We spent a month cycling in northern Thailand in November/December 1998, tracing a circuit which starts and ends at Chiang Mai and takes in the highlands to the north and west. We were on mountain bikes although we found that only occasional day trips took us off surfaced roads. The roads are steeper than the hilliness of the terrain requires.
Its a beautiful cycling destination with a warm climate, friendly people, striking views, and many creature comforts.
This page contains detailed descriptions of our route. Look first at the map to get an overview. General info is on another page, and the narrative gives an impression of the ride.
Day 1: Chiang MaiSamoeng, 50 km; a long morning. 12 km south on route 108 to Hang Dong, flat and unpleasant. The B&B map shows an alternative. Then right onto route 1269, a minor road. The first 20 km are flat, passing nice resorts. But the resorts and the flatness run out together. You get a vicious climb, a matching descent, and then with almost no intermission another vicious climb. Finally you coast down into Samoeng. Colin pushed his bike up the second climb.
If you leave Chiang Mai after breakfast you take these climbs in the heat of the day. There is a nice resort at Samoeng.
Day 2: SamoengSop Poeng, 74 km; a full day. A long climb in the early morning then a descent all the way to Mae Rim, initially steep, then gentle. There are numerous tourist attractions on the flatter part: elephant camps, snake farms, waterfalls, and also resorts. We ate at Sainamphung orchid and butterfly farm close to Mae Rim, looking onto acres of orchids.
From Mae Rim to Mae Malie is flat and boring. Turn left at the junction as you enter Mae Malie. According to Touring Northern Thailand there are two resorts soon after the junction, but we spent a long time looking and didnt find them. About 6 km from the junction, however, is a passionfruit juice stall. No weary traveller should pass it unrefreshed.
Around km 17 from the junction we were surprised and gratified to find a small resort in a village which may or may not be Sop Poeng.
Day 3: Sop PoengPai. An 80 km epic. Straight after breakfast a 10 km killer climb through pretty scenery. There are villages en route and a guest house at the top of the climb. Then descend. Habitations now sparse.
27 km from the start is another killer climb, 6 km long, very steep towards the end. Then a 4 km drop to the staging post of Mae Sae which has several food shacks and purportedly a basic guest house.
Leaving Mae Sae is the third climb of the day, 7 km long but gentler than its predecessors, followed by 8 km of undulations along a narrow ridge, then a long descent to the heat of the plain. Finally another 10 km of rather tiresome undulations.
Pai is popular with western tourists. There are many places to stay within the town, none of them distinguished, and a few resorts outside it. You may find French cuisine, home-baked bread, and hill-tribe coffee. You can organise rafting or hill-tribe treks, or take day trips in the area.
Day 4: rest day. Tracey made a short excursion. Colin slept.
Day 5: PaiSoppong, 42 km: a comfortable morning. 10 km of undulations, then a 17 km climb, very steep in parts. Finally a long descent. T. Rex House, with a swimming pool, is an unbeatable bargain.
Day 6: rest day. Visit Tham Lot, a vast cave system. Its a pleasant cycle ride to get there. Official guides are provided at the entrance. Spend the afternoon back at the hotel pool.
Day 7: SoppongMae Hong Son, 65 km; arrive mid afternoon. 5 km flat, then an 11 km climb to a pass looking onto very spectacular scenery. 8 km of descent, then 6 of undulations (including a short but nasty climb). 30 km from Soppong is a village with a shop and food shack.
More flat road, another short and nasty climb, and a bit of a descent. 16 km short of Mae Hong Son you reach Thom Pla (fish cave) where there are plenty of small restaurants for a late lunch.
Now enjoy a vicious and totally unnecessary climb followed by a feeble descent to Mae Hong Son. We stayed at the grotty Sarm Mork Villas.
Day 8: rest day. There are many enterprising day trips which can be taken from here. We contented ourselves with the ride to the temple overlooking the town (1.6 km up a steep hill).
Day 9: Mae Hong SonKhun Yuam, 65 km; a long morning. The first 14 km are easy; then comes a short steep climb leading to a good viewpoint 16 km from Mae Hong Son. Then the road is mostly fairly easy but affords no views. 35 km from Mae Hong Son is Ban Huay Pong, a village with shops. A little later is Mae Surin which looks significant on the map but has nothing to offer.
After Mae Surin a nasty climb in the midday sun, and the rest is easy. Several places to stay at Khun Yuam, of which Ban Farang is probably the best.
Day 10: excursion/rest day. Tracey headed for some waterfalls. Return 1 km towards Mae Hong Son and turn right. Then, after 12 km, you must turn left at a junction with a village archway. Tracey turned right, and therefore cant comment on the waterfalls (but she was told later that the road to them was mostly unsurfaced). She got half way to Mae Chaem before turning back in rain. A goat ran across her path, she fell off, and she was given a lift back by a pickup truck going the same way.
Colin declared a rest day.
