First hills

Publié le par Sylvie

Chiang Mai - Chiang Khong ... 28/11 - 04/12

It has been a week since we last saw Dimitri. We follow Roland's advice and follow the river Ping instead of cycling on the 'highway'.  It is much quieter but at some point we have to take small roads going West to cross the river as our road goes to far East. All road signs are in thai, Farangs are probably expected to use the main road. We ask some people but it'sa bit too late. The road finishes at a water-lock surrounded by beautiful gardens, how odd! We get back a few km and finally find the bridge. A Tesco Lotus attracts our eyes but once again, we resist the temptation and only get oat flakes. We left late, at about 8:30 and we wasted some time with our small detour. It is getting very warm but we can only carry on. In Chiang Dao, we turn on a small path that goes up and down. All the guesthouses are here and Dimitri is in the last one. The scenery is beautiful and quiet but tourists groups have spoiled the place. Prices are terribly expensive compared to Chiang Mai so we decide to get a bungalow with bathroom outside. The evening is spent talking about what we did the previous week. Dimitri went to Pai. He didn't know it would be so hilly, he had to push his bicycle ... which means we would have probably sat on the side of the road and cried! We have dinner with a Dutch and a German who have a good sense of humour. We could nearly forget the noisy group of Americans at the table next to us.

Our next stop is Tha Ton, a small town close to the Burmese border. At last, we are getting into the hilly areas of Thailand. Sylvie still finds long ascents difficult so Ben and Dimitri brief her: 'Today, there will be two ascents of 8 km each but after that there is a great descent.' Actually the countryside is so green and luxurious, with beautiful views on the nearby hills, that we don't really feel the slopes. And the descents are such a rush of adrenaline! We go slower than on a straight slope but it is so much fun! We are almost impatient to get a new ascent so as to ride another descent. We have lunch in a small town and we are about to leave when a foreigner arrives on a motorbike. He is Norwegian and has been leaving here for several years. A few km further, we catch up with another cyclist. Cool! Dimitri recognises her and is surprised. He met her in Pai and she asked him a lot of questions but without telling him she was a cyclist too. She is actually a solitary cyclist. She stops to get some food, we carry on and when we meet her again in Tha Ton, she waves at us and goes her own way. As we have noticed several times, it is not because people are cyclists that we necessarily get on well with them. The temperature is getting cold and we have dinner on the river bank wearing a warm jacket and a trouser. We are about to go to bed when a woman gets out of the room next to ours and says: 'Be shy please!' Shy? She has a slight accent, she probably didn't use the right word. A big ginger cat is sitting on our doorstep as if he was waiting for us. Does she mean he can turn aggressive? 'Be quiet' she says seeing our puzzled faces. Well, why would be noisy? She is a Czech guide and is taking a group around Thailand. Her French is good even though she says she only studied it a few years. She asks us about our travels and suddenly turns to Sylvie: 'So which one are you with?' Faced with such frankness we burst out laughing. No one has ever asked us so far! True, when we are not on our bicycles it is difficult to guess who is with whom...

When you read us, you might think we leave like Robinson Crusoe. But there is TV in most places we stay. We follow day after days the increasing number of victims in Mumbai. It is quite depressing, especially as we know most of the places. We left for south India from Victoria station, we had a coffee and a delicious cake at the Taj Mahal Hotel, now disappearing in the flames and we had lunch several times at the Leopold café. The crisis in Thailand is affecting us more. For the moment, the demonstrations are mainly happening in Bangkok airport. We really hope this will be resolved quickly. We pity the tourists stranded in the airport but there is worse than Thailand to be stuck!

We charter a boat via the owner of the guesthouse, to go down the river Mae Nam Khok up to Chiang Rai. We could ride but we love to see the countryside while we float on the water. We load the three bicycles in a dugout painted in bright colours. The Thais want to help us. But throwing the panniers in the boat is not great for the balance of the boat (and for our stuff). We quickly stop them so that Ben and Dimitri can properly tie up the three bicycles while protecting the derailleurs. The boat is very low and we wouldn't like to see one of the bikes falling into the water. The boat is quite narrow, not as comfortable as the big boat we took on the Mekong. But the sensations are stronger. The pilot asks us to sit so as to balance the weight. We stop a few times on the way but it is more to stretch our legs than for pleasure. We stop in a Lahu village, one of the minorities in Thailand. We have just got into the village that a man walks towards us: 'Bags, souvenirs...'Then he turns to Dimitri, the bachelor, points to two girls and makes a sign with his fingers. He is actually 'offering' these girls to Dimitri. We can't believe it! How can they be so desperate? The next stop is at a hot spring. Except for the fumes and the smell of rotten egg, there is not much but at least there is nobody else. Then we stop at a so-called 'elephant camp'. We assume it is a place where they train and look after the elephants like at the centre near Lampang. Instead, ten or so elephants are made to stand in the sun. A few of them are coming back from a walk in the river with some happy tourists on their back. One of them is rocking its head back and forth, he doesn't seem to like the show. Another disgusting sight of the rampant tourism, big snakes looking like pythons are locked up in wooden cages. We are asked if we want to hold them and get a picture! We feel ashamed to be foreigners. Luckily, the trip on the river is great, lots of beautiful sceneries and the rapids spice up the cruise. When the river flows faster, the pilot accelerates and edges his way between the rocks. He is talented and after a short time we feel we can trust him. A few hours after we left, he stops next to the river bank. We fail to see anything remotely touristy around: 'What is there to see?', 'It's Chiang Rai' he says. He is right, we get on our bikes and within a few minutes we are in the centre of the city.

