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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Closing the Loop

That next day out of Vientiane was indeed a long one. It was an 86 mile ride to the little town of Xanamkhan, following along the Mekong River the whole way, but it was not the distance that proved the difficulty. The city traffic died fairly quickly as highway 13 (which I had been on for most my time in Laos) turned north and I continued west along the river. While I was relatively close to the Mekong at all times, sometimes I had a spectacular view of it, with its sandbars and large rocky islands, and others it would be gone from view behind vegetation. I rode through many small villages that seemed to get further and further apart as I went. There were multiple signs along the highway that said "Beware Bicycle", a good warning to drivers, though it amused me that it made it sound like we cyclists were some kind of threat. 

40 miles in, there was a stretch of construction, the road got narrower and rougher, and stayed that way even past the construction. It felt like those "Beware Bicycle" signs were more needed here, but were no longer to be seen. There also weren't really cyclists to be seen other than me either. The road also went from flat to having more short hills. But I was still moving at a quick pace, and I felt increasingly sure that I could relax and not worry about time, as I had been most the day, moderating myself in my stops.

But then when I had about 20 miles left, the road turned to dirt. For awhile it wasn't bad, but soon it got increasingly wash-boarded and rocky. Every vehicle that passed by would throw up a blinding cloud of dust, and my bike and I were quickly caked in it. It no longer seemed like I was nearly as close to the end, as my pace was cut nearly in half, with my hands aching from the rough ride. I may have been getting closer, but the approximated time to the end seemed to be remaining the same. Then, finally, 10 miles from the end, I crossed a bridge into a little village and saw pavement to my right, more dirt to my left. I was very tempted by the pavement to go the last bit of the way, but it would mean retracing my steps the next day, as Xanamkhan was a bit out of the way down the river bend, actually over a short bridge that puts the town on a dead end path. I am not sure what compelled me, but I stuck to the gravel. It looked better than it had been at first, but it quickly turned rough and rocky again, and I questioned my sanity. But at least now I had the narrow, up and down, road along the river all to myself, no more damned cars and horrible dust. After awhile the dirt got decent, and it was a beautiful, fairly downhill ride to the end. I made it, dirty and tired, to the guesthouse, with the sun low in the sky. I walked around in search of a restaurant, but found myself giving up and just buying some grocery items instead for dinner.

The next day, much to my surprise, ended up being an even harder day. It was half the mileage of the day before, but many of those miles were very hard earned. It started easy, on a fairly flat road. Then I turned west to head over the mountains to Pak Lay. When I saw the sign that said "blasting area", I knew I was in for trouble. Sure enough, I soon hit heavy construction. It was rough going. Every vehicle that passed kicked up that blinding cloud of dust that quickly had me and my gear covered, and made me wonder why I bothered cleaning my bike the evening before (tediously, with baby wipes that I purchased in town and would continue using the rest of the trip). I got confused and concerned when I saw signs that said "road closed ahead", because this was literally the only road. But when I asked someone stopped in a truck, they indicated it still went through, gesturing and saying "Pak Lay".

I've rarely felt such relief as I did seeing the sign that said "end road work". Now I just had the extremely steep hills over the mountain to deal with. ...But I shouldn't have gotten so excited, because all too soon I saw another "blasting area" sign, and shortly thereafter I was back into construction. It would come and go, sections of pavement, then more construction and rutted dirt road, sometimes the dirt getting so deep on the steep climbs that I had no choice but to walk. It's a bad feeling having a truck coming up behind you as you struggle, up to your ankles in dirt, to get up the road to somewhere you can get out of the way. Eventually, I saw a bike tourist coming the other way. He told me to hurry, because the construction crews were on lunch (which I had noticed in the last segment I had come through), and I wouldn't be able to get through ahead easily once they got off. I noticed he was riding a black Disc Trucker just like me, but there wasn't the time for chatting. Sweat burned in my eyes as I made the brutal climbs as fast as I could. I got through the true final stretch of construction just before they started stopping people, feeling totally wrecked. Some folks had a stand at the top, and I guzzled some orange juice. A guy there offered me a ride on his motorcycle to Pak Lay. I don't know how I would have carried my bike and gear on the back of a motorcycle, but I have seen people do it here. I wasn't calling it quits when I was heading into the downhill though.

I saw a sign saying 15% grade on the way down (which seems about what the up was much of the time). Brakes needed tightened that night with all the turns and massive potholes, plus getting stuck behind a truck. Finally out of the mountains at last, I rode through beautiful pasture land on a much smoother road. Then at last I crossed a bridge funded by the Netherlands over the Mekong (which is not the border once it turns north, that job served by a tributary), and shortly then on to Pak Lay, exhausted but triumphant. I got dinner at a restaurant next to the hotel and enjoyed the beautiful view of the Mekong.

