[ Tommy typing ]
I started out of Chiang Mai for what would be my most strenuous day of riding in the hot morning. The road to Pai was 140Km with two heinous mountain ranges and a huge valley in between. I knew it would be a hard day so I tried to keep a good pace on the flats outside of the city, while conserving muscle power for the climbs ahead. In the distance I could see the looming mountains topped with ominous storm clouds. These were the mountains I had set to conquer. At about noon it started raining as I was beginning to climb. I put on the poncho and kept rolling until the downpour got too hard to ride. I stopped at a roadside café at about 1:30 for some pad thai and thai style iced coffee. Incidentally, I had stopped right near Mokfa waterfall, the type locality of the mushroom species Marasmius mokfaensis, a species whose genetic sequence I am trying to isolate in the lab.
Two iced coffees later the rain had eased up, and I set out climbing again, past the Chiang Mai Mushroom Research Center which I believe is not in current operation. At about 4pm I got a flat tire. As I was repairing, a Canadian kid on a motor scooter going the other way stopped to chat with me. “Your not going to make it to Pai today man, It’s still a long way up and down” he told me. What is it about someone telling you can’t do something that makes you damn determined to prove them wrong?
I keep climbing and a couple hours later realize my tire is flat again. Shit, I pull the inner tube but cannot find the leak, so I patch the first tube. Realizing that between the rainstorm and two flats I have lost a lot of precious time and I will not make it to Pai before nightfall, I contemplate setting up camp for the night, but I decide I don’t have enough water or food to spend the night in the mpountains and keep climbing.
Sure enough the sun falls behind the mountaintops and I stop to much some snacks, dig the flashing safety lights out of my bags and dissolve a pack of rehydration salts in my last 500cc of water. The arduous climb through the mountains that separate Chiang Mai province from Mae Hong Son provonce lasts for at least another hour and I approach the summit in the dark.
Finally at the summit, I see a flood of bright lights in my eyes. I realize I have come across a drugs checkpoint. The tiny road I’m travelling is a superhighway for illegal drugs manufacured in the lawless uplands of Burma being funneled to the port cities in the South for eventual export to hungry markets in Europe and the US. I read in the Bangkok Post acouple days back that a tonne of Burmese heroin was siezed very close to this location less than a week ago. At the checkpoint I see masked police in cammo fatigues with assault rifles. On the side of the road officers are searching the trunks of stopped cars and trucks. One officer with a floodlight motions me to pull over. Two masked officers approach, one with and assault rifle (it looks like an American M-16). They ask me something in Thai. I reply with “mai chai Thai” (no Thai). I piont West and say “Pai, Pai.” The officers look at each other, mumble something in Thai and wave me through the checkpoint. I roll away slowly, relieved that they did not make me unpack all my gear for inspection.
After passing the police checkpoint at the last summit, I began to drop into the Pai valley pretty fast. As I lost elevation I started to descend into some dense fog. The fog kept getting thicker and thicker until I had to wipe the condensation from my glasses to see. Visibility was dropping with the altitude and I had to work to reign in my speed on the fast descent. I was very wary of passing and oncoming cars and started to pull all the way off the road when I heard them coming, but with high powered front and rear flashers I could see cars spotting me from a distance and giving me plenty of room. It was not being hit by a car that I should have been worried about, but my own visibility.
This stretch of highway wasgetting desolate, and there was very little auto trafic on the road. I traveled several Km without seeing a single car. After dark here in the rural mountains, I saw several herds of cattle laying by the roadside or crossing the windy two-lane highway. At one point, a herd of cattle had completely blocked the road, and a truck was stuck behing the herd honking in futility.
It was approaching eight o’clock in the middle of the mountains, it was pitch black and the fog seemed to get thicker and thicker, worse than a bad day on the west side of San Francisco. It had been a while since I saw a car and I felt all alone on the highway. I remember pulling over to shine my LED on a highway marker, 26 Km to Pai. 26 K, no problem, I was sure I could reach town before nine o’clock and check into a room. After 110 Km in the steep South Asian mountains and wet socks for most of the day, I could not wait to get a hot meal and a beer. 26 K to go downhill, no problem. I put on a little more speed and took the full lane, I had not seen another car for a while now.
I was alone in the dark fog of the Mae Hong Son mountains with a spooky silence all around me, just the soft rhythmic click of my freewheel when I stopped pedaling. All alone in the pitch black, I was using the white line on the side of the road to stay on course. Visibility was no good at all. This is precisely the kind of situation that causes one’s imagination to run wild, and prompts a man of science to turn his thoughts to spirits and ghosts. For you know, in the mountians of Asia, ghosts are very real. I began to think of the spirits of lost travelers watching me. Another sharp descent, and I put on a little more speed. The fog had cut visibility to less than a few meters.
All of a sudden, a white ghost appeared right in my line, right in my face. Before I could hit the brakes, or ghasp or yell, I would learn that the white apparition before me was no ghost at all. In fact it was quite real, and quite solid. Blahdow! No time to react, I was flying end-over my handlebars and I could feel my body liberated from my machine which was flipping in a different vector. With pure instinct, I felt my body tuck and prepare for impact with the pavement. I hit the deck and rolled into a wall of furry flesh. I’d hit a fucking cow lying in the road, a fucking cow! Actually it was a small herd of cattle lying in the middle of the road and I started to hear terrified moo-ing and a thunder of hooves on the pavement.
