13: Thailand, The Beginning of the Mae Hong Son Loop

I have been avoiding writing more blogposts from our South East Asia bicycle tour since it ended so suddenly. In a way, by not catching up the blog I can almost deny that it ended in such a way. That seams silly but it is an effective way at taking any motivation from writing down my memories and thoughts. If I don’t catch the blog up to the present day then I don’t have to admit that journey ended. That being said I know the covid 19 pandemic has shattered so many lives and livelihoods and ultimately Heidi and I are very lucky that it has only stopped us from traveling the world by bicycle, but it still hurts. I put so much energy, time, thought, effort and passion into dedicating myself to experiencing the greater world as intimately as I could under my own power. To see it all ended so suddenly was quite a surreal and painful experience, not unlike watching a dream shatter or a relationship end. Thinking on it at one point is nostalgic and on another painful. Not too unlike going through the grieving process after a break up. Ultimately I know that I am still in love with seeing the world by bicycle and I know that there will be another time and chance to continue in that manner. I have watched others continue to try and bicycle tour through the pandemic and it just isn’t right for me. They have all hit lockdowns, gotten stuck, unstuck, blocked at borders and changed plans completely. On some levels it is selfish and it risks the health of those around you but it also goes against most health and political policies put in place to protect people thus taking out a huge part of the human element of bicycle touring, which is a huge reason why we do it. The time to go out and see the world without concern or shame will come again. Until then pictures, memories and words will suffice.

Upon leaving Chiang Mai I was vibrating with excitement to get started again on the bicycle. I had been dreaming of this day since I had started to crave a cultural exchange while walking the PCT. Sometimes one just wants to get completely lost in another culture and to learn more about themselves in the process. Walking in the woods it is easy to daydream about this and build anticipation. Each new country for bike touring is a completely unexpected experience and for full disclosure I was scared of all the expectations. Time and again I had heard that Thailand was a wonderful country to bicycle tour through and I couldn’t help but desperately hope that it would be the same for me.

That first day didn’t even get started till noon and we pushed on the pedals through the mid day heat out of the hot and sweaty city. Our first goal on the way out was to fill up our gas canisters for cooking and then the open road was our only companion till the sun began to set. The bikes felt wobbly and unbalanced and biking on the left side of the road was a constant mental game of twister that could end with dire consequences. I immediately regretted not buying a cheap bike mirror to start this trip and I began scanning the roadside stalls for a bike or scooter shop as we headed further and further into the country side. As the fields grew wider and the buildings less frequent I spotted a dark building with some bicycles poking out of the front.

I quickly pulled my bike over and wandered around until finding an old plastic mirror I could haggle over. After some haggling we agreed on 7 dollars and as I was putting the mirror on my bicycle I immediately broke it. With some super glue and allot of duct tape I fixed it in front of the woman I just haggled with. She observed me with a slightly amused and respectfully curious gaze and with a quick and embarrassed goodbye we were off.

The infamous mirror

The temperatures were hot but the terrain was completely flat. Through the Smokey haze we could see the mountains we were heading towards and knew from experience that we were in for allot of pain over the next few weeks. Turning onto our final road for the day we finally entered into the base of the mountains winding up a jungle valley with elephant reserves on either side of the road. At one point we were even able to wander up to a few elephants for some pictures but no camping was allowed in the area.

At our next spot we asked to camp and to just put up our tent on an open and dusty field next to a picnic bench. We were quoted a price twice as high as a private room should have cost…. After some more attempted haggling we eventually gave up and wandered back into the village we had just passed through with the light dimming and no place to stay. This was our first real experience of a complete language barrier since we had some basics in the language for every country we had traveled through prior to Thailand. Our bodies exhausted and our minds quickly turning to mush trying to speak in Thai we finally ended up communicating what we were needing from a kind woman outside of a house along the main road. There were no signs but it turned out the home was a homestay. We haggled an appropriate price and exhaustedly set up for the night.

The woman hosting us was extremely patient and kind and after we had freshened up she took us across the street to the stall of her friend who could sell us drinks and food. We sat trying to communicate with google translate to some amusement and many awkward pauses. We ate what was a kind of Thai bbq where we selected the raw meats and we were then shown a place to sit by the fire while they grilled them for us. It was delicious and salty after the first day of cycling and we were happy to have figured everything out for the next 12 hours.

