Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Thailand Fire and Brimstone

There were a fair number of lessons learned in our Christmas cycle tour around Tasmania, and as our Easter trip to Thailand drew nearer, I became increasingly stressed about the details.  

Some elements fell into place more easily than others.  Successful warrantee of a dead Di2 battery saw us with a spare, and I decided to go full-contingency-plan by not only replacing one of our 3-port external junction units with a 5-port one, but also acquiring another seatpost clamp.  Now, if a battery shits itself, we should be able to run an external battery as a stop-gap measure.  Of course, being so well prepared will now probably mean that we'll never have issues again, and if that's the case, I'll be delighted.  

We booked flights back in September, with dates influenced largely by fares and how long we figured we could be away from work.  Just before we met, Sarah had spent six months working for UNESCO in Bangkok, and we'd been invited to stay with one of her ex-colleagues in Bangkok. Sarah was keen to take me to Angkor Wat, but upon discovering how pan flat the terrain was in between, I'd pushed for a foray into the hills in the north of Thailand.  

In particular, I kept reading wonderful things about the Mae Hong Son loop (although targeted at drivers, this guide is almost comprehensive).  People talked about buttery smooth road surfaces, cheap and abundant food, great scenery, and hospitable locals.  Although April would be hot, the guides said it would at least be dry.  My frustration was that getting up there, doing the loop and then getting back to Bangkok was a lot to squeeze into the time we had available, and I'd spend an occasional hour playing around with mapping tools to see what might be done.  

As departure drew closer, I'd enacted a few pieces of the puzzle. Both our Opens were in road trim - for Sarah literally the first time she'd be riding on road tyres, having exclusively ridden the bike with fat gravel tyres on 650B rims.  My plan was for her to be riding with bottles only, while I'd be the pack-mule.  I hoped the fast tyres and the unladen bike would be enough to compensate for a change in recreational activity, from cycling to pottery, but deep down, I feared it wouldn't be, and fretted about biting off more than we could chew.  

Aside from the bike setup, I had bought train tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  It would have been a cheap and short flight, but to avoid the age-old logistical challenge of boxing bikes, an overnight train seemed the best way to take advantage of our base in Bangkok, but not burn through too much of our available time budget by spending all day completing the 700km trek north.  After a bit of online research, I was ready to pounce when the tickets became available exactly 30 days in advance on the official website.  Thanks to this helpful blog, I was confident that our train (#13) would indeed take bikes.

It wasn't until a few days before departure from New Zealand that I finally pulled the plug on the Mae Hong Son notion.  It simply had too little wiggle room, and to get back to Bangkok on time, we would have had to stick to a fairly challenging riding schedule.  Instead, I mocked up a few potential days from Chiang Mai, got the Thailand road network onto my GPS, and booked our first night's accommodation in Chiang Mai itself.  The rest we'd play by ear.  

Travel to Bangkok went well enough, though our first day was very long - a 6am flight out of Wellington connected with an Air New Zealand flight to Hong Kong, during which I was foolish to not nap, despite scoring lie-flat seats courtesy of an upgrade.  We hit the sack just after 11pm, which once the time zones were factored in, wasn't far from 24 hours after we'd got out of bed in Wellington. 

Our second night was also in Bangkok, and at dinner, our hosts Margarete and Roland tried to convince us to book a taxi for the trip to the Bang Sue Grand Central station the next evening.  While the excellent commuter train network (elevated and underground) would get us close, we couldn't take our bikes on those, and Margaret in particular, was worried about us riding.  We tried to impress upon her how lousy NZ drivers were, but she remained adamant that cycling was a bad idea.  The topic didn't come up again at breakfast, as I guess we'd all resigned ourselves to the likely outcome!

Day 0:  Bangkok commute

After a bit of exploring during the day, it eventually came time to suit up, and pack the portion of our gear that would be accompanying us on our northern adventure.  

Although we'd scoped out the railway station on foot, I hadn't mapped a route there, so the ride was a bit messy, navigationally speaking.  It took a wee while to get the necessary sense of flow in the heavy traffic, but ultimately, the key elements described by my new Vice-Chancellor, Nic Smith, prevailed, and well before we arrived at our destination, we began to enjoy ourselves!

