Tuesday, May 30, 2006

More Cycling

Sunday - Chiang Rai to Akha Hill House - 23km

Akha Hill was only 25km or so away, so I was in no hurry to leave. About 11.30 I got unyderway. A pleasant ride with little traffic. I was stopped after about 10km by a man in uniform holding up the traffic as a funeral procession heading towards a wat. A single rocket whizzed into the air before exploding. I progressed onwards cyling down past the river, until a sign stating Akha Hill pointed left along a dirt track. Along there I headed making slow but steady progress. It was getting hot and no shade was to be found. I struggled on for a bit in the lowest gear before getting tired and resorting to pushing it uphill. The gruesome climb turned out to be a real monster. After an hour or so I struggled to the summit absolutely drenched in sweat. Then downhill, it was that steep that it felt like I was going to go over the handlebars! I made it down to a village and promptly bought a nice cold bottle of water, aaah. Still Akha Hill was another few km over rough road and a final very steep hill. But I had made it! Not exactly luxury rooms, but as it was up a mountain you have to share with the locals. The locals being mozzies, flying ants, giant spiders as big as my hand and the ever stupid moths. The Akha people are one of the hill tribes resident in the north of Thailand, each hill tribe has it own customs, clothes and even languages. Most of them there don't speak Thai.

The rainy season is here though and that's what it did. Still at least I had a nice view, as I read my book under the cover of my bungalow roof as the rain splattered down into the valley below. There was a couple of Austrians there the first night, and a couple of Mexicans and a Candian the next night. After a couple of nights I was ready to leave and get a decent sleep, and not worry about what was making that rustling noise during the night. Not quite sure what's worse seeing a giant spider above your head, or seeing that the giant spider is no longer above your head. The mosquito net was tucked in tightly!

I took the easy option out and threw my bike in the back of a pickup truck and got a lift back to Chiang Rai.

Tuesday - Chiang Rai to Mae Chan - 35km

A simple ride along the major highway, well it was once I located the highway. Plenty of space to ride, almost a lane to myself. I tried to eat a whole pineapple from a side of the road vendor for 10baht. I failed though, and gave the rest to the a nearby mangy mutt. The dog was owned by the vendor and I'm sure it thought, "Oh no not pineapple again!"

I found a place to stay easily enough, it even has a strange kind of porch/sitting room with a fridge with nothing but 2 bottles of water and a moth in it. I had a quick cycle about town and then headed back and finished off my book. I strolled into town just after five, to find it was all shut. Although I did find this Internet cafe place that I now type of. Harded to find somebody to but a ticket to use the computer though. I shall head off for a spot of dinner soon, if I can find an open restuarant!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cycling North Thailand

Day 1 (22nd) Chiang Mai to [null] (0km)

Drank too much Chang Beer last night playing some Scottish geezer at pool. Cycling postponed.

Day 1 (23rd) - Chiang Mai to Windmill Country (46km)

Even though I had the whole of yesterday to pack, I left it till the morning of departure. Typically I had too much stuff to cram into my daypack, but eventually by some quirk of fate I managed to zip it shut. The self-satisfied smirk was soon wiped from my face as I turned round to discover a spare inner tube pleading to be included on the trip. Eventually bags were packed, rucksacks stoved and helmets fastened. Strangely enough the rack on my bike was a lot narrower and my bad a lot wider than I anticipated. Still after ten minutes of experimentation I jury-rigged the daypack rather precariously to the rack. Didn't look the most stable of arrangements, but as long as it didn't drop off and land in front of a truck (like my last bike tour!) then I would be a happy chappy.

Soon I was weaving my way amongst Chian Mai's finest motorbike, tuk-tuks and songthaews, towards the river. My first mistake was to think I knew where I was going, the second was to think i would be able to get there. I ended up being forced along Chiang Mai's one way system. I did make it over the river and through the construction zone of the superhighway. However, I was not going in entirely the right direction. Still as I stopped at the traffic lights I surveyed the bloke idling his motorbike, he was carrying a package on the back attached with bungee ropes. Within ten minutes I had procured a bungee rope for the pricely sum of 10 baht. Now with the luggage safely attached I sped on in the slightly wrong direction. Soon, I took a swift left turn and 6kms more than needed I was back on track, the 118 to Doi Saket. I was easing my way slowly out of Chiang Mai. The traffic thinning the further I proceeded. Out on to the open road, free of traffic lights and now I even had a lane to myself, everybody else likes the fast lane. Building thinned out, greenery appeared, you could even breathe the air!

