Hiking in the Jungle

Almost to the date, 32 years ago, I set out on a 3+ week trek around Annapurna, in the Himalayas Mountains of Nepal.  Next week, I will return to Nepal to begin a 3+ week trek to Everest Base Camp, with a side trip to Gokyo Lakes.  To make this new trek even more fun, I will begin my walk from Jiri instead of flying into Lukla.  This will add an additional week to the trek as I hike the original approach to Namche Bazaar, the gateway to the Everest region.

During that first trek so long ago, I trained by lying in the sun, drinking beer, and otherwise cavorting around Thailand for three weeks before arriving in Kathmandu.  My now 62 year old lungs and legs would have little chance in Nepal if I followed the same training regime this time around.  So, for the last few weeks, I have been hiking the jungle trails up and down Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep – Doi Pui Mountain.

From Chiang Mai city, Doi Suthep Mountain appears as a large completely forested hulk, with the famous Doi Suthep Temple perched on a promontory about 2000 feet up.  The temple is serviced by a well-travelled, paved road plied by fleets of buses, fans, and songtaews that ferries 1000’s of tourists up to the temple every day.  Only a handful of people take the direct route, up the walking trail.  The first part of the trail, known as the monk’s trail, begins at the mountain’s base, and proceeds up to a lesser known temple, Wat Pha Lat, perched about 700 ft above the trailhead.

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A trail-side shrine at Wat Pha Lat

From there, the “trail” makes a direct beeline for Doi Suthep temple sans switchbacks.  This being the dry season in Thailand, the trail consists of a series of steps stomped into the hard clayey soil.  During the rainy season, I imagine that the trail would make a great muddy waterslide; temple to trailhead to hospital in 5 minutes!

I have now been up and down this trail many times – I know every root and rock along the way – I’m pretty sure I could navigate the trail blindfolded.

Yesterday, as an alternative, I chose a very lightly used trail that diagonals up the mountain toward the northwest to the small hill-tribe village of Ban Khun Chang Kian (บ้านขุนช่างเคี่ยน) a small settlement spilled across a high ridge about 3000 ft above the City.

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Your grizzled hero at Ban Khun Chang Kian

The trail is mostly used by mountain bikers who get hauled up the mountain in the back of pick-up trucks, and then come tearing down the trail, hikers beware.  I also saw a couple of crazy farang trail runners – not many hikers though,  mostly the trail is empty and quiet.

From the village, I traversed about 9 km south to Doi Suthep temple, following a four-wheel drive road that led eventually to a poorly maintained trail.  The first part of the traverse passed by numerous strawberry fields that thrive in the cooler mountain-top environment.  Trail finding was a bit of a challenge – the jungle hides a spider’s web of jeep trails and walking paths going every-which-way.  After climbing over what seems like 100s of fallen trees, I arrived at the bustle of Doi Suthep and descended the steep trail to just above Wat Pha Lat, where I finished the 20 km long hike with a 3 km traverse back to my parking spot along the Doi Suthep road.

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Terraced strawberry fields forever

Hiking this trail gave me a great workout – the distance and elevation gain probably equals or exceeds any day-long segment I will encounter in Nepal (albeit at low altitude).  The trails are pleasant enough, although quite steep in places.  During the dry relatively cool season (temps in the upper 80s- low 90s F) the cooler temperatures up high are pleasant. There were only two real downsides to this hike.  One was the constant cloud of kamikaze gnats that enveloped my head.  These terrorists had a penchant for exploring any orifice of mine they could find, and apparently they thought my eyes were portals to a bug’s paradise.   I spent much of the hike wondering if the swarm consisted of the same 200 bugs who found me at the trailhead and followed me for 20 km, or whether they were a tag-team outfit that each had their own designated section of trail.  I imagined attaching a nano GPS transmitter to a few of the gnats to answer this question.  Such are the thoughts that occupy my feeble brain when my legs and lungs are on autopilot.

The second downside was the 20-30 inevitable spider-web-face-plants.  A face-first meeting with this guy will get your attention!

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I am hopeful that these forays into the Thai jungle will amply prepare me for the hiking in Nepal.  My next post will likely be next week from Nepal….

