The Very Long and Winding Road – 140 kilometers, 762 curves, 4 hours
I once saw this little slogan on a tee-shirt. I wondered if it was true. I know that you will all be pleased to know that Sawadee can now personally verify that the distance from Chiang Mai is 140 kilometers…assuming that my odometer is working accurately. I can also personally verify the 762 curves, because I counted every single one of them! As to the time; I did manage to make the journey in less than four hours, but just barely. It may be only 140 kilometers as a crow flies, but not being a crow, or a member of any other avian species, for me Route 1095 was one hell of a long and winding road!
I’d wanted to venture up into Mae Hong Son for years now. I’ve been to Chiang Mai more times than I can count, and always driven by the road sign for route 108, which is one of the two ways to drive to Mae Hong Son. I’ve actually been on 108 as far as Doi Inthanon, but had never been any farther than that. Route 108 forms the “clockwise” longer portion of a loop that begins and ends in Chiang Mai. The shorter portion of that loop is route 1095.
At the beginning of November I was feeling restless, and in the mood for a road trip. I decided to take the curvy way and visit Pai for a couple of days during my Christmas break. Stick and I had been talking for ages about making that trip, but this holiday season he had too many commitments to get away, so I decided to head off on my own. That was my plan anyway, until I mentioned going off for a few days to my wife. To my utter amazement, she asked if she could come along. You have to understand that my tee-rak does not enjoy taking a vacation. Growing up as a dirt-poor farmer’s daughter, she had rarely been anywhere outside of Buriram, except to attend university in Korat. The very idea of paying for a hotel room was simply beyond her experience. When we lived in the U.S., her eyes practically rolled back into her head when I booked a Disney World vacation that cost over $200 dollars a night for accommodation. Take three deep breaths, relax and enjoy I told her. We have the money. Although she did enjoy herself, she could never forget how much we were spending. Eating in “expensive restaurants”, as she referred to them, was just as uncomfortable. Pay $20 + each for dinner? The girl had never paid more than 25 baht for a meal in her entire life! Ten years later, even after five years in America, she still doles out each and every baht with a parsimoniousness that Ebenezer Scrooge would approve of. “But it's sooooo expensive” is practically a mantra to her. Oh well, at least I know the she’s not out there wasting our hard earned cash! However, I have made it clear that I’m not going to my funeral pyre without enjoying a few things along the way. If I want to take a few days vacation, a couple of times a year, I do not want to hear any complaints! Got it?
So anyway, it was quite a big deal to hear my wife say she wanted to make this trip with me. Actually I was pleased. We hadn’t been anywhere together overnight since moving to Thailand, except to visit her family in Nong Ki, which in my book comes more under the heading of penance, than holiday.
Okay I agree that you can come along if you want, but under no circumstances are we taking Sam along! This is no trip for a three year old boy, especially one who can tolerate all of 10-15 minutes in his car seat. The thought of 8-10 hours round-trip with him wailing away was not something I wanted to contemplate! All those curves would probably make him car sick, and there was nothing that would interest him once we got there. The whole idea of making this trip was to relax, take in the scenic beauty of the mountains, and enjoy a few meals in some nice restaurants. Perhaps, being alone together for the first time in over three years would spice up our romantic life, which would be a nice bonus indeed!
“But how can I be away from Sam for three whole days?” You’ll survive I said, and so will he. You can either ask one of our neighbors to stay with Sam, or you can ask your mother to come up., or… you can just stay home! Reluctantly she said she would have her mother come up for a visit.
Now all I had to do was find us a place to stay, which considering that we were entering the high season might not be easy. It wasn’t.
Oh, there were dozens and dozens (and dozens) of accommodations in Pai, from the luxurious to the squalid…and it seemed that every stinkin’ one of them was booked solid. I needed a room for the nights of December 28th and 29th. I might as well have been asking for the moon on a silver platter. Everything had been booked long ago. I was almost ready to call the whole thing off, but I decided to call just one last place. To my surprise, yes, there was one room, actually a cottage available for those nights. I was expecting to hear an astronomical figure per night, since every other place had doubled or even tripled their rates. I was pleasantly stunned to hear that the high season price per night was a mere 600 baht. I crossed my fingers (and toes) and booked a cottage at Amy’s Earth House. It turned out to be an interesting place, but I’ll describe our stay there later.
