Monday, November 16, 2009

Post Script: A tough goodbye to a dear friend

I may have unwittingly made a few grave errors in recounting what may have happened to Arun in terms of the route he may have taken and also that in implying it may have been a mistake that cost him his life. I would like to redress some things after a mail I recieved from a close mutual friend who had also trekked the mountain. Some excepts

"He seemed intent on hiking the southern ridge to the top, beginning from the Highland inn.
I remember commenting that I didn't know anything about that route, or whether one even existed, and that I (and I believe Pearly as well) had hiked the northern ridge instead, which was conveniently trisectedfirst by a tourist path, and higher up by an access road."

And the last paragraph

"Throughout this situation I've often found myself recalling an episode from my first time climbing the same mountain. In a foolish attempt to avoid what I thought, incorrectly, to be a checkpoint (wanted to avoid paying that measly 30 kuai) I wandered off the beaten path and began climbing an increasingly treacherous and confusing bit of the mountainside. I was sitting in the middle of a thick reed forest (at an altitude very close to that of Arun's accident), on a steep mossy mountainside with no visibility of what lay around me and aware that I could easily wander onto a brittle overhang without warning. While cursing my newfound stubbornness (thank's a lot Pearly) who should call but Arun. After patiently fielding a few questions about laptops and viruses and how to install this and that, I gently explained that given my current situation, this probably wasn't the wisest use of what little credit remained on my phone. We both had a good laugh at this, he wished me the best of luck, and I went on my uncertain way.
That day I could have met a similar fate. I wasn't being any smarter, or any more cautious. I was lucky, Arun was unlucky, and I don't think there's anything more to be said about it."

At this point I can only paste what I replied to the friend and I feel compelled, more by strong emotion than lucid reasoning, that I have to add a few things with regard to my own experience on the Changshan mountain...

"I don't really know what to say....but I feel you must be carrying the burden of grief a lot heavier than us. The distance from Dali helps dilute some of the shock and though I often pause and sigh, it's been going a little better for me; as hopefully it will eventually for all of us. I can share that I was a little bitter and was firmly convinced that rescue work was not carried out properly. I'm afraid there is still a faint tinge of resentment especially since you've thrown some light on the people involved in the rescue work, especially that of the proprietors of Highland Inn. But it will not help to carry this taste in my mouth.

As for your slight reference to my stubbornness which I might have forced on you on more than one occasion, I have to admit to it. I have been incredibly lucky in many situations I'm deliberately put myself in. My run with luck has often made me reckless and confidant in my recklessness. During my run in with the mountain, you might recall I called you twice to confirm my route and to be honest, to calm my near point of panic at a point when the fog moved in thick and the top seemed so close but I couldn't see a peek of it. Again luckily for me, the mist lifted abit and I once again gave in to my often cocky self and set out to reach the top. My heart was thumping during the descent as I struggled to hurry and reach before nightfall. I entered the town's gate after 9 pm, closer to 10 pm. I seem to have forgotten much of the dicey moments I faced with the rush of adrenaline and cocky pride that comes from knowing you met a challenge and came back safe.

I need to thank you for your mail for it has refreshed my memory and I have to take back my thoughts that Arun may have made a mistake. It could have been me as well. I think I didn't share any of the doubt and fear I faced in the mountain for it was the exhilaration and blissful tiredness I chose to remember the most. I even ignored to talk of the sweet relief once I was safe in bed. I was even too tired to stop long enough to pick brochets, the only late night food available at the road side stalls and relied on instant noodles.

As for your latter note, there are no apologies of any sort required. From the consortium of friends Arun had in Dali and Kunming and everywhere else, you were probably one among the few who I could sense was, if I may, a better friend and one I was genuinely happy to meet and get to know somewhat.

Hope you don't mind me sharing this mail with everyone else but there are some things I have to redress and would like to share as well."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A tough Goodbye to a Dear Friend

These pages have been empty for awhile and might be again. I'm deeply grieved to hear news that one of my dearest friends died in Dali, China while on a solo trek to the summit of the Changshan mountains that fringe the west of Dali Old Town.

Arun Veembur was a dear friend. He was my senior from Christ College and has always been a bit of a lovable eccentric. We'd often meet and talk of travel, mountains and aspirations we had to get out of the city we were bound to and travel to remote corners of India and the Himalayan mountains. He was particularly interested in the North East of India and we had many talks about it, me being from there as was another close friend of his from Assam. Arun was the one who eventually introduced me to Robin (from Assam) and other friends of his who are now my firm friends for life.

It was his intrepid curiosity and fascination for the mountains that led him to sign up for a course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which he later relayed to me and I eventually joined the course as well. After the course he travelled to Robin's place and there came across the Stillwell road, an old 2nd World War road that had been built by the Americans to transport supplies to China during the war against the Japanese. The road from Ledo in Assam, through Burma and upto Kunming in China's Yunnan province. Arun became obsessed with the road.

He spoke about it incessantly and set out to write a book about it. It took him 2 years to get required funds. Once in Kunming, he fell in love with it. He learnt the language and we friends heard less from him except for updates on his latest projects and ploys he had to remain on in China. We knew he was obsessed to a point that saying he loved the corner of China he adopted lightly. We'd often joke that he was hatching a devious plot to sell India over to the Chinese.

I had my own plans to travel to China and beyond, to Mongolia. I shared much of it with him and he was really encouraging. It took me two years and a few twists of fate to finally start my trip, a slow journey by bicycle. Arun was excited to hear that a friend from home would be visiting him in China. He was enthusiastic and kept in touch with us all through our trip doing what he could when we had minor setbacks like being denied entry to China at the Laos border and when my bicycle and belongings got stolen in Gejiu. More than anything it was his succinct wit and gleeful humour that helped me get over alot of these hitches.

When we finally arrived in Kunming, me bikeless and bagless with only the clothes I was wearing, he was there; waiting for us at the date point with his exaggerated Buster Keaton impersonating routine. Arun threw himself into all his passions with a dedicated obsession that was a part of his total eccentric lovable oddball self. He pursued the Stllwell road with as much intensity as he did Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton routines. Often it wasn't really well done and friends of his from Kunming would remember his often painful comic routines that he would stage at the Hump Bar. But it was part of the Arun we all knew so well. Closer friends will also remember the times he'd force us to sit through endless Buster Keaton movies, often pausing and rewinding parts he loved the most just in case we missed the finer nuances of the man's genious. In the end he had us all converted and loving Keaton.

Arun took care of me in Kunming like the friend and brother he was. He made sure I didn't brood on my loss and reminded me I was only missing material things. He introduced me around proudly as I was the first of his friends to have visited him from India. Not once did he underplay the excitement and happiness that he felt that with my visit.

