Nine riders to lead the way, seven bikes to guide them, and one ring to bring them all and in the mountains bind them. In the far north of Thailand where adventure lies. Thus begins the tale of the Mae Hong Son Ring.But before any great journey begins, one must prepare.
The night before our departure was to be an early one. It was mostly spent with everyone packing small day bags that they could take on their motorbikes. Me and Heather finished packing early and chilled out in the dorm room shared by Caitlin, Owen and Chantel while they finished up. Here we amused ourselves with Owen’s Gameboy playing Tetris. After everyone else had had a go, I took my turn after claiming I would beat Owen’s high score of 155 lines, little did I know I actually would. Many minutes later I hit 150 lines in good stead and the bricks were falling fast. I had gathered a crowd by this point and had Heather watching over one shoulder, Caitlin over the other, and Chantel in the front. The sweat started to prickle on my brow as I beat Owen’s high score and hit 160 lines. The bricks got faster and faster. I squirmed trying to see the screen as the girls blocked the light, they were more excited and nervous than I was. Next Owen said I had to beat 165 lines so he would win a bet he had made with a friend at home. I made it to 170 lines, and things were insane. The bricks were falling so fast I barely had time to spin them once before they pounded into the wall. Owen said the final score to beat was 173 lines which was supposedly was the high score of Keaty, a character in the book The Beach. Moments later I made it to 175. I roared victorious and in this moment of exultation missplaced one block and microseconds later was staring at the words “Game Over”. I exhaled and relaxed while the girls stared at me with awe. Caitlin said “I am oddly turned on by that” and Heather added “Girls dig guys with skills”. Even Gameboy skills apparently, who would have thought? Exhausted and triumphant, I went to bed.
I woke up the next day ragged and heaving with a nasty dry cough. Three nights in a row with bad sleep and I was rather worse for ware. But the show must go on, and I picked up my bag, got an early breakfast with the Fellowship, and by 9:30am we were on our bikes and cruising out of Chiang Mai on highway 107. The fresh air in my face as we zipped along helped ease my ailments and everyone was in high spirits. Approaching the turn off to Highway 1095, the road to Pai, I was flagged down by some Thai policeman. They were pulling over motorbikes at the side of the road and grilling them on something or another. As I pulled in, glad I had brought my Australian Drivers licence along for the ride, the officer asked me “Where you go?”. “Pai” I explained, to which he replied “Pai, that way. Go, go go!” and pointed at the turn off while looking at me as if wondering why I bothered to stop.
Highway 1095 was when the real ride started. There wasn’t much traffic and we hit our first hills, only slight ones at first. Before long Caitlin spotted a sign for a waterfall. We all pulled off the road and onto a dirt track to try and find it. The track seemed to end a couple of hundred meters further along in a muddy hiking trail. We retreated and continued a little further up the road to another waterfall sign. This time there was a proper, if poorly maintained, dirt road to follow. After following the road over some steep hills and making fine use of the lower gears on our manual bikes we were sorely disappointed by a car park and ticket booth at the end. Like the waterfall on the way to Wat Phra Doi Suthep, this one had high priced entrance fees. The call to retreat was again sounded. On the way out for some reason Chantel was doubling with Andy instead of Owen and they fell behind. I was waiting back near the road with the rest of the troupe wondering where they had gotten two when they appeared, a little dustier than usual, and with a bit of blood on their legs and arms. They had won the prize of begin the first to crash. They had fallen over while going up a particularly steep part of the dirt track on the way out. Crash Number One.
With the first crash out of the way we continued along on our merry way, some of us a little more cautious after the first fall, most of us still blazing on recklessly. Our next stop about half an hour further into the hills was at a little road side shack in the middle of nowhere for some drinks and a breather. Here the temperamental nature of my bikes kick start reared its head, a nuisance that would plague me throughout the trip. Once we were ready to go my bike wouldn’t start. No matter how hard I tried, or anyone else tried, no luck. Aaron suggested trying to clutch start it. I wasn’t sure how this would go on a bike, but I wheeled it up a steep driveway nearby and put it into first. As I rolled down I jumped on the kicker and gave it gas, and the bike leapt into life. I almost fell over from the moving kick start attempt, and then as the engine came to life I narrowly avoided ploughing through Chris and Owen as I rolled out onto the road.
Follow this the fellowship continued onwards towards Pai. We rode on through lush green foliage and rustic villages and many kilometres later we stopped for another waterfall detour. Again we followed a narrow dirt track for 30 minutes into the hills only to find another ticket booth. By this point we had agreed that with so many waterfalls around there had to be a free one and refused to pay. We also agreed no more waterfall stops before Pai. One the way out Crash Number Two happened and I saw this one first hand. I was heading up a steep section of road with Chris just in front Owen and Chantel on the bike just to my right. I stepped down to second gear to get some extra grunt to make it up the hill while simultaneously wondering how Owen was managing with the weight of two on his bike. Just at that moment I saw him step down gears too, probably to first. Something went wrong moments later and his bike started to death wobble. “Don’t do it!” I screamed in my head as his bike tumbled over and landed ontop of him and Chantel, the poor girl having now been involved in crashes One and Two, and both with her merely an unfortunate passenger. They were relatively unharmed though, just a few more scratches and bruises to add to the pile, so we pushed on.
