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Thailand on Two Wheels

Mountain Biking in the Golden Triangle

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In the northernmost reaches of Thailand, near the borders with Myanmar and Laos, lies the Golden Triangle, a region whose very name has been synonymous with intrigue and adventure and, in the not-so-distant past, secretive warlords and the opium trade.

It was early February, in the depths of the cool and rainy Bay Area winter, when I flew to this hot and steamy land for an eight-day exploration of the Triangle’s jungle-lined valleys, snaking rivers and vast rice paddies. I was joining a group for an organized biking trip; the agenda was to ride on quiet country roads and dirt paths from town to town. We would round out days on the saddle with jaunts on sleek longboats down jungle rivers, rides by elephant-back to remote villages and treks on centuries-old paths to the hill-tribe communities of the Akha, Karen, Lisu and Lahu ethnic groups. Along our route, we would see ornate Buddhist temples tended by saffron-robed monks and bustling markets abounding in intricate artwork and flavorful cuisine. It sounded like the adventure to top all adventures, a realization of childhood dreams of exotic travel in far-off lands.

Veer Left at the Banana Plantation

We began our journey in Chiang Mai, a 13th-century city rich in monuments and famous for its night market. After meeting at the airport, our group of ten visitors and two guides boarded a van piloted by a cheery local named Piak, our driver and interpreter for the week.

The two-hour drive to the Chiang Dao Hills resort gave us a chance to get acquainted and enjoy our first glimpses of the lush northern Thailand scenery. The traditional Thai-style hotel, nestled on the shore of a lake, featured modest cottages crafted from teak and local stone. Each had a balcony looking out on the surrounding mountains and forest.

That afternoon, we regrouped for a bike fitting and decided to hike to a nearby Hmong farming village. Thailand’s third-highest mountain (7,500-foot Doi Chiang Dao) dominates the Chiang Dao landscape and its forested hills provide ample hiking opportunities. That evening we enjoyed the first of many traditional (and delicious) Thai meals, including som tom (a refreshing papaya salad) and satay (barbecued chicken kabobs), all washed down with Thai iced coffee and Singha beer.

The following day, after breakfast and a route map review by our leaders, some of us opted for a mountainbike ride and set out at our own pace, following a detailed set of printed instructions. Directions such as “veer left at the banana plantation” and “turn right at Doi Ngan village” had me imagining holing up in a tribal village for the night, but they were reassuringly accurate throughout this 17.5-mile ride and for the rest of the week—as long as we paid attention, that is!

This rugged region of rolling hills marked by lofty karst formations is dotted with Lahu hill-tribe villages. About 20 hill tribes live in northern Thailand; most have migrated from Myanmar and China over the past century and have retained their distinct language, religious beliefs, cultural practices, architecture and dress.

About five miles in, we stopped at the Hoi Jakan Village, where both Thai and Lisu people live. Piak and our support van met us, offering water, snacks and any needed bike maintenance. We were surrounded by a throng of inquisitive, giggling schoolchildren and entertained them with inflatable balloons and a soccer ball we had brought along as a gift.

Continuing past shelters, spirit houses (mini-temples erected in front of businesses and homes) and long stretches of seemingly uninhabited land, we would occasionally encounter villagers. Some were riding noisy, exhaust-spewing motor scooters (always signaling a friendly “beep-beep” when approaching from behind); others were on foot—mostly village women carrying provisions in slings they strapped to their foreheads.

Image 2:  Cyclists pause outside and ornate Buddhist temple near the town of Chiang Saen.

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