"Just One More Steep" - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

January 31, 2017

"Just One More Steep"

Tha Ton to Mae Chan

"Just One More Steep"

Tha Ton to Mae Chan 37.5 miles

For a nice change we ate our usual breakfast, muesli/papaya/soy milk, not in our room but on the steep bank of the Kok River a few steps from our cute bungalow. That section of the river, just before it enters the town of Tha Ton, is rather untouched, wild and quite beautiful. I watched the current swirl around boulders and thought about the last time I had seen this stretch of the Kok River. As we ate our delicious breakfast I reminisced to Andrea.

Back then, 1974, everything was wild in that part of Thailand. Roads, one bullock cart wide, existed as dusty or muddy tracks depending on the time of year. Chinese Communist and non-Communist factions skirmished along the border with Burma. Secret agents - American, Lao or Vietnamese - occasionally snuck along the borders gathering intelligence. Opium was the main cash crop. Hilltribers were sometimes hostile to outsiders for no other reason than fear they may inadvertently offend their spirits.

I was part of a small group of American students at Chiang Mai University and we were told the one place that was strictly off limits for us was along the northern borders. Of course such a warning made the whole idea of going there all the more enticing. That’s why the three radicals in the group decided to arrange a hill tribe trek. It was a crazy idea.

We found a guide in Chiang Mai. Boone was his name. He got us a tuk tuk all the way to tiny, dusty Tha Ton. There we caught a long, narrow boat downstream many kilometers to a place determined by Boone where we got out and started walking. We hiked through the jungle towards the border with Burma. It was strenuous, hot and dangerous. We knew Boone was a little nutty but we trusted he knew what he was doing and would keep us safe since he had served as a Thai Border Police.

The hills were rugged. When none of us thought we could continue climbing up in such heat Khun Boone assured us, “Just one more steep.”

Our second night in a hill tribe village just before we fell asleep in our bamboo hut everyone in the hills started yelling and firing guns. We were petrified thinking the end had come but Boone, outside and quite drunk, kept urging us to come out. He couldn’t explain why he wanted us to come out but he was so insistent that we finally crept out. A most miraculous thing was happening - a total lunar eclipse. The villagers were shouting and shooting at the monster that was devouring the moon! As the moonlight disappeared stars glowed brighter than any of us had ever seen. We brought our sleeping bags out and enjoyed the show. Stars shot across the sky so numerous we lost count. A truly magical experience.

Recalling that time made me feel as though it had been a lifetime ago since I had been on the bank of the Kok River. From where Andrea and I were sitting the river looked remarkably the same as I remembered. Only I had aged, not the river.

We rode off knowing the day might be kind of tough but there was only one way to get over the hills to Mae Sai on the border with Burma where in just a couple of days we needed to be to renew our visas.

Feathery flower on a low bush alongside the road which we had not seen anywhere else.
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Rest spot.
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The road began flat to rolling. Beautiful countryside stretched in every direction. Groves of citrus, lychee and coffee marched up the massive hills all the way to their tops. It was another perfect day with no rain and cool temperatures. It was the time of year for the hill tribe people to gather pampas grass-like plumes to make brooms. We could hear people not far off the road whacking down the long stalks which held the plumes on top. They were laying them on the shoulder of the road to dry in the sun. I had lost track of how many different things we had seen drying on the shoulder of roads during our trip. The plumes were nice and provided a diversion from looking at asphalt.

The long flat to rolling area before the big hills.
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Thai temples are just getting too weird for me. This one is Tha Ton Temple. Like strange American roadside tourist attractions.
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Broom making time.
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A steep graded road we did not take.
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Future brooms
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We were looking for either a soup place or coffee but there really wasn’t much along the way nor was there much in the way of towns. I was getting a distinct hill tribe vibe from the houses and people we saw. With such a nice road hill tribe minorities have had an easier time assimilating to more of a Thai way of life in the lower valleys. The road felt like a bridge between the two cultures.

It was a beautiful and smooth road but then the hills got bigger and closer. Eventually we were ascending and the road grade got to the point where we could not bike it. We pushed for quite awhile and by that time of day it had become hot. Having carried some Cliff Bars for way too long I was being generous. We stopped twice for snacks but then I ran out of water. Andrea was almost out. We pushed on, up and up. Certainly there would be a summit but it wasn’t really feeling that way.

The main road we did take.
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I was remembering the old French couple we had seen on bikes the day before. He said the pass was “all right.” If they thought it was no big deal what did that say about us? Were we wimps? Right then I noticed something reflecting light in the weeds at the edge of the road - two sealed bottles of water! Being a skeptic my brain immediately ran through all the things that could be wrong with the water including some evil person using a needle to inject poison. Where do I get these thoughts? I squeezed the bottles and nothing squirted out. They were in fact new and probably placed there by sympathetic cyclists who had excess. They were simply taking pity on wimps like us! Not wanting to be selfish we took only one of the bottles. It was nice of the unknown people to have left such an appropriate gift. That’s really unconditional caring for others.

Aqua from Heaven
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We passed the shrine which usually marks the summit and not much further we came across the first coffee of the day, Phukin Coffee. Everyone should know there is a 27 mile dry coffee area east of Tha Ton on road 1089. Always good to have a treat on the other side of the pass.

Summit shrine
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The cafe was so nice that it was worth the wait in miles. Their wifi name was “Cat” which was appropriate because all I wanted to do was check the Instagram our house/cat sitters had set up for our cat. They posted one photo of our cat per day and it was the first thing I looked at every morning. But our bungalow the night before did not have internet which meant that I had been discombobulated all day without my daily dose of our cat, Pinkie. The coffee was good too.

Phukin Coffee. The password means 'sugar' and the number is no doubt the Buddhist year the owner was born which would make her 30 or 31 years old.
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Phukin Coffee's owner.
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At Phukin Coffee
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Phukin Coffee
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Phukin Coffee's wood outdoor sink.
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Phukin Coffee was a happy sort of place.
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Andrea happy after a break at Phukin Coffee.
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Shortly after Phukin Coffee was another ascent. I came around the bend first and saw the hill up ahead. I stopped and told Andrea, “Just one more steep.” She was not amused. Not too far after that steep section we came to a police check point at the crossroads of road 1130 which winds its way steeply up to Mae Salong. But for us it was one of the most beautiful down hill rides I have ever experienced. The grade, the sweeping curves, the road surface, scenery - all perfect and without traffic which made braking unnecessary. We coasted for about six miles and there never was another hill. We had entered the big valley, one valley north of Chiang Rai, which stretches to Mae Sai and the Burmese border.

More climbing after the supposed summit
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One more climb through the broom grass.
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Broom grass
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Tiny rice seedlings which will be separated and planted in rice paddies.
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Entering Mae Chan
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We stopped just as we entered Mae Chan to look at our map and a local woman on a bicycle stopped and asked us if we were looking for a place to sleep. She directed us back a half a block to a little soi that led to the most perfect bungalows for us in the entire town. Everything was working in our favor. Once settled in our room we rode all around downtown and found dinner in a nice restaurant. Another perfect day in my opinion. All the good aspects of the day immediately fill my memory leaving no room for any negative stuff, if there was any. Pushing up the hills simply allowed us to use a different muscle group. Maybe that’s what Boone was thinking all along too but all he could put into English was, “Just one more steep”, and laughed.

lovebruce

Little Soi (alley) leading to our bungalow.
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Sunset from our bungalow in Mae Chan.
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Today's ride: 38 miles (61 km)
Total: 1,800 miles (2,897 km)

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