25 Days of Heaven Part 3
25 Days of Heaven Part III: Chiang Mai and the North
Chiang Mai is a charming city, very different from the cities I had seen in Thailand thus far. With the majestic peak of Doi Suthep in the background, the ancient city has much to offer. In the city centre there are tons of very old landmarks to visit and there are several shops and bars/restaurants all over the place, and a highly popular night market. The most appealing to me was the variety of live music on offer, while the best live bands are obviously found in Bangkok, here one could simply walk around the east side and encounter several very talented bands playing in small cafes and bars by the river and elsewhere. I caught a very interesting blues trio who were later joined by a fourth on guitar and I must say when he started to belt out Eric Clapton and John Lee Hooker I was pleasantly surprised, it was a very welcome change from all the live shows I had seen in Thailand to date and more aligned my personal tastes.
Not being a big temple buff, I spent little time visiting the city proper and instead hopped on the bike to drive up Doi Suthep and see the view. On the way up I stopped to visit some waterfalls where local children were having a blast going down a natural waterslide. A little ways up the road there was a small trail leading to a cave that was apparently the home of a holy man, but he was not in when I stopped by. And of course the Royal Residence at the summit with the botanical gardens on display is a must see and not as crowded as the temple. Now don’t get me wrong, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep looks like a very interesting place to visit, but when I drove by there were so many tour buses unloading people that I decided to forgo checking it out. A nice change of pace from the hectic riding of the previous 2 days, walking around the gardens of Bumphing Royal Palace was soothing and informative as well. Photo opportunities abound for nature lovers as the whole complex is nicely designed and extremely well maintained, no litter to be found here. Try to bring pants; the ones they rent are not very flattering.
The descent back into Chiang Mai was loads of fun. I got back on the bike, threw it in neutral and let it glide silently, almost making it all the way back to town without use of the engine even going around several sharp turns and despite quite a bit of traffic. At the foot of the hill I let the engine start up again and haul me back into town. Later that evening I found an excellent Mexican restaurant while walking along the canal that surrounds the old city, they had a huge terrace which was filled with people and had a very lively atmosphere. After filling up on some excellent carne asada I took a walk around the area and found myself strolling down Loi Kroh road, taking a look at what was ostensibly the center of nightlife in Chiang Mai, as far as foreigners are concerned. There is not much to see compared to the naughty playgrounds of Phuket and Pattaya, a few go-go bars here and there and several beer bars line the road, the odd “Helloo welcome” resounds as I walk past, but none tempt me to enter, as this is really not my scene. I reconsidered my planned walk to the night market and instead headed back to the hotel to look at maps and plan the next leg of my journey. As I started to anticipate what the roads of the north would have in store for me in the coming days, my pace became noticeably faster. The last couple of days of riding from Udon Thani had left me wanting more, and I couldn’t wait to start choosing which roads I would be using to get myself to Chiang Rai in the morning. The Golden Triangle awaited me.
On the morning of the 14th day I rose early and checked out of the Prince. The security guard helped me strap my gear to the bike and wished me a nice trip. I made a quick stop at a local bike shop to get the chain tightened and lubed, and a small brake adjustment. Total cost was 50 baht and I got the impression the guy didn’t even want to charge me that. The shop owner gave me 50 baht change when I paid him and I handed it to the mechanic who had done the work, squatting on the sidewalk in the sun. This seemed to amuse all the men at the shop immensely and I could not figure out whether I had made a favorable impression or not in doing so. They seemed rather wary of me the whole time, but in the end they wished me a good trip and all waved to me as I rode off. I concluded that they were a bit shy, not used to interacting directly with foreigners and were basically relieved once I was on my way and all had gone well. I found my way out of the city with relative ease, pointed my bike north and made my way towards Chiang Rai, eager to once again set my sights on the beautiful Mekong, but the true attraction was the roads that would lead me there.
I rode past the small town of Chiang Dao all the way to Mai Sun along a fairly straight road, but at Mai Sun I made a right turn onto the road to Mai Suai, and was treated to a very technical ride along steep mountain passes with spectacular views and no traffic to speak of. The first few kilometers were straight and flat, but then it just got completely crazy. The road was in very nice condition except a few spots where work was being done, and I had it all to myself. In these conditions, the Transalp roared to life under me. The 400cc’s were plenty to power me up the long climbs and accelerate nicely coming out of a turn, but not heavy enough to weigh it down. At any speed between 15 and 90kph the bike was nimble and easy to manoeuvre, a real pleasure to drive. And with many of the curves requiring such drastic speed reductions a pure sport bike would not have been ideal; they work better when you go fast. My trusty Honda did not tempt me to push its upper speed limit; I was more interested in getting as far as I could rather than getting there hastily. And so I cruised into Mai Suai with what must have been a bewildered look on my face after having had the most fun I had ever had on a motorcycle in one day. The views may not have been as picturesque as by the Mekong a few days earlier, though from the high passes some were absolutely breathtaking; however it was the technical riding that was most exhilarating. While I was not hitting top speeds beyond 80kph, in the turns I rode aggressively and accelerated hard upon exiting. Two long hours of this along with the vibrations from the bike and the rarified air explain the trance like state I found myself in when I rode in to Mai Suai, and shortly after when I pulled over by the new White Temple, a few kilometers south of Chiang Rai for a bite to eat and to have a look around these interesting buildings.
