Monday, January 20, 2014

Thailand Cycling Trip 2013: Route Notes

Ten Good Reasons To Cycle In Thailand

Total Distance Cycled: 1640 km

Baan Are Gone Homestay across the water from the main town but a short ferry ride across. Very friendly place with great food, rooms and sunset boat tours. Air conditioned room was 640 bhat.

Bungalow for 800 bhat with breakfast. Pretty Bungalows overlooking a small lake. Food at the restaurant not great.

Day 3 RungAroon Resort 10 km south of Singburi to Lopburi (36km) then train to Phitsanalok - BonBon Guesthouse in a nice air conditioned room for 450 bhat.

Day 4 Phitsanalok to Old Sukhothai (76 km):  We took the main road until three km after New Sukhothai. Just before the big C hypermarket there is a track between the temple and gas station on the right. Take the path and cross the river. The bike path follows the canal for 10 kms to the elephant temple, where you cross the bridge and rejoin the road into Old Sukothai. Old Town Guesthouse in the park for 500 bhat with air con.

Day 5 Old Sukhothai to Si Satchanali historical Park: 69km. Sawanee Resort spotless bungalow 400 bhat. 

Day 6 Si Satchanali historical Park to Wang Chin: 80km. Wungtong Resort room with fan 350 bhat. Motel type hotel with big rooms and garden.

Day 7 Wang Chin to Lampang: 68km hilly with one 8km climb at km 20 on highway 11 and two other smaller climbs. Ahkamsiri Home Guest House 590 bhat. Lovely place.

Day 8 Lampang to Lamphun with stop at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center: 80km
Lamphun Will Hotel 1200 bhat with breakfast. Modern hotel.

Plern Guesthouse 1100 bhat: excellent place with sensational host and breakfast.

Malee's Nature Lover's Bungalows 1200 baht for the Honeymoon Bungalow.

Wiang Kaew Hotel 400 baht basic but very hot shower.

Huai Khum Resort 2000 bhat with breakfast. Located on the Kok river 3 km down a hilly dirt road from near the bridge crossing of highway 3023. The 3023 is a lovely back road from Fang.

Day 13  Huai Khum Resort to Mae Salong: 45km with the last 16 a brutal climb. You assent to 900 meters a couple of times and then drop to cross rivers. Grades are more than 15%.
Mae Salong Villa 1500 baht with breakfast- everything else in town was full.

Day 14 Mae Salong to Ruan View Resort on Highway 1: 49km. Even though the net elevation is a loss there are at least three tough climbs in this section, but it is beautiful with tea plantations to visit.
Ruan Resort is about 1.5 km south of junction with 1149 at San Khong. 700 baht 

Nam Puang Guesthouse with Thai sign. I booked on, 600 baht but map position is incorrect. It is on the main road south of Gin's Guest house.

Day 15 Chiang Saen to Chiang Kong 71km one of our prettiest rides. We took the longer flatter route along the Mekong. Visit the weaving shop 300 meters off the road for a wonderful opportunity to purchase things from the people who make them. Watch for the artisan sign. Located a few kms before the Rai Saeng Arun Resort which has great food. The last 10km are hilly.
Ruanthai Sapophan Guest house. 800 baht with Thai breakfast.

Day 16 Chiang Kong to Panta Resort,  6 km past Thoeng on Road to Chiang Kham: 80 km.
Fast ride. Panta Resort 550 baht with breakfast. New place discounted while in construction phase. Very nice.

Day 17 Thoeng to Phu Langka Resort km 38 on Highway 1148: 69km.
 700 Baht - pricy for basic room, but views and a chance to stay with the Yao hill tribe makes it well worth it. The ride is tough with long steep climbs to 900 meters near the resort.

Day 18 Phu Lanka Resort to Coconut Resort just after Tha Wang Pha 77km. 500 baht for a beautiful big bungalow. Ride was another tough game of snakes and ladders.

