Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve in the Golden Triangle

Today we have been cycling through the infamous Golden Triangle. This was the name given to a region encompassing  a portion of Burma, Laos and Thailand during the the American War on Drugs.
It has now been appropriated by the town of Sop Ruak to designate the point where the three countries come together. The opium fields in Thailand are all but gone, although across the river, in Laos and to a greater extent in Burma, their cultivation continues. 

We spent a couple of hours in the Hall of Opium, a world class museum set up with the Royal Patronage of the Queen Mother. Here the long and interesting history of opium is told. From the Opium Wars to the CIA's complicity in the drug trade, Western powers were not the good guys. Many of the cups of tea sipped in the British Empire were paid for with opium, despite the active opposition by China and other countries. No wonder we don't learn about the Opium Wars in our school history classes. 

We are spending New Year's Eve on the Mekong in the laid back town of Chiang Saen.  Even though the Thai New Year is not until April, they have also embraced the western one. The band is setting up as we speak with flavours of Hendrix with an Asian twist.
PostScript: it is just after midnight and the sky is full of glowing mini hot air balloons that you can see for miles!
Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Mae Salong: Tea in the Sky

Ruth: No amount of flattery from Gordon will talk me up another mountain road like the road in and out of Mae Salong. I did make it without bailing and taking a $2 ride up but oh my $#€%!!  Today was not as difficult as yesterday, but still we were racing down into the valleys only to climb all the way up the other side again. I have never cycled up more steeply graded roads in my life! Fortunately there was lots to distract us on our journey. This is tea country and the mountains are covered with terraced tea plantations.

It is also an area that is extremely popular for Thai and Chinese tourists who want to visit this little bit of China in Thailand. Unfortunately we visited Mae Salong right in the middle of its busiest tourist period. We almost didn't get a room last night, and happily shelled out when we found one. There were also hundreds of tents set up all over the town. Bangkok families with their mint SUVs were roughing it for the night in tents set up about 6 inches apart in parking lots. There was a steady  flow of cheers and thumbs up for us as these SUVs and minibuses watched our ascent. When we stopped at a plantation to try some tea a family posed for pictures with us and then donned my helmet and posed with my bike.

Mae Salong is also a market town where many hill tribe men and women come to shop and sell their wares. These two Akha ladies were set up right in front of our hotel hoping to sell some of their bags and jewelry to the guests.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hill Tribes along the Burmese Border

Fang to Huai Khum Resort on the Kok River
Huai Khum Resort to Mae Salong
We are up at 1100 meters in Mae Salong, a Chinese Nationalist outpost with a colourful history. During the communist revolution the Kuomintang (Nationalists) were swept from power and one group of them fled to Northern Thailand and Burma. When their plan to overthrow the communists in China failed, they remained in the region to be used by the Thai government to fight communist groups. Later they became involved in the opium trade, until the Thai government stamped that out in the 1980's.

In the last two days we have been traveling in the hill tribe region very close to the Burmese border. Yesterday we stayed at a resort next to a hill tribe village and after dinner our cook put down her pots, picked up a guitar and accompanied the local children singing songs and dressed in their traditional clothing. Donations were gratefully accepted for their school.

Today we visited Ban Lorcha, an Akha village that has received community development funding to establish a living museum of their culture. For three dollars each a local gentleman gave us a tour of the village including demonstrations of animal traps, weaving, dancing and metal work. The community also has a shop that sells their local crafts. We didn't leave empty handed.

Our acquisitions at Lorcha were actually our second craft purchases of the day. An hour earlier we stopped to clean and oil our chains and found ourselves the center of attention in a small community.  A local Akha woman offered us a beautiful purse and two bracelets for ten dollars, which we happily accepted. You know you've paid more than market value when the vendor returns to give you a huge bunch of bananas and ties two more bracelets on your wrist. No worries; a sale is a success when both parties feel they got a good deal.

