This is a beautiful area of jungle-covered mountains, but extremely hard cycling because the climbs are both long and steep, and there is precious little flat to recover on. You see ridge after ridge receding to the horizon; spiky crags, cliffs, caves, waterfalls, tropical forest, rice fields, flowers, butterflies, and teak houses on stilts.
Accommodation may be divided into 3 categories. Resorts are generally located outside towns. They are well spaced out, and rooms are usually provided in detached huts. Hotels and guest houses are more urban, and usually consist of a single building; hotels are in most cases the more upmarket.
Toilet paper and soap are provided almost everywhere. Some places provide no towels or no topsheets (so take a small towel and learn to live without a topsheet).
Food in Thailand is similar to that found in Thai restaurants in this country (sc. England), sometimes with the addition of weird vegetables. Most restaurants serving Thai food also serve Chinese dishes, and all those we encountered had menus in English.
Basic food shacks can often be found on the roads. They have no English menus and the food is of variable quality (I dont mean this euphemistically: sometimes they serve chicken neck and sometimes the food really is good as well as cheap). However the distances between eating places are large, so you will often need to carry some snack food. Some of the rides in the route notes are described as long mornings. This is not because we were happy to complete them before lunch, but because we were unable to find a proper meal until wed finished them.
Vegetarian is understood by the Thais as meaning using tofu in place of meat. The Thais do not use vegetables imaginatively on their own. To get a reasonable intake of green veg eat either fried mixed vegetables or dishes in which prawns (shrimps) comprise the meat element. The prawns make only a token presence and are bulked out with vegetables. Jungle food is game, and its ecological status is questionable. The Thais eat frogs lizards snakes and locusts so the country must be a paradise for travellers with adventurous tastes.
Rice is served in ungenerous portions: two cyclists may need 3 or 4 between them.
The Thais do not observe the western progression of courses. The rice is usually served first and when it has gone quite cold the soup and meat will make their appearance.
Thai bread is 90% air. Eateries run by westerners often bake their own. Marmalade is surprisingly common. Dried bananas and banana cake make good snacks when you can find them.
We didnt tip at restaurants outside Chiang Mai, and tipped only moderately there.
Thai wine (served as burgundy reisling and chablis) is very bad; imported wine is not reliable, and may not be served until you have finished your meal (it takes so-oh long to work out how to use a corkscrew). Drink beer.
Passion fruit and mangoes grow profusely in Thailand, but the only common soft drinks are those marketed by Coca Cola Inc. Exotic fruit juices (such as mango juice and chrysanthemum nectar) can be bought in towns. There is a passionfruit juice stall on the road from Mae Malie to Pai which is a highlight of any trip.
Water is usually sold retail in plastic bottles and tastes worse than English tapwater. Used bottles are gradually accumulating by the roadsides. Restaurants serve fairly palatable water in glass bottles. Tapwater is unhealthy.
Coffee is usually triple-strength Nescafe (even when sold as freshly brewed, understood as meaning that the kettle was boiled within living memory). The hill tribes grow coffee bushes whose product is available in western-run cafes and restaurants.
All sizeable towns have banks, including Pai, Mae Sariang and Mae Chaem. All banks will change travellers cheques.
Our entire route was on surfaced roads with kilometre posts. A couple of our daytrips used tracks. The terrain is hilly, the roads are not graded, hairpin bends are not banked, and their insides are sometimes ludicrously steep.
In the descriptions below we describe some of the climbs in subjective terms. We never knew what the height gains were, but we knew how our legs felt after them. It is hard to say how much of this was due to the heat and humidity. Except for the routes up Doi Inthanon and Doi Suthep the worst climbs may have been only 700 metres or so.
Several of the roads we followed had been unsurfaced a few years previously. A lot of effort is going into road improvement. It seems a bit anomalous given the lightness of the traffic and the difficulty of the terrain, and rather a contrast to a richer country like Chile where heavier traffic makes do with worse roads.
Official buildings along the road often have beautiful gardens.
The best map we found was that of Northern Thailand produced by Berndtson & Berndtson. Its representation of relief is largely impressionistic.
If you dont know the terrain in advance you can get demoralised by unexpected hills. Dont assume that roads will follow contour lines or rivers. Allow more time than seems necessary.
We found Touring Northern Thailand by John R. Davies (Footlose, 1991) helpful. But its out of date and contains errors. We also used the Lonely Planet.
We rode mountain bikes with smooth tyres. Road bikes with sturdy tyres and triple chainsets would have been an alternative. Having a bell fitted is a good idea.
Ouside the main towns traffic is light. Cycling is rare. Public transport is largely provided by pickup trucks which (we believe) are willing to carry bicycles.
Tracey describes riding in Chiang Mai as resembling the leadup to a sprint in a road race.
Chiang Mai is good for eating and shopping, and is otherwise as unpleasant a town as you can hope to find (outside Bangkok). Its main purpose in life is not to constitute an undue obstacle to motor traffic. The other towns we saw were unremarkable and unexceptionable.
Two of us lived for 3 weeks on £600 (at 55 Baht/£) eating well and staying in comfortable accommodation. Then Tracey found the souvenir shops. You could live on much less.
We travelled from 23 November to 15 December. At the beginning it was amost too hot to cycle; at the end it was almost too cold to take advantage of the hotel pool. We believe that the temperatures at the beginning were atypically high. In 3 weeks we had about 1 day of rain and 3 of cloud.
The kings birthday (5th Dec) fell during our trip. It led to increased traffic volumes and pressure on hotel accommodation for the entire week. Doi Inthanon was particularly affected.
Dogs are mostly docile. We took a Dog Dazer which had no noticeable effect on the exceptions. Some people swear by them, so perhaps we had a duff one. Since the sound they emit is inaudible to humans its impossible to tell if theyre working. We also had rabies jabs before going.
Mosquitoes are more troublesome, especially since they carry several serious diseases. We took a mosquito net (though we could never have used it without the help of a cyclists supply of bungees and toe clips) and recommend at least half a bottle of Jungle Formula per person per week. Colin suggests wearing cycle clips in the evening to keep the buggers from your ankles.
We encountered no dishonesty or crime, although Colin in a former visit to Bangkok found almost the entire population out to rob him.
The roadside shacks keep food hot for hours, but we had no ill effects.
We made a small clockwise loop Chiang MaiHang DongSamoengMae Rim followed by a longer anticlockwise one Mae RimPaiMae SariangMae ChaemDoi InthanonChiang Mai.
We thought that the small loop would be a suitably gentle introduction, but we were fooling ourselves: the first morning sprung two vicious climbs on us in succession. It was a pleasant route though, probably best done in the same direction as we did it.
The large loop has hard days near the beginning in either direction. It may be slightly easier done clockwise.
There are a number of roads which traverse the large loop. The road from Khun Yuam to Mae Chaem is mostly surfaced but 100km long and with no facilities en route. Tracey, who is no mean cyclist, describes the part she saw of it as very, very hard, but very scenic too. There is a road from Pai to Samoeng which is said to be popular with mountain bikers.
On these small roads there may be no kilometre markers and the direction signs may use nothing but Thai script.
It would be interesting to ride from Mae Sariang to Mae Sot, but the logistics are daunting.