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 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….

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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 πŸ™‚

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.Β  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.

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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…