Archive for the ‘Cycle touring North Thailand 2009’ Category

On this penultimate day of the trip, I have 3 hours, before I check in and fly home. As the bike has been packed and the box sealed with Carrefour brand tape, I have no other means of transport save for my 2 legs and 5 year old Solomon shoes. Though my Thb 499 room does not include a ho hum breakfast, (a Thb 100 extra) I go down to the restaurant, and a waitress shows me a table. As all the Gods in Thailand have made my trip so safe and wonderful, I decide not to cheat the hotel out of a $3.33 breakfast. A cursory look at the mess was all it took.

The GPS in my head brings me to the older part of town, one that is encircled by a 2 km by 2 km square moat or canal of sorts. Or maybe en-squared. No tall buildings are allowed within this square, so there are nice old homes, ancient temples AND their pesky flea ridden dogs, hotels no higher than 5 storeys, many quiet back lanes with the aroma of grilled mammals or fresh laundry.

As my flight leaves at 11 am, I have time to roam the streets in the cool morning hours when the city is just waking up and traffic is still bearable. People seem to be more tolerant and happier in the mornings, with the cares and troubles of the day not besotting them yet. Traffic actually giving way to cyclists. There are lodgings in in the old town that will set you back $5 or $10 and there are those where if you have to ask, you’ll probably can’t afford it.

A very slow cyclist’s or walker’s paradise. My camera is constantly on.

I also pass by a guest house of infamy. An unsolved murder. Many conspiracy theories.

After a 2 hour walkabout, with the usual canine rousing, I head back to the hotel, with two bags of stuff, ie more unnecessary shopping for some unecessary people. Pry off my sweat soaked Esprit t shirt, shower and put on a nice fresh shirt for the airport. Save smelly, sweaty t shirt on top of duffel bag for customs to inspect.

I like to lie down motionless for about 30 minutes before check out to reflect on the trip, before it’s time to bust out from the ‘Rose of the North’ back to the pencil dot sized economic powerhouse of South East Asia. That was what a former Indonesian president referred to Singapore as, with the emphasis on pencil dot, when trying to look for it on an atlas. He was a tad envious.

Funny how some towns are given nicknames to attract visitors. I know what the north part is but the rose is said to signify, mainly beauty, and here a cooler climate, which in turn helps flowers to bloom, leading to the Chiang Mai flower festival each February. No festival is quite complete with a beauty contest, and Chiang Mai has no lack of fair complexioned and good looking women. Seeing that the past 10 pages are about cycling the Thai north, it is safe to say that I came to Thailand to ride a bicycle and not so much as to eyeball the womenfolk. Just in case my wife reads all this, which she never does.

This is all a complete contrast to a southern seaside town, overun with seedy bars and pubs with a heavy Russian underworld influence. For years also the town’s sewerage and other affluent were left to flow into the sea here, earning it the unofficial moniker of the ‘Anus of Thailand’

‘Toilet Man’ Bob has been there, I think.

Rose or anus, that’s a very easy choice. The laetst tourism catchphrase seems to be ‘Unseen in Thailand’ Easy to figure out. Unseen as in rare, undiscovered and thus unseen. These range from a new natural wonder, say a mountaintop or hot springs to some unheard of festival. Some how after all the publicity, unseen then becomes very seen.

Semantics aside, each time I come to the north, there’s always my own unseens to discover. This trip, maybe as a lone cyclist, I’ve have seen many forced discounts and some very nice folk that has affirmed my faith in the human race, again. Ironically, as a visitor on a bicycle, I have seen more of Thailand than some Thais who have never ventured any further from their home town. As they say, the grass is greener…..

Unseen to my eyes the past 2 days was the hotel shuttle van to the airport, for a princely sum of Thb 100. I couldn’t believe it. Other downtown hotels were charging Thb 300 and up. I tip the driver 50% of Thb 100, as he wanted to haul my bike box and duffel bag, in and out of the van. Didn’t look like he had much else to do at the Thb 499 hotel.

My veggie bag. While boarding a plane with a bag full of vegetables may seem weird at first, TIT* and therefore quite normal. Thais wont bat an eyelid, as they know of the Royal Project outlet at the airport. Other tourists will gawk and snigger, as they don’t know any better, but these greens are the real deal, organic and dirt cheap. I use up all my coins and still have change for the lot, Thb 130 or just over $4.00.

I have reached home, but some of my meals can still have that bit of northern flavour.

* TIT, short for ‘This Is Thailand’ ie, a seemingly abnormal situation, for others, but is really quite normal for Thailand. Case in point, 5 people on a scooter. Or some joker with bag of greens boarding a plane.



Thursday October 8, 2009, 49 km (30 miles) – Total so far: 672 km (418 miles)

The deal for today was to head south, a direction that I had not done over the years. Follow the lazy, winding Ping river all the way to Lamphun 20 km on. (not to be confused with Lampang) This old trunk road, the 106 is lined with huge and tall gum trees, ‘yang’ I think in Thai, and there are about 900 of them making for a very shady ride. Some over development does clash with the height and majesty of the trees, but this being Thailand, the fact that these giants have not been cut down, is already a blessing for conservationists, as well as the lone cycle tourist who covets shade.

Speaking of shade or shady, I pass by a huge karaoke place, a few actually, in a district called Chiang Mai Land. Huge posters of what’s on offer, the least of which must be vocal talent.

Most or all were closed at 8 am, so I move on in search of Chiang Mai’s oldest settlement at Wiang Kum Kam. This wetland area was buried by the river’s frequent flooding, but some parts have been dug up revealing another ancient walled city and many temple ruins. You can get here on a touristy river barge, from downtown Chiang Mai, but since I had a bicycle handy, I rode there. Saw two ornate temples out of a dozen or so, they were beginning to look too familiar, and the two I went to, did not have vicious temple dogs, whose barks were louder than some monks chanting through an amplifier, in the noonday sun. Most Thai temples are infested with them. These cunning critters know that temples are a great refuge. Monks cannot mistreat or kill them, so they have free reign to pester this innocent lone cycle tourist, who couldn’t care less.

An interesting find on the shady 106 was a very old style coffee shop, decorated with things from decades past. Old Coke and Pepsi bottles, one whole wall was made out of these, creaking furniture and floor boards, a Kelvinator fridge, and an old bicycle which the owner’s father rode around selling coffee. Sat here for 30 minutes nursing an iced coffee and gawked at a bunch of roadies flying by at 40 kmp/h. I shall be back.

