Sunday, February 24, 2008

My fastest folding bike!

The Dahon Speed Pro - surprising slower roadies!

24 Speed Dual SRAM Drive - all the gears you ever need!

My mango orange Dahon Speed Pro has been lend out to Chris and Paul, two very experienced and powerful riders recently. I'm usually very guarded with my foldies esp this beauty but I wanted Paul to try it out and more importantly, do a friendly challenge with a young roadie friend of mine who remains very skeptical about the performance of small wheels.
Unfortunately, due to this and that, the friendly ride did not happen but Paul was so blown away with its performance that he bought a brand new 07 Speed Pro. I finally got it back a few days ago and took it for my Sat morning ride with my cycling kakis.
I have forgotten how fast this orange speed demon is. Just coming down Anak Bukit pass BT Plaza, I was registering nearly 50kmh without really trying. Along BT road, 30-32kmh is easy and I managed to draft a fast roadie doing 37-38kmh, surprising him. Along Mandai Rd, I have clocked a personal best of 61.8kmh (the record at Dahon Riders is 63+kmh). Just in case I give the impression that the SP is as fast as a roadie, let me say its NOT. Its about 10% slower, save for acceleration and hills where small wheels have an advantage, and 1000% more practical than a roadie in terms of storage, security and the wonderful ability to go into the MRT/bus/taxi or car.
Its too bad Dahon has stopped production of the Speed Pro but the SP TT (drop bars version) continues. But that only means my baby has instantly become a collectors item. Its definitely a keeper!
.* lovely pics courtesy of Chris Wee

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Final reflections on our N Thailand adventure - 3 to 13 Feb

Certificate you can be proud off!

Cycling along the banks of the Mekong, Laos in the background.

Christophe and I having fun with the Carry Mes!

Reflecting back on our 1500km road trip around the Mae Hong Son loop, and thereafter to Mae Salong, the Golden Triangle and to Chiang Kong/Lao, then Chiang Rai and back to Chiang Mai, I would say it was a bit of a whirwind schedule. Except for staying in Pai for 2 days, we were on the move everyday. It took me 3 whole days to recover but if we were to do it again, I would recommend a bit more time to complete these 2 loops around Northern Thailand.
Doing the sums, we spent a total of S$400 each (US$270) for hotel, fuel, car rental, food and tourist admissions for 10 days which is unbeatable! I have never spent so little for such a long trip. This area is best explored by car, motorcycle and of course, bicycle if you have the time and the fitness. The hills are totally challenging and if you can do the loop, the Thai authorities once offered a certificate of completion!
As usual, bringing along my 2 Carry Me bicycles added so much fun to the trip. We did not need to depend on public transport to pick up the rental car and could handle any errands with ease within a village or town. It also gave me the much needed morning exercise before breakfast and it was pretty fun exploring new towns and sights at a slower pace. People are also very fascinated with these micro-bikes and they were conversational starters. Because of its unusually compact folded package, being able to put 2 in the boot with 5 people's luggage and the continuing load of more shopping was absolutely brilliant.
Foldies with rental cars are indeed the way to go!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Breakfast in Laos

While the unique taste of Thai food with its hot, sweet and spicy characteristics has won international acclaim, I have found it hard to appreciate their breakfast. The Thais eat practically the same thing for lunch, dinner and breakfast - yes, rice and dishes. No doubt there is the occassional noodles, but I was expecting a bit more creativity here. Perhaps we in Singapore are quite spoilt for choice with our multi-racial roots where there is Chinese Dim Sum and Congee, Malay Nasi Lemak & Lontong, Kaya Toast, Bacon & Eggs and Indian Pratas and Thosai to name a few.

On our morning in Chiang Kong, a small border town along the quiet banks of the mighty Mekong River, we decided to hop over to do breakfast in Lao for a change. It helped that we did not have to incur the prohibitive US$30 visa for "farangs" but just the 20B long tail boat ride. Exiting Thailand was easy enough, a chop on our passport, a walk down to the riverbank, pay the boatman, in 3 mins, viola - we were across the river to Huay Xai, Laos. Problem was 100 farangs were lining up at the immigration queue in front of us and only 2 officers were taking their time to stamp the passports. I'm reminded that Lao PDR stood for "Please don't rush" so we just relaxed and waited our turn. Fortunately, there was a special booth for Asean nationals so we cleared in no time.

