Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jungle Flying

I finally took the plunge and decided to book a  in Chiang Mai.
I was picked up in a car at the horrendous time of 06:40, then the driver went round in circles for a bit till he found another couple of people. Then drove to the highway and swapped from car to van. We proceed quickly down past Doi Saket and beyond, then turn right onto a narrow road. A long winding road uphill, twists and turns, guess this is part of the adventure!

We arrive at the office and grab a helmet, harness and a "hi-tec nanotechnology braking device" (a stick). Once everybody is harnessed up, we march through the village to the first station. Not much hanging about, there are 34 stations to travel through. From the small platform, you are quickly hooked onto the zipline, and safety attach. Told to lean back and sit down, and then "Go!", you zip down the line and the other guide at the receiving end helps you, unhooks you and attaches the safety to a line running round the tree trunk. Then you shuffle round the trunk ready for the next one.

Takes a bit of getting used to, I keep spinning round and arriving backwards which is awkward, not too much you can do, try and wave your arms or legs was the suggestion, but I think I'll just keep my white knuckles clenching the rope.

Then comes the longer ones! We need to use the stick by pulling down on the line using the friction too slow down. Somehow I ended up first, but spun round going backwards, so can't see the platform. Then guy shouted "BRAKE" as previously instructed, then something else, which turned out to be "HARDER!", so I kinda bounced off him. Just as well for the helmets. Later he was saying you need to use your brake, I'm not ABS! There is only 2 sections were you need to use the brake, the second one went much better, easier when you are going forward.

Just before a quick snack break, we slide along another zipline, this one had the best view I would say, as you are in a break in the jungle, the photo on the jungle flight website shows it well, it does actually look like this!

On one of the section we got hooked on the back for a superman style ride, nothing to hang on with your hands, and the worst part is you need to lean into the void to leave the platform.

Another 12 more or so zipline and 1 more abseil, hooked on the back. Then back on terra firma! The guide at the end decided to go head first.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ayutthaya, Korat & Khon Kaen

I decided to head down to Ayutthaya at the last minute. I nipped over to the station to pick up a train ticket, and found out the usual 9pm sleeper train has been cancelled. So I ended up getting one at 17.30. Enough time to go back and pack a bag, before u-turning back to the station.

The train rumbles along slowly, after Lampang the train attendant comes round and makes your bed. Try to snooze, but didn't sleep much. Trundled into Ayutthaya early morning, long time on the train. I'd booked a room near the historical park, didn't look that far away. One songtaew later I arrived. I headed up to try and find a reasonable bicycle to rent, but nothing like a mountain bike here. Ended up with an old clunker, still at least it had straight handerbars and not these horrible U shaped ones that are common.

Ayutthaya was a Kindgom between 1350 to 1767, a busy trading port during these times, situated on the Chao Praya river, which flows South through Bangkok. Spread over several square miles, the remnants of the Kingdom are still here to see. Grand temples, some ruined, some rebuilt. I pedalled around the sights, such as the oft-photographed Buddha head in tree. Also Wat Phra Si Sanphet a large complex strewn across the grounds, which was formerly the old palace compound.

Further afield, I visited some temples across the river. Including one chedi standing grandly, now situated on a flat rice field. Seems to take a longer route than necessary and ended up on a very dusty road that presumbably is being resurfaced. Eventually arrived at the impressive Wat Chaiwatthanaram, but unfortunately closed for restoration to could only look from afar. That night I ate at a the busy Sai Thong riverside restaurant, a strange
duck with random bits dish.

Next day I cycled over to Wat Phanan Choeng, with thousands of Buddhas sitting in niches, and a huge central figure. When I was visiting there was a ceremony, where the cloth is brought over peoples head.

Back in town there was a huge firework display for the King's Birthday, causing traffic mayhem by blocking off one of the central roads. I returned my bike and walked back to the guesthouse, further than I thought!

Next day it was on the train into Isaan, the North-East region of Thailand. I got on the train, and found my seat squashed in beside a family. After a few hours, I stretched my legs, and looked out the windows. At the front of the train, you can actually look through the font window, as the driver is situated of to the left rather than right in the middle. A local guy with "Police" written across the back of his jacket is taking large gulps of whisky.

Eventually arrive in Korat, a small provinicial town. I thought it would be a bit bigger, not a whole lot here. Anyway I try some local food, phad mee korat, similar to phad thai. After that I find a barber and get a haircut and shave for 60 baht.I tried a busy Thai restaurant for dinner, and got a very bland dish, must have been specially prepared for the Farang.

