Day 7, March 5. Back to Chiang Mai, and home.

They bolted off like a couple of Tour de France riders pumped up to the gills with EPO the moment we rode past the welcome arch at the edge of town … and I was left all alone to amble along at my own pace.

So much for pre-ride agreements.

As for me, my pistons needed a longer warm-up period, but it was alright, I was enjoying the ride in the cool of the morning to care about chasing them. Traffic was sparse save for a few students scootering their way to school.

I would not see Shang until Soppong..he was that far ahead. As for Mo, I caught up to him just after he stopped to shoot some pics at the intersection that marked the start of the long climb to the peak, 20km from MHS. Without panniers, and knowing that it was really the last ride of the trip, I decided I might as well have some fun.

I overhauled Mo soon enough and after that, we never saw each other again except during a brief downhill section when he caught up to me. The next time I saw him would be at Soppong.

I met Mo here, and decided to play Tour de France in the mountains 🙂

It seemed to me riding this section in reverse is a lot harder, as the climbs were longer. I’d also learned one very important lesson doing this climb — never switch off your climbing mode even after cresting the peak.

I did, and I paid for it.

3km of dizzying downhill later, it started to climb again, not steep but just enough to remind you of the lactic still buzzing in your tired quads. This would go on for about 2 km where it would then tease you with a teeny downhill, which added to the torture of another 2 km of steep climb.

It was not a pretty sight (and sound), as I rode and cursed and swore loudly.

In all, it took me 4 hrs and 39 min of non-stop riding to cover the hilly 64kms. Shang had already checked in to Soppong River Inn’s coffee shack by the roadside by then and was already enjoying his iced-coffee long before I arrived. Mo ambled in later, about 25 mins after I arrived.

I was also the beneficiary of the trip's 2nd puncture -- amazingly, just 10m from Soppong River Inn where the guys and the pickup were waiting. And I wasn't even pedalling ... just coasting to a slow stop when I felt the front going mushy on me. I could only offer a prayer of thanks ... 🙂

Cooling down with iced coffee

After some food washed down with the most delicious iced-coffee ever, we rearranged all 5 bikes, including 5 pairs of panniers, helmets and handlebar bags. It was a tight squeeze but we managed to get it all in. I wondered if Robot’s bike would have made it 6 if he had been around…. probably not, and just as well. Even 5 was too many, especially with the likes of Mo and Shang.  In the end, 4 luckless backseat passengers had to execute contortionist-like positions just to fit in. Shang being born with longer than normal legs, of course, claimed the front seat.

Loading up the bikes onto the Triton ...

5 bikes full... and panniers

The truck’s aircon wasn’t up to it as well, even at full blast, so we had to wind down the windows a bit for some fresh air, but we made it in one piece to Chiang Mai, including revisiting the fish-restaurant in Pai for lunch.

By the time we arrived at Na Inn in Chiang Mai’s old town (with the help of my GPS), Roland had already checked in. He had started from Pai at 6am that morning and took him only 8hrs, including an hour or so goofing off at 32 Coffee Hill, and even patronising the classy toilets we were all so enamoured with.  At the hotel, he even had time to walk to the bike shop nearby to collect the 6 bike boxes (in 3 installments) for us which Ms Maew from the hotel had so kindly arranged for us earlier.

We only had one extra day in Chiang Mai, so we decided to go shopping, hitting the biggest shopping mall in the city. It was nothing like Bangkok’s swanky Siam Paragon; in fact, it looked like it was a couple of decades behind time, but it made up for it in the delectable array of Thai food in the basement food court.

The Chiang Mai version of KL's Sg Wang ...

but with a better food court

and endless variety.

One last (free) coffee before we head out to the airport

A very versatile tuk-tuk ...

6 bikes in boxes, all our baggage plus 6 passengers...2 standing on the railing.

Well, it was the end of another ‘tour’, and not exactly a strenuous one at that, too, with only 5 days of riding and plenty of rest in between. The MHS loop is certainly good for a revisit. But I’d probably do the roadie thing if I ever come again…the 1,864 bends are just begging to be ridden on an anorexic, all-carbon bike with equally undernourished wheels. It’s all about speed, speed, speed …. and I’d definitely do the full loop of 600 plus kms instead, through Mae Sariang.

Till then … Sawadee Kap (or is it Sawadee Krap?… I can never remember 🙂

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Day 6, 4 March. Exploring Mae Hong Son.

Besides the 1,864 bends that Mae Hong Son (MHS) is famous for, there’s a couple of other oddities that are only found here, and which draw in the tourists by the busloads. One is a certain species of fish that live in a cave, and the other an ethnic tribe whose womenfolk consider it a thing of beauty to have their necks elongated by heavy coiled brass rings.

Mo was particularly piqued by the long-necked women, and he absolutely had to see them.

This morning, by the time we had woken up, Roland had already left for Pai just after 7am … yes, Pai, approximately 110 km away. Not too long after lunch, we got a call from the Man himself telling us that he had arrived at Pai. It was about 3.30pm, which meant it only took him about 8.5 hrs to ride all that distance — loaded panniers, punishing uphills, downhills, coffee breaks, photography stops and pee stops not withstanding!

Well, we are talking about Roland after all.

Back at sunny, hot and haze-covered MHS, we were already out on our rented motorcycles after another Thai breakfast at the local market. We never ceased to be amazed by all the wonderful colour and smells that always surround local markets, and this one was no different.

