Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Last Tour Part 2: the end of the tour

Yesterday, Erin and I rode 190 kilometres.

Note that I didn't say we rode our bikes 190 km; we only did about 130 km on the bikes. We did the other 60 or so in the back of a truck. It can actually be quite convenient to ride a bike in a country that uses trucks for public transportation.

We left Chaing Rai shortly after sunrise with the vague idea that we might just try to ride the whole 190 km back to Chiang Mai. Erin's ankle was a little sore, though, and grey clouds on the horizon hinted that they might not let us finish the ride, but we started off with optimism in our hearts.

We had an excellent start to the day. We'd ridden 90 km by noon, which was when the misting drizzle we'd been riding in for the last couple of hours turned into bonafide rain. I don't want you to think we're sissies; we're not made of sugar and we wouldn't melt in the rain. I've ridden in downpours before that would make you shit your pants and run for cover. The rain was being complicated by two things, however.

First, we didn't have the proper gear with us. We didn't bring fenders on our ride, which is something we've regretted on more than one occasion. Without fenders, your own tires shower you with muck from below while the sky showers you from above, and if you're riding behind someone without fenders, you get completely blinded by muck from their back tire, so you can't even consider riding in a paceline.

For you non-cyclists, a paceline is when cyclists draft off of one another by following closely behind. A paceline can save you about 20% of the effort that it takes to pedal, and when you're thinking about riding 190 km, that's a big deal.

The other piece of gear we were lacking was raincoats. We have good raincoats with us in Thailand, but we didn't bring them on this most recent tour because we've got a very limited amount of luggage space, in keeping with the moronic fast-and-light touring concept I came up with. Listen: fast-and-light is great if you're going for a weekend credit card tour. Fast-and-light is retarded when you're going for a whole week because you spend half your time either doing laundry in the sink, or worrying about how your freshly laundered clothes will have time to dry before you need them.

Raincoats, I argued, would be unnecessary, because when it rains on you in hot weather, you just take it like a man and get wet, because you'd get even wetter with sweat if you wore a raincoat. Here's the catch, which is also my second complicating factor: it was cold. I'm serious, it was cold in Thailand. I've never seen it get that cold in Thailand. It was well below 20 degrees, which might not sound so cold to you jerks shivering away in the Canadian winter, but when you're barely wearing any clothes, you're soaking wet and you're out in the wind on a bike, it's cold enough.

So we decided we were through with cycling for the day. Our options were to get a hotel room in the little flyspeck of a town we were in and try to kill all of the hours between noon and 7 the next morning without going insane, or we could try to catch a ride back to Chiang Mai, where we had clean clothes and a nice hotel room already paid for.

So we caught a ride and a short way into the ride home, it stopped raining. Naturally. It took some time to convince ourselves that the rain had really stopped, but after 60 km the road wasn't even remotely wet anymore, so we got out of the truck and got back on the bikes.

The rain was ambushing us, though. The rain was waiting about 10 km down the road, like a mugger in an alley, and when we got to it, it clubbed us over the head and soaked us thoroughly. Then it abruptly stopped. It didn't actually feel like raining; it just wanted us to know that we couldn't pull one over on it with our little getting-a-ride trick.

And now we're back and we're enjoying Chiang Mai for a last couple of days before coming home. It'd be a lot harder to leave here for the rain of Vancouver if the weather here wasn't so lousy. It's cool enough that I actually wore a jacket out tonight, and we haven't seen the sun in two days. This time of year is supposed to be cloudless and rainless, incidentally. We never should have been rained on in the first place. Stupid global weirdness.

How was the rest of our tour, besides that last day of cycling and my ruminations about speaking Thai while standing at a urinal?

How kind of you to ask. Quite nice, thank you. I might write another post about it later on.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Speaking Thai at a Urinal

We were in a Thai tourist bar overlooking the Mekong river two nights ago, listening to a Thai band play western and Thai cover songs and watching Thai tourists from the south getting drunk as though it was a team sport, when suddenly I had to pee. I didn't exactly find this condition alarming -- it's a normal reaction of my bladder to either beer or cover bands, I can't quite figure out which -- but I knew from past experience that it would be best if I did something about it.

I walked to the men's room and found a long row of urinals, each of which were specially designed to receive and dispose of a man's urine. There was only one person using these technological wonders, and when he noticed my presence, he tensed up and looked down, apparently concentrating intensely on the task at hand.

I pulled up to a spot two urinals down from him, commenced peeing, and I started thinking about something friendly I could say to my pissing partner to set him at ease. As I've said previously on this weblog, I've been learning Thai, but my pronunciation is very imperfect and my vocabulary limited, so I'm not exactly able to throw off stupid urinal jokes like I can in English, such as "so, this is where all the dicks hang out."

Looking up at the night sky through the open window of the well-ventilated men's room, I decided I wanted to say something like "nice night." I don't know how to say, "nice", but I can say "beautiful", which I thought would work well enough, and I do know the word for "night". I began formulating this two-word sentence when I realized I might have a problem.

The grammar in Thai is super easy. For example, you don't need to put a "to be" verb in between a noun and an adjective. You just need to say the noun and say the adjective, like "night beautiful". The hard part of Thai for westerners is the pronunciation. The language has 5 tones, each of which can change the meaning of a word. The word "suay" (pronounced more or less like "sway") said with a rising tone means beautiful, but if you mess up the tone and say it flat, or mid-toned, it means "bad luck". I was pretty confident I could pull off the tone, though, so I wasn't worried about accidentally saying that the night was bad luck.

The other difficulty with pronouncing Thai is the vowels. The Thai alphabet has 32 vowels, many of which are only subtly different from one another. Our Thai teacher has a system of writing these vowels in our alphabet, doubling up letters to make a longer vowel sound, or by using upsidedown e's to indicate that they should sound like you're throwing up, and not like a normal e.

The word for night is spelled by our Thai teacher "kuun", except that he crosses both u's with horizontal lines about halfway up, to indicate that they are a different vowel from the normal u sound. I can't explain the difference between this u and a normal u, and I can only approximate the sound when I try to say it. Usually I rely on context and not accurate pronunciation to get me through linguistic ambiguities.

The real difficulty of my situation was that the word "kun", with one u, uncrossed, means "you"; talking about the night being beautiful would put me into a linguistic minefield from which the context of a men's room unoccupied by any other men couldn't save me. The very best misunderstanding I could hope for is that I'd botch both the vowel on the first word and the tone on the second word, and he'd think that I was calling him unlucky, possibly because of something I'd caught a glimpse of while he was urinating. Given my present ability in speaking Thai, however, it was much more likely that I'd nail that tone on "suay" and I'd totally botch the subtlety of the vowel on "kuun" (crossed u's) and he'd think I was saying "kun suay": "you're beautiful".

I decided not to say anything at all. Let him be uncomfortable about my presence while he pisses; it's better than him thinking that I think him either beautiful or unluckily endowed.

Sometimes when you travel you can have grand adventures without anything happening outside of your own head.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Last Tour

10 days from now Erin and I will be on a plane home. Erin is certainly not ready to come home. I have mixed feelings. I'm sure my feelings will swiftly become unmixed when I get off the plane in Vancouver and find that the atmosphere has been replaced by a steadily descending stream of icy cold water.