Day 19 Tha Wang Pha to Nan: 45km with a stop Thai Lue village at  Ban Nong Bua. Rolling ride more downs than ups.
Huen Kuang Nan guesthouse. 500 baht. Lovely place and friendly hosts. 

Day 20 Nan to Na Noi: 60 km 
First 25 km flat followed by ups and downs with a couple short steep climbs. Not a hard day.
Na Noi Resort 500 baht for lovely room.

Khun Sathan Homestay 800 baht with very very rustic bungalow with breakfast and extraordinary view. Friendly Hmung hosts. Good food can also be purchased.

Nakorn Phrae Tower Hotel tel 054521321  650 baht with breakfast. Warn out  former fancy hotel tower that needs some paint and more dusting but great value and big breakfast. Huge room, huge bed, bathtub!!!
Day 23 Phrae to Den Chai 24km, Train to Lopburi, 10 km to MDR Hotel  in Lopburi. Way further away from the sites than the map on agoda showed. 

Day 24  Cycled back to Lopburi train station 10 km, trains to Pak Chong, and then 20 km on route to Khao Yai National Park. Baan Saranya Resort 650 baht with breakfast. On the right side of the highway just before the Vintage Hotel on left. Look carefully very small English sign. It is located 2.5 km closer than the Agoda map shows. 

Day 25 Baan Saranya Resort to the Visitors center in Khao Yai National Park plus some side trips. 40km. Climb up to visitors center, well graded and not too bad. The park itself is mostly on a rolling plateau, so once you are up it is fairly easy.
Basic park bungalow 560 baht. Night safari 500 baht per group.

Day 26 Khao Yai visitor center to 11 kms north of Prachinburi: 45km 
Baan Meesukh Resort. Agoda website places it well, but it is down a small lane with only a Thai sign. The lane is just past a large hotel with a big parking lot and Thai sign on right. There is also a bus shelter with a yellow roof on the left. Good deal nice place! 750 baht.

Airy Resort 700 baht with breakfast. 

Day 28 Ariy Hotel 4 km or 10 minute drive to the airport. They have cheap 150 baht transfer to airport and two bike boxes fit in their van- no extra charge. I would recommend this place, very nice and tucked off main road with canals and a Wat.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bangkok: living in the village

Whether you are in the center or way out in the burbs near the airport, it is hard not to be struck by coexistence of the old and new worlds in Bangkok. We are spending our last night and day out near the Suvarnabhumi Airport in order to avoid some of the transportation chaos caused by the protests in the center. Wherever you are in the world, hotels near airports are soulless modern buildings plunked down beside expressways in vast commercial wastelands. Our hotel is one of these, but with a notable exception. Yes, it is right next to, or almost under an expressway, and it would be easier to buy a car than a coffee out here. It is, however, also in a village. Tucked in behind the main modern thoroughfares, cut off from all but local traffic by a series of canals, is a Thai village. With a temple pig, wonderful street food,  and winding paths that reveal Bangkok's floating canal life.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cycling through Khao Yai National Park

Instead of spending our last few days in Bangkok we have taken a side trip to Khao Yai National Park. It is a spectacular place and one we will definitely return to when we have more time.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, but we did see four Great Horned Bills in a single tree and through the binoculars they looked just like this.

Yesterday as we cycled towards the park from the town of Pak Chong we were both wondering how we ended up in Canmore or maybe Aspen. This area is where wealthy people from Bangkok have their second homes, in shockingly expensive developments with names like "The Cotswalds," "The Thames," "Toscana," and "Provence."

This morning we passed four beautiful elephants chained up by the side of the road to the park. Now I was faced with a dilemma. Should I stop and admire them when I know the sad truths about the exploitation and poaching that goes on with elephants in the tourist industry?  Or should I just continue on as if I hadn't seen them?  The problem is, elephants are just so amazing, and yes I stopped, and yes I took pictures, and yes I paid money to feed them sugar cane. Can I not say that my actions were motivated by compassion for these beautiful creatures, and like a member of the John Howard society, I was visiting and bringing tasty comfort to a poor chained creature? After Gord had heard enough of my guilt ridden justifications he said, "You know, I am chained to my desk at work; no one sees this as a problem, and they definitely don't bring me sugar cane; well, maybe a few pieces around Christmas."

