Trekking the Golden Triangle, visiting palaces, tea plantations, mountain waterfalls, feeding elephants, and falling and injuring myself on the return trek #11
I had already sold my bicycle and I had 2 weeks before my flight left. So I hopped on an overnight bus to Chiang Rai, far into the north of Thailand, near the Mekong river and Laos. Next morning I joined an all-day tour of of the north lands of Thailand. This included 3 palaces, a tea plantation, ruins, the actual golden triangle, an opium museum, a visit to the Karan village, and some great views of the Mekong valley from mountain tops. We were an international group, traveling in a van. Interesting travelers with a very knowledgeable guide.
Then I visited two local museums in Chiang Rai. One was the Hill Tribes museum, which covered the lives of the many different hill tribes in the area. I had no idea there were so many different groups, or that they were so different. The other museum was the Cultural Museum of North Thailand. A wonderful narrated a fascinating tour. There is simply so much to learn about on this wonderful planet.
I could not find anyone else to join me on a 3-day trek, so I took a bus to Phayao, to see the great swamp there, that is surrounded by mountains. I visited the sinking Buddhist monument on the Phayao Swamp. I was the only white person I saw for 3 days.
Then I returned to Chiang Mai. Here I joined a larger group of mostly young European trekkers on a vigorous 3-day climb into the mountains.
I was 70 years old and the next oldest person was 50. Added to that, I had my full 35 lb back pack while most of them were carrying light day packs. So I was the slowest person in the group. But I made it to the top.
We went swimming under two beautiful mountain waterfalls. When we were coming down, I lost my footing on a steep slope and severely sprained my left ankle. The young Europeans then carried my gear while the guide carved me a crutch out of bamboo. I made it down, of course, but with electric pain with each step. I was so impressed with how kind and helpful everyone in the group was to me, and how they literally carried my weight and helped me down the mountain.
This has been a wonderful trip, and now I am very ready to come home.
Our dear friend On (that is her name) has a simply great vegetarian restaurant and cooking school in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Her menu is so varied that I have eaten all my meals there for a whole week and there were still many new items left for me to try. Jeff Mease and I convinced our Belgian physician friends to take the class, and they immensely enjoyed the lessons, and eating what they had made.
Jeff gave his bike away to On’s son. So now I would be bicycling solo. I left Kanchanaburi at sunrise. I pedaled 110 kms and got to the edge of Bangkok at about 5 pm. No way was I going to ride into the city under darkness. Bangkok is surrounded by rivers and canals, and wild traffic. Many roads just dead end against a waterway.
Next morning, I studied my GPS and I found one highway that went over the canals in a straight line. When I finally found an entrance ramp to the highway, I saw that the expressway was elevated over 200 feet above the city. I pedaled to the top to find that there was a bike lane about 4 feet wide. Good, I will take it. I began pedaling high above the city in a strong breeze. I was the only one in the bike lane. So I began pedaling, and pedaling, and pedaling. There was no exit for 15 miles! When I finally came to an exit, I took it. At the bottom, I just had one more long bridge to cross, and I was in Bangkok.
My mother had squamous cell skin cancer. She had it removed surgically and had no further problems with it. They often start as keratoses or moles. I had noticed that in the last 10 years, a sizable number of keratoses and moles had appeared on my body. Too much sun in my earlier years. I had a few removed with liquid nitrogen, but I was having a difficult time scheduling any appointment with a dermatologist in Bloomington, Indiana. So I visited the Makalin dermatology center in Bangkok, within easy walking distance of my guest house.
I entered and the place really looked professional. A medical doctor examined me. She seemed to know her stuff. She said that with three different types of lasers, they could remove all the moles and keratituses that I had, about 75 in total.
And for how much?
They did the math, and told me $324.
When can we start?
They numbed all the spots with a topical anesthetic and began at it. I watched the red laser smoke them away as the assistant sucked the smoke up with small vacuum hose, so that I would not smell my burning flesh. They moved me into two other rooms and used different lasers, depending upon the size and depth of the mole or keratitus. Three hours later, they were done. They covered up the wounds now over my body, gave me several ointments, told me to strictly stay out of the sun, and come back in 2 weeks. It is now 13 days later and my wounds have healed. ALL the moles and keratituses are gone. It appears to be a successful operation. I will go in tomorrow for one last checkup, and then fly home.
