Thailand by Land, Part 3

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I’ve been struggling a bit with documenting my time in Thailand. The food posts come easy. So do the road posts, but those are few and far between. The time spent just bumming around various cities seems to be either not very interesting for the blog or too private to write about, and the time spent at natural farms seems to deserve more reflection than I’ve felt up for, lately. Several posts-in-the-works are filling up my draft box. Who knows if they’ll ever get out. One thing is for sure, though: after three months of being a backpacker who cycles intermittent-but-intensely, I’m back normal life. Normal by my standards, that is: a tent, a begging pot, two wheels, six bags, a few water bottles, and a cache’ of peanuts. The only difference is that I’ve got three fellow travelers with me this time.

A quick breakdown of the last 3.5 months, so that I feel I’ve at least skimmed over everything:

July: 8 days on the bike, 10 at Rak Tamachat eco-community (for lack of a better word), three miscellaneous rest days.

August: 8 days in Bangkok hanging out with old and new friends, 8 days cycling the northern half of Thailand, a few days resting in Chiang Mai with a future riding partner, and the rest of the month at Panya Project, another eco-community.

September: Ten more days at Panya, two weeks with mom and dad, a couple more days in Bangkok with two other future (and past) riding partners, then up to Chiang Mai.

October: a week of killing time in Chiang Mai, bouncing around between various hostels and couchsurfing hosts, waiting for one partner to fly back from the USA and the other two to finish their ride up from Bangkok. A few days hanging out, letting them recover, and getting everything ready to go.

October 11th: We hit the road!

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Don’t let the brightness fool you – we snuck out of our couchsurfing digs before the clock struck seven. Not because we wanted to avoid our hosts, but because we knew that we wouldn’t be able to turn down the inveitable offer to stay another day.

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Elena, chef supreme. She’d also visited Panya and is hoping to bring the family to Sadhana someday.

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Max, independent businessman, collector of various world instruments, whaler on the Arabian non-djembe, and recumbent bicycle enthusiast.

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Platon (Russian for “Plato”), just learning to walk.

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Ilyana, who cried when we wouldn’t watch cartoons with her and when I wouldn’t let her help me set up my brand new tent. She also fed us pieces of her baugettes and ran to the door and gave us hugs and kisses every time we came back to the house after a day out.

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So it was that we set out – me with both a new, (shall we say “experimental?”) haircut…

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And a pretty much entirely new bicycle. By the end of my Bangkok – Chiang Mai ride, I had traversed nearly 15,000 kilometers, all without knowing the difference between a casette, a chainset, a crank, and a sprocket – let alone knowing how to maintain any or all of them. For whatever reasons, the cycling gods didn’t get fed up with my laziness and incompetence until the final hundred kilometers or so, at which point my chain and gear teeth had become so worn down that only one combination was rideable, and any attempt on an incline of more than about two degrees led to continual chain slippage. In other words, lots of pushing. That’s my excuse for not riding a single kilometer in September.

Thinking that Thai parts would be expensive, I ordered a pretty much entire new cransket – three front gears, one chain, and one back cassette – online and had it shipped to my parents, who brought it with them from the US of A. Not only did I mistakenly order the wrong chain (note to self: having eight clicks on your right gearshift means that you’ve got nine gears to choose from!), but when trying to remove the front crank to change out the parts, I wound up stripping the screw socket. Chris and I brought the bike to the best mechanic in town, who needed about two hours of head-scratching, improvising, and finally, hammering, to undo the damage I had done. Worse, I had rendered the crank unusable, meaning that the front gears I bought online would be useless without a new crank, itself only sold as part of a crankset – with three front gears already attached. Sixty bucks plus shipping out the window for the perfectly good but still unusable stuff I had already bought, plus another eighty for a new crankset, not to mention thirty for a new rim to replace my front one, which had been carved into convexity by a year’s worth of improper brake maintenance. The only new rim on offer, as luck would have it, had four more spoke holes than my previous one, meaning that I had to buy both a new hub ($30) and a new set of 36 spokes (at 3 for $1).

When Mom gave me a last-minute enormo cash gift at the airport, I told her that it would last me a month. Wrong! It lasted me a week. Then again, I turned it into new parts, so maybe it’ll last me a year. Or longer if I learn my lesson.

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Where was I? Oh yeah, we’re on the road again! 15km out of Chiang Mai and we’ve already hit the hardest climb of the next several months.