Strangely enough, prices are higher than in Chiang Mai. A lot of people come to the north of Thailand for 'trekking'. We stay in a hotel with breakfast included and let me tell you, we all made it worthwhile! Ben and Dimitri compete for the biggest toast eater. We meet again the American couple on a tandem we met in Tha Ton. They are travelling for a month in Thailand. We spend two quiet days in Chiang Rai. There isn't much to do so we write a few Christmas cards. Except from a wonderful teak temple, there isn't much to see. In the evening, the night market is THE attraction. We pass a few western restaurants (pasta, steaks, pizza), quite tempting for people who have only been eating Thai food for the past month. But we resist, the night market is much cheaper (yes we know, it is a leitmotiv, being careful with money). The food on the night stalls is rather varied: spicy tom yam soup, rice broth, nems, fried fish and shrimps, papaya salad, fresh fruit smoothies ... and even fried insects! The idea of swallowing six legs and two antennas isn't really mouth watering but Dimitri is dying to try... that's it he can finally call himself an insectivore. On the last day, Dimitri meets again Trish, an Australian cyclist he has met in Pai. She is very friendly. She likes to travel alone but we hope she will catch us up at the border so we can all cycle together in Laos. Sylvie wouldn't mind some girlie chat. We have dinner with a solo German traveller. She used to travel with her husband but now she is alone and it doesn't look easy. We understand people who travel alone, it can be hard, we already think it is sometimes difficult to travel when there are two of us, so alone...

The next morning we are about to leave and who do we see? Trish and an old German cyclist. Birgit has been cycling around the world for a year, alone, and she had quite a few adventures in Central and South America: robberies, aggressions, it is really nasty especially as she is old and alone. On top of that, she doesn't speak English and she is nearly deaf! We leave it to Trish to take her to the internet café and we leave. But just as we leave the hotel's yard, Sylvie shifts gears and 'klong', the chain changes chainring brutally and derails. Ben comes to help her and notice that a tooth of the medium chainring is broken and what is left of it is bent. We look for a cycle shop for tools. A girl lends us a file and pliers. The boys spend a good 10 minutes but at the end, the tooth just looks like one of the short teeth of the chainring (they help the chain go from one chainring to another). In the meantime, Dimitri has spotted some clipless sandals that fit him like a glove. He tries to bargain but the girl is tough. Well, it is still half cheaper than in France. He is lucky, when Dimitri sent his Shimano shoes home, Ben took his cleats 'in case'. Well, here we are! Dimitri takes his cleats back thanking Ben for having carried them all the way since Iran! We finally get on the road at 11am. And we wanted to leave 'late' at 9am... The road is easy. At about 1pm, we start to be hungry so we stop in a small restaurant. As usual there is no menu so we point at the noodles and try saying 'no meat' in Thai but our accent is probably not good enough. The first plate arrives with meat, that's for Ben. We would like to finish the meal on a coffee but the woman doesn't serve any. We find some small '3 in 1' packets in the shop on the other side of the road but there is no hot water grrrrr ... Back to the restaurant where the woman gives us three cups of hot water, mmm a coffee just after lunch is great! A Thai woman who is having lunch starts talking to us. She lives in Bangkok where she owns a photography shop and she has come here to sell some lands. She tells us she learnt magic in Mongolia. We find it a bit strange to go that far to learn magic and we ask her where exactly she learnt it but we can't get the name of a city. Dimitri volunteers to try her magic for a symbolic baht. He writes three things he wants to know the future about, on a piece of paper. He then crumples it and lets it fall a few times on a grid drawn on a paper by the woman. 'Magically' the woman tells him exactly the three words he wrote on the paper! Of course she predicts him a brilliant future. We are surprised, how did she guess? Sylvie is next and again her words come out exactly as she has written them on the paper. Ben now wants to try. His cartesian mind is burning to find out what is behind this magic. Indeed, he finds out that the woman manages to swap the crumble piece of paper. The client is given a blank paper and the woman unfolds the paper with the words behind a sheet of paper on which she pretends to write the results. So that is why she had even reproduced the spelling mistake Dimitri made! After all these unexpected events, we arrive in Chiang Saen by night.