Next day it was off to the bus station, as I only had a small bag, I jumped on a motorbike taxi, a quick way of getting around. My timing was good as I just caught the soon to depart bus to Khon Kaen. Actually it didn't leave when full, it left a bit after that. 3 or 5 hours later I arrived. I decided to just walk towards the large Pullman hotel, guessing that around there would a good location. I happened upon a guesthouse and got a nice room, if you're a hobbit. Doorway was about 5 ft tall!

Khon Kaen seems to be more lively than Korat, new buildings sprouting up. A big fancy Central Plaza mall, and lots of busy pubs. That night I ventured into Tawan Daeng for some Isaan music, accompanied by the locals strutting their dances moves, in a very thai style.

The only problem with coming out here, is the long journey back to Chiang Mai, about 12 hours. I headed to the bus station, only to find out only have night buses, so I bought a ticket for 7pm that night. I headed into the mall to pass some time and ended up watching Super Salary Man, a Thai drama about office life. Well, it passed the time!

At about 7.15, the guy next to me went to sleep and didn't move for the next 12 hours. The bus decided to occasionaly do a random roadside stop, people were on their phones, some banging about with the baggage hold, and then after 30 minutes on out way again. Then stop again, at a National Park in the mountains, the thermometer outside read just 1C. Wait around here for a bit with the bus staff shivering, then eventually get back on the road. Mystery stops.

Finally get back into Chiang Mai around 7AM, I jump into a songthaew and grab some breakfast before heading back home, knackered.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Chiang Rai Bike Trip

I decided to do another bike trip. So I headed down to the bike shop to buy a rack, and it was closed. Good start! Next morning, I headed back and much faffing about with the rack, the mechanic couldn't get it to fit. The boss was coming in the afternoon, so I came back and finally got it fitted.

The next morning, bright & early I was off. A familiar ride alongside the canal, heading North out of Chiang Mai. Then merge onto the busier road upto Mae Rim. Then continue North into more unfamliar territory. Still a flat road, continuing past the turn off for the very hilly 1095 road to Pai. I stopped for some breakfast of Chicken Rice, making good time. After rehydrating, just follow the 107 road North. Then I arrived in Chiang Dao town. I then turned towards Chiang Dao mountain for about another 7kms, on a gently slope down into a shallow valley nestling at the edge of the mountain. Here I stayed at  in a little bungalow almost overshadow by the brooding limestone mountain (2186m). Todays ride is 78km.
After a shower, I headed out and turned right towards the Wat Pho Ploy monastery on the hill. One of these secluded area where a famous monk has mediated. Now a large temple, with a lot of stairs. After 500 odd stairs I reached the top, nice views around as you would imagine. The main hall, is actually set into an open side cave with a rock roof and buddha images everywhere. I headed back down to the main street, about a mile further down to Chiang Dao Cave.

Here you can enter the Chiang Dao cave system. The first main area is lit by electricity, and a few guide await to take you further inside, guided by lantern, for a fee of course.

A few unfortunate souls are rumoured to have been trapped & lost inside the cave in the past, so keep close to the guide! Yes, it's dark, but with the light you can make some formations which are said to resemble various animals, such as elphants, some require more imagination than others. To get between chambers, some crawling required, not toooo tight, but not for the claustraphobic or fatties. After the tour happy enough to get back out into the daylight. I head back up the road stopping off at Chiang DaoNest 2 to sample a late lunch.
I had a pretty good pumpkiny salady thing, with a "passionade" drink. Then back to the bungalow and try and stay awake at least till after dinner. I just had some sweet & sour pork at the guesthouse and a early night causing I was shattered!

Off early again the next morning, crawling back up from the Chiang Dao side road onto the main highway. Low lying mist shrouds the limestone outcrops in the distance, the road rolls gently down smooth tarmac. Great place for cycling. Until the hills. There is a mountain range between here and Chai Prakan. After some gentle winding, I stopped for breakfast. Some noodles with fish balls, picked the right  place to stop as soon the roads winds up and down, snakes around, requires a fair bit of climbing.  I hadn't done much climbing on the bike and the added weight of the luggage meant a fair bit of resting on the big climbs. I find a roadside shelter and take a break, guzzling down some water. After a rest I continue on my way and find the summit. From here it is a zipping ride down the other side into the next valley, Chai Prakan, where the road flattens out. Passing a gruesome road safety sign of someone chopped in two, I cycle carefully onwards.

Another drink is needed and a refill of the water bottle, but the road remains flat into the provincial town of Fang. After a ride of 85km I find the Phumanee Hotel, run by Lahu folk.

