There are few things I love as much as I love riding my bike.
When I was 8 years old, I’d spend whole summer days riding my bike, making up destinations just to have an excuse to push pedal my way down empty roads spotted with afternoon sun and the promise of something magical.
The magic, of course, was in that feeling––the timeless presence and wonder of childhood. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, everything to do, everywhere to go. Jumping through sprinklers in the backyard. Swinging on swings at the park. Friends just two driveways and a holler away. No screens or gadgets or locked doors. Just treehouses, bicycles, and blanket forts. Fudgesicle mustaches and dirty feet.
If I could bottle that feeling, I would, most of us probably would, because any trip down memory lane just doesn’t deliver the essence of it. That feeling must be captured with the arms and legs, squeezed deep inside the chest, spread across the face into a toothy smile. That’s why I ride my bike, it makes me feel like a knobbly kneed, buck-toothed, sloppy 8-year-old again, who doesn’t care that she’s knobbly kneed, buck-toothed, or sloppy. There are far more important things not to worry about when you’re a kid!
I’ve never stopped loving my bike rides. No matter where I plop myself down in the world I will find a bicycle to keep me company. On the dirt roads of southern Laos meandering through the Mekong Delta or up and down the hills of Thailand’s many picture-perfect islands. I love cycling almost as much as I love walking the Camino de Santiago… almost. But ah, that feeling of being out in the Great Wide Open under the skies of blue feels as good as Tom Petty sings it.
So when I moved to Chiang Mai to live out this pandemic sitch, I decided to buy myself a bicycle. A proper big-girl trail bike with shiny red pedals, a vintage bell, grippy handle bars, and panniers so I could eventually take long-distance trips. And after 4 months of owning that bicycle and riding it nearly every day, “eventually” finally happened, and I made a 3-day trip from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao.
Chiang Dao is a small town north of Chiang Mai about 70 km, if you take the main road. Luckily, I got to take the scenic route thanks to my friend Bert, a Dutch man with a mutual love for cycling. Of course, being Dutch, he was born on a bicycle, so he’s far more experienced than me in the art of bicycle riding and maintenance (which is also a form of Zen I must say!). Bert knows every single backroad in Chiang Mai and its surrounding provinces about as well as I know my way around a croissant and a cup of coffee. On our way out of Chiang Mai, he meandered us alongside a canal through rural Thailand and rice fields just a stone’s throw from the city’s major ring road.
Five years ago I would’ve embarked on this kind of trip alone, no problem. ‘Tis how I prefer to roll most of the time. But that was back before my risk aversion metre began to redline following experiential insight into everything that can go wrong:
A landslide in Vietnam. A knifepoint robbery in Indonesia. Various terrifying street dogs in India, Bali, and Thailand. Motorbike accidents. Scary men in dark roads. Scary men in lit roads. A broken toe at the foot of a volcano. Tequila mornings in Mexico (sounds fun, but no). Spiders the size of small houses. Driving a scooter in Sri Lanka. Walking through the Medina of Marrakech. Losing your parking ticket in Surabaya. A simple bus ride in Nepal.
It can all go wrong, and usually by surprise (tequila does often surprise one with slippery surfaces and triple vision). So, even if I plan for safety, life has this way of dishing up spontaneity when I least expect it. Anyone else get this?
Now as a responsible adult who has had just a bit too much in-yer-face fuckery over the past year, I chose to take my first big cycling trip with my buddy Bert (and not start the day with tequila!). We set out at 9 am following breakfast and cycled into the hot, sunny, morning. We passed a couple ferocious dogs wishing us a safe trip, and we were officially sweating by 8:50 am. Thankfully, the roads were flat and only modestly pockmarked. We snaked through villages, peppered with farmers and closed coffee shops, and stopped midway to rest in the shade and eat banana bread. In addition to micro doses of magic mushrooms, carb loading is one of my favourite things about adult bike riding btw, ‘specially when there’s peanut butter!
