Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Journey to the genesis (via the batcave)

22nd June - 13th July 2012                                                              6617 – 6981km
Chiang Mai – Hang Chat - Sop Prap – Kum Noeng - Chao Ram Cave - Sukhothai

A life less arduous
22nd June - 4th July

After our exhilarating, rain drenched slog over the northern hills of Thailand we found ourselves rumbling along a dusty stretch of highway into the hub of northern Thailand, the city of Chiang Mai. The rice fields gave way to concrete, which grew from two stories up to three, four, five. Aeroplanes descended from the sky and roared in to land just across the road from us, and the traffic on the road thickened.

But despite the unmistakeable citiness of all of this, Chiang Mai has managed to resist the overwhelming hecticness of some of the other larger cities of South East Asia. Traffic is here, but it's not backed up twenty cars strong at the traffic lights. When you walk down the street you have time to gaze about at the buildings, because you're not constantly trying to avoid banging into people.

Chiang Mai's nice n' easy nature stems from being so isolated up until the early parts of the last century. If we thought riding a bike over a few hills was hard, back then we'd have had to hire an elephant and stomp through the jungle for a month in order to visit this ancient city, and although road and rail links were established in the 1930's, the last stretch did not get paved until 1972.

The jungle is now cleared, and you can hop on a bus from Bangkok and get there in just a few hours – you could probably bike it in a week - but the old ways still influence Chiang Mai's character. The city is centred on the old city square, a walled enclosure a couple of square kilometres around dating back to 1292 – about the same time that William Wallace was causing the English so many problems back in Blighty. The walls themselves are a bit slumped, but remain in impressive condition, and enclose within them old style narrow roads, lanes and alleys, not at all conducive to anything much bigger than a rickhaw. The moat around the central square, once there to keep out the naughty Burmese and Mongol invaders now seems to protect it from the highways and malls of the new city that spreads out beyond, so nestled inside this patchwork of lanes and alleys we find flourishing an easier going world of cafes, bars, temples and restaurants, with traffic and noise at a minimum.

Chiang Mai sunflowers
We broke from the multi-lane stream that swirls around outside the moat, crossing the moat to find the ambience of a small town settle on us. Relieved to have made it we immediately got to work finding a home for the next few days. This perhaps makes it sound all a bit like a hovis advert with a vicar tinkling his bell and trundling down some cobbled village street in Yorkshire, it wasn't like that at all. Our speedos clocked over 140km that day; we were slick with sweat and coated with dust, absolutely shattered, and certainly incapable of marketing any loafs. After a couple of tries we gave up on finding perfection for accommodation and took a small, fairly cheap room that didn't have any windows. We showered, and collapsed onto the bed.

Despite our initial reservations about our room, a dark cell tucked away down a nowhere alley, it turned out to be an outstandingly good choice. The chef at the premises was a real professional you see, with bags of enthusiasm and serious skill at rustling up vegetarian dishes. Soy burgers that were as juicey and satisfying as steaks, with mushroom sauce that sent us hungry cyclists salivating. We got through about 10 of these during our stay. There were Burmese curries on par with the excellent standard set in Mae Sot. Perfect pad thais, lasagne, and all kinds of other things who's names I couldn't begin to guess, but which all tasted boss. Brown Rice Organic Bistro, check it out if you're ever in town.
Duong; Liv frying up eggs n' noodles; and the finished pad thai.

Veggie Thai red curry
Thai snacks with M&S style sexual sauce spilling itself all over the place.

We realised how lucky we were on our second day, when we wandered through the guesthouse's restaurant to discover that Duong, the chef, was in the midst of a free cooking course that we were welcome to join in with. Quite unexpectedly we found ourselves cracking eggs, frying noodles, wrapping spring rolls. We had a riot of a time, and the food was incredible. All fresh ingredients, wonderful contrasts of texture and tastes, and plenty of it for us to scoff our faces. Duong could consider us converts from that day on, and we ended up eating there pretty much every other meal.