Huay Xai is very much like a small town in Cambodia, dusty and grotty but with a bit of French provincial character. We were delighted at being offered Baquettes at a restaurant though we were served by a rather brusk lady who looked and acted like Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street. It was lovely to sink our teeth into fresh, crisp bread and we thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast. Suddenly, a whole crowd of Korean Uni students descended upon the Cafe and Oscar's face lit up as they were booking tours etc. We got out quick!

Chris managed to get a driver of a pick up to show us the sights for 400B and we visited a market 8km out of town that was inhibited obviously by China migrants selling all sorts of wares. Some of the stuff were so old and recycled that they belong to the flea market but it was interesting enough. We next climbed a steep hill to a beautiful Buddhist Temple which had little stories of the life of Buddha's journey to enlightenment.

Our trip back to Chiang Kong was smooth as Thai silk - a quick boat ride, no queues at Thai immigration just like a walk through your neighbour's garden. It was an interesting breakfast break that we sorely needed and truly appreciated!
The Mekong crossing on You Tube (1st 3 mins):

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Entering the lion's den of Drug Lord Khun Sa.

General, President, Drug Lord Khun Sa - pic taken from GT Rider Rhodie

Out of Mae Salong, we did a short detour to Khun Sa Old Camp Museum, the famous Golden Triangle drug lord and self-proclaim Shan state freedom fighter base at Bhan Thoed Thai. His hideout on our map indicated "sensitive area" (6km from the Burmese border) and we had to pass by some serious looking police roadblocks to get there. We were fortunate that there was a private tour group there and a guide, who may be one of his ex-soldiers, proudly opened up the sorry looking building for us. We saw Khun Sa's bedroom which was remarkably simple, his dining parlour, prayer room as well as photo exhibits. No one would imagine this squalor of a place would belong to a cash rich drug lord.

He was born to a Chinese father and a Shan mother. Trained under the KMT, Khun Sa led an army of 15000 men. At its peak, this region of Lao, Thailand and Burma supplied 70% of the world's opium (taken over now by Afghanistan) earning Khun Sa the title, "King of the Golden Triangle" as well as the privilege of being the US most wanted drug lord with a US$1 million bounty. His opium too had a distinct brand with 100% quality guaranteed.

Khun Sa supposedly poured a lot of money into developing the village of Thoed Thai with roads, electricity, school and hospital. No wonder his funeral in Nov 07 was very well attended. He actually died in Rangoon, Burma after surrending there in exchange for diplomatic protection from the US Govt and lived his remaining years very well, even running bus and tour companies.
Prince of Darkness or Robin Hood, Khun Sa's name still inspires a mixed sense of awe and controversy for some time to come.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Mae Salong - China in Thailand

Father & son enjoying breakfast

Looking down on everyone!

My fav hotel!

Getting to Mae Salong is arduous, even with excellent roads in place. It sits strategically high on top of a mountain ridge and no wonder, the Kuomintang Soldiers made it their base in the 50s/60s in their war against Mao's Communist Army. Not easy to spring a surprise attack on them as it offers a bird's eye view of the valley below.

Many of the KMT soldiers settled in Mae Salong and its not surprising the lingua franca here is Mandarin, not Thai. The people are Yunnanese Chinese, the architecture of homes are Chinese, the food is Chinese and its almost like being in China itself - which makes Mae Salong in my opinion, the most interesting town in our adventure.

