Saturday, January 28, 2006

Friday 27th Jan, Mae Salit

What an incredible three days it's been! The task of attempting to capture the experiences in words is seriously indimidating...

The conversation with the drunk Slovakian on Tuesday night was fascinating, especially his time in Bangkok. It was as if someone had given him a list of every way to get ripped off. He'd asked at teh airport about a place to stay, and had been told he couldn't get anywhere for less than 1000B a night (250 - 300 is reasonable). He ended up in a hotel for 800B. The taxi there cost him 500B (he didn't make them use the meter - it should have been 250 - 300B). At teh hotel he drained the bar in his room (1000B) then went to teh first bar he came to outside his hotel. He was right in the red light district, so as soon as he sat down a beautiful girl came and sat with him telling him how beautiful he was, smiling at him, and putting his hand on her leg. He had to pay her 1000B for her company. When he came to leave he discovered that the bill for his coke and beer was 400B (100B would be reasonable)! As he walked past the next bar they persuaded him to go in - they said beer was only 100B. But it was an exact repeat - girl & ego 1000B, and beer 400B!

The next day, feeling skint, he took his last cigarette and decided just to sit and watch the world go bye. As he flicked away his cigarette but a policeman stopped and fined him 2000B! Feeling very unhappyp he decided to treat himself to a massage at teh hotel for 300B - teh only thing he didn't get ripped off for. But the pretty girl and the physical contact made him horny, and he persuaded the masseuse to sleep with him for 2000B. All in he spent 20,000B in 2 days! So he fled to Sukhothai where prices are good and scams are rare.

The following morning, Wednesday, I got up at 5am and rode the first hour or so in darkness. Mostly I was on the same road as to old Sukhothai, which was populated and well lit, but for 20 or 30 mins after leaving that road I was cycling in pitch darkness relying on my lights and the white line at teh edge of the road. It was fun to watch the colour of the sky change behind me - I've not watched a sunrise properly since I was in the States last year.

I couldn't find a cafe for breakfast, so stopped to buy a big bag of crisps. The kind shopkeeper gave me a bottle of water too, free. Soon after that I came to a town and stopped for a proper breakfast - rice & veg. By lunchtime I reached the large town of Tak. I stopped at the not particularly useful tourist info, then hunted for some veggie food, which involved following a friendly guy in his car half a kilometer across town to a lovely 100% veggie cafe where I had two plates of very tasty food and chatted to a Belgian guy - the last Farang I saw.

I set off through town a bit confused because the roads bore no resemblance to teh map - an extra bridge - wasted a few km in the hot sun. I was getting a bit stressed because I knew I wasn't going to make it over the mountains to the next place with a guesthouse. And I wasn't really sure about getting food or water - there was only 1 town marked on teh map for the next 100km. But for the 1st 20 km as I headed north up the quiet valley from Tak there were a few shops and cafes in among the beautiful stilted teak houses.

And then I turned west into the mountains.

I'd been watching the mountains slowly appear through the haze all morning - at first thinking they must just be a big line of clouds. And I went up, and up. Exhausting but beautiful. It was a really quiet road - the main road over the mountains was 25 km south. Near the top of the first 970m pass I was getting exhausted, so stopped to talk to a friendly guy, and we walked together for 20 minutes or so chatting. His name was Chokla, and he was a Karen refugee from Burma. 20 years ago the Burmese army had attacked his village burning many houses and killing many people, and afterwards there was nothing to eat. So he came here. Now he spends his days hauling 100 kg baskets on foot around the mountains. At first I couldn't understand what fruit or vegetable it was that he collected, but then we turned a corner in the road - and there were huge piles of cabbages! Very unexpected! And there were lots of Karen hill people there cutting them and taking off the outer leaves. They all dress so beautifully. The women in long blue silk skirts. Chokla was wearing dark loose trousers, a long blue top, tied with a pink cloth, and a beautiful cloth square bag with tassels. When we reached the village at the top of the hill we stopped for me to get some food. I tried to explain I was veggie, but ended up with rice and some kind of mince. Not nice, but I eat it. I bougth Chokla a beer. The owner of the cafe was teasing me mercilessly, trying to set me up with her beautiful daughter. They offered that I could share her mosquito net that night. I was tempted - it was turning into a very cold evening up there in the mountains - but remembering my friend George's experience with 'joke' offers of marriage I decided not to risk it.

Chokla pointed me in the direction of the police station where I would be able to sleep, and there we parted ways. He doesn't have a passport, so has to run and hide when he sees the police.

I saw a policeman at the village shop, and he threw my bike in the back of his pickup and drove me the last half a km to the police box at the top of the pass and showed me a concrete-floored pavilion where I could roll out my bivvy bag. As I started to put on my warmest clothes another policeman asked if I would like some Thai shisky, and there began a wonderful night.

I joined them at their table on the hillside and the Thai whisky was passed around in an old Jonny Walker bottle filled with herbs. Delicious. Drunk straight in small shots. They also gave me lots of rice and an omlette, and some of the delicious local cabbage - very fiery and peppery.

They were such a friendly bunch. One of the younger ones spoke pretty good English and we chatted lots. They work there for 3 weeks at a time, then get 3 days off. Tough. He lives with his very beautiful wife and son and daughter on teh other side of Sukhothai. Last year they had to work in the south in the 3 provinces where there has been a lot of trouble (the area is predominantly Muslim, and they want independence). And he very kindly let me share his room in the police station. I had a wooden platform bed with a thin mat and a very welcome warm blanket. I slept very well, waking occasionally with a dead arm.

