Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai has developed into something of a cycling hotbed and is well worth a two-wheeled visit. Its repute is well-earned but shouldn't come without a few fine-printed clauses.
Steve Thomas

Cycling Central
10 Feb 2017 - 10:41 AM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2017 - 10:55 AM

When thinking of Thailand it’s usually the bustling streets of Bangkok or the sun-soaked tropical islands of the south that spring to mind. For sure, that's where the bulk of visitors spend their time, including a great number of cyclists.

But there's much more to Thailand, especially if you head to the far north. Flat and hot, that could be how you’d imagined the riding here, and that’s half right, or perhaps less than half. Much of Thailand is actually wild and mountainous, especially the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, carpeted as they are in jungle clad mountains with peaks (and roads) topping out a snip under 2,600 metres high. Yes, that's about as high as most Alpine climbs in Europe.

Chiang Mai itself is a thriving yet laid back and friendly city with a warm and traditional heart. Doused in regional culture and surrounded by fantastic road and mountain biking opportunities, it also has the relevant infrastructure to back it up. 

Within just 15 minutes of riding from downtown, you can be at the foot of an Alpine style climb, without even leaving the city limits. Head out in any other direction and you’ll find a beefy network of roads. From flat and winding country roads to undulating all-day grinds and even more gruelling mountains - they’re all on tap here. This variety is probably why cycling thrives here and why the city is a favoured (near) year-round training base for many riders. 

As the local cycling culture has boomed so the city has become the undisputed regional cycling hub. It now has numerous high-end bike shops, cycling cafes, group rides, cycling tour companies and bike friendly accommodation options. 

Thailand (especially the north) is also one of the cheapest and easiest places in Asia to visit, and all-round standards are pretty high too. This all adds up for a great and bargain basement package for independent cyclists.

You could spend a couple of weeks here for a fraction of what it would cost you for a few days on a road trip at home, and there are some great budget flight deals via Bangkok and KL too. 

It’s not only amateur riders and Asian pros who choose to spend time riding here. An ever growing number of leading ex-pro riders and occasional current World Tour riders also pass through during the winter months, combining the great riding with a dose of exotic culture and Thai food.

That said, there are a number of things you should consider and factor into planning a trip and riding here.

When to go

The best time is from October to February. That's winter here, and the days are generally warm and sunny, with temperatures averaging between the high 20’s and mid 30’s Centigrade. Evenings can be a little cooler, and overall it’s not so humid.

Mid February to late April is a “must avoid” time. This is burning season, and everything from rice fields to forests are on fire. Yep, the air quality is abysmal – although some people do strike lucky, thanks to an odd unseasonal downpour but do not bank on this.

The smoke slowly subsides in May and then it’s seriously hot and humid until mid June. June to August is early rainy season which can be heavy at times, but when it clears the air and colours are crystal clear and vibrant and can be a great time to ride.

August to September is usually even wetter, but once again, when it does hold dry this is when you really get the bold green colours, so it’s well worth considering, although do be prepared to write off a day here and there.

The riding

The best thing I can advise for cycling in Chiang Mai is to avoid the busy main roads (there are plenty of side options) and to stay fully alert, as awareness is often lacking. As long as you keep this in mind all is good to go.

Shadowing the western edge of town is the Doi Suthep (Doi Pui is the summit) mountain, which provides the most popular local road bike challenge. It’s an 11 kilometre alps style climb to the temple, where most riders turn-tail. But carry on to the actual road-head, which lies another five kilometres up the ever steepening road - it's worth it. 

The most celebrated single day ride from town is the Samoeng loop, which is hilly and encircles Doi Suthep - a 100 kilometre trip all-in. 

Head northwards and flat roads roll out towards some ultra testing rides to the east of Phrao. Directly east of Chiang Mai are some great circular and hilly rides around Mae On.

Head southwest by the main road and you arrive at the foot of the 47 kilometre slog to the summit of Doi Inthanon, which at 2,585 metres tall is the highest road and peak in the country. This is a classic and tree shrouded twister of a ride. The road rises at five per cent for most of the way before hitting 23 per cent during the final crunch for the summit. But the view is worth the pain. 

There’s also good riding towards Lampang, which is south from the city. As long as you avoid the main roads it’s hard to go wrong.