It was a much needed short day the next day, over the border and back into Thailand! I had originally planned to spend more time in Laos this trip, but staying in Vietnam to get my shots altered my plans a little. I still considered crossing into Thailand further north to extend my stay in Laos a little, but ultimately decided crossing there was most practical given my remaining time.

That morning I stopped at several places to fill up my trunk bag with junk food, in order to spend as much of my left over kip as I could before leaving Laos, since it is not an easy currency to exchange. I went up and down some steep hills on the way to the border, but all well paved, and not nearly so steep as what I was on the day before. My understanding is that Thailand helped finance the road heading to the border on the Lao side, and it definitely had the look and feel of a Thai road, with a nice shoulder and all. The border crossing (my fourth and final!) went fairly smooth, though there was a bit of a delay when Lao immigration became concerned Thailand wouldn't let me in. On the Thai side there were no issues, and the immigration official even asked to have a picture taken with me (I've totally lost track at this point how many people have pictures with me on their phone from this trip).

I only went a little over 30 miles for the day (though with 2500 feet of elevation gain), a few of which out of the way to the "resort" I stayed at that night, which I had to backtrack the next day. It felt like I didn't make much progress, but I knew I needed to stage myself for a tough ride over the mountains. I got the friendly resort owner to make me one of my all too usual meals, rice and an omelette. And her husband brought me tamarinds to eat too (which I find an interesting experience to eat, breaking the shell, then tearing off the roots like some alien spine, and chewing around the seeds). It was amazing being in Uttaradit province, less than a hundred miles from the city of Uttaradit, where I arrived on the third day of the tour, feeling so close to full circle. But I wasn't retreading my steps just yet, as I was on my way up to see Chiang Rai before finishing the loop to Chiang Mai.

I had looked at the topography for that next day and prepared myself for some climbing. It started off going up and down small hills, good warm up for the bigger hills to come in the mountains. It was beautiful riding through forested mountain land on a 4 digit (regional traffic) road that had next to nobody on it. The first portion of the ride was a lot of ups and downs, climbing up to immediately come back down. Until I eventually made a big descent into a river valley, where I got to take it easy for awhile as I rode several miles that were mostly flat. Despite being very close to the river, my view of it was generally blocked by trees in the heavily forested area. But I got an opportunity at one point to take a little side road to see it up close, and another good view crossing a bridge over it. 

At last, out of the valley came the true climb of the day. I more than quadrupled my elevation from just 600 feet down in the river valley, up to 2700, in one mostly continuous climb over about 6 miles. It wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. The road was well paved, it had virtually no traffic, it was well shaded for the most part, and the grade was always reasonable, never above 8%, so it was mostly a stress-free slow grind, just settling in to it at a snail's pace I could maintain. Then from the top it was a quick descent down, another 6 miles flying by where the last had taken so long. I got a strong headwind coming down the mountain, but I was still going plenty fast enough. Though the last couple miles into town on the flat felt a little bit uphill again going into that wind. They must get a good amount of it here, with all the pinwheels I saw along the road. I knew I was back to civilization when I saw a 7-Eleven in town. I got myself a victory soda before heading to where I was staying that night, another "resort" spot, just around the corner, really nice and clean after a lot of places that hadn't been. The day ended up being 54 miles, with 5700 feet of ascent. I yet again got rice and egg for dinner from a restaurant that night, and supplemented with snack food from 7-Eleven. Damn it was good to have them back in my life.

The next day was another day of big climbs on mostly quiet roads. I got off the regional highway to take a shortcut on a side road that took me through farmland and jungle. It came as a surprise when the pavement suddenly turned to dirt. But while it was a little rough at points, it was a mostly good dirt, and certainly nicer than what I was recently on in Laos. And before long it turned back to pavement as I came upon a small village. Eventually the side road spit me out onto the main road of 101, which I'd been on briefly before on my way to Den Chai on my second day riding. I was only on 101 briefly yet again that day, before getting onto another side road to head over the mountains to my destination in Ban Luang. 