We are staying in a bungalow in the park, and having learned our monkey lessons in Lopburi, our bikes are inside and safe for the night. Groups of pig tailed macaques have been trooping past our window as I write this. Oh boy now one is sitting on our railing. 

Gordon:  It's later in the evening and we have just returned from a "night safari."  This consists of riding in the back of a pickup truck while a guide scans the area with a spotlight.  As well as many sambar deer, we saw a porcupine (somewhat different from the North American species), a lime green snake (reputedly venomous), and a civet (they look like a cross between an otter and a cat).   While we did not encounter elephants (there are more than 200 in the park), or a tiger or a leopard, there was a possibility that we could.  Consequently we were on the edge of our seats for the entire outing, and Ruth said she would happily do it again every night if we remained in the park.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Train South to Lopburi: A night with the Monkeys

We are now in our last week and have to make some tracks toward the airport.  Today we are spending 7 hours on a train heading south before we take our last excursion to Khao Yai National Park. We are stopping tonight part way down at Lopburi so we can have one more peek at the monkey infested temples before heading further down the line tomorrow.

The owner of our guesthouse in Bangkok has suggested that we skip the capital and book a hotel near the airport to avoid the transportation issues created by the protests. We have taken his advice and have now planned a nice bike and train route down.

Every morning my time oriented husband gives me the countdown of days before departure and days before returning to work. My only real worry is getting acclimatized to much colder weather.  (Note by Gordon: I am also giving Ruth the countdown until our next trip.  We are not so much returning to work as going back for a work-break before our next trip.)

Near losses: Gord's glasses and lens cap. The monkey actually took the lense cap dropped it and Gord put his foot on it before he grabbed it again.
Losses: the padding in my bike helmet and a bite out of my water bottle. What monkeys!!

Kuhn Sathan National Park to Phrae: Long Coast Down

Ruth: Somewhere at around the 35km mark I realized I was pedaling. Our ride down from the National Park was wonderful even if I cost us both a set of brake pads. We stayed up high on a ridge for 11 kms before plunging down to the valley below. The remaining distance into Phrae was either flat or slightly downhill, making for a fast ride.

Not many tourists come to Phrae, but they should.  We are here for our second night and truly enjoying this relaxed and friendly place with quite a bit to see. 

There are, of course, some Buddhas, including this huge reclining one. We also enjoyed watching some workmen creating the stucco work on another temple in the same compound
But the real charm of Phrae is found in its quiet alleys with old teak houses in various states of repair.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Khun Sathan National Park: Go'in on a Tiger Hunt

We are staying at Khun Sathan Homestay at 1377 meters at the National Park of the same name. Our hosts are a Hmong family who have welcomed us as honoured guests. The spreads of food that they have prepared for us are large even for calorie deficient cyclists!
We have a very rustic bungalow that is more like camping than anything else. We will have power when the generator is turned on at 6:00 PM. Hopefully the thin walls will hold off some of the remaining wild tigers and bears in the area.
I should confess that today's climb was done in a truck rather than by our own power. Even if I am She Beast the Intrepid Hill Climber, some hills are just a bit too steep and high.

Gord has that particular sparkle in his eye that comes with certain elevations and vistas. I think I need chocolate to achieve the same level of euphoria. In the afternoon he headed up into the jungle with a mackerel hanging around his neck and calling, "Here kitty kitty."  While he may not have had an opportunity to sink his hands into the soft belly fur of a tiger kitten, he did climb the highest peak in the area at 1728 meters.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Rest Day in Nan

Ruth: This morning we visited Wat Phumin, Northern Thailand's Sistine Chapel. The temple was built in 1596, but it was during it's restoration in the late 19th century that Thai Lue artists painted the now famous murals. These murals are noteworthy not only for their Buddhist content and their depictions of daily life but also for their political and social commentary from the Thai Lue perspective. They were painted just after Eastern Nan had been given to the French and references to this can be seen in the paintings. 