The Great Cultural Divide

There is no better way to experience the chasm that exists between Thai and American culture than to witness some of the rituals surrounding a visit to a Thai temple.  Recently, I visited Wat Chai Mongkhon with my SO on the occasion of her birthday.  Wat Chai Mongkhon lies on the banks of Chiang Mai’s main river, the Mae Ping.  To my pagan eyes, it seems like a fairly ordinary temple, although its riverside setting is lovely.  That same setting, though does allow for a peculiar ritual that I observed there for the first time.

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The Mae Ping River from Wat Chai Mongkhon

On this propitious day, our first stop was a small shop tucked back in a corner of the temple grounds that sells all manner of live fish ranging from guppy-sized up to small-trout-sized.  The same shop also sells various birds in tiny wooden cages – most of these seemed to be some kind of dove.  They also sold live snails, by the bucketful.  This was no pet store though.  The express purpose of this shop is to sell the animals to merit makers, who then make merit by releasing them.  Hmmmm, more on this in a minute….

From the shop we proceeded directly to the temple’s interior where a quick prayer was said accompanied by a few bows and wais to buddha.  This part of the ritual I am quite familiar with and lasted only a few minutes.  From the temple we proceeded to the river bank, where amidst a few more bows and the recitation of a long prayer read from one of the laminated sheets picked from a basket on the pier, both the snails and fish were released.  Their release was followed by a nearly instant eruption from the river – a vicious feeding frenzy of huge carp-like river fish.  As far as I could tell, the newly freed snails and small fish experienced a few nanoseconds of freedom before becoming dinner to these exceedingly well-fed riverine scavengers.

Ok.  To the American mind, this seems very strange indeed.  So let me get this straight, someone goes out and catches some wild critters, keeps them in tanks, buckets and cages, and then someone else comes along, buys these unfortunate critters, and makes merit by releasing them to the freedom of the river, only for them to become instant dinner to some lucky fish.  One would guess that the freed birds might have a better chance to enjoy their freedom – at least you could enjoy watching them fly away to meet their fate, but alas, their cost is quite a bit more.  The American mind cannot help wondering if the merit made by the purchaser sufficiently cancels the merit lost by the animals’ capturers, keepers and sellers.

Now. Here is how the Thai mind sees it……

Sorry, but I have no clue how the Thai mind thinks about this ritual, in spite of numerous conversations with Thais about this very subject. I do know that each kind of fish/bird/invertebrate has a particular kind of merit that is gained by their release.  Some impart good health, others will bring good luck with finances, still others will impart a long life.  You get the idea.

When I asked who decides which animal imparts which kind of merit, my SO replied that that is like asking who decided the meaning of a word.  Wow, that was a very revealing answer! Apparently this ritual goes far back into antiquity, and involves deep beliefs that have been passed down through so many generations that their origins have been lost.  These beliefs run gut-deep and no manner of western logic will unseat them.  My guess is that if you brought a Thai into the Catholic Church of my youth, they would be equally mystified.

The third and last stop in our merit-making was a ritual that I have experienced on numerous occasions – one of my favorites.  The merit-maker grabs an open-ended cylinder containing about 30-40 joss sticks with each stick bearing a number.  While kneeling in front of a particularly plump and happy buddha, the merit maker gently shakes the container until a single stick falls out.  The number on the stick is then matched to a set of fortunes posted on a nearby bulletin board.  Here’s the fortune we got:fortune

I don’t think you can do much better than that!  All in all it was a very educational visit to the Wat Chai Mongkhon.  Please if any of my Thai friends read this, please leave a comment with your explanation of this interesting and (to a western mind) contradictory ritual.

Why I Retired in Thailand

Why did I choose to retire here in Thailand?  This is a question I am asked often by my American friends – especially those who think I actually live in Taiwan.   Of course there are very many reasons; my decision to retire here was not taken lightly and took many years to formulate.  But the story of my day today serves as a great illustration of why I retired half-way around the world from where I lived for 59 1/2 years.

Actually, the story of today began yesterday morning. As I was eating my green curry and rice for breakfast I had that familiar feeling of a foreign object in my mouth….a crown that covered an upper molar had dropped off into my soup (yeah it has happened before). I fished it out and placed into a baggy,  finished by breakfast, then called the dental clinic at Bangkok Hospital (Chiang Mai branch).

Bangkok hospital is the nicest hospital I have ever been in – far better than any I have been in in the USA.  The ambiance is that of a five star hotel.  You are treated as an honored guest and the facilities (as far as I can tell) are world class.  My call  yesterday morning was answered promptly and in perfect English.  They wanted me to come in straight away, but I opted for the next day (today).  I wasn’t going to let a missing molar mess with my regular Thursday golf outing.

