Riding the Mae Hong Son loop has been the highlight of the trip so far. The mountains are steep and long, the scenery stunning, the weather hot and the people friendly. It's taken a toll though, not just on my legs but on my time.
I knew that I would have a limited amount of time to complete the loop and make it to the Loas border, but after considering my options I decided on a 'visa run' and head north to the border with Myanmar instead. With so little time remaining on my Thai visa I needed to ensure that I didn't overstay it. Turning up at the border with an expired visa brings a fine of over 20 pounds for every day as well as the possiblility of not being allowed back again should they take a dislike to me. A visa run is one way to extend the time you have left. Many ex pats who have a yearly visa need not worry so much as they have time to plan their trip, even taking a holiday abroad so that re-entry automatically allows them another year.
For others the visa run can be a mad dash to the nearest border simply to exit and re-enter, all over in about 20 minutes. The embassy in Chaing Mai can extend visas for only 7 days for a fee. Alternatively crossing a border and re-entering Thailand gives you an extra 15 days and costs less, as long as you ignore travel costs. While in Pai I discussed the visa run with a couple of poeple that were old hands and was told in no uncertain terms that a 15 hour visa run round trip in a minibus was not a pleasant way to spend a day.
As I had six days left on my visa though I could get a lot closer to the border before I needed to worry about spending time in a minibus.
Leaving Pai the next morning I made the last of the climbs before dropping down into the plain north of Chiang Mai. I had been told that the minibuses run every day from Pai to the border and that they keep a tight convoy. At about 9 oclock the next morning I witnessed this convoy as six minibuses passed me in one move. Around the corner they all pulled over and parked with such precision herringbone style that you could tell the drivers had done this many times. Thirty minutes later they were passing me again.
As I write this I am just south of Fang, where I join some more back roads to make my way to the border. I have three days left on my visa but should do the distance comfortably in two.
So far I have avoided the tourist hotspots, being content to be a lone foreigner in most towns I pass through.
The Mae Hong Son 'loop' however has thrown me into contact with Europeans every day. It's been nice to catch up with some news and to have a conversation that lasts more than three sentences, but I'm starting to miss the novelty of being a novelty.
At first it was just Ben and Geert that were doing the loop on scooters. We spent a couple of pleasant evenings together but the next day it was minibuses full of German and Japanese tourists.
I had stopped at the fish cave, a shrine where the fish grow to overly large proportions. Most 'attractions' like this are signposted at 20 - 40 km from the main road, meaning as much as a whole days round trip for me on a bike. When I saw one waterfall signposted at just 1.5 km up a side road I decided to investigate. A huge swathe of rock worn smooth by centuries of rushing water met my eye. It was only as I drew closer that I saw the trickle of a stream that was dribbling slowly down the rock face. It may be winter here, but it's also the dry season. It was quite a scenic spot and not too far off my route but I would have been disappointed to have taken a whole day out to see it.
The fish cave was different. It was actually on the side of the road. A large car park almost full of minibuses running sightseeing trips from the nearest towns had disgorged their cargo who were happily buying souvenirs when I got there. Food sellers were also doing big business. The fish cave is a small overhang of rock out of which a stream emerges. The fish there were certainly big, which is why a shrine had been set up under the overhang. The stream was dammed about 100 metres away meaning that the fish were captive. Tourists are able to buy packs of food which they throw into the pool in handfuls creating a feeding frenzy in the water. As the fish were captive and being constantly fed by tourists it's no wonder that they grow to such proportions. Sounds like a self fulfilling prophecy to me.
From the fish cave it was another long uphill climb before descending into Soppong for the night. This was my first taste of sleeping in a hut. Huts are the most basic type of accommodation apart from tents. A bamboo hut with a large gap between the walls and the roof. A matress lies on a raided section of floor with a mosquito net around it. A bedside lamp and one socket completes the luxuries. A shower and toilet were just 10 metres away. As we were in a valley and close to the river it got cold overnight so I was grateful for the 2 quilts and 4 blankets that were provided. It felt so snug inside that I didn't feel like making an early start in the morning but instead spent it having a leisurely breakfast with two French couples that were spending a month in Thailand using buses and the occasionally rented scooters to get about.
Amazed by my plans they asked about my sponsorship. No sponsorship I told them. Just me. They insisted on becoming "small sponsors" and paid for my breakfast before we parted. Later that day I heard shouts of "Bravo" and "Bon Courage" from an open bus window as they passed me on a particularly steep section of mountain road giving me a morale boost to spin on to the top.
The countdown markers to Pai were coming thick and fast after that. I found another bamboo hut for the night, this one at the Mountain View resort, a very fancy name for an area of dirt with a dozen bamboo huts dotted around a central drink and snack bar. Still, it had everything I needed for a couple of nights rest. This place is where all the hippies were coming from. Not since Chaing Mai had I seen so many Europeans and so many signs in English. Not all of the signs would pass the Good English Guides' spelling and grammar checks, but that's all part of the charm of frontier towns I suppose.
Going for a long ride, circling the block and coming home again is a pleasant way to spend a day.
On a ride like this though you are not circling or returning anywhere, but instead looking for a place to call home each day. No road is ridden more than once, unless you need to backtrack after taking a wrong turn. But even wrong turns can turn out right if you continue long enough as you end up in the most unexpected but wonderful places.
That's the good thing with making it up as you go along. Missed the turning you were intending to take ? No problem there are plenty more ahead. Not sure where you are ? If it matters that much look at a map and make new plans. A couple of the most scenic and pleasant roads I have ridden have been when I couldn't be bothered to stop and check my position ending with me missing a turn that I had previously decided I would take.
Today I spent a couple of hours on a gently undulating back country road with just 5 other vehicles - 3 scooters, a bicyle and a telecoms truck parked so that the engineer could climb the pole from the back of the truck. I got a Hello, smile or wave from all of them.
