(James) Having slept like logs in Mae Sariang, we woke the following morning to hear what sounded like the monsoon in full, if a little unseasonal, swing. Fortunately, further inspection (i.e. getting out of bed) revealed that our window was next to the neighbour’s corrugated iron roof, but that’s not to say it wasn’t still tipping down. It was, and certainly heavily enough that we weren’t going to be heading off if it continued that way. Still, we weren’t too bothered; we’d covered the lion’s share of the two day ride yesterday, so our 150km dash up to Mae Hong Son could wait for the weather to clear, and if it did we’d finally be able to offer Darren a day of small distances, few hours on the bike, and lots of stops at anything that took our fancy, something he’d thus far, at least, been denied and something both Em and I were determined to give him. It’s not to say (I hope!?) that he hadn’t been enjoying himself so far but our daily mileages on fun but twisty roads are harder than they seem. Being a new motorcyclist, as Em or anyone else who’s taken their test will contest, is nothing like being a new driver. As a new driver, you can get in a car and, just sitting there, hit the road and cover large distances, but on a bike you are far less a ‘passenger’, you have to, quite literally, hold on, constantly ensure the correct balance in every bend and guide the bike round. It can be exhausting and twisty roads, although the most fun, are the most tiring. As the new rider grips handlebars tighter, tenses their arms, shoulders and upper body all of the time and concentrates harder on staying the road, they quickly become mentally and physically tired. As you become more experienced, you tend to relax and so does your body thereby increasing your endurance, but that was all irrelevant to Darren, who had been thrown straight into the deep end with long days of near constant twisty roads that would leave him shattered with aching wrists every evening (but it should be said, always grinning and eager to get going every morning!)
With the rain still falling come mid-morning, we decided to go and get some brunch and walked down to the brilliant little family restaurant we’d eaten at the night before where we could sit and keep an eye on the weather. Darren and Em had Thai omelettes (delicious) whilst I went more experimental with a particularly large plate of stir fried egg with bitter melon (horrendous) which I washed down with pretty much any liquid I could find to dull the taste. By midday we were starting to see little specks of blue poking through the clouds and so decided to go and load up the bikes in readiness and, with our shadows finally making an appearance, deemed the bad weather officially ‘finished’ and set off on our way north. Naturally, within fifteen minutes we were caught in a deluge but with signs everywhere that the storm front had moved on, we kept going and were soon rewarded with sun and rapidly drying roads; just as well as the roads, once again, were a constant and never ending series of sweeping cambered curves that either climbed over crests or swung down though troughs as we ran along or traversed valleys. In short, it was perfect and progress was swift, so swift in fact that by lunchtime we’d already arrived at the junction with the small road that our (large scaled and, as a result, not so detailed) map appeared to suggest would take us to a national park that contained the Mae Surin waterfalls.
Speaking with a local, we ascertained that this road was indeed the right one so rode up it for 11km until we came to the junction with an even smaller road that apparently would take us the remaining 17km to the falls. Any worries that this road might degrade were quickly discarded, for although it was narrow, it was well paved and took us on a fantastic steep and twisting route through the hills, which as we climbed gave us incredible vistas over forested hills and mountains as far as the eye could see. We eventually arrived at the gates of the national park, handed over the 200 Baht entrance fee and caught our first view of the falls at we rode down a steep, moss covered path, sadly making it impossible to stop and take a photo. Having parked up, we walked back over to the viewpoint to find ourselves about 500 metres above and away from the waterfall with no real chance to get up close. A bit of a disappointment really, but it had brought us via a great road and, given that it was still only half past two, we could hit the road and either stop somewhere else or just get to Mae Hong Son early and have plenty of time to ride around a find somewhere to stay (always so much easier to find places and to negotiate a price in daylight). With the decision made not to hang about, we got back on the bikes and followed the path up a different route to get out of the park, and this is where, once again, our plans derailed somewhat.
