North Thailand – Evrim and Elif Yiğit Tour Journals, January 2, 2012
After my round trip between Kanchanaburi and Bangkok, I catch cold because of the air conditioner on the car and it takes two days to recover. Elif and I feel like we’re stuck in Kanchanaburi. Just 2 days before this, we went to Si Sawat and came all the way back. Now because of this illness we have to wait for 2 more days. If we’ll also reckon the train trips to Bangkok, we’ve been away from our bikes for nearly two weeks.
As I feel better, we proceed to north following a new and a more well-known road. Even if we had aimed to reach a village called Don Chang, we stop in a smaller village 20-30km before it. Wide and green garden of the school here seemed like a nice camping zone to us. Schools here are pretty green and classrooms are 50m away from the road, near the green field which’s as big as a soccer field. We try to find someone to ask if we can camp in the school but it’s altogether empty. We find someone in a house near the school. Even if the family there doesn’t speak English, they give us such a hearty welcome that we don’t have a hard time telling them about our problem. They mention that we can camp there and it’s secure but on the other hand they insist that we stay in their house. We prefer to sleep in the tent and not to disturb them. However showering in their house and eating dinner together provide us a nice camping experience. In addition, trying to speak with this family who doesn’t speak English improves our Thai. We note down new useful words immediately. They also secretly learn about what we’d like, get up early and buy the foods we like. These surprises makes Thai people quite more special for me.
Next morning, we take off early and give a little break in Don Chang. The owner of the cafe we went to, gives us lots of information about the road. He shows us the nice roads we may follow on a detailed map of Thailand of his and introduces us to a new Thailand experience. These roads are away from developed towns, where traditional life is dominant, where hotels cannot always be found and these roads present us a different Thailand, which only a few foreigners can experience. With his permission, we take detailed pictures of his map. We finish up our coffees and head to a small village called Ban Rai. There are lodgings in the village. However we start such a pleasant conversation with an English and Thai couple that we accept their offer to show us around and visit their home in the evening. As the first stop, we go to a temple 15km away. The temple had relied its back on the mountain and had faced the pool on the front. The mountain behind the temple resembles more a boulder. Its diameter is nearly 150-200m high, maybe a little more. Our English host warns us about the fact that the temple is in fact new but because of the climate, it got an ancient aspect in 1-2 years. His wife also tells us that we can spend the night in the temple if we’d like since his brother works there but they’d like to show other places as well. We go to the second must-be-seen place; a very small village, where Thai lady’s family lives. Here we participate to a party where they celebrate on January’s full moon once a year. In this part of Thailand, we feel lucky since we had a chance to attend a once a year event in Thailand. Because traditional events like this doesn’t always take place in guide books like Lonely Planet and only a few people may get lucky like us. We visit a couple of traditional houses among the village folks who started drinking in the morning. They know that it’ll appeal to me since I’m an architect. We enjoy to participate the dancing, accept the drinks they offer us and get tipsy at the village party. Here people are quite warm and since they drank a little, they treat us with ease. Even if we both had quite a pleasant time, since the family guiding us were worried of us to get bored, we go to their house before it’s late and prepare a nice dinner in the garden. Here we get our first warnings about camping and gather some interesting information about life in Thailand. First warning is about an animal which resembles the centipede in our country. The good news for the folks who want to have a journey here is that one doesn’t have to worry about scorpions, snakes, wild elephants or tigers. Because the most dangerous living thing here is this kind of centipede. Even if it’s not always deadly, it’s said to leave its victim immobile for 2 weeks and the worst thing is it has an offensive nature. According to these characteristics, it’s considered the most dangerous living creature here. I guess we both are lucky that we’ve never seen this thing before. I suppose the next creature kind we wouldn’t want to face is snakes. Especially the shiny colored ones and cobra snakes… However the most fatal and most unlucky to encounter among the living things are wild elephants. But since we mostly ride our bikes following the roads, we always stay away from the wildlife and consider ourselves as secure. Facing a tiger is said to be a great chance. Even if you may not survive in the end, very few people gets the chance to see a tiger in the nature in Thailand.