We got back to the highway but Aaron and Heather were missing. While waiting I finished off the rest of my meagre supply of food, some biscuits with seaweed on them, and wondered what was keeping them. Fifteen minutes later I started to worry Crash Number Three had claimed them. Caitlin fired up her bike and headed back down the trail to search for them. Another 10 minutes passed. Eventually Caitlin turned up with Heather on the back of her bike. Indeed there had been an incident, though Crash Number Three wasn’t quite what we expected. They had only punctured a tire. No blood, no bruises. We pushed on.
I blazed ahead with Chris and Andy while in the middle of the pack Heather doubled with Caitlin, Owen/Chantel and Natasha followed, miles behind at the rear poor Aaron had to ride at walking speeds because of his flat tire. Another twenty or thirty minutes down the road I pulled over and waited for the others to catch up. While waiting Aaron came flying by ridding shotgun in a pickup truck with his bike lashed on the tray. He had gotten lucky and a benevolent local had pulled over and given him a free ride to Pai to get his bike fixed. We were less than an hour away now, and this home stretch proved to be the most eventful.
First it started to rain. Rain plus motorbikes plus inexperienced riders plus steep winding mountain roads equals trouble. The Fellowship minus Aaron pulled over and put on our raincoats and ponchos and pressed on, such things couldn’t slow us down! Caitlin was going especially fast, her and Heather were out at the front of the pack and I was following close behind with Andy and Chris in hot pursuit. At this point we had started going downhill having crossed the peak of the mountain leading to Pai. All of a sudden I saw Caitlin’s bike swerved wildly in front of me. It cut sharply to the left, ripped violently to the right and then took one more jagged swing across the road to the left before finally flipping over and coming down hard on top of Caitlin and Heather, crushing them into the road. I had about half a second to think “Fuck, they’re dead!” before I had to slam on my breaks and kick my bike sharply to the left to avoid running them down.
I still don’t know how I did it, but somehow I managed to execute a ridiculously sharp swerve and avoid them. In the process I ended up throwing my bike sideways onto the road where it skidded along for several meters sparks flying from the peg digging into the road. While this was happening I had miraculously managed to leap myself clean over my falling bike, land on my feet on the road in front of the skidding machine and run. I was trying to run off a motorbike crash like you would bailing from a longboard while skating. It was the most ridiculous thing. I remember landing on my feet and starting to run thinking “I can do this!”, three steps later I realized this was madness and my new thought was “Drop and roll!” which I did, my tightly stuffed backpack taking most of the impact. All of this happened in the blink of an eye and I shakily stood up on the road and looked back at the wreckage. Caitlin and Heather were pinned under their bike and not moving. Chris and Andy were stopped just before the crash looking gobsmacked. A car was coming from the other direction and angrily beeping its horn for us to get out of its way.
I gingerly walked up and lifted the Caitlin’s bike off the girls. They were both talking and moving, they were alive. I dragged their bike to the side of the road, it was miraculously unharmed, then went back for mine. My bike had faired the worst. Leading up to the bike was a tale of skid marks, gouged road and shattered glass. Its peg was horribly bent, and its left mirror was shattered. The left handle bar also was missing its endocarp, all in all pretty minor considering what happened. The true miracle was how little Heather, Caitlin and myself were injured. For myself I had a small graze on my left knee and some slight road rash on my left hip. The girls were more banged up, but still nothing worse than bad bruising and grazes. The greatest damage was to our pride. That was Crash Number Four, now everyone but Chris and Natasha had gone down.
While piecing ourselves back together Owen and Chantel had caught up and heard about what happened. A little later Natasha, who had been calmly keeping her own steady pace up the rear of the pack, showed up. She was the smart one. We took it much easier on the last stretch to Pai. I doubled Heather for this stretch too. I didn’t feel too rattled by the crash as I knew my only fault was following too closely behind, a mistake I vowed not to repeat again. I’ve also been in a couple of car crashes before, though never as the driver, and was surprisingly calm and unfazed during them too. It was difficult to ride my banged up bike with the bent peg as I had to do some creative footwork to shift gear, but I figured I could get that fixed in Pai, which blessedly we made it to without further incident. We rendezvoused with Aaron at the petrol station outside town and then went to find a Mr Jan’s Guesthouse. After checking in I went to get my bike resuscitated. Seventy Baht later I had a new mirror and the riding peg hammered back into position, not bad as far as damages go, and rode back into town to get some dinner with the crew. We all sat around at the hostel for awhile and reminisced on the days events. We had made it to Pai alive, and Pai Alive became the new name and mantra of our fellowship.