Tired, still somewhat giddy from the ride and not being a huge temple visiting fan, I did not want to spend a significant amount of time visiting Wat Rong Khun, the unconventional Buddhist and Hindu temple. Since construction of the main temple only finished in 2008, some of the secondary buildings were still unfinished at the time of my visit, but it was still definitely worth checking out despite the masses of tourists being bused in daily.
They even have white fish in the pond.
I rode in to Chiang Rai just before sunset and began to look for a place to stay. My first stop was at what is probably the largest hotel in town to see what kind of tourist map they might have to help me find my way around. In the parking lot I found well over a hundred large motorbikes belonging to an organized group of riders who were on their way to Kuala Lumpur. I chatted with a few of them, and they all agreed I was crazy to be doing my ride on my own, as they seemed to prefer the safety of numbers. We all wished each other safe riding and I took off towards the part of town where the cheap rooms were to be found thanks to some directions from one of the parking attendants.
Soon enough I had found a perfect small guesthouse where I could park the bike right outside my door, and after getting myself washed up I headed out to see what the northernmost city in the country had to offer. I walked around a bit, found some good food on Jetyod road where there are also a few bars. I was told by the staff that it was the appropriate time to go see the colors change at the clock tower down the road. Only half understanding I wandered on down to see what they were talking about. The modest light display was something nice to stop and look at while taking a walk, not an attraction in and of itself. It did attract quite a crowd though. I walked around a little more and then headed back to Jetyod road to find that the few bars had opened, and although many places I had inquired about rooms had indicated they had none available, the bars were deserted. I sat with the two hostesses and a rather sympathetic American lad at a table outside, but there was not much people watching to be done, I got the impression that the type of tourist who makes it all the way here is not very interested in spending time in a bar. I allowed myself a little bit more drinking than usual that night, as I only had a couple of blocks to walk back to my room, and a light schedule the next day.
The next morning I was able to leave all my gear behind since I would be returning to Chiang Rai for another night, a welcome change. I was not travelling on this day, just going for a leisurely ride around the local countryside to do some sightseeing and get a close up look at the northernmost part of Thailand and one of the most notorious drug trafficking centers in the world, long ago the world capitol of opium, more recently a major transit point for methamphetamines supplied by rebels in Burma, infamously dubbed The Golden Triangle by the CIA. Romanticism aside, such hubs of human activity are always interesting places full of history and people, and the geography of the area made this place into one such hub a very long time ago.
I rode north towards the Burmese border, stopping along the way at a hot spring to watch schoolchildren cooking eggs in the scalding waters. The place was rather run down and not much of an attraction, so I didn’t stay long. Afterwards on the way back to the main road I decided to follow a sign supposedly leading to a waterfall where I got to test the bike’s off-road capabilities quite a bit more than I had bargained for. The road quickly became a rundown trail and I was forced to abandon the bike if I wanted to catch a glimpse of the falls. I passed some locals working on the road on my way in, but they paid me little to no attention as I precariously rode the bike up the embankment of the trail to get around them. They had their work to do, and no time to waste gazing at some crazy foreigner riding his bike up the road. I began to look for a safe spot to park the bike after about a half a km, because the trail was quickly becoming impassible. I wanted to go for a hike but carrying my computer and all my clothes was out of the question as it was already obvious that my hike was going to turn into more of a climb.
When I reached the end of the road, I caught a glimpse of a rather impressive stone guardian perched upon a rock hidden away in the underbrush, filtered rays of sunlight casting an soft glow on him from above, locked in an everlasting battle with the surrounding vegetation threatening to overwhelm him, forever swinging his weapon to keep the path clear for visitors who wish to gaze upon the beauty of the falls. I implored him to watch over my things as I went to take advantage of his efforts. He voiced no objections, which I quickly decided equated to consent and so left my bike and gear under his auspicious supervision. I began to climb massive rocks looking for what was surely going to be a grand spectacle. Unfortunately the river was dry at this time of year, and other than a few pools of stagnant water here and there, rocks were the only thing to be seen, although it was clear that when running full with water, it would be a sight to behold. In the south the waterfalls were flowing with limited volume, but flowing nonetheless, whereas here in the north the dry season is extremely, well, dry and the waterfalls are sometimes turned off apparently. The last two I stopped at were out of order. Hopping over huge boulders and using vines to stabilise myself I climbed my way back down to the bike and set off again towards the Myanmar border.
