Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Farewell to Thailand

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

51 km, 3 hr, max temp 43

Is there any better way to spend your last evening in Thailand than having a great Thai massage, followed by a great Thai meal, all for under $25 CAD?

Our ride back to Chiang Saen was uneventful, although we definitely were feeling the muscles we abused in the mountains. Fortunately it was a quick ride, and we were able to check in at Gin’s Guesthouse, have lunch, drop off our passports at the boat office, mail a package home, shower, change, do laundry and still have time for a two-hour massage before dinner.

Unfortunately, after dinner we discovered that Julie, who we had talked to a few days earlier, would not be back before we left. This meant that the staff wanted to charge us more for the room, and weren’t able to provide the Internet or extra fan we had been promised. After a quick phone call the room price was sorted out, and we were able to change our remaining Baht for Chinese RMB. Scott was a bit grumpy about the exchange rate, which was well above market, but still possibly better than we would have done in Jinghong.

By 9 pm our bikes were packed and we were in bed, ready for our 4 am alarm and a quick ride to our boat up the Mekong to China.


Big climbs to the Royal Villa at Doi Tung

Monday, May 11th, 2009

73 km, 6h 10 min, max temp 43

Our plan for the day was to leave most of our baggage at the Yeeson hotel, and do a loop ride up to Doi Tung – the “Flag Mountain” with its famous twin chedis. Apparently one of Buddha’s collarbones is interred in one of the chedis, so it is a significant place of pilgrimage. Along the way is the Royal Villa of the “Princess Mother”, the current king’s mother, who died in 1993. It is partly a museum, and his sister still lives in another portion.

On our way out of town, we saw a sign for the “Afterglow Hostel” with a price of 585 Baht. We aren’t sure if that was for the night or the hour, but with a name like Afterglow we don’t think it is your standard backpacker place!

The climb up to the palace was nice, with a few steep climbs separated by less steep sections on a nice smooth road, and much easier without the weight of our bags. When we reached the Villa, it turned out to be quite a tourist attraction, with lots of small tour buses and visitors. As usual, our bikes turned us into quite the tourist attraction ourselves, and we answered many questions and posed for a bunch of photos.

In addition to the Royal Villa, this is the site of the Mae Fa Luang Gardens, and Doi Tung handicrafts – all part of an effort by the Princess Mother to provide alternatives to opium production for the local hill tribes. From what we can tell it is working, with lots of handicrafts available, as well as various cash crops, including coffee. Becky was sorely tempted to buy some beans, but decided she would refrain, and skip the extra weight for our afternoon of climbing.

The climb after the palace was steep in places, especially one shortcut to Doi Tung. The road was in great condition, but the constant 20% grade was a bit much. We aborted the attempt of the short cut after a few hundred meters because it was just too steep – Becky did not want to push her bike up 3.3 km of steepness after all the climbing we had already done today! (600m elevation gain in 3.3 km is almost 20% on average – steeper in places).

Sadly, when we reached the turnoff to Doi Tung, it turned out to be a large downhill – not something we were prepared to contemplate at 4 pm, since we would need to climb back up again to get home. Instead we decided to continue along the road and finish our loop.

Note that after the Villa there are very few services along the road. We had planned to fill up with water at Doi Tung, but when we deviated so as not to go there, Becky was getting pretty low. We were lucky that when we reached the top there was a kiosk selling wine that also had bottled water and fanta. We recommend that you fill up at the Villa before venturing further afield

The road back skirted the Burma border, and we needed to clear a checkpoint before we could get on it. This was the first checkpoint in Thailand where we actually showed our passports, but we passed through without questions. Just past the checkpoint was a Burmese border station. The bamboo buildings and fences were quite the change from the concrete on the Thai side. Becky stopped to adjust her bandanna, and Scott lost sight of her for what seemed a long time, especially hearing the barking of some dogs behind. He was getting quite concerned by the time she showed up, with a pack of Burmese guard dogs right on her heels. Fortunately it was a nice bit of downhill and we outdistanced them quickly.

