Chiang Mai’s 137 Pillars House features 30 guestrooms and begins at a rate of approximately $375 per night. // © 2016 137 Pillars House
Feature image (above): SpiceRoads Cycle Tours features stops at historical sites such as temples. // © 2016 SpiceRoads Cycle Tours
Hurrying down a busy Chiang Mai street on bicycle proved to be more of an adventure than I had imagined. As a collection of delivery vans, small sedans and all sorts of scooters and motorcycles whizzed by me, I don’t mind admitting that my heart was racing.
Happily, my half-day outing with SpiceRoads Cycle Tours didn’t involve a great deal of time on too many crowded thoroughfares, and joining the rush of some genuine Thailand traffic (in small doses) was actually a lot of fun.
Along with the adrenaline of navigating a few busy streets and intersections, the Chiang Mai cycling tour featured a number of stops at some of the popular tourism destination’s most important historical monuments, including several gorgeous temples. One of the standouts was Wat Chedi Luang, a massive, pyramid-like brick structure built in the 15th century that our guide claimed was once gilded in gold leaf. Unfortunately, a powerful earthquake damaged the structure in the 16th century, toppling the temple’s tallest sections.
Another highlight was Chiang Mai’s oldest temple, Wat Chiang Man, constructed in the 13th century and today home to celebrated marble and crystal Buddhas. Bringing along a camera on the outing is certainly a good idea, as some fine Thailand religious architecture and cultural beauty is most definitely a part of the itinerary. But the tour offers a more intangible value as well, providing a resident’s look at Chiang Mai via travel down small backroads and narrow alleyways that showcase a more authentic side of the city.
Our guide also spent about 45 minutes with us at a sprawling outdoor market, walking us through many of the stalls and explaining the exotic fruits, vegetables and products for sale. My favorite sampling at the stop was some deliciously sweet mangosteen fruit, and we also tried the infamous durian fruit, an acquired favorite for many Thai people that, according to our guide, “smells like hell but tastes like heaven.”
SpiceRoads offers a number of products for travelers staying in Chiang Mai, including daytime tours, nighttime outings and longer excursions around the city’s surrounding countryside. Pricing starts around $35.
Folks looking for a terrific lunch spot near the company’s daytime cycling tour highlights should certainly consider Huen Phen restaurant, located only a few blocks from Wat Chedi Luang. A terrifically popular place for both residents and visitors, the eatery serves up an acclaimed “khao soi” heavily influenced by Burmese culinary traditions. The dish consists of a thick curry broth with crispy noodles and a choice of meats such as pork or chicken, or even tofu. The meal was my favorite in Chiang Mai.
Meanwhile, my favorite hotel visit was 137 Pillars House. Opened about four years ago, the luxury boutique surrounds a 19th-century traditional teak wood home built by the son of Anna Leonowens, the governess and English teacher of 1956 musical “The King and I” fame.
The all-suite hotel’s 30 spacious guestrooms — housed in new buildings erected around the impressively restored 137 Pillars home — offer a contemporary feel but are loaded with historical touches and include expansive bathrooms and even outdoor showers. Plus, the overall property is a surprisingly tranquil oasis amidst the Chiang Mai hustle and home to a quiet outdoor pool area, a high-end spa and a restaurant, as well as a gym. Room rates start around $375 per night.