North Thailand : A lone cyclist’s microscopic view of the Thai north

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Cycle touring North Thailand 2009
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Chiang Mai to Mae Malai

Tuesday September 29, 2009, 58 km (36 miles) – Total so far: 58 km (36 miles)

The Thai Kingdom is a big place. Big cities, small towns, and remote villages are mostly connected by a labyrinth system of first world highways, an aging rail network, inter provincial roads, bridges, 3rd world winding mountain roads and dirt paths. The north of the country closest to the Burmese and Laotian borders are quite scenic too. Dense jungle, limestone mountains and quiet roads make for a nice cycle touring trip. It’s easy to lose oneself in the boondocks here. Though I would rather stay clear from the very touristy spots, this is usually easier said than done.

It would be nice to ride each and every road numbered from 0001 – 9999 but with only a span of 10 days, I’d have to choose my numbers very carefully.

They turn out to be Route 107 north of Chiang Mai, the country’s 2nd largest city, then the 1089 into some steep mountains with a heavy Chinese influence, the roller coaster 1234, and Routes 1 and 11 back to Chiang Mai. This follows a mostly clockwise direction. These roads added up to about 900 kms, but I needed 2 rest days, so my bike and I did maybe 200 kms or more in a speedy bus and a slow train, just to mix around with some locals and get some candid shots of the trip, that were not all about a touring bicycle with some scenic background. Not that I would not post them. I also felt lazy on those 2 days. Weather wise, it should be the tail end of the rainy season, with 17 days of rain predicted out of 30 for October. It was much less than that, or raining elsewhere, thankfully.

I found a nice, quiet and more importantly air conditioned spot to build a bike

It is good to live near a bike shop that deals only in Italian road bikes. Their boxes are top quality and though it seems like I’m here for the Tour of Thailand, the insides are just my humble LHT, now fitted with drop bars. It took a whole leisurely hour, building the bike, as I am near some stairs and there are lots of smiling office girls in mini skirts, going to and coming back from lunch, that interfere with my hand eye coordination and motor skills. I am also messing around with new Planet Bike quick release mudguards/fenders and like to align everything down to the last one half millimeter.

Just a few feet away also is the office for airport and ‘terrorism security’ The local SWAT team looked really bored and would most likely yawn again if I tied an RPG onto my top tube. A cleaning lady came too close for comfort. I read her mind. She wanted the box. Please help yourself, after I do a last check of the insides, again. By the time I got going, it was 1.00 pm and the overhead sun at the tail end of the 2009 lack luster rainy season, was blazing.

With the exception the Thai capital, Bangkok, riding 10 minutes out of Chiang Mai brings me to places you’d never think were just minutes away from a 20 storey Sheraton or Meridien Hotel. On roads that feed into the rural farmlands and rice fields it was quiet enough to hear your gear shifts and rolling tyres. One drawback of such quiet roads is that the village mutts can also hear you from afar. They’ll call their friends in the neighbours’ yards and have a go at the lone cycle tourist in the mid day heat. Most of the mongrels are loud but harmless, but I keep a wary eye out for the pure bred German ones which can accelerate like a Porsche. Cats seem rare in Thailand. They’ve all been massacred. My apologies to cat lovers.

If you want to get to Pai on a bicycle, which is 135 kms from Chiang Mai, 4 am would be a good time to start. This is because there about 3 big climbs and 60 kms of mountain roads to deal with. Anyways, I told them that there would be a few expensive and off the main road ‘resorts’ along the way, if they didn’t fancy night cycling. As for me, Mae Malai 15 kms down the road on a wide shoulder, was my pit stop and early night at that too.

I found the Mae Malai Mansion in the middle of town. ‘Mansion’ being the Thai synonym for motel I guess. Air conditioning, fan, TV, (Sharon Stone speaks Thai!) a nice bathroom, mini bar, shiny curtains. Opened just a year and a half ago. One thing though, the beds are rock hard, which might not suit everyone. Hard mattresses are great, they convey a feeling of newness and I think my back muscles are even harder. And forget waterbeds. I get seasick. The Mansion was a good tip from another journal,, as a fancier place next door which used to charge Thb 800, had rooms going for the same Thb 350, now. Don’t you just love competition?


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