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.

Chiang Mai to Samoeng to Chiang Mai

View Chiang Mai to Samoeng in a larger map

Erin and I just got back from our first tour. It was a little one-night practice tour. We learned some things.

We learned that Thai engineers don't grade roads the way that Canadian ones do. These guys aren't afraid of 12% grades. Today we went up the most ridiculous bunch of switchbacks I've ever seen.

I'm pretty organized about these rides we're doing. I plot them out on maps on the internet and I create route sheets with the distances noted so we know where to turn, because even if there is a sign for a road, it's rarely written in letters that are legible to us. My Thailand cycling cockpit contains a route sheet, my bike computer and a fuel tank full of bananas.

I also check out the elevation profile of the route to see just how much climbing we'll do, and where on the route the climbs are located. You can't budget time with a 2-dimensional map in the mountains, because there's a huge difference between 30 km/h on the flats and 9 km/h going uphill, and you need to budget time so you don't end up sweating your way up a mountain in the noonday sun.

We started a moderate ascent and I knew we were only a couple of kilometres from the second and final summit of the day. It was maybe 9 o'clock in the morning and we were nearly done climbing for the day. We were getting cocky. And the road was getting steeper.

And it got steeper and the road started switching back and forth across the side of the mountain. We'd seen some steep roads the day before, steeper than you'd ever see on a highway in Canada, but we hadn't seen anything like this. At home it's a steep hill if I drop down to 8 km/h. Today I was doing 5 km/h at times -- the speed of a brisk walk. When there were no cars around, I zig-zagged up the lane to try to lessen the grade for myself.

Finally, as we were approaching the summit, the mountain got less steep. So how did the Thai road-builders respond? Well, they scrapped the switchbacks and rammed the road straight up the slope, to maintain their ridiculously steep grade.

The second thing we learned is that it rains in Thailand, even in the morning, even at the beginning of the dry season. Fortunately, we had stopped for breakfast when it started, so we didn't get caught in it. If we had been riding, we'd have had to pull over and walk our bikes. It was coming down so hard we wouldn't have been able to see a thing.

If you have never seen a tropical rainfall, I have a statistic for you: last week it was recorded raining here 100 millimetres per hour. 100 mm! In an hour! For more than one hour! Vancouver gets 1150 mm of precipitation per year. That's like an average month's worth of Vancouver rain falling in one hour. No wonder it's flooding downriver from here; they've got to deal with all of our rain and all of their own.

When the rain stopped we got back on our bikes and we got wet and filthy. The skies had finished unloading, but the roads were still wet. We didn't bring fenders with us, because we decided we were going to be lightweight and super fast. Well, we are lightweight and super fast, but we're also soaking wet and super filthy.

The third thing we learned is that my pump is dead. My great little emergency pump, which looks cool, weighs almost nothing and worked pretty well considering its size, is dead. It can't get a tire's pressure above 60 PSI and we need 110 or 120. It was the only pump we brought. We're idiots. These little pumps never seem to last long, and this one's had to do a fair bit of work, re-inflating all four of our tires when we got off the plane, and topping our tires up every day. Then, on our first flat, it stopped working. It was tired, I guess. Fortunately, we were in town when it happened, but now we're pump-less. Time to go shopping.

The tour really was fun. We saw a lot of beautiful countryside, we rode well, and we abundantly rewarded ourselves for our hard work with Beer Chang. Right now I'm tired and I'm concerned about my equipment, though, so I'll leave off singing the praises of cycling for another day.

Late addition: anyone who is interested in the actual route we took, you can find it here. I won't swear that the plotted route north from Chiang Mai is the exact one we took, but it's pretty close.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Livin' is Easy

If anyone from the Thai immigration authority asks, Erin and I are most certainly not working.

But we've kind of been working. I don't think it's any kind of work that the Thai officials would be troubled with. It's not like our presence here is stealing jobs from hardworking Thais who would love to be editing our book for us.

Believe me, if I thought I could hire a Thai guy to do this stuff for us for 50 baht an hour, I'd hire him. The thing is, copyediting is an annoying job that makes professional writers like Erin and myself feel like English is our second language, because in the opinion of our copy editor, we apparently don't know the first thing about constructing a grammatical, non-passive sentence. Someone who grew up writing in a squiggle alphabet and only recently learned how to speak in non-squiggles would have a hell of a time with the barracuda we're dealing with.

