Epilogue: The Lady and the Monk and Cycling Doi Suthep


The Slog Up Doi Suthep:


Nick modelling the Trek road bike…

When we returned the Trek 7.2s Spice Roads threw out the idea of a road bike expedition; 120km circuit of the mountains, 2900 Baht (£60) – cross selling to be commended, but not afforded. It made me think though; we could rent road bikes for a third of the price (800 Baht) and plan our own ride; wasn’t that what we were in this for anyway?

Having studied the area, the most simple route was straight to the top of Doi Suthep. Doi, meaning mountain, it is part of the southern most range of the Shan Highland system (thank you Wikipedia, I will be sure to donate later). At 1676m it is not the highest (Doi Ithanon stands at 2565m) but hey, we are not heroes. Doi Suthep would do and there was some ‘wattage’ (Wat Phra That), great views and a Royal Palace to tick off the tourist list.

We heeded our lessons and set off early. With no breakfast (the hotel did not offer it so no feat of will power on our part) we shuffled out to the car park, lycra’d from head to foot, armed with pump, inner tube and my back wheel.

As wrinkled as ever:

Yes, sure enough, having taken the bike from Spice Roads HQ at 16:30 the previous evening, my rear tyre was flat before 17:30. It should have been funny, I mean, this was number six, but it happened on the way to the train station, in rush hour and the only thing that rivalled the ferociousness of the traffic was my temper. I was disappointed, having pictured myself zipping through the early evening traffic, svelte and easy as an eel. What is it they say about vanity or pride? The only zipping I was doing was my purse after I had paid the songthaew driver his 100 Baht to deliver two humans and two bikes back to the old city.

The Lady and the Monk:

Anyway, leaving the hotel without breakfast proved to be more of a problem than we knew. As we cycled the perplexing ring road, passing monks collecting alms, I began to think of food – don’t ask me why, it wasn’t the monks, it is just never far from my mind. Nor does it take much to interest Nick in food, so soon we were scanning the side walk for stalls and shops.

Nick pointed as we rolled; there were stalls set up at the side of the road, on them were packages of rice, pieces of fruit and cartons of drink. We agreed that they looked like breakfasts and at the same time, I think we both had a lingering doubt.

We stayed indecisive until the road bore right and clearly began to climb; it looked like our last chance. On the shoulder of the bend there was what I can only describe as ‘activity’. It was a junction where stalls had been erected, and despite the early hour, there were people beginning to mill. Among them were monks. I waved impatiently for Nick to stop, and I waited with the bikes in front of a large monument while he went to investigate.

Meantime I was approached by a man who claimed to be an artist. He had little remaining of his front teeth, but he looked no older than I am. When he asked where I was from he said ‘John Sargent,’ and I briefly thought he was telling me his name. He told me he taught children to draw and could make a portrait in three minutes. I was sure he was angling for some kind of business, although I could not figure out what. And then Nick burst back.

‘F*$king monk!’ I was horrified. Nick rarely loses his temper but he was bitching about a holy man of Thailand in front on another (probably not so holy) man of Thailand. Nick forced another ‘F’ from between his teeth. ‘Stole my f*@king breakfast!’ I told you, Nick likes his food.

As if by magic, but more likely conjured with a nod, a moped sped up taking ‘John Sargent’ away and Nick told me his story. He had asked the lady stall-holder (who now languishes in the sub-basement realms with the squid lady) for one of the packages on the stall. She handed it to him and asked that he give her 30 Baht. He was confused by the silver dish that held the food but gave over the money. And as if moulded of the very particles around him, a monk came to life, holding out his hands. Nick was confused. The woman gestured that he should give his breakfast to the monk. The monk made encouraging noises. Nick was angry. The lady and the monk continued to gesture. Nick tried to protest. Their gestures became more intense. In the end he gave it up, unable to escape the tableau he found himself in without causing significant cultural upset and incurring some pretty negative karma.

‘But it was my breakfast!’ He whined like a child. I threw Nick’s gloves at him and suggested we move before he became the cause of civil unrest.

The Climb:

As the road climbed, Nick chuntered. I was disappointed, I was hungry. But we had to face it, there was a sated monk somewhere, counting his alms and gorged on our ignorance.

The climb was a slow grind. We stopped at several points; to breathe, drink, enjoy the view. It was early morning and the road was peaceful. Of the traffic that did pass, some vehicles were mini vans or songthaew bearing tourists from Chiang Mai. At the view points they spilled out, captured the the city (as much as they could through the mist) and each other, stretching and posturing across it, and then they all crammed back in. While I was pink and sweaty, I didn’t envy them, I enjoyed the freedom to stay as long as we wished and the satisfaction that we had done it ourselves.


What we saw of the wat

At the wat we paused briefly, for water, Red Fanta and freshly chopped pineapple, before pushing upward toward the palace.


Road biking, sponsored by Red Fanta

I shouldn’t tell you this, you might think it failure: but we never made it. After the wat the road became steeper. Bearable, just, but we were travelling less than walking pace and we could see no respite. We pushed on until we saw the dogs. We heard them first, their barks ringing down the deserted road. As we rounded a corner we saw them, maybe five (Nick says more), strung out across the road, sniffing, interested in nothing in particular. Until they saw us.