Despite the station being vast, we knew where to head once we'd arrived, namely, Gate 4, where we would eventually secure freight tickets for our bikes.  I initially queued in the wrong place, but was soon put right, and once the national anthem stopped playing and the attendant returned to her duties, we were sorted.  

We changed, and then hung out in a food court for an hour or so, before heading to the gate area.  Despite things being somewhat of a mystery to us due to the paucity of English being spoken, what was going on around us seemed nonetheless very orderly and easy enough to follow.  

Once at the train, we delivered our bikes to the freight carriage, before finding our 2nd class, air-conditioned sleeper carriage at the other end of a dozen or so cars.  Our berths were already in bed mode, and unlike the sleepers I'd been on in Europe waaaaay back in 1998 while my master's thesis was being examined, these were parallel with the direction of travel, double-decker, and a row along each set of windows.  Sarah and I had the bottom storey, directly across from one another.  We each had a pair of curtains for privacy, and these were promptly drawn, with two sets of eyelids soon following suit.  

Stats:  15-dead-flat kilometres, not all in the right direction.

Day 1:  Chiang Mai

We woke with a couple of hours of the train journey remaining.  Not long after, our prebooked breakfast was delivered and both helped pass the time, as well as take the edge off empty bellies.  It was also a nice distraction from the "scenery" which was at times difficult to discern, due to a startling amount of haze.

We arrived at Chiang Mai slightly later than the scheduled time, and then took turns to suit up.  We had various other tasks to perform, including refreshing our cash supply and filling bottles.  That all took the best part of an hour, but eventually, we were rolling.  The overnight train had lived up to its potential, and it was cool to think that we'd made the journey during otherwise unproductive time, and were well rested and set for a day in the saddle.  

Leaving Chiang Mai railway station

The ride to our hotel took us past an impressive temple, elements of which were over 500 years old, and which we spent 15 minutes or so exploring.  We were too early to check in proper, but ditched my saddle bag, and then headed off on a loop around the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park in the hills north west of the city.  

One of the many intricacies of the Wat Buppharam

We followed a main road to Mae Rim, though were treated to a separated cycle path along much of it.  What wasn't a treat was the air quality, and I took to riding with my mask on, something I'd never done before.  Pre-COVID, I'm not sure it would have crossed my mind to do so, but now that masks had become ubiquitous, it seemed crazy not to try it.  I was surprised at how not-unpleasant it was, and it struck me at least, as the lesser of two evils.  

At Mae Rim, we stopped at a 7-Eleven for some refreshment, both of the edible variety and atmospheric - ironically, standing inside was both an opportunity to remove my mask, but also to enjoy the very cool air, courtesy of grunty air-conditioning units.  Immediately after, we turned left off the main road, and began a 25km climb, during which we'd ascend about 800vm.  

Early in the climb, we took a detour to go check out a waterfall, only to find that it would involve quite a bit of walking to see the main one, unfortunately not before shelling out an entry fee, and clocking up some unnecessary climbing.  We passed on the main attraction, but saw a few minor falls by way of consolation.  

One of the lesser waterfalls at Mae Sa

Back on the climb, we regularly passed through villages, and all of these had prominent opportunities to buy something cold to eat and/or drink, something we did regularly.  

An impressive pair of elephant sculptures marked the limits of a sanctuary

The road was following a stream into the hills, and Sarah became very keen for a cooling soak.  We did stop at a facility set up for streamside picnics, but it wasn't completely clear what the norms were (no-one else was in the water, and we didn't know if we were supposed to pay to use a platform), and so she made do with soaking extremities.  

The climb dragged on, but the gradient was typically mellow, and we were able to keep Sarah's temperature in check through our stops.  Over the top, things changed dramatically on both the supply and demand sides - there was a long stretch featuring no shops, and savage gradients!  

