My Family – Special Guests


It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. Deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin rarely shows his face, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…

I was aware that there is no equality for women in Nepali society, why else would the charity run a ‘Women’s Empowerment’ program? But as a visitor from another culture, whose own society has made significant, if not absolute, steps in equality, I didn’t think those rules applied to me.

So women, the time of the month is never your favourite time of the month. You’re uncomfortable, painful, those around you more imbecilic than usual… Imagine if, during this time you were forced to live in an outhouse with a sack for bedding and a diet of dried cornflakes for nutrition…

I was becoming comfortable in the household routine. I had got into my daal (lentils) baht (rice) rhythm and every morning I made a point of buying an English language newspaper (small things), which I would read when I got home from the office.

One day, making myself comfortable with The Himalayan Times, Prem came to sit with me. We had our usual non-sensical exchange – a kind of small talk made even smaller because we are usually not even talking about the same thing – before he stood up and announced that we were to be special guests at ‘Mummy’s Brother’s’ house.

I had met Mummy’s Brother – in Nepali culture it is common to refer to people by their family role – along with his wife, a day or so earlier. Mummy’s Brother told me he had been in the Gorka Army and between tours to Cypress, Brunei and Honk Kong, had been stationed in Aldershot, England. I was happy to be invited to the family’s house, if only a little disappointed that The Himalayan would have to wait.

Then Prem began talking to me about mints.

‘Mints?…Mints? You have mints?’ I told him that I had not had any mints recently, knowing that was unlikely to really be asking about mints. He was close, in front of me and he moved his big hands from his throat to his waist in a flowing motion, repeating ‘mints, mints, mints.’

I strained, trying to summon any inspiration. Then he added a new word, ‘nat-ur-al,’ spoken very slowly.

With a creeping horror I realised Prem wanted to know if I was menstruating.

‘Mints,’ meant menses. I could see the funny side; this huge, Mongolian decendent, standing in his front room, hands moving as if in some Hawaiian dance, talking about natural flow. But what right did he have to ask? And what right would somebody have had to decline me dinner if I had said yes?

Whether I would have been kept in an outhouse with only a burlap sack for my bed and denied real sustenance for the fear that I would make anything else I touched impure, I don’t know. But I do suspect I would not have been able to go to dinner, had I answered yes.

This primitive practice of ostracising women during menstruation and following child birth is Chhaupadi. Some Nepali men believe that menstruation and child birth render women impure; their solution, to remove them from the house and the food and the clean water supply. It was outlawed by the Supreme Court of Nepal in 2005, in theory. But only this month The Kathmandu Post (Friday 12, ‘Doti village to be free of Chhaupadi’) covered the story of a district Village Development Committee preparing to declare their village the first ‘Chhaupadi free area’ by October. Now, I know things run late in Nepal, but that is seven years late; it strikes me as the action of a disinterested government looking to appease some international pressure. But what do I know?

Shadows stretched long under the setting sun and the weight of our cultural differences, Prem and I set out for Mummy’s Brother’s house. He mouthing and repeating the English word for menstruation, which he had made me tell him, ‘men-stru-a-tion.’ Me, having given up trying to tell him that it was inappropriate, stunned by the destructive power of superstition.

My Family – Meet the Family


It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. But deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…

This is Prem Gurung and his wife Himalchul – ‘Mummy’. Suman, their nephew, lives at their house too.


Mummy looking sardonic, as usual…

The Gurungs are my Nepalese family. Prem speaks some English and Mummy’s English is on a par with my Nepali. We communicate with hand gestures and smiley faces; we are having two conversations, sometimes three, but we are trying.

I know their house is numbered ’21’ but I do not know the street name and postcodes do not exist.

