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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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

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

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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.

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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!

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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

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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…

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tour of Thailand: Prologue 22 June 2013, Bangkok to Ayutthaya

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Er…by train…

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It was clear we should start the Bangkok to Chiang Mai bike ride in Ayutthaya. Mike D did it from Bangkok but suggested it was crazy. You might say catching the train is cheating; but that is only if you consider staying alive to be cheating.

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Ride it if you dare…

In Bangkok the pavements are fair game for any small vehicle and the roads are akin to a war zone. This is a place where size matters and not a place to try to balance on a bike you have never ridden, using panniers and carrying luggage, which you have never done, amid traffic customs you have not experienced. So the bikes were transported to Hua Lampong Train Station by Siam Taxi Van and loaded into third class.

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Never have I travelled so cheaply (the bikes, however, were many times more expensive at 100THB per bike – still nothing to grumble at though).

It would have been an enjoyable ride, had I not been worried about disembarking. It was somewhat olde worlde with the open windows providing the ventilation and the open spaces between the carriages where Indiana Jones would have been chased onto the roof to do mortal battle with some villain. Now people risk their lives by standing out there having a fag.

This is a bicycle tour, the operative word being tour as much as bike, so I wanted to stay in places of interest. Ayutthaya appeared interesting; once the capital of Siam and a major trading port before the city was sacked by an invading Burmese army in 1767. Ayutthaya is almost off the wat scale and one of the things to occupy tourists (didn’t I say I wanted to get away from the tourist trail?) is to hire bikes and cycle the city, visiting old wats and new. It seemed obvious that already having bikes we should spend some time there, so we stayed for two nights.

In Ayutthaya, at the beginning of our ride, several themes began to emerge – punctures, wats, wats and wats (including cockerel wats), karaoke and dogs – each to be endured, admired or avoided.

Sorry? What did I say about wats? So, perhaps I was angling for my full wat dose: my wattage. In any event there were no wats on day one. Negotiating the howling dogs at the train station and the slightly less intimidating traffic, when we arrived at Luang Chumni Village we were asked to wheel our bikes through a waste land. After unloading we prepared to head out to investigate the ‘island’ and buy a puncture repair kit and I found I had my first flat. One new inner tube of three used and more self-flagellation about having forgotten to buy the puncture repair kit in the first place. That was my first realistic Thai experience; trying to buy a puncture repair kit from a very rudimentary bicycle shop, across a huge language language gap and with several Thais watching. I couldn’t manage a whole kit, but I did achieve four patches and some glue for 20THB.

On day two we set out to explore the floating market and the wats. Close to Bangkok, steeped in some history and grandeur of days gone by, Ayutthaya still draws the tourists. Even though it is low season there was much evidence of that. Tourists meandered the roads on bikes. Their coaches and mini vans lined the streets. And there was still that Thai attitude to tourists that I had so longed to escape from in the south. Take the floating market (no longer a place where trade takes place on junks, just another t-shirt tourist trap), we were asked to pay 20THB to park our bicycles on the street. Never in my (not that extensive) cycling career have I been asked to pay to park my bike; that is one of the beauties of bicycles, is it not? No fuel, no parking fees. No, thank you; we dumped them outside the 7 Eleven.

On the same day we paid a visit Wat Phra Mahathat, central to the island and opposite a food market. After having had my feet savaged by ants while parking my bicycle (for free), I was not in an understanding mood. A sugary drink helped but could not rescue the situation when I saw the ticket booth for the wat; in plain English there was a ‘Foreigner’s’ price. I watched throngs of tourists, clearly happy to pay this, trailing from the booth towards the ruins. No. Interpreted in its most negative light (a skill of mine), it was a blatant declaration that the foreigners or tourists were there to be taken advantage of.

