Thursday, February 5, 2015

Northern Thailand: One LOONG Loop

My Garmin shows just over 2,600 kilometers with shocking altitude gain
I've been to Thailand twice but never explored the north. With Bangkok as my jumping off point, I headed north to explore the mountainous region of this country. I had no real itinerary and it changed as I pedaled after talking with other cyclists and locals. I headed northwest and found myself off the beaten path for a good week. When I say off the beaten path, it means passing through towns where you hear every-other-person shout with glee, “Phalang!” as if they haven't seen a western pass through their town before.

After a week of pedaling on my own, fully immersed in the local Thai life, I came across a Warmshower host on the way up to Mae Sot, where I'd start my mountain loop. Pisut and his family run a government Teak plantation. Pisut loved to bike, making it out for a short ride almost every single day, and it was a friend of his who turned him on to Warmshowers. Since he is en route to Myanmar via Mae Sot, an overland border that has just recently opened, he has been bombarded with guests. My visit coincided with Thomas from Lithuania who had left Lithuania almost a year ago and just come Myanmar. He had stories and stories to tell and nothing but good things to say about the people, although the roads he encountered in the south were horrible! We had a good time talking about tour cycling and Pisut and his family were very kind feeding us delicious food!

Pisut and his wife Voranant (super petit lady) both very cordial and kind
The next morning I set out for Mae Sot and started ascending. I didn't stop for a good ten days. I forgot what the roads are like in Southeast Asia when they cross a mountain pass. The grades are unreal, never imagining that a fully loaded bicycle would attempt the climb. Even the trucks struggle, you see plenty pulled over on the side of the road with maintenance problems due to the steep grades. In my mind, the mountains in Northern Vietnam and Laos stick out as being the most difficult climbs, but I must say, Thailand's northwest corner has plenty of horrific climbs, where my GPS frequently showed grades of 18% lasting more than half a kilometer, and 12% felt flat!

For being the "dry season" it sure is awfully green here! Lush hills in all directions, but there are loads of forest fire warnings.  Farmers burn their fields and create awful air pollution in northern Thainland.

My days consisted of seeing alternating signs, downhill and uphill caution, a relentless roller coaster

Why subject myself to such torture? It's the scenery. You can't go wrong riding through the mountains, regardless of the country, the landscape is unbeatable! Not to mention, many times you have the roads all to yourself as was the case from Mae Sot to Mae Sariang. Roads were in great condition except for a 25 kilometer stretch that was under construction. Dust was everywhere and it was impossible to see the ground to avoid the pot holes. It would have been a minor problem had the road been flat, but there wasn't a flat patch to be found, only ups and downs. A local shared pick-up “ “ went by and without thinking twice, I hailed them down. Thankfully there were no other passengers in the back, so I just loaded my bike and took a ride to where the construction stopped. It would have been impossible to make it through without a broken spoke or other damage.

The temple in Mae Hong Song at night, quite charming.
The view of the pass that awaits me the following morning on my way to Mae Sarriang.  Very limited services on this portion of the road
Yes, it was actually chilly from the summit and on the descent
It was in Mae Sariang that I ran into more tourists. A lot of westerners rent motorbikes in Chiang Mai and head up North to do the “famous loop”. This was rather disappointing for me because the roads became much more crowded and the little village towns had sold themselves to tourist. One exception might be Mae Hong Son, which was a nice quaint town and rather sleepy compared to it's neighbor Pai. However, a lot of people come here to go off and see tribal villages such as the Karen and there is a lot of debate regarding how the Thai government exploits these tribes, as if tourists are visiting a human zoo. I opted out of visiting one of these villages and kept on the main road. The scenery was nice, but not as pristine as I had encountered south, before the start of the official tourist loop. My days would easily start out by gaining a good 1,500 meters in about 20 to 30 kilometers. For those of you who don't comprehend these numbers, basically it took me about 4 to 5 hours to ride 30 kilometers, a distance I could cover in just over an hour on flat territory! Thankfully there are border patrol and “police boxes” as they call them almost every 20 to 30 kilometers on the road. I stop there for fresh cold water and even a free wifi signal. It's great!