We paused, watched and waited. And they watched and waited. And then they moved toward us.

The decision to abort was made quickly, with barely more than a look. There was not another soul on the road. If we kept going we would have to cycle straight through the dogs and we could barely keep the bikes balanced on the steep gradient, let alone out-cycle a territorial pack.

The Descent:

So we turned. And then all we had to do, after over two hours of climbing, was roll all the way to the bottom.

We stopped before the wat, both of us a little choked with our, er?…choking? But it was the right decision. Those dogs, loping down the hill toward us, they were the manifestation of a fear that had haunted both of us for weeks. The dogs would have smelt it. Call it running away, but it was better to enjoy the descent we had worked so hard for with all our limbs intact.


Cycling bum…


On the way down we passed road bikes, mountain bikes, shirtless guys, runners, mini-vans, songthaew, mopeds. It sure is a well-worn path, but it was all the better for making our own.

We Did It: Lamphun to Chiang Mai, 9 July 2013


We left Lamphun with an attitude; ‘we’ve made it already.’ I think you would call that complacency. The GPS was there to put that right. As we left Lamphun I had lost my ability to read it and I took us to the edge of the city, the wrong edge.


GPS consternation

We found our way, eventually. Not returning to my nemesis, Route 11, the main road to Chiang Mai, but into the countryside, so similar to the landscape in which we had started our journey, for a final roll through rural Thailand.

Here we found peace, moody clouds, paddock after paddock of thirsty trees, surrounded by deep irrigation channels. Each tree bore clusters of green/brown fruit the approximate size of a ping pong ball. Later I learned that these were longan trees, bearing fruit called longan, translated as ‘dragon eye’ because of the resemblance it bears to an eyeball. At the time, I thought I had solved the problem of the strange green fruit I kept finding in my Thai curries, the solid fruit I always swallowed whole because, along with the lemongrass, I was not so sure I was supposed to ingest it. Turns out that the stuff in my curry was mini-egg plant or devil’s fig (why the semi-mythic, macabre names for fruit and vegetables?). It literally does not grow on trees, so it and the fruit on these trees could not be one and the same.


The thirsty longan trees

Further down the road we found a day market in full swing. Forced to slow down because stalls, shuffling people, careless, slow-moving mopeds and the occasional pick-up, lined the street, we decided to find breakfast. It was a good idea. We managed to find delicious Chinese-style rolls, cups of coconut juice on ice and fresh pineapple.

Unfortunately, we managed to obstruct the arterial flow of the market, me holding up two fully ladened bikes, preventing mopeds and pick-ups from making their way through the throng, people walking around me slowly, wearing expressions of expired patience and long term sufferance. We had come to enjoy the honesty of rural Thailand, but we were on the border of Chiang Mai city now. The pineapple stall was a sad reminder. Fruit would make a sumptuous addition to our exotic breakfast, we thought. The chopped pineapple was clearly marked with a ’10’ beside it. We indicated to the male stall-holder that we would like one bag, until an older lady barged to his side, ‘twwwenty bhat!’ She barked this, her contempt and determination emphasised in the long ‘w’. I pointed at the sign that said ’10’, but she repeated her price.

It could have been our mistake, but once more I felt we were being asked to pay ‘foreigner price’. We were ‘farang’; ignorant, looked at with mild scorn but also with an eye for opportunity, because from us come money. The woman joined the company of Squid Lady and Orange Juice Woman, both of whom asked more money from us than they would ask from a local. We should have refused the fruit – there were fruit stalls further on – but 20 bhat is not a lot of money and culturally (I think), I am rarely prepared to disagree, walk away, cause scene. We gave up the money (sincerely hoping the woman’s perceived victory gave her a warm feeling that came from inside, rather than down below), took the pineapple and left the market to enjoy our breakfast, albeit with a slightly bitter taste to mar it.

In the closing stages, the GPS made one final attempt to thwart us. Cycling in Chiang Mai city, joining the lines of traffic storming down three-laned carriageways, it told us to go east towards the airport. We did. Then it wanted us to turn right, into what seemed like the airport itself. So, ever faithful, we changed lane to make the turn. When I looked closer there was a security gate at the turn and a man in uniform. Abort! Abort! I waved Nick onwards, glaring at the iPhone in my hand and swerving with the other hand to avoid a car passing on my left.

Perhaps we could make the next right? No. Another security gate and another – very young – man in uniform. We needed a sticker, he said. We did not have a sticker, we said. It seems the GPS wanted us to go through the military section of the airport. Brilliant. We were forced to turn around and cycle towards the multi-carriageway roads that orbit Chiang Mai.

And finally, the rain came.

Compared to some of the angry rain or the military squadron rain I have experienced in Thailand, it was nothing, a gentle wash. We weathered it and after weaving our way through the sois (avenues) on the north west side of the city, we reached the end of of our travels; the inauspicious gates of the Spice Roads, Chiang Mai.


We swallowed lumps and swiped at eyes, claiming there was sweat in them. The bikes had been our constant companions, faithful – save my bike’s tyres; weak and prone to damage – and now two partnerships had come to an end. We both wondered at that point, ‘what will I do now?’

