Photos are here.
A 4-day window of public holidays in April could mean only one thing. Actually, wait. It could mean two things: (1) Run around in the hills of Hong Kong (2) Take a plane to wherever and explore the beauty of this “wherever” place.
Well, that “wherever” place in April 2015 happened to be Chiangmai, in Northern Thailand.
My Kiwi travel companion Brendan, thanks to the perks of being a teacher, was already in Thailand about a week ahead of me. Given both of us are rather easy going and couldn’t be bothered to do much of research, we had originally settled on a touristy style 4-day itinerary with a tour group. Something like spend-the-evening-in-an-exotic-village on the first day, visit-an-elephant-camp the next day, and so on – you get the picture. Of course, an obligatory elephant ride was also very much on the cards. These activities all sounded good but the “tour group” part was a bit of a dampener, because deep down inside, neither Brendan nor I, is a big fan of something that is too touristy. So, given Brendan’s teaching perks and the extra week he was spending in Thailand, he decided to do a bit of research on motorbiking around Chiangmai, all the way to the border of Burma. Now, that got me excited. As much as I love elephants and “an exotic village”, some boilerplate Tour #1 isn’t as fulfilling as a motorbike ride around Thailand, soaking in the scenic beauty of the picturesque landscape and feeling the gush of the mountain air.
Brendan’s research revealed this:
“The roads around Chiang Mai are some of the most scenic in the country.
One of the best known is the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 600-kilometer journey that starts from Chiang Mai, and, traveling counterclockwise, passes through Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang before returning to the starting point.
Driving yourself is the best way to do this multiday excursion — car and motorbike rental shops are found all over the city — allowing you to stop to admire the mountainous landscape, visit small villages and swim beneath waterfalls.”
Now, we’re talkin’.
April 2nd, 2015
I landed at Chiangmai airport and quickly zipped through the immigration queue (thanks to the APEC card). I grabbed a shared taxi from the airport to Spicy Thai backpackers (my intended humble abode for the night).
I met Brendan there who looked a tad tired but was still in high spirits. He was talking to a tall tourist. Judging by the length of that guy’s beard, it looked to me like he must have been spending quite some time on the move.
Our first stop was Tony’s Big Bike shop and Brendan revealed his true personality by showing off the girly bicycle he had rented. (It even had a little flower basket). I naturally made fun of him and told him that I didn’t buy his “this was the only bike available” excuse. The joke was on me though because after lunch at the equivalent of a Thai Cha Changeng, I had to sit behind that girly bike and ride with Brendan all the way to Tony’s Big Bike shop. What a debut! Two dudes on a girly bicycle setting off to rent big motorbikes from a Big Bike shop!
The owner was too busy smoking his cigarette so luckily, he didn’t notice our grand not-so-macho entry.
After some negotiation, we were the proud renters of two motorbikes. A Honda 250cc for me and (the next morning) a semi-automatic bike for Brendan who was making his debut on his first road trip.
We then headed for a monastery on top of a hill. I called the place “The Stoop” but it was really called Doi Suthep. It was a Buddhist monastery which had this calming and serene feeling to it. Feeling there and listening to the chants felt as though time was slowing down.
I also started my coconut drinking spree after our visit to Dui Suthep. As legend would have it, by the end of our little adventure in Chiangmai, I would have gone through around 20 coconuts in 4 days! And, not to forget Thai street food. Very cheap. I ate so much that for the first time among all of my little getaways, my eating expenses exceeded my accommodation expenses!
To conclude the day’s affairs, Brendan went for a little test ride on the 250cc Honda and had his very first minor accident as he fell off the bike while trying to turn without putting his foot down.
April 3rd, 2015
It was time to begin the 600km Mae Hong Song loop under scorching weather.
Riding around 40kms away from Chiangmai, we took a little detour from the Mae Hong Song loop and reached Mae Tang National Park. I thought one could enter these parks for free but being “foreigners”, we were charged 300 bucks each. (Had I learnt the two Thai words that I know now, we may have passed off as locals.)
The first stop within Mae Tang National Park was a very interesting geographical formation called “Pha Chor”. I found it rather hard to believe that it was all natural formed. The symmetry was stunning. Brendan put his photography skills to good use by looking for “a natural frame”. He used other cool phrases which I don’t remember now. But, I blame any rubbish pictures that I’ve taken on my camera, not my knowledge of photography or lack of thereof.