The trip is winding down, especially when I am left to watching others cycle, but duty still calls and I remember that there’s some last minute shopping to be done. As it was getting hot, I plot a route in my head for the Central Airport Plaza Mall to seek refuge in it’s air conditioned confines. I have to do this as, silly me left my greater Chiang Mai map in the room. Navigation wasn’t that much of a problem, as soon after I left the temple complex of Wat Chedi Liam, I saw a huge sign saying, Central Airport Plaza. The name is quite misleading, as the mall is bigger than the airport terminal buildings, thus it is not in the airport per se, but a km east by a highway.

The bike is stealth parked and locked today for 50 minutes in some thick bushes behind a taxi stand.

This mall is the city’s largest and good forced discounts are many. Thais like to dress up for the mall, or movies, so there’s a lot of eye candy to be had too. 5 floors of movie theaters, restaurants of Thai, Japanese, Korean and more Japanese persuasion, a whole floor of IT and electronics, umpteenth internet and coffee joints, a Robinson’s department store, a video arcade, a factory outlet meaning GAP and North Face rejects, a basement food court and Tops supermarket, an aquarium with a shark in it, etc, etc. You might even encounter a Mormon or rather two. They do come in pairs, but are always overdressed for cycling.

No Thai city has arrived unless they can boast of a having a Central Mall.

My parents love this place and can spend a whole day in here while I’d probably do Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao in that time. The ‘Northern Village’ section is great for first timer. They’re the ones with the wide eyed gawking syndrome, wallet in hand ready to buy something, anything. It’s a show case of all things, well northern, handicraft, clothes, furniture and enticing Thai street food on the ground floor.

Best of all, everything has a price tag, so I can save my energy by not haggling and use it for cycling instead. Today I am still mesmerized, though I dread being gawked at, as I am in my Tour de France best, and the SPD cleats are really not made for contact with glitzy mall floors. But I soldier on, and buy 3 kgs of organic and fragrant Thai jasmine rice, 2 boxes of Acuvue contact lenses and some Thai made, but Hollywood titled DVDs. Look out for the Mang Pong Brand, only licensed original titles. Quite the forced discount deal at Thb 88 each.

In my wallet there’s Thb 3000 left, not too bad as I’ve spent Thb 7000 thus far or 70% of my budget and I fly home tomorrow. The trick now is not to visit too many bike shops, five grand can disappear in the blink of an eye. A Salsa Ala Carte MTB frame and fork is priced at Thb 19,000 or about $570. Do I need it? No. Do I want it? Yes.

Then it’s off to Chaithawat bike shop in the old city to get a bike box. Buy more stuff and get a discount without asking, such sweet people. With such a busy ‘off’ day, I forgot to get lunch, but I usually make up for it by having dinner and dinner. That turned out to be quite interesting, as a Dutch couple who had seen my bicycle in the Phu Thong Hotel, Phayao, 4 days ago, recognised it again, locked to a nearby tree, and sat themselves down at my table and introduced themselves, as the Dutch couple who saw my bike at the Phu Thong Hotel in Phayao, 4 days ago.

Well OK, it’s always nice to exchange stories of each other’s bicycle trips. They are on Koga Miyata’s no less, but have never heard of the LHT, so they took a picture of it, the minor street side celebrity that it has become. They had cycled down from Vietnam and Laos, but were headed back to Amsterdam, via Bangkok, the next day, and it looked like their post tour blues had set in already. We drowned our sorrows in sodium laced Thai street food and later, I introduce them to deep fried insect section of the Chang Puak night market. As if this wasn’t enough, I wrote them the CGOAB web address and thus changed their lives forever.

Cycling 1045 meters in Thai traffic, back to the hotel with a big box under one arm requires many blessings from Lord Buddha. Please don’t try this at home.

If you’re contemplating a Thai tour with hotel stays, just go with you gut feeling when it comes to securing your beloved bike. Thais keep their motorcycles indoors, in living rooms or kitchens even, as long as it’s in a secured area. This should be the same for your bicycle, though most Thais will think of bicycles as toys and don’t deserve to be in carpeted hotel rooms. The fact that you rode halfway around the world, to be blunt, no one gives a rat’s rear end. Hence it’s quite vital, even more so as a lone cycle tourist that hates stairs, to get a ground floor room. Recumbent riders will empathize.

Posh hotels that charge Thb 499 or Thb 10,000 are a challenge, if your room is on the 6th floor. I locked my bike in the basement during the day, but heck, it’s packing time tonight and walking the LHT in the marbled floor lobby with many gawkers might be a pain. Plan B. Carried the bike up one floor, got to a lift unseen, in a corner of the lobby, and viola, I am in. Cargo elevators are the best, as bicycles are perceived to be dirty, but might not always reach guest room floors. Sometimes there is no point asking for permission. Receptionist, doorman or bell hop, when unsure and cowering under a picky management or boss, will always say, no bicycles. Then you’ll end up having a sauna in a dark basement, feeding the mosquitos, just doin’ yer packing.

Hotel security, what a joke sometimes, is no better. Instead of keeping any eye, might be messing with your shifters and what not. On the other extreme, I ride in and out a few times and no one bats an eyelid. Phone, girlfriend or sleepiness comes first. That said, in 95% of hotel, guest house check ins, you’ll get wonderful and welcoming people. It takes the remaining 5% in nice suits with gold plated name tags, to mess with your day. No, no park in the car park, it’s very safe. What if it’s not there in the morning? No, No very safe. Will you get me the same new bike if it’s stolen? No. No. Very safe. Beware, one of the nos, means ‘no new bike’. Period. Didn’t read the limitation of liability sign in the pitch black car park, did you?

Once, in 2004, I removed both wheels from the frame and made two trips up 23 floors to my room, thus getting around the hastily thought up, no bicycles rule, not even in a cargo elevator. 1st trip were just two wheels, thus not really a bicycle. On the 2nd trip, I said I was carrying my ‘science project’ Needless to say, management and security were not amused, but I was, very highly.

Sealing of the box takes place an hour before checking out, just in case I have to carve a watermelon or papaya during breakfast with the Swiss army knife, which goes into the tool kit, which goes into the bike box. Fret not, if the box is sealed too early and you still have knives or box cutters, maybe a Made in Thailand, Baby Glock 26 replica that will drive airport police bonkers. Stuff them via the carrying holes in the sides of the bike box.

Wednesday October 7, 2009, 37 km (23 miles) – Total so far: 623 km (387 miles)

If you are doing research through this wonderful CGOAB encyclopedia, please note that Lampang to Chiang Mai is about 120 kms on Hwy 11 with a mountain pass to overcome. 37 kms listed above is my milage from pottering about my start and end destinations for today. I did the same for the ‘ride’ Phayao to Lampang 2 days ago. Though cycling Hwy 11 should be fun and challenging, some journals have it as ‘all boring’ highway, when riding up from Bangkok, as that route almost parallels the railway heading north.

As I am taking the train today, there will be nice pictures of that ride and hopefully not too much detailed ramblings taking up a few paragraphs. I was tempted by the train ride, as not only does it do the hill climbing for me, it also passes by Khun Tan National Park and crosses the watershed that separates the Ping river valley (Chiang Mai) from the Wang river valley (Lampang) The air is cool and the jungle scenery very thick and jungly. The highlight must be a very long and dark tunnel at Khun Tan. It got all the schoolgirls in the train screaming.

I reluctantly check out of my ‘home’ for the past two nights, a bit surprised that I had to pay the high season rate of Thb 550 instead of Thb 450. Well, I had crossed into October. They lent me some cutlery. A blue mosquito coil outside the room each evening. Excellent housekeeping. Check out girl took pains to say that the owner might give me a discount, but as a mere employee, she could not. As if to apologise, she struck off my small internet bill, but I paid in full. It was a really excellent stay after all, with absolutely no ghosts.

I rode a whole 100 metres before fruit juice Granny waved me over for another ABC. Aah sweet beet root and it’s anti oxidant properties. For the uninformed, it might make your stools a little purplish red also. Don’t panic, it’s not blood, but that’s hard to tell sometimes, mainly because I am not a doctor, and I am not you. Speaking of panic, I did, the first time.

Got to the station at high noon for the highly anticipated 1241 hrs departure. Buy ticket for an amazing Thb 23, but the time printed on it is cancelled and replaced with 1300 hrs. Drats. At 1.00 pm, the time on a whiteboard is changed to 1350 hrs. Train rumbles in at 2.30 pm. Double drats. Think carefully, why do they even bother with 1241 hrs? Just say early afternoon after 1 pm or thereabouts.

If you have bike trouble, there is an adequate bike shop right by the fountain outside the station. I spot new Shimano stuff. The owner is also into high powered motorcycles. Nice to gawk at. The motorcycles.

I had two and a half hours to observe the goings on in a rural Thai train station.

Nice German inspired architecture. A really Nazi looking black and white clock, with a stern black eagle motif, hanging from the ceiling, which did not make the train arrive any faster.

There’s a Chevy van parked outside. Steering wheel on the right.

A monk talks for 2 hours on his cell phone.

I buy an expensive Thb 7 bottle of water. Usually Thb 4 – 5 outside. Thb 6 at 7/11.

I move the bike around 3 times, just because I felt like doing so.

Many many boisterous school kids on a field trip, writing notes, sitting on the station floor. One teacher, though middle aged, is fashion savvy and would not look out of place in a Thai disco. Imagine a Marg Helgenberger from CSI, but with a Thai face.

Went to the gents once and there were 3 newly pubescent boys in school uniforms, applying eyeliner and lipstick. Check to see urinals, yes I am in the right convenience.

There is a book titled, ‘The Third Sex : Kathoey, Thailand’s Ladyboys’ by a Richard Totman. Mildly enlightening. Amazon has it.

I got hit Thb 100 for the bicycle, but after 30 minutes I was issued a receipt. Almost 5 times the fare for a human that weighs 3 times the cargo. The only logical conclusion is that the rail authorities are trying discourage bulky cargo in the passenger trains.

Speaking of bulky cargo, I notice the highest ranking train official in a peak cap and pseudo military uniform messing with his cell phone across from me. What a job, just sitting all the way from Bangkok and working his phone. 3 other flat tummy underlings run around, checking and issuing tickets, writing up stuff, opening and closing windows, gawking at the intricate brake and gear shifting system on my bike, and saving a life when a clueless schoolgirl almost leaves the end of the train in search for the ‘hawng-nahm’ or bathroom.

That made the train general quite angry and he stood up, went to some teachers and barked something like, control your students. Students being students kept quiet for a while before playing, I touch you, you touch me back, and I hit you back, repeat 100 times.

Ironically, as a lone cycle tourist, I am allowed to the back of the train, but not beyond a rusty chain, to take photos.

This Khun Tan park place seems nice, could be a good overnight cycle trip from Chiang Mai itself. There are bungalows to stay in and at least some food from what I saw during a very brief 5 minute stop at 600 metres above seal level.

Thanks Dave Early, for planting another seed,

hiang Mai has too many hotels and guest houses for it’s own good. Building and re modelling continues as there’s no Thai translation for recession. Even though the recession of late 08 is, well, late a year or so in Thailand. Although it sounds like I am complaining, I am not, as I sense a forced discount rearing it’s lovely head once again. This time I get to share it with fellow guests who shamelessly pull up in Volvo XC 90s and BMW 740is, impeding my LHT’s way into the hotel basement car park.

On the first day of the trip, I did a double take when I saw a sign saying ‘499’ outside a posh hotel. 3 days later, I cancel my Thb 650 room reservation in a downtown guest house for tonight and tomorrow. The last 2 nights will be here, at the Grand Panerai Hotel, part of the Royal Peninsula Group, whatever that is, as I am not in Hong Kong. (That super Hi-So one orders Bentleys in bulk). Both are located in a low traffic area of town, but are just 100 m from the famed north east Sri Phum corner of the city moat, which is pretty darn touristy. So close and yet so far. A location that only a lone cycle tourist, passing by at 25 km/h, on his/her way to the farm lands along the Ping river, will take real notice of.

It was great to get to Chiang Mai relatively early before dark and settle in to such luxurious but ridiculously well priced surroundings. Clean up, then off to hunt for food on a bicycle. I eat a very healthy stir fried tofu and spinach over white rice dish, at the town’s finest Chinese restaurant, Jia Tong Heng, along Sri Donchai Road, and takeaway a box of Shanghai fried noodles, just in case. That’s Thb 150 for both, and the price of 3/4 of a spare tube in some countries. I did not eat the little piggies, they are more palatable in a sausage or patty form. Cycling and eating. What a wonderful, vicious circle. I guess the secret is, to cycle enough, so you don’t end up looking like a circle.


Tuesday October 6, 2009, 70 km (43 miles) – Total so far: 586 km (364 miles)

Sort of skipped breakfast this morning. Nearby grandma’s beef noodles didn’t seem quite ready and though she was very apologetic, who am I to rush a senior citizen at 7 am? There are loads of other places to eat at, but in this quiet neighbourhood, the sound of a juice blender by the road should irritate a dog or two or three. That’ll be one ABC , or apple, beet root and carrot juice please. As a tourist I am given an upsized one. Just Thb 20, and a meal in itself and it lasted the 24 highway kms to the Wang valley’s most famous sight, Wat Prathat Lampang Luang, or ‘The Great Relic Monastery of Lampang’

While some temples claim to have a Buddha ‘relic’ of some sort, a tooth or strand of hair, this high walled temple complex and it’s importance comes from Buddha’s actual presence at one time here. He also left a whole tuft of hair, now preserved in the chedi behind. Alas. the magnificent 45 metre high chedi was under going a face lift. I was not that enthusiastic seeing it covered with a green netting under cloudy skies, from a kilometer away. Managed to lock the bike near temple security and did spend an hour walking on centuries old earth strewn courtyards.

I manage to leave just before the white tour buses arrive and try to find a more rural way back to town. This was much more fun than Route 1, so I headed north east through a place called Hang Chat, why I don’t know, but there were really posh homes among the rice fields, and once I hit the Wang river it was all small riverside roads all the way to Lampang proper.

Found another granny food stall, opened at 10 am and the cheapest but best noodles on record so far, Thb 20 with some crunchy fried bits of lard on top, the icing on the cake, the crown jewels atop other lesser blemished ones, the R in your XTR. What I am trying to say is, that though kiddy portioned, thus not too fatal, it was sooo good. The shop was a bit messy and disorganized. I shut out all thoughts of being adopted here.

After a while, a daughter shows up in a pearly white Toyota Camry Hybrid. Partially assembled near Bangkok, also known as the Detroit of Thailand, for you car buffs. It is utterly new with the plastic sheets still over the leather seats. Speaks to me in Thai while I nod in approval of the noodles. After I am done swallowing and able to converse, in broken Thai, she giggles in embarassment, for mistaking me as a local. Happens all the time, to this lone cycle tourist, and she switches to English. How am I ever going to learn more Thai ? She’s slightly clairvoyant and tells me that the train station is to the right, 500 meters further on. I am on my way there to look at the German inspired architecture, check schedules and see how much longer I can stay in this town without missing my flight home.

At the entrance, there’s a roundabout and big fountain with ornamental baby elephants frolicking in it, as well as a restored steam engine train to indicate that you’re just 50 m away from the train station. A slow mail train from Bangkok gets here at 1241 hrs and takes 2.5 hours to reach Chiang Mai 125 kms away. Looks like another lovely, relaxed late departure tomorrow.

In a never ending quest to document my trip in detail, I bring you more of Lampang, such a laid back town, say compared to Chiang Mai. If Lampang stresses you out, er, there’s always…..Phayao.

With too much time on my hands, I schedule in a post lunch siesta, some internet time, go circle the town of Lampang, again and mostly just cycle down any road I fancy. The riverside promenade ones were the best, car free and you get to hear heart thumping Thai aerobics at dusk and see locals on their bicycles. Met the boys on fixies again who confirmed that Highway 11, the main route back to Chiang Mai has a long and hot 60 km hill climb. They did that on their Vespas, and not on fixed gear bicycles. They told me that the town fountain was the best place to ride such bicycles. I have no idea why, but there are many coffee shops with wifi and bike parking in that part of town. So much saner in the daytime without a chance of getting lost.

Started pedalling again after the siesta and found some really nice looking Burmese influenced temples close to the guesthouse. Wat Don Tao, I think. Though Burma is quite a distance from Lampang, many Burmese were brought to this part of Thailand to work in the logging trade. Apparently there were 4000 elephants in the business as well, but that was a really long time ago , as I did not see one single elephant this whole trip. It was teakwood central during the early years of settlement, when the British controlled much of teakwood logging.

Dinner was 2 takeaways from 2 different places. Reached ‘home’ asked for my keys and I am given a dining set, like last night, plate, bowl, fork and spoon. There’s some idle banter among the staff, just a mother and daughter team tonight, about this lone cycle tourist eating alone in his room, surfacing only to ride his bike. Ride I did. 70 kms today.

Monday October 5, 2009, 32 km (20 miles) – Total so far: 516 km (321 miles)

If you’ve been checking my daily distances cycled above, and have the Berndtson Thailand North map and a calculator handy, don’t bother. Map says 158 kms from Phayao to Lampang. Road signs on Route 1 are more optimistic. 125 kms. I cycled 32 kms today around Phayao and Lampang, both pretty small towns. In between, I let the Thailand Green Bus Company fill in the gap, 3 hours at an average speed of 50 – 60 kmp/h would add up to 150 – 180 kms. That’s a really long way, even on a 7 kg Italian racing bicycle, so the bus was a wise choice. Leave Phayao late at 12.00 noon and get to Lampang in the early evening. The rough plan was to see the lake shore in the morning. It was misty, cloudy and gloomy, unlike yesterday’s sunset. There are some nice, and well kept old wooden homes, some are huge mansions by the lake whose heyday must have been decades ago.

In a matter of hours, I have spoken to a local who tells me he has a Miyata ‘California Road’ race bike and some carbon Trek MTB. The guy sports very red shoes, and is walking his very frisky 9 month old German Shepherd, named ()bama. I kid you not. I call out ()bama and get a tongue full of saliva. Such is the attraction of the lone cycle tourist. Then my criterium around Phayao’s small hills with nice views of the lake fills up the time before I pack up and ride to the bus station. Before this, I pull up to one of the town’s 4 7/11s (that’s also a German cologne) get a dog to guard my bike, while I takeaway a sticky rice spicy pork burger for brunch.

Don’t knock any of the thousands of 7/11s in Thailand, they may spell the death knell for some mom and pop businesses, but to the lone cyclist they are oases of cool weather, icy drinks like Coffica, or mineral water, if you’re a purist, and fast tasty food that cyclists crave. Once my BP skydives, I might even patronise Tesco Lotus Express, arch enemy of the 7/11, as they deal in imported frozen meats like hickory smoked bacon. I’ll just have to figure out the grilling part.

At Phayao’s bus station, 2 minutes from my hotel, the bike and I are minor celebrities. Even on the open road, I am sometimes gawked at like an oddity. I don’t mind that as I am on the move to another exotic village or same same town. At the bus station people should gawk at well, other people. I remove the panniers, pay up Thb 65 and get a receipt, then wait at the bench with the Lampang sign over it. As there are no buses to be seen, I guess the bus is coming from somewhere else. No point asking when, as no one knows, not even the driver I guess, whom you can’t ask as he’s on the way from somewhere else. It arrived within 20 minutes.

On an irreverent side note, glitzy, Swedish made Singapore buses are satellite/GPS tracked, and there are electronic signboards at smoke free bus stops, that have LED displays of bus numbers and their arrival times. What our first world buses are seriously lacking in, are the cargo holds of Thai buses, a real important feature for the lazy or fatigued or both, solo cycle tourist. Maybe it’s because our savvy bike commuters would rather commute on our buses, mostly to Starbucks on a folding Brompton with titanium bits. Hence, no real need for a cargo hold.

It’s quite a nice change to ride a Thai bus, or in a Thai bus, as now I can become the gawker, observing the goings on in and outisde the bus. I still look like a tourist, as the conductress makes a pedalling motion with her hands and says ‘ha sip’ or Thb 50 for the bike. No receipt though, just a big smile from her. She’s short in one leg, but I don’t want to insult her by giving some more baht. Conductors also scream something like, ‘Aye-eeee’ after some one has alighted, thus telling the driver to move on. Stopping the bus is easier. Press the stop bell.

Monks get priority seating on a public bus, and no female is allowed to sit next or even near him. I see a monk and another male switching seats just because a woman finds an empty seat next to the monk. Soldiers have it better. One is really excited as he spots a really good looking woman in denim shorts and a t shirt tighter than her skin, as the bus pulls out. He indicates to me and his soldier friend not to miss this opportune moment. Soldier friend rebukes him, as in what’s the big deal or behave yourself, then goes back to sleep. I know he’s sleepy. In love or gay, not sure. Insufficient empirical evidence.

I am also at the rear of the bus where there’s an open space for all manner of cargo to be dumped on. Small luggage, bags of vegetables, a guitar, some fruit jostle for space among my pricey waterproof panniers. At some point I doze off, then wake up to find 3 school girls next to me. Being of that age when boys are a new discovery, or a real hassle, the girls are chatty, smile a lot, check out their faces and hair every 30 seconds and for some strange reason are wearing hooded polyester jackets in a tropical country, the back of which read, Faculty of Medicine, xxx University. Wow, that is a lot of studying left to do. The girls get off at Lampang too, but not before a final touch up with Kao brand facial blotter to remove excess oil from their noses. They should turn out to be pretty doctors or just pretty if they fail their exams.

Outside the bus, there are really long, lonely down hill stretches, of Route 1, but it’s still all highway, concrete barriers with lots of evidence of skids and crashes around the tighter bends. If not for the pretty, potential doctors, and the blazing mid day heat today, I’d feel a tinge of regret for not riding.

Once I am clicked in and cycling, I promise not to write this lone gawker, micro observing life on a Thai bus, thesis again. I cant say the same, once on a Thai train. There’s one from Lampang to Chiang Mai.

nfo from guide books claim that Lampang is a more laid back and less touristy town than Chiang Mai 120 kms northwest. This is very true as I see very few signboards in English and a serious lack of say Italian, German, French or any other non Thai restaurant, that you come across every 50 metres in Chiang Mai. The Thais too, love Lampang’s slower pace of life and appreciation for all things retro, be they old homes, cars, buildings and even bicycles.

Baby boomers here, and for that fact even where I come from, hanker for an old Volkwagen Beetle or Vespa as collector’s items and for showing off, but in Lampang the old stuff is actually lovingly looked after or if need be restored because they are still very useful and I suspect, sentimental to their original owners. I stop by a business which even repairs old horse carriages. Another pleasant surprise were the number of restaurants, pubs and coffee places that have custom made racks for bicycle parking. Better to smash up your bicycle than car after a night of drunken stupor. Actually not.

There are few overt signs of modernity in this town except for new cars and a huge Big C supermart which I did not have time to wander in. Lampang’s sights took up what was supposed to be a rest day tomorrow.

I’ll spend 44 hours at a great intenet find, the arty fartsy, Akhamsiri Home, nestled in a quiet leafy neighbourhood. My pink room is best described as modernist Flinstone-ish. The surrounding homes are large, meaning posh and hi-so. There’s a granny selling beef noodles and fresh fruit juice in the mornings, outside her modest wooden house, on a large plot of land, which I suspect has not yet been bought over by some yuppies, or waiting to be sold off by her children. If my Thai was better, I would ask her to adopt me. Then any touring cyclist passing by, giving me the secret password, like ‘Neil Gunton’ will get a free fruit juice.

If I venture just 5 minutes down the road, I’ll reach the Wang river that winds through town. There are 5 bridges spanning the river and I manage to ride across all of them several times during my stay. Close to the river banks are many rustic old wooden shop houses of old Lampang. On ‘Old Market Street’ lined with beautifully restored buildings, there are quite a few guesthouses and riverside restaurants of the Lonely Planet persuasion. Found them a bit too cramped, crowded and backpackerish. I don’t think my LHT would like it too. Too many world traveller gawkers, might get dazzled by it’s twin strobe lights in front, and Knight Rider style red rear blinker.

I lost my way in the dark for a while, and though some people looked intelligent, no one could point me in the direction of the very visible during the day, Wang river that floods from time to time causing bridge damage. Met some guys riding fixies and they put me on the right path.

Dinner was a 3 course takeaway, bought from 3 different places, while I was hopelessly lost. No point eating out when I have a designer room to have a Sabai time in.

