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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.