Thailand motorcycle trip day 2 : Mae Na Chon to Mae Hong Son

Departure: 11:00 Arrival: 17:00
Date: 09/03/2014
Weather: sunny


View Larger Map

Our cabin in Mae Na Chon

Our cabin in Mae Na Chon

At this very Thai cabin resort in the middle of nowhere Northern Thailand, a German couple with two kids was overnighting in a neighboring chalet. We had struck a small conversation the night before with the man but the next morning, we learned that they were  doing the same circuit as us but in the reverse direction. Upon questioning them about their mean of transportation (we had seen one scooter in front of their room), the husband quickly replied that his wife did not drive and that that 125cc scooter was the vehicle carrying the whole family around on the journey. What? Four of them on a scooter. I mean, it’s a pretty common sight in Asia, but I would never have thought that a German couple with means probably well above those of the average Thai household was travelling in that region’s famous driving style: the man driving, a backpack and a kid between his legs, another kid behind and lastly the wife at the very back (with room for a baby in the front basket for increased shock absorption in case of collision). “Going uphill is slow and painful, the scooter sounds like its about to die” he added; no wonders.

Thai countryside

Thai countryside

Much impressed by that family’s courage, we hoped on our machines after a quick breakfast and proceeded for the second leg of our journey and thankfully one that turned out to be rather uneventful. Still riddled with potholes and unpaved stretches, the road was however much nicer than the previous day and with a bit of carefulness afforded us some very pleasurable mountain driving. The view was a bit of let-down, the dry season was in full-force so leaves were falling and whatever used to be verdant green was now shades of beige. To add insult to injury, the Thais, for a reason that is sill a mystery to us, light fires everywhere, filling the air with a fog that restricts visibility down to a few kilometers. Some of them burn trash or plant waste, others make way for crops but we saw fires, especially while driving the night before, in places no sane person would ever think about cultivating but then again, the weather could have been so dry that the fires were simply spreading out of control.

At a roadside café

At a roadside café

The only good vista we could get was at a small road-side cafe, whose waitresses, visibly stoked that some foreigners had elected their little business for a break, gave us a bunch of freebies: fried bananas, soybeans and tea. About half an hour before however, Jesse and me had gotten rewarded with one of those “in the zone” moments you get while you are doing an intense activity you particularly enjoy such as motorcycling. We were following a large truck, something that would normally be pretty annoying, but it so happened that we were driving on a stretch of road that was bordered by broad-leafed trees and it being the dry season, leaves were falling, the road was littered with them and in its wake the truck was lifting them. This combination of leaves falling and raising from the ground, along with the light, the sound of the engine, the wind, the vibrations and the simple fact of going at 70 km/h on a motorcycle all added up to a moment of perfect bliss. A moment that puts an uncontrollable smile on your face, a moment of perfect bliss, where the whole of the situation orchestrates into a perfect symphony for the senses. Nothing to do with ecstasy, just pure, natural happiness.

In little time we had reached Mae Hong Son, a regional capital. We searched around a bit for a guesthouse but not too satisfied with the offering, decided to consult with a tour agency that directed us to “around the lake downtown”, and there we found plenty of options. Apparently, the town fills up during the high-season but that night, it was dead so we did not fuss around too much with finding a good hostel and settled for the first one that seemed ok.

I wanted to do some writing that night, but exhausted, I watched some TV and fell asleep really early.

A temple in Mae Hong Son

A temple in Mae Hong Son

 

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

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


View Larger Map

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.

Thailand motorcycle trip: prelude


View Larger Map

Back in South Korea, I made a friend of an American by the name of Jesse and one thing we had in common was a keen interest about engines mounted on two wheels: motorcycles. Back then he told me he was suppose to go to Thailand in some months to meet up with a his girlfriend from back home and do a visa-run (leave the country to get a new visa). Since I was probably to be in the region at that moment, we thought about meeting and doing some riding over there.

In Thailand and for that matter South-East Asia, scooters and motorcycles are readily  available and cheap (150 baht a day so a bit more than 5$) so its the thing to do there. However, everywhere you see tourists all bandaged up on one side and hear horror stories of road-related fatalities. Treacherous machines they are, but did that deter me from getting one?

