Sunday, January 31, 2016

Scootering again Day 3 - Chiang Saen to Doi Mae Salong 100km

I woke up early hoping to catch the sunrise over the Mekong and my effort paid off. It was special to see the beginning of a new day with the sun taking its time to light up the darkness. 

Today was to be a shorter ride so we had an easy morning enjoying the hotel's complimentary breakfast. I have always found these not quite up to scratch perhaps due to "mass" cooking and the emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. Anyhow, we had fun practicing "serving one another" and at 9am, the Roscoes who stayed at another hotel showed up. 

We rode a mere 30 mins to the famous Golden Triangle where the countries of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and further up, China meet together at this point of the Mekong. It was good that we were there early before the tour groups came and had the place all to ourselves. The golden Big Buddha glistened in the morning sun and made for great photos. A couple of ladies presumably from China started posing for pics but they could not beat our resident model Doreen, who was in her element!

Our next stop was Mae Sai, the border town where people go for visa run to Myanmar. We took the "must-do" group picture with the Immigration Building, had a quick lunch at Top North Hotel and headed south along Highway 1 for 36km until we made a right onto the scenic 107 where we started our climb towards Doi Mae Salong.

Climbing up meant cooler weather and a more interesting ride through many sharp hairpin bends and that got my heart pumping even though we were on small 125cc scooters. I made a wrong turn, strayed and we ended up at a crowded flower festival where we enjoyed the best coffee ever. Felt rather embarrassed! The kind policeman then redirected me back to the right and noble path and cutting through the mountain ridges were nothing more than sheer magic.

We had to stop at a scenic point to soak in the magnificent views and it was one of those "Kodak" moments which was imprinted in our memories forever. Looking down the valleys and far into the horizon, the beauty was sheer magic. Where we stopped there were village kids playing soccer happily and their carefree laughter and joy reminded me of what childhood should be. 

We reached the hamlet of Mae Salong just before sunset and this town has a rich history. A former KMT Army hideout base, it was used to stage raids against the Chinese Communist Army. But when the war was over, the soldiers were given permission by the Thai King to settle here in exchange for their protection against the Communists. The town has a distinctly Yunnan flavour and most of the hotels and businesses are Chinese owned. Mandarin is widely spoken here and it truly feels like being in China.

Our hotel was the brand new Wang Put Tan Boutique Hotel where our rooms offered amazing views of the mountain side. Everyone was thrilled with their rooms. Alastair and I sat at the balcony and broke out in praise to Him who created all these.

Dinner that night was at the hotel where we enjoyed a nice Yunnan feast. We had the famous stewed pork with buns, all sorts of fresh veggies including mushrooms, omelette, soup and enjoyed the different distinct flavor.

We all slept very well that night high up in the mountains of Doi Mae Salong, with natural air-conditioning and the freshest of air. Perhaps you could say we were all a little bit closer to God that night.

Scootering again, Day 2 - Phayao to Chiang Saen 130km

Coffee Cowboys - father and son team!

Hot Wok - seldom goes wrong!

Waking up earlier than usual, I went to recce for breakfast and borrowed the hotel's bicycle for a short morning spin. Phayao is certainly a quiet, charming country town with hardly a Farang. Ended up walking at a nearby school running field where the locals were doing their morning exercises. Saying goodbye to Baanmagrood was hard as we received exceptional hospitality and made a new friend in Khun Kay.

Took the team for breakfast at an eatery near the bus station which served rice with numerous Thai curries where everyone could select their favourite ones. Then, it was coffee at the cafe next door.

All fuelled up, we rode out of Phayao back to Highway 2 heading north to the famous white temple, Wat Rong Kun. Here, we pushed out little scooters a bit faster, cruising around 70km/h and that helped cover the 75km quickly. I was surprised at how courteous the Thai drivers were and enjoyed our faster than usual morning ride.

I have been to Wat Rong Kun many times so I volunteered to look after the bags while the others went wandering. While enjoying a quiet lunch, suddenly the thunderous sounds of big bore Harley Davidsons descended upon us. A group of leather and tatooed bad-boy looking Westerners parked indiscriminately and had their lunch. Many tourists took pics of their large polished chrome steeds with great admiration but I knew somehow that all that glitters is not gold in life.

It is always nicer to take the unbeaten path and this proved true as we headed towards the mountains and valleys of Highway 1271. Skirting Chiang Rai Airport, we GPS our way and soon ended up scootering on beautiful quiet roads passing through quite small towns and freshly harvested rice fields. One very sharp curve in a small town caught many of us off guard but fortunately, no one crashed.

