It all started with a dog named Lucy.
On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai“ friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.
Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.
The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.
Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.
Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.
We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner - green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.
In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.
We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.
Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).
I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.