Monday, March 31, 2014

1000 Hills Day Six – Thaton at 100km/h





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It was to be a long 100km journey to Thaton today from Chiang Dao but we were not too worried. We took our time to enjoy a nice breakfast and said a leisurely goodbye to the lovely ladies that ran CD Huts. The beautiful thing about Thailand is the warm hospitality and it was more like saying farewell to family than anything else. One of the staff wanted to try our foldies and had fun, squealing away!

Riding out at 830am, it was still chilly and misty as we left the beautiful woods and headed for Highway 107. It was a great privilege leading our team of riders through such a delightful route and we all felt very excited about what laid before us.


We passed the James O'Fraser Centre on our way out and that fascinated me. Why a bible school in the middle of nowhere, and in the heartland of Buddhism? The story about a brilliant English engineer James Fraser is a fascinating one. He is recognized as one of the most successful missionary in Asia. Known for his perseverance, he once rode his bicycle 300+km without dismounting! Called to bring God's love to the the Lisu hill tribe people in China and Northern Thailand at the turn of the century, he did so with great success despite enormous difficulty. I discovered later that Ian Howard, my touring buddy, has an aunt whose fellow missionaries actually built this centre some years back!


I have done this route 2 years ago and felt very familiar with it. It has nice gentle climbs but some bits go up for quite a distance thus the need to find your pace. Doing it the 2nd time and especially after those killer hills at Mae Hong Son, I found it easier and managed to ride through all without pushing. With hills mean fast descents and it was here that Uncle KC hit his famous 117km/h 2 years ago downhill with everything in his favor.

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Some say his wireless computer went a bit haywire due to the speeds but I will just leave it as that. All I know is that once he is in front of me where there are downhills, he hits warp speed and disappears pretty quickly. That's my buddy KC for you!


We stopped at the usual restaurant and enjoyed a morning tea of Khao Pad (fried rice) and noodles which somehow tasted so good, and downed with too many sweet drinks. Just 25km or so and all our breakfast was gone! Such is touring I supposed and this is one of the joys of our sport - to be able to eat wholeheartedly without guilt.

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As the hills began, we were separated by the law of natural progression. Uncle KC was ahead, then followed by Cil and I, then the Howards and pulling up the rear were Papa Mike and the Roscoes. I must say this being Day 6, everyone got fitter and stronger and the waiting time at re-grouping got significantly shorter. The last climb proved really tough but it was great to see everyone still looking quite fresh and not like the living dead.


Zooming downhill was exhilarating but I went slow deliberately so as to enjoy the scenery longer. I have learned the value of not missing out on opportunities for photos too. As once passed, they are gone forever! After about 50km or so, we had covered the mountainous segment and glided onto flatter terrain. As we approach the intersection at Chai Prakarn, I spotted 2 Songtheaws parked, waiting for customers. A quick negotiation led to an agreed fare of 1000B to take the 8 of us all the way to Thaton. The reason for taking transport is simple  - this part of the journey is flat, dusty and boring with a fair amount of traffic. It was amazing that the yellow Songtheaw could take all of us in - 8 foldies and 8 riders! Times like this really makes me appreciate the versatility of the folding bike!

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The ride on the Songthaew to Thaton was like flying without wings literally as the driver kept the pedal to the metal. We were speeding way past 100km/h fully loaded and with our precious bikes tied on the roof rack. Every time we hit a bump, I dreaded the thought of seeing a foldie flying off the roof and bouncing onto the road but fortunately, everyone and every bike survived.

It was like a homecoming for me as we arrived at the beautiful Thaton Apple Resort. We stayed here 2 years ago and it was easily the hotel that made the biggest impression thanks to its amazing location just by the river, offering views of the Thaton Bridge and mountains.


Got this booked some 3 months back just to make sure we got the best rooms and I was delighted to see the same friendly golden retriever welcoming us, tail wagging and all. The team was also thrilled to bits and just soaking in the view from the balcony after hanging up the laundry was so special.


We had afternoon tea at the Sunshine Cafe but Yanee our friend was at Chiang Mai so the cafe was severely short-handed, with only grandma managing the business. Understandably, it took forever to get our drinks so dinner had had to be somewhere else.


A bit of a walkabout led me to a lovely seafood restaurant just opposite the river from our hotel. The owner had invested lots into building a brand new glitzy hotel named Saranya which comes even with a swimming pool. She extended her warm charm on us and even arranged for our long tail boats down river to Chiang Rai. As usual, we over ordered on delectable Thai dishes and were well and truly stuffed.

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Temperatures dropped quickly after dinner and it was a pleasant cool walk back to our cosy chalets. But not before a nice soya bean dessert where we met up with Linda who is actually an IT professional in KL. She was back in her hometown Thaton to visit her parents and managed the family business.