I have to admit we had a few arguments as well. He had a way of trying to convince people about what he felt and also a knack for sustaining long arguments till you back of or admit to his view. He tried his best to get me to stay and agree with his view that travelling was pointless without stopping and learning the language and absorbing the culture of the place. He had developed a disdain for 'backpackers' and the lonely planet style of travelling by the book and tried to get me to admit what I was doing, though by bicycle, was almost the same as the rest of the pack. I ahve to admit it was also his way of getting me to consider staying. After one particularly heated discussion we had to both admit to mutual friends that we were a little sore with each other. But that didn't last, you can never be sore at Arun too long. As Arun told another friend of ours, he liked to get me worked up sometimes just because I fell for it each time. He added to the same friend it was abit like a sibling taunting game between us.

I decided to move to Dali while waitng for Ced, who'd gone back to France for awhile on business, as the mountains beckoned. I needed a different view from Kunming's highrises and Arun was just getting involved with a project in Dali at that point. Part of The Hump group for whom he worked. I loved the Dali life especially for the mountains and I spent a lot of time walking and exploring little paths on it which I would relate to Arun. It was me and Nick who found a path that led to the summit of Zhong He peak, at 4200m, a tiring but exhilarating 4-5 hour hike along one of the many ridges of the mountain chain. Nick and I both climbed to the top separately and encouraged Arun to do the same.

The Changshan mountains loom 2000 odd m above Dali. It has incredibly steep slopes and many gorges and deep furrows along it's slopes. The path we found sticks to the ridge of the section of the mountain just behind the huge temple complex south of the Three Pagodas. While steep and tricky in sections it is very manageable for those accustomed to mountain walking. When I had gone I took utmost care to make sure I had time to come back down. I had noticed several paths that seemed to lead down but decided to stick to the one I had come by. The climb and height gain had also left me feeling a little giddy and though it was getting late, I made sure I didn't deliberately hurry. Things didn't seem to have worked out for Arun.

While exact details to the turn of events are not clear, Arun presumably tried a new route after successfully reaching the summit and slipped while trying to navigate a cliff face down a dry waterfall. Gravely injured he called for help around 6 pm. He might have been unconcious for awhile. He also called his parents to let them know he was hurt but comforted them with a small lie, saying he was on his way to the hospital. A search team went out looking for him all night but couldn't locate him. Confused and weak from the fall Arun wasn't able to guide them properly either. It also turned out he had crawled under a ledge to keep away from the wind. When they finally found him, it was too late....

It is painful to share details of these last precious moments and I feel a need to talk about it to avoid the same happening to someone else. I can't help but feel there are many things that could have been avoided. No one was prepared for it and rescue efforts, if I may, perhaps a little disorganized. His friends who set out to locate him loved Arun as much as I and I may cause further pain to his friends and family in speaking out my mind but I feel we have to face the facts.

It is essential to find out where things went wrong, the awry communication, the fact that not all his friends who could have known of his whereabouts were contacted and that people were hopelessly unprepared. I may be wrong to presume as I was far away but I need to speak out.
Dali has a mountaineering club, it has mountains that people frequently hike in, there are local villagers that go frequently to gather stuff from the mountains and there doesn't seem to me much of a rescue team in place. I could be wrong and what happened, happened. We don't really require a crack elite team (it would be good if there are resources) but we definitely need a group of committed individuals who study the mountain and are in touch with villagers who know the mountain. Cordoning off the mountains and sealing it off from hikers will not be the solution. What Dali needs to do now is make sure the possibilities of avoiding accidents and the means to tackle them if they do happen are put in place. People need to talk about this and communicate. We owe it to Arun to see to it that someone else doesn't go through this pain.

And as for readers of this post and all my dear friends, I have to share that I believe spending time in Nature and with nature is healing and crucial to better understand our relationship with the earth and our purpose for living. I am happy Arun decided to finally go to the mountain. He had been going through a rather tough time with his job and related lifestyle and had decided to get back on track and get healthy and fit again. In our last mails and bits of communication he told me he was healthier and intent on maintaining an active healthy lifestyle and to focus on the book he had ignored for awhile. I think going to the mountain was part of his plan to refocus and prioritize what was important to him. But he may have made a few mistakes that anyone of us are capable of. I will not elaborate until I get the full details but if ever you happen to go alone on a hike or trek alone please keep a few pointers in mind.

1. 80% or more (figure may be inaccurate) of mountaineering related deaths happen during the descent. Often it is due to tiredness, time contstraints and the consequent likelihood of making mistakes or bad decisions. Always make sure you have optimal time to descend and if not abandon plans. Remind yourself continously to be careful.
2. Always stick to the same route you came up on. Do not try a new path if you haven't tried it before and are unfamiliar with the landscape. Especially when the area is steep and tricky.
3. Always carry emergency rations, a torchlight, a whistle, warm jacket and first aid no matter how easy or short the trek may seem or how warm the daytime air may be. If anything goes amiss a torchlight or whistle can help guide rescuers.
4. Inform, inform, inform....friends, guesthouses or family where you are going, the route you plan to take and what time you expect to be back. It may be sometimes difficult to stick to the time frame and delays may happen in coming back but keep a margin and ask more than one friend to check up on you. And make sure you contact them too when you get back. Worrying people is better than bad news being handed to them.

There may be many more things to add to the list but according to me these are the most important. As for Arun we will miss you. For a long long time.

And once again my intention is not to blame or hurt. I am fully aware that the rescue team tried their best and the events will continue to haunt them more than me. Especially as some of Arun's dearest friedns from China were on that team. But this has been written in the hope that the same doesn't befall someone else. One of Arun's last mail to me was about the recent cirsis The Hump faced after two core members walked out of an ongoing project after a disagreement. He wrote, in chinese, the word 'crisis' combines the characters for 'danger' and 'opportunity'. here i sense - i hope (touch wood) - the opportunity is the greater by far."

That was Arun.

Friday, October 9, 2009

CCTV Watching You!!

Prayers no longer spin for the camera shy. An obscure monastery in the mountain wilds of Western Sichuan. For those who must, it's a rugged 50 km climb from the town of Maerkham. They wouldn't let us free, tailing our every move. I pointed out their camera could do all the work. And wondered what guile could a prayer spinning Buddhist possess. A monk smiled quietly as if reading my thoughts.

It's great to be breathing free albeit frigid air again. Mongolia's winter is feels warmer than blogger blocking sooty Chinese air. An exaggeration I'm afraid for I sometimes miss it much.

Narrations continue here but blogger is resuscitated once more.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


I've been censored by the beauracracy of the PRC. Which means I've can no longer access this blog-this message is being posted by a friend in New Zealand. The PRC's 60th anniversary is coming by soon and all possible touchy subjects are being avoided. A tragedy as I had much praise for the incredible luck and help I've received from the Chinese police in recovering my bicycle, the details of which I was all ready to wax eloquent on my blogger pages.

But now...

I've moved here to the Travel Blog. Continue reading there. The link, if you need it, is

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Study in Contrasts

Apart from inflated food prices I have no complaints about Laos. I thank the country for making a cyclist out of eager me. On these roads it's just a matter of perseverance. So I cycled more than 1200 kms in Thailand but was still broken by Pai and here I'm over a thousand as well and eager to see how the roads in Vietnam are. Maybe the pictures have a clue on how and why I've toughened up. Plus when you cook yourself over slow smokey camp fires, your tummy's fed enough to start enjoying the wild beauty of the country.

