Friday, May 09, 2008

Tour de Rain

So Megan returned from Ecuador, went straight back to work, but then promptly had a 4 day weekend. Hmmmm, what to do?

Motorcycle trip. That would make sense. I had spotted a road a while back when we were up looking for the "cave where animals do not come out of." I kind of wanted to head up there, but that is only a day trip. Out comes the map and for hours I study it and try find a cool route. I managed to work out a big loop that would act as a guideline for where to go. The exciting part was that we didn't really know what we would encounter since it seems the maps in thailand are all pretty much sub par. Either they don't have all the roads or they invent roads. I spent 2 hours in various bookstores around chiang mai trying to find a good map and pretty much give up. I even emailed a map maker guy who lives in chiang mai to see if he had a prototype secret map that I could at least look at, but he told me to wait for 6 months and he will have one coming out.

Without a good map we had two options:
1) Use the map I have and follow the roads that are on it. These roads tend to be only the major roads meaning that we would have to stick to the big roads and not venture out to the little ones
2) Screw the maps and just take off on roads that look like fun. In Thailand this can lead to roads that turn into trails that turn into nothing more than a track and then end at some hilltribe 50km off the main road. Now this is fun, you never know where you could end up, but we were going to be on our little 125cc Hondas which can certainly handle any road that thailand can dish out (with two passengers, 1 dog and a weeks worth of vegetables) but we are a delicate bunch and too long on a rough road gets quite tiring.

I like option 2 but there were also places that I really wanted to see, so option 1 will get us there. O.k. so how about taking option 1, but if a good road seems to beckon, then we should take it. One thing that I have learned about traveling is that the best experiences come when you least expect them. You can plan all you want to, but its the surprises that you remember. I'd hate to miss out on surprises.

Friday morning sees the sun shining bright and it is hot. Around 100 degrees or so (which isn't that hot compared to what it was in April). We get a quick tune up on the bikes (4 dollars), fill up the tanks (1 gallon for 4 dollars which will take us about 150 miles- gotta love the 125cc engine- it is amazing to think that people drive alone in trucks with 6000 cc engines) and head off east into the mountains.

The first stop is at a village at around 1400 meters (4500 feet). The air is cool and the jungle is thick. Ban Mae Kom Pong is a town (Ban means village) that about 20 years ago decided that rather than cut down all of the trees in the surrounding hills, they'd keep the forrest intact, practice sustainable farming, and invite tourist to come and stay in their homes to live the rural life. The jungle around here is breathtaking. They just recently they added a canopy zipline tour around the area which has partnered with Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures. I work for CMRCA so this gives me a bit of a connection in this area. Especially since on was on the doomed expedition to find the grand hunting cave (see previous post). We pull into town in the afternoon, look at some trees and boulders, go play in the waterfall and then find a place to stay for the night.

We decided to settle into John's House for the night. Tourism business models in Thailand are quite different than they might be in the states. There are "resorts" everywhere in Thailand. Some are nice, some are quite nice, and others are astonishing. The nice and quite nice category seem to be more dreams than actual working resorts. Generally there is a rich person from Bangkok who has always had a dream to own a resort somewhere up in the mountains. Labor is super cheap in Thailand, so he builds a resort with 5-10 bungalows and landscapes the grounds and then is satisfied that his dream has come true. The point is, he doesn't actually need to have people come to his resort to make it work. It was just a dream anyway and for 10 dollars a day, he can have a staff of 3 maintain the grounds and be on hand just in case someone happens to stop by to stay the night.

[our bungalow] There are a few weekends of the year when resorts do get crowded (New years, thai new years, a weekend in November) but otherwise they sit empty.
To get this right, I have to say that these resorts are intended for Thai tourists. Foreigner tourists have their own circuit (generally dictated by the guidebooks) and these are busy all year. The homestays in Ban Mae Kompong have traffic all year, but John's Place is not. I think we were the first guests in 2 weeks.
We chose our favorite themed bungalow which is built high up on the hill and has giant picture windows that looks out over the valley. No sooner had we plopped our stuff down when lightning started striking and the rain started coming out of the sky in sheets. Little did we know, but this was the start of what we were to experience of Cyclone Nargis. Tragically, as we were opening our first beer and playing backgammon, Nargis was touching down in Burma (about 400 miles away).

