Road cycling can convey a plethora of feelings and emotions: fear, pain, challenge, beauty, calmness, achievement… On the day ride from Chiang Mai to Pai you will experience it all. It’s a popular cycling trip for locals, who enjoy going out and back in a single weekend, however it requires a high level of endurance and ability to climb, and a support vehicle is recommended as well.
Pai (ปาย in Thai) is a quiet village sitting in an isolated valley in the rural province of Mae Hong Song, 120 km North West from Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai to Pai is also the first stage of the 4 or 5 day trip know as “Mae Hong Song Loop”.
The first part of this ride is flat-ish, a nice 45 km warm up in preparation for the climbing ahead. We start with a fast approach to Mae Rim over the busy 121 and 107 roads and shortly take a detour into the quiet 3009, snaking its way along rice paddies at the foot of the impressive Thong Chai Range.
After the first hour and a half of cycling it’s time for a break, and Pankled Coffee is the very last option before venturing into the steep hills of Mae Taeng District. It’s a popular stop for local cyclists not only on the weekends, so you might bump into some groups.
The first climb on the ride is 6.8 km in length at an average gradient of 6%, but with downhill and false flat sections in the middle that disguise its real difficulty. Here we start getting a taste of the “762 Curves Road”, nicknamed after its frequent switchbacks and very short straight sections.
Following the climb, 7 km over rolling terrain with sharp short ramps that break the pace, until almost 70 kilometers into the ride where we find a few local restaurants selling drinks, seasonal fruits and hot meals.
From here it is a false flat downhill run following the course of a creek between the hills for some 10 kilometers to the village of Mae Lao, a common stop for travellers with a few coffee shops and restaurants. Enjoy cycling this last easy stretch of road and pack your pockets with extra food if you haven’t done so before because it might be difficult to find any more until Pai.
The next difficulty on the terrain is a 5 km climb at 6%. Now the road writhes in impossibly narrow switchbacks as we ascend quickly with panoramic open views of the Mae Lao-Mae Sae Wildlife area.
Avg 20 km/h
As we rise over the 1000 meters above sea level mark, the gradients ease and there’s even a short downhill stretch before the final big climb. The weather conditions can be quite unpredictable in the hills though, so beware of flash downpours, especially if riding with carbon clinchers on your bike!
The last categorized climb is 7 km in length at 5% average featuring very steady slopes and endless turns. At this point we are cycling deep into the jungle and the twisting road is almost 100% shaded with cool temperatures all-year-round. For such a remote place the road is in very good condition due to the light traffic and being regularly improved.
As we get close to the top, the lush thick jungle vegetation gives way to open mountain landscapes with pine trees (beware of the pine needles accumulated on the road after a storm). Take it easy after this climb if you are in the red zone cause the day ain’t over yet. The following 7 km are a roller coaster that can kill your tired legs before reaching the final descent into Pai.
The highest point (1406 meters) comes almost 100 km into the ride, when we cross a military checkpoint into Mae Hong Song province. From here the road the road seems to hang delicately at the top of a narrow ridge between two valleys.
SPECTACULAR cannot even begin to describe the views from the top of the ridge as we coast effortlessly, dodging herds of cows and buffalos and smiling at the local farmers, while spotting through the white clouds the village of Pai minuscule in the distance.
Descending into Pai is no mean feat, with a very twisty and steep road (up to -20%) especially in the last few kilometers. Even experienced cyclists can struggle here if it’s wet, so take strong precautions.
Once at the bottom of the descent there are still over 10 km of rolling terrain to reach Pai. We love stopping at the historical World War II steel bridge on the way to town and then capping off the long day on the saddle with an authentic meal at Nong Beer restaurant.
Despite a few less elevation meters, cycling back to Chiang Mai can be even more challenging due to the steepness of the early climb (ascending 1200 meters in the first 27km of the ride) and the fatigue accumulated, but if your legs are still feeling good the ride it’s totally worth a try.