The main purpose of our week long stay in Chiang Mai was to get some life admin off our backs, but we did manage to do some exploring as well. On our first night we biked into town to meet French cycle tourists Charlotte and Lilian and their two daughters. The whole family has taken a year out to adventure together, and were just starting their Thailand leg. It was awesome to hear their stories, and to share some of our experiences in Thailand. If anyone else wants to read about their adventures you can find them here. We stopped on the way home at a night market near Nihammen Rd (the student area) for an outrageously sized milkshake (like a whole jug full of pink milky liquid, each) and toast.
We also met up with Ian Franklin, a British Immigrant who for a long time ran a track cycling club in Chiang Mai. He met us at the velodrome and lent us track bikes so we could have a ride. It was amazing to be back on the track, and even if the bikes didn’t fit particularly well we loved riding on fast, fixed gear bikes again. We both felt really strong, and can’t wait to put all this touring fitness to use on a track! We ended up spending the entire afternoon at the track riding and talking about the challenges faced by running junior cycling programs (interestingly these seem to be similar between Thailand and New Zealand). He even brought iced tea and chocolate croissants for us to have after riding. Ian has a place on Air B&B if anyone else wants to spend time in Chiang Mai, although it wasn’t advertises while we were there because there are hints of a new rule that individuals can’t rent their own apartments unless they have a hoteliers license. While we were checking in the desk staff asked us some odd questions, so we wonder if we weren’t exactly meant to be staying either.
Another ride we did was up a 750m hill to the temple on Doi Suthep. Interestingly we climbed at a similar speed to when we are loaded, but it was a lot easier on the body. Bryony visited this temple with Reta nearly 6 years ago on a hired scooter and would have called you crazy if you suggested that she would one day ride up on a push bike (after riding 6,500km to get there). There were lots of tourists at the top, as well as thai buddhists praying. The view was spectacular, although the sky hazy again. We spent ages watching planes landing and taking off from the busy airport, and spotting forked lightening amid the dark clouds to the north of the city. The ride down was exciting and we passed plenty of scooters before getting caught up in a huge line of traffic. It had started raining so it was probably better that we were forced to slow down a bit.
As well as getting our admin done, we were both longing to stay in one place for a while and do ordinary things, like cooking for ourselves, staying in and getting to know an area well. We visited a market a few times to buy supplies to cook. It was awesome to visit a market with a purpose, rather than just to look and buy a bit of fruit. Bryony made a few big chicken salads while James made spaghetti bolognaise and one of our favourite Thai dishes Gapow moo. It was definitely not cheaper than eating Thai street food, but chicken salads aren’t often on the menu, and it was nice not to have to venture out each night. Each morning we ate a huge bowl of fruit salad and muesli on our bedroom balcony overlooking Doi Suthep.
Besides cooking, we did other normal things like venturing out to explore interesting cafes and went to a movie. The mall has a big cinema showing english movies with Thai subtitles. We went to see girl on a train knowing almost nothing about it. The ads at the start were also fascinating, as was the kings anthem which everyone stood up for while watching a series of photos of the king on the big screen. We watched a few movies at home as well – the New Zealand films Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the Dark Horse.
All in all we were pretty sad to be leaving a week later when it was finally time to go. We were a bit later on the road than usual, but had planned a shorter day to Thong Choem to account for this. The ride out was lots nicer than the way in with lighter traffic and smoother roads. We stopped once at a beautiful cafe in the middle of nowhere with comfortable seats and jazz music and at another cafe just after joining the 108 for lunch. Bryony managed to skype her Nanna and Grandad over lunch. It was only another 15km to Thong Choem so we arrived pretty early, but a quick look using the cafe Amazon free wifi suggested that going any further towards Doi Inthanon was going to leave only very expensive accomodation, so we found a little resort for the evening and biked back into town for a couple of dishes of noodles.
We woke at 5 the next day and ate peanut butter, banana and jam sandwiches outside our bungalow to save time. For some reason we had decided to ride up Doi Inthanon, Thailands highest mountain sitting at 2, 565.3341m (yes, the sign does go to 4 decimal places). Actually, we can tell you how we decided to do this. Bryony was supermarket shopping and James was talking with a stranger at a cafe who spotted our bikes and mentioned that Thailands highest mountain was nearby. So the seed was sown and off we went. Well, up we went. For 50km. The first half wasn’t so bad, with just one outrageously steep pinch at about 7km. Here we bought some bananas from a roadside stall – one bunch and she gave us an extra one free. We both used to think bananas were a pretty boring fruit at home, but the ones in south east asia are a lot smaller and tastier. However after the amount we’ve eaten recently we are both losing our appetite for them a little.