On our way to Nan we visited a Thai Lue village at Ban Nong Bua that has another Wat with murals by the same artists. Here the political commentary was less subtle, such as monkeys having sex on the colors of the French flag.

The Thai Lue were originally from Yunnan province in China where they had an independent kingdom from the 12th century until the end of the Second World War when many fled from the communist revolution. They are famous for their fine quality weaving which is still being produced by many women in their villages. We visited a weaving cooperative where they make beautiful fabric in a manner unchanged from that depicted in the murals.

Nan is great, and although Thai tourists have discovered it, the town still feels like it is off the beaten track. We are enjoying our lovely guesthouse and the good food available, including numerous bakeries!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Phu Lang Ka Resort: Staying with the Yao

Gordon: We booked a night at the Phu Lang Ka resort only because it was the sole accommodation we could find at a convenient distance from where we stayed the previous night.  The few comments on the internet were not encouraging: "time has not been kind to this resort", "costs 50 percent more than comparable resorts", and "difficult to find staff to provide food or other services".  As a result we were unsurprised when we were shown a basic room that cost $24, which is indeed 50 percent more than we would expect to pay.  The employees of the resort were also less interactive than is typical.  We grumbled a bit between ourselves, but acknowledged that at least the location, high on a ridge, was beautiful.

After a nice bowl of Tom Yum soup, the only item on the menu, we had a look at the articles for sale in the dirt floored shop/office.  There were some fine embroidered items on offer, and Ruth purchased a small bag for her camera.  She asked the young woman in the office what group made the craft items, and we were told that they are "Yao".  Ruth asked if the young woman was Yao, and she smiled broadly and said she was.  She went to the back of the office and returned with a coffee table book on the Yao written in English.  The young woman was pleased to allow us to borrow the book for a few hours.

The book informed us that Yao are any of a number of related groups found in southern China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.  They are an ancient people who lived in southern China until a couple of hundred years ago, when they were pushed further south.  The Yao are called Mien by the Thai.  They are skilled artisans in embroidery and we admired examples of their work in the book.

I got up as soon as it was light the following morning, expecting some nice views for sunrise.  The resort was already active, with a number of the guests up and taking photographs.  The view was breathtaking, with limestone pinnacles poking up out of the ground fog in the valley below.  Ruth and I spent the next hour taking far too many pictures.

Afterwards, while we were having breakfast (a tasty chicken and rice soup) a distinguished gentleman and two young women wearing traditional dress came out and unrolled a lengthy scroll with paintings and text written in Chinese characters.  The gentleman lectured at length, referring frequently to the scroll.  The other Thai tourists rushed forward to take pictures, as the cultural minority groups are as unusual and fascinating for them as they are for us.  I should note that we were the only farang at the resort, and in fact we have not seen another foreigner for several days.

While the gentleman was delivering his lecture, an older pair of women, also dressed in traditional attire, sold herbs and other items from a table.  Ruth had a pleasant exchange with them, trying their mountain tea and learning about the healing properties of various bark, sticks and roots. The whole conversation was conducted with hand jestures.

By the time we left the resort we realized that Phu Lang Ka had actually been one of our more memorable experiences, for both its scenic beauty and the opportunity to have some contact with the Yao culture.

Ruth:  Gordon said I was so svelte and the next thing I knew I was in my granny gear cycling up another brutally steep road in the mountains. I am so vain. Most of the rest of our two days cycling  highway 1148 was spent either laboriously grinding up or screaming down endless hills. My right thumb feels sprained from all the down shifting. It was stunningly, but very challenging.  These strenuous roads the only way to access some of the traditional communities in the mountains. 

