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18 - 23 November 2007

Every disadvantage has an advantage

In one of our last days in the City of Angels we meet Jane Willdigg, a British woman who plans to cycle through Thailand and Laos for a couple of weeks. We talk for a while and decide to cycle part of the trip together. November 17 she takes the train to Phitsanulok and the next day we follow, after I finish my root canal treatment at the dentist.

Jane takes the train

The four hundred kilometres from Bangkok to Phitsanulok is not Thailand's most exciting stretch, a small disadvantage of the country, and with a visa for only thirty days we rather cycle the beautiful northern part. At seven o'clock we sit in the neatly organised train - which is an advantage of Thailand - after the train staff carefully fastened the bicycles in the luggage wagon. No smashing around, like in India.
Dozens of vendors amuse us during the seven hour journey; every minute they walk by, selling water, cool drinks, beer, all kind of fruits, silly novels, toys, sticky rice or roasted meat.
Landscape-wise we don't miss a lot, except for the more swampy areas where all kind of water birds gather, like heron, plover, ibis, stork and crane.
Jane meets us at the station of Phitsanulok, and at three p.m. we start off, hoping to reach Sukhothai before dark. An advantage because this yields an extra day.
We don't manage to get there in time though: Sukhothai is a little further than the 55 kilometres on our map. The flat route between paddy fields invites us to a high speed-average, but the final hour we're cycling in the dark. Just in time we manage to avoid hitting a toad the size of a baby-head and a fat brown snake that's warming its coldblooded body on the still warm tarmac.

The rice has been harvested Now the small blades

Sukhothai holds the ruins of an eight hundred years old city, which has been declared a Historical Park by the Thai government and a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
Sukhothai (meaning Rising of Happiness), was the first capital of Siam, of a dynasty ordaining nine kings in two centuries.
The park contains the ruins of 21 historical sites and four big ponds from the golden century of Thai civilisation. Outside the walled park are another seventy ruins, but we leave them alone. There's enough fun here.

Sukothai, Buddha's Historic park Sukothai

Again Sukothai

Most sites have rectangular brickstone bases carrying pillars and huge Buddha statues. Besides these there are some chedis (spire shaped temples) built in the famous lotus-pattern.
After strolling through the museum we cycle through the park and visit the most impressive sites, which have been restored in a splendid way.

Jane agrees to cycle with us from Suthokhai to Chiang Mai via the north western route through the mountains.
By doing so we have the advantage of a quiet road and going through real Thai jungle. The website of a Dutch organisation for world cyclists warns people for the many steep climbs here. Our experience is that difficult itineraries are usually the more beautiful ones, an advantage the easy itineraries don't have. And so, just like with football, as the old master Cruyff always said, every disadvantage has its advantage.
Nearly all houses we pass in Thailand have a small house standing on a pedestal in the corner of the garden: the phra phum. The Thai build, or nowadays mostly buy, these doll houses as a gift for the earth spirits, who had to leave their ground with the building of the human's house. The phra phum must stand on a favorable place, for example not in the shade of the big house. And to favor and bind the spirits people daily offer flowers, food, drinks and incense.

The earth spirits don't need to complain in Thailand Crematorium near a temple

A spirit house

When after years the spirit house is damaged the Thai don't just throw it out, but put it at the base of a holy tree or at a temple where the benevolent spirits will watch over it.
The tar road to the western town of Tak is a bit boring; it leads through yellowish dry paddy fields in an undulating terrain.
Cycling with Jane goes without saying, our rhythm and pace is the same. Jane loves to talk and I especially have found another friend.
At the market in Tak we stuff our bellies with fruits, rice cookies and the vegetables and prawn dishes from the Thai master cooks. As a cyclist in Thailand you never have to go hungry.

The next day's route doesn't resemble yesterday's in any way: no more dry rice fields, but teak tree forests with leaves the seize of a rhubarb plant. The flat landscape has changed into hills and real mountains and our sweat glands are working overtime.
We cycle through ancient jungle and are surprised about the amount and diversity of butterflies, and also about the lack of other wildlife. Only sporadically we spot a bird and monkeys we don't see at all.
The climbs are sometimes mean and today we need all fourteen gears of our new Rohloff hubs.

Roadkill Little bugs here

And little fire torches With Jane at the Phawo Shrine

The last climb brings us to the top of 'Mysterious Hill', where the Pha Wo Shrine sits, a monument and temple honouring Buddha, protected from the rain by Naga.
Naga originates from the underworld; it's a snake with three to sometimes nine heads, who Buddha converted from evil to good. Since then Naga functions as a chair and an umbrella for him.
We meet June, a Thai mountainbiker with a highly sophisticated Cannondale mountainbike who leads us in the seventeen kilometres long descent to Mae Sot to a small and cozy guesthouse.

In Mae Sot we rest for a day, doing no more than visiting the local market and shopping. Today we let the temples be.
Mae Sot is a border town which main source of income is from trade with neighbouring Myanmar. Legally and illegally.
In 1997 the Thai government cut all timber deals with the Birmese military dictators, in order not to support them. From that time on dozens of trucks, filled to the brim with teak wood, pass the border at night into Thailand illegally. Corrupt government officials earn as much as 4500 euros of bribes per truck. Not a bad side-income.

In this area of Thailand the distances from one overnight place to another vary a lot. One day we cycle one hundred kilometres, the next day we only need to cover thirty. And thirty is not enough, the three of us think.
Today we find a solution for this problem by taking a beautiful detour via a small road, from Mae Sot to Mae Ramat. The advantage also is that this road has some nice attractions, like a temple, a cave and a hot spring.
Nearby a hamlet with red chillies and many children we easily find the bell-shaped golden temple, the Chedi Pagoda. We encounter more problems finding the cave; after climbing over three hundred steps on a mountain slope we give up. And bathing in the hot water spring appears not to be very sensible: people are boiling their eggs in the water and so the temperature is somewhat too high for us.

Hot water spring Mae Ka Sa A detour via a small road

After sixty kilometres we reach Mae Ramat, a lovely and quiet village on the border road with Myanmar. But, this advantage takes its toll: there are no places to stay for the night and the next village is too far.
We talk to a couple of shopkeepers and explain our needs. They start talking and shouting to each other and phone calls are made to friends and aquaintances.
And, guess what: the advantage of a small community is that everyone knows each other and everyone knows all about everything. And so, they know about a man who rents out small apartments. They reach him and half an hour later we are the temporary owners of two rooms and a tiny bathroom, although completely unfurnished.

Every disadvantage has an advantage

So this advantage fortunately also has its disadvantage.