My flight to Thailand touched down in Chiang Mai approximately one hour after it left Luang Prabang and it was like touching down in another world. After the small towns of Laos and their absence of most things resembling modern architecture or technology, Chiang Mai felt like something else. We had a short view of the city as we flew over and this was the biggest shock. There were roads. Roads with multiple lanes and cars. Cars that appeared to follow a coherent set of rules! Inside the airport proceedings were quick and efficient, there was even a man handing out free Sim cards for our mobile phones. At first glance Thailand appeared a very modern country, more like Singapore and Kuala Malaysia then its other South East asian neighbours Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Of course this illusion was quickly dispelled once Estelle and myself got outside the airport terminal and were attacked by a swarm of taxi drivers. This was more in line with the South East Asia I was accustomed to. On second glance Thailand is like a meeting in the middle, an East-meets-West crossroads. It has most of the western world’s convinces but still the grit and culture of Asia.
I had heard so many good things about Chiang Mai that I had set the bar quite high for this city. I fully expected it to be my favourite city in South East Asia before I arrived, and to be honest, it didn’t disappoint. Chiang Mai wasn’t as large or developed as the mega cities like Bangkok, Saigon or Singapore, and still felt like a large town. However every modern luxury you could require was there, depending on your budget, just without the bustle and hassle that usually comes with large places in tourist centric countries. Anyway, enough about the city and more about my time there.
Estelle and I ended up getting a taxi ride into town for the princely sum of 120 Baht, or if you prefer about $4, and on the ride I took in the city. Our destination was The Little Bird Guesthouse in the old city. Our taxi driver, a friendly middle aged Thai woman, kept jabbering out advice for us with her limited english. From her we managed to gather that there was a night market we should check out, and also a large walking market that only happens on sundays we should visit the following evening. But before markets I just wanted to find a hospital to get my damned stitches removed. I dumped my bags in my dorm room and immediately walked to the road and flagged down the first red truck that went past. These taxi-trucks which looked like the love child of a police paddy wagon, a taxi, and an old red telephone booth, would take you almost anywhere in the city for 10 or 20 Baht. I went to the hospital, which was a very modern building that looked like more like an airport lounge crossed with a fancy Pharmacy then a hospital, and within the hour was back on a taxi truck to the hostel. Efficiency.
Back at the Little Bird I pulled up a cushion with a bunch of travellers chilling out on the benches there and waited for a lull in the conversation to join in. This hostel turned out to be a great place to meet other travellers, and I met more awesome people here than any other single place I had stayed at so far. On that first night there was mostly a mix of English and Australians. Adrian, an Aussie in his early thirties, was talking about hiring motorbikes and driving up to Pai on Monday (at this point it was Saturday night) along with two english girls Mary and Micheala. Pai is a little mountain town around 160 km drive from Chiang Mai, and this ride was one of the things recommended to me by the Isle of Man boys in Luang Prabang that I really wanted to do. I said I’d come along, but I might have to leave a day later and catch up with them in Pai as I wanted to see Owen and Chantel who weren’t going to arrive till monday because their slow boat ride was indeed, as its name implies, slow.
Faced with leaving Chiang Mai soon and not knowing how long I would have in the city I decided to book a cooking course for the next day as this was another Must-Do for me while I was here. A Canadian by the name of Natasha who was sitting with us ended up booking with me. With that out of the way we all decided to go and have a little bit to eat and drink. For my first night in Chiang Mai I decided to try drinking the cheapest alcoholic drink in 7-Eleven, a little gem by the name of Siam Sato. Since you can drink on the street in Thailand you just walk into 7-Eleven grab a beer from the fridge and you’re good to go. The usual option is a large 640 mL bottle of Chang beer which sets you back around 45 Baht. Siam Sato though is almost half the price at 25 Baht, and stronger, since it’s rice wine based. It tasted to me like flat cheap cider and I ended up having 2 bottles in short order before we made our way to a place called the Reggee bar, a copy of which seems to rear its Rastafarian head in every city in South East Asia.
We arrived at the Reggae Bar to find a decent live band playing, but no one dancing. Natasha, the enthusiastic person she is, soon changed that. She grabbed some random Thai man who worked there and started dancing with him. After laughing ourselves silly we got up and joined in. That night the Siam Sato went straight to my head and I was telling everyone I met about our epic motorbike odyssey we had very vaguely planned. Aaron, another british guy from my hostel, was keen to come along. Later in the night I met up with an Aussie girl, Caitlin, whom I knew from way back in Cambodia where she was working in JJ’s in Sihanoukville when I was there. After I made some impossible promises about camping in the mountains she also signed up for the ride to Pai. None of us quite knew what we were getting into, but that didn’t bother us and we danced the night away to reggae covers.