The border crossing itself at Mae Sae is impressive, with its huge white structure that can best be described as an arch-like building, called Customs House, and the several thousand people milling about, some looking very busy, others trying to, others yet looking like they are waiting for something, somebody, an opportunity, anything. There was an inordinate amount of Thai police and military personnel around, wearing different colored uniforms indicating that several different corps were represented. Rows upon rows of silver minivans, pickup trucks and colorful Tuk-Tuks occupied almost every parking spot on either side of the street, tourists of multiple nationalities piling luggage on the sidewalk everywhere while being offered rides by local touts. Street food vendors of all kinds taking up any available space to park their samlor and offer their wares to travellers added a touch of color and some interesting smells to the scene, giving it life. I have been to such notorious border hotspots before, and the feverish activity going on around them never fails to amaze me. Looking around one got the impression that with a little charisma, a lot of determination and of course some shady moral values, one could get pretty much anything done that they needed to in this place. Whether one needed to cross the border surreptitiously with contraband of some kind, have some “official documents” drawn up or make one’s enemies disappear, there seemed the potential to find the help you would need for just about any task in the throng of people lingering in the last 500 or so meters leading up to the ominous looking Custom House.
Having no intention of crossing into Burma, I turned my bike east and left Mae Sae and it’s chaotic vibe behind me. It dawned on me at this moment that I was no longer going north for the first time since I left Phuket. I had effectively reached the halfway point of my journey, and though I would spend some more time in the north of Thailand before heading back south I could not help but contemplate the fact that less road lay ahead of me than behind. I rode east for about 45 minutes going fairly slowly along back roads, staying as close to the Ruak River as much as I could until I reached the tacky tourist trap that is the Golden Triangle. Known locally as Sop Ruak, the area around the merging of the Ruak and Mekong rivers, and consequently the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand, has seen increasingly bizarre development over the years. I stopped for a few photos but did not linger or take a river cruise to see the famed smuggling hotspot from close up. The only historical or cultural heritage I can see relating to the past of this area is the apparent willingness of the locals to do just about anything to make a buck, including shamelessly exploiting images of the royal family, Buddhist ideology and their own shady past to turn a profit. I soon left the busloads of tourists behind and followed the Mekong south and east to the small town of Chiang Saen where I stopped for lunch and to visit the ruins of one of the oldest temples in the country, built by King Saen Phu, the 3rd ruler of the Lanna kingdom in early 13th Century. There are several incredible sites for the history or archeology buff in Chiang Saen, you can see the old city walls still standing in many places, a testament to the town once being the capital of the Lanna kingdom, way back in the 12th century.
The best part about visiting these truly significant historical sites is that beyond the interest they hold to me, they are nowhere near as crowded as the tacky golden Buddha statues, crocodile farms and night markets that make up the itinerary of most travel groups. There were some people about to be sure, but mostly groups of students and they were few and far between, nothing compared to what I had seen just a few kilometers up the road where throngs of people came daily to gaze at a meaningless sandbar that was made famous by the CIA and sensationalistic mainstream media. I murmured a silent thanks to the travel gods that most tourists were rather shallow and that fact allowed me to visit truly amazing places in relative tranquility.
The photographs I took of these historical ruins and walls were not uploaded with my daily Facebook posts, and so were lost to me when my equipment was stolen. All I was left with is a photo of a meaningless sandbar and a selfy in front of the golden Buddha, how ironic.
I then turned west and headed back to Chiang Rai through the countryside, leaving behind the majestic Mekong once and for all. The ride back to Chiang Rai was rather uneventful, as I chose to stick to main roads to save time. I had not travelled very far, but the day’s excursion had stirred up quite an appetite and I was eager to go see what food I could find at the night bazaar. Not as commercial as the night markets found in almost every major tourist spot in the country, the Chiang Rai bazaar features many artists and local craftsmen and has a feeling of cultural authenticity to it that is woefully absent elsewhere in the country. On the main stage folk music and dancing shows were very interesting, no Philippino cover bands here. I listened to music, ate and chatted up some locals at the table I shared with them, and then found myself wandering around the market for a second time, something unprecedented for me, to actually buy some gifts to bring back to family. I spent the rest of the evening in a small bar on Jetyod road once again, planning my route back towards Chiang Mai and the Mae Hong Son loop, a very well-known bike travel route, before returning all the way south to Phuket. The excitement of finally reaching this fabled area which holds almost mythical status among bike adventure enthusiasts overshadowed the deception of having realized earlier in the day that the conclusion of my trip lay closer than its beginning.
(Check back in soon for part IV which covers the world famous Mae Hong Son loop and my return to the south)