Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Final Day. MHS Day 11 - Maewin to Chiang Mai 60km

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We all slept like logs at Maewin and I remembered waking up feeling ravenous. Seemed I was not alone. A quick dash to the restaurant for breakkie saw most of the team tucking into the wonderful buffet including waffles, cold cuts and cheese - indeed a true and welcome Farang friendly establishment in this neck of the woods. Young Mark got his wish as the kitchen served him a plate of 10 chicken wings - an order he placed at last night's dinner. The kind owner teased him saying if he continued to eat that way, he would turn into a chicken! This was probably our best breakfast in the whole trip and we all enjoyed this amazing start to a glorious day immensely.

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Pic borrowed fm Tripadvisor!  We were all so hungry none took photos...

As it was to be our last day of cycling, everyone was in a relaxed and jovial mood. It was not cold but a cool 18c, much warmer than what we were used to as we have lost considerable altitude. Today was easy peasy - a largely downhill 60km ride back to Chiang Mai and our plan was to return via the quiet 4032 which ran along the beautiful Ping River and to celebrate the end of our adventure in style.

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The Mothership was happy as all bikes were going to be rolling today and she would be unburdened. After gathering to commit the day to the good Lord, a most important practice, we began our easiest day of riding. We said goodbye to Maewin Resort and began our descend as Team LTF!

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It was so special to be gliding through the quiet mountain road with the cool wind in our faces, the morning sun in front of us and breathing air that was oh so fresh. I thank God for the gift of life and particularly the gift of this day where I can enjoy this priceless experience in the company of precious friends.

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I was made aware of the sheer beauty and tranquility of our surroundings as we progress through neat strips of vegetable fields in between the lofty mountains and its artistry forced us to break our momentum to savour the moment. Sometimes in life, we need to stop and smell the roses and it applies for bicycle touring too.

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The sound of a gurgling stream nearby caught our ear and we went to investigate. We were richly rewarded with a scene that would make any painter pick up his brush.

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As our wheels spun happily downhill, I noticed quite a few lycra-ed cyclists on fancy roadies coming up presumably from Chiang Mai on this beautiful Highway 1013 and it was easy to understand why. At this stage the rest of the team were gone leaving KC, Celia and I, proud members of the over 50 Club taking the rear. There are quite a few Elephant Camps here and we came to a screeching stop when we saw a magnificent gentle giant just coming out of a river.

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As we sojourned further down, we stopped again to witness tourists enjoying themselves at another elephant camp. One elephant was actually spraying water onto them and their squeals added to the fun.

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As we were enjoying our descend, we were overtaken by 3 weekend warriors on roadies whose sole purpose was beating their personal best. In my younger days, I would have loved to give chase just like the natural instinct of man's best friend but having mellowed wonderfully, I just smiled and enjoyed my quality time with Celia as we soared on our wheels. Mothership was next to pass us by with George sitting at the rear waving us by cheerfully as always.

We spotted a guy on a recumbent going in opposite direction and then saw Mothership as well. We had passed by a most unique Swiss Guesthouse with many bicycles displayed and I was willing to wager that Mothership would turn around. I was right!

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We were told later that this was a fascinating place where the owner Frank had his passion hung for all to see and touch.  Perhaps this is a resort worth staying next time - Swiss Ticino Guesthouse which enjoys very good reviews.

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All good things must come to an end and for our case, it did when we arrived at Khum Khun Wang Resort where we stopped for coffee. The reason for this is simple - it had the most beautiful cafe in this area and it seem to be the meeting point for many expat Doi Inthanon cycling groups.

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While Thai cafes are always special, this one more so because the lady owner, a warm and kind motherly person made sure we felt welcome and at home.

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We settled around a nice table in her cosy sitting area and enjoyed our various coffees immensely, snacking on some crispy rice crackers. This place certainly deserves our highest recommendation!

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At this stage, we were all getting hungry and decided to try some famous Chicken Rice some 20km away. As we took off on our bicycles, poor Celia had her 2nd puncture on the trip on the same front tire. This was the perfect opportunity for Bro George to show off his new tire remover and he stripped the tire from the rim effortlessly.

As fast and light a Primo Comet tire is for club rides, it sure ain't a touring tire as the culprit was a minute wire strand. George was not impressed and our resident guru Chris Wee advised on Facebook, "Time to get a  (Schwalbe) Marathon fm Ah Lek (famous bike shop in Chiang Mai)."