But that's 10 days from now; we still have enough time to go for one last tour.

Where to this time, Ben?

A fine question. Actually, we're not totally sure. Day 1 will see us go about 90 km due north, back to Chiang Dao. Day 2 might see us go to a place called Tha Ton. Then maybe Chiang Saen? And after that, who in hell knows? In the end, the trip might look something like this:

View Untitled in a larger map

Okay, I might not be totally serious about the last part of that route. We're definitely going to end up back in Chiang Mai, not off on the top of a mountain somewhere. I just really don't know how far we're going to go. It'll depend a lot on how we're feeling after the first few days. Maybe we'll be feeling great and we'll be eager to put in a lot more distance, and we'll do something really cool. Or maybe we'll just go to Chiang Rai and then take the main road back.

Either way, this is our last chance for a big trip, so we're going to get out there and put a few hundred kilometres of asphalt under our wheels.

Starting tomorrow morning... I should probably get some sleep now.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Banging round Bangkok

It's always fun to return somewhere I've been many times in many different states of mind over the course of several years. Bangkok looks different every time, partly because it has changed and partly because my eyes have changed.

As always, I've been haunting the area of town around Khao San road, while trying to avoid actually setting foot on Khao San Road. I'm fond of this part of the city, not because it's awesome per se, but because it's full of memories, and because every other part of Bangkok I've ever measured is an unwalkable, mind-numbingly boring, traffic-ridden shithole. I'm not saying Bangkok doesn't have other neighbourhoods that are built on a human scale -- I'm just saying that I have never seen any.

Erin and I are taking a night train back to Chiang Mai this evening, so we've joined the legions of other zombie-like tourists in this place, sitting in tourist cafes and slowly sipping Chang beer while waiting for something better to happen. Within a few days' time, most of the tourists we see here will be hundreds of kilometers away, many of them sitting on beaches drinking more expensive bottles of Chang Beer, but some of them will be somewhere interesting, like Rangoon or Luang Prabang or Saigon or Calcutta or Kathmandu.

Kathmandu! The idea of it makes me shiver. Why have I never been to Nepal?

I close with a status report on Bangkok, written for those lucky people who have shared this city with me over the years. Nate, Erin, Inge, Tom, Koen, Liam, Jesse and Tucker, here's what's become of the place:

- Nakorn Pink is pretty much the same, except they've put up new signs where they've finally corrected the spelling of the name to Nakorn Ping. Last time Erin and I were here, they'd brutally increased the rate for fan rooms to 490 baht; I'm pleased to report that they've now got a "special offer" room rate that's apparently been in place since August 2nd, and you can get a fan room for a much more reasonable 400 baht.

- The sidewalk bar where Jesse got kicked in the neck during an argument over the bill is still open. In fact, it's greatly expanded, with a bunch more tables now on the street, and a few more tucked inside a garage door in the building behind. We saw no sign of the neck-kicker, however; presumably he has died of internal bleeding from flopping himself down on the street while drop-kicking some hapless tourist in the neck.

- Every other sidewalk retail or drinking place has expanded off of the sidewalk and into the street. Word must have gotten around that the cops don't care if you use the street as your shop floor, because everyone has done it. Consequently, there's very little room for people to walk on Khao San Road anymore, much less to drive on it. Khao San seemed oddly dead, actually. Soi Rambuttri, which 7 years ago was much quieter, is now where the main backpacker party is.

- Popiang House (a.k.a. BBC World) is still alive and kicking. They've got tables permanently set up on the sidewalk across the street, where they used to set up mats on the sidewalk and illegally serve beer after hours. I have no idea what the after-hours drinking scene is like here n0w; Erin and I went to bed early because we are very old.

- The ruins of Samsen (two years ago I posted a photo here) are now partially demolished. They've taken the top few floors off, so now the roof is at the same level as the adjacent buildings. I would have thought that surely the entire building was worthy of demolition, but the owners apparently saw some economic merit in the crumbling bottom half of this half-built edifice.

- That hotel they demolished the gay baguette place on Samsen Soi 2 in order to build still isn't finished. They look like they're getting close.

- And finally, for the old man in me: everything is more expensive, the beer isn't as cold, the women aren't as pretty, the t-shirts aren't as witty and people don't smile like they did when I was 26. The whole world is going to hell and nobody else even notices because they're too preoccupied with playing with their Nintendos and listening to their Walkmen. By God, I remember when you could get pad thai served on a hooker's naked back for six and a half Canadian cents in this town. Nothing is any good anymore; it's all been ruined by all of these people doing exactly what I'm doing, except that they're the ones who ruined it because I was here first.
Actually, Bangkok is remarkably similar to how it was 7 years ago. I think the locals have more money than they did in 2003, and everything costs about 10 baht more than it did then, but the tourists are just as drunk and the Thais are just as forgivingly friendly and willing to take money from stupid people as they ever were.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Fifty cent draft beer.

Seriously -- a decent-sized glass of mediocre (but not terrible) draft beer for US$0.50. So what do you expect us to do with our evenings?

Actually, we've been having a reasonably productive time. We were able to take three days to tour Angkor Wat, Erin's been interviewing people and researching crap for her story, and I've been muddling along in my work life in my own muddled way.

We rented bikes for one of our days of touring Angkor. We got some real classics -- old style bikes where you sit perfectly erect and view the countryside from a dignified, upright position. I can now actually see the point of this kind of bike, although they're built for a completely different kind of riding than we normally do.

If you're not going too far (although we comfortably rode more than 30 km) and if you don't expect to go fast (maybe 15 km/h) this kind of old style bicycle can be a great way to go. You don't have to crouch down in a super athletic position, so it'd be good for people with back issues, and sitting upright makes it much easier to look around and take in the view. With the gearing we had on our bikes, we couldn't go fast anyway, so the level of exertion was comparable to walking, and with the little speed we had we generated our own breeze, so it was actually much cooler than walking. I can't help but think that this style of bike would be very popular at home if it weren't for all the hills. You just can't expect people to want to ride a 40-pound bike with no gears in Vancouver.

We're now in Phnom Penh. This city is seriously entertaining, but when I first got here I felt a little trapped. The city is too big and too hot to consider walking long distances, and the last thing I want to do is haggle with a tuk-tuk driver every time I want to go somewhere. Then I rented a shitty little Honda motorbike and the whole world has changed. Now we can go anywhere we want, if we're willing to deal with the terror of getting there.

I've never seen a city where traffic is more chaotic than here. I was here 7 years ago and I thought the same thing then, and my thoughts haven't changed. They do this thing here that I like to call the "Cambodian left turn". You usually do it on a motorbike, but some people try to do it in cars.

When you're turning left from one busy road onto another, you start about 100 meters back from the intersection by veering left through oncoming traffic to get to the left shoulder of the road. Then you round the corner on the left shoulder and repeat the process, veering right through oncoming traffic to return to the right side of the road.