Gordon:  We only cycled 45 kms today, but it was perhaps our most challenging ride.  Prior to our departure we expressed our intention to cycle to Mae Salong, and the response from locals was always nervous laughter accompanied by hand gestures that could have been describing the ascent of the Matterhorn.  This did make us a little nervous, but how difficult could a 700 meter climb be?  However, this net change in elevation glosses over the significant ups and downs in between.  The total height climbed was about 1400 meters, but that again fails to convey the brutal pitch of many of the hills.  They were simply ridiculously steep.  I walked many of the hills, while Ruth, with a couple of lower gears, ground along at 3 km per hour.  I must take a moment to acknowledge the powerful cycling machine that Ruth has become.  A few months ago today's ride would have been unthinkable, whereas now it is only a bad idea.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao Cave and then Chiang Dao to Fang: Two daysriding in the jungle

We are presently only about 20 km from the Burmese border, and the landscape has changed dramatically in the last two days. This region is covered with haystack shaped limestone mountains clothed in jungle and dotted with caves. 

Last night we had the honeymoon bungalow at Malee's Nature Lover's Bungalows. The property has a beautiful garden that includes 700 different varieties of orchids. It is on a small road 5 km from the highway and nestled in the shadow of the third highest peak in Thailand. We visited the nearby Chiang Dao cave and a local woman talked me though some fairly small squeezes. I am not a spelunker by nature.

Today's ride was spectacular. In spite of the huge mountains that pop out of the landscape our road was well graded and the climbs were not particularly difficult.  This is not the case for all roads in Thailand.  We have a map of this area produced by a motorcycle touring group that describes some segments as "very steep" or "extremely steep".  When someone with more than the 1/2 horsepower we are able to generate finds a hill "extremely steep" it is probably best avoided.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Chiang Mai

We are staying in Chiang Mai for Christmas, and because of the combination of the resident expat population and Thai hospitality, it does feel a little bit Christmasy. There are Christmas trees, Christmas carols and numerous offers for traditional turkey dinners at restaurants.

There are, however, a few differences from Christmas back home. This was the first time I have ever eaten Christmas breakfast outside, and orange and yellow are the colors everywhere, not green and red.

After a wonderful breakfast Gord and I headed out to visit Wat Phrasingha and enjoy the Lanna style temples.

I was really annoyed at some tourists brazenly photographing a group of monks deep in meditation, Gord had to explain to me that they were made of wax (the monks, not the tourists).  Wow, could have fooled me! It's true that they never blinked, but  I thought that maybe after years of practice they could do that.

Christmas in Thailand would not be complete without the contortions of a traditional Thai Massage, which we experienced at a massage school located in a temple.  Ah... It hurts so good!   

We are staying at the lovely Plern guest house and our host has offered to put on a Thai buffet for a few of us. Gord and I are happy to skip the tempting turkey feeds for good home cooked Thai food.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Lampang to Lamphun: Elephants

Ruth/Gordon:  Nothing breaks up an 80km ride through the mountains like elephants. We timed our ride so that we could see the elephants bathing and also take in the 10:00 show at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre.  This is a rescue centre for 120 elephants that were either misused in the tourist industry or lost their jobs when they quit logging in In the country. It is one of the more ethical places to encounter elephants in Thailand.

After the elephants bathed in a local river, a dozen of them trooped up to a performance area for a one hour show.  As well as demonstrating some of their functions in logging, including moving, stacking and pulling logs, the elephants displayed more esoteric talents.  Three of them painted pictures (which can be purchased for $15 to $30), several tossed balls into baskets, and a couple played elephant sized xylophones.  It was a real treat to see these bizarre and compelling animals up close.

