Valentines Day – no loving today – these hills are going to be right bitches! We left at 6.30am and soon settled into our new surroundings – a big orange sun rising above the wooden houses on stilts – families boiling up their tea kettles on little campfires.
First word – everyone is so smiley. After failing to get our Thai Five, we managed to get a double Lao Five off two kids running out to wave at us (although they did try to nick the crisps). In fact all the kids in the little villages along the way either ran out or just shouted “Bye Bye” at the top of their voices. Well sweet, it’s another good and much needed energy boost for the hills of Laos.
After the first bitch (500m of ascent), Kat and Laura shouted out as they passed us in the bus on the way to the Gibbon experience. With our heads pounding from the heat and our hearts bursting, I wish I was in an air conditioned bus!
We stopped briefly to chat to two Spanish cyclists (www.cycletherapy.blogspot.com), but then off we went on the final bitch of the day, rising to 1,200m, and the highest point on the TCC Challenge, although the sandpit hill, water-truck and steamroller almost finshed Jon off.
We made it to Vieng Phouka and found a cool guesthouse (huts overlooking river), although I’ve had a warmer wash in plunge pools. We also felt pretty pleased with ourselves as one traveller explained that the last cyclist to make the same journey we had just done, needed a lift over the last hill – what a lightweight!
Picked Ronnie up from the bike shop, I did try again to ask the twenty something Thai bike mechanic whether it would make it to Hanoi, but couldn’t understand and had the added amusement that he was wearing a kids Liverpool shirt, which looked more like a crop top!
At least we thought that two travelling girls should know where to go for the boat across the river to Laos. Well they didn’t! They were Oz students (Kat and Laura), travelling around Asia – luckily we did find out where to go and packed all our stuff onto a narrow long boat. One passenger (a kind of mix between Hulk and Jaws), had clearly spent the last week at the Hall of Opium, and didn’t know what day of the week it was! Ronnie and Reggie almost had their own joke of tripping him into the river!
We are feeling a bit James Bond as we now have two passports each (the new ones have our Vietnam and Chinese visas in), so we tried using them to get into Laos to make our next border crossing easier. Well we caused a right pickle. Jon told the customs man that we had lost our previous passports (not very clever), and then they thought that we had a set of fake passports. Luckily we quickly changed our story and an hour later we were in Laos (on our old passports – note – we need to explain situation in full at the Vietnam border). Now on our way to spend over a million in our next country – 13,000 Laos Kip to 1 pound!
Felt a bit like two travellers in the afternoon as we hung out with Kat and Laura, and although we were seriously tempted to go on the Gibbon experience they had booked for the following day (zip wire entrance, treehouses and campfires), we had to remind ourselves that we are here to cycle, and have one monstrous day of cycling tomorrow. Ordering food at the restaurant was funny too. We wanted to be prepared, so ordered dinner, breakfast and lunch – they couldn’t believe the amount of food – even granny had to get off her rocking chair in the corner to help, while the 8 year old son jumped on a moped to zip off and get our sandwich fillings!
Really tough ride to the Thailand/Laos border at Chiang Khong today which easily surpassed Wednesdays day of hillage, we had to tackle these hills in short bursts then had to flop over the handle bars, pant for a few seconds and crack on. We were helped on the sugar levels with some sour sweets sent to us by Cadbury (ok so we didn’t give all of them to the Kolkata orphans) and were given sympathetic waves and often chuckles of ‘rather you than me pal’ of passing Thai moped drivers. To give you an idea of how slow we were going we only just managed to overtake a farmer with his herd of cows. The climbs were on par with the tour de france training climbs we did in the alps- seriously tough work especially each carrying about 30 kilos of luggage on the bike and with the added spanner in the works of the heat too.
The climbs also took their toll on Ronnie whose wheel is getting worse, Dom had to detach his rear brake as the wheel had re-buckled and had a nasty wobble, he limped to Chiang Khong and managed to find a small and rather limited bike shop before it shut. Although they spoke no English Dom managed to get them to look into it and have it back to us for 10am the following day, not looking good for Ronnie to hold out to Hong Kong which is still 3 weeks away, not even Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital) our next big city we’re due to reach on 22nd Feb-this could be a serious problem.
Staying at the same hotel was a group of happy go lucky British motorcross drivers aka The Chiang Mai Road Warriors- annual trips organised by Chris and Steve. Every year they go to the far east for a couple of weeks of motorcycle madness. They were really impressed with route through the hills as well as our challenge and the story behind it- they grouped together and very kindly donated us around ฃ160. Steve gave us some good advice about the roads in Laos and places where we could stay he also very kindly gave us some US dollars which would help us get a visa in Laos much easier. The hotel was right on the Mekhong River which was really scenic- just 300 metres to the other side was Laos and country number 11.
