This section from Mae Ai to Mae Salong is the thirty-sixth instalment of my bicycle loop through South-East Asia from Yunnan – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on Crazyguyonabike.com, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Just like yesterday, the hills are covered in thick fog until around 9.45, when the sun breaks through and starts slowly boiling life on earth. This means I have to miss an undoubtedly beautiful sunrise. Then again, I would’ve missed it anyway as I didn’t get up until 9am.

Morning fog burning off
Morning fog burning off

I get back to the main road and plod on for 25 km until I find a suitable place to eat breakfast. In fact, I should’ve done so in Tha Ton which seems to have more than a few nice eateries but as so many times, I’ve passed the town by the time I make up my mind. And turning back is a big no-no. So noodle soup it is, with a big Lactasoy (you guessed it, Thailand’s omnipresent soy milk) and an ice coffee from a can. My stomach’s still upset over yesterday’s spice abuse and directs me to the impeccably clean toilet. If only China could have this – but then it wouldn’t be China, if you know what I mean.

Thailand's own attempt at growing dragon fruit (I think that's what it is).
Thailand’s own attempt at growing dragon fruit (I think that’s what it is).

Having appeased my bowels, I stagger out to find an elderly Dutch couple chatting over coffee. They live in southern France but still skip the winter in Thailand every year. They treat me to coffee that is so strong I can hear steam coming out of my ears, cartoon-style. We chat until noon when I decide it’s really time to go on if I want to make it to Mae Salong today.

Soon after waving goodbye, the road changes. What was a freshly painted pitch-black paved highway is now a greying and crumbling single-lane way with fading divider lines. It’s the first hint of adventure I get riding in Thailand. Crossing from Chiang Mai into Chiang Rai province, there’s a large climb and I get a taste of Thailand’s mad hills. Having lacked proper colonial rule, Thailand put in its own roads at a time when engines were more powerful (or so I’m told) and it’s not uncommon to encounter 20% grades.

Road getting crackier, riding more adventurous
Road getting crackier, riding more adventurous

I had just been telling the Dutch couple that cycling is for anyone and any age. You don’t need to be fit, I blabbed, just be able to find your own rhythm and sit on a saddle for a few hours. What nonsense this seems now. I can hear my heart rate go up and the veins in my head are palpably pulsating as the blood rages from my lungs to my legs through the large temperature regulating unit that is my body. Not that it’s very successful at it in the hot Thai midday sun. I go through two litres of water in just an hour.

You’d think that the downhills would be fun, at least. Oh how wrong you are. With hairpins sharp enough to cut yourself and road surface being questionable at times, I’m clutching my brakes until I can smell the pads burning. I cool them down with some water from my bag and watch it instantly evaporate with a loud hiss. To make matters worse, there’s nowhere to stop anymore and nowhere sells any food or drinks so the meagre bowl of noodles I had at 11 am is all the energy I’m going to get.

First steepness. Again, you can never really see it on the picture.
First steepness. Again, you can never really see it on the picture.

I get to a police checkpoint where they lazily wave me through – damn, I would not have minded a rest – and then the ‘real’ works starts: another 14 km to Mae Salong town. It’s a constant rollercoaster from 700m to 1100, to 900, back to 1000, to 750 and finally to 1150 in a matter of 15 km. My GPS shows some shorter sections to have a 30% grade, while the average grade on a longer, 3 km section is 11%. I’ve never biked slower than 5km/h in my life and have to take a break after every two kilometres. These are positively the hardest hills I’ve climbed in my life.

Unless you look at the road in the distance, that gives you a better idea
Unless you look at the road in the distance, that gives you a better idea

Somewhere amidst all the climbing, my legs turn into blubber. There simply isn’t any power left in them and when I get off my bike, I can hardly stand. Yet these furry containers of jelly will still have to get me through another two hours of mountainous riding. I creep on and wonder if my GPS even registers my movement.

Arriving at Mae Salong, I’m a bit disappointed. Is this shitty tourist trap really worth all the hell I’ve been through today? At least Chinese is spoken and written here (it is a town of Kuomintang soldiers that refused to give up after Mao routed their army and the Thai king allowed them to stay in return for help against Thailand’s own communists), so I go to a stir-fry place and order up what I think will be a Chinese feast. Instead, it’s horribly bland and ends up costing me 310 baht.

And the fact that I can now see this, whereas I was at 300 m only this morning.
And the fact that I can now see this, whereas I was at 300 m only this morning.

Fortunately, I find out that this isn’t the only part of town. I was initially reluctant to go down the road after having won all this altitude, but the nice part of town is really a few kilometres lower than the actual town centre. I stop at another Chinese place and the lady helps me get bed in Sabaidee guesthouse for 400 baht – my Chinese came in handy in bargaining it down from 800. It’s an absolutely beautiful place with a pretty view and balcony and I’m sure I’ll be having a much better night than those staying at Sim Saen or Akha.

This picture actually captures it pretty well. Some of these grades are 50% (22.5 degrees)
This picture actually captures it pretty well. Some of these grades are 50% (22.5 degrees)

I meet up for dinner with an English couple who have also come in by bike. They look winded but, them being in their fifties, I’m genuinely impressed with their effort. Perhaps bike touring really is for all ages, then! Dinner is a bit disappointing as there’s no pick-what-you-want-from-the-fridge style Chinese stir-fry, but rather just dishes you choose from a menu. But there are plenty of Chinese and Taiwanese around announcing that they will celebrate New Year’s here big time. That’s cool, because in China it is usually only celebrated at home. Might stay another night for that.

Sunset over Mae Salong
Sunset over Mae Salong

Got home round midnight, did some translation work, and hit the unbelievably comfortable bed hard.

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