25 Days of Heaven Part 4
And so we come to the fourth and final installment in my epic journey. I started off wanting to practice my writing skills but in the end I was able to relive one of the best times in my life with so much vibrant detail while writing and researching this piece that I am encouraged to do it again. This exercise has dispelled any fears that these memories will not remain vivid in my mind for years to come. I would once again like to thank Stick for his efforts and all the readers who wrote to me with kind words, your encouragement is much appreciated, as were your anecdotes.
25 days of Heaven (part IV): The Mae Hong Son loop and the journey south
I woke up fresh and relaxed after sleeping soundly in the cool northern night, no need for air conditioning here which made sleep that much more restful. I had a passable English style breakfast while looking over my map and the internet once again to memorize my route as much as possible in order to avoid missing any important waypoints and losing time. I knew that today was going to be one of my longest in the saddle and mistakes were best avoided. I had to linger for a little while after breakfast to wait for the laundry lady next to my guesthouse to open for the day so I could collect my now clean clothes and set off for the most anticipated part of my trip. I could barely contain myself and so made a mental note to be safe on the road and not try to hurry no matter how eager I was to undertake the famed tortuous roads of Mae Hong Son. Being on a motorcycle in a hurry in Thailand is a sure-fire recipe for ruining your vacation, even more so in my case. Eventually around 9 am the laundry lady appeared in front of her shop and I was able to collect my things and load my packs onto the bike once again. While I did this the ever friendly staff of the guesthouse came out to wish me a safe trip as well as a few of the guests I had befriended, once again reminding how pleasant people in the north are.
With these thoughts keeping my mind occupied I soon found myself cruising along towards Mae Ai, by way of Mae Kok. I just had to go there, being a fan of a good pun. This area is a valley covered with farms and small towns, tucked in between two mountain ranges and like most agricultural areas features flat terrain and straight roads, great for covering distance but not the most exciting to ride on. I made good time all the way to Chiang Dao, and that’s when the driving began to really get interesting. Between Chiang Dao and Chiang Mai lie some very scenic mountains and several of the nation’s larger elephant camps are located here as well as other nature based attractions catering to the crowds of Chiang Mai, I gave them all a pass and kept on enjoying the great scenery and awesome technical riding.
The road sign in the above picture became the official symbol of my trip, and whenever I saw one I smiled wickedly and slowed down the bike a little more than necessary, just so I could throttle it that much more coming out of each turn, milking each curve for as much thrill as I could while staying safe. Somewhere south of Chiang Dao I turned onto the Loop at which point I stopped to fill up the tank, knowing that opportunities do not abound to buy fuel along the jungle roads of Mae Hong Son. Then I grabbed some lunch at a nice roadside coffeehouse where I chatted with a group of Russians and the owner of the tour bus accompanying them. I find that Russian people are shy in general and will not approach you in a friendly way, but once you break the ice they are very warm and curious people who are generally well educated and pleasant to talk with. They always seem genuinely interested in what places I have travelled to and are also very proud to talk about the beauty and culture of their homeland among other things. I know they get somewhat of a bad rap collectively due to their massive influence in certain tourist hotspots around the world, but my individual encounters have always been pleasant and in some cases have led to lasting friendships.
Leaving the pleasant conversation behind, I tackled the first leg of the Mae Hong Son loop: the road to Pae. Famous for the 763 curves that wind their way up and down the mountains the road to Pae is a memorable experience. I was already feeble with anticipation and within the first half hour of riding that afternoon I reached biker’s nirvana. Switchback after switchback, interrupted by short stretches of straight roads at the top or bottom where I could pass the few cars and minivans that had accumulated in front of me, not that I couldn’t pass in the turns themselves as most vehicles were slowed to a crawl. In these conditions the Honda underneath me really showed its mettle. Darting around everything else on the road, throwing the bike hard into the sharp turns and then roaring out for two maybe three seconds before hitting the brakes and starting all over again 763 times over the course of several hours before finally riding down into the valley to see the sun set over Pae was mind blowing. Furiously concentrated on the road at all times when moving, I had to stop anytime I wanted to take in any scenery or snap a shot, even looking for just a second was asking for trouble.
Easily the most technical riding I have ever experienced, at the end of that day I had more turns under my belt than after a good day of snowboarding. When I finally got to Pae, several hours but not that many kilometers behind me, I drove up to Wat Prathat Mae Yen which is perched on a hillside overlooking the town facing west, and is famous for its incredibly long stairs. Fortunately there is a road to the top for weary travellers such as myself who just want to take in the sunset, not make merit. I needed several minutes sitting down by my bike in the parking lot before I could get my legs to stop feeling like jelly and walk around normally, when I finally did I noticed that not only was the road to get here amazing, but Pae was a very beautiful place as well. As the sun set on the town I snapped a few shots of the monks enjoying some tea and the famous steps, but I was too tired to spend any more time visiting the temple and I had not yet secured a room, so I made my way back down into town and found myself a quaint little bungalow for 400 baht, but not without a good deal of searching as most places were fully booked, especially close to the center or along the river.