The third summit, about 65km into the ride, marked a turning point, and whilst we couldn't have literally rolled 30km back to the hotel, it wasn't far from the truth.  We didn't see elephants crossing the road where the signs warned us of the same, but did pass other things that kept the ride interesting.   

Stats93km ridden, 1660m climbed, max temp 41 degrees

Day 2:  Chiang Mai to Ban Chom Thong

By the time we woke up in the morning, Google's algorithms had fully caught up with our plans, and we were being bombarded with news about the lousy air quality, including a declaration that Chiang Mai was literally the most polluted city in the world at that time.  Headlines like "Work-from-home order issued as Thailand's Chiang Mai chokes on pollution" were quite at odds with the typical tourist-directed lures, describing the place.  

With that in mind, and our first day's riding under our belts, I decided that the 145km ride I'd planned across to, and then down, a valley east of Chiang Mai, was unnecessarily ambitious, and instead plotted a new route alongside the Ping River, which eventually flows into the Chao Phraya River, on which we'd taken a ferry a couple of days earlier in Bangkok.  Our destination was Chom Thong, a small town at the bottom of the road to Doi Ithanon, not only Thailand's highest peak, but one which you can ride to the top of.  

We rolled out in freshly laundered riding gear, which gave us a very short-lived feeling of cleanliness.  The centre of Chiang Mai is interesting, with an old-town surrounded by wall remnants, a moat, and a major one-way road either side of the moat (anticlockwise inside, and clockwise outside).  It made for a convoluted but otherwise fascinating start to the day's ride.  

Chian Mai's moat and city wall remnants

We soon found ourselves alongside the Ping, on the true right side of the river.  While both the air and water quality left a lot to be desired, the road surface was stunning, and the road itself was interesting - very rarely straight, and often lined with homes, shops, or otherwise interesting signs of life.  

Control step on the Ping River

About an hour into the ride, we passed a fascinating contraption which had been prepared for an upcoming ceremony - a wedding at a guess.  I didn't try to estimate the dollar value of the currency that had been folded into the sculpture, and it reminded me of a bouquet that had been handed to Natt, a master's student I'd supervised years ago, at his graduation in honour of his achievement.  It would be interesting to know if there were "florists" who only supply this sort of arrangement.  [Ed:  Natt confirmed these are examples of a Kathin bouquet - charity directed towards a buddhist temple.]

The money didn't appear overtly guarded, but having secured my photographic souvenir, I continued on my way feeling pretty sure I'd have been challenged by a few folk lounging around had I got any closer.  Contrary to Fiji, where we fleetingly interacted with almost everyone we passed ("Bula!!!!"), here people seemed to deliberately avoid eye contact, let alone anything more substantial.  I'm sure they'd make an exception for a thief though!  

We rode alongside the river for a good long while, and there were regular opportunities for refreshments, which from time to time we availed ourselves of.  

Riverside drink stop

There were also regular glimpses into rural Thai life, although it wasn't always easy to discern what we were looking at. 

Fishing, definitely, though the finer details remained a mystery

Even though the riding was near effortless, the temperature had climbed, and it was a pleasant surprise to find a group of boys providing a drenching service.  I myself got hit by a bucket of water, but was a bit slow to get my camera organised, and by the time Sarah had passed through, had missed the moment. There was nothing for it but to double back to commission a re-enactment, healthily rewarded by a generous tip, much to the delight of the boys and a mother.  

Take 2

Soon after, we missed a turn to stay on the road following the river, and ended up reaching Highway 108, one of the main roads to the south of Chiang Mai.  It was baking hot, and we ended up floundering around a bit and even then, settled on a pretty unpleasant lunch experience.  When I returned to my bike, my GPS was reading 52-degrees.  Keen to avoid riding on the main road, we back tracked a kilometre or so, before picking up the river road again for most of the remaining ride to Chom Thong.

After a drink stop in town, we took a very circuitous route to our accommodation (sort of like a big spiral), which for a time had us on a very cute wee gravel road.  Although hard to find, our digs were lovely, and relatively well appointed.  