When we were finished up and about to go in our host gestured that we should follow her. Heidi and I joined her in the dark down a pitch black alley towards the sound of obvious festivities with the dancing lights of a large bonfire. We turned the corner and there was a large group of men all drinking and eating with music playing. They were welcoming and a bit shy at first but after a few shots of bootlegged Thai whiskey we were all greatly enjoying each others company, dancing and singing and eating roasted intestine that was deliciously fatty and salty.

We left everyone to carry on with the long day catching up to us and we rested our heads after an eventful first day on the bicycles in Thailand. The following morning we ate a simple and delicious breakfast and stocked up on a few complimentary sugar cookie packets from the homestay before hitting the road. The early morning start was a perfect cool temperature and we observed farmers in trucks driving to the fields with the workers piled into the back sitting and standing while they waved at us as we huffed along.

The early morning brought a tropical mist that burned off as the sun rose feeling the intense tropical sun turn up the sweat and focus our world into a drippy, sweaty, grunty mess. This would be our new normal for the months to come. I had read many times that Thailand had wonderful shoulders to bicycle along but the road we were following, while well paved, had zero shoulder to speak of and the farmers going to and from work kept it from being a relaxing experience. The roads quickly turned into some insane 25% grades that demanded walking and we quickly realized we were not going to make our goal of the top of this first pass considering that this was only our second day on the bikes.

We pushed along forcing our way up the massively steep hills in pain but having no real choice but to push on further into this mountain valley lest we have to turn back and go many kilometers around to just go up the next steep valley over on the main road. At the top of our first main climb it was lunch time and we saw according to my map that we had twice as much climbing yet to come. We desperately sat down at a roadside stall selling food and enjoyed the view while nervously looking at the 25% grades on the map yet to come. lunch was a delicious and cheap noodle soup with lots of spicy additions for my portion. It was a larger portion than we were used to and one of the best meals yet in Thailand, the food was certainly not disappointing.

The heat was oppressive and we decided that we had bitten off more than we could chew for day 2. Perhaps after a good month of cycling we would be conditioned and have no problems with these grueling climbs but this was just too much. Luckily it had not gone unnoticed that everyone around here drove trucks, which is a cycle tourers dream for hitching a ride. A man with his son stopped to grab something at the shop we were eating at and Heidi walked up and asked in broken Thai if he would hitch us a ride to the top of the pass. After a confused moment he agreed to take us and we put our bikes in the back.

I sat in the back with his son who curiously followed me with his eyes as we motored up more 25% grades that made the engine wine. There would have been now way for us to make it up this for day 2 of our riding and I was very happy to have been given an out to my poor decision making in early route finding.

After briefly stopping at a home on the side of the mountain road a woman walked over and asked us where we were trying to get to in English. We told her just the top of the pass in another 5 kilometers and we could ride from there, after translating this to the truck owner we carried on and were dropped off at a higher elevation in cool and wet tropical jungle. The man was very kind and refused any offer of money but he happily took a “thank you” picture I had prepared for moments such as this. With that he turned around and we were on the side of the quiet road next to a military checkpoint since this was also the border of the Doi Inthanon National Park. We walked up to the lonely station in the jungle and surprised the man on duty who was watching TV. We asked in broken Thai if there was a water source to fill up our bottles and he showed us to a bucket in the station where we could fill up. We filtered the water under his curious gaze and I could tell he was enjoying seeing two foreigners on bicycles at the top of his lonely pass station. We thanked him and he walked us back to our bikes where we waved goodbye and began the much more enjoyable ride down the other side into the park.

The ride was lovely and cool with a higher elevation mountain breeze and jungle greenery everywhere. I stopped on a random dirt pull out to allow Heidi to catch up since she is more conservative on the descents and I quickly learned that the pullout was the entrance to a botanical garden. Heidi joined me and we took a break wandering around the facility. No one was there but everything was open so we wandered around enjoying the beautiful and exotic plants and thinking to how happy some of my friends from Red Butte Garden would be to have a chance to wander around this tropical equivalent of their garden in Utah. We found that the garden was patroned by the queen of Thailand and after an enjoyable break we carried on downhill deeper into the park.

We set our sights on the National Park campground where we saw we could set up our tents and have access to a bathroom and cold showers for only 3 dollars a night. We knew that we needed to take a rest day after the muscularly destructive start to our adventure and this looked like the perfect place to do so.

