I’m no stranger to bike tours in Southeast Asia — I’ve done self-guided jaunts through Siem Reap and Ayutthaya, and joined an organized trip around Bangkok. What can I say, I like to cycle! So when I came across in my search for ways to get to the infamous Wat Rong Khun White Temple, I was all over it.
While Chiang Rai Bicycle Tour has several different tour options, the most popular are the which goes through the countryside and to the White Temple, and the , which continues on to Khun Kon, Chiang Rai’s highest waterfall.
Unlike many one-day or half-day cycling tours, these actually cover a fair amount of distance. The full day tour takes in 25-30 miles of road! I signed on for the full day, and mentally prepared myself for a few moments of cursing my decision during the uphill portions.
After a pickup truck escorted us outside of town and away from the worst traffic, we started to gear up. Bee, the owner and main tour guide, gave us a safety run-down while his brother and fellow guide Amon fitted myself and my three fellow cyclers for bikes.
Off we went! Despite Chiang Rai’s reputation as a cool retreat from Thailand’s heat, the combination of sun and intense physical activity had me sweating in no time. I had plenty of distraction, though, as we would soon pass beautiful temples…
… active rice fields…
… and even a rural local crematorium.
“So… we are looking at… dead people?,” came the stuttered query of the German woman in our group, as we stared at the pile of ashes at our feet. Amon nodded matter of factually before pointing out the elaborate spirit houses used as eternal homes for the ashes of Thailand’s wealthy. “Some people, poor. Some people, have money.”
It didn’t take long for me to assess that Bee was one of the best tour guides I’ve ever had in Thailand. He was polite and kind, but with a winking sense of humor, and he seemed to know everyone we encountered, from workers in the rice fields to locals shooting the breeze on their porches. His excellent English, he explained, was due to his years as a monk and his subsequent years as a biking guide in Chiang Mai. When I asked him how long he had been running Chiang Rai Bicycle Tour, he didn’t hesitate in his proud answer — “Four years, two months…. and twenty-three days.”
Just when I was beginning to think my bum couldn’t take another moment on the seat, we pulled over at a wooded jungle temple. Here, we snacked on delicious fruits and Thai treats and peppered our guides with questions about life in Thailand’s northernmost provincial capital.
Soon, we were in the final stretch before the White Temple. We had ridden about 15 miles thus far, and some of it has surprised me in its difficulty — potholed roads, dirt paths, and slight inclines. But it was all part of the adventure. Forget the town center — I felt like I had now seen the real Chiang Rai.
Just in time for the heat of midday, we were able to park the bikes for a bit — we were at The White Temple! Wat Rong Khun is one of Chiang Rai’s biggest tourist draws thanks to its unconventional origins and contemporary style.
This unusual temple is a work-in-progress by famed Thai painter-turned-architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. Started in 1997 and not expected to be finished for another 50-60 years, the project is being funded by donations and by sales of Kositpipat’s very pricey gallery prints.
The temple depicts ghoulish versions of a twisted hell in contrast with a glistening white heaven. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside the main building of the temple, so you’ll just have to take my word for it when I promise you that I’ve never before seen Angry Birds, Osama Bin Laden, Spiderman, and George Bush worked into a religiously-themed mural. snagged some sneaky pics, if you’re really curious about what is inside.
While I was more puzzled than anything by the interior, I absolutely adored the crisp white aesthetic of the exterior of the temple. As someone who has visited endless temples around Southeast Asia, I can attest to the true uniqueness of this one.
And as the temple is still a work in process, Bee even brought us behind the scenes to see the studios of the many workers involved in the temple construction.
Before leaving, we walked by these prayer stands, where for a small donation we could hang our own hopes and dreams on a tree of silver.
After a simple but delicious lunch, the half-day tour was over and we waved goodbye to one of our fellow bikers. The rest of us continued on for another hour or so before we stopped for a break and I broke out my night-bus ticket to ask Bee a question about the bus terminal. It was at this moment that he pointed out to me that I had bought a ticket for the wrong day! So much for accomplishing basic tasks.
As I really needed to be in Chiang Mai by that night, Bee came to the rescue and had his brother (who was nearby in the support vehicle) pick me up there and bring me back into town. I was so disappointed to cut my tour short and not to see the waterfall, but equally as impressed by the wonderful customer service at Chiang Rai Bicycle Tours.
Without a doubt, this was the highlight of my trip to Chiang Rai (okay, staying at the luxury hotel wasn’t bad either…) I can’t recommend Bee and any more highly! There’s no better way to experience the countryside, or to see the White Temple. Just make sure to check your bus ticket more carefully than I did.
What’s your favorite way to tour a new city?
Half day tours cost 1,400 baht, while full day tours cost 1,800 baht. Both include gear, snacks, water, lunch, transfers, and a guide. Many thanks to Chiang Rai Bicycle Tour for hosting me on this tour. They in no way insisted that I write a favorable review, though they did seem to insist on being fantastic tour operators.