Formula Hmong cart racing


Oct 23, 2009
In northern Thailand, Hmong people celebrate their “New Year” in late December or January, close to the Western calendar dates. The festivities go on for three days and might be shifted between villages in the region to allow friends and relatives, from other dwellings, to participate. In addition to household rituals, particularly gratitude duties toward the elderly, ancestors and spirits, it is also a time to enjoy traditional communal outdoor activities, like tossing cloth balls, singing, dancing and playing with spinning tops.

In Chiangmai district, a fourth festive day is added, by rotation between the villages, to allow dwellers from the twelve Hmong settlements to have fun together and to enjoy the “Formula Hmong” wooden cart race, a thrilling downhill driving competition.


“Formula Hmong” (in Thai script)

This year (on January 12th, 2016) the host village was “Nong Hoi Mai” [1] a Hmong settlement on the north slope of Mon Chaem, with a gorgeous mountain panorama backdrop.


“Nong Hoi Mai” panorama. The racing track is on the left hand hill above the village


View from the race track, above « Nong Hoi Mai » village

The Hmong are an ethnic group, originally probably from the Tibetan highlands, who migrated to the Yellow River region, before being drawn out by the Chinese Han expansion. They are now native to several countries in South-East Asia, like Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. A number of Hmong still remain in China and many have migrated to Western countries, particularly to the United States and to French Guinea.

Over the years, the Hmong resisted strong cultural assimilation and, helped by their life in isolated mountain villages, kept their traditional believes and customs hardy.


Hmong people watching over the valleys

Starting early morning, “Non Hoi Mai” access and festive places are flocked by a colorful crowd of visitors. Hundred of cars, line up along the road and force latecomers to long, but joyful, hikes. Nearly no tourists are seen in the mass, not that they are not warmly welcomed, maybe just for a lack of information; there are equally few other Thai visitors, this is evident as most people wear Hmong attire.


Colorful Hmong crowds flock the narrow village streets


The “Formula Hmong” race, although not the only attraction, is the venue’s highlight. It is organized, in alternance, by different villages in Chiangmai province. Each of the twelve Hmong settlements are invited to provide two drivers, but, this year, only eleven villages participated, with a total of twenty two contestants.

The Chiangmai province’s first wooden carts confrontation was held in 1997, as a preliminary venue, and, since 1998, it is organized on a regular and formal basis. This type of tournament, in Hmong villages, is, however, about a hundred years old; it began with two wheeled vehicles.

A suitable race track has to be purposely prepared for the venue; the drivers can use it, for training purposes, about seven days before the competition. For most of them, it is the only practice that they will get, for a year, before the next confrontation.


The “Nong Hoi Mai” racing slope is 200 meters long for a denivelatin of 50 meters and an average width of 4 meters. On this stretch, wooden carts can reach a speed of about 50 km per hour. It is a dusty earthen trail with a border of tires as a security fence.

A launching ramp serves as a starting blog; there, the departure signal is given by a loud : “one, two three (in thai language)”.


Down the launching ramp, into the dust trail

Spectators are agglutinated all along the track; while, from the arrival podium, events and winners are commented through loudspeakers.


Spectators flock along the racing trail


Watchful spectators


A colorful crowd of Hmong spectators

The “Hmong wooden cart racing” is a gravity sport and, before the tournament can begin, the vehicles have to be lifted uphill. Nowadays, this burden is taken care by pickup trucks.


Pickup truck trailing a couple of cart uphill

The cart's construction has to respect certain rules, for instance, the maximum length, calculated between the axes, can not be over 100 centimeters while the width is limited to 80 centimeters. The maximum allowed wheel diameter is one foot (30,48 cm) and its standard thickness about one inch (2.54 cm). The vehicle’s weight, depending on design and material used, is between 30 to 40 kg.


