Monday 6 May 2013

Frankie Rides the Borderline

Judy holds onto a strap on the back of the
tandem as we walk it downhill to avoid a
blowout caused by the overheated brakes.


Current Location: Mae Sariang, Northern Thailand
Distance Cycled: 10, 482 km
Squashed Snakes on Road: 43+; In Death Throes (run over by cars) 2; Alive and Wriggling: 2
Maximum Speed: 70.0 kph
Punctures in SE Asia: 6
Backside Status: Mike the Captain 9 (when 10 is bliss); Judy the Stoker 8.5

The Mae Hong Son Loop

If Frankie says a hill climb is going to be tough, it will be. If Frankie says there’s no noodle shop somewhere, there won’t be. We know this because if Frankie says it, it must be true. Frankie is that sort of guy.
He’s been with us on our travels these past few days, if not in body then we feel he is with us in spirit as we ride the Mae Hong Son Loop - Thailand’s best motorcycle trip. It is popular with motorcyclists because it is said to have 1,864 bends in the road as it winds through the hills of northern Thailand close to the border with Burma/Myanmar. Along the way it passes through villages of hill tribes with strange sounding names like Karen, Shan and Red Lahu. The scenery is splendid and there is accommodation at convenient points. No wonder it is popular with motorcyclists.

Elevations along part of the
Mae Hong Son Loop. From
a useful website for planning cycle
After a stiff climb we find ourselves at 1,440 m.

Yum, noodles for lunch. At Mae Aw.
Judy tea tasting at Mae Aw, a Yunnanese settlement on the
border with Myanmar.

Push Those Pedals

For cyclists though, those of us who rely on our own legs to power us up the hills, it’s a bigger undertaking.  Even though the Loop only occasionally rises above 1,400 metres, there are lots of steep ascents and descents - so steep we often have to push our tandem uphill and walk it down the other side (the latter so we don’t overheat its V brakes).
And that is where Frankie comes in. Even though we don’t know him, we don’t know where he comes from or what he looks like, we have his detailed account of riding the Loop on his bicycle in 2010 - he wrote a blog called Frankie Goes to Thailand.
Tandem porn - from paddy fields to mountain vistas -
the Mae Hong Son Loop delivers a mix of riding
and scenery.
As a result, we know where the steepest hills lie and whether there is a noodle shop at the beginning or the end or neither. We also hear how Frankie copes with the rigours of the trip - how he can be cold in the early morning, needs a massage and visits a pharmacy to get ointment for a sore knee, all in the space of one day. We have been tempted to think that Frankie needs to “man up”, but you can’t help liking him.

Extreme Roostering

Hilly terrain.

While his blog with all its detail is probably of most interest to other cyclists, he has a wry sense of humour which is helped by the fact that Frankie’s first language is not English. He talks of spending a night at a guesthouse only to discover there is a chicken farm next door and long before dawn the roosters were engaged in what he called “extreme roostering”. We know exactly what he meant but it’s one of those delightful expressions that has caught on with us and gets used whenever we send a flock of hens scattering as we cycle through them.
We stopped for lunch at a quiet little restaurant midway
between Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam. Frankie tried
for lunch here, but says the owner (left) fell asleep in
the garden. We were more fortunate and had scrambled
eggs, steamed rice, cabbage soup and some tiny fried fish.
The owner, Songvit Siang-Arom, wants to sell up and
move to Bangkok.
Frankie’s blog is being hugely helpful as we toil up the hills and we would not want to be without it. But its very thoroughness raises an interesting point.

A Road Well Travelled

Like relying too much on Lonely Planet, it removes an important element from travel - its unpredictability. Just as Lonely Planet suggests where to stay and eat, Frankie’s blog mentally prepares us for the next climb and helps us to decide how far we should cycle each day. Part of the joy of travel is its unpredictability, and sometimes too much information is a bad thing.
And there’s another downside. Reading Frankie’s blog reminds us how hard it is to “get off the beaten track”. Wherever we venture someone has been there on their bike, done that and got the t shirt. Maybe there is still hope for those committed riders who head off across Asia on the through route to Europe or cycle from one end of Africa to the other, but they are a rare breed. Given our age and ability we are not about to follow them. 

Frankie to the Rescue

Who's a cutey?
As for Frankie, he remains our guide and mentor. Tonight we are in a place called Mae Sariang with about 200 km to go to the end of the Loop in Chiang Mai. We rode into town with a small wobble in the front wheel and the suspicion that the bearings have gone (again). We cruised the riverfront looking for a guesthouse but found them all too expensive. We sat in a coffee shop and while we waited unsuccessfully for someone to emerge from the back to serve us, we scanned Lonely Planet on our Kindle. It had a suggestion we hadn’t spotted so off we pedalled to be shown a cheap room in a dump.
In desperation, we turned to Frankie’s blog - carefully printed off and carried with us each day on this particular ride. When he was here, he stayed in a backstreet hotel called the Kamolsorn. We checked it out and bingo - perfect. The right price, clean and neat and conveniently located while we wait for a local bike shop to replace the bearings in that wheel.
Frankie, while you have taken away some of the unpredictability from our ride, you are our hero.
Burmese/Shan influence in wat design:
Mae Sariang.
Parasols, wat, Mae Sariang.

Also Helpful

Throughout Laos we followed in the dusty path of the Travelling Two, Friedel and Andrew, whose website contains stacks of useful cycle touring information.
While we toured the Peloponnese, our cycling guide was the book “Greece on My Wheels” written by Edward Enfield (father of the British comedian Harry Enfield). It’s an entertaining and whimsical read with lots of information about the places he visits.
And for inspiration, we find it hard to go past the upbeat spirit of Loretta Henderson, a 40 year old Canadian who has cycled in some of the remotest corners of the globe. Her website:

Judy the Stoker’s Quotable Quotes

“If you want to control your environment don’t go cycle touring. You never know what’s going to happen next,” as we pull over to fix our second puncture in two days.

In the garden at Pang Tong Summer
Palace, used occasionally by the
Thai royal family.
At Pang Tong Summer Palace.
Climbing the guesthouse stairs to a very warm first floor: “Hot air rises. It’s a wonder I don’t levitate.”
Cabbage patch, near Mae Hong Son.

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