An Unexpected Journey : The Other Side of Doi Suthep
Although not quite as epic as the adventures of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, my recent adventure wasn’t too far off in terms of death defying antics, scaling a mountain, meeting interesting people and making new friends, on the other side of Doi Suthep.
The ride up Doi Suthep is a familiar one, I’ve ridden a scooter and a red tuk-tuk up there to visit Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep a few times and when I took the bike up there, I continued with a couple of friends along the mountain road. Back then it wasn’t so much a mountain road as it was a dirt track with form.
Riding merrily along we made it to a structure on the side of the road that was home to a lovely lady who sold coffee. I wasn’t much into coffee back then but tried some as it was grown right next to the building in a valley full of coffee plants. These were hers and she grew, cultivated, picked, roasted and ground them to create her coffee. This was a beautiful cycle. Sitting next to the plants that became the coffee I was drinking was an awesome feeling. I didn’t really appreciate coffee back then and I remember finding it quite bitter; as I found anything that wasn’t half milk with plenty of sugar.
So this time around I decided to take a special trip to go and see her and see what had become of the plantation and the lovely lady. It was my only goal for the day and equipped with a more educated palette for coffee, I was really looking forward to trying the coffee again.
The ride up Doi Suthep is quite simple, it is tarmac-ed with a very well maintained road winding up the mountain all the way past the temple to Bhuping Palace. After the palace however, the road changes. On Christmas Day we took a trip to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and you can check out our video of the gorgeous temple.
As for riding up the mountain, I recommend getting a good bike. Personally I’d recommend nothing less powerful than a 125cc. I had a Yamaha TTX 125. It did the job fine but was a bit old. Had I known how the day panned out I would have picked up a slightly better bike. Also even for the road up, you need to be a confident rider. There are a lot of turns and you share the road with other mopeds, motorbikes, cyclists, walkers as well as an array of 4×4’s, pickup trucks, red tuk-tuks, minibuses and the occasional coach (these are actually banned on the mountain but is ignored by some). Also vehicles on the opposite side of the road have a tendency to swerve over to the other lanes and they don’t take much notice of mopeds and even if they did, they are going too fast to do anything about it.
About half way up the road is small temple with a lovely large statue of Buddha. It is missed by most but there is a rest stop there and a chance to pay your respects to the mountain. A walking party came up a jungle path next to the temple but didn’t bother to really stop and take it in, which I thought was sad.
Thai Buddhists will take a moment to stop and bow or put their hands together for almost all statues of Buddha. I was disappointed that not even the tour guide took a moment. Two ladies did however before there were dragged off again -this restored my faith in humanity slightly. They left saying “What is wrong with these guys? This a beautiful temple and no wants to just enjoy it for a minute”. My thoughts exactly.
I stopped briefly at the steps to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and considered getting something to eat and drink but moved on as it was so busy and hot. Continuing up and past Bhuping Palace, I came to a clearing.
Never having been to Bhuping Palace I was tempted to stop and have a wander but I decided to continue on my mission to find my coffee lady.
All the trees had been cut down and past it there was a magnificent view of Chiang Mai several hundred of feet below in the distance. The grounds had been dug up to reveal a bright red clay mound. My optimism hoped that this space would perhaps be turned into a park of sorts for people to stop, have a picnic and enjoy the scenery and view. Unfortunately, the more likely story is that this space will give way to a hotel or money making operation as has much of Chiang Mai in recent years.
Continuing on the road came the gateway to descend the mountain into a valley which was home to the Hmong people of Chiang Mai and this was the point at which to turn off. I’ve not visited the Hmong village and 5 years ago it was not an “attraction” it was a home to an ethnic group of people. Now it seemed, the village had become another place to visit on the tourist trail. Given Elizabeth’s anthropological study of the Hmong people, it might be something she would be interested in but not for today.
The Mountain Pass
Here I took a right. The road had become a single lane however to my surprise and disgust, was still used by pickup trucks and red tuk-tuks! There was barely space and around every corner, you have to beep the the horn to make others aware. This was fair but these are BIG vehicles. I remember that along my journey previously, we found a secluded viewpoint that looked over the valley. At the bottom was the Hmong village and the mountains rolled off, tree-covered into the distance. It was an incredible sight. I knew that if I found this, I was on the right track.
And soon enough I did. Although this time, as with all else so far, it had changed. The secluded viewpoint now had a carpark and some stalls selling fruit and trinkets. A tell-tale sign of a tourist attraction. Very different. Ignoring this however the view was the same. The village has clearly developed a bit over the years and has grown. I was able to see pickup trucks down there, either belonging to villagers or tour groups. Despite all of this, it is one the most beautiful views I’ve ever witnessed. Last time we had a clear day and the sunset, this time it wasn’t so romantic but was breathtaking.