I tried the change my plane ticket with Air China to fly home earlier. In the past, I had always been able to do this with a few hundred dollar penalty. But Air China said no, no way. I would simply have to throw away my remaining ticket and buy a new one-way ticket from them for…. $1250! I had just paid $850 for the original round-trip ticket. So… screw Air China, I will just stay around another week. I’m sure I can find something fun to do.
We went to Grandfather Beach, one of the most isolated stretches of beach in Southeast Asia. From the surface, it looked great. But put a mask on and dive in, and where are the fish? Here, the fishermen use fine gill nets. With these nets, they catch everything. I watched them pull in their nets, and I saw that they keep everything also. They had buckets of fingerling fish no more than 3 inches long. And it showed in the water. In an hour of snorkeling over the rocks and coral, I did not see any fish longer than 8 inches.
Perhaps more serious was how much algae was in the water. Visibility was low. The algae is growing because of agricultural and human waste runoff. These nutrients fertilize algae blooms, which block sunlight and kill coral. I have seen the same in Thailand and Vietnam. Coral reefs worldwide are going going gone.
My travel buddy Jeff and I are staying right on the beach. The room is mediocre, but the location and view are just great. Then we meet a cast of characters: two young Belgian physicians taking their first bicycle tour together and deciding to get married, an established Argentine actress who is 1.5 years into her world tour and improvising as she goes, two other pairs of German cyclists, and Kristna, a Chilean émigré to Belgian who is now a travel magazine photographer and serious gemologist.
When you travel internationally, very interesting groups of people get together for several days and have intense friendships over hiking, adventuring, and dining and partying afterward. Complete mixes of different nationalities, ages of men and women just having a great time. For a few days, we just had wonderful fun.
But finally, it is time to go. The first thing Jeff and I had to do was climb up a 8%, 525 meter high mountain pass. For me, this meant Granny gear, 1:1 on my dérailleurs. I made it to the top with one brief stop. I could not have done that at the beginning of this trip.
But we had been warned about the next 125 kms of this trip thru the mountains to the Thai border. Yes, there was a dirt road and a trail thru it, under construction. A few guides told us it could not be done. They said that the Myanmar customs would not let us pass. But we had heard of one bicyclist who had made it. So Jeff decided in Dawei, Myanmar, to take the bus the whole 125 kms thru the mountains to the border. But I wanted to try bicycling it. So after Jeff left on the bus, I began pedaling.
The first 40 kilometers was beautiful riding, up a gradually ascending river valley. Wonderful greenery, with none of the garbage along the roadside that plagues so much of Myanmar. But then the 30 mph headwinds set in. The winds were so strong that I had to pedal on the few downhills I encountered. Then I had a 2000 foot climb out of a valley at a 10% climb. I made it about half way up before my legs gave out. I just was not strong enough to pedal into this headwind. So I hopped off my bike and pushed my bike up the remainder of the mountain for the next one and a half hours. It might not be bicycling, but it sure as hell was exercise. I was exhausted by the time I got to the top.
I still had a series of saw tooth up-and-downs to pedal thru before I got to Myitta, the only town on the route. Other locals had told me that there was a guest house where I could rest.
I pulled into Myitta near sunset. It was a dusty, isolated mountain village. When I asked for a room to rent, the locals surprisingly laughed and shook their heads.
“NO HOTEL,” someone shouted. I did not feel welcome.
It was getting dark. I tried to find the police station, but no luck. So I had to make up my mind. Time to bivouac—sleep on the ground in a field. I found a cow trail coming off the road and began pushing my bike up it. But a motorcyclist saw me doing it. He pulled over and began shouting something to me in Burmese. Fuck, now someone knew where I was, and it was too dark to find another place. I had no idea what the guy was saying to me. I just motioned silence with my index finger to my lips. Then I hid myself from the road as best as I could.
I had bivouacked hundreds of times before. But this time, I had no tent, pad, or sleeping bag. Not good. First, I put on ALL of my clothes. I emptied my backpack and stuck my legs in it for warmth. Then I wrapped myself in a sheet and looked at the stars above. Orion was directly overhead. Some things never change.
In an hour, the almost full moon rose, lighting up the field around me. It quickly got cold. Dew settled on and all around me. I was wet. I got up and put my bicycling gloves and hat back on. Anything for warmth. But I was shivering. And the sun would not be rising for 10 more hours. This was not fun. Then I felt them crawling over me. I turned on my headlamp to find that I was laying directly on AN ANT HILL! Oh fuck me. I jumped up and shook all my gear off. Then I moved my sleep site over to some softer ground, without ant hills. In the process, I stepped on my reading glasses and crushed them. You asshole, Dwight.
