In the northernmost reaches of Thailand, near the borders with Myanmar and Laos, lies the Golden Triangle, a region whose very name has been synonymous with intrigue and adventure and, in the not-so-distant past, secretive warlords and the opium trade.
It was early February, in the depths of the cool and rainy Bay Area winter, when I flew to this hot and steamy land for an eight-day exploration of the Triangle’s jungle-lined valleys, snaking rivers and vast rice paddies. I was joining a group for an organized biking trip; the agenda was to ride on quiet country roads and dirt paths from town to town. We would round out days on the saddle with jaunts on sleek longboats down jungle rivers, rides by elephant-back to remote villages and treks on centuries-old paths to the hill-tribe communities of the Akha, Karen, Lisu and Lahu ethnic groups. Along our route, we would see ornate Buddhist temples tended by saffron-robed monks and bustling markets abounding in intricate artwork and flavorful cuisine. It sounded like the adventure to top all adventures, a realization of childhood dreams of exotic travel in far-off lands.
Veer Left at the Banana Plantation
We began our journey in Chiang Mai, a 13th-century city rich in monuments and famous for its night market. After meeting at the airport, our group of ten visitors and two guides boarded a van piloted by a cheery local named Piak, our driver and interpreter for the week.
The two-hour drive to the Chiang Dao Hills resort gave us a chance to get acquainted and enjoy our first glimpses of the lush northern Thailand scenery. The traditional Thai-style hotel, nestled on the shore of a lake, featured modest cottages crafted from teak and local stone. Each had a balcony looking out on the surrounding mountains and forest.
That afternoon, we regrouped for a bike fitting and decided to hike to a nearby Hmong farming village. Thailand’s third-highest mountain (7,500-foot Doi Chiang Dao) dominates the Chiang Dao landscape and its forested hills provide ample hiking opportunities. That evening we enjoyed the first of many traditional (and delicious) Thai meals, including som tom (a refreshing papaya salad) and satay (barbecued chicken kabobs), all washed down with Thai iced coffee and Singha beer.
The following day, after breakfast and a route map review by our leaders, some of us opted for a mountainbike ride and set out at our own pace, following a detailed set of printed instructions. Directions such as “veer left at the banana plantation” and “turn right at Doi Ngan village” had me imagining holing up in a tribal village for the night, but they were reassuringly accurate throughout this 17.5-mile ride and for the rest of the week—as long as we paid attention, that is!
This rugged region of rolling hills marked by lofty karst formations is dotted with Lahu hill-tribe villages. About 20 hill tribes live in northern Thailand; most have migrated from Myanmar and China over the past century and have retained their distinct language, religious beliefs, cultural practices, architecture and dress.
About five miles in, we stopped at the Hoi Jakan Village, where both Thai and Lisu people live. Piak and our support van met us, offering water, snacks and any needed bike maintenance. We were surrounded by a throng of inquisitive, giggling schoolchildren and entertained them with inflatable balloons and a soccer ball we had brought along as a gift.
Continuing past shelters, spirit houses (mini-temples erected in front of businesses and homes) and long stretches of seemingly uninhabited land, we would occasionally encounter villagers. Some were riding noisy, exhaust-spewing motor scooters (always signaling a friendly “beep-beep” when approaching from behind); others were on foot—mostly village women carrying provisions in slings they strapped to their foreheads.
Eventually, we came to Ban Non Kam village, where Lisu women in beaded headdresses and colorful embroidered dresses greeted us with smiles and engaged us in lively bargaining for silver jewelry, beaded bracelets, and other tribal handicrafts.
Big Buddhas and Bustling Markets
Leaving Chiang Dao, we began the third day (a 54-mile road ride) with a climb to the thousand-year-old trading center of Fang. About midway, a welcome downhill stretch through a sparsely populated area took us to the Tap Tao Buddhist caves, a tranquil oasis where monks pray and leave offerings in the site’s many Buddhist shrines. Continuing, we rode past grazing water buffalo, farmers working in rice and corn fields, schoolchildren reciting in cinderblock schoolhouses, an occasional gilded wat (temple) and bustling small villages, where we attracted more than a bit of attention. We weaved in and out of local traffic amid plenty of smiles and a cacophony of trailing “hellos!”
Reaching our destination of Ban Thaton near the Myanmar border, we settled into comfortable teak villas at the traditional Thai-style Maekok River Village hotel. Before dining at the riverside restaurant, we relaxed with a stroll up to the enormous white Buddha that watches over town from a nearby monastery’s grounds.
The following day, some of us got up around 4 a.m. for a stroll to Ban Thaton’s morning market, where we got a view of Thai life few tourists see. We sipped hand-filtered coffee and ate traditional breakfast snacks while strolling past row after row of produce, rice and other goods. My plan for the day was to join others in following a dirt trail along the river to a point where we would cross in a dugout canoe, then take an afternoon hike to visit remote Lahu and Palong Villages. Others opted for a day of lounging at the hotel with a good book and a cold drink. A fine choice, but I was here for the full cultural immersion and wasn’t going to miss a thing!
Departing Thaton the next day, we gave up our bikes for a speedy ride on a narrow, six-person “longtail” boat down the Maekok River. After a few hours, we disembarked at the Ruam Mit Karen settlement for lunch and then clambered aboard elephants for a rollicking ride through the hills to another small village, where Piak had delivered our bikes. We spent the rest of the day pedaling across a fertile valley to the modern high-rise Dusit Island Resort in Chiang Rai, where a refreshing shower awaited.
The Apex of Our Adventure
Our last two days of biking brought us along the mighty Mekong River, past tobacco fields and rice paddies to the bustling trading center of Mai Sai, the northernmost town in Thailand and a gateway to Myanmar. After ogling Burmese gemstones—mostly opals and jade—in local shops, we continued on to our abode for the trip’s last two nights: the luxurious Le Meridien Baan Boran near the town of Chiang Saen. This resort, overlooking the confluence of the Ruak and the Mekong rivers, is the apex of the Golden Triangle. After full but long days on the road, we savored the slow pace and luxuriousness of this superbly opulent hotel. At night, while chuckling over some of the week’s adventures and highlights, we enjoyed savory Thai cuisine and performances by traditional dancers and musicians, all while taking in the golden evening views of the Mekong and mysterious Laos and Myanmar beyond.
Focus on Thailand
Thailand is roughly the size of France, with topography ranging from beaches and islands in the south to rugged mountains in the north.
Thai meals are generally served family style and almost always incorporate chilis, garlic, lemongrass, coconut milk, peanuts and curry.
Most Thai men become monks for some period in their lives, usually as young adults, wherein they eat only once or twice a day, have few possessions and sleep in bare cells. It is an honor for them and their parents.
Spirit houses (phra phi) are erected in front of nearly every house and business. These miniature temples, built to keep the spirits who live on the land happy so that they will not bring misfortune, are often decorated with flowers and offerings.
Buddha images are depicted throughout Thailand in one of four basic positions: reclining, standing, walking or sitting. The most common depiction is the seated Buddha, meditating with legs crossed and the soles of the feet pointing upward.
Thailand’s climate is ruled by monsoons, resulting in three seasons: rainy (June to October), cool and dry (November to February), and hot (March to May).
8-day, 7-night biking trip
$3,298 (premier inns)
7-day, 6-night biking trip
$2,398 (casual inns)
10-day, 9-night biking trip
$950 (casual inns)
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Thailand on Two Wheels.”