Tha Pae Gate from the old city wall in Chiang Mai.  A famous icon and meeting point in the city 

One of countless temples in Chiang Mai

I eventually made it down out of the mountains and felt like I was flying as I road into Chiang Mai, where I stayed with a Warmshower couple, Lee and Mal, for a few days to rest, regroup, and take care of some logistics. By that time, I had encountered enough tourists who had been to Myanmar and raved so about the country, and how it was going to change ever so quickly, that I decided to change my itinerary and head there, rather than Laos. This meant processing my Burma visa in Chiang Mai using a travel agent (something I never do, but it sure beat making a trip back down to Bangkok) and waiting around for a week.

Bo Sang, an artisan umbrella making village SE of Chiang Mai

I was mesmerized by the craftsmanship, seeing the entire from start to finish

Delicate and intricate work

Waiting around is not something I do well, so I regrouped and planned a circular itinerary through the northeast portion of the northern region. I also spent 2 days sight seeing in Chiang Mai, visiting the landmarks there, and a few artisan villages in the outlying area. Below are some of the highlights from this itinerary before I returned to Lampang and met the Wongwang family.

Chiang Rai's White Temple
No I didn't stop in Chiang Rai, a big bustling city in my opinion and I had just come from Chiang Mai. I did however go to the White Temple just south and enjoyed my visit there. Yes, it is a tourist hot spot, but for good reason. If Antonio Gaudi were born and raised in Thailand, I imagine this could have been one of his many masterpieces. There is a juxtaposition of architecture styles that oddly work well together. The entire temple is white, covered with jewels and ceramics, with a moat around the perimeter. It impacts the visitor because of it's stark but dominating presence.

Chiang Rai's White Temple, a Gaudi-like architectural structure

A lavishly decorative temple; all white

These are white hands that are coming out of the mote and look rather surreal juxtaposing the traditional temple decor

Golden Triangle/Chiang Saen
After visiting the White Temple in the morning, I headed northeast to the region called “The Golden Triangle”. There never really was a city by this name, but tourism has put it on the map because it is the point where 3 countries come together and share borders: Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. It is a neat phenomenon, but of course tourism has reaped it for what it is worth, creating a main drag filled with souvenir shops and countless boat operators eager to take you out on the river. It was here a car full of Thai tourists hailed me down to give me loads of treats, from water, baked goods, sticky rice, and Thai pants. Very thoughtful. They had seen me in the morning at the White Temple and couldn't believe the progress I had made in the matter of hours. However, the terrain was on my side, completely flat with a tail wind. I didn't stay in this tourist trap, and pedaled south to the quaint town of Chiang Saen, where I maybe saw one other western couple at most. A charming little town on the river, with Laos on the other side, mountains in the background. My mind was flooded with memories when I first crossed the border from Northern Vietnam into Laos, and tackled those mountains.

A good visual of The Golden Triangle
What it looks like in reality.  I'm in Thailand, Myanmar off to the left, and Laos on the right with the temple
Laos on the left, Thailand on the right from a viewpoint headed out of Chiang Saen

Doi Pha Tang and Phu Chi Fa
Sometimes I get my inspiration and route ideas in the strangest of places. I had seen a postcard in Chiang Mai of Phu Chi Fa, a viewpoint on the northern Thai/Laos border. I'm sure it had been photoshoped, but the scenery was unbelievable. I had to go! There were 2 viewpoints within 30 kilometers of one another, perfect destinations! Of course in my mind, I didn't stop long to think that any site labeled as a viewpoint is going to involve serious climbing. I set out eager to see some gorgeous scenery, and to my surprise found myself off the beaten path of tourists, at least western tourists that is. As a result, I found myself without a hotel in the area, and so I stopped a local cyclist on the road and asked him where I could put my tent. It just so happened his wife ran the local health center. She was closing up for the evening but they said I could put my tent in the backyard and use the toilet and cold shower. I was all washed up with my tent ready to go, when the tenants from behind came home, saw me, and showed me a room in the health center where I could sleep, equipped with clean sheets, towels, and even a fan! It was probably nicer than half the guesthouses I had stayed in previously and I had a restful night sleep, imperative for the climbing that awaited me the following morning.

