Chiang Saen – Tha Ton – Chiang Dao – Chiang Mai

Twenty days on with 1,022 miles pedaled we have reached Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city and our last stop before flying down to Bangkok on Wednesday evening.

We have seen some big Buddhas, this one at Tha Ton tops them all. Spot Gavin for scale.

The route down from Chiang Saen has been very beautiful with a few long and sometimes steep climbs up through the northern hills. Where possible, we have cycled quiet roads through villages and farmland – so much more enjoyable than some unavoidable stretches along big highways where the traffic noise and fumes get quite wearing. We have generally felt quite safe though.

Breakfast in Chiang Dao looking at Doi Luang, at 2,240 metres, Thailand’s third largest mountain

Despite an awful lot of broken glass on the roadsides we have had no punctures. However, we did have a couple of mechanical issues leaving Tha Ton. The two bolts that hold the eccentric bottom bracket on my bike had worked loose, resulting in some worrying clunking and lack of positivity. Gavin had to do something quite clever to his front cone nuts with a pedal wrench and adjustable spanner when his front wheel stopped spinning freely. Fortunately all running repairs held good.

Trimming chrysanthemum bushes, the flowers are dried for making tea, near Tha Ton

The Thai people are simply delightful and go out of their way to be helpful, none more so than the owner of The Reset Resort in Chiang Dao; we spent last night in one of the four guest cabins, set in a beautifully tended garden, he and his wife run as B&B accommodation. He is the happiest, most smiley person I have ever met. The extra blankets he got us were very welcome as the night time temperatures have plummeted.

Our happy host, with Gavin, wrapped up against the early morning chill

Two rice ricks complete with little top nots

Chiang Khong to Chiang Saen

What a beautiful 50 mile ride we had from Chiang Khong, following the Mekong northwest, to Chiang Saen. The scenery, looking across the river to the hills of Laos, is just magical.

Mekong River dividing the hills of Thailand from those of Laos

Before checking in to a well equipped rustic hut, just back from the riverbank, in the port town of Chiang Saen, we pedalled another 5 miles up river. This brought us to the point of The Golden Triangle; the confluence of the Mekong with the Ruak River where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. The tortuous Ruak River forms much of Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar.

Rustic bungalow set in beautiful gardens at Chiang Saen

A significant drop temperature, to the mid twenties during the day, is much more pleasant to cycle in and provides for better sleep in cooler nights.

Kitchen on the motor bike sidecar

We are staying in Chiang Saen for a second night tonight, which paved the way for a more leisurely breakfast, some much needed bike cleaning and maintenance, a long conversation with fellow guests, the delightful Mr T and his son, from Bangkok and a cycle around local sites. A long walk up a steep hill with a modern Wat on top provided a spectacular view point over the river.

Chiang Saen to the left of the river
Fabulous ride Chiang Khong to Chiang Saen

Song – Pong – Chiang Kham

Saturday’s 58 mile ride from Song to Pong included almost 900 metres of climbing, with two major hills. The only other traffic, on this very quiet road was a couple of Canadian cycle tourists. They came over for a chat as we were having an orange juice and breather at the top of the second climb. We were absolutely delighted to meet Chris and Heather, whose blog of their trip down the Mexican Baja inspired and informed our 2018 ride down the peninsula. They are spending 6 months riding around SE Asia, in part to escape the Canadian winter. Their description of cycling in South Korea has planted a seed! It was extraordinary meeting up, but maybe just proves that the long distance cycle touring community is quite small

Chris and Heather our Baja inspiration

The scenery, as we venture North and into the jungle like hills, is ever more scenic. The birdsong, especially during the magical early mornings before the sun is fully up, is wonderful, with many exotic sounds alien to our English ears.

Both Song and Pong are small towns where western faces are a curiosity, clearly not on the tourist trail. However, we have been made very welcome, from the owners of our various accommodations to street restaurant owners who have kept us in either chicken, pork or shrimp fried rice. Whilst there are small supermarkets in most sizable towns most food items, meat, fish, vegetables and fruit are sold in markets which start very early in the morning and go on well into the evening. The produce invariably looks very fresh, the fish are still flapping in most we have seen.

Market at Chiang Kham
Market at Chiang Kham

A short 33 mile north from Pong this morning has brought us to Chiang Kham, a larger busier town than either Song or Pong. Having arrived by 10.00 am we have had plenty of time to potter about, dodging the many young teenagers riding scooters home from school, many with at least one or two younger siblings or friends on the back. Almost none wear helmets.

