A Travellerspoint blog

December 2012

The Golden Triangle

By motorbike

sunny 35 °C

Arriving in Northern Thailand was an unpleasant shock having come from quiet, rural Laos. Our ride from the Loatian border dropped us off in Chiang Mai on a corner with Starbucks, McDonalds and Boots (a ubiquitous British chemist store). Ugh. It was late and dark and we wondered the streets looking for somewhere to stay. Everyone we passed was a foreigner. Every shop, restaurant and cafe had ugly boards in front advertising the different trips and services they could provide to tourists. It was tourism saturation and we didn't much like it.

The intention wasn't to stay in Chiang Mai, but to hit the road by motorbike to ride the Mae Hon Son Loop. Taking in quiet country roads that go up and down and round and round (more than 1,600 bends) the mountainous green terrain of Northwest Thailand, part of the infamous Golden Triangle. At Mr Bear's bike shop I chose a scooter for its classic good looks, Dan chose on mechanics. A few hairy loops around the busy streets of town to run errands got us warmed up, before we hit the back roads.

Classic good looks

Classic good looks

All about mechanics

All about mechanics

Day one we started off gently curving up and down many jungle hills, with so many corners it kind of felt like snowboarding, hardly any straights, just constantly putting in your turns. Swish, swish, swish. Slowly it got dark, the cloud set in and it started to rain. But we were both in the groove, took it slowly and really enjoyed it. I was feeling pretty happy with my riding, and confident on the bike. Which is why it is so surprising what happened the next day....

The ubiquitous road sign

The ubiquitous road sign

We were on our bikes after breakfast, heading out of the town we had stayed in. The traffic lights turned green and Dan headed out into the intersection to turn left. Something didn't quite work for him and before you know it, I'm watching him slow motion skid into a turn and fall onto the road. My reaction was to get to him as quick as possible and get him off the road before any traffic might hit him, but in doing so I somehow went full throttle careening around the corner. Cue comic skit. People calmly sitting at their road side cafe on a Saturday morning having breakfast. It has a wall only about a metre high so the customers can look out onto the street. Into the scene comes out of control motorbike with foreign girl flying off the back trying desperately to reach the brakes. This is when Dan, shaken from his own accident, has gotten up off the road. Just in time to see me skidding, ever so narrowly missing the restaurant wall, but smashing off the planter box and all the other pot plants that were nicely lined up along the street, before falling off my bike.

We were both lucky. I had literally been dragged through the mud, and was covered in it from head to toe. Other than that, we suffered a little shock, a couple of decent grazes each, some bruises, and a minor crack on my bike which Mr Bear made me pay 20 quid for. Not bad considering.

Roadside munch on noodle soup

Roadside munch on noodle soup

That little accident aside, the 5 day trip went off without a hitch! We rode through, and stayed in, little rural villages. Rode down narrow roads to reach beautiful waterfalls. Ate delicious Thai food and enjoyed the smiles and friendliness of the locals. Marvelled at the scenery, including more of those green rice paddies I love. Enjoyed watching rural life, including the corn de-husker machines which had the dramatic effect of shooting streams of corn debris into the air.

Scenes from the country, corn harvest time

Scenes from the country, corn harvest time

waterfall

waterfall

Posted by chrisgulik 06:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Luscious Laos

The beautiful tropics

overcast 34 °C

Entering Laos took us into the tropics (and out of China!) It was hot, humid and sticky, I loved it. We spent most of our 10 days in the country (having been there for a month previously) in the north east, a gently mountainous area covered in thick jungle. Each morning would be misty and the hills would steam until the afternoon as the clouds slowly evaporated off. Wherever there was flat land there were rice paddies, right at the point of harvest, which meant they were as tall and green as they would ever be. Waving fields of luminous green. Gorgeous, I couldn't get enough of them. Such a wonderful contrast to our last trip in Laos which was at a different time of year when the rice paddies were just brown mud.

Rice paddies and krasts

Rice paddies and krasts

We did a few days hiking through the jungle, staying in the village of the local hill tribe. There is only one good word to describe walking in the jungle - moist. We got soaked through and both had our blood sucked by the numerous leaches. It was so damp and humid. But that led to the comical experience of having a wash at the communal tap in the village we stayed in. As etiquette required, I maintained my modesty by wearing a sarong. Dan however, was able to wear just a pair of shorts. And by the reaction he got, I don't reckon the locals had ever seen a skinny white chest before!

