The bike rolled along quickly on the glass like surface. For the first time in months there was not a blemish to be seen on the road. I was relieved, the past 98 days had been hard on the old steel horse. It was time to run free once more.
We’d made it to Thailand. The success story of South East Asia. The promised land. Sealed roads, calorie laden food and 7Elevens on every corner was the talk of every backpack carrying twentysomething I’d encountered all the way across Cambodia.
I’d heard all about Thailand from mates for the most part of the previous decade. Perhaps this had built up my expectations but a Pad Thai and a tarmaced road were nothing new. That said, my insouciance towards Thailand’s apparent abundance was more to do with my taking pleasure in my Spartan way of life than with any fault of the availability of stuff and things. I just didn’t want or need anything more than I already had.
Admittedly though, the roads were superb for the most part throughout Thailand and there were a very many 7Elevens. The food too was a real highlight; I ate heartily at every meal, making up for the lack of decent plates in Cambodia; I’d dropped another dress size since arriving in South East Asia by dint of cycling more and eating less. It’s easy to see why Thailand is so popular, particularly when compared to its immediate neighbours. The place is more developed, more finished, more everything. You want a massage? You got it. Ice cold beer? No problem. Pick up truck with oversize alloy wheels? Obviously. Yeh, Thailand was pretty overwhelming in its way.
Ladyboys of Bangkok
I’d been joined by my friend Dr Francesca for a week, stopping off for a quick stint from Siem Reap to Bangkok, before zipping over to Bali for a conference. From the border at Poi Pet we took the coast road from (more or less) Chanthanburi to Bangkok. There was a fantastic stretch of cycle way designed by the ‘department for rural roads’ which was incredibly popular with locals. Carrying little traffic and having plenty of places to stay made this an excellent route. All of which was a welcome relief for the bike. The heavy going of the past twelve weeks had found out the weak points of the old thing. A service and the replacement of the wheels was long overdue.
We spent an entertaining night camped out on a picnic bench at a fancy seafood restaurant, just inside the nature reserve at Ban Pak Nam Krasae. There was a massive storm, it was ridiculously hot and after a couple of hours sweating profusely under the canvas of the tent I made a bold decision ‘I’m sleeping on the table over there. This is just too much!’ says I, stark bollock naked, dripping sweat in the sticky midnight humidity. ‘Stay in the tent or join me on the bench, it’s up to you. I can’t bear another second in that furnace.’ And so to bed, again, this time on the table of a picnic bench looking out over the estuary. It was a tight squeeze for two but the electric storm illuminating the water made up for what we missed in sleep.
I met with John at the Amara Bangkok Hotel. Walking into this four star joint looking like Robinson Crusoe fresh off of the island was a good laugh for those lucky enough to be in the lobby on Saturday afternoon. Suitably refreshed after a dip in the 45th floor infinity pool, we stepped out for a bite to eat in China Town and to see the sights of Bangkok; those sights being small squeaky voiced Thai men dressed up as ladys; the world famous Ladyboys of Bangkok.
John had flown out to join me for a few months on the road so next day we made preparations to apply for our Myanmar visas. The embassy though had other plans having closed for the day at no notice. Despite this minor delay by the end of the week we had the papers in hand. On the day we attended the consulate to collect our visas we bumped into my old mate Greg, he was off to Myanmar for a two week Vipassana (monastic silent meditation), we chatted briefly and arranged to get a beer later.
Jobs such as servicing the bike and buying spares had been completed also; we’d had an entertaining and productive week off; we were ready to roll. We took a train 60km out of the city to Ayutthaya to get away from the traffic, concrete and ladyboys.
Cannot but Kanya Can
Our week cycling upto Chiang Mai was a deliberately easy one given that it was Johnnys first time out on a touring rig. Sub 100k days, long lunches and early nights were a feature of this pleasurable warm up ride. John soon settled into a swift rhythm on his brand spanking new Thorn Sherpa, making light work of the hills with a comprehensive 30 speed drive train.
In the small village of Thonton we were stuck for a place to camp. It was nearing dusk as we pedalled slowly through this tiny place, hungry and tired after a brisk afternoon, when we spotted a monastery. Buoyed by my recent stay with Cambodian monks, we felt confident that we’d be at least able to pitch our tent in the grounds and make use of the facilities to cook and wash.
