Monday, 9 April 2012

Nong Khai to Pai bike trip

Journey so far
5500km since leaving Phuket. That's like riding from John O'Groats to Land's End and back twice! Or riding directly from Newcastle to NewYork. Or Newcastle to Lagos, Nigeria. Anyway, it's a long way.

Nong Khai

This is the view across the River Mekong from my room in Nong Khai. I had a Vietnamese breakfast on my last morning there.

Chiang Kan

Leaving Nong Khai. Riding under the first structure to bridge the Mekong on my way to Chiang Kan in Leoy province. I stopped for food on the way and some very strange old toothless ladies stared at me malevolently. I felt like I had entered the shop in 'The league of gentlemen' as I was certainly not local.

I've been having a lot of trouble with my chain recently. It came off again in Chiang Kan. It came off three times yesterday. The chain keeps stretching so I guess I need the chain and sprockets replaced. They've done 40,000km after all. I'll try and do this in Chiang Mai but I guess I'm going to be there over the water fun fest of Songkran where CM turns into Thailand's biggest water fight.

200km west of Nong Khai. A view down Chiang Kan's authentic main street. It's very nice here and popular with Thai tourists. I didn't see any Western tourists at all. Again CK lies right on the Mekong but at this time of year there is vegetation on the many sandbanks.

Lots of traditional Thai stuff for sale here.


After CK I headed to Leoy town. On the way I stopped at a market for a strawberry fruit shake and a mango. Three kilos for 100bt. Can't be bad. The cheapest I saw in Phuket was 70bt/kg in Tesco!

It's not all hardship on the road. This is a cappuccino and steak on the excellent run from Leoy to Phu Reua.

Phu Reua

A view from the road between Leoy and Phu Ruea. It really was a stunning ride.

As I approached Phu Reua, I couldn't miss this massive fire.

My little house for one night in Phu Reua. Leoy province is Isaan's most North-western province and the most beautiful in my opinion. The riding and scenery were spectacular.


After 15 interesting nights in Isaan I left Leoy and went to Sukhothai via Pitsanoluk. I am now in the northern region of Thailand. This is Sukhothai 'New' Town, however, all the action is in the old town or 'Muang Gao'.

As per usual foreigners (whites?) have to pay 5 times the local price to enter the ancient city ruins. As part of my boycott action I had to contend myself with a drive around the periphery. Sukhothai was established as the first ancient capital of Thailand around 1350ish. However, as one friend told me, Oxford University had already been in operation for 300years by this point! The capital moved to Ayuddaya afterwards before finally settling in Bangkok.

Looking Ayuddaya-ish. There are hundreds of ruins in and around this ancient city.

I like this shot. There were many monks across this bridge. I wonder if they were practising their anapanasati meditation before chanting in Pali?

I had to check this out. Buddha lived in India 2555 years ago. Could his foot print really be in Sukhothai? Or is it more likely to be a Turin Shroud kinda deal?

It turns out to be absolutely true. The Buddha had MASSIVE feet. I'm guessing this is his left foot?

Need a bicycle? Hundreds for rent in Sukhothai.

Thailand has various styles of tuk-tuk. This one has the passengers sit at the front. The driver is posing in the typical 'Thai-man-at-work' look.

This is the dry moat that runs around the city. I'm guessing it used to be full of water in days gone by.

A map of the ancient capital city.

For some reason the police are sponsored by various companies. In Nakkon Si Tamarat it was Coca-cola. Here it is Lactasoy, a kind of milk drink. Milk contains Lactose which is also found in breastmilk, so it goes to prove the Sukhothai police are a bunch of tits?

Sukhothai guest house. Very nice. I had a Thai massage to ease the pain in my aching shoulders while listening to monks chanting in the evening.

Bags of rice. Some rice is 145bt/bag while other rice is 265bt/bag. I always thought rice is rice. What is the bloody difference??????? I asked the seller but she said "Thi Li gu, thi Li ba". That clears that up then!


Onto Tak. Here I am crossing Thailand's major north/south carriageway - the no1. Goes from Bangkok to Mae Sai in the North.

On the way I passed some interesting tractors.

Is it a motorbike or what?

These things are very slow. I have no idea what they might use this vehicle for. Probably to carry people around at walking speed - that's mainly what I've been seeing.

A shot of the River Ping running through Tak Town. You can see a red foot-bridge up stream.

Some freshly planted rice in the paddies near Tak. It was also here that I ate a bowl of noodle soup that had some plastic in it. I mentioned this to the lady and she said "Mai pen rai" or nevermind. Typical Thailand.

