Trail rides, single-track rides, leisurely tour rides…even elephant rides…the Chiang Rai MTB Enduro is the ride of your life.
Not to be confused with Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, the mountainous area of Chiang Rai lends itself to low humidity and cold nights; a place where fields stretch silently between peaks and a refreshing contrast to the sandy southern beaches.
Although many of Europe’s middle-aged and senior tourists visit the area, there are few Japanese. It’s quite unfortunate, since amazing trails for hiking and mountain biking lie just outside the city, making the area from Chiang Rai toward Laos and Myanmar a virtual “hiking heaven” for those lucky enough to be in the know.
The Chiang Rai MTB Enduro promotes itself as the “ride through heaven.” The event mixes the best of touring and racing and, although it features some hardcore pedal pushers busting through the time trials, the alternating touring stages allow everyone time to chat with fellow riders.
Fun on the Open Road
This two-day event begins with riders gathering on the start line for the opening ceremony and a short free ride to the start of stage one. This touring stage is when the conversations are in full swing and, although the occasional speed demon will blast forward, tour leaders keep the pace under control.
After an hour’s ride, you arrive at the starting point for Special Stage (SS) 1. There are two SS race sections per day for a total of four over the two-day race. When you mix in the free riding between sections, you have the perfect combination of touring and racing for which Chiang Rai is known.
SS1 is 27 kilometers with patches of paved road and several mountains to cross – certainly not an easy push. Classes are divided into age brackets. Some of the more earnest riders race for the lead, while others hang back and travel at their own pace. The SS sections are designed to allow everyone to have a good time.
Crossing jeep paths and paved roads, you move into the single track. Up to this point, the pedaling is fast and furious, but from here good technique and the ability to maintain balance on the climbs and descents will make or break a rider. The road, used daily by villagers, including curious children and encouraging locals, is far from a groomed bike course, and there are places where a dismount is required.
Suddenly the field of view opens as the course runs directly through a small village where riders take care not to traipse through backyards, while villagers eagerly cheer on their two-wheeled guests. It’s certainly an experience few “typical tourists” are able to enjoy, and these small paths really give riders a sense of the community through which they are passing.
One particularly illustrative episode occurred when I thanked a child for a friendly push up a steep climb by giving him one of my energy bars. I wasn’t prepared for the ensuing crowd that gathered.
The faster riders buzz through SS1 in 90 minutes, with those bringing up the rear cutting the tape at just under three hours. A campground catered lunch featuring local Thai favorites is provided, with spices toned down to accommodate our palates. The food alone makes the trip. Riders with full stomachs either catch an afternoon nap or chat with each other, preparing for the afternoon ride.
The first day’s SS2 runs a mere 10 km. (nine km. on the second day) and is more akin to a typical speed race than the morning jaunts. Although riders tend to roll quickly through this section in 20-30 minutes, the frenetic pace takes its toll.
Biking on Elephants?!?
As the afternoon sprint ends, riders head back to the comfort of the hotel. The next section is not in the saddle of their trusty mountain bike but rather perched atop pachyderms to make a river crossing. While elephant rides are not uncommon in Thailand, boarding one of these beasts with a mountain bike is perhaps a sight seen only at the Chiang Rai Enduro.
Riding high in the saddle of an elephant while holding on to your bike is somewhat tricky, and the shifting of the elephant as it strides forward requires holding tight to your bike. I was concerned that my bike’s spokes and pedals would hurt the animal, but the herder in charge repositioned my bike and reassured me they don’t feel a thing. Elephants certainly don’t sweat the small stuff.
A glance back at the parading pachyderms with mountain bikes and riders mounted atop, is such a strange and glorious scene, it can make you want to cheer. Whoa! But don’t lose hold of that bike!
The Night Stages
When dusk arrives, instead of going straight to bed, most riders head out to the night market, a collection of outdoor shops selling food, spirits and souvenirs. It’s quiet during the day, so to really get your fill of Chiang Rai, a nighttime stop is definitely in order. Everyone tends to pig out, drink up, shop around and enjoy a good Thai massage, all in the spirit of enjoying the event in both body and soul.
Day Two once again featured two SS and two free riding sections. The overall times on the four SS stages determine placement on the podium. Top riders in each category enjoy a friendly rivalry to decide who dons the leader jersey, and the race ends with an awards ceremony and lively after-party known as “SS5.”
Once again riders gorge on all the great food and drink. The cheap prices make decisions easy for buying whatever looks interesting or smells good and gathering quite a collection at the table. Insects are for sale and appear to be quite the delectable morsel in the dimly lit market.
The Chiang Rai MTB Enduro truly combines the camaraderie of touring with the competition of racing in a lovely setting. It’s scheduled the same time next year and is a great race for people tired of riding solo or others looking for new trails to explore. The heavenly hills of Chiang Rai won’t disappoint, and neither will the delicious food or the wonderful local hospitality.
Surrounded for the most part by mountains, Chiang Rai is 800 km. north of Bangkok. Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) has flights between international airports in Japan and Bangkok.
There are multiple flights to and from Bangkok every day, taking one hour. If you’re looking for a more “Thai” experience, consider the 13-hour bus ride – not for the faint of heart.
Chiang Rai MTB Enduro Web site: