Archive for the ‘Mountain bike touring NE Thailand 2007’ Category

I knew this day would come. Threw in the towel and at 11.30 am, I hoped on a brand new inter city bus 200 kms to Udon Thani, one of the larger cities in Issan. Udon or Udorn in Thai is also where I would need to get a flight home. This is one of the nicer things about touring in Thailand. If you’re close to a big town, there will always be a bus terminus handy. Mechanical? Too tired? Homesick? Run out of time? (That’s me) There’ll be a big comfy bus to take you and your bike to your next destination. This one to Udon Thani departs 6 times a day, every day of the year.

What luxury, for the bike that is. No dismantling. A handler, usually a burly guy checks your ticket, takes your bike and places it in a huge space between the axles. If the handler gets over the initial shock, a tandem can be easily fitted in. Then you’ll have to deal with becoming the bus lot celebrity.

Thai inter city buses have huge cargo holds

 

Some locals travel quite heavily. I saw suitcases, big bamboo rice steamers and even a laundry hanger. No fowl or livestock like in the really smaller villages. It was a nice change from cycling as the weather was getting hotter. The 200 kms of so so scenery along a main highway looked none to appealing even if from the tinted windows of an air conditioned bus.

The bus stopped at towns like Wang Saphung and Nong Bua Lamphu, disgorging and taking on passengers. Now who can claim that they’ve been to Wang Saphung or really want to? My camera and I dozed off a couple of times.

At Lamphu a Thai teeny bopper sat next to me, rummaged through her hand bag and pulled out a compact case to powder her face. Then she did her eyes and lips, no easy task on a bumpy road, before smiling and introducing herself after 30 minutes or so. Beauty before age, which was 15 at the most. A Sunday outing into the big city to ‘see a friend’

I didnt waste any time ordering this. Most expensive meal to date, get ready, at $4.00 at the City Lodge Bakery & Bar. Thai bartender, English chef, Australian owner.

I reached Udon at about 2 pm, famished and still had to navigate my way downtown to another internet find, City Lodge. No reservations, none needed just in case I spot a spanking new, eager to please hotel along the way. Blessings for sticking to the original plan. The smells from the Lodge’s kitchen screamed out, BBQ! not fermented fish sauce.

 

$5 worth

Udon or Udorn?: Singapore then

Pop : 250,000

Would I bike a bike from a mall? No, but the displays were nice. 2007 models of GT, Kona, Trek and Santa Cruz. Is there really a market here for 100,000 baht / $3000 bikes? Probably, as I was shown a whole XTR groupset retail at $1200.

My shopping for today was just a bike box. That changed when I rode to Clubbike’s world headquarters tucked at the back of a gas station. I had my reservations when I spoke to the shaggy red haired owner, a young Thai yuppie with an eargerness that said, “I can find whatever you want, just give me time” Bike box wasnt on the list, yet.

But a Vittoria GEAX MTB tyre could be. Italian brand name light weight kevlar belted tyre selling for Thb 500/$12.50? Made in Thailand embossed on the sidewall said it all. Not a knockoff, just made in Thailand with Thai rubber.

“Do you need a bike box then?” he asked as I happily paid for a pair of tyres. “It’s free with two tyres!” Crafty bugger.

Got up at 6. Hotel doors opened at 7 am. Got this complimentary breakfast at 7.10 am. Checked out at 7.20. Reached Udorn Thani International at 7.40. Flight took off at 8.30. Back in Singapore, I would be in panic mode. Somehow in Thailand this all seemed very normal. One plane (maybe 50 passengers) one runway, one airport terminal. One sunburnt guy with a bike box and lots of great memories of cycling and munching my way through Issan.

 

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views from room balcony across to Laos

Most of the Thai river towns have a concrete pathway or simple boardwalk by the river banks. This one ran right by the Woody Hotel’s restaurant doors and under my bedroom. That explains the voices under my bed and the muffler of a motorcycle or two in the early morning hours.

I  came across three of such gatherings in Chiang Khan. The whole street is closed and any vehicle has to back track. Conclusion? Like the old wooden buildings, there are a lot of senior citizens here too.

Today’s ride was the hilliest so far. Heading south inland to Loei’s hill country, there are a few national parks and even some wine growing country. See http://www.chateaudeloei.com

The province holds two temperature records for the whole country. Minus 4 deg C up a mountain top in December and 42 deg C in the valleys during the May hot season. Cant recall which year the stats were taken but today’s ride was hot, humid and took some effort. You know the drill, big ring, middle ring and if all else fails, granny’s ring. Anything but walking. The shame of it all.

Walking is OK if you need to get to one of these. No little wood and zinc country shack can claim to be a full fledged provider of sustenance and hydration to overheated cyclists if it doesnt have this little purring blue glass and metal box. My recommendation as always is : Lactasoy, lactose and soy in the white bottles. First bottle is usually gulped down fast, standing. Second bottle, slowly savoured, sitting, bench or stool in a clean shady part of the country shack. 30 cents a pop, tried and tested many times in north Laos. Add an energy bar and lunch is done.

My internet research confirmed that King’s hotel in Loei city was being refurbished, a room at a time. This was interesting. Carpenters building furniture on a grassy courtyard. Plumbing and tile work going on in some rooms, electrical work and painting in others. As the placed resembled a building site and smelled like a paint and varnish shop, rates were halved to Thb 390.

“So solly for the banging er…drilling noise, sir….they stop work at 5 o’clock” said a very apologetic receptionist as I handed over a whole ten bucks worth of baht. In true Thai fashion all work stopped at 4.30 pm.

Wow, this time I got the very last semi finished room, beaten by two French guys on Harleys 2.5 minutes earlier on who got a fully finished room. At least my bike’s in the room, its dirty tires on virgin faux marble tiles.

A check on the TV listings came up with a cable channel showing movies by Kevin Costner. Just great, 12 hours of so so movies, averaging 3.25 hours each without commercials. That’s what arriving in town at lunch time is for. Securing a room early on a Saturday is vital too.

I rode into Loei’s outskirts in a about 3 hours. Highway signs seem to point in a direction away from the center of town. That’s fine if one is driving. Past by huge roundabouts, 3 lane roads with bill boards, bus terminals, countdown timer traffic lights, and still no sign of a downtown. I’ve been snagged by the ring road syndrome. Nice, smooth wide roads circling the town. Lulled into complacency by linear riverside towns the past few days. In the end I asked for directions and tailgated some schoolgirls on scooters, into a small side road, across a small river and right into Loei’s main market. Great success, as Borat would say.

Dinner was hit/eat and run as it usually is in Thai night markets. Did I need any more legwork? No. A whole street lined with food? Yes. Internet place? Does Shimano make bicycle parts?

 

 

 

Aah…the sounds of an early morning in the Thai boondocks. Crowing roosters, motor cycles puttering to the market, disco inferno aerobics at a nearby temple, and the deafening roar of a speedboat on the river. Thankfully a good night’s rest under some very toasty comforters in one of Sam’s penthouses made me more tolerant of the many unwarranted alarm clocks outside my room.

So I wander onto my balcony to check out the morning light, take a few pictures and some conversation filters across from my neighbours.

She : “We’ve come to a point in our lives when we see things very differently and to change for each other’s sake would make both of us miserable.” I check to see if my TV’s on. Nope, and Thai serials arent that deep.

He : “Well’ I’d like to go to Bangkok to see some old friends. Friends that I can count on.”

She : “You cant just leave me here and decide what you want to do is more important. You’re pushing the limits of this trip, wanting to go to Laos, Vietnam, and now Bangkok in so little time on that beloved motorcycle of yours. Dont you realise the dangers??”

He : “Doris is ours.”

That’s the BMW Paris Dakar on the street below with ‘Doris’ on the windshield.

Me : Over to you Dr Phil, I think I check out the breakfast scene.

 

CK market 18 deg C this morning

Chiang Khan seems to be a lost in time community with lots of antiquated wooden buildings. Residents who sought their fortunes in cities like Bangkok or overseas come home here to their parents homes, the more affluent ones remodelling some homes into beautiful, no expense spared northern Thai villas.

Thai tourists come here to see vestiges of what their larger towns have become and experience a quiet night or two by the river. A few guest houses down the road are also owned and managed by non Thais, a Dane and a French man among others, seeking to plant roots in their very own corner of Thailand.