The final details:
Stayed at Estia Hotel.
Cycled 47.5km here is the Strava link.
No punctures, but finally the rain came as we hit Chiang Mai. Not enough to make us put our ponchos on though…


A worrying sight, made more so because I appear to have lost my left arm…

Beating Route 11 and The Kindness of Strangers: Lampang to Lamphun, 8 July 2013



Route 11, My Nemesis…

In the end, after the battle from Phrae, I did decide to get back on the bike. Although this decision was made with my customary gracelessness. When we landed at Auangkham Resort, Lampang, I was exhausted. We only had one night booked before cycling to Lamphun, the next stop, but on arrival, the first thing we did was book in for an extra night.

The following morning, over American Breakfast (fried eggs with salad, toast and processed meat) Nick made his announcement:

‘If you decide to take the train to Chiang Mai, Jo, I might give you some of my luggage and still do the ride.’

I had thought briefly that Nick might consider this, I had wondered if perhaps I should suggest it. Nick had coped much better with the hills than I and it would be unfair to take the experience away from him, simply because I did not feel I could go through with it. His suggestion was not unexpected or unreasonable.

But my response was both; so much so that I can’t print it.

Let’s just say, the reaction was not just violent, but graphically so. My pride, my determination to succeed and my fear of being left behind (definitely the most powerful of the three) all rose up and made of me a wild animal.

It also determined the matter. While I did not say it right away, instead, letting the violence hang between us, dipping bread into my runny egg yolk, I knew I had to complete the ride.

The owner of Auangkham was a keen cyclist (with a good sense of humour too, for he lamented missing a season and subsequently carrying too much ‘luggage’ with a rueful tap of his belly). The hills towards Lamphun were a popular club training run, he told us. He indicated with his hand; they go up, he angled his hand, then flat, he held it horizontal, then up, angled, then flat, then up, then flat, then UP, he said, holding his hand up at a much steeper angle and widening his eyes so the balls looked like they might pop from the sockets. Then with a smile, he told us of the colourful melon farm on the other side, where we could enjoy good coffee, just like he had done.


The Delizia Garden

We set off in good spirits; my tyres felt solid for a change (courtesy of the Auangkham bike pump) and I was also looking forward to a chance to redeem myself. In the early morning (for a change) we cycled hard out of town in the company of monks, business owners and school children packed into songthaew (pick-up vans converted into buses). Just as we were passing the Lamphun Police Training Academy, some 15km out of town, the mountains looming and me consequently edgy, there was a beeping behind us. Nothing strange in that, only it went on and on. I looked behind, swearing, to see a man in uniform bearing down on us on a moped.

We were being pulled over, I was sure, until I saw something I recognised in the man’s hand – my glasses case. I must have dropped it. Then I recognised the man, the security guard from Auangkham. Turns out that I left my glasses there. I was touched that the owner had gone to the effort to return them, but as he later wrote in response to my ‘thank you’ email: ‘moped is cheaper that FedEx.’

At the bottom of that stepped climb is the Elephant Consevation Centre. It is rumoured that this is the only ethical elephant centre in Thailand. For that reason it is somewhere I would have liked to visit, having avoided all the others. Only, the climb ahead loomed and I wanted to start while the sun was still low.

The hills were as described, a sequence of huge steps, weaving through the mountain, before one lung stretching climb to the summit.

The summit was a relief (Nick later admitted he had decided not to try and race me to the very top, for which I was grateful) but the highlight of the ride was the melon farm, Delizia Garden. For just a little while, I was in Tuscany, seated on the veranda of the brightly coloured building, hills hills hunched behind. I snacked on melon chunks and grape juice, the closest thing I could get to wine. Clink!


After that, we enjoyed a gentle, rolling journey into Lamphun. Less than 1km from the guesthouse we stood at the side of the road, in fact arguing over which direction to go, when a moped stopped beside us, ridden by two women; Mai and Pai. While I was suspicious, it turned out they just wanted to show us the way, and so we followed them in convoy to the Phaya Inn (er, with a couple of wrong turns on my part when I misunderstood their waving and gesturing).

At the end of a day I had more than I started with. I had regained a little of my self-belief and was also humbled by their kind attention.

The fact bit:
Stayed at Phaya Inn
Cycled 79km, here’s the journey on Strava.
No punctures and no rain.

Ain’t No Mountain: Phrae to Lampang, 6 July 2013


I have to pause before I write this to consider how to introduce and set up what was one of the hardest days of my life. I have to do it justice, I must convey eloquently the struggle…

Until that point, each day had been a struggle; two people in a country they did not know, in physical conditions they were not used to, cycling for long periods and with a significant load. Even when it was flat, it was never easy but we could meet the challenge without too much hardship. And we knew the hills were coming. We knew this day would be the hardest we would face.

I’d studied Google Map repeatedly, done the same with the paper map we carried and trawled the blogs of those who had gone before us. I wanted to know how bad these hills were and I also wanted to know which way to go. It was hard to know exactly what to expect from the sparse information available and I am no pioneer. From Phrae there were two options; the 1023, which wound through a forested national park, or Route 11 which took us past a huge reclining Buddha and then on into the hills. It was not clear from the blogs if anyone had used the 1023 but several bloggers mentioned Route 11, remarking on the length and intensity of one particular hill.

