Plummeting downwards from the high point near Doi Inthanon we tested the full capabilities of our current disc brake pads. The jungle changed as we dropped in elevation and it became drier and farmland began to appear once more through the patches of hillside in the steep jungle valleys around us. We arrived at my selected detour to cut across a rural plateau on small dirt roads to avoid dropping all the way to the deep valley bottom below.
Heidi was nervous since it was the first technical descent of this trip with very steep descents on loose gravely roads. The mountain roads in SE Asia are extremely steep since they follow the ridgeline tops instead of curving around the mountainsides. This is to avoid landslides during the torrential rainy season and it works just fine for anything with an engine but to bike up these hills really redefines steepness with some grades approaching 30% on loose and dusty soil. With some encouragement and a reminder that we have already done similarly hard things before, we dropped down a steep and gravely road further into a valley off of the beaten track.
As we descended I noticed a sign with a waterfall symbol so we pulled over and followed a short track with the sound of rushing water growing louder by the moment. Through the jungle we spotted a massive waterfall and we both enjoyed a snack break and our luck at accidentally stumbling across such a beautiful spot.
Several other tourists showed up on scooters which they had rented several days before to explore the mountain roads of Thailand. We briefly said hello while hungrily scarfing down an improvised snack of cheap Thailand quickie mart snacks.
Heidi and I continued our descent along the dirt track that, in the steepest bits, turned to concrete briefly in areas I would assume they are trying to avoid erosion. At one very steep little climb we came across our first water buffalo wandering along the road. I was nervous to go past it too quickly since I had no idea what the proper water buffalo safety would be with such a large animal with horns. It turned out to have a similar demeanor to a cow so we eventually carried on despite its stubbornness to not move.
As the day progressed the road got more dusty and the Doi Inthanon peak reared up behind us as below we could see many fields quilting the rolling hills that continued off into the distance. The air was smokey since it was the beginning of the burning season for many of the farmers. This was a good time of year to clear the fields of excess growth and weeds and to prepare it for the rainy season by burning the refuse. I believe that there were more proper ways to dispose of the agricultural waste but it was too expensive and time consuming for many people and burning it was the fastest and most economic option.
As lunch time approached we began rolling into the largest conglomerate of buildings we had seen yet on this road, which we hoped would have some establishment for us to buy food. As we rolled under the archway delineating the entrance to the community we saw several groups of people all walking down towards a common area.
One man quickly approached us and asked what two foreigners were doing on bicycles. His English was excellent and we easily communicated that we were looking for a place to eat lunch before continuing on. He gave us a thoughtful look and then stated that there were no places to order food in the village but would be honored to invite us to their wedding celebration for a newlywed couple in the community. Heidi and I accepted and were ushered down a side road to where we could hear music and celebration.
Once we arrived everyone was very excited to say hello and welcome us while clearing a space for us to sit down. We were told that it was a sign of good luck for the wedding couple that travelers would come into the village on the same day as their wedding and that it was their honor and duty to welcome us and offer us food and lodging for the night to bring good luck to the newlyweds. Heidi and I were overwhelmed and very thankful but we had not covered as much ground as we would have liked for the day so tried to explain that we would love to stay and visit for a few hours but needed to continue on. With this we were served various delicious foods that i’m sure were made specially for these kinds of occasions and we ate as much as would be polite while introducing ourselves and showing as much thankfulness as we could for this amazing hospitality.
I could tell that the festivities had not just begun since most of the people attending were already quite drunk from Thai whiskey, which we were offered and drank frequently. It was relatively tasty stuff for alcohol made in the valley and we tried saying “nit noy” to explain we only wanted a little. This was rough translation of what we were trying to say and they laughed at our attempts and joked that “oh then only a little more.” In this we drank various mini shots while not wanting to be rude but the tropical heat and the salt on my clothes demanded me to take it easy.