Scott had showed Becky Bill Weir’s comments about the road along the border, including “The ridge-top road dived and climbed–I alternately squeezed my brakes for dear life, or winched up in bottom gear. Downhills outnumbered climbs and I was soon back in Mae Sai.” Unfortunately, Becky missed the first sentence, and was expecting a nice downhill back to Mai Sai. We can report that the road is still really steep and the in poor condition, so we rarely were able to go over 30 km/hr. We would not recommend this decent for anyone without disc brakes – as it was our brakes were hot and smelly! Going down the way we came up would have been a much more pleasant ride, but much longer too. We understand why the Lonely Planet says that only experienced motorcyclists should attempt to ride that road – the curves were pretty crazy even on the bicycles.

We were surprised by the number of people walking on the road, but there are several small encampments along the way.

The returning road did not just have steep downhills, it also had some steep uphills to ensure you did not get cold and your brakes had a chance to cool off. This was OK the first few times, but 10 km before the end of the road when it turned up again, Becky gave up and made Scott turn around. We headed back to the village of Pha Mi, and took the village road out of the hills to highway one. This is a hill tribe village, but not a “tourist village” and we didn’t see anyone in traditional dress.

As we approached the valley, we hit a wall of smoke from the burning fields. It pointed out just how smoky the air was down at the lower elevations. It was nice to be out of the pollution while we were climbing in the hills.


Along the Myanmar Border

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

53 km, 2h 20 min, max temp 43 (hot!)

Since we don’t catch the boat to China until Wednesday, we decided to check out the “golden triangle” (where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet). The masochists in us are thinking of riding up to Doi Tung which according to our map lies at 1512 m and is the tallest peak in Chiang Rai province. This will make it the highest climb we have done to date; however, we will be cheating a little by doing the ride as a day trip from Mai Sai, so we don’t need to carry all our gear up the hills. Hopefully that will make it easier when it becomes necessary to push the bikes!

The Golden Triangle turned out to be a fairly empty tourist attraction – lots of souvenir stands, western restaurants and expensive resort hotels. There are a couple of Opium museums, which we didn’t check out, and a giant seated Buddha on a tacky boat. One nice thing was that there were several places there that sold real coffee.

The ride to Mai Sai was mostly flat or gentle rolling hills, with the exception of one big climb just past the Golden Triangle. About 12 km outside of Mai Sai we deviated to take a minor more scenic route into town. After about 8 km, our GPS had us turn onto a dirt track (shown as a minor road), which we followed quite happily for 6 km. The track was right beside the Mae Sai river which marks the border between Myanmar and Thailand. Unfortunately the trees on both sides of the river meant we didn’t see much of Myanmar up close. Eventually the track deteriorated, and then we came upon a wall – literally. The wall was the protected area of the “Second Friendship Bridge” which crosses the border east of Mai Sai. We turned back and found a farm road that eventually (after several wrong turns) brought us back to the main road into Mai Sai – the GPS doesn’t always prevent us from making wrong turns, especially when the roads it shows all go into the restricted zone. At one point, we were joined by a couple of kids on a bike – we are amused at how good they are at riding double. Many of the bikes actually having a padded seat in place of a rear rack.

In Mai Sai, we are staying at the “Yeeson Hotle” (s.p.) in an air conditioned room for 400 Baht a night. It seems very clean and comfortable so far. They let us keep our bikes downstairs in the lobby / restaurant which appears to act as overnight storage for a collection of bikes, motorbikes, and wheelchairs. We wanted to check out the Monkey Island Guesthouse but it was all closed up. The Bamboo Guesthouse had AC rooms for 350 Baht, but Becky disliked the parade of black ants highlighted against the white walls in the bathroom.

For dinner we walked down to the Mai Sai Riverside Resort, where we had great views of Burmese kids playing in the river a few meters from us. This would definitely not be a hard border to cross illegally! Unfortunately, the food was pretty mediocre and expensive for what you got – we don’t recommend it.


Booking a boat to China

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

79 km, 4h 30 min, max temp 43

We rode to Chiang Saen through the warmest part of the day. As we rode, we really noticed the added pollution caused by burning in the fields and hills – fields are often burned in preparation of planting. There are some hills between Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen, but for the most part the road seems to pleasantly follow the valleys through the hills.