A short 40 mile ride today to Chiang Rai meant that we could ping out lots of emails and upload a few more photos, it would be nice to get out and explore the cities a bit more but no time for that today. Found a nice little Italian restaurant for dinner where we were served by a way over the top camp Thai waiter which we found rather amusing and continued to impersonate him on the way home.
So our first days cycling in Thailand and initial impressions are all good- smooth roads, people only too happy to give a smile and a wave, no rubbish or cows wondering in the middle of the road- the main hurdle we’re tackling now is the climate, 36oC and 86% humidity! At least the morning cycle was flat so we had the breeze to cool us down but the afternoon was where the hills came, arguably the steepest climbs of the TCC Challenge so far these were monsters. Not like other mountain roads where they bend and weave working their way up slowly, no, these mothers went straight up. At the top was the highest natural hot spring in Thailand so we parked the bikes up and took a couple of photos, a friendly Thai chap offered us a bottle of water and a banana (we must have looked shagged) stupidly we left the bikes against a wall around the spring and soon realised that poor Ronnie and Reggie were getting soaked- probably not the cleverest place to park but they soon dried out. We clocked 46 mph coming down the hill which was lush but the assents weren’t done with us yet. We were heading for a resort called Suan Thip some 70 miles from Chiang Mei to break down the long journey to Chaing Rai but the last 10 miles was all up hill which nearly killed us. We finally got to www.suanthipresort.com and just for a final nail in the coffin the reception was up a final steep hill.
Suan Thip is a stunning mountain retreat, where the bungalows are built sympathetically on steep slopes around a forest, so the balconies are like tree houses. An air of calm and serenity greets you here, which we think sets the tone for Northern Thailand as a whole – a hidden emerald gem and a real treat to find after such a tough cycle. The manager kindly gave us a special TCC charity rate to fit into our budget and even threw in a complimentary authentic Thai a la carte meal which I’d say was the best meal of the TCC Challenge so far.
The problem we had was with our little annoying winged friend. Vijay was still held up at Bangkok airport so he seized his opportunity to continue the mosquito offensive by getting a Thai bride, a quick exchange of vows over the phone and the plan was set, he briefed Ping Pong to launch a full scale attack on us in Thailand and she and her posse caught up with us at Suan Thip. She spent the night munching away at our feet (rather you than me love) although we gave as good as we got and managed to decorate the wall of the room with a few of her friends!
Today was an internet day, plotting our route through Thailand and up towards the Tropic of Cancer. Dom’s still having issues installing the Garmin World maps program given to us by dad’s partner, Sue frustrating as it’s conflicting with some other free mapping software we tried to install and can’t find the source file. Had a great photo outside the Amari Rincome hotel with some of the staff for their website (and ours- see our gallery).
Nice to have a couple of days away from Vijay the mosquito- he must have got held up at immigration coming into Thailand, hopefully he’s been sent packing.
We’ve been looking forward to a fairly chilled day, the main thing we had to do was give Ronnie and Reggie some bike love. After somehow using some wizardry to fit them into 3 kids bike boxes we had to reassemble them from scratch and spent the morning doing so in the hotel’s tennis court keeping our fingers and toes crossed that the baggage handlers in Kolkata hadn’t man handled them. After that it was off to a bike shop nearby for some repairs; we needed a replacement wire for my handlebar pannier and the wheels needed some straightening after suffering a hammering on the Indian roads. One nasty buckle on Ronnie didn’t look too great following another prang from a van which also had a hairline crack in it. They managed to straighten out the buckle and reassured us that it would last to Hong Kong (when we can get a spare sent out) so we kept our fingers and toes crossed once more and headed back to the hotel.
We chilled by the pool for a couple of hours in the afternoon (not quite enough to rid ourselves of the two tone tans- we still look like a tub of white & dark chocolate swirl ice cream) before heading out for a bit of Chaing Mei nightlife. Dom had been eager to ride in a Tuk Tuk since we got to India and now was our chance, this wasn’t any Tuk Tuk though we nick named it disco Tuk Tuk, it was like something out of Pimp my Ride- 12 inch alloys, a big bore exhaust, multi coloured flashing lights and even the seat backs were replaced by speakers and subs.
We found a cool little restaurant by the river- great to have free reign on the menu again and not have to dodge salad, meat or fish. I couldn’t help but notice two old boys with a young Thai girl on the table next to us, there is a lot of old white men with a young Thai girlfriends around but it was the first time I’d seen two men and one girl- they must have been using moneysavingexpert.com to keep the budget down on their holiday! After dinner we headed over the road and saw a really good band doing loads of awesome covers also took a chance to wash down a couple of vodkas mixed with M150 (the rocket fuel energy mixer banned from most European countries.
The Tuk Tuk we got home wasn’t so racy and struggled over speed bumps and hump back bridges, we thought we might have to get out and push but made it back home, eventually.