It was a big surprise for us to find a beautiful English style Cafe here in rural Thailand and we enjoyed this little oasis for too long. When it was time to leave, Alastair surprised us by clearing the cups and cleaning up. It is just so like him to always be so considerate and immediately, all of us followed suit.

30 mins after pressing on towards the Mekong River and unto Chiang Saen, I signaled for the group to stop as right before us were the most beautiful sight of rice fields bathe in golden sunlight.  We were awed at what we saw and had a great time just taking lots of photos. The field workers too were waving at us and moments like these remind me of the special bond we have as God's children. 

We soon arrived at the T-junction and turned left towards Chiang Saen at Highway 1290. What was supposed to be an easy ride skirting along the Mekong River proved complicated as road works and an unfinished flyover meant we had to detour inland for awhile before rejoining 1290. It was a small annoyance but soon, the sight of the Chiang Saen night market before us got us all excited. But checking in was the priority and we booked ourselves into the plush Mekong Gin Resort with swimming pool and all. It was nice to have a quick swim before dinner and that really was invigorating.

Thoroughly enjoyed our 10+ course dinner as we perused through the numerous night market food stalls. How much can one eat? It was a good thing we could share so that we could sample more till we were truly stuffed. So I thought! Once out of the night market, I spotted a road side stall with a flaming wok and I could not help myself but to order my favourite Pat Krapao Moo (Thai basil pork with rice) and managed to squeeze in some hot soya milk drink for a most satisfying ending.

Like many Thai towns, Chiang Saen would have the traditional Thai massage shops and we spotted one on our way back to the hotel. It was managed by middle-age heavy weight Thai Aunties and that can only be a good sign. The massage we received for a mere 200B prepared us exceedingly well for a good night's sleep and if only we could have one every single day of our life before bed!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Scootering again! Day 1 - 150km. The Mekong and the Northern Mountains of Thailand - Nov 29 to Dec 5, 2015.

It's not often I repeat a trip in the same year but we had so much fun scootering N Thailand in Feb this year that I had many requests to organise another one so soon. The key impetus for this came when my former Pastor Alastair Bain who has just recovered from a prolonged illness asked if I could take him along for my next one. He needed to tick off his bucket list and Alastair is such a special person to me, I had had to oblige and with great pleasure.

The team soon grew and what was so unique was that we had a family of 3 in Ying Chang, Doreen and 11 yo Mark. Then we had energetic young adults in Nic, Hilson and his girlfriend Iris. Siow Wei a retired banker whom I've know since US uni days in the 1980s and a born again biker signed up very early too. At the last minute, Pete and Jan Roscoe snucked in making our 3 generation team a largish 11. We rented 6 Yamaha Grand Filano 125cc scooters and The Roscoes a comfortable Suzuki Burgman 200 scooter. Our choice of using scooters are its ease of use, generous luggage capacity and the fact that this was a slow sightseeing ride where we would cruise 40-60km/h most times.

The route I planned this time was a bit different, going anti-clockwise from Chiang Mai to Phayao, then to Chiang Sien where the Mekong and Golden Triangle is. Then up the mountains to Mae Salong and down to Chang Dao where elephants are. Cutting westwards to the famous Highway 1095 towards Pai where we wished we could stay longer! Mae Hong Son is next, then southeast towards Mae Chaem and then back to Chiang Mai making this a 1300km trip.

Click here if you wish to see the route in detail - Thanks Ying Chang!

Many of the riders were pretty new to scooters but they are cyclists and seriously, if you can cycle, you can scooter as these are fully automatic and very user friendly. It is not necessary to have a license in Thailand at least as far as the rental companies are concern. 250B per day plus 50B insurance with a cash deposit or a passport as guarantee, you are on your way!

It was quite exciting to meet everyone in Chiang Mai coming from Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong. At our welcome dinner at Jia Tong Heng, we had the privilege of having the bicycle legend Chris Wee and his lovely wife, as well as George and Wendy who were on a car and cycling trip. I was very touched when Wendy got me a most useful gift, Thai mosquito repellent!

Our stay at Lamphu House was comfortable as the hardware was decent with a swimming pool thrown in. At 890B, I would recommend it but the software or service was nowhere near the friendly and welcoming folks at Early Bird located at the next Soi. Alastair and I attempted an early morning swim 30 mins before the official pool opening time but were chased away! Nic and Siow Wei too had to pay 250B for a soiled towel the hotel alleged that they did. Sadly, customers come last at Lamphu House as far as we are concern.