At the exit of the park, we arrived back at the narrow lane and quickly deduced that if we turned right (where the sign post suggested we go) we’d pass the park entrance and head back south, retracing our route to the main road. The path also continued left but no sign indicated where it might go to so I had a quick look at the map, which appeared to show that the path continued northwards much as it had done up ‘til now (the same thin pink line that indicated a ‘secondary road’). I mentioned this fact to Em and Darren, suggesting that in ‘theory’(and it’s probably important to emphasise the theoretical aspect of my plan at this point…) it would not only save us having to retrace our route south but would lead us back to the road to Mae Hong Son about 50km nearer. With everyone in agreement we turned left and headed down the narrow track. It soon deteriorated but was still more than adequate, and all initially was great as we rode through dense forest, occasionally passing small clearings in the trees that revealed villagers working in their fields, scenes that couldn’t have changed much in centuries. After a couple of slow kilometres, the road suddenly came to a muddy section; not ideal, but at this moment not something to worry about, as it looked like the mud had covered the road (as opposed to the road actually ending and a mud track starting), something we frequently come across, and it being dry mud it wasn’t really going to present any problems to us. As we rounded the next bend, the still mud covered road began a descent down the side of the hill which steepened and twisted as it went. As I, very slowly, rounded the second corner, I saw that the road steepened even further and the mud, which at the top of the slope had been dry and packed, had now, as the recent rains had run down the slope, become thicker and wetter…
With no place to stop or turn around, I tried to signal for the others to stop where they were and wait for me to check the road ahead but they didn’t have a chance of hearing me. With little choice but to keep going down to bottom, I gingerly continued down the slope and, after a couple of hundred metres, I reached the bottom, stopping in a small and fairly remote village. With Em keeping up the rear (at the very beginning of the trip we’d ensured that Em, as the new rider, was always kept in the middle for protection if travelling in a group of three, so we were now using the same system for Darren), a slightly shocked Darren was the next to arrive at the bottom (no mean feat in itself) but, relieved at having made it down in one piece, rode down the middle of the track into the village and not along the edge; an easy mistake to make given that his off road experience consisted of the few kilometres we’d just done! I noticed, all too late, and tried to get him to ride to the side where the mud would not only be less thick but the vegetation and stones would give added traction, but once in the mud, all of his concentration was focused on staying upright. Within a couple of metres, though, he had ground to a halt, his rear wheel spinning wildly but going nowhere. Jumping off my bike to help, it wasn’t hard to see why; not only was his rear tyre coated in a film of mud (it’s important to remember at this point that Darren was riding on a road bike with road tyres, both totally unsuited to our current location), but his equally coated front wheel was jammed solid with mud that had forced its way under his low mudguard, and then having become wedged in had simply put so much pressure on the tyre that it could no longer turn. Having dragged his bike to somewhere drier where we could put it on its side stand and having found some long thin bits of bamboo lying around, we proceeded, with the help of one man from the group of curious villagers that had assembled, to remove said mud and free the wheel. With this done, we had a quick chat to discuss what our next move should be, as Darren was understandably way out of his comfort zone. Our choices were simple enough; the known option 1 – turn back and try to get back on to the decent road, the unknown option 2 – continue on our way up out of the valley floor in the hope that things might improve. Our problem was that the known option would require us to push and heave Darren’s bikes back up the 2km of track to where it would find traction and be ride-able again, something none of us particularly fancied. In retrospect perhaps we should have gone with devil we knew, but standing there at the bottom of that valley with miles of incredibly steep hills all around us we reasoned that if this track continued, it made logical sense that its builders would have routed it along the easiest path, namely along the valley floor, which whilst muddy would at least be flat.
