Two weeks rest in Chiang Mai – Applying for Chinese Visas and deciding on our route for the next 6 months

NOTICE: This journal blog post doesn’t include any details of us actually cycling, so if you read my journals for that purpose only, you may want to skip this one (I won’t judge you – honest!). This post is all about our 2 weeks off the bikes, resting, planning and plotting in Chiang Mai – the second biggest city in Thailand.

After travelling by bicycle for 73 days, cycling 3,689km from Singapore to Chiang Mai via a fairly wiggly route, we were definitely ready to rest the legs and have an extended chill time in a big city. Especially given the fact we had just cycled the demanding ‘Mae Hong Son Loop’, pedalling almost 10,500m of elevation in 11 days. Hopefully, without sounding boastful, this is especially impressive considering my only training was the previous 56 days cycling, before which the hardest physical challenge I had endured was a ‘Pretty Muddy 5k’ run and I had spent the summer putting weight on by eating excessively and doing zero exercise. So after the arduous hills, both of our knees were feeling ‘niggly’, indicating their need to take a breather. Our bikes were also grumbling, with Adam’s bike’s brakes disputing after not only enduring the thousands of kilometres from Singapore but the previous 2,050km on his cycle from the UK to Gibraltar. All in all, the four of us (two adults, two bicycles) were ready for some downtime.

Our experience of 5 Nights in a ‘dorm room’

As we had by pure chance arrived in Chiang Mai at possibly the busiest time of year, with it not only being the height of the tourist season, but also the intensely popular Loy Krathong and Yee Peng Lantern Festival were happening at the same time as we were there, we found it difficult to find any accommodation at all in the centre of the city over that time. We wanted to be in or near the centre as we hadn’t spent any time in the hustle and bustle of a city (after bypassing Bangkok), and we wanted to be able to easily walk to the heart of Chiang Mai. So the only accommodation within our price range in a good location was a hostel called ‘Champion 2’, in a mixed gender dormitory. As a married couple, we don’t usually book dorm rooms (we have only booked one once before on this trip in Muar in Malaysia, as it was a really comfortable hostel and dirt cheap) but we decided it would be acceptable on this occasion due to the low price and good location. We also thought it would be a nice opportunity to socialize with other travellers for a change.

The hostel was owned by two Spanish people who were mostly friendly. We discovered that the hostel was very popular with Spanish travellers as it’s posted on Spanish Facebook groups. This was not at all a problem, having studied Spanish at GCSE I enjoyed listening to their beautiful language and trying to pick up one or two words, but we did sort of feel like ‘outsiders’ and were unable to socialize much with the other guests as they only spoke in Spanish to each other, so we were incapable of joining in their conversations. They also loved to smoke, which we don’t, so any time we used the outside space to eat or use the WiFi we had to endure through a thick, unpleasant fog.

Adam and I shared a bunk bed in a room with four other people; it was fine but I’m glad we didn’t stay longer than 5 nights. The beds were rock solid and they placed strict rules upon the use of the air conditioning: we were only able to use it between the hours of 6pm and 8am, any deviation from this would incur a heavy fine. Their reason behind this being they are a small hostel so are trying to keep costs down, which is completely understandable. However, one guest in our room commandeered the air-con remote and slept with it underneath her pillow!! She decided that she would use the air-con for her afternoon naps (being friends with the owner obviously has its benefits, no fine for her), but she didn’t use it whilst we all slept, so we couldn’t use the air-con even if we wanted to! Us being soft Brits, we obviously didn’t ask her about it. This is all very trivial, but wound me up no end! I also found it really difficult to sleep with strangers in the room and to top it all off, I caught a nasty cold. All in all, it wasn’t a horrible experience, it was clean and provided free tea and coffee, but I was happy to check out and move to a new hostel with our own private room. We also met two lovely German women, Vanessa and Nele, who we enjoyed giggling with about our shared experience at the hostel, and a woman from the UK who we also enjoyed talking with, so I shouldn’t moan.

