Map of Nan in relation to Thailand

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

I had flown my Boardman mountain bike to the province of Nan, up in Northern Thailand for my summer break; part of unseen Thailand. I knew from my own research that this would be a challenging holiday with all the rolling hills and soaring mountains, more the reason for going here. The more obvious tourist attractions were in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, but I wanted to explore the lesser well-known areas. The town of Nan is a prosperous little town, surrounded by misty mountains and luxuriant forests. A perfect place to escape from hectic Bangkok.

My chalet

Morning brought heavy showers, in the distance you could hear the remnants of thunder, echoing around the distant mountain ranges and no doubt through the scattering of villages.

Breakfast was taken in the normal relaxed breakfast area, with the usual spread. Pineapples grew to the rear of where I was staying.

How pineapples grow

Back at my chalet after breakfast, I earnestly got ready intent in making most of my day. I’d already prepared three drinks and placed one on my bike the other two could wait until I had finished packing as they’d only get spilt.

A teak tree plantation

My rucksack was prepared as usual: inner tubes, pumps – (two types), mobile phone, map, magnifier and camera. I put my rucksack on, strangely it felt lighter than I was expecting, nevertheless I paid very little if any attention to that. Then enthusiastically I wheeled my bicycle out into the drizzle, which had all but fizzled out.

It was only once I had reached the centre of Nan that I realized that I’d forgotten to put the other two prepared drinks into my rucksack outer pockets – never mind I thought, deciding that I could always buy provisions on the way.

The ‘Rice fields of Nan.’

I followed the signs for the 1091 road which would take me out towards Ban Luang, which was today’s destination; only 51 km from my resort.

I stocked up along the way with three litres of water and juice, which I considered to be sufficient to get me through to the other side. The route was quite scenic, as most of northern Thailand was, with it being the less developed.

It wasn’t too long after leaving the western fringes of the town of Nan that I started to climb. This was not really what I had expected, but there was nothing much that I could do about it. Maybe it was just a glitch and would level off soon. However, the gradient didn’t and if anything, it just got worse from village-to-village I cycled. There was nothing out of the ordinary here except the incline.

The up and down winding roads

Ban Sung Khwae, was the last obvious village that I reached. It ran up a very steep hillside. Some of the locals for whatever reason were wearing a dress code that I associated with Thailand’s hill tribe’s, with their fine elaborate hand-woven textiles.

Ban Song Khwae

The cycling was arduous as I entered the dense forest on the sinuous road which seemed to be going nowhere except upwards. It did, however, offer some spectacular views as the road serpentined. In many of the areas, the forest had been cleared to make way for farms and housing. Much of the forest had impenetrable escarpments, steep and uninhabited.

As far as the road went, well it was in good condition, but my only problem was that it was becoming increasingly steeper as I went, which wasn’t half making me sweat and with that, I was continuously stopping for drinks.

I had cycled through Khao Yai National Park, but that was easy compared to this. There seemed to be no let up here and with the sun just blazed down on me, making my cycling ever more tedious.

The road just heads upwards, heaven’s the next stop.

The road was one hell of an experience, ‘a swine of a road,’ I thought being ever so diplomatic about it, I certainly could have called it worse. I spied a beautiful royal blue and black moth resting. I could not resist stopping to take a photograph of it if only to halt the monotony and have another drink.

A beautiful looking moth

I pressed on but was slowly coming to the realization that I was going through my drink supply quicker than I would have liked. It seemed that I’d cycled up one of the longest and steepest roads ever and I not ventured through a single village for ages and nor was I expecting to the way this road was going. My assumption was, that this is how lone cyclist generally meets their fate, I thought I had planned well and was carrying sufficient supplies in contrast to the weight I had, but obviously, I was wrong. I assumed that if the road kept on going like this I’d arrive at heaven in one form or the other, but thankfully it started to level off.

Oh, at long last, I’ve reached the top of the world – well not exactly, but at that precise moment, it felt like that. I had reached a border checkpoint, with another fantastic viewpoint in which to take more photographs from, not to mention have a well-earned rest.