I woke early the next day in pain. Horrible horrible self-inflicted hungover pain. The Siam Sato was nasty stuff the morning after, especially when your body was only used to drinking beer. But alas, I had a cooking course to attend and no headache or turbulent stomach would stand in my way. Natasha was also a little rough around the edges but all in all holding up much better than I was. At about 8:30 we got picked up and taken to our course with a company called Asia Scenic. I had chosen them over the 3 or 4 others in the hostel simply because they had more dishes in their brochue which I wanted to make. We got to pick 6 dishes to make out of some short lists, I chosea Papaya salad for the entre, Tom Yum for the soup, Pad Thai for the noodle dish, Chili chicken and basil for the stir fry, Massaman for the curry, and Mango with sticky rice for the desert.
First we were taken for a tour of the local market (which was right next to our guesthouse anyway) and had the infinite subtleties of rice explained to us. I’ve forgotten them all now, but have hazy memories of something along the lines of rice being like wine or whisky and getting better as it was aged, and the older the rice the more expensive it was. Something to that effect anyway. Several descriptions of the flavours and uses of exotic vegetables later and we were in the kitchen ready to cook! First up we made the Pad Thai, which I then ate cautiously, not sure how my stomach would take it. It took it well, and I started feeling better with some food in me. The rest of the day was spent preparing and cooking our various dishes. It was a fun day overall, but it did feel more like a tourist attraction then a proper cooking lesson. While I had a great time, and all the food I cooked tasted very good, I didn’t feel like I got as much out of it as I did with my cooking lessons in Siem Reap. Luckily we were given a nice booklet at the end of the course which contained all the recipes, so I can try them out again once I get back to Australia.
Early the next morning Adrian and the girls left for Pai, I got up not much later after a terrible night of little sleep and felt even worse than the day before. This time it wasn’t a hangover though, it was more like a looming case of the flu. Refusing to let mundane things like viruses stop my adventures, once Natasha woke we hired motorbikes to ride up to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. temple 15 km outside of Chiang Mai. This was to be a practice run for us on the bikes before our road trip as I wanted to get the hang of riding a manual bike before we set off. On the way had planned to stop off to visit a waterfall, but after seeing the rediculously overpriced entrance fee we just continued right along up the mountain to the temple.
Since we arrived on a sunday, which also happened to be some sort of public holiday in Thailand, the temple was packed with Thai pilgrims. We parked our bikes, Natasha getting a nasty muffler burn from a neighbouring bike in the process, and marched up the hundreds of steps to the gigantic gold structure sitting atop the hill. The temple complex was quite large and while the large gold Pagoda was the main attraction, there were plenty of other things to see. The view of Chiang Mai was impressive, if not entirely photogenic, and there were many children playing music and performing traditional dances for the Thai and western tourists both.
I arrived back in Chiang Mai in the afternoon feeling comfortable on my bike and confident in the trip. Aaron was back at the Little Bird with a map looking for possible routes. We decided to roughly follow what is known as the Mae Hong Son Loop (henceforth ring in this post). This involved heading to Pai for the first night, then the city of Mae Hong Son near the Myanmar border for the second night, but after this it was a little hazy. There was considerable distance to cover to get back to Chiang Mai and I wanted to go over Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand, on the way back. The problem was the terrain and road quality here were unknown factors and we didn’t know if this would take one or two days to cover. We also didn’t know where we would stay as there were no conveniently placed large towns, but we figured we could work that out on the road.
Thus our Mae Hong Son Ring journey was planned and all that was left was to finalise the participants. So far there was myself, Natasha and Aaron. Aaron had also signed on an American, Heather, who was going to share a bike with Aaron and ride double. Heather had then signed up two British guys in her dorm room, Chris and Andy. Caitlin arrived later as our seventh, changing from her hostel to the Little Bird to prepare for the trip and sounding slightly disappointed that promises of camping would probably not be kept. Finally, Owen and Chantel arrived after their slow boat journey from Laos, exhausted by the long days of doing nothing but watching brown water stream by. We had a quick reunion and then I informed them of our epic plan. After a little discussion they signed up. Thus the fellowship was formed. 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. This is the tale of the Mae Hong Son Ring.