Terence d'Rossi guarding our motorbikes in front of Prince GH

The best way to start off the cold morning -- with steaming hot food

Fresh basil, long beans, bean sprouts, rice noodles ... healthy, nutritious and cheap

The first stop of the day was the much-touted Sacred Fish Cave, located inside a national park about 17km from town, along the same road we had ridden coming from Soppong. I had expected a tourist trap but it turned out to be otherwise.

A bored-looking park official greeted us as we walked up to a booth fronting a pathway leading to the entrance of the cave. When asked how much, he merely pointed to a box marked ‘donations’. Well, well … no overpriced rip-off here. Nice.

The entrance to Thampla Namtok Phasuea National Park...try saying that in a hurry.

The well-kept grounds of the park

As we walked in, following the signs that led to the cave, we were again surprised by the beautiful surroundings — well-kept, grass neatly trimmed and an idyllic stream flowing between the trees. The stream was unlike anything I’d ever seen before — it was teeming with greenish-blue coloured fish, some of which were almost 3 feet long. It looked more appetizing than sacred to me.

Being a sacred fish does have its advantages … no worry of chomping on nasty hook-disguised bait, plus all the fish food it could eat. All it had to do was swim around and awe dumbstruck visitors.

The sacred fish. The water source is probably subterranean. This is just in front of the cave.

At this 'viewing' hole, the fish knew this was where the manna came down unceasingly, courtesy of merit-seeking Buddhists

Where the man with the camera is standing, in front of the railing; that's where the viewing hole is.

Next on the list was the visit to the Karen, and it was a long, long ride to the long-necked village — more than an hour of non-stop riding over hills and dales. Shang couldn’t hack the long, hot ride; so he decided to peel off halfway through and went hunting for a long lunch in an air-conditioned shop somewhere.

Finally, after a short stretch of bumpy, dusty trail, we reached the Karen village.

‘Disappointing’ doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

It wasn’t a real native village — it was nothing more than a refugee camp. And they actually charged 250B just to walk around some dilapidated wooden and bamboo houses. I suppose the gawking at the long-necked ladies would have made it worth our while, but the rest of it really turned me off — the many stalls lining the village’s single dirt road selling the same old tourist stuff, the unsanitary conditions of the whole village …. there was such a sense of hopelessness in the air.

From what I had read, these displaced people whose homeland is actually Myanmar, were caught in between a rock and a hard place. The Thai government weren’t very sympathetic to their plight, and their own government persecuted them. On the other hand, the long-necked womenfolk are actually contributing to the Thai tourist industry. You’d think the Thais could do a little more for them. And from the looks of it, one wonders how much of the 250B per head gawking-fee actually goes back to them.

The entrance to the long-necks' 'refugee camp'. Just to the left of the entrance, a sleepy-head manning a counter collected the 250B from us. Outside there a few army personnel hanging around. Baan Mai Naisoi is one of the 3 villages open to tourists.

The main, and only, street in the village. I counted no less than 6 or 7 souvenir stalls in this small village....

... all manned by lovely ladies like these.

More than half the stuff came from some souvenir factory somewhere.

Once you had your camera up, these ladies would oblige with well-practiced poses.

Excerpt from a Wiki entry:

Women of the various Kayan tribes identify themselves by their different form of dress. The Kayan Lahwi tribe are the most renowned as they wear ornaments known as neck rings, brass coils that are placed around the neck. These coils are first applied to young girls when they are around five years old.

As each coil is replaced with a longer one, the weight of the brass pushes the collar bone down and compresses the rib cage. Contrary to popular belief, the neck is not actually lengthened; the illusion of a stretched neck is created by the deformation of the clavicle. Many ideas regarding why the coils are worn have been suggested, often formed by visiting anthropologists, who have hypothesized that the rings protected women from becoming slaves by making them less attractive to other tribes.

Contrastingly it has been theorised that the coils originate from the desire to look more attractive by exaggerating sexual dimorphism, as women have more slender necks than men. It has also been suggested that the coils give the women resemblance to a dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore . The coils might be meant to protect from tiger bites, perhaps literally, but probably symbolically.

At least the they still make some of their own stuff

In between tourists, what else was there to do?

By this time, we had already decided on our next course of action for the rest of the trip — Shang, Mo and I would ride to Soppong, sans panniers, of course, while Terence and Philip will ride shotgun in the Mitsubishi Triton pickup that we had hired to take us all back to Chiang Mai (4,500B). At Soppong, we’d regroup and then we would all squeeze into the pickup and drive back to Chiang Mai.

It was not going to be a race … we promised each other.

Day 5, 3 March. Soppong to Mae Hong Son, the final thrill.

I hate to say this but the A-hut turned out to be quite nice. I actually had a very good night’s sleep … no revving motorcycles passing by, no dogs barking at the moon, and most of all, no hyperactive roosters cock-a-doodling away at 3am in the morning. It was sheer bliss, and it was just cold enough to be enjoyable. This place really is a little slice of heaven on earth.

Soppong awakes to yet another dry, dusty day ...

As usual, the first order of the day is to fill the stomach, and satisfy our caffeine cravings. After last night’s dinner, there was only one place that could satisfy us — the market. After loading up, we headed straight for it, and the nice auntie’s stall serving the most delicious of Thai noodle soups. I was looking forward to the curry noodles I had yesterday. She must have been pleasantly surprised to see the whole peloton making a beeline for her stall.

The Malaysians decend on the market

As usual, the modus operandi for ordering food is to point to some food, raise one finger and smile. I was curious so I opened the lid of the huge soup pot and peeked inside … it was a different concoction from yesterday, but no matter, it would be delicious anyway.

