Ride of the week: Mae Ngat Dam

A few years ago, this was one of our regular rides but, for some reason, it seems to have gone out of fashion. When we rode it last week, for the first time in ages, I was reminded just how splendid a ride it is. Someone described it as the northern “Khun Bee’s” which, in terms of distance and profile, is fair enough. But they each have a distinct feel.

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Water is very much the theme of this ride. We spend much of it alongside a river, then a canal, then we ride across a dam, a weir and several bridges. Those of you who believe that, once you start a ride, you shouldn’t un-clip until the finish will be disappointed. There are a couple of barriers to negotiate but we think that the breath-taking views are worth it.

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We head north from the Convention Centre and pick up the river road just after the junction with the main road to Chiang Dao. This takes us through suburban Chiang Mai, with its bustling activity, into the countryside where small groups of workers tend to the rice fields. We emerge on the Phrao Road. Further north, this is a great road to ride but here it can be a little busy, so we cross the road and pick up a small road that runs alongside the Mae Faek irrigation Canal.

The canal is a vital source of water to the many rice fields in this valley but it so much more. Cattle graze the banks. Fishermen, waist deep in the water, cast their nets. Children splash each other as they cool off in the shallows. The bird life is spectacular. As we pedal by at an easy pace we see kingfishers, bee-eaters, heron, egrets and storks plus a whole bunch of exotic species we cannot identify.

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We meet the Phrao Road once more but this far north the traffic has thinned considerably, the road is wide with a good hard shoulder and the pace picks up over a pleasantly undulating terrain. There is one small climb but, before we reach the top, we turn left and are immediately swooping down an exhilarating descent on a quiet rural road. More undulations follow until the road emerges onto a secondary road. We sometimes turn left here and head back to Chiang Mai without bothering to visit the dam. But today we have guests and we want to show them the views of the reservoir so we head right. There is a very short but brutally steep climb up to the dam and then we are dismounting and lifting our bike over the barriers.

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Although the water levels are alarmingly low following some unnaturally dry weather over the last few years, the view from the dam is spectacular. To our right, verdant green mountains provide a dramatic backdrop to the peaceful looking lake. To our left a vast, fertile plain stretches into the far distance.

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We are soon clambering back over barriers at the other end of the dam and speeding down a gradual descent. There is a gentle climb (more of a drag really) up to Mae Taeng hospital and then we are once more hurtling downhill to the main road that links Chiang Mai to the tourist and trekking destinations around Chiang Dao. We head back towards Chiang Mai and almost immediately turn off the main road onto a small service road that leads us past the Mae Taeng Correctional Facility (best experienced from the outside I’d suggest) to a weir across the Ping river that controls the flow of water into the Mae Faek irrigation canal. There is a little more dis-mounting and re-mounting here but we don’t mind. The weir is pleasantly scenic and a popular picnic spot for local Thais.

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We follow the canal for a short while, taking care to avoid the occasional pot-hole (this is the only sketchy section of the whole ride) before cutting back to the river which we will follow all the way back to Chiang Mai.

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Facts at a glance

  • Distance: 126 kilometres
  • Elevation Gain: 782 metres
  • Terrain: Flat then rolling.
  • Type: Loop
  • Road surface: One short sketchy section. Otherwise generally excellent.
  • Traffic: Light.
  • When: Posted occasionally on RoadRiders.

 

 

 

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Riding in the rainy Season

The rain is angry and intense, not so much falling as hurling itself viciously and indiscriminately against everything below and exploding with a roar of rage. The sound is deafening, a staccato drum roll, drowning out the noise of traffic. I can barely see through the sheeting downpour. A headwind blows gigantic raindrops into my face, stinging my eyes. I seem to be riding through a surreal landscape imagined by a half-crazed impressionist painter.

I am completely soaked through. That sentence does not do justice to the way I am feeling. I am drenched, sodden. I don’t think I could be any wetter if I were stood, fully submerged in the river that runs alongside the now flooded road. I would stop and shelter from this torrential assault but it’s getting late and I haven’t got lights on my bike. If I am to get home before dark I need to soldier on.And anyway, I am already soaked to the skin. Did I mention that?