As Christmas came and went, I asked my wife when her mother was going to be arriving. Well, it turned out that her mother wasn’t going to be able to come because she wanted to help finish up the sugar cane harvest…but her younger brother was going to come instead…but he really wanted to see Pai…and so could he and Sam make the trip with us? Oh why did I know that something like this would happen? And where is your brother going to stay? We have one small bedroom with one bed, and he is not sleeping on our floor! This is a guesthouse, not a farmhouse in Buriram where it’s no big deal to stack people in like logs into a room. I gave my wife the telephone number of our place and told her to see if there was anywhere nearby where her brother could stay. By damn if she didn’t do just that. There was a place a few minutes away for 300 baht per night. And who is going to be paying for that I asked my wife. What a dumb question!
An equally dumb question was “When are you going to pack your bag?” I could have predicted the answer to that one! Probably ten minutes before we need to head out the door. Why can my wife never, ever be ready on time? Is it because she is A) Thai, B) a woman, or C) both of the above? Except for my shaving kit, my bag was ready the day before. I’ve learned, although perhaps too slowly, that no man can hold back the tide, nor make any woman get her ass out of first gear. It’s more productive to simply find something useful to do, like dig a hole halfway to China, or perhaps polish our truck. I opted for “wax on…wax off.”
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I was backing out of our driveway, and heading out down the road. Our Toyota Vigo was clean inside and out, the tire pressure of all four tires had been checked. We were stocked with snacks and cold drinks. I had our route mapped out. Every window and door of our house was securely locked. My wife, in either a state of supreme caution, or paranoia, had unplugged every appliance, except the refrigerator…and thrown every electrical breaker. I wisely don’t even begin to question things like this anymore. I didn’t bother to point out the obvious, namely that anyone with a mind to could easily pick up a rock and smash in a window. I suppose that not being able to flip a switch and turn on the lights might possibly slow down a potential home invasion…unless Somchai brought his handy flashlight along!
The first leg of our trip, Lampang to Chiang Mai, was a breeze. I’ve driven the road so many times I could practically do it in my sleep. Sam cooperated by taking a long nap. I put on an audio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and got into my driving groove.
For some people, driving is simply a way of getting from point A to point B. I on the other hand, enjoy driving, at least most of the time. I don’t like driving in places like Bangkok. I don’t especially enjoy highway driving at night. Other than that, I’ll happily drive all day. Driving in Thailand however has some special challenges that I’ll never get used to, namely Thai drivers. Undoubtedly there are worse drivers in the world, say in Nairobi or Timbuktu. Since I’ve never been to these places, I’ll settle on the Thais as my motoring nemesis from hell.
Route 1095 begins with some long gentle curves. If you’ve ever driven through the American Midwest, think Iowa. Immediately the road starts winding upward, with some nice views of the surrounding mountains. Soon however, the curves become more frequent and tighter. Before long, you feel as though you are on an enormous roller coaster. My truck handles pretty well, but a high performance sports car would be just the thing here.
As the road gets more and more gnarly, the Thai drivers start to become more and more annoying. This road demands that you drive slowly and cautiously…that is if you have a brain in your head, and want to be alive at the end of the day. In my humble opinion however, the vast majority of Thai drivers don’t seem to have any functioning grey matter in their heads, or seem to care whether they (or anyone else on the road) live or die. Folks, Sawadee may be getting older, but he’s not a senile old fogy dottard behind the wheel just yet. I don’t have a lead foot on the accelerator, but I do like to move right along…in a safe and sane manner. The best way to describe the Thai drivers on 1095 would be to say that they had a flagrant disregard for common sense and utter contempt for the safety of anyone. Would you attempt to pass anyone on a hairpin turn, where it is impossible to see if anyone else is coming in the opposite lane? How about going over (or down) hills where you also cannot see if the way is safe to do so? Where the obvious safe speed is perhaps 30 km/h, would you be doing 60? If you were Thai, the answer would be yes to all of the above. In many places, the road, while in good condition is extremely narrow, with no shoulders. There is simply no way to pull off to the side of the road. So what do you do when Somchai is hurtling towards you in your lane, because the sod simply had to pass someone, even though it wasn’t safe to do so? I simply cannot understand what their god damned hurry is. Even my wife felt compelled to comment that “Thai drivers have a special ability…to be stupid”! Aside from a few silent curses, I continued to drive along at my own speed. I was content to hand out a liberal number of attitude adjustments. Whenever some idiot was climbing up my ass, I would simply slow down (or speed up) and make it impossible to pass me. Oh, it’s the little things that can give you such pleasure! I know I was perhaps being childish, but I felt obligated to not let rude behavior go unchallenged.
