Chiang Rai to Pai on the Ninja ...

I was awake at first light and ready to go by seven but it was a cold, wet, cloud of mist that enveloped my world at this hour.  Delaying as long as I dared, half an hour later I was on my way regardless of the weather.  With the visor open, eyes stinging and water dripping down my face, I limped along at a feeble pace.  Bumps in the road would dislodge the droplets on the windscreen, adding to my discomfort and further blurring my vision.  It was the same with the visor on my helmet, covered in mist as it was.  It wasn’t until I passed Chiang Rai town that I was able to put the visor down and start making time on what I expected to be at least a seven hour ride.

One full-moon cycle had passed since our trip to Pai with Cookie in the truck.  This time I was alone on the Ninja 650, with only a vague idea what I would be doing.  I spent a couple of days on my Google Map examining our previous route and looking for alternate roads that would expose me to new ground.  Google Maps suggested a route through Chiang Dao which turned out to be a no go.  After speaking with locals in the area I retraced my path, pleased to discover that my wife had not missed a shorter route on our previous trip, but discourage that I had waisted valuable time on a false trail.

I am a bit of a dinosaur in that I have never used GPS and this time even traveled without a map.  There are, after all, road signs and locals to ask if one is uncertain about the path ahead.  The overcast conditions made for a cool and comfortable day of riding but not a good day for photography.  I had modified a liner from an older jacket to use with a new lighter one and that kept me comfortable during the cold wet morning.  It wasn’t until noon that felt the need to remove that liner and once again enjoyed feeling the cool breeze on my upper body.

I arrived in Pai at two thirty, almost exactly seven hours from my time of departure.  After a shower and a little nap it was time to eat and explore parts of Pai that we didn’t have time for on the last trip.  The first thing I noticed was the change in atmosphere.  Gone were the crowds of Bangkok Thais and in their place was a smattering of foreign travelers.  To be fair it was still early and the vendors were just setting up in parts of walking street but I wanted to take advantage of the evening light and catch the sunset down by the river.  The walk from the hotel to the river and back did wonders for my feet and legs.  Having collected a few shots and after a massage I turned in early, so still don’t know what the nightlife is like in Pai.

Twenty years ago I may have joined my fellow travelers in one of the open bars or restaurants but on this day I really could’t see the point.  I much prefer riding alone and at my own pace with time for photos and pee stops in the mountains but it is a little lonely when you get to your destination.  I guess that might be why riders like to travel in groups.  Another thing I have noticed, is that riders tend to be both drinkers and smokers.  I guess if you are doing something as inherently dangerous as riding a motorcycle, why worry about the added risk of drinking and smoking.  Still I find myself taking a step back when talking with fellow riders on their roadside smoke breaks.

Except for the occasional wave to a passing rider or a smile and a nod to a traveler I passed on walking street, all my communication was with Thais.  There is what appears to be a reluctance on the part of some travelers to talk to other foreigners.  If I don’t make the first move, the gap between us is not bridged, and we remain strangers.  Perhaps I was just tired from a long day on the bike but I just didn’t feel like mounting a charm offensive and allowed others to maintain their distance.  To be fair tourists and I don’t really have a lot in common, though it can be entertaining to get their take on things.

Thais are a different story.  I’m not talking about those in the tourist trade who make their living by interacting with foreigners but normal people who don’t have much contact with farangs.  A good example can be found in a couple of fellow travelers and their driver, I saw at breakfast.  We obviously saw each other but having not been properly introduced, as is the Thai way, we politely ignored each other.  Later, however, we crossed paths on a mountain pass where everyone stops for a photo op.  This time there was an instant sign of recognition and the Thai gentleman approached me as we took pictures of the sign that marks the spot and shows others where you have been.  A pleasant exchange followed after he discovered that I spoke Thai.  Also talked with Thai BMW rider from Bangkok for a few minutes.

