Chiang Mai to Mae Sot: A Bike Touring Route
Although the initial run out of Chiang Mai is gentle, the hills quickly appear as you turn towards the Burmese border and the leg from Mae Sariang to Mae Salit Luang could bring the unprepared to tears.
On the upside, the scenery is stunning and you get an up-close look at many hilltribe people in an area that sees few tourists. Mae Sot is a fascinating border town, with a mix of ethnicities to observe.
Note: We cycled this route in the summer but other cyclists tell us that it’s not good to go this way at the start of the year (January / February), when the farmers are burning their fields to get the land ready for the next season.
The landscape in this period of the year is quite awful. Everything is burning and the atmosphere is full of smoke so you cannot see very far. After 100 km we started to be sick, so we took a bus. -Laetitia and Sebastien
Duration: 5-6 Days
Terrain: Only for those with steel thighs! Although it starts out gently, this is not a newbie ride. The hills are tough and distances long.
Accomodation: Guesthouses but also a few chances to camp if you have a tent.
Highlights: Hilltribes in a completely untouristy setting. You’ll see many people out in traditional dress, collecting wood or plants, working in the fields or just smoking a pipe by the side of the road.
Lowlights: Very tough terrain in some parts.
Tips: Buy some peanut butter in Chiang Mai. It makes super energy food for the hills if you spread it on crackers or fruit.
Section 1 – Chiang Mai to Hot (70km)
It’s an easy run from Chiang Mai to Hot, starting out on a flat road heading southwest, which slopes downhill about 60km down the road. Traffic is busy coming out of Chiang Mai but you’ve always got a good shoulder so it’s not a big worry. Chom Thong is a good place to stop for lunch and there’s a Tesco Lotus here if you want to stock up. Don’t forget to check out Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong Wora Wihan, where the right cheek of Buddha is kept. In Hot, signs mark the way to the P.P. Garden Hotel, where you can have your own chalet for 400 Baht. It’s a bit steep but they are nicely decorated, very clean and come with cable TV and air conditioning. The other option is to shorten tomorrow’s ride by turning right at the roundabout and continuing on 18km to the park entrance, where there’s a hotel.
Section 2 – Hot to Mae Sariang (105km)
This is a tough day, even if you’ve already got good biking legs. The day starts easily enough with a gentle descent alongside a river but the hills start at the entrance to the national park (18km) and don’t stop until you’re nearly to Mae Sariang. Aside from the hotel at the park entrance, there is no formal accommodation along this route. A steady climb leads from the gates of the Op Luang National Park to the turnoff to Omkoi. It’s a mixed bag of rising and falling hills for the following 50km. Mercifully, the last 18km into Mae Sariang are all downhill.
There are many hotels to choose from in Mae Sariang. The basic Lotus Hotel in the town centre could use a lick of paint but it’s got clean fan rooms with cold shower from 200 Baht, while the Y.T.M. Hotel (3km along tomorrow’s route towards Tak) advertises free camping, rooms and a restaurant serving ‘healthy food’ and tea. There are a few more hotels downhill towards the river.
The best food experience in town is a buffet restaurant on the main street, just a short walk from the Lotus Hotel. From a distance it looks like a night market but it’s actually an all-you-can-eat buffet with meat, vegetables, dips, fruit, ice cream and much more. There’s even a make-your-own som tam stand! Who could resist at just 109 Baht a person? Obviously not the locals because the place is packed in the evening. This restaurant is a starving cyclist’s dream. Look for the big yellow ’99′ sign.
Section 3 – Mae Sariang to Mae Ngao National Park (45km)
It’s a short but challenging ride to the Mae Ngao national park, where you’ll find the only formal accommodation in the area. The ride out of Mae Sariang starts out gently but you’re soon climbing over a series of hills, the toughest of which will have all but the toughest and lightest cyclists pushing. It lasts a couple kilometers before finally topping out at kilometer marker 196. From here it’s a quick run down to the gates of the National Park, where a large sign marks the left turn into the park. It’s a further 4km of up and down to the park entrance. There you can have your choice of camping or a bed for the night, both with cold showers. The park isn’t very busy so in the off season you might have it all to yourself! We weren’t asked for any money by the park rangers, who seemed ecstatic just to have visitors at all. Although you might still have some energy when you reach the national park, it’s best not to push on. Rest instead before a long run tomorrow.
