The Mae Hong Son loop and beyond…

(Em) Eventually, the time came to tear ourselves away from the comforts of Chiang Mai. We decided to head further north towards the towns of Pai and Mae Hong Son, thus completing the ‘Mae Hong Son’ loop that we’d started back in December with Darren (the loop is basically a circuit of amazing biking roads in the northwest of Thailand; what’s not to like?!) We could have made it to Pai in one day but Juan had recommended a stop at some natural hot springs on the way which not only sounded very appealing but offered the chance to camp, something we hadn’t done since Pakistan. After a great afternoon’s ride, we reached the national park (unfortunately not quite late enough to avoid the exorbitant entrance fee – 20 baht for locals… 200 baht for foreigners!) The scenery was stunning and, bar one other couple who were staying in a chalet, we were the only ones there so we set up our tent in a clearing by a stream and relished being at one with nature again (shame we’d neglected to bring any food with us, whoops!) We had climbed a bit in altitude during the day so rather than braving the night chill and going to the springs that evening, we got up at 5.30am and made our way down the raised wooden walkway in the pitch darkness. Under torch light we walked through the forest for several hundred metres in the direction of the geysers. We smelt the sulphur and felt the increased humidity way before we got there, but on arrival could only hear the sound of water bubbling; the torchlight being completely ineffective as it bounced off the steam clouds that surrounded us. We continued along the path for a while longer, never far from the sound of a stream (presumably water from the geysers) and eventually arrived at a slope where the stream entered a series of small cascading rock pools. A cautious toe dip revealed that the water was indeed bathwater hot so we stripped down to our swimsuits and climbed in. Aaahhhhh! Having not had a bath for nine months (yeah, yeah…), the sensation of being submerged in hot water was absolute bliss. We spent a good 45 minutes in there, just soaking in the heat and watching in silence as the first light of dawn arrived. It really was incredible; here we were, completely alone, lying in hot pools of mineral water with steam swirling above us, listening to the tropical forest wake up all around. Back at our camp, it was clearly going to take a while before we’d be ready to leave as the tent needed to dry out after a heavy dew so, with everything hung up to dry, we walked back into the forest to see the geysers in the daylight.  Very cool! An hour later when we returned to pack up the rest of our kit, dozens of minivans began to appear, each depositing a group of Thai tourists who trooped en masse off into the forest. Good thing we’d got our ‘spa treatment’ out of the way early – it was time for us to get going!

The road onwards to Pai was simply sublime, possibly the best riding road we’ve experienced so far. The Mae Hong Son loop is also known as the ‘Road of 1000 Corners’ (James: Apparently, it’s actually 3934 corners!) and it seemed to me that most of them were crammed into the 150km stretch from Chiang Mai to Pai! Awesome! Brilliant sunshine, smooth tarmac, hardly any other vehicles… just sweeping corner upon sweeping corner. What more could you want? As such, it was almost a disappointment to reach Pai but the feeling didn’t last long. What a cute place (I guess the name should have been a clue!) After a bit of riding around, we found ourselves a sweet little bungalow set in a quiet, shady courtyard for a bargainous 200 baht per night (a little over £4) and then went for a wander. Part of Pai’s charm is in its smallness – it has one main street running perpendicular to the river and this main thoroughfare is pedestrianised, serving nightly as the location of Pai’s ‘Walking Street’ or night market. Basically it meant that each evening we could go for a stroll and enjoy a mini gastronomic tour without breaking the bank; barbecued pork, corn on the cob, rice balls, pad thai, noodle soup… yum! Being small, there wasn’t a huge amount to see in Pai but the pleasure lay in ambling along at a leisurely pace, taking in the quaint fairylight-strewn eclectic shops and cafes with their pastel colours and wooden shutters. Throw in a singing policeman who played with his band on a corner each night in full uniform and we were sold! (James: crime fighter by day, crooner by night!)