The staff of the Thai Phoom Garden solved the problem. We began talking to the breakfast chef – a man of great curry making skill – and told him our plan for the day. His mouth opened and did not shut, instead he gestured by flapping his hand for one of the girls serving to come over. She had done the journey a lot, he said. Her face, customarily wearing a mask of hospitality, softened when we explained what we were doing. No, don’t take the 1023, she said, too bendy, too fast, she gestured as though her hand was a car. I looked at Nick, the decision was made.

Next the chef wanted to see what kind of bike we would be doing this journey on, laughing to himself, he asked if we would be riding the pink ones…


The morning passed as our mornings usually did, some hard riding, some photograph taking…


Along the road were several places where a whole ark of wooden animals frolicked…


Just chilling…

…and indulgent consumption of sugary drinks. At about 13:00 we reclined beneath the blast of a restaurant fan, the remains of iced coffees, iced lollies, water bottles, red Fanta and crisps strewn before us. This was a rest stop, but also a celebration. We thought we had broken some tough hills and believed the worst was behind us.

The sun was blazing when we got back on the road and I felt in less than good shape. My body does not seem to like coffee mid-journey, so I was only just coping with the heat and the undulating terrain when we descended into a dip, out of which Route 11 crosses the 1023. And, if I had read more carefully, I would have known that this was where it got tough.

Rising from the dip, I stopped to breathe. Nick was keen to go on, at the forefront of his mind was his mantra ‘stopping was failing’ and he did not want to fail. Neither did I, but the idea burned a hole in my motivation and I stopped anyway, with a feeling of having given up; my lungs weren’t working and neither was my brain, defeated as it was by the sight of the ribbon of concrete going up and wrapping the hillside.

It is a fact that I carry a child inside me (I think we all do to some degree). She wants to be approved of, she wants to feel safe and be consoled when she is hurt, she wants adventure and she also wants to be rescued from the jaws of reality. By deciding that it was a good idea to try to cycle from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with all my luggage, I had made that steep, never ending mountainside, the sparse tree covering and the ferocious sun a reality. And she wanted out. I watched as Nick pushed on ahead of me. But the energy that I could force into those pedals diminished and as she made her demands – how much further? when would this be over? – I became weaker still, stopping for what could have been the tenth time, I broke down.

She was terrified. Who would save her? she wanted to know. I was scared, because I knew it was my job and I did not think I could do it. I had no idea how much further we had to climb; there could have been 10km more and all I could manage was 100m at a time. Each time I cycled into the sun it seared every bit of exposed flesh and robbed me of the energy and determination I had left. All the time the road kept on rising and the traffic kept on roaring.

I cried, I paced, I buried my head in my hands and muttered words about giving up. Nick stood patiently. All the while I knew I had to get back on that bike, I was just failing to accept it. I did not believe I could do it. Eventually I did, wobbling from the sparse shade towards the next corner, eyes fixed on the next patch of coverage. It was then that I looked down at my tyres, feeling the spongy lilt to my momentum; sure enough I had a flat again.

Strangely, it offered me respite. I suppose because it was an opportunity to think of something other than that hill, and when it was fixed, I was too – as much as I could be. A little determination had returned and somehow I made it; pedalling at times, pushing at others, I willed that bike and myself to the summit. I have no idea how long it took, how many corners I turned. At the summit I stood there shaking, cold even in the terrible heat. The relief was immense, but I had no idea how I would find the energy for the final 35km of ride. I prayed to somebody right then that there would be no more hills, knowing at the same moment that there was nothing I or anyone else could do about it, I must deal with what was to come.

Shortly after the summit we found a lovely cafe. I ordered melon juice, shivered beneath the fan and marvelled at the ghostly bicycles that cycled endlessly around the boundary of the perfectly manicured garden. And there was only one thing on my mind; I could balance, I could brake, but I could not pedal up any more hills, I simply couldn’t.


In my semi-stupor I did wonder where they got all these bikes from, and furthermore, how the idea came about…

But geography could not give a crap what I felt I could or could not do. There were several more climbs (although none as punishing) and some cruel ones that could be seen from miles away so you knew they were coming.

But I could do it. I did do it. Not gracefully – when Nick decided to act out the finishing line moment a mountain stage of ‘the tour’ as we approached a summit I told him exactly what he could do with himself – but I scraped through and eventually we were rolling downhill into Lamphang and the sunset.


Nearly home…

By then I had already told Nick that I had decided I could not go any further, I would be catching the train to Chiang Mai.

The details:
Stayed at Auangkham Lampang – highly recommended.
Cycled x km, check out what Strava says. http://www.strava.com/activities/65102900
Yes, another puncture, the rear.
No rain, only blazing, soul-sapping sunshine.

A Taste of Things to Come: Uttaradit to Phrae, 4 July 2013



The impending hills…

It was becoming a habit; leaving late, slow, sated on the hotel buffet breakfast. This day, we were also late because we mended yet another puncture; my front tyre this time, for a touch of variety.

