Thailand Part 2: The Gypsy Curse (Chiang Mai to Myanmar 17/04/16-18/05/16)

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That’s what I learnt in Chiang Mai.

I’ve summoned the mental strength to cycle across vast deserts and over huge mountain ranges but when it comes to resisting a social drink in good company… I simply can’t.

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Chiang Mai to Myanmar

My plan after Songkran festival was to get back into a ‘healthy routine’: rising with the sun, going for a run in the morning, operating a productive day etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that never happened. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time alone over the last year, but whenever there was someone around to have a chat and drink with all I wanted to do was just that. I was living in a guest house – there was always someone to have a chat and a drink with.

The running joke in Chiang Mai became that of my ‘gypsy curse’. Apparently I’d brought with me an undeniable amount of bad luck upon the place. It was kind of true, too. First Toby’s laptop broke, then so did mine (although I managed to get it repaired), my camera and wallet got nicked (on separate occasions – there wasn’t much money in it and I got an old [and better] camera sent out), then Toby’s headphones got pinched when we were DJing in town, some of our mates had a nasty motorbike accident, another friend of a friend got put in prison over the festive period for theft. The list goes on and on, but the worst part was my impetigo infection.

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It’s a good look, right?

It started as a slightly nasty looking mosquito bite, but began to spread in the form of unpleasant sores across my face. The doctor told me a bug had pissed on me (although the bloke clearly didn’t have a clue what was going on) and gave me some anti-histamine pills. It looked horrible, but I could just about getting away with telling girls I’d been trying to break up a fight and suffered a couple of knocks in the process. As the infection started to spread it began looking more and more like nothing other than an unpleasant infection. I went back to the clueless doc and he prescribed me with the exact same thing. Really, mate?

His practise was a crumbly old building with Swan Lake music playing down the corridors and wonky Mona Lisa paintings hung up on the walls. I didn’t trust it. So, I headed over to Ram hospital – the poshest spot in town. The building was clinically clean and freezing cold from the air con blasting throughout the whole building. The dermatologist took 2 mins to tell me that my previous medicine was completely wrong, diagnosed me with impetigo, showed me some horrendous pictures of people’s impetigo infected genitals (no idea why I had to see that) and prescribed me a run of anti-biotics.

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Doi Suthep

The rash has started spreading onto my body so I decided to stay a few more days longer than planned until the infection was under control – I was now also scarred by the grotesque images the doc had showed me in his encyclopaedia book of ‘horrible disease photos’ . It seemed ironic that after so long in solitude I now looked like a zombie when I was finally around people I could talk to again – but I just wanted to make sure it was clearing up before leaving.

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So much gold…

I didn’t do nothing in Chiang Mai. I fixed some bits and bobs, explored the markets and fixed up my bicycle. There was an American guy who had a bike shop in town so I could finally talk to someone about any long term solutions to my mangled derailleur hanger that had been welded together by those Russians in Kyrgyzstan. The news wasn’t good: ‘accept the fact that you’ll never be able to get into all the gears, keep running it and pray you never take a knock – otherwise that could be game over’. There were a zillion other problems with the bicycle that needed to be ‘addressed immediately’ – none of which I addressed, being the cheapskate I am.

I took my poor old bicycle for a ride up to Doi Suthep temple one morning. It was a nasty 800m climb in the space of 10km. There were guys overtaking me who were trying to ride the equivalent ascent of Mount Everest in a day – just going up and down over and over again. Fuck that for a laugh…

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Girls in traditional dress
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Dragon’s eye

It was finally time to leave town. I felt myself getting sucked into the place the longer I stuck around. Life was cheap and easy there. I had a free place to live, I could get lunch for 15 baht (30p) round the corner and enjoy being back in such a western friendly world. I was eating rye bread for lunch, going to the cinema, nipping out for coffee… I absolutely loved it.

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Ring the bells!

After a month I bumped into a couple of girls (on different occasions) who I’d met in Laos. They had so much to report on what they’d been up to compared to what had to say for my last few weeks. When a guy turned up at the guesthouse after having been away travelling a month and said ‘what are you still doing here!?’ I knew it was time to leave. Actually, I’d not really done anything in Chiang Mai. Just drunk a lot and walked around looking like a plague victim.

Toby had just moved into an outrageously swish apartment with Nick, his other business partner. We had a small house warming party the night before I left. They’d be waking up in a gorgeous air-conditioned flat with a swimming pool downstairs and I’d be hiding my tent in the humid jungle the next day.