Jen, Sami and Dylan
Such a fine guesthouse naturally attracted a good bunch of people too. Joe and Jen were a lovely young couple from the UK, although unfortunately their big trip around South East Asia was on hold when we met them, owing to an infected cut on Jen's leg that was being bombarded by antibiotics. Thankfully it was on the mend, and in the mean time the banging food and a steady stream of bad films being screened in the restaurant kept them upbeat while they waited for the green light to continue their adventure.

Another couple who arrived soon after us, Sami and Dylan, were on a similar mission around the area. These two Aussies were quality company, and between them made lounging around in the restaurant a bit too easy, especially when mad good veggie food was on hand at any hour.

Robin, Felicia and Maarten. Hiding out in a back garden
bar to avoid the coffee cup curfew.
Landing a free master course in cooking, and sharing a guesthouse with such sterling individuals wasn't our only stroke of luck. On our first day in town we were sauntering back along the lanes from the fruit market when who should we see waving at us, but Maarten – our Belgian friend from Tonsai. We joined him and his friend Felicia for a coffee, that quickly turned into a beer, which swelled into a tipsy afternoon of food, ice-cream and Thai beers. It was election day the next day though, which meant that we weren't technically allowed to drink. No hungover voters allowed, or something like that. So at each of the bars we visited we had to surreptitiously pour our bottles into cups and pretend we were drinking coffee instead, in true Casablanca style.

Dylan and Maarten; utter animals.
The next day we met up again and made our way to the cinema to catch Prometheus. The film was pretty good, but the whole process of going out with friends and treating ourselves gave us a little dose of homely normality that turned this short break into what felt like a proper holiday. Popcorn, lovely company, and man eating alien virus monsters; it's what it's all about really.

Or rather it was all about that, until we went out to the reggae bars a couple of nights later.

A great big group of us, including Jen and Joe, Dylan and Sami, Maarten, Felicia and some of Maarten's other climbing friends, came to our guesthouse to feast on the wonders that Duong was firing out the kitchen. After devouring half the menu and putting a fat dent in the guesthouse's beer supply we pranced our way up the road to the bars. Maarten and Dylan by this point dressed in animal costumes that Dylan had been carrying around with him (as you do).

What a quality night, dancing away to a live ska band, spending too much money, and drunkenly shouting about how awesome we all were. It got late, apparently, and we had to say our farewells. Maarten and Felicia had a bus to Laos to catch the next morning, so it was our last night together. We said a tearful goodbye - quite a unique scene with Maarten in his pig costume - and we tottered back to our beds.

I actually thought I had handled my alcohol quite well that night, until I woke up, very disorientated and confused, in the hostel laundry room at 4am. But as the old saying goes; you know it's been a good night when you have a tearful goodbye with a man in a pig costume, and wake up disorientated in the laundry.

Neither Liv nor I did anything loud, complicated or strenuous for the next two days.

Of course we did more than just drink alcohol and recover from drinking alcohol while we were in town. Of course. There were all temples to explore for starters. Well, not all of them, there are over 300 in town, they're mad for them here, but we had a little look at some of them. Lovely as they are, I find they start to get a bit tiresome after a while because so many of them are the same. The same buildings, built in the same way, arranged in a slightly different manner.

Choose your charity. These donation lockers at a temple
allow you to pick where your money will go.
Will you help build a new temple, or give some money
to some "Oldsters"?
Our favourite activity though - not including cinema trips and reggae bars – was strolling around the many street markets that spring up on different days of the week. Stalls selling trinkets, t-shirts, candles, toys, bed sheets, lamp shades, fried bananas, birds in cages, wooden signs, pants, bronze buddhas, burgers and wine. Flippin' everything! There were a couple that ran constantly around the periphery of the city square while the Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday night market appeared and vanished within a 24 hour period, totally taking over a whole quarter when they did so. Street after street of musicians, steaming pots of food, and hand-made wares. Excellent fun, with plenty of nice, nice and interesting, and interesting but not so nice food. Meaty mushroom skewers, tiny sweet dried tomatoes that tasted like raisins, mini ant egg omelettes, corn on the cob, and fruit smoothies.

