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!

Ferry

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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Current Conditions -20160420

Weather

The current hot streak continues and is showing no sign of abating. Long rides are out for the moment. Temperatures are hitting high 30s by mid-morning and exceeding 40 degrees Celsius by lunchtime. We did have the briefest of thunderstorms yesterday at about 5pm but it was over by the time I’d gone upstairs to collect my rain jacket.

Air Quality

Possibly thanks to yesterday’s all too brief downpour the air is a little better today after one of the worst days I have experienced here yesterday. No sign of the mountain from Santitam, eyes smarting, breath short. I can’t remember the air being this bad so late in the year. In my experience it has generally cleared up by Songkran.

Roads

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What have they done!

Typically, after I made the ride to Ob Khan National Park my first ever ‘ride of the week’ the recently pristine road to the park checkpoint is now littered with vegetation and small twigs as a result of some tree cutting. The road is still rideable but with care and an increased risk of punctures, certainly not with the joyous abandon of a few days ago.

 

Apart from that, everything else seems good. The small roadworks on the Prem Road were finished at the weekend and I am not aware of any other roadworks causing a problem.

 

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Ride of the week: Rajabhat University

This route is shamelessly stolen from Jeff Vogel, founder of the Chiang Mai Road Riders Yahoo group and a man with a lot of years cycling in Chiang Mai under his belt. Jeff had posted a ride billed as a “northern meander”, the idea being we’d head north with no particular route in mind and follow our noses. Just how I tend to like it. This was the route Jeff took us on and I enjoyed it so much that it is rapidly becoming a staple of mine.

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Deserted, rolling roads at Rajabhat University

We leave from the Convention Centre and head north via the Military Road. We cross the Samoeng Road and continue alongside the irrigation canal, making our way past an  assortment of “attractions” like Tiger Kingdom, the brand new Magic Land and the gloriously named Elephant PooPooPaper Park. We navigate our way through a wonderfully scenic village (the name of which may or may not be Baan Hong Nai) soon emerging onto the Prem Road.

You won’t find the Prem Road on any map. Well, you will but it won’t be called the Prem Road. The Prem Road is the name given by ex-pat cyclists to a rural road that runs from Mae Rim to the Pai Road. The origins of the name are lost in the mists of time (although Jeff may know) but are presumably related to the fact that the international Prem School is located on an adjacent road. Anyway, the Prem Road as I shall continue to call it, is one of the more popular arteries for cyclists heading north from Chiang Mai and was probably the first ride I ever did in Chiang Mai.

It’s a little busier than it used to be but this is a picturesque, pleasantly undulating road that imperceptibly rises as you head north. The temptation is to blast along it but we’ll usually resist that on this ride and save our legs for the fun to come.

After 12 kilometres we turn right onto the North West Passage. This is another of those ex-pat cyclist names (I can feel a reference page coming along) that presumably relates to the fact that this road can be used to connect the river road to the Prem Road. We won’t be using it for that though. Instead we’ll turn off into the campus for the Agricultural Centre of Chiang Mai Rajabhat University, a 2,300 acre facility with currently barely used, wide and well-surfaced roads criss-crossing the site.

CIMG2518 copyThere are signs that the campus is being upgraded and we are expecting one day to be turned away but, for now, we are usually greeted with a playful salute from the security guards on the gate as we cycle through the entrance and past the Dean’s office. Here we let rip. It is near impossible not to get carried away on roads that seem to swoop and soar. We limit ourselves to a lap and a half at this time of year, a mere 10 kilometres of exhilaration, and exit the University via a short but sweet descent onto Highway 107.  The main Chiang Dao Road is a lot less busy this far north but we hug the hard shoulder and a mere 3.5 kilometres later turn off onto the North-North West Passage (possibly, the consensus seems to be less clear on this one) which takes us through a small, Thai village onto a quiet country road that rolls through a rural idyll back to the Prem Road approximately 5 kilometres north of where we left it.

Here we will usually find a Mom and Pop store where we can replenish water bottles and grab a sweet or savoury snack to restore our energy levels.Suitably refreshed we turn off the Prem Road and head towards the road to Wat Prabhat Tabhat Si Roi (Four Buddha Footprint Temple) one of the hardest climbs in the area. But that is for another day. Instead, we make a small loop that takes us up a small hill, gives us breathtaking views of the valley below, and brings us back onto the Prem Road. Then it’s back home the way we came. The road’s undulations are gradually taking us downwards and that is good news for our weary legs as someone will usually decide to pick up the pace on this stretch.

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Strava route

Facts at a glance

Distance: 96 kilometres

Elevation Gain: 615 metres

Terrain: Rolling

Type: Lollipop

Road surface: Moderate to excellent

Traffic: Moderate to almost none

 

 

 

 

 

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The Rajabhat Uni loop

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Ride of the week: Ob Khan National Park

It's a scorcher

It’s a scorcher!

It can get pretty warm at this time of year in Chiang Mai, especially from midday onwards, making those long exploratory rides we love so much not quite as fun. Short and sweet is the order of the day during the hotter weeks and they don’t come much shorter or sweeter than the ride to Ob Khan National Park.

Although people have been riding this route for some time now, the recent re-surfacing of a couple of key, previously very sketchy  sections, make this seem almost like a brand new ride.

We usually start the ride from the regular PTT / Cafe Amazon meeting point on Canal Road (highway 121) about 600 metres south of the intersection with Suthep Road. 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.

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Smooth new tarmac.

We flirt with the foothills of the southernmost part of Doi Suthep so the ride is pleasantly undulating with four or five short hills to get the heart pumping. Ridden hard, this is an excellent short training ride with the rolling terrain providing natural ‘intervals’.

 

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A year earlier.

The 8.5 kilometre stretch leading to the park is particularly pleasant and the short descent from the checkpoint to the turn off to the park entrance on brand new, smooth tarmac is exhilarating. This is a ‘there and back’ ride. There is nothing of any note at the park entrance and the ride is short enough that we generally don’t require a stop, so we usually re-group and head home the way we came.

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Ob Khan NP on Strava

Facts at a glance

Distance: 60 kilometres

Elevation Gain: 897 metres

Terrain: Rolling with some short hills

Type: There and back

Road surface: Moderate to excellent.

Traffic: Moderate to quiet

Ob Khan NP Profile

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