A standard Hmong wooden racing cart

If the carriage is not well tied to the pickup, while driving uphill, the carts might suddenly gain independence an begin to roll backwards. Fortunately, enough spectators were quick to jump on the trail and catch the “break loose” vehicles.


Carts breaking loose

Once all cars have been trailed uphill, the competition can be organized in accordance to the departure rooster.


Relaxing before departure


Maybe dreaming to become the next champion.

Gliding down “two up” might double the fun; for the competition, however, only solo occupancy is allowed.


Double occupancy, double fun?

During waiting times, people are moving around, sometimes using the trail itself as a catwalk.


Interlude recreation.

By pairs, the competitors take their position on the launching ramp. The first round sees twenty two drivers, from eleven villages, challenging each other in an eliminator leap; eleven will remain in contention for the second race.

When everything is cleared, the red flags are taken down and green is raised along the slope.


Pairs of competitors on the starting ramp

One, two, three … the fun begins, at least for the spectators



The first curve is already challenging

On the dry earthen slope, breaking or drifting immediately rises clouds of dust, blanketing the competitors


At times, the dust cloud hides the action itself.

During the first straight strech, it is difficult to keep the right line.

“Formula Hmong” racing is a rough gravity sport and not for the fainthearted. On the shaky trail, the speed is quite high and crashes are frequent. They are fortunately not too serious, as, nowadays, the participants wear helmets and, sometimes, motorcycle crash gear.


Without the cart, running makes no sense!


Ooops! The cart jumps over the driver.


Both carts stranded, rushing to roll again.


A pair stacked together


There must be competitors somewhere!

This year, for the first time, the event was well covered by “TV Channel 3 SN”; six cameras and a drone followed the competition [2]. Being broadcasted on a national level boosts the organiser and participants mood, as it highlights the worthwhile preservation of a fancy tradition.


High over the starting block … one of the 6 cameras


The drone following the action from his elevated perspective.

With such a media coverage, however, It is difficult, to escape from the (electronic) prying eyes.

A drone view of the departure block – a “green Farang (foreigner)” is breezing the dust.


The “green Farang”, ready to shoot the start from the launching pad’s bottom


Caught by another camera, full action and full dust as the cars rush by.

The competition is divided into several qualifying leaps, with drivers competing in pairs. After a first run, only eleven, carts are selected. However, to make the number even, one more driver, a “lucky looser” was allowed to participate in the next round.


Full speed along the straight stretch




A slight break and a dusty effect





Sliding to keep the line.


This driver was this years’s second place winner.


Finally, after the straight stretch, a last push and rush to the finishing line. Tires are strategically positioned to serve as fences, they do, however, not protect from cars jumping out at other places.


Tires lined up before the arrival line


In the last rush.


If not properly tighten, some parts might might play havoc; this happens particularly to the wheels which are prone to rush their own way.


A lonely wheel overtakes the ones still attached to the cart.


Sliding on three wheels through the finishing line.

In all sports, the feat of the champions rises the spectators enthusiasm and cheering. For the “Nong Hoi Mai” venue, the star is Jang Sealee, already a triple winner. He wears the “number 1” shirt, in red or green, depending upon his challenger’s color.


Jang Sealee “number 1” with a red shirt




Jang Sealee in the last stretch


A brilliant arrival after an extraordinary race

For the following lap, the champion still wears the “number 1”, this time on a green shirt


Jang Sealee already in a favorable position


The champion, Jang Saelee, rushing to the finishing line with a comfortable lead


The last meters to a wining position

The show does not end at the finishing line; full speeding carts have to be brought to a stop. Breaking and sliding not only rises big earth clouds,they might also overthrow the vehicles and drivers. As the saying goes: “if there is no dust there is no Formula Hmong race”.


Tumultuous arrival of a racer


A big dust blanket over an arriving driver


Jang Saelee cutting the finishing line after a skillful winning drive.


The last meter before the tires fence

As Jang Saelee, the triple champion form neighboring “Mae Khi” village is qualified for the final leap; he is interviewed by the TV commentator and extensively photographed, people are already confident in his new feat.


