All I want for Christmas is a bike that works (from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang)

A record of cycling the Mae Hong Son Loop: part three

Sunday 20th December

Miles: 46

  
We were just under 20 kilometres from Mae Hong Son, and halfway up our first climb, when the bike started making some worrying noises. We got off to take a look, and after ten minutes of fiddling with the chain, Eric realised that the problem was something much worse: the back wheel had come loose from its axis. Not good. 

An attempted roadside fix was aborted when it became clear that we didn’t have the tools or the knowledge. The bike was basically un-rideable, so we decided to walk back to Mae Hong Son. 

“Can I help you?” a lady on a scooter approached us. We told her our bike had a problem, and I asked if she knew where the nearest bike shop was. 

“The nearest is Ban Pha Bong,” she said. Ban Pha Bong was a tiny village about 3 kilometres away.

I am very grateful to this lady, because she saved us a further 17 kilometre walk. It was such a little village that we would have passed it by, assuming that there would be nobody there to help us. 

We reached the village, and after asking a policeman for further directions we found the bike shop, or, I should say: bike shop/petrol station/motorcycle repair/seemingly anything that needs repairing repair shop. We showed the man there our problem and he immediately took to fixing it. 

This was a very different deal from our experiences in European bike shops. For a start, you’re usually told that it will be fixed by tomorrow, or later. If something is broken it is usually replaced with a new part. If the part has to be ordered in this can take days. We had been anticipating the bike needing a new part, so we were delighted that the repairman was fixing it on the spot. 

The repair man and his assistant carefully took our back wheel apart, cleaned it, replaced the ball bearings, banged the crooked steel bar straight with a hammer, tightened everything and reattached the wheel. Our back wheel axle had last been fixed in Austria, so it was funny seeing the Thai man take apart what the Austrian man had put together a few thousand miles ago.

  
“Test,” said the repairman. 

We tested. It seemed to work, though the gears were making some odd noises. 

“OK, dii, dii,” we said (“good”). We paid him 200 baht (£4) and he waved away my offer of a tip (I mean – only £4? It felt wrong!). He gave us water bottles and some sweets for the road. Eric re-packed our bike and we set off. 

Phew. 

Then, a few hundred metres down the road, the back wheel came free again. 

We expressed some feelings of dismay. 

We turned around and walked back to the bike shop. 

The repairman didn’t seem all that surprised to see us, and with a philosophical nod went right back to working on the back wheel. This time he replaced the steel bar and a cracked wheel cap which he seemed to think had been the main culprit. It took him another hour. 

“Test,” he said. 

This time it did feel better. No more odd noises. 

He shook his head when I asked “how much?”. We thanked him, re-packed the bike and left. It was now almost 1 o’clock. Normally we would have arrived by this time. However, as long as the bike held we would have enough hours of light to make our destination, Khun Yuam. 

Now began the stressful business of listening with dread to every click and rattle from the bike. Whenever there’s a breakdown you become horribly aware that your bike is not one whole object, like you mistakenly imagined, but is instead a series of objects placed together in an extremely specific way, that could at any time fall out of place, crack or ping off. 

So here was the magnificent scenery. If you want to put yourself in our shoes, look at these photos while standing under a precariously balanced heavy object in order to reproduce feelings of anxiety. 

        

At 2 we stopped for lunch at Waleekarn Garden, where the owner Songvit talked to us about his 20 year old restaurant and guesthouse, his views on Burmese migrants, economics and his visits to the doctor. He was very nice and entertaining, and I think it helped us to relax a bit, even though we only understood about 60% of what he was saying.
  

We ate up the miles and the bike held, and as the afternoon went on we relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Today’s cycling was lovely, not too hard at all, with some beautiful views and gorgeously long, shallow declines – the type where you can float along while not touching the brakes. 

  

We arrived just after 5 o’clock feeling knackered. Showers, dinner, wash clothes, set alarm for 6, collapse into bed. We made it!


Monday 21st December

We woke up today not feeling too good. Last night’s dinner was judged to be the guilty party. It was some kind of liver curry… tasty at the time, but maybe it had been left out in the sun too long for our delicate constitutions.

I have also had a cough that has been steadily getting worse over the past five days, which has been leading to worse and worse sleep, so I was grateful for a day off. 

We were not too ill, which meant that we could enjoy lying in bed playing on the internet all day. We only ventured out to visit the local 7/11, which is a bit boring, but at least all germs on the food are blasted to death in a microwave. 

A breakdown and illness. Can we get back to the cycling now please? 


Tuesday 22nd December

Miles: 62

  
Feeling much better, we got back on the bike today, praying that the back wheel would continue to hold. 

We were positively cold as we set off down the long hill out of Khun Yuam at 7. As usual, it was a misty morning, which led to some stunning views. 

We stopped especially to take a picture of this amazing sight.

  

Mist through the trees, and some misty mountains. 

    

Halfway through the morning the chain suddenly came off and got stuck behind the gears. Eric used a stick to fish it out and reattach it (which wasn’t easy, and led to the emergence of Grumpy Eric) but from this moment the gears were behaving bizarrely, and the chain jarred whenever we drew it backwards. Something was wrong with the gears, but we didn’t know what.

The morning light makes the scenery very beautiful. 

  

We were still able to use the mid-range gears, but we had lost use of our highest and lowest gears. Losing the highest gears didn’t matter, but losing the lowest made the climbs in the afternoon much more tiring than they should have been. With this being our second problem in as many days we were feeling a little hard done by (especially Grumpy Eric). 

Cycling along tree-lined roads for much of the afternoon.

  

We were cheered up when we stopped at a view point to take a look, and were immediately surrounded by a group of Malaysian guys who were very intrigued by our bike, asked us lots of questions and wanted a photo! 

   
 
The view from the view point.

  

We arrived in Mae Sariang at 2 feeling hot and tired. We found a hotel and then went to find a bike shop marked on Google Maps. We came across another Mr Fix Anything, who when we arrived was repairing a gas hob. 

I told him “Jackeyeyahn mai sabai,” (bicycle is not well) and we went from there. 

Eric studies the derailleur while the repairman fetches his tools. 

  

After some time looking at the derailleur, the repairman discovered that one of the cogs which fed the chain through the derailleur was sticking, rather than turning. He then did the bike repair equivalent of turning something off and on again – he dismantled the derailleur, cleaned it and put it back together again. He span the pedals backwards and – hey presto! The chain was no longer sticking, and the gears could change. Me and Eric cheered. 

So the problem had been that the cog was a little bit too tight and covered in dirt. You learn something new every day! Clean your cogs! 

Then, when I asked “How much?” the repairman said “Mai pen rai”, meaning “Don’t worry about it”. I was astonished. He had just spent a solid 45 minutes repairing our bike… I couldn’t believe that he didn’t want any money for his work, but he insisted it was fine. After thanking him a lot I went and bought him a nice tin of biscuits, which he accepted cheerfully. 

As much as I have loved meeting these wise and virtuous repairmen, I would like a day of cycling without having to see one. 

Mae Sariang at dusk. 

  

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