Climbing would be an understatement. Little did I know I had set out to tackle some of the steepest mountains in my life. It was early morning, and well before noon, but the sweat was dripping off my head and pouring down. It was like I had a sprinkler under my helmet. The kilometers passed ever so slowly and by the time I reached the first lookout, there was a little town 2 kilometers down below and the turn off must have been a 25% grade. Clever as I am, I decided to go to a restaurant where I saw several motor scooters parked outside. I gestured if I could take a moped and leave my bike to go to the top and they all chuckled, but proceeded to give me the keys. 

And so I set off, bike helmet and all to see the lookout. Yes, it was breathtaking a well worth the major detour! I refueled (myself, not the moped) down below at the restaurant before heading to lookout number two. If the road was anything like the one I had just come on, I was in for a grueling afternoon. Luckily the road was mainly windy, but didn't gain any sort of significant elevation. However, I again encountered the turn off and saw a steep grade going straight up for at least 200 meters. This time, there was no little village down below. Here I thought I was at a major tourist destination, but all I had seen on the top of Doi Pha Tang were local tourists. I stopped and waited, hoping to flag down a car going up or a motorbike, but no one passed. I doubted whether or not I was at the right turn off, but proceeded, hiding my bike and continuing on walking the last 2 kilometers.

My legs had had enough, I opted for motorized two wheels for the last 2 km.  I offered to pay for the moto, but they just laughed!
Fog hovering in the valleys during the late morning from Doi Pha Tang
To my surprise, there were a few hotels along the road, but the road and area was rather abandoned. There were 2 cars in the parking lot when I arrived at the top and set out to hike the trail up to the lookout. What a view! If I would have planned it right, I probably would have camped at the top in one of the sites, but I settled on a picnic instead. There were more people at the top than two cars would hold, which is when I hypothesized I had entered through the back way, pleasantly avoiding all the major crowds. Down below over the crest, there was a small Laos village with a long and windy dirt road headed in. I was thankful to be on a paved surface with the elevation.

The marker from the top of Phu Chi Pha
A panoramic view from the top of the lookout
another spectacular view from the top
After going to Lampang, I headed back to Mae Sot, having completed one big look of the north. I wanted to stop at Thailand's ancient capital, Sukothai to visit the World UNESCO site. Agains I was surprised not to see more tourists here. Many of the ancient temples have been rebuild preserving the architecture style. The ruins are somewhat reminiscent of Angkor Wat, and even have Khmer influence, but the crowded are next to nil in comparison! It was like I had the whole place to myself and rode my bike around the historical park weaving in and out of the ancient ruins. I would higly recommend visiting this historical landmark if headed north in Thailand, but since it is slightly off the main drag, I think it is overlooked by many tourists.

One of the first Chedi's I came across at Sukothai's Historical Park; Great contrast between the brick and the white rock.
Column remains at one of Sukothai's ancient temples
There really were NO tourists here.  It was like I had the whole place to myself!
From Sukothai I rode to Tak, where I would officially complete my loop and planned on taking a bus up to Mae Sot to not repeat the same climb I had done 3 months ago. I never ride buses when visiting countries and so it didn't occur to me that they might not take my bike. The major bus company wouldn't and a local bus offered to put it on top of a mini-van, but I opted for Plan B, ride a ways down the road and hail a pick-up to hitch hike. Every other car in Thailand is a pick up, making it easy and probably to get a ride. I found a border station and asked the police using hand gestures if they'd help me find a pick-up. They offered me a seat, but I hadn't been sitting more than a minute when a pick-up drove through and they agreed to take me! I felt like a superstar at the Thai border booth, all the officers wanted their picture with me and would let me touch my bike as they lifted into the empty bed! Talk about the royal treatment! It was a real treat to hitch a ride the second time I traveled this road. As it just so happens, this young family was from Mae Sot and owned a bakery in town. So when we arrived, instead of dropping me off at a hotel immediately, they brought me to their bakery and I was offered all sorts of sweets which I couldn't turn down after a long day of cycling!

On my second to last day in Thailand.  No complaints in this country, even places the scenery on the average backroad in Thailand is pleasant

How many Thai policemen does it take to load Melissa's bike in a random stranger's pick-up truck?

The family that gave me a lift as to not ride the same mountain pass again.  Mom, son, and one of the workers at their bakery.


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