Erin and I did one today. I rented my moto yesterday and I was having so much fun scaring the hell out of myself and Erin was having so little fun having the hell scared by my driving, that she decided to get her own. On our way back from the rental place, we were forced to perform (or commit?) a Cambodian left turn onto a busy road. It's less terrifying than you might think. Drivers here are completely prepared for this kind of nonsense, and they'll get out of your way, as long as you don't do anything sudden.

Driving here is very Buddhist and can be summarized in four noble truths:
1. The essence of traffic is suffering.
2. The origin of traffic-suffering is attachment to the rules of the road.
3. The cessation of traffic-suffering is attainable by means other than stopping driving.
4. The path to the cessation of traffic-suffering is ignoring all traffic laws as they apply to both yourself and others; this means never letting the illegality of a manoeuvre prevent you from doing it, and never getting the slightest bit annoyed at another driver, no matter how illegally or stupidly they're driving.

I have no photos of Phnom Penh or how people drive here. Instead, enjoy these photos of Angkor. And check out the video -- it's pretty cool.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Big Tour Part 3: Last day and the sad trip home

Not discovering the secret to Suvarnabhumi Airport

$9 for an hour of internet! $6 for simple meal of Thai food? $3.50 for a coffee? Who do these Bangkok airport guys think they are? What, they think they have a monopoly?

Hell, I have a 6-hour layover; I’ll just take the 50-cent airport train into the city and I’ll show them. The train goes straight to the central shopping district… not much is open here… except for this mall… where the prices are actually higher than they are in the airport.


I guess I’ll just go back to the airport.

We’re not in simple, cheap Chaing Mai anymore.

Back to the tour!

In the Cave Lodge outside of Pang Mapha I was on the verge of collapse. We just hadn’t been eating enough for the amount we were riding; I wasn’t in any risk of becoming skinny or anything, I just felt like hell. Fortunately, the food at Cave Lodge is awesome, the rooms are comfortable, the staff is friendly.

There’s also a ton of stuff to do there, but I didn’t feel like doing any of it. Erin went kayaking down a river that goes through an enormous cave. She went black water kayaking for several hundred meters and then normal- (brown?) water kayaking for a few more. I stayed back at the guesthouse and read my book and ate. When she came back, we went back to the big cave together and paid a guide to take us through the cave on a bamboo raft, stopping a few times to explore the side branches of the cave on foot.

The cave was lightly developed, meaning that there were stairs here and there where we needed them and there were a few informative plaques, but there weren’t any lights or railings and there definitely weren’t any coloured lights and cheesy sound effects, like I’ve seen in some over-developed caves. The caves were cool. There was a lot of guano and birdshit. There was a sign warning us away from one chamber, saying that oxygen levels there were low.

It sort of freaked me out after awhile; a cave is one of the least hospitable places on earth. I think that the people who go exploring unmapped caves and worm their way through little holes in the ground for hours on end are mentally ill. Why would someone want to do that?

By the time we reached the far end of the cave, it was dusk. We got to watch literally hundreds of thousands of swifts circling in a holding patten over the cave mouth while waiting for their turn to fly into the cave and bed down for the night. At the same time, thousands upon thousands of bats were leaving the cave for a night of hunting. They were hot-swapping beds, I guess. The bugs in that valley get no respite, day or night.

The next morning we woke up early, pigged out on muffins and bread baked in the Cave Lodge’s stone oven and hit the road at about 7:00. Mist was still clinging to the trees as we descended into the valley down the winding, narrow, perfectly-paved road that connects Cave Lodge and the Tham Lot cave to the highway. The ride down was absolutely magical; it was largely downhill, with just enough uphill stretches to keep us warm on a relatively chilly morning. My bike and my tires were built for taking corners like that at high speed. I’ve seldom ever enjoyed myself more on my bike.

The rest of the day’s ride was almost as good. We stopped in Pang Mapha to hit an ATM and have another coffee and then carried on to Mae Hong Son. The ride was about 70 km in length with quite a bit of climbing, but the climb was divided up into three major hills, so we were able to alternate climbing and descending for a change.

The road surface was good, by and large, and we had quite a few cheerleaders along the way, including a young Australian couple on a motorbike; the woman thought I was beautiful enough to photograph, but the man just shook his head, and when I asked him how he was doing, he said “better than you, mate.” To be fair, this was in the middle of the biggest climb of the day, when we were pounding up a steep grade at around noon in the full sun. I probably looked like hell, but I was having fun. On the outside I might’ve looked like I was on the verge of collapse, but inside my head it was all stars and fireworks and neon and trumpets blowing celebratory fanfares. You don’t need to go to a pusher to get good drugs; your body is full of really great drugs, it just takes a bit of work to get them out.

On our way up the last little hill before Mae Hong Son, an extremely large-bellied middle-aged American man on a motorbike stopped to talk to us. He asked us his few questions, and then went on to tell us about how the rest of the world is messed up, workers are rioting in France, but Thailand is just how it should be: a paradise. Most of the people we’d see in Mae Hong Son were involved in fighting in Burma, he said; there are two private armies in northern Burma; drugs out, guns in, and business is good, he said. He was ex-military; he bragged about being a gun runner without quite saying he was a gun runner. I looked at his gut and I could tell that he hadn’t run more than five steps in the last 20 years, and that was to get a Philly cheesesteak. If anything, he was a gun-bureaucrat who thought that paradise involved drug trafficking and gun smuggling, and that labour unrest was a sign of the fall of civilization.

It’s a common theme among the seedier sort of expatriates in Thailand: this place is perfect and has absolutely no problems, whereas the country they’re from (or the entire western world) is a complete shithole and they can’t stand being there. One late-twenties english teacher from Vancouver Island spent half an hour telling me what a horrible place Canada was; when I asked him why, his main reason seemed to be that he isn’t allowed to drink and drive in Canada, where in Thailand he can get as pissed as he wants and jump on his motorbike and drive to the next bar.

Mae Hong Son is a surprisingly attractive town. I’d sort of expected a dusty Burmese border town, but the tourist part of town is centred on a little lake, with a couple of nice Burmese-style temples on its shore. Mae Hong Son is also a little boring, which is to be expected from such a small town.

We didn’t have much time to be bored. We ate a few times, slept, and got up early in the morning for the ignominy of loading our bikes onto a bus. A bus! A fucking bus! We, powerful cyclists, loaded our beautiful bikes on a bus. The shame.

But we had received the email we were waiting for; we had to go back to Chiang Mai and do our indexing, and we couldn’t afford the 4-5 days it’d take to cycle back, so we got on a bus and sat in squalid, sweaty misery for 9 hours and found ourselves back in Chiang Mai.

The indexing is done, incidentally. In spite of our lack of enthusiasm, I think we did a reasonably good job. And now we’re off to Cambodia to look at that cool temple and learn enough about bears that Erin can write an article about them.

Yeah, bears. Weird world, eh?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Big Tour Part 2: the tour, days 1-3

Alright, we're dashing off to Cambodia in about a dozen hours, and if I don't puke this story out now, I never will.

