Somehow my partner and I often find ourselves either blessed or cursed, depending how you look at it, with last minute bike travel. Last winter after a long stretch of work projects, we suddenly had two weeks free for a quick adventure. The only criteria: it must be warm, have a different culture and be easy enough to arrive and start riding without too much preparation or hassle. Having the reputation as of one of the easiest places to travel by bike, warm and dry winter conditions, affordable accommodation and an abundance of delicious food, Thailand seemed like the perfect choice. And when we found a remote bikepacking route (thanks Riding Wild) crossing Northern Thailand and part of Laos, we booked a flight to Chiang Mai. This definitely seemed like a 'blessed' situation. Leaving cold snowy Germany, walking through the airport with bike bags in tow, I saw a t-shirt that said: "Fuck You, I'm Dope" and thought "Hell yeah! Goodbye winter, hello Thailand!"
The only impression I had of Thailand was from fifteen years ago—a quick two night stay in Bangkok in a windowless hotel above a nightclub. So although I had no idea what to expect from this trip, I was certain anything had to be better than my first experience. But then comes the 'cursed' part of last minute travel. Our lack of knowledge and preparation is at times astounding. We had planned to at least buy a travel guide in the airport and do some last minute reading on the long flight, but we were late and had no time for shopping. "Let's be frank," Steffen said, as we settled into the flight, "there are a lot of things we haven't thought through about this trip." The only thing to say at that moment was what my friend always says before attempting half-assed plans: "What could go wrong?!"
"So basically we are totally lost." Steffen's words were such a buzz kill. Not even 20km outside Chiang Mai on our first day's ride, we had already found a piece of singletrack heaven—flowy trails, warm sun and thick bamboo as far as the eye could see. I was just thinking how easy it all was—to simply land in a foreign country and start riding—right into the jungle, right into paradise. After an extensive search in Chiang Mai, we did finally buy a guidebook, only to find that exactly one town on our planned route was a place of interest. Actually, many cool places never make it into the guide, we told ourselves. Such as this forest, where we stood, lost... realizing that to find our route again meant backtracking and pushing our bikes up a very long, very steep hill.
While I knew that northern Thailand had mountains, I never imagined them so steep. Even the asphalted climbs were barely rideable with our loaded bikes. We hadn't read the fine print, obviously. It's not just that we go unprepared; we actually ignore some important details, and later blame it on lack of preparation time. Altitude gain/loss profiles don't lie. Anyone can see how hard the climbing will be. But to an extent the 'ignorance is bliss' attitude really does work. I mean honestly, how many experiences would we miss out on if we knew enough to decide it would be too difficult?
But this really was too difficult.
And it was only day one. We made it out of the bamboo woods, but then faced an endless paved ascent passing a sad looking camp for 'retired' elephants. As my sweaty, sticky body practically crawled to the top of the steepest climb, I heard music and found Steffen sipping an iced coffee on a lovely cafe terrace. "Oh thank god," I said, and slid myself onto the bench, laying my head on the table. As if I didn't already know how snail-like my pace was, I had him there to tell me we were averaging only 6 kilometers per hour.
He agreed, but then added "Goodbye, Laos." Letting go of the planned route, the goal to ride at least over the border into Laos, was a little defeating so early in the journey. But as I looked out over the beautiful, lush landscape I felt stupid for wanting to be anywhere other than where we were. But where we were did not come without its challenges.
We discovered pretty quickly that most of the assumptions we made about riding in Thailand were wrong. For one, the idea of delicious food abundance was not so. We relied on little village shops–sometimes just a few racks of packaged food displayed on the front porch of a house. We were lucky if we found bananas or nuts but often there were only highly processed snacks like cookies, crackers and sodas. Fortunately, many small villages also had some kind of roadside food stand with fresh soup or vegetables with meat and rice. We had to ignore the fact that there were at times unrecognizable ingredients like greyish colored meat(?)balls, and hoped that our stomachs wouldn't find them overly foreign. In bigger towns we found fresh food markets and stocked up on as much as we could carry. Our favorites were the bite-sized snacks wrapped beautifully in banana leaves. Later, on the trail, we would open our little gifts, hoping for deliciously sweet sticky rice, but sometimes finding putrid minced meat that was immediately fed to the nearest dog.
