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Lords of the Ring (Part III): Chasing Rainbows

Nine riders to lead the way, seven bikes to guide them, one ring to bring them all and in the mountains bind them. In the far north of Thailand where adventure lies. So continues the tale of the Mae Hong Son Ring.

The Fellowship had survived it’s first crash filled day and made it to Pai alive. Pai itself is a very hippy backpacker town. Very much like Byron Bay in Australia, though if Byron was relocated to the Blue Mountains instead of on the beach. Most people come here to organize treks into the mountains and to visit nearby Hill Tribes. We were just here for the night and walked around soaking up the atmosphere. We ran into Adrian, Mary and Micheala who were also staying at Mr Jan’s. Unlike our group they had had an incident free ride to Pai but weren’t really planning on going much further into The Ring. They had spent the day visiting temples and a waterfall on the edge of town, a waterfall that didn’t have an entrance fee. We had found our waterfall.

The road to the waterfall outside Pai.

While sitting around at Mr Jan’s thinking of getting food, Chris, Andy and Caitlin were trying to think of a symbol for Pai Alive. I said “How about this?” and made the symbol of two crossed peace signs, one pointing down, and the other across. The idea was the greek letter Pi with an extra bar to be a capital A as well. After short consideration this was agreed upon and there was much rejoicing and gangsta hand sign posing. We then went wandering into town and on the main street of Pai our group ran into another sizeable group of tourists, some of whom were friends of Caitlin. While they caught up I stared at one guy thinking he looked oddly familiar. I asked him where I knew him from and he said he didn’t know. We started asking places we had been recently trying to work it out, but to no avail, then it clicked. “Ah-ha!” I cried, “You were the Swiss guy in my cooking class at Chiang Mai”. Mystery solved. Later into the night, after some desperately needed dinner and a little while chilling at a nearby bar, I turned in early because my cough had gotten worse. I had been steadily deteriorating throughout the day and by the time the sun set I was going into rib bruising coughing fits every 15 minutes. I lathered my back and chest with tiger balm and took all the medicine I could find in the local pharmacy hoping for a miracle. The next day I woke up feeling slightly better, but my cough was still there and it wasn’t loosening much, it just wasn’t as frequent.

The waterfall near Pai.

We regrouped early for breakfast, a hasty mix of street food and 7-eleven. I had several tasty pork buns bought for 7 baht each from a little lady on the street. Heather was quite hungover as after I had left, her and Aaron had ended up staying out late at some bar where Heather received liberal quantities of free drink from an overly friendly bar tender. Luckily she could just hang onto Aaron and let him ride. Our first stop was The free waterfall. After all our waterfall failures the previous day we had decided this was the one to see. We got there and wandered around for awhile. I wasn’t particularly impressed but I have been overloaded with waterfalls in my travels, the others seemed to enjoy it though. Caitlin demanded that swimming must ensure, and so it did. Owen, Aaron and Heather all joined in however Chantel, Chris, Andy and myself decided to explore a little instead. I got on my bike and headed back down the road we had come up telling the others I would meet them somewhere along there. We had passed lots of beautiful scenery of corn fields and rural thailand on the path up to the waterfall, and I wanted to go back and take some photographs.

The carefully worded warning at the waterfall. Owen to its advice and decided to slip down painfully.

Half an hour later I started wondering if the other guys were still coming and began heading back towards the waterfall. On my way I found them and we headed back to the main road, the only problem being that only half our number arrived at the intersection. The others had managed to mix up our meeting point with somewhere else, and after some much confused phone conversations about nearby landmarks and resorts we decided just to head  back into Pai and regroup at the 7-Eleven and then head off from there. We were now on the road to Mae Hong Song. The scenery up here only got better as we headed further and further into the mountains. We cruised along winding mountain ridges overlooking sweeping forests and nestled corn fields. It was beautiful.

A cornfield outside Pai.

Our first big stop was to be at the little highway side town of Soppong, about 60km from Pai. Here the plan was to have lunch and then detour off the highway to visit the caves of Pangmapha, a massive complex of limestone caverns which you can travel through on a bamboo raft. About half way their we crested another mountain which had a bunch of markets, toilets and general rest stop facilities on top of it. We stopped here for a breather and enjoyed the amazing view of the surrounding area, sadly the clouds had come back in and it was spitting rain so the view didn’t translate particularly well to photographs.

