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Tracey goes to Thailand and finds it too hilly

A new continent and a new worm’s eye view. Yes, I’ve got my nose to the ground again, this time investigating the fine details of South East Asian tarmac. I blame the rain and a road-dwelling goat causing me to brake and slither into an embarrassed little heap in the middle of the road. Curiously I do not mind at all. Two men in a pickup have stopped and offered to take me to Khun Yuam. While I’ve suffered nothing more serious than road rash (and bruised ego) and could, technically, ride back, there is no way I want to. I never want to see the Khun Yuam–Mae Chaem road again as long as I live.

We’d not considered going to Thailand, at first, but we were worried we were running out of suitable escapes from the british winter. Once we’d looked into it, it seemed perfect. Hot weather, great food, lush jungle scenery, interesting cultural diversity, bananas growing on trees, and dead cheap too. But it’s always difficult to get information about where it’s pleasant to cycle. We’d read a few reports which had said it was hilly, but those sort of people would say anything not exactly like Cambridgeshire was hilly. But I like hills, and Colin has been told that he does too.

We flew to Chiang Mai and, still jetlag befuddled, rode straight into the Asian Traffic Experience. Being in Chiang Mai traffic was like being in the leadup to a sprint in a road race, I thought, dredging my blinkered little one-track mind for analogies. It was all a bit fraught so we didn’t stay long and legged it off into the countryside. Our road climbed out of the valley at a nice gentle gradient through orchards of tropical fruit and satisfyingly exotic jungle. Then something seemed to be a bit funny. That bit was steep, I said to Colin, who wasn’t there any more. Sorry, I said, when he reappeared after a while, I didn’t realise it was going to be like this. For a while the road behaved itself, then, when it thought we weren’t looking, did exactly the same thing again. At last, it reached an unambiguous pass, with the stunning views that make the effort worthwhile – ridge after ridge of wooded mountains, stretching off into a dreamy infinity. The road then plunged down through the jungle in a breathtaking series of hairpin bends, down to a village. We went from 30mph to about 0.3 within the span of a few seconds, as the road hit the bottom, instantly changed direction to climb up the other side as steeply as it had dropped. This was disconcerting, to say the least. The map hadn’t indicated anything like this. To be honest, the map didn’t indicate very much information at all, except for the existence of roads and some mountain-effect shading. By lunchtime, at Samoeng, we’d had enough for the day.

Maybe that first road wasn’t typical – it was a back road, and perhaps the main Mae Hong Son circuit would be tamer. Some hope. These roads were built to hurt.

If a road in Europe (continental Europe, let’s keep Devon out of this) has to climb a huge pass, it zigzags gracefully at an even-tempered gradient. The hairpin bends are flattened out to keep the inside sensible. Your South East Asian road, instead, ambles along in a flat sort of way until it’s too late, then panics and hurls itself up the mountainside. It careens insanely round bends, forcing the inside to climb at 1:3. It has a phobia of water – if there is a river valley to follow it will slink off to a safe distance and hug the hills. If it has to cross a valley, it doesn’t waste any time: it dives straight down and hurtles up the other side as fast as possible. Its favourite habitat is the top of a knife-edge ridge of dubious rock, playing russian roulette with the summer rains that every so often wash away part of the mountain.

We weren’t exactly making rapid progress. And I knew very well that when we got back, every single person we spoke to would ask “So how many miles do you do?”. I practised saying “It’s not the miles that count, it’s how much you enjoyed it that matters” which, although true, comes across as defensive excuse-making. Maybe I should just hit people instead: that will teach them not to ask irritating questions.

One of our concerns about SE Asia was that it would be crawling with vicious fauna carrying fatal diseases. Mosquitos by themselves are annoying enough, but not only do the local mosquitos carry a special variety of malaria resistant to the usual drugs but also Dengue fever and Japanese Encephalitis. Dogs carry rabies and dogs being dogs will chase cyclists, rabid dogs doubly so. We got ourselves a dog zapper and resisted the temptation (it was difficult) to test it out beforehand on my mother’s pets. The dog zapper was operated as follows.

  1. Encounter barking dog.
  2. Stop, wait for Colin to turn up.
  3. Colin rummages around in pannier.
  4. Colin rummages around in other pannier.

    repeat steps 3-4 until step 197:

  5. Colin takes everything out of first pannier, finds dog zapper at the bottom, replaces everything in pannier.
  6. Colin directs zapper at dog, which is now fast asleep.

We found precisely two barking dogs. The rest would scuttle off, whimpering, at the first sniff of us.

