After a long night of rooster calls and smoke filling the room, from burning fields in the valley below, we groggily awoke to prepare ourselves for the next day of riding in North West Thailand. The homestay we were residing in had a welcome paper laminated and translated to English to teach us a little about our hosts and the community. It was lovely to learn a little about the lives of our hosts since the language barrier in person was rather difficult to get past. In reading it one line stuck with me. Our hosts dream was to never have to walk up a steep hill again and to relax and stay seated in retirement saying goodbye to backbreaking work. This reality was ever present but not always in the forefront of our minds. The lives in this area were hard and hard labor wasn’t a recreation but a necessity of occupation and livelihood. With out it there would be no way to survive with the minimal income they made. Anyone who chooses to ride a bicycle for fun through the countryside must seem a madman or supremely privileged to them and they wouldn’t be wrong in assuming so.
Upon leaving the village our route quickly dropped in elevation. We watched the smoke plumes rising from large farming refuse piles as the day grew warmer and the route rolled onwards towards the next small community followed by more supremely steep climbs. Several of these hills were so steep that they were a struggle to even push the bikes up let alone ride with hot feet slipping on finely graded asphalt in the tropical heat. Drips of sweat were constantly running down our arms and beading off of our noses as we pushed through the oppressive heat. “Just get over the next pass” quickly became “just get to the next patch of shade” or “Just get to the next bend in the road”.
We passed several road blocks as we dipped from one region into another. Many of the vehicles were stopped but the officers simply gave us a passive look and a firm wave hello as we awkwardly pedaled through wondering if they would ask us to stop.
With the final climb of the day done we plummeted several thousand feet down towards the main valley of the Mae Hong Son loop, just one ridgeline away from the border of Myanmar. We made Khun Yuam our destination where our more rural mountain road connected with a more main road artery following a mellow valley North. We arrived in the late afternoon hot but excited to have wrapped up such a difficult beginning to our trip and ready for a relaxing evening and lots of food. After hunting around for a guesthouse we found a lovely property allowing people to pay a minimal tenting fee to receive access to wifi, showers and a beautiful plot of land to lay the tents overlooking the foothills we had just exited. The woman who hosted us spoke excellent English and shared a few words in Thai while we shared with her the little stories from the last few days of our riding.
After setting up camp we headed into the town proper with our unladen bicycles and we cruised up and down the main strip looking for a food establishment to peak our interest. After settling for a delicious little market area where we ordered some fantastic Thai food we saw the only other tourists we had seen for the whole day. It was a German couple who had rented scooters to ride for several days around the Mae Hong Son loop and we quickly began chatting and sharing in our experiences.
It was fun to talk with them and hear about how different it was to ride scooters along this famously curvy and hilly route. Once the sun set and as we were chatting a man stumbled up to us and began excitedly trying to speak with Heidi and I in broken English, in between attempts at hugging us. At first we were taken very aback and quickly noticed how inebriated he was. We tried to ignore him feeling supremely uncomfortable until the German woman caught what he was trying to say, he was a guest at the Karen wedding from several days back and recognized us and was very excited to see us. This serendipitous reunion was extremely unorthodox and we struggled to communicate with him past the language barrier and his intoxication.
He was being genuinely kind in as much as his current state allowed. As our conversation progressed he began talking about his evacuation from Myanmar witnessing the burning of his community and the shooting of his people. I was so saddened to hear this but still reeling from the sudden appearance of this man that I was struggling in knowing how to respond or what to say. The Germans were a bit uncomfortable too and after a little while they bid us a goodbye. The man began crying off and on in between apologizing for his appearance and eventually asked for money. In the moment we were still very uncomfortable and said no not knowing what he would spend it on. We eventually pulled ourselves away and I tried to reassure him and give him a parting hug as the local Thais around us politely observed what was going on but didn’t interfere.
Finally we pulled ourselves away and left him with his head down and crying off and on at the table we had eaten at. We began cycling back to our camp location in the dark shaken by the random interaction and feeling torn about what we should have said or done. In the end we felt this man was truly in need. I had no idea what it must feel like to be alone and a refugee with nearly nothing and having survived atrocities, bearing witness to the destruction of your home and people.
As we returned to our camp I finally snapped and had to go back and make sure he was ok. I grabbed some change from Heidi and began biking back into town in the darkness hoping that the shops would still be open and I could buy him dinner. When I returned everyone was breaking down their food stalls and the man was no where to be seen. I was ashamed I hadn’t thought of just buying him some food to sober him up in the first place. After one lap on my bicycle I returned to our camp, late and exhausted and feeling emotionally raw from this interaction where I felt I did very little.
Heidi and I stayed up late into the night in our tent talking and struggling with how we could have better approached the situation. I couldn’t help but feel that our American culture had hardwired us to ignore those obviously in need right in front of us. Even in the moment this man was from a community that had taken us in, given us lunch and we were still so ignorant of his need, put off by his drunkenness’ and disheveled appearance. In the United States there are extremely needy people everywhere, struggling to survive. Addicted or forgotten, stuck in a society that prefers to ignore them and blame them for their own situation as we force everything to be more expensive, privately operated and funneled to support and reward the most greedy and wealthiest among us. In that night we promised ourselves to try harder in the future, if we saw someone in need to not falter to just act instead of observe or ignore.