Early Bird was so nice to arrange for our scooters to be delivered and truly, they are #1 to deal with. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw the sticker on one of the scooters proudly proclaiming, "Fxxx the World!" and decided that particular one was certainly not for me.

We enjoyed breakkie at my fav place, Jok Sompet for Khao Tom, a Thai rice porridge. Coming out of Chiang Mai with a string of 7 scooters was a challenge with the traffic. Once on the outskirts, we refuelled and was shocked to find how under-inflated our tires were. That sorted, we made our way to Phayao some 150km. It was an easy and relaxed ride as we cruised the Thai countryside, surprised at how courteous the drivers were. This being the first day, it was a time of learning and getting used to the scooters for the newbies. We stopped to visit a waterfall and took breaks every 30km or so. It was great just to take it easy and smell the roses as things ought to be.

Upon reaching Phayao, we lost Pete and Jan through the traffic. That got SW and I scurrying in search of the missing Burgman. Nic, Hilson and Iris said a prayer while the rest made their way to Baan Ma Grood Hotel. While Nic was awaiting at the corner, lo and behold a white Burgman cruised pass him and all was well! Dinner was so "So Good", literally as that was the name of the restaurant located by Phayao Lake. We enjoyed the Loy Krathong celebrations at the lakeside later and send some hot air lanterns into the night sky, along with  many others.

Khun Kea the owner of Baan Ma Grood was so nice to accompany me later to make a booking for Thai massage. Great service really makes the difference and I would highly recommend this hotel. However while walking on a dark soi, she was nearly run over by a speeding motorcycle coming around a blind corner. My quick reflexes in pulling her inside to the kerb saved her! My good deed for the day... Unfortunately, the shop Kea recommended was full but the boys Nic and Hilson found another one. I declined as the lady negotiating the price with me at that shop did so while digging her nose for gold nuggets with her fingers. I still get night mares thinking about that!

We all slept very well at BMG and what a fantastic day it has been. Turning in with the distant sound of fireworks and crackers was hard as we were still so excited and it seemed the whole world was excited with us. I felt a bit guilty as I got here with absolutely zero effort and that is something I have to get used to in the next week or so.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Eight is Great!

Unbelievable! Lovethefold has turned 8. In Chinese culture, the number 8 symbolises prosperity and I am not sure how this word fits into my present world of cycling and foldies. But if anything, I am certainly very grateful for the joy that my passion of cycling, and more specifically adventure touring brings. From a peak of 103 postings in 2011, I feel slightly ashamed to say there has been only 24 posts this year and almost all are focused on my trips.

Perhaps as one gets older, my interests have shifted from what is the newest, fastest or best-est to the simple pleasures of just cycling with people. After all, it is not gadgets or gidgets that give me lasting satisfaction, but sharing the journey itself with old and new friends. One may cynically and rightfully comment that when the bike stable exceeds 12 (and that is already quite a legful to manage) and therefore there is very little need for another bicycle. The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns can also lend support here but my personal take about this seemingly fading interest in things per se is maybe I have finally learn the true meaning of contentment. This is defined as "the state of being mentally or emotionally satisfied with things as they are." 

This is not to say I don't keep up with the exciting developments in the cycling world. I will toy with electronic shifting when the prices become a little more down to earth as my conversations with friends who use them seem very positive. But I wonder if that technology will be able to withstand the rigours of all weather touring?

One gadget that I picked up recently is a waterproof/shockproof Nikon AW130 camera. I have always enjoyed using the Canon Ixus super compact camera until a canoe-ing trip revealed it's limitations in a very expensive way. Though the pics of Smartphones today are very respectable, nothing beats whipping out a camera from your back pocket to snap those impromptu moments on the saddle. I am also impressed that the Nikon has a built in GPS as well as the ability to send photos thru WiFi when I eventually figure that out. These are features that seem very useful on a bike tour and I'm excited to test it out. 

2015 began with a trip to Betong Thailand with KC. I've always been fascinated by the history of the Malayan Emergency where the communists were battling the British post WW2 to gain control of Malaya. Betong was their last hide out and the chance to cycle there from Kuala Kangsar presented itself. After all the last bomb that went off was a few months ago so if you believe lighting shouldn't strike twice like I do, it's probably safe to go.