Here's an example of what the Thais call rural road, often a road that doesn't pass through any important economic hub but one that's been built with blessings from the benevolent king and just serves to link small rural hamlets to bigger wider truck pliable roads. This is a road that leads down to Bok Krai waterfalls not far from the Isthmus of Kra. Please note the paint has worn off on most other rural roads so don't expect the same bright lines.

While South Laos certainly boasts better roads and we have travelled along roads with stretches of uninterrupted tar this is an extreme example of what is called a highway here. This is an important link road for traffic plying between the northern provincial town of Phongsali to Oudomxi, an important economic hub of Northern Laos. I must clarify this stretch lasts for only 109 kms starting at Ban Yo till Pak Nam Noi where you will suddenly see the tar from a distance shimmering like a mirage in a desert. From Phongsali to Ban Yo it's a good sealed road and remains so as the road contiues on 20 km to the Chinese border town of Pak Ha (still closed to travellers). But a 90 degree turn southwards to remain in Laos and here's a good ride awaiting. Took us two days and one small fall (me), dust clogged lungs, muck choked chains and rattled bones to finally kiss tar at Pak Nam Noi.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Laos; I meet Muddy Ruts and more

I meet Muddy Ruts
My FabIndia kurta and vegetable dyed cotton pants have become my pedaling uniform and as I type I have 2597.3 kms in my legs. I almost guessed I could now call myself a cyclist though a little embarrassed about my candid confession on my last post but a little prick to my salvaged confidence came from the last mail I got from my Mom, "Okay, darling, take care. I'm too sleepy to write a proper mail. Only - when you write 'Peddle' you mean 'Pedal', don't you?". I have a condition which I can best describe as a speeching defect and this sometimes adversely affects my penning abilities and causes me to often misplace my homonyms. So faithful followers, if any, might note necessary edits to my blog header.

In other news Laos has been a wild adventure right from the start. I wish I could share every day but brevity's been calling for me to exercise it so I'll share some bits as best as I can. But to let you guys know this post was meant to have been keyboarded in China but thanks to a rather unfortunate turn of events with Chinese immigration officials at the Boten-Mohan Laos-China border. We are now back in Luang Prabhang giving the town a second chance of redeeming itself from the initial rather acerbic impression we had of it when we first arrived from the wild western roads of the country only to jostle our way through the tourist multitude (that invades Luang Prabang each season) while trying our best to hang on to our purse strings that everybody seemed out to leach into. But I'll save the narrative for the next post and focus on the roads that intoduced us to Laos and wiped the Pai sniffles out (wrt previous post).

Pulling out of Huay XAi was easy till the tar road ended abruptly less than 2 km from the main town centre. A long dusty strtch awaited us with the only remnants of tar popping up for a couple of 100 m stretches each time the road led through a village. I guess it was blessing for the villages with the amount of dust kicked up each time a vehicle passed which was quite often. The Mekong seemed to taunt us as it placidly flowed beside the pebble and dust road. People in these parts have relied on boats for centuries and there's a reason why. Anyway we stuck to the course counting our blessings in that we were really in touch with the land and meeting the real locals. The road to Pakbeng is quite an ellusive on even on the map and the next few days saw us chasing little faint squiggles on the map with often none too reliable inputs from locals who'd point out small tracks after initial attempts of dissuading us with terse comments of "no road" staring at our bicycles with disbelief. They weren't wrong. There wasn't a real road and we had to connect dots taking boats when a road ended for sure and pushing our bikes through little paths no bigger than a reindeer trail. (Reindeer?) Ok mouse deer trail. Some pictures to illustrate the road.

There was semblance of a proper road for the first 75 km or so until it dissapeared somewhere along a village (who's name we never really got) 5-7km form Hatsa where we had initially planned to cross the Mekong by boat to catch up with a track on our map. The electric poles had dissapeared a long while back and here on there was no electricity to be had till we reached Pak Beng. Being rather late and convinced by villages we might as well take a boat from there we camped in the school grounds of the village. We had a problem with food as there wasn't even a single noodle shop in the whole village but luckily they cooked up 4 packets of Mama (similar to Wai-wai instant noodles) at a local store. We also got a small introduction to what would become norm each time we passed a village; a reception of curious gawkers too shy to initiate conversation with but entranced enough by our bicycles and presence to stare unflinchingly at every move we made. We woke up the next morning to a foggy dawn and a growing mass of school kids around our tent.

The Mekong lay swathed in thick mist and though our boatman ridicolously overcharged us 50000 kip for the short 10 minute ride across the river to the village of Pakso it was the most beautiful boat ride as we cut straight into the enveloping early morning river mist, silent except for the drone of the boat's motor. I could have paid him more to row us across just to preserve the magical stillness around.

Pakso to Pakhop was less than a 10 km stretch but finding the road involved a proper recci and put our communication skills to the test. We pushed our bikes through corn fields, crossed streams, followed cattle tracks, pedaled over bumpy rubber tree roots crossing plantations, waded through knee high wild grass and fell into mesmerised dream state broken only by occasional jolts when our wheels went over hidden ruts.

A road runs through it...or is it a river run through it?
O Laos, Where Art Thou?

Once in Pakhop we spent quite awhile in vain looking for the said to exist trail on the map to Pakpet Neua but after repeated dead ends and unconviced locals we finaly resorted to taking another boat though we were smarter this time about negotiating the price. We paid 60,000 kip for the half hour boat ride. There is a proper jeep road from Pakpet Nuea that connects to the biggest town around these parts, Xiang Hon though it took awhile to figure this out as our map again erroneously listed the town as Xang. Our Rough Guide map won the IMTA prize for best map in 2006 but almost consistantly got the names of towns and villages wrong. It has been the best map around so far for small roads and land relief so you can imagine the state of other maps. Cartography as a career option is being keenly considered. We could at least offer our services to do ground work for cartographers. (Interested folks please read this as a job application)

We had roughly cycled 15 kilometere when we passed through a small Khamu village where when of the villagers who we'd met earlier passing us on his moped, stopped us to tell us not to continue as it was a long climb ahead and no villages for a good while. It was already late evening and so after some hesitation and his insistance for our safety, we decided to accept his offer to spend the night in the village. We didn't quite manage to convey we had a tent and could camp so we gratefully accepted the offer to sleep for the night in the spare room of one of the villagers. I am consistantly overwhealmed with the generosity and kindness of village folk. It hasn't been the first time I have experienced the benevolence of people who have so little themselves but take it on themselves to help as best as they can. I remember the time I was literally rescued and hosted by villagers in a remote corner of Bhutan after getting my purse robbed.