Saturday morning started with rain and more rain. As we ate rice soup we wondered if the rain would stop. I had planned to head over the 1800 meter pass, through 50km of windy and steep jungle road, out into the plains and up a few hundred km towards Chiang Rai. We did it, but it rained a lot. Dressed head to toe in my Gore-tex Proshell, I have to say that I stayed happy and comfortable the entire way. The gear I was wearing isn't designed for going 60-80 km/hr for long stretches and a little water blew up underneath my jacket, but for the most part, I actually forgot it was raining and just enjoyed riding perfectly paved roads without any traffic at all and splashing through stream crossings when we came to them.

[megan on the road] We had a few navigational issues and had to ask for help on occasion, but mostly we just cruised all day on some great roads. Some were windy, some were straight. Sometimes it rained, sometimes it was cloudy. Sometimes we got hungry, so we stopped to eat snacks. Sometimes there was a temple dedication ceremony with marching elephants, sometimes we would just stop and look at the scenery and smile.
At some point in the afternoon, we made a quick left turn and followed signs to the Chiang Rai winery. A winery in thailand? We had to check it out. After tasting 4 different sweet fruit wines (and realizing that they don't use grapes for their wine) I asked the guy if he knew a place to stay around here. He pointed to a traditional teak house on stilts in the middle of the fruit orchard and said that we could stay there. Why not? So we moved in for the night, bought a bottle of mangosteen wine, cruised down the road for some dinner and pie at another local resort, then came back for a very quiet night all alone in the middle of a fruit orchard.

One thing about this place. We were sleeping upstairs and the bathroom is outside and downstairs. This is no big deal, except when we were brushing our teeth, we heard "doonk" sound and looked up to find a Tookay staring at us. A Tookay is a large (about a foot in length) gecko that makes a very distinctive "Toooo-kaaaaay" bark. They are famous for having strong jaws that once they find something to clasp onto, they never let go. They are green with red dots all over the body and have the coolest looking feet of any animal. And I'm scared of them... and Megan is too. Needless to say, we peed on the field that night.

[marshall on the road- we only got the camera out when it wasn't wet] Sunday morning and we were off again over a mountain pass in Seattle style constant rain. It never rained too hard, but it was foggy and always wet. We descended after a couple of hours of riding another perfect road with no traffic) into the working town of Fang. Nestled in the mountains in the far north region of Thailand, Fang seldom sees foreigners.
We saw a sign for some Hot Springs, followed the road, convinced the guy at the gate to let us in for Thai prices (I was pretty proud of myself for negotiating the entire thing in Thai) and found ourselves at a perfectly manicured field of granite boulders with geysers sprouting 100 feet into the air and hot pools for the basking. Very lovely. After our massages (where i was patted down with yellow herbs making me look jaundiced), we head out for what I hoped would be the highlight of the trip. Check out this animation from google earth of the roads. The animation starts at the hot spring, goes through Fang, south a bit, and then up into the mountains to Doi Angkan. It then follows the road that we took the next day down to the Burmese border. If you have google earth on your computer, you can go to this link (Link to the google earth file) and get the .kmz file. In google earth, you can push the play button and watch it on your computer. [a screen shot showing what to adjust and where to push play on google earth] I recommend going into the preferences panel of google earth and setting the "driving speed" to fast. You can also stop the Google earth animation anywhere and look around. I warn you, I spent about 5 hours the other day "looking around."

[The Amari Resort from above] Doi Angkan is another one of the areas that must be busy over New Years but then sits completely empty the rest of the year. We pull into "town" look at some of the rustic accommodations and decide that because there is a 5 star Amari resort in town we should at least check it out. The woman at the resort must have taken a liking to us cause the price went down from 150 dollars a night, to 60 dollars and she put us in the best room they had. I suppose it wasn't a huge stretch for her since again we were the only guests that night, but it was nice of her.

[Megan in the Rock garden with green houses below] Doi Angkan is a model agriculture project. The King has what are called "Royal Projects" all over thailand. This is an initiative to convert all the opium fields in thailand to organic farming fields. Doi Angkan is the model project. The King has a house up there that he visits on occasion and therefore unlimited money gets pumped into this area. It is gorgeously maintained. We spent hours walking through the Bonsai/ Limestone Rock garden.
[you can't see the cat, but look how happy she is] We ate at the Royal Project restaurant and had incredible organic veggies. For Megan the cherry on top was that there was a cat at the restaurant that sat on her lap for the entirety of the meal. Here is a photo of Megan being about as happy as she can possibly be.