It was.

Today's breakfast ... there were bits of boiled blood, pork, coriander, tomato and some unrecoqnisable stuff swimming among the rice noodles. Throw in a couple of spoonfuls of the ubiquitous chilli powder in and you have a solid, cycle-tourer's meal.

'Gimme one' ... Mo points for his breakfast. The morning was still quite chilly so he cleverly seated himself in front of the charcoal brazier.

A longer ride, today’s installment promised to be more strenuous. To be on the safe side, we packed some food for lunch from some stalls nearby — heavy-duty sausages, fried meat and sticky rice. These were guaranteed to provide the slow-burn energy we needed for all the up-and-down riding that would come our way soon.

But before we hit the road …

Coffee time. We headed back to Little Eden's little roadside cafe and had our fill.

Meanwhile, Philip was busy wrecking Little Eden's signboard. As he was pumping up his tyres, his bike slipped and knocked against it, displacing a few choice letters.

By my reckoning, the climbs would begin about 6kms from the town. It was a pleasant start to the day’s ride — we had had good night’s sleep, our bellies were full, the sun was still low and the air cool and dry. We were practically dawdling along, taking in the scenery around us.

Now that would have been an interesting sight, coffins in a cave, courtesy of some ancient tribe. I'd forgottten about this place that was located just outside the town. Too late to check it out now.

At this point, we were riding through some pretty big mountains. This section in particular, was quite impressive, with numerous karst peaks soaring into the clouds.

At the peak of the climb ... Can you see Myanmar in the distance? By right, one should be able to peer at the fringes of this impoverished but nuclear-armed country. But not today, and not for a few months yet while the dry season rages on.

By now, the noodles were gone, and I was drawn in by this simple roadside fare.

Pure carbo ...I particularly liked the red sweet potato. When roasted, they make a deliciously wholesome snack ... and the caramelised sugar on the blackened skin of the tuber is wonderfully fragrant.

At about noon, and at the end of another longish downhill, the sticky rice and sausages were begging to be eaten. We stopped at this convenient junction of 1095 and the 1285 where a bus-stop offered us respite from the sun and tucked in to our packed lunch.

At the junction leading to Mae Hong Son and Ban Huai Phueng ... the peloton get its picture taken.

At this point, we'd ridden about 50km. From here on, it's mostly flat to rolling...until just about 3km from town where a nasty little climb reminds you of the lactic acid still idling in your tired quads. We were so looking forward to a massage tonight.

End of the tour! A grand welcome, by Thai standards.

After a quick celebratory drink at a shop just beyond the arch, we headed into the city to look for a GH. And Mae Hong Son is a surprisingly big city. The other surprise was that MHS’s elevation was only about 257 m! All this while I’d thought MHS was located high in the northern mountains. I guess this was a very low valley.

After hunting around a bit near the lake, I came across a sign for vacant rooms in the royally named Prince GH. Walking in, I was met by a ‘farang’, an Englishman who seemed to be the manager. There was also an old lady sitting at a table in the lobby who seemed to be the boss.

Besides just asking for rooms, I also had to ask a very important question ‘Do you have air-con room?’, for the sake of our Princess, of course. Luckily they had one, and it was vacant. The irony of it all never quite hit me until much later — Prince and Princess, a lovely match, if ever there was one. Anyway, I was distracted by the majestic view of the lake from the Prince’s balcony. Nice. And the room rate was very agreeable too — 300B for fan-rooms for us common folk, and 400B for the Princess’ air-conditioned royal suite.

It was nothing grand like the funky GHs we stayed in in Pai and Soppong, but it was decent enough.

View of the lake from the balcony of Prince GH

Good food was next on our list. We took a slow walk in the fading light of the day to a recommended (by a Malaysian we met in Pai) restaurant called Fern. It was a big restaurant, and it was still early enough that the place only had a few diners. We decided to sit outdoors and the first thing we ordered was a couple of bottles of Beer Chang.

We toasted to a successful trip. It had unfolded positively beyond my expectations. But honestly, I hadn’t known if it was going to work out to be fun for everyone. Well, thanks to providence, it did turned out to be fun, safe, and full of little surprises. But most of all, we had all gotten to know each other a little better…

Mo had overcome his distaste for spicy foods and was now a bona fide Tom Yum expert. And, I have to say, I enjoyed those little skirmishes with him when our wheels face off to see who could reach the next top of a climb first 🙂

And Roland, well, he’s always in front, pedalling at a ridiculously high cadence, one that none of us could even try to follow. As I pointed out earlier — everything also no sweat for the Robot.

Philip turned out to be the biggest surprise of all — with only a borrowed bike and just a few training rides under his belt, he actually completed the almost 300km ride! He may have been slow at times, but he never whined and he just simply looked towards conquering the next corner, and the next … one pedal stroke at a time. Even the serious puncture that he experienced only dented his confidence slightly.

Philip’s motorcycling friends who had been here before had not been quite so encouraging as I did (although I was being super optimistic at the time of my invitation to him, thinking that at worst, he could just stick out his thumb and hitch a ride if his legs gave out on him), even telling him ‘You die oredi… Mae Hong Son is just like riding the jeep track up Penang Hill, except that it goes all the way’. Well, you showed them, bro. Bravo!

And Shang … well, what else can I say about my good friend? For all his Princess traits, he’s a fun guy to have on any tour. Just make sure you find him an air-con room at the end of the day and all will be well.

As for Terence, well, he’s the strong silent type. Never says much, rides at a steady pace and dreams of taking Valentino Rossi’s place one day.