Just after aquiring the bananas we had to pay our national park entrance fee. This has gone up recently and is now 300 baht each. Hopefully it goes to some good conservation. We passed a few waterfalls but didn’t stop as we had such a long day ahead. Because the road was following the river these sections of road were particularly steep. We stopped at a cafe near a fire station (we think) for coffee before the road decided to get really steep. James’ cycle computer couldnt keep up with the amount of vertical vs horizontal distance we were covering so just drew a nearly vertical line. In our smallest gears we were pushing hard on the pedals just to keep moving. No longer pedaling in nice round circles, or even squares, we were just pushing down and hoping it made it across the top of the stroke. Gravity slowed us down after each down pedal, so we had a somewhat jerky and very slow ride up. Riding like that isn’t great for your shoulders, neck and back and we were both relieved by the small downhill to the national park headquarters to stretch. A few restaurants littered the roadside so we stopped for lunch and to rest our legs.
Immediately after lunch we were climbing again, past the minivans full of tourists stopped for lunch at another spot waiting to start their treks to some of the hill tribes living in the park. Onwards and upwards until at about 2pm we reached the national park checkpoint and turn off to go up to the top. Luckily the guards let us leave our panniers in their office, so we quickly dumped our gear keeping just a warm jersey and a jacket each for the way down. The guard house closed at 6pm, and we knew the next bit was going to be steep (it also gets dark about 6, and we really didn’t want to still be on the mountain then). Sure enough, it was steep. We didn’t really stop on the way up as it was a bit cold, threatening to rain and windy. The few times we did pause for a photo or a banana (we were going too slow to unpeel them while riding) it was so steep that Bryony would pull her front wheel off the ground trying to get going again. The closer we got to the top the more smiling, waving and friendly people we found. Since we’ve been back in Thailand we’ve enjoyed being a bit more anonymous again, but the cheering up this hill really helped. Bryony remembered that the last 2km were not 17% and sure enough the road flattened off a bit. It was strange, it felt like we were going downhill.
Finally we reached the top and guess what we saw? Precisely nothing. Well thats not really true. There was a carpark. And some steps that we lugged our bikes up in the trees to get a photo with a sign proclaiming us to be at the highest point in Thailand. But there were no viewing platforms, though they wouldn’t have done much good because it was so cloudy. It didn’t matter too much, we had plenty of time to look on the way up. We chatted with an Australian couple riding motorbikes who had passed us near the end. They were staying in Mae Cham and promised us a beer if we could find them. We stuck around for a coffee and pie-like thing and to be laughed at a bit (in a friendly because they probably think we are crazy way) before heading down.
After the first flattish bit we started to appreciate just how steep the road was and spent the first half of the descent laughing out loud at how ridiculous it was that we’d managed to ride up there. We stopped halfway to take some photos and let our brakes cool a little. A drop of water on them actually steamed. Even with two stops to take in the view and rest our hands it only took 30 minutes to descend what took us 1 hour 45 minutes to climb.
Our bikes reloaded we both commented that they feel more stable with our gear on them. Or at least we are used to riding them like that. Unfortunately we weren’t prepared for the seriously steep climb straight up from the ticket booth, but after that it was steep steep downhill. It was nice not having to pedal, but we hit a patch of rain partway through the way down and the road was made of some seriously smooth asphalt in places so we were concentrating (and braking) hard. When we did let go of the brakes for a second we accelerated to 60km/hr almost instantly. We had some good views back of Doi Inthanon, and ahead into the valley which we stopped to appreciate a few times and we were concentrating too hard to both look at the view and stay on the road.
Nearer the bottom the road threw a couple of evil climbs at us, which after cooling our legs with all the descent nearly killed us. We definitely shed our layers even though we only had about 5km to go. Soon enough we were rolling into Mae Chaem with the sun setting over the mountains behind the rice paddies to our left. We didn’t have a place to stay in mind, but we followed the signs to Kwan-Lah homestay because the bed looked comfy in the picture. The first thing we saw when we pulled in were the motorbikes of the Australians we met earlier, so after agreeing on the last room in the place (fan and cold shower only, but comfy bed as per the picture) we sat down to a cold beer together on the front porch. We continued our conversation after a shower and dinner (where Bryony nearly fell asleep at he table). It was fantastic to be able to share the satisfaction of such a huge effort with others. They said that passing Bryony grinning near the top of the hill, despite being drenched in sweat and barely moving made them rethink their complaints about the cold. Exhausted and satisfied sleep wasn’t hard to find that night!