Back to today…I arrived at the appointed time at the hospital and entered their large parking lot where a uniformed attended directed me to an open spot.  As he guided me in, he noticed that my tire looked flat.  He looked closer and noticed the bolt that I had picked up that was slowly but surely releasing the tire’s air.  Shit… when things start going wrong you wonder where it will stop.  I didn’t wonder long though, the attended said not to worry, he would see to it that my tire was changed while I was in seeing the dentist.

Up I went to the 4th floor dental clinic where I had to wait about 90 seconds before being ushered into the examination room.  I ask my American friends: whens the last time you waited for only 90  seconds in and doctor’s office?  The dentist happened to be the same as had just cleaned my teeth a few days before.  She took one look and said “no problem”.  Within 15 minutes my crown was glued back in place.  I had to wait another 5 minutes while they tallied up the bill – the princely some of 1070 baht – about $34 US.  My Thai friends would be shocked at this extravagant price – the same service might be half this much elsewhere.  Such is the cost of luxury here.

When I returned to my car, the flat had been changed and the attendant rushed over to give me my keys.  I asked “how much”, and he shook is head and waived his hands.  I tried to force a tip on him, but he ran off saying helping me  was part of the hospital security service.  No need for AAA here.  I still need to fix my tire because I only had a donut spare – fortunately there was a “Cockpit” tire store 200 m down the road.  It took them 10 minutes to fix the flat with a plug and change out the spare.  My cost?  120 baht or $3.80.

Thirty minutes later I was having lunch with my SO at small cafe – we like to try new restaurants whenever we can.

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Pad Thai at Ombra the Garden

I awoke that day in dread of having to get a new crown (or worse) and having to spend a couple of hours in the dentist chair and the rest of the day with a numbed face.  My dread increased when I saw the flat tire.  What next?  But the Thai’s have a wonderful way of making life easy.  Days like this (i.e. most days) make me happy about my retirement choice.

December 6, 2017 – Cycling Tour of Northern Thailand – A Final Look Back by the Numbers

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Doi Pha Klong National Park east of Phrae

I have been back home now for nearly two weeks.  With a bit of perspective, I would like to take one last look back at my cycling adventure “by the numbers”:

1,079 – Give or take a few this is how many kilometers I road on my tour.  Add another 25 km to that to account for a day trip I took to the White Temple in Chiang Rai.  That works out to an average of 98.1 km per day.

11 – Days of riding.  That is not counting the short day ride I took in Chiang Rai.  An additional 2 days were spent on a golf course in Chiang Rai, and one true rest (and laundry) day in Nan.

10 – Number of mountain ranges crossed.  On two separate days, from Chiang Muan to Nan, and Phrae to Lampang, I had to cross 2 ranges.  For 3 days, from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong to Thoen to Phayao, I rode on the mostly flat terrain of the basins.

2 – the number of times I had to get off my bike and push it up a steep section of road.  Both of these were on the same day, between Phrao and Fang.

1 – the number of other touring cyclists I saw during my trip – it was a European woman I saw in Chiang Rai with a bike so laden that I am pretty sure she was riding back to Europe.  I don’t count the locals pedaling their cruisers around the many small villages and farms – these were too many to count.

2 – The number of times I crashed my bike.  I already wrote about the first time here.  The second time was even more embarrassing than the first, but two weeks on and I can now write about it without blushing too much.  I was coasting to a traffic light on the outskirts of Lamphun on my very last day of the trip.  I was looking at google maps on my iPhone which was mounted on my handlebars trying to find a pleasant route through the Chiang Mai basin.  I was not looking at the road.  I ran smack into the rear end of an empty trailer being pulled by a motor scooter being driven by a grimy construction worker.  Fortunately I was going slow enough that I didn’t fall over.  Smashed up one finger bloody good (literally), with only a small scratch on a break lever, and no damage to the very sturdy trailer.  A huge gash to my ego.  The only person more startled than I was the driver of the scooter his look needed no translator, it cried out W.T.F.!!!, are you $#@&^ing blind?!!! I tried laugh it off which was difficult with blood dripping down my arm.  I finally got to pull out my carefully equipped first aid kit, and I was back on the road again in 10 minutes.  I put my phone away for the duration.

398 – Number of dead snakes seen on the road.   Ok, I didn’t really count them, but there were a lot, as I discussed here.

