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 concludes the tale of the Mae Hong Son Ring.
I woke up in the morning cold and bleary eyed. The Shack didn’t provide the greatest nights sleep. I went out on the porch where Natasha and Aaron had slept, and sat down to enjoy the view. We were overlooking a valley full of corn fields. I pulled out my iPod and went searching for appropriate music for the moment, though their was only ever one album I would play at this time. I put on Explosions In The Sky – The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, one of my all time favourite records, and just sat their and watched the sun creep up above the clouds as First Breath After Coma downed out all other sounds. Nine and a half minutes later I turned around and saw everyone else was rousing, but I still wasn’t quite done with my musical moment. A fog had started to roll through the valley, so it was time to change bands. Next up was Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan, and for the following 16 minutes I sat and watched as the entire valley was slowly obscured under a white blanket of fog.
By now everyone was up and it was time to start thinking about breakfast and getting out of there. We ate some odds and ends purchased from the road side store and then settled our bill with our timely Thai benefactors. Just to make our stay even more amazing they informed us that there was an elephant rescue camp nearby, and that in a few minutes they would be bringing the elephants by to take them down to a river for a bath. Sure enough ten minutes later two adult elephants and one baby elephant came plodding by. We followed taking some photos and I started talking to a british girl that was volunteering at the rescue camp. There two adults had been rescued from tourist elephant riding places where they had been abused which is apparently a common problem in Thailand. While an average elephant in the wild can live for 100 years or more, those in the tourist industry rarely make it past 50. She said that on average 500 elephants die a month in Thailand, but you don’t notice because a similar number are smuggled over the boarder from Myanmar each month to be sold back into the tourist business.
With my excitement at seeing elephants sobered by these revelations we took our leave and got back on the road. Today the plan was to make it to the town of Mae Chaem for lunch, and then head over Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, and finally on to Chiang Mai. The road to Mae Chaem was much like the previous days mountain riding, only we spent the morning heading mostly downhill instead of up. The only incident on this stretch happened to Heather. As per the day before, I stayed near the back of the pack with Heather, this time with her leading, me following keeping an eye on her, and Natasha just behind me. As we came down around on particularly tight hair pin Heather entered the corner a little wide, and just as she came around the bend an oncoming truck came flying in from the other direction and cut the corner way to tightly. I had just enough time to think “Oh shit…” while seeing Heather being mowed down by a truck in my minds eye, but at the last moment she braked and swerved and ended up missing the truck by only a couple of centimetres. I flew by her on the inside knowing that she would be shitting herself after that near miss, and so I pulled over on the shoulder just up ahead. Heather pulled up behind me and I ran over and gave her a hug, telling her “Deep breaths, you’re ok” as she was shaking with the shock of her near head on collision. Natasha pulled up after Heather and asked, “What happened? How did you know to stop?”. “Because I saw Heather almost get hit by a truck” I replied. She had been too far behind to see what happened. We waited at the side of the road for a couple of minutes letting Heather catch her breath and let our heart rates drop and then continued on to catch up with the others.
After the corner incident Heather understandably didn’t want to ride the bike for a while. This meant she would have to swap back with Caitlin. Caitlin had been in ridiculously high spirits all morning and previous day while doubling with Aaron, but as soon as swapping back was brought up her mood crashed down like an avalanche. She got back on her bike, but she was not happy. I guess she was still a little scared to ride again, and she snapped at anyone who gave her any obsolete advice like “Just take it slow”. We continued on this way to Mae Chaem where we stopped for petrol and lunch. As the ride continued Caitlins mood just got worse, so once we arrived at Mae Chaem for lunch and petrol I tried to convince Heather to ride again. I persuaded her that she would be fine, and I’d stay back with her like the previous days and make sure nothing happened, and we could take it as slow as she wanted. Heather agreed and went off to convince Caitlin she wanted to ride again and they swapped back. Like a yo-yo Caitlin was back to high spirits as soon as she was off the bike. She really didn’t like that thing.
With our mostly downhill morning done, we continued on into the national park surrounding Doi Inthanon and started our ascent towards the summit. On the way up it started raining again, this time reasonably heavily so we had to take it very slow. Once we reached the turn off at the top of the road, we had the option of entering the park proper, which cost money, and going to the actual summit, or continuing back down the mountain towards Chiang Mai. I wanted to go to the summit, rain or no, but no one else did so we continued on. The road down was much like the road up, winding and narrow, though with many more cars than we had seen for the rest of the trip. Most of the mountain roads we had been on had been blessedly deserted, but this place was a popular day trip from Chiang Mai and so had its share of traffic.
On the way down there was another waterfall. By this point I was pretty over waterfalls, I’d seen plenty over here and none had been particularly impressive. Of course since I’ve been to Iguazu Falls in Argentina/Brazil and Niagara in Canada there are very few waterfalls left in the world which I would find impressive. I decided to continue on with Heather, we had been trailing behind everyone for most of the day anyway so this gave us a bit of a head start on them. We pulled over near the base of the mountain to check out a temple, and the others caught up to us here. Apparently the waterfalls were a lot better than the ones at Pai, but as I said before, I’ve seen the best so I wasn’t worried. With everyone together we got ready for the home stretch, Highway 108 all the way to Chiang Mai.
