Exploring Chiang Mai
Bikes assembled, fixtures and fittings applied, we set off for a tour of Chiang Mai. Rit led as we headed south, zig zagging through main roads, narrow streets, past the isolation hospital and into the countryside of the southern part where tarmacked paths made perfect cyclepaths. Rit had been a Buddhist monk for 12 years and for 60 magical minutes we were taken to his temple where he explained the murals (a flooded area and gods saving people from man eating monsters) as well as life as a monk where he had started aged 10 to get an education, subsequently leaving to lead cycle tours locally until working for PEAK 3 years before today. After a two hour break we were transferred up the mountain to chase down the fast group (Steve, Robin and Chris) up the 6-8% incline to Doi Suthep temple where we watched the sunset. Our day ended at the excellent street market food hall where noodles, rice and mango smoothies were consumed.
To Chiang Rai
Chaing Rai is just too far from Chiang Mai, so we transferred part way to start at a temple and the slightly undulating countryside through Northern Thailand. Our destination was the white temple otherwise known as Wat Rong Khun. . Started in 1997 by a local artist, its image is displayed in many Thailand brochures and it’s easy to see why. Like Gaudi meets Buddhism the temple and surrounding park are full of amazing images, from the outstretched arms and snakes at the entrance to Alien meets the Ninja Turtles in the water feature at the rear of the complex. We finished the day in Chiang Rai, about the same size as Chiang Mai, but far less full of tourists and a better outdoor food market where the yellow tables were scorched with hot fires, heating all sorts of goodies, the pineapple rice was particularly delicious and the bands and dancers on stage entertained us all.
Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
With a change of route, we chose a Southerly road. It made a bit of work the night before with providing GPS routes but was ultimately worth it as it was flat, scenic and fast with a smaller hill, so what was not to like? We followed a river to the left and passed something akin to the Taj Mahal in construction before a morning break at a temple complete with rows of a Noah’s ark of animals stacked in rows under an old tin roof. We were in the rice paddy areas but it was the climb which provided a change where all manner of fruit was grown including Papaya and that black seeded fruit. The papaya went well with the delicious cold coffee. Seemingly you were never more that 5km from a coffee seller. It was Wat Bari Sia and then in the same village Phrathat Doi Ha Chedi that proved a highlight. The first had an enormous reclining Buddha and other adornments but looked a little run down, the reason? Well the other was taking all the money with a pyramid of Buddhas, a huge standing Buddha and a green one in construction, quite amazing. With 20km to go the rain came so it was a speedy pace that took us into Chiang Kong, where our hotel by the Mekong sat waiting.
Boat to Pak Beng
8km to the Thai/Laos border, our passports checked and stamped, $35 paid and we were into Laos heading along the edge of the Mekong with a ferry as our destination. Our boat was waiting and as the bikes and bags were loaded I chatted with an English lady in the next door boat who was alarmed at her boat being packed to the gunnels with travellers whilst we had one to our own with cushions, blankets and lunch on board, yes it was going to be a hard day out. Downstream we went with the captain zigzagging back and forth to stay in the deep bit, trying to avoid the fate of another who had gone right not left, sunk his boat and left 29 French clinging to a rock after which he went to jail. A delicious lunch of vegetables, onion rings and fish goujons followed, after which we rotated around the chairs, cushions and seat on the bow to admire the cliffs, mountains and village life on the banks of this iconic river. Pak Beng arrived just before dark and we walked to our hotel for the night and a dinner tailored for a Western palate, because that’s where we were, a tourist stop off, with most heading further down the river to Luang Prabang the next morning.
Pak Beng to Moun Houn
A relaxed start as we headed into Laos via the sandwich making shops of Pak Beng. Stilted houses, small free-range pigs and thousands of children on the roadside brightened up a day where the cloud hung over us, causing little contrast to the views. We climbed gradually out of the Mekong valley along a river valley that had a hydro scheme for electric and then had been dammed, creating a long narrow lake to our right. An enterprising business had boats on it, a true tourist attraction. After 18km and a morning snack, the views changed, from shacks to extensive agriculture. Swathes of land were being dug to create banana plantations where blue polythene wraps shielded green fruit destined for China. Several side trips revealed dirt tracked villages with few men as it was harvest time, but it seemed that the women were at work as triangular hats littered the paddy fields where rice was hand scythed. One village had a group of looms and for 60.000 (£5.50) three of us bought cloth, cut straight from the loom. We finished at Moun Houn at a hotel littered with hardwood. In the evening we visited a restaurant where we had a choice of noodles, duck, vegetables and rice. However the chillis weren’t optional and as most ordered duck, by the end we were all delighted except the local duck population
Moun Houn to Oodoxmay
Rit and Sack with the help of 2 ladies did a sterling job of producing omelettes and toast over a kerosene stove , after which we continued along a road full of people harvesting the rice paddies in strung out lines sporting triangular hats. Very little was mechanised, from cutting the rice with sickles to threshing the corn. Drying maize on a heated floor heated by a firewood floor with a hot Laos shovelling it about, was a particular highlight, what will happen when harvesters as in Thailand appear? We poked about in one village. With a sign proudly giving the dates of when it stopped cutting down trees, became a social village and 7 other attributes it was interesting to look at a village full of stilted houses, ladies and so many children. Our day finished with a 5km run through the outskirts of Oodoxmay. Clearly a huge Chinese influence had taken over as there were Chinese banks and the most enormous Chinese supermarket in town.