For three weeks I am on a dusty, pot-holed ride with my family (a typical experience in Kathmandu) to appreciate how they live, laugh, love and, er, wash in their noisy suburb of Somewhere Northwest of Kathmandu…

My Family – Teej Party


It was not until my volunteer placement in Nepal drew close that I became anxious about living with a Nepali family. Different customs, different language, different beliefs. But deep down I do know that the ‘What If’ goblin, but also, things rarely turn out the way you expect them to…

My host family, Prem, Himalchul (‘Mummy’) and Suman, their nephew are Hindus (or ‘mix’, as Prem would say, when talking about food, water or religion; because Hinduism in Nepal, is often mixed with Buddhism). Anyway, for the purpose of this story they are Hindus. That is how I came to find myself sweating in a third storey front-room lined with the faces of multiple-generations of Nepali families, dancing some hip-shaking, hand-curling Hindu dance feeling startlingly alive and also wishing for the pain to be over. I would have accepted dying as a way of achieving this.

Why? Last week saw Nepal celebrate the Hindu festival of Teej.


Teej celebrations out in the open…

The Technical Bit
Teej literally means ‘third’; it occurs the third night after the moonless night of each month. The most important Teej is the one following Shravaana month, which falls in the monsoon season. This is ‘green Teej’ because everything is turned green by the rains (I expect this was named prior to the advent of the motor vehicle and the over-population of Kathmandu, because here, everything is still brown, covered by dust, pollution and general filth) and this is the one the Hindus really celebrate.

Teej is known as a woman’s festival. The reality is that is observed by women dressed in red in support of the wellness of their husbands or future husbands. An extremely male-centric female festival. It involves eating, dancing, singing, fasting, washing and taking offerings to Lord Shiva at the local temple.

The Story
Hindu women pray to Lord Shiva, God of Destruction. So it goes (as I was anecdotally told on a fruitless slog to the viewing tower at Nagrakot) that Shiva returned from places unknown to find that his wife, his goddess, was dead. He was desperate, furious. He did not know what to do. Possibly he lost his mind. He set out naked, taking only his rage with him. He walked and walked. As he walked through the villages he was observed by the women. They were struck, not by him but by his great male appendage; they abandoned their work and set out to follow.

When the priests arrived in the villages they found the women gone. At once they set out to bring them back. Eventually they found them with Shiva, him still naked and them still in thrall. The priests too were furious; they cursed Shiva that his appendage should fall off. And fall off it did.

Shiva retaliated, driven insane by these circumstances. In retaliation, he cursed the women. He cursed that they should never find satisfaction from one man, that they would be insatiable, needing man after man after man and were doomed to be bitches forever.

There ends the tale and that is why, thousands of years later, I found myself on a dusty carpet, trying to mimic the moves of the delicate but feisty Nepali girl in front of me. The reality was stiffly swaying hips out of time to scratchy songs of high-pitched voices and great percussions of drums and string, wiggling and knotting my arms and fingers.

Sitting down after the song – to applause of sorts – I avoided looking at Prem or Mummy, cringing from the intimacy forced upon me. While I was thousands of miles from home, this was just like being at any family party and I, emotionally uncomfortable, was unavoidably me.

Many of the women around the room declined to dance, reticent and giggling. The children sporadically threw themselves across the carpet, then threw themselves onto a chair with sudden self-awareness and the men took control, one pocketing the remote for the stereo, claiming DJ position. And later, when the men were cajoled, pleaded, incited to dance, the room was full of disturbing South Asian displays of ‘dad dancing’.

No party would be complete without the spectre of social embarrassment. Getting up to dance for a second time, he followed me. Trying desperately to copy the hand-pumping, spinning example from the beautiful dancing girl, I smashed my armful of plastic Teej bracelets together (thinking that was what I was to do with them). One immediately shattered across the floor and while I was about to shrug, I saw the looks of horror on the faces lining the walls, followed by frantic scurrying to find the pieces. I reddened from the inside, completely Teej-ed.

That was not enough, he would not let me be. The third time, my arms flailing, I hit a woman and a child, in two separate moves.

Time to sit down.