Idiotic drivers aside, I still had a great time enjoying the scenery. I of course was in the driver’s seat. Everyone else in the back seat was turning a bit green from the twists and turns. Note: One of the best remedies for motion sickness is ginger…really, and ginger tea is available just about everywhere in Thailand. Route 1095 passes one small hamlet, which is your only chance to slurp down a bowl of noodles, or visit a much needed toilet. Being of a certain age, I make it a point never to pass by an available toilet! <You can't go an hour without taking a leak! – Stick>
Okay, it’s time to get rolling again, and once more we climbed higher and higher through the mountains. Eventually we reached the penultimate heights and begin snaking our way downward, through some truly astonishing hairpin curves. Suddenly we found ourselves in a wide valley, not long after in Pai. The traffic was bumper to bumper. Apparently besides us, half the people on the planet were there that day. Even though most people who visit Pai come via minivan or bus, there were many more cars than the narrow streets could ever hope to accommodate.
Luckily the place where we were staying was far away from the noise and congestion. Just a few kilometers from the center of town was an inviting quiet oasis, which is just the ticket for a little rest and relaxation. Welcome to Amy’s Earth House!
The word that comes to mind when describing Amy and her Earth House is funky. I mean that as a compliment. I doubt there is anyplace else quite like it in Thailand. It is made up of a number of cottages made from a mixture of red clay and cement. The effect is rather like Southwest adobe here in the Land of Smiles.
Our bedroom was small, but comfortable, with a nice four-poster bed. There was no TV, no refrigerator, no internet, no swimming pool and no air conditioning. During this season of the year, the last item is hardly necessary. The philosophy is definitely “get back to basics”. Personally I was glad simply to kick back and relax. I didn’t come there to watch TV or check my e-mail. What there was there more than made up for anything that was lacking. Outside my door was a gorgeous view across the valley. It reminded me very much of Vermont. Aside from the chirping of some birds and the rustling of the wind through the trees, it was quiet. No cars, trucks, or motorcycles. No jackhammers, boom boxes or barking dogs. Some city dwellers I know can only take peace and quiet for a few minutes before they begin to freak out. They are so accustomed to urban background noise that the lack of it is disturbing to their psyche. Me, I can never have enough peace and quiet.
I have to mention the unique bathrooms here. While they have four high walls, they have no ceiling. I mean they are open to the sky. Shower under the stars…or use the porcelain throne while enjoying a fragrant breeze from the nearby garden. Talk about a unique alfresco experience!
Amy is an extremely bright and likeable Thai woman, who speaks very good English. She is also one hell of a guitarist.
If you would like more information about this place check out Amy's House website.
Amy’s is no frills but comfortable, but the place down the road where my brother-in-law stayed was about as basic as you can get. The word tumbled-down shack comes to mind. If any of you have ever ventured out onto a farm in Isaan, you will undoubtedly have seen a few of these. These are where a weary farmer might take a well deserved afternoon nap, and perhaps a nip or two, after planting the “north forty”. My wife’s family has one on their farm, but even they wouldn’t dream of charging someone 300 baht a night to sleep in it. Wow! Talk about outrageous high season rates! My brother-in-law didn’t complain though. He had spent plenty of nights in just such a place, and hell, he wasn’t the one paying for it.
Most people think that tourism in Thailand is exclusively about foreign visitors. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Thais, like everyone else back in your corner of Farangland, like to take to the road and enjoy a holiday away from home. Folks from “the big city” like to get out and have a breath of fresh in the countryside. I would say that over 90% of the tourists I see in Lampang are Thais. While there were many Farangs in Pai while we were there, they were even more Thais. A whole lot of these seemed to be camping, that is to sleeping in tents. I saw hundreds of tents set up everywhere I turned my head: in fields, lawns, by the side of the road and often just on a rocky patch of vacant ground.
While I enjoyed a fair amount of camping in my younger days, the idea of sleeping on the cold hard ground has its appeal for me. Give me a comfy bed with soft sheets anytime! This might sound decidedly weird, but when possible, I actually bring my own pillow when traveling. I find most hotel pillows way too hard for my tender neck. Alas I can’t find a way to magically transport my Temperpedic mattress! Just a side note if you please. There are at least two things in life you can’t spend too much money on; your shoes and your mattress. Hey, think about it. You spend most of your life either on your feet, or asleep. Why not soothe your aching tootsies and enjoy a good night’s sleep!
In addition to tents, I saw a quite a number of huts, both plain and fancy. The ones made out of straw made me smile and think of the story of the Three Little Pigs. I stopped smiling when I thought of the creatures that were probably lurking in that straw.