It's not a bad place to work, this. We've got an air-conditioned hotel room with both wired and wireless internet access, and our lovely hosts have set us up with a table and second chair, in addition to the desk the room came with. We're surrounded by cheap restaurants serving delicious food and if we get up early enough, the weather is really pleasant for cycling for several hours a day.

We changed guesthouses a few days ago. We moved out of the ridiculously cheap, but somewhat dingy and gloomy guesthouse we booked over the internet before we arrived and moved into a much cleaner, much nicer guesthouse run by much friendlier people. It's almost as ridiculously cheap as the last one. Less than $350 a month. Score!

The guesthouse is located on a quiet little laneway in the old city of Chiang Mai. The lanes are open to vehicular traffic, but they're so cramped that people have no choice but to drive slowly, and the narrowness of the lanes make them nice and shady for most of the day, so they're very walkable, unlike the major streets in this town.

There's a nice mix in the neighbourhood of the tourist-oriented services we need, like the Irish Bar where we watched a Canucks game this morning, and more authentic Thai places, which are much cheaper, offer better food, and make us feel less like tourists and more like brave explorers.

The best places, though, are the ones in between: cheap places hoping to capitalize on the tourist trade by offering english-language menus and beer at any time of the day, but which are run by people without enough money to gussy them up and make them fancy and expensive. Our noodle soup lady's place is a great example of that:

Our neighbourhood has more than one street bar, which offer nice atmosphere, although they do expose you to some risk of being run over by a motorbike while you're having a beer.

I guess what I'm saying is, don't feel too sorry about us having to work in this paradise. We're still enjoying ourselves, and we're not exactly working full time. We managed to fit in a 75 km bike ride yesterday. I took this video so our moms could see how safe and pleasant it is to ride our bikes here.

At our Thai lesson yesterday, Erin and I learned how to ask in Thai, "where is Chiang Mai city?" Coincidentally, yesterday was the first time we ever felt the need to ask where Chiang Mai is. Unfortunately, we didn't go to our Thai lesson until about an hour after we finally found our way out of those winding country roads among the rice paddy fields and back to our guesthouse, so I had to ask the question with a lot of gestures. The woman I asked had no idea what I was talking about.

We did finally find our way back. We saw a lot of nice scenery while we were lost. On the downside, we didn't get back until almost noon, when the sun was getting damn hot.

Monday, October 25, 2010

How You Move a Bike From Canada to Thailand

So how do you get a bike from Canada to Thailand?

You might not be interested in the answer to this question, but I am proud of how I managed it, so I'm going to answer it anyway.

The answer depends on the bike. If you don't care much for your bike, or you think you can repair or replace it cheaply, you deflate the tires and trust it to the airline and let them take care of it. That's what the French guy I met at the oversized luggage pick-up area in the Bangkok airport did. One of his expensive-looking hydraulic cantilever brakes was messed up, but he seemed to think he could get it fixed in Bangkok. I've never even seen hydraulic cantilever brakes before, though, and I'm betting that the chap he talks to at the bike shop in Bangkok hadn't either, but I wish him luck.

So what do you do if you love your bike and would rather have someone step on your left nut in work boots than see it damaged by some luggage-tossing simian? Well, you spend some money and you buy a stout box to put your bike in.

Shopping for a bike box is a difficult process. They're not exactly a common purchase and they take up a huge amount of storage space, so most bike shops don't carry them. The few that deal with them at all do it by special order only, so it's pretty hard to even look at one before you buy it.

In Vancouver, I found only one shop that carried them. There were two problems with the boxes they carried: they cost about $500 each and they weighed 35 pounds. The airline we flew has a maximum luggage weight of 50 pounds per piece for coach passengers, and they charge you one (1) arm and one (1) leg for every pound over. This box was going to be an expensive option.

So I did some extensive internet shopping for cheaper options and found that virtually every bike box costs $500, plus or minus about $50, except for one. A US bike store chain had something called the Team Bike Case, which was on sale for $199. Some of the product reviews suggested that it wasn't the best case and that the latches are difficult to use, but it was less than half the price of a good case, it weighed only 25 pounds, and it definitely beat using a cardboard box, so I bought them. Including shipping, I got both of them for about $500.