When I finally made my bed, full of rice pudding and daal, I thought of how even with different clothes, beliefs, dress, music, a family party in Nepal and one in England was not so much different. The reason was different (I am not sure I would welcome a man-celebrating festival in the UK) but the humans were the same. The only absence was alcohol. And, while I am a confirmed lover of wine, this could only be a good thing.

Farang Footsteps: Organised Tours in South East Asia


These are Dave’s legs. As you can see, I followed him. We met on an organised tour to see the Rafflesia flower in the Cameron Highlands. The Rafflesia is one of the largest flowering plants in the world. Dave is ‘farang’ (a Thai word for people of apparent European descent), so am I, and, likely, so are you.


Dave’s Legs…


This is the Rafflesia…

High Expectations:

I’m not sure what I expected when I flicked through my Lonely Planet books last autumn, imagining my journey through South East Asia from the comfort of my Yorkshire sofa. There were so many amazing things between the pages, Thailand and Malaysia had so much to offer; rock climbing, snorkelling, scuba diving, walking through caves, cycling through ancient cities, kayaking through mangroves (whatever they were), riding on elephants, trekking to remote hill tribes, culture, history, food. On one hand I had no idea which of these things I really wanted to experience. And not once did I think of HOW I would experience them.

In the beginning it did not matter. When I reached Thailand I could do little more than limp around Kata Beach, Phuket, before spreading out on the sand for the day. My left ankle was painful and swollen and on top of that, I managed to fall down a huge hole part way through my stay. Still, on the beach road I got my first experience of Thailand’s tourist industry; shop front after shop front touting taxis and tours, an assault of leaflets and ‘A’ frame signs. Each ‘Travel Agency’ hawked the same tours – Five Island Tour, James Bond Island Tour, Ko Phi Phi Island Tour (they filmed ‘The Beach’ there), Elephant Safari, or all of these squashed into a one-day bonanza. It had a ‘roll up, roll up,’ feel and it was all about the commission..

Tour Avoidance:

The Thai people working the shops looked bored. If you looked long enough (three seconds might be enough), then they would call out to you, barely hiding their cynicism. They would smile, because you are business. The smile would not touch their eyes. No thank you, I stubbornly said to myself, I did not want to see James Bond Island that badly, or at all. Somehow, those far off adventures I had read about were tainted.

One day, I walked from Kata Beach to the Southern view point, passing the elephant safari centre on the way. I walked slower, peered towards the canopy without trying to be obvious, saw the huge beasts chained, moving a step backward, one forward on a dirt floor, again and again. From my distance, for that snatch of time, the conditions looked poor. I always thought I would see – not only see, but touch – elephants in Thailand. People told me I would but I did not want to give money to a place like this.

At Karon Beach, Phuket I was hijacked by Joy and on Koh Lanta I satisfied myself with the moped, the rubber plantations and the local animal rescue centre.

Things changed in Ao Nang; unapologetically touristy as it is. I watched the Muay Thai, snorkelled as part of an island tour, cycled the island of Koh Klang, kayaked through mangroves and was shunted between hot springs and emerald pools in a steamed-up minivan.

Sounds fun?

The Tours:

Snorkelling (800 Baht, say £17-18). I shivered (I was not particularly well) on a long boat for eight hours. I caught Thai fishermen and slices sunlight on my iPhone, took walks on remote islands and watched a beautiful sunset. All this under the care of three ragged Thai men – in charge of the long-tail and catching squid for our dinner – and a Spanish man who excelled at draping himself across the bow of the boat and diving into the navy and turquoise depths at unexpected moments. I believe he might have offered some information about the snorkelling or the fish, but this was only to the privileged few at the front of the boat and was quickly lost on the wind.


Slices of sunlight…

When my brother arrived we took more tours.

Krabi Ecocycle took us to the Muslim island of Koh Klang (1000 Baht, £20+), where Wut, the enthusiastic proprietor showed us around the island, demonstrating the craft and history of its people. ‘Eco’ is the buzz word in tourism now. Really, whatever ‘eco’ prefixes, may have no less impact on the environment than the next non-eco tour, but on this occasion – cycling equals human power – the title is justified.