Leaving here I knew I was heading in the right direction. The road was still single track but after another 4km or so I recognised a building.
It wasn’t the coffee place, but I remember it. Giving me confidence again I was on the right track. It was a campsite. I remember exploring it and thinking it was a great idea. Last time I stopped and took photos (I think) and explored a bit. This time I pounded on. Up and down winding roads. Eventually I started to recognise twists and turns, vegetation changes and views. Very Deja-vu.
Climbing a hill, there were more fruit stalls and people selling stuff. My heart sank a touch. My suspicions were right. As I turned the corner I recognised the building but all around it had changed. It wasn’t the secret place it once was. It was a fully fledged attraction. Again the pickup trucks were abound, getting stuck trying to pass other trucks on a single lane road. Several mopeds and even downhill mountain bikes. There were manicured gardens and several other buildings that had not previously been there. It had changed.
I had a walk around a bit first but recognised the coffee shop and the tables and chairs that were made of tree trunks. The plantation has become a centre for agriculture in alliance with Chiang Mai University. They had several types of plants growing there and created a type of botanical gardens in the middle of the coffee plantation. It was very pretty and after speaking to some people found that the pink blossom all around us was very rare and blooms for a very short period of time so we were lucky to see it. And it was very nice. In the distance the pink trees looked like fluffy pink clouds.
Walking back to the coffee shop, I met a local chap called Luhr. He was on his day off and always come up here to chill out. We decided to have a coffee together. Walking into the shop, it was exactly how I remember it. A wooden structure with open sides. Several wooden table and tree trunks stools overlooking the coffee plants with the hills in the background. At the far end was the counter and there was my coffee lady. I could recognise her straight away though had you asked me to describe her before, I wouldn’t have had a clue.
I told her that I had been there 5 years before and she was all smiles. I asked for a coffee, only served as a double espresso and she ground the beans and put them in and electric espresso machine! This was new. Before she used a manual coffee press. There is no harm in this though and makes total sense. The coffee is served with a couple delicious biscuits for 40Baht. I told her it used to be 20Baht and it made her laugh in agreement.
Sitting with Luhr I sipped away. It was different to what I remember but I think that is more account of my changed appreciation for coffee rather than the coffee itself. I did find that thanks to the electric machine, there were less loose grounds in the cup as I remember from before. The coffee was light, nutty and mellow with more sweet than bitter. If I were going to take it further I would say there were distinct plum notes and a subtle smokey tone with a delicate and brief aftertaste of hard toffee. (yup, that just happened!)
While we were drinking, Luhr asked me which way I was going back to Chiang Mai. I had planned to just turn back the way I came, as everyone else did. He said he was going down the other side. I didn’t think we were allowed but he was a local who did this a lot. He said it would only take half an hour or so…
The route led through the forest to the farmer villages and farmland, eventually to the lake that we went to on Elizabeth’s Birthday. This sounded interesting and the adventurer in me had already wanted to do the route, I just needed that extra push.
Only the Brave
We had to wait for a bunch of pickups trucks to work themselves out and we were on our way. Leaving the same time a group of hardcore downhill bike riders we were soon riding up further through the thick foliage and the paved road soon disappeared into a muddy mess. It was clear pretty early on that this was not a well trodden path, or an overly trodden path (?) at least it’s structure had no sympathy for mopeds or their need for flat road.
This was given reason after a few kilometres of mud path and pothole dodging by descending into a worksite filled with several workers and an industrial digger. It’s tracks had formed deep troughs in the clay which were hard to dodge. Going through this, half-riding, half-walking, I got a lot of looks and giggles from the workers, likely wondering what I was thinking and probably taking bets on how long until they see me coming back the other way in scared retreat.
Again had I known what was to come, someone may have won a beer or two.
Passing the building site, we continued down the path. It was now naked clay. Wet from the previous weeks rain showers. It was almost slick. The gradient of these descents didn’t help either as they required the front break to be clenched continuously. This either caused the bike to slow or skid depending on the amount of clay that had clogged up the tyre tread. Sometimes it was more like skiing and not in a good way. Negotiating 60 degree slopes is not easy when the slop ends in shear cliff drop into tree tops. The added difficulty which actually became the hardest thing, was the gaping trenches in the road and the huge cracks that had likely been caused by rainwater drainage following the same lines over time and eroding that same path all the way down the track. The problem was that if I got caught on the edge of one of these then the whole bike would slide sideways into the crack and take me with it.
