Thailand Part 1: Drowning in Songkran Festival (Laos to Chiang Mai 01/04/16-16/04/16)

I received my Laos exit stamp and walked out towards the Mekong. I crossed this same border 5 years ago – but last time you had to take a boat across. Now there’s a long ‘friendship bridge’ connecting the two countries at their most northern shared border crossing.

Screenshot 2016-05-17 at 10.33.51 AM
Laos to Chiang Mai route

I quickly jumped on my bike and started pedalling fast towards the bridge. I’d been warned that you weren’t allowed to cycle over it and that they’d make you go across in a bus. I really, really, really didn’t want that to happen so made a dash for it.

No luck. A guy came running after me and I was made to go back and pay for the bus.

I told him I had no money for it but there was an ATM and money changer conveniently located next to the bus office. ‘Oh wait, maybe I do have some cash…’.

Thailand – country number 30!

I arrived in Thailand in a bad mood. Aside from a few boats (always over the shortest crossing possible), I’ve never ‘cheated’ and taken public transport. I’ve pedalled every single meter from England and that’s something I’m very proud of. It isn’t something I cared about initially, but eventually it became something extremely important. Now, as I sat on the bus, it suddenly felt like that had all been for nothing.

Chiang Khong

For nothing? Was I really going to cry about one kilometre on a bus? I felt sorry for myself for a couple of hours then forced myself to gain a little perspective and get over it. It was crossing water anyway, maybe that doesn’t count? More importantly, who cares.

Thailand is the 30th country of my tour. I was excited about being somewhere a little more developed and organised but as I rode into the country it seemed as shambolic as everywhere else I’ve been recently. Trucks were lined up on the wrong side of the road and the cars didn’t seem to care which side of the road they drove on past me. In fact, all of them were on the wrong side of the road.

Wait a minute… people drive on the left in Thailand? Nobody told me that!

I’ve been on the right hand side since the UK and it felt extremely strange to be back on the left.

Never been so excited buying a scouring brush…

On the way to Chiang Khong I passed Tesco supermarket. Am I back in England!? I couldn’t believe it – Tesco in Thailand? Chiang Khong wasn’t even a big town.

I forgot how tired I was, parked my bike and went for a lovely air-con stroll around the store. It was the first western-style supermarket I’d been in since Chengdu nearly 3 months ago. I love supermarkets.

I stayed in a hostel for 100 baht (£2) run by an English bloke called who holds the world record for cycling around the world in the quickest amount of time. 125 days – outrageous. Puts my pace to shame.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know how much I hate dogs. This little thing in the Chiang Khong hostel was an exception though!

Thailand was very different to Laos. I’d spent the last four days cycling through dusty villages and now I was drink ice coffee from 7-eleven. No complaints from me.

There was food everywhere. Wherever I’d been in Laos it had just been little bowls of expensive noodle soup. Here there was endless variety and everything dirt cheap. The fruit vendors had signs on there stalls marking the price per kilo of their goods. Maybe I won’t have to loose all my hair trying not to get ripped off in this country!

Roadside feast for less than £1? (40 baht) I’m in heaven!

I’d planned on cycling south along the border road up in the mountains, but in Chiang Khong I had a moment of clarity. My body was tired. My bike was falling apart. I was pushing myself to ride the toughest roads all the time for no good reason. There’s so much smoke in the air at this time of year from the ‘slash and burn’ farming that even from the mountain tops visibility is awful. What’s the point in climbing mountains if you can’t see anything up there? It’s also extremely hot and humid. Cycling uphill is totally un-enjoyable in these temperatures.

So what am I trying to prove? And why am I doing it? I have nothing to prove to myself and definitely not anyone else. I’ve spent months in the mountains now, up to over 4,500m and in pretty brutal conditions. Cycling around the world is hard however you do it. I don’t need to be making it harder all the time.

First signs that I was cycling the wrong way…

I have a friend from London who owns a guesthouse in Chaing Mai. I wanted to get there ASAP so elected for the more direct route. But I made the mistake of taking one costly little detour…

You’d think I’d be an expert navigator by now, having successfully made my way through 30 countries. Not so. I made quite the cock-up leaving Chiang Khong. Google Maps was far more detailed here than any country I’d been in for a long time. I’d forgotten that Google Maps doesn’t mark the tiniest trails any differently from a footpath, so I headed off for the parallel valley, hoping I could get over the mountains without too much trouble.

Cycling into trouble

I rode past the monks out at dawn collecting alms and rode through a few villages towards the mountains. At the valley’s last village the road suddenly stopped and continued as a small dirt track through the dry fields. I knew I’d messed up but carried on, not wanting to turn back. The road was impossibly steep in places and I was reduced to walking much of the morning. Things got tougher and tougher, dragging myself up nightmare gradients and pushing through streams. It was quite and beautiful, but very clearly a terrible choice of road.

After a while a couple of guys turned up on motorbikes and told me I couldn’t get over the mountains this way. I wanted to try and continue but they were adamant. I clearly wouldn’t get through this way.