The countryside outside of Pai.

We headed down the hill, this time with me leading the way and setting the pace and Andy, Chris and myself ended up breaking away out in front. On the way down through the rural farmland the sun peaked back through the clouds and the landscape began to radiate with a vibrant green and gold glow. The english boys would have been happy to go much faster but I was holding them back to just soak up the scenery. We stopped for lunch at the turn off to the caves unsure if it was Soppong or not. Aaron negotiated some lunch with us from a nearby shack where the lady had a soup kitchen. We agreed on 15 baht each for a bowl of pork ball soup which went down a treat. Owen and Chantel decided to eat across the road at a more orthodox thai restaurant and got Pad Thai for double the price.

Some looming stalactites in the Pangmapha caves.

Recharged with food we headed to the Pangmapha caves. The complex we were visiting apparently had three caves we could visit; Column Cave, Coffin Cave and Doll Cave. The way to visit the caves is on sketchy bamboo rafts, and there was a limit of 3 people per raft. In the end Chantel decided to sit the visit out not being particularly fond of dank dark planks. The rafts were essentially 6 or so bamboo poles lashed together with little wooden boxes on them for seats. One Thai lady, our non-english speaking guide, would sit at the front with a little gas lantern to light the way while another man would wade through the waste deep water pulling the raft along by a rope.

Our only light source inside the caves.

The caves had some impressive limestone rock formations. Of particular interest was a rock, called Crocodile Rock, because it looked like… well you can guess. The interesting part was it really did look a lot like its namesake. During the visit Heather and I were the only ones with headlamps, and we flaunted them by using their annoying strobe effects. They weren’t actually powerful enough to do much useful in the large caverns though and the guides lanterns were all we really needed. We got back on our raft and headed to the Coffin Cave, which as one might expect had coffins inside. These looked like old planks of timber scattered across the cave floor. The final cave was more of the same, with some slippery paths into the dark recesses to look at more rock formations, but it did provide a nice vantage point at the top to view the river we had come through the caves on.

Do the Crocodile Rock

With the caves done we headed back to Highway 1095 for the final 70km stretch to Mae Hong Son which would take us the rest of the afternoon. We cruised along, Andy and Chris taking point and blazing ahead at breakneck speeds, earning them the names Gunpowder and Cannonball. I was a little further back, followed by the rest of the back with Natasha up the back as the rear guard. The riding for this last part consisted of alternating up and down hill sections as we zig-zagged the contour lines. At one point along the way Andy and Chris pulled over at a little gravel carpark off the side of the road where a mini bus had stopped. It had just stopped sprinkling and there was a great view of the valley with a large rainbow. I pulled in wondering why they had stopped and Andy just pointed saying “There’s a rainbow”. “Ah” I replied and stopped my bike and fished out my camera. This viewpoint just happened to be around a corner heading downhill and the rest of the pack came round and pulled in, almost missing it. When Caitlin came in her  bike skidded in the loose gravel and just before it came to a stop luck deserted her and she went down under her bike. While pinned by a hundred kilograms of metal she lost it and started shouting in frustration at us, and at the world, as we came near to help. Luckily the Thai tour guides from the nearby Mini Van were on instant response mode and swooped down on her with bandages and disinfectants and had her cleaned up in no times. Cleaning the wounds was easy though, cleaning the spirit was another problem.

Andy's fateful rainbow.

After her second crash Caitlin’s confidence was soundly rattled and she didn’t want to ride anymore, but we had no choice, we had to get to Mae Hong Son. We continued on suggesting she take it very slow and go at her own pace, and Aaron and myself stayed back to keep an eye on her as we went the last stretch. An hour later we were starting to run out of light and had a problem. We were still 30km from the city which would take at another hour or two at our current pace. After catching up with the rest of the group who had finally stopped wondering where we had gotten to, we discussed options. Here we found out just how shaken Caitlin was. She had been riding at a crawl on every downhill section, and the reason had been that she was so terrified that she was literally crying while riding along. This was from a girl who never cries. We had gotten to the point where we would have to either risk riding in the dark, or do something drastic. I decided to do something drastic.