After an hour of so I reached the turn off for Doi Saket, the last point before heading into mountain wilderness. Stopped off here for a spot of brunch, chicken fried rice. Legs were already feeling a bit heavy. I'd hardly been out on the bike the last couple of weeks. Not a good sign especially as I knew what was up ahead, hills, big ones too. Even at this early stage I'd ruled out getting to Khun Chae National Park, 60km from Chiang Mai. I would instead head for the windmill place I had spotted whilst on the bus doing a visa run. After about 25km from Chiang Mai, the hills started. Big undulations at first and then a steep climb. The road split into three lanes, two up, one down. This allowed all the old bangers to crawl ever so slowly up the hill, not to mention the occasional sweaty Scotsman on a bike. I was soon in bottom gear, threatening to blow a gasket as I wheezed up the mountain. I stopped off for a well deserved breather at a shrine. Everybody in their cars beeps their horns when passing the shrine, maybe it is the god of Road Safety. Onwards and upwards I went (thankfully not much more upwards). Then down, down fast. Stopped at the top for a coke, at least in the middle of nowhere you can still get a drink at a stall in Thailand. Then a another stop for ice coffee and a flick through Architecture Monthly (it was either that or Thailand Tattler). Judging by the adverts, anybody reading this is interested in either a new kitchen stove or wealth management. After a lazy half hour I was back on the bike, shouldn't be far now. But then the sun came up to fry my brains! Eventually I arrived red armed and rosy faced. More expensive than I wanted to pay, but the owner was not for giving a discount. Well I did get 50baht off, which he got back as I guzzled five bottled of water in my stay. Besides I wasn't like I was going anywhere else. Cold shower, aaah! Then have a quick nosy about, it is a nice spot. Still not quite sure why there is a large windmill as there is never a steady breeze up these parts. I had some garlic chicken, but it didn't seem to keep the mozzies at bay :(

Day 2 (23rd) - Windmill Country to Suan Charin (103km)

I knew a long climb was the beginning order of the day, but it didn't make it go away. After a hearty ABF (2 egss, 2 sausages, 2 toast & 1 coffee) I was set, ready for an apres-brekkie nap that is. But this bike wasn't going to cycle itself over the mountain (at least not without me cannibalising a lawn-mower). Things started slowly and went downhill (or should that be uphill?) I couldn't get my legs into gear. They refused to go uphills and struggled even on the occasional downhill, not a good sign. After a few more rests, I stopped off at another shrine high on the hill. Here I spotted some brightly coloured birds one with slashes of brilliant red, the other yellow. So vibrant were the colours I wondered if bird-painting might be a national pastime. The certainly caught your eye. Somebody stopped off at the shrine I was at. I though maybe to place an offering for the Buddha, like I had seen in the past. That notion was quickly dispelled at they ran off into the woods clutching a bundle of toilet paper. A different sort of present then, I thought, time to be going. I leaped to my feet and pushed my bike up the next hill. Rounding the corner I spotted a sign for Khun Chae National Park. Indeed a splendid sight as I thought it was still 5km away. I knew that this meant the peak of the big hill. Soon I was whizzing down the other side of the mountain reaching speeds of 60km. Then on past what looked like a "Main Bridge out of order, drive through the mud" sign. It was indeed. Like a scene out of Glastonbury, the road had turned to sludge. Certainly not the easiest surface to cycle through and I ended up rather mud-splattered from the passing cars and my own treacherous bike! For a few more km's mud was dragged through the streets. Then a bit of cleanliness. That didn't last long. I had a made a mental note that the road was awful for about 15km, but it most of fallen down one of the folds on my cerebrum. The edge of the road was mostly dust and rubble held together with potholes. I had to push out to middle of the road for something to cycle on, but so did everybody else. Anyway, I came to to some hot springs. Not the sort to dip your toes in at 90C though. A strong smell of sulphur was in the air but that might just of been the eggs that were being cooked in the water for the tourists. In a "too little-too late" moment I purchased a small bottle of suntan lotion (for 300baht!) to try and keep my red bits pink. I thought I might stay at Wiang Pa Po but it was dusty and unappealing so I pushed on. After 30 minutes I saw a sign saying Wiang Pa Po - 3km. Huh? I guess that was some other town back there then. Still now the road was flat and after some Phad Thai I was feeling resurgent and soared along the road for another hour before fatigue started clawing again at my legs. The kilometres to Mae Suai slowly but surely ticked down. I arrived at a T-junction (how did this get a dot on my map?) I could take a left to Fang Oil well, I continued straight. Accommodation was available a short distance after this village. I checked my map and indeed it did look a short but bendy ride away. The road seemed to consist of giant U-shaped sections through the valley. Rounding a corner I could see the same road looping back in a giant curve. Still I pedalled on, as I was wondering if I was ever going to get somewhere, a fantastically welcome signed proclaimed the hotel to be only 200metres away, hurrah!!

