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Lords of the Ring (Part IV): Hallelujah

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.

Day 3 of The Ring began on a much brighter note than Day 2 ended. An actual decent nights sleep, mostly thanks to some sleeping pills donate by Caitlin, and I was feeling a word better. The Tiger Balm had done the trick too, and now I didn’t feel like I would bust a rib every time I coughed. Things were looking up! We rendezvoused early around the motorbikes outside the Guesthouse and sorted out the riding order for the day. Since Caitlin didn’t want to go near her bike, now known as The Red Devil, she had organized to swap with Heather and double with Aaron. The only problem was Heather didn’t want to ride The Red Devil either. I could understand why, I had ridden it back the day before and preferred my own bike by a wide margin. In the we ended up with Aaron riding the devil and doubling Caitlin, while Heather rode the bike she had been riding with Aaron the day before. Since Heather hadn’t ridden before, and had largely missed out on riding through the mountains the previous two days, she was really thrown in the deep end, but I promised to hang back and help her out.

One of the temples in Mae Hong Song, the seemed to have a Myanmar influence here.

Rider issues sorted we headed to the local Morning Market to find some breakfast. These markets were great, and full of lots of amazing Thai food, some of which must have had a Myanmar influence as I hadn’t seen it in any other places before. We all wandered around and tried a variety of different delicious things for breakfast. Stuffed with food we then headed out of town. Outside of town we took Highway 108 and headed south. Our first stop was one of the infamous Long Neck villages. These long neck villages are supposed to be hill tribe villages where the women attach rings to their neck which pushes their shoulder blades down and appears to lengthen their neck, thus giving them their name. The ones up here though had a reputation for being circus like tourist attractions, but Aaron was determined to see a Long Neck.

Taking our queue from an old wooden signpost, we turned off the 108 and headed down a back road to find our village. At the end of the road however we instead found a small dock slash tourist agent. Here we were told that we had to catch a boat to see the long necks, and it would be a $10 fee each for the privilege. After convincing Aaron that it wasn’t worth spending $10 each to see a glorified market we instead posed for some photos with a wooden statue of a Long Neck and took our leave. This statue was the closest we would get. Chris instead went and took a photo of a poster of a real Long Neck lady so he could at least fake that he saw them. With the Long Neck detour aborted, our next stop was some thermal springs further along the highway.

The closest we got to seeing a Long Neck.

We arrived at the hot springs and marched inside the complex. Their was an awning off to one side for massages, several buildings for change rooms and various baths off to the other, and a large sulphurous lake out in front. We charged for the lake and started asking the lady how much to get in. She told us we can’t swim in the lake. She didn’t speak much english, and some confused gesturing and questioning between her and our group, we found out we had to go to a bath in one of the previously mentioned buildings. This bath was huge, big enough for all of us and a few extras, and totally empty. We sat around in the empty bath laughing at the idea that this is what we paid. There was large plastic pipe sticking out of the side that the water would come from that we were waiting for the lady to come back and switch on. I joked that she when she opened it water would probably come flying out of the tube and into Heathers face on the other side of the bath.

Enjoying the burning waters of the hot springs near Mae Hong Son.

The lady came back after switching the pump on and turned the gigantic tap on the pipe. Lo and behold, the water came barreling out and shot across the bath into Heathers face. After the initial burst of pressure it just flooded into the bath and slowly began filling it up with very hot water. It was almost too hot to sit in. It took 5 or 10 minutes to fill the bath up and after that we all eased back in, cringing at the heat, and let our bodies adjust to the temperature. We spent around half an hour soaking in the water. It was divine letting all my muscles relax after 2 days spent hunched over on a hard motorbike seat. Following the soak half of us decided to go and get Thai massages. With our muscles already loose from the hot springs, the Thai massage was amazing. Myself, Owen, Caitlin, Heather and Chantel were all lined up in the massage pate moaning at the sweat agony of the Thai massage. If you’ve never had one before, they do some almost Chiropractic things during it, like grabbing you from behind in a head hold and violently twisting your torso until your spine cracks. But it hurts so good. During the massage we also learned the important Thai expression “Dee Ma Ma!”. This means “Really good!”. After the massage Heather and I jumped back in the hot spring bath until we left like we had almost found nirvana. But before we could get there, Aaron came by wanting to get the show back on the road and we packed up and rode out back onto Highway 108.

Our next destination was the town of Khun Yuam, where we planned to refuel ourselves with lunch and our bikes with petrol, before turning off the 108 to head across the mountains towards Doi Inthanon. After the plateau of Mae Hong Son we were not back into the hills, though they weren’t as steep as those of the previous day. While most of the group blazed on ahead I kept a slower pace at the rear with Heather while she got comfortable riding her bike. I had her follow me and showed her what sort of lines to take going around the corners on the winding and steep terrain. We pulled over at one point and asked me how she could tell what gear she should be in for the different up and downhill parts. I decided on a complicated series of hand gestures to tell her which gear I was in as I rode ahead for the next leg. If I held my left arm out at around 8 o’clock I was in 2nd gear, 9 o’clock 3rd gear, and 10 o’clock for 4th. We continued on like this and Heather got the hang of it pretty quickly.

These fields were right next to the Hot Spring Spa halfway between Mae Hong Son and Khun Yuam.