I reach an overpass. Water is streaming down the slope, several centimetres deep. I laugh, just a little maniacally. Forget, the headwind, I’m riding upstream…

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That was a truly unforgettable day. But one of the reasons it is so memorable is that it is a unique experience. I have rarely gotten very wet while cycling in Chiang Mai at this time of year despite riding four or five times a week throughout the last three rainy seasons. In fact, the vast majority of rides in the rainy season have been completely dry.

Northern Thailand has a tropical wet and dry climate with the south west monsoon usually arriving late May from India and bringing with it torrential rains that last until mid-October. That sounds grim doesn’t it. But it’s not all bad news.

The first bit of good news is that the vast majority of rain tends to fall from late afternoon until early morning. Mornings can be quite fresh at this time of year and the humidity will build up over the course of the day. Late afternoon and overnight rains provide a welcome release.

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Obviously, there are occasional days when it does rain during your ride. When it rains in Thailand it tends to really rain. Sudden and fierce gusts of wind will announce the imminent arrival of a downpour.  Free-standing signs will crash to the ground, plastic chairs will be picked up and hurled against a wall, drying laundry will be ripped from the washing line. Then the deluge will begin, slowly at first. Huge raindrops will drop individually and splatter on the road. But soon momentum picks up. More and more drops fall until it is a constant stream, a monstrous power shower.

Something so intense cannot last for long. It doesn’t.  Usually, after ten minutes or so, the worst is over and it will generally be completely finished within an hour. If it does start to rain while we are out riding we can generally find shelter and wait it out.

The final thing to bear in mind is the temperature. The cloud cover prevents it from getting too hot but, even when it is raining it is generally pleasantly warm. Riding in the rain in temperatures exceeding 20 degrees centigrade is an entirely different experience to the grim torture that can be riding in the freezing rain I was used to in the UK and France.

So, if you leave sometime between 07:00 or 08:00 and are back by mid-afternoon, most days you will probably not encounter any rain at all although the roads may still be damp in a few places at the start of a ride if there has been heavy overnight rain.There may well be blue skies with fluffy white clouds or a forbidding dark grey sky but this will keep the worst of the sun off your backs although don’t forget the sun cream. It is still somehow possible to get sunburnt under the most dark and threatening of skies here in Chiang Mai. In the unlikely event you are caught in a thunderstorm, take cover in a friendly mom and pops’ store until the worst is over. And if you do get caught in the rain, don’t fret over much. You might be getting wet but you won’t be cold.

Now let’s hope I haven’t jinxed anything for tomorrow’s ride…

 

 

 

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Ride of the week – Erawan Loop

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Nestled at the northern end of the Southern Hills are a number of tiny farming settlements. Until recently these were accessible by dirt track only. In its infinite wisdom the Thai highways department recently decided to convert these tracks into beautifully, smooth, tarmac roads. These new roads are so obscure that some of them are still not shown on the map and lead nowhere apart from these small communities. It is no surprise then that they see very little traffic indeed. Add to this the marvelously undulating terrain and the spectacular rural scenery and you have a recipe for a sumptuous cycling treat.

CIMG3997The loop is fifteen kilometres in length, is awesome ridden in either direction and can be accessed from four different points. Plus, there is a road cutting across the middle, making a kind of figure of eight possible. So, there are a plethora of different ways to ride it. Today though, we’ll do a basic counter-clockwise loop, keeping our overall distance to a bare minimum.

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We leave from underneath the bridge that takes Highway 121 over the river south of the city. Often we’ll simply follow the pleasant river road along the eastern bank, south to the small town of Pasang but today, for a change, we’ll cross to the western bank. The road drifts away from the river for a while and is not quite as scenic as on the other side but it is marginally more direct.

 

CIMG3933Pasang is a typical bustling Thai market town, famous amongst ex-pat cyclists for its large and chaotic bicycle shop and traffic can be moderately busy but not for long. We are soon turning off the main road to be confronted by a magnificent sight. Ahead of us is a one kilometre long road that slopes, straight as an arrow, up to the entrance of a charming Wat. Directly behind the Wat is a hill on top of which sits a second Wat, even more handsome than the first. The effect is striking. The higher of the temples is Wat Phra Phutthabat Tak Pah and will be the subject of a later post. Today we content ourselves with admiring it from a distance. In any event, we are distracted by the rustic fair that has been temporarily constructed either side of the road.

