Sunday, April 12, 2015

Three days and 183 miles on a loaner in Siam

The borrowed Marin turned out to be a faithful companion
The title sounds more promising than what it really was: Just another bike tour in another second-and-a-half to third-world country. But boy, did I ever enjoy it!

I won't even pretend to have any idea about how this place works, after just a week of having been in the country. But I do believe that I have learned how to flow with traffic and blend in. The rest is just common sense, unless you want to start a business.
Lots of top-heavy vehicles to contend with ...
I left the apartment in Chiang Mai on Wednesday morning with a map, a set of borrowed panniers, and a change of clothes—on top of the loaner bike. I had a vague idea that I wanted to head south toward maybe the Mae Wang valley on the first night, but that's about as far as plans went.
Rice paddy close to the Mae Wang valley
Never one to settle for 40 miles if there's a way to ride 50, I started to take detours early. Honestly, it was much more the getting-away-from traffic thing than hogging miles. As a result, I took a rather circuitous route that led me through tiny villages, on back roads, along rivers and canals. For the next three days I tried to stay away from the larger roads as much as possible, ans as a result I ended up with a good idea of how the common Thais live in  this part of the world.
Directional challenges
Food and water were never an issue. It seems as if everybody is intent on selling something edible. Many of the modest houses along the road will have a table set up with a few bottles containing colored drinks and some wrapped snacks or fruit. Small eateries, where a soup or a pad Thai is going to be prepared within minutes for about one dollar, are ubiquitous. There's always a stainless steel water cooler set up, and there are crystal cubes in an ice chest—self service and no cost. The water is filtered, and I have not gotten sick despite drinking water everywhere. The food is simply delicious, and my breakfast consisted of stopping after the first 20 miles or so and pointing at some of the ingredients and then watching a delicious meal spring to life.
A typical tiny eatery by the roadside
For a while I rode along the Ping river, which slowly meanders south from Chiang Mai. There are occasional water buffalo, and in a few spots fish farms are set up with floating enclosures in which reddish fish gasp for air. Some of these "farms" have set up small wheels that aerate the water so the fish don't die before they go to market.
Fish-farms on the River Ping
The roads are in amazingly good shape; actually, they are better than excellent. Outside of Germany and Switzerland, I do not think that I have ever seen smoother, better paved roads than here. No potholes, ample shoulders (unless it was a tiny road which didn't have a shoulder but was just as well paved), essentially no rough patches—simply amazing. I do have to admit to riding only in the flat areas of Thailand; when the road started to go upward in the Mae Wang Valley or later at Inthanon National Park, I almost immediately threw the towel because I did not want to climb 40 kilometers straight up (the roads don't seem to follow the contours of the land but simply go up and over hills and mountains) in 95-degree heat. There are better ways to kill oneself.
Eat too much, and that's what you will look like!
Traffic is mostly light, unless one is on the main artery leading from Chiang Mai to the south. Every car and motorcycle gives a bike enough room, and I was not honked at a single time—actually, I have heard only a half a dozen honks during my entire time in Thailand so far. Drivers are totally non-aggressive. I have never felt safer and more in tune with the general traffic flow in any other country, even when riding in CM after dark, without lights.
21st-century monk in texting position—really!
Traveling by bike allowed me to stop whenever I wanted to take a photo. There are so many things to see! Probably the most stunning sights are presented by all those temples that dot the countryside. Actually, they are monasteries with temples inside of them. They follow rather strict building patterns, it seems, with a walled (and gated) compound holding various buildings that one would call temples and belfries. The Thai word for such a compound is wat. Saffron-robed monks live and work here. Mong told me that the wats have always been closely linked to villages and schools, not much different from traditional Christian churches. The finely decorated wats present an amazing sight, with golden pagodas, steep, red-tiled roofs, and serpents, dragons, and Buddha figures everywhere. It is perfectly OK to enter the main building, always finely adorned and a place of calm and peace, just like the rest of the compound. There are large bells and gongs, and I also saw some large drums; small wind chimes tinkle whenever there is a breeze. If it weren't for vicious temple dogs (not in the city, but out in the country) that are the only aggressive living things I have seen here, those wats would be ideal in all their beauty and peacefulness. ( BTW, I saw way more than three wats.)
Wat #1
Wat #2 guarded by menacing bitch
Wat #3
