Chiangland (Thailand 2)

Published on 13 February 2019 at 10:33

With some melancholy we have left the famous Mea Hong Son Loop behind. As we sit on a terrace in the old center of Chiang Mai we ruminate about what lies behind: the Alps, Rodopi (Bulgaria), Turkey, Svaneti (Caucasus), Annapurna and the Loop. The highlights are also literally highlights. There is more mountains waiting in the north of Thailand cycling from Chiang Mai via Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, so it certainly will have something in store for us.


Chiang Mai is a big city in northern Thailand. We find a cheap hotel outside the city center and close to bicycle store Triple Cats. All of our kind (long distance cyclists), which we have encountered recently, have been there for the inevitable repairs and we are going too. One of Harry's spokes is broken and there is still a tick in the bracket, crank or pedal. Ever since the departure from Oirschot, the Bush & Muller USB work from Roelie has not charged the phone but is constantly switches on and off, which means that the battery runs empty instead of charging it. We arrive at the bakeshop much too soon and see Nu. After hearing our problems he asked to get back after 11 o'clock when the stop is really open. 
We cycle through the city to the Decathlon. Yeh, there is a Decathlon here and it looks the same as in Eindhoven, Sofia, Bursa and Samson. The concept is so recognizable and familiar: the tents first, the same socks, sunglasses, t-shirts, cycling shorts, inner tubes. You get a feeling like "coming home". We do not need much. Unfortunately we do not find gas cans and no bidon, being the things on top of our shopping list. However, we find good cycling shorts for Roelie. We resist the urge to buy more new things with reasonable ease. So no new (same) sunglasses, but just keep looking through the scratches.

On the way back we go to an outdoor shop, buy the desired gas cans and cycle to the Chiang Mai Gate Hotel and collect oil. We have a Pinion gearbox and every 10,000 km the oil has to be changed. It is not available everywhere, especially not in Southeast Asia, where Pinion is quite an unknown phenomenon. We have ordered the oil in the Netherlands and had it delivered to Emmen. Marianne and Martijn from Emmen left the oil for us on January 16 when they started their bicycle tour through Northern Thailand and Laos. Originally we thought to be in Chiang Mai at the same time, but we are more than two weeks later. We are very grateful to them taking the oil (and earplugs) from the Netherlands. In the lobby of the hotel there is an incredible chaos: everywhere suitcases are in a big disorder. However, when we ask for our package and show the picture of it (thanks Marianne), they fish the package in no time from one of the many drawers at the counter. Great!
On to bikeshop Triple Cats where again only one affectionate black and white spotted cat is seen and not three. What happened to the other two? The shop is on a fairly busy street ... Anyway, we repeat the diagnostics and leave the bikes at Nu.
In the afternoon we arrange new medicines at the pharmacy with the greatest of ease. Last time in Tbilisi we had to visit many pharmacies to find medicines. In the first pharmacy we enter everything is available and we are helped by the staff who are dressed up because of Chinese New Year.


The next day we pick up our titanium steeds again. The gearbox can carry on 10,000 km with the fresh oil and Harry got a completely new set of sparkling silver-colored ("mwah, I like the black more") spokes in his rear wheel. In Yangon, the rim has been replaced and the bicycle mechanic said that he could not reuse all spokes. That could have been a sign. The new (MTB) rim is higher and we already had to move the lock. Probably there were some original (too long) and a few second hand (too short) spokes in the wheel since Yangon. It all went well until shortly before Chiang Mai a spoke broke. And now Nu has put it back in order. The USB work can not be repaired: probably something internal. We will contact our team in Spoordonk: Richard and Ronald from bikeshop Van Overdijk Tweewielers.


After a kilometer or 50 north of Chiang Mai we are back in the mountains. The "tick" in Harry's bike returns just about at the same time. Fortunately, it is only an irritating noise and no cracking or grating that indicates wear. On Roelie's, unfortunately, it creaks and causes some anxiety. In Chiang Rai, the last big city in Thailand we will visit a bike shop again. Anyway, we need to get on for now and return with the sounds back into the mountains.