If I spent too long ride-walking then I risked my foot being caught on something and taken with it. This is very dangerous for a biker so I had to be on alert at all time. At other times to overcome a obstacle I had to punch the throttle to get over, but then be heading faster down the hill on the other side, which was then too bumpy to get traction with the brake again. My heart skipped a good few beats when this happened.
I should point out that during this time of constant risk assessment and failing to be able to follow any of the counter measures that came to mind, my new friend Luhr was happily pootling along, not a care in the world. He was not phased by anything at all. And considering he had an older, less advanced bike, he kept making some distance on me.
This was a bit embarrassing but he explained he had done these routes over 30 times and had been riding a moped since he was 9. This still made me feel daft as I used to ride sports bikes and thought myself a pretty competent rider! Luckily he did stop for me when I was a way behind. This was a great gesture. Though I feel he owed me a bit for bringing me this way? Or is that just an excuse for being too zealous in my search for adventure?!
A New-Old Chiang Mai
Continuing down through the valley, we came across breathtaking scenery and jungle, at times stumbling on small villages or houses, farmers ploughing and tending to crops and some children playing.
I would have had more pictures but I was conscious of the time it was taking to catch up to Luhr on each stretch and my hands were starting to get cramp from clenching the breaks so much. I don’t think the front brake was released for at least an hour straight. My ride-walking had become an art and at times I was able to keep up with Luhr. To get an idea of the road conditions, here are some pictures I did manage to get. It was a shame my video capabilities had been exhausted. Perhaps it’s time to look into a built-for-purpose adventure camera that has the memory, quality and most importantly battery life to be a companion during a long adventure.
Along some of the track there were sections of concrete road. Two tracks about the width of a car going along the route. in between was broken ground or deep trenches. The road was also broken at sections making it very difficult to even ride-walk. At times like this, there was literally nothing else on my body I could clench. Literally. My jaw was even starting to hurt from grinding my teeth! Along one of theses paths we encounters a few pickup trucks having a hard time getting up the path, a few locals coming up the track on mopeds and a couple on a dirt bike going the same way we were with next to no issue with the surface. What was odd about the couple was that while the guy riding was protected by gloves, a jacket and a full helmet, the girl was in a dress and sandals sitting on the back. Not even a helmet!?! But she was happily smiling away, it was nuts considering the road. Going down is one thing but going up is another. Going down you can see your path and sort of plan, and if you stop you can stop. But going up, you can’t see your path that easily and if you slow down or stop you risk loosing balance much easier. But the local people on bikes were just as content as Luhr and plodded towards and passed us with no issue.
Nearing the end of the run we passed some farms, here we could see fields and fields of different vegetation. Luhr explained that there were Lychee trees, Tamarind, Cabbages, Lettuce, Bananas, Papaya, Mangoes and lots of other things. He didn’t like the fruit from here as they spray it with “poison” or pesticides. When I looked closer, I could see that he was right, there was a lady going around spraying pesticide all over the crop and in the middle of the field there were automated pesticide delivery systems that doubled to deliver water. This was disappointing but not knowing the agricultural environment here, I can’t say if it is a good or bad thing.
Continuing on, we were getting closer and closer to ground level. Thankfully. We came upon the lake and Luhr decided to show me another one as I knew about one of them already. The one he took me to involved getting off the bike and walking for a short distance through the trees to a fishing area. This lake was massive and serene. No people, nothing. Just still water surrounded by a a thicket of trees. It was beautiful though unfortunately, there weren’t many places to chill out around it. We continued back towards the main roads and stopped to watched some quad bikers gear up for a trek around the mountain. Something I’d perhaps be interested in one day though I doubt they would go as exciting a route as I had just been.
Moving on we stopped to look at the lake I had already seen and then headed home. We part ways on the main road into town and I promised to visit him where he works for fish & chips at The UN Irish Pub in Old Town Chiang Mai. Heading home, I realised I was exhausted both physically and mentally. After every intention to find food over 6 hours prior, I still had had none and very little liquid. I had been running on adrenaline, fear and excitement. I needed to sit and take it all in.
Back to the Burrow
It was fascinating to see the other side of the mountain, where the beauty of the place has not been made a tourist path (yet). Untouched dirt roads only used by farmers and crop fields that feed the city. Chiang Mai proper is hidden by the tall trees and thick forest and jungle making you feel a lot further from the bustling city than you actually are. Though I don’t recommend this for the faint hearted nor those thinking of doing it solo, it has become one of the most awesome memories of Chiang Mai and for me that is saying a lot.
Please if you do consider this ride, go with people, take the most care you’ve ever taken, get a good bike and give yourself at least 4 hours just to make the ride down.