2009/01/20: Chiang Mai 104 km
2009/01/21: In Chiang Mai
Yesterday was a bit too much like eating nails for breakfast. A day of mileage that was not high on aesthetics, because there was no back road option. Highway 11 isn’t bad, though, with its motorbike lane and reasonably spaced roadside vendors. There were several passes including one to 2,200 ft. People honk at us cheerfully as we slog up, although I must say I am quickly tiring of honked greetings and calls of “Hahhlooo.” Sometimes I get a real kick out of trotting out my five word Thai vocabulary as we buy bananas and “Birdy Ice Coffee” in cans, but it can be tiring being public spectacle number one. This is why early stops and rest days are needed. The quiet times spent reading and researching our next moves in clean and functional rooms help us keep a long term balance.
We haven’t seen any other long-haul cyclists yet. Only a few helmeted Thais in bike shorts on a Sunday, a few Westerners on rented mountain bikes carrying small back packs from town to town, and the Aussie group with their sag wagon.
Yesterday, while slogging uphill, Chris made an open-mouthed face to express effort at a highway maintenance worker, who laughed so uproariously he almost dropped his paint roller. As we reached the top of the pass, the honking increased. I realized they weren’t cheering especially for us (though I thought they should be) but they all honk loudly cheering for themselves as they reach the top under internal combustion power. It was not an insignificant summit.
A Typical Day on the Road
We like to start early when it’s cooler, and leave more time for finding accommodation at our endpoint. Watches beep at 5:45. We eat dried bananas, fresh fruit, or whatever we have before starting. Some days we have set out on empty stomachs. We start pedalling by 6:15 and scout for a second breakfast or snack as needed. Roadside vendors are usually in full swing by 8:00. Lunch is at 11:00 or 12:00, and sometimes we find a room again shortly afterward, having covered as much as 80 km by then. Sometimes we hole up in a bus shelter, under a tree, or at a gas station rest area till it is cooler, and pedal on at 3:00 or so. In farming areas, many locals are also resting on their porches or threshing platforms at this time.
I have learned the word for hotel, but we’ve learned that the word for bungalow is almost the same in Thai as in English, and is more indicative of what we want. It often gets us something I’d think of as a motel, and we can roll our bikes right into the room without having to remove panniers. We actually prefer these places which are geared toward travelling Thais, rather than “guest houses” with signs in English. We are left alone a little more.
Once someone has understood our question, they are so helpful that they feel a responsibility to see us sorted out, even if this means leading us up side alleys and around corners for some distance on their mopeds. Everyone is very kind, including the traffic policemen who can draw good sketch maps that get around the language barrier. There are special Tourist Police in Thailand, but not in any of the small places we generally stay.
With five tones, long vowels, and challenging nasal sounds, Thai is a difficult language. We get by with my 5 or 6 words, sign language, smiles, and quite a bit of wai-ing. A wai is the traditional bow or nod with hands together. It can be a greeting, farewell, or thanks. I think I managed to use it once to say “I’m very sorry I parked my bike against your garage door. Please forgive me. I am only an ignorant falang.”
Some of the English transliterations are a bit strange. The restaurant in Sukothai that we went to with the Aussies was called “Poo”. The funniest part wasn’t the name itself, but the fact that one of the Aussies was so horrified by it that she couldn’t bring herself to say the name aloud. There is a big fancy Porn Ping Hotel here in Chiang Mai. Ping is the name of the local river. We wonder who chose the other part of the name and why.
All the places we have stayed have posted prices, and we can see that we’re not being charged more than the Thais. There has been no need to bargain, though know this will be necessary in China. For any other purchases we’ve made, change is always correctly and carefully counted as it’s given to us. We usually throw a small chain around the bikes when we move away from them, but lots of decent looking mountain bikes are left unlocked and there has generally been a feeling of safety.
Chiang Mai makes us a bit more wary, though. As we arrived, the “attentive hostesses” (as advertised) outside a bar were very open about what they were selling. I know that some of the Thai Massage parlours may be legit, but I’m not sure how to tell legit from the rest. I suspect the ones I’ve seen here in Chiang Mai are mainly “the rest”, and are supported by many of the plump and pasty-looking Westerners who come here.
I’d love to see some roaming more or less freely, but that is unlikely to be. I understand they were trained to help with logging the teak forests, and when logging was stopped many mahouts took their elephants into Bangkok as a gesture of protest. Some still live in unhealthy urban quarters and beg for bananas on the streets.
There are various conservation projects geared towards elephants, but it is hard to distinguish these from “training centres” that turn out circus elephants. I guess being a circus elephant is a better life for a pachyderm than begging for bananas in Bangkok, but somehow a visit to a training centre just doesn’t appeal. I also have doubts about tours to see hill-tribes of people who have long necks or large ears. I hear the hill tribe villages have become more like theme parks.
Margo the cynic, ready to leave Chiang Mai tomorrow.