Photo: Scenery surrounding Chiang Rai.

Kok Valley Cycling tour

Our rating:

Perhaps better referred to as “Up the Kok Without a Paddle“, since this day tour up the left bank of the Kok River and returning to Chiang Rai by the right bank involves no boats at all and is eminently suitable for cycling or, for the less energetic, motorbike. The scenery is great; sights are varied, the route is mostly flat for cyclists and in good condition for motorbikes. The loop is around 50 kilometres plus, depending upon how many side tracks you take, and we did it – for no particular reason – in an anti-clockwise direction.



Bodhisattva at Tham Tupu

Bodhisattva at Tham Tupu

You’ll need to leave Chiang Rai by the western bridge, the continuation of Mae Fah Luang Road, and look out for signs on your left indicating Ruam Mit Village or Ruam Mit Elephant Camp. (The turn off is also named Mae Fah Luang Soi 5). First site up, and just around four kilometres out of town, so you could even walk to this one, is the little cave temple of Tham Tupu. Judging by the debris on the steps and cobwebs in the cave, this small shrine receives very few visitors. The tiny cave isn’t exactly spectacular but the carved, relief Buddha on the rock face opposite and the golden, mutli-armed Boddhisattva statue at the foot of the cave were definitely worth a peak.

Buddha image at Tupu Cave Temple

Buddha image at Tupu Cave Temple

Further up the valley landscape turns to higher mountains and upland terrain but this area, close to the city, is predominantly flat with paddy-fields and limestone, karst outcrops so you’ll see a couple more cave temples on this route. Next up, aptly, is the Boomerang Adventure Park where one of the main activities is scaling these limestone cliffs. A short distance past Boomerang you’ll come across another cave temple – simply called Tham Phra or, in English, Buddha Cave. This is another sheer-sided limestone outcrop riddled with small caves, many of which have been Buddha-fied with shrines and statues and even, when we visited, a resident monk.

Buddha Cave on the Kok River

Buddha Cave on the Kok River

We were probably guilty of disturbing his meditation but he didn’t seem too disappointed to be able to launch into a Man Utd discussion and debate on the current form of Wayne Rooney. The site is particularly attractive since the outcrop abuts the Kok River and there’s a riverside pathway leading around the foot of the cliffs to smaller shrines among the wooded rear slopes. There’s a great veiwpoint with a seated Buddha image atop a rock, looking across the River to Chiang Rai Beach. The main cave holds several Buddha images and is shallow so no light is needed though apparently some of the rock’s other caves are deeper. In front are a few ancient brick remains demonstrating that this site has held religious significance for a long time.

Huay Mae Sai Waterfall

Huay Mae Sai Waterfall

Back on the road and heading west, your next potential site is the signposted Huay Mae Sai Waterfall, though this does represent a considerable detour along a not great road. Not far as the crow flies the windy, narrow road means at least a 30 to 35 kilometre round trip and only certain sections are sealed. Passing through the Lahu village of Jalae you’ll see the attractive, forest-lined Mae Sai stream flowing east and the small falls are along a path to the west. They’re not dramatic falls, even in rainy season, but the site is picturesque and suitable for bathing. If you’re so inclined, and have a means to get back to ‘Go’, then a trail leads past the falls to the hill-top Lahu village of Yafu before descending to Ruam Mit on the banks of the Kok. (See trekking in Chiang Rai.)

Ban Ruam Mit

Ban Ruam Mit

Ruam Mit, a large, mainly Karen village, (though ruam mit does mean ‘mixed in Thai), is located on the banks of the Kok River and with an elephant camp, pier for Tha Ton-Chiang Rai boats and trekking trails leading off is a busy and popular spot for tourists. Many trekking programmes from both Tha Ton and Chiang Rai begin here with a hike, or elephant ride, up to the aforementioned hill-top Lahu village of Yafu.

The village has plenty of eateries and souvenir stalls and the elephant camp itself has an excellent coffee shop. Rides are available for 500 baht per pachyderm, but if you’re there at the right time of day and water levels are ok you may be able to see the ellies bathing in the river. In the village you’ll also see signs to the ‘Giant Snake’ as a local family have created an attraction – with coffee shop and more souvenir stalls – around a small collection of snakes including a huge albino python. The python is spectacular and seems quite happy to pose for photos but there are plenty of animals in cages, so you may want to skip this.

