Piang Luang to Muang Noi: via Wiang Haeng

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Mountain bike touring North Thailand 2004
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Friday April 30, 2004, 80 km (50 miles) – Total so far: 271 km (168 miles)

Today’s dire stats :

Stage 1 : Piang Luang guest house to Wiang Haeng 13 kms.

Stage 2 : Getting lost 25 kms riding out on the wrong trail head to nowhere. Actually it dead ended at a small dam. No chance of riding over that.

Stage 3 : Wiang Haeng, rather Kong Lom, the correct trail head, to Muang Noi, as the crow flies 10 kms, as the wheels turn 42 kms

Having been to Chiang Mai 9 times from 2002 to 2009, I thought it would be nice change to ride off road trails close to Burma and seek out some ‘soft’ adventure options on a mountain bike. Strangely and feeling slightly proud of it, I’ve never saw the delights in doing the typical tourist thing.

Stuff like jungle trekking to hill tribe villages. Dining on cold, suspicious food, sleeping with a dozen strangers in a bamboo hut, sharing a one and only squatter toilet in the village, or riding on an elephant, seeing them play soccer, or go pet a tiger cub at the Tiger Kingdom, and experience the goings on at ‘the Monkey Center’ or ‘Snake or Buffalo Farm’

Instead we wake up today in Piang Luang, a one horse, two road village 4 kms from Burma. It’s one of those places that a Burmese refugee would mimic a throat being slit if you say you’re going to cycle across the border. Local Thais usually shake their heads in disbelief, after the initial shock of such an idea. Anyway the border crossing here catered to local traffic only. All others, keep out.

a great sunrise in Piang Luang

That said, I guess the startled army rangers at the two checkpoints, where we begged for water, could be saying the same thing. ‘What in Buddha’s name are Dumb and Dumber doing pushing their bicycles up our mountain trail?’

At Checkpoint No 1, after 12 kms of cycling and pushing uphill, we were greeted with suspicion and outright pity. After they turned their GPMG muzzles skywards and away from us, a low ranking GD Man (‘general duties’, ie, does everything as ordered) brings out a Godsend kettle of water which we promptly finished and asked for another. We even sat down at one of their picnic benches overlooking the Burmese border.

A spiffy young looking officer did the interrogation. He seemed in charge, and very relaxed in a baseball cap, a ‘I love Hawaii’ tee shirt and army fatigues elsewhere, while the others were in full battle gear. After checking our passports and a barrage of who, what, when and why, especially the why, he sort of pointed us down a very overgrown and unmarked trail 30 kms to Muang Noi. Huh ?

I wanted to ask him about his groovy tee shirt, but seeing that they were the ones with the weapons, I went a step further and questioned his sense of direction. We rode a great single track downhill for a while, then U turned just to ask him if this was really the correct way. Why couldn’t we just stick to the main dirt road? Well that was because the ‘big road’ leads to Myanmar, he would have to open his gantry and file a whole lot of paperwork, say if we disappear and a search party descends on his outpost a few weeks later.

Now he got angry and said that his map, pointing to his head, in his brain I guess, was more accurate, and to make his point, took my map and threw it to the ground. OK people with the weapons, I concur. Their campsite looked great too, but we had worn out our welcome, and drank a lot of their water, as the lieutenant practically shooed us away, going back to whatever kept him happy on this mountain top.

In situations like this, Paul likes to be as confrontational as little. I spot him hiding in the shadows of the trees, looking at his stopwatch and pondering lost minutes. He was keeping track of average speeds and the 40 kms or so we had to do today. We plod though 30 kms of singletrack and still doubted how the Thai troops could drive through paths narrower that a wide girth Hummer. At the very most Mr Hawaii would be sending us to oblivion just for the fun of it, but just imagine the paperwork? In retrospect our encounter with an English speaking Thai army officer was not so bad. He could have just turned us back to Wiang Haeng. Now that would really suck, big time.

Are we there yet ??

Here’s when the going really got tough. We were down to walking and pushing our bikes. In times like this, if you have bar ends, adjust them vertically, like some senior riders do. Grabbing the bar ends make pushing a little easier. When you’re on the verge of collapsing in a Thai jungle, every little silly advantage helps. We harbour thoughts of ditching the bikes and walking out to the first village we chance upon. No chance, no villages to be seen, or at least they were hidden. We did come across the only traffic on this trail, two barefoot monks who gave us a glimmer of hope as they had walked from Muang Noi or a village sounding like that.