We are now in Lamphun, a short day's ride from the northern tourist city of Chiang Mai, where we will spend Christmas.  We have cycled about 550 km and we are feeling comfortable with both Thailand and our cycling routine.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Old Sukhothai to Si Satchanali Historic Park: More Buddha Bits

Today was our last flat ride before we enter the hills. Our route was on a quiet road that passed rice fields and orchards, each with its own spirit house. No house in Thailand is complete without a spirit house. The houses are elaborate enough to ensure that the spirits choose them over the main house to live in. While Thailand is primarily Buddhist, the animist traditions, likely predating Buddhism, are still strong. When old spirit houses are replaced they are not destroyed but rather moved to decompose naturally under a tree. Gord made the ghastly suggestion that we use my dollhouse as our spirit house when we get home!!?!
We lucked out tonight with accommodation, finding a cute, spotless bungalow at the Sawanee Resort for 400 bhat, or the equivalent of about $14. It is only a couple kms before the entrance to the historical site. After our ride Gord needed to work out the kinks with some yoga. I must say he is getting pretty good!

Si Satchanali is another world heritage site listed in conjunction with Sukhothai.  It is more heavily forested than Sukothai, and, outside of several hundred Thai Boy and Girl Scouts that were visiting, much less touristed.  Although it was part of the Sukothai kingdom, the ruins at Si Satchanali display some stylistic differences from the capital city.  There were, however, still lots of Buddha bits.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sukhothai: hard to leave

Two nights easily turned into three nights in Sukhothai. This place is a tranquil haven where I believe that with enough time, even I could achieve enlightenment. Or maybe that is the Chang beer talking.

Sukhothai was the capital of most of Thailand during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries until it was replaced by Ayutthaya. It is now a well preserved UNESCO heritage park. The ruins are spread over a very large area, making it perfect for exploration by bicycle. Each morning we headed out at first light to enjoy another corner of this magic place.  The warm light, cool temperatures and tranquility of the site at this hour was entrancing.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Arctic Blast in Thailand

Gordon: This morning it was only 18° C when we set off in the pre-dawn light, rising to 27 degrees in the afternoon. This is the first day we did not experience a high of at least 30 degrees.  Today's conditions were excellent for Canadian cyclists, but the cause of great concern for the citizenry of Thailand.  The government has advised the young, the old and the infirm to keep warm during the next week.  It has been recommended that a state of disaster be declared if a city experiences three consecutive nights with lows less than 15 degrees.  The first death attributed to the cold was also reported: a middle-aged man who fell asleep in a tent while drunk.

The state of alarm seems laughable to Canadians, even the soft ones from the west coast, but I suppose we all become concerned when conditions veer too far from normal.  In Victoria we would become alarmed if we experienced a week of temperatures over 32 degrees, which would be completely ordinary in Thailand.  While I hope no further drunks are lost to hypothermia, Ruth and I will be pleased if the cool spell lasts for weeks.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Singburi - Lopburi with train to Phitsulanok: Jumping further north

On a cycling trip it is always hard to break a line with a bit of cheating on the train, but we did just that today so we will have a few more days in the north. We cycled from our Bungalow near Singburi    Just 36kms to Lopburi on the train line. Lopburi is famous for being over run with monkeys.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Ayutthaya to Singburi: Cycling through the rice fields.

Day 2 Ayutthaya to 10 km before Singburi at the RungAroon Resort: 65km

Ruth: We headed off at 7 am this morning to enjoy a few hours of cool riding. We were not, however, the earliest birds in Ayutthaya. These were the runners we passed on their final third of the Marathon.

We cycled up highway 309, which winds up along a river, passing rice fields and a canals full of water lilies. The riding is easy, apart from the heat, and we were able to find Maxim ice cream bars just when we needed them most. 