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Open road, big sky, woods and mountains all around, the feeling of wind running over my naked scalp. I remember why I do this!

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We stopped at an unmanned (unpersoned? unprimated?) banana stand on the side of the road. This lady came out of the doorway of the house behind, unleashed the monkey from his spot in the middle of the yard, and let him climb up into what appears to be hist favorite spot.

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Just over the first mountain, we decided to set up camp at Khun Chae national park. Plenty of space, bathrooms with real showers, kitchens, and somehow neither a mosquito nor raindrop in sight. Little did we know that we had camped in a gooseberry grove. Tiny fruit hailed down upon us all night long.

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Ehrm…did I mention that Chris and I worked out a sponship deal with an American tent company called Big Sky? We promised them we’d take sweet pictures of the tents in cool locations (this is just a warmup). I promise you that in future I’ll stop bragging about it.

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The next morning, we figured out that the $3 we had paid the night before was an entrance fee, not a camping fee – a perfect excuse to take a day off! We abandoned the bicycles at the camp and hitchhiked down the mountain to the hot springs.

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Which turned out to be a couple of footpools surrounded by jewelry and knick-knack vendors. We at lunch, gave our aching feet a dip, griped a little bit, played with the Chihuahuas, and then headed home. The next day, cycling down in the morning, we realized that the driver who had given us a lift the day before had dropped us off at the preliminary hot springs; just another few hundred meters down the road there was a full-sized one with full-body soaking capacity That’s okay, it was 33C+ degrees outside and none of us were in the mood for further scalding.

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The dangers of traveling in a pack: on the way down the mountain, Minseong managed to get a flat tire. His tires, the same ones that protected me for 14,000+ km and that have kept Mingyu going for about 7,000 didn’t even make it to 1,000km. What luck! The other three of us are usually a bit faster than Minseong, so we waited for him at a restaurant at the bottom, playing cards, taking pictures of one another taking pictures of one another, airing out our tents, and trying not to get on the nerves of the restaurant owners. When Minseong hadn’t come back after an hour, we played rock-paper-scissors and sent the loser (Chris) in pursuit. Thirty minutes later, Minseong returned…on his own. He had left his bags on the side of the road and headed into a moped shop for help with repairs. I went to the 7-11 across the street, bought more phone credit (which I had been hoping to scrape by without), and called Chris, only to find out that he had missed Minseong and cycled a full 10km uphill. Result: delayed breakfast, old ladies grumpified, $1.50 wasted, plans of covering significant distance that day abandoned. At least we’re all together.

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Despite the A.M. delay, we still managed to make time for some antics. Here we are at a restaurant in front of a waterfall (nicely placed halfway up the 2-hour ascent) with some “friendly” Thai uncles.

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General life advice from Mingyu: regardless of the situation, do the most ridiculous thing possible. Ok, I’m in!

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For the second night in a row, we camped at the top of a mountain – this time at a scenic viewpoint rather than a national park. No particular “facilities” to speak of, but there was a gazebo big enough to fit all four of our tents, a working water tap that we used to shower off once the sun had set, and a kind vendor lady who sold us all her remaining rice, chicken, and eggs and, upon seeing that it wouldn’t be enough, rode home on her scooter, cooked us a big helping of mushroom soup, and brought it back to us in our tupperware.

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Later that afternoon, we passed by a temple buzzing with activity. Or maybe booming. Street vendors out front selling all variety of noodles, salads, and skewered fishballs. Troops of ladies all dressed up in traditional-looking outfits, some white, some purple, all spangly. Thumping music coming from inside, firecrackers bursting spontaneously from all directions. And…ripped young lads twirling fiery sticks? Behind the back, under the legs, up in the air, generally synchronised. I probably would’ve gone to Sunday school more had that been on the syllabus.

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Exceedingly lamely choreographed nail dance – all quarter turns and curtsies. Then again, what wouldn’t pale in comparison to spinning fiery demi-weapons around?

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None of us had any idea what all of these festivities were in honor of, nor were any of us capable of asking. My best guess is that everyone was celebrating the end of the ten-day vegetarian festival that had been going on the week before. I read that lots of Chinese-descended Thais go vegetarian during this period, and had noticed lots of extra veggie street food in town and a multiplicity of yellow flags with the Chinese character and Thai letters for “vegetarian.” No better way to do honor to the spirit of the festival than to cook up a bunch of street meat, right?

