Thailand motorcycle trip day 1 : Chiang Mai to Mae Na Chon

Departure: 14:00 Departure: 22:00
Date: 08/03/2014
Weather: sunny


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Leaving Chiang Mai

Leaving Chiang Mai

Still repaying my accumulated sleep debt from the last week, I woke up somewhat late but no worries, since motorcycles are rented in block of 24 hours so we had planned to leave at the beginning of the afternoon. I opened my computer to do a bit of work and check my emails and surprise, it crashed while waking out from sleep and left me with a corrupted hard drive that despite all my best efforts to fix, had to boot into to do some backups (several days later, I found a fix that I detailed here). Later on, the motorcycles arrived at our hostel and after a quick briefing, were handed to us. Not that two-wheeled machines had any secret for Jesse and me, but these Honda Wave 125cc were of the semi-automatic type, meaning there was no clutch, something we were not really familiar with.

We proceeded to pack all that we needed for the trip into our day packs, left our bigger backpacks at the hostel, went for a small pad thai and then hit the road out of Chiang Mai. We had a nice and optimized route all set up to our first stop and followed it to the letter. The drive was not all that easy, several kilometers of construction work. Loose sand, muddy surfaces (the dirt roads get sprayed with water to minimize the dust in villages) but in the middle of the afternoon, we eventually reached intersection where we had to veer off our course to cut across to Mae Na Chon.

According to the map, we appeared to have taken the right road but the more we progressed on it, the rougher it got and eventually ended in a rugged footpath along rice fields. Already at that point the locals were giving us weird looks, but we thought of asking anyway. Impressive how so deep down in Thailand some people still manage to be able to mumble some English. Anyway, they told us to keep going so we embarked on that path and started offroading along a river which at one point, we had to ford to keep on the trail. Fifteen minutes later, a farmer waved us off and came by to inquire on our whereabouts. We told him our destination but this time, with even more decent English than its colleagues, finally showed us the right way. Back to the paved road, back 20 kilometers and onto the road we had initially opted not to take because we had deemed it too long.

Lost in the Thai country side

Lost in the Thai country side

Dammit, turn around, ford the river again, wet feet, muddy road, sand patches and right back at the intersection to the road we had hoped to skip. Some more riding and a quick look at the map revealed us that we no longer really knew where we were. The scale was too low so some roads and villages were not there, but according to the compass, our heading was at least correct. Already it was getting late but we had accepted the fact that we would have to ride in the dark. At nightfall and optimistic that we were on the right track, Jesse had the smart idea to stop and ask for gas because we were running seriously low and had not seen a station for hours. The guy at the convenience store finally figured out what we wanted, got out of his shack, lifted a panel which to our surprise hid some tanks each connected to their own hand-pumping system and filled us up. Relieved that we had now enough fuel to get us to through, we asked the owner the way to Mae Na Chon and while there seemed to be some disagreement between him and another man in his pick-up passing by, he indicated us that we should follow the road into the forest. By that time, it was completely dark.

Filling up

Filling up

Big surprise, soon the pavement transitioned into dirt and following the most logical route only got us through a gate and an area of the forest that was way too nicely landscaped to possibly be the actual road that we were looking for. Back tracked, took a different turn, still no go. Back tracked again, went right instead of left and we got going uphill on an old logging road whose state quickly deteriorated to a point where only but the most seriously modified all-terrain vehicle could ever get through. Having been unmaintained for years, the road was scarred with very deep trenches formed by poor drainage of rain water. Signage surprisingly was somewhat frequent, but it being written exclusively in Thai script, was useless to us.

Frankly, none of the riding we did would have provided a serious challenge to anyone but the most inexperienced mountain-biker. The thing is, any skill at handling pedal-powered two-wheelers on uneven terrain is pretty much useless with motorcycles. Their weight make handling them a whole different type of game and loosing control could have serious consequences for you and the machine. Falling into a trench and getting your foot caught between the bike and the earth is a sure way to break you ankle (and I almost did). Rolling on pointy rocks or hitting a bump too hard could likely cause a flat tire, but the most serious risk you are facing is not one for your physical integrity but for that of the bike: losing control on a slope and dropping it. And if you’re several kilometers from civilization on a road no one is likely to pass on during the next week, it kind of sucks.

One hour later, we were still painstakingly making our way up and down ridges. We decided a pause and discussion were in order but there was no debating, we had driven too far and through too many intersections to turn back. We much preferred risking failure rather than turn around as this had been going long-enough that any minute we hoped to hit some pavement or something that would really stop us like a collapsed bridge or land-slide. Certainly a stupid decision given the context, but carelessness remains one of the main ingredients of adventure so we kept going with a smile on our faces, getting good laughs at how ridiculous the situation had become. We would push this thing to the end until we were out of gas or someone would got hurt. “Come and get me mom” we would jokingly yell on occasion, but this time, we were not lost in a shopping center.

Pavement! Finally.

Pavement! Finally.

Finally, another hour passed and we started seeing electrical wires, more trash littering the side of the road, a shack, a dog and those tell-tale signs of civilization. Some minutes later, we could spot car headlights in the distance and soon enough, we intersected a paved road. Such a sign of relief and the adrenaline gave way to a combination of endorphin and exhaustion. Luckily, we were exactly were we had planned on ending, but it still took us two hours to drive 18 kilometers. A short while later we entered the village of Mae Na Chon but as expected it was pretty much deserted. We stopped at what appeared to be some sort of general store and asked whoever was in there if there was anywhere we could spend the night. At that point, we had pretty much prepared ourselves to sleep outside, but a man stood up, signed us to follow him and drove us to a place we had previously passed but did not thought much about since the sign was entirely in Thai.

The guesthouse we got taken to was actually some very nice cabins held by a local family. A girl there welcomed us with some more than ok English, offered us a pretty bungalow which we accepted without any negotiation and offered to cook us some food. We drove back into the village to purchase some well deserved beers and some snacks, got back and informed our hostess that we would take her offer of a meal. Later on, while we were sitting there rambling about a very long and tiring day but reinvigorated by that simple Thai omelette, her brother showed up and started a coal barbecuing some squid which he later offered us along with a banana leaf cigar.

Both very satisfied and grateful for a day which outcome was very positive but during which so many things could have gone wrong, we collapsed into bed into the kind of sleep you body puts you in when it no longer has any energy left.

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