Heather in a cave being zapped by a funky lantern.

I suggested we ditch Caitlin’s bike at the side of the road as there was a convenient shelter type structure there. I would then double Caitlin to Mae Hong Song, and once we got there Aaron and myself would ride back double and pick up her bike. This we did. As soon as Caitlin was on the back of my bike and not riding anymore she immediately felt much better and  I gunned it down the last winding stretch to the city. We pulled up at a petrol station on the outskirts and I gave Heather my bike to ride as Aaron and I double back. On the way back we were flying along at 70 km/h, a ridiculous speed for the roads we were on, and we made it back  to the bike just as the sun was setting.

On the way back to Mae Hong Son we rode in darkness. This was stressful as the bikes had terrible headlights, and since I couldn’t use my sunglasses in the dark I had to deal with the wind in my eyes. Just to spite us it started raining and I now had driving pellets of water assaulting my eye balls. It was painful. I caught up to a truck and Aaron and I tailgated it for most of the way to make use of its headlights. Just as we were nearing town a bug flew into my eye so now I had only one eye, pelted by water and wind, to see with. It wasn’t much fun. Eventually we made it and stopped in front of a 7-Eleven and I squirmed as Aaron plucked the tiny bug off my eyeball. Now I know what it feels like to take contacts out. The others showed up at our unofficial meeting spot and lead us to the guesthouse they had found and we unpacked.

Obligatory temple photo, this one was on the outskirts of Pai.

By this point I was wrecked. The  sheer amount of stress and adrenaline that had been running through my body from dealing with the last crisis and just keeping the show on the road for the last two days had reached a critical point. I couldn’t deal with it anymore and just felt exhausted and lifeless. Add to that my bruised ribs and chest infection and I was not in a happy place and just wanted to be alone. Instead while Andy and Chris chilled in their room and Owen and Aaron showered, I sat in a room with the girls. They seemed cheerful and manic talking all sorts of nothings, I just sat quietly on the corner of the bed trying to tune it all out while stressing over how we were going to survive tomorrow. The problem was we had to plan out the next day as we had reached the end of the part of the trip we had actually planned, and after Caitlin’s crash we also had the problem of who would ride her bike if she refused.

Once everyone was showered we went for dinner and while food was being ordered Aaron and I pondered a map working out the rest of the route. Aaron wanted to try and get back to Chiang Mai tomorrow. I was of the opinion that that was reckless and we should take it a little easier and do it in two days. This way we could take some time to actually stop enjoy the sites instead of just blasting through the last couple of hundred kilometers to make it back before dark. Two possible options were the Long Neck villages and a hot spring both several kilometers outside Mae Hong Song. We decided to do it my way, but couldn’t work out where we would actually spend the night. There were a couple of options but none were particularly convenient so in the end we decided to leave it to chance and see how far we got tomorrow. Unfortunately this ment more stress for me.

Due to my mood I got Aaron to explain The Plan to the rest of the group, which to his credit he did in an incredibly entertaining and charismatic manner. It even managed to lift my spirits, a little. With everyone else satisfied knowing The Ring was in someone else’s hands, I went and played some pool with Chris and Andy and just generally brooded while waiting for my meal to come. I was starving and feeling more exhausted than I had in this whole trip. Unfortunately for me there had been a mix up, my food didn’t come. As I sat hungry and defeated Owen started riling me up about being grumpy until I snapped. “Don’t fuck with me Owen, I can’t deal with your shit right now” I warned him in a deadpan voice. He recoiled as if bitten. It wasn’t Owen I was angry with, but he was just in front when the levee broke. I waited longer and finally some food came and after that and a beer I started feeling human again. I was still dead on my feet though so after giving Owen a hug and apologising for my outburst I then retreated to bed for some much needed rest. Like the previous night I covered myself in Tiger Balm and devoured a pharmacists supply of various medicines and went to bed praying I felt better in the morning. We had come this far but we still had a long way to make it all the way back to Chiang Mai.