Not hard to see then why we ended up spending a lot longer in Chiang Mai than we'd intended. We had an excellent time with some really excellent people. But Dylan and Sami left the same day as Maarten and Felicia, and a few days later Jen and Joe got the doctors permission to push on with their adventure. We dawdled for a couple more days, but eventually decided it was time to get going again.

Our sleeping pattern was conked well out, and the alarm at 5am was like a detuned cathedral bell heralding psychological undoing. We staggered around in a daze, but managed to get ourselves away, back on the road, back out of the calm of the old city square, back onto the busy highway. Now we had the long haul, south all the way to Bangkok, where we prayed Liv's new passport would be waiting for us. We had 3 weeks to get it, and get out of the country.

South bound
4th - 7th July

The highway out of Chiang Mai was as interesting as a strip of grey concrete can be, but it gave us a good start and helped to counter the slow pace that 10 days of beer and burgers had engendered. The traffic dwindled as we got further from the city, until by the late afternoon the road was fairly clear, albeit an uphill struggle in some pretty nasty heat.

Nailing great distances was not our priority on this push though. We were adamant that we were going to get into the habit of this camping malarky. Like scaling hills, our camping days always prove to be more interesting than staying in a motel – always - and therefore much more memorable, even though sometimes those memories are of mangy dogs waking us up in the middle of the night, or of the two of us staggering around in the dark trying to re-erect the tent on flooded ground while a thunder storm screams and bangs around us – they're still more memorable, and I think there's a lot to be said for that (in hindsight).

Camping by the shrine.
Money is also a factor. We have about 7 months of cycling to go, and at our current rate of expenditure we'll go broke midway through China. Getting to Beijing is no problem if we stay in hotels all the time but only if we don't treat ourselves every now and then to good food and a few beers. The alternative is to do our cycling days on the cheap – camping, eating local – and then treat ourselves a little on our days off. That sounds much more desirable to us, so that is what we intend to do.

We escaped a late afternoon shower by stopping off at a row of local restaurants beside the desolate highway and ordered ourselves some dinner. The owner was a lovely guy who managed to interpret our ropey Thai asking him whereabouts we could pitch a tent, and he directed us to a shrine on the other side of the road, at the top of a small hill through some trees.

Nobody was there when we arrived. There was however a large covered area beside the shrine, along with a block of a dozen toilets with no running water, and a water butt complete with tap and plastic pot for us to shower with. Swatting at mozzies as the sun sank away, we got to work getting everything set up. We were only a couple of dozen metres from the highway, but tucked away behind these trees on our little hill we felt safe and secluded.

Everything went well that first night on the road, sleep came easy and we weren't bothered by any nosey creatures in the night, although the morning did not go quite as smoothly. Ants had broken in to the food pannier, so we had to spend over an hour slapping, splashing and flicking them off our things, cleaning them off once, packing up the tent, and then finding the bloody things had launced a counter offensive and retaken the bag. Guh!

Nice to see even the locals get harassed by the dogs.
From then on our first week's push south from Chiang Mai was really excellent. We didn't cover vast distances, but we avoided the highways quite successfully, and gave ourselves generous lie-ins (waking up at 6am rather than 5am) as reward for overcoming the deep desire to take a hotel room every night. Camping is getting easier, but the quality of sleep is nothing like that which a nice, safe, comfy bed offers.

The next day we spent the night in a large wat by the road, surrounded by upended chairs like D-day defences to protect us from the gang of dogs that patrolled the compound. They didn't help us being woken by a lot of barking in the small hours, but other than that the dogs were well behaved and left us to it. The next day we thanked the monks and dropped them some alms along with our usual donation, and we set off again.
You shall not pass!!
Our windy back-road route almost proved perilous the next day, when we found ourselves pedalling uphill along a little road in the middle of some woods, with nowhere good to pull over and pitch a tent. As the afternoon wore on though the road descended, and in the late afternoon we came upon a small town and a highway patrol station. After about five minutes of trying, we finally got the officer on watch at the station to click that we actually wanted to sleep in his garage – crazy foreigners! - and he got his brush out and swept a little corner for us to camp behind the patrol car.