To continue the food theme, in Pai we finally did something we’d been long intending to – a cookery course. It’s big business in Thailand (no surprise considering that Thai food regularly comes out in polls as the world’s favourite) but we’d thus far been put off by steep prices and set menus; James was fairly insistent on the dishes he wanted to learn. Lucky for us, in a back street just down the road from our guesthouse was a place offering courses at a reasonable price where you could pick exactly what dishes you wanted to make – perfect! We chose our menu, paid our deposit and agreed to meet Dhao, the proprietor (and more than a little bit cuckoo!) the next morning for a trip to the market. The whole course made for a really great day; fun, sociable and we really did gain the confidence and know-how to cook our favourite Thai meals. There were seven of us ‘students’ and although we were all learning different dishes, Dhao and her assistant managed to get round to each of us to show us the correct techniques while we followed the instructions in our own personal recipe books. James was particularly pleased with his curries (Penang and Masaman) and his Tom Yam soup, whereas I’ll now be able to serve you up a mean Green curry and egg fried rice when we get home (who are we kidding here, it’ll blatantly still be James who does the cooking!) We also got a bit of an arm workout making curry paste using pestle and mortars; you think you know what a paste looks like but apparently not, it requires at least ten minutes more pounding than you think! In addition to expert instruction and inadvertent exercise, part of the deal was eating our creations throughout the day but, with five plates apiece (James: and plenty of chillies!), we struggled and it’s safe to say that we didn’t need any food from the night market that evening!                         

Pai was the perfect place to chill out, read books and catch up on the diary. It may be hard to believe, but we do often find ourselves with a backlog of admin tasks (blog, sorting through photos, replying to emails, reading up on future countries, corresponding on my ongoing insurance claim from the accident in Istanbul etc) so from time to time we just stop somewhere and do our best to catch up. On top of the tasks just mentioned, one day it took me a whole morning just to alter and re-hem a pair of trousers I’d bought (I’m no seamstress), and an entire afternoon setting up my e-reader library on the computer and downloading books! However, as I said, with its laidback vibe and cheap accommodation, Pai was just the place for an extended stay and it was only ten days later when I woke up feeling a bit bored and restless that we decided to pack up and hit the road again. That said, in the end it was with some reluctance that we rode away from our little bungalow – why turn your back on Paradise – but the awesome roads soon took up all our attention. How can one country be quite so picturesque, and more to the point, how come there aren’t more bikers here? (James: a road like this in Europe would be a biking mecca and would be crawling with police!) We’re pretty convinced that the roads in Thailand must have been designed by a motorcyclist!! The great weather continued (we couldn’t think when we’d last seen a cloud), although strangely, despite the perpetual sunshine, the foliage around us was shouting autumn not summer. Technically, Thailand has just three seasons – wet, cool and hot – though even in the cool season (November to February) it’s hotter than most English summer days. I guess ‘autumn’ has to exist somewhere, in the sense of a cycle of the renewal of growth, but it was still odd to be riding in summer weather while leaves are falling from the trees all around you.

Anyway, leaves or no leaves, it was a great route that took us from Pai to Mae Hong Son (we’re sorry, Darren, that our little detour to Laos denied you the pleasure of these roads, we do feel pretty bad about that…) Mae Hong Son was as we remembered – a sleepy little town set around a scenic lake – and we found a cheap guesthouse, complete with kittens (yes!) to stay for a few days. I was pretty engrossed with Barak Obama’s book (surprisingly readable and very interesting) for most of our time we were there whilst James set to work updating some of the pages on our website. One evening we got stuck talking to a bit of a crazy American expat who relished in telling us how this area of northern Thailand is rife with local drug warlords, bandits and Burmese Guerrillas, plus other mercenaries who slip back across the border when they need to, and that he was involved in helping them out with ‘various things’. Strange to hear this perspective when we just spend the whole time going, ‘Thailand is so peaceful and harmonious…’ We don’t doubt there’s some truth to the fact there are bandits, guerrillas and even the odd mercenary in the area, but having the world’s most indiscreet man as their ‘go to’ guy just had us giving each other knowing glances and trying to make our ‘excuses’ to leave, something we obviously did too subtly as he proceeded to walk down the street with us for half an hour, completely abandoning his small market stall (James: mercenary/guerrilla ‘provider’ by day, seller of necklaces and trinkets by night? hmmm…….)