I was out for three days, so that meant that I had to find accommodations twice. The first night, in the Mae Wang Valley, I stayed in an eco lodge right next to an elephant camp. The Chai Lai lodge is run by an American woman, but just as is the case for Stu and his bike shop adventure she continually has to watch her step with the authorities and make sure that she doesn't violate this or that regulation. The lodge is in area of the valley that apparently sees gazillions of Thai tourists, judging from the number of eateries lining the curvy road in this tight section of the valley. Savvy vendors rent out bamboo rafts, and kids and adults float down the river or simply sit on a small bamboo platform by the water to eat and drink. It's quite a sight. However, all of those folks disappear in the evening, and the lodge had only farang guests. I spent 1,300 baht (or about $40) for a spacious non-air conditioned room, with a clean king sized bed and a mosquito net. Windows on two sides of the room and a fan were all that was needed to stay comfortable. That evening, about ten of us sat around until midnight drinking wine and inhaling whatever was passed around, talking about travel and the world. For me, it was a nice throw-back to all those years spent on long bike tours.
Mae Wang river valley with end-of-the line rafts, waiting to be disassembled
The elephant camp
The Chai Lai eco lodge on the right bank
I woke up to the trumpeting of an elephant from the adjacent camp. Elephants here are more of a tourist attraction than viable logging tools, but at least something is being done to keep these animals from extinction. Tourists (many of them Chinese or Malaysian) come up to take a ride with the pachyderms or even go into the river and get hosed down by the giants. Regardless, that sound is a pretty special thing, especially when it rips through gentle morning jungle sounds created by birds and frogs.
Bananas in the making
My second night was spent at the entrance of Doi Inthanon National Park. When I arrived there around 2 p.m., it was so stinking hot that I thought I'd probably die trying to put in another 35 all-uphill kilometers to see ... yes, to see what, exactly? The haziness that's been engulfing the area for weeks, if not months, takes away any kind of scenic long-distance views. The pollution caused by locals car traffic, burning trash, clearing land from forest, and general use of wood fires is horrendous. I would guess that more than half the cyclists and motorcycle riders wear some sort of bandana or face mask to fend off the ever-present smog. So, I couldn't see any sense to push on, even though I had ridden only about 45 miles. Instead I hiked up to the close-by Mae Klang waterfall (a bit on the dry side, but still a nice sight; in the rainy season this baby roars!) and then found myself a small guesthouse a few hundred yards downriver. Again, this was a touristy spot (yet quite deserted on this Thursday afternoon) with numerous eateries that make their money by placing small bamboo platform right by the river and serving up hot chicken and cold beer. I whiled away the afternoon, cooling off in the river and sipping beers. Man, it felt like paradise! For the first time in days I really cooled down! The local beer is crappy enough that one can pour it into a glass filled with ice and not notice the difference—the cold factor is well worth the dilution!
Panoramic shot of the Mae Klang waterfall
Leo, a bucket of ice, and a whole chicken—what more can one ask for?
Bamboo pads are set up along the water for customers to eat and drink
Really, the only thing missing was a massage, but the AC in my little room (500 baht, or about $15) was almost making up for that. The neighborhood totally died around 6 p.m., and I soon retreated to my room to watch Thai commercials on TV (why do these people never look as if they belong into the country whose language they speak?). I even got a chance to Skype with Sabine. When I switched everything off I could hear the river gurgling outside.
Great little gas station—just don't blow up the house!
I'm not sure whether anybody has ever used this exercise equipment in this "park"
Neon bottles are a universal sign for "Caution! Stay Back!"
On day three, I rolled back toward Chiang Mai. Once again, I went the circuitous way, trying to look at everything I encountered. The list is so limited, thanks to a brain weakened by Chang and Leo beers. Or maybe not. The "gas station" that consists of three 50-gallon drums and three hand-operated pumps, inside of what looks like somebody's house. The spread-eagled chicken, flat as a pancake, on the charcoal fire; the ice-cream vendor on his motorized tricycle, with the big umbrella threatening to blow off any second; the loudspeakers in the villages that suddenly spring into action with a baritone voice exclaiming, well, something; the chilies drying in pans on the rooftops; the shrine monger; the bamboo monger ("We carry your size of bamboo stick!"); the everything-under-the-sun monger; the surplus electrical wires that seem to be a requisite to be admitted into the coveted circle of third-world countries; the monks walking by in search of alms or simply texting; the schoolgirls in their uniforms; the totally overloaded truck precariously starting to lean into that turn; the papayas and mangoes on trees within a few yards of the entry door of somebody's home; the unintelligible road signs; the smell of pungent, decaying, lovely, inviting things; the occasional smile of a passing scooter or bike rider when you catch his or even her eye.
Let's use a small shrine to protect the large one
Isn't this a pretty sight?
Elephants are everywhere!
Words don't do it justice, and my pictures don't either. You need to experience all this yourself. I can set you up with a rental bike. For my part, I know that I will be back for a much longer tour that will encompass some of the surrounding countries as well. One-hundred and eighty-three miles just isn't enough.
Like a woman, they give me so much joy, and so much pain!
Until the next update,


No comments:

Post a Comment