The Thai Rhythm of Life
Preparing for our trip to Thailand, I remember reading somewhere about the romantic Thai rhythm of life. Waking up early, air still crisp and cooking the rice, first thing, so enough is made for the day. The smell of rice fills the house as people sweep floors or clean the kitchen and get ready for work. Chores are done before the brutal tropical sun burns away the light morning dew, before the humidity lays heavy in the air. In the late afternoon, once the sun has receded, Thais water their carefully manicured flowers and plants in lush green gardens.
These images stuck with me after arriving in Thailand, even though this rhythm was difficult to find. We certainly didn’t find it in buzzing Bangkok and the islands seemed to take on the pattern of tourists. The closest we came to the feeling was during the time we spent in Chiang Mai, although, like the throngs of digital nomads and online entrepreneurs in town, our daily pattern was more about bouncing between cafes and restaurants, working hard and crossing items off to-do lists than soaking up Thai culture.
Cycling Tours in Chiang Mai
At some point while our heads were down and we were working away, the SpiceRoads cycle tour company got in touch to offer us the chance to join a cycle tour of the Lanna countryside outside of the city. We jumped at the chance, not only to experience more of rural Thailand, but also because of our growing passion for cycling while traveling. On a bike, we are right out in the experience, the smells, the sights, the scenes and the people. Cycling frees us the limits of a bus window as much as it does from the slow pace that our legs alone can take us.
The day started early in the morning. Five of us rode along in single file behind our guide, much of the 33km ride spent alone. At each stop, the guide would tell a story, and answer questions. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple with a mummified monk before snaking through peaceful rice fields for miles, stopping at other temples, passing through villages with morning markets in full swing.
We stopped at small roadside factories where relaxed workers pounded out the tourist trinkets we know from Chiang Mai’s many night markets. Most interesting was watching men whittle mango wood down into beautiful vases at hypnotizing speeds.
Looking back on our Lanna countryside cycling tour, what I will remember most is feeling that rhythm of rural Thai life. Catching bright smiles from locals who wave from their stands selling eggs or fruits, honking on their motorbikes as they pass. I can only imagine how we look, all lined up in a row, colorful helmets on, fancy mountain bikes, as people whiz by on all sorts of transport. We come upon smell the onion harvest before we arrive to the field to watch workers load up thousands of onions onto a truck.
At some point the road becomes punctuated by more and more hills, and the last five kilometers or so are by far the most challenging. Our guide suddenly picks up the pace, and we are pumping our pedals, pouring with sweat. By now it is noon, and the heat has brought along his friend humidity so add more of a challenge as our legs and lungs burn. And, as suddenly as it began, the hard part is over, as is the cycling tour. We have landed at our final destination: the hot springs.
Last Stop: Hot Springs?!
Hot springs are not exactly what you hope for at the end of a 33km ride, but the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs in Mae On are definitely worth a visit, even without the long cycle beforehand if interested in a more authentic Thai day out. The group had lunch together with guide, who was nice enough to order the group a papaya salad for those who hadn’t been in Thailand long enough to sample this quintessentially Thai dish.
We splintered off after that to explore the leisure park, with its expansive green lawns, hot mineral baths and hot spring geysers. Dani and I joined the gaggles of Thai teens, glowing old men and their beautiful wives, families with babies and just a handful of fellow westerners all soaking their feet in the warm lazy river. We watched as everyone around us munched on boiled eggs. All around the park, vendors sell eggs in baskets, which people boil in tubs of hot spring water. Signs dictate the number of minutes for soft or hard-boiled eggs. Lunch and entrance fees to park were included in the tour, but eggs, drinks and mineral baths were extra.
After an hour, the group comes together back at the van, and we are all dropped back off in Chiang Mai.
These are the moments we really travel for, these glimpses into everyday life.
In a year from now, on a Saturday just like the day of our tour, wherever we are in the world, we know about these moments taking place in the northern Thai countryside. The factory workers, the onion harvest, worshipers visiting the mummified monk, the patterns of life in the sleepy Lanna countryside, and most likely, the small, Spice Roads tour group cycling through.
The Lanna countryside tour takes around 8 hours from pick-up to drop-off, but the 33kilometer cycling part runs between 3.5 and 4 hours. Cycling is easy to moderate, with a few hills and mountains at the end. Group size ranges between 2-16, but the guide assured us that there are usually no more than 7-8 on any given tour.
Price: 2,500 Baht / US$80 (the same price as almost any tourist undertaking in Chiang Mai – Tiger Kingdom, Nature Elephant Park, etc).
Visit the SpiceRoads website for more information on other tours from Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, Bangkok and other destinations in Asia such as Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Burma, China, India and Japan.