Fern restaurant served us possibly the best meal of the trip, next to the fish place in Pai, of course. A bit pricey but the food was very good. Highly recommended.

My favourite dish for this meal came later -- it was Fried Snakehead with Mango Salad. It was so good, we ordered seconds.

How to best to end a tour? With a massage, of course. These masseurs were very good, and literally massaged away the lactic acid, and rejuvenated tired muscles. Worth every bit of the 200B price.

After his massage, Roland announced that he would ride back to Chiang Mai the next day. But what’s more impressive was that he was going to arrive the day after that, on Friday, the same day we were supposed to arrive by motorised transport. Friday also meant it would only take him half the time we took to ride here!

Well, I guess that’s why Shang calls him Universal Soldier (a la Jean-Claude Van Damme). As for us mortals, tomorrow we’ll be spending a day exploring the city (on motorcycles, again) and its surrounds, including visiting some ladies with abnormally long necks. Mo has been waiting a long time for that.

Seen along the main road as we were walking by -- a signboard proclaiming the services of one of MHS's more honest tour guides. Of course, with a name like his, what did you expect?

It would turn out that we weren’t actually done with riding … for Shang, Mo and me anyway.

We were going to emulate Roland, if only up to Soppong. The story continues….

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

Distance today: 72
Distance to date:

Playback today’s ride at everytrail.com

Day 4, 2nd March. Pai to Soppong. A short ride up and down a hill.

Bye bye Pai. Today, we’re on our way to the next town on our list — Soppong aka Pang Mapha. It would be the shortest stretch yet but, as we found out, not exactly the easiest. Although Soppong was only about 45 km away, we had no choice but to stay the night there instead of riding the extra 65 km or so all the way to Mae Hong Son … possible but it would have been an absolute killer. It would turn out to be one sweet ride, especially the loooong downhill. Check out the elevation here and you’ll see what I mean.

But first, breakfast ...

This time, breakfast was something more familiar to us -- rice porridge, or what we call 'choke' in Chinese. This particular stall that we patronised is apparently quite well-known. It's located at the junction leading to the Pai morning market.

Rice porridge mixed with a raw egg, complemented by century-egg, and soya milk with ..

... Thai-style 'yau char kwai', or Chinese crullers ... delicious when dipped in soya milk.

Enjoying our porridge on the opposite side of the road in the 'yau char kwai' and soya milk shop. We needed all the carbo and protein we could get.

The going was easy at first, gently rolling upwards … but we knew the fun would begin very soon. About 9km later, the switchbacks were back with a vengeance. …

Both sides of the road were quite arid. It was dehydrating just looking at the parched and droughty scenery. There were many charred spots as well....my guess is, it's the work of careless irresponsible smokers throwing ciggy butts out the window of a moving vehicle. All it takes is one tiny spark ...

The roads starts winding ...

... and I start whining.

A rare photo of me (that's my riding-uphill-on-a-loaded-bike face) on the road ... one advantage of group tours with many cameras clicking away.

Then Mo, who saw the pics I asked Philip to take of me as I ascended a steep switchback, wanted the same dramatic shots for his own collection, so I obliged him. Look carefully at the set of photos below …

Mo starting his ascent ...

ok, time to stand up for that dramatic shot...

...then finish it off strongly. But wait a minute, this is right-hand drive country, which means .... :p

Soon we crested the mountain we were climbing, peaking at almost 1,500m high. We had ascended about 1000m! As we rolled onto the peak, we spied a signboard that made us smile — Fresh Coffee. In this part of the world, when they say it’s fresh coffee, they really mean it. Inside the little hut, I spied a Saeco coffee machine. Impressive! I ordered an espresso and waited for the boy to get to it.

But he seemed a little hesitant … obviously, he wasn’t the resident barista. Then he made a sign that he’d go get someone. I waved him down and told him ‘no, no …never mind, I’ll make it myself.’ Actually, I had also seen the pathetic amount of ground coffee he was putting into the pod and I was alarmed. There was no way a decent brew would come out of that. I piled on the grounds myself, tamped it and proceeded to brew a cup of single espresso. It wasn’t the best beans they were using, likely some cheap robusta, but it was drinkable. Like Mo, I needed my fix ….

The customary group shot at the peak of the climb

Then, it was time to let gravity take over. I already knew that it was going to be a long descent, so I rigged up the camera on the bike to capture the downhill action.

Check out the video below … a little patience will reward you with some adrenaline-pumping action 🙂

It was a real blast, with speeds of up to 60kph and the hot afternoon wind in our faces. The bottom came too soon and a little while later, we rolled into Soppong …

... a dusty, one-street town that would mark the end of the 3rd day of riding.

After checking out another very rustic place called Jungle House, we decided to go back to the first GH that we saw -- Little Eden. Shang was the first to breathe a sigh of relief.

At green Little Eden, we took up residence in 3 A-huts at 400B each for me, Philip and Roland and Terence who shared one.

My 'bungalow', as Ai, the Thai brunette staff called these A-huts. Lovely...

It wasn't too bad actually. The beatifully kept garden outside my hut, complete with a (freezing cold) swimming pool was a rather soothing place to while away an hour or so.

Meanwhile, Shang was ecstatic when he found out about the other real bungalow, one that was perched over the river. For only 1500B, and with air-con to boot, Shang had to have it when he found out it had glorious air-con. There and then, we decided that he would henceforth be called Princess instead of Man.

The honeymoon suite with a splendid view of sunset over the river.