Anyway, after Pha Chor-ing, we headed for yet another National Park called Doi Inthanon National Park. We were greeted with the usual “300 bucks foreigner fee” but two magic words meant we could go in for free. No, not “pretty please” or “thank you” but “Mae Chaem”. Allow me to explain. Doi Inthanon has two entry points and two exit points. One is near Chiangmai and the other is near a place called Mae Chaem. So, for some reason, if one were to enter at Chiangmai and exit at Mae Charm, it’s free! All you have to tell the lady at the check point is that you are headed towards Mae Chaem. There’s a 300 buck saving tip.
So, what’s in Doi Inthanon National Park? Three things mainly: waterfalls, the highest point in Thailand (the Doi Inthanon summit at 25xx meters) and some cool treks. By the way, on the subject of treks and air quality, I have to mention this – around Easter, the farmers burn a lot of rice fields so there is this prevailing smog in the air in Chiangmai. The air tends to clear up following rains in late April. So, if you’re traveling to Chiagmai in the first week of April to benefit from the public Easter holidays, don’t expect sunshine and crystal clear skies. Well, you will get sunshine but not crystal clear skies!
We went for a little trail run by the summit when all of a sudden a lady appeared and pointed towards a document that read “going without a guide is dangerous”. She, of course, wanted 200 bucks to escort us to safety. Given we had saved 300 bucks in entrance fees, we paid this 200 but disappeared into the wilderness before she could catch up with us.
There were many zen moments on this little trail run.
Be still, be quiet, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the forest. Listen to the sounds of the falling leaves, the restless wind, the swaying branches, the trickling stream, sweet chirping of birds, humming of insects’ delicate wings. Not the variety, subtlety and complexity of the forest symphony. Immerse, absorb and enjoy.
There was a guest book at the end of the trail and I wrote “Thailand Rocks!” and drew a nice smiley face next to it. I then passed the pen to Brendan who was beside me. Enlightened by the newfound serenity in the forest, Brendan added his little poetic touch to their guest book.
(I would have written something more deep than “Thailand Rocks” had I known he was going to write something as beautiful as that!)
After the trail run, we headed towards the summit Doi Inthanon.
After our adventure in Doi Inthanon National Park, we descended down scenic, windy roads into Mae Chaem.
We searched for a guesthouse and a very friendly lady pointed us in the right direction. She also invited us to her coffee shop. We politely declined and continued to search for the guesthouse.
Eventually, we found one by the back alley of the town. We had one big bed in a super hot room with one rather noisy fan. Hmm… “could have been worse” is what I was thinking, but then it did get worse! (Murphy’s law!) The toilet was located in mosquito land and had lizards and cockroaches for guests! Well, not a deal breaker. I knew I could “hold it in”. (After all, I did survive almost a week in Xin Jiang simply by “holding it in”). The “shower area” was also… let’s say “interesting”. It was essentially a shower (which I was grateful for) in an outdoor area. In place of a tiled or a concrete floor, there were rubbles. Anyway, no biggie.
Mosquitoes and lizards were omnipresent and occasionally a leaf would fall from high above, giving this bathroom setting a sort of eerie feel to it. And, taking a few more steps from the designated shower area would mean that you would come under plain view of the residents in the upper storey. So, before I could go in for a shower, I carefully admired the lizards in the backdrop and switched the light off. My thinking was that in case a lizard were to jump on me, I would leapfrog to my right but would still maintain my manly dignity as the residents upstairs wouldn’t be able to see me in the dark. Thankfully, I did survive my shower and happily reatined my dignity, although a falling leaf from up above in the darkness got me a little uneasy. Bold Brendan claimed that he had “nothing to hide” and went for his “shower” but he almost banged his head against the thatched roof above as he couldn’t quite see in the dark! (I didn’t tell him that I had switched off the light and given the primitive state of the “shower”, I don’t think he was expecting a light there).
April 4th, 2015
Motorbike loses “motor”
In my growing enthusiasm to say goodbye to that questionable shower and toilet, I got up early, took my “goodbye” photos of the shower and toilet and waved a bigger goodbye to the guesthouse as I sat on the motorbike. And then, Murphy’s law struck like a hardened hammer on a fragile nail.
I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, turned it to ‘On’ position and nothing. Nada. Zilch. The motorbike seemed as dead as a fish out of water. This situation called for superb mental state management, not just because I had no idea how to fix the bike, but because I also had to get back into the very guesthouse that I had so enthusiastically just said goodbye to!