Gordon:  We have been struck by the wildlife that co-exists with the human population in the central part of Thailand.  The rice fields and swampy areas are full of large wading birds, including egrets and what appears to be a type of crane.  We also saw a three foot monitor lizard by the road today (this would have been more impressive if we had not already seen some eight footers swimming in the canals in Bangkok.)  Many hotel rooms and restaurants are also well supplied with the charming geckos.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Ayutthaya: Our cycle trip begins

Day 1 Bangkok to Ayutthaya: 60 kms by train and 17km to Ayutthaya

Ruth:  We are now in Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam, which is located about 80 km north of Bangkok.  To get beyond the urban sprawl of Bangkok we took a train for the first 60km to get into the pretty countryside at Bang Pa-in.  We cycled the remaining 17 km to Ayutthaya.  This city was the capital of Siam from the 14th to the 18th century, when it was sacked by the Burmese. At its peak it had a multi-cultural population of a million, most living on houseboats on the extensive canals and rivers. It was an important trade centre between East and West and many foreign nations maintained their own villages outside the town walls.

Our route passed by the location of the late 15th century Japanese village and the Dutch East India  company headquarters. It was great to start cycling, and we were pleased to discover the roads are fantastic with wide shoulders and light traffic.

We are staying at the lovely Baan Are Gone Homestay, which is in an old teak house hanging over the river, just a short boat ride across from the main town. Last night we took a sunset boat tour of the rivers and canals, stopping  to visit three temples. Today we explored four of the ancient city's grand temple ruins by bicycle. The ruins stand elegantly in varying states of decayed splendour, set in beautiful park surroundings.

Gordon:  The first annual Ayatthaya Marathon takes place tomorrow.  I have not been training, so I will not be participating.  However, Ruth was almost registered when she went to the tourist office to purchase tickets for the historic sites.  It seems the official was struck by Ruth's lean physique and sporty cycling outfit.  In any event, even if we had trained for the event, it is hard to imagine running a marathon in 33 degree heat (today's high).  I did notice a large number of vultures circling over the finish line this morning, so perhaps they have made their own predictions.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Off to Cooking School In Bangkok

Ruth: Ok, friends and family, it is time to confess that for Christmas this year Gordon and I have not bought presents for any of you.  But all is not lost, because instead of opening up items you don't want or need, Gordon and I can now cook fantastic Thai food for you. Today we went to cooking school at May Kaidee's Vegetarian Thai restaurant in Bangkok.  I won't begin to suggest that coming to Thailand was an altruistic act, but I guarantee this couse will benefit many of you who come for dinner at our house in the future. 

In four hours we made ten vegetarian  dishes and ate more amazing Thai food than anyone ever should. I felt like I was on a cooking show, with all the ingredients chopped and diced, ready and waiting for us to do the easy part, and of course there were no dishes to do.
We started by learning how to make Chili Paste and then we moved on to prepare some wonderful Tom Yum Soup. Then we made Fried Vegetables with Ginger and Cashew Nuts.

After that we moved on to a vegetarian Pad Thai that was better than any other I have tasted. This was probably due to the fact that it was topped with fresh peanut sauce  we also learned how to create.

After a dancing and singing lesson (good for digestion) we moved on to curries: Massaman and Green. Oh I love this country! Then we buckled down to make spring rolls and a green papaya salad. Dessert was the most sensational Mango with Sticky Rice. 

Merry Christmas and see you for dinner in the New Year.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A day of Protest in Bankok

Yesterday was to be the final showdown between the anti government protesters and the the Thai Prime Minister. An estimated 150,000 protesters poured into our neighborhood to demand that the government step down. However, before the crowds arrived the Prime Minister announced her resignation and called for a new election. The mood was buoyant and the protest peaceful as the demonstrators paraded through the government district. We laid low until our host assessed the situation from the news and gave us the OK to head out. It was early enough that people were streaming down our street en route to the speeches. Note to mom: no worries, we are very safe here and we have no intention of getting mixed up in any trouble.