A lone monk approached us in a seemingly empty complex, mobile phone in hand. A few curious villagers appeared too. We made our plea with simple hand gestures to explain our situation and request. In a single word and with the ubiquitous, exasperating hand gesture particular to Asian nations, the monk replied: ‘Cannot’. The explanation was not likely to present itself, the proposed solution was to go to the local nick and ask to stay there.
Disappointedly we set off following a moto to the police station when a smart looking lady intercepted us and whisked us away to her home. Kanya had heard the whole sketch and decided that the best option would be for us to stay with her. Kanya was the perfect host; feeding us to bursting and furnishing us with a very comfy bed; the spacious house was a huge step up from our little tent.
Having spent a long weekend in Chiang Mai and most of that drinking vast quantities of Chang beer, I woke from a fitful sleep feeling a bit agitated- I needed to move. With a handful of hangovers behind me I marched off to the nearest bike hire shop to rent a motorbike for the day. I was up very early so left John in bed. Despite Loy Krathang being in full swing I had to go to the mountains to get some fresh air and space away from the thronging crowds in the town.
The ride out from Chiang Mai to Pai is punchy for a single day, at 134km each way, it’s about five to six hours of constant motion. After 30 ish monotonous kilometres escaping the city limits on highway 107, a left turn just before Mae Taeng puts you on to route 1095, a very scenic road across country to Pai. The friendly cafe owner at Care Coffee, helpfully informed me that there are 792 corners from his home to Pai. I thanked him and ate my breakfast. The road itself lurched from sublime to ridiculous; pristine, sealed, out-of-a-cycling-magazine perfect to rough gravel track featuring endless roadworks and resurfacing. For this reason progress was, at times, frustratingly slow. Leafy trees and foliage cast shadows across the ground, which in the bright sunlight dangerously masked potholes and debris.
The view though more than made up for the schlep to the top. Forested mountains stretched out beneath the winter sun, occasional glimpses of trees bearing a dozen shades of leaf flashed by at 20km an hour. It was glorious. I stopped for a brief lunch, wrote a few words for the blog whilst enjoying the view beyond the cafe; staring vacantly down a narrow street draped in bunting, all the comings and goings of a Wednesday lunchtime in Pai, all the way across the valley up to the mountains. An hour of musing over, I set out to take a few photographs of the beautiful surroundings, heading up town to capture the sunny peaks then slowly out of town, stopping to snap a landscape when the need arose, gradually ambling towards the main road and the long sequence of curves back to Pai. The perfect remedy for a pie eyed cyclist.
Lanterns. Fucking loads of them. Flying off into the night sky. It’s wonderful. Plan your visit to Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai, around the 26th November to see this marvellous spectacle.
We traveled out of Chiang Mai directly after Loi Krathang taking a jeep 100km along the highway to a. get us out of traffic and b. Make up for the two extra days we spent hanging about for the pretty lanterns to lift off. We were now entering a series of beautiful national parks on the north west side of Thailand, close to the border with Myanmar.
One sleepy Saturday afternoon we rode over a bridge to grab a bite to eat in a small village, about 30km from the Mae Ngao Waterfall, where we’d camp that night. We came to a stop at a cafe and sat down to join a couple of old boys at a table. John and I ordered a plate of rice each. The old fellas ordered a bottle of rum. Then poured each of us a glass. Then another. Then some plates of the tastiest Thai food we’d encountered so far. Then some more rum. A wife called on the mobile. One of the old guys had to go, he’d only popped out for a bag of rice. We all had a good laugh at that.
Just before we all went our separate ways the cook came out to invite us to feed a baby buffalo with a bottle of hot milk. How could we refuse? All that was left to do was to climb the remaining thirty kilometres up to the national park. Drunk. Just your average Saturday lunchtime in rural north west Thailand.
Leisurely lunches with locals would have to wait – the clock was ticking. Our visas were up in a couple of days and overstaying was not an option since any fine would be payable in Yangon and would jeopardise our plans for Myanmar. We had to get a wriggle on. Our destination: Mae Sot and our next new country.