Sunday October 4, 2009, 126 km (78 miles) – Total so far: 484 km (301 miles)

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go, I just need to hook them up (the panniers) before taking them off again. I ride around town in search of breakfast but end up just taking more pictures. It’s a peaceful and quiet Sunday morning, not much traffic and some church bells are even ringing. After 10 kms I am really famished and set myself down to some rice, minced pork and Thai green curry 100 meters from the Baan Warabordee, which incidentally has a great coffee machine. I bring a cup back to the room. There’s a hundred plus flat kms to do today and looking at the sky, I might have to deploy the raincoat. Just lovely.

At Wat Rong Khun, even the koi in the ponds are white, seriously.

At the first touristy stop of Wat Rong Khun 16 kms south of town the skies looked really menacing, despite this famed temple’s glitzy white everything and mirror embedded carvings, I didn’t stay too long. The air was turning cold but I must have struck the weather lottery, twice today. A strong tailwind which made 50 or so kms quite effortless, and at the same time blew away any dark clouds and rain that was a kilometer or so front of me. I couldn’t believe my luck. The roads were not too wet for the wheels to kick up any spray and were actually drying up as I rolled along. Whenever I got hungry or um leaky, a gas station was all that was needed. At one point, I veered across 3 lanes, went off road into a median of grass, and muddy water, right across the opposite lanes just to get to a 7/11, usually part of a huge Pure or Caltex station.

7/11 Coffica is so thick and sweet, I dilute it with a whole bike bottle of ice

7/11 is a good source for almost free ice. Buy some thing though, to avoid dirty looks from the staff. I actually sat down for quite a while here, a pricey hi-so coffee shop, with my budget coffica, but the shop girls here were little angels, smiling and bringing out some serviettes for this sweaty cycle tourist.

Kwan or Lake Phayao is such a chilled out place, I wish I had another day here. 20 square kms of lake in a flat fertile valley was welcome change in scenery from the previous days. Cool breezes all day long and even better at night when the never ending rows of food stalls by the lake’s promenade kick up a storm of heady aromas come dinner time and I suspect till very late at night.

As the night turned out to be quite long and lonely, so tell me something new, I even email a Thai friend who lives in Singapore and she replies saying that she has relatives in Phayao but hasn’t seen them in 15 years. Like most city folk, it is beyond their belief that someone would even want to visit their back water towns and villages, let alone ride long distances on a bicycle to get there, but as we all know it’s the ride and not so much the destination that counts. Of course if the destination’s nice that’s always a bonus.

And now, ahem just to be on the safe side, I’ve also just emailed my dear wife, Coleen, sometimes twice a day, who is in San Francisco for a wedding, fine dining and a lot of shopping. I’d really like to give her a hand with a certain 42 pound package from Wayne @, but heck, I’m stuck in exotic Phayao, by the lakeside for now.

Saturday October 3, 2009, 80 km (50 miles) – Total so far: 358 km (222 miles)

After a really restful night’s sleep, I woke up to cloudy skies again. My thermometer read a very agreeable 20 deg C. Air conditioners are rare here. It’ll get colder in the following months, the record low being in the single digits when ever cold winds blow in from the Chinese winter. That’ll be the high season, packing this small ridge top town with expensive SUVs sporting China license plates and tour minivans from as far as Bangkok, with everyone indulging in tea tasting and bringing home large quantities of oolong tea. My ‘bangalow’ wiil cost Thb 500. If there is one available.

Most of the locals in Mae Salong, like Little Home’s owner and his family, originally hail from from Yunnan province in southern China. Their ancestors just couldn’t agree with Chairman Mao’s plans for a unified China in 1949. Like all less powerful armies, those aligned with the Kuomintang rebel faction fled to Burma and then to this remote part of Thailand on their pack mules.

What do refugees do in a strange land? Recreate the place they left in a hurry and thankfully for the typical tourist, there are pretty cherry blossoms in the cool season, endless tea on the hill sides, quaint little wooden guesthouses in town, with satellite TV channels from China and Taiwan, while the pack mules have been cleverly recycled into horses for rent. Those in the tourist trade are also trilingual in Chinese, Thai and English.

Opium cultivation used to be rampant in these forested, hidden hills, but it seems that the new opium is plain old Chinese tea.

There are a couple of KMT army war museums outside town, but I don’t have a thing for wars or museums. There’s also a sizable Yunnanese Chinese Muslim community here, so that explains the mosque on a hill side. Women in scarves and men in white caps. I wanted to try their delicious spicy and oily chicken noodles, but after some thick coffee and one too many ‘yu tiao’ or deep fried bread dough sticks, I felt stuffed all morning. Quite a dilemma, eating with the eyes. You see, you want, but you don’t really need it. Applies to bike parts too.

For the crazies cycling their thoroughbred touring bikes, there’s the 30 km roller coaster of a road, the 1234 to indulge in. Make that 46 kms, if I had not wimped out yesterday. I am indebted to the Thai Department of Rural Roads for smooth tarmac, guard rails and clear road signs pointing skywards. They’ve made it quite shady too. Always a plus.

The kind and caring owners of Little Home sent me of with such fanfare that they woke up the still slumbering backpackers upstairs. I reassured them that I’ll be alright as they seem to look more worried than me for today’s ride down to Chiang Rai.

The 1234, what a road number, hugs the ridge line as much as it can, before descending into the depths of deep, dark ravines, crossing a bridge and no surprises here, climbs steeply back out the other side. As I am fresh as a lark, or is that happy? I clear two such ravines slowly but surely, but the third one, after 20 or so kms, as they say, is a real b*tch. No offence to female dogs.

My handle bar and controls are wet, and it isn’t raining. It’s me. I try zig zagging uphill when there’s no traffic, but the blind shady corners are dangerous, as most motorcycles with 3 or 5 people on them, like to coast silently downhill. The speedometer doesn’t work when you’re crawling along at doing 3 – 5 kmp/h. Any slower and my bike will develop a reverse gear. Might as well stop, so that my lungs don’t implode, play with the camera, and drip sweat onto the road instead of the bike. On the 1234, I also come across two side roads and the inevitable military checkpoint, as the side roads undulate and lead closer towards the Burmese border.

There is a 12 km side road northwest that brings you to the infamous Burmese rebel general, Khun Sa’s little exiled kingdom in Ban Turd Thai, now corrected to spell Ban Thoet Thai for obvious reasons. Just a small village and another museum with many pictures of life on the run in a jungle. 24 extra kms to see a museum. Not today.

