One of the attractions of the countryside for most people is it’s silence and solitude, and so it is here in Cambodia. Just a few days ago it became so quiet that my mind began to wander and play games with me. I began to wonder if there were lions, or big bears with long pointy teeth and nasty claws, or any such other similarly unpleasant beasts roaming around. And of course the more I wondered the more my imagination played a merry dance with me, until I found myself somewhat anxious. Then in the middle of nowhere, from between two bushes wandered two young girls of the age where girls spend a lot of time arm in arm, and head to head giggling a lot. And this is just what they were doing, totally obliviousness to lions or tigers or strange men on bicycle in the wilderness. They looked up, tugged on each other’s arms, giggle, shouted “hello barang” and burst into uncontrollable hysterics when I returned their greeting. I felt a bit of a twit wondering about lions.
The sound of silence is not all pervading in the countryside at this time of year though – oh no, for it seems to my observation that the wedding season is well and truly upon us. And the wedding season has a soundtrack, and I am sorry to say it is not alway a pretty sound, not to my ears at least – and it’s loud
There seem to be several stages to the wedding music. Interestingly my initial evaluation proved to be all topsy-turvy. There is particular form of, erm, music, that at first I believed to be the Khemer equivalent of closing the bar and switching the lights off. It can best be described as having all the qualities of the residents of a lunatic asylum let loose in the orchestra pit when the musicians have all nipped off to the loo. As I said I thought it was intended to send stragglers home, but looking closer suggests that this is the initial stage of the proceedings conducted as the venue – inevitably a large colourful awning, is being constructed. following further observation and consideration I concluded its intention must be to ward off evil spirtits. I suspect it enjoys considerable success. Next seems to come the plinka-plonka strage. This is played out on an instrument I have never seen but imagine must be akin to a glockenspiel, which makes a far less offensive but ultimately niggling, well, plinka-plonka sort of a sound.
The chanting is Buddhist, conducted my monks, and one assumes its place at a wedding is to bless the happy couple and their future. I am familiar with Buddhist chanting and personally I like it, it is meditative and helps bring peace.
Finally comes party time, this can apparently be whatever the assembly fancies, anything from romantic smooches to the sort of rapular music favoured by angry looking black men with big motorcars, shiny jewellery and raunchy ladies, if videos I have seen on television from time to time are anything to judge by.
Well, so much for the festivities, what about the riding? Well once again it has all been rather pleasant. I woke in the morning with an idea of where I needed to be to find a bed and food for the night and punched the destination into my iPad. Google Maps thought for a while and threw up three suggestions, I told it I wished to take the most remote looking option and the wonders of Apple and Google combined in a magical unity and send me on my merry, and rather rural way.
As is always the case the world over the ever helpful locals did all they could to send me back to the main road. Locals travel by bus, and when you ask them the way they look you up and down, eye your bicycle suspiciously, and suggest that by far the best option is to go the way they would go; by bus. And so those with a flicker of adventure in their soul must smile politely, thank their advisor very much, and head off in the opposite direction to that suggested.
I spent the morning doing this, I would meet men loading logs onto a large battered trucks, I would meet farmers and retired ladies of leisure snoozing idly in hammocks. They would all great me and ask where I am going, I would tell them, they would point me in a direction to which I would smile, thank them, and, feeling rather awkward, immediately turn the other way. And then the people petered out to nothing, as did my food.
My legs were empty and moving on was becoming a struggle, my narrow tyres sank into the sand and I stopped, I checked my watch, five hours since breakfast – need food. The sand was white, the sun was strong and bounced straight back up from the glittering surface. I checked the temperature and my watch assured me it was 39 degrees. I had water and a small packet of Jelly Babies, I love Jelly Babies, these things are carbohydrate bombs and should never, under any circumstances, be given to children.
The route was becoming wild, dried up stream beds and rutted cart tracks proved a challenge to my narrow cyclo-cross tyres. Then I climbed onto a raised surface that felt firm with a fine dusting of sand. There was hard packed single track and smooth cart tracks across savanna, these were great, and then, at last, there was a perfect red gravel highway, and food. A lunch of noodle soups and lashings of cola, delightful.
The day finished in a similar vain, red gravel, cart tracks, single track, and eventually, just as the day was coming to an end, a spot of hard black highway for novelty value. The ride is a splendid one, but by god it’s getting hot.