Upon entering Chiang Saen, we wandered back and forth along the waterfront searching for the place to purchase our boat tickets. After a few inquiries, we were directed to a spot south of the old city wall. Scott enquired about the location of the office at customs, and we were directed 200m south of the port office. After riding past the office yet again, the person Scott had spoken too passed us on his motorcycle and motioned for us to follow him to the office. It turned out to be in a building that looked like a warehouse behind a partially opened gate. After further inspection, we could see worn out posters of the boat posted on the gate.

After much miming and some translation by our friendly motorcycle guide, and a payment of 10808 Baht (840 Yuan/ticket + 1040 baht/bike + 100 baht/person for immigration), we had tickets for us and our bikes for the Wednesday boat – the Monday boat was not running this week. We did have some confusion when the translator translated 12 as twenty-two, and 13 as twenty-three, but pointing to a calendar cleared that up the confusion. We were instructed to return to the ticket office before 4 pm on Tuesday and hand over our passports. We had previously read about this, so we were aware that Thai customs and immigration are not open at 5 am when the boat departs, so the agent processes our passports the night before.

Once we had tickets in hand, we went in search of a place to stay for the night. As far as we can tell, the Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel is the only place in town with air conditioning. In our search, we also stopped at Gin’s Guesthouse, which had a nice large fan room on the main floor for 400 Baht. Julie (the proprietress) also said that she could exchange Thai Baht for Chinese Yuan – which would be helpful given our arrival in Jinghong was scheduled for 9 pm. She also said she had Internet. It looked good, but Becky really wanted AC, so we paid the premium (900 Baht) at the Chiang Saen River Hill Hotel. Note that neither place is ideally situated – one to the north of the town center, and the other to the south – both are more than 1 km from the night market, although both do have nearby restaurants. From other travelers we heard that the Chiang Saen guesthouse has degraded since its recommendation in Lonely Planet, but there’s another inexpensive (and nice) guesthouse just north in of the town center intersection.

For dinner, we walked out to the night market, and sat local style on the ground with a low table overlooking the Mekong. We were sucked into a place with an English menu, only to discover some very amusing translations (any idea what a mix a vermiform appendix, or mix a fingernail mrs is?). Unfortunately, shortly after we ordered a large group arrived, then the impending storm began to drop some rain on us, with all the chaos, most of our order got forgotten. After sitting patiently for 30 minutes (they put up some umbrella’s to keep the rain off), we gave up and got the rest of our meal to go. It started off so nice, it was such a shame that it didn’t last.


Hill tribes, a very white wat, and bugs

Friday, May 8th, 2009

38 km 2 h 15 min

Since there were a couple of things we wanted to do in Chiang Rai, we decided to stay an extra night here. We visited the Hill Tribe Museum and rode out to the famous White Wat (Wat Rong Khun).

We first visited the Hill Tribe Museum, which has an excellent virtual museum website – possibly better than the actual museum! The Hill Tribe people have migrated to Thailand over the last 150 years from areas of Burma, Laos, and China. In essence they are refugees of war; however, the majority have no rights – not even the rights of recognized refugees. Thailand is hesitant to provide citizenship to the Hill Tribe people because the borders are still very porous and they are concerned that with citizenship more people will migrate to Thailand.

Most of the Hill Tribe people are subsistence farmers. Some still practice slash and burn farming on the steep slopes in remote areas of northern Thailand. For a long time, the main crop was poppies for opium; however, the Thai government has tried to curtail this. Poppies are being replaced by soy beans, coffee, and other cash crops.