Princess Shang luxuriating on his bed. Mo who shared the place with him was allowed to sleep on the sofa bed nearby.

With accommodation sorted out, Roland, Philip and I headed to town on foot to look for some local eats. There were no decent looking restaurants to be found.  Finally we wandered into the market, saw this nice lady at her unpretentious little stall and proceeded to order a bowl each of … whatever. We were not disappointed.

It was one of the most delicious bowl of whatever-curryish-noodle-soup. Simple fare but so flavourful And at only 20B, with a glass of iced-water, it was ridiculously cheap.

That night, however, we weren’t so lucky. We didn’t have too many alternatives for fancy dining in town, so we had to settle for Little Eden’s not-so-heavenly food, cooked by the Thai lady boss (who’s married to a German by the way). It was pretty salty stuff…

Unhappy diners ... Philip looked like he wasn't going to pay up, even though his plate was empty.

They used nice plates though ...

Tomorrow morning, I was determined to visit the nice lady at the market again and enjoy another bowl of whatever-noodle-soup. She would easily trump Little Eden’s food with her ambrosial peasant fare.

……………………………………………………………………..

Distance today: 45k
Distance to date:

Play back today’s ride at everytrail.com (if you didn’t click on the link in the beginning)

Tomorrow, we head for Mae Hong Son. Also the last ride of the trip.. or so we thought …until Roland the Robot aka Universal Soldier decided that he hadn’t had enough.

Stay tuned…

Day 3, 1 March. Fun in Pai at 100B a day

When a bunch of boys sharing the same interest get together in a foreign city, either fun or chaos will ensue. In our case, it was the former. Personally, I was having fun touring as a group, although I suspect this arrangement only works best for short trips like this. But today, we rest our steeds and opt for horsepower instead.

That’s what the 100B a day is all about —  rental charges for 24 hours use of little scooters. Of course, when you step into the shop and reconfirm whether it really was 100B a day, the guy would give you his most polished honest look and say ‘yes, yes’ … that is, until the nice girl handling the paperwork tells us  that actually, the (get-you-suckered-in-first) 100B is for the rental, and is not inclusive of another 80B for insurance. By then, Mo’s passport was already held hostage in lieu of our collective rentals. But even by cheapskates’ standards, 180B was still cheap. So we didn’t complain much about it.

That was surprise #1. Next, when we were starting up the bikes, we realised that the fuel gauge needle was at below zero. (I was sure they fill every ready-to-rent bike with just a few thimblefuls of fuel, enough to get you to the petrol station) Then, when you’re faced with a ‘how much?” nod from the girl manning the pump, you wonder ‘hmm..how do I give the bike back with the same pitiful amount of fuel?’. Unlike us fortunate Malaysians, fuel is not subsidised in Thailand. So the answer is — you can’t… and you’re not really expected to. I suspect the bike rental guys siphon off as much fuel as they can from returned bikes (leaving a few thimblefuls of fuel naturally) for the next unsuspecting customer.

The other surprise of the day had to do with 2 of our boys — Roland and Terence. For all their prowess in  cranking up some very steep hills, they were motorcycle-challenged. ‘Don’t know how to ride la’, they protested and wanted to be pillion riders instead. Nothing doing, of course. We weren’t having any dead-weight on our bikes. These were puny machines; 100cc Honda scooters. Zippy but only if carrying  scrawny cycle tourers like us.

The enterprising shop owner, sensing 2 lucrative rentals slipping away, happily exclaimed, ‘Don worry, don worry, we teach you to ride … very easy!’ and proceeded to get 2 of his guys to take our 2 boys out for a quick lesson.

And boy, was it a quick lesson. When they came back about 10 minutes later, Roland and Terence were riding like pros (ok, pros when they first learnt how to ride a bike). But Shang was most flabbergasted  with the irony of it all — the number plate on Terence’s bike was 46. That, for the uninitiated, is the number of the world’s fastest man on 2 wheels —  500cc  Moto GP Champion, Valentino Rossi!

The posse heads out ...

... to the nearest petrol station. As for Mo, no toy bikes for him, only a big bad Phantom fit for the machisMo.

"Your number's up, Rossi."

It turned out to be an anti-climactic day on 2 wheels.

First, we headed out of town to a waterfall listed on a map given to us by the bike-rental guy. I should have known better. It was no different from back home —  whenever a waterfall is listed on some official publication, it’s usually means it’s not so off the beaten track that it still unspoilt. And somehow it never quite occurred to us that the dry season was in full swing, which meant less than roaring volumes of water cascading over the rocks.

It wasn't exactly a well-kept tourist spot, and it was rather lacking in the 'falls' bit.

On the way back, we stopped by a Chinese village, one that was as touristy as it can get -- pony rides, archery, souvenir stalls that lined the main road, and even a fairground attraction ...

... a human-powered ferris wheel!

The morning’s excursion was getting more boring by the minute, so we decided that we should go for lunch at a place recommended by the bike-rental shop owner himself. He redeemed himself many times over — it was a simple thatched roof restaurant and it specialised in fish dishes. (The restaurant is located just outside of town opposite a Tourist Police station..look for the 133km milestone marker along the 1095).

It turned out to be the best meal we had so far. The steamed fish was so good even Mo, who until now was unable to handle spicy food, overdid himself and slurped up every last bit of gravy. From then on, Mo was a new man, a very hot one. In fact, we even ordered another steamed fish. In total, we had 3 different fishes.

