Delightful Northern Thailand (4) Dirt Ride
By Hans Meier
The jeep grinds up a steep dirt slope. A five inch layer of powdery brown and reddish dirt covers the slope, and it's peppered with handball-sized rocks all over. You wouldn't want to *walk* there.
We make a few meters, then there is a huge drill along the track. I keep the right side of the car on the drill's rim; the left side shuffles down in the valley. The Suzuki Vitara hangs so uneven that it might fall onto the side any moment.
Out of the drill, now there is thicket growing all over the trail. The bushes scratch along the car body as we drive through at around 1 mph.
I never wanted to be here. I never wanted to do off-road. I have no idea how to handle a 4WD with automatic on a track that makes any Cambodian or Lao strip look luxurious. Some of the many buttons there, would they help? And what about Norah beside me; what does she think about her western lover sweating over the stirring wheel? What a crazy way to travel
— FROM MAE CHEM TO BAN WAT CHAN
From Mae Chem, west of Doi Inthanon, we headed north. Instead of smoothly travelling the obvious highway 1263 to Mae Hong Son, I had planned to take a small road cutting through the hills towards Huay Tong and finally into Samoeng, north of Chiang Mai.
This small road never materialised. Not to us, that is. It was definitely not signposted in English, and there hadn't been one side road that looked promising in any way. Only dull dirt-roads.
One of the mistakes I made was using the map "Mae Hong Son Loop" without reading the legend. From the map I saw that some roads are dirt roads – those I avoided when planning. The larger part of my road to Huay Tong seemed not to be a dirt road, but sealed. So why didn't we see it?
From any other map I am used to only one category of dirt roads, usually those drawn with the thinnest lines. Those roads I avoided when planning. But this "Mae Hong Son Loop" map, catering to motorbikers, sports TWO categories of dirt roads: all-year versus seasonal. The better of the two dirt-road-categories, with drawn-through lines on the paper, I had mistaken for sealed roads. Once I understand that all those assumedly sealed roads are dirt roads, I notice that Northern Thailand does sport quite a few dirt roads – every more interesting route seems to be a dirt road.
It's too late anyway: After refusing to take the well-traveled highway 1263 to the backpacker resort of Mae Hong Son, we turn off towards Mae Sa; according to my wrong understanding of the map, another small sealed road; after having read the map properly, another dirt road. Actually: a mule trail.
Now it's downhill again. The car slides ten meters without any chance to control it. And we have to fight not only loose dirt and gravel, steep slopes and huge craters. Of course our road splits and forks all the time – it goes any direction it shouldn't
go, if you believe in maps. If there are any signs, they are in Thai only. For any useful directions, we can only hope to
— MEET THE PEOPLE
From time to time, there are villages. Remote remote places with wooden huts in fertile valleys or along gentle hills. They don't look all that poor. They are just so remote. The children run up to the trail when they hear us howling along – the appearance of any car is an attraction. Roaring past, we get deep-deep wais from some kids, who cannot even see us through the tinted glasses.
Huay Pa, Mae Ruam and Huay Khiat Haeng are some of the villages we pass, according to the map. When I do step out to ask for directions, I get very reserved looks from the adults – so different from the usually kind, polite or curious Thais elsewhere. I don't know if the rather frosty atmosphere has to do with the many Christian missionary buildings we see on that remote route between Mae Sa and Ban Wat Chan.
Anyway, useful information we get in the settlements. But then we hit an undocumented junction in the middle of nowhere. Left, right or straight? There is no chance. We have to turn off the car until somebody pops along.
I step out. Only birds and cicadas. It's nice, it's remote, it's not on the tour bus route. I walk around for a while. I don't snap, because it's nice, but not special. Just some bush, really. 30, 40 minutes have passed. Then, from far away, I hear a motorcycle milling along the trail in our direction. Later a dust cloud arises; it spits out a Thai motosai driver. This is Thailand, so I am not shy to signal and ask him to stop with a smile.
Now my basic tourist Thai comes in handy. Or don't they speak Central Thai? I am not at all shy to speak wrong baby Thai. But I have to try and interview him without leading questions. Nothing like "This road to Ban Wat Chan?" So I smile:
"Thanon-nee, pai mai khrap?"
"Pai… Sao Daeng!"
Oh, this road leads to Sao Daeng – but is that on our route? I flip through the map. I discover a place name that might be identical with "Sao Daeng". It's where we want to go! To play it safe, I ask for another, more significant destination later on:
"Ban Wat Chan mai?" I stop "khrap" here, he's a young guy, or should I continue?
"Chai", he confirms.
So now I know the right road, we have to turn left. But then, is that a "road" at all, or is it another rubble field? I practice more of my tourist Thai:
"Thanon dee mai?"
"Mai dee!" He puts on a very sceptical face.
"Pai dai mai?"
He bends down and checks our jeep's ground clearance.
"Dai…", he admits slowly, but motions his hand sceptically.
Our joint vocabulary doesn't include more than 15 words, but the information comes across. According to him, we could continue, but the road would be rotten as before. I smile "Khop khun maaaak khrap!" and join Norah back in the cabin.
The decent highway towards Mae Hong Son is only about 30 miles away – that would be no more than 3 hours of backtracking on the dirt road. Mae Hong Son will have delightful lodges and restaurants for us. On the other hand, if we do continue towards Ban Wat Chan – what will "Village Pagoda Chan" hold for us?
So should we go back to the main road? Should I consult Norah about my doubts?
Off we roar, onto the dirt track to the left, further towards Ban Wat Chan, further into nowhereland. Bounce-bump-boom. I hate to backtrack.
Delightful, as always.