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.

 puke-station

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.”

building-tandem

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.

accomodation-tandem

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.

pai-cafe-view

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. 

toad-in-the-hole

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.

andrew-pele-waterfall

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.

 

 

 





Andrew Hallam

I’m a financial columnist for Canada’s national paper, The Globe and Mail, as well as for AssetBuilder, a financial service firm based in Texas. I’m also the author of Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School (Wiley 2011) and The Global Expatriate’s Guide To Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat (Wiley 2015). My mission is to educate, motivate and inspire people on basic retirement planning and best practices for investing, using evidence-based strategies. I'm happy to comment on your questions. However, please read the Terms of Use.

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22 Responses

  1. Jeff says:

    What an amazing adventure! You're investment strategy and you're holiday choices are very different than that of most people. However I know in the end both will be much more satisfying.

    Thanks for sharing Andrew

    Jeff

    • Thanks Jeff,

      I wasn't sure whether people (who may normally come to the blog for money articles) would enjoy reading about a holiday. I prefer writing about the fun aspects of life (of course!) and can just hope that others don't mind the break from the usual fare. Thanks again for the encouragement Jeff!

      Andrew

  2. Moe Muise says:

    Great post, Andrew. This sums it up for me:

    "Not everybody has the same taste for adventure or wonderful (and unique) conversations.  But my wife and I can’t get enough."

    That's how my wife and I see life, too. I recently left my government job of ten years here in Ottawa, and we'll be packing up our two boys and moving to Bali in July. I'll be working on my online business from there, and we'll be doing LOTS of traveling in the region.

    Great blog!

    Moe

    P.S. Before we move to Bali I'll also be liquidating our stock holdings and putting everything into index funds, as per your book's recommendations.

    • Hey Moe,

      Your road is definitely going to be the one less traveled! I look forward to hearing from you once you're settling in. You and your family are in for an awesome adventure. Warm seas, friendly people, great food and a sea of characters are coming your way.

      Stay in touch!

      Andrew

  3. David J. Potter says:

    Dear Andrew Hallum:

    I have read your book (M.T.) and subscribe to your financial advice . I have recently purchased something called T-Series funds , I know they are corporate mutual funds with 2-3% MER , but lately they have been increasing in value (past three months) . I also know they pay high dividends monthly through Return Of Capital . I know this will depleat the Base cost value eventually.

    What do you think these funds should be used for . My portfolio is around $400K and these funds make up about 33% of the portfilio . I am 65 and just retired . I can use the money especially right now with two kids in University and a small pension.

    What would you advise concerning these T-Series funds?

    • Hi David,

      I believe that giving away so much in expense ratio costs will cause your money to underperform by the 2-3% annual MER that you're being charged. If you're looking for dividends, you could buy a high dividend paying Canadian stock index. This one pays 4.21% currently, and has risen 9% (not including the dividend) in the past 6 months. A rising tide raising all boats.

      This may or may not have outperformed your current holdings. But over time, because the cost is so much lower, it almost certainly will. Here's the link: http://sg.finance.yahoo.com/q/bc?s=XDV.TO&t=6m&l=

      Cheers,

      Andrew

  4. madMike says:

    Just a quick comment to let you know that I read your money articles but I enjoyed this update, it sounds like my kind of adventure. I think a lot of readers on here will feel the same….we spend a lot of time thinking about money. Time to get out and see the world!

  5. ACMZ says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Your trip brings back memories. In 2009 my wife, our two boys, (14 and 16) and I crossed Canada by bicycle. The best family trip in our life by far. Camping along the way we met the most interesting and friendly people. It confirms that more than 99% of society consists of nice people. There is no better way to travel.

    By the way, your book makes a great graduation gift for University students

    Happy riding

    André

  6. Ken says:

    Hey Andrew,

    Great post!

    I remember taking the bus from Chang Mai to Pai and I though that was quite a ride. Can't even imagine cycling it!

    Ken

  7. Alison says:

    Enjoyed your article as our family is planning to go to Thailand in April. I'm a little concerned about the heat. Sounds like a hot time to be there. We are traveling with our 3 elementary aged kids. Is there a certain area where the heat would be less intense or should we reconsider going right now? I don't want it to be so hot that we don't want to leave the air conditioning. Sounds like your trip was amazing! We aren't quite that flexible, with three kids in tow, but we're looking forward to experiencing such a different place.