Oudoxmay to Pak Mong
Breakfasted in the restaurant next door before retracing the 6km past the railway and a left turn whereupon the road started to climb for the first of the two big climbs for the day. Both would be well graded and as the group strung out we climbed the hairpins through the forest to the first highpoint at 1150m, passing a lovely waterfall tucked away on the first bend. A fast descent and into the next that had a false summit at 1250m after which it dipped for 2km and climbed to 1450m topping out at a restaurant where noodles were consumed surrounded by tourists who had arrived in an easier manner. Descending again, we passed tea sellers harvesting the plant from tiny plantations clinging to the hillsides. We finished at Pak Mong. In an early evening walk there were lots of little restaurants lining the road and a few sellers selling dead rats and squirrel, so who came here to the middle of nowhere? We discovered in the evening as we ordered dinner for this was bus stop Laos. 52 seaters would pull up, disgorge Chinese, Koreans and Thai who would consume the dried biscuits laid out on tables whilst consuming bowlfuls of steaming noodles along with the precooked and reheated pieces of offal from the front glass cabinets
Pak Mong to Luang Prabang
A flat day to Luang Prabang was in prospect as we cycled along the tarmac road heading south. I picked up 2 cakes at 14km intending to carry them to the first tea stop but as usual I was close to the back, so they were saved for later. Oranges were the theme for the road side sellers today as Sharon and I filled our bags from a roadside stall. Increasing progress apparent as the road was under repair and an enormous Chinese sponsored dam was about to swallow the winding river that accompanied us to the left. The final 16 miles to Luang Prabang got a lot busier as construction lorries passed by, then the final run into to the town appeared as we mixed with school traffic and motorbikes. Across a narrow wooden bridge just for motorbikes and through inner Prabang to end at the Jasmine Hotel
Luang Prabang to Kiewkacham
We bade farewell to Luang Prabang heading east through the outskirts. The first 25km was lined with jungle, a change from previous days. The first climb came, but it was gently graded and a stop with a viewpoint over a village created from those displaced from the dam building revealed itself below from the rest stop half way up. A fast descent to Namming where we had noodle soup by the river, after which it was a long climb to our finishing point at the Kiew Ka Cham Guesthouse where the basic rooms now had hot water and en suite facilities. We raided the fridge and watched the ladies stir fry our dinner
Kiewkacham to Kasi
We finished of the uphill from the previous day and then were treated to a glorious day of far reaching views and amazingly varied mountain scenery. Forested views, stilted houses hanging to the edge of the road with drops far below and then there were the Kaast scenery where jagged peaks reared up in the distance. I just felt sorry for the tourists in minibuses as they stopped intermittently to snap the view whilst we were immersed in it all day. Our lunch stop was a windswept building overlooking a magnificent peak. The owner having obviously sussed out where the money was had erected a massive milepost and then built a restaurant of glass serving noodles and rice at Western prices which attracted the coach parties who’d taken all the indoor seats leaving us shivering outside, but eventually they moved on, leaving us to savour the view. The road continued to fall and the day finished watching small holders harvesting rice and greens. Our guesthouse for the night would be easy to find in future, just turn left in front of the massive railway bridge being built that bisected everything including houses.
Kasi to Vang Vieng
Nima served us breakfast, a pastry base with syrup and egg atop, delicious. She needed the trade as the railway had stopped passing traffic. We were quickly into stunning Karst scenery which rose up to our right and then enclosed us all around. Smooth tarmac and downhill slopes made this a special mornings ride. After 30km a line of market stalls appeared selling all sorts of things, from frogs to whiskey jars filled with all sorts of things to cure any sort of ailment. Sharon and Neil took Sack on a journey of discovery as even he tried something he’d never seen before. As sun got hotter we paralleled more railway work and admired the school children cycling home, one hand on the bars, the other clutching an umbrella. Vang Vieng was a shock to the system, Laos it is not, a Western teenagers paradise more like, as four wheel drive play mobiles littered the street. Our evenings hotel was idyllic, sited by the river the sun set with boats on the water. However, 1900 saw music at full blast aimed at the hotel from the other side that ended at 0100, a revenge for the hotel demolishing a toilet block built by the river.
Vang Vieng to Vientiene and onwards to Bangkok
Vientiene has grown since my last visit, and combined with road building this was to be a shorter day. Past the concrete works, our target the fish market. Rows of dried fish greeted us along with a bus full of uniformed officials in enormous hats. Chris had ferreted out something because behind was a Frenchman cleaning and preening his fighting chickens. The roads then got busier, most were picked up shortly afterwards, but four continued to finish at a services where I bought them coffee and so the ride came to an end. Transferred to Vientiene the centre was given out to a beer festival and we sought refuge in a little French bistro.
The next day saw us cycle through the suburbs, over the Friendship bridge (thankyou Australia) and back into Thailand. We whiled the afternoon in a hotel and then took the night train to Bangkok to finish our journey.