CHIANG RAI – A busy airline executive closes the office for the day and hops on a mountain bike heading for Chiang Rai’s Golden Bridge that spans the River Mae Kok that meanders through the heart of this far north town.
She joins other city residents who cycle along small lanes near the river and around a town center that is remarkably laid back, despite its status as the province’s capital.
A mother and child amble along on their shopping bikes as the sun sets and temperatures fall from mid-day heights to something more akin to a comfort level.
In the early morning, elite cyclists from around Asia embark on a training ride led by a former European racer, Peter Pouly, who runs year-round training camps from a base in Chiang Rai.
They spin through town around the city’s distinctive golden clock tower in a colorful, precise peloton streaming past street-side coffee shops on a route to their daily hill climbs.
A cycling enthusiast tells me over coffee there are thousands of cyclists some dedicated to burning rubber at high speeds and others taking it easy riding simply for health and happiness. This is a cycle friendly town, he tells me as we sip espresso coffee brewed from beans grown on the hillsides of Doi Chang, just 20 km south of here.
I am heading for the Tourism Authority of Thailand office that stands opposite the city’s only train that stands on 100 metres of track. The carriages are a public library, but the thought occurs that perhaps it is a reminder that when the great northern rail route was first mooted back in the 1850s, Chiang Rai was a potential final destination. Instead, the line took a sharp left just north of Uttaradit and headed for Chiang Mai, 220 southwest of Chiang Rai.
As if to remind me why I am visiting this particularly attractive TAT office, posters waft in the breeze advertising the city’s cycling friendly attributes and a brand new Chiang Rai Bike Map.
It’s the brainchild of Chiang Rai’s TAT director, Acharika Maneesin, who worked with local cycle associations and a specialized tour company to tap local knowledge on the best bike routes.
Why cycling I ask, wondering how many of the thousands of tourists who visit the province annually have ever thought of hopping on a cycle to explore its attractions.
“It is already a popular pastime for locals,” she tells me. “Cycling to the main tourist attractions is easy, traffic is light, there is very little pollution and the weather is cooler.”
She opens the laminated cycle map to show me what it is store for travelers who want to chill out and enjoy green tours on a bike rather than a bus.
“There are two or three very active bike associations in town and other small clubs of enthusiasts that helped us to research the routes, she explains.
Distribution is mainly through four bike shops in town and a specialized tour firm that runs cycle tours. Otherwise, visitors have to pick up the map at the TAT office.
“Chiang Rai wants to position itself as a city for cyclists,” she adds. “The map is part of that strategy, providing local knowledge on the best cycle routes with descriptions of the attractions on each that would be difficult for a first-time visitor to source.”
Captions and route descriptions with brief explanations of tourist attractions are in both Thai and English languages. Six routes are featured with elevation profiles that confirm the map designers have done their homework. Some of the rides involve climbs from a base of 300 metres in Chiang Rai town to hill tops at 450 metres (short rolling hills with flat intervals). Distances vary from a short 6.2 km amble around town to a 53 km trip with off and on-road sections over flat and hilly terrain.
This is not your standard tourist map heavy on advertising and light on accuracy and detail. Serious cyclists who intend to stay in Chiang Rai town for a few days will find it cuts through the clutter and will save heaps of time trying to discover the best routes to ride.
Introduced just two months ago, bike shops are distributing the map to cyclists, suggesting they recommend the routes to their friends and get the word out that Chiang Rai might be a city of artists, but it is equally a city for cyclists.
The TAT director admits there are challenges. “We need better cycle lanes, routes should be sign posted and we need to improve road safety.”
She talks about the concept of slow tourism, where travelers visit a destination to experience the environment, explore culture for themselves and spend time enjoying their favorite sport while on holiday.
Golf comes to mind, mainly because the province has four courses of which three are up to international standard. To pin down the cycling side of Chiang Rai’s character takes a little more time and effort.
The TAT office funded the production of the laminated map (last longer in a soggy cycle pouch) to kick-start the promotion. Eight sponsors were given a low-key logo spot on the bottom of the cover page, the only space for advertising.
Considering its popularity, the map must be about ready for a second printing and that might require backing from private companies rather than relying on entirely on TAT to underwrite the project indefinitely.
However, it is an example of what TAT does best. It can source local wisdom, identify opportunities and provide the initial investment to get a promotional idea rolling. The local community has to take from there.
Keeping the map alive will require a long-term commitment from various cycle, travel associations and the city fathers will need to ensure the town delivers a cycling friendly environment.
I leave the TAT office convinced. A cycle map is just what I need to chill out and explore a fascinating yet under traveled province. I quickly discover the map’s practical side at least for cyclists who cram everything into their jersey pouch. You can cut into manageable sections, one for each route, without losing the editorial on attractions. Then to weather proof you simply put each route in a zip plastic bag for long-term use.
Dissecting the map so, might be taboo for serious map collectors, but for a mountain biker one excursion is likely to destroy the lamination leaving the map in tatters. The ultimate solution would be to create an app that allows you to download each route map to your smartphone as you commence the ride with relevant information on tourist attractions attached.
Until an app technician gets to work on that solution, whenever you feel like a change of pace from urban living, venture to the far north, grab the printed map, hire a bike from Fat Free (next to Doi Chaang coffee shop in the town centre) and join the early morning or evening throngs who are cycling to health on the streets of Chiang Rai. This almost perfect cycling environment awaits you. It might not last forever. Urban creep is closing in. by Don Ross TTR Weekly
Chiang Rai Bicyle Tour: 053 774506, 085 662 4347.