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 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 (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 ‘ 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

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!

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!