Next morning we get on the road a little late and after 45km we arrive to the thermal water near Thong Lang. It’s one of the best camping zones of us. After even a short bike trip, nothing can be compared to the joy of resting your body in a hot water of pool full of thermal water. In addition, they scent the pool here with interesting plant roots and flowers for us here. After that, an interesting camping comfort special to Thailand surprises us. There are resting zones which can be counted as a therapy. Even if these zones have concrete floors, ground is heated by hot water pipes underground. In this are, which gets cold in the evenings, finding a camping zone that’s heated below from the ground will only be possible in Thailand.
And the next day, we experience a pleasant camping again. After a long ride, we find out that there’s a lake near Rabam, which’s on the 3438 road after Lan Sak village. A girl we’ve met who knows English shows us the way and offers us not to camp immediately but have a picnic and after camp together in the evening. We accept her offer, go back to their house and buy a bunch of meat, chicken, fruits and vegetables from the evening market which we went by car. After a major barbecue preparation, we altogether go near the lake as a group of 10-12, set up our camp and arrange the barbecue. It’s an amazing politeness for the whole family to come with us and spend the evening with us near the lake in a tent. This country has been so generous for the last couple of days that it’s mostly more comfortable to camp than staying in an hotel room on an unfamiliar bed. As I get up in the morning, I find out that the family members who spent the night in a tent got pretty cold but their joy which never fades makes me forget everthing after a short while.
Next day our route directs to Nakhon Sawan. Unfortunately I forgot in how many days we completed the journey. I guess it may be 2 days but I can’t recall the roads in between. Maybe we got through it in a day. Nakhon Sawan isn’t such an interesting place for us. It’s a town of Thailand which has the most Chinese habitants and it hosts the biggest show for the Chinese new year celebration which will be held nearly in a week. Nakhon Sawan is quite a boring place to wait for the new year celebrations for a week. We stay there for 2 nights and rest, after that we proceed our tour from backroads. After spending the first day in Lat Yao near there, we camp in a resort near a waterfall in a village called Pang Sila Thong which’s 100km east of Umpang. Here people have a positive look for any resolution offer. If you want to take advantage of staying in a resort and don’t have much money, you have the chance to camp at night. Instead of paying 5 times more, you can lodge in a luxurious place in return for a small price.
Next day we go to a town called Kamphaeng Phet. Here we get encouraged from the short distance and want to proceed from narrower roads. Our first path goes through a forest for 10km and ends near a dam which I don’t know where it exactly is. The employees of the dam shows us where we are on a quite detailed military map. A page of the map I guess covers a 1-2km region and in order to understand such a detailed map, you have to be a survey engineer. As none of my cartographer skills could lead me somewhere, we go all the way back and follow our route to the town without being seducted by the narrow backroads. It’s a far more pleasant place for us after Nakhon Savan. There’s a national park near town. Sukottai historical park which I’ve been before and Khampeng Phet historical park here is said to be considered as a whole. With the historical park in Ayyutthaya, it’s one of the two parks of Thailand. I have to say that we had quite a good time there. There aren’t many foreigners and you have to drink your beer among local people, with the accompany of local pop music. Besides, there are activities you can participate during the day. We witness a strange celebration at a temple nearby. A religious ritual I guess held for young boys who turn 18 becomes an interesting memory of ours here. Coming across the doctor who we’d met two days before and had a little chat means that we’re slowly having an entourage here.
And slowly, we approach to the hardest part of our tour. Here, mountains have always been cunning. It’s hard to understand when you’ll start climbing and when you’ll have to proceed through a mountainous area for days while you’re on the road. Thanks to the computer, even if we know that only a couple of days of flat roads are left for us and small climbs will begin already, it’s not possible for one to see it coming until the last moment. As we were at the verge of completing our journey to Tak town, we decide to head through Mae Sot (Burma border) and shorten the road for the next day. 30km we have to get through becomes impossible to complete as suddenly the mountains show up. At last before it gets dark, we arrive to the edge of a waterfall in a national park tired and hungry. Even if the weather is nice, our camping zone 15km into the national park and near a river is ice cold. I don’t think that it ever gets warm in any time of the year. With one of the employees in the park we get on his motorcycle and buy some food and beverages from a diner 20km away. After a pleasant dinner in the evening, we sleep getting cold until morning. In the morning we have a nice breakfast at the same diner and find out that it in fact is a pizzeria. We’re lucky to find traditional food in a diner which probably belongs to someone who’d come from Italy and decided to live here. Because I’ve heard two different stories about food poisoning here. Both had been caused by western food. If you can relish the taste of Thai cuisine, it’ll offer you the cleanest and the most delicious food of the world. But if you insist on eating pizza, you’ll need to have a strong stomach for the pizzas prepared with cheese that no one ate and saved for weeks just for you.