Of course not.

On my first trip in France with my girlfriend in the back, I met at la grotte du Mas d’Azil an older gentleman riding around by himself on a small escapade of a couple days, something he had been doing regularly for about 50 years. We struck conversation and talked about various things, but I remember one of his sayings:

A good motorcyclist is a motorcyclist that’s alive.

And a dead one is a bad one? It sounded like an empty statement at the time, but several thousand kilometers later, I have now understood what the message is about: be careful, drive defensively, measure every move. It’s not a race, it’s about the journey.

Somewhere in Northern Thailand

Somewhere in Northern Thailand

The quest for Durian

The title of a science-fiction novel I’m writing recounting the search by a brave group of space explorers for a mysterious planet.

No durians!No, I’m kidding, it’s just a post about this strange fruit and my attempt at trying it. It all started in the Singapore metro when I noticed a sign, that on top of advising the riders that it was prohibited to smoke, eat or carry inflammable goods also banned durian. Curious, I documented myself on the thing as soon as I got to my hostel and realized it was a fruit. A fruit? That you can’t have with you in the metro? I must try it. Upon discussing it with my Singaporean friends they informed me that it was indeed a delicacy, but a smelly one with a peculiar “love it or hate it” taste. So smelly and incommoding to some that for this reason it was banned from public transportation. Regrettably, all my attempts at finding some provided futile in Singapore, as it was not the season.

From that point on, the durian would come back and haunt me from time to time. It was a recent afternoon while walking in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with Jesse that I told him about this coveted fruit and its strange properties and instantly he was convinced that we should attempt to find some. So we asked at a nearby Thai restaurant where we could find it in town and the lady kindly directed us to the produce market on the outskirts of the old city.

Once at the market, it took us some time before we could lay our eyes on some prepared durian but eventually we spotted it. In fact, we had seen the entire fruit numerous times before, but since we had no idea on how to prepare it, not even sure we would like it and not forgetting that its about the size of melon, we figured it would be more reasonable to get its precut in small quantity. Not a whole lot we found and it was very expensive. According to a expatriate also purchasing some there, also not of the best quality, but we had not walked this far to come back durian-less. So we purchased the smallest piece we could find, some rice, some meat skewers and ate that small dinner on the curb and had the durian for dessert.

Finally, durian!

Finally, durian!

To our great surprise, it was delicious. Tasty but with a lot of character. To quote the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace: “A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it“. Satisfied by our durian experience, we decided to leave some for later so I wrapped the rest back in its plastic tray, put it in a plastic bag which I tied in a knot and stuffed the package in my backpack. It was not that smelly anyway, so we started to wonder what all the fuss was really about. Back at our hostel, I moved the durian to a drawer and we headed out for a night out in town.

When we came back the whole dorm was filled with the strong stench of the fruit. An odor akin to smelly feet but with a touch of sweetness. There it was, the famous durian smell we laughed, but since it was nothing unpleasant to our noses we went to bed (without much consideration for our roommates). The next morning, we decided to make it up to those who had to endure the smell the whole night so I pulled the durian out of its packaging and offered some to everyone in the common area, including the owner of the hostel, who upon seeing the fruit cried: “So that’s what it was! The Thai cleaning lady has been telling me all morning that there was a durian in the room.” And then he kindly refused our offer as he was not really a fan but warned us that the next time, we should keep it outside.

To our delight, the durian was even tastier that morning than it was the day before.