I do not think that I slept more than an hour while I waited for sunrise. I know that the next 75 kms is all dirt road and trails, without any facilities, over steep mountain trails.
Before dawn, I pack up my bike with wet gear and pedaled back into Myitta. I eat some rice noodles at the only stand open. Everyone is smiling strangely at me. They have clearly not seen my kind here before. I borrow a piece of cardboard from them. On it, in large black letters, I write:
$ THAILAND $
Below it, I have a man write the same in Burmese.
His script looks like a bunch of ornate circles.
So I am going to hitchhike to Thailand, and I am ready to pay money for it. A 70 year old geezer foreigner hitchhiking in some strange place. HAAA! So I walk out on the dirt road at the edge of Myitta and, with my bike at my side, I stick out my thumb. How is my luck on the planet going to be today? But now, I am begging for the kindness of strangers.
Five minutes later, a young man in a new black 4-wheel-drive pickup pulls up. Another man explains that I need a ride to the border. The driver looks at me and my bike. Then he nods. THIS IS MY LUCKY DAY! I offer him a good sum of money. But he shakes his head. He says he will do it for free. I simply cannot believe this. So we load my bike in back, I climb in front, and we take off.
The road is living hell. All rock and gravel, and steeply up and down, cratered with potholes. I hang onto the handles to not bang my head on the roof. Bone-jarring, and murderous on the truck suspension.
We come to the first of what was to be four customs stops. The driver immediately motions me to get out and show them my passport. I do as I am told as the driver talks with the customs agent. The agent is very polite to me and waves us thru. When we take off, the driver slaps the dash in excitement and gives me the thumbs up.
Several miles down the road, he stops at a vehicle repair shop and honks his horn. Several men come out and examine the Isuzu truck. Some finagling goes on before I get that he is selling this truck and taking bids on it. Ohhhh.
We go thru two more customs stops and do the same routine. He explains to customs that he is only taking me to the border. Customs is very polite to me and waves me thru. Then he shows the truck to more eager buyers. We do this horse-and-pony show 3 more times. Then finally, a bidder meets his price. They shake hands and some money is passed. The driver is so happy to have made the sale that he buys everyone big, warm beers, including me. We all clink and drink. But I swallow my beer too fast, and it fizzes up in me. So I belch real loud. I discover that apparently, the Burmese men approve of this, because they laugh real hard. So I guzzle some more and belch again. They laugh even harder. What a clever one-trick pony I am. It is now 9:30 am, Myanmar time.
The driver tells me that Thailand is just 2 kilometers more. Time to get out of the truck. Sure. Thank you very much. I offer him money once again, but he waves it off. We shake hands and hug. And I take off on my bike.
I think about this. Clearly, the driver is making some kind of vehicle sale that is not permitted. Then I get it. He is using ME as an excuse to get him thru customs! So he needed me too. Once he has sold the truck, well, end of trip. It sure worked out fine for me.
But the 2 remaining kms turns out to be 15 kilometers, up and down brutally steep, rough dirt trails that drivers must drive fast to keep momentum up the hill. There is no stopping here. The trail is so steep, and the sand so soft, that I must push my bike up each hill. But it is so rough going downhill that I do not even get the joy of coasting. I must use my brakes hard all the way down to avoid the rocks and potholes. I have to do this for another 6 hills over the next 3 hours. No bicyclist, no matter how strong, could possibly climb up some of these hills. Their wheels would get buried in the sand.
Finally I get to my beloved Thailand. I have really enjoyed my 6 weeks pedaling in Myanmar, but it has been tough. Now I am in the land of good roads with wide, paved shoulders, great food, and stores with everything available. I will now ride 80 kms to my beloved city of Kannchanaburi.
Oh Thailand I have missed you.
The hotel staff at the Kyautse Hotel just simply would not let me go! Their kindness was shown in furnishing me two guides to the great archaeological site of Ta Mote Shin. I rode on the back of a scooter with them for about 25 kms to the site. Immediately, I saw that this was a most professional excavation, led by archaeologists. A large metal building covered the temples that were about 1000 years old. Myat and the driver escorted me throughout it. But then, Myat, the devoted Buddhist, stopped. She explained that women could not go any further. I thought this to be unfair, but she accepted it without question. The staff at the hotel asked me to stay another night, but I really did have to get going.
I had a decision to make: I could pedal along highway 1 for 4 days to get to the south, thru intense semi traffic on a narrowish, dirty, dusty road thru flat, dry fields, or I could toss my bike onto a train. I choose the train because I wanted to pedal thru smaller, more safe roads in the countryside where the scenery and country life would be in full view.