Too frequently when you hear of the Thailand Hill Tribe people, you see pictures of a small group called the Padaung or Long-neck Karen. The long-neck Karen that live in their traditional villages live in Burma. The only long-neck Karen in Thailand are exploited by tour operators, who create long-neck Karen tourist villages. Only the women are paid, and they are required to wear their neck rings in order to be paid. They work in souvenir shops selling trinkets to tourists, who are charged a hefty sum just to visit this fake tourist village. One argument for this treatment is that the Long-neck Karen in Burma are in the middle of a war zone, so at least the tourist villages are “safe”. However, they have no identification papers, and as a result they have no rights. Children born in Thailand are entitled to get Thailand identity cards; however, this process is often blocked by the unscrupulous tour operators. It looks an awful lot like modern day slavery to Becky! She found a great article about the plight of the Long-neck Karen in Thailand.
There is some conflicting information regarding these tourist villages.

The Karen (other than the long-neck Karen) are the largest group of Hill Tribe people in Thailand. They tend to settle in valleys and practice more sustainable farming. Because of their large numbers, they have adapted better to Thailand and many have Thai citizenship and identity cards.

Learning about the various tribes and their lives through the museum made us happy we hadn’t gone trekking. From what we can tell, most trekking tour operators do more harm than good for the Hill Tribes, since very little of the money paid by tourists gets back to them, and the vast numbers of tourists can have negative effects on the tribal culture.

In the late afternoon, we headed out to see Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple), about 15 km south of Chiang Rai. Unfortunately, we arrived just after the Wat closed (1700h), so we did not get to see the inside. From the outside, the Wat is spectacular, and nothing like any other Wat we have seen. It is vaguely reminiscent of the La Sagrada Familia which we saw in Barcelona. Construction of the temple started in 1997 and is the vision of Thai painter and architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. The murals inside are supposed to be spectacular – we’ll have to come back and see them another time. It is definitely a tourist attraction, with busloads of Thai and foreign tourists arriving even as we were leaving, despite the fact the Wat had closed over an hour previous. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area! Apparently, they had some issues with tourists in the past, such that now any foreigner entering the Wat is required to be escorted by a tour guide.

For dinner we stopped off at the night market food kiosks. There were at least 30 kiosks but the choice was pretty limited, as there were many that served the same food – Becky counted at least six places serving hot-pot. We enjoyed a hot-pot meal at our table although Becky was totally paranoid that Scott would accidently tip the table over spilling the hot coals all over Becky. Fortunately, that did not happen. Another of the food options was deep fried bugs – we picked up a plate and tried each of the four kinds. Once you get over the creepy factor (and that took some time and real will power!), they aren’t really that bad. The think worms were a little gooey on the inside and tasted a little green. The others just tasted sort of like popcorn.


A long-tail boat ride

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

35 km, 2 hr.

Since we did not need to be in Tha Ton before noon, and Fang to Tha Ton was only 25 km, we decided to go find someplace for breakfast. While walking down the main street of town, we came across an alley way that led to the morning wet market. Lots of interesting food available, both raw and cooked. There were a few places to sit and have rice soup – a typical breakfast, but they were a bit too close to the meat vendors for our taste. Instead we walked through the market and picked up a variety of treats to make up our breakfast.

The ride to Tha Ton was quick – it felt like it was mostly downhill, but we actually gained altitude until the last 4 km. We averaged 21.5 km/hr, which is very fast for us – maybe yesterday’s ride through the mountains (and the massage afterwards) was good for us?

Upon arriving in town, we found the place to purchase tickets for the long-tail ferry. We debated seeing if anyone wanted to share a private boat, but opted for the standard 350 Baht per person ferry with a surcharge of 150 Baht for each bike. It turned out we made a good decision, as the boat only had two other passengers. It would have been horribly crowded if all 12 spots had been sold.

Time to push, no pull, no push!

Time to push, no pull, no push!

The ride began smoothly, but not 10 minutes into it we heard the grinding of sand as the boat grounded on a sandbar. The pilot got out and as he walked alongside the boat his ankles were just barely covered with water. We were clearly aground – not an auspicious start! The pilot tried a few times to move the boat on his own, but to no effect, so we all hopped out. Fortunately, the water was nice and warm. After 20 minutes of grueling pushing and rocking we got the boat back into deeper water and were again on our way. Becky read in the guidebook that this might happen during times of low water, but we hadn’t expected it quite this soon into the trip!

