Review: Crank Adventures – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Posted by Ted on Apr 22, 2011 in Activities, Biking, Outdoors, Reviews, Travel

It all started with a dog named Lucy.

On an evening in early December, Liz and I had been celebrating the Shan New Year with our “Team Chiang Mai” friends at the Thai Freedom House. Arriving separately, I biked back to our guesthouse, and Liz’s walk home took her past a man and his dog grabbing some dinner at a streetside noodle stall. Liz was friends with Lucy by the time she found out that her owner was an adventure sport and tour leading expert. After a quick flurry of late night emails, it was settled — I’d be picked up early in the morning to join Crank Adventures for a 2-day mountain biking tour.

Blearily waking up at 7:40a, I took a quick shower and grabbed breakfast to go from the nearest 7-11. I ate my pork bao, yogurt, and pandan cake as the van carried us north into hills, an hour past Mae Rim. I spent the time getting to know the owner. Damian is a jovial and knowledgeable Australian, fluent in Thai and familiar with just about every trail in Northern Thailand. Finally we were deposited on a hilltop where we unloaded the bikes, donned our gear, took the requisite ‘before’ photos, and charged down the mostly paved hill.

The valley scenery was stunning. We rode past rice paddies and hill tribe villages, and up and down a number of small hills, of which I walked up many of the climbs, out of breath but determined. On or off-road, bicycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Senses of sight and smell are heightened, and you attain an intimate connection with your environment. A rutted dirt track took us through a field, thick smoke rising from slash-and-burn farming. We crossed the Mae Taeng at the river village of Ban Sop Kai, where we stopped for lunch at a noodle shop and were accosted by Hmong women selling cheap bracelets, smiling with betel-blackened teeth.

Back on our bikes, we headed downstream, taking our leave from the road to explore the hills. This was my first time, so I was unaware that the holy grails of mountain biking are “single track” trails, and Damian’s passion is seeking them out. Whereas such trails at home might be created ad-hoc by bikers, these paths were clearly used for inter-village travel – for some villages, a small trail might be the only way in or out. Many of the villages are sustained by the King’s Royal Project to turn opium fields into rice, teak, lychee, longan, corn, banana, cabbage, and passionfruit. Lulled into the peaceful scenery, I was unprepared for the grueling mid-afternoon climb, wherein I pushed the bike and my backpack up a rock-strewn rutted mountain trail.

Bikes and bikers strewn across the forested hilltop, we enjoyed a short rest. Then, as if we were getting off a ski lift, it was time to launch ourselves nearly straight down the mountain. Exhilarating doesn’t begin to describe the feeling of barreling downhill, on track that was maybe 9 inches wide, with a precipitous dropoff to the side. I quickly learned new skills of gauging paths, speed, and break control. Sliding on dirt and rubble is not only unavoidable, it’s part of the skillset.

We finally arrived at a village along the Mae Taeng, used by several tour groups as an overnight stop. A bouncy bamboo bridge spanned the river next to a much bigger, yet broken, concrete one. The first thing I did was strip down to my underwear and jump in the river, letting the fast-flowing cool water carry the day’s sweat away. After rinsing my clothes just as the locals do, I wandered up the hill to relax on the deck with a beer before dinner – green curry with chicken and pumpkin. A long day behind us, and another ahead of us, it was early to bed. We slept dorm-style, in a big multi-room building, and I was unlucky enough to be between snorers, earplugs useless against the reverberating of floorboards throughout the night.

In the morning, after a breakfast of leftovers, we loaded bikes onto the roof of a truck, and took an e-ticket ride up the mountain, bouncing around the back of the truck. After what felt like forever, we reached the top, where we once again unloaded the bikes, and took off down a twisty mountain road. We went through a gate into a nature park of completely overgrown forest, often with no visible trail. We crossed little streams on foot, or over “bridges” of lumber.