Pai is definitely a major tourist destination. Perhaps it was because of the Christmas / New Year holidays, or simply because of the cool weather, but Pai was jammed packed with people…and cars, trucks, vans motorcycle and buses. Finding a parking space was a challenge to put it mildly. My darling wife of almost ten years, like my former wife about whom the less said the better, cannot get it through her head that sometimes it simply is not possible to park right smack in front of the place you want to. Sometimes you have no choice but to park wherever you can and walk. So quit your complaining…please! The parking situation is not made easier by the Thais who insist on parking wherever they damn well feel like it. “Oh, does that sign say no parking…any time? Well I want to park here, and so I shall. Oh, is my vehicle blocking everyone else from getting in or out? Gee I guess they will be having a problem, won’t they? My convenience is infinitely more important than having to act in a responsible manner.” These are the same people, who on the way here were incensed that I was holding them up by driving too slowly for their taste. I did manage to hand out one major attitude adjustment as far as parking was concerned. We were exiting a parking lot next door to a temple, where there was a single way in and out. There were large signs outside on the street saying that the lot was absolutely, positively, full. DO NOT even attempt to enter, until receiving permission from a parking attendant. So, here am I, along with half a dozen vehicles trying to get out. You won’t be surprised to learn that there at least half a dozen vehicles who, ignoring the no-enter sign were trying to push their way in. The only way that could happen is I backed up a good 50 meters through a maze of parked cars. Facing me was some Thai giving me the evil eye…and a rude hand gesture or two for good measure. Man oh man did this guy pick the wrong Farang to try to bully. I calmly, and with a smile sweet enough to induce a diabetic coma, refused to budge an inch. I simply made a gesture of my own, which while polite, made it clear who was going to be doing the backing up! I then proceeded to put on a CD of classic Queen and sat back listening to Freddy Mercury belt out Fat Bottomed Girls. In a spirit of generosity I even turned up the volume so Somchai could enjoy the music too…while backing the hell out of my way of course. Having a Jai Yen (cool heart) here in Thailand is all well and good. I certainly would never go out of my way to have a pointless confrontation…but, I’ve learned that if you present yourself as a door mat, you do tend to get stepped on a lot! In the end, Sawadee was the one who moved forward.
Downtown Pai has a few “walking streets”, although they are about as far from in tone as could be from a certain similarly named street about an hour south of Bangkok. Pai is a family destination, so while there are plenty of small bars, they exude a decidedly non-sleazy atmosphere. If I had been sans family, I would have gone into some to enjoy a cold one. (Beer Lao was available I might add!) There was some fine live music coming from quite a few. Speaking of music, there were a number of street musicians, including this guy.
Now here’s something you don’t see every day! Note: although this guy is a “friendly policeman”, Pai is not a place to be caught with illegal drugs. Apparently the Boys in Brown can and will make life hell for anyone caught possessing drugs!
Our first night we try any of the many restaurants, but were content to graze our way through street food. I must say that it was much better than average, and was more than content with what I had. Give me some Japanese style chicken dumplings, grilled corn on a stick and some fresh strawberries and I am good to go. A honey and lime roti hit the spot as well.
Is it just my imagination, or is every roti vendor in Thailand Muslim? In any case, there is a very large Muslim population here. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood and making a lot of money, whether selling food, tee-shirts or souvenirs. While Muslims seem to be integrated into Thai society, I was just a little disturbed to see a young girl, who could not have been more than five or six years old, dressed in a full burka.
We started out our downtown excursion around 6:00. While busy, it wasn’t excessively crowded…yet. By 8:00 there was what I can only call pedestrian gridlock. There were simply too many people jammed into too small an area. Everyone was standing cheek to jowl with everyone else. An experienced pick-pocket would have had a field day. It was time to head back and turn in early.
It was a good thing that Amy provided a nice warm comforter, because the night was the chilliest I have ever experienced in Thailand. The cool season in Lampang has what I consider to be nice sleeping weather. After the hot and humid weather that is the norm for most of the year, it is bliss simply to turn off the air conditioner and let in some fresh air. Lampang’s elevation is still only around 242 meters, about 793 feet. The coldest temperatures rarely go down below 15 C. (60 F.). Pai is around 750 meters in elevation, about 2461 feet, and the coldest temperatures can get down to 6 C. (43 F.). I didn’t have a thermometer with me, but by morning, I could see my breath, and wasn’t all that thrilled with showering in the chilly air. Luckily the shower provided plenty of hot water!