We stopped to visit a cave at a small town and found ourselves surrounded by local men who wanted to look at our bikes and squeeze Gord's thighs.  It turned out they were gathered for a cremation ceremony, which we were invited to attend. We were given seats in the front row and treated like honoured guests. Unfortunately cremation ceremonies take several hours and we still had 50 km of snakes and ladder roads to complete, so we had to excuse ourselves before the actual burning of the body.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ten Good Reasons to Cycle in Thailand

After 1,000 kms of cycling in Thailand it is time to make the case for why this might be just the best place on earth to cycle.

1. People
This is of course well known, but Thai people are lovely and this really is the land of smiles. Whether you are in Bangkok or the tiniest village, Thais are there to help whenever you need it.  One day Gord and I both slipped and fell from our bicycles on a greasy turn and within seconds a man stopped to make sure we were ok.

2. Food
The food of course makes the list whether you are eating a green curry in a fancy restaurant or braving the yummy morsels served up in the street markets. Perhaps even more important to cyclists is its availability. All small towns have some basic soup or noodle stop and snacks, including important items like ice cream bars and nuts, are available almost everywhere. I am not a fan of global chains, but 7/11's can be found in bigger towns and every 10 km on major highways.

Desserts also deserve a special mention. The Thais credit the Portuguese, the first western nation to have a presence in Thailand, with the introduction of many of the popular desserts.  What cycle rest stop could be better than a coffee and cake shop?

Thais also have their own traditional sweets, such as sticky rice with mango and luscious battered deep fried bananas. 

3. Roads
The majority of Thai roads are amongst the nicest roads you will find anywhere. Major highways and secondary roads usually have broad shoulders, many of which are specifically designated for cyclists. Surfacing is also excellent. Minor rural roads are often well paved. Traffic is respectful and light most of the time.  While they are scenically spectacular, mountain roads do not make the list, however, with their15% grades on repeated climbs and descents.

4. Climate
In the last few weeks in the North, the highs have typically been around 27 and the lows around 14 degrees Celsius. This is somewhat below the norm, but excellent for cycling.

5. Infrastructure
Water: We bought two large bottled waters in Bangkok and have been able to refill them at reverse osmosis water vending machines for 1 baht (3 cents) per liter ever since. Spotting the machines is one of our favourite games.  When machines are not available bottled water is easily found.
Washrooms: Gas stations, police stations and rest stops are frequently passed and all have washrooms you can use. Trees are available in between.
Guesthouses, hotels and resorts are plentiful and at least something is available in most good sized towns.
Shady rest shelters are one of my favorite things about cycling here. They are located on most roads, often less than a kilometer apart.

6. Dogs
After reading all the travel warnings about dogs with rabies in Thailand, and my previous experiences on cycle tours with  aggressive dogs, it was a pleasant surprise to meet the Thai dogs. In 1000 km of cycling only three gave us a little chase with barking, the rest either moved out of our way are were completely disinterested. Rabies is a serious issue in the country, and if bitten you must seek medical attention ASAP, but from our experience so far, the majority of pooches here are some of the mellowest a cyclist could hope to meet. Many are well loved and sporting t-shirts and jackets to keep out the winter chill.

7. Cost
You can travel very comfortably here for a modest amount.  The roadside noodle shops will make you a nice bowl of soup for about $1, and for a bit more you can usually get a plate of delicious pad Thai.  Fresh fruit such as papaya, bananas, and oranges are also readily available at little cost.  Accommodation costs vary widely, but we can often obtain a double room with ensuite for $14 to $20.

8. Elephants
Let's face it, who doesn't love elephants, but make sure you are visiting a genuinely ethical center. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center, located between Lampang and Lamphun, is highly recommended.

9.  Buddhist Temples

10. Hill Tribes
The border areas of Thailand are home to a number of ethnic minority groups with colourful traditional costumes and handicrafts.