We stayed at Little Home Guesthouse - which is an old traditional Thai/Chinese house reeking in character. My Aunt Ruth was so fascinated as it reminded her of the kampong houses in her younger days and this was an opportunity for her to stay in one. What was even more amazing is the 200B/$9 a night charge though there is no attached bathroom. Walls/roofs are paper thin and I was having a normal conversation with my aunt though I stayed on the floor above her. But what made this a truly outstanding place is the owner, a 32 yo friendly and humble Chinese man name Mr Chang. We nicknamed him Jet Chang as he looked like Jet Li with his well developed Kung Fu arms. He showered us with the best 5 star service ever experienced. His grandfather was a KMT soldier and this guesthouse was passed to him by his father. Proudly advertised too are horse rides which looked fun.
This place was once a key opium growing region and the KMT organisational skill made it a most efficient production centre. Though opium is now not grown officially and replaced by hi-grade Oolong Tea, it must be difficult to trade down from stratospheric profits of opium to the humble tea. The war efforts of the KMT is well documented in their Memorial Hall which looks as Chinese as Chinese can get. We enjoyed looking through the many photos, tablets and stories displayed in military precision. General Tuan's memorial sits nearby at the old location.

We enjoyed Yunnanese "La-Mian", hand made noodles which is a must eat here at a most reasonable 25B per bowl. The Coffee culture is also slowly making inroads and we sampled a lovely cafe "Sweet Maesalong" that offers incredible views. The cakes there are to die for.

Being Chinese New Year, crackers were fired everywhere through the day. The ones here were really loud and I won't be surprised if they were army issued. Many hill tribes also gather here to sell their wares especially in the morning markets. My best buy of a Chinese Army green canvas boot for 70B was purchased here.

I was hoping to speak to some ex-KMT soldiers (now in their 80s) about their rich past but could only manage to speak to their descendents due to my limited time. That means I will have to make a return visit soon, and I look forward to spending extended time in Mae Salong immensely. Better get my Mandarin brushed up!

Of elephants, long neck women and river crossings.

Karen Tribe Long Neck beauty

We arrived in Mae Hong Son, the biggest town in the northwest region in the afternoon after an easy drive. A Toyota dealership as well other MNCs confirmed this. Thai Airways fly here too, albeit
on twin propellor planes! It was fun walking though the night market which sold all sorts of food and wares. There was a Thai singer and her guitarist belting out soothing melodies and Angkana, ever the avid shopper, bought their CD. We also took the opportunity to go for a Thai traditional massage - which stretches and cracks every joint of our aching bodies.

Our abode was a very nice wooden chalet just by the river, 5 km out of town. Little did we know it was smack right beside the elephant pick up point where baht rich tourists get picked up. That was confirmed in the morning where we saw 3 elephants - a Grandma, her daughter and grandchild crossing the river to feed just beside our chalet. What a treat it was to see such magnificient animals in close quarters. Millie, our 3 yo friend, had a blast!

Mae Hong Son is a good base for trekking to the many hill tribes, most famous are the Long Neck Karens. We drove to the settlement 25km out of town and 4km before arriving, we were waved frantically by a young man holding up a sign in English, "Small car cannot go there". Suspecting another opportunist, I waved him away and proceeded to drive the little Vios through some unpaved roads until it came to a sharp drop. Turning back sheepishly and slightly embarassed, I could see him waiting for us trying very hard not to laugh.

500B and we were on the back of his pick-up truck bouncing around the rough roads. Soon the road disappeared and we were forging a river! What an adventure this was turning out to be. More bouncing around, climbing up and down hills and we came to a United Nations refugee camp. We were nervously very close to the Burmese border indeed. 250B admission and we were led into a village of 200 plus where 3 hilltribes lived. There was a school, a church and many long necked vendors selling beautiful hand-weaved scarfs and clothes. Their surprisingly very good spoken English indicated their experience with the many tourists like us who come to see this intriguing cultural phenomena.
I learnt that the brass rings around their necks do not "lengthen" the neck as such but they pressed down the collar bones - thus giving an optical illusion. While I'm glad that the Karens has found a way to attract tourists and make a living through their unique beauty, I can't help thinking that they may be "marketed" quite unfairly somewhat like zoo attractions and that is a shame. Talking to the Karens, they are very much like any of us, raising a family and working hard to make a living.
But I suppose marketing from this "angle" isn't going to draw the crowds...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The milk of human kindness in Khun Yuam

The Japanese occupation of Singapore and its regions during WW2 is perhaps the darkest period of the last century. Hearing first hand accounts from my grandparents of innocent people getting machined-gun, tortured, bayoneted and other unimaginable form of brutality still opens up wounds that are slow to heal.