Most of the ride was smooth going, with the pilot zig-zagging us across the meandering river, finding the spots deep enough for the boat traverse. Several times we heard the telltale scritch of sand scraping the bottom of the boat as we passed over a shallow spot. At one point, we entered some small rapids and suddenly there was a loud “thunk” – we had struck a rock just in front of where Scott was sitting. Fortunately, the boat survived unscathed – Scott checked the bilge below him for leaks a few times to be certain. We traversed several other sets of rapids, each time expertly navigated by our pilot, but several times Scott and the gentleman behind him got soaked as a wave crashed over the side. We never realized our river journey was meant to be an adventure tour!

Scott was very impressed with our pilot, since he was clearly blind in one eye. With no depth perception, navigating a 12 meter boat through the rapids and shallows of the river was quite a feat.

Shortly before we arrived in Chiang Rai, we stopped in a Karen Hill Tribe village. There were several other privately chartered long-tail boats there and it appears this is a regular stop on the river run. The Karen were selling food, drinks and various souvenirs, and also had a snake petting zoo, but the main attraction was the elephants. There were several elephants chained in the main square, which we could feed, and if we had more time we could have taken an elephant ride. It felt more like an amusement park than the villages we have ridden through, and we quickly grabbed some food and got back on the boat. We did take a few photos of other visitors riding elephants, and our fellow passengers feeding the elephants though.

After a short tour around Chiang Rai we decided to stay at the PS Guesthouse. They had a nice big ground floor air conditioned room for 450 Baht. It is about a 2 km walk to downtown and the night market, but in a nice quiet neighbourhood. Once we saw the room, we just had to stay – Becky fell in love with the lamp!


Up, up, up and away

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

59 km, 4h 30 min

Today’s ride included the hardest hills we have climbed so far. There was over 7 km of uphill, with 3 km involving grades above 15%. We spent much of the 3 km steep part pushing our bikes up the hill. Several pickup trucks passed us, but none stopped to offer a ride – we couldn’t blame them because if they stopped they might not have been able to get started again – it was that steep. At one point Becky was so dead that Scott offered to push her bike up few sections of hill (after pushing his up). On a few of the steeper pitches, Becky took Scott up on his offer!

When we arrived in Sinchai, the small town near the top, we planned to take a break and have lunch – we were not sure how much more climbing we would need to do on the other side of town. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a place to eat in town. Feeling like true touring cyclists, we ended up snacking on some crackers and Coca Cola – we really feel like we have joined the serious cyclists club now.

Fortunately, the break and snack helped. We only had one steep pitch after our snack. Becky pushed her bike up it, but Scott managed to ride. With our crackers and Coke energy, we climbed the hill at twice the paces of our previous climb (4 km/hr rather than 2 km/hr), then it was all downhill from there. Yippee! On the way down we experienced some of the worst roads we’ve ridden in Thailand. There were places where the outside lane (our lane) was only just wide enough for the bike – it would not have allowed cars in both directions. The road had eroded away, but the lines remained as if the road where regular width. Many of the steep corners where so potholed that you had to ride out into the other lane – which ensured that our brakes got a workout on the way down. It certainly added some challenge and entertainment to the decent. We’re very thankful for our disc brakes though – no brake fade, although Becky burned her finger when she touched the disc to see if it was hot.

We stopped at a nice looking restaurant in Ban Yang for lunch, only to discover a group of Taiwanese journalists there. We had met the journalists on our way back to the Guesthouse after dinner in Arunothai, and they passed us on the road up in Sinchai. Upon arrival at the restaurant, they immediately greeted us, and the two photographers grabbed their cameras to snap a few shots. We wonder if we’ll end up in a newspaper in Taiwan? If we understand correctly, they’re here doing a documentary on the schools in this area of Northern Thailand. After the Maoist revolution, many Chinese fled to Burma and this part of Thailand, and it was also used as a base by the KMT (Kuomintang) resistance for many years.