Here’s a downhill video,

Temperatures rise as I ride on a great 8 kms downhill that does not lead to a bridge, there are rice paddies and more housing, some pricey resorts and spas before I see signs for the country’s main highway, aptly numbered Route 1. Bangkok is about 830 kms away. I’m stopping at Chiang Rai, 33 kms on.

Sometimes ‘AH 2’ follows the ‘1’ Seems confusing at first but it means ‘Asia Highway 2’ Although it’s flat, there’s a 2 to 3 meter wide shoulder reserved for 2 wheelers. I get to Chiang Rai at 3 pm for an early look see around town and a late lunch and afternoon siesta. My stomach is also churning from a blueberry and chocolate ice cream cone and fiery hot fried rice with pork combo that I had 10 kms apart. It really bugs me when I am pedaling that I have to think of a toilet.

I find Baan Warabordee down a very quiet lane and ask for a ground floor room. The receptionist would like me to have an upper room, but I say no. Stair climbing on a bicycle tour is plain illogical. Oh I see, Room 106 on the ground floor does not have a fridge, so I am forced to accept a Thb 50 discount from the regular Thb 500. Cool, I hope this trend of forced discounts lasts the whole trip.

I think ‘happy as a lark’ is correct.

Friday October 2, 2009, 67 km (42 miles) – Total so far: 278 km (173 miles)

Out of bed terribly early again, nothing much going on outside but pre dawn darkness and some monks out on their morning alms. Like a burglar with my flashlight, I explore the dining area of the Baan Fang Hotel, new with very nice rooms for Thb 450, which promises a simple breakfast of coffee and toast, but only after 6 am. Guys in charge of breakfast arrive on their scooter at precisely 6.40 am. Good thing I took out my 50% discounted watermelon from the hotel fridge, sourced from Tesco last night, 3 kms down the road. That’s a 6 km round trip in the dark…..for a melon.

An hour later and it’s just slightly brighter, so here’s to another cloudy day. It isn’t that bad really. There wont be the deep blue skies of December or January, but the countryside is a whole lot greener and brimming with life.

I make the 27 kms to Thaton in good time, except of the unscheduled stop for BF No 2. Stopped again for an iced latte by the Kok river. I contemplate going up to the two very high hill top temples above Thaton, but again the cloudy skies were a turn off, for the camera at least. Better save the legs for the hills up ahead. They got progressively steeper after Thaton.

Rolling for another 30 kms through some very nice countryside. Large plots of land here are now owned by mainland Chinese investors of tangerine and Mandarin orange orchards. Come harvest time at year’s end, the road sides and markets from here to Chiang Mai will be filled with truckloads of of the fruit. Orange juice will be cheap and you can have your fill till it flows out of your ears. Alternatively some orchards will take you around in golf carts and I have seen one with a monorail, just in case you hate golf carts or golf or both.

Disciples from the Cult of the Lonely Planet will most probably want to do the 3 hour boat ride from Thaton to Chiang Rai. Though there is a mostly unmanned tourist police post by the jetty, which also has boat fare prices posted up, one gets the feeling that it’s all quite a tourist trap. Today there are lots of boats bobbing about and no tourists. Maybe I am getting too ‘cycle-centric?’ As in paying for all other forms of transport be damned? I don’t think so, as further down the road, that goes mostly up, I succumb.

Here is where the sight of a simple truck stop with a few shops and hand operated petrol station pumps, makes it feel like I’ve attained nirvana. I grab a can of Coke and some biscuits, plonk myself on a newly concreted floor (I am fussy) and proceed to devour the things in my hand. No more cycling standing up and smiling at police checkpoints like a smug cycle tourist doing 150 kms a day.

There’s another 16 kms to go to Mae Salong, elevation, 1200 metres. I bet 15.9 kms are uphill. A psychic pick up driver nods in my direction and shows me 4 fingers. I take it to mean Thb 400 or $12 to take me up the mountain. That was just under my a dollar a kilometer benchmark for mountain roads or when my pulse exceeds 200 beats per minute. I show him 3 fingers and he laughs out loud like a witch, pulls up a stool and watches some Thai kick boxing on TV. I pay the shop lady and cycle off slowly with my eye on my mirror. He waves back and I U turn. I think I won. We settle on 300. He’s a bit underhanded. Points to his watch to say, wait 20 more minutes, for the Thai kick boxing to finish.

Having made reservations on the Little Home website, I was eager to get there early, clean up and explore the place. Their rooms in a converted shop house with the common bathroom downstairs were just Thb 200. As a reward for cycling from Fang (well almost) the Chinese owner took pity on me and let me have one of their new hillside bungalows for another Thb 100. They then brought out a steaming pot of tea and a cold towel from the fridge, while a helper disappeared up the hillside with my bike, to my bungalow I hope. Yikes, they were so attentive, I was too embarassed to tell about the last 16 kms. They did hear a lot about the previous days though.

Later that night 5 heavily laden and exhausted backpackers showed up saying that they walked a long way to get here as they couldn’t find any transport.

What were they thinking? It’s so much easier on a bicycle.

Thursday October 1, 2009, 115 km (71 miles) – Total so far: 211 km (131 miles)

Throwing all caution to the wind, I feel great this morning and get up with the sun, potter 20 kms around the countryside, wake up dozens of dogs, and head back for breakfast and the inevitable shoving of unnecessary (but used at least once on the trip) cargo in to the panniers. Checking out at 10 am wasn’t too late even as I sensed that the extremely dark and cloudy weather this morning must be due to typhoon Ketsana that claimed more than 1000 lives and counting, across the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and some parts of eastern Thailand during the past week. The news on Thai TV also showed some serious flooding in the eastern provinces. I am thankful to be in the north, with cool winds and minimal sunburn.

In the following days, the sun would only start to appear past one in the afternoon, when I should be holed up in some eatery or a 7/11 store figuring out my lunch.

Despite the distance, it was an easy ride to Fang. There are only 2 small climbs with a total of about 15 kms, as the road really winds it’s way around the hills. Some parts are quite narrow and I had only one close call in which I can wholly blame myself for taking a video while overtaking a truck and trailer around a corner with an oncoming bus. Thankfully all three of us were well in our own lanes and there was room to spare.