This was the first real traffic we had seen since leaving Chiang Mai 4 days ago, it was a dual carriage way Highway swarming with bikes, cars and trucks. But with a flat straight road under our wheels we went for it. Andy, Chris, Aaron and Owen flew off ahead going at least 100 km/h, while Heather Natasha and myself followed at a slightly slower pace around 90 km/h. I tried to signal to Heather in front that I was going to pull over, but she didn’t see me. I pulled over and put my raincoat on as a windbreaker, it was pretty cold going along in a t-shirt at those speeds, and then tried to catch up. I pushed my bike up to 110 km/h trying to get sight of Heather, but I couldn’t find her. I was weaving in and out of traffic, over taking cars at a breakneck pace. At that speed my bike’s engine was screaming and my jacket was puffed out like a parachute with the wind resistance threatening to lift me off the back of my bike like a balloon if I didn’t hunch over and hold on for dear life. I could feel that the slightest bump or wrong movement would send my bike might fly out of control, also sending me to an early grave.
I never did find Heather, but after continuing on like that for a few minutes I noticed Aaron pulling out of a petrol station and pulled over to wait for him. Him and Andy went speeding past and I got back on the road to catch up with them. This time I made my bike give me absolutely everything it had. I got it up to 115 km/h and couldn’t get anything else out of it. I caught up with the others and we continued on at these reckless speeds until we hit the outskirts of Chiang Mai and had to slow down in the heavier traffic. Once we neared the old town it was every man for themselves, and I got lost taking different turns to the others. I ended up riding around till I saw somewhere I recognized and then from there I eventually found my way back to the Little Bird guesthouse. Within a few minutes the rest of the crew showed up, minus Heather and Natasha. We talked about how crazy it was going at the speeds we did, apparently I had claimed the top speed prize, no one else managed to get over 110 km/h. Though my bike was 125 cc, while Andy and Chris only had 110 cc bikes, and Aaron and Owen were doubling people, which explains why. Another 20 minutes past with no sign of Heather and Natasha and I started getting worried. I was supposed to keep an eye on Heather and I started freaking out thinking something might have happened to them in the traffic.
Eventually they showed up. The reason they were so far behind was that Heather had pulled over to look for me, and then backtracked, but somehow we missed each other. Relieved that nothing had gone wrong, I had a shower and then got a beer. I chilled out on the decks at the Little Bird while everyone else unwound from our epic trip. We had made it back, I still couldn’t quite believe it. What had started out as an idle idea “Hey, lets hire motorbikes and go for a little ride into the mountains” had turned into a 4 day, 620 km trek through the most mountainous terrain of Northern Thailand. Eventually the rest of The Fellowship found their way down to the decks and it was time to celebrate our success. Aaron gave one last little presentation, he had also made up little certificates for everyone on some notepaper, and then the drinking started.
As more people from the hostel started joining us we started playing some drinking games, eventually getting into a big game of Kings (or Kings Cup, King of Beers, Ring of Fire, or whatever you call it where you’re from). If you don’t know what this game is you take a deck of cards and spread them in a ring around a large glass. Each card has something you have to do, like take a drink, or give someone else a drink, or make a rule etc, and you take it turns choosing a card. Every time someone gets a king they pour some of their drink into the glass in the middle. The game ends when the 4th king is drawn, the drawer begin the loser who has to drink the Kings Cup in the middle. Our game came down to two cards left and it was my turn. I had a 50/50 chance of getting the last king. I had a sinking feeling as a drew my card and knew straight away what it would be… it was the 4th King. Game Over. Sufficiently drunk from the awful concoction of Siam Sato, Chang Beer and Smirnoff Black, it was time to head out. We gathered the troops and all headed to Reggae bar for the rest of the night.
The next morning we were all deservedly hung over and had to return our motorbikes to our various places. Owen was first to take his back. Apparently when he had turned it over the Thai lady at the shop had inspected it, and said to him “Accident?”. Luckily for him she didn’t know much english, so he just said “Noooo, no accident”. This “Accident!”, “No accident!” went back and forth for awhile until the lady gave up and game him back his passport which they keep as colateral. Caitlin’s bike, The Red Devil which had seen the most crashes, was next. She had a team of people swarming over it looking for dings, but other than a few scratches they couldn’t find anything to pin her with and had to give her passport back too. By now I was a little worried, as mine was the bike that had gotten the most damage in our first day of crashes. While I hard replaced the mirror, their was still the problem of the damaged handlebar. Since my bike was a bit older than the others it already had its share of scratches so they wouldn’t notice a few more. I took it back to Tony’s Big Bikes, where I distracted the jolly englishman Tony with stories of our adventures, careful to skip all the accidents, as one of his Thai assistants went over the bike. He spent a while looking at the handle bar, but in the end I guess he couldn’t remember weather it was like that to start with or not and gave it the all clear. I got my passport back, hooray!
That afternoon it was time for the fellowship to be broken. Aaron, Caitlin, Natasha and Heather were all getting a bus up to Laos, while the rest of us were staying in Chiang Mai. We said some emotional goodbyes, over 4 days we had all become really close, and that was that. The epic journey of the Mae Hong Son Ring had come to a close. Nine riders, seven bikes, five crashes, four days, three nights, and 620 km of mountain roads. We had survived, battered, but alive. We were the Lords of the Ring.