If it’s beginning to sound as if it was an ordeal, it wasn’t. The scenery was unforgettably beautiful. Our mountains are essentially the foothills of the Himalaya – the rock is limestone, eroded and ripped into huge cliffs, domes and spikes, all blanketed in lush green forest. Rivers sink into vast caverns. There are trees with bright flowers and great giants of trees, their sculpted smooth white trunks towering above the forest canopy. From the passes we’d see huge vistas of endless unexplored ranges, the sort of magic, romantic hills that cry out to be wandered over. You could dream of just keeping going, until the hills got bigger and bigger and then snowcapped, slowly growing into the true Himalaya, and following narrow stony paths up deep cleft valleys, up to the high passes, across glaciers into the unknown, barren moonscapes of Central Asia. Maybe not. The romantic appeal of endless hill ridges is soon dispelled when you’ve spent all morning grovelling over just two of them.

And there’s the food, of course. Any village or small town would have a line of food stalls broadcasting eat-me aromas: barbecues, deep-fried bananas and dried bananas, enormous tureens of fragrant curries [1], intriguing unidentified things wrapped in leaves [2]. The vegetable stalls stacked coppery pumpkins, red chillies, fat little bananas and fruit we’d never seen before. One of the highlights of the trip was the passion-fruit juice from a roadside stall, which would have been heavenly enough even if we hadn’t just spent a hot, sweaty and cross hour riding back and forth in search of a hotel that was supposed to be there, but, bizzarely, had turned into a votive statue in a rose garden.

[1] admittedly of variable quality.

[2] We never did work out whether we were supposed to eat the leaves or not.

The route we took was more or less an anticlockwise loop from Chiang Mai, through Pai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang, Mae Chaem and back to Chiang Mai. We’d planned to stop off in places on the way for a night or two and explore the dirt tracks to the hilltribe villages. Usually we just explored swimming pools instead. We didn’t see any other touring cyclists until halfway round, at Khun Yuam, when a German girl turned up on the typical German style of touring bike: a flatroad cruiser with a pyramid of camping equipment teetering on the rack. The sort of setup nobody you know would dream about touring on, yet people somehow take them over the Alps, and across Tibet, which is where our new friend had just been. She’d just come over the mountain roads from Mae Chaem which impressed us no end, even after saying she’d got a lift most of the way (and from speaking to the local hotel owners, that does seem to be the general style of cycle touring around here). The only other cyclist we saw was someone who looked British – on a Dawes, in fact. We were on a day ride from Mae Sariang heading south along a road which eventually goes to Mae Salit and right along the Burmese border to Mae Sot. It looked jolly exciting and remote and therefore too deficient in restaurants for us, and this guy looked as though he’d come from that direction. He didn’t stop to talk, but rode past with a determined look, focused only on the road ahead. Maybe he did lots of miles. But I was very tempted to ride partway along the Khun-Yuam to Mae Chaem road – if it was as hilly as our German had said, it was an irresistible challenge. Plus, there were some high waterfalls to see on the way.

That road was like Alton Towers’ Oblivion. After riding for hours without finding even one waterfall (they were on a different road) I turned back, and serendipitously, contrived to fall off just as those nice men turned up.

Thailand’s highest mountain is a large hill called Doi Inthanon. You’d think such a huge lump would be an unmissable feature of the landscape, but on the contrary, it’s almost always guaranteed to be sulking under a blanket of wet fug. There is a road that goes up to the summit, and we know what this means.

From Mae Chaem there’s a minor road which climbs to meet the main summit road towards the top. We knew now what to expect. It climbed nicely for a few km, then dropped. It climbed steeply, then dropped again. In the language of roads, it was saying “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Halfway up was 4km of unprecedented ferocity. The worst thing was not knowing what was going to happen – whether we’d get a bit of a rest round the next bend or whether it would steepen into a truly impossible gradient. The bends were so tight and obscured by trees that we couldn’t see round to look for cars coming the other way – and this road was surprisingly busy. We passed the wreck of one car that hadn’t made it round a bend.

When we reached the main road we had to lose precious height to drop to the National Park HQ where there were – supposedly – restaurants and accommodation. The road was worryingly busy, and the Park HQ was heaving with people. Yes, every tour must have one: it was a National Holiday. The creeping fear that all the bungalows would be booked out proved to be right, but there were tents for hire. Since it was now lunchtime and missing the mountain was not an option, we got a tent, which was a small nylon one-sheet thing more suited for children playing at camping in the back garden at sea level. We got lunch at a rudimentary shack and prepared to set off. Colin then discovered that he had stomach ache and decided he’d rather rest in the tent with a book. I’d like to say that the ride to the top was a marvellous, life-enhancing, exhilarating climb. It wasn’t. I was knackered, there was a constant stream of stinky diesel pickups struggling past me, and there was no view to speak of. The consolation was the waves and cheers from the other tourists.

And that was it, really. We went back to Chiang Mai, found a swimming pool and a cocktail bar and shops, and ate a lot.

TCM. 1999

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