Lady from the Akha hill tribe, wearing traditional/day-to-day clothes

Lady from the Akha hill tribe, wearing traditional/day-to-day clothes

Moving south we travelled by local wooden river boats over three days, down the Nam Ou river. The odd rapid would get everyone excited, and those at the front of the boat wet (we learnt fast, always heading to the back seats). The scenery started out rural, little villages perched high on the river bank, locals washing in the river, water buffalo floating in the water with just their heads and horns poking out. After a while green jungle clad krasts - jagged limestone mountains - did a spectacular job of dominating the scenery. We spent four days of bliss in a timeless village in this setting.

River boat travel, down the Nam Ou

River boat travel, down the Nam Ou

Life along the Nam Ou River

Life along the Nam Ou River

The village, Muang Ngoi Neua, has no roads in it or to it. The bougainvillea and village temple provide bright splashes of colour in amongst the wooden and bamboo homes. We lazily spent the time hanging in our hammocks watching the villages go about life on the river and the cloud slowly lift each morning to reveal a dramatic krast background. We managed to fit in an afternoon walking through a sea of green rice paddies and finished off every day chewing the fat with other travellers during happy hour at Riverside Bar and Restaurant. It had a ridiculously extensive cocktail list considering the size and remoteness of the village, but once we got a taste of Riverside Number 3, there was no need to diversify.

Muang Ngoi Neua street life

Muang Ngoi Neua street life

Happy hour at Riverside Bar and Restaurant

Happy hour at Riverside Bar and Restaurant

There is something so charming and alluring about the developing world in the tropics. Travel in Laos was uncomplicated pleasure.

A constant pleasure

A constant pleasure

Posted by chrisgulik 19:52 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

China: the good stuff

semi-overcast 21 °C

As promised, the good side of China, at least our experience there.

We were pleased to find that the people were markedly friendlier than on our previous trip. We got smiles and unsolicited help aplenty. One lady even drove me around a busy city to find a post office that dealt in sending international mail before taking me back to where we started and giving me a present of a (rather ugly) Chinese mask.

The desert and mountain landscapes in the far West were amazing. We did a 3-day bike ride along the Karakoram Highway, a place that had been somewhat mystical to me before, somewhere far away, I wasn't sure where, and never thought I would see. We started up near the Pakistani border, skirted alongside the Tajik border for a while before dropping down into Kashgar. It was 320km, which was crazy hard work, in endless headwinds, at high altitudes, made even more difficult by the fact neither of us had been on a bike for 5 months! The landscape was barren, massive and sand coloured. We spent the days cycling around the two biggest mountians I have ever seen - 7,719m and 7,546m. Dotting the scene were two-humped camels and yaks.

Karakoram Highway

Karakoram Highway

The food was tasty, a welcome change from the endless tomato and cucumber salad of Central Asia.

Sichuan BBQ. Loving the street food

Sichuan BBQ. Loving the street food

Despite Hanification, Kashgar still retains a uniquenss about it, another worldliness. So old, surrounded by desert, in the middle of nowhere. Women dress colourfully, including an array of headscarves. The mens' faces are weathered, the old with long white or grey beards, always wearing a light oversized shirt and their boxy little hat. It has always been a city of crafts and in among the rubble of what is left of the old town, blacksmiths, carpenters, seamstresses all work away in the front of their small workshops.

Craftmen at work. Getting your wok fixed. Kashgar

Craftmen at work. Getting your wok fixed. Kashgar

Uighur men selling grapes. Kashgar

Uighur men selling grapes. Kashgar

It was wonderful to see the world slowly move from desert to the tropics. The landscapes were beautiful (when not interferred with by man) and changed considerably, especially when compared to how far we would travel in the 'Stans before seeing a difference. It tooks us 78 hours by bus and train to cross the desert, moving away from the borders of Central Asia. Up into cold and green Tibetan plateaus before going down into the rice paddies and banana trees of the tropics.

Tibetan countryside, Gansu Province

Tibetan countryside, Gansu Province

It was cool to see the different cultures within China, in particular for us the Tibetans and the Uighurs. Strikingly different cultures, beliefs and ways of life to Han Chinese, and each other. Interesting trying to get our heads around how they can all be living together in just one country.

Monk and Tibetan women spinning prayer wheels

Monk and Tibetan women spinning prayer wheels

Last, but of course not least, the pandas, you've gotta love the pandas. They are adorable slobs that don't wipe the food from their chin and don't do much other than eat and sleep. Their babies are only c.150 grams at birth, which is smaller than their poos!

Panda slobs!

Panda slobs!

Posted by chrisgulik 00:19 Archived in China Comments (2)

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