We rejoined civilization next to the rapids of the Mae Taeng, riding past white water rafting outfits and negotiating around elephants. I waved to a man making a thatched roof, and passed by a woman doing laundry. The dirt road led to the place we’d had lunch the day before, and the same Hmong women were peddling trinkets. Across the river again and down the other side, up a long hill, then we shot off towards Lisu Lodge, biking down same road I last went down on ox-cart seven months earlier.

Looking back, it was a blur of concentration – extremely technical riding, but thru scenic valley vistas and rice fields, forests, and past villages where kids waved and laughed as we passed by. A decade of serious road cycling was barely adequate training for the sorts of skills that one must quickly learn in mountain biking. Our adventure ended at Wat Tung Luang. We stopped in Mae Rim for lunch, and I savored my last khao soi. Finally back home, I enjoyed a 2 hour massage for 240 Baht ($8).

I still haven’t met Lucy, but I look forward to thanking her when we return to Chiang Mai.

Crank Adventures
3/2 Ratchapakinai Rd, Tambon Suthep
Amphur Muang Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand
Phone: +66 (0) 819527699
Email: info@crankadventures.com
Web: http://www.crankadventures.com


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Putting your trust in the man with the knife at your throat

Posted by Ted on Nov 17, 2010 in Activities, Travel

If you’ve been following along my Facebook and Twitter updates, you’ll know that we are now in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We arrived on Saturday afternoon, having taken 20 hours of buses from Luang Prabang in Laos. Initially planning on a week, we’ll be here for at least two while Liz takes Thai Massage classes at ITM, just around the corner from our guesthouse, WaLai House.

Showing up last minute, the cheaper fan-only rooms are booked until tomorrow, so we’ve been in a slightly more luxurious AC-room. While we haven’t used the under-powered air conditioning much, another feature of the room is a TV and DVD player which we’ve taken advantage of a few times in order to relax and watch movies. The last movie we watched was Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp. Somehow avoiding this Sondheim musical until now, the story, while somewhat predictable, was new to both of us. Unsurprisingly, this Tim Burton version is particularly dark and gruesome.

Despite that fact (or perhaps in some twisted way because of it) I decided it might be an interesting experience to find a capable barber in order to get my own close shave. Part of yesterday’s afternoon involved not only a one hour back massage for 130 Baht ($4.33), but walking into half a dozen shops in the area asking if any of them did shaves. Obviously, this is a separate skillset than the cutting and trimming of the hair atop one’s head. I was finally pointed down a street to the one guy who does. Today I paid him a visit.

A small shop with sliding glass doors, the barber was resting on a couch, wearing a colorful Tibetan shirt. He was quick to stand up, and upon me making a shaving motion with a questioning look, he waved me to the chair. I sat down as he covered me in a sheet and adjusted the head rest. I watched as he opened a fresh blade, broke it in half, and slid it into his razor. Then he lowered the head rest. As I kept my eyes closed for most of the procedure, I have only sound and sensation to recount. At first, I felt the cool wipe of an alcohol-based cleaning of my face, followed by the tender application of the barest minimum of shaving cream, massaged into my beard. I opened my eyes to see the hinged razor moving towards me.

He started with my sideburns and cheeks, and the first thing I noticed was how rough it felt, and how scratchy it sounded, as if it were a completely dry shave. I breathed calmly. He worked efficiently, moving around my face, to my lips and chin. I felt a pulling sensation, and what seemed like the hard edge of the razor, but trusted in his experience. Then he brought the blade to my throat.

With the same efficiency of motion, he worked across my neck, pulling the skin slightly taut as needed. I remained as still and calm as possible, taking care not to swallow when he was working around my Adam’s apple. With short order, he finished the longer initial strokes and moved on to touch-up work, his tender fingers caressing my skin finding missed spots. He laid down his blade, and trimmed my nose hairs with a pair of fine scissors before laying a cool washcloth over my face. Preparing for the experience to be over, I was then surprised as he gave me a head and shoulder massage.

I opened my eyes and looked in the mirror, and a new me stared back. The man with the knife had been gentle and efficient, carving away my goatee and weeks of stubble, complete with a relaxing release of stress. All for less than $1.

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