When we arrived in Chiang Rai we were kindly presented with a book of organised tours in our guesthouse. I carefully looked through them, trying to decide which will offer us the best value for our money and the most things to see around the city.
And then Adam took one look at Tripadvisor and decided he wanted to do the ATV tour, which is currently the number 1 activity to participate in in Chiang Rai based on the reviews.
Adam didn’t want to budge.
So despite my careful considerations over what to see in the city and for how much, we signed up for a full day of off-roading an hour outside of the city for 5 times the price then any of the city tours and did no sightseeing.
But boy, did we have a good time… 🙂
In case you didn’t know, because I certainly didn’t, ATV stands for All Terrain Vehicle. And despite signing up for this pretty last minute, there were no other people signed up for the full day adventure, like us. There were another couple to join us for the afternoon but for the morning we were to have the guides completely to ourselves.
My main concern was that at 5500 Bahts per person (£115) this would be by far our most expensive day out since starting our travels. Activities like this are a bit too pricey for your usual budget traveller, perhaps which is why in this off-peak season no one else was signed up for it. Adam was pretty confident however that the price was going to be worth it, so I went along with it.
We got picked up from our guesthouse at 9am on the dot and driven 45 minutes outside of Chiang Rai. First we drove along rice paddies after rice paddies, then the car turned unto a road leading way up into the mountain. About 2/3 of the way up we stopped in a clearing where our 3 guides for the day and our vehicles had been waiting for us. We all introduced ourselves to each other and straight away we got shown, seated and strapped into our ATVs.
I had never been in one if these before, and neither had Adam. I had done some off-roading before in a 4×4, but the track was relatively mild with a couple of big dips and I wasn’t driving. We had the option of sitting in the same vehicle for today as well, but given that we are both taller than your average we decided against it. I also thought it would be better for my sanity if I was in control of my own vehicle – sitting behind Adam on a scooter in Koh Tao taught me that I am a much worse passenger than a driver, Adam can contest to that…
So we got into our ATVs which were basically metal frames with seats and chunky wheels attached and a roll-cage in case you end up tumbling down the side of the hill.
We were explained the controls of the cars, basically an automatic system, forward, reverse, break and gas and the ignition key. Our guides allowed us to get used to driving them around as we circled around in the clearing. Then two of them got into a a bigger 4×4 before us and the third guy into a car like ours behind us and our procession began unto the dirt roads of the Northern Thai mountains.
The main guy out of our three guides spoke excellent English and was incredibly knowledgable about the area. He grew up in these mountains in a tiny village (to which he would later take us), these mountains were his playground where he was running around as a little boy. The other two didn’t speak any English, but were very friendly and we found out a lot about them during the day. They were all cousins and this was a family business.
We spent about 2 and a half hours in the morning just driving around the mountain roads, all dusty, steep and xx, every now and then coming incredibly close to the edges, driving through wooden planks mascarading as bridges over creeks. Every now and then we would stop on a clearing to take in the view. These were the only times I dared take out my camera as the drive was so dusty that it would have killed my camera in no time.
We all got covered in a thick orange coat of dust, the sand was everywhere! In our mouths, ears, eyes, all over our hair, our clothes, our skin, no escaping from it! Thank god we both had sunglasses! I also had my contact lenses in, which by the end of the day were hardened and stuck to my eyeballs with the glue of the dust.
The landscape here too was charred. I wasn’t expecting anymore as we are in the middle of the dry season and we had already seen the effect of slash and burn farming by this point. We could only imagine how lush the vegetation would be here a few months later in the wet season. But then again I’m not sure if driving in the mud would have been as enjoyable and it certainly would have been a lot less safe. Needless to say safety precautions were non-existent apart from some seat-belts to secure us into the vehicles, but no helmets or goggles were handed out and there was no safety briefing as to what would happen if either one of us ended up in a ditch or worse still down a rock… I had a near miss at one point as my steering wheel span out of my white-knuckle grip and my ATV careered off the dust road toward a mountain drop – luckily I found my break pedal just in time. I also run straight into Adam’s rear as his ATV cut out just after a corner and I was coming round at full speed. No harm was done though.
A couple of times I didn’t see in time a steep hill climb and didn’t manage to gather enough speed to get up them and other times the dips were so steep I was scared I would topple over coming down them, but luckily the little car always managed. Adam didn’t have such problems, he was down the steep roads without a second thought… There was only one hill I didn’t dare drive down on, so one of the guides did it for me and on the way back they had to tow all three ATVs up it with the 4×4.
Our guides took us through a couple of hillside villages and we stopped at a small homestead in the middle of a rubber tree forest where we had amazing fresh honey out of a beehive still heaving with bees.
At lunchtime we took a long break on top of the mountain where just like an oasis stood what we came to realise was our main guide’s house, or more like his villa! Wow. Beautiful place with infinity pool in tow – the house that ATV built by the looks of it. His whole family was there and we received a big lunch from the ladies in the house and watched the kids play in the pool.
In the afternoon we were joined by another couple, Dave and Carol from the US who had experience in these kind of tours as they regularly go off-roading back home and they took one ATV in-between them.
We carried on on the mountain tracks and stopped in the jungle where we all got out and trekked through the dense vegetation to arrive at a waterfall where loads of locals congregated, playing in the water, barbecuing marshmallows and singing and playing guitar around the fire. I also had a dip, the water was lovely but the whole basin was surrounded by large sharp rocks underwater; I had to be really careful not to jab my feet. The locals were just jumping in and out of the pool, clearly they knew this place very well. We were both offered coffee out of a bamboo stick! 🙂
Back unto the dirt racks for a few more runs in the ATV and the finished our afternoon back at the house with some refreshments.
So there we go, our day of off-road adventures, definitely a not-to-be-missed experience! What I think really made our the day so unforgettable and authentic was the local knowledge of our guides who could shows us a glimpse of local life.