Then you've got to rip your bike apart. You pull off the wheels, the handlebars, the rear derailleur, the pannier rack, and your pedals. Nobody can offer you a definitive answer on how to pack your bike. Every bike and case combination is different. The important things are that everything fits, that everything is securely fastened in place, that any surfaces that might rub are padded, and that nothing is vulnerable to being crushed.

This is what Snakeslayer looks like in his box:

And here's Erin's as-yet unnamed Velo Orange Randonneur:

The box, the bike and the packing material weighed just under 50 pounds in each case. We got these things on to our Cathay Pacific flights from Vancouver to Bangkok for no extra charge. The jerks at Bangkok Airways charged us about $60 in excess weight charges, though, because their limit is 30 kg per passenger.

Your bike might look different when you tear him or her apart and take him or her to Thailand. The important thing is that you get him or her there undamaged, which we did. We had some minor brake issues with Erin's bike, and I managed to screw up putting Snakeslayer's rear derailleur back on, which resulted in me riding up Doi Suthep (the mountain with the monastery we're using as a training ride) for the first time without my bottom gear working. I didn't realize it wasn't working -- I just thought the road was really steep.

There, we've indulged my bike geekery. Tomorrow I'll get back to being entertaining.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fish Spas

A minor miracle occurred immediately after my last blog post. Erin came back to our room after her interview and suggested that we pretend to sleep. It worked. We slept for another four or five hours and it was after 9AM when we woke up! It was like we were normal people from this time zone. We'd finally left Kamchatka.

Then a minor catastrophe occurred in our professional lives, which will prevent us from doing any bike tours for the next few days. I don't want to talk about it.

Instead, let's talk about fish spas.

Erin and I have noticed two major changes in Chiang Mai since we were each last here more than 7 years ago. First, you can now easily find a decent cup of coffee here. You used to have a choice between instant coffee and no coffee. The U.N. must have air lifted several dozen espresso machines in a humanitarian mission to save these poor, coffee-starved people, because now there are coffee shops everywhere.

Second, there are now fish spas all over the place. I know what you're thinking, because that's what I thought too: a fish spa is somewhere a fish goes to get a back rub and then sit in a sauna for awhile, right?

Well, it turns out that's not quite it. A fish spa is somewhere humans go to soak their feet in an aquarium full of fish. And they pay money to do it.

We saw several of these beauties before we actually saw someone using one. But people do use them, like this guy, who was laughing as hard as we were.

I guess the fishies tickle your toes for you.

I am only scared of three things: fish, dogs and entropy. I find the idea of a fish spa simultaneously horrifying and terrifying. It's twhorrifying. The whole reason I'm reluctant to swim in a lake is that there are fish down there who might brush against my feet. And these people pay money to put their feet in a bucket of water because they're guaranteed that fish will touch their feet? It just doesn't make any sense. It's like deliberately owning a dog as a pet, or dancing just for the sake of dancing, even though you know you're decreasing the amount of order in the system and hastening the universe's inevitable heat death.

Western civilization has reached a new level of decadence. We now fly halfway around the world to eat banana pancakes, complain that the "English breakfast" isn't like it is back in England, and stick our feet into a pail containing the slimy sworn enemy of decency and progress: the fish.

141 years from the first American transcontinental railroad to this. 107 years from the first manned flight to fish spas. 122 years from the invention of pneumatic bicycle tires to fishy foot baths.

1911: Amundsen reaches the south pole.
2010: Norwegian tourist pays more money than it costs to get a nice meal and a beer to stick his feet in a bucket of fish.

1943: Jacques Cousteau pioneers the use of the aqua-lung, the first scuba gear.
2010: some French tourist decides to simplify the process by bringing the fish up here instead of battling them in the briny depths like Cousteau did.

This isn't just a case of fraternization with our fishy enemies; this is social entropy.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Mekong is a Thai whisky that isn't quite as good as Canadian Club, but is also not quite as good as V.O. or Royal Reserve or Black Velvet or... what do they have on the gun down at the Legion? Whatever it is, it's a little better than Mekong whisky.

Erin and I were having a beer at a bar at the night market last night, fighting off our urge to go to bed immediately and speculating about what impossibly late time it might already be. Was it 7PM yet? It must have been. (It wasn't.) It was getting so dark and sleepy in that market.

We looked over and saw the bartender and her helper pouring four shots of Mekong whisky. We thought this odd, as we were the only ones at the bar and we sure hadn't ordered it. Maybe somebody in a nearby market stall had ordered shots of whisky for delivery.