A karaoke machine was present, which I quickly was learning to be a mainstay of Thai celebrations, and we enjoyed singing a few requests for their favorite songs in English. As the revelers got more inebriated and the day got later Heidi and I began to try and pull ourselves away in earnest wanting to cover more ground since we needed to earn our rest days off the bikes by covering a decent amount of ground in the beginning. Everyone kept insisting that they “knew a guy who had an uncle” (or something like this) that would be willing to host us for the night but we quickly learned this was a way to not take responsibility for hosting us and we didn’t want to be rude in refusing a true offer to stay. Most people kept saying someone else would host us and we both quickly decided it was best to leave before we were pinballed from one inebriated patron to another as they tried to hash out who would host us for the night.
With a quick goodbye we made our exit but I gave a thank you picture card to the man who we first met and he walked us back to our bikes and thanked us for visiting. With a fond farewell to the bride and groom we were off to allow them to celebrate with out feeling the need to host random strangers who just stumbled into their community.
We had learned that this was a Karen christian village and many of the people were originally from Myanmar. The Myanmar government had for a long time a history of conflict with the christian communities in the mountains and that there were thousands of Karen refugees living in Thailand only a few hundred miles from their original homes. Whether this village was a historically established Karen village or a village of refugees I was not sure but I knew that their hospitality was genuine and the many smiles and hellos would fuel us onwards with difficult miles to come.
The road continued onwards until it popped us out back on a paved, more main road which we would follow through the mountains towards the next major river valley where we could continue north and to continue the Mae Hong Son loop. The heat was ever present and the green hills slowly turned to drier and more scrubby terrain with steep hillsides as we pushed onwards towards the final village for our day.
The road was relatively quiet and when we arrived in the last village for our day we easily found a lovely “A” frame bungalow to rent for the night. We set up camp and then began wandering down the road into the village proper to look for a place to buy dinner.
Being closer to the equator we noticed that just like previous trips at these latitudes the sun sets extremely quickly and we were in darkness along a quiet country road very quickly. We eventually came across the only establishment that seemed to be open and we made ourselves at home and ordered a meal while a group of locals made a massive bonfire in the backyard of the restaurant.
They were extremely friendly and welcoming and they quickly asked us to join them in the beer butt chickens they were preparing. We couldn’t say no and we happily enjoyed a few Thai beers while watching the whole process of preparing the chicken, flaming it, and then chopping it up with delicious spices. I was quickly impressing all of the local peoples with my ability to eat super spicy food just like them and I could only thank my Latin roots for the lifetime of conditioning for just these moments (Thank you mom).
The man who spoke the best English, explained that he was also from Myanmar originally but had come to Thailand to escape persecution. I never figured out what community he was originally from but he stated repeatedly how in Thailand he was welcomed with open arms and this was his home now. It was sad to hear of so many people displaced and experiencing atrocity’s but the community he was a part of welcomed us as well and we enjoyed some delicious chicken with our own meals and sat watching the bonfire which they couldn’t help but keep making bigger and bigger as the night went on.
With the night getting later one of the men who had originally welcomed us offered a ride back to the place we were renting and we happily accepted to avoid several kilometers of walking on a pitch black road.
The following morning we returned to the bar on our bicycles but they were closed and after rolling around the village a few times we finally found a place offering breakfast. We had been spoiled in Chiang Mai and were quickly realizing that where there weren’t any tourists the food was offered only at very specific times of day. We were used to being self sufficient but Thailand had lulled us into a false sense of security and we would quickly learn the hard way.
Leaving the village we began some extremely intense climbs in the heat of the day with no real shade and a hot dusty wind blustering around us. We made slow progress and pushed our bikes up many sections that certainly felt steeper than any grades I had attempted before, except for on the most remote and difficult roads in Central America.
When lunchtime rolled around we were in the last small community on either of our maps before the final massive climb of the day. We exhaustedly rode around the small community asking anyone we met if there was a place to eat or get water. We quickly realized there was no place in the area like this and after one kind local filled up our water for us at their personal well we realized we had no option but to keep biking for the rest of the day in hopes that the next small community would have food to sell.