The road opened up into a steep and beautiful valley where you could look across at the highest point in Thailand with waterfalls gushing out of the jungle mountainsides, if you knew where to look. At the camping entrance we were told to go a few more kilometers down the road to the official National Park headquarters to buy our camping tickets and we obliged to exhaustedly bike on further, through the small town at the bottom of the valley and to the very regal looking headquarters. We observed various army personnel practicing soccer on a very green field and retraced our tracks back through the village to the campground after getting our tickets. The campground was in an evergreen forest and for dinner we just walked down to the main road where several outdoor eating areas were present for us to choose from.

With night we could see the whole valley aglow with the agricultural structures keeping the growing cycle on a 24 hour circuit. This whole valley was a type of government experiment in what could be produced to help the local farmers move away from less legal crops that they had historically been producing, what I would assume to be historically part of the opium trade.

The glowing valley from agricultural facilities

After our first two days of cycle touring we were already taking a break, but looking at the map we were only just beginning on this grueling loop and I couldn’t be happier to have the freedom to stop and take a break. No schedule other than our visa, no plan other than whatever recommendations we stumbled along that kept us moving in the generally right direction of North East.

During our rest day we stumbled across a Canadian couple twice while they were on a mission to rescue every street dog puppy they came across. I tried to explain to them that the cultures here were different (mostly based off of my observations of countless puppies and dogs in many other countries where they didn’t elicit quite the same emotional attachment as what we give dogs in western cultures) and it was a rather fruitless cause but I commended them on their efforts. They regaled their daily tribulations of taking a puppy they found to a rescue home but then were charged a second entrance fee into the park even though they had already payed once. Heidi and I looked at each other quickly realizing we had never payed an entrance fee. The guard at the military post on the lonely pass must have been too distracted by our sweaty entrance on bicycles to charge us while we asked him for water. His was not a main entrance but the entry point for the small rural road which we had chosen to enter upon. With this in mind I wondered what it would be like upon leaving the park.

The next day for our rest we wandered around the local botanical gardens in the valley bottom and enjoyed finding another delicious local Thai eatery further away from the more touristy spots right along the main road. The scenery was beautiful and we pushed through on a short day hike to the base of a large waterfall.

Once back in the town we stocked up on some cheap basic groceries to be self sufficient for a couple days and made our way back to the camp. Across from us a group of local Thais around our age were setting up camp and we enjoyed making friends with them and conversing with google translate as they prepared an amazing feast of Thai bbq and other foods. The Thai people certainly know how to cater for themselves. We learned many of them were students and friends from further south and were on a short Holiday. It was lovely to meet others our age and we parted ways impressed by the ease of conversing despite no common language but a common respect, humor and politeness.

Upon waking and with our second night in the park finished and our first rest day completed we packed up and began pedaling. The hills were immediately painful again but this was unavoidable considering our lack of conditioning so we pushed onwards knowing we would get stronger with time. It helps to have done this several times before knowing it would get more manageable in its own time. We had also learned so much from our previous trips so our gear list was considerably lighter, inspired by through hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This alone is perhaps how we could keep pushing on, no way we could have done this with our old bicycle touring set up.

At the top of the next mountain pass we were at a fork in the road where we could choose to continue climbing to the highest point in Thailand but with our lack of conditioning I was happy with the accomplishments so far and knew that we would be climbing again soon after the next low point. The guards at this checkpoint didn’t ask to see our tickets and we biked onto a much quieter road winding down the steep jungle mountainside towards the unknown. Our journey was off to a difficult but rewarding start. Experience was fueling us with the knowledge that we would get stronger and the lighter bikes were making it easier to push onwards but the next couple of days would still be some of the most difficult days of bicycle touring I have ever done.

2 thoughts on “13: Thailand, The Beginning of the Mae Hong Son Loop

  1. Anonymous

    Nice narration – makes me want to go again. It’s probably fun to re-think about that time and pull the memories back and put them down in words. We’re all on hold during the pandemic & looking forward to more travels to come.

    Like

  2. MARGRET BOES-INGRAHAM

    Daniel, Nice to hear from you. RBG closed for all of January! We are anxious to visit on February 2nd. Very strange times and not sure what this next season will be like. Lynn and I walk every Tuesday so are planning to check out the garden on Tuesday.

    Cheers!
    Margret

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s