Plan to spend a few days in Chiang Mai. It’s busy with tourists but for good reason. There’s something for everyone here and all budgets.
Duration: 4 days
Terrain: Mostly flat, with one good climb before Chiang Mai
Accomodation: Hotels all the way
Highlights: Quiet backroad riding and of course, Chiang Mai!
Lowlights: Scenery a bit boring, no shoulder in places
Tips: Go to the Chiang Rai winery. Worth the detour!
Section 1 – Chiang Khong to Phaya Meng Rai (70km)
One guidebook describes Chiang Khong as a village but it’s a bit more than that with quite a few guesthouses, restaurants, a big market and all the other amenities you’d expect in a decent sized town. If you don’t feel like heading further after completing the border crossing from Lao, it wouldn’t be a bad place to hang out for a day. From the pier at immigration, turn left to get into town. Continuing straight down the main drag will put you on route 1020.
From Chiang Khong, ride south on route 1020 for about 9km, where you turn right onto route 1174. The turn is marked for Chiang Rai. It’s a twisty road that isn’t always in the best shape but there’s hardly any traffic and the locals are very excited to see you. They don’t get many tourists out here. Rice paddies are the theme of the day, with very few hills to get the blood pumping. If the sun gets too hot, you can always pop under one of the many huts in the fields for a bit of shade and there’s lots of food and water along the way.
It’s an easy ride to Meng Rai, a small town, which looks rather rundown at first glance. Happily, there’s a great little place to stay nearby. The Bansuan Resort is made up of just three chalets, each with a garden, balcony, television, fan and bathroom. The lovely couple running the place will also give you a bucket of ice and a dish of candies to make you feel at home. They also come around the next morning with coffee and cakes! It’s a bit pricey at 350 baht but worth a splurge. The resort is 200 meters down a quiet lane, just off route 1174. Look for the lane going off to the right, just before the sign marking Meng Rai’s town limits and the police station. It is signed but only in Thai. If you get lost, ask at the traffic police kiosk in Meng Rai. They will phone the hotel and the owners will come retrieve you.
Section 2 – Phaya Meng Rai to Chiang Rai (50km)
It’s a straightforward and flat run into Chiang Rai on Route 1152 by turning right at the central junction in Meng Rai and following the signs into the city. Where Route 1152 ends, forming a T-junction with Route 1020, things become much busier. It’s basically a four lane highway into Chiang Rai but there’s always a good shoulder.
There are no huge attractions in Chiang Rai but there are some great markets, a Hill Tribe Museum and a few wats to explore. We stayed in the Sport Inn Hotel on Pracha Santi Road, south of the city centre. Huge rooms with cable television, air conditioning, a fridge and free internet/wireless and coffee go for 350 baht. Our only complaint was that the wireless didn’t work in our 3rd floor room but there was a repeater on the second floor. In the lobby, the connection was fast and reliable.
Just around the corner on Sanambin Road, the Sabai Inn Hotel also advertises rooms at 350 baht including free internet and breakfast – worth comparing with the Sport Inn.
Section 3 – Chiang Rai to Cabbages & Condoms Resort (104km)
Today’s route starts out flat and easy but soon there are a few rolling hills and a couple steep climbs midday through the day. The distance includes a detour to a winery so you can cut off about 8km off the day if you aren’t tempted by wine tasting.
Turn west onto San Khong Noi Road (off of Sanambin Road) and then left onto Route 1211, which has a wide shoulder. About 25km out of Chiang Rai, Route 1211 makes a sharp left turn but the smaller Route 2113 goes straight ahead. Take this for a shortcut to Route 118, which you reach after 6km. Now the road is wider, with four lanes and a big shoulder. The generous shoulder makes good riding all the way into Mae Suai, a nice little town to have lunch in. Fried rice and other dishes are easily tracked down in a few basic eateries on the main street.
After Mae Suai the shoulder deteriorates and the riding isn’t as pleasant but a nice diversion from all of this is the Chiang Rai Winery. You’ll see a billboard pointing the way down a side road to the right when you’ve got nearly 60km on the clock. It’s 4km down to the winery and worth every extra stroke of the pedals to taste their four distinctive wines. We recommend the Mangosteen Wine, a semi-dry red with lots of fruit and spice on the nose. They also have nice bungalows if you want to stay the night for 500 baht including breakfast.
Assuming you carry on, retrace your steps to Route 118 and grit your teeth through a few steep hills and the continuing poor shoulder. Things improve on the other side of Wiang Pa Pao, when you’re almost to the Cabbages & Condoms Resort. The last few kilometers are on a wide, well maintained road and you can’t miss the resort on the left. Fan rooms with a hot shower and Thai TV are 350 baht.
Section 4 – Cabbages & Condoms to Chiang Mai (90km)
The day starts with a run through some fairly uninspiring towns. The road remains busy but the shoulder reappears at least in parts. It’s fairly flat going until you pass the hot springs and then the road turns upwards. With 30km on the clock, the climbing is almost done and soon you’ll cruise over the pass and downhill for a long time. There are few places to pick up refreshments as you mount the hill so come prepared with plenty of water and snacks. As you approach Chiang Mai, the road flattens out and becomes a dual carriageway. It’s at this point that you start to see a few restaurants appear. There’s plenty of traffic but the margin is generous so you can cycle without any real danger here. Going straight will take you right into the heart of Chiang Mai, where hundreds of guesthouses and hotels are waiting for your business. It’s worth bargaining in the off season especially. If you pay for 10 days, you can get the rest of the month free in some places.