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Northern Thailand; where net cafe's are infrequent part 1

[flat tire pic]
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Coming to you live from Chiang Khong Thailand!

Laos is visible just across the mighty Mekong river, but without a visa, it's still off limits, so we're stuck here for the day. Perhaps I'll write a second email tonight so this doesn't get too long, but for now, it's nice to be in the shade during the mid-day heat. Either it's getting hotter, or I'm completely failing to aclimatize. I must say that in over a week, I'm dissapointed in my ability, or rather lack of ability to tan very well. I have had several good, dark tans so far, but none that survived a shower. Good thing we brought the litre size bottle of SPF 45! I'm not sure how much of this is the increased sun sensitivity from the doxycycline (malarial-prohpylaxis med) or just starting from pasty Seattle White.

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but I'm rambling, I'll dig out the journal now and get down to boring you in chronological order.

First off, thanks to all of you who have written. I do get to read the emails, although slowly at times, but don't always have time to answer.

Going back in time; I believe the last email was from Chiang Mai, which was about 9 months ago by current time dialation standards. It was definitely time to leave the noise, pollution, noise and way-western air of the city. Speaking of which, Starbucks report:

I wandered over early on the last morning to get my usual soy latte, and a scone. Disappointment number one: they didn't have soy milk. !?!? The normal latte was up to the usual standards, and the almond croissant quite good as well. The two items cost me 100 B, which would be $2.50 - cheap for America, but in contrast, we've eaten an entire lunch for about 100B, had a hotel room for 150B, and this internet cafe is costing a whole 40B/hour! So rather pricy food for Thailand.

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So we'll try this again: Goodbye to Starbucks, farang (tourist) central, Ruby Tuesday, english menus, city prices, and yellow brick road. hellooooo open highway, and 15km later, my first flat tire. how nice.

We were heading north towards Chiang Rai - the first 20k or so are flat, and then, on the big scale map, the background color went from green to brown; trouble most likely. But before that could happen, there was a suspicious whish-whish-whishhhhh noise and there was a large nail sticking through the tire. Pulled out the patch kit, but the glue was dried up. Pulled out the other two patch kits, and eventually found glue not tooo dried up and patched the hole. put tire back together, starting pumping and then found the nail had gone through both sides. damn. gave up and tossed that inner tube and started over. Bike shops are rare, but moped shops are everywhere. I went into the next one and waved the patch kit at them; they came back with a nice jar of patch cement and a few patches. one problem solved. Next problem; we needed a bike lock since I forgot to bring the nice one. No, actually, I should come clean here; I brought the big kryptonite cable lock, but I left the key in Seattle. The postage was still less than the price of a new lock so I sent it home with other stuff. So next we asked the moped folks for a lock. Eventually they came up with a super chintzy, cheap lock on a very short chain; very lame but it would have to do. After thinking about it for a while though, I came to the conclusion that this is actually a good thing; this is a standard supply-and-demand economy; and if you can't buy good locks, chances are you don't need good locks.

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So thus fortified on we went, and started to climb. There was a slight tailwind, which cancelled our forward progress wind making for no cooling breeze as we sweated up into the mountains, twisting, turning, roasting on the spit, brain slowly turning to mush...

Sancho! My Sunblock!
My Lord, you're not well!
Not Well?? What is sunburn to a cyclist errant?? But while you're at it, how about a cold beer??
And the patch kit Sancho!

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back to reality with flat #2 a mere 15km later. A flat every 15km and this would be an even longer day. Again the staple sticking out of the tire made for easy diagnosis, and the new patch cement seems to work well.

On into the mountains, found lunch at a roadside stand (sticky rice and grilled eggs. yes really), and then we happened upon another Elephant "training centre" so we stopped in. Place was totally deserted, but they let us wander around and pet one of the baby elephants. Those guys have inquisitive trunks!! Very cute though, and they didn't bother to charge us even, so the yin and yang of elephants have equalled. And then it was up and up some more. Near the top we came upon a stalled bus; engine would roar, it would lurch on the suspension like some chained beast, and then slide back a little bit and lurch to a halt again. repeat. We cycled on by. A cacopheny of honking let us know we were about to the top; a buddhist shrine sat to the side of the road and apparently it was good luck to honk going by. Or perhaps it was just a victory honk on clearing the summit, who knows. And then down down down. Beautiful evening, but sun was going down and we were beat, heading for the next circle on the map, a nondescript place called Mae Khachan. 15 minutes out of town I was feeling ok but suddenly got very klutzy - dropped a water bottle as I pulled it out of the cage, ran off the road for no good reason (exciting at 35 kph), and so on. decided to stop and drink and sit before ending up in the ditch. Hit town around dark, nothing exciting; dinner at a beer-house, and the waiter told us how to find one of the two hotels in town. We tried to get dessert in the hotel's restaurant before going to bed, and found an old man who spoke decent English and who wanted to chat. and chat. and chat. I took the opportunity to clear up a bit of Thai I had a question on: We (foreigners) are called "Farang" by the locals. In reading the bits of Thai-English in the phrase book, I noticed that "potato" is "Man Farang". So I asked if we were being called potatoes. The old man found this most amusing; I guess the accent is different and the two words are not related. So rest assured, the no matter what sort of affectionate insult is conveyed by "farang", at least the Thai are not calling you a potato. Eventually his family hauled him off and we got to sleep.

