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