Once settled in and washed up I set out to explore the town as it has a very lively center where they close the streets to traffic and put on a sort of sidewalk fair at night. There are tons of shops, cafes, eateries of all kinds, art galleries, music shows in several places and street performers as well, cultural attractions to take in abound as you walk around the relatively small town and it is a very welcome change from the usual type of display one sees in these impromptu markets all over Thailand. The look and feel of the place is definitely aimed at younger tourists and couples out for a romantic weekend. None of the ubiquitous beer bars or other dubious tourist hotspot mainstays, and most importantly no bright neon lights or loud noise anywhere, which combined with the mainly wooden buildings makes for a very relaxed atmosphere day or night. No touts. I repeat: no touts. No ping pong shows or go-go bars, just a friendly relaxed little hippy town in the middle of the jungle covered mountains of northern Thailand that was quickly being developed to cater to the backpacking and university crowds. There are several places to camp along the river for the backpackers, and some rough bamboo huts for rent as well, or you can opt for one of the several hotels or bungalows around the town. Even the cops were getting in on the fun.
I was standing there listening to the band playing to raise funds for a local charity that took care of Karen refugees fleeing persecution in Burma when this policeman who was obviously patrolling down the street just walked up to them, grabbed a guitar and joined in. The crowd loved it and several people then came forwards with donations at that point and many started to clap their hands to the music. Something about the sight of a cop in uniform complete with motorcycle boots and helmet playing the guitar with a band of local youth activists (read damm hippies) really started to drive home how different Pae was from every other place I had visited in Thailand to date. Then I saw this guy and realized that in Pae, the hippies have won.
He stood completely immobile in the intersection wearing only his shorts, at first. But in no time at all he was covered in paint by any passerby who wished to do so, most being children of course. They had lots of fun trying to make the guy laugh and eventually he would, but it made for one of the most interesting interactive street performances I have seen and was obviously a big hit as you can see by the amount of paint covering him. As I wandered around the streets walking by such aptly named places as Café Des Artistes, I heard the slow wail of Jimmy Hendrix playing Little Wing, and I drifted into the small bar it came from feeling certain I would find some kindred souls in such a place, and I did. After a few beers and many classic rock and blues songs I was ready to turn in, regretfully putting an end to the best day of my life. I found my way back to my bungalow, crashed face first on the soft mattress and slept like a rock.
Understandably I slept in the next day but when I did wake up I felt great and ready to take on another day of insanely cool driving. I ate a hearty breakfast, uploaded some pictures and touched base with friends and family back home (wifi was widely available throughout Pae) and then started off once again towards Mae Hong Son. Leaving Pae at first the road is not very sinuous, but in no time I left the valley behind and started to wind my way up and down mountains again, and these mountains were getting larger. I stopped several times to admire breathtaking views from the roadside from where I could often spy small tribal villages snuggled in between the hills, hidden away from modern life and all its complications.
The road from Pae to Mae Hong Son was every bit as exhilarating as the previous leg, and I enjoyed myself immensely all day. I rarely got an occasion to shift the bike out of 2nd or 3rd gear, and only for a few seconds at a time when it did happen, but the slow turns are what I love, and they were endless. In Pae they sell tee shirts stating that there are 763 curves on the road to get there, well in Mae Hong Son they have similar shirts however the number is 1864. With a more powerful sport bike these roads would have been tedious and clumsy, and a lot of work to manoeuvre a heavy cruiser along, but with the right mix of power, agility and amazing grip even with sand or gravel strewn about in many places the bike I had was definitely the right tool for the job. Maybe I could have used a bit more power and a better gear ratio, but all in all I could not complain as I was having so much fun. Along the road there are many caves to visit, unfortunately I had to keep a bit of a schedule at this point. My multiple-entry visa was on the point of expiring and I needed to get to Mae Sot before it did to get a re-entry stamp in order to be able to stay another 60 days in Thailand. Because of the political and drug trafficking situation prevalent in the northern parts of Burma with the Karen rebels shipping massive amounts of meth through Thailand to finance their army, none of the local border crossings would do. So I rode on to Mae Hong Son in mid-afternoon and discovered a very charming medium sized sleepy mountain town, clean and quiet with several interesting attractions and some great cuisine.