‘Socialites’ in Chiang Mai: The Wonderful People We Met

Before we even arrived in Chiang Mai, we already had several social meet-ups arranged with some lovely people, some of whom we had previously met during our travels and some who follow us online and happened to be in Chiang Mai at the same time as us. So our first week was a busy one, jam-packed with mingling with some awesome people with whom we sincerely enjoyed spending time with.

Andrew Hall

For our first evening in Chiang Mai, a Scottish guy who had been following us on our ‘Crazyguyonabike’ page called Andrew who happened to be on holiday with his family, very kindly asked if he could buy us dinner. We, of course, took him up on his thoughtful offer and were extremely grateful for his generosity! We met at ‘John’s Bar’, a lively and friendly place selling tasty food and a great selection of beers. A brilliant evening was had by all as we talked for many hours about our shared love of travel. Andrew’s wife, who is from Thailand, surprised us with a huge bag of food from 7/11 which she recommended we try. After five and a half hours of cycling that day, delicious food and several beers, we were pretty sloshed and stumbled back to our hostel with huge grins on our faces after a wonderful, happy evening.

Scott Sharick

The following day, we had our bikes booked into the highly recommended ‘Triple Cats Cycle’ bicycle shop for a service. Adam’s breaks needed a good looking at and his back tire needed changing; my bike just required a general check. (We also wondered about possibly changing my handlebars: the gear shifters bang into my frame, which isn’t ideal… but we decided to have a good think about it as it would be a big, expensive job). We had arranged to meet the lovely Scott Sharick at Triple Cats, who had been in touch with us as he had also been following our journey. A fellow bicycle tourist, Scott is a wonderful photographer (you can check out his work here) and is currently 5 months into an approximately 5-year round-the-world bicycle trip of a lifetime. You can read about his inspiring journey on his blog: www.adventuresofaregularguy.com. After leaving our bikes in the trustworthy hands of Triple Cats, we ventured off in search of food. We spent the rest of the day, about 6 hours in total, talking non-stop with Scott about bicycle touring. It was fantastic to discuss our shared experiences, exchange humorous and inspiring stories and share tips and tricks from the road. Scott ended up having some unfortunate difficulties with his bike and needed to stay in Chiang Mai longer than he had planned whilst it was being fixed at Triple Cats. However, fortunately for us, this meant that we were able to meet up with him for dinner more times than we can count. We thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Scott, and feel like we have made a friend for life. We will certainly be following him on his exciting journey.

We went for dinner most nights with Scott and enjoyed his company throughout our time together. We both feel like we really bonded with him over the last 2 weeks. We also made friends with Jamie from South Korea, but lives in China. She told us what apps to download for China (for example WeChat).

ONION Adventure, a.k.a Vroni and Jonas

You may have read about how we bumped into fellow bicycle tourists Vroni and Jonas on the road to Pai (except they were cheating at the time and were taking a scooter…😜 only kidding guys!) After standing on the side of the road for over an hour as we couldn’t stop the flow of conversation, we realised we would all be in Chiang Mai at the same time, so arranged to catch up more then. Vroni and Jonas are already 22 months into their bicycle tour, so it’s great to pick up tips and tricks from the road and learn from their wealth of experience.

Coincidentally, our arrivals in Chiang Mai synchronized with the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng Lantern Festival, so we decided to head for some dinner before taking in the delights of the festivities. It was a luminous and exceptional evening; after food, we headed into the main centre and walked along with the crowds towards the main area where people were sending up their bright lanterns. Being bicycle tourists on a budget, we shared the cost of a lantern and lit it together, sending it up into the heavens with the hundreds of other lanterns. It really was a magical evening, shared with wonderful new friends. Whilst we are spending our winter here in SE Asia, Vroni and Jonas are heading to Australia to work for a few months, before continuing their cycle tour from Hong Kong through China. We may very well be in China at the same time as them, so we hope to see them again next year! If not in China, perhaps when we cross central Asia through the ‘stans’.