They kindly offered to take some of my luggage back on their motorbikes. We strapped it on and then asked me for 200 baht (£4) for their help. Really? Are you being nice only to get a little extra cash? When I told them I’d rather carry them back myself they agreed to help me without financial incentive and gave me some vague instructions in broken English about how to find them in the next village.

In the bike shop in Chiang Khong I’d been joking with the guy about how nice the roads were going to be in Thailand compared to Laos. I’d pumped up the tyres to full pressure and cleaned my bicycle. Couple hours into Thailand and I was covered in dirt having deflated my tubes to deal with another rocky road…

The backtracking was exhausting. I was grateful for the reduced weight but now concerned that I might never see my bags again. I had my valuables on me, but just because the other stuff isn’t worth much money at face value doesn’t mean it’s not extremely important.

My Thai wasn’t good enough to decipher the bloke’s name or village with confidence but when I finally made it back to the village I asked around and found all my gear and knights in (slightly) shining armour. What a disastrous start to the day – an hour later I was cycling exactly past the hostel I’d left at dawn.

My misfortunes continued: later in the day I took a wrong turn but didn’t figure out my mistake until I was 15km down the road. What was supposed to be an easy 80km ride to Chiang Rai turned out to be a 9.5hr hour cycle barely stopping during the day’s hottest hours.

Mae Fah Luang University

I pulled into Mae Fah Luang University just north of Chiang Rai late in the day and long after the sun had set. Fortunately I had a great place to crash – with Andris, an Indonesian student who would be my Couchsurfing host for a few nights.

The university campus was beautiful but clinically clean. A very different aesthetic to the architectural mish-mash I spent my days around when I studied in Leeds. It was also weirdly strict: dorms had a curfew of 11pm and there was nowhere to have a cigarette in the entire campus.

Food festival

I stayed a day longer than planned as the students were hosting an ‘international food and culture’ festival. Andris’ room-mates were also Indonesians who had a stall, along with grub from all over the place – from Sri Lanka to Malaysia.

The university was an international centre where English was used exclusively in the teaching. It was really amazing to see such a colourful mixture of people. Everyone loves getting stuffed on free food, don’t they?

International crowd

Each of the countries were given an amount of cash to prepare their food with. The Chinese had whipped up some incredibly bland and cheap salads. The running joke of the afternoon was that they’d pocketed the left over cash – in a typically corrupt move we should all expect from the Chinese. The West-Africans had brewed some incredibly bland bean mush which prompted a bunch of ‘food for survival’ comments from the subtle Asian chefs. Nothing like a little casual racism when it’s in good humour!

We went for a drink afterwards. I was sat at a table with company from Turkey, Holland,Thailand, Indonesian, Mexican, Nigerian, Swiss and Ghanaian. Not sure I’ve ever had a beer in such international company!

Pausing to check out Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) on my way through Chiang Rai

I spent the night between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai camping on the grounds of a church. As I was pitching my tent the woman asked me where I was from. After I’d replied ‘England’ she said ‘OK – no smoking, no drinking.’

Blimey, do we have such a bad reputation in this country? Do I look like I fancy a piss up outside a church? I’ve just cycled 100km – I just want to sleep!

Camping by the church
The little girl living with the on-site church family gave me some sweets in the morning for the road – what a sweetie!

My mate Toby from back home in London has a guesthouse in Chiang Mai. They opened it about 9 months ago and so it’s been a place I’ve known I’d be passing for a long time now. It’s also the spot I’ve planned to give myself a break for a month. I don’t really feel like I need it, but I also think now is a good time for a pause.

Celebrating my arrival in Chiang Mai with Toby

I still love living on my bicycle but my attitude to many of the things around me has shifted over the last few months. Good in some ways, bad in others. I think a break from the cycling will be a good opportunity to find a new angle of perspective and make sure that when I get back on the saddle I’ll be doing so for all the right reasons.

My timing was perfect – Songkran festival was starting in a couple of days and it was Toby’s birthday bang in the middle of it. The party was outrageous: the whole town erupts for Thai New Year and the city descends into a four day water fight. We’d wake up at midday with a horrible hangover, pour some drinks and join the street parties armed with water pistols.

‘Nature’s Way Army’ – out for the water fight with a crew from the guesthouse

Toby had a gig DJing at a bar in town for the four nights so I joined him for the mega b2b and we played for 8 hours a night 4 days straight. I really miss playing music – especially my records (I’m a big vinyl nerd) so to be able to download some of my favourite tracks to play out in Chiang Mai was amazing, if a little surreal.

There was up to four of use taking it in turns behind the decks in Babylon Bar – Myself, James, Toby and Henry. Here’s one of the few pics we don’t look too sloshed in…

I arrived in Chiang Mai in the finest physical shape of my life but by the end of the festival I felt ruined. Our DJ sets had an amusing shambles – four drunk Englishmen dancing around like prats with their shirts off.

But we had a little too much fun – one of the nights I managed to fall over and pull out the speaker’s cable – ending the club’s music for the night prematurely. Whoops. I spent the next afternoon puking my guts up until I could face another bottle of Hong Thong.

C’est la vie. It had been a crazy week.

Now it was time for the holiday…

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