We still saw wats. In Ayutthaya it is hard not to. And as we cycled further afield we noticed that as well as wats there were dogs (I had encountered many dogs in the south of Thailand and up until then was unafraid). In the road, under cars, enjoying the shade of a tree or a nook of a wat; but one thing was clear, they had the run of the place. Strolling around Wat Kudi Dao a whole pack trotted and circled, outside the low walls, one with a mouthful of road kill. Other dogs appeared and joined in. They were some distance away when we entered the ruin, until one dark one (small, but in my mind resembling a hound of hell) slunk inside. We watched from the stairs of an old pagoda as the dog began to wind its way through the fallen stones. The question really was, were these old bricks his territory?

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Sadly I left my khaki shorts, white vest and huge gun in Ao Nang.

I felt like I was on the set of Tomb Raider, but with none of Lara Croft’s bravery or ammo. Quietly we tiptoed across the court yard, retreating under the dog’s narrowed eyes.

Dinner was a marked contrast to the day’s exploitation and dereliction. We had scoffed on the train while reading a Lonely Planet paragraph on Gahn Glooay. Effectively a bar/restaurant/karaoke venue; although from the look of the female staff it appeared to have a fourth function. Purely by chance and driven by hunger, we stumbled in there. Never have I been more uncomfortable as when, having asked for Singha Beer, the staff hovered pointing out what we should order. My brandished two fingers and menu pointing, were not understood. But to my surprise, when my hastily ordered food arrived it was some of the best I have tasted in Thailand. And the karaoke? Well it wasn’t great, but hey, the people in there were having fun and there were no dogs.

The final theme was kindness. While Ayutthaya left a spicy-sour taste in my mouth, Luang Chumni Village (at 1000THB per night) was a truly lovely stay. The owners leant their pump (after the wasteland incident), gave towels to dry the bikes and prepared a lovely breakfast; the staff were friendly and kind. The rooms, rustic wooden stilted things – some with the bathrooms located under individual houses – were a delight and are surrounded by well tended garden and what resembles a small moat. Ok, so we shared the room with a lizard that had the awful habit of chattering in the dead of night night but as I was later to find out, he was to be the first of many. I left there with regret and some anxiety about the 80km of road to the city of Lop Buri.

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Lizard home stay, I can’t recommend it enough.

The Journey Starts Here

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The journey starts here…

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…on a train.

Having done some research and read several blogs (Mike’s Travels in Asia being one of them), I decided it was not safe to cycle out of Bangkok.

22 June 2013

Train from Hua Lampong Train Station to Ayutthaya. A bargainous 15THB for people, a not so bargainous 100THB for the steeds. The first puncture and the strangest dining and Karaoke experience, ever.

23 June 2013

A day of consolidation in Ayutthaya. Spent taking in the floating market (a heavily tourist-driven attraction where a woman tried to charge 20THB each for parking our bikes – er, no), the wats (complete with special ‘Foreigners’ price – again, er no) and avoiding the roving dogs.

24 June 2013 –Ayutthaya to Lop Buri (approximately 87km

Hot hot hot. Sweating, squinting to read the GPS on my iPhone and more dog avoidance. And another strange dining experience at The Broiler, Lop Buri.

25 June 2013 – Lop Buri to Sing Buri – approximately 50km, but the GPS was having none of it)

After GPS said ‘no’ we made our own route. This was a better day of cycling, winding through rural villages, stopping occasionally to snap a wat and buy 10THB orange drinks at the side of the road. Beautiful greens, soggy paddy fields and big smiles.

26 June 2013 – cop out in Sing Buri

Despite the plan for the longest ride so far, woke up, took in the grey sheets of rain against the silt brown of the Chao Phraya outside the window and booked into the hotel for another night. Once again nearly attacked by dogs.

27 June 2013 – Sing Buri to Uthai Thani

Getting into it now. Arrival at the most striking town so far. It still retains its strong connection to the Sake Krang River, Delightfully exudes an Old West feel with its wooden shutters and wide dusty streets and has a huge amount of bike shops. Most of all, it is a friendly place.