I settled into a room and tried not to fall asleep, just yet. The restaurant, the only one for miles around, closes at 18:45. After that cycle, which by the dubious calculations of my bike computer burned off 1660 calories, I was feeling, what shall we say? - A trifle peckish. After munching down on the ever dependable chicken & cashew nuts, I tucked into a cheese & ham sandwich. There wasn't much else to do except a quick read of my book and off for an early night as I suspected that the translucent curtains would do nothing to prevent the room lighting up at dawn.

Day 3 (24th) Suan Charin - Chiang Rai (51km)

I woke up at 6am, promptly buried my head under the covers and got up at a more realistic time 3 hours later. After some toast & egg I was underway. It was going to be a relatively short day as Chiang Rai lay a mere 43km away. Again a slow start (note to self: double number of morning star jumps) but I had stopped in the right location, all those monster hills were safely behind me. Just some gentle undulations and mild climbs. Ahead lay highway number one, the Pan-Asian highway. Through this road you could (theoretically if not legally) traverse from Singapore all the way to, ooh, Skye! Instead I oped to go the quiet back road the 1211 into Chiang Rai. The 1211 barely had any traffic on it as I cycled along. The quiet road lent a lazy feel and a slow pace of life was in evidence. This stupor even extended to the dogs as they couldn't be bother to bark never mind chase me. Not one whimper! A fairly uneventful ride culminated in my arrival at Lek's house. A more reasonable priced guesthouse than the posh places of the past 2 days. I did pass a couple of intriguing signs on the way here though. First up "Fish Reserve & Buddhist Studies". Seemed a little odd until I cycled past a sign for the "Ostrich & Rottweiler Farm".

Oooh, I just found 50 paise (1/2 ruppee). Actually I didn't as your not supposed to take money out of India. Whew, a close call. Still it wasn't at all what I was looking for. That object being rather important if you want to leave the country. Yep, in an outstanding display of clot-headedness I left my passport in Chiang Mai. Tomorrow I return by bus, sigh...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chiang Mai again...

Parents popped into Chiang Mai for 3 weeks. Headed down the the Imperial Mae Ping Hotel (sounds posh, doesn't it?) to meet them for dinner. Ate at one of the four restaurants in the hotel. I had the steak, very predictable. The next day I was in tour guide mode and we went along to Wat Phra Singh, a large temple inside the old city. It was nice and quiet not many other visitors. A few small temples lay round the side and in the courtyard there were trees with Buddhist proverbs, but sometime the language didn't seem to translate very well. We nipped off for a cheap lunch at a small restaurant behind the Wat. Then with my unfailing sense of direction and map-reading skills we went through the back lanes of Chiang Mai. Not lost, merely taking the scenic route, ahem. After a while we got to the right destination Fern Forest Cafe for a spot of iced coffee among the cool water mist being sprayed into the leafy gardens. Later on back to the hotel for a spot of chinese grub, I plumped for the sweet & sour pork, but had a tasty of the duck as well which was yummy!

Come Friday, we went and had a nosy round the large Kad Suan Kaew shopping centre, a decent place to escape the afternoon heat. Just stay away from the Karoke Centre if you want peace and quiet. My apartment is closeby, so popped back there to have a look around and view my Songkran pictures taken with a waterproof disposable camera. Then on to have a strange tasting Italian strawberry soda at a local cafe, while Mum ended up with something like plum-coffee. Aaah, the joys of ordering food & drink in a foreign country. Back down the hotel for a spot of dinner in the beer garden, I opted for a big fish (tumtim?) on a plate while my parents pigged out on a five course dinner :)

Next day, a long lunch in a little garden cafe, Siam Celadon. Then a stroll throught the streets lined with textile shops and trinkets pouring out onto the pavement from the shops. Stopped at a stone/gem shop and Dad displayed his bartering skills with a Nepalese merchant, getting a few bits of polished glass for a steep price!! Onwards toward Warorot Market, just the place is you want to buy some smoked fish (the flies come free). A few bags of tea were purchased from the belly of the market. Outside on the West coast of the river flower vendors display their wares for the world to see. Seems to be a huge selection, with them often popping up adorning shrines and temples.

