I can’t believe it was my idea. I just threw it out there after dinner one night, like it was nothing.
“Let’s rent bikes and cycle up Doi Suthep!” I exclaimed, in love with the idea of being adventurous, outdoorsy and active, even though I’m neither of those things.
A visit to Chiang Mai isn’t complete without a visit to Doi Suthep (doi means mountain) and the temple of Wat Prathat, situated on the summit, 1676m above sea level. And since our friend Marty had bought a mountain bike, it seemed a natural progression that we ride instead of using motorized transport…
We set off early to avoid the searing heat that has ascended on the city in recent weeks. Plus, setting off in the dark is always more exciting. We’d hoped to make it to the top for sunrise, but later, as I dragged my sorry self and trusty metal steed up the winding road, I would realise how unrealistic that goal was.
I learnt two things very early on in the ride:
1) I’m very unfit, and,
2) I don’t really know how to ride a bike up a very steep hill.
I mean I can ride a bike, but I exhausted myself very early on in the journey by using a gear that was waaay too high, and a riding style not appropriate for long, uphill distances. I got up off the seat and pumped the pedals like I used to when I rode over a hill on the way home from school, only this was no hill, it was a mountain.
I de-mounted the bike and lay down on the road, attempting to overcome my exhaustion-induced nausea. Tyrhone helped me adjust my gears to the lowest, and soon I was on my way again, peddling like mad and making little progress, but feeling better than before. Tyrhone’s words of encouragement rang in my ears, and I repeated them to myself so that I might believe them, “You can do this.”
We all agreed to go at our own pace, and with Marty in top form from his long rides through Malaysia and Tyrhone’s uncanny ability to rise to physical challenges in a way that belies his cigarette and caffeine addiction, I was left behind to inch along the winding road, wondering why on earth I would have come up with this preposterous idea.
The glittering lights of the city below caught my attention, however, and I soon realised that I was on a unique adventure, as mentally and physically torturous as it was. As first light broke through the tangled jungle on either side, a symphony of insect and bird-song lifted my spirits, carrying them up and up, over the mountain, through the trees and above waterfalls. For a moment I forgot the burning in my thighs, the exhaustion in my lungs, my churning stomach.
Just a moment.
A few cyclists passed me along the way, and though there weren’t many of us out there at daybreak, pushing our bodies and minds to the limit, the few Sawat dee kups and hellos I received, along with the smiles that delivered them, encouraged me to continue peddling.
The 70-year-old marathon runner who overtook me, however, almost sent me packing.
About two and a half hours later, I took a short break at the 3km sign, rewarding myself with some strawberry fanta I’d frozen the night before. I think that sugary slushy of goodness gave me the energy I needed to complete the next few kilometres, though I had to walk my bike most of the way, due to the steep incline. My lungs and thighs had gone on strike, but thankfully my feet were present and accounted for.
I passed by an elderly monk who was making his morning rounds, and received a blessing from him after contributing some Baht to his bowl. I didn’t understand the blessing, of course, but found it quite ironic that it was probably about being free from suffering when I was in such a world of pain.
Nevertheless, I was grateful, and at that late stage, I needed all the help I could get. Though I wanted to ride to glory, I just couldn’t get back on the bike for the final leg. I pushed it along the road leading to the temple, and was relieved to see Tyrhone up ahead, waving his arms with a big grin on his face. We made it.
Once we made it to the top of the impossibly long staircase (the last thing I felt like doing after 3 hours of torturous, uphill riding) Wat Prathep was buzzing with activity.
People made offerings of lotus flowers and burning incense, hoping their prayers would be carried to the heavens on scented tendrils of smoke.
The shining golden chedi glinted in the morning sun whilst people circumnavigated the base, walking in a clock-wise direction.
People poured floral water over a miniature chedi, and in cool, ornate rooms, monks gave blessings to reverent recipients. Absolutely everywhere, transparent plastic boxes held crumpled donations to maintain the temple and its inhabitants.
We wrote our names on a bolt of golden fabric, which would be wrapped around the chedi at a later date. I asked Tyrhone (being the artistic one of the group), to draw a bicycle tire around our names to commemorate our efforts…
The ride down was a buzz, we flew down carefree and relieved that our uphill battle was behind us. It’s funny how you can be in so much pain one minute, and forget about it the next.
We stopped for an early lunch at a waterfall, before making our way home for a well deserved soak in the pool. Afterwards, I collapsed into bed, the memories of the morning’s adventure lingering in my aching muscles. I drifted off to sleep, content in the knowledge that I made it.