21st February 2014. Mon Cham sits at the summit of the Nong Hoi Royal Project, approximately 36 kilometres from Chiang Mai city. The Royal Project is an initiative of the King of Thailand which opened in 1984 to encourage hill tribe villagers to diversify from growing opium poppies to alternative crops instead. The local villagers in the Royal Project now grow various herbal plants and a variety of fruits and vegetables, some of which are served up in the restaurant which overlooks the valley below. If you have the head for heights, you can eat you meal while sat cross legged on one of the thatched roof covered platforms built on stilts and jutting out over the hillside.
Mon Cham is about 1,300 meters above sea level and is reached after a 7km climb from Pong Yaeng at the junction of the Mae Sa road 1096. This climb is just off the Samoeng Forest Loop route and by the time you start the ascent up the final 7km you will already have covered more than 30km from Chiang Mai city and climbed over 700m. These final 500m of elevation are quite brutal at times, with the incline reaching as much as 24% in the middle 3km.
If you can lift your vision from the road and take time to look around instead of just focussing on a piece of tarmac ten feet in front of you, you will see that this mountainous area is (thanks to the Royal Project) abundant with apricot, peach, plum, avocado, strawberries, grapes, passion fruit and coffee. You would also be able to spot pansies, hydrangea, and dusty miller.
About 2km from the summit you pass a Muay Thai Boxing camp and then a school. Don’t take the right hand fork, that will lead you only to the restaurant; instead force yourself up the left hand fork and the final couple of hills before reaching the top.
Here you can stop for a drink and a breather, a few roadside stalls and a more permanent restaurant have recently been established: you can also take in the vista (if it isn’t too cloudy).
Today I had a slow start on the homeward ride, cycling through the first hill tribe village it seems that everyone was out and about, and not paying much attention to the road. I soon found out why; today there was a village hog roast. A huge pig was being cooked over an open fire at the side of the road. I say ‘over’ I mean ‘in’. The village elderly men were sat around the fire pit prodding and poking the bloated pink carcass. That’s what was distracting the villagers. My descent was also temporarily slowed by a truck on its way down the mountain laden with vegetables, presumably off to a market in nearby Mae Rim.
It is about 42km back to Chiang Mai city. Not all of it is downhill, there are a few surprising ups and the road in places is very pot holed, so care and attention are needed. The area around the northwest side of Mon Cham is very rural and the ride takes you through some Hmong hill tribe villages, passing the monastery of Wat Pang Hai, the Sukantara Cascade a luxury eco resort and the Bancha Garden before arriving back at the road 1096 midway between the fuel station and the monkey centre.
13th February 2014. The Samoeng Forest Loop is a route approximately 100kms in length with a total elevation of about 1500m. It winds its way through and around the mountains to the northwest and west of the city and can be attempted either in a clockwise or anti clockwise direction. It is popular with both cyclists and motorcyclists in Chiang Mai.
I rode this route on the 13th February, accompanied by Michael and Elizabeth a brother and sister from the USA and Robert who lives in Hong Kong. The support was provided by ‘SpiceRoads’ and our guide was Mr Sert.
On this occasion, we followed the route anti-clockwise, starting at the Sainamphung Orchid centre just south of the Mae Sa road (1096). As well as the plants, the Sainamphung Orchid Centre houses a restaurant and a small vintage car collection. This area of the route is home to a number of tourist activities (crocodile, monkey and snake shows, Tiger Kingdom, ATVs, bungee jumping and a shooting range).
The route starts out flat for about 4km before a gradual and continuous climb up from Mae Sa Waterfall to Pong Yaeng, passing a couple of elephant farms where you can see elephants at work and at play. You can even see elephants playing soccer and painting at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp. Next you will pass the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden, named in honour of the Thai Queen and Thailand’s first botanical garden.
After Pong Yaeng the road is fairly flat for the next 4km and then comes a 5km climb to the top of the route and a viewpoint over the Samoeng Forest. Here, whilst awaiting the other riders, I met up with five local cyclists who were all training for the upcoming “Race up Doi Inthanon”. Later in the day we passed each other going in opposite directions on the south west of the route, they were travelling clockwise.
What goes up, must come down and a long fast down hill into Samoeng was interrupted by a front tyre blow out. Fortunately I was stationary at the Samoeng Police Box (road 1069 j/w road 1269) waiting for the rest of the group to catch up when the front inner tube exploded. To make matters worse, when I changed the front tube, the front tyre then developed a split and the new inner tube herniated out and that too punctured. Fortunately my guides and support vehicle had a spare front wheel and so I was able to continue down the hill past the strawberry farms into Samoeng where we stopped for lunch.
What goes down, must come up. After lunch the ride continued with a return up the hill to the police box and then further up the hill to the Huai Pa Lao watershed management centre and the top of the second biggest climb of the day. There then follows a fast, curving decent with some hairpin bends for about 6km passing Wat Thong Siri in Ban Pong. The final climb of the day is just over two and a half kilometres in length, but is the toughest of the entire route. Known locally as the Seven Spires, this section of the route has seven hairpin bends and averages out at about 12%, with some of the hair pins topping out at 20%.
From this, the top of the day’s last climb, it is approximately 30kms back to Chiang Mai city. Nearly all of these final kilometres are downhill, by way of a number of small rural villages and passing some upmarket resort hotels and coffee restaurants. There is the possibility of seeing streams of orange clad Buddhist monks or even working elephants walking along this section of the route.