The bartender put the shots on little plates, and then she dished about two mouthfuls of fried rice into each of four tiny bowls and put them on the plates with the whisky. A drink and a little snack? What, was this some kind of exotic Thai drink, where you shoot the rice and then shoot the whisky? Or do you mix the two together in your mouth before you swallow them?

"What's that?" I asked.

"For Buddha," she said. "We put in little --" she mimed a little roof.

"A small wat," I suggested. (A wat is a temple.)

She nodded.

My exquisitely delicate cultural sensitivity was the only thing that prevented me from asking the follow up question: "Does Buddha like Mekong?"

I am very curious to know the answer to that question. Jesus' blood tastes a lot like wine, so you know that guy must tipple. Maybe he and Buddha hang out at the bar together, slugging back shots of Mekong. Vishnu would make a great bartender. Muhammed would be a total drag to have around, though. Twelve wives and not a drop of booze in the house, followed by an afterlife with 40 women who don't know what they're doing in bed and not a drop of booze in all of paradise. Talk about a grim worldview.

Erin and I dragged our asses through the night market for some half-hearted shopping and then took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. We were proud of having stayed up so late. Then we found out it was 8:30.

Naturally, I was up at 3:30 again this morning. This isn't really jet lag. It's not like I'm a walking zombie during the day; I'm a well-rested, normally functioning cyclist and tourist during the day. I just happen to like to go to bed at 8:00 and then wake up at 3:30 in the morning. If I was in Kamchatka, I would be totally normal.

Erin and I went for a ride back up that fun mountain yesterday. I've posted photos below.

Right now Erin is interviewing someone in Canada for a story she needs to finish up. She also woke up at 11:00 last night for another interview. She's probably going to be totally wrecked, because she doesn't deal with sleep deprivation too well. However, we've decided that if she's feeling up to it, we're going to bike a two-day loop through Samoeng, west of here. We'll bring the camera so we can post more awesome full-colour photos like these ones.

Fuelling up for the ride. Spicy basil fried chicken for breakfast? You bet!

The climb. This was one of the rare times Erin was behind me, getting a load of this view. She's a faster hill climber than I am, I suspect largely because she's not carrying the luggage you see here.

The descent. Zoom!

Erin and our beautiful bikes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

First Ride!

Got up at 4:00 in the morning again. I'm glad my body adjusted so accurately and regularly to an Asian time zone; I just wish it was this time zone and not the time zone of the Kamchatka peninsula. Seriously, I had to make an adjustment of 10 hours and I fell about 3 hours short.

I went for my first ride yesterday. I went west out of Chiang Mai and up to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, which is a temple up on the side of a mountain. It was a big climb -- something like 670 meters. Several Thais who passed me on the way up looked at me like I was crazy. Then on the way down I passed several cars and motor bikes. The road is nearly perfectly paved and it's incredibly windy; not too many vehicles can corner like a road bike. I blew their doors off. The locals were probably looking at me like I was completely psychotic, but I couldn't see their faces on the way down.

I had about as much fun as I've ever had on a bike before, going down that mountain. The best part about the ride is that the temple at the top is a destination for pilgrims and tourists, so it's surrounded by people selling food, drinks and tat. You can get a little bottle of ice-cold freshly squeezed orange juice for about 65 cents. It's like a frozen, sugary little angel pissing on your tongue after a climb like that. Gorgeous. It's the little pleasures that make existence worth enduring, but sometimes you have to suffer for them to get the full effect.

Cycling here isn't nearly as harrowing as you might think it would be. The roads are chaotic, but the flow of traffic is generally pretty slow in the city -- between 30 and 50 km/h on most roads. That means that most people are only going maybe 10 km/h faster than me, so they're not blowing by me at terrifying speeds. Drivers here are also used to driving in mixed traffic, with hundreds of little motorbikes buzzing around at speeds varying between half and twice the speed of traffic, so people tend to be very aware of what's going on around them. Out on the road, I'm basically just another motor bike. The only problem is the clouds of soot some of the older trucks belch out when they change gears or climb hills. I probably won't get run over, but I might get lung cancer from riding here.

Apart from the few people who pedal around the city here, there aren't many other cyclists. I saw a couple of locals climbing Doi Suthep, a few trucks full of mountain bikes and lazy tourists being driven to the top of the mountain, and I spotted two farang (foreigners) in snazzy lycra costumes on road bikes. We found that there's one shop in town that deals in road bikes, which could save our whole trip if we happen to need parts or repairs.