There is little sign of western influence here other than a few chain restaurants and stores in the downtown core; I got the impression that this is what much of Thailand might look like if it had not felt the huge influence of foreign tourists and the globalization of economic development. The majority of tourists that I saw in this town were either Chinese or Thai, with the odd backpacker here and there. There is a small lake in the middle of town, around which many guesthouses can be found as well as several restaurants and a nice looking temple. I got a room with a view of the water, but it was a bit shabby. I guess I shouldn’t have expected too much for 250 baht on the waterfront. More importantly for my needs it was centrally located and had secure parking. I unloaded my gear and then followed the owner’s suggestion to visit the temple on the hill overlooking town to view the sunset. With some time to spare I cruised around the town for a little while admiring the architecture and generally looking around before making my way up a pretty steep hill to Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu where I was to be treated to some spectacular views. One complaint often heard from people who travel in the north of Thailand is that the agricultural practice of setting fire to the fields creates a haze which can severely reduce visibility as well as cause health issues. I was lucky enough not to encounter this smog very much in my travels, and in particular this was one of those crystal clear days one can only experience in the rarified atmosphere of the mountains.
After watching the sunset while sharing tea with two young monks I made my way back down to town to have dinner. I parked the bike by the lake where I had spotted a few tourist oriented restaurants and walked into the first one on the corner. The food I ate there was amazing, especially memorable was the salad with spicy sausages in it. I sat outdoors looking over the lake and having a few beers after dinner, and as darkness fell the nearby temples lit thousands of lights that literally covered all their buildings and these then reflected on the still, dark water. The effect was stunning. In fact the aesthetic of the whole town was very alluring to me, almost nostalgic; it reminded of the Asia that cinema greats such as Akira Kurosawa, Ang Lee, Haruki Kadokawa and Oliver Stone (both Kadokawa and Stone made films named Heaven and Earth that are stunning visual masterpieces) sold to my imagination many years ago and inspired me to want to see this part of the world in the first place. I was completely seduced by Mae Hong Son and it’s easygoing quiet way of life and wished I could spend more time getting to know the locals. Such a charming place, I thought to myself, must be filled with charming people.
The next day I took some time to visit the area before making my way south towards Mae Sarieng. Not long after leaving town however I took two detours, first to travel up a dirt mountain road into a national park where I almost took a tumble. This resulted in my dirty laundry bag getting burned on the exhaust pipe costing me my favorite pair of shorts. Second I travelled west along a secondary road to the village of the Karen Longnecks, a tribe that had featured in National Geographic a long time ago and their pictures are among the most iconic in the magazine’s rich history.
I felt no desire to intrude on the lives of these people. There were plenty of tours available and I could have just wandered in, but I stayed across the river and left them alone. The idea of hordes of tourists invading their tiny village to take pictures with the women reminded me of visiting a zoo more than anything else, and I refuse to treat people in that way. It’s not their real village anyways, more of a refugee camp where tourists are allowed to gawk at the strange women they saw in the magazines. I started south once again, and though the roads were not quite as incredible as the previous two days had been, it was still very nice driving through jungle roads with absolutely no traffic, at least not any on wheels.
The road had other types of hazards as well.
And then I saw this which had a rather chilling effect on me.
That is a lot of blood, and I can only hope that it wasn’t human blood. There were no other obvious signs of what had transpired here, so I was left to wonder if some poor soul on a motorcycle was involved as is all too often the case in this country. I decided that it was most likely one of the many cows I saw on the road who had met an untimely end at the hands of a large truck or bus, probably at night. Nothing at all for me to be concerned about.
A little unsettled, I got back on the road and made my way to Mae Sarieng, where I arrived in the late afternoon and checked into a rundown guest house; the only one with vacancy and a safe parking spot. I walked around town a little bit and found a nice little bar with a terrace by the river where I relaxed with a couple of beers and got some information on what to see in town. To my great surprise they had a night market, which I decided was one night market too many and so I avoided it and every other one I would come across for quite some time. The helpful girls in the bar then suggested I visit a western themed restaurant nearby for food and live music. My curiosity stirred, I thanked them for the tip and made my way on over to the Cowboy Night pub and restaurant. That’s when things started to get bizarre. Inside I found a very kitsch western themed dining room with a small stage at one end, and a large garden outside with all sorts of haphazardly placed plants, both native and non-native. The memorabilia on the walls was not all actually western themed and some of it was strangely out of place. I am not one with sensibilities that let me be easily offended, but I imagine that any Jewish tourists might have taken exception to one particular piece.
