Northern Thailand by Motorbike:
The Mae Hong Son Loop
Part 1 - Preparation (sic) and riding to Mae Hong Son
It was one bike, three bags, two people, one of the busiest holiday weekends in Thailand, and no plan. From a Thai perspective taking a trip with no plan is a perfectly normal undertaking, well, most of the time. And a common northern Thailand motorbike trip is the Mae Hong Son loop - start in Chiang Mai and work southwest to Mae Sariang, then up to Mae Hong Son, over to Pai, and back to Chiang Mai. Over the New Year 2002/2003 holiday I did such a trip though it wasn't planned in advance nor did I know at the outset that I was doing a popular motorbike trip and didn't find out until I came upon some maps in Mae Hong Son detailing this exact thing.
Our trip began on Friday the 27th of December. Ning (that would be my girlfriend, a proper Thai girl of 26 who was more into planning things than I was) blew off work for the day and we went up to Morchit Bus Terminal around lunchtime to see if there were any bus tickets to anywhere in the country. Given that it was the second busiest holiday of the year (Songkran, the local new year - usually April 13-15, is the busiest) and buses had been booked out for weeks we weren't too confident that we'd find a ticket to anywhere except maybe Chachoengsao. Well there were tickets, lots of them. Yes, would you like to leave tonight at 7:30 pm for Chiang Mai? On a VIP-24 no less? We'll seeing as the two of us had talked about it a couple of weeks earlier, I purchased the two tickets before either one of us could think any further about it, leaving Ning to spend the next few hours fussing about getting ready in such a short time, where would we stay, and shouldn't we have some kind of plan? We have a plan, I said, we're going to Chiang Mai, renting a motorcycle and driving around until are butts are too sore to go any further and hopefully we'll be back in Chiang Mai when that happens, just like we talked about a few weeks ago when there weren't any bus tickets.
We turned up at Morchit excessively early, around 6:00 pm or so, just in case...right? and found our bus and then waited and waited, ultimately sitting on the bus for 45 minutes beyond the departure time because two people didn't turn up and the bus operators *waited* for them! With a quick noodle stop in the middle of the night we reached Chiang Mai around 6:30 am. The usual guesthouse touts were there, even though they claimed all accommodation was booked out for the weekend. Hmmm, didn't see the logic in that one, though I'm sure if we pressed them they'd have found us that special little guesthouse that just happens to have one room remaining. But first things first, we went straight to the ticket counter and bought return tickets on another VIP-24 leaving at 8:00 pm the night of January 1st returning the following morning in time for somebody to go off to her crappy office job which she has since quit.
Finding a place to stay was problematic and we spent about an hour and a half wandering around the Tha Phae Gate area while Ning fussed some more over how stupid we were to come here without a hotel reservation during the second busiest holiday of the year. I suggested instead of fussing we ought to put our mobiles to use and start calling places. She was right, but we did eventually find a hotel, some absolute shithole called the Kinnaree on the lower end of Moon Meuang, which we renamed 'rong raim pee', which in Thai means 'ghost hotel'. Even the guidebooks leave this place off their listings. It was indeed a horror but it was only one night and we weren't in Chiang Mai to sit in a hotel anyway. So Ning was half right. We were stupid to come without a reservation but it was better than sitting in Bangkok, and I, the optimist prevailed in that we did manage to find a place to stay. Still, we couldn't stand the place and I'll never again be allowed to go to Chiang Mai without a hotel reservation, at least not with her.
We picked up the bike, a Honda CB400 Super Four, around lunchtime on the 28th renting it from one of the many rental shops in Chiang Mai. I forget the exact name of the shop but it's near Tha Phae gate, on Thanon Moon Meuang just north of the gate near the market. There are a couple of shops there with a wide selection of bikes. The CB400 rented for 600 baht a day and proved to be a very comfortable, easily maneuvered bike with plenty of power for a trip that included two people and a couple of bags.