That night it was down the river Ping on a cruise. Dinner was served up with spring rolls appetizer and horses doovers(tm) consisting of pink fatty sausage, brown spicy sausage, mini-hamburgers and some veg. I had a couple of chicken breasts in lemon sauce with fried rice, more than enough! Nobody was deemed brave enough to order "Fried Chicken Knobbly Knees". A walk back through the night market centre found a climber high up on the wall, looked far too much like hard work to get up there with the overhang.

On Sunday was Doi Suthep a long road up the mountain eventually gets you to the bottom of the 300 steps to the temple. After puffing and sweating out way up there we were rewarded with a beautiful temple and good views stretching out across the geographical bowl in which Chiang Mai resides.

After Doi Suthep we stopped off at the Chiang Mai zoo and caught sight of the pandas, who were suprisingly active! One showed of his atheltic prowess as his slithed through a bamboo ladder upside down. I'm sure most people though he was going to fall on his head. Some some other animals included a very smelly hippo!

Sunday night it was over to the night market for a trek along the packed streets, cruising along through the throngs of people browsing. A little rain caused panic among the vendors and we took the oppurtunity to eat more food, after finding the Wok restaurant. Another decent dinner, I could get used to this!

The next day it was down the food market where there was some packaged frogs for sale. Also took in the nearby flower market. Later on rain appeared as we were going back through the textile and gems shops, the gem-dealers shop seemed to have a hole in it and the water was leaking over his jewelery. Still we managed to jump in a passing songthaew and escape back to the hotel pretty much dry.

Another day it was off in a tuk-tuk for some lunch beside Wat Suan Dok. Some helpful person helped us order as there was no English menu. (If it was down to me everybody would be eating Chicken Fried Rice) They recommended the fish and they were certainly right! It was delicious, simple fried fish in batter but very yummy. Also some chicken with spice maybe cinammon an unusual taste. We then nipped along to the Art Musuem close to the University. The had a nice elephant sculpture, made from smaller elephants. Hard to decribe, guess you just had to see. It is a large barn, but the paintings are mostly modern, no dusty old pictures here. Lots of vibrant colours and some strange paintings. Then we progressed along to Wat Suan Dok, where a huge golden centrepiece blinds you as the sun shines on it fiercely. Just next to it lies a large graveyard. Inside the temple a huge Buddha has company with several smaller Buddhas. Chatted to the monks, who were all from Cambodia for some reason. Not yet picked up a saffron robe though.

After that it was down to the park for some people watching. The power walkers were out in force, on particular chapped seemed to be circling the park every few minutes. A few guys were playing with takraw, a small woven football is used for keepy-ups. When they get serious a net is hauled out and the sport played is a cross between football and volleyball. A woman at the edge of the pond managed to hauk out a fish with her fingers and gave it to an old guy who wandered off outide presumably to cook it. That's some easy dinner.

Shopping at Ban Tawai the next day, an easy taxi ride to get there, but not much point in getting him to wait as we ended up staying there for about 4-5 hours grabbing lunch at a small cafe. Very hot today, but it started to spit rain in the afternoon. Problem was that the available transport was waiting for people who were shopping, so a bit stuck. Still after a bit of confusion, a policeman helped us out and somebody phoned for transport. Turned out to be a samlor which is basically a motorbike with a sidecar, so the three of us squeezed on to the sidecar for the short ride back to the main road. About a minute later we had secured a ride on a yellow songthaew going back to Chiang Mai, and then a red one back to the hotel, here they have a well-integrated transport system! Just not sure about the prices, the longest ride was the cheapest...

Dinner was at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre. This was a case of sitting on the floor with a triangular cushion for support. Fried chicken and curried pork, cabbage, lettuce, sticky rice, normal rice & rice crispies (not the cereal!) were served up. Then some dancers were up on stage with huge long fingernails doing the (wait for it....) fingernail dance. Another danceer was a rather large geezer doing the sword dance, dancing amongst the swords on the ground and carrying them in his mouth.