The advantage of bikepacking is having the ability to cook one's own food (with recognizable ingredients) and to sleep outside in nature. Despite having food and a tent, we were, as mentioned, not well prepared. As for camping, we didn't read that part in the guide - about poisonous or dangerous animals, so we played it safe and avoided wild camping. Affordable accommodation didn't always present itself when needed, so we slept a few nights in monasteries—which was very much like camping. But we were eternally grateful for the hospitality of the monks—especially the night when it was getting dark and cold, and we were beyond tired and hungry. After several minutes of confusing conversation with our hosts about where we should sleep (they have separate female and male quarters), we were allowed to stay together on a covered wooden platform. At that point I really didn't care where, or with whom I slept. I just wanted food. "Thank god we packed the emergency dehydrated dinners," I said excitedly. "Too bad we didn't remember to buy gas for the stove!" Steffen quickly replied. I just stared, disbelievingly, at him and wondered how two smart people could be so dumb sometimes, when up walked our friendly monk with four packets of instant noodle soups and several bags of cookies. I wanted to hug him, but there are rules about what women can and can't do or touch when it comes to monasteries and monks.
So I just thanked him profusely as he showed us where to find hot water for the soup. I wish I could say it was the best soup I had ever had and how grateful I was to fill my empty belly, but we ruined it by adding all four flavor packets, rendering it near inedible due to some crazy hot Thai spices.
But a little spice is not a bad thing when you are freezing cold. Surprisingly, hypothermia is a real possibility in Thailand. While we were sweltering the first day in our Chang Mai hotel and making final packing adjustments, it was hard to imagine ever being cold. Trying to go as minimalist as possible, extra clothing layers were the first to be eliminated from the bike bags—and the first to be missed in the mountains. We experienced crazy temperature swings. In the early mornings and as soon as the sun set, we wore all the clothing we had (which wasn't much), and were still cold, but by 10am we were stripped down and sweating profusely in the humidity.
We spent most of those hot days in deep, rural back roads or trails where we were fortunate to witness the quiet happenings of small village life. Despite not making it onto the 'must see' list of the guide book, these places would provide simple but lasting impressions of northern Thailand. We passed a large group of robed monks walking quietly on a dusty road. We sat in front of a small village shop sharing the shade with an old toothless woman eating sweets. We watched a scrawny dog sniffing the ground, some clothes drying in the sun, our bikes leaning against an old phone booth. By a river we found friendly but drunk villagers butchering a huge water buffalo for Christmas dinner. We escaped the rain in a homestay, where we drank tea on the floor as our gracious barefoot host cooked vegetables from her garden.
And wherever we were, we found Wats, or Buddhist temples. In our ten days we rode past countless numbers of them, and I couldn’t help but think of the Vipassana meditation course (coincidentally also ten days long) that I attended several years ago. Vipassana is the ancient Buddhist meditation technique of seeing things as they really are by simply observing the reality within ourselves. The idea is to objectively observe the breath and all bodily sensations—to not react to pain any differently than to pleasure, to just see everything for what it is, and then detach from it. In theory, this inward observation can be applied outwardly, in all situations and interactions in life. Such a simple concept, yet one I find so difficult to follow—especially when reality doesn't match my expectations. My idea of a nice winter getaway, a little biking vacation, was looking more like dragging my sorry-ass and my over-suspended, overpacked bike up some endlessly steep roads. As someone who has always preferred singletrack over roads, downhills over uphills, warmth (but not too warm) over cold, this trip presented a real challenge for my not-so-trained meditative mind.
But I didn't need Vipassana to know that wanting for the something other always leads to a form of suffering. There I was in beautiful Thailand wishing for more singletrack, imagining better routes, different gearing and better weather—becoming miserable as the dirt road we were on turned into a deeply eroded mess of a climb. I looked up at the skinny scrap of broken asphalt winding its way up the motor scooter line for the local drivers. It was coincidentally about the same width as singletrack and I charged toward it with unexpected and renewed energy. I simply rode, accepted the searing pain in my legs and found myself standing triumphantly at the top.
It occurred to me that maybe singletrack is just a state of mind and we simply seek the forced focus that comes when there is only one line—the smooth path in the middle of a rutted road, the ride through a city where cars and scooters squeeze in, the urban obstacle course across ramps and between barricades. We can search endlessly for the 'perfect' ribbon of dirt but maybe what we really search for is the feeling that there is nowhere else to be, nothing else to be done, nothing that matters more than navigating this little piece of earth in front of us. When there is no time to compare or judge the moment, no time to see things as better or worse, beautiful or ordinary, we must simply accept what is. It's easy to find bliss while riding singletrack. The challenge is to be content everywhere—in all terrain, all circumstances and all weather, on and off the bike.
In Thailand I tried and mostly failed to rediscover what I had learned in Vipassana. I know I should sign up for another ten-day course... but I'll probably cheat and go looking for some meditative singletrack instead.