[me overlooking limestone valleys and mountains] Monday morning and we were back on the road. This time on the dramatic ridgetop road through limestone hills and valleys. I could hardly stay on my bike as I looked around for possible caves. The potential up here is incredible. Here is a video of us riding the roads.

We get down out of the mountains and take the road back to Chaing Mai.

[me in limestone] We had travelled 800 km in 4 days of windy roads through rain and jungle. It was fantastic.

If you really are a geek like me and want to see the entire route, you can download this file and do an animation of the entire trip on google earth.
The Complete Tour de Rain

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

No cave to be found

A few weeks back Martin, Josh, Taw and I went up to where the Flight of the Gibbon is (the mountains over by Crazy Horse crag) to try to find "The cave that swallows up all the animals every night." We arranged to have a local guide (we ended up with two old thai dudes who are tough as nails) meet us up in the closest village on to take us to the cave. We loaded up our packs with ropes and everything and set off through the jungle to go try to find it. It is 3000 feet higher than chiang mai so the temps are not nearly as hot and then jungle is pristine and incredible.
So off we go up a steep old logging road for a couple of kilometers and then finally turn off it and start to head out through the bush. We quickly drop into a really steep ravine and start plunging down towards the drainage. As we are hiking along we find out that our guides have never actually been to the cave and the only beta that they have is that it is at the base of a white cliff. So we are tromping around looking for what looks like a white cliff. Of course, me being the geologist am looking at my feet and trying to scope the topography looking for limestone. All I can see is granite and nothing out in the distance that looks like limestone. But what do I know, these two old dudes know the area like the back of their hand and if there is cave out here, then they will find it. We finally get down to the creek in the bottom, scratch out heads a bit then head upstream for 5 minutes through dense jungle bananas and thick bamboo. Nope, wrong way (and still no limestone anywhere). We turn around and head downstream. Josh is behind me and I hear him yelp a bit. I ask him if he is o.k. and he says he is fine but that he found a leach on his shoe. No big deal, he brushes it off. After a bit, we come to an incoming drainage that head steeply up a ravine and towards "the white cliff" Ok. up we go.

Still no cave and I was starting to become pretty damn sure that there is no limestone at all in this ravine. It would just be impossible to have any based on the landscape and what I know of how limestone is deposited. Still we press on. Finally we leave the leach infested (josh pulled two off his leg) gully and head up the slope to find a cliff. At this point now, I think we had all decided that we were not going to find a cave today but the guides still wanted to go look around the corner. I was game because it was quite pretty and there is always a chance we could find a cave. After more climbing and discussion the guides mentioned that what we were looking for is a rock cave. I don't know how that translates exactly but I'm think that we are now looking for a talus cave. Could still be cool, but certainly not going to be the grand new cave discovery of thailand.
Well after more scrambling and traversing we start to break out of the brush into orchid filled open forests with a gentle breeze and plenty a shade trees. Taw said "yen sabai" cause it felt so nice to have cool air blowing on us. A first in weeks.
So after a while we summited the peak which turn out to be the tallest peak for at least 100km in every direction (we looked at a map later). Despite the haze it was quite lovely and we had a good snack when this big full round leach falls out of Josh's pants.
Where did that come from? We all looked at each other and josh started to feel around his legs for more. As he is bending down, we notice a bloody patch on his butt. Sure enough Jetzl (as the leach became known) had found a nice spot in between Josh's cheeks to suck a little blood. Leaches use an anti-coagulate to allow them to draw blood and when they are finished they leave this stuff behind. So the blood patch on Josh grew larger and larger. It looked a bit strange.

So no cave. We descended back to the truck (there was a nice semi-direct ridge to the truck).

We get back to the village and talk to the flight of gibbons people a bit more. They offer to send us on the canopy zipline your for free so off we go to go zip around super tall trees.
As we were zipping around, we talked with our zipping guides a bit about what we had done and they told us more about this cave.
It turns out that one of the guys had talked to the guy who had found the cave and that it was a hole in the ground that when this dude came to it, a dear ran out of it. He looked around a bit more and found bear and tiger tracks (i doubt the tiger part) and he went back to the village and told people he found a great hunting spot because all the animals go to this place. People were excited about our trip today because we were going to go in the cave and find out why the animals were going into the cave and if indeed it was a great hunting spot.
What I think is that there is little hole where some rocks make a small talus cave and that for some reason animals go there to get water or to get out of the heat. So we were following a legend that is really just a hunting story. Oh well. Seems like we should have asked around a little first, but still it was a great hike through an area that is truly wild.