At 5:00 am, in complete darkness, I got out of the train in Bago. I assembled my bike in the darkness, having zero idea where I was in the city. I walked my bike out to a major street and waited for light. And Gaia bless GPS on my phone. GPS has consistently saved me from making terrible wrong turns. It has been by far the most useful ap on my phone. So well before sunrise, I am on the road pedaling eventually south toward Dawei, Myanmar, close the the end of the peninsula.
These roads are much more pleasant to ride, with much less traffic. I observe the people making their living growing and harvesting food, catching fish, and making many useful things by hand to sell along the roadsides. For the next 3 days, I average around 100 km @ day pedaling. That is good enough for me. I think I can sustain that rate indefinitely. If I go longer, I might be too tired to go as far the next day.
I finally pedal the large river city of Mawlamyine. George Orwell was stationed here 90 years ago, around the time he came to condemn British imperialism. I have made the mistake of not getting a kickstand mounted on my bike. Someone in the hotel accidentally knocks over my bike and smashes the dérailleur. Oh no, now I cannot ride my bike at all. I am worried that parts may not be available. A German tourist observes my problem and comments, “Do not worry. These people are very skilled at fixing everything.” So I get to a bike shop and they have the exactly same Shimano derailleur! And it is only $7 US. Wow. It would be $30+ in the US. The bicycle repairman, with deft hands, quickly installs it AND a kickstand. I can ride again! He asked for $1.50 for labor. I am embarrassed at how little he wants. So I give him a good tip.
In Dawei I finally meet up with Jeff Mease again. There is a major power outage in the city, so it is running on candles and generators for the next full day. Then we hop on our bikes and pedal over a steep little mountain range to the Andaman Sea. We are now staying on the beach in paradise and not suffering at all. 🙂
Arriving at the best hotel I have ever been in, a brand new luxury hotel, to be told that I am their VERY FIRST foreign guest, and they throw a party for me! Bouncing down a steep mountain road for 2+ hours, pedaling across a hot, dusty plain all day, and relieved to make it.
I packed up my bike and left Pyin U Lwin at sunrise. For the next 3 hours, I pedaled maybe 30 minutes. The rest of it was COASTING DOWN an increasingly steep, 3000+ foot descent into the Myanmar plains below. So I first stopped and adjusted my brakes, yet again. They were wearing thin because of all these descents.
The road varied from top-notch to terrible, with potholes and gravel. So I kept my hands constantly on the brakes. On a few straightaways, I imagine I hit 40+ mph. The truck traffic was the worst of it; large, overfilled caravans of lorries bearing down with their goods to the plains below. The smell of overheated, burning brakes filled the road. I passed trucks pulled over to the side, with brakes smoking and afire. The locals had improvised an industry where men on 3-wheeled scooters with tanks of water rushed in to hose down the overheated brakes. I passed thru clouds of steam boiling off from the brake drums of disabled trucks. It was everything I could to do maintain concentration and control as I sped down the mountain with trucks and cars all around me. I was afraid to slow down because of what might be behind me. In places the road narrowed to one lane, so I had no choice but to get out into the traffic. It was switchback after switchback, and sometimes the road was too narrow to pull off. I thought that, given the circumstances, the truck drivers were about as courteous and careful with me as they could be. My worries were that the brakes on the truck behind me would simply fail, like on the disabled trucks on the side. I was greatly relieved when, 2+ hours later, I finally reached the hot, dry, dusty bottom of this mountain descent. Time to drink a coconut. My forearms were sore from braking the whole time.
Now I was on the flat, agricultural plains of the country. Hot, dry and dusty. The next few hundred miles would be the same, until I got to the southern peninsula and the Andaman Sea, with its mountains, beaches, and history.
Toward sunset, I arrive at the city of Kyaukse. I pull into a luxury hotel. They are surprised to see a guest on a bicycle. I am dusty and dirty. Immediately, I am struck by the elegance of the place. Granite and marble, teak, rosewood, and mahogany, everyone dressed as one would expect in a $500 @ night NYC hotel. And dirty ole me on my bicycle. I am not worthy of this place. But with smiles, they accept me, and for only $18 @ NIGHT! I cannot believe it. The best place I have ever stayed in. So I clean up and crash out.