We spent the night in a lovely bamboo hut, bare except for a few pots and bedding for the family and the traditional tiny round stool that serves as dining table. Dinner was a simple affair with boiled mustard leaves, chilli and Khao Niao (sticky rice). Cycling really whets the appetiate and I couldn't help but continue to stuff my mouth long after our hosts were done. Being rather tiny people they seem to eat a lot less. Thankfully they seemed happy to see us throughly enjoying the food and egged us on with encouragements of "Kin Khao! Kin Khao!". (Eat rice!, which we conviniently quickly understood as eat more! eat more!) Here's a picture of Ced stuffing his face the next morning with our indulgant hostess looking on. Breakfast was a repeat of the previous evening's menu and I'm guessing an everyday affair. We were happy to eat all they served as the road ahead was to be a proper test of endurance and especially for me, of my handlebar maneuverability and balance. Our hosts had waved us off with wishes of "Shukdee!" (Good Luck!) and seemed a little perplexed when we shoved an envolope with a few notes into their hands. They clearly weren't excepting anything in return for the hospitality they had offered us.

After the first hours climb we were quicly descending towards Xiang Hon, a dusty town spread across a huge valley. We had a huge lunch here and soon were digesting it clambering up roads and curves of the like I'd never seen let alone cycle on before. Tarred flat roads became a distant memory as I painfully struggled up steep inclines littered with loose rocks and slippery dust only to steel my nerves for painfully bumpy descents with my spirit sinking at the view of the next climb ahead. This went on for three consecutive climbs and descents and with the sun beating down on us through the 40 deg C heat around, it clearly wasn't for the faint hearted. Here's when the cycling taught a thing or two about zen to me. I took my time, refused to be ackowledge the pain building in my muscles and ignored my discomfort except to stop often to sip water and wipe the salt that strayed into my eyes. I marvelled at the scenery around we and reminded myself how fortunate I was to be doing what I was doing. It took a lot of mental persuasion but not once did the sneaky longing to be on fueled machine cross my mind. But after 3 grueling climbs I was more than happy to break for the night by a stream just before the last real climb towards the highway that connect to Pakbeng. By this time we also realised we need to start cooking ourselves as there were no noodle shops or fresh food of any kind to be bought along the villages we passed. We somehow survived dinner and breakfast with cold canned sardines and hard dry khao niao a villager had kindly sold to us from his own dinner leftovers.

Next morning was another tough climb that took us through more villages that never seemed to have seen foreigners ((though the bicycles do magnify their curiosity) and we were soon passing through more densly populated villages before suddenly ahead we saw what was clearly meant to be the highway 2W as marked on our map. It was a bigger wider version of the road we'd been on except the pebbles and dust was replaced by loose grey gravel delibrately laid by machines. Huge machine lay in strategic corners and trucks passed by the score. It was even more tricky pedaling on the loose gravel and with the machines lumbering past and the hills around being pillaged of their trees and earth with not a scrap of shade around, it felt quite close to passing through some Tolkien-esque wasteland.

Hellish highway

The road mercifully wasn't uphill all the way and it soon became a matter of trying not to skid on the loose gravel and stoically pedaling knowing we'd be back to the Mekong for some soul and body cleansing. The road intrestingly was being built by Thais and with the rate of progress should be completely tarred and ready in a matter on months. I had contracted some sort of a urinary infection beacause of the combination of dust, sweat and dehydration by then and nearly wept with relief when the planned highway suddenly ended right at the river. The debris had obscured the view of the river and I had been prepared for a much longer ride. Again there was a problem with the map as Pakbeng was supposed to be right across but turns out the new road and proposed future bridge lies 10-15km before the small town. Unable to consider cycling another km even we spent a good while negotiating with boatmen until one finally agreed to take us for 50,000 kip. Pak Beng exists solely because it's used as a stop over for tourists travelling from Huay Xai to Luang Prabhang. 10 years ago there was virtually nothing in the small village it was but now every second house is a guest house and fairy light decked restaurants and their garish glow light up the street at night while huge speakers blare music in the bid to attract their customers for the night. In the background the town's three generators thud and sputter all night providing power in the absence of electric lines till the last customer leaves to wake up for the early morning's scuttle back to the boats to catch the best seats for the next days cruise to Luang Prabhang.

We caught the boat as well and got to be tourists for the day. It was definitely less dynamic than pedalling and I was happy to cruise down the Mekong in the shade but I couldn't help but be almost bored after the first 5 hours. No wonder the rather constipated looks on the faces of several passengers around. Along the way we saw a rather grisly sight as we pulled up to villagers trying to sell their wildlife catch to the boats that ply this route. Laos supposedly has the best forest cover and wildlife around this part of SE Asia but this is being continously threatened by illegal logging, deforestation and to a lesser but still significant degree by hunting. And Laotians seem efficient hunters by the goods on offer. There was a young girl clutching what looked like a cuddly teddy but turned out to be but a clearly dead pygmy slow loris frozen in rigor mortis. A still bleeding mouse deer hung from another's hands while the slighly less lucky one included a squealing pangolin strung by the tail, squirrels, civets, a few sqawking barbets and mercifully dead kingfishers hung by their claws. I don't like to justify one meat over the other especially when you're travelling through a protein deprived poor nation but the sight was enough to churn my tummy and emotions. Later on I'd try to reason with my prejudices again while travelling through areas brisk with dog meat trade.

Grisly teddy; cuddly till dead

We pulled into Luang Prabhang, got throughly dismayed with the tourist mass that had taken over the town, disgusted with monk hunting camera weilding fellow tourists (when not on our bikes, we scarifice our role of travellers), bitched about unbelievably high prices and stayed comatose in our rooms stupefied by the heat for almost 5 days. It was hard to move and our bodies seemed to protest each time to planned to leave. We finally made the effort to visit some wats and tried our best to try and enjoy the UNESCO Heritage tag bestowed on the city. But when tourists outnumber locals there's clearly something amiss. But move we did and male it we did to the Chinese border taking a long route round via Phongsali but details I think I'll spare till we do enter China. I'm paranoid to the point of being almost superstitious that we'll be denied entry again if I share our story too soon. So till the next post and some pictures beside, to let you all know we'll be pedaling through Vietnam, crossing the famous Tram Ton Pass and hopefully entering China via the Heko border in Lao Cai. And yes Luang Prabhang on second visit with half the tourist population has been good enough for us to joke about coming back during monsoon to really start loving it.

Wlecom to China: A picture taken too soon.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Broken by Pai...almost

Kitty saying bye in Chiang Mai

The lethargy's been seeping in with heat. Leaving Chiang Mai wasn't easy as we arrived on the weekend and so there was no way to go about getting official work for Chinese visas done. The two day's break from everyday cycling was enough to make moving even to get basics like laundry done a tough mission. To top it's getting hotter everyday. So we finally applied for our visas only the next Wednesday spending the days in between for some indulgence in food and sloth which has lately been all that we look forward to on entering a tourist cove. The town was a nice enough place but thick on the tourist trail with garish tourist pandering tacks almost everywhere. As our visas were to get ready only the Tuesday ahead we decided to head North to the hills to chase some breeze and escape the crowds.