Day 11: Khun YuamMae Sariang, 100 km; a full day. A relatively long distance, but an easy road in an attractive valley. After 50 km Mae La Luang, a village with shops. After a further 20 km Mae La Noi, a larger village with food shacks on the road. The final 30 km are a bit hillier, with a long drag in the last 15 km.
Mae Sariang is a workaday sort of town. Guide books say that the Riverside Guest House organises jeep and boat trips starting at 6.30 am, although there were no signs saying so. We stayed in the resort part of the Mitaree, pleasant enough and well situated but a little pricey.
Day 12: excursion; a long morning. Head south on route 105, a fairly easy road. After 26 km see a bridge to your right and then enter a village, presumably Sop Moei, where there is a food shack. Turn back and cross the bridge, turning right on the far side. The road is surfaced but overgrown. It hurls itself up a cliff and down again, reaches a village, and turns into a dirt track after 5 km. The track is rideable all the way but both undulating and winding. After about an hour of it you reach a pretty village and then come to a T-junction with a good road, where turn right and learn to your dismay that you are still 19 km from Mae Sariang. But the road is flat and there are shops on the way.
Day 13: Mae SariangOb Luang Gorge, 86 km; a hard day. The first 19 km head unremittingly upwards, but are never steep. Snack bars at the top. Then for 29 km there is a sequence of drops and climbs, tough all the way. There are some lovely views across ridges to the south. 48 km from Mae Sariang you reach the village of Kong Loi, with a food shack which is quite good.
The next 10 km are mostly uphill. 62 km from Mae Sariang is a village with shops. Now come more undulations through a plateau of pine forest with some good views north. An exhilarating descent takes you to the junction with route 1088, and 5 km further down the gorge you come to the Khao Krai Raj resort comprising beautiful old teak cabins and treehouses constructed by the Borneo Logging Company.
The resort sits next to a gorge, and there may be more gorge scenery further down the road, but we were too lazy to explore.
Day 14: Ob Luang GorgeMae Chaem, 50 km; a long morning. Retrace 5 km to the junction with route 1088, where turn right. Initially easy. 36 km from Mae Chaem there is a hot spring by the roadside belching sulphur. One km further on is a prosperous looking village with a food shack. Then a 12 km climb, initially not too bad but later quite disgusting. The road levels off, still trending upwards through a cultivated plateau with Hmong villages. Good views of the mountains ahead.
You never get a descent to match the original climb. Instead the road starts to undulate in a most unreasonable way, and somehow the drops contrive to outweigh the climbs. There are several villages with shops in the last 12 km.
Mae Chaem is quiet, untouristed, and attractive. It has a lovely new resort, awash with bougainvillea, and a small guest house/karaoke pub in town.
Day 15: rest day. Mae Chaem is the hub of a system of roads connecting the villages. Tracey tried the Khun Yuam road for an hours worth and found hills. Colin knows the meaning of rest day.
Day 16: Mae ChaemDoi Inthanon. Route 1192 takes 22 km to reach its junction with route 1009. This is a very pretty, very narrow, very hard road, gaining a lot of height and sometimes very steep. From the junction it is 9 km up to the summit or 7 km down to the national park HQ, where there is food and accommodation.
We dropped down to the HQ hoping to find a bungalow, but they were all taken by people on holiday for the kings birthday. We were able to hire a tent and blankets. After lunch Tracey went to the summit on her own. The gradient was uneven, steepest near the chedis. There was no view from the top due to cloud, and the road was very busy due to the national holiday.
The tents are just inners with no flysheets. There was a heavy dew and it was cold. We shivered all night in spite of our 3 blankets each. The food was no great shakes either.
Day 17: Doi InthanonChiang Mai, 100 km; no probs but a full day. Whiz down for 30 km. There are waterfalls on the way which are well worth visiting, and a few eating places before the junction. Turn right to Chom Thong, where there is a modern concrete hotel serving disappointing food (the eating places might be better). The wat at Chom Thong is said to be nice.
Head back out the way you entered. The road to Chiang Mai is unpleasant so we took a detour. After about 8 km turn right, and after about 2 km more take a sharp left. You are now on a minor road which takes you successively to Hong Ha, Lamphun and Chiang Mai. The road is flat as a pancake and we averaged 23 km per hour. Tracey complained that Colin was going too fast. The wat at Lamphun is worth seeing.
Days 18-20: bumming around Chiang Mai. We stayed at 3 different places. The Rim Ping Garden is going to seed. Once Upon a Time, also called the River Ping Palace, is made up of lovely old teak buildings and has an excellent restaurant and a pleasant view over the river. The River View Lodge is central, quiet, and comfortable (but not cheap). The building is nothing to write home about but the garden is delightful and there is a pool. Charoenrasd Road across the river has very good food and pricey souvenirs.
A side trip can be taken up Doi Suthep/Doi Pui, the twin-summitted mountain above the city. The height gain is 1300 m and the road is good, although sometimes narrow, bumpy, and steep. Very attractive near the top. Then get back to that pool!