With the decision made and it approaching 3pm, we continued on our way safe in the knowledge that we still had over just over two and half hours of daylight left in which to get to Mae Hong Son. Within minutes of leaving the village, we found that in fact the road builders hadn’t built the road along the easiest path and quickly found ourselves climbing up a very steep track that snaked its way towards the summit of the adjacent hill. Perhaps things were now looking up and the builders had sensibly built the road along the drier ridges; certainly the track had dried out. But then the road levelled out and continued round the side of the hill where, just before it began to drop into the next valley, we were given a glimpse, through a gap in the trees, of our oh so very remote location. All around us and as far as the eye could see were countless steep hills and narrow gorges with no obvious sign of civilisation or any way out. We slowly began the next descent but this time the mud was even thicker, prompting us to ride on the very far edge of the track where there was a little vegetation and the odd root for traction. The problem with this was that it meant riding right on the edge of a sharp drop down the side of the hill, and any fall would have meant injury and a lost bike – so not ideal! I crept down inch by inch telling the others to wait for me to reach a safe place where I’d be able to let them know what to expect (or if the way proved impossible, prevent them from going any further which would at least mean we’d only have to unload and drag the one bike back up.) With this done, I walked back up and rode Darren’s bike (which was already sliding down even with him trying to stay put!) down, and then Em followed me down. It was now clear to everyone that we’d taken the ‘less desirable’ of the two options available but we had little choice but to continue. A passing villager told us we could expect another 7km of this – we weren’t sure if that meant 7km until it improved or until we reached tarmac but at that moment it didn’t really matter, as given our snail’s pace, the 7km was more than enough to be focusing on.
The next few kilometres were a seemingly never-ending series of increasingly muddy ascents and descents as we soldiered on at less than a slow walking pace. On each slope, I would go ahead to find a suitable stopping place, and then walk back to report to the others before, if required, taking Darren’s bike and replicating my exact route, with (the nowadays hardcore) Em following my tyre tracks precisely. On those occasions when it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to get off my bike to help, Darren and Em would walk Darren’s – now completely mud covered – bike down together. I have to admit that I was amazed by both of them; Em because she was copingly so calmly with what was hard riding and Darren because he was still managing to keep going even though he found himself in a place where no new rider should be, and he was already absolutely shattered (remember what I said about it being exhausting to ride as a new rider? Well, now imagine doing it on a muddy, steep twisting slope in the middle of the jungle!). As the afternoon went on and people started getting tired, the odd mistake naturally crept in, but Darren, miraculously, only fell off twice, and all the jungle knew it as an almighty scream of frustration was let out! (At least falling in such thick mud meant it was difficult to damage his bike!). Ems only fall (in fact it wasn’t really a fall) was actually my fault (Em: correct!) as, when we got to the one point (incredibly steep muddy bit with an even steeper 120 degree turn) where she felt she really couldn’t do it, she handed the bike to me but I didn’t realise she was ready and it fell back on her, pinning her against a mud bank. It was one of the more comedy moments in the day as Em lay on the bank laughing as she held the bike up with her knee! (Em: some might say comedy, some might say we were getting hysterical by this point!….)
With dusk now approaching (we really didn’t want to be out here after dark!) and our 7km now completed, we reached a small settlement at which the path split (not according to our map it didn’t!). Not wanting to take the wrong one, I went to find a very surprised villager who indicated that the less maintained of the two was one the one we needed to take, and that it was another 12km (so it was 17km not 7km!) to go. With little choice we continued on and climbed higher than we had at any time so far, a bonus in a way as it at least meant that we were riding on drier ground and could go a few kph faster, and with us all riding instead of doing small sections one at a time, our pace picked up a little. We eventually found ourselves riding along a ridge on the crest of a hill giving us an amazing view all round (although I’m told that I was the only one to notice this!). Eventually and inevitably the track began to descend, but not before we were able to stop and watch the most spectacular sunset as the sky seemingly went through the complete range of every shade of orange and red whilst the clouds sitting in the countless valleys below turned a shade of bluey-purple. It was one of those moments you just want to sit and savour but my concerns now turned to the fact that we would be doing the remaining distance in the dark.
