By Louise Molynaux. Originally published in The Expat magazine, Malaysia
When you travel by bicycle you see the world through different eyes. You encounter it at a different pace. Your senses are bombarded with the sounds and the smells. For a while you are part of it, not just a spectator. Your brain has time to make sense of sights that would otherwise flash by the windows of your car in a multi-coloured blur. You breathe the experience, possibly in deep gulps as your heart races with the physical exertion. And, at the end of the day, your body feels the effort and relishes the reward of a hot shower and a soft bed. Or so it was for me when we cycled from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
It is a sentiment confirmed by SpiceRoads, a cycle tour company whose promotional literature claims it wants you to “see the world by bicycle”. Established in 1995 and based in Bangkok, SpiceRoads run both group and private guided cycling tours across Asia. Bike hire is included in the cost and they can provide child seats and tow-alongs if you have accompanying little people.
“Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai by Bike” is a 2 (out of 5) chilli – or difficulty – grade tour. It involves 130 km of cycling on trails and quiet back roads over four days and is fully vehicle supported, giving participants the option to retire to the van at any stage. It is a perfect choice for first timers or those, like us, travelling with small children.
Our adventure started with a vehicle transfer out of Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. A bustling metropolis of almost 1 million people we were glad not yet to be on the bikes as we passed motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and lorries vying for space on the road north out of the city. We stopped at Bua Thong Waterfall in the Mae Taeng National Forest Reserve, itself a beautiful spot. Lush green jungle cut by a torrent of water crashing down a pathway of pale calcium carbonate covered rocks. Undoubtedly there were paths to explore and pools to play in here but we had cycling to do! Onto the bikes we climbed, one toddler behind each adult, and followed our Thai guide, Mr Win, out into the Sri Lanna National Park.
The road was quiet as we left the jungle behind and the sky opened up before our eyes; a big, blue expanse split by the bright yellow sun. The blood pumped, the wheels turned and cultures collided as a pick-up truck with passengers precariously balanced on the canvas awning roof passed by, pointing at us and laughing out loud. No doubt they considered their vehicular transport superior to our two wheels. I had to disagree.
Our first steep climb of the trip took us 59m (59 m) above ground level to a viewpoint on the top of Mae Ngat Somboon Chon Dam. We were rewarded not just by the sweeping view across the green valley and welcome cooling breeze but also by a lunch of fresh fish eaten overlooking the reservoir it had been caught in, quite probably only hours before.
In the afternoon we switched to a hard packed dirt trail and cycled through farmland, stopping to identify crops – chillis, peanuts, mangos, longans, corn – and chat with the folk in the rice fields. And there, in that field, it hit me: this was not just a bike ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, albeit more exciting that the three hours’ drive would have been, this was the experience. The adventure was in the people I was talking to, the hands I was shaking and the eyes I was looking into. Each bag of rice I bought in Cold Storage back in Kuala Lumpur came from a green, wet field tended by people with bare feet, big hats and toothless grins just like these people.
The tone was set for the next three days as we struck up friendships with countless people we could only speak to through smiles and gestures. People as intrigued to see the farang cyclists with the children on the back as we were to see them weaving baskets outside their bamboo houses or selling fresh mangosteens and delicious baked treats along the side of the road.
Both the second and third days started with visits to caves – Chiang Dao and Tub Tao – proving again that there was more to this trip than just turning the pedals. Of the two Chiang Dao is the geologically more spectacular. It consists of a network of over one hundred caves extending 12 km into the limestone cliffs but only five large ones at the front are open to the public. Two are lit by electric light and so are easily accessible. To visit the other three we followed a guide with a gas lantern, ducking through small passageways that opened out into large caves. The stalactites and stalagmites, ranging in length from 2 or 3 cm to well over a metre, provided a spectacular natural backdrop to the Buddhist shrines and statues. The shadows from the lantern lent an atmosphere; peaceful or spooky depending on your disposition.
Back out in the bright, warm sunshine we hit trails cut by local hill tribes between soaring limestone cliffs, feeling like ants crawling between the two halves of a cut loaf carelessly left out on the table. It made me think about my small part in this big world!
Day 3 saw us cycling from Fang through more rice fields and orchards, this time set against majestic mountains and glowing iridescent green after overnight rain. It was the longest day cycling of the trip but undoubtedly the most scenic as we followed the brown ribbon of the Mae Kok River into the village of Mae Salok for our final overnight stay.
The next morning we loaded the bikes onto a long-tail boat and sped downstream to an elephant camp at Ban Ruamitr. Here we abandoned our wheels for an hour to go elephant trekking. Keeping the children from falling off the back of an elephant bumping up and down through the jungle required far more effort and concentration than cycling and so it was with some relief that we mounted the bikes for the final push into Chiang Rai. We rode into the city, watching the houses change from bamboo to brick and get bigger and bigger, mindful that the traffic was increasing and the end of the adventure was nigh.
We arrived, dusty and sweaty, tired and buzzing from the achievement. As we dismounted for the last time a little voice piped up, “Are we going biking tomorrow?” and when the answer was “No” his lower lip trembled and eyes brimmed with tears. A sure sign that it had been as much fun for our 3-year-old as it had been for us, although clearly his lower half did not ache as much as mine did at that point.
For four days we did indeed “see the world by bicycle” and what a colourful, fascinating world it was. It was our first family cycling holiday but it was not our last!
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