 

Thailand Part 2: the north (Chiang Mai)

A monk passing by

Having a drink with new found friends in Bangkok

Having a drink with new found friends in Bangkok

A two hour ferry cruise and nine hour bus ride and we were in Bangkok. There, we had enough time to make it to the night bus to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital and second largest city ( but nowhere as big a Bangkok). The only bus that had any room left was the last one so we had a bit of time to kill, which we decided to spend at some beverage stall down the road from the station to have a few beers with stray dogs and locals. Realizing instantly that we were foreigners, some Thais around a crate on the curb waved us to come over for a beer (served in a glass full of ice). Offerings of cigarettes later and many cheers, we had engaged in a rudimentary conversation. None of them could really speak any English and much less us Thai, but through gestures we managed to exchange some pieces of information. They visibly appeared super stoked that they were spending a moment with us, but it took some time for Jesse and I to shed the suspicion that we had gathered during our stay in more touristic spots in Thailand, where usually when a local comes to you, it’s to get to your wallet. One man kept signing me to go to the stall to order something and at first I thoughts he wanted me to buy him a beer, but eventually, I realized that he wanted me to get myself a glass so he could pour me some of his own. Very nice of him and I also ended up buying him and his friends a beer. One of them even went so far as walking us to our gate at the station and making sure with the attendant that we would board the correct bus. Finally, there was the Thai hospitality mentioned so often in the Lonely Planet guide, but of which I had yet to witness any manifestation. Jesse and I became hopeful again for the next installment of the trip as both of us had gotten really disillusioned with the overly artificial atmosphere reigning king on the islands.

I'm a monk!

I’m a monk!

The morning after, we arrived in Chiang Mai and not too motivated towards browsing the massive hostel selection of the city, we settled for the first sensible one we came across. There, we took possession of our beds, dropped off our travelling apparatus and after an internet session headed out for a walk around town. Chiang Mai is famous for being a spiritual center as well so temples are abundant as are monks dressed in their Buddhist costumes. Thai temples are quite pretty and somewhat peculiar in their architectures, which is a striking departure from that which I had seen everywhere else Asia. But with any buildings of this type, its only a game of outdoing the neighboring temple so soon enough we became saturated, or “templed out” as they say. While strolling around, we had been handed a couple of flyers advertising Thai boxing fight so we decided that this shall be our Friday night-out but before, we had to find some durian, a quest which for the sake of being concise (and to leave more space for random stories), I have detailed in another post.

Thai boxing fight

Thai boxing fight

After a light street food dinner, we were sitting in a large covered arena waiting for the contenders of the fight. The procession sort of dragged on but soon enough, people were taking jabs and kicks at each other with the crowd cheering around the ring. The first two fights were between men and both ended in knockouts while the following combats were to be between females in a tournament form. We stuck around for a couple of confrontations – which were spectacular not by the force of the hits but by the rate of them – and decided that we had seen enough for the night. A quick stop for an overly spicy snack and we were both in bed and fast asleep, in my case from having spent some odd days sleeping on a concrete floor and lastly in a bus.

Night market in Chiang Mai

Night market in Chiang Mai

I dedicated the next day to work and writing but for the evening, Jesse and I met up with Georgia, someone I had met back in Malaysia and who happened to be in town. We again went for a meal at the night food market, took a walk around the absolutely gigantic Saturday market, at which Georgia, her trip drawing to an end, loaded up with souvenirs. Surprisingly, they had a whole lot of nice things there but since I’m not nearly done with my travels, had to abstain from burdening myself up with more things. In the end, the market was so large that we had to tuk-tuk back in town and for a destination picked an Irish bar as I was craving a glass of whisky. After, we headed to Chiang Mai’s party block and chilled there for some time handing roses Georgia had purchased from a street vendor to random men for them to give away to ladies.

In retrospect, we must have been pretty inebriated. Later in front of a 7-Eleven we were planning to go to for snacks, we decided that the fried insect stall was a better food option and purchased for 30 baht a plate full of differently sized crickets, frogs and larvae. In a few minutes me and Jesse had gobbled the whole thing down under the perplexed look of Georgia, who could only muster enough courage to eat one or two grasshoppers. The kindly spirited individuals that we are, we offered some of our fare to every passing tourist, but understandably, fried insect are not a popular thing with foreigner so most would politely refuse our gesture. That being said, we spotted more than a few Thais coming up to the stall for a bag full of fried critters, so it’s not just a tourist thing. This episode would later be referred between the three of us as the “Smörgåsbord“, of which my favorite were the larvae/maggots.

The next day, Jesse and I had planned to leave on our motorcycle trip but that night, we certainly did not go to bed early.

Want a tasty larvae?

Want a tasty larvae?