With a morning visit to Wat Banden temple, we had a rather peaceful start to what was an overall adrenaline pumping three day adventure. Officially named “Wat Bandensali Si Mueang Kaen”, this temple is one of the largest in Chiang Mai province and is decorated with exquisite Lanna architecture which you won’t find in other parts of Thailand.
Our guide, Todd, shared his knowledge about various features of the temple including a particularly interesting story about Mae Thorani; the goddess who according to Buddhist mythology wringed water out of her hair to create a river, washing away the demons who were trying to tempt the young Buddha as he meditated under the Bodhi Tree. Interestingly, the Thai word for ‘river’ as well as ‘mother’ is “Mae” connected with this deity who plays a key role in Buddhist mythology.
From Wat Banden temple, we got acquainted with our TREK 3900 mountain bikes as we began our cycling journey through the scenic Cholae Valley. Being completely surrounded by flat farmland and the mountains framing the valley, a transcendent feeling was created as we pedaled the dirt trails through the scenic countryside.
Pulling into a village home, Todd introduced us to some locals who were drying their fresh harvest of tobacco; we could see the moist plants the ladies were spreading in trays as well as semi-dried tobacco which had been in the sun for several days. Passing through the village followed by a thigh-burning ascent to Mae Ngat Dam, we stopped at Sri Lanna National Park for a delicious Thai lunch overlooking the scenic lake.
With the midday heat setting in, we headed to Chiang Dao caves where we could explore this underground, limestone wonderland in slightly more comfortable temperatures. Wandering through the cave (guided by a local with a gas lamp), we encountered countless Buddhist shrines nestled between the natural limestone and crystal formations…it wasn’t difficult to imagine Buddhist monks peacefully meditating here many years ago.
As the afternoon drew to an end, we ended the day with some mountain biking over the hills of Chiang Dao with the sun setting behind the mountains as we powered up and whizzed down the dusty trails. At the base of the trail, we encountered friendly villagers before heading to Padeng Eco Lodge to refresh, refuel and rest in preparation for more cycling over the next few days.
Day 2 started from a Palong village where we first had a chat with the locals and admired some of their handicrafts. The Palong people crossed the border from Myanmar in the 80’s as refugees and still maintain their own language, culture and costumes. Palong women have a beautiful and unique traditional dress including silver rings they wear around their waist which they don’t remove throughout their entire lifetime.
Taking a backroad from the village, we found ourselves pedaling alongside giant limestone cliffs, through dense bamboo forests and down rocky mountain trails. Passing by local orchards, Todd explained how once this area only produced fast-growing crops (e.g. peanuts) because refugees were unsure how long they would be allowed to stay in Thailand; today after being accepted by the government, they grow crops such as mango and longan. Refueling with some delicious local food after our 17km morning ride, we made our way to Tham Tap Tao Cave; this is another impressive limestone cave housing a number of Buddhist shrines. Whilst exploring the massive caverns, squeezing through some small spaces and admiring Buddhist statues, we only encountered one other small group of people exploring this underground wonderland (as well as a cave snake and some bats!).
With time pressing on, we opted to transfer by vehicle to a trail just outside of Tha Ton (a small town close to the border of Myanmar where would stay for the night). We cycled a further 5km through rice fields with the mountains of Ban Tha Ton and Myanmar creating a wonderful backdrop. Temples scattered the tops of the mountain and Todd explained how these were built to protect the land from being claimed by Burmese troops; he also pointed out a Burmese style military base atop the mountain range. Riding into our accommodation at Apple Resort alongside the Mae Kok river, we were all ready for a shower and dinner with some live music at a nearby restaurant.
Our final day of the adventure started at Wat Tha Ton where we had a wonderful view of the valley below and the Maekok River which we would later be riding alongside. Inside the iconic Crystal Pagoda, Todd explained more to us about Buddhism and Thailand’s history while answering our questions with ease. With the morning air still fresh, we started the days cycling with an adrenaline pumping ride down the mountain before continuing along the road until we reached the long-nosed slow boat to transport us along the Mae Kok river. This peaceful ride was a definite highlight of the trip as we passed by local water buffalo’s bathing in the river, children playing and jumping off rocks, and the bamboo swaying in the wind.
After about 45 minutes we found ourselves dropped at the riverbank greeted by more water buffalo and cows; from here we continued our journey down the river but this time back in the saddle riding up and down gravel road through villages and farmland. After a rather challenging 16km ride including a close encounter with a snake(!) we were all rather happy to arrive at our final stop for some lunch and shelter from the sun in Chiang Rai. Equally elated to have successfully completed 3 days cycling to Chiang Rai and sad that the adventure had come to an end, we transferred by van to Chiang Rai town where the incredible journey would end.