We continued on down paths that were bone dry (of course, now it was loose dirt we had to contend with!) but increasingly steep. The added challenge of riding in the dark was not helping a now shattered Darren so it was agreed that on the particularly steep or difficult bits, I would ride sections of a couple of hundred metres or so and then come back up on foot every time to take over. Darren’s bike was indeed a handful, having far less grip than ours; I would have to enter into a semi-controlled slide to get it down certain sections and hope that its thankfully low seat height would allow me to use my legs to keep it upright if it went from under me. Whilst this was undoubtedly the only real option available to us, I was aware of the fact that we might be reaching the limits of we could do tonight. One option was to simply stop up here where it was dry, put the tent up and wait until morning when, rested, we could continue in the light. However, we now had the added problem that our fuel, given our poor progress, might be running low. If that were the case, we might have to pool our supply into one bike which I would have to ride out, find extra fuel and then return on foot. Until the reserve lights came on though, we’d keep going. Night quickly fell and we found ourselves in absolute pitch darkness, but continued our system of going ahead a few hundred metres or so and then going back to collect another bike, and keeping this going until we reached a section that was more manageable. It was slow progress but progress none the less. Occasionally, as I walked back up in the blackness I’d hear the unjungle-like scream of frustration from Darren, who despite being at a complete standstill with brakes on, bike in gear and feet planted, was still sliding slowly down the hill! (I even heard the sound of a helmet being thrown to the floor at one point but not having seen it can only speculate!…) We continued like this for the next two hours and, at one point when we’d got both Darren and Em safely to the bottom of the next slope, I walked back up the steep 400 metre path (without my torch) and actually got lost – that is to say I couldn’t find my bike! I was pretty sure I was where it should have been, but walking around the area where I thought I’d left it with my hands flailing blindly about I simply couldn’t find it. In the end, it took me about ten slightly panicked minutes before I walked into it, but not before I’d managed to completely freak myself out. Whilst frantically searching for my bike I’d heard a rustle and then thought I saw what I could only assume was a pair of eyes. It suddenly occurred to me that having tried and failed to find tigers in India and Nepal, how depressingly ironic it would be if I was attacked and eaten by a bloody tiger because I couldn’t find my bike!
Having rejoined the others, we continued on as we had before and suddenly, an hour and half after sunset, we spied what looked like tarmac ahead of us, and on reaching it I could see Darren waving wildly in celebration as we managed to get into second gear for the first time in hours. Em and I weren’t quite so ready to celebrate as we’d seen this kind of false dawn before and, sure enough, within 300m the road had returned to dirt. Still, it was a sign that perhaps the worst was behind us. We had a several more false dawns over the next few kms, but then suddenly we saw a road sign warning of a sharp bend (a bit late don’t you think?!) and then, as the road widened, catseyes. We all knew that we’d made it when our track finally arrived at a junction with the main road. It was almost 8pm and we’d left the waterfalls, some 17km or so away, at half two, riding the last two hours in total darkness. It’s fair to say that we were ecstatic and, it must be said, a little relieved – roads like this may have become something more ‘normal’ for us, but never in our wildest dreams would we have planned on putting Darren (on his relaxing holiday!) through this!
Having ascertained which way to go, we set off along perfect, empty, twisting, curving roads feeling the cool air that our new found speed threw in our faces. The signs said 60km to go but it could have said 6 or 600, it really didn’t matter, we were loving it. All too soon though, we arrived in the small pretty town of Mae Hong Son (a tad later than intended!…) and, riding round the back streets near the small lake, quickly found somewhere really cute to stay. After a lightning (but much needed) shower, we went out for a delicious meal at a restaurant on the waterfront where we each ordered a couple of large, and incredibly well deserved, cold beers; one to wolf down, the other to savour (Em: I think there may have been a few celebratory cocktails too!…) As is standard operating procedure for us, the day hadn’t gone according to plan but it had, ultimately, been a great day, and despite everything ,we all sat there with a sense of satisfaction at what we’d got through together. And there can be little doubt that, as we sat there glass in hand, talking and laughing about the previous two days, no one’s beer could have gone down more smoothly than Darren’s!
The next morning we awoke reasonably refreshed and, after a walk round the town’s lake, set about trying to find a Kawasaki dealer that might stock the necessary spare parts for us to fix the damage to Darren’s bike (and save his deposit!) following its fall by the Burmese border a few days before. However, with nothing available, and with Darren’s body finally starting to pay the price for the last few days, we gave up and went for a leisurely breakfast; after all, it was our last day on the bikes, and as the crow flies, Chiang Mai wasn’t too far away. After breakfast, Em found a large map of the area hanging on a wall of a nearby tour operator and we located the Mae Surin falls (Em: the very name now eliciting a grrr and a shake of the fist) which indeed was reached by a ‘secondary road’. However, contrary to what was indicated on our road map, i.e. that the left turn out of the falls continued in the same manner, this enlarged, more detailed map showed that we had, in fact, gone from a pink line to an orange dashed one. A quick glance at the legend revealed this to be ‘4-wheel drive only, impassable in wet weather, caution; very steep.’ Oh, how we laughed….!!!