After our local breakfast in the pizzeria, we begin ascending and approach to Mae Sot town. We benefit from a break at a noisy and a pretty beautiful temple at the top of a hill 10km away from the town. I have to explain the reason of the noise here. The temple is dedicated to a war hero in Mae Sot. During the war with burma, this hero had hidden on the hill, where the temple is right now. People entering or leaving the town honks to get permission of this hero as they pass by the temple. Just because of this, the temple is pretty noisy during the day. Besides, local people wish some things from this hero who’d been fond of pork head meal, and if their wishes come true, they prepare a feast of pork head meal in the name of this hero and eat altogether.
It’s a border town and according to what’s been told, it’s an exemplary city for Thailand. Because people of different religions and beliefs manage to live here all together in peace. I guess it’s one of the rare places where religion doesn’t unsettle people. Here we spend quite a pleasant time with a Turkish living here. Kaan had got married here and have been living here for a long time. He’d met his wife in Australia in school. It’s a pleasure for us to hear about Thailand from Kaan because he has an amazing ability of speaking and he’s quite intelligent. Which provides us to realize the details thanks to Kaan’s observations which not many people can figure out. Living in Burma border town gave Kaan the chance to follow both countries. Even if he doesn’t know about it, I don’t see a problem in sharing one of the stories he told:
Kaan is assembling satellite systems here and he has an old Canadian client. Canadian couple live here and her husband is a doctor. Even if he’s too old and he has a hearing problem, he still attends to operations here and works at the hospital voluntarily. One day Kaan goes to their house to install a satellite system. Doctor’s wife asks Kaan if it’s going to take longer since they have to go to the hospital, that there’s something wrong with her husband. Kaan says it won’t take long and finishes up in a short time. She comes again and asks if it’s finished. Kaan says that he’s done and shows her the channels. She listens carefully. CNN, CNBC-E, RTL and etc. When everything’s done, she says that they must go to the hospital and asks Kaan if he can help. Of course Kaan helps. However as all these calmly happen, the doctor was strucking with paralysis. She who has a patience of a doctor’s wife behaved so calm that as her husband was being struck with paralysis in there, she listened about the channels carefully and waited for Kaan to finish up to ask for his help. Surely Kaan feels so bad and says “think about it, as her husband is being paralysed inside, I’m telling her about the channels and she listened to me patiently.” This part of the story is quite interesting but as Kaan said, the real story continues in the hospital. Because there’s a part of speaking with the doctors and days for a Canadian doctor to spend in a hospital room in Thailand, listening several hymns that belong to Buddhism. This must have become pretty annoying for our suffering doctor. Thai people here are certain that you don’t know Thai, even if you speak Thai well -like Kaan- and insist on speaking in English. During daily life it’s possible to understand a bare English without “s,t,r,ş,ü,ö,j,ç” letters after 1-2 weeks. However if you’re about to explain the situation to a paralysed doctor with a hearing problem, you have to be able to pronounce the medical terms which aren’t commonly known perfectly. Surely in this situation the first attempt which’s to listen to the doctor’s English explanations doesn’t mean anything to anyone. As Kaan translates their conversation in Thai to English and doctor’s wife uses her instincts to guess the appropriate medical terms and does another technical English translation and shouts them out to the suffering doctor’s ear, the doctor understands the situation and gets more and more nervous. As a solution, they take the doctor to their home before he meets a worse problem caused by temper. After all these happened, everything remains as a sweet memory and as they laugh during the story-tell, I got the courage to share this with you. I hope this hasn’t sounded irrelevant to our tour to you. However instead of telling you constantly about our own experiences, I don’t see a problem here sharing cute stories that I heard from nice people which I don’t want to forget in the future. Now let’s go back to our tour from where we left and share some information about Mae Sot and its environs.
