Christmas 2012: Cycling the Chiang Mai/Mae Hong Son Loop
By the time we were 450 kilometers into our northern Thailand cycling vacation, my wife and I could have summited Everest.
The world’s highest peak stands 8,840 meters above sea level. During our 800 km loop from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Song and back, we nearly cycled enough vertical feet to climb Everest twice.
At times, we would have paid thousands of baht (not as impressive as it sounds) for a flat stretch of road. But like dust mites on an endless strip of corrugated cardboard, we endured the ups and downs – keeping our lunch where it belonged, despite road-signs prompting otherwise.
We traveled for nearly three weeks, leaving our Singapore home on Christmas Eve.
We packed our Co-Motion tandem into two hard cases, beginning a journey that my wife acquiesced to… like a martyr. “Just so you know,” she said, “this Christmas holiday is for you.”
Since visiting this region eight years ago, I’ve always wanted to cycle it. The roads are smooth, the traffic light, and the terrain more arduous than any long stretch of road that I’ve encountered. Besides, it’s Thailand: the land of $6 massages (we had nine each), the land of world-renowned food, and the land of smiles. What’s not to like?
There are 140 kilometers between Chiang Mai (where we started) and the mountain town of Pai. We cycled off the designated route to spend the evening at the Ban Akeela homestay, 12km from Mae Taeng.
Despite the 126 mountainous kilometers between the guesthouse and Pai, we didn’t hit the road until 10:30 the next morning. “Damn,” I thought, “we were going to be on Toby’s schedule.”
I’ve never actually met Toby; that’s not his real name. But the hapless, nameless chap had documented his cycling journey from Chiang Mai to Pai online, and I wanted to see what we were up against.
Here’s a snippet from Toby’s blog entry as he rocketed down the final 26km to Pai, in the dark…before hitting something:
“I hit the deck and rolled into a wall of furry flesh. I’d hit a cow lying in the road, a cow! Actually it was a small herd of cattle lying in the middle of the road and I started to hear terrified moo-ing and a thunder of hooves on the pavement. My first instinct was to pick myself up as fast as possible. At this point I was terrified of the very real possibility of being trampled or kicked. The cows were running off the highway in a panic.”
Silly fool, we thought. Why would anyone end such a brutal ride at night?
We shouldn’t have judged. By 7:00pm, we were descending the same mountain road in the dark—with one advantage. We had bought some retina ripping headlights from MEC. They saved us from bone crushing cows and slithering snakes.
In southern Thailand, we’ve had brushes with snakes while traveling on scooters. On one occasion, a frightened (or hungry) snake snapped at us south of Phuket. That too, was in the dark.
Tired and hungry along the northern mountain road, we weren’t in the mood to dance with a cobra.
And we didn’t have to—not this time. Dropping downhill into Pai finally abated the shivering I had started suffering from at the climb’s summit. We had stopped to get food at a local stall, and my sweat, along with the cooler mountain temperature, caused me to vibrate.
Entering Pai was a relief, and we soon fell in love with the place. That’s not saying it didn’t have its corny side. A movie called Pai in Love was filmed there a few years ago. Thais pay New Year homage to the film’s location, giving their ubiquitous peace sign salute as they pose for photos in front of movie landmarks.
Christmas isn’t a big deal for Thais, but celebrating the New Year is. We lay low for a couple of days in town, skipping the roads now clogged with local tourists flooding into this quaint town from Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
To avoid the local madness, we left Pai for Soppong on December 28th. It was a short ride, roughly 45km. But it included a 20km climb and a 17 km descent. A tiny village, Soppong has a lovely place to stay called The Soppong River Inn. Run by a lovely woman named Joy, it was inexpensive, clean, and provided excellent food.
It cost roughly $20 to stay, and as much as we liked it, the cheaper accommodation of backpackers and global vagabonds at Cave Lodge was more to our liking. Roughly 10km off the main road, its casual atmosphere and proximity to local caves makes it a much better place for adventurists keen to explore or try subterranean kayaking.
Despite having enough money to travel five star, my wife and I opt to avoid “classy” digs. We’ve never met a fascinating person at the Marriot or any other glitzy establishment. There’s never a “Juan” who has been traveling nomadically for three years while picking up money training martial artists where he can. There’s never a “Mark” who hasn’t been home for 4 years, and has no idea where he’s headed next.
Mostly, these people are young and unattached, but not always. We’ve met families traveling Asia on small sailboats, with home-schooled kids in tow. We’ve met retirees older than my parents, huffing it around with a backpack in some of the world’s most adventurous locales.
Not everybody has the same taste for adventure or wonderful (and unique) conversations. But my wife and I can’t get enough.
After Soppong, we cycled along a profile of shark’s teeth, arriving at Mae Hon Song after 80 kilometers. We stayed at Sang Tong Huts, our most expensive accommodation in Thailand at roughly $40 per night. Janis, the guesthouse manager, is a Swedish born-again Thai. Friendly and full of great local information, he added to the fabulous atmosphere. Places like Sang Tong Huts are pleasant, but again, at that price, they don’t attract life’s most colourful characters.
Taking a two-day mountain trek from Mae Hong Son, however, gave us the fix we needed. Our eventual accommodation was a village hut. Village population? Four. From what I could gather, this village included just two families. They piped in running water from a single tap, but they don’t have electricity or modern plumbing. Cooking is done over an open fire in the living room—which also serves as the bedroom.
After the trek, we spent another evening at Sang Ton Huts (in Mae Hong Son) where the only excitement was a toad that we failed to eradicate from the toilet.
Keep toilets lids down, folks, when traveling in northern Thailand. If a desperate frog jumps leaps at your butt, you’ll certainly test your ticker.
We completed the 800km tandem ride, staying at colorful places along the way.
We didn’t ride every day. Sometimes, we rented scooters and explored back roads, waterfalls, hot springs and local haunts.
How much did it cost?
Including our flights from Singapore, the three weeks cost $1,930 USD. This included 18 massages (nine each); accommodations; a two day, one night guided trek; three daily scooter rentals; all food; a trip to the Chiang Mai Tiger Kingdom, where we cuddled live tigers; and taxi fares to and from the Singapore airport.
Fortunately, my wife enjoyed this trip as much (if not more) than I did.
If cycling isn’t your thing, I highly recommend renting a motorbike in Chiang Mai and powering through these amazing mountains in 7-10 days.
Take your time and enjoy it. There’s plenty to see.