My brother, Robert, and Wut

And the kayaking (600 Baht, £13)? Well we got to the water’s edge in a gas-guzzling pick-up, piled into two-man kayaks, and with little instruction we crossed the sea and into the mangroves.


Kayak confusion

The emerald pool and the hot springs were wet; not just in the pools but out. It was truly miserable (I grant you I went in rainy season so should expect rain). We were sealed in a steamed mini-van with an extended family of Japanese holiday makers and carried from one site to the next. The overweight driver pulled back the door to release us, and I felt like we were dogs let out for a run. The purpose-built (for tourists) sites were deserted, low season and the rain driving the remaining few for cover. We made the walk to each attraction, dipped our bodies with all the other humans, then made the return journey to await rescue from the rain.


Soggy tourists…

I felt like a caged animal, forced to endure an indignity to which I would not willingly subject myself. But the fact was, I had.


And Finally:

Nick and I decided to take a tour in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. We thought it would be a change from the marked tracks we were walking, we thought it would take us away from the beaten ones.

Our group numbered no less than 20. This is where we met Laura and Dave (who were on part of a 16-day tour of Malaysia), some vocal Americans (with a strange penchant for ‘Are You Being Served?’) and Pok, their professional guide (originally from Thailand).

We followed yet another guide to find the flower, accompanied by some local men. All had fearsome knives; for what, I am not sure, because the path through the jungle was a thoroughfare, populated by several other large groups, leap frogging each other and crowding to be first to get to the flower.

We stood in a line to take pictures of it, flies landed all over us, oblivious to how we waved and swatted. Lazy flies, the worst kind. Several people wanted multiple pictures; of them with the flower, of them with their friends with the flower, them doing a peace sign with the flower. They passed their cameras back and forth, adjusting themselves, not caring that they were actually standing on the flower, tearing the huge red petals that, in truth, looked like raw flesh. I took the pictures but could not wait to leave. With the flesh and the flies, the flower repulsed me.


The flower in its rotten form…

What they did not tell us (or else they did it so quickly that I failed to hear) is that the flower, far from being an out-sized epitome of beauty, is known locally as the ‘corpse flower.’ Not only do its petals resemble traumatised flesh but they smell like it too. The flower is part of a parasitic vine and attracts flies by the dozen.

I’m not sure Dave and Laura enjoyed it; they were looking forward to the tea plantation scheduled for the afternoon. Pok wanted to leave. He skipped through the undergrowth on the trodden down backs of shoes (a Kao San Road buy), cynical about Malaysian time keeping and organisation, anxious to make sure the transition to the plantation went off.

For me, the tour was everything I feared when I walked by those shops at Kata Beach. I was repulsed, by the experience, as much as by the flower.

But we saw what we wanted, right? So, I have asked myself, why I am so against organised tours? Am I the worst of all tourists; the hardest to please? It came to me, as I was cycling through Sydney Olympic Park along the cobbled Olympic Boulevard, pristine after 13 years. Bright green flags flapped, still celebrating what was past, great curving buildings stood as proud as ever. Pride; that was it. Most of the tour companies in S E Asia seemed to have no pride in what they were selling. The pools, the mangroves, the flowers were places used to entertain farang. It seemed the tour companies cared little about preserving these sites and farang only trampled and left.

In an effort to balance my cynicism, I would say Wut (Krabi Ecocycle) was different. He clearly took pride in his business; the tone of his body, the condition of his pick-up and his mountain bikes, the diversity of his tours, the explanations that he gave of the surroundings, all said so. So, his are the type of footsteps I would follow, away from trampled nature and cardboard culture.

And perhaps that it why I ended up with a bike between my legs and half of Thailand waiting before me, making my own footsteps; no elephants, no islands, no huge flowers…

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.
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.

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.