The pictured graph – generated by my Cyclometer app on my iPhone, tells the story of today. A long flat fast approach, a steep, steep, steep climb, then a long run-out downhill, finishing with a fast southward wind-at-my-back race down to Chiang Rai. Today I only intended to go as far as Mae Chan, a town about 30 km north of Chiang Rai, leaving an easy 30 km for the next day, but I arrived at Mae Chan at 2 pm with plenty of energy. So I just kept going. November 13 was a planned rest day in Chiang Rai, several friends are driving up here from Chiang Mai to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday, so I timed my rest day to coincide. Having arrived a day early, I now have 2 rest days!
This morning, after breakfast at the hotel, I rode northeastward on the main road through green, ripe rice paddies and scattered orchards with the northern mountains looming on the horizon. I stopped for a cup of coffee and a tasty chocolate cake about 35 km out at the Hom Pan Din Coffee and Bakery.
Interestingly they also have a small vineyard and they sell locally made wine, raisins and grape jam in their small gift shop. I skipped the wine and headed east. The climb to the pass was short and brutally steep – but I managed to avoid embarrassment and gutted it out without having to dismount. At the high pass I was greeted by a tropical deluge. I sought shelter under the eave of a storage building as a stream of school children, apparently headed home from school for lunch, frolicked in the rain and gawked at the crazy farang1 with the weird shorts. The rain persisted, although I could see blue sky beckoning toward me from the east. Finally I pushed on despite the rain, becoming completely soaked within 30 seconds.
A short distance east of the summit, still in the downpour, I passed the turnoff towards the north to Mae Salong. Mae Salong is a very strange village built along the crest of one of the highest ridges in the northern mountains. The ethnic Chinese that populate this region are the descendants of a remnant of Chiang Kaishek’s anticommunist army. When General Chiang retreated to Taiwan, a couple of regiments of his army became separated in southern China. They refused to surrender and continued the fight, eventually retreating to northern Burma. The Burmese were not welcoming. Fortunately for these lost soldiers, the ever pragmatic Thais, involved with their own war against the communists, invited these rebels turned mercenaries to fight for Thailand in exchange for Thai citizenship. In order to finance the war, the new Thai citizens turned to opium and the drug trade – the beginnings of the famous Golden Triangle. Tea and tourism have since replaced opium in the economy of this now peaceful village. I would say these soldiers did pretty good for themselves. My original plan called for me to cycle up to Mae Salong, but fortunately I had the opportunity to visit Mae Salong by car a few weeks ago. My car barely made it up the mountain, trying to cycle up there would have been a disaster!
The deluge gave way to sunshine and badly needed warmth as I raced down the hill toward the east. For nearly 30 km I barely had to pedal. This section of road follows the linear Mae Chan Valley – linear because it marks the long east-west-trending Mae Chan fault – an active strike-slip fault, like the San Andreas Fault’s little brother. Fortunately, no temblors today.
Small road-side shrines commonly mark particularly windy and/or mountainous stretches of highway in Thailand. A varying number of spirit houses, mailbox-sized mini-temples sitting on low pedestals commonly accompany these shrines. My understanding is that relatives of car/motorcycle casualties place the spirit houses near to the accident sites so that their ghosts have a place to live close to where they became separated from their hosts. I am hoping that my spirit does not wind up in one of these anytime soon.
I cruised into Chiang Rai about 4:30 pm, checked-in, and had a short rest before heading out to feed my starving belly.
I will spend the next 2 days in Chiang Rai to celebrate my friend Scot’s birthday and play a round of golf (thanks to Scot for bringing up my clubs!). I will need the additional rest because the next segment of my tour calls for a 117 km leg up to the Mekong River.
1 The word farang is used by Thais to refer to persons of European descent.