We didn’t complete the loop, opting to stop at the Chiang Mai Night Safari, where I got yet another puncture (this time in my rear wheel) and having used my only spare inner tube earlier in the day, I was grateful to borrow another spare wheel from the support vehicle.
The loop can be completed by either following road 1269 to the canal road (121) and heading north for about 30km to Mae Rim and the start of the 1069, or by following a lesser known route past Royal Flora (Ratchaphruek Park) and Doi Kham emerging at Chiang Mai University thereby eliminating some of the busy canal road.
31st January 2014. Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest mountain. It sits at the southern end of the Himalayan range about an hour and a half’s drive from Chiang Mai. I rode it on Friday 31st January (which happened to be Chinese New Year) in the company of Angela and Mark, a wife and husband from Hong Kong who were on holiday here in Chiang Mai with their friend Connie. Accompanying us was Jennifer a professor of English Literature from Michigan and New Orleans, who now works in Wenzhou University (China).The day started for me with a 7am pick up by ‘SpiceRoads’ before we drove around the city and collected the others from their respective hotels and guest houses. Angela handed out traditional Chinese New Year red envelopes ‘Hung Bao’ to everyone. Red being the colour of luck, happiness and prosperity in China. The envelopes usually contain money and ours were no different, Angela had very kindly placed a ThB20 note into each.
Then it was off in the minibus to the Doi Inthanon National Park; situated approximately 60kms south-west of Chiang Mai the park covers an area of nearly 500 square kilometres. The Doi Inthanon National Park is home to a variety of wild life and birds. Thailand has approximately 400 different species of birds, half of which live in this park. Tigers have been spotted on the upper hills and the Asian Palm Civet resides here. This weasel like creature with a ringed tail is responsible for the world’s most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak. The animal eats the coffee berry, digests the fruit but excretes the hard bean. These beans are then collected from its faeces, cleaned fermented and roasted. Prices for this coffee have reached $700 per kilogramme.
After setting up our bikes in a rest area a couple of km’s inside the national park entrance, we started out for what Mr Sert, our guide, called an easy first hour’s ride. Easy by comparison to the rest of the day, but we still dropped Connie on the first hill and we strung out along the road until reaching Wachirathan Waterfall about an hour later having climbed just 325m in vertical height. Wachirathan Waterfall (or Namtok Wachirathan to give it it’s Thai name, also known as “Tad Khongyong”) is a small but attractive waterfall approximately 750m above sea level situated at km31 on Highway 1009 on the steep cliff of Pha Mon Khaeo.
January and February are winter months in Chiang Mai province and the temperature can drop quite dramatically in the mountains, but it is also the time when the trees and flowers are blossoming and changing. Today the trees were resplendent with leaves of gold and red and green. The indigenous pink Siamese sakura flowers were also in full bloom.
After far too long a stop at the waterfall, five of the original six cyclists headed back out. Mr Sert was excited, because this was his first time leading a group on Doi Inthanon, but more so because he would be taking us to his village home where we could drink coffee and have lunch.
Just over 8km’s further along Hwy 1009 and another 300m of vertical elevation gain, we arrived at Ban Mae Klang Luang, a Thai hillside village built around rice paddies, with a new focus on tourist community accommodation. Apart from the obvious but not ‘in your face’ tourist trappings, this sleepy Thai hill tribe village could be anywhere in middle Europe. It has an alpine feel about it. Here you can rent a house on stilts overlooking the rice fields, a straw tepee or a rustic cottage complete with outdoor fire pit. But first we visited Mr Sert’s family. Living in a typical wooden hill tribe house, his family grows rice and coffee, Arabica coffee, which they roast and bag and sell along with rice and other fruit and vegetables.
The air was heavy with the sticky sweet smell of the abundant strawberries which were ripening under the blue sky. We ate some fruit and drank some of the locally grown coffee then purchased some ground beans to take away. Lunch was a sumptuous affair of rice, mixed vegetables, mushroom soup, omelette and fried chicken. We were down to three cyclists after lunch. I felt leaden legged as we set off on the final climb towards the summit, having probably eaten too much, coupled with the heat and the long rest.
At 2565 metres above sea level, Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest mountain, but we never reached the summit, at least not by bike. After about 30 minutes Mike was the next to abandon, another half an hour later and I too lost focus. So we all piled into the minibus and chugged up the mountain stopping first at the twin chedis of Naphamethanidon and Naphapholphumisiri.
Sitting approximately 6km from the summit at 2146 metres above sea level, these chedis were built to commemorate the King and Queen of Thailand’s sixtieth birthdays in 1987 and 1992 respectively. They sit on a rocky plateau and are maintained by the Royal Thai Air Force, whose insignia can be seen engraved on the side of the King’s chedi. Uniformed members of the Royal Thai Air Force staff the entrance to the site and patrol on foot around the car park and shops. Unfortunately the Queen’s chedi was undergoing some renovation during my visit and its roof was shrouded in scaffolding and green mesh. The slow pace of the ride coupled with the long breaks conspired together meaning that there was no time to visit the buildings and so I had to make do with photos of the exterior only. Driving away from the stupas, you can’t help wondering how they got all of the materials up here to build these commemorative structures.
Ten minutes later we arrived at the roof of Thailand. Apart from the obligatory wooden sign which proudly proclaims that you have reached the highest spot in Thailand there is little more than a short boardwalk around a small temple, a visitor centre (more of an information centre) and a couple of small shops. The site is also home to a giant ‘golf-ball’ shaped weather radar and antenna belonging to the Royal Thai Air Force.
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