Much like the day before, there were ups and downs, then riding through a river valley for awhile, before a final big climb at the end. Unlike yesterday, it was not a continuous reasonably graded climb, but one that was absurdly steep. I struggled in my lowest gear for as long as I could, before having to stagger to a stop from a pothole, and then I had no choice but to walk, as there was no hope to remount. Things leveled enough I could get back on again, but I soon reached a point where I was forced to dismount, and I was not so much walking as just planting my foot forward, and pulling my bike to meet me, one step at a time. I don't know if I ever have been on a road that steep. It seemed insane to me that anybody would drive on it. ...But then, probably not many people do. I was really grateful I didn't see a single vehicle for the whole time on the long ascent. I was grateful too that the downhill while still steep and potholed, was not as intense as the climb up had been, and that I only met one truck coming up. It was essentially coasting all the way into, and through, town from there. It was a little less overall climbing than yesterday, at a little over 5000 feet.

Google Maps steered me to a cool place for tonight, extremely nice and very well priced. They were surprised I found them though. A construction worker working on building another room, told the family who owns it next door I was there then a lady who speaks English (lucky break) came over with her kid and explained the place is run by her aunt, and asked if I wanted a room. Apparently they don't advertise and it is mostly accomodation provided to just friends and family. Usually I find somewhere and see Google Maps has no clue it's there, but this time it happened to know a good hole in the wall. I walked to the 7-Eleven along the highway and I got a bunch of random stuff to have for dinner, as there felt too much effort in finding a restaurant.

I was surprised to feel a little chilly the next morning. I don't think I had felt that since I was in Dalat, up in the mountains in Vietnam. It was a high of 95° yesterday and the day before, yet that no longer seemed so terribly hot. And here 60° saw me shivering that morning. It would seem I have acclimated to the weather. ...It will be a rude awakening when I get home.

The cool weather was perfect for the morning mountain climb. It was effort, but not like the last couple days. It was a shame to see the view obscured by haze, as it had been the last few days. Smoke from stubble burning and forest burning in slash and burn farming in the region makes Northern Thailand like that this time of year. After stopping to rest and see what of the view there was at the top, I came across a cyclist coming up right before I started down, perfectly timed. We chatted a bit about our routes and the region before each making our own descents. It got fairly flat after that, interspersed with a couple more big climbs on the way to my destination.

When I got to where I had seen a homestay on Google Maps, with booking website options and everything, I absolutely couldn't find it. A sad coincidencr after Google Maps led me so well the day before that it turned me wrong the next day. I asked locals and got directed one way and then the other. Eventually I stopped at a grocery store, where the owner addressed me to a passing motorcyclist, who took me to a barbershop, where I was soon welcomed by the owner of a completely different homestay from the one I was looking for. It wasn't what I had planned, but the owner is so friendly and accommodating. With some Google Translate use, I explained I was a vegetarian. She told me to wait a bit, and before long, she came back, and I got served a good vegetarian meal. She made so much effort over making sure I had everything comfortable for the night and could make breakfast for myself in the morning, it was really sweet.

Sadly, the electric kettle seemed out of commission for making said breakfast in my room the next morning. It had been working the night before, and I had no idea why it wasn't any more. It was frustrating, especially since I had so many things provided for me if only I could boil water, but after a few attempts, I threw in the towel and hit the road. The day's ride was everything I needed it to be. It was scenic, not too hot, blissfully flat for the most part, I only had a bit of a headwind, and I was on my way to Chiang Rai, a city I had wanted to see since first arriving in Southeast Asia. First thing that morning, on a whim, I took a small detour, past some beautiful rice fields, to go see a temple I saw signs for. The museum there was closed, which was a small disappointment, but it was still a nice temple to see. It was definitely a day for seeing temples, as I stopped at multiple on my way to Chiang Rai, and walked around to see several more once I arrived in the city. 

I realized how long it's been since I'd rode in city traffic as I got into Chiang Rai, having only been in small towns since Vientiane. But it was a small city as cities go, and traffic is pretty light. I got a nice guesthouse in the middle of the city, but tucked away down an alley where it is peaceful and fairly quiet. After getting settled in, I spent the afternoon into the evening exploring. I went to a few temples, saw the impressive gilded clocktower (as well as the old, basic one), got dinner at a nice Jain Indian restaurant, and checked out the local night bazaar.