I sat amidst the dust and fumes of the urban carnage cause by the motorcar and considered the track I was looking at. I was in the middle of Phnom Phen and eager to begin my journey as I hoped it would continues, with solitude and a little adventure – a tall order perhaps in the midst of a capital city. I have of late taken to using Google Maps walking routes for navigation, at worst they give a good suggestion to a route, at best, and this is so often the case, they come up with a stunningly good route for the adventure cyclist.
The track I was looking at was just that, a track, I stabbed a sweaty finger at the iPad, looked up and down the road and back at the narrow path that rolled merrily off alongside the railway line. I slipped the iPad back into its pocket and with a sigh of resignation set out out on what must be oddest route upon which I have ever cycled out of the heart of a capital city.
It was great, nothing like leaving Bangkok in its haze of fumes and high speed vehicles, here in the middle of Phnom Penh I was greater with nods and smiles from locals aboard little motorcycles and bicycles, and within a short time I was out of town and into a wide open countryside bereft of Tarmac.
PaintedRoads tours are never created under pressure, I try to avoid pressure, I have seen it’s affect on others and do not envy them. I have no desperate need to fill my website with tours – indeed as I run all tours personally I need to be careful not to over do it, and besides, I started this to share what I enjoy doing with like minded souls, so my enjoyment is somewhat important to a useable tour. So the mission for now is simple, have a ride through parts of the country I have not seen, enjoy the ride, enjoy taking pictures and see how thing unfold.
More soon, but for now a few pics from the first day on the road, or should that be track?
Well over half a century ago, a little to the north in China, a bitter and bloody civil war drew to a conclusion. Having received a convincing and decisive drubbing from the communist Red Army the defeated Kuomintang needed to give some serious consideration to their future happiness. To say that the commies had been unhappy with the Kuomintang’s warlords and landowners lording over the peasants pre-war would be something of an understatement. This unhappiness was only surpassed come war’s end as those who survived emerged shell-shocked, haunted by sickening memories of friends and allies fallen in battle, starved and frozen to death, drowned in the squelching mire of endless tracts of peat bogs, flayed alive by stroppy Tibetan warriors, and worse. The Communists, the surviving Kuomintang troops decided, were unlikely to be sympathetic and compassionate toward them. Time to make haste and flee.
Although the bulk of the Kuomintang fled en-mass to Taiwan where they took power and laid claim to sovereignty over the People’s Republic of China, a claim they still maintain, some found it far less hazardous and altogether more convenient to nip across the border to Burma. Now, I am not a historian and what I am giving here is at best a potted history, but at some stage I understand the Kuomintang in Burma managed to niggle the government to a point where the prudent move was to once again runaway, this time to Thailand. One assumes that having had to flee two countries in quick succession they felt ill at ease with themselves and felt a strong foreboding they would be picked on again. This, I imagine, combined with the desire for cool evenings and night-time temperatures convivial to agreeable slumber led them to a remote and ill accessible ridge top that that is now the site of modern day Mae Salong, the lovely little town that will host us midway through our new Northern Thailand tour.
Mae Salong is to all intent and purpose a small Chinese town. The language is a dialect of Yunnan Province, the food is from Yunnan and quite delicious; tea is grown and the people look and behave Chinese. As I rode into town I happened upon an old wooden guesthouse that overwhelmed me with nostalgia, it was typical of so many rural lodges in Yunnan Province that have served me as a home for the night that I could not resist taking a room. At £2 a night the price was also authentic and the creaking and rocking of the wooden building as fellow travellers plodded up and down the stairs bought an authenticity only surpassed by a man’s fitful clearing of his retched throat the following morning.
For the Painted Roads tour I have of course found an altogether more suitable resort to spend the night. Situated on a hill side in the old town we will have a lovely cool residence from which we can enjoy evening views of soft light on the roof tops and a warming sunrise come dawn. for those eager to explore there is an energy sapping climb to the hill top stupa, a local street market worthy of a stroll, several cafés, a tea factory, plenty of tea plantations and a lovely thousand-meter-above-sea-level atmosphere to enjoy. I like Mae Salong!
I like Thaton! Thaton is where PaintedRoads went from concept to actuality. Thaton is where I have spent more stationary time that just about anywhere else in recent years. In a little bamboo cottage on a hillside on the northern edge of the village I have slept and cooked and organised PaintedRoads’ first tour. And in the wide flat fertile valley carved out by The Mekok River in which Thaton nestles I have played and exercise and explored on my beloved Salsa Vaya. The fat-ish tyred cyclo-cross nature of the Salsa makes it the perfect bike for the red gravel trails and country byways that wind through rice fields and orange groves. And for these reason and more there was narry a doubt in my mind that we would have to spend a day exploring this area on the new Northern Thailand Tour.