Just as we'd struggled with lunch, so too did a dinner venue initially prove elusive, but we found something in the end and ate relatively well.  Back at base, I took great advantage of a very favourable time zone, and that GCN+'s race coverage in Thailand included races that I'd not have had access to back in NZ - in particular, one of the most prestigious races of the pro calendar, Paris-Roubaix.  Although watching on my phone, I managed to enjoy the last 130km or so of the event, which would have been one hell of an ordeal back at home.  It struck me as ironic that the cycling highlight of the trip so far had been watching cycling on TV...

100km to go, don't mind if I do!

Stats94km ridden, with the dinner run added in. 

Day 3:  Chom Thong to Wang Din

One of the reasons I'd chosen Chom Thong as a destination was its potential from which to mount an assault on Doi Ithanon.  While watching Paris-Roubaix, I'd explored various options, including an up-and-back ride, and a loop.  Factoring in the air pollution, the temperature, our fitness levels, and commitment to the cause, I ruled out each and every plan.  Instead, by the time Mathieu van der Poel had ridden to victory in spectacular fashion, I'd decided there would be no more "extras", and had booked accommodation along a three day route to Sukhothai, the ancient capital city of Siam.  In total, it looked like it would be about 300km, with a few options to shorten if necessary.  

I enjoyed the start of the ride.  We spent a short time on the main road, before crossing the Ping River and then riding through a cute network of minor roads alongside a tributary.  

Highway 108 through Ban Chom Thong

One curiosity was the sight of an oversize vehicle's driver carefully reorganising overhead power lines so that he could get his vehicle into a petrol station forecourt!  

Strange, but apparently effective enough

After an hour's riding, we reached Highway 106, which would have taken us directly to our next accommodation.  The traffic wasn't too bad, but after 15km we turned off nonetheless, and crossed over into a parallel valley.  We climbed gently for almost 30km, but then reached the high point of the day's ride, and in theory, could then enjoy a 55km gravity-assisted run to base.    

The heat and air conspired against us, and for my part, a growing dose of frustration that we'd got our timing so wrong.  By and large, the roads were beautiful, and in clear air, I knew I'd have been fizzing about the insight we were getting into rural Thailand, and the - at times - spectacular scenery.  It wasn't all bad, but only just.  I was literally beginning to hate the fact that I was on my bike - a very rare thing indeed, but especially during a cycle tour in an unfamiliar place.  

Stopped above a stream, this fellow had set up a pump and was watering his pigs

As had generally been the case, we were never too far from a 7-Eleven, and these made for regular opportunities to cool down briefly.  Earlier the previous day, Sarah had set off from a stop with the left-over ice from a drink stashed in her jersey pockets.  By now, she'd taken the cooling strategy to an extreme, and was buying a bag or cup of ice at each stop, and filling every nook and cranny (including bra, and helmet vents) with handfuls of the stuff.  I couldn't cope with the burn, but her skin - no doubt tuned during harsh Mongolian winters in the first half of her life - seemed to handle even direct contact!  Quite remarkable, and a godsend as it turned out.  

Up until this point I hadn't bothered putting sun cream on - it seemed like all the crap in the atmosphere was doing a more than adequate job filtering out the UV.  However, we actually got some blue sky towards the end of the day's ride which started to become a bit stressful.  The irony wasn't lost on me!  

Water buffalo in the foreground offered a momentary distraction from whatever it was we couldn't quite make out in the background

When we did finally stop riding for the day, Sarah had a bit of a melt-down, and told me she'd be catching a bus the next day.  I decided not to debate the issue, and headed off to crank up the A/C unit in our room for the night.  

After show and a bit of rest, it was apparent that neither of us was badly sunburnt, which was nice. We were in need of other running repairs though, and I was able to successfully cut through the language barrier at a pharmacy near our motel to get some anti-histamine pills for her and anti-fungal ointment for me.  

After more rest, we struck out on foot to find dinner.  There was very little evidence of English being spoken, and while "pad thai" was a pretty handy phrase to know, not everywhere served it.  Nonetheless, google translate seemed to handle menus well, and pointing at the Thai script was effective enough.  