Now the riding starts to get seriously good. The next stretch of road is wide and seems to swoop and soar through stunning countryside. I’ve ridden this road many, many times now and yet I still get a feeling of joyous, unbridled freedom. Watching the reaction of the others in the group, I know I am not alone.

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Because we are keeping the distance to a minimum we take a scenic short cut to the start of the Erawan loop. This involves a 500 metre stretch of dirt and gravel running alongside a sadly depleted lake but is otherwise on good roads and it saves us four or five kilometres.

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And then we are on the loop. Going anti-clockwise the road starts to undulate generally upwards at first. There’s a short, moderately steep hill which sometimes causes the group to split, but it’s nothing too draconian. The marvelous views are more likely to take your breath away than the climb and the gradient soon settles into a steady and easy slope as the road winds its way through the trees before emerging to a spectacular view across the valley. The short but exhilarating descent provides a quandary. It is non-technical and easy to go full gas but you won’t want to miss out on the splendid landscape.

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We exit the loop at the south eastern extreme and join Highway 1184, the fabulous back road to Li, about which I’ll be blogging much more in due course. Today though, we only follow it for 4 or 5 kilometres before turning north and heading for home. There are a few bumps but the road is predominantly downhill now and we enjoy the thrill as the pace picks up. We’ll usually stop for refreshments in the village of Ban Seng, eschewing the 7/11 in favour of the local store next door whose owner brings out plastic chairs for us to sit on and gives us free ice for our bottles.

There are several ways home from here but we take an easterly route that takes us close to historic Lamphun before swinging back to the river just south of our original departure point.

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South Plus Erawan.jpgFacts at a glance

  • Distance: 122 kilometres (145 from the city)
  • Elevation Gain: 530 metres
  • Terrain: Flat then rolling.
  • Type: Loop
  • Road surface: One optional dirt section. Otherwise generally excellent.
  • Traffic: Moderate to almost none.
  • When: Posted occasionally on RoadRiders.

 

 

WARNING: Some of the roads on this route do not appear on OpenStreetMap and Strava is unable to build the route accurately. The linked route is not accurate.

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The Southern Hills

P_20151126_112830 copyThe smooth black road swoops and soars through a landscape of exotic jungle and primitive agriculture. We glide past an ancient motorcycle and sidecar slowly chugging its way to the fields, the first moving vehicle we have seen in over ten kilometres. The group has broken up. Some have raced ahead, carried away by the perfect cycling conditions. Others are going more slowly, taking in the beauty around them. All of us are full of joy, glad to be alive and feeling privileged to be able to ride in such a cyclist’s paradise.

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The Southern Hills is the name coined by me to describe an area beginning approximately 45 kilometres south of Chiang Mai and running either side of the border between Lamphun and Lampang provinces as far south as Li. There is a network of well-surfaced, rolling roads criss-crossing the hills on the Lamphun side of the border which offer awesome, virtually traffic-free cycling through stunning scenery and yet remains relatively unexplored by cyclists. P_20150221_122350 (2) copy

One reason for this is probably the distance. Rides in the Southern Hills tend to be longer. Although it is possible to get a taste of the hills on a shortish 120 kilometre ride, you really need to be riding 150 kilometres to get the most out of the ride there and the best rides are 200 kilometres long. These kind of distances are not for everyone at the best of times and even those of us who enjoy a long ride have been avoiding them during the recent hot season. However, now that the rainy season has brought milder temperatures I will be venturing into the hills again and blogging about routes such as the Erawan Loop, Wat Tak Pha, the secret climb and beyond.

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Ride of the week: Mae Kuang Ferry

We are 75 kilometres into our ride and the beautiful tarmac road descends sharply. We sweep around a bend and abruptly the road plunges into water. We brake hard and stop just in time. This could be bad news. The only road back to Chiang Mai is the way we came. That steep descent was fun on the way out but maybe not so enjoyable as a climb. Fortunately we are prepared. We have phoned and booked a ferry to come pick us up.

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We’re ten minutes ahead of schedule and there is no boat yet but soon we see a dot in the distance that is gradually getting larger. He is on his way and soon we are loading our bikes aboard his rickety boat before posing for a group photo, a souvenir of our adventure.