On the edge of the town of Chiang Dao, we have seen that a number of "resorts", apart from bungalow houses, also rent a place if you come with a tent. A few also let tents that are already ready. Similarly, 'Chiang Dao Story Camp'. On a too small lawn, where there are already a few tents to rent, we can barely place our tent in between. Story Camp is, however, a very nice place; the family is very friendly and "super-chill", the food is good, the toilets and showers are clean and there is a relaxed vibe and a familiar mix of layback with hostel rules. Later on, three German and Swiss motorbikers arrive. The Swiss choose a tent that is the furthest from the tents where the Germans are going to lie. He confides that "the thicker" of the two snores. He was right and Harry is very happy that he again has a set of brand new earplugs.


The owner of the resort in Chiang Dao tells us that the planned ascent (by bicycle) from Doi Chiang Dao is not worth it. Doi is Thai for mountain and Doi Chiang Dao is not the highest but from the valley looking up against it, the most beautiful mountain in Thailand. A steep cliff rises from the resort. We can go up to a resort-like village 600 meters higher by bike, where the view would not be so grandiose. We would have to pay for camping at a homestay and pay an entrance fee for the National Park. That would cost around US$ 50 in total and be a very expensive overnight stay. The higher camping area's can only be reached on foot and accompanied by a guide, who naturally also wants to be paid. We skip Doi Chiang Dao and go on to the next mountain: Doi Ang Khan.


So we turn our back on the majestic Doi Chiang Dao and cycle on quiet little roads where heifer dogs are very annoying to us. We are happy when we arrive on the big 107 where the dogs are apparently more used to passing weird cyclists and soon we meet the Spanish cyclist Franscesco. Funny thing is that, like us, he comes from Myanmar and that he, like us, is on his way to Laos but he is cycling in the opposite direction. The difference is that he did not know in time that the northern border crossing was unreachable by bicycle from Myanmar. He had to take a plane to get there. He will cycle around Thailand until his father joins him in Laos. He thanks us for the tip to do the Mae Hong Son Loop. Franscesco is an interesting young man: he writes articles on political issues and six months a year he lives and works in Norway as a chef, the other half of every year he travels.


The route of the 107 is really beautiful. The view is clear today and in more places than on the Mae Hong Son Loop there is a view of the landscape around us that today changes strongly and shows beautiful steep rocky slopes like Doi Chiang Dao already did.

When we come to the foot of Doi Ang Khan we are not comfortable with the crunching and cracking in especially the crank of Roelie's bicycle. We use a helpline (this time Pilot Cycles) and cycle in anticipation of an answer to the town of Fang. A not so cozy city but we get a reassuring answer about the ticking and grinding. It is not due to the Pinion gearbox. The cranks have to be thoroughly cleaned and greased. We can certainly go up the mountain with it. Yes, let's go (tomorrow then) !! In Fang we meet a young man (Nazri) from Malaysia who runs a shop in Fang with printed T-shirts. Our tent was packed wet this morning and hangs over our bikes to dry and five times he dives under the tent to admire our bikes. His jaw is dropping when he hears what we have cycled and what planned ahead. Harry's calves also get some of his admiration. Proudly he shows photos of himself in cycling clothing with an expensive looking racing bike.
The next morning we take it easy. It is a 40 kilometer ride and only the last 10 really go up. The day before we had already seen on the bike navigation app Komoot that the profile has a few steep stages. We do groceries to camp on the mountain for two days and set sail for the highest campsite in Thailand. In the first kilometer of the climb we often need to get off the bike and push. We are not used to that. We can handle everything? Well not so. The slope goes up to 20% and over it and then pushing is even a very annoying job. Oh well after this first piece there is a second steep piece and in between should we be able to cycle? No, not so. Of the 10 kilometers, in which we have to get from 500 meters up to 1800 meters, we push more than 6. Regularly it is so steep that we can no longer place the heels of our feet on the asphalt. The calves scream for rest, to stop this uninviting, to turn around and roll down again. But we have already come this far and after the next corner it will be slightly less steep? Not so. For the first time on our world tour, we are tested to the limit physically and mentally (or is a better word being tormented?). And for the first time during our trip, we check whether we might not be able to ride with a car. Until so far a lift was a mortal sin in our eyes (with the exception of material damage or injury of course). Trucks, even mini-trucks do not venture on such slopes, but almost every motorist here in this part of Thailand drives in a pickup; we and our bikes would fit in perfectly! Unfortunately, somewhere below was a road block and a sign that the road is closed to all traffic (which of course we ignored). There is no car (or pick-up) on this road and a little later it becomes clear that there is indeed no access for cars due to roadwork after a major landslide. We are (really) completely alone ...