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Next morning we passed another touring cyclist; a German heading South. We told him good-luck on the hill! It was 104 km to Chiang Rai, but we were feeling good, and it was mostly flat with a few rolling hills. Quickly started to notice signs for food/drink/etc. with what looked like two big, hugging, grinning condoms on it! We soon found the place - it was called "Cabbages and Condoms" and had a big sign saying "You have entered the rubber triangle". (Chiang Rai is gateway to the golden triangle BTW). Oh my! got lots of pictures to bring back home! Later read in the LP that "Cabbages and Condoms" is an AIDS awareness project which intends to make condoms as easy to find as cabbages. I noticed as we left the place that the day's odometer read 6.66 Coincidence? well yeah, of course.

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Many frustrations finding lunch; roadside vendors with a nice little tray of veggies had no interest in doing something vegetarian for us. Even the lady making nice papaya salads couldn't be persuaded to leave the damn pickled crabs out, which was all it would take to make those vegetarian. Eventually settled for a bunch of snack type things and fruit. We've taken to finding lunch in the early afternoon, then seeking a Wat and hanging out in the shade for an hour or two. This confuses the monks for a bit, but once they find out we speak no Thai they get bored and wander off. Leaving the Wat we noticed a back road to Chiang Rai - and extra 7 km, but well worth it to get off the highway. And it was very quiet until someone turned on the moped spiggot.
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Somewhere along the way I finally gave up and decided to switch my bike mirror to the right side of my helmet. This was amazingly disconcerting. After 20 minutes of weaving around while trying to adjust the thing, I was still mostly just getting a really good, clear view of my backpack. At this point Gretchen pointed out that I did indeed wear my backpack offset to the right a bit, and so I had to adjust that as well. Adjusting the backpack to be centered felt odd, and looking to the right for a mirror is just weird.

Found a reasonably quiet guest house for the night - 140B for the room (that's $3.50....) with shared bath. Not a bad room, and there was luke-warm water. I never thought we'd even want a hot shower, but it does get chilly at night here.

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At this point, the Laos visa issue was front and center. We had called the US Embassy in Laos and they said "uhm, yeah, we think you can get a visa by showing up at Huay Xai", but everyone we met said "no way". We had planned to just cycle to Chiang Khong and give it a go. finally we found a nice girl running a travel agency who said that she could have the visa waiting for us on Tuesday morning in Chiang Khong (this was Saturday). This was at least one day later than we wanted, but best we could think of, so we said ok, parted with our passports, and headed for northern Thailand to kill some time.

Leaving Chiang Rai we found the land of Pinapple - fresh pinapples everywhere, and very very tasty. At one point we saw a policeman sticking pinapples through heavy grates on the cab on the back of a pickup. prisoner transport??? At least they get fresh fruit here. It was a pretty flat 65km and despite the late start we were in Mai Sae by late afternoon. Was feeling woozy half way there in the heat so stopped at the usual Wat for lunch. There were a few monks wandering around, mostly early-teenage. Somwhere in the monestary buildings a radio was blaring music - Britney Spears to be exact. Hmmm. and these are monks? Not exactly meditation music. However, here's a thought: If every monestary cranked up the pop music at the same time, would Thailand have 50,000 Wats of Rock and Roll?? We also heard the Star Treck theme - possibly answering the question "just wat do monks do all day?"

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About 10km out of town we saw an intriguing sign "Strawberry wine, 500m". We looked hard for the source of this, but didn't need to strain the eyes; for the next km straight there were literally dozens of identical little stands with rack and racks of fresh strawberries, strawberry juice, and, yes really, strawberry wine. I tried the wine - was ok, but not worth buying a bottle Got some more dried strawberries though; very tasty. and some juice - really darn sweet.

Mai Sae is at the far northern tip of the country; if you walk north from Mai Sae you, well, you fall in the river and get wet (and bombarded by garbage), but if you pick yourself up and wade/swim through the sludge, you're in Burma/Myanmar. Looks a lot like here - in the daytime anyway. At night it was suspiciously dark, with the sound of a piston engine or two. Eventually I found someone who explained that yes, Tachilek had only a couple generators for the full city and that Thailand used to sell them electricity, but that was back when the relations between the countries were better. Since our visas were off in Laos application purgatory, we didn't have the opportunity to hop across for the day and get an extra stamp.

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Random pet note: There are quite a few cats here, but none are Siamese. They're all clean and friendly though.

Random pet note 2: There are a lot of dogs here, mostly mangy, stupid mutts hanging out in the middle of the street or chasing bicyclists.

Stayed at an OK looking guest house, but it turned out to be a cement echo chamber for all the street noise (mopeds, more mopeds, the occasional truck, people playing cards, and the boom box which blared bad 80's music until Midnight when Gretchen shut it off. there was no one even listening by that point). Dinner was good though - finally got someone to do a nice Thai Green Curry vegetarian. It was at my spice threshold, but very tasty. I picked around the obvious red peppers, but then found these odd little things which looked like tiny clusters of green grapes. Not having the faintest clue, I tried one of the little "grapes" and halfway through gasped in horror. So THIS is what peppercorns look like freshly picked!!

and with that cliff hanger, I'll head back out into the heat and plan on writing the rest of the story later tonight. It's 3-6am where most of you are right now, so won't matter anyway.

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