As we explored the options for a route along the Mekok River from Chiang Rai to Thaton Natt casually suggested that we visit his friend Khun Charlie. Whenever I am pondering an issue that perplexes me Natt’s mind always turns out to be a stage or two ahead of mine, and just as my meagre mind seems to be in such a tangled muddle it will never be free of it Natt’s idea drops from his sleeve like a saviour to clear the murk of my mind – and so it was with the Mekok Valley. Khun Charlie’s riverside resort is just splendid, and the many beautiful details make if astoundingly apparent that this lovely little country retreat is more a labour of love that a desire to pocket a quick quid. Add this resort to my desire for a wonderful day riding a loop of my favourite Thai valley and we have another day that is a clear winner. The tour is working out quite superbly.
Today has been such a splendid day that it deserves a quick pre-dinner blog post.
We left our lodgings this morning in perfect cycling conditions with a cool breeze and clear blues sky boding well for a fine day’s exploration of an area both Natt and I know well but still need to explore in more depth before running a tour here.
“There is no road for at least fifteen kilometres on the north side of the river, from here to here” explained Natt very politely as he pointed gently at an area that our map, Google Maps, Apple Maps, Open Street Maps and every other form of maps one cares to consider showed as bereft of roads. “Ah poppycock” I said in my best seasoned adventurer voice, “trust me, if the people here want to get to here” I said enthusiastically stabbing at the blank space on my tattered map “there will be a road” I assured him, ” I know about these hill tribe folk”.
What followed was an absolutely splendid display of why I should listened to those who know better than I, and at the same time why one should never avoid the chance for an adventure.
Our route led us along some splendid single track that twisted and turned, rose and swopped and undulated through bamboo forest, past rice fields, through a school and to an absolutely splendid resort that will serve to rest our heads for the night when the tour runs in October.
For practical reasons such as bothersome river crossings at the end of the rain season we will not be able to ride the exact route we covered today, but we did figure out a perfect ride that takes in stunning scenery, sweeping and undulating roads, an elephant ride, and a lovely boat trip to a rather special resort.
More on the blog soon, but for now a few pics from a great day.
There is an unseasonal chill in the air as we load the small amount of possessions we carry onto our bicycles. A light mist rises from the Mae Kok River as we make our way along her banks as the sun breaks through the early morning cloud cover. Soon the air begins to warm and children on their way to school wave and shout greetings as we wheel by, life is good.
Exploring new routes is one of the reason I love what I do, why I have chosen an occupation that is more about life style than career, and as we begin our exploration of Painted Roads’ latest tour I am happy to be riding through Northern Thailand with my friend and colleague Natt.
The area around Chiang Rai is an area that holds a special place in my heart. I have over the years explored much of the region, and the small town of Thaton where our new tour will spend two nights is where Painted Roads went from a concept to actuality.
It was two years ago that I first explored this route with the intention of creating a tour, since then Painted Roads was born and much has happened leaving a near finished tour simmering on the back boiler. Over the next two weeks Natt and I will use our combined knowledge of the are along with Natt’s vastly superior knowledge of the Thai language to finely hone a tour that we are both very excited about running later this year. Please keep your eye on the blog over the coming fortnight to see how things progress, in the meantime a few pics from our initial exploration.
Testing new fangled gadget with a pic of Frodo
I sit now on the tropical island of Phuket watching the palm trees sway in the breeze beneath an azure sky. Another great Southern Thailand tour has just finished and as always seems to be the case the route has evolved and improved once again. That such a beautiful tour keeps improving I find rather startling, but it really does get better and better.
Being a small group we were able to treat it pretty much as a bespoke tour. Using our combined, and if I may say not inconsiderable knowledge of the area, Natt and I were more than happy to change the route and add in extra points of interest whenever an interesting possibility was suggested. On the very first day we tagged an extra seventy kilometres of exploration to the northern end of our route through an area I explored several years back, and the opportunity to ride it again was a pleasure. This theme continued as the tour progressed with changes to the route that included visits to half a dozed interesting and unusual caves, a rest day in Khao Sok National Park and a beautiful route from Khao Sok to Pang Na.
Many thanks to Jen and Chris, Gor, Natt, Echo and Frodo for making this another excellent tour.
For now a few pics from along the way. Coming up, some more images from this tour and then the tale of a new tour in Thailand far north.