Ninety four percent of the Thai population are Buddhist, almost every village has a highly decorated Wat (Temple). There are many in the larger towns. Wat Nantaran here in Chiang Kham dates back to the late 18th Centuary when Burmese teak traders lived here.

Wat Nantaran Chiang Kham
Wat – in the town of Phrae

Old Si Satchanalai to Phrae to Song

Two nights in Old Si Satchanalai provided respite from ‘route’ cycling and the opportunity to visit the Unesco World Heritage Park, just half a mile away, where there are many more ruins dating back to the 12th centuary. The remains of the temples are set in beautifully kept parklands, and are somewhat reminiscent of the relics at Ankor in Cambodia, but without the hordes of people and at £2.50 each for us and 25p per bike, the hefty entrance fee.

Way Phra Si Ratana Mahathat – Old Si Satchanalai

The skill of the craftsmen who built and decorated these enormous temples is truly awe inspiring.

The ‘day off’ as Gavin insists on calling the day cycling between the temples and exploring them on foot, in 30+ degrees, had to be ‘paid for’ with an 80 mile ride north to Phrae. A 5.45 am start required the use of lights but was essential to get miles in before the heat built. The early stages along the Yom river, through miles of freshly sprouting rice, was delightful. The water filled paddies glistened in the early morning sun with the growing seedlings a vibrant green five o’clock shadow where flocks of egrets and the occasional grey heron feast.

The second half, after the busy town of Uttaradit (breakfast stop with 36 miles done by 8.15 am) was less fun as we had to take a major highway; the traffic noise, heat and the biggest hill we have encountered so far were quite wearing, despite there being a reasonable shoulder most of the way. We arrived in Phrae; the old town is heavily influenced by Burmese carpentry skills, at 2pm and were very happy to chill at the delightful Phoomthai Garden Hotel. Sadly neither of us had the energy to take a dip in the pool just outside our room.

Phoomthai Garden Hotel – highly recommended. A Thai lady singing Carpenters songs, in English, in the restaurant was bizarre, she was surprisingly good though.

Having only 30 miles to do today (Saturday) allowed us a bit of a lie-in and a very nice breakfast. In contrast to yesterday, our route to Song was on minor roads winding through delightfully named villages and open farmland.

Rotovating the paddies, must be firm ground beneath the flooding

Prompiram to Si Satchanalai

What a joy; Kamoot, the bike mapping and navigation app we are using, has guided us through delightful, traditional villages in the agriculturally rich north central plain. The mapping is so detailed we can use older roads and paths which has the double benefit of avoiding faster traffic on the main roads and experiencing day to day Thai life.

A very wobbly suspension bridge over the river Yom – one of our ‘off the beaten track’ Kamoot discoveries
Early morning Water Buffalo Market

We had a magical overnight stop at Old Sukhothai, the ancient capital of Thailand, in an air-conditioned, comfortable cabin set in a garden of banana trees and lotus flowers. The very sweet lady owner could not have been more kind or helpful. We spent Tuesday afternoon cycling around the various ruins of the wealthy 12th-13th centuary Sukhothai civilisation that ruled the region. Devotion to their religion is clearly evident with Buddhas everywhere, from small representations to huge monuments.

Buddhas at Wat Saphan Hin, Old Sukhothai. Photo taken as we watched the sunrise over the old city

This morning (Wednesday) we cycled another 40 miles north, along the banks of the Yom river, where there is much water extraction to irrigate the largely horticultural crops grown alongside. We are now in Si Satchanalai, a satellite town from the 13th centuary, Sukhothai era. We intend to spend two nights here, for some rest, and to explore the many monuments in this UNESCO world heritage site.

Outside our air-conditioned, en-suite cabin at Sukhothai City Resort

Dan Sai to Prompiram Suannam

350 miles done. We are now out of the Luang Prabang Range of hills, and have entered the north central plain. We are spending tonight in a Golf Resort set within an oxbow of the Nam River, just west of Phitsanulok. Sunday’s ride from Dan Sai to Chattrakan was a game of two halves, the first half being very hilly but relatively quiet. After a stops for coffee in Nakon Thai and exchanging tales with 3 cycle tourists from Utah in the US, the roads became much busier. Generally drivers are very courteous and give us plenty of room.

