Mountain ranges, rivers, and Lycra-clad cyclists are not images commonly associated with Thailand. But in this country better known for its iconic megacity and island destinations, the mountainous northern city of Chiang Mai reigns as the cycling capital of Southeast Asia.
My very first friends in Chiang Mai were cyclists. Even before I could speak enough Thai to carry on a conversation, the universal language of bike parts, brand names, professional cyclists, and famous races gave us plenty to talk about.
Often, we didn’t even need to talk. My Thai riding buddies and I first bonded over the shared exhaustion and jubilation of making it to the top of a long, steep hill.
I grew up riding my bike around Mercer Island and Lake Washington, and eventually spent four years riding and racing with the Husky Cycling Club. When I moved to Chiang Mai after graduation, I quickly fell into my new home’s cycling routines — in part because they are so much like what I learned in the Pacific Northwest.
Just like at home, my Thai friends and I gear up every weekend — and sometimes even weekday mornings before work — to ride for hours outside the city. And every weekend afternoon, like clockwork, we ride back into the city and descend upon our café of choice for post-ride coffee.
Although this routine is familiar to me, it is relatively new to Thailand’s second-largest city. Only in the past five years has Chiang Mai emerged as a hotspot for recreational and, even more recently, competitive cycling.
Riding to work is increasingly popular, and local coffee shops and restaurants offer specials and discounts for commuters. A recreational fixie scene, with an alternative Thai style all its own, has also taken hold in Chiang Mai. Some riders take their track bikes to the 1995 ASEAN Games velodrome on the edge of town, where a local British ex-pat organizes weekly sessions. Most of the candy-bright, color-coordinated fixie riders, though, can be found at Chiang Mai’s weekly Critical Mass rides and occasional alleycat races.
At the same time, recreational and competitive road and mountain bikers are gaining more opportunities to ride, train, and race. In addition to several local road races and time trials, the mountain region also hosts several hill-climb events. A recent race up Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand, attracted nearly 2200 participants
During the cool, dry season between November and February, you can even spot professional riders on the roads. Professional teams RTS, Baku, Giant Asia, Seoul Cycling, and the Lao and Malaysian national teams all devote much of their pre- and mid-season training to Chiang Mai’s hilly terrain.
And it’s not just pros who take advantage of the warm winter weather and smooth roads. Many travelers use Chiang Mai as their base for weeks or months of trekking, cycling, or motorbiking trips. Next November, Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club is leading a 10-day cycling tour of Chiang Mai and other northern Thai riding destinations.
Despite the comfortable familiarity of riding in Chiang Mai, my friends and surroundings serve as constant reminders of the khoum ben Thai — “Thai-ness” — inherent in every ride.
In the staging area of a recent time trial, my friends motioned for me to step aside as a line of monks parted the crowd of cyclists. They were on their way back to the temple, or wat from their morning alms round. Almsgiving, a daily Buddhist tradition in which monks collect food from and bless the residents of the surrounding neighborhood, is a common sight on early-morning rides.
Thai riders, bundled up for Northern Thailand’s 60-degree winter temperatures, constantly ask me, “Mai now, mai?” (“Aren’t you cold?”) when I show up in shorts and short sleeves. Later, while I much on a mid-ride P&J sandwich, my friends pull khow lham (sticky rice roasted in bamboo), grilled bananas, and banana leaf-wrapped snacks out of their pockets. Unlike a Seattle ride, there is not a Clif Bar in sight.
Where I have really discovered khouam ben Thai, though, is on long, solo rides outside the city. Through mountain passes, along rivers, and down endless stretches of highway, I am never alone. Drivers honk as they pass me — but rather than accelerate around me in annoyance, many slow down to wave and smile. Truck flatbeds full of passengers break out in cheers and whoops. Motorbike riders, more stoic, often just hold out one arm with a big thumbs-up.
Sure, cyclists are still a less common sight on Thai than on American roads. Maybe that explains why some Thai drivers go out of their way to interact with cyclists on the roads in this friendly, supportive way. But I think there is something more to this mobile cheering phenomenon than just novelty.
The Thais I know will take any opportunity to celebrate with others — even if the occasion is a foreigner riding her bike up a hill, and the venue is a fleeting moment on a mountain road. With a deeply ingrained Theravada Buddhist tradition, Thai culture values discipline and self-mastery just as much as fun and play. This is a country of at least monthly Buddhist festivals and daily muay thai (Thai boxing) matches. As a newcomer, I often lose track of which days are “festival days.” Instead, I expect celebrations, parties, and festivities any day of the week.
The more I live and ride in Thailand, the more this exuberance becomes a matter-of-fact way of life. So I return the wave and thumbs-up, or just flash a big smile. With every passing gesture, I learn a little more khouam ben Thai from the road and gain a little more khouam ben Thai myself.