Already a star.

The champion before the last race


Smiling, but not yet sure that he will be the “Hmong formula race” champion for the fourth time

As for me, I was unable to watch the champions winning leap and take a final picture of his arrival [3]. I found solace, however, in his interview, a couple of days later at his home.

The Mae Khi’s champion palmarès is amazing: first places in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015/16 (latest) a second place in 2012 and a third position in 2013; in fact, since 2010, he has steadily occupied a podium position. The cash prises allocated to the winners are 10’000 Thai Baht for the champion (about 280 US $), 7’000 THB for the second, 5’000 THB for the third and 2’000 THB for the fourth position.

Jang Saelee in not only a skilled downhill racer, he is a very amiable person, thirty five years old, married and father of three children. Like most other dwellers from this Hmong hillside village, he spends the best part of his time tending to his vegetable fields and, from time to time, ventures down to Mae Rim to sell his products at the market.

The motivation to build a cart came to his mind as a child; his model was a wooden vehicle used by his father to trail water home from the source. Sparing a couple of nails he constructed his first hot-rod, without much approbation from his parents.

Initially, the carts had to be built totally in wood, just with some rubber bands for the tires. Over the years, metal wheel axes were allowed. The champion’s cart (now seven years old), however, still features the original wooden pivots, a demonstration that excellence does not need this boost. In between the races, however, even the wooden pieces have to be carefully oiled.


Jang Sealee with his cart


Jean Sealee in front of his house

The “Formula Hmong” 2016 race was a breathtaking venue. Next year’s competition will be organized in another village, actually in Doi Pui (up Doi Suthep). It is worth to keep some time in the agenda for these festivities, sometime in early January.


[1] “Nong H0i Mai” is along route 4051, north of Mon Cham. The next year’s veue is in Doi Pui, uphill from Doi Suthep temple.

[2] The 20126 “Formula Hmong” competition can be watched, in full or divided in various parts, as recorded by Channel 3, in Youtube videos
Youtube parts 1-3

Full story:

[3] My explanation for not recording the end of the race is included in a comment, hereafter.
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Oct 23, 2009
A confession, for people wondering why I left the thrilling racing field before the end of the competition.

I fancy photographing running carts from a low perspective, kneeling down in the dust and keeping my eye clinched to the viewfinder to follow the quick actions. This is not excentric, but becomes weird if the genuflection is made in front of speeding vehicles, just after the finishing line.

When a racer rushed straight through the arrival door, into the final fence of tires, it took me of guard and hurled me in a downhill somersault, cameras in hand and bag over my head. Helped be spectators, I was, however, quickly up, nothing lost, aside of face.

This incident did not teach me a lesson and I took my favorite position again. As one of the next racers arrived straight on me, in a cloud of dust, I tried to escape to the side. This time I twisted my knee and badly hurt my ligaments. Every trial to stand up ended painfully in the dirt, my leg just dening any further service.

Welcomed by the stand-by ambulance, happy to be of help for someone, I was kindly driven to a large Chiangmai hospital. The X-Ray showed nothing broken and, after some rest and and an elatic bandage, I was able to take a taxi home. A happy ending, despite a quite long recovery period.

It is worth to highlight the “Maeram municipality” ambulance men’s kindness and service; it was provided completely free of charge, even for the long trip to my chosen hospital. A doctor and a nurse from Nakon Ping hospital were also available a the racing site, together with a first aid vehicle. They helped with the preliminary bandage and an ice pack.


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
That does look pretty wild & exciting. I will have to check it out next year.

You're a lucky man with your little accident there too. It could have been a lot worse. I bet that got the adrenalin flowing too in that cloud of dust.


Mar 30, 2010
Great report Jurgen.

Loved reading it and the pictures are fantastic.

Any footage on Thai TV of the green farang and his acrobatics :-o