1 – The number of live snakes I saw.  A 4-5 footer curled up on the shoulder.  I just missed running over it at 25 km/hour.  By the time I realized that it was a snake I was far enough down the road that I didn’t bother to go back and take a picture.  Now I wished I had….

0 – This is the most amazing number.  This is the number of flat tires I had.  I reckon this is because I was so well prepared with patch kits, tire irons, and spare tubes.  I never even put air in the tires.  This must be a testament to the quality of the tires that come stock on my bike, the Marin Gestalt 2.

-1 – My weight change from the day before leaving to the day after returning.  Thats right, negative 1.  I actually gained one pound.  I would like to think it is because muscle weighs more than fat, but I now the truth: No day’s ride, no matter how long or over how many hills, can make up for the prodigious amount of food I ate and beer I drank while on this trip.  I am talking 3 Thai food dishes with a plate of rice washed down with a large Singha beer, and chased by 2-3 Kit Kat and Snickers candy bars.  That is just an example of one of my 3-4 daily meals.  It was sure fun while it lasted; now I am struggling to eat only 20% of that amount and can still feel my paunch growing.

My cycling tour already seems like ancient history.  I am back in my usual routine of pleasant retirement.  But the itch is still there, this week I booked my next adventure, a 21 day trek to the base of Mount Everest.  Stay tuned!

 

 

November 9, 2017 – Bike Tour of Northern Thailand – Chiang Mai to Phrao

As I was getting ready to set out on my 2 week adventure, and while I was going through my checklist and locking up the house, I had this short conversation with myself:

Myself: What the fuck are you doing?  We have a nice climate-controlled house with a luxurious bed. You have all your favorite foods nearby and your friends are here.  Now you’re telling me that we are going to spend several hours a day over the next 2 weeks, alone, all bent over, sweating profusely, with a 3 inch wide seat crammed up our crotch?

Me: (meekly) Well….ah….yea….

Myself: Have you heard that every 20 minutes someone is killed on the roads in Thailand?  Are you TRYING to get us killed?

Me: Well most people die in bed you know….

Myself: Yes but they die of OLD AGE you doofus – we’re going to get run over by a minivan, I know it.

Me:  We’ll be wearing a helmet, and I will keep left….

Myself: Let’s just forget this nonsense…put that bike away, take off those silly pants with the padded crotch, and lets just go back to bed.  We can get up at 11 and go play golf.

Me:  Oh just shut up.

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Ready to go!

I forgot about this conversation as soon as I pedaled down my soi.  I felt free.  I could hear the road calling me.  The weather was nearly ideal – high clouds to block the sun, temperature in the upper 70s, and only a gentle wind in my face.  Life is good!

My route today took me northward along the banks of the Mae Ping River over lightly travelled, narrow, but smoothly paved roads.  The first 30 km followed my usually training route, winding through rice paddies and small villages, never straying far from the river on my right.   I know every temple and pothole along these roads.  The terrain was Kansas flat and I made good time averaging around 22-23 km/hour.  A little over an hour out, I made my first rest stop at my usual spot, a small crematorium set beside a lovely oxbow lake.

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A lovely oxbow lake on the floodplain of the Mae Ping – my first rest stop.

The rice is ready to harvest.

Finally I turned to the northeast, left the friendly river behind, and climbed up the winding road through the mountains that separate the Chiang Mai Basin from the Phrao Basin.  I stopped for lunch at a small village market near the high point in the mountains.  One of the nice things about Thailand is that you can get food almost anywhere.  After lunch it was mostly a fast downhill into the Phrao Valley – I pulled up to the Klaidoi Resort just after 2 pm and 83 km.  An easy first day.

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My very own Bungalow at the Klaidoi Resort

The Klaidoi Resort is in the village of Pradoo – which is nothing more than a few scattered homes and business.  My quarters are a small bungalow in a very nondescript “resort”.  Thais use the term resort rather loosely.  But the price was right, 600 baht or about $18. No restaurant here, but the resort owner, Noi, called up the local restaurant (they use the term restaurant loosely too) and the restaurant’s owner came and opened up just for me.  I suspect she closed right after I left.  The restaurant was a 5 minute walk down the very dark road.  No sidewalk here to roll up.  The food was good though and the beer was cold.

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A quiet but tasty dinner.

Tomorrow it is up and over some more mountains to the bright lights of Fang.  Talk to you then.

Some photos from day 1….