‘Candian Chris’

You may have also read previously how we met Chris in Pai. We met him one day into his epic bicycle ride of the ‘Mae Hong Son’ loop. He went on to absolutely smash it out of the park, completing it anti-clockwise in a whirlwind of much fewer days than us! You can follow Chris on Instagram at his handle: @2_feet_and_a_heartbeat. When Chris arrived into Chiang Mai after completing the arduous loop, we celebrated with him and Scott by going out for dinner together and enjoying a few beers: bicycle tourists unite in Chiang Mai! Scott recommended some great places to eat that Anthony Bourdain had recommended on his Chiang Mai episode, including an inconspicuous street cafe called, ‘Midnight Sticky Rice’, where we enjoyed the best-fried chicken, pork, fish and sticky rice. We almost rolled home we were so full! The next evening, we all met for dinner again with the addition of another bicycle tourist from the US called Eric that Chris had met in his guesthouse. We all went to another recommended place called ‘Cowboy Hat’, or Chang Phueak Pork Leg Rice which is a street stall in a Hawker Market. As the name suggests, the female owner sports a cowboy hat whilst she continuously chops up the most tender and delicious pork leg I have ever tasted. Served simply with rice and a soft boiled egg, it is straightforward street food at its absolute best. We were lucky to find a table behind the lady herself: it was extremely busy. We finished our evening with a stroll through the overloaded Sunday Night Market, which stretched along the main street in the centre for seeming miles, selling a wonderful and colourful array of souvenirs.

We would highly recommend the pork and rice from the lady with the cowboy hat near the North Gate.

Changing Accommodation: Our Own Room!

After coping with 5 cramped nights in a dorm room, we were moving accommodation to enable us our own room and our own, private space. We ordered a ‘Grab Taxi’, much like an ‘Uber’ in the UK, as our bikes were still at Triple Cats and our new accommodation was at the opposite end of the city. Fellow bicycle tourists will appreciate how difficult it is transporting four panniers, a handlebar bag, tent, and other accoutrements without the actual bicycle!

Our second accommodation is called ‘Cumpun Guest House’ and is conveniently located just 5 minutes walk from Thapae Walking Street and Talad Warorot Market. When we arrived, it felt so nice to finally have our own space, our own comfortable double bed, private bathroom and enough space to unpack a little so we could feel comfortable for the week we would be spending here. The owner is very friendly – although we haven’t seen him wearing a top yet! 😂 Despite being efficiently located close to the main centre of Chiang Mai, there are also several cafes along the street, selling affordable and tasty local food, smoothies and coffees. So although it is very tempting to over-spend in a big city, it is also very easy to continue to eat cheaply in Chiang Mai, away from the centre down the smaller side streets.

Loy Krathong and Yee Peng Lantern Festival

As previously mentioned, our time in Chiang Mai just happened to coincide with this once per year and extremely busy and popular festival. We enjoyed the Thursday evening festivities with Vroni and Jonas, wandering the streets with booze from 7/11 and people watching as locals and foreigners alike lit lanterns in the streets, the majority of them soaring skywards, the odd one or two not lit efficiently and therefore crashing to the ground in flames, endangering the unknowing tourists below.

On Friday evening, Adam and I enjoyed a rare evening just the two of us. On this night there was a huge parade through the main streets: heavily costumed and made-up Thais processed through the huge crowds demonstrating their skills like knife combat or playing exotic instruments. Ornate and decorative floats moved past slowly with adorned men and women sat upon them, smiling and waving gracefully. Many more lanterns were lit and dispatched skyward; we walked for what felt like miles around the city, taking in the sights and sounds of this special time of year. Exhausted, we sat with our favourite mango smoothie and people watched a while.

‘Western Delights’ at Central Festival Mall

We spent some time at the largest mall in Chiang Mall, Central Festival Mall. Compared to the distinctively Thai city streets in Chiang Mai, the mall emitted a very Western feel. We enjoyed indulging in this type of atmosphere – it made for a refreshing change. Although the only downside was the temptation to splurge on items that were perhaps not 100% necessary: to put it lightly, we had a bit of a splurge. 🙊 However, in justification, it was our chance to purchase items that are unavailable in more rural areas of Thailand. Adam had a chance to add to his camera equipment, and I treat myself to one or two new items of clothing. Early Christmas presents to ourselves!