The next morning after breakfast I went straight to the general hospital here in Chiang Rai to get my last shot. It was quite an ordeal. I wandered for some time, lost in the maze of endless numbered departments. Eventually I found someone to ask where to go, and they directed me to Bloodwork. I found my way there, showed my vaccination card, and they told me I needed to head to Emergency. Of course, I went and got lost on the way there. I asked for direction from someone I thought was hospital staff, but I now doubt, who ended up leading me to Gynecology. Oops. I managed to find my way to Emergency, which was apparently not actually the place to be, but someone there had an actual staff member escort me to the proper place, which seemed to be a segment of the Surgery section, but I wasn't sure. I was at last where I needed to be...but wait, I was a new patient and I hadn't done paperwork yet. So I got directed to Medical Records. ...I got lost again. But someone was kind enough to escort me once again. Then I went back to the place I needed to be, only to find out that now I had to go to Pharmacy to wait and pay for the drugs I needed. With all of that over, finally, I went back one more time, and I got my shot. It was a heck of a way to spend what ended up being about two hours. But there was a sense of relief and triumph to have finished what started all the way back in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

I used the rest of the day to see temples in Chiang Rai. I went to Chiang Yuen near the hospital. Then after lunch, I got a taxi to Huay Pla Kang. It features a beautiful white temple with intricate reliefs, an amazing seven story pagoda, and most notably, an enormous Buddha that you can take an elevator to the top to explore its interior and take in the view from 25 stories up. I got another ride from there to the Blue Temple, which was also incredibly beautiful, but a little too crowded with tourists for me. On the walk back I saw Klang Wiang, which apparently sits at the city center, giving it special significance. Sadly, it was under construction and I was unable to see inside. I got a disappointing dinner (can you guess what it was? Oh yeah, rice and egg). But I got a great, pricy dessert at a cute cat cafe where after a bit of a wait, I was able to sit in a room full of cats chilling out, and people admiring them as they drank coffee and ate desert. It was a really chill end to the day.

So, anyone familiar with Chiang Rai might be saying "But wait, you didn't go to Wat Rong Khun?" To them, I say, have no fear, I visited the iconic White Temple on my way south the next day. It is strange, stunning, and far from your standard temple, as it is the project of a famed local artist that features not only beautiful architecture but also art, fusing traditional Buddhist iconography with popular culture and apocalyptic visuals. Photography is not allowed in the main temple, which is a shame, because there is simply no describing the surrealism of seeing figures from Superman, to Goku, to Neo, to Pikachu mixed with Buddhist imagery amidst scenes of human destruction, missiles, pollution, and the like. Beyond the main temple, there is also a sculpture garden with various figures arranged throughout, Alien, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many others (probably my favorite part overall actually, as there always seemed something more hidden in the rock), a large golden building, an exceptionally adorned bathroom, an art gallery (that also doesn't allow pictures), and more. The whole place is an incredible work of art and I am really glad that I got to see it. I had really wanted to ride around Singha Park that morning as well, but it doesn't open until 9, and I knew I just wouldn't have time for both. I am happy with the choice I made.

After visiting Wat Rong Khun, the last big place I wanted to see on my ride, it really hit home that the tour was almost over. It wasn't much further along busy highway 1 before I turned onto 118, the Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai Road, my final highway to take me to the end. It was 65 miles today of fairly flat with a few hilly sections, and not a lot I wanted to stop for. I passed a couple touring cyclists headed the other way, but they didn't seem super keen to come to my side of the road, and I wasn't to theirs. It was a day for riding through, getting to the end. I got a nice room at a homestay for the night, where the owner has an interesting collection of eclectic, old memorabilia throughout the space. And I got dinner at an overpriced local chain because I knew they would have food for me and I was too lazy to go looking elsewhere (and I decided I deserved it). 

The next day was the one, my last day riding in Southeast Asia. It was a solid final day's ride, with a little bit of everything. It was cool that morning as I set out, perfect for the coming climb. I got breakfast at the 7-Eleven, and then made my way out of town. Not far into my ride, there was a hot spring and old temple tourist attraction on the side of the road, where I stopped to look around. From there, the climbing started. And then all too soon, the construction... There were some rough sections on the way up the mountain. 

Thankfully, when the main descent came, it was a stretch that was mainly free of the construction that dominated the ascent, and I got to enjoy it, barely needing to brake. It started up again soon after though. There was one segment where I was stuck behind a spray truck turning the rutted dirt in front of me into mud right before my eyes. And there was another where I was trying to pick a line through thick gravel, while also trying to not be in the way of vehicles passing in the small space. The GoPro was giving me trouble, so I didn't get any pictures of the gnarly parts. It's a shame too that the construction kept me from being able to stop to appreciate or take photos of the beautiful scenery.

I came out of the construction and mountains into smooth, easy riding the rest of the way to Chiang Mai. It was a great feeling crossing the Nawarat Bridge I had crossed on my way out of Chiang Mai at the beginning of this trip now two months ago. It was great too, on my way through the city to the hotel, realizing that the traffic that had seemed so nerve-wracking when I set out, now felt run of the mill, the city that seemed so large and daunting, now felt small and tame. A lot can change through perspective, and that has been perhaps the most important lesson of this trip.