Every now and then, rumours crop up about another bridge from Chiang Khan across the Mekong to Laos. That’s when real estate investors, if not all politicians, military types and those in the know will descend here like flies on um, sticky rice. No sign of such goings on today.

It’s a perfect place for a cycling stopover, more so after I spotted a massage place in the town’s hospital grounds. At last count there were also about four Crazy Guys and Gals on their Bikes that have over nighted in this town, thus providing fodder for my own trip.

Then there was the Woody Hotel. A huge rambling teak house right on the river’s promenade.

I’m a sucker for brand new digs. And the view, even closer to the river. Hmmm, my mind drifted on. 60 kms to Loei today or massage, lunch, siesta, slow evening ride without panniers, dinner…deep sleep…

“OK” said granny, tapping my wrist, eager to end the free looking. Yesterday, two farang (white foreigners) pay 600 baht. You pay 400 baht. Such underhandedness, and double pricing. OK I’m travelling solo.

I did get my khao thom fix at the municipal market and also bumped into Doris’ owners who were walking hand in hand peering over fermented fish and vegetables, so I guess all must be well.

Back at Sam’s, I packed up and left, to the disappointment of Mrs Sam (“My husband go home to Holland”) who made me feel like a captain abandoning ship. It was the high season after all and occupancy was nil. She was concerned about any shortcomings about the place of which I replied there were none. It was spotless and the rooftop patio would make a great party spot. My check out prolonged as she went on about Doris’ riders.

“They always arguing. He want to go everywhere, she want to go home. The man goes out drinking alone every night and come back at one am, even though my signboard says gate closed at 11 pm” The poor thing.

Then the weather crept in. Small talk about cool night winds coming in across from Laos, the rainy season and winters in Europe. I thanked Mrs Sam after which she crossed the street for more chit chat with a friend in a dress shop.

I’ve highly recommended it to a few friends who have only praise for it and most also remember Mrs Sam’s heavy mascara and skimpy denim shorts, which I somehow missed.

My afternoon massage was so good, I dozed off for a while, waking up to find a tiny pricking kind of pain on my scalp. No. No. No. Oh no. She had gone on to pulling out white hairs with a tweezer. Pull one and seven more will appear. Didnt she know? Old Chinese wives tale really. She might as well stop already, seeing that her cell phone was ringing endlessly. Paid my Thb 200, signed in the guest book and got on my bike.Here’s when I found out how good it was. Instead of vegetating at Woody’s, I turned off into a side road, heavily used and broken by dump trucks stealing sand from the river bank and rode on for about 25 kms before the setting sun and long shadows said, turn around. All your stuff, tools and pump are 25 kms back.

Most people cringe at having to endure 2 hours of kneading, plumelling and creaking bones during a Thai massage, but if you’re not screaming in pain, or dont have vertebrae issues, I’d say go for it. My body felt like this was the first day of the trip.

My nightly post dinner ritual of e-mailing Coleen on the day’s events. Thankfully this joint is also smoke free and the kids here keep every baht just for gaming. Sensing that some heated exchanges and brawls might happen, I stake out a spot in a corner to avoid any crossfire. It’s also the only place in a dark town that’s lighted up till 11 pm.

Tip for today on finding net cafes in small Thai towns : Look for a large number of haphazardly parked motorcycles and bicycles parked outside a shop front with tinted doors or windows. Keep a pair of earplugs handy. Those little foam buggers carried in an empty film can, do really make a difference.

Solitude

 

Pop : 60,000

new entrance to NK

My slow start in Laos was literally brought over to Thailand as I played tourist and rode about 40 kms sightseeing around the nicest of border towns. And yes there was good Vietnamese food here too. The touristy Indochina Market which was a covered alleyway of small shops reminded me of the markets at Mai Sai, another Thai Myanmar border town in the Thai north.

As luck would have it, I also got the last available room at the new Khing Khong guesthouse, minutes beforre a pick up pulled in, it’s American driver and Thai family wanting a room. The owner profusely apologised saying that the guy on a bicycle took it a minute ago.

The town proper is just 3 parallel streets running about 3 kms by the river. Ride more than 3 kms and you’re out in the boondocks again, dirt trails by fishing and shrimp ponds, vegetable plots and even a ‘silk producing station’ some 15 kms away. Nong Khai’s railway station just out of town is also the northernmost stop for the Thai railways’ sleeper starting from Bangkok.

