Stepping off the train from Bangkok we were greeted by a cool breeze and a lone pickup truck set to take us and our fellow travellers into town. Surrounded by mountains, Chaing Mai is considered the capitial of northern Thailand, a green landscape of forested mountain peaks and lush farms set in the valley bottom below. In the heart of Chaing Mai is the old city, a collection of temples and guesthouses spread throughout a web of narrow streets filled with cafes and markets. The sleepy old city is separated from the frantic modern Chaing Mai by a moat, built over 700 years ago to protect its residents against invading Burmese. We booked ourselves into one of the many liittle guesthouses tucked within the old city walls, excited to spend the next few days exploring the city and its surrounding area. By that evening, we had discovered that one of the old city’s best kept secrets; the Talat Pratu Chaing Mai; a large open air food market where vendors spread along the roaside against the moat and you can eat to your heart’s content. We couldn’t think of a better place to eat and drink with new friends, and spent the next few nights doing just that. The only thing better than the warm hospitality of the Thai people is their food, and after a week of eating our way north we decided it was time for a work out.
You can do anything you want in Chaing Mai to get your heart rate up, but hiking and mountain biking seem to be the most popular and heavily advertised at all but a few of the tour operator stands you walk by. After sussing out our options we figured we would try something new, and signed up for an afternoon of Muay Thai lessons. Our estemed trainer Kru Pong stood at best 5’6″, and picked us up in his hello kitty adorned car. We were quickly reminded however that looks can be decieving. Soon after we arrived at the gym and unloaded the 10 gallons of water Kru brought for us, we got to work. The session started with a full body tiger balm rub down and questions from the trainer for Alison inquiring when she was going to produce a child he could train to fight. After these early pleasantries, Kru proceeded to punish us in the afternoon heat. Although his english was limited, he seemed to have a mastery of numbers above 10, which he frequently used when giving orders of excercises we were to do to for warm up. He always claimed it was the last set, but it never was. The three hour session was beyond hard for both of us but very rewarding, and by the end of the session Kru wanted Alison to stay for a month so he could turn her into a fighter.
After a day of recovery from our training session with Kru, we wandered the town in search of our next adventure. Curious to see what the local mountain biking scene was like, we popped into Trailhead Tours, one of Chian Mai’s newest bike shops. There we met Nui, one of Trailhead’s proficient guides and an active participant in the local race scene. Although we declined a tour, Nui invited us to join him that Sunday to watch one of the national races happening just outside of town. Due to a broken collarbone which he had aquired only a few days prior he wouldn’t be competing, but he was eager to watch others he knew and happy to have us along for the ride.
The lush green mountains surrounding Chaing Mai are all protected by some form of park or reserve designation, providing the perfect trail building environment for local riders. The Thailand Gravity series is part of a circuit of downhill races in northwest Thailand which attracts riders from across the country and as far away as Austrialia and New Zealand. We arrived early enough that Alison and I were able to hike the course while watching riders take advantage of last minute practice runs. The course was everything you’d want; some steep technical terrain, followed by some fast flow leading into the big air for the crowd at the finish. After sweating in the jungle heat slogging to the top of the course we decided the large jump was the best spot to watch, and joined the crowd to cheer on the riders and they (mostly sucessfully) aired it out to everyone’s delight and cheers. After the race the crowd moved to the finish area to enjoy a cold beer and a riding skills display put on by some of the riders. I found it exciting to be around so many people who loved their sport and their community, the energy was contagious and won’t soon be forgotten. Alison and I decided then and there that Chiang Mai was definitely going on the list of places to return in the future, but next time with bikes in tow.