After nine months on the road, spending 24/7 together, we decide to travel solo for a week. Thailand is well developed, geared towards foreign tourists, an easy country to travel around in. A perfect place for lone cyclists. We opt for skipping the obvious tourist attraction of the beaches and head North instead, towards the mountainous province of Mae Hong Son.
Solo cycling: Velo Vera
Thus I venture South, skirting the big hills of Khao Ko national park before heading North. Cyril heads straight North, opting for less kilometres but more climbing on the way to Chiang Mai. Central Thailand consists of some long North-South ridges and those will have to be crossed if you want to get anywhere, but further South they are a bit less challenging.
It is strange to cycle alone after such a long time together. Since I have a new phone I can listen to music again. I make longer cycling days because there is little incentive to hang around the tent or in a restaurant on your own. I break my personal longest distance per day record: 150km in fierce sunshine and on hot tarmac. I miss Cyril but I get a kick out of being a strong and independent solo cycling woman. Thai people are the smiliest people in the world so I never feel very lonely. People wave, give a big thumbs up, shout hello, and some even hand me water or powerdrinks as they are whizzing by on their mopeds. One night I camp next to the house of a lovely family. They let me use their shower and offer me food. I feel snug and safe alone in the tent. The only time I feel lonely is when I am in super touristy Sukhotai, surrounded by others farangs but not really connecting with them.
Sukhotai is one of the old capitals of Thailand. Today it is a beautiful park dotted with ruins of wats, buddha statues, walls and moats. A very pleasant place to cycle around in, especially in the early morning.
Solo cycling: Cyclo Cyril
It is truly weird to see the person you’ve been cycling and traveling with ride off in another direction. After the initial shock I start enyoing my time alone. All of a sudden you decide everything yourself instead of discussing it. Where to eat, what to eat, when to eat for example. So yes it is easier in some respects, but I am not sure if I enjoy it more. My route takes me over several ranges that gradually get higher and higher.
On the third morning of my solo adventure I decide to take a short cut. My trusty maps.me app shows a dirt path heading in the direction I want to go, it should save about 25 kilometres of climbing. Two things I don’t check well enough: the gradient of my shortcut and the condition of the path. At one point my ‘road’ disappears into a cornfield. As it is going downhill I just slowly roll on until I get to a thick jungle at the edge of the field. My ‘road’ should just be a few metres further, but all I see is big trees and unpenetrable bushes.
There is only one way back: up that steep hill, through the cornfield. It is one of these moments where you curse the 20 kilos of luggage on your steel bicycle. After an hour or so struggling through the field I find my path. A few super steep parts further and I arrive at the last hurdle: a small stream where according to the map a bridge will take me to the other side. Of course the bridge is gone. In its place is a rickety construction made of bamboo and old tree stumps. Bag by bag I balance across to safety, saving my bike for last. In true cyclocross style I shimmy over the ‘bridge’, step by small step. Relief and pride fill me when I finally see tarmac again.
During my solo week I visit Phrae, Lampang and other smaller towns. The heartland of Thailand sees few travellers and has a very laidback atmosphere. Just like Vera I experience many acts of hospitality and friendliness. A couple of Thai I have never met before take me out for dinner. Reaching Lamphun means I will see Vera again. The last climb I am flying, eager to meet her again and continue together.
Lamphun, a city built by a queen
After our solo week we meet up again in Lamphun, a charming but surprisingly untouristy town just South of Chiang Mai. The town was the capital of the Haripunchai kingdom and built by queen Chama Thevi. As I am strolling around the old town I find a troupe of young girls in traditional wear performing a temple dance in her honour.
There is a revered wat with a beautiful golden stupa. Devout Thais slowly circumnavigate the stupa, chanting and carrying flower offerings.
Lamphun is small but has some other interesting sights such as a well preserved city wall and moat, old teak houses and a food market. Most of all I love how it is undeveloped and as yet not discovered by mass-tourism.
From Lamphun it is a short ride to Chiang Mai, the former capital of the mighty Lanna kingdom from around 1300 to 1800. We take the old main road, a narrow two-way lane flanked by giant hardwood trees adorned with yellow and orange ribbons. All over Thailand we find these trees, with multicoloured sashes, little ghost houses and offerings of water, rice and incense around them. This indicates that the Thai believe these particular trees are inhabited by spirits.
Chiang Mai was an independent princedom until it became formally part of Thailand in 1939. Just South of the modern city centre we explore some ruins of an older version of the city. Until halfway through the last century Chiang Mai was only accessible by a long journey through the jungle by elephant or ox cart. Now of course there are highways and train lines, making it the capital of the North and the second most important city of Thailand after Bangkok. In recent years the number of tourists has exploded, growing 10% every year since 2010. I do not recognize the city I visited 16 years ago, apart from the night market which is still selling the same souvenir tat, some of it quite nice.