My first instinct was to pick myself up as fast as possible, at this point I was terrified of the very real possibility of being trampled or kicked. The cows were running off the highway in a panic. I could feel huge, heavy cows jostling around me in a crush of fur and flesh. The night was sill pitch black and I could heve cut the fog with a proverbial knive. I could not see how many cows were scrambling but I finally heard the last hooves running off the road.
At this point, I took a quick assessment of my physical condition. Collarbones were still intact. No major blood, breathing, with a heat rate (dramatically elevated), no helmet damage. I was standing on my own, with a couple of gnarly bruises and my right knee hurt to bear full weight, but in all, I was physically fine.
While I was flying though the air in a trajectory approximately equal to the vector of my original velocity, my bicycle had flipped off the road and slid at least three meters down the steep ravine. I could see my blinking indicator lights down below, and I set myself to the task of climbing down the loose dirt to retrieve my bike and scattered bags. I slid down the dirt ravine on my ass to find the front-end of my rig mangled. The force of my impact had bent the front fork all the way back, the bars and and brakehoods are all out of whack, the front wheel out of true.
“Shit.” I thought, this is the end of the tour. It took me a while to drag my bike and all my stuff back up on the road.
I started to sort through my options, there was the police checkpoint 10K up the mountain and the town more than 20K away. Both were too far to walk with all my bags and a busted bike that didn’t roll. I waited for quite a while before a car rolled by that I could flag down. A pickup with four Thai guys pulled over in the fog to see what was up. Using my Thai phasebook, and the little English they spoke, I was able to tell them what happened and that I was trying to get to Pai. I asked them if they would give me a ride to a guesthouse in town and they agreed, loading my busted bicycle in the back of the pickup.
These four dudes looked like repair guys driving back from a job. The back of the pickup was full of toolboxes and a ladder. They were quite jovial joking around, laughing and singing along enthsuiastically to the Tahi pop music on the CD deck. As we approached Pai, they asked me, “eat?” I had not had a real meal since about 2pm before I started climbing. We stopped at a roadside place and they ordered a bunch of soup, curry and fried fish. After the meal they refused to let me pay. We loaded back into the pickup and headed into town. One of the guys kept saying something to me in Thai I didn’t understand, all I could pick up was the Thai word for bicycle, and “morning” and “village” in English. As we sped throught he town of Pai I pointed and said, “guesthouse,” but the guys kept shaking their heads “no, jia-kaiang, village, morning.”
We headed up the windy highway towards Mae Hong Son, it was about 10pm now and I was wondering where these guys were taking me. After a winding 40Km through the rugged mountains we ended up at a little village where the guys pulled up to a closed repair shop, and unloaded my busted bike. They took me to a house behind the repair shop, where another older guy, the owner of the shop I guess, was smoking cigarettes and watching a soccer match on TV. “You take bath,” the guys pionted me to the outside bathroom. I have to say the hot shower hose was a great relief after spending the day in wet shorts and socks. After I showered and changed, I went back inside. The older of the guys asked me my name. Then he pionted to a large bamboo mat on the living room floor where a couple of the other dudes were already crashed out. “Tommy, you sleep here.”
In the morning, I woke up and the guys were gathered outside around my busted bike. A couple of mechanics in Castrol Sythec work shirts from the garage next door were scrutinizing the damage. I went out with my phasebook and showed them where the fork was bent out of line. The older guy grabbed my arm and pulled me back in the house, “eat now, eat.” The repair shop owners wife made us a huge brakfast of rice, stir fried veggies with meat, fresh fruit and a communal bowl of chili lime paste that reminded me a lot of Mexican salsa. After breakfast the older guy motioned me outside, “look, jia-kaiang.”
Outside in the garage I discovered my bike with the fork bent back more or less to original. The beaming mechanic pointed to the straightened fork, I saw the length of pipe on the ground he had used as a leverage bar. This chaged everything, I could keep rolling! The mechanic watched me adjust the headset which had come loose in the impact. After the bike was fixed, I wondered what my next move would be. The older guy came back and said “you come with us.” I told them earlier that I was trying to make it to Mae Hong Son, he showed me on the map that they were planning to head to a village about 50K from Mae Hong Son to service a phone line. Again we loaded the bike up in the pickup and drove about an hour to a tiny village at the end of an unpaved road in a cavernous valley in the middle of nowhere. The guys were there to repair a pay phone in the tiny wooden general store in the middle of the village, this could well have been the only phone in the village. The villagers were already very curious about the repair guys in the 4x4 pickup, I can only imagine what they thought about me and my strange bike in the back. The guys spent about an hour messing with the phone line, while the entire village gathered to stare at us.
After the reapair job the guys drove me back to the highway and unloaded my bike. The older dude pointed Southwest and said “Mae Hong Son,” with a big smile. I thanked them profusely for putting me up, feeding me and repairing my bike. These guys were my testament to the generosity and hospitality of the Thai people, and I am forever grateful I ran into them. I rolled slowly down the highway as they waved bye from the roadside. The rest of the afternoon I rolled cautiously over the mountainous 50Km into the town of Mae Hong Son.
3 years ago