It was a real shame that we only had one night here in beautiful Thaton so we really stretched the evening as long as possible. Thaton remains one of my favourite small towns in Northern Thailand and I will certainly be back real soon. No better town to end our 1000 Hills ride than at beautiful Thaton! Tomorrow, we go hi-speed down the river.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

1000 Hills Day Five – Elephants first, then Chang Dao


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Despite some complains about the very hard beds at Mae Malai Mansions, I actually had a great night’s sleep even though the karaoke was blasting away till 1am. For 380B, I have never stayed at a cheaper hotel that came with cool, crisp aircon, fridge and a very spacious room with ample space for our bikes.  We gathered at 8am for a Thai breakfast and pushed off at 9am excitedly. Our first destination – The Chang Dao Elephant Training Camp some 18km away.

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The hills seem to be much tamer than previous days and we all crested them with ease. In the cool of the morning, it was easy to cruise faster and we took advantage of that. We also had to hurry along as the famous Elephant Show was to start at 10am and we just about made it. As we were locking up our bikes together at the Camp’s parking lot, my eye caught sight of 3 bicycles on tour just like us. And like us, it was a gleaming maroon Bike Friday and with the renown Samsonite trailer. But unlike our BFs, the frame was huge. It also was fitted with the renown Rohloff hub so that meant this was one serious tourer. I went into the show more interested to spot this tall rider than looking at the elephants performed their morning activities in the river.

There were about 60 people and it was not difficult to single out the few cyclists in lycra. This guy was from Holland and stood at 6’4” or so. He carried a trim figure that belied his seven decades and accompanying him were his 2 younger friends on rented Trek MTBs.  


Our team enjoyed the impressive Elephant Show where they did all sort of tricks including picking up fallen hats and returning it to their riders, pushing heavy logs around effortlessly, flag raising and even painting a pretty decent piece of art on canvas.


We met Mr Bike Friday after the show and got chatting. The 3 of them were also heading for Chiang Dao, some 25km so it was nice to ride along with them for a while. Pulling a trailer though meant that he was cruising a bit slower than us so we all overtook them respectfully and regrouped at the 7-11 just outside of Chiang Dao. It was getting really hot and dusty then so we took our time to cool down in the aircon surroundings, sipping ice cold isotonic drinks. We could take our time as this was to be our shortest ride day, a mere 45+km.

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Lunch was at my favourite Thai Chinese restaurant by the massage shop right in Chiang Dao town. The combination of a good meal followed by a massage sounds unbeatable.  It was really great to just take our time to enjoy our sumptuous meal as the sun was really beating hard. The perfect time actually for a short post lunch siesta but unfortunately, the massage shop was busy so we reluctantly jumped back onto our steeds.

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Chiang Dao itself is the gateway to many attractions and hence boasts quite a few decent hotels.  Our choice was Chiang Dao Huts, which is about 5km away from town near the famous Chiang Dao Temple. This area is magnificent as it is set amongst impressive karst mountains. The road inwards must truly be one of the finest I have seen, very much like going through the California Redwood forest.

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As we made our way there, a car passed by a tad too closely and Celia veered into a rut and fell off her bike. However, her kung-fu training kicked in and she broke her fall by curling into a ball and came away unscathed.  I could not believe there were no injuries and if ever God’s hand is upon us, this must be it.

We arrived to a warm welcome at Chiang Dao Hut and quickly settled into our chalets. The kind lady boss booked Cil and I into the rear hut - which was newly built and spacious.  This though was far away from the gang but we didn't mind as it was so quaint and peaceful, offering a lovely balcony facing lush greenery.


A quick shower and a cat nap saw us fresh as daises again. We gathered at 4pm to ride 2km to the famous Chiang Dao Caves. This is a complex maze of 12km of over 100 caves and the entrance is a beautiful Wat that serves as a meditation centre. It is also the activity hub for the villagers. On stage with loud music blaring was an aerobic class conducted by an energetic lady in colorful leotards. This was in stark contrast to the meditative surroundings of the temple. Some of us went exploring further as there was still light towards the direction of Chiang Dao Nest and to the end of the road.

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Dinner was an impressive Thai spread and we ate till we could not move. The Chefs at CD Hut are to be commended for putting up a truly magnificent feast. It was time to retire after that and we happily went into our chalets. However, I was somehow locked out! The adventure to get in began and the poor maintenance guy had to remove the window panes for us to get in after an hour or so of fiddling. Time check - 10pm.