And then we are there ... the promised campground, the highest in Thailand, ... is not an oasis of peace, but an ant's nest!?!? There are at least 100 tents for rent, neatly arranged over three rows with half a meter in between. People with their own tent are banned in the periphery of the site. Around the tents it is teeming with people: families with blaring children around a barbecue that equals the tent size. All very nice, but not what we had expected and not what we experience at previous campgrounds in the National Parks here in Thailand. Harry finds out what we have to pay for this tourist trap: yes: without a tent and accessories one asks Thai 30 Bath per person, but foreigners may count it tenfold: for us 600 Bath, excluding the bikes that also another 20 Bath each cost. Okay, not as expensive as Doi Chiang Dao, but more expensive than the hotels we were in in Thailand. We look at each other: we do not feel like staying here. All our muscles protest loudly when we jump on the bike again.


According to Google maps there is a camping area 4 kilometers away. The lady of whom we buy water confirms it, at least we think she does. Another small and doable ascend and then starts the descent. When we arrive at the camping area there is no-one to be seen, also no tent or tent area. However, there are some bungalows for rent, but not all in too good condition. We also see here and there boxes with squat toilet and possibility for a bucket shower. One bungalow is somewhat out of sight, has a broken roof and is not furnished and will therefore not be rented. In front of that bungalow a concrete table with bench and fireplace offers a perfect spot for a tent. In no time we have set up our tent there and we make a quick picture, before the twilight will fall.


Satisfied and tired, we cook, wash and hand wash our clothes. When we have eaten and about to get ready to go to bed, we see a first living soul on a scooter and he is coming towards us. He has something of a uniform, speaks no English and only laughs a bit. After a while, he disappears again. Shortly afterwards, a male with a flashlight appears on foot to gesture that this is not a tent place. But he also does not speak a word of English and with google translate we do not get any further. Half an hour later, we are now lying in the tent, the scooter-man and torch-man together with a third man (clearly a Ranger) in sign language explain that we have to break up and that they take us to the tent place back on the top with his pickup. Aha there it is, the earlier today so much wanted lift offer from a pickup driver, but we rather turn this offer down. We try to explain also in sign language and yet again with google translate that we are very tired and want to sleep and that we will break up early tomorrow and leave. We are not a burden to anyone and leave no mess behind. Moreover, on the internet this is a camping area. It does not work out and reluctantly we pack our stuff and ask repeatedly if they can drop us off at a hotel instead of the campground that we saw earlier. We are tired, like to sleep and not put up the tent again, blow up air mattresses, etc (and pay 640 Bath for that). But that does not work either, the Ranger stops at the campground and unload our bicycles. We are again at the highest campground of Thailand and we are again setting up the tent. The bright spot is that we do not have to pay, apparently the ranger made a deal for us. The Thai campers around us are having a great time as we brace ourselves in the tent on a steep slope. It was to be seen in the dark when we were setting it up but easy to feel on the air mattress. In an attempt to compensate for this, we are a bit diagonal.


In the morning we wake up in the bottom corner of the tent and then walk around a bit. The view is truly phenomenal and many Thai are posing nicely. Yet an enjoyable moment and the sentiment recovers. However, we do not want to stick a second night, we will go down again.


There was no indications on the signs that we could descend to Fang via another route, as Komoot explained. Also and GooglaMaps show no other way. We will not risk it, not on this mountain and decide to take the same (closed) road back down. That turns out to be a perilous undertaking with those too steep slopes. Harry soon gets no grip on the brake on his front wheel and feels that something is wrong. He fears that he can not stop. Luckily he manages to come to a standstill and we walk to a bend where it is somewhat flat and we can inspect the brake. One pad is gone and there is a dangerous looking groove in the disc as if it will break. We replace the pads on the spot, but it rubs on the spot where the disc is damaged. We choose to descend the steep sections on foot. Too risky this. Down below we take a deep breath and get in contact with the bicycle shops in Chiang Rai for a new disc brake.


Just before we are back in Fang, the creaking crank of Roelie shoots from her bicycle. Coincidentally, there is a motorbikeshop on the road and we borrow hex wrench 10 and grease to put the crank back on it. After that the grinding and cracking is gone.