Our hotel was on the main road, but our room was right at the back of a large complex, and we weren't troubled by road noise.  The sun was very low in the sky when we turned in for good, and to the naked eye was glowing a spectacular red colour.  It was difficult not to admire it, but knowing that the source of the colour was the horrendous atmospheric pollution largely ruined the effect.   

Stats:  123km ridden, one plausible threat to bus the rest of the journey.

Day 4:  Wang Din to Thung Saliam

Sarah seemed to be feeling much better after a sleep, and we didn't discuss the bus option.  After a solid breakfast at the hotel, we both suited up and got ready to roll.  

Even though our previous day's ride profile finished with a long descent, we were still relatively elevated, and after gently acquiring even more altitude over the first 20km of the ride, we began a long descent into the next valley.  

Helicopter seeds?

The road was beautifully designed, and even though we were travelling fast, the road surface was predictable and we rarely needed to brake heavily.  The air was hazy again, but that didn't completely take the shine of the lush bush, and the road reminded me a lot of the descent from St Mary's to the Tasmanian east coast.  

One point of difference was the regularity of burnt foliage.  Sarah wondered if the fires had been deliberately lit, but my feeling was that they were probably a symptom of poor driving (or ill-advised cigarette butt disposal).  In any case, it was a crying shame to see.  

We had our drone with us, and probably should have stopped to use it before we reached the bottom of the main descent.  Occasionally through the trees I spotted a large lake, which I could see from my map was man-made.  The temperature made stopping (other than in 7-Elevens) uncomfortable, and that was one thing that put me off.  The other was knowing that the images would not be great due to the haze.  I could have easily overcome the tree-obstructed-view, but deliberately didn't.  

We crossed the valley floor, and then both the Wang River and State Highway 1 at Lom Raet. The highlight on route was seeing the second of two dead snakes we passed during the time.  This one was about a metre long, a beautiful bright green, and was re-killed by a passing vehicle while we were admiring it.


We started climbing out of the valley, and soon passed a sign for the Mae Mok Reservoir.  I could see it way ahead on the map, and inferred from the sign that there might be recreational opportunities there, not least a swim.  Time would tell. 

The 250m climb was fairly stern, and not long into our descent we were able to stop for a pick-me-up.  Sarah's bag of ice was larger than usual, and it was quite something to see her roll away! 

I kept monitoring progress towards the lake, and with every sign, became increasingly convinced we'd soon be bathing in cool, clear water.  We turned off the main road a couple of kilometres early, and took a back road to the lake.  There, my hopes were dashed - far from the scene of my fantasies, the water looked both hard to get to, and wholly uninviting.  To add injury to insult, on our way back to the main road, I brushed against a thorn bush and had to spend some time following the source of each blood trickle to remove the various stowaways from my skin.  

Mae Mok Reservoir

There was a slim possibility that we'd approached the wrong part of the lake, but neither of us felt inclined to take a second detour (even though I now slightly regret it, having seen the Google Streetview imagery).  

Beyond the lake, we had about 20km of riding on a main road through to our accommodation, during which we stopped for a 10-minute break at a convenience store. The ice-creams and drinks were cold, even if the air-conditioning wasn't quite up to 7-Eleven's standards.  On our way out, I noted a display case, similar to ones we'd regularly seen (usually attended by an elderly gentlemen) and which I  interpreted as some form of daily lottery ticket.  

Finding our accommodation was tricky, but we got there in the end, to find a nice setup.  Despite being fairly upmarket, as with most other places, it was cash-only.  We were running a touch low, and so after an afternoon pick-me-up (which we could afford), I ducked out before dinner to resupply.  

Resort gardens

Just down the road I found an amazing temple, so rang Sarah and urged her to come to meet me.  She did that, and we enjoyed exploring together. 

Wat Pipat Mongkol

It was hard to know exactly what we were looking at, and in particular, how old everything was.  Elements of the complex were in the process of being either built from scratch, or restored, and it was quite cool to get a sense of the construction process by virtue of almost every phase being visible at once.  It had me wondering how old brick technology is, and it turns out the answer is "very" (since 7000BC at least).  