With the long and restless night we awoke to a dewy sunrise and broke camp. Saying goodbye to our lovely host we set off, North towards the regional capital of Mae Hong Son. The ride for the day was going to be much easier than what we had just put ourselves through and we were planning on spending at least one full rest day in Mae Hong Son to gather our energy before we returned to the extreme hills of the loop.
The ride was beautiful through a more lush river valley with larger trees and very mellow climbs. We saw several monks walking along the side of the road in sandals on what I could only assume to be a pilgrimage of some kind. As we were riding along we saw the German couple scooter by yelling excited words of encouragement to see us once more.
At our final rest stop before the city proper we were at a high point with a small café. As we pulled up a group of Malaysian tourists was very excited to say hello and get their pictures taken with us. They even bought us some cold sodas that hit the spot perfectly on such a hot day. Always a bit odd to feel like celebrities for just riding our bikes we learned that the group was also on a much more guided bicycle tour and were simply excited to see other cycle tourists on the road. We sat enjoying our sodas in the shade looking down at the valley below gathering our energy for the final push to the city.
Mae Hong Son was not a particularly large town but it felt busier than the rural communities we had been passing through and we quickly made our way to the small lake at the center of town. It was a beautiful city with temples in all directions and many guest houses to choose from in our hunt for the right place to relax and rest up after the physical meatgrinder of the last week.
We settled on a cheap place to rent near the central pond and within easy walking distance of the popular night market. Our neighbors in the cheap rental rooms were from Spain and I enjoyed getting to know them and allowing my brain to relax a little by speaking Spanish instead of butchering the few Thai words I had learned. The old creature comforts of a larger Thai city were everywhere with cheap street food, quick access to 7-11s and many beautiful areas to wander around to relax and contemplate.
We met up with the Germans once more and enjoyed some good meals along the pond. Our bikes were also in big need of some repair and TLC. Heidi noticed her chain had several broken links and it was a wonder that it hadn’t completely snapped. We swapped it out with a spare we were carrying and retuned our brake pads and got ready for what we knew would be some massive climbs and descents to come. We also mailed home some items we didn’t need, an eternal struggle.
There was also a mangy cat wandering around the premise and as we relaxed and let our muscles heal. We tried to give it affection from afar seeing as it looked too mangy to pet with out some antifungal cream immediately afterwards.
So far this city was my favorite of Thailand. It was small, quiet, not overly loud or in your face and I loved wandering around on foot. Even though we were only there for two days we cycled away well rested and feeling more ready to tackle the next leg of our journey. Our next push would be over one of the largest climbs in Thailand as we made our way to the touristy city of Pai where we had heard good things from other tourists, what this could mean is all relative but we were curious to at least see the city since it was directly on our route.
Leaving Mae Hong Son the route gradually descended but from my map I knew that it would be a massive day of climbing with nearly 7500 feet of elevation gain compressed into a 35 kilometer section later on. Since we were on the more main route of the loop we began seeing more signs popularizing the route showing photos of motorcyclists taking the many curves of the loop with hard dips. Pictures of us on the loop would be much more sweaty and far less impressive.
The valley continued a with beautiful rice fields popping up here and there and I could see the mountains rising around us as I tried to guess where the road would take a sudden turn and begin its inevitable climb. The road had no gradual build up, we were suddenly climbing up some crazy steep grades beyond 25% and the temperature, as always, was climbing quickly too. We pushed onwards sweating and grunting, counting out the hills, then the curves, then just the patches of shade once more.
We noticed the road was busier than the rural one we first took through the mountains and there was more often the occasional tourists on rented scooters puttering by as they watched us with impressed humor. Inevitably the German couple once more passed us and they continued to call out at us, happy to see us and giving us a little more energy and motivation to push on. Trash heaps became resting areas as long as it included shade and eventually we topped out late in the afternoon. Our legs were becoming stronger, the climb was the biggest yet but it didn’t feel as hard as our previous week.
From the summit we could see the hills around us and what must have been Myanmar to the north. Upon our descent we began seeing the first signs of the beautiful Karst rock formations breaking up the green hills. Our descent was broken up with several hills that didn’t really show up on my map and we reached the true bottom when the day was beginning to end.
The valley bottom was just as beautiful as the previous one and we approached a small village just before the next massive climb which we were saving for the next day. As we pushed along we noticed several medicinal weed sites, curious about the legality of the drug here in Thailand as well.
As darkness came we rushed to an establishment we had seen on our maps and quickly rented a room and exhaustedly sat down to a delicious home cooked dinner by our host, to tired to do our normal wanderings of the streets looking for cheap street venders. We were getting stronger, I was so excited to feel strong again at the end of the day and not just in pain. Although brutal, beginning this route this way was forcing us into bike touring shape faster than any of our previous trips.
We finally lay our heads to rest, dreaming of dripping sweat while curving around one rise in a never ending chain of hills, ever higher and higher.