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.

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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

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 🙂

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!