We’re doing the Mae Kuang Ferry ride. Mae Kuang reservoir is some 30 kilometres north east of Chiang Mai but the only way to get to its northern shore is via a circuitous route that takes us about 15 kilometres to the north. We have an easy, flat and scenic start to our ride, heading north beside the banks of first the Ping river and then the Mae Jo irrigation canal.

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After 35 kilometres we meet the road to Phrao. The road is now undulating (mostly upwards) and we can test our legs on a couple of short climbs as we head generally east. Finally, we turn south onto the road to Mae Kuang. This is a beautiful tree-lined road that leads to nowhere apart from the reservoir and a small village. The traffic is therefore extremely light and we can relish the lovely smooth tarmac as we swoop down to our rendezvous with the ferryman.

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This is a very popular ride but posted infrequently because of the logistics involved in organising the ferry. There are a couple of phone numbers for bookings but you’ll want someone who speaks good Thai to make the call. It is possible to just turn up on spec (we did it that way the first time and got lucky) but the boat is usually moored on the other side of the reservoir so you could have a long wait or worse, if the boat is not running for some reason, a long trip home back the way you came.

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 Logistical considerations

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The numbers for the ferry: (081 746 9749 or 081 993 4844)

We’ve had 12 bikes and riders on the boat. I wouldn’t want to try and squeeze in many more.

May 2016 we were charged 300 baht for 7 riders plus bikes.

There is neither shop nor shade at the ferry meeting point. If you are early, I suggest you stop in the small village about a kilometre before you get to the reservoir where shade and drinks should be available.

If water levels are low (as they have been for the last two years) you will have to follow a stoney path to get to the ferry landing point. The same applies getting to the road from the disembarkation point.

Click on the images below to see more photos from this ride.

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Now what do we do?

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All aboard!

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Facts at a glance

  • Distance: 102 kilometres
  • Elevation Gain: 763 metres
  • Terrain: Flat then rolling. Possibly choppy.
  • Type: Loop
  • Road surface: Maybe dirt road getting to and from the landing point, depending on water levels. Otherwise generally good.
  • Traffic: Moderate to light.
  • When: Posted about once a year on RoadRiders.
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Ride of the week: The Avocado Loop

My lungs are bursting, my legs pushing hard on the pedals but it is a real effort just to get them to turn. Ahead of me I can see the road flatten slightly. No more than two hundred metres distant. “Keep going” I tell myself, “You can do this”.  I am moving so slowly that my bike computer is telling me that I have stopped. Forlornly I flick the gear lever. I’m already in my smallest gear. No respite there. I barely notice the spectacular mountain scenery as, panting, I inch forward to the crest of the hill.

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I’m on the road to Ban Nam Sum, a ramshackle Hmong village less than twenty five kilometres from central Chiang Mai. The ride is known amongst cycling ex-pats as the Avocado Loop and whilst it is by no means a secret, probably qualifies for ‘hidden gem’ status by virtue of the fact that it appears to be ridden relatively infrequently.

We leave the PTT / Cafe Amazon. We head south for a couple of kilometres on the main road but then turn off and from then, it’s scenic back roads almost all the way. There are a few twists and turns on the next section to avoid the main road so it’s a good idea to take a map or follow someone who knows the route. There’s a short climb which we normally like to race up (but not today as we are saving our legs for what is to come) and then a short, twisty descent that brings us out onto the Samoeng Road.

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We turn right onto the Samoeng Road and do a pleasantly rolling 6 kilometre section of the clockwise Samoeng Loop. The road kicks up for half a kilometre or so, flattens out and then we turn off onto the rural road to Ban Nam Sum. Here the real adventure begins. The road is narrow and mainly concrete as we wind our way through a small Thai village. The road starts to rise almost immediately, nothing too serious at first but as we emerge from the village it begins to get noticeably tougher. We each start to find our own rhythm and pace and the group starts to split apart. The mountainside on this part has been extensively cultivated and there isn’t the usual jungle hiding the view so there are some spectacular panoramas to enjoy as the road snakes its way up the mountain.