Where was I? Right, 3 in the afternoon, cycling slowly. We wouldn't have bothered to leave town with so little daylight left, but we knew we'd be short days and we wanted to get about 50 km of flats out of the way, so that we didn't waste the cool part of the next morning crossing the flats and then hit the big mountain we had to go over during the heat of the day.

View Big tour day 1 in a larger map

We rode pretty slowly down little country roads, crossed the highway and started down the road to Pai. The sun was setting, we saw a sign for a "resort" so we got off the road to go have a look. The word "resort" can mean a lot of things in northern Thailand -- anything from a "resort" consisting of a somewhat run-down hotel that happens to have a pool, to a Resort consisting of a brand new hotel with a spa, masseur and swimming pool. Much to our dismay, the resort was a Resort and not a "resort". They asked us for more money than we've ever spent on a hotel in Thailand. We balked, they cut their price by 20%, which was still more than we've ever spent on a hotel in Thailand. We looked at the sun setting and felt how tired we were, and we ponied up.

The food was too expensive and not that good. On the bright side, Erin was in the pool within half an hour of our decision to stay, so she was happy.

The next day we started to climb. Over the course of the tour, I developed a personal relationship with a group of people called "Thai engineers", who I credited or blamed for all of the roads we cycled on. When we were on a particularly bad road, I generally blamed it on an individual, referring to the person as "him", or "this guy", like "this guy is a fucking moron! Who builds a road like this?"

View Big tour day 2 in a larger map

On our first day of climbing, I was very pleased with the Thai engineers. The climb over the pass to get to Pai is a big one; somewhere in the ballpark of 1500 meters, which is about 15% bigger than the climb from Hope to the Coquihalla summit in BC, for example. It made us tired, but it really didn't kill us. The road was built with ample switchbacks and all of the corners were built properly, so we never felt like we were riding up the roof of an alpine chateau.

The ride down from the summit was good fun, but unfortunately the quality of the road surface deteriorated a little, so I had to be "responsible" and try not to make Erin a "widow at age 28".


I think Pai was suffering from a tourist follow-through from the lantern festival in Chiang Mai. Everyone talks about how laid back Pai is. I found it to be a bit like Khao San Road in Bangkok set in a beautiful valley instead of an insane city. If you've never been to Khao San Road, imagine a zoo where all the animals are monkeys, there are no cages, and inexplicably the few zookeepers around seem bent on supplying the monkeys with as many t-shirts, massages, french braids, and as much beer as the monkeys can handle.

We had originally thought about spending a rest-day in Pai, but the people returning to our guesthouse from their super laid-back all-night drunken dance parties changed our minds for us, so the next day we went to a town called Soppong by guidebooks and tourists. When those tourists call the town "Soppong" when speaking to any Thai person not involved in the tourist trade, they receive a quizzical squint. Thai people universally call the place Pang Mapha; I'm pretty sure that the Lonely Planet unilaterally renamed the town for reasons we can only guess at.

The ride to Pang Mapha was short -- only 40 km -- but it involved a serious climb, something like 2/3 the size of the previous day's. The difference was, this time I spent most of my time shouting abuse at the anonymous (and in my opinion, mentally defective) engineer who surveyed the road. Most of the grade is absolutely fine for cycling. Completely reasonable. But every now and then, that asshole engineer got himself stuck where he shouldn't have been, and he drove that road up the side of a cliff to get himself up on the ridge where he wanted to be. To make things worse, the guy was the worst builder of switchback-corners of all times. He graded the outside of the corner so it was a steady and reasonable climb, so the inside of the hairpin corner was ridiculously steep -- so steep that Erin would frequently get off her bike and push.

As we approached the top of the pass, every second car that passed us slowed down to shout encouragement (often just: "good!") or give us a thumbs up. In the valleys and on the flats, most Thais pay just enough attention to us not to run us over, but whenever we get near the top of a big hill, we turn into rock stars. Near the top of the summit the previous day we stopped to get some water and a Thai tourist from the south called me a "superman" when I told him we planned to ride to Mae Hong Son. People took photographs of us; later on the tour, one car who passed us did a u-turn so they could come back and take photos of us out the front windshield.

We're not doing this ride for the admiration, but let me tell you, when you're on the 800th meter of a climb and you're starting to bonk because nothing was open for breakfast when you left town and you ate nothing for breakfast but the loaves of bread you bought off of a French-hippie-baker selling bread from a motorbike the day before and you've eaten nothing since but the packages of cookies you had stashed on your bike, and the air is getting a bit cooler with altitude but you're still sweating your sack off because the hill you're climbing is in full sun, that little chuckle you get out of the ridiculous enthusiasm of the Thais who are encouraging you sure doesn't hurt.

The descent from the summit into Pang Mapha was just awesome. The pavement was good and the grade went from being not-too-steep-to-enjoy at the beginning to perfect-for-feeling-like-a-racecar toward the end. Sure, some of those ridiculously built corners were there to ambush us with a sudden cliff on the inside of a turn, but they were reasonably easy to see coming, so we could get on the brakes in time.

The lower part of the descent was some of the best fun I've had on a bike. It was largely downhill, with just enough rolling uphill from time to time to remind me that I was still responsible for my locomotion. The road wound around the amazing scenery of jungle, occasional farms, and cliff faces as the valley opened, just barely, out to Pang Mapha.

We were there. We were tired from the climb and the climb of the day before, but we were in reasonable shape and it was only noon. At the recommendation of Tucker, who was in Pang Mapha five years ago, we decided to stay at the Cave Lodge. What we didn't realize was that the Cave Lodge was 8 km off the highway on a tiny but well-paved road that rolled mostly uphill, halfway back up the side of the valley.

I was tired and I was bonking. I cursed Tucker, I cursed the assholes who built the Cave Lodge so far from the road, I cursed whatever asshole decided to put all those hills there.

But then we got there and the Cave Lodge turned out to be the perfect place to spend a rest day.

This is getting ridiculous. How can I ramble on about cycling like this? I'll tell you what: I've got three more days of tour to tell you about and I've got a 6-hour layover in Bangkok tomorrow. I'll see what I can do about finishing this story before I forget everything we did.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Big Tour Part 1: pre-departure

Obviously, we've been back in Chiang Mai for several days. But why haven't I written about our exciting big tour? Well, we've been up to our nipples in indexing, which is also the reason why our big tour was only about half as long as I wanted it to be.

What is this mysterious substance "indexing" you ask? Indexing is an activity, not a liquid, as I implied in that nipple-filled analogy in the previous paragraph. Indexing is coming up with a list of subjects in the book we're editing, and then finding all of the pages each of the subjects is referred to on.

As you might imagine, poring in minute detail over a book we ourselves wrote and consequently have already read every part of at least a dozen times in the last few months is extremely stimulating and enjoyable work; I think I've found my new life's calling: writing non-fiction books on not-particularly-interesting topics and then reducing the immense wisdom they contain to an alphabetized list and a series of numbers.

But who's complaining? It's a job I can do in Chiang Mai in November, therefore it is by definition a good job.

The tour; but before you can understand the tour, you must understand the condition in which we left on the tour, and for that you must be told about the day and night before we left for the tour.