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Leaving the life of luxury behind…

But that’s exactly how I want to be living! I arrived in Chiang Mai desperate for a break off the bike, and now I was desperate to get back on it. I was hungry for an adventure – life was passing me by in Chiang Mai and I was just sitting at the metaphorical bus stop watching it drive by. I needed to jump back on for the ride.

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Caution! ‘Elephant crossing’

And I had something big to look forward to: a consulate for Myanmar had opened in Chiang Mai so I changed my plans, picked up a visa I never thought would appear in my passport and headed west for the border.

Thanks a million to Toby and Nick for having me stay. If you’re passing through town, be sure to check out Nature’s Way House!

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I passed a bunch of elephant zoos on the way out of Chiang Mai
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There was a lot of chat in town about the ethics of ‘elephant tourism’ in the area. Most of the people I met who’d gone on a tour went to help look after/feed the animals rather than ride them. I don’t think these ones tied up were in better category!

The first night I stayed at another of their co-owners’ eco-resort. The place was still under construction, but was looking beautiful and should be opening around November (this is the place). It was my first opportunity to camp in my new tent, which I pitched on the roof of one of the huts.

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Sleeping at the eco resort

Wait… new tent!? Yep – you heard. And you finally don’t have to hear me complaining about how broken the Vango Banshee 200 is. I met a 16 year old Malaysian guy in Chiang Mai trying to hitch-hike to Europe with $1,000 to his name. That might be hard without a tent, so I gave him the Vango. There’s something nice knowing that it’ll be heading back along the silk road, just the way it’s just travelled across the world to here.

Let’s take a moment to remember some of the beautiful we’ve slept over the last year…

But here’s the new one. L.L. Bean have very kindly sponsored my ride and sent out a Microlight FS-2 for me to use. I love it. Not only is it not broken, but it’s superior to the Vango for two main reasons:

  1. It’s free-standing. Looking for peg-able ground is now one less thing I have to worry about every evening and if I want to sleep on a hard surface I don’t have to balance my tent tied up to my panniers.
  2. The layers detach. That means I can fall asleep stargazing when the sky is clear and when the outer layer is wet or frozen I don’t have to roll it up together.
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Cheers guys!

I wish I’d had a tent like this one from the start. Ah well, better later than ever. Thanks to Laurie at L.L. Bean for making this happen and also to my aunt Jenny for the help arranging!

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Ain’t she a beauty

The road grew tougher and tougher. The gradients were some of the steepest I’ve ever seen on a main road and the heat wasn’t exactly helping. The day I left Chiang Mai it was 43C. Brutal.

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Celebrating having taken my last anti-biotic pill. Back to my handsome self!

One day I didn’t even manage to cycle beyond 40km. I’d already ascended 1,500m – just as I had the previous day. Thanks to the heat and gradients it was genuinely some of the toughest mountain cycling I’ve done. I was happy to camp closer to 1,000m altitude anyway – it made a huge difference to the night time temperature and I was happy not to fall asleep rolling around in my own sweat.

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Cycling through a national park

Thailand is a strange country. I don’t know what to make of it – but it’s fascinating to cycle. One day I went to sleep reflecting on the day’s happenings: I’d sat drinking an iced coffee in the morning next to two ladyboys comparing their boobs and then I’d pedalled up into the mountains and found myself riding through rustic villages where hill tribes trundled along the road with heavily loaded baskets of gatherings from the forests.

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Did they not think it might be slightly unnecessary to out up the EXACT same sign 10m apart?
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Sigh – another big hill to climb

They all have one thing in common though – being lovely. Everyone greets me with a warm smile and makes me feel welcome as a visitor. In one noodle shop some border patrol police invited me over for lunch. Their unit badges had ‘Black Warrior’ written on them, making them the most badass military guys I’ve hung out with on this trip by default. They then paid for my lunch which confirmed that.

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In the tent/spaceship

The owners of the place tried to set me up with a couple of younger girls hanging around – ‘girlfriend, no?’ with a huge grin. The girls were pretty, but when they smiled they revealed a mouth full of bright red saliva. Hot stuff.

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Making friends and meeting potential future wives at the village noodle shop

It was the first time I’d seen people chewing betel nut – and it was as unattractive as I’d imagined it would be. The people living around here were Karen people, yet another ethnic group thrown into the cultural jigsaw defining this part of the world. They lived a very different life up here to the lowlanders – I left like I was back in rural Laos.

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Riding along another beautiful river

I descended over the last hellish section of mountain cycling and reached the Moei river which marks the border. Finally the road flattened out a little (although I was still hitting 1,000m of climbing a day).