In the first place this is Thailand’s Burma border and people usually come here just to extend their visas. You cannot pass to Burma from here. In order to do this, you have to go to another city in Burma by plane from Bangkok. After that according to your visa, you can stay there for 1-2 months. Mae Sot isn’t a magnificent town but there’s a town called Umpang 130km south of it that’s considered as the end of Thailand which answered the question “where are you going” for us for a long time. Here Thailand’s biggest waterfall (I guess biggest mean the highest) can be found. Besides it’s a dead end here. Which means you have to ride for 140km and go all the way back again. As I open up the map, I realize that we could have reached here before days if we could have used that that road which comes to Umpung from a much shorter distance. However unfortunately that road have been disabled for years and the military doesn’t let anyone there. Just as a precaution 50km of that road has been blocked and if you work a bit more on the map, you’ll see that in order to reach this place 50km away, you’ll have to prolong your way for 300km more and there isn’t any other option. All these negations, shortage of time and Umpang not being as untouched as we supposed, discourages us to see Umpang.
As it’s time, I have to share some interesting information about Burma: After months, two cyclists we’re going to meet in Laos, will have done a long bike tour in Burma and after that they’re going to come to Laos through Vietnam, meet us and tell us their nice experiences to us. First fact is that all Burma people are pretty genial like the people we’d see in a couple of days in a taking shelter camp. Their first story; by chance, they meet one of the 318 cyclists in Burma. There aren’t many cyclists in Burma but all of them know each other. They have a strange communication network. And if you meet one of them, all others gather information about you, too. In this situation, in a town they recently arrived as settled down in an hotel a stranger knocks their door, says “hey I’m a friend of this certain cyclist, I’m a biker too, I found out that you’ve come here and searched for your hotel, if you need anything, I’d want to help.” and wants to meet them. This had happened a couple of times. And a couple more times they tried to reach them by phone and met each other. Second story; one of our cyclists made a huge mistake and left his bag which had all his money and his passport at a diner. As they arrive to the hotel and go to sleep the door knocks and a person of Burma waiting on the door with a wallet in his hand apologizes to be disturbing at a late hour, says that it took time to find their hotel and he brought his wallet.
I hope all these I’ve heard about doesn’t picture Burma as an odd country in your head. Because I’m considering about telling more bizarre stories. The first topic is money:
One: If you think as you anyhow can withdraw money in here, you failed in the first place. You cannot withdraw money in here. Bring dollars here with you. But if you randomly come here with dollars in your pocket, you failed again. You have to keep the money inside the pages of a book with the care of a stamp gatherer. Here it’s impossible to exchange a dollar even if there’s even a small folding on it. Because of this, strangers here exchange old and new dollars among each other time to time.
Two: Not every serial number is accepted. Since it’s much more possible for some serials to be fake, you cannot exchange those dollars in this country.
Three: If you’re exchanging $100, it means that you’ll get less money in return than a person that exchanges $50. Usually if you exchange a bigger amount, you’ll profit more but it’s totally the opposite here. Eventually the money exchange process lasts for an hour. Every detail is inspected. Every serial number gets checked. They’re counted for many times. And kept inside some special books with care.
Alright, this situation about money might have sounded usual to you and you can accept it as an extreme process on money fraud. Ok then let’s begin the second situation. Here, there’s a strange military regime. Which means a dictatorship regime. Which means one person’s life and thoughts may form all life in this country. I guess this person has belief in some superstitions. The episode goes like this; One day, our leader who had been shaken up because a fortune teller had told him that he’ll die in a car accident, gives direction his country’s faith with a latitudinarianism we’d like to see in all leaders. In a night, the traffic begins to flow from left instead of right. But the problem is that all cars in the country have steering mechanisms on the left side and goes from left. Even if this is secure for the pedestrians, it’s a great danger for the vehicles.