Like Udon Thani 55 kms south, these places have little pockets of retirement central. Udon was a major US air force base during the Vietnam war and still sees joint military training with the Thais and US army in the surrounding countryside of Issan. No shortage of passable western food which was a nice change from Thai. Convenient visa renewal runs into Laos and back in a matter of hours. No shortage of noisy pubs, bars and sleaze which had the same ol guys in the same seats from morning till night.

In defence of the large Chinese population in both towns, there’s no shortage of gold shops too. Look out for huge red shop fronts, with gold jewellery and sales people behind steel and glass cages.

I was also lucky to meet Michael Yamashita, a Nat Geo photographer who was in the area, scouting for location shots on the Mekong and a new TV documentary ‘9 Days In the Kingdom’ No pictures though, what with copyright and internet abuse issues.

Buddha Park in Nong Khai

Sang Khom to Chiang Khan was  along but leisurely 120 kms along the scenic Mekong River.

All the eating and slouching in Vientiane paid off today. The ride was just small undulating hills, a nice change from the dead flat road out of Nong Khai. As with all small undulations it was easy to ride and crest the top of a hill and coast down the other side with enough momentum to clear three quarters of the next ‘bump’ easily, my rhythm broken only because of photo stops. On some straights I could even see the tops of 3 or 4 hills.

I was about to call it quits after 70 effortless kms, due in part to a front wheel washout, skid and crash on some errant gravel. Nothing major except for a scraped right knee.

Pulling into Pak Chom a small crossroads town, all towns seem to be small here, I peeked into a couple of flea bag places to stay and decided, what’s another 50 kms of rolling country roads to Chiang Khan? Smooth, scenic, traffic free roads in the low evening light with the river on one side and green hills on the other. Oops, that was how I crashed earlier, distracted by the scenery and too powerful a front brake.

The decider was when I bought a drink and interuppted a young girl’s daytime soap opera on TV. No wonder the fridge had a padlock, just in case thieving hands conspire to interuppt her viewing again. Finding the key to the padlock, that’s another episode…..and zero internet in Pak Chom, that sealed it. I’m riding into the sunset with coagulating blood.

Giant clay jars store rain water in the dry season

Bouy’s guest house is somewhat of an institution in these parts. A small sign leads to some neighbour’s property before reaching it. Looking for it after sundown on an unlit street is near impossible. That’s was why I found it in the morning. The owners live in a huge rambling bungalow while the huts for hire lie on a land spit on the river, accessible by a small wooden bridge over some vegetable plots. Views across to Laos are dreamlike and people do stay for days on end.

“I keep it simple” said the owner, a small northern Thai lady. The only maintenance for years has been cleaning and sweeping.

“No need to make it fancy, as the tourists like it simple and clean. See the old broken wood and thatched roof. They like that. Where you stay?”

Oops, down the road, er the new place.

“You pay 700 baht?!. They crazy, just thinking of money and money. No care for tourists!”

I detected a slight tinge of jealousy. The owners of all the new flashy homes in town were Hmong migrants with US passports. To rub salt into the wound, some are from across the river in Laos. Big Californian ranch style homes with cottages and half opened restaurants attached to make some money.

But your business plan is better, I told her. Cheap rooms at Thb 200, and a food and drinks bill per couple for 2 nights at Thb 800! She let out a hearty laugh before handing me a few name cards and said, “Tell your friends to stay here!” She went back to cleaning a hut. “This is booked for 3 night” I couldnt downgrade, even if I wanted to.

Not wanting to spend a whole 1.5 grand of baht (a whole $40) on an out of town resort, I headed for Sam’s guesthouse. A savings of $25 got me the best room in the house with a balcony facing the river and an all night disco booming across the border. Seeing minimal light on the horizon, it could just be someone with a thing for Lao rap music. Happens in these parts, the louder your hi fi, the higher your standing….in the village.

I left my bike on the ground floor next to the lady owner’s mountain bike. “Oh, I like cycling too, but just for going to the market” That was good to know as I needed my khao thom or rice porridge fix for breakfast tomorrow. And her mascara was on the heavy side too.

Mekong sunrise at Sang Khom