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How many months have I been cycling in mountains now? I’ve lost count.
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But I’ll miss them when I’m out of them…

Camping is incredibly easy in Thailand. I never worry about finding a place to sleep. I only paid for a place to sleep in two places in this country: Chiang Khong at the Laos border and Mae Sot at the Myanmar border. Both places cost £3>.

I can wild camp, sleep in national parks, pitch my tent in monasteries or even crash at police stations – like I did on my last night camping in Thailand. Even though there was a guesthouse round the corner they didn’t mind me pitching beside their building. They showed me to the shower, offered me water and I nipped into the village to get some takeaway dinner for 30 baht (60p). Does life get any easier than this?

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Camping by the police station
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Takeaway dinner – heaven!

The roads were also a dream in Thailand. Even through the most remote areas the road was mostly covered in perfect tarmac. The gradients were a bit silly – but they certainly made for some fun downhills.

One day I was feeling particularly cocky and decided to make a crack at the 80km/h that had always eluded me. The fact that I attempted that should prove how a) steep the roads are and b) how good quality they were. I tightened my brakes and waited for the big drop.

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76.42km/h!

As I hit the speed in the pic above I hit a lump in the road. With all the weight on my bicycle braking distances isn’t exactly short. At that speed all it takes is a tiny knock and you go flying. Luckily on this occasion I held on, screeched to a halt and stopped to catch my breath. My thermos flask had popped out on impact and smashed open.

My skin is not metal. Imagine hitting the burning hot tarmac at 70+km/h. In fact, don’t imagine that.

I felt like an idiot the rest of the day. I will never allow myself to go that quick again on a heavily loaded bike. The biggest danger cycling around the world is complacency more than anything else.

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The little lump that nearly sent me flying

I reached one particularly cute village squeezed in next to the river under huge limestone cliffs and stopped to take a photo. The houses continued to stretch along the road in a seemingly endless mess. Actually – they weren’t really houses at all, wonky bamboo shacks with layered leaves forming the roofs. They all looked exactly the same. I was surprised by how poor it looked – I hadn’t seen anything similar in Thailand.

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The scenic ‘village’

It went on, and on…

The fence around it was lined with barbed wire and guards sat at the entrances. What was this place? And then I remembered. It must be Mae La – the refugee camp I’d read about and knew I’d pass at some point. About 40,000 people live there at present – a crazy number. It’s been there since the 80s and is mostly home to Karen refugees from Burma who fled ethnic conflict and persecution.   

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Mae La refugee camp

I’ve never seen a refugee camp that big and it made a really impression on. Actually – the quality of life there is far better than many camps around the world, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a refugee camp where people having been living sub-standard lives for years.

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All the homes were made out of leaves – something I’d never seen before in Thailand. (But a technique I’d see a lot of in Myanmar).

It was perhaps more startling because I hadn’t known it existed until a few days prior. It was the home of an ethnic group I also didn’t know existed until recently. It’s not quite the same with the big camps you see plastered on western media outlets – you know they are there. But I didn’t feel embarrassed not knowing about the Mae La camp: if I’ve learnt one thing on this trip it’s how little I know about the people I share this planet with. Everyday I learn one new thing – but I’m still a long way away from sussing out this giant flying rock we live on.

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Following a trail into the forest. My ‘camp-site searching sixth sense’ smells a potential pitch…
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And I was right! Bingo baby.

Mae Sot was an intriguing town. About half Burmese, many Muslims, Christian Karen, Chinese and western NGO ex-pats all chucked into the mix. I met a couple of aid workers in town – one of whom was an English bloke who’d been there over 20 years – living inside the Mae La camp for a bunch of those years.

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Alms collecting statues

Mae Sot would be my last stop in Thailand this time round. I’ll miss this country but I’ll be back in a few weeks.

If it wasn’t for the heat and road gradients in the mountains, it would be the perfect country for cycling. The people are lovely, it’s developed, you can camp anywhere you like, the villages have washing machines out for public use and there are water filters where you can get drinking water for next to nothing. And the greatest of all? The food, no questions. Dirt cheap, omnipresent and delicious.

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See you soon, Thailand! (Let’s hope you’re a bit flatter down south…)

Goodbye luxury – next stop is Burma. I’m cycling into the country where all those thousands have fled? Brilliant.

The country covered in restricted areas (including where I plan on cycling), expensive accommodation where my money goes straight up to the government and an explicit ‘no camping allowed’ rule. Yet, somehow life in Thailand was too easy – and adventure is awaiting me across the border.

 

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