Erin and I are planning a big tour sometime in November and it's going to involve a ridiculous amount of hill climbing, so we need to train a bit. I'm going back up that big hill again today and this time Erin's coming along. When the sun comes up, we'll probably each have two breakfasts of rice soup and then hit the road. Rice soup is reasonably delicious, but one bowl of that stuff isn't going to push a bike any distance.

In other news, we found a better guesthouse, which we're going to move to in a few days, and Erin and I signed up for a Thai language course. We just booked one lesson, so we can try it out and decide whether it's even possible to learn this crazy language.

I promise we'll bring a camera with us today, so I can show you what some of this stuff looks like.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Arrived in Chiangers

Erin and I have safely and successfully arrived in Chiang Mai after what was one of the least painful crossings of the Pacific I have ever pulled off. Hooray for scientific drinking! I never got anywhere near drunk, but I never had any trouble falling asleep when I needed to.

The layover in Bangkok involved very little laying. In fact, it involved a fair bit of running. We couldn't check our luggage through, so we had to clear immigration, wait for our oversized bike boxes (photos to come), clear customs (who were satisfied after asking a one-word question: "Bikes?"), get through the airport with our ridiculous burden of 180 pounds of bikes, bike boxes and luggage, and then check into our flight to Chiang Mai all in a span of 80 minutes. I'm pretty sure our flight was late because they were waiting for our bikes to get onto the plane.

But we made it, and we're in the pink. We've checked into a hotel that offers extremely reasonable weekly and monthly rates (think $250 a month) and we've already got our bikes unpacked and reassembled. They appear to be in excellent shape. Just seeing my beautiful bike in Thailand was enough to give me butterflies. I can't tell you how excited I am to get out there and tear-ass among the rice paddies.

I'm not sure when the cycling is going to start, though. We'd been here in Chiang Mai, in the dry season, for no more than an hour when the sky opened up and unloaded a foot of rain. We were exhausted but we were starving, so we went out in the rain and got completely soaked looking for a restaurant. Our wanderings actually involved a fair bit of wading. The drainage here isn't exactly awesome.

We found some amazing food, had a couple of beers, and at about 6 PM Erin declared that she was feeling fine and she'd be able to stay awake until at least 9 o'clock. She was in bed by 7:30. I lasted maybe another hour.

So Erin's been up since 3 AM. I lasted in bed for maybe another hour. We're both starving, but I'm sure that nowhere we could get breakfast is open yet. It's going to take another day or two to adjust.

Oh, and it's still raining. I won't be surprised if there are gondoliers going up and down the streets when we get out there.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Secret to the Airport

I have uncovered the secret to Vancouver International Airport.

I've noticed in past passings-through of this airport that there is absolutely nothing open in international departures after about midnight. Well, nothing that serves alcohol in anything other than a Duty-Free bag, that is.

Oh, I know: poor Benny the drunk can't get any booze until he's on the plane. Cry me a river.

Yeah, yeah. This is actually serious. If I just wanted a drink, not being able to get one wouldn't be that big a deal. This is much more serious a matter than that. We're talking about an airborne sleep strategy that's at stake. I have a scientific program of drinking and not drinking that allows me to cross the pacific and wake up fresh as a daisy and in the proper timezone on the other side. A little thing like not being able to get a drink at midnight while I'm waiting for my flight can screw the whole thing up and bang, I'm up shit creek and jet lagged like all the rest of the poor stiffs on the flight who don't know how to drink strategically.

But I've fixed it. I've finally learned the secret.

I'm sure many of you know the secret, but I've been a religiously cheap traveller for years, so excuse my ignorance of what money can do.

I've learned that for $35, you can get into the China Airways lounge and drink (or not drink) as much as you can (or can not) swallow, at any time of the night. I've learned that if it's late at night, you can get in for $20. And I've learned that if you confuse the nice man at the counter, it gets cheaper than that. And the best thing is, if you only have time for one beer, they'll only charge you for one.


Oh yeah. What am I weblogging for? Erin and I are on the road again. It's super exciting. I'm super excited. I'd convey it better if it wasn't 2AM and I wasn't strategically drinking. We're going to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to hang out and write a bit. The best part: we brought our bikes! We're going to cycle all around northern Thailand!

More later.