A chirpy talkative police officer wearing an off pink T’-shirt with a yin-yang symbol, came over to talk to me, his English was very good.

A border patrol policeman ‘love his T-shirt’

‘Hello, where are you cycling to – Chiang Rai?’ he asked, he was very bubbly, I presumed he would not get too many people calling on him in this desolate place – certainly not cyclists. So having me here, he seemed delighted.

‘No, just to Ban Luang and then back to Nan.’ I replied.

‘Where are you from? He went to ask in the same upbeat voice.

‘Originally from the UK.’ He probably thought I was simply a mad Englishman, cycling in terrain like this especially with the sun being at its peak and if he didn’t think I was mad, well I was beginning to think that.

Rice field with the smoky mountains acting as a backdrop. 

I left the happy-go-lucky police officer and continued with my gruelling escapade. What I thought had been the top was not. The road started to wind up the mountain even higher if only to exasperate me. This I thought was simply not fair, the landscape was simply playing games with me and was obviously getting the better of me.

Rolling hills

I stopped yet another drink and it was here that I really started to get worried about how little fluids I had left. The nearest village from her was at least 15 km away, the way I was going through the water was a litre per hour and I had only got less than 500ml left. If this road didn’t level off pretty soon I was doomed. Would I perish in the land that I so much love? I wasn’t intent in losing hope, I would just carry on regardless. As it was I happened to spy four motorcyclists gathered together under a sala taking cover obviously from the harsh realities of the midday sun.

You need strong legs for this environment.

Taking my opportunities while I could, I approached them for help.

‘I don’t suppose you have any water that I could purchase of you.’  The going rate for fresh water in this remote area must have been 1,000 baht (£20) a litre owing to the laws of supply and demand.

‘Yes we do,’ thankfully, they had ample of the stuff and they lavishly topped me up sufficiently to get me through.

Fantastic views

I think they took pity on me, as I must have looked all mattered and dishevelled. I quaffed my first half litre down with no hesitation. As I drunk I was aware that my second problem was going to be fatigue caused by lack of sodium if I continued sweating like I was. Hopefully, the early signs of that would not raise its ugly head later.

The kind men who supplied me with water

Thanks to my Good Samaritans, I continued, with the belief that my guardian angel was looking down on me. The road eventually led me down into Ban Luang, with more descents than what there were accents.

Ban Luang was a small quiet place. It was a community of service garages and empty small office blocks; it did not even have a 7-Eleven that I could see. I thought every place had 7-Elevens here in Thailand.

While I was there, I ensured that I had more than enough liquids to get me back, but what I really needed was sustenance – something solid: bread, chocolate or rice, but I didn’t see anything.

A flowing river

I turned my bike around and set off cycling to cherish everything that had frustrated me in reverse, but things could not have started any worse than what they did. My rear brake was playing up and I could feel the friction as I cycled. If that was not bad enough my front tyre seemed to be losing air. I pumped it up and hoped for the best – a miracle I suppose.

The lovely road that I had just cycled down without a care in the world, was now my dilemma. Like always with these steep climbs, I struggled to keep going for any length of time. If I could cycle for twenty or thirty metres, I was lucky. It was caused by the lack of salt, I kept telling myself, but I think it was more than that. I had four hours in which to get back before darkness would besiege me and cycling between 7 – 9 km/h wasn’t going to get me anywhere fast.

More of Nan’s rice fields.

Considering that I had some problems on the way I managed to get back to Nan ahead of my scheduled time. I followed my outward journey through Nan on my cycle computer in the hope of not getting lost.

Today I’d cycled a distance of 103km, in 7 hours and 13 minutes, which did not take into consideration all the stops that I’d made along the way. My average speed had been 14:31km/h with a maximum speed of 66:41 km/h. My heartbeat had averaged 134bpm with a maximum of 174bpm and finally, I had burnt 2,784 calories.

‘You were right about the mountains on the way to Ban Luang – they were terrible.’ I said the owner of the resort.

‘You’re still alive though – and survived the ordeal.’ He said with an enigmatic smile. He must have known how I was feeling.