And for a final bout of fussing we had to move our saddles. Google diagnosed that we were both suffering from Handlebar Palsy; a common cycling condition where the ulnar nerve becomes compressed due to constant pressure on the heel of the hands, causing numbness and pain. The advice suggested was as follows:

Overall, the cyclist should not be leaning and resting on the bars, the grip should be light;
The seat may need to be moved further back;
The handlebars may be at the incorrect height;
Core muscles should ensure a good position on the bike, rather than leaning.

Eventually, we left, seated a little further from our handlebars, crunching our stomach muscles and crossing our numb fingers in the hope that this would lessen the pain.

Thereafter, the ride to Uttaradit can be categorised by two things; the first of the hill stages and highways lined with durian fruit vendors. The durian is part of the Thailand right of passage due to being an indigenous fruit and for its disgusting odour. Inside the hard, spiked jacket, the fruit is akin to a sulphurous custard. Uttaradit is the principle producer in Thailand. And believe it or not, these fruits are pretty popular. Allegedly, once you get over the smell, you’ll love it. I did not.

I already knew I did not like the stuff when we pulled up at the side of the road to get sugary drinks. When a pleasant woman, one of the stall holders, held out portions for Nick and I on a plate I tried to decline, that is until it began to seem rude to do so. When all I needed was water, I was left smacking my tongue against my cheeks, trying not to gag, trying to push the yellow goo down my throat. All the time smiling, because don’t get me wrong, I was grateful.

The hill came shortly after, first of many on Route 11, as it turned out. It undulated to begin with, small climbs followed by rushing descents, lulling me into a sense that it was actually quite fun. Then someone forgot the drop. The carriageway split into two, leaving a crawler lane for trucks, and soon we were grinding upwards, HGVs chugging and wheezing past us. The road wrapped around the mountain and it was hard to see for more than a few hundred metres. Each corner bore hope that the summit was around it, but yielded only despair when it finally revealed another section of unrelenting climb. Nick was much stronger than me (and he told me later he attacked that hill as much for his Dad as anything, as it would have been his birthday that day) and I watched him push further up the mountain. I hated my body for how tired it was, how it could barely balance at those painful, slow speeds, how it let the front wheel to weave, using up vital energy, while my lungs felt like brittle shrink wrap.

I was later to realise that this hill was actually short. But at the time I was elated when I got to the top – elated, red and drenched in sweat. And then it was all downhill to Den Chai, the outpost some 20km west of Phrae (pronounced ‘prayer’).

We stopped halfway at a small coffee shop, drawn by the regular signposts and the promise of caffeine. Its young female proprietor welcomed us with a huge smile. It turned out she’d been ‘on the ships’ (this means working on a cruise liner, as Nick did for a number of years) before she came back to Thailand with enough money to begin her business, so Nick chatted to her while I thought about how inspiring that was. A cozy wooden cottage, flowered garden, a mural of the mountains painted by her brother and those ubiquitous emblems of travel (frogs on bikes and campervans) displayed on the counter, I felt a warmth from the coffee shop that didn’t come from my mug.


Coffee Heaven


It says it all, frog on a bike

The coffee was great and we left there with new hope (not least because the young owner had confirmed there were no more hills!).

Technical Stuff:

Stayed at Thai Phoom Garden, Phrae.
Cycled 74.4km, check out what Strava says.
No rain, no punctures, balanced by smelly fruit and upward cycling.

The Worst Day Yet: Sukhothai to Uttaradit, 3 July 2013


First it was the stage to Khampaeng Phet, then the one to Sukhothai, now it was the one to Uttaradit. Each stage in sequence was the worst we had done, only to be replaced by the next (little did we know that in a few days time we would wish to be back on those flat, endless roads).

It didn’t begin badly. We wended our way through Sukhothai, the early morning shadows still long, smiling with fond recognition at row after row of bicycles, passing wat after wat, stopping to take photographs of lakes and lily pads spread like a rich carpet before a regal wat. We could have stayed longer in Sukhothai if the kilometres we had to crunch hadn’t been so insistent.


Something to identify with…


So, what’s the problem!?

1.We were tired from the run the day before, having spent approximately 8 hours in (and out of) the saddle.
2. We had slept poorly, having been woken up by ceremonial drums or someone with a sick sense of humour at about 4:00 in the morning.
3. Our hands were more painful than ever, becoming as much of a hindrance as the baking heat.
But the baking heat was still a big problem. With a love of good hotel breakfasts and a belief that they were essential for the cycling day ahead, we stayed too long at the hotel, heading out as the day was starting to warm up to the blistering lunch time incineration level.
4. The first (small) signs of gradient. Nick pedalled at these, spoiling at the mild challenge, where as even the sight of them made me more lethargic and I began to worry about things to come.
5. Food again – the huge (and very delicious) chocolate milkshakes we enjoyed at lunchtime in Si Satchinalai increased the burn. There is a good reason why competitors in the Tour De France do not stop off for milkshake; if I could have got more sluggish, then I did after that shake. That said, I’d take the shake every time, it was amazing!
6. Finally, as sure as night follows day, negativity breeds negativity. Instead of the hoots and the waves, all around us was noisy, fast, unforgiving traffic.

