I have pointed out before, my theory that a country with deeply held religious beliefs and concepts of some sort of afterlife, is a sure-fire certainty to have appalling road manners. The Catholic hot spot of Spain had its moments, and if you ever want to travel to Poland you should check your insurance details with some care.
Thailand appears to have no understanding of even a basic concept of ‘ mirror, signal, manoeuver ‘. Self-preservation, or something else in the Darwinian genetic soup should make you look before you pull out from a minor road into oncoming speeding traffic. Not here it doesn’t.
I even started to wonder if the highway code here was different, and they had the right of way. Of course not. There is also every possibility that they will hit a vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road. If you are only going to the next village you can drive on the side that is most convenient.
It all looks harmless enough, with lots of big smiles, babies held under one arm and steering with the other, and lots of shouting on mobile phones. Then I was trying to look up on the WWW how many of the people here actually have a driving licence. There were quite a few sites offering forged documents, but nothing I was after. Then, ‘ average daily road deaths on mopeds ‘, caught my attention. It is forty per day here!
We are heading North East, away from Chiang Mai. We have our usual ‘ first day at school ‘ nerves after a few days off the bikes. We pick up the 118, which we will be on all day. From our first pedal stroke it is the madness of city riding. It can be exhilarating in a familiar city, to be on a bike and ride at the very limits of common sense. This morning it is tense and adds to the slightly sick feeling in our stomachs.
After 25Km, things start to calm a little. It is still a dual carriageway, but traffic has turned left and right at the cities outskirts. We have other things on our mind, the first major hills for some time. They kick off with 12%, and I think I can feel the 2Kg that I have put on with good food in Chiang Mai. Up we go, through what is now dense forest on both sides disappearing into a thick blue tinged murk.
Esther is having a poor day. There are days when you do not ‘ have the legs ‘ and it can happen to the cycling legends of the peloton just as easily to you or I. Luckily for us, we do not have a pro contract and some explaining to do on Bastille day when you trail in, off the pace in a tour stage you were meant to win for your French team. This does not make the feeling any better, just different. It is a bad day.
Now, I know some of you are getting a bit fed up with me going on about the heat here in Asia. Northern Europe is under a deep blanket of snow and the only happy person we know is our friend ‘ Doggy Allan ‘, who owns the sled dog centre in Aviemore. Here, the heat starts to kick in and becomes, ‘ the limiting factor ‘.
It is 43’c, and Esther can no longer ride with her head spinning. It is time to stop and find shade or risk a fall. I put here Rapha cycling top in a stream and she puts it back on wringing wet. We sit and wait for her to cool down and stop looking so gothically pale.
Tough cookie that she is, she manages to put in a quality ride to take advantage of the 24Km descent, that ends the day. We are still high up, having lost just 400m in height on the way down. The next morning, it is gloriously cool. On with the gillets for the first few kilometres as the sun struggles to clear the horizons haze.
A completely unexpected and leg numbing climb comes out of nowhere. We had got a bit sloppy and not looked up this bit of the road up on the profile app. The flat land had inexplicably been smelling of moth balls. Climbing, it now had the earthy warm compost smell of a garden centre green house. It is a vividly clear smell of childhood summer days, and the very pinnacle of human existence for my mother. A drive to a garden centre was pure joy for her, and not one had been missed in a 500 mile radius of home. Once every year or so she may even buy a plant.
Every climb will have its yin and yang, the ascent and descent. This one was a white knuckle 67.5 Kph, in a green tinged corridor of joy. There are times when I hope for a less vivid imagination, and dentistry is the other. As usual, the forest is being cleared, bit by bit, with random curls of smoke rising all around us. Many are unattended, and some close enough to hear crackling and feel the heat. It is a sort of sensual oxymoron. It is clearly a bad thing, but it does smell fantastic.
There is the sound of running water from close to the left of the road. It is so long ago since we have heard this that it is a distant memory. It catches our attention immediately. The sound of fast running water tumbling over and between rocks is quickly followed by the sight of a huge high waterfall. Tan Tong falls drops from the canopy into a cool pool.
10.00 o’clock now, and warm enough for cicadas to find their voice. In half an hour it is almost painfully loud. The road climbs for a further 9Km or so beyond the falls and is steep enough and hot enough to make you wish you had started even earlier. Then it is down and here a strange thing happens. My meter says 39’c , but at every sharp turn, where we scrub off speed to make the corner, there is an intense burst of heat. I look to see if one of the fires is close to the road. I am not sure what is happening, but some how the hill is holding in the heat, trapping it down on the road.
It feels like trying to ride a bike with your head stuck in one of those bowl hair dryers. You are facing the wrong way, into the hood of the dryer and it is on high heat. Thank god we did not climb this. There is a flattish ride into Phayao to end the day, for which we are very grateful.
The little town of Phayao has more nice cafes than you would guess that it should. It has a good feel about it, and we take a cheap hotel and sit at one of the cafes to watch the world go by. That was a couple of hard days. It has been a while since my cycling kit has ended the day in tie-dye patterns of crusted salt rings.
Early start as ever and we pass a temple with a surprisingly cheerful and frankly fat buddha. He is dressed in a silver cape which makes him look as if he may be considering a bout of Mexican Wrestling. We pull in and the monks offer us water, the traditional gift to touring cyclists and civilians alike. Our ride today has a slightly flatter parcour that allows us time and senses to savour the first Cherry blossom.
We have no choice of hotel at the end of the day. It looks as if it may have been an industrial unit or a garage for buses at one time. Now, it has been sectioned off into units and looks as if sound proofing was not one of the criteria when this was done. One bad nights sleep will not kill you. Which is a very good thing indeed. There are no Geckos in our room and we conclude that they perhaps prefer somewhere quieter.
Back in Chiang Mai, for no other reason than I could, I had put new chains on both bikes. At just 4,500Km it is a bit ahead of schedule, but now they are worn in lubed, and as we ride away next morning they are virtually silent. Man, and women, and heavily laden Dave Yate’s touring bike are in perfect harmony. It feels good.
We turn right, leaving the 1021 and picking up the 1020. To our right are what the Lonley Planet describes as, ‘ some of the finest mountains in Thailand, with a quite breath taking road that is one of the finest in Asia ‘. The 1020 is the flat alternative and we feel not a single pang of guilt at picking it instead.
We make good progress and cover the 100Km to Chiang Khong without tears. The Mekong that we left almost 1,500Km is there to greet us and in the haze on the far bank is Laos. We are going to take a rest day here and prepare our route ahead. Chiang Khong is peaceful and we sit at a river front cafe watching the long tail boats fight the strong flow. The bank is dotted with well used shrines, a sign of the dangerous waters. We watch as rice and offerings are placed and incense lit. They look like bird tables and Mynah Birds consider them as such, fighting over the offerings before flying off noislily with the treats. There is almost constantly the sound of music from poor quality speakers turned up to max, comes across the river from Laos. That is just a few kilometres shy of 5,000Km done in Asia so far.