Alongside the typical clothing and electronics shops, there was also a good old M&S. We drooled over some of the British food items: chocolate digestives, Scottish shortbread, salt and vinegar crisps, proper tea, WINE! Just a few of the foods I miss slightly whilst travelling. (But I absolutely can’t complain, the food here is amazing). Only in M&S did we see slight signs of Christmas. Through social media I see posts relating to Christmas and the run up to one of my favourite times of year, but I don’t feel ‘Christmassy’ at all here… in the mall they play the infamous Mariah Carey Christmas song on repeat, and there’s the pitiful Christmas tree in M&S, but apart from that, there is no Christmas at all. Obviously, as Thailand is a majority Buddhist country this is not surprising at all! Although I do love Christmas time and I am missing home in the run-up to this special family time, I am willing to sacrifice Christmas this year for our epic adventure.

We also spent time in the mall catching up with laptop work: writing for me and video editing for Adam. It’s a convenient place to work with super quick wifi and so much delicious food and drink right at our disposal. A food court on the 5th floor provides reasonably priced meals with a nice view over the city and the mountains in the distance.

My favourite thing about the mall is the huge cinema on the top floor. Adam and I haven’t been to the cinema together for years, so as we’re both big fans of Queen, we took the chance to see the inspirational film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. We enjoyed it so, so much! Luckily it was shown in English, and I was so enthralled that I didn’t even notice it had Thai subtitles until halfway through the film. Queen songs were stuck in our heads for days.

Last Minute Decision: Chinese Visa Application

As can be expected, Adam and I spend a lot of our time discussing future routes and considering where our bicycle tour will take us over the coming weeks and months. We do have our rough route planned, but we believe it’s important to be open to change and remain flexible. China being such a HUGE country, we need as long a visa as possible to try to cycle the whole thing, and not get any trains. If we got a 60-day visa, we should be able to extend this for an additional 30 days in the country, giving us a total of 90-days. This might be just enough time to cycle the whole country…

However, we decided last minute to apply for our Chinese Visa here in Chiang Mai. We thought that by applying now, it would allow our onwards route from Chiang Mai to be more flexible –  we don’t have to go to Bangkok, Vientiane or Hanoi to apply for a Chinese visa there if our desired route doesn’t head through that way. Also, I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t be granted a Chinese Visa anyway, as I have a Turkish stamp in my passport. We have read reports of people being point blank refused a Chinese Visa when they have this stamp, due to the political disagreements between China and Turkey currently. So if I am refused a Chinese Visa, then we would need to change our route completely, most likely going back to the Myanmar/India/Nepal route plan. So it would be better to know about this sooner rather than later…

So on Monday night, we decided to apply for our Chinese Visa here. No time was wasted and we set about getting all of the necessary documents right away. In short, we were successful in applying for a Chinese visa – yay!

Decisions, decisions…

We were only granted a 30-day visa for China; we were hoping for 60. But these things happen. We should be able to extend our visa within China for another 30 days, which will give us 60 in total.

Had we been granted a 60-day visa, we would have 90 days in total with the extension, which would have been enough time to cross the country (north-west to Kazakstan) without taking any trains (but even that would be a push).

With our 30 day visa (60 days in total with an extension) for China, that’s not really enough time to cross the country to Kazakstan without taking a train. That said; we have a cunning plan 🤓 but first, we need to get to China.

SO – after a lot of umming and ahhing, we have decided to head directly through Laos, Vietnam and into China

We think this route will take us about a month so we should be entering China at roughly the end of December 2018.

We’ve decided to get to China earlier than we previously planned for a number of reasons:

  • We will be spending 4-5 months in China (if all of our future visa plans are successful). We want to get to Kazakhstan for May/June 2019.
  • Heading south through SE Asia doesn’t sit right with us as we’ve cycled all the way to the north of Thailand and would be “going back on ourselves”.
  • We’re excited to go through the mountains in Northern Laos and Northern Vietnam.

Our plan for China*

*Subject to change

Once in China, our plan is to cycle to Leshan where we’ve read you can get a visa extension in 24 hours. Once we have our extensions, we will continue towards Kazakhstan as far as we can get before getting a train to Hong Kong.