Biting the bullet, I had a déjà vu as I went back into the guesthouse to deposit my rucksack, then Brendan and I got on his bike to see if we could find someone in town to come and fix mine. That didn’t go so well. One guy we met who looked like he could fix stuff couldn’t understand a word of English. Sign language – too complicated. Time – 6.45am when everything was mostly shut.
As the odds were against us, the lady who invited us for coffee the previous day suddenly showed up. She spoke good English and suggested that we go to her brother’s house – her brother was a mechanic of sorts. She came with us on her bike, introduced us to her brother, who in turn, came with us to inspect my broken down bike. He then announced that he had to take my bike to his home garage to take a closer look. How would you move a broken down bike? Perhaps in Hong Kong on a truck, but in Chiangmai, Chaem’s brother pulled a little James Bond style trick. He asked me to sit on my bike, he then briefly disappeared and then reappeared on my rear view mirror. He was riding his scooter using his left hand and his right hand pushed against the back of my bike and all of a sudden, I was “riding” my bike. Defunct engine, but mobile! It worked like a charm. At one point, it seemed like we could do the entire Mae Hong Song loop that way!
As Chaem’s talented brother got to work on my broken down bike, Brendan and I started talking to Chaem to learn more about her. What a kind person she was! Not only did she come in at the right time to find a solution to my broken down bike, she also invited us to have a free coffee tasting session at her shop once the bike was fixed. She was one of those inviduals who you meet and never forget. Kind, selfless and giving. Our conversation with Chaem was interrupted as my bike suddenly sputtered to life in the background. Chaem’s brother had somehow fixed it! What a relief that was.
We went back to our guesthouse to pick up my rucksack but this time, I refrained from expressing enthusiastic goodbyes to ward off any more surprises or unintended manifestations of Murphy’s law. I inserted the key into the motorbike’s ignition, switched it to ‘On’ position and heaved another big sigh of relief to see the LCD dashboard spring to life. We then took up Chaem on her coffee offer. I’ve never felt so welcome in a shop before! Her caring attitude towards people and life was enlightening.
Brendan comes of “biking” age
We exchanged goodbyes with Chaem and set off on our way from Mae Chaem to Mae Hong Song.
We asked a couple of people here and there for directions and eventually hit a dirt road. The road had many steep turns and there was a lot of lose gravel on it. During one such sharp bend on the road, I saw Brendan making the sharp left turn, then came a loud noise of chassis hitting hard ground and the engine sputtering to a stop.
Panic surged through me. My mind was racing with thoughts like the traffic on a busy highway. I quickly parked my bike and ran up to Brendan and saw him groaning with pain, trapped under his bike. His leg was stuck under the weight of the chassis. I feared the worst and tried to calm my mind down before considering my next moves. I lifted his bike freeing his leg from underneath the chassis, then I pushed the bike to the side of the road, parked it there and went back to Brendan to see him still lying down on the road in agony. I helped him get up, made him sit by the side of the road and did a quick check on him. He was bleeding but, fortunately, all his wounds were superficial. Phew! I can’t even recall the last time I felt that relieved. The motorbike fix in the morning didn’t even come close.
Knowing that Brendan was fine, I forced him to smile and declared that he had finally come of “biking” age. I told him that every biker at some stage of his life, has probably fallen of the bike and learnt a lesson. This first fall is crucial to becoming a pro biker. And, what was Brendan’s lesson? Never take a sharp bend on the road on the third gear. Important lesson.
An off-road adventure leads to more falls
Falling of the bike became the norm as we somehow ended up motorbiking on a never-ending off-road trail which really isn’t meant for motorbiking. It all started when we asked two kids for directions to Mae Hong Song. They accompanied us on their own bikes for about a kilometer and then disappeared. I was pretty sure that they had sent the two of us into unchartered territory on a wild goose chase because the “road” didn’t quite exist. Imagine riding a motorbike on Plover Cove trail in Hong Kong. This was pretty much like that! Brendan came of biking age many times! And, as for yours truly, sometimes even experienced monkeys fall from trees, or as in this case, fall from bikes. (I’m not a monkey though). We rode up what looked like steep scree slopes as our engines whined and cried. Then we held our nerves with bated breath and prepared ourselves for the dangerous ride down the other side of the slope. We were on first gear trying to delicately balance the bike by avoiding the lose gravel and large stones on the slippery surface made of loose rocks. Tightrope walking must have been easier. In fact, I can sum up our experience in this tailor-made version of Police’s song.
Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…
At one point, I decided to turn data roaming on on my phone to figure out where we were on the map. Alas! Despite my rare and desperate move to pay ridiculous roaming charges, there was no signal. And then, history repeated itself. Brendan fell. I fell. And our version of the song from Police.
Every slope you take
Every move you make
Every time you brake
Every fall you take
I’ll be watching you…
I’ve got to say this though – neither Brendan nor I complained despite the predicament we found ourselves in. We were both looking for a solution to the problem and willing to weather any storm, or in this case, any slope. Ok, fine. You got me. Maybe I complained a little bit. But, Brendan didn’t!
The Gods of mercy finally smiled upon us after we had just barely survived yet another grueling rubble slope. We saw a village and more importantly, the dirt road that lead us out of there. After what we had been through, looking at dirt road instead of something like a scree slope felt like a big treat to the eyes. That dirt road eventually lead us to a proper Tarmac road. I would have almost kissed it.
We then rode up to the first store we could find to fix Brendan’s injuries. As we applied Hydrogen Peroxide on his leg injuries, he let out a shriek much to the amusement of the two kids in the store who lovingly fanned some air onto his legs to alleviate his pain.
The day’s adventure finally ended once we reached Mae Hong Song. And, as always, I went on my coconut water drinking spree. The day’s affairs meant at least 5 coconuts to recover.
And, by the way, I asked Brendan if he’d do by himself what we did on the bike today if someone were to give him USD 10M for it. “No”, came the unequivocal response but being the kind guy he is, he did say that he’d give it a go if doing it would mean that he could solve one of the world’s biggest problems.
April 5th, 2015
Thanks to the intense off-road adventure from the day before, I made sure that we knew exactly where we were going today. No scree slopes. No off-road adventure. Just road biking!
We rode all the way to a Chinese-style village by the border between Thailand and Burma, while temporarily joining a parade en route.
Apparently, there were trenches on both sides and quite of lot of soldiers had died there during the wars from the past. We asked the soldier on the Thai side if we could take a couple of pictures in the No Man’s land between Thailand and Burma. He let us. I was extra polite with him as has had a huge M16 by his side!
After bidding goodbye to Burma, we rode to a “Fish Cave” on the way to our destination for the day, Pai.
The Fish Cave – hmm, Brendan seemed to enjoy feeding the fish some insects! Basically, it was a puddle of water with some large fish in it! The glorified title “Fish Cave” is a bit of an exaggeration. The only eventful thing happened here when I accidentally dropped my motorbike keys into a large pond with several hundred fish in it. Luckily, the fish didn’t eat my key and even more luckily, a kind lady picked up the key for me! Had a fish eaten my key, that would have been tragic for both the fish and I!
Pai seemed pretty westernized compared to the other places we had been to on the loop thus far. There was plenty of street food and the contents of a couple of more coconuts found their way to my stomach, along with some grilled corn and yam.
April 6th, 2015
No trip to Thailand can be complete without an elephant ride. These mammoth creatures are vegetarian and need to eat 250kgs a day!
We rode to Noy’s Elephant Camp for a ride on the back of a very docile elephant called Mai. Brendan helped out the elephant by swatting a mosquito on its back.
To say “thank you” to the elephant, we gave him several dozen bananas. He gobbled them up almost as fast as I’d swallow coconut water on a hot day.
The other thing to do in Thailand is of course, to swim in natural waterfalls. This was next on the agenda to conclude this 5-day adventure.
And, once we reached Chianmai, the final onslaught of eating came in the form of noodles, veggie rice, ice creams, veggie snacks, coconut water and more coconut water. In fact, we had worked out that we could drink 17 coconuts on the 500 Bahts that I had remaining.
To justify this much eating, Brendan suggested that we do some exercise in the park to get rid of all the accumulating fat. And, that’s exactly what we did. About 5km of running interspersed with exercises in between. I thought I’d have the Strava record for this run but I could only manage the second fastest time!
Anyway, that run (plus more coconut water) concluded a truly awesome, kick ass 5-day motorbiking road trip around Northern Thailand.
I will finish with a quote:
“There is a sunrise and a sunset everyday. You can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty” – From the movie Wild