The date was November 22nd, 2010; those were heady days. A little rebellion called the Tea Party was washing across the United States in a wave of confused hysteria; the Calgary Flames had just lost a historic game to the Detroit Red Wings and were about to lose a historic game to the New York Rangers.

And in Chiang Mai it was the second-last day of Loi Krathong, their crazy flying-lantern-and-fireworks festival. The festival is described as happening "on the second-last full moon of the year", but that's nonsense. It might end around then, but the festival fever builds for weeks as Thais set off more and more fireworks, light more and more lanterns and get drunker and drunker.

For weeks, the city outside of the hotel room where we worked (Erin earnestly, I intermittently) had sounded like a war-zone. We had toured the lantern displays and unsuccessfully tried to set off a couple of flying lantern-balloon thingies, but we hadn't had much to do with the festivities so far. But on the second-last night of the festival, we decided to fully take part. And we did, in a big way.

First of all, Erin made a couple of floating candle-raft thingies with the nice lady who runs our guesthouse. The idea is to send the raft down the river along with all of your troubles. The raft is made out of a chunk of banana tree covered in banana leaves and flowers.

Then we went down to the river with a few Americans we met and released our little floating candle raft thingies into their natural habitat, the Mae Nam Ping river.

And we set off a few flying lantern-balloon things as well.

The below photo can only give you the tiniest idea of just how magical and truly dangerous the festival is. There are thousands of people setting off these lanterns all the time. They twinkle in the sky like moving clouds of stars. And sometimes things go wrong.

Almost all of the lantern-balloon thingies take off successfully and burn themselves out before fluttering gently to the ground, where they become litter in the treetops and farmers' fields. However, with a large number of tourists who don't know what they're doing taking part, and a large number of crooked locals selling inferior or defective lantern-balloon thingies to the tourists, you're bound to get a few faulty launches, which sometimes result in a lantern-balloon thingy gently falling flaming-ring foremost into an extremely crowded street.

Then you add in a crosswind that catches the lantern-balloon thingies of locals and tourists alike and pushes some of them into nearby treetops where they begin small conflagrations, and causes others of them to partially collapse and start descending flaming-ring first into the very crowded street. Fortunately, even in the dry season, the foliage in the area is very damp. All of the treetop fires we saw were very minor. People's heads are less damp than the foliage, but they come down pretty slowly and they're easy to catch by the non-flaming rim, so we didn't see anyone get hit by a falling flaming lantern-balloon thingy. I imagine it did happen to someone, though.

We launched our lantern-balloon thingies (successfully, all) and got the hell out of there before any flaming rings descended on our heads while we weren't looking. Our yankee friends all bowed out and Erin and I went to a bar very near our hotel, where the locals and tourists, staff and patrons, were all going a little crazy. Firecrackers were being thrown around willy-nilly and people were getting very drunk. Actually, at first most of the firecracker-throwing was being done by Erin and me because everyone else at the bar had worked out most of their firecracker enthusiasm in the big firecracker fight that had broken out a day or two before, but they soon recovered their enthusiasm.

The staff of the bar, all of whom were Thai and most of whom were very drunk, decided that they would close the bar and we would all, staff and patrons together, walk back down to the river and launch floating candle-raft thingies and drink much more beer. So we each took a beer to go and drank it while slowly progressing down the street and throwing firecrackers everywhere we thought needed a firecracker. Then we stopped to get more beer, and I think more firecrackers as well, and resumed our progress to the river.

Things get a little hazy from there. I lost Erin for a time, and spent awhile walking with a middle-aged American gay man who had a bad limp and couldn't easily keep up with the party. We found everyone, we drank another beer on the river bank, and then I thought I lost Erin again but she'd only gone to find somewhere to pee. Then five of us were in a tuk-tuk and the driver asked for too much money and one of the bar patrons paid it anyway, and a waitress who was with us got mad at him for paying. I'm not sure where we were going, though. I remember more firecrackers and probably another beer...

Then it was past 3 AM and we went to bed.

What does this have to do with the big tour, you ask? Well, this is why I slept until 1 PM the next day, why we didn't start our first day's riding until 3 PM, and why we rode so slowly that day.

So how was the tour, you ask? Wait until tomorrow. My typers are tired. I'll find a way to drag myself from my indexing to write the rest of this story.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mae Kuang Dam Loop

Erin and I did a fun one-day ride yesterday:

We left Chiang Mai following our little rural river road that lets us avoid the highway, and then went up into the hills, where we found a very attractive and reasonably-priced (free) waterfall:

Then we proceeded to the lake, where we were going to get a boat to the other side. We should have known this wasn't exactly a high traffic route with regularly scheduled ferry service. The jungle was eating the road and nobody seemed to care.

At the lake, there was no boat and no sign of any boat, but we waited there like morons. Fortunately, we met a very nice Austrian man on a motorcycle, who helped us pass the time.

Finally, we were finished waiting, and we went back up the extremely steep road we'd just come down and stopped in the village 3 km down the road to get some noodle soup. Using our pathetically limited Thai, we tried to ask the nice lady who made soup for us how one could get a boat to the other side of the lake. This was quite challenging for us, because we didn't know the word for boat, and we hadn't brought our Thai dictionary with us.

A word of advice: if you're ever taking a bicycle trip in rural Thailand that absolutely requires you to catch a boat, unless you want to go 75km back the way you came, learn the Thai word for boat.

The word for bicycle in Thai is jak-ga-yaan. The tones for the three syllables are low, low and mid, respectively. We learned this somewhat difficult word almost immediately on arriving in Thailand.

The word for boat, according to my dictionary is rua. Mid-tone, nice and flat. That's one of the easiest words I've ever learned in Thai, but yesterday, we didn't know it. We did know how to say, "we want to go to Doi Saket", which was the name of the town on the other side of the lake, and we were able to combine this linguistic snippet with smiling ignorance and, after going through three intermediaries, we got someone to telephone the ferry man on the far side of the lake and tell him to come and get us.

So we went back down the hill to the lakeshore and waited for the boat.

Here's Snakeslayer taking his first-ever boat ride; I think he liked it:

And then we road home. Rice harvest is approaching here, and the countryside is beautiful.

And the lantern festival is underway in Chiang Mai.

Which has meant there's been so many fireworks set off that it sounds like there's a war going on every night. The festival is fun, and Erin and I intend to enjoy it tonight, but there's only so many explosions my nerves can handle.

Last night I was at a bar where a few of the patrons at the instigation of one of the Thai employees, decided that it would be hilarious if they started sneaking lit firecrackers under people's tables, or placing them between their feet while they weren't looking. Okay, it was hilarious, but there's only so much hilarity a guy can take.

Either tomorrow or the next day Erin and I are going to set off on our longest tour yet, going north through Pai to Mae Hong Son. We'll see how far we get. We've got some work we have to do in the next week or two that's will be incredibly urgent once we're able to start, but we have no idea when we're going to be able to start.

Ahh... the peaceful, contemplative life of a writer. Fucking deadlines.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Tallest Mountain in Thailand

I'm warning you: I'm kind of pissed (in the British sense, not the American one).