We headed over to the Khoisan road area to get a SIM card and look for maps. Our bikes arrived in the night so we are now getting our heads around planning our cycling routes. Before the trip our nomadic friends Gayle and John connected us with their cyclist friend Bill Weir, who by coincidence is also in Bangkok.  We met up with him for a visit and walk along the river. Bill has cycled more of the world than anyone I know.  Gord and I have always felt that we travel a lot, but Bill has been exploring corners of the world since he quit his job in the 70's! Connecting with Bill has been a very lucky treat.  It is wonderful to share stories and learn from someone  who has cycled  so much in Thailand. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Lying Low in Bangkok

Ruth: We made it to Bangkok even if our bikes didn't. I am guessing they spent some more quality time with the customs boys at the Seattle airport. We are hoping they will be delivered today.

Our first day in Bangkok was a calm and tranquil one. We are nicely settled into the lovely Baan Tepa Boutique Guesthouse where you would never guess that you are right in the centre of Bangkok. The backpacker chaos of Khoisan Road is less than two kilometres away but a world apart from our little oasis.

Our day's excursion out to visit one of the less touristy floating markets, Khlong Lot Ma Yom, was also a pastoral surprise. This network of canals is a living water community that has now become a popular weekend excursion for Thai families.

Gordon: We may continue to lie low on our second day, as the opposition to the government is promising the largest protests they can muster. These will occur a few blocks from our guesthouse, as we are located near many of the important government offices. This morning we walked by an education administration facility with an enormous expanse of unspooled razor wire on the grounds. It was pretty in the early morning light, but unsettling in its imagery.

Reassuring note to Ruth's mother: we are quite safe and will merely remain inside our guesthouse if there is any violence on the street. In any event, I am wearing an orange shirt, which our landlord tells us is seen as a symbol of compromise between the red shirts of the government supporters and the yellow shirts of the opposition. More significantly, as farang (foreigners) we would not be targeted.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rome: Second Thoughts

On our second visit to Rome we were ready for the city. Right after the pilgrimage we were a bit too overwhelmed by the crush of tourists to fully appreciate it. We have spent the last two days walking through piazzas and streets that are full of treasures. Today we spent most of the day in the Vatican Museum. I could easily spend a month in Rome, and we will probably do that some day. However we are on day 89 of a 90 day  European visa so it's time to move on. 

We  had planned to go on to Vietnam, but a combination of travel weariness, unreasonable airline charges for our bikes, and the super typhoon bearing down on Vietnam have pushed us homewards instead. We took a break in the court yard of the  Vatican museum and in 30 minutes we had a reasonably cheap flight home. We will be back in Victoria at 3:45pm tomorrow. We ended up buying a return flight because it was half the price of a single leg!?!  I can't wait to have bath and then put on a clean pair of jeans and a top that isn't my green or red one that I have been living in for three months. This pilgrim is going home.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Naples: Overdosing on Pizza and Pompeii

After Palermo,  Naples seems less gritty than its reputation had us believe. While the traffic is loud and chaotic the city is beautiful in a vibrant way. And this is the home of Pizza.

A pharmacist directed us to her favourite local pizzeria, which coincidentally was where President Clinton also enjoyed his first slice of Napoli's best. The prices were far from presidential, with the most sublime Margherita pizza costing just 3€!!

Pompeii is the second reason we wanted to come to Naples. We visited the National archeological  museum first to see the extensive collection of Roman art from Pompeii, Heraculaneum and other sites. The mosaics and frescos were unbelievable.

But the site of Pompeii is an experience like nothing else. We were transported back into a Roman city frozen in time. The Lonely Planet guide describes it as the premier archeological site in Europe and there seems no reason to doubt that. Unlike most sites that are modified, abandoned and looted, everyday life stopped in Pompeii in an instant in 79 AD, then remained preserved under 8 meters of volcanic ash until the 18th century.  The result is a treasure trove of the minutiae of life, such as fast food restaurants, bordello frescoes, and even crosswalks.

Skill testing question for those who know us well. Which of us added the word minutiae, and would this word apply in any way to the following gentleman?