The map showed an interesting loop west of the town towards Sa Moeng which curved along after the town further west before turning North on rough rural road till a place called Wat Chan from where it joins main route no. 1265 which links with the the highway to Pai (another tourist destination that a friend we met later described as a Khao San street in a lovely valley). We hoped to be able to complete the loop in about four days and maybe hitch hike back if need be. So off we went eager to be back on our cycles.

Cycling can be profoundly humbling experience. I need to confess I had quite a romantic idea of traveling by bicycle. Each quiet time I spent deciding whether to commit to a cycle was usually languid daydreams of coasting down gently sloping valleys in the red gold glow of a setting sun. No wonder I easily convinced myself to take the step. About an hour of steady peddling brought us to our first slope. We took a small detour that promised a cave at the end and were soon huffing up a small path along Mango plantations. The climb grew steadily steeper but I was still in good spirits. We passed our first real rural Hmong village along the way. It was a typical rustic scene as I had seen in Mizoram before. Bamboo houses on slits with pigs noisily snuffling around in their wood pens while hens clucked with their brood pecking the dusty road. A few villagers squatted along the road which also served as their front yard cooing over a small baby that exchanged hands quicker than it could nestle into the next lap that held it. I was still in a good mood. An all too short descent later we were puffing up the next steep slope which led back to the main road just as I was ready to start protesting at the effort we spent without proper breakfasts in our bellies. The road was the pass that led down to Sa Moeng. I gritted my teeth and set about peddling again but it wasn't before long a combination of tiredness hunger and irritation at the building heat got to me and I could just about do what I could to try and focus on getting to the top.

Cycling or any activity that requires the ability to withstand pain for hours is as dependent on the mind as it is on physical endurance. I fully subscribe to that in theory but have yet to really exercise it fully. The climb to the pass was my chance but halfway up the 5 km slope I really began to break. The worst is when the mind caves in before the body. I began to question all my reasons to try and cycle to China. I cringed at the confidence I must have exuded while sharing my plans with friends and family. I was under no false impression that it would be an easy ride but to suffer as much continuously for days seemed an inane act of utter stupidity with the physical ability I possessed. I reached a point where I could just gag "I can't" while trying to push my bike the next 5 metres. It wasn't before long I was cursing myself for all the hours of idle daydreaming while reading accounts of cyclists who'd travelled the world while thinking I'd love to do the same. Maybe I was better off living tgis adventure vicariously. It was an intensely humbling moment that I couldn't fight this feeling of defeat but sank into a morass of self pity. By the time the pass came in view, I had to do all I could to stop the tears from breaking out. I reached the top of the pass, looked at Ced reclining of a patch of grass below the road sign welcoming us to Samoeng, tried to speak but alarmed him by broking out into a loud gagging sob instead. I bawled my eyes out feeling utterly foolish but unable to control the sobs as they poured out unabated for a couple of minutes. I cried for all the pain it took for me to reach the hill, all the defeat I felt in me, the realization of the rough work that lay ahead if we were to continue and the naiveness with which I had excitedly decided the road to China must be peddled. I cried till the tears ran dry after which Ced forced me to take a nap though I didn't have to try hard and slept for half an hour. From here it was downhill to Sa Moeng.

Exhausted by my drama and the 1000 odd m we'd climbed during the day we stopped at a lovely guest house we found along the rustic north end of the town. Jame guesthouse was built near the strawberry field that dot this area and it was the most restful place we'd payed to stay in so far. Chomping strawberries and watching the night creep in around the fields around us I soon forgot my day's break down and soon became optimistic about the next couple of days ahead of us along the little used road that would connect us with Route 1265.

If the previous day had gone better we could have cycled another 15km to camp at Khunkhan National Park and Hot Springs. Thailand is dotted with lovely wildlife parks, though the wildlife may to restricted only to a few little mammals like porcupines and civets, and each one offers camping facilities with toilets and showers. As each one is not marked on the map it pays to do some research ahead to find a lovely campground. But we didn't regret the 500thb bill we ran up at the homestay for two delicious meals and a beautiful night's rest on stiff clean white sheets.

By this time I was resigned to the inevitable climbs we'd have as by mid day we were above 1000m and it didn't took like the hills were going to suddenly fade away in flat plains. I marveled as we rode through thick pine forests and realized we were about 1500m above sea level and at a much higher altitude from my childhood pine fringed hometown of Shillong and I could never before consider cycling to Shillong or even around the hilly town. We slept that night on the school grounds of another Hmong village called Maetala. The kids in town though excited to see cyclists weren't at all intrusive and after realizing we were looking for a place to pitch camp and have access to toilets they showed us to the school grounds and left us to unpack in peace.

Pitching camp at the Hmong village of Maetala School grounds

From here it was an almost endless rutty dirt track that took us along through dusty valleys and lovely hills and the villages that lay along them. We met or rather inhaled the dust from a few adventurers bikers as they whooshed past up on big 600cc dirt bikes. This road seemed to be popular with bikers and off road adventure jeeps taking an alternative route to Pai. Apart from that it was smiley villagers on their mopeds that made up the little traffic that plies on these demanding roads. It was with relief we finally reached Wat Chan where out of almost nowhere a beautiful tarred road greeted us. The night was spent at Wat Chan hospital grounds after locals tipped us off on the camping and lodging facilities offered by the hospital on the pine crested hill behind the main building. Next day it was back to tackling 35 km of unforgiving steep climbs and equally unnerving steep descents before we decided to hitch the rest of the way back if we wanted to be back in Chiang Mai in time to collect our visas early next morning and leave at once towards the Laos border.

A kinder winding of the few along route 1265

Thais are mostly helpful hospitable generous and kind. I remember a rather nasty fall I had along the way as my back tire punctured during a particularly potholed descent. It was then that two big dirt bikes rattled by without the riders even bothering to look not that I was badly hurt but every local on their lowly moped that passed after offered us their help. It was the same as we tried to hitch back to Chiang Mai at a junction 10 km from Pai. Many huge tourist hired and charthered almost empty SUVs passed us by without a glance till a young Thai couple who'd passed us earlier seemed to have changed their minds and they painfully backed their pick up back to where we were waiting with our dusty selves and dustier cycles. Bless them for if no one had agreed to give us a lift it would have been at least another 3 days to tackle the steep winding hills of the area. I got a little car sick on the way down my body a little unfamiliar with the motion after all the cycling we'd done.

Harnessing momentum for the climb ahead

Curious toddler in a hilltop village between Phrao and Fang

Our visas in hand and a little wiser from the knackering climb we'd gone through we estimated 7 days to reach Chiang Khong from Chiang Mai if we were to take it easy. But the first day's ride to Phrao was mercifully flat with just a few short ascents and followed beautiful valleys. The road out of Phrao was even lovelier as we passed farms along valleys and pockets of lovely wild land with a slight backwind carrying the lovely almost citrusy scent of wild flowering peas. We had two slightly demanding climbs but after the lesson from Pai it was done more or less easily. We surprised ourselves by cycling almost 109km that day and going way beyond our initial plan of stopping in Fang and managing to go upto Thathon instead. Travelling without a guide book and having only the map meant we were quite surprised to see another tourist joint in Thathon as rafting trips down to Chiang Rai are quite popular from here. Another odd 100kms and more beautiful Thai countryside as we crossed isolated pockets of villages and we got our first sight of the Mekong river and the Laos border across as we pulled into Chiang Saen after dark.

