Fallen leaves have made the usually dry and dusty trails of northern Thailand surprisingly slippery. Throw in the slightly chilled morning mist, and our off-road cycling trip has a rather European feel.
It’s early November, and, despite the unexpected hazards, a great time to be riding a bike in the countryside around Chiang Mai, with the rainy season almost over and the forests a verdant green.
Even at this time of year, the daytime temperatures can sometimes hit 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) on the flatlands below. That can be punishing when you’re travelling at low speeds and there’s no wind to cool your sweat. Thankfully, the nights are comfortable in town, at around 20C; in the mountains, they can be almost freezing.
Today, the mist and healthy cloud covering also keeps the heat below simmering point for longer than usual, making it just right for a long assault on the high ridge route between the two peaks of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui.
Chiang Mai’s twin peaks of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui and their many biking trails are legendary. They lure riders from across Asia throughout the year. From almost anywhere in town you can see the 1,600 metre (5,250 feet) summits and their linking ridge. Their slopes begin at the city limits, ensuring that there is great biking from the beginning of your ride.
The two guides I am riding with from Trailhead, a cycle tour company based in Chiang Mai, suggested our route; together we take a shuttle part way up Doi Suthep to avoid a long road climb. There are numerous ways down off the mountain, and we choose a mixed cross-country/all-terrain route (quite technically demanding but within the bounds of a regular rider), making sure we have enough time to beat the forecast early afternoon downpour.
For a first-timer the ride offers great biking and great views. The ridge-top vistas are not quite as open as I had hoped for, but the rolling green mountains and jungles fading away to the west are imposing and, as you drop through the trees and come around to the eastern flank of the mountains, you can see over the city and beyond.
Ride off into any of the surrounding valleys that you see and you will find a maze of natural single-track and rugged jeep trails which link remote hill tribe villages. Wooden framed houses and bamboo stilt shacks are the norm in these parts, and semi-wild hogs and minority peoples from the Akha, Hmong and Karen hill tribes live here – often without electricity. Their children play barefoot on the trails.
We descend, passing through many small hill farming areas, then hit a series of steep, broken roads before weaving though a narrow valley with several tribal villages and vegetable plantations. Just as the brakes are on the point of overheating, we draw to a halt and celebrate the end of the ride by raiding the drinks fridge at the 7-Eleven in Huai Na Wai, along the Mae Sa road (to the north of the city).
Although I have ridden solo here several times over the years, mostly exploring the base and foothills of these mountains, this is the first time I have ridden with anybody that really knows the unmarked trails. Thanks to this guided ride, I now have a much better idea of the true riding potential around the Dois.
Getting there: Chiang Mai is served by direct flights from Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and various cities in mainland China.
Where to ride: Chiang Mai lives up to its billing as a top mountain biking destination. The best riding near the city is found on the slopes of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui. The trailheads are not always obvious, but once you find them the labyrinth opens up. It is a 25km (15.5 miles) drive from town to the end of the surfaced road (a few kilometres past the temple), from where there are a few options.
Most routes lead either along dirt roads and through two Hmong hill tribe villages and then via a forested hillside to Huay Tung Tao Lake, or go further along the ridge towards the Buddha’s Footprint and then down to the Botanical Gardens in the Mae Sa Valley (as we did).
Anything from 30-80km can be ridden out here; trails do look very similar in places, so stick with a guide or a local rider until you get your bearings.
There are some really good single-track trails around Huay Tung Tao Lake and 700 Years Stadium (just to the north of the city). This general area is also where most of the best local trails which run down from the mountains end. You can ride from here all the way up to the ridge top, although it is a cruelly long, steep and steamy trip, which is much more fun on the way down.
You will find shorter rides around the city limits, but for true off-road thrills you will be riding for a while before you get tired of the Doi’s delights. To shorten your journey by getting transport for you and your bike partway up the mountain slopes, or to other areas with trails, negotiate with the driver of a local “songtaew” (red taxi van). They are very reasonably priced and you can hop in with your bike.
When to go: The best time for riding these trails is between October and early February, when there is hardly any rain and temperatures are not high. Mid February to late April is the annual burning season, when farmers burn crop fields and wildfires spread to the forests, meaning the air is often polluted – so it’s best to avoid this period.
May to early July can be hot but good to ride in, while July to September is rainy, meaning that the trails can be very muddy and slippery. At this time, the local colours are great, but it’s a little hit and miss for riding, and not worth making a trip to Chiang Mai just for a biking holiday.
If you go: Trails here are not well marked, and can become overgrown in a matter of days, especially during the rainy season – so you really do need to hook up with a decent guide or local rider, at least for a couple of days.
Trailhead (trailhead.co.th) have all grades of cycling tour on offer. They also have quality bikes for rent too. Another option for all-inclusive day rides is Mountainbiking Chiang Mai (mountainbikingchiangmai.com). There are several other operators, but few specialise in mountain biking, and tend to be more geared towards non-expert riders.