I tried and failed to stir some positive feelings with 80s soft-rock (this usually never fails), then turned on ‘The Woman in White’ audiobook, hoping to distract myself with a story much darker than my own (there’s a logic to it somewhere).

One blessing was that that the hotel was sign-posted from well out of town. With aching hands and hearts we followed these on auto-pilot for kilometre after kilometre before the mecca of the Seeharaj Hotel (home of mid-week karaoke), came into sight.

The facts:

Stayed at Seeharaj Hotel, Uttaradit, where they kindly allowed us to keep the bikes in a cranny, just off the main reception.
Cycled 103km, check out the link on Strava.
No punctures, no rain but my bad attitude made up for that.

Life and Death on Route 101: Khampaeng Phet to Sukhothai, 2 July 2013


The day began badly. The Navarat Heritage Hotel had done away with the buffet breakfast, consequently we only had one course and Nick’s spirits were low. Then they wanted to charge us more than twice the agreed rate for an alleged upgrade that we had not been told about. We stood our ground, but that meant we were already behind schedule when we removed the bikes from the ballroom to the hotel car park.

It was already hot and the air was rent with despair. Thai crows circled overhead. Beneath a tree at the edge of the car park a small fluffy crow, large feet wheeling, was fleeing for cover. If it could have flown it would, but it didn’t know how, it may even have fallen from the nest trying. The flapping and screeching continued while the adolescent bird made shelter.

I set about fixing my panniers, swearing as usual when the handlebar bag lock got stuck. Sweating, beads running down the valley of my back, I glanced up from beneath the peak of my baseball cap; the bird had not gone unnoticed. Two Thai workers, orange masks over noses and mouths, were watching the tree. They had come from the workshop on the other side of the car park. They walked closer, both pulling the masks down, revealing expressions of curiosity and dangerous excitement. They squatted before the tree, rubbed their faces and examined the dust and scrub. Frustrated, hoping they would not find the bird, I barked at Nick to hold my bike steady as I fitted the final item of luggage.

The cries overhead grew and grew.

I didn’t see them take it, only looked up to see their backs as they made their way towards the workshop, trouser bottoms dusty, flip flops hooked over dirty, dry toes. I felt sad because their heads were cocked towards the cupped hand of the older man. While they made their way towards the workshop, excited by the small, fresh life they held, believing they might keep it or save it, the tearing, unified voice of the flock above and the silence that followed confirmed that the young bird, to them at least, was already dead.

I got on my bike and we headed to route 101 with a heavy heart.


The number says it all

It was on this journey that the pain in our hands became more than an annoyance. Before beginning the ride I would not have believed that holding handlebars for hours on end would hurt, or that my hands would actually be the most painful part of my body. The discomfort in the heels of my hands and my middle fingers had always been there; but I had developed a contortionist’s ability to twist my arms and hold the bars back to front or to arrange my fingers like claws over the bars to take the weight from the heels of my hands. But on this day, my tactics failed, my fingers and lower arms were numb by half way into the ride and I let it consume me.

While my wheels were rolling better than they had done in days (courtesy of the bike shop in Khampaeng Phet) my expectations of the ride were low; my heart was not in it. I just wanted crunch the 78km the GPS told us we would be travelling. But after a luxury rest stop (two drinks; iced coffee and Red Fanta) it was not long before I realised I had another puncture, the bike fairly bouncing down the road. It was the rear wheel again.

Like the tyre, our spirits were flat. I cycled with my eyes on the concrete, watching the wings of stunned butterflies tap out their last beats, how a lizard that scuttled into the road, was twisted upwards, before flopping beneath the wheels of a speeding pick-up. Later we saw a dog, disturbingly large across the central white line, one leg detached and blood leaking from its dead mouth.

The GPS let us down; we ended up in flat countryside, without habitation as far as the eye could see. So, we spent the rest of the day looking for signs of life.


Nowhere (the middle of it)

And eventually, beneath a rain-burdened sky, we found our way, passing and riding straight through rural life to put our bad day to bed.


Cow herding


Cycling Thai-style

The stats:
Stayed at the Thai Thai Sukhothai Guesthouse – recommended.
Cycled 91km, here is the geek bit on Strava..
No rain.
One rear puncture on my bike. Again.

Mountains and Way Markers


Mountains are big, to many they are insurmountable, to others they are a problem to be solved and a chance to learn.


The Thai hills between Phrae and Lamphang, best seen from a train

Thailand is behind us and we have moved on to Malaysia; first stop Georgetown. Georgetown has a lot going for it – culture, food, architecture, museums, Queen’s Bay sunrises – but we decided we needed to do something more physical. So, we headed to the edge of town, to the Botanical Gardens to begin the walk to the top of Penang Hill.

The road heads up the hill just left of the entrance to the gardens and is clearly marked for walkers. But there is also a route from inside the garden, a series of steps cut into the humming jungle.


The jungle stairway, from above

Over the last two months I’ve realised that I need to DO something when I am travelling. Doing, rather than observing, allows me to feel more a part of the landscape or environment I’m in. Of course I am still a stranger but I am interacting (even if this means sweating all over and gasping for air). For this reason I would rather walk somewhere, hire a bike, get a public bus (although on this day I was eating my words; we got the wrong bus, which meant a further two bus journeys, not much less than an hour each) or train. That is over an organised tour, where sights are flourished before me, along with the food, drink and t-shirts, before I am gathered up for the next experience; this should appeal to my lazy nature, but it only leaves me feeling empty and frustrated. So, the walk to the top of Penang Hill seemed like a good idea.