The road surface is a little bumpy in places but we barely notice as our speed is so slow. After a couple of kilometres the road really kicks up for a short but excruciating section. 600 metres at 18 percent according to Strava but there are definitely some pitches in excess of 20 percent. Finally, as we enter the sleepy Hmong village, the gradient eases for a short while and then , as we leave the other side of the village, plummets dramatically. Take great care on this descent. It is super steep in places. At the bottom of the descent there is a short (maybe 20 metre) section of dirt road which some may choose to walk and then you are climbing again, now in the shade of the jungle either side of the road.This final climb is only about 2 kilometres long but there are a couple of pretty steep sections to negotiate.

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And then we emerge at the bus stop at the top of the switch backs on the Samoeng loop, tired but elated to have made it. We regroup here and take a short rest before descending back on the main Samoeng Road towards Hang Dong, past the turn off we’d taken earlier, onto the rolling section and then back the way we came.

Chiang Mai has more adventurous rides with even more spectacular scenery and more challenging climbs. But none are so close to the city. To come close to matching this ride on any of those counts you need to go quite a lot further. In terms of sheer ‘bang for your buck’, this ride really is difficult to beat, packing so much into its brief fifty kilometres.

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Facts at a glance

Distance: 50 kilometres

Elevation Gain: 1,089 metres

Terrain: Mountainous with some very steep gradients

Type: Lollipop

Road surface: Some rough sections.

Traffic: Moderate to quiet

 

 

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Ride of the week: Lazy Lamphun Loop

I designed this route as a recovery ride, ideal following a longer ride the previous day  but it’s also great as an easy ride in its own right, particularly at this time of year when we are looking to be done and dusted before temperatures start to become difficult in the afternoon.CIMG3095 copyThe general lack of traffic, decent road surfaces, great scenery and gently rolling terrain on the short sixteen kilometre section in the middle of the ride serves as a nice, bite-sized sampler for the excellent riding to be had on slightly longer rides in the Southern Hills. We did it on Saturday in the clockwise direction so I’ll describe it that way but it is equally pleasant the other way round. The only difference is that there is a very short steep section going clockwise whereas, going the other way, the climbing, such as it is, is very gradual.

We meet under the bridge that takes the 121 over the river. We immediately cross the river using the small bridge that is almost underneath the larger one.  We initially follow the eastern bank south but soon turn away from the river onto some very pleasant lanes that emerge at the village of Baan Tha Ma O. Here we pick up one of two roads that run either side of an irrigation canal. The road to the west is in Chiang Mai district, the road to the east is in Lamphun. We usually choose the Chiang Mai side because the road surface is better.

We’re on an older, more direct route from Chiang Mai to Lamphun and the traffic is mild and the scenery an interesting mix of suburban and rural. We cross the main road at a set of traffic lights courtesy of a fiendishly well hidden alley and pick up one of the roads that run alongside the railway line. We’re in the outskirts of Lamphun now and we cross highway 114 and pass through a small built-up area with a bustling food market. We wiggle through a village and all of a sudden we are in full-on countryside.CIMG2810 (3) copy

The road starts to become a little more rolling now. Either side of us is agriculture or forest. Traffic is negligible. There is one very short, hard rise (half a kilometer at 8 per cent, exceeding double digits for a short spell) to get the blood pumping with a super view from the top, looking back the way we came. Catch your breath and then we are predominantly rolling downhill. Even on  the gentlest of recovery rides the pace will pick up slightly at this point. There is something about the roads that demands it.

All good things must come to an end and we emerge onto Rural Road 1033 near the village of Baan Seng. We generally make a refreshment stop here, depending on the requirements of the group,  either at the delightful but cheap Share Coffee or my favourite Mom and Pop store which may not have as big a selection of snacks as the new 7-Eleven next door but, as well as a friendly greeting, does provide plastic chairs, an electric fan and free ice, all of which are very welcome on a hot day. P_20151122_113504

The 1033 is the gateway to some epic and glorious rides in the Southern Hills but on this ride we head north and work our way back to the river. With Thailand presently suffering a drought, the once mighty Ping is looking more like a muddy field in places but we can still enjoy the views of riverside life along the imperceptibly rising road as it follows the river up-stream and back to our starting point.

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Facts at a glance

Distance: 80 kilometres

Elevation Gain: 241 metres

Terrain: Mainly flat. Some rolling.

Type: Loop

Road surface: Very good

Traffic: Light

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