The fish dishes were superb, as you can see from the state of bliss we were in. Unfortunately, my camera's SD card was corrupted by a faulty card-reader and I lost some very nice pics of the food, so this was the most delectable photo of the lot. It didn't help that the guys were all too busy to document the occasion as they usually did.

The most expensive meal so far...but it was worth it.

After lunch, we all decided that we would go sightseeing at a familiar spot — the coffee place we stopped by the day before. It was just down the road not too far from the WW2 bridge. With the caffeine fix out of the way, Mo decided that we should try our luck with another waterfall that wasn’t too far away. In the lazy afternoon heat, nobody actually protested and so, we headed out for another watery (you guessed it) disappointment.

Disappointing doesn't even begin to describe the place. It was so uninviting, and a little bridge over the water was so decrepit, we didn't even dare walk on it. Even the water that collected at the bottom was stagnant.

Compared with our day's adventure, the night market was more interesting.

I even got to try out some funky food -- black sticky rice cake

Cheap and good

Terence fulfilling his husband-on-holiday duties, "Amy will love these fridge magnets"

Hopefully the Pai to Sopphong instalment would be more exciting.

Day 2, 28 Feb. Pa Pae to Pai, fuelled by coffee

The morning after ... mist over the lake at Mushroom GH

It’s quite a shame that Mushroom GH is in such dire conditions. The place is rugged yet serene but unfortunately, not a popular stop. It’s no wonder that the going rate for the chalets was only 250B. If I was passing this way again, I’d definitely stay the night, if only to gaze out from the balcony at the mist-covered lake in the mornings.

As we readied to hit the road, the sun was just creeping up over the hills but it was still quite chilly. We could feel the cold very acutely especially when we hit a small descent a little after we started pedalling. We were cold and hungry but before long, we could feel the sun thawing us out.

At the 32km milestone marker, we arrived at our breakfast destination, called 32 Coffee Hill, for obvious reasons.

32 Coffee Hill's dining area is built below the road so if you didn't know about this place, you could easily pass it and miss out on a great meal in some very nice surroundings. It reminded me of some very exotic resorts ... minus the exotic prices, of course.

Only a top-notch barista could have brewed this work of caffeine art -- it was easily the most beautiful of all the coffees we had throughout the trip.

It was a very long breakfast. Nobody wanted to move out. Only after the 2nd (or was it the third) cup of coffee, did we very reluctantly hauled ass and hit the road.

One floor below the al fresco dining area, the exotic theme extended to the exotic rest room. The johns on the right had doors recycled from aged teak where one can ...

... discharge in blissful splendour

Filled to the gills with food and caffeine (while some of us made a deliberate effort to empty extra baggage in the exotic loo), we headed out onto the 1095. The sun was up and we were already very nicely warmed up for the rest of the ride ahead.

The switchbacks hit us relentlessly one after another and of course, the noobs’ cameras were clicking away with abandon to record those been-there-done-that moments. Some of these switchbacks were quite dramatic, with substantial elevation increases as much as 20ft … maybe more.

It was going to be a loooong, and very hot day …

After about 40kms or so of climbing, we came upon a viewing point. The 2 tourers-turned-racers, Roland and Shang, were luxuriating in the shade of the thatched roof hut, sipping cold drinks and waiting for the rest to regroup. We were at the highest elevation of the day — 1400m, from the 886m of Pa Pae.

The sun was at its zenith. Sitting in the cool shade, it was a welcome respite from the relentless heat at this viewing point, not that there was anything to see, given the haze. Well, at least it was mostly downhill from here — all 30 or so kms —  to Pai.

Gravity rules... Mo squeezing every last bit of aerodynamic advantage coasting down the hill towards Pai.

Without Jesus, it's all downhill 🙂 ........ Strangely, there was nothing resembling a church to be found here.

At the end of the downhill run, about 8km from Pai, we played the dutiful tourist at this spot. If you look carefully, you'll notice that this bridge was erected during WW2, precisely 1,942 years before Christ was born. Wait a minute, that's still a long way to go ....

Still in good shape after all these years.

I was literally wilting in the hot sun, so I tried to escape the blistering heat by diving into a cone of homemade coconut milk ice cream that was being sold nearby.

While I was enjoying my little treat, the boys had gone on ahead to Pai but … they never made it pass a coffee joint just a few kms down the road. Caffeine is a drug, after all, and when it comes in the form of a tall, sweet, milky, filled-to-the-brim-with-crushed-ice coffee, the steeliest resolve turns to putty.

Soon, we rolled into the hippie-ish town of Pai, stomach rumbling as loudly as hot tyres on heated tarmac. We stopped at a decent looking shop and, after 8 hrs or so on the road, finally tucked into a full meal.

Our digs for the 2 days in Pai, the newly opened 10-room, so-called boutique GH that goes by the name of Paifah. It was very nice, and we paid 500B for a single occupancy room each.

It was nice little touches like these cute 'elephant' towels that made our stay so memorable. There was no air-conditioning either, as once the sun sets, the temperature dips down to very agreeable levels.

Teak leaves are very popular in northern Thailand as roofing material, not just for country folks but for arty-farty GHs as well, as in the case of our very earthy and well-ventilated bathrooms.

Tomorrow, we explore Pai …

Total distance today: 70km
Total distance to date: 135km

Play back today’s ride at everytrail.com

Day 1, 27 Feb. Chiang Mai to Pa Pae.

Looking out of the window from my cramped AirAsia aisle seat as the plane made its final approach to the runway, it was just as fellow cycle- tourer Chris Wee (who had just come back from driving trip around Chiang Mai) had warned me about — Chiang Mai and its surrounds were enveloped in a smoky haze.