Dan Sai – famous for masked rain-making ceremonies each June

Today (Monday) we were back on quiet rural roads where most of the traffic was either locals going about their business on mopeds or farmers busy with harvest, at one point herding several water buffalo cows and calves across the road. Thailand has a huge agriculture sector accounting for circa 10% of GDP, much of it centred here in the, very flat, North Central Plain. The fields are much bigger and mechanisation much more evident.

Beautifully decorated tractor lorries hauling rice grains from the combine harvester

We rode through acres of sugar cane, a significant amount of very healthy looking maize, banana and mango groves and a crop which appears to grow from ‘sticks’ planted in ridges – still trying to fathom what this is.

Water Buffalo having a wallow
Mid-ride snack sheltering from the sun amongst sugar cane

Chiang Khan to Dan Sai

All is going well, with early starts (13°c v 29°c by 11.00am) proving both essential for pleasant cycling and allowing us to experience the mellow colours and tranquility resulting from the dawning light.

Quiet roads and lovely scenery

Whilst the terrain has got more hilly in the Luang Prabang Range the climbs have not been too challenging, whilst allowing for exhilarating downhills and some fun rollercoasters.

From Chiang Khan we followed the Thai – Laos border along the Mekong and then the smaller Hueang river. Eventually heading south west, away from the border, just beyond the little town of Tha Li where we spent Friday night. A delightful young Thai couple, with a cute little cafe, cooked us a tasty chicken and fried rice dish followed by waffles with local bananas and chocolate sauce – yum. They were very interested in our journey but left us feeling very old with their astonishment that we could undertake such a trip at our age (the Thais have no qualms at asking how old we are).

Cow and calf grazing alongside the road

Most agricultural land is taken up with rice – typically three crops are grown each year, harvest is in full swing. Yesterday we watched as one farmer threshed the grains from the stalks by repeatedly beating the seed heads against the ground, back breaking work for hours in 30+degree heat. Today we passed a group feeding the sheaves into a threshing machine powered by the hydraulics on a small tractor. The chaff and ‘straw’ being blown into the air before landing in a big heap.

Mechanisation comes to the rice paddies. My Grandad had a mobile threshing machine (for corn), powered by his steam engine, in the 1920s
‘Towel Art’ in our room in Tha Li all for the princely sum of £15.41
Collecting sap from a rubber tree at one drip every three seconds

Nong Khai to Chiang Khan

120 miles pedaled, heading north, alongside the Mekong since leaving Nong Khai. The first day to Sangkhom was relatively flat, with frequent detours through villages to see day to day life whilst avoiding the highway despite traffic being very light.

The river valley is clearly very fertile with acres of vegetable crops and swathes of tiny red hot chilli peppers variously being watered, weeded or picked by straw-hatted workers.

Red hot chilli peppers

Setting off at first light, just after 6am, makes for much more pleasant cycling before the sun gets high and temperatures soar. Today we completed the 68 miles from Sangkohm by 12.30pm allowing time to chill in an air-conditioned room before venturing out to explore once the heat recedes.

Today’s ride was more undulating and scenic with views of beautiful, tree-clad hillsides in Laos across the river. Farmers are busy harvesting rice, mostly by hand, with small, hand-cut sheaves being loaded using pitch forks onto pickup trucks and curious tractors. However, two tiny combine harvester type machines on catapillar tracks were causing much interest amongst the locals, and no doubt putting many out of work.

The traditional …..
… and the modern

Much time and effort appears to be expended in spreading the rice crop out on plastic matting to dry each day.

Rice drying in action

Escaping the cold …

A rough approximation of our route c. 800 miles

Unable to make our usual Jan/Feb escape to warmer shores in 2020, we are taking advantage of some very competitive flights to Bangkok to spend three weeks cycling in East and North Thailand. Some of which will be the trip we had to abandon in 2016 after Gavin broke his ankle.

Following a straightforward 12 hour flight (Boing 777) from Heathrow to Bangkok, we took a 1 hour internal flight, northeast, to Udon Thani and then a taxi to get to Nong Khai where the pedalling will begin. Nong Khai is located on the Mekong River, almost opposite the Laos capital city, Vientiane, which we visited on our 2013-14 South East Asia trip.

Park of huge Hindu & Buddhist concrete sculptures – Nong Khai

Tuesday was spent getting the bikes ready, exploring this delightful little, non touristy, town and acclimatising to the 32 degree temperature.

We plan to start tomorrow’s fifty plus miles at first light, closely following the river northwards, to get the bulk of the cycling done before it gets too hot.

Water spouting dragons beside the Mekong River Nong Khai