After our breakfast of fried rice at the beginning of the day all we had to eat were two hard boiled eggs and a few mini packages of cookies. We sat in the shade eating the eggs, savoring every last bit of the fatty yoke and saving the cookies for later in the day. We had made a grave mistake in not taking more food making the wrong assumption that we were in Thailand, food is easy to find everywhere.
The day continued in its brutal manner with no food and only hot steep hills with no shade. I was drinking water like crazy and there was no where to refill being on dry jungle slopes so we pushed our bikes onwards. Up one 25% grade and then flying down another to only be looking up at the next climb waiting, rising above us, beckoning us with its heat waves glimmering off of asphalt and the drone of insects enjoying the hottest part of the day.
At one rest spot a massive wasp decided to make my bike its home and I spent the better part of 30 minutes yelling at it and trying to chase it off with a stick to grab my bike without getting stung. After finding out I was allergic to wasps on the Pacific Crest Trail I was in no mood to find out about my local allergies in Thailand. While only part way up a 25% hill one quickly realizes that there is no way you are outrunning a giant wasp that wants to crawl all over your bike. I repeatedly dropped my bike to jump away as the damned wasp returned again and again. This naturally caused me great anxiety and Heidi a good amount of amusement. Eventually it disappeared and we could continue on at our sluggish pace still kilometers from the top and moving at only a few kilometers per hour.
With a lack of food, oppressive heat and hills that utterly demoralized us we did all that we could to just push our bikes to the next patch of shade to pant and sweat and then do it all over again staring ever higher up the road at the next insane gradient poking up through the trees. With this extremely slow progress we finally made it to the top of our biggest pass for the day. There was a little shop at the top selling more hard boiled eggs and packaged cookies and chips that we happily scarfed down for our second lunch. The day was almost over and there was nowhere to camp on this ridgeline. We forced ourselves onwards to the last small community before another extremely steep drop and then massive climb which we could only assume would take hours of grunting, which we didn’t have time in the day for.
At the beginning of this ridgetop community Heidi and I put our Thai practice to good use in asking for a place to stay or directions to a place to rent a room for the night. The small dusty village was full of people who just stared at us and then turned their backs on us as we asked in our horrible Thai for any help in accommodations. Being a tonal language we assumed that our butchering of the language was making us indecipherable and no one seemed interested in helping us out. We had no more food and even when using google translate everyone just gave us an exhausted and annoyed look and then turned away.
We continued on down into the community asking everyone we saw to be turned away at every turn. Finally with the sun setting a random Australian accent piped up from the road below us. It was a woman volunteering in the community and she quickly came to our assistance in seeing our lack of ability to communicate with the people.
She was patient enough and explained that the people in this community were originally from Myanmar and didn’t speak any Thai. This gave me relief since I was seriously wondering why everything I tried kept receiving the same annoyed stare. She introduced us to several other volunteers who were assisting with an elephant rehabilitation program that studied elephants being reintroduced into the wild. Once we explained what we were looking for she introduced us to a man offering a room to stay and he made us dinner as well.
Heidi and I set up at our hosts home and we observed that this was the only house in the community with chickens around it and we set up our things to realize later that this would mean zero sleep. If there is anything I have learned from running into chickens and roosters in great numbers that it doesn’t matter what time of day or night it is, those roosters will make allot of noise at any hour.
The Australian woman and several other long term volunteers wandered past us as we sat on our little porch and we tried to make conversation. They didn’t seem interested in us and continued on after a brief and terse hello. I realized we must seem like right idiots stumbling into the town with no food and desperately tired and hungry trying to speak Thai to a whole community that had no idea what we were saying. Under different circumstances I would have tried to introduce myself better and explain more of the decisions that brought us to this point but I couldn’t be bothered. If they thought we were idiot tourists then that was completely fine, perhaps they weren’t entirely wrong. With that Heidi and I settled in for an extremely rooster filled night looking at the maps of the coming kilometers that would finish out this insanely difficult section of road before leading to the more main roads in the next valley over.