As the last one, money goes up on the stage again. Once Burma had had bills of 10, 30, 50, 80, 100. Even if you may not be able to see at once, there’s a great danger about these bills. Let me explain: 30+100=130, 50+80=130 as you see, such an unfortunate number comes out from their summation. Is this acceptable? Never! In a sudden, government legislates an act, issues new bills and disposes of the baleful bills. Now thanks to their new bills of 55, 85, 35, our dynamic dictator cannot be proud enough to have ensured a Burma in peace and security. Entire money system of the country being changed and furthermore for such a ridiculous reason will I guess be enough to amaze you. There’s no other oddness I know about Burma. But in such a short time, it became one of the places I want to tour by bike.
Mae Sot – Mae Sot Yang:
We meet with Kaan in Mae Sot again in the morning and have a breakfast. Kaan’s suggestion for us to eat is in fact a soup special to Burma. This soup is cooked with eggs and a yellow noodle type and a mix of green curry, coconut and milk is added after it’s cooked. I suggest you to tast this soup which you can encounter in many places in north Thailand. We continue our journey after breakfast and pass by a shelter camp constructed for the people of Burma near the road. You feel a deep sadness as Burma people can keep on being genial and smiling under such difficult conditions. Here is seperated from Burma by a high hill. Since the army of Murma couldn’t bomb this place behind the hill, people began to hide here and after some time, it became a shelter camp. Now its a couple of kilometers longer than its previous condition as people wait here for 2-7 years and move to other countries.
Even if Mae Sot Yan is a perfect village, you have to camp since there aren’t any hotels to settle in. However the village is like a 5-star hotel with its allover beauty and neatness. Grasses, houses, street are so neat and beautiful that one feels lucky to be able to stay here. As a settlement for us, they suggest a secure place. Garden of the police station. Here you can benefit from facilities like shower and wc, furthermore we can leave the camp and wander around the city as long as we want. Where we are is one of the less touristy places of Thailand. The beauty of towns, roads and people encourage us. You can go further to the most remote places of Thailand, you’ll never encounter anything unpleasant.
Next day our climbing course begins. We ride for approximately 100km, turn our backs to Burma with a last climb of 20km and proceed to Thailand’s hilly region. We are up on the mountains and 2 weeks of climbing is ahead of us. The view is magnificent but the day is going to end. Nearest settlement on the map is about 3 hours far. We head to a narrow forest path. It continuously leads us to a denser forest and it gets darker accordingly. Proceeding for 2 hours without encountering any settlements, a miracle happens and we see a village consisting of 5-6 houses 1km ahead of us. There’s a diner near the road in the village. English-speaking diner owner is a great chance for us. He helps us setting up our camp, shows us a place to shower and prepares the biggest portions of food I’ve ever eaten in my life with the accompany of a pleasant conversation. Even if we’re at an altitude of 1600m, the weather up on the mountain is so dry and mild that I think this must be the most comfortable camping area of Thailand. The sky was so clear and it was so dark around that the number of stars amaze you.
Next day even if there were descents, we have to climb for 1500m and after a tiring course we arrive to a town called Mae Sariang at the end of the day. It’s a nice town, however I’m not going to tell much about it since it’s a known town which you can gather the necessary information from the internet. But here we have to make a decision with Elif. Because there are two different paths going to Chiang Mai. First choice is what we’ve planned before; the road which’ll pass by Mae Hong Son region and last for approximately a week. Other is I guess shorter, around 120km. The shorter one passes from Thailand’s highest mountain and if we decide for this one we’ll have to climb up to 2565m and spend time at the temple on the top. Because it’s one of the most popular cycling courses. Every year a climbing race of 60km to the top of this mountain is being held. 1200 riders will be attending the race this year and it’ll be a special occasion. Because this year the record has been carried up to a serious level. A French cyclist who had had to take a break from the races because of using illegal drugs had come to Chiang Mai to continue his training. He completed the course in 2 hours 9min and slammed the 2nd for 20 minutes. In this case, it’s much more difficult to obtain a new record during the race next year. But Chiang Mai is a training zone for many cyclists. As I know, Singapore National Team who don’t have many hills in their country, Japanese and Korean National Teams who run away from cold during winter detected this town as a training region. Because of that, this one day race that’s being held on Thailand’s highest mountain will witness more challenge every year. Besides I guess everyone can participate in this race which takes place in November. If you happen to come around here in November, I recommend you to rent a bike and have a nice day with 1200 cyclists.