Coming up to Khun Yuam, the roads flattened and straightened out and we had a chance to really get up some speed. Me and Heather got up to 100 km/h on one stretch as we tried to catch up with others. Just before we arrived in Khun Yuam, Caitlin decided to film a video of the group, so Aaron dropped his bike to the back. We rode slowly as he overtook us all while we waved our arms and legs about whooping and yeeewing as the camera went past. Sadly the camera battery died mid movie and we never got to see it. In Khun Yuam, after getting petrol my bike refused to start. I couldn’t start it, none of the others could start it, even the guys at the petrol station couldn’t start it. They told me to wheel it on to a mechanic just down the road. The mechanic just looked at it, poked a screw driver somewhere into the belly of the bike, and then stamped on the kick start and it started first try. No charge. Befuddled I hoped on and caught up with the others at a little road side store for some lunch. Lunch was BBQ skewers of various meat balls lathered in sweet chilli sauce for 5 baht a piece. It was delicious. There were two drunk Thai guys at a table next to us trying to offer us whatever poison they were drinking, but they only ended up smashing a glass. We got out before they tried to offer us anymore.

By this point it was late afternoon and we only had maybe 2 hours of light left. Aaron wanted to push on and see where we could stay. We followed, though I was worried that we wouldn’t find much as this was the biggest town for the next 100 km. 1 hour later the sun was setting and we had nowhere to stay. We tried asking for a guesthouse at a petrol station in a small town we passed though but no one spoke english, and my phrase book Thai wasn’t very well understood. Eventually a lady who spoke French told us to go further along and there was another town we could stay at. We continued on and ended up at a dodgy looking retreat where we were offered to stay in little shacks for 200 baht per person. This seemed expensive and the consensus was to find somewhere else. As we road on the sun set but Aaron was convinced there would be somewhere to stay just around the corner. The rest of us were all grumbling that he was a fruit bat and we’d end up sleeping in a ditch on the side of the road at this rate. This was a prospect that Natasha was excited for as she could use her wilderness survival skills to build us a shelter.

Heather showing her maternal instincts.

Instead of sleeping in a ditch, a we witnessed a miracle. We crested a hill in the dark middle of nowhere and found a little road side store with some wooden shacks next to it. “I heard this place gets rave reviews in the Lonely Planet” Andy said as we sighted it. Lonely Planet or no they told us we could stay there. They had just finished building one of the wooden shacks, literally that day I believe, and they said we could sleep in it. All 9 of us, very snuggly, and it would be 100 Baht each. The second shack was still under construction. They also offered us food. Relieved we rejoiced and sat around and ate a tasty meal of soup and drank some beers. The place even came complete with an adorable little white puppy.

Chantel and our mountain Puppy. We almost took him with us.

After dinner the friendly locals built us a campfire which we sat around wearing ridiculous Mexican hats that we had found earlier in the store. I asked one of the Thai guys if he had a guitar, he said he didn’t, but then his friend said he had one at his house and promptly jumped on his motorbike and road off into the distance. Around 20 minutes later he was back with an acoustic guitar and it was time for singsongs. Several bottles of Thai whiskey were passed around the circle as the music began. The Thai guy played some local songs for us, then I started playing some songs. Sadly while I am a decent guitarist I never bother to learn covers so don’t have much of a repertoire for these moments. I said I could play Hallelujah, but I could only remember the first two verses so someone else would have to take over then. I played it, but no one took over. While the finger picked chords rung out solo over the crackling fire I said “Ok, lets just free style the lyrics, everyone make up a verse!” and so we went around the circle improvising. Each time we got to the chorus everyone joined in with the “Hallelujah, hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelu-u-u-u-u-jah”. It was a hilarious and absurd moment, but somehow deeply fitting and symbolic of our trip. The song went forever, and by the time we had finished all 9 improvised verses I must have been playing those damn chords for 20 minutes. With Hallelujah finished Natasha decided to pick up the mood by singing us a country song of sorts. She got up and sang in a twangy country voice, “Rye whisky, rye whisky, rye whisky I cry. If I don’t get rye whisky I think I may die”. This come complete with a jig, during which she almost stumbling into the fire, after which she nonchalantly picked up a burning log, lit a cigarette with it, and sat back down. Canadians, they’re crazy.

Playing guitar around a campfire while wearing Mexican hats. It doesn't get any better.

Once we had all recovered from our laughter at Natasha’s intermission, Owen and myself took turns playing random things and we all just sat around drinking whisky and enjoying the moment. Moments like this were the reason we came on the adventure, and indeed these moments are the whole reason I go traveling in the first place. What could have been a disaster if we hadn’t found somewhere to stay had turned into one of the best nights of my trip. Later in the night I put on a mini Eclectic Dreams concert and played several of my own songs. As the fire burned down and the whisky ran dry people started going to bed. Eventually the music died and I put the guitar back in the shop.

Caitlin, Andy and Natasha enjoying the moment.

The only people still awake where myself, Natasha, Andy and Aaron. We decided to lay in the middle of the road and look at the stars. The stars were amazingly bright up here due to the absence of civilization and it’s light pollution. While trying to work out where the Big Dipper was someone heard a noise and we all jumped up and dived off the road expecting a car to come. It was just their imagination. Failing to find the dipper it was time for bed. Aaron and Natasha were sleeping on the balcony, while the rest of us had a sardine arrangement in the shack. Since there was only one mattress we used all the blackest to pad the floor, this meant no blankets and it was cold. I squeezed myself in between Caitlin and Heather, wearing essentially all the clothes I had brought with me and shivered my way through the night.