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Trip to Mae Hong Son or The Flying Little Red Motorbike

  • Written by Farang Ba
  • March 2nd, 2009
  • 8 min read


Before you start reading this travel report, please allow me to introduce myself:

European, 55 years old, semi-retired (which means, I am able to leave Europe for the cold months and go back to work there each summer), reasonably fit, and crazy enough to travel all over Thailand on my own small motorbike (Yamaha Fresh 2,110 cc, "only" 6 previous owners and 140,000 km on the clock, but surprisingly reliable). Up to now, I have done a total of about 3,000 kilometers, with the main direction leading from Phuket up north to Mae Sai and from there heading southeast towards the Isaan region. And yes, my 30 year old guitar and my favorite song books had to go for the trip as well!

Behind Ban Wat Chan, January 2009:
Wow, I am flying! Free like a bird, without any limits … not really!
Unfortunately, I am flying over a distance of about 2 Meters with my motorbike, and the situation is definitively out of control. I am preparing for a rough landing…

Chiang Mai, 2 days earlier:
I am planning my trip to Mae Hong Son. Basically, there are 2 major highhways, one leading west first and then up north, the second one the other way round, passing the backpacker ghetto Pai. But where is the fun in taking highways? My map shows a direct track, right through the mountains, with only the small village of Ban Wat Chan shown around halfway, and explains this track as being a "secondary road, cart track". Well, whatever that means…

Most Thai people I ask have never heard of that connecting track, especially the one after Ban Wat Chan. Further investigation via the internet reveals that this track, about 190 kilometers long, is passable only during th dry season of the year, well, so I am lucky, right? The owner of a nearby motorbike rental shop confirms the roads could be done even with a normal car. Ok, so I will ride on my own motorbike instead of renting a dirt track bike. Good idea, bad plan…

Day 1:

I start early, equipped with what I like to call my Thailand survival kit: a waterproof, but unfortunately rather incorrect road map, 2 packages of coconut and sesame crackers and 2 unbreakable bottles filled with water and gasoline each.
Everything is perfect up to Samoeng, northwest of Chiang Mai: following a brand new, winding road with perfect surface, I enjoy the ride and really would like to have one of those big, strong and fast 4 cylinder bikes… Shortly after Samoeng, I turn left, away from the main road, and find myself on an unpaved, but well kept side road, winding up higher and higher into the mountains. The rainforset finally gives way to pine trees, in some places overgrown heavily with lichens and orchids. I cruise along, my nose filled with the scent of pines, and in my ears the soft and distant ringing of cow bells. Cow bells? Now wait a minute, this is like at my home in the alps, and I feel some short emotional waves of homesickness wash through me, for the first time I am on my roundtrip through Thailand (about 2 months by then). Have I ever told you how beautiful the alpine areas in Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland are? No? Well, maybe another time.

After about 15 kilometers the problems start: No way somebody could do that road with a normal car (unless one would like to get rid of the mufflers and part of the fenders)! I start to realize that the guy in Chiang Mai must have been all wrong. How could I know that this id…t probably never has been on that track before himself and, as I believe now, just wanted to show off? Well, I should have known better, Thai guys always like to show off big time if it comes to being tough! Anyway, it doesn’t help, I have to go on. My average travelling speed becomes slower and slower, and the distance of 100 Kilometers from Chiang Mai to Ban Wat Chan, my destination for the first day, takes me all of about 6 hours, without any stopovers longer than five minutes! I thought I could do it easily in four hours, including some relaxing breaks…

I arrive late in the afternoon, only to find a small village with one family market (and no, NOT a 7 Eleven!), a guesthouse with a total of 2 (!) rooms and an attached restaurant, consisting of 1 table and 3 chairs. Unfortunately, both rooms are occupied already. And now, what next? The sun will go down in about one hour, and my eyes, unfortunately, are nearly useless in the nighttime. And NO way of traveling those tracks in the darkness, anyway! Well, desperate situations require unusual measures, right? Just outside Ban Wat Chan there is a royal forest development project. Sure they must have some sort of accomodation for their visitors or workers? And yes, although they are very surprised to see a farang showing up and asking for it, they offer me to stay in one of their (rather basic) bungalows for a very decent amount. Long (even hot!) shower, dinner, lots of water and one beer, and I am done for the day!