I believe that good things must be shared in order to fully enjoy and newbies VT and Claudine, friends of YC asked if they could have an intro tour. I was only too glad to organise one, this time to Batam and Bintan. I wanted to try the new southern highway of Bintan and Berenda, Judith and YC tagged along too. It was a great trip except that Claudine was and still is "shell-shocked" by the very rustic and basic accommodation of Shady Shack! Don't get her started on the toilet...

I had church camp in June at Malacca and took the opportunity to cycle back to Singapore with the honourable George Kee. We had fun cycling down 210km in 2 days but I thought I would die from heat stroke. Food is very important and I discovered a really cheap and yummy spicy anchovy bread bun made by Gardenia. For US 40 cents, this is the cheapest way to taste heaven!

August saw us continue our South Thailand Ride Adventure. This was part 2 of 3 parts. Last year we did Phuket to Chumphon. This time we went deep south starting from Langkawi to Krabi and had a wonderful time enjoying the warmth and hospitality of the people. 10 of us really had an amazing time together riding in the monsoon and it was great to have the usual suspects, Papa, KC, George, Wendy, YC, Celia and newbies VT, Claudine and Lance tag along. 

Cycling in Perth continues to be very satisfying given the beautiful weather most months and the unbelievably good bike paths. It however seems to be a season of endings and goodbyes. Our Wed usual rides with Rod and Uncle Ken which I have enjoyed since coming to Perth in 2009 came to a sad halt when Rod moved to Busselton.  

Yvonne who rides with us quite regularly also just moved back to Korea. It was also a sad time for Singapore with the passing on of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our founding father. I do not handle goodbyes well but we all have to learn to accept the seasons of life.

One unfortunate incident that happened was a recent bike accident where one of our dear friends fractured her leg. I feel really bad as we were cycling side by side when it happened at such a slow speed. It is hard to make sense of such an incident as she was training for our upcoming 321 ride in January. But times like this, we need to roll with the punches and keep our chin up. Misfortunes have a way of turning itself around into beautiful ways in God's timing, wisdom and grace. 

One new tour we did this year was exploring Northern Thailand in the winter month of February not on bicycles, but on scooters for a change. The mountains of Mae Hong Son left us winded 2 years ago on our foldies and I wanted to share the scenic beauty of this area to more people. Not everyone enjoy cranking on granny 12km uphill on one steep gradient after another. The 125cc Yamaha scooters made easy work of this and our group of 8 truly enjoyed this 900km trip so much.

Just in 2 days time, we shall be doing this again. Scootering Northern Thailand this time for an even longer ride - 1200km with an even bigger team of 11. This trip we shall be doing the loop anti-clockwise and going eastwards towards the Mekong to see the Golden Triangle. Pete and Jan Roscoe who did it 9 months ago have signed up again while the rest of the team is new. I look forward especially to spending time with Alastair, my mentor and dearest friend.

Next year promises to have some very new and exciting trips lined up. In January we shall be doing the 321 ride. This starts in Thailand, through Laos where we will explore the Bolaven Plateau as well as the 4000 islands, then pop into Cambodia where we end our ride with a weekend at Cosi Orphanage in Phnom Penh.

Feb there are plans to do a much overdue Singkep Linggi visit. These Indonesian islands lie far south pass the equator and the Japanese Battleship Yamato took refuge here during WW2. A long 2 ferry ride but the purpose is to see my friends Hardi and Dewi who has a new adorable addition. 

March should see me doing a trip to Taiwan this time exploring the southern western tip. August will be our Final South Thailand Ride from Chumphon to Bangkok. One exciting trip planned is in Oct where we hope to cycle South Korea from Seoul to Busan, then ferry across to Japan.

Looking back, my heart is very grateful for yet another eventful year that has gone by for Lovethefold. The privilege to get to know people who then become my good friends through the common passion of exploring new lands on small wheels is something that I feel very blessed to be able to do. All this is also possible because of my lovely wife who I will gladly carry her panniers to the ends of the earth.

In that sense, I feel a deep sense of contentment and gratitude on this 8th anniversary of Lovethefold. May I thank you readers and followers of LTF for your much appreciated support. It is my hope and prayer that this little bicycle blog can inspire you to go out on your bike and explore the world. In doing so, let us also bring a bit of cheer and love to the people we meet. As Burt Bacharach once sang, what the world needs now is love, God's love if I may add. The joy we get from that really is what makes life worth living! 

Wishing you God's blessings and tail winds. Ride safe ya?

1 Timothy 6:6-8 – “But Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”