It was our second day in Chiang Mai and we wanted to try something different. We spent the previous night discussing our plans—checking through Lonely Planet and the tourist maps. We decided to rent a motorbike and ride up to Doi Suthep. It sounded like a beautiful day trip with the royal palace, temples, and the mountain summit views.
I was a little weary of renting a motorbike in Thailand—driving didn’t seem all that safe. And I hadn’t driven a car in more than a year and a half, or been on a bicycle for more than 20 minutes in two years. But, this option was significantly cheaper than taking a taxi or the tuk-tuk–I was also informed by hotel staff that it would be difficult to find a taxi or tuk-tuk for the ride back without pre-arranging a pickup.
The Sumit Hotel rented automatic motorbikes (more like a scooter with a lawnmower engine) for 200 baht per day. While waiting in the hotel lobby for the bike, I asked the travel agent for directions to ensure I didn’t get lost. The bike arrived, looking in fairly good condition but without any gas. I was told to fill up the tank for about 70 Baht–I was even directed to the nearest gas station on the way toward Doi Suthep.
As I sat on the bike, I noticed the receipt with the company name: Mr. Beer. This is supposed to be one of the major suppliers of motorbikes in Chiang Mai. I doubt that anyone in the US could get away with such a company name.
It was a fairly easy ride to the gas station, although I was a bit nervous navigating the lanes of traffic without getting hit by a car. It didn’t help that traffic runs the British way in Thailand.
The tank was filled and I checked the map to ensure the directions were still correct (I couldn’t rely on street signs as they are mostly non-existent). The bike sped up the diagonal highway to the zoo and then further along to the mountain of Doi Suthep and the views of Chiang Mai.
Once out of the city of Chiang Mai, it’s a beautiful ride—peaceful and quiet save for the lawnmower engine noise. The traffic is light during much of the day. There are plenty of turn-offs from the road to rest, have a snack, or take in the mountain views.
We passed Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and continued on our way, deciding to stop at the temple on the way down the mountain. The first stop was the royal palace. Parts of the palace were closed due to a royal visit, but there was still plenty to see in the vast gardens. As we walked to the reservoir, I thought I might be entering a James Bond movie set with the fountains spinning to classical music.
After a short break for a light lunch, we were on our way to the Hmong Hill Tribe village before continuing to the summit. We quickly discovered that the village was a waste of time—it was nothing more than metal shacks set up as tourist-trap shops selling the same souvenirs as the Chiang Mai night bazaar. As we rode further up the mountain we came to a gate with a fork in the road. The park officer spoke no English and couldn’t answer any questions. It appeared that the road to the summit was closed and the road toward the campsites was being paved. Slightly disappointed, we headed back down the mountain to the wat.
There was quite a crowd in the afternoon at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The serpents greet the visitors along the stairway up to the gate—at which point all foreigners must pay admission. After seeing so many temples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, most of the sights become repetitive. However, looking out into the mountains and over the city is well worth the time to enter this one.
As we coasted down the mountain with the engine off, I spotted a side road and decided to take a look. Down this road was a small temple, Wat Si Su Dat. This temple is home to many monks of the Miao minority (who share the same ancestry as the Miao minority of China). The purpose of the temple is to teach the young monks about social work so that they can return to their villages to teach. As with many other small temples, there was a monk who spoke English and explained much of the history and importance. The monks were eager to speak with us as few tourists ever stop by.
We left Doi Suthep feeling that we had a relaxing day in the mountains. Unfortunately, I had forgotten where to turn to get back inside the city walls of Chiang Mai. By some miracle, I had managed to the street that headed toward the hotel.
I returned Mr. Beer’s motorbike with about 3/4 of a tank of gas. I quickly understood why the rental was so cheap–the company makes money from siphoning off the excess gas. I didn’t feel bad about returning the bike early or with excess gas; there’s nothing like the feeling of speeding along the Thai roads at 20 mph.