The ride from Ban Yang to Fang was flat and fast, both on the minor roads and the highway. We were happy to arrive in time to find a nice hotel and have a two hour (!) massage before supper. We are staying at the Ueang Kham (UK) Hotel, which has downstairs fan rooms for 200 Baht, upstairs A/C rooms for 300 Baht, fan bungalows for 250 Baht, and A/C bungalows for 400 Baht. We opted for the A/C bungalow because Becky really wanted AC after four nights without it, and being able to put the bikes in the bungalow “mud room” was really a nice feature.

When we came into our hotel room, Scott noticed the following saying all over the sheets on the two beds:

Sometimes it seems
the stars shine brighter
when something wonderful
is achieved …

They’ll be
shining brighter
now for you

Clearly the universe thinks we did well today!

Road notes:
The 1340 was in very good condition from Arunothai to Sinchai, but when we turned off to the minor road toward Ban Yang, there were occasional stretches of potholes, and sections of road were quite narrow due to erosion. Nothing too challenging as long as we weren’t descending too fast. Very little traffic, and a pleasant ride except for the climbing! The 3001 heading north was in good repair with little traffic, and gently rolling hills. Turning onto the 1249, traffic increased but there was no shoulder, requiring a bit more alertness. On the 107, traffic was quite heavy, but we kept to the wide shoulder most of the time. No problems entering the road to avoid the occasional parked car or patch of gravel though.


Out to the Burmese border

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

58 km, 4h 30 min

We decided to take a bit of a different route north – highway 1178 to Arunothai and then 1340 across to Chai Prakarn or if we are feeling really crazy Doi Ang Khang (reported to have spectacular views as it is the second highest mountain in Thailand). We were warned that the hills on this route are nasty, so we’ll see how we do…

The ride up to Arunothai turned out to be quite nice – several hills but none of them too steep or long and there were some great down-hills mixed in too. It was quite a bit hotter than the past few days though, and Becky was feeling hot and sore (from her falls yesterday) when we came across a nice looking guest house. It turned out to be owned by a Thai-Dutch couple, and not only had western-style toilets, but a real espresso machine! Given the heat, we decided to skip the coffee, but the cold drinks were wonderful, and the owners gave us a couple of packets of rehydration salts – good to know they’re available here! Fortified by our drinks, we rode on to Na Wai, and found a spot for lunch just as the skies opened. Our usual Khao Phat plus a second lunch of Kway Teyao and the best Phat Thai Becky has had in Thailand brought energy back into our legs, and the heavy rain cooled things off perfectly for our afternoon ride.

Just as we approached the Lin Luang checkpoint the landscape changed dramatically. We felt like we were in a totally different country. The land is all farm land, but it is not flat. It looks like a lot of it was recently reclaimed from the surrounding forest area – with many fields filled with stumps. It is clearly between crops at the moment as the fields are covered in dark red soil and not much else.

We are staying at the “Guesthouse” in Arunothai – 250 Baht per night for a fan room with no hot water – although it does look like they have hot water in some rooms (we don’t find it necessary here). There might be another place in town to stay, as we did see signs with a 24 on it (usually indicates 24 hour reception). As it was, we made a wrong turn looking for the guesthouse and ended up asking for directions and having a guy on a motorcycle lead us to it. We have not yet met anyone here who speaks more than a few words of English, so we are using our limited Thai and doing much more miming! It is nice to be away from the tourist areas again.

After checking in, we decided to go on a short ride out to the Burmese border, about 2 km away. First we arrived at a police checkpoint, which looked deserted. After stopping and talking in loud voices for a few moments, a young soldier appeared from inside a sandbagged hut. We wondered if he had been asleep? We explained through Thai and mime that we wanted to see the border, and he told us we could pass through. We weren’t sure whether the “five” he indicated was 5 minutes or 5 o’clock, for us to come back, so we made a quick turnaround once we got to the border, and the big gates across the road. Apparently the border was closed! We read that it opens for local access on special occasions, but never for foreigners. Hopefully we were allowed to take photos of the closed border…


Chiang Dao in threes

Monday, May 4th, 2009

We stayed in Chiang Dao for three nights, and other than resting, we did three things: we visited a beautiful monastery, we hiked over a small mountain, and we visited the famous Chiang Dao caves. We also ate dinner at three different places: the Chiang Dao Nest, Malee’s Nature Resort, and Chiang Dao Nest 2.