I find a market, and have some Stewed Pork, but it comes with a lot of fat and skin, but the meat is tasty. I nosy around town, some Chinese temples on the edge of town. But the local dogs know outsiders, and soon half the dogs in town are barking. I don't want to get bitten by a dog in Fang! At night a French tour group had arrived in the hotel, and are singing some French songs which are written on the wall, strange. I have a Lahu curry, a bit like Tom Kha Gai but with some potato thrown in. After dinner I head out in the seach of some pinapple and get caught in the rain. But must have pineapple.

The next morning I actually have breakfast before starting biking, as it's an easy ride today. Just 25km along a flat road into the scenic village of Tha Ton. Arriving at the rideside I locked up my bike and headed up the hill nearby, to have a look at the temple. Up top the temple had a swarm of gazillion bees attached to the naga heads, high above thankfully. Nice view out over the village as the river winds and twists it's way East to Chiang Rai. Back down I grabbed some lunch before the boat ride. With bike attached to the side near the front of the long-tail boat, I was off along with another 5 passengers. We zip along smoothly passing through sloping valleys, some jungle, some growing coffee. We stop off and a few disembark at a hot springs. Very hot, I dipped my finger in for a second an that was enough! A few hours later we arrive in Chiang Rai. By the time I find a guesthouse it is late afternoon. I decide to replenish my energy with a steak for a small local diner. Not bad at all for the price, except it was served on a cold plate. Some rain mean not much happening at  the night market.

The next couple of days I stay off the bike and rest. I head about 10km north on the local bus to Baan Dam (Black House). A bizarre artist's version of a temple. I arrive dead on 12, as it closes for an hour. I find a small shop and have some MaMa noodles (the local equivalent of a Pot Noodle). Once it reopens tourists flood in. The first "temple" is a huge hall filled with looong tables, laid end to end, several large snake skins. In the corner carved  wooden tressels, with something resembling dried bats! Giant chairs adorned with white skulls and black buffalo horns complete the macabre feel. Outside more building with more skulls, guns, bones and dark wood. Nearby a horse grazes. All very odd. I head back into town and the rain starts up again.

The next day another bus, 17km south of Chiang Rai. It takes a while to get underway, but not a long ride. I jump off at the junction for a good look at Wat Rong Khun aka The White Temple. This is in sharp contrast to yesterdays viewing, an incredible ornate beautiful white temple glistening in the sunlight. As I walk in to the grounds I notice the head and torso of a predator half sunk into the ground. Well okay that's a bit weird. As you pass over a bridge leading to the entrance, you walk past hundreds of outstreatched sculpted hands. Inside the main temple, the Buddha sits serenely facing the back wall. And the back wall is not the usual temple wall. This is covered with icons from popular culture, ranging from Superman and Batman to Jigsaw and Pinhead. Angry birds has made it in, surely a recent addition.

After the white temple I flag down a songtaew heading back into town, it's full so I have to hand on the back. It starts to rain, so I head for the new Central Mall. Another huge mall for Thailand, but once you're inside you could be anywhere.

The next day I get back on my bike, this time heading south, at least it should even up my suntan :) From Chiang Rai, it is a long, long hilly ride back to Chiang Mai. I start off down the busy road 1, the superhighway which will basically take you to Singapore. Soon I turn off for Chiang Mai, a smaller road. I remember a nice resort so try to make it there for breakfast. I probably should of eaten sooner, as it was over 40k on an empty stomach and those hills were getting harder. Anyway I arrived at Charin Garden, a scenic spot overlooking the river. I settle down for a plate of chicken fried rice topped with an egg, washed down with a couple of glasses of water, followed by chunk of apple pie and a latte. This cycling sure makes you hungry. Onwards through Mae Suai, and down to Wiang Pa Pao. I stopped off at a roadside shrine for King Naresuan with a couple of giant elephant statues, a temple sit further back. I go have a closer look. Chicken statues everywhere. After 95km I stop for the day.

Next day I pass another couple of tour cyclists they are heading onto Vietnam, Land of the Motorbike, good luck! I have cycled this section in the other direction and handily remembered where the big descent was. Of course it is now a big ascent. At the bottom is the entrance to Khun Chae National Park. I fuel up on some raisins and a snickers bar.

One big straight climb and I make it to the top. From here it is great riding and you zip most of the way down for the next 20km! A few final hills and I roll into Doi Saket, feeling hungry but only another 20km till I'm back in Chiang Mai, so I push on. Running on fumes I make it back home to guzzle some cold water, have a much needed shower and head down to Salad Concept for a big lunch. All in all, a successful little bike tour.