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.

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