While we were in Mae Hong Son, we took a short day trip out to Nai Soi, a traditional village inhabited by Padaung refugees from Burma. The Padaung are better known as the ‘Long Necks’ in reference to the copper coils the women wear around their necks. There are several such villages in the north of Thailand and, of course, they have become big business for tourism; as such, it’s hard not to see it as exploitative to go and gawp at their culture but most of the women concerned have said that they’re pleased to have a way to make a living, and one which allows them to earn a comparatively high  wage, and that it is certainly preferable to life amid ethnic war in Myanmar. We went by bike, riding two-up on mine as we often do for day trips (it saves petrol and we use mine rather than James’ bike as it’s got no panniers). It was a typically scenic route that took us through villages and paddy fields, though the last two kilometres were dirt track and very steep. We couldn’t see any tour buses being able to make it down the track and indeed, when we got to the entrance of Nai Soi, we were pretty much the only ones there. We paid our entrance fee (the money goes towards an organisation that works to protect the Padaung) and walked down into the village to find scenes of pure rustic simplicity. The village comprised of a single dirt path lined on either side by wooden huts on stilts. In front of each home, we found Padaung women, complete with copper neck coils, hard at work threading large leaves (James: these leaves are huge and had been falling from the trees in recent weeks – not ideal when they hit you in the face!)  on to bamboo strips to be used as roof thatching. Others could be seen making traditional crafts to be sold either directly to visitors like us or to market traders in the local tourist towns.

We got talking to one of the tribeswomen when we bought some postcards from her stall (with our limited luggage space, we weren’t really in a position to buy more) and were surprised to discover that rather than the copper coils actually elongating the women’s necks, it is the weight of them compressing the collar bone and ribs that produces the ‘long neck’ illusion. This sounds a bit gruesome, but it’s been medically proven that the coils cause no discomfort or lasting damage (though I can’t imagine it’s particularly comfortable to sleep with them on, which they do). The woman had a ‘spare’ coil the same size as her own and I was shocked not just at the size of it, but the weight (rather her than me!) She also had a little ‘half coil’ for tourists to try and James wasn’t going to let me get away without a photo! Having seen the village, we headed back to the bike and, after negotiating our way back up the steep dirt track, James pulled in and said it might be a good opportunity for me to experience riding with a pillion! What?! I was pretty reluctant, not feeling anywhere near experienced enough (I’d said several times already on the trip that I couldn’t possibly imagine ever taking someone on the back of my bike), but James convinced me to have a go despite my misgivings (James: for the thousandth time, I had to explain to Em that in actual fact she is now really experienced, not just in kilometres ridden but on pretty much every type of surface and in two dozen countries! Something she tends to forget). Well, it was a very strange sensation to have James get on the back behind me but after a period of initial nerves , I did get used to it and I guess if I can cope with a lump like James then I should be able to give my far daintier sisters and girlfriends a lift when I get back home!…..

Finally, we got the news we’d been waiting for – my passport had arrived at the consul in Chiang Mai. With that, we packed up and left Mae Hong Son, this time taking a slightly different route from the one we’d done with Darren on his last day with us. At the time, we’d been put off by a stretch of road that the map indicated to be potentially unpaved. Having only just got over the trauma of being stuck on the muddy mountain at night, we hadn’t wanted Darren’s last day on the bike to be anxiety filled in any way so had chosen a longer route that was guaranteed to be tarmac. In the end, the road turned out to be fine, just narrow and very, very twisty! In Chiang Mai, we didn’t go back to the biker guesthouse as we knew there were cheaper rooms to be found, and were soon happily ensconced in a basic room at a friendly guesthouse with access to a spacious parking area. This was handy as we still had a few jobs to do on the bikes; believe it or not, I’d been riding with just one wing mirror since the accident in Istanbul (well, we’d finally ditched it in Pakistan after I’d ridden with it swinging annoyingly out of position after a few kilometres each time I set off on my bike). James had also broken one of his mirrors when packing the bikes up to be crated in Kathmandu and we’d just never got round to replacing them! It had long been on our ‘to do’ list but we’d only just started to make inroads on the list in recent weeks when we had more time on our hands. Anyway, we didn’t want to get any old mirrors because they’re prone to vibration with the single cylinder engines on the XT (don’t you know!) so we asked the advice of a local bike mechanic, Joe the German, and he suggested the same as used on the Honda Wave moped. Honda dealers are everywhere in Chiang Mai and it didn’t take long to find the desired items. And the bill? Just 180 baht for the pair – that’s less than £4!! You’ve gotta love Thailand! We also needed to fix our riding goggles as the foam padding around each eye had pretty much disintegrated from months of riding sweat (nice). We’d bought the goggles back in Turkey intending just to use them on dusty roads, but they’re so good we started to ride with them all the time. Try as we might, we couldn’t find any replacement foam so in the end went for some off cuts of soft suede at an upholsterers which I spent the afternoon carefully cutting out and gluing to the goggle frames. Job’s a good’un!