We got our first clue of the economic disparity between the two countries separated by a 10 mins boat ride while looking on at dusty truck and steam shovels hauling sand off the Laos banks while the Thai riverbank was an almost continuous line of bustling businesses offering food, massages and other epicurian distractions. It was only late in the evening that folks on the Laos shore seemd to dress down for the evening as strains of badly accompanied Karoake music wafted across the Mekong. Even then we could still se the lights of trucks moving along the sand bank hauling their sandy load as if to catch up on some long procratinated work.

across the Mekong...massage with a view of Laos sandheist

We stuck to the road parallel to the Mekong to complete the remaining 70 odd kms to pull into Chiang Kong a little after 3. It had taken us 4 days to get here instead of our estimated 7. Lessons from Pai still resounding in our head we refused to rejoice too much knowing the hills of Laos were waiting. The Laos shore beckoned us to cross over the same day and by evening we were tucking in pork laap (a lao meat salad) and Khao Soy (Noodle soup with slight traces of fermented soya bean and curried meat) in Haouy Xai. 30 days visa on arrival is available for all nationalities though the cost for Indians, Pakistanis, Afghanis and other nationalities around the Indian Peninsular have to pay 40$, 10$ more than most Europeans. The crossing was an almost banal affair of boarding a boat for a 10 minute ride across the river. Looking back at the retreating Thai shore I couldn't help but feel a slight twinge of nostalgia for the good roads, beautiful food and great people we were leaving behind but I hoped in Laos I wouldn't have the hassle of being asked if I'm Thai by almost every local I met. The only damages suffered so far was 3 punctures, a rather embaressing break down and an even more embarressing fall I had when I forgot I had fastened my toe clip only to find my feet stuck to my pedal when I braked to get off my bike. I swayed for a few micro seconds, my face freezing in horror as I realized I was falling but too panic stuck to do anothing about it before I hit dirt sideways, feet still locked on to my pedals. It took Ced awhile to shake off the laughter before coming to aid my poor moaning self as I caught the bar of my cycle square between the legs during the fall.

Puncture repairing break with mangoes waiting to ripen behind the bamboo hedge

We were back in the thick of the tourist trail as the 2 day boat ride from Haouy Xai to Luang Prabhang as thanks to Lonely Planet and assorted guide books is a must do on almost every tourist's itinerary. We spent two days in Haouy Xai watching the multitude of tourists assembling just below our guest house every morning to ensure themselves seats on the boats to Luang Prabhang from the pier below the guest house. I was glad we had the option of peddling the rutty roads that Laos is notorious for instead of being squeezed in with the the hordes on what seemed over crowded boats. We would meet some of them in a couple of days if they stayed long enough in Luang Prabhang. For now we had to gear ourselves for the roads that may or may not lead us where we want to go. Laos is one of the poorest countries of the area and has very little in terms of public infrastructure except for what the colonists left in bits of the southern regions and what the Chinese with their vested interests are supplying further north and the Thais are beginning to take over in areas close to the Western border.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This is Zen

When cat's nap with angel cat guardians looking on; all's feng shui with the world.
(Chiang Mai '09. Pic courtesy Ced)

A few weird things

I never met a man before who made a chore of shampooing his cock. Every weekend he steals his wife's bottled hair shiner to pour on the bright plumes of his feathered biped. For his cock is a prize fighter and one that brings him some coins and maybe more; respite from the boredom of a quiet rural life. So till the day the beak dips in the agony of defeat and pain, an hour from bubbling in a pot...the plumes will stay bright and dandruff free, shampooed clean.

I loathe lizards, I mean I used to loathe lizards till they stopped unexpectedly popping up in places I didn't want them to be after living in a gecko free house. But there was a time my brother would taunt me with songs of fried lizard meat. I thought that was only a thought that could spring in a fiendish sibling mind. Until now. I forgive you bro! And pity the poor things. (Mae Phrik market).

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ahoy! Chiang Mai!

"Disco kung! Disco kung! Very aroi! Very aroi! Eat! Eat! "...Inspector Doy of A. Sam Ngao area was quite a persuasive man. He had roared past us in his Isuzu pickup, pulled into the dusty unfenced yard of a house along the road all the while yelling "me hom, me hom, come! come!". It was so far the strangest invitation we'd had and one hard to ignore. A rather conspicuous motor with a propeller strapped to the back of his pick up rather intrigued Ced, who recognized it as a rather old fashioned paragliding motor. Our curiosity piqued along with the heat of the afternoon sun beating down on us we decided to accept the invitation. It clearly wasn't a bad idea as he had just returned with two friends from what seemed to have been an excellent shrimping (fishing...shrimping?) session. But by the stale beer they reeked of it and the slightly suspect all too jolly mood they seemed to be in I wasn't too sure how long we could stay. But for the moment we couldn't refuse the cold ice and water they served us and the plate of rice that was plonked down in front of us. I suspected something amiss when one of the guys shoved some live still twitching shrimps into his mouth and invited us to do the same with encouragements of aroi! aroi! (Thai for delicious...also mostly pronounced aloi as thais don't seem to produce the rrr sound too well). I had so far evaded trying fried insects but there was no escaping this. I watched on slightly horrified as one of the guys proceeded to dress some the the very alive shrimp with chilli powder, fresh coriander, onions, salt and fresh lemon juice. I'm sure it would have smarted the shrimp like mad as it intensified their squirming while some even managed to jump out the bowl only to be picked and dumped back right in. I have to confess my mouth watered abit as I love anything dressed in lemon juice and chilli powder. I also love shrimp but I prefer them asphyxiated and clearly dead. I was served my portion in a bowl and I ate them as quick as I could hoping to shorten their suffering. At least that was what played on my mind. A couple escaped my bowl and that's when the man who introduced himself as Inspector Doy made his disco kung joke. (Kung being prawn/ shrimp in Thai) It was hard to laugh with my mouth full of squirming shrimps. The last time I'd eaten anything still alive was the quivering oysters in France. Somehow back then served with the typical French gastronomique finesse I didn't ponder the plight of the oysters too much while I squeezed my citron into their gelatinous mass. I guess the champagne had help steel some nerves and numb sympathy.

Inspector Doy as it turned out was a policeman on holiday which was why he was a little drunk, as he explained and also a paragliding instructor; which explained the motor in his pick up. Being an amateur paraglider himself, Ced soon had the willing inspector pull out the sail to check out it's span. So there we were on the 3rd day of cycling towards Chiang Mai after our little train ride to Naknon Sawon; trying to catch the wind with a rather unsteady inspector on holiday. "When drink, I no fly. No good", he conscientiously declared before wrapping up the sail and returning to his drink and disco shrimp salad. The shrimps had mercifully succumbed to air and citrus by then and lay quietly in the bowls.

