Cycling to the top of Doi Inthanon on our tandem bicycle
Miles: 50 (25 up, 25 down)
What better way to finish off the Mae Hong Son Loop than cycling to the top of Thailand’s tallest mountain? Even better, we would be doing it on Christmas Day, which meant that we would basically feel smug for the rest of our lives.
Doi Inthanon stands at 2562 metres, and the road to the top is just over 40 kilometres long. As mountains go it’s not enormous (I would call it a medium-sized Alp). If it was a truly rugged mountain, there wouldn’t be a road to the summit with a cafe at the top! However, it was still going to be a fearsome challenge and our biggest ever climb by a long way.
No heavy panniers today as this would be a round trip. We carried food, water, basic bike repair tools, a phone, money, camera, GoPro, sun cream and wet wipes. We didn’t take a map, as there was only one direction to go… up!
We set off at 7 and paid a pricey foreigners fee of 300 baht each to enter Doi Inthanon National Park, where we were immediately warned to beware of the llamas (I think it was actually deer on the sign, but it did look like a llama).
Some views from the road early on.
I mean, it’s still 31 kilometres of uphill, but it’s not too bad considering.
We arrived at a ticket checkpoint after 3 hours, feeling pleased that we’d come so far and had some energy left for the last few kilometres.
“Nine kilometres to the top,” said the man who checked our tickets.
I was thrilled at this news until I saw a sign saying: 1669 MSL (metres above sea level).
So… we’d had 31 kilometres to raise up to 1669 metres. Now we had 9 kilometres to raise up to the final 893 metres. This was going to hurt.
The last 9 kilometres of Doi Inthanon are awful. Just awful. And until the very end, they get more awful as you get higher.
We glimpsed one of the Royal Pagodas in the distance and wondered if this was the peak.
The Royal Pagodas are in fact 5 kilometres from the top, and are the place where you can stop to admire the view. As we passed them at crawling pace we decided that we would visit on the way down, as we knew that stopping for a long break would destroy our motivation.
The Royal Pagodas on our map.
Having a quick photo and drinks break.
We gradually slowed to the extent that in between pedals the bike was completely still. We would have been faster walking it, but goddammit we said we were going to cycle it so we would cycle it.
As we climbed higher the air became nice and fresh, and we saw clouds drifting through the trees around us. According to some online research we did afterwards, the road at this stage was frequently at or around 24%. It felt like it too!
Soon we were cycling through a car park, and then… At 12.30, after 5 1/2 hours of climbing, we’d made it!
Wreathed in grey clouds, busy with tourists, full of outdoor food stalls and all in all, not particularly beautiful, here we were at the top of Doi Inthanon feeling extremely pleased with ourselves.
We had been planning to have lunch here, but neither of us was hungry, so we got a drink instead and had a nice sit down, feeling exhausted and very, very happy.
It was a chilly 14 degrees at the top, so we didn’t sit still for too long. We left our valiant bike looking rather tired, and climbed the stairs up to what is officially known as the highest place in Thailand.
And guess what else is there? A temple, of course!
And some old-looking, moss-covered, beautiful trees.
So, there is no view, repeat, NO VIEW at the top of Doi Inthanon. We were prepared for this, so it didn’t come as a disappointment. It must be said that it’s not very special at the top. Unless you have cycled there (or walked there – if anyone was crazy enough to do that) then I don’t think you would get a lot out of going up there. Most of the space is taken up by a Neutron Centre, which is guarded by the army and apparently does things like monitoring solar flares.
After spending maybe 30 minutes at the top, we hopped back on the bike and down we went. (The use of the word “hopped” is a little optimistic: “contorted our carcasses” is probably a better description.)
Going down those steep hills felt quite dangerous. Eric did a brilliant job of controlling the bike.
We stopped at the Royal Pagodas and went to take a look (paying 40 baht each to enter).
The Pagodas and the gardens are nice and well kept.
But of course it’s the view that’s really interesting, and it is a good one.
After some view appreciation we carried on down. At this point my body was a solid piece of ache and my brain an exhausted mushy sponge. As we descended I couldn’t believe how far we had come up, and both of us said this to each other about ten times: “We cycled up all of this? I don’t believe it!”
Eric had to work hard, concentrating on keeping away from cars, keeping the speed down and judging the corners. In the end his hands were in pain from squeezing the brakes.
The clouds cleared, the air warmed and we were at the bottom by about 3. Once you take into account the downhills and subsequent uphills on the way to the top, the total climb is 2700 metres. Hmm. Time for lunch.
Eric eats his second lunch in a row with great concentration.
… and smiles sarcastically as I laugh at him. Well done Eric, we did it!