Tham Pha Pong is a beautiful cave monastery, founded by Luang Poo Sim, a famous Buddhist monk here in Thailand. When he established it in 1967 it was deep in the wilderness in these remote mountains, but civilization has caught up, and now it’s just up the road from the Nest. It is a beautiful spot, with a steep climb up more than 500 steps to reach the monastery, and a further climb to the cave and the chedi. We went late in the day, and saw almost no-one there except the monks. There were many Buddhist sayings posted as we climbed to keep us focused, and the cave and chedi were a beautiful combination of natural and man-made materials, surrounded by trees. Becky followed a path beside the main altar, and discovered the tomb of Luang Poo Sim. At first she thought she was seeing a live monk sitting in lotus position in his monk’s robe, but looking closer she saw he was neither moving nor blinking. He does look very lifelike though!

Our hike began at about 10 am the next morning. It was supposed to only take 1.5 hours; however, that doesn’t account for getting lost. We would have been fine had we not gotten a few tips from Wicha at the Nest prior to departure. For anyone doing the walk, the most useful tip we can give is if you see the blue and white placards (all in Thai) regularly, you are on the correct trail. It is easy to follow a wrong fork and end up on some other trail – we were warned about there being many trails used by mushroom pickers.

Our first 15 minutes of hiking was OK, but then Scott decided to take Wicha’s advice to keep right, since the mushroom trails are generally to the left. We climbed under a marked cut in a barbed wire fence, then climbed up a muddy track beside the fence for 30 minutes. The trail continued to follow the fence line, and didn’t seem very “naturey”, so we turned around the retraced our steps. Not long after getting back on the real trail, we saw a telltale placard. We managed to stay on the correct trail through several forks and cross paths; however, as we approached the end and a steep downhill segment, we lost the trail. We went down for 10 minutes, and decided we were committed. We really did not want to climb back up again! So, we followed the steep downhill trail. Becky slipped and fell a couple of times, getting herself nice and muddy. We managed to get down to find ourselves only 10 meters from the real trail, which looked to be less steep.

The trail brought us out in back of the monastery near the caves. At first, we weren’t quite sure where we were, but we wandered around a bit and found the front entrance, with its souvenir stands and restaurants. After a brief lunch stop, we entered the caves – 20 baht each for entry to the first area. After about 100 m we came to a large room, filled with guides and their kerosene lanterns. We hired a guide for 100 baht, and he was well worth it. The caves rooms were large, with very small connecting tunnels and we saw just how easy it would have been to get lost. There were many interesting shapes and patterns in the limestone, unfortunately our photos don’t do them justice. We walked almost 2 km of caverns, and there is at least another 700 m section which we skipped, as well as many side passages which only the locals know. Unfortunately our trip ended in disappointment for Becky. She was really looking forward to the reclining Buddha at the end, but was not very impressed. They did have the fortune sticks, with English translations of the fortunes. We made a donation, gave them a shake and read our fortunes. Perhaps we should have looked at the English first though – neither of us could make any sense of our fortunes when we read them.

Our first night in Chiang Dao, we enjoyed a gourmet western meal at the Chiang Dao Nest restaurant. Scott noticed a lady seated alone, and invited her to join us for dinner. Meg is originally from England, but moved to Chiang Mai last year and is teaching English and current affairs to Burmese refugees. We enjoyed the wonderful food at the restaurant, and great conversation. From Meg’s description, there’s a strong need for both education and advocacy for the Burmese refugees, and it sounds like very interesting work. The food is still cheap by western standards, but very pricy for Thailand – we spent over $40 CAD (1200 baht) on dinner for two without wine. The same meal would have been well over $80 in Ottawa though, so we aren’t complaining.

