After sweating enough to quench the thirst of a whole stadium full of elephants, we up and went to a town named after them: Chiang Dao, or Elephant Mountain. Chiang Dao is nestled up against the impressive hump of the mountain, Doi Chiang Dao. Towering at 2,175 meters (7136 feet), Doi Chiang Dao is one of the highest peaks in the Daen Lao Range in Thailand.
But first, we had to get our sweaty selves there. In order to beat the inevitable heat, we left the muddy Nam Kok in Thaton early with the dependable morning mist. We joked throughout the day we’d unexpectedly signed up for a Wat tour, as we flitted by countless golden, silver, elaborately decorated grounds. Again, the day leaned towards long — 106 km (63 miles) with a climb or two thrown in just for fun.
Oh, and we picked the world’s busiest trajectory: a stiflingly busy road with cars and large trucks flying by on the reg like fish in a jampacked stream. Regardless of what vehicle helm they manned and contrary to their slow, easy, unendingly friendly approach off the asphalt, on it they drove fast and crossed into the other lane on blind corners. Additionally, there are more of them than in years past, according to Lisa, who’s been in the area before. Not that any of us on the trip are bike tour guides or experienced bike tourers who should know better than to travel such busy routes…
Oh and to complicate things even further, after crossing the Thai border we also crossed over to biking on the left hand side of the road. Luckily we more or less remembered to stick left…
Notable events during the day were as follows:
1. Sticker mission: Throughout the trip, Tyler + harem made a focused effort to fly the flag of each country we’ve been in. It started in Hanoi when Anne purchased five red Vietnam flags on mini wood poles from a distinguished man on the street. Shoving off from Luang Namtha, we picked up Lao flag stickers for our bikes. And on the way to Chiang Dao, we finished the trifecta when we passed a well-stocked sticker store. The awesome guys there helped us apply stickers to our bikes and gave us, for free, black heart-shaped stickers enveloping the elegant Thai number 9 (in honor of the deceased king).
2. Snack break: Thanks to good ol’ 711, we got to try all sorts of fun snacks like steamed buns, some of them shaped (unsettlingly?) like cute little animals:
3. Roadside lunch break: Because we eat and drink whenever the slightest chance presents itself. Besides, who can resist fried noodles, rice water and a break from the sun thrown in? Not us, obviously.
4. Iced coffee break: Because when an iced coffee materializes like an oasis on a busy, winding, hot two-lane road, you must respect that the Universe wants you to be happy and thus sent you said mirage. Besides, who can resist a sugary, condensed milk christened iced coffee? Not us, obviously.
5. Arrival in Chiang Doa, the “Swiss Alps” of Thailand.
About five kilometers before Chiang Dao, we finally abandoned the busy highway with a collective sigh of joy — and exhaustion. The mountain loomed over us like a tired elephant (we understood the sentiment) as we rolled past groves of cultivated trees and fields. Then began the predictable but unrelenting quest for accommodation (more expensive than usual and crawling with falang) until one of us threw in the sweaty towel and made a decision. A few hours later, we were fed, showered and laying down to sleep amidst the unending buzz-thump-hum-squawk of the jungle.
Early the next morning, we emerged from our bungalows like sleepy catapillars from a damp cocoon. After slamming fried rice and caffeine, we set forth in the mist on another small, rolling road through tall, stately trees. Reluctantly, we made a right hand turn back onto the busy highway. A solid downhill eased our pain as the mists parted to let the hot sun through. We’d signed up for another long day — about 88 kilometers or 55 miles.
Of course, we stopped for a Thai tea, becase we eat and drink whenever the slightest chance presents itself. And how about some rotis, too? Who can resist one filled with banana and honey? Not us, obviously.
We also sustained ourselves on another round of longan fruit, eventually reaching Chiang Mai in the blazing sun via a largely flat, long network of scenic backroads. We stopped in the shady recesses of a Wat to soak our shirts for the bazillionth time in a sink full of dead bug carcasses. Continuing on, we gazed over fields full of colorful blooms.
Of course, these quieter avenues eventually spit us out in the busy heart of Chiang Mai. Sitting in traffic, the heat beating off the pavement, the last kilometers to shady Manee Guesthouse couldn’t be over soon enough.
After becoming human again (aka showering) we drank a few beers at the counter in the open air common area and went next door for surprisingly good, quick pizzas topped with basil and roasted tomato, or lamb, peppers and olives. Afterwards, we caught a tuk tuk to the night market, where we wandered the crowded streets in search of more food.
Food kind of took a back seat again, however. The chaotic, crowded energy of the night market, combined with the sensory overload of music, smells, food, clothing and every imaginable language was intoxicating. So was the Beer Laos — and the four pina colodas that Anne and I went to find for everyone. Except, we got to drunk talking and drank all of them before we made it back to Lisa, Tyler and Kate…
The next morning, despite another pesky hangover (apparently, we aren’t 21 anymore), we enjoyed the ample fruits of Chiang Mai — from pummelings at Thai massage spots sharing grounds with exotic, white Wats to ancient city walls. Thanks to the touristy nature of some parts of Chiang Mai, we also enjoyed a really awesome, hearty American-style breakfast at a nearby cafe, replete with strong espresso drinks. We liked it so much we returned the second morning for breakfast — or shall, I say brekkie? Gotta get warmed up for New Zealand! But not before another more subdued visit to the night market for delectable green papaya salad, fried, breaded squid and other interesting treats.
In the afternoon, we scurried to find a cab (vacation mode having erased common sense acts like booking shuttles beforehand so we don’t miss our flight) and loaded up to head to the airport. After an hour-long flight via puddle jumper, turbo prop plane we descended towards the fetching town of Luang Prabang, Laos. The agile little plane dove steeply down to the runway past endless rows of equally steep green mountains (the same kind we’d ridden over for weeks, we proudly pointed out to each other).
Lisa booked us an amazing spot within banana throwing distance of the Mekong River. After shoving the whole family of 25 into a big taxi van, we settled into the Chinese-owned Frangipani Inn. In the foyer, a koi swam in a recessed, rectangular decorative pool. Free coffee and tea presented themselves, which we brought upstairs to our classy rooms with envious views of the town, above which towered the impressive Wat on Phousy Mountain (pronounced just as other juvenile minds might imagine).
But more on Luang Prabang and the successive challenging yet rewarding days when Tyler plus harem slays/gets slayed by more Laotian mountains! Stay tuned…