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Just as we were preparing to leave, we found our path blocked by a crowd of hip youngsters marching in front of a giant speaker-bearing truck. The second wave of people was slightly older and significantly more inebriated. We tried to make a speedy escape, but were forced along the way to accept several gulps of wine coolers and to down several cups of beer.

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We all left with a sudden but significant buzz. Thankfully none of us had lost our wits and accepted the invitation to karaoke. Even at 1PM, karaoke is guaranteed to spell the end of a day of cycling. It also most likely means a day off tomorrow.

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At the end of the day, we found our own little Xanadu: a hotel (probably a “love hotel”) consisting of several stand-alone pink cottages, suited for two but big enough for four. $3 a piece with free coffee and wifi – we wound up staying for three days. Though that’s also partially because Mingyu, in an effort to fix up his front spokes, wound up ruining his back one. Check out the pictures at on his post, “If you’ve got a bike problem, let a pro take care of it.” Looks like he and I both learned the same lesson. Or, at least, were given the chance to.

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Fixing Mingyu’s bike was a complicated, several-day affair. No problem for him, since South Koreans have kickass visa status all over southeast Asia. I, on the other hand, had three days left before mine expired. With 150km and several mountains in between us and the Laos border, we decided to make a tactical split. Minseong and I would head to Laos first and wait there at the first town we could find.

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Nice scenery. Unfortunately, we got rained on just about the whole time.

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Score! We were cycling around the village of “Yot” in the dark looking for a temple when a young gentleman, probably having seen our military-grade flaslights, came out and led us to the local government office. Clean floors, a solid roof, bathrooms, potable water, and not a single mosquito. God bless Thailand.

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Memento from a funeral unobserved. Riding past a country village, I heard the clang of cymbals and the crash of firecrackers. A parade of about thirty people walked slowly down the slope from the village above, the front four of them bearing a casket. Nobody cried or uttered a word. They just paced past me slowly, some people playing instruments, some people carrying cloth bags filled with what must have been the deceased’s possessions. The procession crossed the pain road, passed the bus stop gazebo I was watching from, and disappeared down the small forest path below. Minseong and I sat and listened to them walk for about fifteen minutes, until the sound faded.

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Fog, rain, hills. Rest, repeat.

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We couldn’t leave the country without (being on the receiving end of) one last act of kindness. Starving after several hours spent climbing up an insanely steep mountain road – steeper even than any that I remember from the road heading to Tibet – we pulled up to a market fully intent on devouring everything we could get our hands on. Instead, this guy chatted us up for about ten minutes. I’m pretty sure he would have offered us a place to sleep had we not told him we wanted to push on for another thirty km that evening. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. After doing some market grazing, stocking up on supplies for the last sixty km, and spending a few minutes at a bike shop taking care of a minor issue with Minseong’s handlebars, we set off for the border. Two minutes later, this guy caught up to us on his moped, waved for us to stop, and presented us each with a bag full of four double-decker sandwiches. Having already loaded up on donuts, sweet potatoes, mini-apples, and a coconut, I wasn’t quite sure where to put them. What a wonderful problem to be burdened with.

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One more day of riding in the cursed rain. It impedes our views, it gives us colds, it makes our shoes slosh, it makes our groins itch, it makes our brakes useless, it makes our tires skid…but on the other hand, it makes all land-based life possible. I guess I’ll stop complaining.

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One last surprise at the border. “Where are you from?” “I’m from America.” “Ah yes, America. That’s great. I’m the governor of Nan province.” We did some publicity shots and then I had him order me a special vegetarian meal from the restaurant. What luck!

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One final Thai beer with lunch to hold us over until we finish our southeast Asia loop in December…

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And we’re off! Minseong’s first border crossing by bicycle, my first border crossing heading north since I left Vietnam for China in March.

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6 Responses to Thailand by Land, Part 3

  1. Jeff says:

    Awesome post! Thanks for not mailing me your hair a second time…

    …or did you????

  2. Anonymous says:

    Your playing-dumb act won’t fool me, Roy! Allow me to refresh your memory: http://threeruleride.com/2012/08/hairwell/

  3. ian chen says:

    bicycle’s rebirth. the pic taken in dawn or at nightfall shows an eagle soaring in the sky is really cool.