There aren't many guesthouses. We go to the one on the bank of the Mekong, renowned for being noisy but with a room overlooking the garden, we should have a quiet night. We meet Carole, an English cyclist, who is over 60. We admire her, a solo woman traveller at her age! Funnily enough, she was initially cycling with the English cyclist we met on the road to Tha Ton. They met on internet for this trip in Thailand. But after four days, Carole couldn't  take it anymore and they went separate ways. The other woman was used to travel alone and had taken bad habits: she would order Carole's meals without asking her, she would ride in the middle of the road when Carole was going faster to prevent her from overtaking and she was particularly unpleasant. When Carole told her she was leaving her, the other woman said: 'But you are not going back to England? How will you manage? You can't even read a map!'...

Carole is staying another day in Chiang Saen to visit. It is a shame because we will cycle the same route in Laos. We might meet up again in Louang Prabang. The dinner at one of the stalls on the bank of the Mekong is delicious: grilled fish in a salt crust, sticky rice, fried rice with vegetables...

The road to Chiang Khong, our last town in Thailand, goes along the Mekong. You would expect a road going along a river to be flat, especially when this river is going down... another preconceived idea that gets shattered. The first 40 km 'undulate'. From the start, we notice a sign that says: 'Youth hostel and restaurant'. What a motivation, lunch on the Mekong, how relaxing it would be! The hostel is truly beautiful, a wooden house surrounded by blossoming gardens and a great view of the Mekong. Unfortunately, the prices match the beauty of the place, nearly four times more expensive than usual. Never mind, we find a small restaurant 10km further. The khao pat (fried rice with vegetables) is so good that Ben and Dimitri order a second plate straight away. We carry on along the brown ribbon that is the Mekong and the road starts to meander, bad sign. Indeed, the road climbs up several times, with slopes steeper than 12%, but we pull 6 push on the pedals and even at 3.5 km/h, we stay on our bicycle. Hooray! This is the steepest we have climbed so far and we didn't push. We really have made some progress since we left. We find Dimitri at the top of the slope. He didn't fall under 7 km/h but he is on an upright bicycle and he carries less weight (at least, that's what we tell ourselves to reassure us). The view is wonderful, the Mekong unfolds its muddy meanders below our feet. A few km further, here we go again. We are happily going down a long slope when a wall appears at the horizon. It is one of these slopes which when you look at it from the top, with skis on your feet, you wonder: 'How will I get to the bottom without breaking a leg?' Except that we are at the bottom and we have 40 kg to pull all the way to the top. We start bravely and, if we have to go slowly, we might as well make History... 3.3 km/h, that's our 'slowness' record. Balance is hard to keep, we try climbing in zig-zags but a recumbent doesn't have a big "turning circle". On top of that, the pick-ups arriving at full speed behind us are not that happy to find three bicycles zigzagging at snail speed on THEIR road. The boys start feeling a bit sick, of course, all that effort with 500g of rice in the stomach. 'I told you it was greediness!' cries Sylvie. Luckily, the road starts undulating again... no more big slope, for today at least.

As a border town, Chiang Rai has all the ingredients of a backpacker atmosphere: bars and restaurants decorated to fit farangs tastes, a lot of foreigners wandering in the streets... We find a wooden guest house, very comfortable, with a room big enough to accommodate four people. At the same time, we see Trish coming towards us. But she arrived earlier and already has a room. After going to the bank (when we last went to Laos, there was no cash machines so we take enough cash for the whole of Laos), we meet Trish for a fondue. The waitress puts a big metallic bowl at the centre of the table on a small fire. A piece of fat at the top ensures the food doesn't stick. We place pieces of beef, pork, chicken, fish and jellyfish at the top. Around, we pour some water in which we cook noodles, seaweed, salad and aromatic herbs. Dessert is somewhat unusual. It looks like tapioca but we think it is actually fruit seeds. In a bowl, the Thaïs mix crushed ice, fruit seeds (sticky!), bananas in syrup, orange jelly of unknown origin, sweet condensed milk and bright syrups. The result is something very sweet with a strange texture. At least, we end on a sweet note, quite rare in Asia where desserts are hard to find.

Publié dans Thaïlande

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