Next morning I go to the breakfast buffet, on the top of the building. The view is 360 degrees great, with pagoda-covered mountains to the east, and the bustling city to the north and west, and the river to the south. After a superb meal, including sushi for breakfast, I decide to tip the whole kitchen staff. In public, I give all of the staff 5000 kyat, (about $4 US). But in their currency, this translates into a lot. Tipping is not something that is done in Myanmar. A number of local businessmen men are watching as I do this. I look to them and say, “Myanmar #1!” and give them a thumbs up. They all cheer. Then I find out that the man smiling at me is the OWNER of the hotel, and he was showing off the new facilities when they observed me. It was perfect, if inadvertent, advertising on my part. Then they tell me that I am their VERY FIRST foreign guest, and that he has relatives living in the USA and they love the USA for supporting human rights in Myanmar!
Wow. And then they throw an all-day party for me. With a private car, they take me to their sacred pagodas, up the mountain, and feed me. They bring carved watermelons and fruit to my room for me personally. How am I to lose weight on this trip? But how can I refuse? So now, I am staying another day. Such is the serendipity of these journeys, and the kindness of the people here.
I started out on this bicycle trip overweight and out of shape, and I paid for it in my first week of riding. But after a few weeks of riding, I had dropped 10 pounds and was finally feeling stronger.
So I packed up my bike before sunrise and left the comfort of my hotel in Hsipaw, a mountain city in the NE of Myanmar. At least I would be going downhill, or so I thought. But it was a sawtooth road all the way: climb 300 feet, drop 500 feet, and then, repeat repeat repeat.
But worse than that was the unending stream of large, smoking trucks, apparently carrying large amounts of raw material to China, and returning with manufactured goods. The drivers were polite, but the roads were narrow. I quickly bought a face mask to reduce the dust and particulates I was breathing in. I later noticed that it made a difference.
At 3 am in Mandalay, I ride my loaded bicycle to the train station. The streets are finally empty. At the train station, I board the cutest little ‘baby train’, on one-meter track. For the next 12 hours we will average 13 mph as we climb switchbacks up the mountain, go thru long tunnels, and finally over a spectacular bridge.
I arrive in the afternoon in Hsipaw (correct spelling). I am now in SHAN territory, so the few words in Burmese that I have struggled to remember no longer apply. Foreigners are not allowed to go much further up the road here because of ‘conflicts’. So this is the end of the northern line for me.
MANDALAY and beyond: Mintha dance, urban cycling, the longest teak bridge, accosted by photo groupies, and NO BIG FEET!
I left the Buddhist monastery at sunrise and pedaled thru the ancient ruins of Iwna.
Impressive. Then I followed the road until it dead-ended at the Irriwaddy river. Crap. I would have to backtrack by pedal 10 miles. But then, along comes a ferry to the rescue. Yes, I WILL pay. And off to Mandalay I go.
I book a very good room at Hotel Nylon (seriously) and text Jeff. In a few hours, he rendezvouses and we hit the town, bicycle-speaking.
Next morning we pedal 8 miles south to the world’s longest wooden bridge, the Ubein Bridge, made all of teak. We walk it. It has no hand rails. I guess the Buddhists feel that if you cannot stay on the middle of the track, well, next reincarnation. On the bridge, we are constantly accosted by sweet Facebook groupies. They want to take selfies with us, and be our Facebook friends. When I finally do open FB, I find I have 20+ new posts.
Pedaling north, first the ancient archaeological city of Bagan, and then to Mandalay.
Each day we are up early, riding with loaded bikes. We have been bucking the wind, and depending upon the hills, we make from 40 to 70 miles. The people along the way have been consistently helpful. At the end of the day, I wash myself, my clothes, and then sleep a solid 10 hours. Before I know it, it is time to be up and on the road again. It gets to be a habit.
The Myanmar government provides free, fresh water along all the roadsides, and Jeff and I take advantage of it. I try new food and drink along the way. Sometimes it does not agree with me, but it is thus far worth the risk. Every day has a new surprise, and it is a joy to have continuous serendipity.
Bicyclists told us that the first 150 miles going north would cut thru rice and sugar cane fields, and not much more. If we were to just get 28 days to visit Mynamar, I wanted it to be in the most interesting parts of the country. So we threw our bikes onto the Yangon-Mandalay express and took the train to Pyay. Well, this ‘express’ sped along at 25 mph, on swaying, bouncing track. Any faster would have been dangerous. So we sat on hard plastic seats, and here we go. At times, looking out the window, I thought that I could pedal this fast. We arrived in Pyay at night, to find that the first three guest houses were booked full. Finally, we found a guest house with an empty room. We took it.
Next morning, we were off early.