Today, with no direct route to Chiang Mai, we had two options: continue north in a loop that would take us into the twisty roads on the hills around the small town of Pai, or a slightly longer but faster southern loop. There was something of a communication breakdown on the way out – I was pretty sure I’d heard that Darren preferred the idea of the less ‘challenging’ southern loop on his last day (who could blame him?) whilst Em thought were going on the northern loop (her sense of direction still as bloodhound-esque as ever!) – and I led us off on the southern route. After 60km we passed the track that had ended our unplanned foray into the jungle the previous day, and a little while later passed the side road that led towards the waterfall, which the map suggested continued east towards link roads to Chiang Mai. The map also suggested that one small 10km section might be a little less maintained. The advantage of this little short cut was that it would save us about 100km on the day. Tempting it might have been, but not tempting enough for Darren who, still somewhat traumatised, said he wasn’t comfortable with only ‘might’ to rely on (Em: I wholly agreed and let’s face it, the map had screwed us somewhat the previous day!). As the least experienced rider, Darren’s word counted for more, so with the decision made, we continued on the longer southern loop; just how long we only found out a kilometre down the road when a sign suggested we were still 300km from Chiang Mai. This meant that we wouldn’t make it to Chiang Mai until after dark unless we pushed it, some thing, on such incredible roads, we had no intention of doing. (Em: again we waved goodbye to yet another easy day!)
It was just as well (for the child in me) that we did choose the southern loop as I finally got see another snake, maybe just 2 metres long this time, which whilst coming out of a bend, I narrowly avoided running over as it was crossing the road. With my usual childlike excitement at such things, I pulled over to the side of the road and, climbing off the bike, ran the 50 metres back down to where the slightly shocked snake had, for the moment at least, stopped in its tracks. Em and Darren hadn’t, it would later turn out, actually seen it, but then it did look a lot like a stick and probably even more so once after I passed it making it all the more difficult to spot. I ran passed them as they came to halt, shouting for them to grab a camera and follow me. The snake was starting to move again by the time I got there, so I positioned myself between it and the side of the road and did all in my power to keep it there. It kept moving, trying to find a way past me and I, in response, kept blocking it and stamping my feet as close to it as I dared so that Em and Darren could see it and give me my camera. Suddenly the snake reared up to knee height, its neck forming a hood. Ah, it was a cobra! With my adrenalin now flowing sufficiently, and continuing to ‘dance’ with the snake, I called to Darren and Em to run quicker, but now that I knew what it was, I had no intention of turning my back on it to see what was taking them so long. I kept trying to keep the cobra in the road but with its more aggressive stance, couldn’t quite take so many liberties to keep it there. In the end I had to admit defeat (I really wanted a nice close-up photo of a cobra in its striking pose) and having watched it slither and disappear into the undergrowth at the side of the road, turned to question/berate the others, only to find Darren still on his bike and Em only just starting a leisurely stroll towards me. I won’t deny I was a little frustrated, having wanted them to see it and having tried my best to keep it there for them but they were both quick to explain that firstly they hadn’t seen any snake and didn’t have a clue what I’d been on about as I’d run past them, which explained everything. I can’t even begin to imagine what they thought I was doing when I was ‘dancing’ to keep the snake in the road! Some things are better left unsaid…….
By evening, and after a fantastic day’s ride, we found ourselves on the main approach road to Chiang Mai and quickly made our way to our guesthouse. The riding section of Darren’s holiday was over but before handing the bike in the next day, we found a local Kawasaki dealer and, for a relative pittance, replaced the broken parts for Darren’s bike, before taking it for a jet wash the like of which would normally only be reserved for a motocross scrambler! With the bike looking like new(ish) we took it back to the dealer and Darren, relieved to see his hefty deposit returned, said a sad farewell to the bike. He had become quite attached to it, in no small part because it had made him feel so comfortable, had constantly put a big smile on his face and had endured, without any complaint or hesitation, more than it was ever designed to. On arriving back at our guesthouse Darren swore he was buying a bike when he got back home!….
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