We then proceeded to Wat Phra Singh, one of Chiang Mai's most famous pagodas, in what would be the first of many temple visits, but perhaps this was the most important stop of them all. Entering the main vihara we paid our proper respects to the Buddha before inquiring to one of the resident monks if he would be so kind as to bless the bike and the driver (me), and adding proper prayers and well wishes for our journey.
Yours truly brought the motorbike around, whereupon the monk came outside with his holy water and splashed the requisite quantity on myself, seated on the bike, its motor running, my hands in a respectful wai. He then splashed the bike, continuing to chant prayers and incantations. We then returned to the vihara to say more prayers and receive more blessings and have a white string tied around our wrists.
The remainder of the day was spent first, atop Doi Suthep, the large mountain overlooking Chiang Mai and housing one of Thailand's most sacred temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. We'd been there before but it never hurts to visit again and wai phra for more luck. We then spent the last hour or two of daylight in preparation for the trip, I think Ning slept while I raced around Chiang Mai on the motorcycle.
With the blessing of the good Lord Buddha we left early the following morning (the 29th) on what would start as a cloudy drizzly day and not exactly setting the tone for a favorable trip. Breakfast in Hod and on to Mae Sariang where the weather began to show signs of improving. Sort of.
Shortly after leaving Mae Sariang the road climbed high into the mountains and we were soon shrouded in dense fog. And I do mean dense, like visibility of about five meters at best. Ning thought it was kind of neat and I did, too, but as the driver I think our opinions of what constituted neat and what are the limits of neat are not necessarily one and the same.
Stopping to pay my respects to a local tree, a group of about a dozen Thai bikers on a trip of their own zoomed by, all honking and waving. We would alternatively pass each other over the next two days and at one point we were flagged down and dragged into a brief photo session with them. Most had much larger bikes than I, 750s and 1100s.
Although I've driven a 250cc dirt bike (Honda XLR) throughout Cambodia I had previously done very little motorbiking in Thailand. In a word, both countries are dangerous to ride in. Much more so than in the west.
In Cambodia, there is no doubt that riding a motorbike is a dangerous endeavor. Not only are the roads absolute crap, but there is little respect for the roads, for speed, and for motorcycles of any size. Even on paved highways one must constantly be looking out for oblivious children and adults, and naturally oblivious dogs, pigs, and cows, and then throw in rice laying out to dry, ox carts, small kids on big bicycles, big kids on small bicycles, and anything else the locals think a road can be useful for. The idea that a road is exclusively for the use of motorized vehicles hasn't sunk in yet. Perhaps equally dangerous is that in Cambodia there seems to be little respect for speed. A pick-up truck dangerously overloaded with 20-plus passengers will hurtle down a highway at 120-kph or more with, it would seem, no understanding of the additional space needed to make a panic stop or the function of physics that point out the exponential increase in potential body harm in the result of a high speed wreck.
In Thailand, while drivers think nothing of running a motorcycle off the road, there is at least some respect for the roads and some comprehension that they can be a dangerous place to graze your cows. Still, people drive very fast but the roads are good and generally clear of the hazards that make Cambodia so interesting. My take is that Cambodia is a place one is far more likely to have an accident, but in Thailand an accident, given the faster road speeds, is more likely to have dire consequences. Heads you win, tails I lose.
Anyway, soon the clouds lifted and the day turned into a spectacular one with clear skies and comfortable temps.
We soon had our only mishap, we dropped the bike. We we're pulling up to a roadside stand for a snack and as I was turning the bike to stop, Ning jumped off too soon, unaware of the precarious balancing act that occurs when you're turning a bike sharply at 2 kph. No harm no foul, but Ning forever more waited until I had come to a complete stop before getting off.
The day soon began to drag for Ning. I was in the driver's seat, and being more accustomed to an enduro-style bike on crap roads, my body could have done 600 km that day. Ning, on the other hand, was not used to any of these things and was getting tired. But give her some credit, it was a 380-km day and she had half her seat taken up with our bags.
Part 1 - Preparation (sic) and riding to Mae Hong Son
Part 2 - Mae Hong Son
Part 3 - Pai
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.