The journey was done. The loop of 2700+ miles was closed. All that was left was four days in Chiang Mai to make sure I was ready to leave and to have some fun. The first day was mostly taken up by getting stuff done. The bike shop indicated to be right next to my hotel seemed to not actually exist. And the next closest shop didn't have bike boxes. So I ended up having to walk to the Old City for a shop that actually had boxes, and make a 1.25 mile walk back carrying it. That was an interesting experience. I definitely got some looks from locals and tourists alike. Once I got the box back, I spent a chunk of time getting my bike boxed up, and I still worry I didn't do as well as I could have. A lot of the evening was spent obsessing nervously about it. I'm trying this very moment to just not think about it.

But the next two days I was able to do fun things! I walked through the Old City, stopping at one temple after another that Rachael and I had missed when we spent most of a day walking there together those two months ago. There are always more temples. Then, after somehow missing it once (taking the opportunity to see another temple), I hopped the public bus to the Chiang Mai Zoo. It's a nice enough zoo, good enclosures, beautiful scenery, and even a few Asian animals you won't see at the Omaha Zoo, including a giant panda. But boy, it requires a lot of walking up and down steep hills and steps that make the Henry Doorly seem flat. The zoo has roads all the way throughout that allow you to drive a vehicle right to whatever animal exhibit you want, and it almost seems as if it is structured more for that than it is for walking. Even if I was tired out afterward, it was still a lot of fun.

Back in town I hit up a restaurant that (I kid you not) I was able to get a burrito, something I have sought my whole time here in Asia. It had tofu and was covered in lentils and was absolutely delicious. Then I headed over to the night bazaar. A little early. It looked different in the daylight, many vendors still getting set up, none of the magical look it held in the dark those months ago. I had hoped I might get a replacement for the passport cover I lost crossing into Cambodia. But I didn't see the same vendor, and with my hotel much further away than it was on my first visit to Chiang Mai, I didn't want to wait for dark to see if she hadn't set up yet. It was a disappointment, but I accepted I am not getting another.

Then yesterday I did something that I have wanted to do since I first came to Chiang Mai, before I started my bike trip. I took a tour to Doi Inthanon, Thailand's tallest mountain.

It felt a little strange after being accustomed to traveling solo by bike, having the freedom to do my own thing at my own pace, to give up my personal agency as part of a group, ushered from place to place on a strict schedule. It also felt strange to go up such a big mountain without being able to feel its steepness, without the sense of triumph at the top. Whenever I go places by other means, I am reminded why I go places by bicycle.

That said, it was still a really fun time. It was cool up on the mountain, but not quite enough I felt the need for the jacket I packed. Apparently in the mornings it gets down to almost freezing, about as cold as you will see in Thailand. We saw two different waterfalls, the second of which we were able to see much closer than the first. We went to a small village populated by people originally from Myanmar, see the impressive fabrics they make, and learn a little about their culture. We had a veggie friendly lunch, where I learned I have apparently developed some tolerance for spiciness that some of my fellow Westerners on the tour have not. We saw the tallest point in Thailand, and learned a little about the last king of Chiang Mai for which the mountain was (re)named. We walked a nature trail through a forested region covered in moss. Then we went to see the famed Queen and King Pagodas, which were absolutely beautiful, not only the buildings themselves, but the gardens as well. And last, we stopped at a local market, where I picked up some fried fruit (which I am eating as I type this in fact), before making the long drive back to Chiang Mai. That evening I went to the 7-Eleven and weighed my bag to see that it is within restrictions (weight is limited for carry-ons with EVA Air, not just size), and made sure that my boxed up bike will fit in the hotel shuttle to the airport.

And today, well, it probably says something that I finally have found time to update this. I have spent the day, in all honesty, largely regretting that I didn't spend one more day on the road (I had originally planned on 3 days at the end instead of 4). I did some final packing, went out for brunch, walked around a bit, and have mostly been at the hotel. I am at the end of my adventuring, and while it has been immensely fun, now all my thoughts are on getting through what will be likely an unpleasant trip home (it has a 19 hour layover in Taipei for one thing) and getting home to my wife, friends, and job. It sure was nice in my tour to Seattle and to Pittsburgh when the end of the trip was also the destination, no more travel necessary. But hey, the flight can't be worse than that foolish bus ride I took back from Florida... As long as my bike and I arrive intact, I will be happy. The loop is closed, the tour is done, and it's time to go home. Farewell Southeast Asia. It's been one of the best experiences of my life.