The town was so small that it didn't have anywhere selling food, just a shop that sold raw ingredients, so we bought a couple of onions, fired up the stove, and got to work rustling up a pasta bolognaise. Not half bad, if I say so myself. And what is more, the officer on duty gave us a little nip of his whiskey. Lovely guy, although if any criminals came speeding past and needed apprehending, I wonder whether his getting through the rest of his big bottle of whiskey on his own that evening would make him particularly fit for the chase.

Well, no matter, no criminals did come by, and the local dogs were pretty well behaved that night too. We slept well, and set out the next morning to find ourselves on secluded country roads, surrounded by green grassy fields and blue skies.

It's nice getting away down these rarely visited roads. Riding along a busy highway is not altogether unpleasant, but it's something that you endure rather than enjoy. These quiet rural routes slow us down quite considerably, bringing our average speed down several kilometres an hour, and thanks to their wiggly, indirect nature, stunted our overall progression south by perhaps a hundred kilometres that week.

Oh but it's worth it though, it really is. That day riding into a landscape of green hills was memorable for all the right reasons. Serene, beautiful, and flat or on a slight decline. Perfection, and well worth the slow-down.

To the bat cave, Robin!
7th - 8th July

The country lanes wound their way past long open stretches of rice and grass, around lofty chunks of leafy sandstone, and down towards one of Thailand's earliest cities, the ancient ruins of the old Sukhothai kingdom. That was still another day away though. On the afternoon of the 7th July we were getting a bit lost trying to find our way to a little-known bat cave in the area, that we had read about on someone's blog almost a month ago.

I had assumed we'd be organised in Chiang Mai and pin point the exact location on our map there, but I was wrong, we just drank a lot instead, so we had to navigate our way into a vague circle I had scrawled on the map back in Kanchanaburi that covered an area of about 20km2. Somewhere in there was a bat cave, best of luck finding that then.

The road to the Chao Ram cave.
Luckily for us the locals understood our broken Thai and our bat impressions, and before long we found the signs to the Chao Ram cave, and were led down an increasingly narrow and bumpy track, that wound along past lime green rice fields and up into a congregation of sandstone hills.

This tree is getting fuggin' BORING
now guys...
We were mildly surprised to find that there was a proper entrance to the area, with log cabins for rangers, and a moderately hefty entrance fee of 150 baht per head. We coughed up and rode on, along a pristine tarmacked road that coiled gently up for a couple of kilometres. Yet despite the well developed entrance and new road, when we arrived at the top we found the area almost completely deserted; just an empty car park, a few rangers in a building off in the corner of the field, and a monkey tied to a tree – purpose: unknown.

The cave lay a few hundred metres through the jungle, so we set off on the bikes to reconnaissance the area. Just our luck, in doing so I managed to put a thorn straight through my tyre, so I had to spend the next half hour fixing that in the jungle while Liv went back to the carpark to get the tent set up. Puncture fixed, I rode back to join her, putting another thorn through my other tyre in the process. The afternoon was creeping away though so we had to get going; marching back up the track and onto a steep overgrown slope to the entrance of the cave. The light was gradually fading around us, and the bats were due any time.

As we approached the black mouth of the cave we noticed a few dozen bats looping in and out of the entrance. Not a very impressive scene really, but the musty dusty pong of bat poo that rose as we drew nearer suggested that the cave was harbouring a good many more bats than that.

After our scramble the view of the landscape beyond was fantastic. A cloud spattered sunset was deepening the sky into a rose red, with jungle clad hills tumbling away into the distance, darkening into shadows on the horizon. We felt like we had the whole land as far as we could see to ourselves, no sign of anybody else up here; just us, the sunset, and the occasional squeak and flap of a bat.