Mostly, these steps just go straight up and will not spare you. The path hits the road eventually, passing a rest area where macaques hang out, scrounging food from the locals and nursing their young. At this point, I believed the hard work was done. Sure, we had more hill to go, I estimated 3km of it, but the climb was on concrete and I’d read somewhere that it was only the first kilometre that was really steep.

On the road, glad to be free from the suffocating jungle, we came across the first way marker. A small blue sign, printed with 1.6. I assumed this indicated 1.6km covered from the bottom of the road, and this conviction was strengthened when approximately 100m later we passed 1.7.

The markers climbed with us. The climb became a real climb, signposts indicating that the gradient was 30%, tendons in my legs stretched to their maximum, bent double, breathing hard, willing myself around the next switch-back; I realised I was relying on these markers. They told me I was making progress to the 5km summit. As I passed one marker, I could think about the next. Each time I saw a marker, my waining will was recharged a little and in spite of the sometimes laughable gradient, I was reassured.


Way marker 2.3, a very reassuring marker

As I climbed, I thought more about these little markers. And found I was remembering one of the most awful and the most exhilarating days of the trip. It was the most challenging day of bike riding (although we could not comprehend quite how challenging at the outset), a distance of 110km from Phrae to Lamphang, crossing hunched, indifferent mountains to get there. I had done my research, several cycling bloggers who had beaten the path before us had commented on there being a number of hills, a couple recounting that there was one particularly long climb that took over one hour. With each hill we climbed, I was not sure if that was the big one, but hoped each time that it was. I became increasingly tired. But when the big one came I knew it. It was just after lunch, I was stood less than 1km up a climb on Highway 11 and I couldn’t go on. The gradient was steep and unrelenting, carrying all my luggage, the bike moved no faster than walking pace as I ground the pedals round, wobbling with my weight. My whole body pulsated in the 40 degree heat and where fabric did not cover me, the sun stole what energy I had. My head pounded, telling me I needed more water but our supply was limited and I had no idea how long the climb would last.

A milestone (or kilometre stone, as it really was) had told me we had 45km left to cycle. The number boggled my mind. ‘But the climb,’ something inside me demanded, ‘how long is the climb?’ I could not think of anything beyond the next 5km but I had 45km to worry about. What I really wanted someone or something to tell me, just a little further, only 2km left to go…

There was nobody to rescue me, I knew that. Nobody could make it all go away. But something inside me still demanded to know how far, it raged, it would not, could not go on if it did not know how far. It was not enough for that each 100m I travelled, whether I pushed the bike or rode it was 100m behind me, I would not have to travel that distance again. But I could not believe that I would see the top of that mountain. I did not have the faith that each step or revolution took me closer to what I had set out to do.

When I finally got there, cycling the last 100m in a blind panic, fleeing from the huge (in my mind) red and black bug that continued to harass me, I felt two things; relief and trepidation, because I did not think I could do it again. But heaving my way up Penang Hill in the company of those handy blue and white signs, I realised I relied on way markers way too much.

I believe I need them in other parts of my life; my job, my relationships, the sports I enjoy and that thing I think of most of all, writing. I look for little signs everyday, especially when I am back home, things that will tell me I am doing ok, heading in the right direction. If I cannot find them and don’t tell me what I want to know, I feel despondent. Take my job; wage rises, reviews, promotions, the attitude of my boss and other colleagues, the responses and reactions of customers I meet. One problem with this mindset, I realise, is that you come to rely on them. A second problem is that they might not really be giving you accurate information, there are so many variables out there. The third problem is that the mindset is like that of a child who looks for praise to affirm that the things they do are good. The fourth problem is that it is a poor and misleading substitute for faith.

There is a fifth problem. Its a habit. I have this bad dependent habit that is hard to break. And worse still, what I want to do most in life is to write; never was there an area of life so dry and barren of encouragement and so dependent on faith. Rejection and despondency spring up like brush in the desert and if they can they will snag all your inspiration and ideas and hesitant starts; if you let them. All there is the desire to do it and the faith to keep going.


Smile and keep going

My trip and this blog have been part of that. I have found that the blog stats can suck me in, encage my habit. I can look at those statistics and be energised by a new follower (yes, just one will make me happy) and floored by a post that nobody read. But doesn’t everybody feel that way? What is important is that you (I) don’t give in. There are no signs, no measurements, no-one to tell me yes or no, just a hill waiting to be climbed and a blank screen waiting to be styled in black.


The next mountain, Gunung Brinchang, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

This is a good time to say a big ‘thank you,’ to everybody who does read my posts…


The Slog to Khampaeng Phet


We knew the ride from Nakhon Sawan to Khampaeng Phet (second land of wats, after Ayutthaya) would be hard work, being approximately 130km. Once again City App Thailand said ‘no’. It did not like the rural river route that appeared, on the map, to run directly from Nakhon to Khampaeng Phet, it wanted to send us north, at a right angle, to the main road. We were not convinced, but there was that lingering doubt; what did the GPS know that we didn’t?