We goofed up on the train to Nakhon Pathom by getting up on the wrong train. We knew there was a problem when we boarded after first loading our bicycles in the luggage van. We could find neither coach nor seats. Somehow coach no.5 had mysteriously disappeared and after no. 4 we were in no.6 which packed with young army recruits strewn all over in all possible shapes and gaps. They were on the seats, over the seats, under the seat, out in the aisles and even strung from hammocks tied to the luggage racks. Most were passed out from what seemed to have been a rather rough training camp. Luckily for us, the ones awake were extremely courteous and polite and they soon realised we had boarded the wrong train as trains had been delayed and the one we were on was the one that was supposed to have arrived at Chumphon 2 hours earlier while the train we had tickets for was delayed as well. No wonder we were surprised when we saw the train pull in exactly at the time printed on our tickets. The luggage van staff had assumed we knew what we were doing so they didn't bother to check our tickets either. So it was a rough night spent by the loo which mercifully unlike Indian train loos do not stink. We strung our hammocks and made the best of the long night.

Next day early morning we arrived in Nakhon Pathom only to find out the train we wanted to catch to Nakhon Sawan was available only from Bangkok. The next train to Bangkok was the one we had missed the previous night, Train No. 172. It was hard to not miss the irony as we waited for the train to ferry us to Bangkok. The unwelcome diversion to Bangkok wasn't so bad as we managed to catch up for a quick drink with friends who had just landed in town and we also met some dutch cyclists; a couple well into their 70's who were cycling around in their almost vintage dutch bicycles. They took their time to get around but had covered some pretty impressive distances. It was quite inspiring to meet and swap stories. We finally boarded our train at 2pm, the correct one this time and slept almost throughout the 6 hour ride to Nakhon Sawan. Ced had only a week left on his visa and we hoped to save time by skipping the busy suburban towns near Bangkok.

Nakon Sawan on the eve of the Chinese New year was rather quiet for a Chinese dominated town. Apart from the bright coca-cola sponsored red banners lining the roads there didn't seem to be much in terms of celebration. We saw a couple of lantern kites from our hotel room but I guess we were too tired to notice much else. Another unavoidable late start thanks to the sleepless night before and we were more than eager to cover as much ground as possible. We started at 11.30 am and cycled almost wordlessly with few breaks to the next town Kamphaeng Phet. We stuck to the highway almost throughout the day intent on covering the 130 odd kms that led to the town. Though unseen from the road, the highway runs parallel to the Ping river which later meets the Nan river to form Thailand's major river system, the Chao Praya at Nakhon Sawan. I made up for the lack of scenery by focusing on my Cateye bike meter and trying to maintain our average speed of 22.8km/hr. After nearly a 100 km on the main way we finally decided to take a break and follow a dirt road next to the river. The few seconds of quiet and greenery was therapeutic for our tired limbs and eyes. It was also a reminder again of how stressful traveling on a major road can be even though the highway traffic here wasn't the worst we'd seen. But the dirt road didn't run long. There were several large factories built along the river and the way was soon blocked by huge cement walls. It was infuriating. We headed back to the highway and crossed the river at the next bridge. It was a bit of a detour but the road on the opposite bank led though lovely residential areas and was mercifully free of highway traffic. By the time we reached Khampaeng Phet and pulled into a roadside restaurant to eat we were at 140.7 kms and drained of energy. Maybe it was the tiredness but both of us were rather grumpy and it resulted in another small session of snapping at each other and bickering about the menu. Luckily we still laugh and check ourselves in time before things get unnecessarily heated. I guess it's going to take a lot more time for the cyclist's zen to build.

The next day was a long round about detour along rd no. 1109 to avoid the highway on our way to Tak. The rural road we took was the least inhabited we crossed so far and led through large patches of dry scrub forest. For a change the few houses we crossed seemed poorer than in the South and land less fertile. We saw less of people lounging around their varendas and munching food, which seems to be a national pastime. The temperature was 33c in the hot midday sun and the going was tough with the heat. By this time I had shed my shorts for my long cotton FabIndia pants which shielded my legs (burnt almost black) better from the hot burning sun. The scenery soon took a turn for the better as we got nearer to Tak. Tak turned out to be a really pleasant town built along the river with almost every kind of shop including a Trek bicycle outlet and a huge book store where we bought a pretty good road atlas. It also had an excellent night market by the riverside where we stuffed ourselves stall-hopping.

Next day's ride was the most pleasant so far as we stuck close to the river following the secondary road marked on our new atlas. Escaping the highway was a simple matter of crossing a bridge and following the western bank northwards. A short while after the bridge we came across a welding factory with a huge bicycle adorning the entrance. I'm sure many cyclists would have posed next to it and we couldn't help but stop for our first team picture.

cycle, cycle, big cycle

It was a scenic ride through paddy fields, banana and mango plantations, pepper farms and other farm lands till we reached Sam Ngao a little after which we had our encounter with Inspector Doy and disco kung. The road after A. Sam Ngao takes a beautiful inviting winding diversion westwards to the Bhumibhol Dam but we had to decline and continue North. We stopped for the night at Mae Phrik village were locals dissuaded us from trying to explore a road marked on our larger map but leading to a conspicuous dead end on the Atlas we had bought. The road reappears again at Ko waterfalls. It seemed the road led through a jungle and there was no way to cross by bicycle. It led to a small argument as Ced was even excited with this bit of news while till our little compromise, I was keen to taking the shortest route to Chiang Mai to save time as his visa was running short again. We finally decided to further extend the visa if need be but take time to explore all we could while we had the chance.

At first light we were off towards the dead end road. It led along a valley where a dam is being built. There were quite a few locals using the roads so we were confident it wouldn't be a dead end. The road did stop right at a village but there was an alternative small road that continued. The locals here knew of the road to Ko waterfalls and pointed us in the right direction. As it turned out the road passed through a small protected forest area and was not much more than a rough dirt track. We stopped to ask the ranger if it was possible to cross forest to join the road that connects Ko waterfalls with Pha Phueng village from where road continues. He was quite delighted to see cyclist and waved us on merrily assuring us it was possible and to just stick to the right at each fork. The road was a proper mountain biker's dream for downhill descents but more than a painful sore with our road bikes uphill. I mostly pushed, pulled and dragged my bike while riding in the few places the road permitted. But thanks to the novelty of the situation and the fact that we were in a forest completely alone, I barely noticed we were slowly ascending. After a couple of hours and more than a few wrongs turns, tosses and tumbles with a few bruises we finally did reach the end of the forest and the road. The rangers on the opposite side of what serves as the entrance of Mae Ping National Park seemed quite surprised to see us. At least we didn't have to pay an entrance fee this time using the gate only to exit.