The mouth of the cave was over twenty feet high, and plenty wide enough for us to wander inside. Bat droppings carpeted the floor, their old-earthy smell filling the air and settling on the back of our throats. Scattered amid the guano lay slumped bat skeletons with squirming masses of ants picking the last remnents of flesh from them. All well and good, but where were the rest of them?

We ventured deeper inside, casting our torch beams through the blackness of the cave. A chamber lay off to the right, shrouded in pitch darkness, so we carefully picked our way over the rocks towards it, slipping regularly as we went.

The air changed palpably as we reached the chamber, there was the sense of movement, vast movement going on inside. A sound like a distant landslide swirled above us. Our torches peered up, and in the beam we could suddenly make out thousands of tiny bodies circling the chamber. It was like being in a hurricane, with a dense cloud of debris swirling around us that we could only feel as the occasional puff of stale air when a wing beat nearby.

Abrupt squeaks came from above and around and below us, wings flapped centimetres from our ears, and occasionally a junior wingsman would clip our arms, or heads, or legs. Climbing deeper inside and shining the torch into the darkness revealed a swarm of pig-nosed flying mice hurtling towards us, always swerving out of the way at the very last second. We had faith in their sonar skills, but our reflexes couldn't help but make us twitch to duck and dodge as these furry projectiles came at us. It was a crazy experience. Turn the light off and you're in darkness surrounded by a gale of flapping wings. Switch your torch on and suddenly you're free-falling past hundreds of harelipped rats. Manic.

While we were exploring this insane chamber the sun was slinking away, and the tiny trickle of bats leaving the cave had burst into full flow. We clambered back down to the entrance, and stood for almost an hour as the population of the cave rushed out into the dusk, an unbroken flow pouring along the roof of the cave like a swollen river.

Around about one million bats, by all accounts, although we didn't count them. They were still flowing out when the night set in and we descended back down the slope to our tent. As we clambered back down we could make out, off in the distance, these great rippling bands of thousands of bats, like twisting clouds of smoke dancing over the black hills. It really was a magic experience.

8th - 13th July

Everybody knows if you want to start a vast empire the first thing you have to get sorted out is lunch. Lunch, followed by subjugation, terror, and armies riding mad-scary war elephants . The Khmer's appreciated this as well as any others, growing an absolute trunk load of rice to feed their rapidly growing population, and stoking their power across South East Asia with their god-like kings and frighteningly colossal constructions at Angkor. They were for many hundreds of years the power in what is now South East Asia, and at their greatest extend ruled over much of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. People not to be messed with, you see.

But of course it was not to last, and around the 13th century one of the Khmer's vassal states had the cheek to break away, stick their fingers up, and ultimately give the Khmers a good kicking. Not a bad start for a people in their genesis. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Thai's, forging a kingdom for themselves in the Yom river valley at Sukhothai, the first Thai city.
It's reputation as being the first Thai city is not entirely accurate actually, since it is now known that there were some earlier settlements that could equally well be labelled Thai. Sukhothai was however the first really influential force, the “first national capital”, for a people who liberated themselves from outside rule, and would come to be known as Thai's.

Small dogs: Not to be confused for powerful
ancient kingdoms
New Sukhothai city lies about 15km east of the ruins, and although it doesn't feel especially old it certainly could do with a bit of a clean. We rode in on a haze of orange dust, and found a small notch of hostels centred around a noisy patch of road, filled with street stalls, dust, and the constant whine of motor scooters.

Just down the lane beside the Thai Tourist board office we found ourselves a nice little place, spruced up with pot plants and gravel landscaping, and with a spacious tiled room with a hot shower and a massive bed. A bit of swank at "Le Sukhothai Resort". It was, after all, my birthday the next day, and after 4 nights couped up in a sweaty tent we were both over the moon about the idea of slipping under cool sheets and having a proper night's sleep. Seriously, a bed is something else after all that.