Without Juan, Dean or Dave in Chiang Mai, we drank a lot less beer this time and generally kept a low profile. Dinner each night was a bowl of chicken noodle soup from a street stall or sometimes, just to mix it up a bit, a pad thai. It’s amazing quite how cheaply you can live out here if you want to (though we do have to admit to a growing Cornetto addiction, particularly on James’ part, but at 30p each out here, it’s a luxury we feel we can afford now and again!) We did spend a couple of evenings with a really lovely, and very interesting, couple who’d come over to say hi when they’d seen us arrive on the bikes. Katya and Mirko have been cycling overland together for about eight years and show no signs of stopping any time soon! She’s from Slovenia and he is originally from the Cezch Republic, although he left over 20 ago when the wall came down and is technically no longer a citizen – last time he was there it was still Czechoslovakia! It was fascinating to chat to them about their experiences, and we loved how ‘rounded’ they were (James: proof that travel really does broaden the mind). We also marvelled at their extraordinarily tight budget (they currently had about €250 to their names!) – soon they’re returning to Europe for a month or so to sell some of their handmade jewellery to further finance their travels.

On the Monday morning, we went to the British Consulate to pick up my new passport and with that done, we were free to get back on the road ‘proper’ and make for Laos. We headed north towards the ‘Golden Triangle’ (the ‘triangle’ refers to the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma meet, the ‘golden’ is apparently a reference to the local heroin/opium trade!) and by evening arrived in the town of Chiang Rai. It’s not as large or as cosmopolitan as Chiang Mai (in fact, as James commented, Woking has more going on!) but has a steady stream of foreign visitors who come either for the trekking or to make one last stop before Laos (we would be part of the latter group then!) As chance would have it, we hooked up with Juan again who’d just returned from sorting a few things out back home in Spain so the three of us spent a couple of days wandering around, visiting the town’s night market and readying ourselves for country number 23. In the end, Juan got restless (having read a guidebook about the riding in rural Laos) and left before us, but 24 hours later, with our to-do list and blog almost completed, we followed. On the way out of town, we visited one last Thai attraction: Wat Rong Khun. It’s true that in recent months we’d become sufficiently ‘templed out’ but we’d heard that this one was worth a look in. Construction only started in 1997 so it’s a baby among its ancient peers but it certainly takes the prize for grandeur; the ‘White Wat’, as it’s known, is a magnificent edifice of purest white, all at once completely outrageous yet at the same time somehow serene in its opulence in a way that the usual brightly coloured temples are not. We loved everything about it, including the stone dragons guarding the entrance that Juan had likened to the monster from the film ‘Predator’. Strange, but true! Having visited the temple, we continued cross country on small roads, fully intending to stop the night in Chiang Khong on the Thai side, ready to cross over to Laos the next morning. However, we made great time and, having arrived mid-afternoon, decided to head straight over. We love Thailand (you may have picked that up from our blogs?!) but it has to be said, we were excited at the prospect of discovering a new country after what had now become very familiar…

For latest photos click here.

6 Responses to “The Mae Hong Son loop and beyond…”

  1. Joanna says:

    Was beginning to worry about the lack of food references – bagsy some of those new-found (or, in James’ case, even more highly accomplished) culinary skills when you return to the great metropole that is Woking! You’re being a fab guide book to Thailand!

    Love and hugs
    Joanna and all those in Bisley Land xx

    (one more thing, er… Joe the German – really?!)

  2. Julian says:

    MmmPai!!
    Think you’ll be able to get Kate on the back of your bike?
    Am looking forward to discovering a lot more of Thailand in years to come. May even buy a bike there! You’ve sold it to me!
    Love from tomorrowmustbesaudidad x

  3. Jess says:

    Can’t wait for a ride on your bike Em!! And some of James’ cooking – it has been way too long x

  4. Jackson says:

    Hope you like Laos. I loved it. Fond memories of chilled out vibe thrown down circa2001
    Oh and…::
    James – lump of bike ballast by day / “rounded” procrastinator by night
    Emily – seamstress by day / tiger poacher by night

  5. Jackson says:

    Just looked at photos. Great. James your artistry has really improved ….prime lens is a goodun too right.
    Tigers – cute

  6. Martha says:

    We are looking forward to a Thai night when we see you in France!

    The hot springs sound amazing especially as you got there at dawn before the crowds. Am I reading this right that you camped without any food (?!!) and then next morning after your ‘spa treatment’ went back to the hot springs again – all before eating something??!! Or did you manage to forage for nuts and berries?

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