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It was a great to be riding on the flats once again and this time we decided to keep a tight formation and ride together this 20km to the lunch spot. With Lance leading the charge and all of us drafting each other, we were making tracks. Everyone was feeling so good and fast!

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We sat on 28=32km/h all the way and everyone could keep up thanks to the wonders of aerodynamics.  I felt like being in the Tour de France as we covered ground like we never did before, wooshing away! Best person to follow was Wayne as behind him, there was absolutely no headwind. Meanwhile our ever watchful Mothership was always either in front of us or behind, just making sure we were all ok and I cannot express enough thanks to the team of YC, George, Wendy and Mark!

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It was disappointing that the famous chicken rice place was closed and I have learned that Google is not 100% accurate. But that is something we who used it often ought to know and we took our chances. Fortunately, there was a decent eatery nearby and we settled on that. One of the joys of being in Thailand is that there never is a shortage of food if one is happy to settle for the usual Thai offerings of fried rice and fried noodles. And ice water is usually complimentary!

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Riding along the Ping River northwards toward Chiang Mai is a pretty route and having done that before, I led the team along 4032 with confidence. Traffic is light and the scenery very pleasant but roads can be a mite narrow in some sections.

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Drafting is a very efficient way to cycle as we experienced earlier and I am always looking for opportunities that present itself.  As I was just saundering on my bicycle, out of nowhere appeared a motorcycle with a trailer loaded with stuff, probably on its way to set up shop at some night market. The rider was an elderly lady who operated in her own time zone, She just cut into my lane unaware of my presence and cruising at 30km/h oblivious to traffic behind her. This was of course the perfect opportunity for me to get behind and I enjoyed the riding advantage for a few minutes of bliss. I was wondering if I should just hang on to the trailer but the unsteady weaving manner in which she rode made me think otherwise. After all, finishing the Mae Hong Son Loop with a crash caused by a silly stunt would not be something I like to tell my grandchildren!

It was also wonderful that the ever ready KC was in the vicinity to capture the moment, as he always does!

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When she took a left turn, my joy suddenly ended! Opportunities come and opportunities go. I found myself way ahead of the rest and I went back to my saundering ways until the team caught up! Cynthia who had never seen this before was very worried for me and I'm grateful for her concern but those who rode with me in previous trips know my style where I have caught a ride from a logging truck, ice cream sellers motorcycle and even a Tuk Tuk etc where I had made a blundering error once some 10 years back in Cambodia. Here it is if you are keen to read!

It was very assuring to have Mothership wait for us at key intersections so we won't get lost and before we knew it, we arrived at the fancy Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel.  This is one of those upperty hotels which rooms start at 8000B and come with a pillow menu.

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In front at the lobby were 2 Mercedes Benz from the late 1960s which added to the nostalgia and class of this fine establishment with a khaki uniformed doorman complete with pith helmet.  KC wasted no time to capture the moment and I could not help but be amused that here we are arriving in our working class pickup and humble bicycles for their French High Tea!

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Despite it being a snooty place, there was nothing snooty about the welcome and the warm service. I was very touched that the Head Waitress recognised me as this was my 3rd visit.

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The grounds of Nakara Jardin is beautifully located just by the Ping River and has a lush garden with various types of trees like Frangipani, Indian Cork, Spanish Cherry, Sweet Shorea. Their website describes it vividly...

"The designer, taking inspiration from the graceful curves of the weeping willow which overhangs the Ping river, brought in the colours and stylistic flourishes of a Monet garden. Thus was born this perfect setting for relaxed French dining, with crafted coffees, imported teas and delightful patisserie, all at affordable prices."

Beautiful grounds aside, we came here for the special Afternoon  French High Tea which is absolutely amazing. Starting with savouries at the bottom of the 3rd tier consisting of Chicken Caesar, then Egg Ham and Cheese Sandwiches, then Mushroom Puff Pastry Roll and a Smoke Salmon Eclair. On the 2nd tier are mouth watering scones with jam preserves and fresh cream. Finally at the top are the sweets consisting of Fruit Tart, Creme Brulee, Brownie, Chocolate Mousse and cake! All this for 1000B (or S$40) for two to share with your choice of coffee or tea.