I have been cycling for 13 days out of the 19 days I have been here, as well as a couple of rides with Robert and one into Chaing Mai. I have covered 1450 km so far. Today has been a rest day after yesterdays mamoth effort. Tomorrow is going to be very easy though, as it's 60km and nearly all down hill to the next major town.
Mae Hong Son is acually the capital of the province. I've been told there is an excellent bike mechanic there that has just fixed the pedal of a Dutch mountain biker called Eric that I met last night in the guest house.
I also met up again there with Geert and Ben (Belgian and German) who I met in Chaen Mai the previous night. We spent a pleasant hour or so over dinner and parted thinking we would not meet again. They had hired a couple of scooters and were doing the same loop that I was making around the north west of Thailand. However, as I made an early start and got some good miles in before the heat hit me I was able to make the next town large enough to have a hotel. As I pulled into the parking area in front of reception I saw their scooters again. It was too late to joind them for dinner but we had a good chat again and agreed to meet in the next town.
When we first met I told them about how hard I found some of the climbs. They told me they were struggling in first gear too. When they realised I was cycling their tone changed. They even offered to tow me up some hills the next day. I must admit the offer was tempting, especially when they eventually caught up with me.
A home from home
I'd contacted Robert through the warmshowers.org website, a meeting place for touring cyclists and potential hosts to meet. Robert is a German engineer who has lived in this part of the world for a few years, cycles just about every day and invites touring cyclists into his home. Well, I should say into my home. I have been given a beautiful 3 - 4 bedroom teak built house with stereo, TV and even the laptop I am writing this post on to myself for my stay. The house is their 'guest' house, next door to, and in the grounds of thier main house.
I initially contacted him and asked if it was possible to drop by for a couple of nights in order to take a look at the city of Chaing Mai, the so called 'capital of the north'. The old city is a 1.5km by 1.5km square entirely surrounded by a moat that is about 15 metres wide by my reckoning. Although a bustling city it still retains some old world charm and interest.
Kung and Robert could not have been more welcoming and friendly. Left to my own devices to decide whether to keep myself to myself or to joing them in their own living space. We went for a few rides and Robert helped me look for a solution to my ongoing pedal problem. One of the the new pedals that I bought just over a week ago is starting to play up. Unfortunately it's the same side as the older pair, which means that I can't even mix and match them to make a working pair. It's still spinning but is stiffer than it should be. Roberts valiant efforts along with Marcus from Crouching tiger tours ( www.crouchingtigertours.com) who went off to look for the aforementioned tool came to nothing. No-one has the tool to disassemble it so I am having to put up with it.
It's still funny when you see the children stare in wonder as you ride toward them.
A smile and a wave though and it's as if they have been acknowledged by their hero.
There's a definite novelty about being the only farang (westerner) around. Strolling through the streets of what can only be described as a provincial back-roads town at night is asking for stares.
The people are very friendly and open though, always smiling or even saying hello (usually the only English word they know) when you smile at them. Those that know a little English always want to know where you are coming from and where you are going to. For these people the idea of cycling to China is beyond comprehension. I tell them Chiang Mai, the "capital of the north". This is still a long way for them and I let it sink in before adding Laos, Cambodia (which many people here still refer to as Campochia), Vietnam and China.
Last night I was talking to 4 guys sitting outside a house in very basic English. Once they had comprehended the distance involved and acknowledged my intended route there were choruses of "you number one, you number one" along with clapping and thumbs up.
I stopped at a fruit stall and bought some strange and exotic fruit for which I have gained a taste but as yet still can't remember the name, and heard the word farang. I thought that this was going to be the good old farang farang joke, no doubt a source of constant amusement at fruit stalls across Thailand. The Thai word for a westerner is farang. The word for guava is also farang, hence the farang, farang comments amongst the locals when at a fruit stall.
What I didn't know was that across the road behind me there was another foreigner going into the 7/11 store and that is where they were pointing.
Those pesky tourists get everywhere. It's good to be the 'only Farang in the village' to paraphrase Little Britain, and I must admit it was a little disappointing not to be the only one any more. As I am heading towards Chiang Mai though I am going to have to get used to being less of a novelty.
I have heard that there are up to 20,000 ex pats from different countries living in and around the city. It's also a tourist hotspot with lots of excursions, experiences and ideas to part you from your money.
It will no doubt be a novelty to once again be surrounded by people and traffic. Not sure it's something I am looking forward to but it is going to be a base for a few days rest. Something to look forward to.
Counting down the weeks, then days, over christmas and new year was beginning to drag. I had packed and re-packed my bags a number of times. Trying to decide what to take, what to leave behind, and where it should go on the bike takes some planning. Do I keep all my clothes together in one place? What do I bury at the bottom and what do I keep at or near the top ? I'm sure that no matter what order I load things in a new system will develop as experience is gained on the road.
Even when I thought I had got it sorted I then had to rearrange everything for the flight. There are certain things that I would carry in my camelbak that would not be allowed within hand luggage. I also wanted to carry heavier items onto the plane with me to lessen the weight of the boxed bike and potentially incurring a weight penalty charge.
With just 48 hours left til I head to the airport I have finally decided on what is coming and what is staying.
The bike is being boxed and friends are being visited for the last time til I return. It's the first day of the new year and the sun is shining outside. A good omen considering the amount of rain that has been falling the last few months.
Reading the blogs of other riders and looking at their pictures is giving me an idea of what to expect, but it still feels surreal to think that in a few days I will have gone from 5 degrees to 35 degrees with levels of humidity that I have never encountered before. Instead of coming home to dinner and sitting in front of my computer I shall be finding a new home nearly every day without the comforts that we come to expect. It's both daunting and exciting.