Therefore it was truly mind blowing to hear about how well the Thai people particularly in Khun Yuam were treated by the Japanese solders 60 years ago. The WW2 museum is about 63km south from Mae Hong Son and having a keen nose in history, it was a must stop for me. This museum, opened in 1995, is the brain child of a certain Pol. Lt. Col. Chertchai Chomthawat, who was head of Khun Yuam Police Station. He managed to collect about 1300 Japanese army artifacts consisting of dishes, spoons, vehicles, weapons, samurai blades, and uniforms.

The museum is managed by an old man who once worked for the Japanese while he was 12 yo - fetching water for one baht. Through our Thai friend Angkana, we learned from him how the villagers offered whatever help needed to wounded and sick Japanese soldiers who were retreating from their failed campaign in Burma against the British (they were initially successful). Over 100,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Burma War. About 7000 soldiers were in this area at its peak. As a result, there were many inter-marriages as well between the soldiers and the local girls and most famous of all is the late Fukuda san whose surviving Thai wife still lives in Khun Yuam. Stories and pictures of how the Japanese helped local farmers all sounded too good to be true, at least from my perspective, but this was apparently so. Thailand was considered an ally of Japan then so that may explain the warm and cordial relationships.

Nevertheless, it was most intriguing to hear an account from the other side of the fence. We learn that at least in this region, the Japanese soldiers were not as monstrous as we know them to be. War brings the worst out of people and in rare occassions, the best as seen in Khun Yuam.

We continued our drive to Mae Hong Son reflecting on the complexities of mankind, capable of immense evil as well as good. I wonder how my late grandparents and others in their generation would react to these stories?
For more info about the war in this region from BBC -

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God - Romans 3:23

The Mae Hong Son loop - our journey of over a thousand hairpins.

Pedicure/manicure - essential driver preparation!

Endless shopping on closed roads.

Beautiful Sarieng River.

2 Carry Me plus 5 people's luggage in boot of very small sedan!

Most folks visiting Northern Thailand will make the obligatory stop in Chiang Mai and maybe its smaller cousin Chiang Rai, visit the Golden Triangle, but fail to explore its rich hilly surroundings. This region borders Burma towards the west and north, and Lao on the east. Scaling mountain peaks and descending into plains and valleys, the scenic roads here are a motorcyclist's dream with more than a thousand crazy corners. While we did the 1500km in a car and not on two wheels, it was nevertheless an experience like no other.

Our first day in Chiang Mai proved a jackpot as the famous Sunday Night Market was in session. Stalls after stalls selling all sorts of interesting wares lined the closed streets and Celia went straight into overdrive - shopping mode that is. I was happy with a $2.80 roadside head/shoulder massage in the cool 18c night air which was amazingly good. My pampering stop to my usual spa for a pedicure and a manicure ($9) got me ready for the adventure ahead.

After some delicious rice porridge breakfast and stockpiling on firecrackers , we picked up our brand new Toyota Vios rental car (via Carry Me micro-bikes) and headed straight to Mae Sarieng, 190km west. The drive to Hot, a quiet small town that does not quite live up to its name, was easy enough. Heading 30 mins out of Chiang Mai and you are into lush rice fields and beautiful country. But after that, we had our first taste of playing snake and ladder on the mountainous road. Chris and I wanted to see if we could cycle the loop and the very challenging conditions immediately sent shivers down my spine. What amazed me was Christope, our German companion travelling with his wife and lovely 3 yo daughter, actually cycled this route! I think I'm going to like this guy.

We settled at the Riverside Resort, a beautiful 4 star modern hotel. Our room had a breathtaking view of the Sarieng River and mountains. Mae Sarieng is not really on the tourist trail and its prices reflect that. My Aunt Ruth washed and blowed her hair for 40B (S$1.80) and we had a lovely 8 course dinner at a local Thai restaurant for 100B each with beer. What a breath of fresh air with inflation escalating everywhere!

Chris and I went for our usual early morning cycle to explore the quaint town and needed to really rug up as being the tail end of winter, it was still 15c and foggy. Refreshing. Our joie de vivre has only just began.