Our second night, we went next door to try some Thai food at Malee’s. The owner there was very friendly, and cooked us some wonderful curry and a cashew nut stir fry. Yummy and very filling! We talked briefly to another touring cyclist from Brazil. A few years ago he rode from Vietnam to Spain via India, but this time he was on a short trip hoping to ride into Burma, which he was forced to skip on his last ride. We invited him to join us for dinner, but he was planning an early start and wanted to go to sleep. Unfortunately, we never caught his name.

On our third night, we walked down to the Chiang Dao Nest 2 restaurant where they serve what we’d call Thai fusion. Again Scott noticed someone sitting alone, and invited Melanie, a traveler from Germany, to join us. She is on a three month trip through SE Asia after completing university, much more adventurous than we were at that age! We enjoyed some not-quite spicy enough Thai food (we asked for medium, and it was not spicy at all). Chiang Dao Nest 2 also serves wine by the glass, so we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and some great conversation. Melanie was headed on a trek into the hills and staying with some of the hill tribe people, and we’re curious how that goes. It’s something we’ve chosen not to do this time.

We found the Chiang Dao Nest 2 expensive for Thai food, and the staff completely disappeared, such that we had to hunt for them when we wanted water and more wine. Overall, we’d recommend Malee’s for Thai food and Chiang Dao Nest for a gourmet western experience.

Before leaving, we learned that the staff at Chiang Dao Nest had dubbed our bikes “The Sleeping Bicycles”. We love it!

Fields, jungles, and elephants

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

92 km, 6 hours

We managed to get up at a reasonable time, but it seemed every time we tried to leave, the Gong Keuw pulled us back in. We lingered until after 9 am and even debated spending one more night in Chiang Mai so that we could enjoy the bungalow and the wonderful garden sitting area for a full day, but alas, it was time that we got back on the bikes and explored a little of northern Thailand. We’re feeling the press of time as the days count down to our next ship.

Thanks to the GPS, we were able to follow back roads out of Chiang Mai. Zigzagging back and forth across the Ping River and various irrigation canals, we saw many farmers hard at work in their fields, small villages, garbage cans made of recycled tires and community water purifiers. We saw people mostly working the fields by hand, but there have been a few tractors as well. We stayed on the back road for the first 37 km, then detoured to highway 107 in order to find a toilet and some food.

Thin cloud and a moderate headwind kept us relatively cool throughout the day. Scott had feared that riding in the north would be even hotter than the south after looking at weather reports, but the weather today was quite pleasant – Becky’s thermometer never even read over 40 C!

Shortly after Mae Taeng the scenery changed from farmers’ fields to jungle – including a few hills, but nothing too dramatic. Not long after entering the jungle area, we saw a couple of elephants lazing about. There was a working elephant camp not far, so they must have been “off duty” elephants.

After a few twists and turns in the jungle, the road opened up into a river valley, with more farmers fields. The contrasts made for a beautiful day of riding.

We decided to stay at the Chiang Dao Nest bungalow resort a couple of kilometers from the Chiang Dao caves and about 9 km from Chiang Dao town. It is in the middle of jungle and feels very rustic. We have a fan bungalow, which is quite comfortable. There is no AC available and it doesn’t really feel necessary here with lower humidity and temperatures dropping into the low 20s overnight. The bungalows are screened with windows on three sides. The cost was 595 Baht per night (under $20 CAD), which seemed a bit steep for a fan room. Scott tried to negotiate a better price, but was told “if you want cheaper, go to Malee’s Guest House next door”. Our friends Jenny and Jay stayed at Malee’s Guest House and liked it, but Chris was effusive in his praise of The Nest, so we decided to stay here anyway.

The restaurant at the resort serves Western food and is relatively expensive – 200 to 300 Baht per main course. Given that the food is gourmet western food, the price is actually very good. If you don’t want western food, both Malee’s and Chiang Dao Nest 2 bungalows serve Thai food.

Just after we arrived, we hopped in the shower and discovered something horrible. The winds and light cloud had led us astray, and we were both badly sunburnt. This is the first time in months we’ve had a bad sunburn, so we’re both feeling pretty stupid. It does explain why we were so tired as we came into Chiang Dao though. Oh well, at least we’re in a nice place to recover!