The afternoon's activities were a nice antidote to a ride I'd found tough.  Strava had been suggesting "Morning Ride" as titles, and I edited this one to "Mourning Ride", since I genuinely was mourning riding without a mask.  My ears were starting to get sore from the constant tug of the elastic, and I had also found my cooling system was not unlike a dog's (an observation borne out by science). 

As we were winding down, I randomly flicked to GCN+, and found that the first stage of the Giro di Sicilia was about to finish.  I watched an Emirates UAE rider ease off the front of the bunch with a couple of kilometres to go, then discovered not only was the rider a New Zealander, but the son of a dear friend of my own dear friend Brendan - Finn Fisher-Black.  While I yelled at my phone, Finn rode to his first professional win, much to the delight of his team-mate and fellow Kiwi, George Bennett.  See their elation was contagious, and it was nice to so randomly bear witness to it.  TV was ruling the cycling roost!

Stats:  120km ridden, including cash run, 40-plus degrees for the entire second half of the ride, max 48

Day 5 - Thung Saliam to Sukhothai

One of my earlier route plans had us peeling off the Mae Hong Son loop and passing through Sukhothai, an ancient capital of the Thai Empire, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was one of the few details that had endured, and we set off from Thung Saliam looking forward to a bit of regular tourist activity to take our minds off the riding!

There was an abundance of route options, but I chose to head south from our accommodation before picking up a major road that would take us straight into the heritage site (literally, as it turned out).

We were into the flat-lands, though often following a watercourse and so gently climbing or descending, depending on our luck.  Distractions included:

new or old buildings in a now-familiar style...

funky vehicles...

and wildlife.

The rural back road hit the highway at Lan Hoi, and there we made our first drink stop for the day - at a wee coconut bar, where we both had a very nice coconut frappe.  Sarah asked about a bottled drink that was on display, and which we subsequently got to sample.  Despite being not at all creamy, it had a strong coconut taste, and must have been some derivative of coconut nectar - a new concept for both of us.  

It was then about a 15km ride on a large road.  Soon after passing through remnants of ancient city walls, we found ourselves at a ticket booth for the UNESCO site.  Quite often at this point, tourists would hire bikes, but of course, we'd brought our own, so didn't need to shell out extra for the privilege.  

For the next 2.5 hours or so, we explored the old ruins, which were fascinating - a far cry from Angkor Wat, perhaps, but a great experience nonetheless.  

A well-used bike rack

We made one foray from within the old walls to the western sector, where we declined to trudge up a 
steep stone path to see the "Buddha on the hill".  By chance, we ended up running out of steam at the Wat Mahathat, which we both agreed was the most impressive site, and a nice note to end on.  

Ahead of us was a short ride into (modern) Sukhothai.  On the main road again, we passed a sign for a cycle route, which necessitated a quick U-turn.  We then found ourselves on a lovely minor road, which for the most part felt like a dedicated cycle path along one side of a small canal. 

With only a few kilometres left to ride, the path took a strange turn away from the canal, and given where it seemed to be taking us (the Holy Heartland - a heart-shaped island within a heart-shaped lake) it was very tempting to keep going.  After a quick consultation, we agreed that we were done with riding, and made do with admiring the lake on the map...!

The sacrifice was put to good use, and we soon found ourselves at the Foresto Sukhothai Guesthome, and a lovely destination at that.  After being warmly welcomed by the proprietor and a towel sculpture on our bed, we hit the swimming pool - our first dip of the trip, and a very emotionally cleansing one at that.  

Before dinner, we headed out on foot to the bus station, and returned via tuk-tuk with tickets to Bangkok in hand.  This was the first time in memory I was so glad to shorten a cycle tour, and in so many ways it was a relief to pull the pin.

Stats:  93km ridden, many at snails pace as we enjoyed the UNESCO Heritage Site. 

Day 6:  A couple of commutes

The next morning, after a breakfast fit for cycle tourists and a fairly leisurely pack, we made the short ride to the bus station, via some neat street art on the city side of a wall lining the canal.  

