The short version of the long ordeal is that it took two guest mechanics to get our bikes to a status that was only a modicum better than the condition we originally brought them to the shop in. They both found multiple issues that were either ignored by, or created by, the original mechanic. We arrived at Velo Thailand at 10am and didn't leave until they closed at 6pm the day we were supposed to quickly pick up our finished bikes. Delaying our departure from Bangkok, we spent most of the following day there as well as we really didn't trust the process to be unsupervised anymore.
After hours upon hours of making adjustments without success, the mechanics finally concluded that my dérailleur was "old" and a new one would solve my gear skipping issue. I asked the shop manager about dérailleurs. "We don't have any." Of course, why would a bike repair shop have any bicycle parts? The mechanic shrugged his shoulders and advised, "Just don't use those gears." Thanks guys, real professional.
With our bikes more or less put back together, we took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Despite a relatively comfortable compartment, the jostling of the car and various weird noises made it challenging to sleep. It was memorable experience nonetheless and we were happy to finally be in a new area of Thailand.
It seems like travel sacrilege, but we only spent one day in Chiang Mai. After settling in to the Top Garden Guesthouse, we headed in to the old town that didn't feel much different than the rest of the city. We visited several of the famous wats, which was great because we had never actually entered any of the many temples we always passed by before. We continued our tour to see Chinatown and a flower market, then went is search of restaurant that no longer existed. We stopped for a beer at the atmospheric Bus Bar instead, where a couple of converted busses serve a collection of outdoor tables along the river. For dinner, we ended up sampling Chiang Mai's specialty of khao soi, a curry noodle soup, although it was at a more touristy restaurant than we had hoped for. We have noticed a strange phenomenon in our travels that the more the eating options abound, the more difficult it becomes to "find food." We often wonder if anyone else has that problem too.
We took it as a good omen that our bikeometer registered 3,000 miles on our first day of relaunching our cycle tour for the umpteenth time. We dubbed our exploration of Thailand's Eastern Seaboard in February as "back in the saddle again" after not having seriously cycled for five months while in Nepal. A short stint between Krabi and Prachuap Khiri Khan became "back in the saddle sort of" since we took a week off to scuba dive in Koh Tao. After unexpected delays from my decompression illness, a dedicated push to Bangkok was then "back in the saddle for real." Now we were under a deadline to cross the Chinese border before our visa expired, so the next leg of our journey became "back in the saddle seriously for real this time." This was also the reason we were rushing through northern Thailand, an area that we would have otherwise loved to linger for a while.
After having recently zoomed across Bhutan and back in a little red car, followed by a train ride that covered half the length of Thailand, it was certainly a mental adjustment to spend all day going just forty miles. It's always tough when your first day of cycling in a month involves more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain, with some inclines on the back roads requiring the ol' push to the top.
We followed signs for some sort of resort that advertised camping as dusk was settling in. When we reached the entrance gate down a minor side road, a caretaker called off a pack of guard dogs and looked baffled at the sight of us. We pointed to their banner depicting a tent among strawberry fields (forever), but he just shook his head. A phone call to the owner confirmed that there was indeed no camping at their strawberry farm, so we were the more baffled ones in the end. Luckily, they did have an affordable, although odd, rental room that we didn't mind moving in to instead and otherwise enjoyed our evening in perhaps one of the most random places in all of Thailand.
Or so we thought. On the outskirts of a nondescript village, we rolled in to a roadside motel the next night. We did think it was a little odd that a curtain could be pulled across the private garage that led to the only entrance to the room. It wasn't until we settled in that we put two and two together, with the assistance of supplemental clues of large mirrors surrounding the bed and flipping on a red ceiling light. We lay down on the bed to discover a mattress with a thick plastic cover, but the sheets seemed clean enough, so we... promptly fell asleep. Oh, the joys of married life!
The next day, we managed to arrive at the famous and privately-owned Wat Rung Khun, or White Temple, in the heat of the day when it was closed for a lunch break. It was worth waiting for though, despite its popularly with large Chinese tour groups. I don't pretend to understand all of the Buddhist symbolism on display, but it was undeniably a visually stunning architectural and artistic masterpiece. The layout of the temple required us to pass through a garden of gnarled hands reaching up in desperation, which supposedly represents unrestrained desire. Crossing a bridge, we reached the temple proper with a traditional interior that centers on a statue of Buddha. The unconventional part is the wall to ceiling murals embedded with the likes of the King of Pop, Spider-Man, and even an adorable Yoda.
We spent the night in Chiang Rai, and visited Baan Dum, or the Black House, on our way out of town. It too was an intriguing site that was difficult to wrap our heads around. A large complex of buildings with elements of traditional Thai architecture housed interiors with various furs, skulls, snake skins, and shells incorporated into the decor. It was effective in creating an ambience, but for what purpose we weren't sure. What really detracted from the experience was a collection of live animals confined in small sad cages. The owl, python, and turtle seemed peripheral to the larger architectural exhibit, unless they were just intending to use their parts once their poor captivity did them in.
It is always a special treat to run in to other cycletourers on the road, which we did shortly after leaving the Black House. I love how it is obligatory, no matter how inconvenient your point of convergence, to stop and begin a first conversation as though you are picking up where you left off with an old friend. It was no different with Andy and Alex, a young English couple cycling under the adorably witty name of Look Mum No Car.
Our last night in Thailand was spent in the surprisingly pleasant border town of Chiang Khong. We were particularly excited to spend our evening at The Hub, a cycling-themed pub including a bicycle museum. It is owned by British ex-pat Alan Bate, the Guinness World Record holder for the fastest circumnavigation of the planet by bicycle, and his Thai wife. Sadly, we arrived to a shuttered pub while they were out of town for the low season. We took a nighttime stroll along the country-delineating mighty Mekong River instead and gazed across to Laos, a new country we would enter the following day.