from a hobby into a habit into a lifestyle into an obsession.

While we were planning this two-month escape from Vancouver, BC’s winter to work on our writing projects somewhere cheap and tropical, my wife and I realized that we’d reached the point in our cycling lives where we couldn’t imagine living without our bikes for two whole months. What’s the point of warm weather if you don’t have a bike? Besides, two months in a tropical paradise without a bike would drive me to pursue other, less-wholesome hobbies, like competitive drinking, betting on cockfights, playing Russian roulette à la Deerhunter, or getting involved with the seniors’ shuffleboard crowd at the community centre. To avoid that, our destination had to be cheap and tropical and bike-able.

We chose Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It has worked out perfectly.

Northern Thailand is a cyclist’s paradise, but very few cyclists seem to know about it. The roads are good, the people are friendly, the scenery is amazing and the food — oh the food! Scorchingly spicy, unbearably garlicky, unreasonably coconut-creamy; fishy, limey, nutty, lemon-grassy, peppery, gingery — however you like it, they’ll do it for you. The food can be almost anything you want, as long as you don’t want something bland.

Climate-wise, it’s as though northern Thailand was purpose-built to offer a winter escape for cyclists from northern climes; at the exact time of year it starts to get uncomfortable to ride in Vancouver, Chicago and Munich, the rain stops in northern Thailand and the temperature drops from searingly hot to pleasantly hot — and it stays that way until the weather at home starts behaving itself.

To top it all off, it’s ridiculously cheap. Prices in northern Thailand are half of what they are in the south, which means they’re a fifth of what they are on our continent. Think $10 hotel rooms; think lunch for a dollar or two.

After eating our soup and inspecting the view, we got back in the saddle and plunged down the side of the mountain. The descent from the summit was worth the climb. We flew down the switchbacks and into the jungle, feeling like race-car drivers or fighter pilots, except the only thing we could hear was the rushing wind and our own laughter. The road bored through the jungle like a tunnel through a mountain and emerged on the other side into a narrow valley, dotted with farming villages and bordered by limestone cliff faces.

Arriving in Soppong, we realized to our dismay that the guesthouse we planned to stay at was 8 kilometers outside of town, halfway up the side of the valley. The road there was perfectly paved and the countryside was beautiful, but we’d already burned off the Noodle Soup of Victory, and beauty doesn’t put noodles in your stomach.

The detour paid off, though. The guesthouse was run by an eccentric Australian and his local Shan wife. They had a stone bread oven, which was all I needed to hear to be happy. My wife spent the next day and a half exploring the nearby caves, while I wisely spent most of my time eating. I had to fuel up because Mae Hong Son was 70 km and a lot of hills away, and there are only so many times you can stop for noodle soup in a day.

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