To ride 130km Nick calculated that we would be on the road eight or nine hours. That sounded like a loooong time and true to form, keen to shirk hard graft or at least get a discount on it, I was determined that our time on the road would be shorter. So, we left Nakhon when the roads striped with shadow and empty of cars and mopeds.

To begin with the pace was good, interspaced with doses of Red Fanta on the hour.


Break time!

But the day was hot and the road was flat (and what I did not know was that soon I would be desperate for anything flat) and long. By just over half way I felt exhausted in the punishing midday head and the act of pedalling was like a constant uphill push.

When I finally looked down I noticed the flat and slightly squishy front tyre. Curses from me, desperate looks from Nick, this was flats numbering four for me. We changed the rear inner tube and pumped the front at Tesco Lotus, between eating our own body-weights in grapes.

Only the day improved very little. The shadows lengthened and we were uneasy. We had decided to defy the GPS and take the river route, so whenever I looked at my iPhone to check our progress it kept telling me to turn around. Flagging and with more than 20km to go, my nerves were frayed. The only thing that helped, other than fruit and sugar in little red bottles, were the constant greetings from the people working in the fields or on the roads. Honking, instead of a form of intimidation, had become something to raise smiles and spirits.

They sustained me just enough so I could not capture another animal wat – Zebra wat, this time, a curious choice of idol – or the Red Fanta shrine – if there ever was a God, then one that took offerings of Red Fanta would be the one I could understand (one who drank them would be even better).


Zebra wat. I was confused by the dazzling display of wealth representing a religion that counsels against attachment to material possession and more confused by the representation of an animal found mostly in the savannas.


All that glitter and gold – the startling gold buddhas


And the Red Fanta shrine – I get this one

The day was nearly gone when we rolled into Khampaeng Phet and stumbled across our hotel. With over nine hours in the saddle we were both hot, tired and looking forward to a day off!

The detail:
Stayed at the Navarat Heritage Hotel, Khampaeng Phet
Cycled 131.8km, here are the stats on Strava
No rain
One puncture, rear tyre, plus suspected slow puncture at the front

Dirt Cheap Sophistication – Uthai Thani to Nakhon Sawan


We left Payamai Resort early, waving to another group of cyclists suited in lycra, shades and helmets.

We paid a fond farewell to the town of Uthai Thani, and its disproportionate number of bike shops, as we made our way through the early morning traffic. As we waited at traffic lights in the town centre a Thai woman pulled her moped alongside, a child perched in front of her. She asked where we were from and an exchange followed that neither of us fully understood. As the lights changed she revved the moped and set off, calling ‘welcome to Thailand!’

The ride was short and unremarkable, save rivers and sparkly wats.


The sparkling roof of this wat brought me up at the road side


The obligatory river bridge photograph – nice job they’ve done on painting those flower pots

Perhaps I needed something to remark upon, because say 5 – 10km from our destination I noticed that both of my wheels were squeaking and shuddering, albeit almost imperceptibly. My brakes were sticking, moaning against the wheel rim, which meant I also began to moan.

The biggest challenge on the ride, aside from my moaning, was the final 500m; turning right across four lanes of dense traffic.

The Aramis Hotel, Nakhon Sawan, is gold and marble sophistication for little cost. OK, so the gilt edges show a little; the infinity pool is right beside the car park, for one thing, which in turn is right beside a busy road. But the place has a concierge (sophistication indicator), who insisted on wheeling the fully laden bikes into the marble lobby, unloading the the dusty panniers unto a luggage rack (indicator two) and gesturing that the bikes could stay in that large glass and marble space. We issued huge thanks and went off to raid the mini-bar.

Nakhon Sawan holds a special place in my heart. This is not for the bike ride, nor for the huge shopping mall, nor even for the lovely hotel, but for the great market that was setting up when we got there. By the time we had drained the mini bar of juice, showered, dressed and eaten, the market had begun to hum. And it was my type of market; hand made silver jewellery, t-shirts, foods, fruits, plants and vintage clothes. Along with cut off denim shorts, shirts, worn casually with the sleeves rolled up, seem to be a big thing over here. As do military jackets, vintage dresses and fashion sports shoes. NOt a Chang t-shirt in sight; more floral and well-worn canvas. Here, my long thwarted desire for ‘stuff’ was sated with two shirts, one crisp, stripy, a perfect fit, the other overlarge and checked, 180 Baht the lot. What I did not like into the bargain was being, once again, reminded by Thai market stall owners, that ‘lady, you are an ‘L”. The degree to which I was disgruntled did not compare to a Sing Buri department store encounter in the underwear section; I am still traumatised by this one.

As markets go, it was one of the best I have experienced. The best thing was that it was not put on for tourists, as I suspect Nakhon Sawan courts and attracts very few. However, something we foreigners do tend to love are the famed bugs and maggot snacks and this place had several disturbingly popular vendors. A big ‘no thank you,’ from me.


Market – yes please!

The fact stuff:
Stayed at the Aramis Hotel.
Traveled 45km.
No Rain.
No punctures but sticky, squeaky brakes.