    Alison, BC Canada

    • If you'll be near a beach, Alison, you'll be just fine. Thailand (like Singapore, where I live) is close to the equator, so the temperature is constant throughout the year. Where are you planning to go, in Thailand? Chiang Mai is a bit cooler, as is the even more northern area that we went. But we really enjoy the beaches. If you have a chance, I think you would like Krabi.

  8. Canada by bicycle? You and your family rock! It's true what you say about the majority of people. Personally, I think the world is as safe as it ever was. But the media doesn't let us believe that. True, pockets exist (some U.S. cities) that are scarier than they were. But I can walk through the fields of Cambodia and Vietnam today. And you can't say that scary things weren't taking place there within our lifetime. You're right. People are inherently good. And it's fabulous when we recognize that, and enjoy it, as you and your family obviously did when cycling across Canada.

  9. On a bus, it would also be a puker Ken. So many twists and turns!

  10. Travis Graeber says:

    Hi Andrew

    I enjoy cycling (of the motor variety) myself. Your trip sounds like it would be fun to do on my motorcycle. Like my dad always tells me you have to do more then just survive you have to live every once in awhile. Also i must say your book is one of the only economic books i enjoyed reading. Even my economics teacher (who never approves of anything) told me reading your book is smart if i am going to start investing.

    Travis

  11. Todd Phillips says:

    Andrew,

    What an amazing adventure! Inspires me to get back on my bike for some touring this summer… But then even your Campbell River to Comox commutes were always inspiring. I just checked the Vancouver Island Regional Library and of the 7 copies they have all are out and there were 9 holds for them; my hold was the tenth. I look forward to reading it.

    Cheers! ~Todd Phillips

  12. Chris says:

    Hi Andrew

    I thought you might like to hear from a fellow tandem nut in Singapore. We have been riding a Claud Butler Majestic 2 ever since I bought it in the UK in 1982. We have travelled all over Europe, but since moving to Singapore and having children we haven’t ridden it much other than Singapore and Johor.

    I am about to purchase a Co-Motion with S&S couplers so we can travel with it. I am trying to find an agent in Singapore who will import it for us and assemble it. Did you buy yours in Singapore or import it yourself?

    We’re off to Chiang Dao, about 100km north of Chiang Mai, after Christmas and if we get the tandem in time we’ll take it with us.

    When you were touring, what did you do with the cases whilst you were travelling? I’m assuming you didn’t leave them at the airport.

    We met another couple with a tandem at a Café on Craig Road about a year ago. That wasn’t you, was it?

    All the best,

    Chris.

    • Hi Chris,

      We ordered our tandem through Tandems East, in New Jersey. They’re excellent. Here’s their website: http://www.tandemseast.com/

      They ship tandems all over the world, and should be able to send you the Co-Motion tandem you’re looking for. When we travel, we always leave our cases at the first guesthouse we stay at. Doing that is easier than leaving them at the airport. For starters, it’s free. And it gives us a place to assemble the tandem in comfort, then pack it up when we leave. We usually stay the first and final night of any trip we take at the same place. Other times, I’ve shipped the cases forward, if we’re arriving and leaving from different locations. Fortunately, they have always arrived. We don’t do a lot of tandem riding in Singapore anymore. We used to ride to work a lot, but it’s getting more dangerous with increasing traffic. So no, we haven’t met….yet! It sounds like you have a great trip planned.

  13. Kris Olson says:

    Sounds like an excellent trip recommendation. My wife and I are taking our 9 and 7 year old on a ten week backpacking trip around SE Asia this summer so are starting our research now for things to do. Our schedule is to fly into Singapore mid-June then out of Bangkok at the end of August. Yes, I know, it’s the hot and wet season, but was really the only feasible time to get the kids out of school.

    Would you recommend the motorbike trip around Chiang Mai with kids?

    Best of luck in 2014!

  14. Igor says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Nice to read about your experiences. I cycled the same route in August 2010.
    We’re now thinking about cycling it coming December/January (2014). Did you book hotels/pensions in advance? Do you think that would be necessary in the last week of December?
    Cheers,
    Igor

    • Hi Igor,

      The only place I think you’ll definitely need to book that time of year would be Pau. Thais flock there, big time, at the end of Christmas/beginning of the new year. You’ll see what I mean if you’re there then. People will be sleeping in the police station. That’s how packed it gets.

      Have fun!

      Cheers,
      Andrew

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