The dry weather was in full swing, the effects of which would be even more acutely felt when we made our way towards Mae Hong Son, the last city on our itinerary. The ideal period would have been November to February, the cooler months. But, we were here, and nothing doing, I guess … we’ll just make the most of it.

The plan was straightforward — Chiang Mai to Pa Pae on day 1, Pa Pae to Pai on day 2 (with an extra day to chill out in this backpacker haven), Pai to Soppong (also known as Pang Mapha) on day 4, and the 5th and final day of riding will see us rolling into Mae Hong Son. After an extra day exploring the town, we would make our way back to Chiang Mai by hiring a pickup truck. Along the way, the idea was to take the bikes out and let gravity work for us when we came upon the longer downhill sections.

As soon as we had all collected our stuff, we headed off to a quiet corner of the airport. At 9.45am local time, the sun was already making its burning presence felt. However, we were coming from a humid climate, so the drier air was actually quite agreeable.

Assembling the bikes seemed to take longer than expected; what with all the fine tuning and adjustments, and more fine tuning and adjustments. After what seemed like hours, we made our way out of the airport at 11.30am, the newbie tourers in high spirits, in anticipation of an exciting adventure.

Shang unpacking his oversized bike from an oversized box while flashing an oversized grin.

Me and my Surly

Chiang Mai Airport is not a particularly busy one, and soon I was leading the peloton towards our first destination — lunch, wherever that was down the road. We were going to by-pass the busiest sections of the city and head for the 3010 instead, which would meet up with the 1095, the principal road that would deliver us to all our planned destinations.

One of the traits that mark my style of touring is to always choose the less-beaten path when presented with options, and this includes food stops. Barely 10 minutes from the airport, I decided we should patronise a promising looking shop; there were only a few tables inside, and a couple of woks out front were going full blast over roaring gas fires.

It was time for some serious fuelling up for the day’s ride ahead.

Our first Thai meal of the trip was a relatively simple one, delicious single dishes like Pad Thai, fried rice and rice accompanied by a choice of meats. As usual, it was sign language and furious pointing of fingers at the pictorial menu on the wall. Easy ...

Satiated, we hit the road again, and soon we were riding along a dual-carriageway, its middle divider bursting with brilliant hues of bougainvillea flowers, as expected of the plant which rises to the occasion as happily as a thermometer under such blistering conditions (note the shadows caused by the overhead sun).

Soon, we turned off the highway into the 3010, and the scenery a sharp contrast to where we had just come from. The surrounds were quite sparse and dry, and the man-made canal that snaked alongside the road had only a trickle of water flowing through it.

Riding along the 3010

The first of many wats we would be passing by. Typical of most cultures around the world, village life usually centred around the chief place of worship. Mo was duly blessed by his homage to the white Buddha and some unknown, but obviously venerated, likeness of some Thai monk in front of it.

The next stop of the day was at a popular tourist attraction — Tiger Kingdom. By some strange and silent consensus, none of us were inclined to spend some money to pose with a real live tiger. We were more interested in a breezy little coffee shack located on the grounds. All 6 of us were coffee fans, Mo being the most ardent one, with his constant “Shall we stop for coffee?” implorations whenever a sign for coffee was spotted.

The 3010 is mostly a rural road and we passed by typical Thai houses, all neat and tidy with at least some form of well-kept gardens in the front yard. It reminded me of Bali; no matter how poor they were, it was never reflected in the exterior of their homes. It is an attitude, I guess.

At a rehydration stop, I hadn't realised my bike was parked against a lottery ticket tray. Small town people harbour big dreams too.

In the meantime, simple pleasures will do for these folk, like these funky-looking jam sandwiches stewing in the hot afternoon air.

Cycling always works up a healthy appetite, and so, upon hitting the 3010 and 1095 junction, marked by a dot on the map called Sop Poeng, we stopped for lunch at a cosy little shop.

6 plates of very delectable fried rice at only 155B, plus all the free iced water we could drink.

It was just as well that we had carb-rich rice for lunch. The real cycling of the day was about to begin. So far, it had been flat and easy but after we passed Mok Fah, our bikes started pointing upwards. The grind had begun.

Slow and steady does it -- Philip plugging away up an incline

Get used to it, boy -- 5, 7, 8kph ...

At exactly the 27km milestone, on the fringe of the hamlet of Pa Pae, we stopped at the shop to enquire about lodgings for the night. I'd read about a place called Everest Resort located nearby but when the boys found out that it was a killer of a 500m hill we had to bike up, it was unanimously voted out of the shortlist. Instead, we asked the nice lady running the stall about the GH located directly opposite ...

Mushroom Resort. An idyllic looking place which turned out to be both a surprise and a let-down. The stall owner very kindly used her mobile phone to call the owner of the GH, who promptly rode out on her motorcycle to meet us.

It got high marks for location and scenery. This was the chalet Philip and I shared for the night, all for a princely 200B (after a 50B discount due to lack of hot water)

The interior of the nice one-bedroom suite ...

...complemented by an imposing view of the lake and a not-so-inviting swimming pool.

The first businesss of the day after checking in was met with howls when Philip got showered with a stream of black ants instead of just water. As for hot water, there was none to luxuriate in either; the LPG tank underneath the chalet was as empty as the swimming pool, hence the 50B discount.