Our two-day tour got extended to a three day tour. We returned at about 1:30 this afternoon and went out for lunch and a beer. Erin went for a massage and I stayed and had a second beer. I intended to spend the whole afternoon there drinking beer and reading my book, but after two beers I had to leave. I was too drunk.

One of the marvellous things about long-distance cycling is that it quickens your metabolism to the point where you can become a one-beer drunk.

We were nearly at the end of our planned ride for the first day and at the end of some of the most gruelling hill-climbing I've ever done, when we nearly turned back. The hill was ridiculously steep and we had run completely out of water; it'd been hours since we last saw somewhere we could buy some. We'd covered virtually no distance since the last time we stopped and ate, but we'd gained at least 1000 meters in altitude. Our odometers indicated that we should have been at our destination, but there was nothing to be seen. Every corner we rounded showed us nothing but another steep ascent.

We were both bonking -- which means we were hitting that hypoglycaemic wall where you've run out of blood sugar to feed your muscles, and you feel as weak as a kitten and as prone to vomiting as a newborn. Erin ate her ninth little banana of the day, which I gave her, because I couldn't imagine being able to swallow it without water. It was our last banana. I was ready to turn around and go back to the "resort" we'd seen advertised back at the bottom of the mountain.

Erin pointed out that our odometers might easily be out a kilometre, that the town we were riding to might be just around the corner and argued that we should press on; I, suppressing every natural desire I had to divorce her on the spot, agreed on an intellectual level and then forced flesh to accept the mastery of my intellect. After another kilometre, which probably took us more than 10 minutes to climb, we saw an insignificant little advertisement at the side of the road. It promised us that there was an internet place in 200 meters. We weren't interested in the internet, but where there's internet, there's water and food. I felt like we were running down the side of a sand dune into an oasis. Naturally, the ad lied, but after about another kilometre, there we were, in Khun Klang, a town on the side of the tallest mountain in Thailand.

We had some noodle soup and talked about our situation. Khun Klang looked like a bit of a shithole and we didn't really relish the idea of spending the rest of the afternoon there. It was chilly, because it was at something like 1400 metres, and there wasn't a lot to do. There's a road that goes right to the summit of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, but it was way too steep to ride up, and there didn't seem to be much point to going up there anyway; the mountaintop is permanently surrounded by clouds, so there's no view. Thai people go during the cold season so they can experience such novelties as frost, but we didn't give a shit about seeing frost.

We talked about going back down the mountain to a more comfortable altitude. Then the third bowl of noodle soup of the day raised our blood sugar levels and our spirits and the idea was advanced (I'm not sure by who, but Erin blames me) that we go on; we could climb another 300 meters and then descend the other side of the mountain to Mae Chaem. It'd mean adding a day to the tour and turning it into a loop, where we'd go south through Hot and then back up the valley to Chiang Mai.

So we did it.

I can't expect any of you to understand why, though some of you will. The reward is all in our heads, in the enormous doses of endorphins and other chemicals our bodies give us when we're mean to them; in the unexpected vistas and the expected ones; in the amazed looks and smiles and thumbs-up we got from local passengers of vehicles who saw us at the summit of the pass; in the well-earned appetite at every meal; in the small interactions we have with the locals when we stop for water or food or directions; and in the immediate and profound head-buzz you get off of a single beer after spending a day on the bike.

And that was just a three-day tour!

We did a little over 300 km and a fuck-ton more altitude than my ride mapping website will give us credit for. I felt like quitting several times, but there was no way we could quit; what would we have done? Thrown up our arms on the side of the road and waited for our parents to come get us? Besides, Erin was there, not wanting to quit at all. Then, when Erin did want to quit, I felt fine and wanted to carry on, so she kept going.

One of the many songs I invented, to be sung as loudly and raspily as an out-of-breath person can sing it, was:

Forty-eight, Thirty-eight, Twenty-eight
Where is my triple?
Na-na naa naaaaa

If you're confused, I was singing about gears. Those hills are steep. I don't have the right gearing. Erin's gearing is a good 15% better than mine, and she doesn't have the right gearing for these hills either.

Each night Erin ate everything in the world while I choked down as much food as I could make myself swallow, and we went to bed, afraid of what our legs would be screaming at us the next morning. Each morning I had a huge breakfast while Erin ate a reasonable one and watched, and we got on the bike feeling surprisingly good. After a dozen kilometres, though, we found that our legs had very little in the way of reserves after that huge climb on the first day.

But we made it back. And now I'm enjoying my solipsistic triumph by trying to explain it to others. To hell with this: beer is a hugely more rewarding use of my time than writing to the likes of you.

Writing about a good bike ride is like telling someone about a really great orgasm you had. "Oh, is that so? Well, good for you!"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

And we're off!

Late yesterday afternoon, Erin and I made a snap decision to take off on an overnight trip. We're going halfway up the side of Doi Inthanon, Thailand's tallest mountain, where we hope to find a homestay, and maybe a ride the rest of the way to the top of the peak.

I'll post the story when we get back. The route we'll follow will look something like this:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Unhappy Day

I'm unhappy today.

It's only 7:30 AM. I guess things could turn around, but they're not going too well so far.

First, I did some pooping last night, and some more pooping this morning. Erin and I went out and had our first supper of western food since arriving here. We've been eating nothing but Thai and a little Indian, even for breakfast, and we've been loving it. Last night, though, we heard pizza's siren call, and my digestive system crashed upon the treacherous rocks. It seems that my guts liked the banquet of cheese so much, they decided to expel everything else in its favour.

Second, we received some news about the scheduling of some work we have to do, and it looks like there's no way we'll be able to fit in the entire cycling tour we wanted to do. Somehow, I knew it wasn't going to happen. We needed two whole weeks to do it comfortably, and though it was my biggest priority for the trip, the rest of the universe doesn't seem to give a shit about my priorities. We're going to have to depart a couple of days later than we'd originally hoped to, so we're probably going to have to scale the tour down to an out-and-back to Mae Hong Son, leaving out the lower 2/3 of the loop:

View Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son in a larger map

I was having such a good day yesterday.

The day before yesterday I bought Snakeslayer some new shoes. Snakeslayer's old tires had just gotten too worn out, and I had started to get flats all the time. I had slow leaks in both tires. The holes were too small to find, and I was reluctant to stick brand-new tubes into the tires because I couldn't find what had punctured the last tubes, so I couldn't be sure that the new tubes wouldn't get punctured in the same way. The result of this unhappy situation was that every time I wanted to get on my bike, I had to pump up both tires from nearly flat with the wonderful emergency pump I bought a couple of weeks ago.

So two days ago, I finally broke down and bought two new tubes and two new tires. I got some Panaracer Duro PTs, which I think are not exactly the kind of tire I want for the kind of riding we're doing, but my choice at our local bike shop was that, or something really cheap and crappy. Anyway, the tires promise miraculous puncture protection, so we'll see how we go.

Bpong, the guesthouse's cleaning woman, saw me changing my tires and (in a mixture of Thai and pantomime) told me that my old tires were no good, because they had no tread on them and that would make me wipe out. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the racing tires I'd bought as replacements had even less tread on them, and I didn't have the language skills to tell her that on smooth pavement, the less tread the better for not wiping out.