I rose with them at 7 and they cooked breakfast for us all - rice, omlette, cabbage, and a vegetable that my phrasebook translates as jackfruit.

Chawang, the policeman I got friendly with, was a bit worried because a zip on his bumbag was open and he'd dropped a few bullets. They all have guns - pistols. Though when I went to get some water I noticed that one guy had a rifle next to his bed too.

I was sad to say goodbye. They were the friendliest, most chilled out group of police I'd ever met. One of them was on the whisky again already at 9!

I started the day with a wonderful 10 mile descent through the beautiful mist-topped mountains and jungle. I noticed that there was a shop at the bottom of the pass (I'm including a few tips for other cyclists who may be reading this). There was another at the top of the second pass after another steep 10 miles or so. While cycling along the ridge of the second pass I saw a sign to a national park and waterfall, so I decided to take a look. As I got to the park I saw that a scout camp was in residence. I got chatting to a friendly teacher, who invited me to walk to the waterfall with them all. So I watched their drill, then followed behind chatting to a teacher who spoke good English. He and most of the kids are Karen from Burma (though at first with his accent I though he said they were Korean).

The waterfall was a long tough steep walk, and I was exhausted by that day's 25 steep miles and the 95 miles I'd done the day before. The waterfall was pretty, in amongst the jungle in the mountains. Amid the amused stares of a hundred scouts I stripped down to my pants and waded in the waterfall - very refreshing after two sweaty days of mountains.

It is funny being around Thai people, or at least these ones. They are much more touchy-feely that I'm used to. The teacher I was speaking to on the walk was always taking my arm or hand to talk to me or show me something. And one guy was really stroking my arm and leg hair - it's bleached blonde by the sun.

Back at the camp they offered me lunch, and whisky, and there went my plans to cycle further that day, and there began another fantastic night!

I was drinking shots of Thai and Karen whisky all afternoon and evenig with the teachers, being poured from a big petrol can, while all around ran scouts, playing in the river, fighting with bamboo poles, cooking. Again - it's great to see how chilled out everyone and everything is. In the UK you'd never get teachers getting drunk infront of the kids, you'd never have openly gay teachers (including one very handsome young man with his eyelashes tinted violet!) We all had fun drinking - them teaching me little bits of Thai and Karen. And they let me share one of their tents. I was a bit chilly with just my bivvy bag on the ground in the mountains, but slept well with very vivid dreams, including one about being on a huge boat going through Amsterdam. And I keep dreaming that I'm home again.

In the morning I hung around feeling very hungover drinking sweet coffee and eating a breakfast of sticky rice dipped in something hot and spicey. It was so beautiful with the sunrise and the jungle, and the mysterious smoke from all the campires, and the scouts running around.

I set off at nine but was quickly overtaken by two of the teachers in their pickup, who offered me a lift. For some reason I accepted, despite the fact that it was downhill all the way. At Mae Ramat I bought some water and put on some suncream watching two beautiful Karen girls in their blue silk skirts with their babies hung infront of them in red slings.

Then I set off North up the valley along the Burmese border on a pleasantly hilly and quiet road amont the mountains, teak forest, banana tress, terraced fields, pigs, goats, chickens, cows with their big sharp curved horns. I passed a huge refugee camp - it stretched for 2 or 3 km - thousands and thousands of small bamboo shacks crammed into the beautiful valley nestled among the limestone cliffs. I found out afterwards that there's about 40,000 Karen refugees living there! At one gate I tried to go in, but wasn't allowed. Perhaps a good thing. Even just at the gate I felt like I was really invading - hundreds of people staring at me. But a little further along I stopped at a shop selling beautiful handwoven traditional Karen clothing. I was tempted to buy a bag like they all carry, but didn't.

I stopped at a town after 30 miles or so for 2 bowls of tasty noodles. I passed a guesthouse and resort there that weren't in the guidbook or tourist info. I did a diversion a couple of km over a super-steep hill to a cave where the river ran straight into the limestone mountain. Two young boys with torches guided me as we waded through the river and looked at the glittering dry waterfalls of stalagtites, and the bats. Not particularly outstanding, but it was worth it just for the amazingly beautiful valley that it is in. Absolutely superb - a small green valley among the steep jungle covered limestone mountains, with a quiet village of teak houses on stilts with Karen hilltribe folk sitting around, and water buffalo wandering in the fields plastered in damp mud to keep cool.

I finished the day at 60 miles (max speed 42.7 mph - fastest yet on this trip) in Mae Salit - a quiet village with a guesthouse listed in the Lonely Planet. It's very basic, but friendly and cheap - 80 B - cheapest yet! I got a plate of rice and veg across the road and showered. Well not a shower - I sluiced some cold water across myself and got fairly clean.

The owner of the guesthouse drove me down to the river on his moped (scary! I'm not a good passenger) and I walked back up. The border guard at the river had sandbags protecting his lookout - first time I'd seen that.

The owner of the guesthouse said that a Japanese couple on bikes were here last night, and 5 Australians the night before. The police in the mountains mentioned the Australians too. I'd hoped to get some more food, but the restaurant had closed, so I had to raid my emergency crappy junk food. Not sure what I'll do ain the morning if it's not open. Late start I guess. I'm very tired.

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