In the village of Ban Thaton we ask if we can cycle along the river Kok to Chiang Rai. The route apps show it is possible, even though a part of the route runs along a footpath or what cyclist will call a singletrack. We are told twice that not everything can be cycled and the boot taxi must certainly be used. On the internet we find the same question and see that the route can only be done on a MTB with good brakes. Well, the break is where we are lacking right now. Added three times a negative advice and we decide to take the taxi boat. An additional advantage is that the boat leaves only at half past one in the afternoon and that we can have a nice sleep, slow breakfast, drink coffee and wash the bikes.


The waterlevel in the river Kok is low and therefore the skipper seeks a route between the rocks, trees and sandbanks. From time to time we end up in good raft water: rapids. Nice and we get splashed a few times. In Ban Ruam Mit we first pass a crossing elephant with tourists or his back and then we moor and change boats. Our boat returns to Ban Thaton. The new boat brings us to Chiang Rai. On the quay a man waits for us with a huge snake with which we can take a picture. We kindly decline and look at the gallery of photos of tourists who have given in. Three times 'NickSimon' hangs with a Dutch flag in the collage on which a young guy is printed that strongly resembles the in Holland famous Dutch singer Nick, half of the two pair Nick & Simon (or Simon, we still do not know exactly who is who and the photographer apparently does not either). The snake man tries to tie us a second time and asks where we come from. "From the Netherlands." "Oh NickSimon" says the snake man and points to the photos behind him. We repeat "No".


Behind a gigantic and extremely chic looking provincial house under construction, the skipper steers on the bank. Somewhat bewildered we step out into the otherwise vacant environment. It is still a few kilometers to Chiang Rai. We jump on our bike but our fellow passengers are somewhat desperately looking around. One is going to walk to town, the other two want a taxi, which - probably not entirely coincidentally - just arrives at the grounds.


In Chiang Rai we cycle to ADD bikeshop. Of the three bicycle shops with which we wanted to get in contact, only ADD responded and the wanted Shimano disc brake is in stock. The bikeshops has many road bikes and MTBs from the well-known expensive brands and that gives confidence. We also immediately ask if they have a tip for a guesthouse. A bit further down the street is a new hostel of a friend and when we get there, that friend also speaks a quiet some Dutch. We have come to the right place but he can only offer beds in the dormitory. Oh, nice, but no, we do not want a dormitory. He refers us to Baan Norn Plearn, a very charming guesthouse, but unfortunately above budget. The neighboring hotels and guesthouses all appear to be fully booked and for this one time we check in at a very charming guesthouse that gives us a discount because we travel on a small budget. Harry's bike goes to ADD and tomorrow around noon we can pick up the bike again.


At the end of the afternoon we get spooked while walking around. In the middle of a roundabout is the most hideous clock that you can imagine. The façades around the roundabout are further damaged by huge, ugly advertising signs. It could have been a dreary version of Time Square New York. In the evening with matching music the clock is illuminated with a matching light show: about three or four differently colored lamps alternately shine the Clock Tower of Chiang Rai. Pretty shoddy!


After an excellent breakfast (incidentally the very first time that breakfast is included in an accommodation in Thailand) we cycle on our own bike and a borrowed much too small yellow singlespeed to the white temple. We also want to go to the park with the international balloon festival until we see on the posters along the road that the festival starts a day later. Only that white temple then and 13 km on that stupid little yellow bike. But it is worth it. Yes and it suffocates from the tourists. Unfortunately we do not have a super camera and the sky is not bright blue and our pictures do not completely reflect the beauty of the temple. It is just a WOW thing.


On the way back we decide that we want to see and experience an extra day in Chiang Rai. The very charming and slightly overpriced guesthouse is fully booked. We cycle (Harry has his bike back with a new disc brake and with an old tick in the bottom bracket) back again to the hostel of Dutch speaking Thai. This time he can offer an private room  but it is too expensive and we thank warmly and consider whether we are going to Laos or stay in Chiang Rai. We choose to stay in Chiang Rai and we hear another four times that an accommodation is fully booked before we find a scruffy room in Tourist Inn with a lovely shower and a nice breakfast with freshly baked bread, we have not had yummy bread since Turkey.


From Chiang Rai we cycle accompanied by rice fields In one day to the border town of Chiang Khong. It is a long ride of 114 kilometers on a sultry hot and humid day, for the time being the last day in Thailand. We will return at the end of April after we have made a tour through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Bye bye Thailand! Till next time!