Mae Sot

Leaving Tak along the windy road to Mae Sot I saw a few signs like this. It says: "Tang yoot rot chuk choen eek ha roi met" or "Emergency Stop - 500m". I thought eh?

Until I saw this. The roads are very steep in places and you need to drive with absolute care and due attention. This reminded me of an Evil Kenevil stunt ramp?

Here, a lorry has shed its load. I love that expression: "Shed its load". I drove past this scene even more determined to be careful. The driving here is dire by UK standards. I don't even know why the lorry is on the right hand side of the road? What was the driver doing? Goes to show the dangers of driving on these roads.

Further along, these mountains were drawing me onwards to Mae Sot and the Burmese border.

And when I got there I saw this Snake-Head-Buddha at the base of these impossibly tall sheer cliffs.

On arrival to Mae Sot I was pleased to see a clock tower. However, this one is in contention for the Thailand's feeblest clock tower trophy. I've seen enough of these now to be a good judge.

This sign has both Thai and Burmese script. The top bit says "Gate to the Andaman Sea". The middle bit tells us Yangon is 432km away. After studying Thai, the Burmese script looks completely alien!

The immigration control at the bridge that spans the River Moei. It's completely fenced off after this point.

A Burmese registered car trying to get back home.

I went for a walk under the bridge. You can see Burma on the other side of the river. There are hundreds of Burmese sneaking across this porous border. I like the man's little shop just over the razor wire - nice. Further downstream where the wire stops and the trading starts Paul and I walked half way across the river. A Burmese teacher came over screamingg at us to get back to Thailand. The last foreigner to do that was locked up in a Burmese cell for three days! Reminds me of when I walked 2km into Burma's Kayah state from Mae Hong Son province back in 2007.

Armed Thai Army personnel. They had machine guns and binoculars to watch for drug smuggling. What surprised me was the age of the soldiers. Either I'm getting older or they're getting younger? They looked like kids man!

The Army also check that the Burmese have one of these day passes. I got talking to a Burmese school teacher who took part in the 2007 uprising in Yangon. He is barred from teaching in govt schools now. This was his 24hr pass. He was pleased to hear I'd spent one month in Myanmar. He wore the typical Burmese attire of longi skirt and tribal shirt. His teeth were black from persistently chewing betel nut. The women carried stuff on their heads while smoking massive roll-ups. Everybody painted their faces yellow with thanaka paste. It was just like been in Burma again!!

Motorbike restaurants and trays balanced on heads. This could be anywhere in Northern Europe.

Out for a stroll around Mae Sot I spotted a Farang driving a black bike towards me. It was Paul, the Aussie I worked with in Trang for one year in 2009. He is also on a bike trip and we coincidentally met in Mae Sot. We spent the afternoon walking around the Burmese slums on the Thai side of the river. It was fascinating. The Burmese teacher explained that the illegal Burmese can stay as long as they pay the Thai police off (500bt/month). We saw Asian sweatshops where Burmese make clothes all night for a pittance. We walked through the areas of life that most people only ever read about. It's a humbling experience.

Much of the activity here focuses on cross-border trade which is happening continuously. Little boats get packed and ply back and forth across the Meoi River. What surprised me was a boat packed with eggs heading towards Burma. Are you telling me Burma has no chickens?

Hundereds of Burmese queuing for jobs in Bangkok and elsewhere. Thailand is like America for Burmese. There are fleets of minivans waiting to take them to their destinations where they will be fleeced by unscrupulous Thai employers. Some of them will end up living in Shanty towns on affluent Phuket Island (alongside millionaires) where they will facilitate in the destruction of Phuket's natural beauty by joining the booming construction industry. It's a face of humanity that upsets me. I have seen such shocking levels of desperation and depravation in Asia that when I hear poverty discussed in the UK I laugh. When you have seen hungry people living on rubbish dumps, I'd be as bold to say that the UK has no poverty. I agree it has relative poverty but that is not the same thing. These people have never heard the term 'flat-screen-TV'.

Ready to leave Mae Sot and head towards Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son province. Paul and I decided to do this stretch together since we were heading the same way. From Mae Sariang, he was heading east and I was heading north so we would split there. It was cool to be doing a trip with Paul because he was the guy who took me to buy my bike in Sept '09.

Refugee Camp

About 60km north of Mae Sot you arrive at MaeLa refugee camp ran by the UNHCR or the UN Refugee Agency. These Burmese refugees are mostly from the Karen tribes that live on the war-torn jungle areas just over the border. This camp was massive housing at least 40,000 people.