The popular trail from Ruam Mit to Yafu village

The popular trail from Ruam Mit to Yafu village

There are trails you can easily follow yourself if you want to stretch your legs – just follow the elephant poo along a path heading north out of the village. Westwards the hills become higher and encroach closer on the river bank though the road is still largely flat. Just past Ruam Mit take the road bridge crossing the river. The sealed road does continue along the left bank but it is a dead end and whatever your map may appear to indicate it does not, as yet, debouch either at Tha Ton or the Mae Chan road. Cross the bridge and stop! The cute and friendly Baan Suan Ing Doi cafe and coffee shop directly opposite the bridge on the right bank is your best bet for a lunch break, represents the half-way mark and with plenty of bicycle photos on the walls is particularly apt for our cycling tour. They offer fresh coffees as well as noodles, rice dishes, som tam and so-on.

Phasoet Hot Springs

Phasoet Hot Springs

From here you can continue direct back to Chiang Rai, 26 kilometres distant, or push a bit further west where you’ll see the Phasoet Hot Springs, Lum Nam Kok National Park headquarters and signs to another small waterfall. We ran out of time for the waterfall; the National Park, while having spectacular scenery has a non-event of a visitor’s centre but the hot springs are quite good.

Phasoet is a small village just a few kilometres further west after the bridge and the springs are set in a well tended park area aside the road. These are well appointed as local hot springs go and there’s even a natural hot water swimming pool as well as bathing facilities, massage and snack and drink facilities. Private bathing rooms costs 50 baht for one person or 80 baht if you take a friend while the good sized swimming pool was 30 baht or 15 baht for kids with a further 15 baht towel hire. (Open 08:00-18:00)

The actual springs come out at 87 degrees centigrade but the pool and bath water is a comfortable 70 as the hot water is mixed with cool from a stream running alongside. A little further past the village is the park HQ for Lum Nam Kok which while having a highly scenic riverside location was pretty much closed when we visited during rainy season. There is no entrance fee but a wonderful looking riverside restaurant was closed and the Vistors’ Centre had virtually nothing on display in any language. The lawns sweeping down to the river are pretty though and there are more hot springs you can visit, though no bathing facilities. The National Park covers some 730 square kilometres of uplands on both banks of the Kok and is home to numerous Lisu, Lahu and Akha villages and so popular for trekking. Note both Phasoet and the Park HQ have boat piers for the Kok River services.

Your hat trick of cave temples - Tham Prathat

Your hat trick of cave temples – Tham Prathat

The east-bound road on the Kok’s right bank is slightly more undulating but sticks close to the river for most of it’s route. Looking to make our hat-trick next stop, though you do pass through several cute villages with Lanna style wats, was the Tham Prathat Doi Kong Kao Cave Temple. This is back close to town so more paddy-field and karst scenery and Tham Prathat is located halfway up a particularly dramatic, sheer limestone outcrop. There’s a small wooden monastery at the foot where we found some rather bored but friendly monks and from where a wide staircase, lined with Buddhas, leads up the side of the outcrop. When we enquired as to how many steps to the top the monks replied “…not sure, but you’ll be very tired”! The shorter staircase we took lead through forest to small cave shrines on the mountain side while a second path leads through a small nunnery around the base of the outcrop, accessing a further staircase on the far side leading to the summit. A scenic spot to explore if you have time.

Some scenery on route

Some scenery on route

Just past the cave temple, before you hit Chiang Rai Beach and the start of town, was another delightful spot for a break – Rim Kok Terminal – resort, restaurant and coffee shop. A bit fancier than the Beach eateries they have a great wooden deck on a rise with sweeping views up and downstream. Food looked great and prices seemed reasonable and an ideal spot for a morning coffee or evening sundowner too plus, you’re only a short hop into town.

Chatty charcoal burners near Tham Prathat

Chatty charcoal burners near Tham Prathat

This trip is easily done in a day on a motorbike or makes a good work-out on a bicycle, though you’d need to curtail the detours a bit, while if you’re feeling really lazy you could have a chat to a Chiang Rai songthaew driver and on a quiet day we reckon 1-1,200 baht would be ok. Note many of the day tours you see on offer in town agencies include many of these sites though they do tend to whizz around a bit so as to include other destinations such as the White Temple and Black House.


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What next?

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