That hope was demolished each time we rode ourselves into some dark and deep ravine, hauling out bikes over some small stream, seeing if the water was potable too. Then the inevitable, endless pushing up the other side into streaming sunlight, hoping to reach any ridegline with a view of somewhere. Nothing. If memory serves me right, we went through a dozen or so of these nothing viewpoints. At lucky number 13, the vegetation changed drastically. Going downhill the plants and tress were bone dry, there was the smell of smoke and even burning embers by the trail. This had better be a good sign of crossing a major watershed. It was, and the steep, rutted downhill path on which we made up some time, even had some views of cultivated valleys in the hazy distance. Semi civilisation, here we come.

I was relishing this downhill run, taking out my revenge on this trail that has zapped every bit of energy that I had the last few hours. After narrowly missing a few tumbles and wheel sized ruts by mere inches, I slowed down as Paul was nowhere to be seen or heard. No response to my emergency whistles. I actually had to stop as I did crash into a final rut and landed a few bike lengths away. Bike stops instantly, jump off and jog like a silly gibbon a few feet in front of it. Grab any vegetation if you don’t seem to slow down. I tore a glove and scraped a knee. Having your left SPD unclipped plays a big part in saving some pain and blood. Paul showed up a while later, both gloves torn and both knees scraped. Slightly moody, but brightened up when I explained my watershed theory. Twice.

He muttered that while we were separated for the first time on the ride today, he had crashed a few times. That would be normal, given this rutted trail, laced with dark, blind corners. Crashing, while riding uphill is just too embarrassing. That would be on par a few hours ago, with my pulling Paul aside and saying, ‘Whatever happens, please don’t leave me in this jungle!’ We can get our bikes later, but…..repeat previous sentence. I’ll blame that on a very deep, dark and slimy ravine and depleted energy. The two drops of water left in my bottles didn’t help either.

Now you know there is a God, of course there is, there are quite a few these days, just choose the proper One, and here’s where humanity will beg to differ. Oopps, better get back to what God has sent. A small beat up, black Honda motorcycle, parked by some burnt out tree trunk. Brudder Paul, check it out, a machine here. That means people, a village, food and drink and dare I say it, guest house.

It was 5.30 pm and light was disappearing fast as we found our spots, stretched some lycra and drained out what little trickle there was out of our bladders. As I looked down upon my trickle, it was making a plonking noise hitting a plank that read, ‘Muang Noi 1 km’

What a satisfying pee that was.

Fine art at the border patrol camp

The trail widened into more dirt and then turned into a concrete road quite common all over rural Thailand. Disused rice fields in the dry season. We see wide eyed Karen villagers, wooden homes, satellite dishes and a phone booth, minus the phone by a basketball court. Noticed a beat up Toyota Hilux, the village bus I guess. There’s transport and a dirt road to Pai 33 kms on. That will be on tomorrow’s plate.

As usual we find a small store and head for it’s refrigerator. Half frozen cans of Coke. Wow. We down a few, and started to look for the village Hilton. Apparently there are lodgings here, but secret ones, reserved for the chosen few and known only to a special class of leaders, like the north Thailand tourist trekking guide. Book such a trip and sleeping quarters are guaranteed.

As for us? No, no guesthouse here. Plan B. We found a school, that meant classrooms, shelter and possibly the school toilet. It was better than nothing and better than the benches at the sundry store. Salvation came when a soccer ball flew out of a cluster of white buildings that was to be Check Point No 2. I kicked the ball back over a fence and was waved to come over by some kids. I guess the guys here were used to lost, hungry and desperate looking mountain biking tourists. We were literally ushered into the compound, had our bikes parked in a garage for us and asked whether we needed a place to sleep tonight. The open garage seemed pretty good but we were shown into a huge and clean store room of sorts with a bathroom and shower attached !

Our luxurious store room, beats sleeping in the open

Our saviour had an Auatralian accent, wearing a fitting camo T shirt that read, ‘Special Forces, East Timor’. Rank was Master Sargeant or MSG. Our language problem solved, more surprises followed. A GD man appeared to sweep our floor, some bedding arrived and dinner was announced, as long as it was fried rice with sliced pork, out on a park bench by the garage. We were bowled over time and time again by such unexpected kindness and hospitality. Either that or we’ve just joined the mountain Border Patrol. Was that why we were asked whether we had any women with us or food in our panniers, in that order?

MSG also apologized that we had to eat by ourselves as the rest of them about 10 had an important meeting to attend to, at their dining hall cum kitchen that overlooked the school. I learnt later that night that the army had not paid their salaries for the last three months, so their Commanding Officer, just a Captain and some men were going to a bigger camp at Mae Hong Son town, 150 kms away to lodge a complaint, as the Captain himself had no more money to lend to his subordinates. Sad.

I totally regretted taking less than ten pictures of our off road exploits today. Must be the extremely low morale, thirst and hunger that puts photography at a very low priority.

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