We choose the longer route and begin our journey that’ll last two days to Mae Hong Son, which can be considered as the capital of this region. In the middle of our journey, we stop as we notice a thermal spring. This will be our camping zone after the relaxing bath with hot water. As lunch, we buy uncooked eggs which were being sold in a basket and put the eggs in the hot water pool with their basket. 20 mintues later eggs are totally cooked and dinner is ready as in the evening we set up our tent near the hot water pool. This hot pool works as a heater for us in the evening and become a memory to us as one of the unforgettable camping places.
Mae Hong Song: Here is the central of this region. It’s possible to acquire the necessary information from the internet. It’s mostly famous because of the women living here wearing golden rings around their necks. These people are called long-necks and they’re conserved as a zoo here, and transformed to an entertainment for tourists. With the two people we’ve met in the hotel we go for a tour by bike around this village. None of us want to go into the village. However the course is so nice that even if you don’t go into the village by bike, it’s possible to have a good time. After that we climb to a temple on the top of the hill where you can see the town from above and enjoy the sunset. Mae Hong is definitely one of the places that must be seen in Thailand. Either the evening market and also its nature is quite necessary for you to have a nice time.
Our next aim is to reach the town Pai which’s in the middle of a mountain of an altitude of 1500m. We can guess that the route will be quite challenging. However unfortunately we don’t have enough information on the route. Sometimes luck becomes your major savior. As we’re having breakfast, we get lucky once more and two other cyclists come into the diner. They had ridden the roads we were going to take in a couple of days and came all the way down to here and they give us information about every kilometer of the road using their GPS documents. Furthermore, they give us the GPS prints as a gift which they’ll no longer make use of. We have to climb for a total of 2500m on the road before we reach Pai. After we pass through Pai, the total climb we have to accomplish is again 2500m in a 100km distance. And on both courses we have to climb with a serious incline from 200m to 1500m. I’d climbed easily from 0 to 1650m in 3-4 hours in Antalya (a town in Turkey) before. However Thailand is not Antalya and sometimes roads can be quite suffering. Inclines are a minimum of 10% and according to the GPS records I have, we have to get through bends of 30%. Which means gruelling roads lie ahead of us.
Pai: The town of marijuana users and rastafarians. It’ll be appropriate not to mention how popular it is. You’ll surely find out about it as you come here. But Soppong, which’s 45km before here is a perfect place for lodging. Even if it’s an unexplored place, it’s a much calmer and pleasant village to spend your time in. There are various caves around. I’m sure that the canoe trip you can do in one of them will be quite an interesting experience. We stayed in Jungle GH in Soppong. I believe that this is one of the most pleasant places of our tour. Here we had a nice conversation beside the fireplace with two Belgian girls we met here.
Chiang Mai is a well-known town and there’s quite much information about it on the internet. It’s one of the places to be seen. My sole recommendation is its Saturday market and it’s better to come here on a weekend.
It’s quite a pleasant road between Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai and there are fascinating national parks along the road. Even if we’d decided to complete this road in 2 days, we decided to stay in a charming national park we saw at the 30th km. This road is so smooth that without having a clue, I pace up to 80kmph as I descend. Before reaching to Chiang Rai, you must stop by the white temple on the road. People who come in Thailand visit so much temples that they don’t want to see any more temples through the end. But this temple is really special. Because of this, it’s a temple that you have to spend time in and especially you have to enter in. There’s detailed information in my previous bike tour articles about this temple. If you know how to comprehend the architecture, this temple which gives clues about Buddhism with its architecture, will reveal serious secrets about Buddhism.
We head to Laos after Rai. We arrive comfortable to Chiang Kong in a one day distance and with the wind blowing from behind, drink Thailand’s last beers watching Laos from the other side of Mekong and mentally get ready for a long lasting climbing course with the comfort of having completed Thailand’s Mae Hong Song region.
That’s all I’ll tell about North Thailand. I skipped some regions but I don’t think that it’s so big of a deal. Even if they are paths to be seen, I chose not to tell about those since it didn’t contain any difficulties and it’s quite easy to gather many necessary information.
See you soon in Laos,