Thailand has a long running royal programme, initiated by the late king, that aimed to help developing communities in rural areas. This so-called OTOP programme (One Tambon, One Product) stimulated high-quality production of typical handmade goods such as textiles, silverware and basket weaving. Every village specializes in one kind of handmade wares. This ensures that traditional hilltribe skills and cultures survive and the villagers earn extra income by bringing these products to touristy places where they are sold for a decent price, like the Chiang Mai night market.
Moto: tackling the 1000 bends of the Mae Hong Son loop
Close to Chiang Mai is Thailands Northernost Mae Hong Son province. It is famous for its steep hills and diverse and remote hilltribes, including Tai Yai, Lawa, Shan and the famous long-neck Karen people. One very hilly road loops from Chiang Mai right around this province, closely following the Myanmar border. We leave our bicycles in Chiang Mai for some tender loving care at the fabulous Triple Cats bike shop and rent a couple of motorbikes. We tackle the ‘1000 bends’ of the Mae Hong Son loop powered by gasoline instead of musclepower, heading North towards Pai for an anti-clockwise tour of the 800km loop.
The first couple days we find all the creature comforts a glampacker could possibly need. A funky hipster coffee place here, a hippy pad-thai restaurant there, American breakfasts, bamboo huts for rent in the stoner backpacker vortex of Pai and excellent camping places next to some beautiful waterfalls. We tackle about 500 of the 1000 bends in the steep climbs and descends around Pai and we are really happy not to be doing this with a fully loaded bicycle. Some of the inclines in the sharp bends approach 30% which is frankly insane.
After Pai the road and scenery become more rural and less touristy. We visit the remote Ban Rak Thai village. The name tranlates as ‘the village that loves Thailand’ but it is in fact inhabited by Chinese. Kuomintang Chinese fled to this corner of Thailand after the communists gained power, and much of their Chinese culture remains. They grow excellent Oolong tea, serve Chinese food and live in Chinese houses with flying eaves. An odd place, even in this multicultural corner of Thailand.
The provincial capital Mae Hong Son is a sleepy town where we only stop for lunch. We opt to spend half a day and the night at the nearby Tai Yai village of Pha Bong. Here is a hotspring and some ladies give us a great massage before we end up in the hot pool. In the evening the villagers flock to the pool to socialize and wash together.
There happens to be a small village fest and I am invited to join the ladies on stage to dance. The steps of the circle dancing are not that complicated but I cannot match their graceful bendy hand gestures with my inflexible European hands. Still, they have fun at the sight of a farang who is at least trying and I enjoy the dance and the music as well. We camp right next to the pool and early in the morning we swim in the warm water, surrounded by mist rising from the hot spring.
Another interesting and unexpected stopover is in the village of Khun Yuam. This place played an important role in the second world war, when it was a base for Japanese soldiers traveling to fight in Burma. Thailand was a Japanese ally and the villagers were therefor treated well, and a lasting friendship between the Khun Yuam people and the Japanese developed. There is an excellent museum that tells the story of this relationship and of the different hilltribe cultures and customs in the region. It is unbelievable to realize that less than a hundred years ago this place was only accessible by bamboo raft, ox cart or elephant. Roads were not built until around 1950 and the use of elephants was only phased out around 1970.
The small town of Mae Sariang is the Southernmost corner of the loop, and from here we take an alternative road, a shortcut away from the main loop. We climb to the 2560m summit of Thailands highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, and spend another night camping near a waterfall.
All along the Burmese border we find beautiful wooden Tai Yai temples with stacked angular roofs adorned with hammered metal filigree borders. They are very different from the Central Thai temples with steep roofs, mirrored tiles and naga (snakes) figures along the roof edges. One such Tai Yai temple can be reached by crossing a long and meandering bridge made of woven bamboo matting. When we get there local kids are practicing their performance, banging drums and getting into a dragon dance. They try to scare me but can’t stay in their dragon role long enough, and the dragon soon breaks apart into two little boys. A girl is dressed up as a peacock, with an elaborate tail fanning out from her back.
Our shortcut via Doi Inthanon takes us through small villages where people are still very surprised to see farangs, even if we are less than 100km from super touristy Chiang Mai. We have one totally random surprise meetup with some SE Asia Rapha people who are doing a recce of the Mae Hong Son loop for an upcoming ride.
After 7 days, more than 800 kilometres and definitely more than a thousand bends we are back in Chiang Mai where we get to hang out with our cycling friends Eric and Cathy and Sanjay, ‘the worlds fastest Indian’. We pick up our bicycles. My Rohloff hub is whirring along nicely after a much needed oil change. We liked the motorbikes but prefer the bicycle: we love the silence, we love the pace, we have to focus less on the road and can pay more attention to the surroundings, there is no need for gasoline, it’s easier to stop, look around and take pictures or talk to people.
We are currently preparing for the ride down to Mae Sot, from where we will cross into our next country: Myanmar! Tomorrow we will set off, very happy to be reunited with our bicycles.