The band played good songs rather awfully, so I downed a few more beers to help me appreciate them better. I was the only one to get up and tip them, although I guess the country music was lost on the Chinese or Koreans at the other tables. After a while the owner and some of the musicians joined me and we had a great time while I was shown some photos of famous past patrons and of course the boss man had to show me his gun. When it came time to leave I requested some photos to which everyone was more than happy to oblige. Of course the owner insisted on posing with his weapon in hand, but what happened then blew my mind. As part of their costumes the staff girls all have holsters and prop guns which they playfully twirl around and pose with. Ever the showman, Mr. responsible gun owner exchanges his own very real gun for one of the girls’ fake ones, and then the girl gives it a twirl and points it playfully at her friend’s head while taking a pose for me. My jaw dropped and even the owner’s face went still for a second before he gently took his gun back and went to put it away, checking the safety and mumbling to himself in Thai.
I have often heard it said that Thailand is like the Wild West in some ways; well these folks took that idea to a whole new level. Always uncomfortable around handguns I made a hasty retreat back to my guesthouse for a night of much appreciated rest. The following morning I loaded up and headed south once again on route #105 towards Mae Sot, where I was hoping to cross into Burma momentarily to get my visa in order. The road was interesting although not as much as the last few days had been, and the only thing I saw that really grabbed my attention was a massive Karen refugee camp named Mae La which struck me as a very sad place to live. There were endless rows of tiny wooden huts built over several small hills but not a single place of business or any type of economic activity whatsoever.
What may look like an idyllic location to many people at first sight is actually one of the worst places to live in Thailand, and currently holds up to 15 000 ethnic Karen refugees fleeing persecution from the Burmese government according to tbbc.org. Karen people are not allowed to work in any meaningful jobs while they are in the kingdom, and must rely on handouts from NGOs and other charities to survive. Although much progress has been made in recent years with the military easing its grip on the people of Myanmar, the return of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled ethnic persecution since 1984 is yet to happen. I did not linger very long in this tragic place, the feeling of helplessness when contemplated with the futile lives these people are forced to lead would have quickly dampened my mood if I had delayed even just a bit. A short time later I drove up to the bridge to Myanmar in Mae Sot.
The customs officers on the Thai side generously let me park my bike with all my gear in their reserved area and even let me store my heavy backpack in their office while I walked over the bridge and back to get my papers in order. They never even asked to search my bag when I left it inside their building which sits on a busy border crossing in a politically charged area.
As I was walking across the bridge spanning the Moei River that separates Thailand from Myanmar, some very brazen people could easily be seen from the bridge crossing illegally right under the eyes of officials from both countries. In the few minutes it took me to cross the bridge, I saw a man drag his inner tube from the Thai side over to Burma, then take on an ageing looking lady, a child and several bags before hauling his passengers back through the waist high water. The unofficial ferryman was just starting to repeat the process as I lost sight of him once I reached the Burmese side of the bridge. After handing over some crisp American dollars to the customs official to get my passport stamped, I made my way back over to Thailand, but the clandestine crossing operation was nowhere to be seen.
At the time I assumed these were local residents who crossed the border daily to attend the riverside market or work as labourers without having official documents. I was once instructed to use a trail under the bridge as most of the locals did at a similar border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. After spending a few days in town, the customs officers themselves told me to use it once they knew me and realized I was crossing regularly, and I got the same impression from this place. A few months later I watched a documentary describing the exodus of Karen refugees to Thailand. In one scene, which had been filmed from the exact same vantage point as my photograph was taken, these people were portrayed as escaping persecution of the government under threat of violence. I suspect that obtaining footage of real refugees in the process of escaping the bloody conflict raging in the northern jungles of Myanmar would have been too difficult, and the enterprising film crew and its editors used these still very poignant images to get their point across, which they did quite effectively. There are two reasons I feel my initial assessment was closer to reality: I witnessed people crossing in both directions, and I also saw people waiting on the Burmese side for their turn to cross. I suspect that if they had actually been scared of being shot at by the government they would have been in more of a rush to get across, and chest high water with a slow current would not have held them back.
After collecting my bags from the immigration building I had some lunch before getting back on the road, and not without a touch of regret. This was not yet the end of the road, but effectively marked the end of my adventure as the next few days of riding saw me return to Phuket using roads I had driven before, either on this very trip or on previous ones, and I rode at a furious pace barely stopping for any breaks.
And so this marks where my tale comes to an end as well. I sincerely hope that my story was enjoyed by all who took the time to read it, and that it may inspire at least one person to go out and live such an adventure, even just a smaller version for a couple of days. It truly is worth it, and not as difficult as it may seem.
Happy trails, until we meet again.