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.