Day 2:

Early in the morning I continue my trip, and higher and higher the road leads into the mountains, and down again, and up again, geting steeper and narrower all the time. The needle of my compass shows northwestern directions most of the time. Well, that is what we call a direct connection! The countryside I am passing must be one of the most remote regions in Thailand, mountains and pine forests as far as the eye can see, and only a few rice fields and fruit plantations in the few valleys along the way. Unfortunately, the track is getting worse and worse. The last rainy season has washed out huge pottholes and rocks, and, combined with extreme slopes, I find myself using first gear most of the time. This will be a looong day, with more than 80 kilometers of dirt track still remaining! To remind you, I am traveling with my old 110cc streetbike, and carrying full luggage for half a year of traveling!

To make matters worse, my map gives wrong information about the only unclear intersection en route, so I finally end up in a small, very remote village, inhabited by Mon people. They are very helpful and friendly, but no, I can not refill my bike with gasoline there. I have to rely on my 2 additional bottles… the 20 kilometer I went astray cost me more than 1.5 hours!

The next 30 kilometers is real torture: extremely bad road conditions, the steepest climbs and descents I’ve ever seen while driving a motorbike or car. The small, but reliable engine is working really hard, and I give it some rest for 10 minutes every half hour or so. I don't want it to overheat and blow up here in the middle of nowhere, believe me!

Shortly afterwards, a big surprise: For a few kilometers the road is widening, and the surface is covered with nearly perfect tarmac. They must have some really good connections with the government here … After 10 relaxing kilometers, it is back to dust and dirt.

About 40 kilometers before reaching Mae Hong Son, the track changes its appearance again: They grade the surface, and cover it with sand. Well, I know that one from Australia: If you are driving too slow, the sand will suck your rear wheel in, you slow down and the fuel consumption rises extremely. You go too fast, and one hole (the infamouns Australian bull dust holes) or rock under the sand can bring you down. So, for the sake of the environment and to shorten the driving time, let’s try the fast approach … here we go!!

Wow, I am flying! Free like a bird, without any limits … not really! Unfortunately, I am flying over a distance of about 2 meters with my motorbike, and the situation is definitively out of control. I am preparing for a rough landing…

I had tried to speed up only a little bit, and sure enough, there must have been the hugest rock in all of northern Thailand, hidden right under the sand. My little red bike hits the ground with a teeth-shattering clang and bang, I hear something rupturing (turns out later it was the front fender), and my spine feels like it got at least 10 centimeters shorter! Skidding wildly to the left and right through deep sand, I finally avoid going down and bring the bike to a rather uncontrolled stop. Well, that was enough for me with the high speed version, so better let us go for the more fuel consuming option! Here comes my very last reserve of fuel, and on we go. This will be very, very close…

Ah, finally, I can see my destination for the second day, Mae Hong Son, from far above. What a relief! From this place on it is only 15 kilometers more to go. I arrive with a nearly empty tank, broken fender and front fairing, me and the bike totally covered with reddish brown dust. Mae Hong Son seems like paradise to me, especially the first big petrol station right outside the city! Yes, that WAS a very close one, I never saw so much gasoline disappearing into the small tank any time before! And so much water disappearing into my stomach within the next half hour!

And from now on I will only use the bigger and more comfortable roads, this I promise myself! But there would be this interesting, unmarked short cut I have heard about, turning left from the highway shortly behind Pai, leading up north to Wiang Haeng, only 45 kilometers or so of unpaved road… passing an area formerly held by Chinese Khuomintang forces … highly infamous for opium production until less than 10 years ago … not shown in most road maps … but they are planning to seal it next year … last chance for … only thinking…

Stickman's thoughts:

Very nice. I really must try and make it up there one day…