Gliding around on a bicycle has always been the traditional way to explore Chiang Mai, but a new tour operator is offering another two-wheel option for sightseeing in the old town that's innovative and pollution-free.
ON A ROLL: Tourists experience the true culture of Lanna on Segway in front of the landmark Ta Pae Gate.
Segway Gibbon now gives tourists a chance to see the city by Segway _ the world's first electrical self-balancing personal transporter. While exploring Chiang Mai by foot might be the most thorough way to see all of its nooks and crannies, it's time-consuming and often tiring. And with Thailand's tropical climate, it's not always the most pleasant experience.
Breezing through the streets on a Segway proves to be an experience that allows for seeing twice the sights in half the time of walking. The machine intuitively and automatically balances the same way that humans do, moving forwards and backwards, responding to movement in the user's body effortlessly.
At Flight of the Gibbon _ the most popular zipline ecotourism tour in the country _ one of the owners explains how he came up with the idea of using Segways to navigate around Chiang Mai. While visiting major tourist destinations in Europe, he was inspired by first-timers zipping through cities via the fun machines.
The Segway tour of Chiang Mai's old town is designed to give people an overview of the entire place without spending too much time at any one location. If there's something of particular interest along the way, a tourist can explore it on his or her own time _ allowing for more flexibility during the day tour.
Segway Gibbon's Tim McGuire says that a Segway ride is a great way to stand out and feel special. When tourists take out his Segways, he says, they're often waved at and become the subjects of photos themselves. And while Segway tours in other cities are often quite limited, he says this isn't the case in Chiang Mai _ and the machine allows tourists to enter small alleys and crossways that cars wouldn't be able to navigate.
''There are a lot of customers who come in and ask, 'We're not going to be on the street, right?' I say, 'Yes, we are going to be on the street and we are very good at it.' Our captains are very well-trained,'' Mr McGuire says.
Segway Gibbon has asked permission from the tourist police, traffic police and the relevant authorities involved in its operations and has received their cooperation. In fact, Chiang Mai's traffic police designed the route for the Segway tour.
A Segway's engine is not only smaller than a motorcycle's, it's more environmentally friendly. It's fully electric and doesn't emit smoke or noise. When Segway Gibbon asked permission from the police to operate, the machines were classified as bicycles.
Nearly all of Segway Gibbon's customer's are first-timers. Only twice in two years have company operators turned down customers, saying they just couldn't get the hang of it. Tourists get training before they get to go out on a Segway.
''Before the tour starts, we will give 15-minute training sessions for our customers so that they feel more comfortable on the wheels and in the actual traffic of Chiang Mai,'' Mr McGuire says.
Those who cannot ride a bicycle are often those who are unable to use a Segway. If the trainers don't feel it is safe to let a tourist out on a Segway, they will get a full refund. Those who do go out will be fully covered by insurance. Tours run for either two or three hours. The three-hour tour is dubbed the ''underbelly tour'' by the company, which includes the regular tour _ which spans basic landmarks, temples and other points of interest _ with the added bonus of navigating small streets where locals reside in the old town. The neighbourhood comprises winding sois where cars can't reach.
The two-hour tour costs 1,599 baht and the three-hour tour costs 1,999 baht. The company also offers a one-hour tour for 1,199 baht for those pressed for time. Segway Gibbon employs four experienced captains to lead the tours, two who have been with company since it opened.
Two captains accompany each tour, with one captain at the front speaking to the group and one at the back ensuring safety. Tourists ride the Segway in the same direction, in a line; the leading captain will be at the front of the line. ''We insist that everyone rides in a straight line,'' Mr McGuire says. ''If they ride the Segway side-by-side, it's easy to fall. No one has ever been injured on one of our tours.''
The captain at the front leads the way, and even takes photos while guiding the group. The captain at the back makes sure everything runs smoothly. The tours are capped at seven people, as there are nine Segways deployed by the company in total. The company is in the process of developing a small scrapbook to be handed out to tourists that documents and describes everywhere on the tour. Technically, captains aren't tour guides by law, and can't speak about tourist sites, so the company will use the scrapbook instead.
The tour starts at the back of a small soi behind the office building, and slowly glides to a small street adjoining the main Tapae Road. The challenge with the traffic starts here. And while a few inevitably get nervous, the captain ensures everyone gets through congestion and makes it to a large open space abutting the iconic Tapae Gate. Here, tourists can hone their Segway skills.
After the free run, the captain moves group onto the main road again and then Moonmuang Road, along the city moat heading towards Somphet Market. At the market, a real-life adventure awaits as tourists navigate through the bustling vendors. For first-timers in Thailand, the market is a fascinating sight _ it captures the unique and authentic lifestyles of locals selling fruits and vegetables along small sois.
The tour then moves on to main attractions including Wat Chiang Man, Three Kings Monument, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Pan Tao, Wat Chedi Luang and a few others of note along the way.
Ju Yu-ying, a tourist from Taiwan, says the Segway tour is the best way to explore the city in a limited time.
''I came from a big city looking for a nice and relaxing way to experience the place,'' she says. ''I found Segway Gibbon in my guidebook and so I decided to do it. I only had three days in Chiang Mai and there was plenty to do. I basically covered everything in the old city area with the Segway tour.''
She said it was a little scary at first _ but well worth it in the end.
''It is the best ride I have ever been on,'' she says. ''It was relaxing and I enjoyed it a lot.''
WHEELY GOOD: The tourists get to visit many important historical sites in the old town of Chiang Mai such as Three Kings Monument, above left, Sompet Market, above right, Wat Chedi Luang, below, and Wat Phra Singh, bottom, within two hours.