It was during our blissful freewheeling downhill coast that I realised we had made at least a 600 m ascent through the forest. After a small break at Pha Pheung we continued on the road that seemed to continue to slope downhill through the beautiful valley of Mae Kong Wa.
Coasting through Mae Kong Wa Valley (picture doesn't do justice)

To our delight we found a merry market carrying on in full swing next a football field. Turns out it was an inter-school football event between villages and so another reason for the inhabitants around to party. We stuffed ourselves with different sausages, meatballs and different barbecue grills that seem to be an ubiquitous part of Thai street cuisine before continuing through the valley to break for the night at a bamboo shelter built by a chorten near a small stream.

Morning after night spent near Mae Kong Wa village
The night was chilly enough to wake us up several times and decide we'll have to look for a tent in Chiang Mai. At least we were off to an early start and before long we found ourselves back on an unavoidable highway with Chiang Mai less that 80 kms away. We decided to take it easy and stop early to break at Chom Thong town to complete the remaining 70 odd kms to Chiang Mai the next day. From Chom Thong we had several options that stuck us to country lanes till we pulled into the suburban residential layouts around Chiang Mai where we saw our first firangs after a week on a their rented shiny black Honda Phantom cruiser looking rather lost and ridiculous with helmets too big and gothic for their white shorts and matching sleeveless netted T-shirts. We had arrived. 1007 km on the odometer.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Because I love the King

Step off the boat at the Tha Thien pier along the mighty Chao Praya River that flows through the mightier Bangkok city scape and you'll find him. Scraping rusty notes from what sounds before you bother to throw a glance, like an all too battered violin bereft of antiquity. Look twice and you'll see the notes are not borrowed of wood but a broken oil can. Redeemed of it's toxicity it's contents long chugged to aid an engine sputter, it's now bound by strings, coaxed by a salvaged battery and loving worn hands; to spill out notes high and low but never shrill. We stop to wonder and without invitation are told why he stands where he is. "Because I love the king", he declares with flourish. "And because you also love the world", we reply filled with adoration for the little man fashioning music from broken oil cans. "Yes! I love the world and I love my king...", he replied "and here's a song to save the world..." as he spun another mournful piece from the yellow plastic can.

Across the Isthmus: The Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Siam

Paknam Laung Suan Beach Road

Struggling to control my breathing as in came out in ragged gasps while straining every muscle in my leg working the pedals I tried to focus my mind on the descent that lay after the climb. It didn't work. I'm not sure which caved in first my mind, my lumber region or my thighs. Mentally screaming at myself for being so weak I nearly sobbed leaning on my handle bar. Several trucks lumbered past on low gear honking their encouragement. I could only smile faintly and wave weakly back. One truck even stopped by my bicycle and made signs to me to hang on for a free lift to the top but I didn't fancy the thought of breathing in all the fumes that trailed behind. Thankfully I felt better as my breathing stabilized and I reminded myself once again this was good training for the high mountain passes I might one day take. I started peddling again but with the wind blowing straight at me, I was nearly knocked off my cycle while shifting one gear lower. I had to stop again. It was my 3rd pass as I didn't seem to be getting any stronger. Watching Cedric bob away around another curve at apparent ease didn't help. I knew he'd be waiting again at the top of the pass for a good while. Maybe it was the stress of the moment but just the though of it irritated me. I have to confess I had been snapping at him quite a bit lately. We hadn't agreed entirely on the Ranong crossing idea but I finally conceded and even got excited by the time we started towards the town. But the general sordidness of the pier on both shores along with the disappointing let down of not being even able to ride our bicycles around Ranong got to me and I hadn't been in the most agreeable mood for a while. It is something I have to watch out for. With the long road ahead tempers flaring unnecessarily is something to be avoided. For now it was peddle a 100 meters, stop to reason with self and peddle again. By the time the pass came in view I wasn't even nodding my acknowledgment to the thumbs up and honks from passing cars.

This part of Southern Thailand maybe the narrowest stretch of the peninsula but it's far from flat. Low lying undulating hills mark the area between the two seas and we seemed to be the highest road of the region - the highway connecting Ranong with the eastern town of Luang Suan where we were headed. Luckily for me there was only one pass but once crossed the road refused to run flat. All too short descents gave just about enough momentum to climb halfway up the next ascent after which it was grit teeth and peddle painfully till tipping over the next slope. At least I had a view of the lay of the land from the vehicles that zoomed past to disappear down one slope only to reappear again in the distant horizon. This went on for hours. By the time we finally reached flat land that promised no further surprises we had clocked 98 kms. We decided to skip the main town and instead head to the Paknam Lang Suan Beach town that lay another 14 km away. It turned out to be a good decision as we were welcomed by a lovely relaxed town with a really pretty sea face. To top it the place was throughly devoid of "firangs" and the locals seemed quite happy to welcome us. We stopped by a store cum stop-for-a-drink place by the beach to celebrate my first 112.8km run across the Istmus from the Andaman Sea to The gulf of Siam with a beer. Thais love being outside and almost every home and shop has a sit out with benches and tables outside where you'll normally find the entire family and/or customers chilling out with drinks and food. The store owner also rented out the showers for beach visitors to use and thought it was a lovely idea to string up our hammocks and camp by the beach for the night. After a quick dip in the shallow blue sea (which had a rather muddy floor thanks to run off from the estuary nearby but lovely none the less) and a shower after we headed off to find food and settle for the night.

After a lovely night's rest and a beautiful morning view of the sea from our hammocks we started the trip back towards Chumphon though this time by the narrow local coast roads.

Shrimpfisher struck by dawn

As we didn't have a detailed map for this region we just stuck as close as we could to the sea. We made several dead end turns and took some false roads but it was worth the beautiful coconut plantations and coastal farms and villages they led through. At one point after reaching another dead end that led to a fishing port by the bay we decided to take a short cut through the lovely Royal Prince of Chumphon College of Fishery campus only to find the gate on the opposite end locked. Not wanting to waste time we simply unloaded our bags and hoisted bags and cycles over the ten foot high gates while campus staff waved and looked on lazily from a distance. I'm constantly amazed at how genial thais can be. I guess they didn't have the keys either or else they would have sure come with it.

Sawi Estuary

Ban Bo Kha Village

The ride took us along the Ao Sawi Bay (Ao being bau in Thai) and along the estuary that meets the Sawi river. Another missed turn took us down to yet another picturesque fishing village, Ban Bo Kha before we settled on the country road that led all the way to Chumphon. 23 kms out of Chumphon we rejoined the highway only to scoot off after two minutes of blearing truck engines and assorted highway traffic zooming past us.The highway route may be the shortest but definitely the most painful.
Beware of crossing cows

We hit a dirt track parallel to the single track railroad that led through more winding country roads and friendly smiles from locals before finally pulling in Chumphon tired but happy after our 98.43 km ride that took us through some of the lesser visited parts of South Thailand. From Chumphon we clambered onto a North Bound Train that will lead us to Nakon Pathom near Bangkok from where we'll take the roads that lead to Chiang Mai. Further North and Further East!