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 πŸ™‚

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 ... πŸ™‚

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.Β  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.Β  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 πŸ™‚

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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 πŸ™‚

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

Got itch? Just scratch la …

4 months. That’s how long I lasted before I succumbed to wanderlust again. I want … no, I need … to hit the road again; with my panniers loaded up on my trusty Surly; seeing new things with each pedal stroke, making new friends on the road, revelling in the cheers of kids egging me on, eating strange new foods, imbibing unfamiliar beverages … and as always, going out daily on a wing and a prayer. Woo hoo!

The destination is a little closer to home this time — the infamous Mae Hong Son loop in the northern Thai region of Chiang Mai — a stupendous 600km route boasting some 1,824 bends, many of which are 180 degree switchbacks. The terrain? Well, like most mountainous rides, it’s either up or down, and apparently, in many places quite severe in its aspects … just what I need to while away a week.

Yes, it's that rustic...and these pachyderms may just overtake us on the steepest climbs of the route (photo stolen from my friend Cheah's blog)

This time, 2 very willing accomplices are joining me — Shang Leong and Terence Law, first-timers no less. Shang has even gone so far as to order a brand new Surly (and new Ortlieb panniers) to kick-start his touring career. I am impressed.

Did I mention 600km in a week? Well, I doubt if we’ll be able to ride all 600km of it; it’s more like riding the 300+km to Mae Hong Son and then hire a pickup truck and drive/bike the rest of the route back to Chiang Mai. But we’ll see how it unfolds …

Can't wait to ride these bends (photo also stolen from Cheah's blog...thanks Cheah:)

So why this place? Well, besides the fact that it’s there, my fellow adventure cyclist friends Alvin, Chris Wee and Cheah have all been there and done that, so I guess I’ll have to do it too. A good excuse as any, I guess πŸ™‚

But … the likelier truth is that it’s pretty unlikely I could get away for a month again like I did last year pedalling around northern Europe; work and wife-wise, that is. So, I’ll just have to make it short and sweet. On the brighter side, I could probably squeeze in another mini-tour somewhere sometime before the year is out — it’s all in the cards, and the possibilities are endless … woo hoo indeed!