CHIANG RAI – The best thing about this 800-year-old city in northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle is what lies beyond it.
Sure, there’s the wonderful night market, Hilltribe Museum and glimmering golden clock tower, but those in search of a quaint, historic village may be disappointed.
That notion was pounded into me one afternoon after I slammed my head against the sharp edge of a metal traffic sign. Yes, it was klutzy, but my simple walk to lunch required dodging mopeds, mud puddles and concrete barriers. As my friend Ken, who has lived in Thailand for the last three years, told me, Thai towns and villages tend to be “utilitarian.”
Not so with the countryside, which is dotted with historic sites and dominated by lush green hills and rice plantations. And the best way to experience it was on two wheels. I found bliss on a mountain-bike tour guided by Chiang Rai Bicycle Tour, a cycling excursion company.
It was a comfortable mid-December morning with temperatures hovering in the mid-60s — downright chilly for the locals — when the pickup truck pulled up to the driveway of my hotel.
“Sawadee krop [Hello],” Phubordin Thitipongkul, known as Mr. Bee, said in greeting. “Are you ready?” he asked before escorting me into the covered rear bed of his truck.
After navigating a maze of streets, we were soon cruising down a busy two-lane road along with the early-morning commuters. The clutter of concrete buildings quickly disappeared, replaced by greenery and views of the surrounding mountains.
‘Buddha to be’
In just 20 minutes, we arrived at our starting point, a fruit and vegetable market. While Mr. Bee and his sister Ying, driver of our support vehicle, unloaded the bikes from the roof rack, I ogled the neatly arranged rows of tomatoes, limes, onions and ever-present red chilies.
But what really captured my attention was the giant Buddha that sat in the distance, a landmark I somehow had missed in guidebooks. “He is not the Buddha, and it’s a ‘she,’ ” Mr. Bee said, correcting me.
“In Thailand and in China, we call this statue Bodhisattva, or ‘Buddha to be,’ the person who, with training, will become the Buddha in the future. Her name is Guan Yin.”
There was a reason I hadn’t heard about the colossal structure, Mr. Bee said. It was still under construction.
“If you’d like to visit, you can climb up the hill,” he told me. “It’s up to you, no problem.” Because I was on a private tour, there was no strict schedule for my 20-mile ride.
After a brief description of the day’s itinerary — “We will cycle past some fruit orchards, go up a mountain, visit the waterfall and a hill tribe village before finishing at the elephant camp” — I soon found myself cranking up the short perpendicular road to the 225-foot high Bodhisattva.
Although parts of Guan Yin’s arms and legs were covered with scaffolding, her beauty was alluring, and her epic proportions made the surrounding sunflowers seem as tiny as dandelions.
Construction of the statue, part of a larger temple complex called Wat Huay Pla Kang, began in 2013, thanks to a monk who encountered the site in 2005. After seeing the original temple in disrepair, he decided to take responsibility for restoring it and adding several buildings to house orphans.
As for the statue, when completed it will be a dramatic reminder of Buddhism’s influence on Thai culture.
Continuing on, we stopped at the crest of a hill where Mr. Bee entertained the two of us with a childhood trick, a “country boy toy” he fashioned out of a palm-sized leaf. Laying the specimen on top of his clenched left hand, he proceeded to hit it with his right palm, resulting in a surprisingly loud sound — a process he repeated before encouraging me to try it myself.
“This leaf is called Siamese bush,” he said. “It’s a local herb, and if you bleed from your nose, it will stop the blood.”
Mr. Bee’s leaf game was followed by a discourse on Buddhism: “Buddha or not, the truth of the universe is still the truth. Just like gravity existed before Isaac Newton discovered it, the Buddha discovered the ultimate truth.”
Time to Meditate
These were the perfect words of contemplation for our next major stop, a hike to Huay Mae Sai waterfall, where I stopped to meditate for a few minutes while gazing into the murky waters.
Not long after, I was standing in the middle of the Akha Hill Tribe village watching kindergartners nap in their schoolroom. This was traditional Thailand, where huge trays of red and green chiles dried in the sun, clumps of wild puppies frolicked in the streets and hogs and chickens shared the space under rustic stilt homes.
It all seemed quaintly idyllic, but as Mr. Bee pointed out, such hill tribe villages are not without major challenges. The government has relocated many of them to prevent the residents’ slashing and burning in the region’s national parks, which was their original home.
Fortunately, the relocation can work in villagers’ favor, affording young people better access to schools and universities.
“Many of the new generation now work in the city. They bring money back for their family to build better houses,” Mr. Bee said. “Life has changed a lot.”
Still, I was a little self-conscious as I strolled through the village in my Lycra, but the people didn’t seem to pay much attention.
Our next stop: refueling with a lunch of fried rice, pork and vegetable soup at a roadside food stand. A dog slept under the next table, and with the midday heat mounting I felt like joining him.
After dessert — a tray of watermelon and pineapple — I was obliged to climb Doi Baan Yao, the biggest hill of the day. The effort was well worth it because the summit overlooked a verdant valley. What’s more, it allowed me to coast downhill for a couple of miles on a road lined with banana palms.
The bucolic splendor eventually morphed back to a cityscape as we rejoined a busy road leading to our final stop, the elephant camp that offered rides through the forest. Although it was part of the full-day bike tour, I opted out because Asian elephants are endangered.
Besides, after cycling all day on rutted roads, the last thing my body needed was more jostling. Better to have a hot drink at the little café overlooking the camp, where I chuckled at the sign that proclaimed, “Fresh coffee make you freshy.”
By Arnie Cooper
If you go to Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai Bicycle Tour, 222/6 Moo 3 T. Tasai Muang, Chiang Rai Province; [email protected], www.chiangraibicycletour.com. Offers a range of half-day ($40 a person, which includes lunch and snacks) to five-day ($430 a person, which includes hotel, breakfast and lunch, and a support car) tours on 24-speed Trek mountain bikes. Hotel pickup included.
WHERE TO STAY
The Legend, 124/15 Moo 21 Kohloy Road, Amphur Muang, Chiang Rai; 53-910-400, www.thelegend-chiangrai.com. Comfortable boutique hotel in a peaceful setting on the banks of the Mae Kok River. Good launching point for day trips to the nearby countryside. Expect to pay about $200 a night (online rate from $75).
Le Patta Hotel, 610 Phahonyothin Road Wieng, Chiang Rai; 53-600-680, www.lepattachiangrai.com. In the center of town just a short walk from the Night Market and other attractions. About $100 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
Leelawadee Restaurant, 58/2 Moo 19 Khwaewai Road, Ropwiang, Mueang Chiang Rai District, Chiang Rai; 53-600-000, www.leelawadeechiangrai.com/en. Just outside town on the Mae Kok River, with panoramic views. Spicy minced pork salad, fresh bitter melon fried in oyster sauce and steamed prawns in a clay pot.
Salung Kham, 884 Phaholyothin Road (Highway 1, about 1,200 feet north of the King Mengrai Monument), 53-717-192, www.salungkham.com (the site is mostly in Thai, but if you click around you’ll find some good images of the food). Serves traditional northern Thai dishes such as sausage and seasonal veggies in green chile paste.
TO LEARN MORE