To celebrate my 27th year we spent the entire day lying around doing absolutely nothing. After 5 days in the saddle, believe me, it's one of the best presents in the entire world. I bought a bunch of music online to top up my ipod, and a book for the kindle – which I felt lucky to be able to do because, a) I had such generous family members sending me a lovely lump of money, and b) because I was actually able to buy myself useful, desirable presents that I could read/listen to right away, despite being far away from any shops actually physically selling the things.

Even better than that, I got to have a lovely chat with my parents that evening, see their faces and catch up on news. The glory of technology, and the awesomeness of my lovely family. Thanks everyone!!

There are some fine establishments in Sukhothai.
Come evening we decided we better had do something, so we sat up and got through a little bottle of Thai whiskey called “Hong Thong” (cheapest stuff going, possibly named after something used that might be used in the fermentation process) while playing my new music as loud as we could through our tiny little travel speaker.

Merrily we headed up the lane to the busy road where a few places were catering to westerners, ordered a fat steak and had ourselves really quite a lovely night. It's hard celebrating any special days away from home - Christmas, birthdays - because family is so intrinsic to it, but it was not half bad anyway. I had a really lovely day, got to chat to my Mum and Dad, and bought some gnarly twisted glitch hop. Way hey!

After some more lazing around we decided it was high time to check out old Sukhothai, and see what those fellas had been up to all those years ago. The dusty road at the end of our lane literally led straight into the ruins, so one afternoon we hopped on our unloaded bikes, turned left, and pedalled for 45 minutes.

In much the same way as Chiang Mai, and for exactly the same reasons, old Sukhothai is surrounded by the remnants of a fortified wall that once protected the heart of the city. Burmese invaders seem to have been causing all kinds of grief in the area during the middle half of the last millennium, wall builders must have had their work cut out for them. Nowadays within these walls only the royal palace and the temples remain, the tropical heat and passage of time doing away with any signs of the peasants huts that quickly rotted into the earth.

But what has remained is in spectacular condition. The temples are immediately recognisable even today, even to us, appearing just like the same temples we have camped in, except that the dazzling white and golden stupas have lost their concrete outer skin so that now only the brickwork core remains. Many of the other buildings too, once you throw in some imagination to compensate for the roofs that rotted away, are remarkably similar to the temples we still see today. There's something quite pleasing about looking into the past by looking around the present, but it does also underline my point that... (the temples do get a bit samey, even if you travel back in time hundreds of years).
We part pedalled, part walked around the compound, and then rode out of the old north city gate (which is now just a gap in the wall) to explore the bones of another old wat, and visit a giant buddha housed in a three storey high box just outside the city.

The sun was on its way out and the sky had sunk into a wonderful deep lavender, so too the still ponds of water around the temples as we sped back eastwards to bed.

As the astute members of our readership will have determined, Sukhothai's glory days did not last forever. Didn't last long at all really - a mere 200 years, and after only 60 years of power it became a tributary to a growing power in the south, which used the classic diplomatic tactic of sending a large army in and forcing the poor Sukhothai leaders to do as they're told and cough up.

Yet despite being somewhat short lived, perhaps because it was so short-lived, Sukhothai's achievements remain impressive. Ramkamhaeng, one of Sukhothai's great kings and someone not to flinch at a bold project, found the time to invent the Thai script. Between making up alphabets the Sukhothai kings managed to gain control over a vast area, all the way down to the modern border of Malaysia, and up into Laos - carving out an area not too dissimilar to the borders of the modern day kingdom.
Sukhothai showed that these people could exist independently from the Khmer empire, and stand up to them if needs be. They also helped to pave the way for a uniquely Thai culture in architecture and language that separated them from their neighbors, and helped to bind them, distinguish them, and allow them to prosper into a powerful modern economy.

But the focus of power did shift quickly, to this new power that was growing in the South, [insert some dramatic tension type music here boss] and Sukhothai was gradually abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle. As for the kingdom that knocked it from power, well... they're just 500km southwards, and we just so happen to be heading in that direction, so we might as well go and see for ourselves. Better get pedalling!

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