And yesterday when I went downstairs to get on my bike, both tires were still full of air! It turns out that money can buy happiness. I rode up our local training mountain, Doi Suthep, and at the top I met a cyclist who is an English ex-pat and local resident. He told me that there are several road bike shops in town, most of which have a better selection than the one I've been going to under the assumption that it was the only one around. I could probably have found tires that are much better suited to the lightweight touring Erin and I are doing, but I'm not running out and buying another set of new tires. The Panaracer Duro PTs will have to do the job.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thai Chi

We've been watching a naked Thai person through a crack in a fence for several days now.

It's not how it sounds.

We often go to the soup lady for breakfast, because she makes the best rice soup in town and she only charges a dollar for it. She also makes noodle soup for a dollar, but we've been told that Thais don't eat noodles for breakfast, (that would be absurd) so we eat rice soup. Across the lane from the soup lady's restaurant is a house that's a bit of an anomaly in this neighbourhood. It's a two-story house that would fit in pretty well in any American suburb built in the 1960's, except that it has a nice banana grove in the front lawn. It does have a front lawn, however, making it one of maybe five houses with lawns out of the thousands of buildings in this part of town.

Instead of a white picket fence, though, it has a 2 1/2 meter high concrete wall around it. All the private open spaces in the neighbourhood are fenced off. This is nothing unusual. Instead of a white picket gate, the house has a large spike-topped vehicle gate made out of white plastic fence pickets decorated with simulated wood grain. The pickets are about 15 cm wide each, and the gaps between them are only 2 cm wide.

The pickets of the gate present a visual barrier that is effectively impermeable to casual passers by; you can't really see much at a glance. If you stopped and looked through a gap, you'd see everything in the yard. And if you sat eating rice soup at the sidewalk restaurant across the lane, you'd have a broken view of the house and yard; you wouldn't be able to fully make out everything, but you'd have a pretty good idea of what that yard contained, and especially of what was happening immediately inside the gate.

So, if, for example, a middle-aged Thai man, naked to the waist, came out of his house and stood next to his gate to rub his naked belly and chest in the morning sun with his self-loving hands as a warm up for his little tai chi routine, you wouldn't see him well enough to recognize him on the street, but you would know exactly what he was doing. And if that Thai man pulled his trousers down to his knees to expose his genitals to the sun for some minutes, and on some mornings, vigourously test the flexibility and elasticity of those genitals, (not masturbating, mind, just giving himself a good working over) you'd know just what he was up to.

And if you were anything like us, you'd snort into your rice soup and have a good giggle at that Thai man.

The moral of this story: solid walls obscure sight lines; property lines do not. You're not invisible inside of your yard.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Snacking Club

Okay, second post of the day! If you haven't read it yet, start with the next post. It will disgust you.

Done? Good. I promise, I won't say anything about dogs in this post. I got that out of my system.

Today Erin and I went for a ride with the Chiang Mai Sunday Cycling Club. They've been going for group rides every Sunday for the last 14 years, and Erin and I thought we'd tag along to meet other cyclists.

Today's ride featured about 4o Thai cyclists and about 10 foreigners, half of whom were expats and half of whom were tourists. One of the foreigners was an English woman who had never been on a multi-day tour before when she up and decided that she'd like to ride a bike from Bangkok to Laos. We wish her luck.

It was nice to ride with other people, but they were pretty slow and they made a lot of long stops, usually for food. We met in the morning at one of the historic gates of the old city, and we made our way to an exhibition of classic bikes. One of the bikes was a 120 year-old Peugeot. The photo below is not it, however. You'll have to use your imagination.

After leaving the bike show we stopped for food, went back to the gate to pick up more riders, and rode to the edge of town, where we picked up something to munch on. Then we rode a few kilometres at about 20 km/h, which made Snakeslayer antsy, because he likes to go faster. It was a crowd of mixed abilities, riding a very mixed variety of bikes, though, and many people probably couldn't go much faster.

We stopped for a wee nibble, then we got back on the road and passed some other club members who'd pulled over for a nosh at a noodle stand; the body of the pack was sated, though, so we didn't stop there. A few kilometres further on, we stopped for a snack, and then rode another 5 km to a nice Wat (temple) on a hilltop, where they fed us abundantly and for free.

Surprisingly, more than a few of the riders in the Chiang Mai Sunday Cycling Club are quite fat. I know that this pot(belly) shouldn't be calling those little Thai kettles black, but seriously, some of those riders are really very fat. I submit that this is because they spend more time fuelling up for the bike ride than they do actually riding the bike.

Erin and I tired of the slow pace on the way home, so together with a 51 year-old dutchman riding a mountain bike with huge, knobby tires, we broke from the pack. That dutchman somehow propelled that mountain bike at 30 to 35 km/h and kept up with us quite well for the whole 20 km back to the city. He did draft behind me, but the slipstream I created covered only 2/3 of his bike and body, because he was tall and had a ridiculously upright posture on his mountain bike.

The Sunday Cycling Club is an excellent institution, which allows cyclists to connect and gets people out on the road. People were very friendly and very welcoming. Still, I don't know how enthusiastic I'd be about going with them again. The trouble with cycling in a group of 50 people is that you're always waiting for someone to finish eating. It took us 6 hours to cover 55 km, and that's including the 35 km/h burn we did for the 20-or-so km back to town. I imagine that some of the slower riders won't make it home until about 3:30 next Wednesday afternoon.

We hear that the club rides are often attended by 250 riders. It'd be fun to ride in a mob that big, but who has time to wait for all that snacking?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fear of Dogs: Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao, Return

I was too lazy to post yesterday, and now I've got to write two posts in a row because there's so much to say!

First things first: Erin and I did another overnight bike tour, this time to a town at the foot of a beautiful mountain north of here:

View Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao in a larger map

I'm afraid of only three things. I covered fish and entropy a couple of weeks ago. Now it's time to talk about my very rational, completely reasonable fear of dogs.

I know that what I'm about to say makes me a monster in the eyes of most people, but I want to say this up front: I think that the world would be a better, quieter, safer, more pleasant-smelling and more hygienic place if we rounded up every last dog and shot them and then shot them all again, just to be safe. Or better yet, we could invent some kind of gigantic food processor to do the job.

There, that's off my chest. Still reading? You think I'm a horrible man and you're just carrying on reading to see what other shocking thing I'll say so you can have the pleasure of being scandalized? Or is it because you secretly share my opinions?

I'll assume it's the latter.

Fellow dog-haters: the canine menace here is grave, particularly if you're on a bicycle. During the day, most dogs here are sleepily stupid. They can generally muster the energy and intelligence to get out of the way of motorcycles and cars, but because they can't hear cyclists coming, they assume we are nothing to be afraid of, and they'll dart out in front of us at random. In the evenings, they get a little spunkier and more territorial and they'll start barking at or even chasing bikes. One lunged at me with the clear intention of injecting rabies into my tender, unprotected ankle, from his filthy, scat-eating, dogloverface-licking noisehole.