Next day it was off into the Mae Sa valley for a stroll through the orchid farm. While not all the orchids were in bloom, more than enough were open for a colourful display. Quite a large area, they must of had thousands of plants. Afterwards is was on to the snake farm. Just in time for the show. The show was excellent, with the compere and his funny voice. "You can kiss the snake, but don't let the snake kiss you". It's not everyday you get to kiss a python. They snakes were almost in the crowd. Somebodys foot was almost fed to the big snake! Then they threw a bit of rope from a sack into the crowd, after saying all this stuff about jumping snakes, causing havoc. Half the people were running away!
After another hard day it was time to pop across the river to Dukes for a huge dinner of salad, fried, spare ribs & beans, yummy!

We decided to head south to Mae Wang elephant camp and hopefully see the elephants. However on arrival it was down a steep dirt path and over a shaky bamboo bridge, not for Mum! Dad & I went for a trek through the forest on the elephant. You climb up a small platform and then step on the elephants head to get on the seat. It was fairly steep forest which the elephant was clambering up. He seemed somewhat reluctant on the downward section which earned him a very solid CRACK on his head from the mahout. Then Nelly went back to the start and into the river to cool down and quick banana snack from Dad.

We stopped off at a small roadside restaurant and had a nosy round the local market, picking up a bag of tangerines. After a bit of fried rice with veg it was back to Chiang Mai and check out a few more temples on the way. That night it was off to a huge local restaurant which was certainly an experience. A huge buffet which you cook yourself at the table. Inside the table a bucket of hot coals is placed. Above this lies something like an upturned metal bucket which provides the hot plate to cook the meat, round the edge water is poured so you can boil the vegetables as well. Cheap, cheerful and fun, but very hot with the coals!!

The next day it was into the proper cooking as we took a Thai cooking course. This involved a trip down to a nearby market to pickup the ingredients. The instructor showed us the different veg & fruits available in Thailand. Then we traipsed back into the kitchen to cook up a storm in our woks! We managed to (mostly) make edible food. I somehow got volunteered to mash up the 20-odd chilies used in the curry paste, bashing away at a large mortar and pestle, and trying to keep it in the bowl. Plenty of food anyway, with 4-5 dishes prepared and eaten. Still don't like food as spicy as the Thais though.

After the cooking we went off to the Night Safari a short distance out of town, Chiang Mai's newest tourist attraction. We had a bried walk round the first trail but then turned back to ensure catching the English version of the tram rides. It was good as the animals came really close to you and provide an excellent view of them. Lots of deer, zebra, wildebeest, giraffes and elephants were nearby for our viewing pleasure.

A quiter weekend was upahead for the parents with a bit of relaxing by the pool, all these activities had tired them out. I meanwhile had to let Crawford buy me beer!! He was working in Bangkok and decided to pop up to Chiang Mai for a week for a spot of chilling.

We nipped across to the riverside restaurant for some decent Thai food and then looped back to the Kafe and the Blues bar for some SRV, then onto some other bar probably things were a bit hazy by then.

Next night we all went out for a buffet meal in the Mae Ping beer garden, before popping along to a bar or two with Crawford for some late night discussion about how bad Rangers have been this season :)

I made the obligatory visa run on Tuesday, but travelling VIP class which means a big decent seat with headrest and legrest. After the usual bureaucrocy another 30 days in Thailand. As the bus didn't leave for another few hours, I wandered back to the bus station from the border, getting alternately sunburnt and soaked by the changing weather. I then tried to find a park which I had seen signposted on the way into the bus station, but it would not be found. So instead I wandered into some goverment office which had a sign saying free internet, although I don't think they were expecting Johnny Farang to turn on their doorstep.

Next day it was off to Pom Pui, an Italian restaurant lurking in the sois of Chian Mai, for a long lunch to say goodbye to the parents. After fair too much food, jumped in a tuk-tuk and tried to find Fern Forest Cafe a misty garden cafe again hiding in the backstreets. After much navigating we stumbled upon the cafe and a welcome cool drink of ice-coffee. Soon it was time to say the goodbye, three weeks had whizzed by already and the parents were heading back to Sunny Glasgow. In a couple of days Crawford leaves and then for me it will be back on the bike for a few weeks or cycling, circling back to Chiang Mai for the 6th June, training it down to Bangkok, flying over to Macau, ferrying across to Hong Kong, and busing into China! (If all goes well...)