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Our Team could not be happier and what better way to celebrate the successful completion of our MHS Adventure than an afternoon extravaganza like this. Despite YC's 2 ever hungry boys, there were even leftovers. George remarked that he could not even pronounced his fancy coffee properly and we all chuckled. What matters most is that we enjoyed this supreme meal together as great friends sharing a great passion! Memories are indeed made of this moments and it is something that we will always treasure...

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We had one more thing to do before making our way to Bruuns Guesthouse where we left some 10 nights ago. And that was to pay a visit to Triple Cats Bicycle Shop. I had promised myself that if I were to complete this loop successfully and in one piece, I will reward myself with the Surly Disc Trucker. So off I went to place an order with  Nu, the friendly and famous owner/bicycle tourer.

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The make or break question was could this 650c tires fit the Surly DT frame which was meant for 26" wheels?  If it could not, then it will not work out as I wanted to transfer all the parts from my Marin Four Corners to this blue beauty. The defining moment came when the wheels were fitted and behold, the Fatties Fit Fine (FFF) design of the Surly saved the day! The wheels spun unencumbered with enough room to spare.

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I had no one to share my joy as the rest of the gang was busy at Ah Leks - the best and biggest bicycle cave north of Bangkok. This was their second time there and still there were lots to buy. I suspect no matter how many times one enters Ah Lek, the wallet always gets thinner!  When they finally came to Triple Cats, I had to borrow some money from Lance to pay for my very expensive souvenir and everyone was so happy for me at making this excellent decision.

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When we got back to Bruuns, the wonderful owner Khun Wat presented us with the much coveted Mae Hong Son Certificate of Conquest.  We had forgotten about this! The kind Uncle Loh had got this sorted for us and brought it to Bruuns before making his long way back to Singapore by bus. Sadly, we had missed him by just one day!

Dinner was at the former Mike's Burgers now BB Burgers for Part One and continuing on for Thai Street Food near the Southern Gate.

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It was only fitting that our last activity for the adventure was the presentation of certificates and we all had fun awarding these prized Certificates of "Conquest" to ourselves.

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We started this journey not knowing how the trip would turn out some 11 days ago but here we were, back to where we began. With 600km through the toughest mountains in Northern Thailand, we have experienced excruciating climbs that tested our gears to the limit and 70km/h steep descends that wore thin the brake pads. As far as hairpins are concern, we have carved 1864 of those twisties and this is just from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son.

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Not forgetting the weather where we were blessed with largely deep blue skies with beautiful morning fog and experienced a chilling 7c in Soppong to warm 30c in most afternoons. We also visited hospitals at Samoeng and at Pai and incurred a total of $23 for 3 visits for 2 people and received priceless hospitality and care.

I guess after all our hardship, we have somewhat qualified to say we "conquered" the Mae Hong Son Loop.  But only through the help of the amazing Mothership team and the wonderful grace of God.

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Hard to believe but we spend a total of about S$600 only for our 2 weeks adventure which included rental of pick-up, food, lodging, massages, drinks and practically everything except shopping and truly, it is hard to beat Thailand for value.

As I reflect upon this adventure some one month ago, writing this from the comfort of my home in Perth, Australia, my head is still spinning from the many amazing memories the 11 of us shared together, each day a special gift from God all weaved together skillfully like a beautiful tapestry that is etched forever in our hearts.

Someone once wrote that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by those moments that take our breath away.  If that is true, then through the goodness, grace and love of our Heavenly Father, we have each got our breath taken away, more than once. In fact, it has been taken away many many times in this LTF MHS Adventure! And the best part is that through these breath taking moments, we saw and experience them not as individuals but together, as a community of kindred spirits fused by friendship and love.

With this trip, we have all truly lived and whatever may come in the tomorrows, we can always look back to Dec of 2017 with great joy and satisfaction and say, thank you God for life, for bicycles, for mountains and most of all precious friends!

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Team LTF of Dec 2017 is - 

Ying Chang, George, Wendy and Mark - the wonderful Mothership Crew.

Loh (Co-Motion Tourer), Wayne (Santa Cruz Super lite MTB), Lance (Giant Road Bike), Cynthia (Surly Troll), KC (Hasa Titanium MTB), Celia (Bike Friday Pocket Sport) and Alvin (Marin 4 Corners)


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