At the bus station, we were gently guided into doing the necessary admin, which included buying "tickets" for our bikes (it wasn't clear why we hadn't been able to buy them at the same time as tickets for ourselves), and then removing wheels.  

Once our bus arrived, the bikes and wheels were relatively easy to stow, and then we made our way into the bus and found our allocated seats.  The 7-hour ride (including a half-hour lunch break off the bus) was comfortable enough, and it was nice to be cool and breathing twice-filtered air for the most part.  

New vs 3-day-old mask

Our destination in Bangkok was not far from the railway station we'd originally left from, so we had a fair idea of our orientation.  I managed to get Margarete and Roland's address loaded into my GPS, and so was being provided with a recommended route which updated every time I ignored it.  Our ducking and diving included occasional defiance of the road rules, but the beauty of a bicycle is its narrowness, and insignificance in the scheme of things.  

We found Bangkok in the early stages of the Songkran festival, which seems to have evolved into one great big water-fight.  Teenagers and adults alike were often sporting water pistols, and we were regularly shot at on our final ride.  Our clothes went straight into the washing machine once we stopped, as we'd each copped a bucket of water along the way, and were quite sodden. 

It hadn't been raining...!

* * *

As if getting off the road, or more specifically, out of the air, hadn't been happiness-enducing-enough, our remaining time away from Wellington was great.  We had two and a half days to do a little bit of shopping.  Our final dinner was in the hull of an old aeroplane, and was an amazingly eclectic experience, well worth the logistical challenge of getting there (not to mention at some point in the booking process losing control of my credit card details and having the card blocked)!

Our flights home were also quite an experience.  A pricing quirk had seen us booking Singapore Airlines business class, and the package of hard and soft product had me grinning like a Cheshire cat the whole way home (when I wasn't curled up sleeping, that was).  

Various final non-cycling-related elements, including my onboard "book the cook" Singapore Laksa helped bring the trip to a nice conclusion, and helped me recover from an amplifying-with-every-pedal-stroke sense of disappointment.  

On reflection, the trip wasn't a disaster, and we made the best of a bad situation.  Ironically, the bikes ran flawlessly, the train, bus and accommodation logistics all went smoothly, and bodies coped with aplomb.  The biggest hiccup other than the pollution was my credit card blockage, but fortunately that came after our final online accommodation booking, and besides, Sarah had hers at the ready (just not to hand when she was booking the restaurant and handing over my number!!!).  

We will often come home from a trip with a lingering souvenir - sometimes a word (e.g. we still say thank you to one another in Hawaiian - mahalo has such a nice ring to it).  In this case, the "discovery" was of an e-SIM.  We'd initially tried to buy a (physical) tourist SIM card, but hadn't had our passports with it.  Margaret had mentioned a recent guest had bought an e-SIM, and $24 later, we'd each purchased one from etravelsim.com which had more than enough data to last us the trip, and was good for the occasional call between us as well.  It doesn't look like every destination supports them, but I guess coverage will improve over time.  

Now that we're home, and I know what to search for, I do see some advice regarding travel to the area at this time of year, e.g. this guide writes:

March, April (hot), May, June: Hot season and less rain. It’s also the time of year that people light thousands of illegal fires in the north. The entire north is engulfed in smoke and smog and the pollution levels are extremely bad.

Nonetheless, most "when to go" pointers would seem to infer it isn't a bad time of year to visit.  Consider ourselves warned!

The Mae Hong Son loop will sit on my to-do list, and since returning, I've found myself daydreaming about stringing together a tour from northern Thailand, through Laos, down through Vietnam, before hooking back to Bangkok through Cambodia.  If I do ever make that a reality, perhaps over a couple of months, it will be after much more attention to timing.  

This was a much more balanced holiday than we've typically taken (either all bikes, or no bikes), and with a bit of time, my memories are generally fond.  It was nice to see Sarah reconnect with Margarete, and to get to know her and Roland more myself.  Despite the riding not living up to its potential, the privilege of being able to travel, and the break away from the stresses and strains of work, were welcome.  

560km, and plenty of food for thought