Dinner was excellent, courtesy of the lady boss who took our orders while we were freshening up. Within an hour she whipped up an impressive array of Tom Yum, fried vegetables, green curry, omelettes and other savoury dishes. The bill came to a total 700B, inclusive of 4 large bottles of Chang beer and, double orders of some of the dishes, not to mention 2 extra fried eggs each for Mo and egg-man Shang. Was that cheap or was that cheap, especially when divided by 6?

At only 600m elevation, Pa Pae was surprisingly cold at night, even at the onset of the dry season. In colder months, this fireplace at the main outhouse where we had our dinner, would have been a great place to thaw out. It wasn't there just to warm the family and guests, the boy behind me was busy helping with the making of brooms, gently bending and heating the stems over the fire. The resort wasn't exactly brimming with guests (we were the only ones that night) and this, I suppose, helped supplement their income.

It had been a great first day of riding and, although we knew the inclines would be coming thick and fast after this, we were actually looking forward to it.

The lady boss had asked if we wanted to have breakfast the next day, but I’d already planned for us to have our first meal tomorrow at a swanky coffee joint 6 km down the road, one that I’d read about from some German cycle-tourer’s account at crazyguyonabike.com.

It would turn out to be a very long, luxurious breakfast …

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Total distance today, and to date: 65km
Total ride time: 4hr 45min
Highest elevation: 914m

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Play back today’s ride on Garmin Connect:

Chiang Mai to Pa Pae, first 60km
Chiang Mai to Pa Pae, final 5km

Tomorrow: Pa Pae to Pai

The itch spreads like wildfire

First it was Shang who had gotten wind of my Mae Hong Son trip. He asked if he could join me and of course, I said ok. (Except for my debut tour, I’d always toured alone, and I thought it might be nice to have a buddy along this time around.) So he promptly went and ordered a brand new Surly … with a pair of Ortlieb panniers and a handlebar bag to match.

So far so good.

6-foot tall Shang Leong aka Da Man, Princess and other unmentionable names. At the end of the trip, we decided that he was going to be stripped of his 'Da Man' title to Roland 'Robot' Cheah, and be just 'Princess'. The story will unfold ...

Then Terence, who heard about the impending tour from Shang, decided that for his birthday, (and before more and more candles were being blown out) he was going to reward himself with an adventure on 2 wheels … well, I suppose debut tours are always an adventure. I’d also heard talk about a very sweet, hand-built-in-the-US, titanium Lynskey frame that he was getting for his … err…’some-decades’ birthday… but that’s another story.

Ok … so three’s company. So far, so good.

Terence aka Pump on his soon-to-be cannibalised Kona

Then it was the Chinese New Year holidays and together with my family, we made our yearly pilgrimage back to the island of Penang. Whilst there, my good friend Philip told me over dinner that a friend had lent him a bike to use as he wished because the friend had bought a newer one. Philip wasn’t much of a biking aficionado and wasn’t quite sure what bike it was when I asked him about it. He said it had a name like Santa something …

‘Ahhh, Santa Cruz?’ I offered.

‘Yes, yes’.

Well, since it was already turning out to be a group ride, I thought why not get him to join us? After all, my friend was sorely in need of a holiday. He’d always been selflessly working and working, and serving in church, without giving much thought about going for a holiday, let alone a cycling adventure like this.

Philip's Santa Cruz hardtail. A tad small in size but big on components -- Chris King hubs, Magura brakes, XTR drivetrain, Mavic rims and an unnecessary bomber of a Bomber fork. The chain stays are square, heavyset and bombproof too, as is the stubby downhill CNC handlebar stem. There were also no eyelets for attaching a rear rack so we had to DIY a simple clamp on each of the seat-stays. Not the best for touring but at least there's no worry of braking inefficiency , no matter how steep and sharp the switchbacks are going to be 🙂

Mimi, the wife, must have sensed the opportunity to get Philip to finally take off somewhere and cleverly pointed out that since I, the experienced cycle tourer, would be leading this ride, why don’t he join me and have some fun? After all, it would only be a short trip.

Later that night, after they got home, a return flight to Chiang Mai was booked for one Philip Chuah, the fit but newbie biker and tourer, who would be attempting to ride the infamous Mae Hong Son route, no less. I wondered then if it had been such a good idea.

Ok, at this point, 4’s still good company. So far, so good.

Then Roland (who had earlier showed interest in joining us but backed out later due to work) called from KL and said that he was now good to go. ‘Great,’ I said, and following which, my famous question — ‘but err.. have you booked your flight yet? No ticket, no talk ah’.

He got it done immediately and reported back to tell me so.

Ok, 5’s still good company. So far, so good.

The ever-smiling Roland aka Robot, a strong and super efficient biker. Rumour has it that massage aunties pay to massage him... ripped and six-pack endowed that he is.

One week before we left, Shang called me and asked if it was ok if Mo, another member from our group of mountain bikers (which goes by the unabashedly loud name of Thunder Clan) could join us as well. I said please, by all means, the more the merrier. Surely, this was turning out to be no ordinary group outing. Mo then promptly went out and borrowed a hardtail from the LBS (he only had one bike — a full-sus) and also bought a brand new set of Topeak panniers, rack and handlebar bag.

Mohammad Sarhangi aka Mo, the Iranian Norwegian. Spicy foods were the bane of his existence ... until he experienced a culinary epiphany halfway through a steamed fish at Pai.

Ok, so now it’s 6 tourers. I decided that 6 was nice round number and as it was only a week before the ride, we’d keep it at that. This itch was becoming as uncontrollable as eczema.

It was time to start packing and prepping the bike.

So far, so good.

……………………………………………………………………………..

Next: Chiang Mai!