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?

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