59km, av. 13.2km/hr, max 48.1km/hr, time on bikes: 4hrs 27 mins
More than a week into our trip and we finally start cycling properly! Under cloudy, muggy skies, we hit the road (pausing for obligatory fruit stop), taking route 118 towards Chiang Rai.
In our first hour on the road, we have to stop once for a badly-secured rucksack (won’t do that again) but, other than that, negotiating the traffic out of the city isn’t too traumatic and we make good progress; 20km on flat roads with no wind – this cycling lark is gonna be easy…
We shouldn’t have been so smug. In the remaining part of the day we only manage another 39km. The road, although very good, is mostly uphill, and in the afternoon as the cloud clears and the air freshens, a stiff headwind picks up. But the National Park scenery is lush and it feels good to be finally making tracks.
We lunch at Doi Saket hot spring, 2km off the main road. It’s a cute little place full of kids splashing around in the bath-temperature water, and the food is good too.
The National Park is also full of roadside strawberry sellers, sometimes also offering pick your own. As teatime snacks go, you can’t really beat a punnet of freshly picked strawbs.
As our first full day of cycle touring draws to a close it becomes apparent that we’re not going to make our planned overnight stop. We might not even make it out of the national park area (er, is this our inexperience showing..?!) We enquire at one roadside lodging but are quoted an astonishing 3,500 bhat (75 pounds), so we cycle on, despite fast running out of options.
As dusk descends with worrying speed we finally see a modest sign for accommodation 1km ahead (uphill, of course). Some 300m off the main road, this hidden homestay turns out to be a godsend. For 800 bhat we get a friendly welcome, comfy bed, hot shower, dinner by an open fire, and breakfast the next morning, all in a peaceful, picturesque riverside setting far from the main road.
We got lucky!
84.4km, av. 16.8km/hr, max 54.6km/hr, time on bikes: 5hrs 1min
Bidding our forest retreat farewell, and with a full tummy of Thai porridge (like savoury garlicky rice pudding; tastier than it sounds), we make good progress on day two, helped by a lot of downhill followed by a lot of flat. The speedometer shows a top speed of 54.6km/hr, which is kind of scary when you think how much weight the bike is carrying.
Tourist attractions en route do their best to distract us – more hot springs (bigger but more ‘built around’ than yesterday’s) and then the frankly bizarre yet breathtaking White Temple.
A word about the roads and traffic on Route 118: Once out of Chaing Mai, traffic is relatively light, but fast. So far though, we’ve not felt in danger or intimidated by it. Most of the time there’s been a hard shoulder and even when there’s not been (most usually on bendy hill climbs) traffic has generally given us good clearance. This is in part due to the mix of traffic on the road, from bikes and scooters to chugging, ancient lorries and executive coaches.
We overnight in Mae Suai, a wee little place where we end up drinking lots of whisky with some locals in a small restaurant, who really want us to help them celebrated New Year, however belated it is!
51.9km, av. 15.8km/hr, max. 36km/hr, time on bikes: 3hrs 16 mins
I don’t appear to have any notes about this part of the ride apart from “sunny, 21c, sun burn!”, so can only assume it was relatively straightforward and uneventful other than this. What I do know is that we continue on Route 118 from our overnight stop (possibly with a bit of a hangover), before joining the slightly busier highway, AH2, into Chiang Rai, which is dual carriageway but not too scary.
We arrive in Chiang Rai in good time and head to the bus station in the centre of town, to enquire about buses to the border town of Chiang Khong. We are quickly pointed to the right bus, which leaves at 3.30pm. Before we can blink, our bikes are on the roof of the bus and we’re off. 330 bhat is also the cost of the bus – 65 bhat each, plus 100 bhat per bike, which feels a bit excessive for a 2hr bus journey but we’re too late to haggle. The terrain is mostly flat rice fields, but we’re too keen to get to Laos to spend a full day cycling it.