Sankamphaeng Hot Springs - my Chiang Mai Bike Ride Feb 2007

Finding myself in Chiang Mai for three weeks, primarily to practise meditation with Sri Chinmoy, I knew I would want to take some time out to explore. Some people have the capacity to spend their whole day in trance but personally I need to find a balance with some physical activity to complement the contemplative stuff. Last year's trip to Penang had included some wonderful long trail runs of several hours in jungle teeming with noisy insect life and exotic flora, but I wasn't in shape (cos of injury) to do that this time - biking and hiking would have to suffice. So, on only my second full day in Thailand I hired the nearest bike and headed out of town on the road east.

The bike cost 50 baht per day - about 80 pence - and the quality was reflected in the price! Even at full extension the saddle was still way too low and top gear didn't work, but the brakes and tyres were good and the chain seemed likely to stay on so I didn't quibble. I only had a few hours spare so I didn't fancy a long trog around the hot, smoggy city looking for a better deal.

The road east to San Kamphaeng was extremely busy at first - they call it the handicraft highway, as there are umbrella makers and carvers in profusion for several miles. Bikes are big in Thailand and mopeds are even bigger so I was blessed with a proper cycle lane all along this busy stretch. The only hassle came when I met the ring road and found the roundabout for this intersection was only half built - had to dismount and play frogger with the crazy mix of trucks, cars, bikes, tuk tuk, song tao etc. Fortunately the Thais are the nicest and most laid back drivers I have ever come across - they seem never to be in too much of a hurry and will always slow down to let you in.

As the k's rolled by the road quietened a little and as I arrived hot and sweaty in San Kamphaeng I was glad to see the fork in the road that marked my turn to the hot springs - my goal for the day which I figured was 25k or so from town. On the country road out of San Kamphaeng I started to get a real impression of rural Thailand - I had only seen the city and the airport thus far so this was a welcome change. It was the dry season, and a particularly long and very dry one at that, so although the paddies were still flooded and there was plenty of lush greenery, there was a kind of British September feel to some of the fields, with baked-white grass waving in the hazy sunshine and lazy cattle mooching at the roadside.

The road wound on for ages, still easy going on the flat floor of the Ping Valley. The traffic was sparse, and I got some smiles and waves from villagers as I frantically pedalled by - partly as I was stuck in low gear and partly as I was realising that my estimate of the distance was a bit out - it was going to be way over 50k round trip! The fact that I appeared to be in a hurry attracted some attention from the onlookers - like I said before, Thai people never seem to be in a rush to get anywhere, and they often appear baffled by the European trekker/cyclist/runner who most certainly is.

This chedi was from one of many exquisite Wats that I passed on that winding road. Gradually hills appeared in silhouette to either side of me, forested and probably about three or four thousand feet high.In the haze it was hard to pick out any features, but I knew I was soon going to have to climb, and I might then be a little less narked about the low gearing that was making my progress through the valley so slow! Finally I hit a T junction and came off highway 1006 which I had followed all the way from Chiang Mai on to highway 1317 heading north to Muang On caves and the Hot Springs. The climbs started immediately but none were too arduous - I was making good progress through my 2 litre water bottle in the front basket (yes I kid you not the bike had a handlebar-mounted shopping basket) and the incredibly useful kool-off hat was doing its job well protecting me from the blazing early afternoon sun. Signs to the hot spring suggested it was only 10k but I soon learned that they in fact meant that the turning off towards the hot springs was 10k away! At the side of highway 1317 though was the cutest site of the day - the calf by the flowery gate. I took a picture:

The turn off for the springs was obvious and I enjoyed some easy downhills and just a few ups before it came into view. The spring itself is channelled into a couple of pipes and comes bursting out at boiling point into a jet some thirty feet high. There is also a stone trough where you can boil an egg in the water as part of your picnic! Quite a few Thai families were here, with food laid out on rugs and mats under the trees, just chilling out and paddling their feet in the warm stream from the spring. Sandy coloured dogs dozed in the heat. I paid my 30 baht to get in to the well tended gardens and then happily parted with another 50 to have a swim in the hot mineral pool.

I don't think I've ever felt so relaxed - if I hadn't had another 35k ahead of me to get home I could have lazed there all day and all night. The mineral waters make you more buoyant than usual - instead of being a sinker I was actually able to float on my back with my toes stuck up out of the water. Nice. A few short kicks and I could backstroke my way across the pool with my head almost under - just gazing up at the canopy and with all sound blocked out by the water - calm senses, serene mind.

I dragged myself away - in the absence of a towel I dried myself with my hat, then retrieved my shoes from the attendant and wandered slowly back to the gate. Aware that the road home would be long on that low geared machine I found the cafe and purchased a bottle of seven up and some chocolate. They were playing Maggie Bell and Dolly Parton over the speakers. It sounded great. Now, have I ever been somewhere so beautiful and so powerfully relaxing that I could enjoy folk and country music? Maybe there's something in that water. Anyway, I had a serene smile on my face all the way back through the hills (lots of freewheeling in the evening sun) and back along the country road to San Kamphaeng town. The villagers were appearing in their yards,cooking outside or just chilling out after a hard day. I made one more stop - at a petrol station just outside Chiang Mai for ice cream - then it was back through the fumey streets of that charming city to the hotel and the bike hire man. As I was coming home, shops and stalls were just starting to open. It all happens at night in Chiang Mai.

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