I find even those Thais who speak relatively good English, are relieved to speak Thai.  Expats sometime take offense at being ignored, or by a Thai’s reluctance to deal with their mindless babbling.  If you don’t speak Thai, then what comes from your mouth is nothing but meaningless noise to most people, if you hadn’t guessed.  Throw in a lack of understanding about proper social etiquette and how to approach locals and what do you expect of an encounter.  The reaction of some expats is sad, however, considering it is their own fault that they live here without learning to speak Thai.  Recently a guy was complaining about bad service at a car dealership because they didn’t speak good English.  Leaves me wondering how many mechanics back home are great linguists.  Even expecting one’s wife to translate in an area where she has little interest, expertise or vocabulary is a little far fetched in my opinion.  I somehow doubt that the actual service was really all that bad.

Back to my travels, the next day started off with no more than a light fog as I headed out of Pai toward Mae Hong Song and Khun Yuem, where we stayed last time.  The weather cleared early and I managed to get some shots along the way.  The mountain pass at Doi Kiew Lom View Point was clear and not as windy as last time.  Making good time I made a quick pitstop in Khun Yuem, intent on making it to Mae Sariang by day’s end.  Parts of the 108 after Khun Yuem were quite quick, with plenty of opportunities to get out of second and third gears for a change.

Then of course there was a river valley where it looked like the road had been entirely engulfed by the river during the last rainy season.  Riding on the dirt was actually preferable to the patches that still had remnants of asphalt here and there, making the ride quite uncomfortable.  Anyway it gave me an excuse to get off the bike and take a few pictures.

I am embarrassed to say, I blew right past Mae Sariang.  I almost stopped at a big PTT station for gas at a wide spot in the road but was distracted by signs that had me choosing which road to take.  Stopping might have alerted me to where I was and sent me on a search of someplace to spend the night.  As it was, I was several kilometers down the road when I started to get an inkling that something wasn’t quite right.  At one of the police checkpoints along the way I discovered my oversight and though a little chagrined at my lapse, I was happy enough to continue riding until I got to Hot.  One officer thought I could probably make Chiang Mai before dark but I was pretty well done for the day by the time I pulled into Hot and I refuse to ride after dark.

It took some doing to find accommodation for the night and the place I found didn’t have the word hotel anywhere in its name.  It wasn’t quite as nice as the place in Pai but it was half the price and quiet enough, so I didn’t complain.  A little roadside food and a stop at the seven eleven and I was good for the night.  Interestingly day one and day two were both 371 kilometers and change, with a time difference of only half an hour from start to finish.

Initially I had planned to spend a night in Chiang Mai on this trip but found myself missing my home and my family.  I enjoyed the riding and being on the bike but the nights were far less enjoyable.  The wife and I talked several times a day, as I kept her up to date on my progress but it was not enough to keep me from missing her company.  Gone for me are those self-reliant bachelor days where I depended on no one.

I awoke on the third day to a beautiful sunrise and a burning desire to get home to my lovely wife and my dog.  The road from Hot to Chiang Mai, I could have done without and it was a relief to get on one of the bypass road around Chiang Mai.  I am not typically a speed or distance junky but my desire to return home combined with very light traffic from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai had me moving more quickly than usual.  I was lucky enough to slot in behind a car from Bangkok doing 120 to 130 when conditions permitted.  Letting him run interference, I was able to relax my field of attention a bit and enjoy the ride.  Even with a couple of leisurely coffee stops, I covered the 325 kilometers from Hot to home in roughly five hours and was home by 1pm.

For those unfamiliar with riding a motorcycle in Thailand, seeing a bike in the oncoming lane is often viewed as an invitation to overtake a slower vehicle or simply move into your lane to make a turn.  That means you sometimes have to retreat to the shoulder to avoid being hit.  The unregulated nature of the roads where I live make them a lot more fun but with the consequence of being much more dangerous.  Dogs, chickens, kids, bikes, scooters and various farm equipment, farm animals and their droppings are to be found on the roads.  On this trip I had close encounters with many of the usual suspects, with a lone cow in the middle of a narrow mountain road being the most exhilarating, one might say.  That is all on top of the sometimes questionable condition of the road surface.

Despite the dangers and inconveniences I still enjoy riding around in the mountains of Chiang Rai but I am happiest when I can return home at the end of the day.