I think we were chased about 5 times in the course of 190 km. Next time, I'm bringing bear spray. Don't think for an instant that I'm kidding. And I won't just spray the dogs who are actively chasing me; I intend to spray every dog I see as a preventative measure, including dogs that are pets, even if their owners are watching. Don't like what I did to Fido? Watch it, or you're next.

If only the Thais would eat dogs, like the Vietnamese and Chinese do. They'd clear this problem right up. Thais would probably love a capsaicin spray-soaked dog: nice and spicy. Maybe I'll start a new culinary trend by leaving pre-seasoned dogs lying helpless on roadsides across Thailand.

Apart from the dogs, we had a fantastic tour. We wound our way through rice fields and jungles, often on tiny but well-paved roads with virtually no traffic on them. It felt like the government of Thailand had built them just for us.

I am suffering from some equipment entropy, though. My tires have over 4,000 km on them and they're not doing such a good job of holding out glass anymore. I've got slow leaks in both tires now. It wasn't so bad when I just had to pump up one tire in the morning, and again halfway through a ride, but now I have to do it to both tires. It might be time to invest in some new tires before we do a longer tour.

Unfortunately, we won't be doing our long tour anytime soon. Work has reared its ugly head.

Late addition: anyone interested in the route we took can find a better map here. This map is one way only; this definitely isn't the exact route we took, and we took a different route back. Some of the minor roads north of Chiang Mai are confusing, and it's hard to tell exactly where we went. It was similar to this route, however.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Cock Mystery

Erin and I just realized why we can hear so many cocks crowing in the yard of the house two doors down from our guesthouse.

You really don't need to keep a lot of roosters to keep a good backyard laying operation running. Vancouver, which recently legalized keeping hens in the city, has made it illegal to keep cocks. And with good cause. If one of my neighbours kept roosters in their back yard, then at about five o'clock one morning they'd find me, my eyes bloodshot, my shirt blood-soaked, with a bloody prostrate cock hanging out of my mouth. (And that cock would be a rooster, and there is a substantial difference between "prostrate" and "prostate", you juveniles.) I'd go weasel on their asses. Because of their wanting to avoid my psychotic rage at animals idiotically shouting nonsense at dawn being acted out, Vancouver's backyard laying operations are not self-sustaining.

Anyway, all day long we're treated to a cacophony of cocks' crows. At first, I thought it was the neighbourhood's collective breeding force serenading us, but I gradually realized that it was really only coming from one direction, from the vicinity of a couple of the smaller, ground-oriented houses.

The neighbourhood we're living in is in the old town, back away from any major streets, in a maze of little laneways. The development here is a mixture of newer, three to five story concrete buildings, and older one- and two-story buildings, many of them wood.

Below is a photo I took three minutes ago. I'm sorry it's so shitty. It really is shitty, isn't it? The sun is setting, though, so if I wait any longer, it's only going to get shittier, and I can't wait until tomorrow to write this post. Anyway, it should give you the general idea; a few taller buildings, a lot of shorter buildings, all of which are crammed very close together with very little room for any kind of agriculture, be it rows of corn, watermelon trees, or chicken farms.

Just now, not fifteen minutes ago, we heard the reason for the roosters. The cocks' crowing was joined by the jabbering of excited gents. Men were gathered around in a circle in the adjacent yard shouting excitedly. A couple of cocks were also squawking excitedly. There was a cockfight happening. We couldn't really see the action, but when it was over, we saw one of the men carrying off a bird with its neck hanging limp.

It was a backyard cockfight. The cocks are being raised to slaughter one another. So now, to add to everything, when those cocks crow, I can't just feel annoyed at them; I'm supposed to feel sorry for them. What a bunch of assholes! It's like being held up walking down the sidewalk by a guy in a wheelchair; now you're going slowly and you can't even be pissed off about it, like you would be if an able-bodied person was getting in your way.

When we first arrived in Chiang Mai, I saw a poster I thought was hilarious. It said:

(Free wi-fi)

Yes, let's all go learn about cockfighting and watch some cockfighting, and while we're there, we'll check our email -- for free!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Elevation Profiles

We stayed out all last night drinking beer and playing pool with Kiwis, so our brains are much too stupid for work and our legs are much too weak for cycling. It's Sunday, so we can't go and see our teacher Sompop to learn Thai, and drinking more beer now would just lead to a repeat of this problem tomorrow, so there's nothing much to do.

I've spent this sunny Sunday mapping and worrying. Erin and I are going to go on our big cycling tour in a little more than a week, and I've been mapping out our route, planning how long our days are going to be, and reviewing the elevation profiles of each day.

It's frightening. For example, look at the elevation profile for the second day of the ride, from Makfa to Pai:

That's a total of 1500 meters of climbing. Big bang only knows how steep the Thai engineers built those roads, too. I mean, I can guess -- that hill that begins around kilometre 25, for example, climbs about 480 meters in about 7 kilometres for an average grade of about 7%. That's not so bad if every part of that hill is equally steep, but I'm guessing it won't be. I don't trust these guys as road builders anymore.

Not scary enough for you? Check out the profile for day 7, Mae Sariang to Hot:

That's 1805 meters of climbing in one day! We have to make it, too, because there are no hotels along the way.

We're in for a lot of climbing. Our tour will involve 9 days of cycling over a distance of 702 km with a total ascent of 10,424 meters. Mount Everest is only 8844 meters tall. It's hilly country out there.

On the bright side, we'll also get to descend 10,424 meters. Whee!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Gear Crisis Update

I think I've fixed our pump problem.

I went down to the only road bike store in town and found a couple of el-cheapo emergency pumps. These pumps were Giyo brand, which I've never heard of, but I've certainly come across this exact pump before. Back home, MEC sells these things under the brand Filzer, and I can truly attest that they are pieces of garbage. Erin had one of these things and the very first time I used it, the plastic handle twisted off in my hand. The pump was still awkwardly usable afterward, but it certainly wasn't any pleasure to do so.

MEC gave me a full refund on that pump. Now I own two more of the things and there's no way anyone is going to give me a refund when they break. But I seem to remember an old saying about beggars and choosers, and how they can't be the same guy, and seeing as how I'm a beggar in the pump department right now, I'll take what I can get.

I picked up two of these things at the bike store and told the non-English-speaking clerk in what I imagine was flawlessly intoned Thai, "I would like to buy two."

He responded with some tonal gibberish that I didn't understand at all because I don't speak Thai, which I later understood to mean, "I'll give you a better price if you buy two." He also might have said something like, "nine hundred," although I can't be sure.

So I multiplied the 550-baht marked price by two and said in perfectly-intoned Thai, "one thousand one hundred?"

He shook his head and walked to the desk to get a calculator. He typed in "1000" and showed it to me. I handed him a thousand and took my pumps.

All things considered, the Thai lessons are going quite well. The trouble is that when I speak Thai to people, for some reason they imagine that I'll be able to understand their response, which I seldom can. Thank the big bang for the honesty of the shopkeepers around here. If this had been Bangkok, or worse, the beaches in the south, they'd have let me bid up the price by several thousand baht, instead of giving me a discount for being stupid.