Our planned route through China

You read that right! We will be heading all the way back with our bikes to Hong Kong where we will apply for another Chinese visa, before getting the train back to Leshan to apply for an extension on our second visas before getting the train back to the point we got to on the first run through China. We will then continue to cycle the rest of China with the second 60-day extended visa. This will allow us to have an unbroken route through China if all of this is successful.

(Don’t worry if you got confused and lost in that explanation.)

In short:

  • Extend first visa in China (extra 30 days = 60 total)
  • When close to end of 60 days, train to Hong Kong and get a second visa.
  • Train back to Leshand, extend second visa just like the first.
  • Cycle all the way to Kazakhstan.

It is very easy to type up our plans with an air of blasé and nonchalance, but the reality is although our chosen route will be, in places, stunningly beautiful and so culturally different, it is also going to be very demanding. I feel excited and apprehensive in equal measure. It will be tough, tougher than I can possibly imagine. We have grown accustomed to cycling in the pleasant, summery temperatures of Malaysia and Thailand, but I’m sure some days in China will be bitter and bleak as we cycle through the last of the winter, before it dissipates and spring arrives. 

This is why we have now invested in some winter clothes and equipment. We spent £200 each on everything we will need for the Chinese winter from a Decathlon store. We bought our jackets from a Thai second-hand shop (Adam’s was made in North Korea). Our bikes are now much heavier but the kit is essential for winter travel through China.

Even after hearing mixed things about cycle touring through China, luckily, I am very much in the mindset of experiencing things for ourselves: everyone’s experience of one thing is different. I don’t want to not travel to a country because of someone else’s bad experience. I want to encounter the world for myself: the good, the bad and the ugly.

No one said this adventure, cycling home from Singapore, would be easy. One of my motivations to do this trip is to challenge myself, and China will certainly deliver that challenge.

With just two full days left in Chiang Mai, we have one or two little things to do before we leave on Wednesday 5th December. That will take us to 2 weeks in Chiang Mai – perhaps just a fraction too long but it was necessary for the Chinese visa. We are both itching to get back on the bikes now. Although we have enjoyed zipping around the city with just light one pannier, the open road, rural Thailand and the continuing adventure beyond Thailand beckons earnestly.

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5 comments

Michael Lees

Thank you Lucia , for another well written and informative blog.

Congratulations on yet another brilliant read Lu. You’re not missing out on the British wet, windy, cold weather that’s for sure! X

I’m a little intrigued by your route planning. I’m sure you’ve discussed it a million times but…
It seems like you are avoiding the sun and planning to put yourselves in cold and misery for months on end! If you cycled through Cambodia and Southern Vietnam then it is sunny all the way, perhaps arriving in Northern Vietnam in the spring and through China/-stans in the spring to autumn? Your route now looks like cold weather up to May. Are you in a rush to get back? Anyway, just my thoughts, I’m sure you’ve got a million reasons to choose the route you are doing. Glad you are having fun 🙂 Still in Chiang Mai, check out Maya dept. store has a large working space for students and digital nomads on the top floor.

Hi Deano,

We’ve had 4 months of sun and decent weather in SE Asia and are keen to make progress towards the Stans. We’re not in a rush as such. Looking at the weather, we will be heading through the South of China in Jan-Feb which will be colder than SE Asia but not crazy cold like central and northern China. We will then be getting the train to Hong Kong where we may end up staying for a few weeks before going back into China for Mar-Apr. That should get us to the Stans for May.

Our aim is to get to Georgia before the end of 2019 and spend a few months there working to earn some more money for the journey. That’s the carrot that is driving us to keep moving North. We’re also quite excited by the prospect of some colder weather for a change (but I’m sure as soon as it gets cold, we will wish we were in SE Asia again!)

We’ve now left Chiang Mai and have just crossed into Laos. Our next blog will be coming shortly to put us up to date.

Sweet, I love Laos, I love how the little kiddies shout and wave at you, sure puts a smile on my face. And oh yeah, i love the Beer Lao.

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