As I head north, I saw many side roads to the west and some imposing mountains that probably made up the border with Myanmar, the most touristy of which is one that leads to Doi Ang Khang just 10 kms south of Fang. The Royal Family keeps a Swiss style chalet there, and though the mountain air and temperatures are cool, it’s one of those places to avoid on holidays and weekends.

While I am distracted by a Spanish tourist in a skirt on a scooter, a Thai kid takes over my drink and his accomplice goes for the speedometer.

After they had their fun with my bike, one of them asks her for money. She decides to buy them some snacks instead in deference to giving out some baht. One kid follows her to the snack shop behind me, while the other goes for her backpack running his hands over it to find an opening. While this may seem innocent enough, some adults are watching intently but not saying or doing anything. So what if she loses an I Pod, some memory cards with 8 GB of images, a wallet or passport perhaps? A disaster for her and a dead I Pod in 3 days for the kids. Thinking that I was a Thai, she asked me if there were any guesthouses in this village? My tolerance was all used up when a couple of eager young guys on noisy motorcycles appeared, showing a keen interest in playing host for the night.

Since my drink was hijacked right off the table, I motioned to her that it was time to saddle up and at least move on to Fang just 25 kms down the 107. There’s a bunch of nice little hotels, some very new, a great night market on Tuesdays where one lane of the highway is closed and a huge Tesco Lotus giant of a supermarket, which to the lone cycle tourist must seem like the bright lights of Vegas.

One of Fang’s little secrets is Uncle Jack’s Hideaway. It’s on the right side of the road, a few kms out of town and much easier to spot if you’re on two wheels. I had to look for it in the dark but my spirits rose when I spotted it’s lighted signboard. It’s then a 50m walk down a dark gravel strewn lane. Let’s say it’s a highly recommended spot among the motorcycling community and Uncle Jack and Lady Jane’s Hideaway is a very un-Thai place run by very jovial Thais with a penchant for everything from the wild west. Think Geronimo, Custer, John Wayne, stetsons, pilgrims in wagons etc. Then there’s the food. So I had to ask. Are cyclists better customers? Yes, they eat more, but don’t drink or smoke as much as the guys on motorcycles. Elementary, isn’t it?

I might have been the only customer that night and Uncle Jack came out to look at the LHT and asked about my trip. My only question was, how does he manage to sell a full meal plus a Coke for about $4.00?

Wednesday September 30, 2009, 38 km (24 miles) – Total so far: 96 km (60 miles)

Looking at my Berndtson map of north Thailand, ( there are two choices for today. A short 38 kms to Chiang Dao or add another 95 kms to Fang a bit further north. Seeing that I had a fever of close to 40 deg C just 8 days ago and that I am on my doctor’s orders to ‘take it easy’ I chose Chiang Dao. A late start and early finish would placate the good doctor and the missus at the same time. Being a good doctor, he’s also a bit worried that my blood pressure is hovering around 160/100. Cycling to a clinic, with a burning forehead, while expedient, can be a little demoralising at times. Being a doctor who is also a cycling nut, he’s keen to take more readings when I am done with this trip, and hear of my shenanigans. Our consultation fees should cancel each other out.

Exploring the markets and side streets of both towns and getting a hair cut are also on the to do list today. As a lone cycle tourist, there’s just no one else to talk to, in English that is. Ho Hum.

The 107 leaving Mae Malai climbs gently, twists and turns through a narrow, verdant gorge before it flattens out and the massive massif of Doi Chiang Dao shows up on your left. It was a slow and relaxing 15 kms or so ride through the shady gorge with minimal traffic. Just out of town is the Mae Taeng district, eco tourist central, a flat valley that would not look out of place in Survivor season 225, where all the elephant camps are at. (elephant prison, depending on your perspective, as even their dung is exploited) It’s a 9 km detour inland, to see elephants adapting to mankind, ie. kicking a soccer ball, painting with their trunks, rolling logs, snapping banana tree trunks with a single jaw movement. The Mae Taeng valley has a spider web of fire roads and foot paths which are great for mountain biking until a towering pachyderm appears before you around a blind corner, with three humans on its back doing their eco tourist thing. Then again, they could be saying the same thing about those darn mountain bikers scaring their elephant.

I get to Chiang Dao real early for today’s surprise find, a nondescript wooden building sealed up against the heat of the day. It is an oasis of shade and lower temperatures. There is a fresh scent of either shampoo or hair conditioner or both. I am quite sure it was not air fresheners. A brood of school girls were busy playing an online game of some sort which involved some fancy dance steps and the cheers of a digital Brad Pitt look alike, each time a digital dance step is executed with some digital flair. Whilst observing all this, I also order a minced pork ommelete, rice and a lemon juice. Then I hit the keyboards to tell the wife that my bike is performing flawlessly and I am still alive and pedalling. I even surf CGOAB. 90 minutes pass by quickly before I realise that getting a hotel room for tonight is a good idea.

Before trolling for dinner at the night market, I managed a 15 km ride around the countryside, mundane stuff around the perimeters of some rice fields and dead ending in a back yard or two, setting off the intruder alert alarm systems that rice farmers are fond of. Dogs and ducks, maybe geese.

Old Chiang Dao Inn is not great value at Thb 500, but the air conditioning was nice and it didn’t feel too haunted

At last count, there seemed to be about a dozen or so places to stay in and around Chiang Dao. Most are Thai style resort type places far off the main road. (this one has a nice location map)

A few of the better ones are joint ventures. A foreign, usually western man marries a Thai woman and they open a rustic resort in the countryside. Many are dead quiet in the low season and some really do go bust after a few quiet low seasons. There is one exception below.

As you approach the town on the 107, there will be a bypass that skirts the old town proper, then you realise that both roads after the fork will have signs that read ‘107’ They do join up eventually after the town but can be confusing for the first timer. On a bicycle it’s always better to head for the older part of town, as the bypass, well by passes everything else like the all important airconditioned internet/lunch oasis and the center of the universe for Chiang Dao, the always open 7/11 store.

If you are on a trip with a significant other, places like the almost haunted Chiang Dao Inn are a strict no no. Unlit corridors and creaky doors. Head out, preferably with a nice car to places like the Chiang Dao Nest. The name itself, inspires breeding.

Drink wine and frolic in their imported comforters. Ban all words like ‘Shimano’ or ‘Ortlieb’ from conversation. Spare no expense. Trust me.


Doi Chiang Dao