We left the rest stop and met some hills and hot afternoon sun. Pardon me––blistering afternoon sun. Though Bert had warned me about the hills (I already know the tropical heat well), I still thought shit, there it is, as we approached the first of many. But see, here’s another thing I love about bike riding. Unlike mountain trekking where the summit seems close enough to touch but is actually days away, when you’re on a bike, those hills that threaten hard-ass work from a distance are but mere knobs by the time you reach them. How lovely perspective is to shift itself once you commit yourself to a task. It really isn’t ever as hard as you think it’s going to be. (Except, of course, when it’s harder, but that only applies to relationships, Crossfit training, and moderating peanut butter intake).
So the hills were hard, but not too hard. The sun was hot but there was an alleged cold swimming pool in wait should we arrive before 6 pm. That’s all the motivation I needed. We made it there by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, having cycled 86 km. Woot woot! We checked into two cozy little bamboo bungalows, I searched mine for spiders with the tenacity of a drug raid, and we were in a chilly swimming pool by 4:45.
Like many other places the world over, Chiang Dao was cast in that now-familiar COVID light with permanently-closed inns, empty diners, and a feeling of defeat. But it was still beautiful in its mountain-town splendour with a massive looming rockface disappearing and reappearing amid the myriad microclimates. On our way back from the pool we happened upon ice-cold beer, microwave popcorn, and classic Thai food in the only place still open for another 20 minutes. We indulged in plates of fried, wide noodles, tofu, and vegetables. Solid sustenance for 86 km and 1001 calories burned… almost.
The next day was lovely. I woke up to the sound of birdies, and a thin slice of morning sky caught through the curtain gave me a look that (almost) rivals the early morning look of a lover––come play. I threw off the covers and immediately stepped outside. Sinking my bare feet into dewy grass and watching the towering rock face transform from gray to golden as the sun graced its presence was all the morning glory I needed. I sipped black coffee and tried to write meaningful stuff, but ended up watching birds instead.
After breakfast, I placed my sore ass gingerly atop my bicycle seat, and Bert and I cycled 7km to the hot springs. ‘Twas a chirpy morning as we rolled down the potholed road bedecked with shade pockets and fallen leaves––and a couple of scary dogs for good measure. We arrived at the giant concrete cauldrons of steamy sulfurous water, positioned next to a babbling river. The whole set up was an onsen spa, au naturel version. We indulged in a little fantastic fungi and spent a few hours hopping from river to barrel and back again, chatting with local sarong-swathed families.
The post-swim cycle back was a magical trip through a storybook forest alight with dragonflies and butterflies the size of bats. Farms as far as the eye can see. Trees stretched their knotted fingers across the sky, reaching out to their forest home. Water buffalo perfected their languid gait amid slender white egrets praising their efforts. There’s something so sweetly beauty-and-the-beast-like about the way these two animals coexist in rural Thailand.
As mountain microclimates tend to behave, the afternoon brought buckets of rain and gave me the impetus to indulge in a massage, followed by a hot shower, snacks, and wine. The gentle nightfall was lifted by the sound of crickets. We retired to our respective huts.
The return trip to Chiang Mai was marveloso. It was––dare I say it––easy. We smashed out 45 km in just 2 hours, and it was a hilly 45 km, alongside muddy rivers. For whatever reason––maybe it was the cooler air and overcast sky––the whole first half of the journey back was effortless. Then we hit the flat roads, the sun shone thick and hot, and thunder rumbled off in the distance. We cycled toward a black sky and managed to miss the serious rain by about 10 minutes. Phew.
For me, journeys like this––on my bicycle or on foot under a vast sky and with all I need on my back––are the essence of timelessness. They are the stuff of meditation, of presence, of being here now. They exist without problems or preconceptions or mental chatter. They’re the books, the teachers, the soundtrack, the holder of my hand throughout life. How I ever came to discover that my deepest love is in my own two feet… there might be some magic in there.
“Keep to the road and the stars in the sky. Lean under oaks when your legs are tired.” – Band of Horses