Dozing off to sleep in the middle of such beautiful surroundings is easy and we did so with grateful hearts. Felt so privileged to be here. Being just at the fringe of the Burmese border amongst beautiful mountains with the sound of a quiet gurgling stream is truly priceless.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

1000 Hills Day Four - Mae Malai with some assistance




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We left Pai in style - with 2 newish Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks arriving 0800 at Baan Pai Riverside.  It was to be a long 90+km ride to Mae Malai, at the end of Route 1095 and the first 30km are killer hills. Under the advice of Chris, we decided on this option and negotiated these "Hueys" 2 nights ago for US$60 total. They proved to be the best decision for the day as we snaked/climbed/hairpin our way out of the valley effortlessly thanks to 3.0 turbo diesels. Each vehicle carried 4 of us with ample space for our foldies and panniers, in supreme comfort to Huai Nam Dang National Park. As our bonnet pointed skywards during the journey at many moments, we were so glad to be inside the ute.

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The ride ended too soon after about an hour and we found ourselves at 4600ft peak where we were dropped off. It would have taken us 4 exhausting hours to end up here. We said goodbye to our Pilots and prepared our bikes for the downhill extravaganza. To enter the National Park required quite a hefty fee especially for foreigners so we skipped that and made our way down. Flying down on small wheels was simply pure joy and the milestones just zipped by so easily. We regrouped 10km later and saw ourselves surrounded by a gang of big touring motorcycles from Malaysia. They were astonished that we actually travelled by our steam up and down all those climbs (well almost all). We wished each other well and off they went with their twin engines throbbing away.



This rest area offered beautiful views and we played the tourist, snapping lots of pictures. The cherry blossoms were still in bloom and were so pretty in pink. With the temperature at a cool 18c and plenty of morning sun, this was a good day to be alive and on a bicycle going downhill. Somehow, my heart felt a deep sense of God’s goodness and I uttered a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to Him.


The downhills continued and we all descended at our own pace. KC chose to barrel down at warp speeds while I preferred to enjoy the scenery, feeding my hungry camera. The sharp hairpins were unbelievable and it was a blast to carve through them. I met the Howards after exiting one and Anne decided she had had enough and contemplated a quicker descend. Ian fortunately managed to knock some sense into her.


We regrouped again and that marked the end of our fun as it was cranking time once again. It was easy to get used to gliding downhill but not the other way round. Still knowing that the terrain was more downhill than uphill gave us the motivation and we were all getting stronger since leaving Mae Hong Son. 


Our aim was to hit Coffee Hill at the 32km, a well known stop that boasts the best coffee on 1095. What surprised me was the many other highway cafes that have sprouted up since I last visited here and one that really impressed me was a European style Viennese Hotel that was just 5km before Coffee Hill. Le Vintage looked really beautifully out of place in this part of Thailand and we wondered if we should have our coffee here but their menu was not as good as Coffee Hill.


It was a big struggle to reach Coffee Hill as the hills seemed rather demanding but when we all finally got there, we felt a great sense of relief as we really needed replenishment. We had a lovely Thai lunch that was artistically presented, especially my stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts.


One thing that really impresses about Coffee Hill 32 besides the excellent food and coffee are the rest rooms. Truly, this must be the best ones in the whole of Northern Thailand. It is clean and offers a splendid view. Never before relieving oneself has been so enjoyable!


It was hard to get back the cycling rhythm after such a nice rest and full meal so we just plodded along and took our time. Some of us apparently got a bit restless and started showing their true skills and colors! The things you can do on a Bike Friday...


Thailand is renown for artists and places that caught our attention were theme shops/cafe. We had fun with this romance place that offered a wedding seat for love birds. It was great to take our "wedding" pictures again and re-live 20-30 years of romance!


Our next stop was a place called Art Gamongta. It is a Cafe, home stay and art studio all wrapped in one and we had a lot of fun chatting with the very talented owner. They served very ice cold drinks as well as coffees and we nearly decided to spend the night in this intriguing place. Those who want to explore their artistic and creative talents will do well to spend a few days here.


It was hard to leave Art Gamonga but we had to as it was still another 30km or so to Mae Malai and the sun was soon setting down. For some reason, we all found our 2nd wind and were moving along at a very impressive clip especially our dear Papa Mike. With him ahead and punching the wind for all of us, we arrived at Mae Malai in no time.


Our abode was the Mae Malai Mansions and there was nothing mansion-ly about this. It was more an overnight stop for travelling salesmen but with big clean rooms with ice cold aircon and at A$12 each, we were not complaining. Dinner was simple noodles at this very small town and all the good restaurants were disappointingly closed. But like the travelling salesmen, we were just here for the night and even the loud karaoke didn't bother us too much as we drifted into a deep sleep, hard mattress notwithstanding.