Section 4 – Mae Ngao National Park to Mae Salit Luang (80km)
If you thought the run from Hot to Mae Sariang was difficult, it pales in comparison to today’s hills. The only consolation is that trees line the route so even on a sunny day you should be able to climb mostly in the shade and the views are stunning at times, when you get a glimpse of the surrounding landscape through the jungle. Keep plenty of snacks on board and enough food for a meal or two. There are no restaurants and only a couple shops on the way. Road condition is generally okay but broken up in parts. The last few kilometers into Mae Salit Luang are in very good shape.
Kick the day off by retracing your steps to the main road, where the ascent starts almost immediately. Snap up any sugar-loaded food you can find at the shops, while the local hill tribe folk look on in amazement. The road climbs steadily and after about 10km you pass through a village. There is no store on the main road but possibly one in the village, set a little to one side. By this point your mind starts to hope the climb is nearly done but it’s not so. Occasionally there’s a dip but the road jerks back up again at an impossibly steep angle. Expect lots of pushing.
Another village appears a few kilometers further on. At this point, you are still going up and down like a yo-yo past rice fields, banana trees and the occasional farmer. Your thighs will be burning. It’s not until your odometer reads about 35km (including the distance from the national park to the main road) that things start to look up. A police checkpoint sits to the left of the road, with two smiling cops who are happy to fill your water bottles. If you can’t bear to pedal another inch, these guys would definitely give you tent space on the grassy patch of lawn next to their post.
The good news is that now the road does start to fall. A few climbs remain but nothing too severe. The worst is definitely over as you shed lots of height. Even if it’s afternoon by the time you reach the smiling police station (we didn’t get there until about 2pm), you can still reach Mae Salit Luang by dark.
After 25km of mostly downhill sailing and reaching a new section of smooth-as-silk road, there’s another police station at the junction for Wat Mongkhon Khiri Khet and a small crossing into Myanmar. Here yet another friendly cop ran to the fridge to get cold water for our bottles. Those Thai policemen are very nice to hot and sweaty cyclists!
The last 22km are mercifully easy. You glide downhill for much of the way and the ascents are gentle. Often there’s enough downhill momentum to propel you up the next hill. As you reach Mae Salit Luang, the Per-Pron Resort is signed to the right. Go down the steep driveway and claim your riverside bungalow with ensuite bathroom, balcony and a view of Myanmar for 250 Baht. Alternatively, next door is the highway department with a picnic area and toilets. They may let you pitch a tent if you ask nicely.
There are shops a further 700 meters on in the town. They close around 6pm and don’t have much but they do have cold beer! And well deserved it is too after your efforts. In the morning, ladies sell goodies like banana chips, homemade donuts, sticky rice and fried meats in the town centre. A slightly better selection of shops, a gas station and even a restaurant can be found if you go another kilometer to the turnoff for Mae Moei National Park. There’s also a health centre just past the junction, where we got antibiotics for an ear infection. Minimal English is spoken. Good to know if you need it.
Section 5 – Mae Salit Luang to Mae Sot (116km)
You don’t have to do this all in one day but accommodation options do tend to be clustered at either end, with not a lot between the two. The road has a few rolling hills but nothing to get you out of the saddle until a short climb around 69km into the day.
The first place to stay is the BP Resort, a series of chalets around a pond, 30km from Mae Salit Luang. Just a kilometer further is a brand new guesthouse. Soon afterwards you pass the turnoff for Tha Song Yang and there are no restaurants or shops from this point for a good while until you start to approach the Mae La refugee camp for people from Myanmar and the town of Mae Ramat.
The refugee camp is quite stunning in its size and may shock you if you’ve never seen anything like this before. Apparently 43,000 people live inside in huts that climb up the steep cliffs.
In Mae Ramat there are a few restaurants to choose from and stalls selling fruit and fast food. Things thin out a little bit between here and Mae Sot, although the road gets bigger and busier. There’s still a good shoulder so the cycling remains comfortable. The only hotel between this stretch that we found was the Ruean USA Resort, which looks very swish and definitely not in the budget category. Put on your best black-tie cycling gear before asking for a room.
It’s just as easy to carry onto Mae Sot by this point, only a further 10km down the road.