There are many things to do in the area around Pai. There are dozens of tour and activity companies, vans at the ready to take you around. There is bamboo rafting, white water rafting, mountain biking, trekking and out “adventure” activities. Being with my family, I of course, wasn’t able to participate in any of this. I’ll have to put these on a list of things to do in the future. Mostly we just drove to some of the area’s scenic sights. We took in a couple of water falls, some hot springs and explored some tiny roads not on any map. Being a farm girl still, one of the highlights for my wife was to find an orange orchard. Nothing like ripe fruit straight from the tree!
My brother-in law wanted to visit some of the hill tribes, but I couldn’t get any good directions to follow. The long-necks will have to wait for another trip. All in all it was an enjoyable day. It’s hard not to enjoy life when the weather is so delightful. I found a few interesting signs in Tinglish for your amusement.
Come dinner time we girded our loins and plunged back into downtown to find something to eat. Here we split up. My family went off to eat some noodles, while I searched for some blessed thing that I couldn’t find in Lampang. I found what I was looking for at Mama Falafel.
Lord it had been a loooong time since I had had an honest to goodness falafel. Middle East Style eh? Could this place deliver the goods? Oh yes they definitely could! Why in the world a little old Thai lady should come to make these things is a mystery, but wherever she had learned to make them, she had mastered the art. Start with fresh pita bread, still warm from the oven. Add golden brown, perfectly seasoned balls of chick peas. Add garlicky humus, tahini and a cucumber and tomato salad. Garnish the plate with a large mound of French fries. I was in gastronomic heaven! “Mama” was an interesting lady who wasn’t shy about letting folks know where she stood about a host of things. After I had ordered, she slipped on DVD that consisted of Red Shirt rallies and concerts. In making conversation, I mentioned that I was from Lampang, and that people there are firmly in the Red camp. I also mentioned that my Thai wife was a firm supporter of Mr. Thaksin. Apparently that went over well, and I received a free coconut shake, and a big smile with my dinner.
Time for one last wander through town. I must admit that I am a sucker for tee-shirts. I rarely go on vacation to somewhere new without picking up at least one. There was a bewildering choice of shirts available. I settled for a simple black one that read Pailand: 762 curves. I really should have bought another one that read ApplePai1 which I saw at the only Macintosh cybercafé that I have ever seen in Thailand. The pretty proprietress and I had a nice conversation about the superiority of Mac OS over Windows. Alas, when we moved here my tee-rak and I couldn’t bring both our computers. My Mac was ancient, and couldn’t upgrade to support OS X, while my wife’s Dell was practically brand new. I’ve learned to work in the Windows world, but I’ve never learned to like it. If somehow I ever come into some extra money; I will get myself another Mac…perhaps one of the new tablets coming our way soon!
Bright and early the next morning we were on the road again. My wife didn’t feel like taking the longer route through Mae Hong Son on Route 108, so we headed once more to ride the Anaconda. It was on the way back that we had the highlight of our trip. Our visit to Huai Nam Dang National Park was fabulous. Mae Hong Son is sometimes called the “Land of the Mists”. The morning we were there, the mists obliged us over mountain peaks while crystal blue skies and gentle breezes wafted the freshest air I’ve ever inhaled in Thailand.
The air was not only fresh, but redolent with a sweet balsam fragrance that was like being in a forest of Christmas trees. I could have happily spent an entire day there just sitting and enjoying the view. If I could wave a magic wand and live anywhere in Thailand, this would be the spot. I will certainly return here again, perhaps to spend the night. Despite what I said about camping earlier, I wouldn’t mind sleeping out under the stars here, like these folks were doing.
There are actually small houses to spend the night, at very reasonable prices… six people for 1,800 baht. The accommodations aren’t fancy, but stepping out your door provides something you can’t put a price on.
While wandering around down where we parked our truck, we took a path that led us up to a royal villa. I don’t think we were allowed to be there, but no one stopped us, so we had a chance to check it out. In the words of the immortal Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the King”!
Oh, as a side note, for once I managed to convince the soldier at the park gate that I shouldn’t have to pay the tourist price for admittance. I showed him my Thai driver’s license, explained (in Thai) how many years I’d been living here, what I did for work, and that my family was Thai. Was he impressed? Probably not, but he did charge me the Thai price. Will wonders never cease?
Eventually we made our way back to Chiang Mai, and finally home. As much as I enjoy traveling, it’s good to come home and sleep in my own bed. This trip was only a brief exploratory foray into Mae Hong Son. Now that I have one trip under my belt, I know that I will be returning there soon. I can’t wait to get back on that very long and winding road!
Wonderful report which really makes me want to go there.