Foreigners aren't allowed inside the camp but Paul and I sneaked in and walked around taking pics for 10 minutes before the Thai Army guards kicked us out. Fortunatley, they were reasonable about it.

A view from within the camp. I was pleased to see food was freely available in little markets scattered randomly around. Nobody looked hungry and everyone looked quite happy. I imagine they would simply like to go back home!

It looks pretty nice to me!

Paul with his mega-camera.

Mae Sariang

Half way between Mae Sot and Mae Sariang.

Trying to get arty with this bamboo raft floating serenely on the Moei River marking the Thai/Burmese border. Where's the immigration/army/police etc here?

I noticed this UK number plate fly past as I was taking a p-stop. We later found this Aussie lad having a break at the top of a mountain. He is going from Singapore to London on this £11,000 BMW monster bike. He had tools and helped tighten my chain that had already come off three times that day. His kit makes my little bag look pathetic by comparison. Good luck to him - he still has a long way to go!

I had a break at the top of the mountain and drank a coffee admiring the view and, bizarrely, the Levis jackets for sale! This was to a backdrop of Elvis music booming out of the ridiculous sound system!!! Peculiar!

Paul and I enjoying the view. Their were three farangs up here and a plethora of Thai cyclists. I wouldn't want to cycle these roads man!

Many sections of road had simply fell away.

This little fella is a member of the Karen hill tribe. He was the first one I met who could speak Thai! I have great helmet hair - I wish he'd lend me his head dress (whatever it is).

They're building a new bridge at the Tak-Mae Hong Son provincial border crossing. Like most of the recent journey, this is a very remote area.

I arrive in Mae Sariang starved. I end up staying in the exact same room I stayed in in June 2007 when I did the Mae Hong Song loop anti-clockwise. This time I'm only doing two-thirds of the loop clockwise. My cheap-ass room had spectaular views of the river. I had to pass this vibrant street party to reach a restaurant. Thailand seems to have spontaneous elaborate celebrations all the time. This one involved young lads holding golden umbrellas being carried on adults' shoulders. The lads' faces had copious amounts of makeup applied giving them the appearance of little girls. I have no idea what this was about and I was too hungry to ask. It was very noisy with trucks full of speakers following behind.

After eating I went for a walk where I bumped into these four hill tribe ladies. They were headed for a Catholic Church?

I followed them here and was surprisded to learn it was Easter! All the hill tribes surrounding Mae Sariang are Catholic! There were hundreds of them here in amazing dress from different tribes from around the whole area. This was quite a sight! I stayed for some of the service which started at 7pm. It was cool holding candles and singing Thai hymns with all these hill-tribe-Christians!

Waiting in eager anticipation. There were to be some baptisms tonight. The tribal outfits are outstanding. There were some hot tribal lasses here too.

To Pai

The next morning I got up and started on the 280km spectacular journey from Mae Sariang to Pai. I met two French-Canadiens doing the same trip. They had better bikes that they'd rented in Chiang Mai.

As ever, there were dangers around every corner. Those chunks of rock were huge. I came flying around the corner and narrowly avoided them.

Another amazing viepoint.

This viewpoint was at 1431m above sea level. That's 87m higher than Ben Nevis - the highest point in the UK. On the way down I free-wheeled with no engine for a record 10km!

From whence thee cometh. Everywhere the scenery was incredible compounded by adrenalin-filled windy roads. Dream motorbike territory.

It was at this point that JT, Yann and myself started trying to get 'dynamic' action shots. We staged a few shots like the one above. Here I am flying around 'death corner' (as we coined it).

A bit further on.

We put dead leaves on the road. Yann waited with his 'mint' camera for JT to race through them. This took 4 attempts to get this pic. JT is doing about 80mph here. It's not a bad effort.


I am sitting in tranquil Pai having a day's rest from the road and penning this. I haven't had a tab/beer in 6 days which is good. I am busy thinking of my next step. Chloe is going to be in Chiang Mai soon so I will have to rendevouz with her. I have to get new chain and sprockets pretty urgently and I guess CM is the best place to do that. Right now I'm off to enjoy a massage and fruit shake by the river. The last week has been excellent. I really don't want to start work on the 1st May. It's so cool travelling about and meeting like-minded people.


Saw yao gurn bai - My chain is too long
Bliang naman - change oil
Naman dem cap - fill it up with petrol
Polemai pan mamuang - mango fruit shake

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