The Mae Hong Son Loop. Part 2.

24 12 2011

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do.....

One month on from piloting motorbikes through northern Thailand’s twisting mountain highways and the whole venture seems like a distant memory.

We’re in Phuket now, a weird sanitised version of SE Asia for package tourists and sex pests, and daily we find our minds drifting back to those 800kms of misty trails.

We didn’t know it at the time, but just six days touring that rugged green loop would prove to be among the finest adventures any of us would undertake in Thailand.

Enough certainly, to keep us smiling through long sweaty days detailing the yacht prior to Christmas.

Here are a few highlights:

Coffeecoffeecoffee:  A few years back, the Thais never seemed much into coffee. In 2011, the place was awash with the stuff, much to my glee. And decent, too.  Every hole-in-the-wall in Chiang Mai housed another bloke with an espresso machine. Even better, they were growing it in those same hills we were riding. The morning roadside coffee quickly became part of our motorcycle routine, not least because it gave us another chance to get off those wretched seats.

My local

The motorcycle as transport:  Apart from a pushbike (too slow, too many hills) there can be no better way to experience a country than from the back of a motorcycle. You can hear the kids laughing at you as you ride through another village, smell the sunflowers on the hill (as well as the truck belching diesel in front of you), you can feel every temperature change as you charge up another mountain through the cool morning fog. You can even flirt with girls sitting in the back of pick-up trucks. Unbeatable.

Do you accept magic beans?

Unscheduled detours: To prepare for this venture, we bought a large waterproof touring map of the north, Sadly, this was lost before lunch on the first day, so we resorted to IPhone photos of other people’s maps. This was a dual-edged sword – 1)much easier to carry; 2)much harder to read which led us to take some exciting detours. I was responsible for directing us to Mae Surin waterfall (“the best in Thailand!” I had been assured). This particular sideroad however, took us high into the mountains, above the clouds on a narrow ridge track that frequently turned from concrete into mud. Each time, Jodie would switch bikes onto my offroader for a bouncy stint, while James wrestled his Phantom through the muck. It did turn out to be a pretty rad waterfall though.

Not every bike is designed to go offroad. That's bullshit.

Later, nearer Chiang Mai, we found a fast-flowing river and an old crone renting inner tubes. No one else was riding the rapids, but this didn’t stop us paying the princely fee of 30Bt each for a few hours of nervous, hysterical laughter. It’s amazing to consider you can almost drown in two feet of water, but we did, and the Thais thought it was brilliant, until we almost took out their entire riverside bar.

Exotic eats: Given the proximity to Myanmar, food in the north is all about the Shan – a hilltribe living in exile on both sides of the border. They’re into things like fermented bean curd, weird fragrant herbs and baby fern salads. It’s awesome, healthy gear. We also chanced on a Yunnanese village where we hopped into some steamed pork belly with smoky exotic spices and young tea leaf salad on the shores of a pretty lake. Beats the old Pad Thai for a change.

Jodie with her beloved condiment quartet. And Beer Leo.

Pai: Three trips to Thailand = three trips to Pai. There’s gotta be something going on up there. A cute, artsy village on the side of a river surrounded by soaring hills? What’s not to like. Sure there are a helluva lot more tourists now and a nightly market selling the same Pai-radise t-shirts on every corner, but it still has neat galleries, kick-ass health food and cheap accommodation. I stayed in the same bamboo hut that I scored six years back, for the very reasonable price of $4. Inflation? Nil.

Pretty Pai paddy

Cave Lodge:Caving is a big deal in the north and there are few more qualified to drop you down a dark limestone hole than John Spies. An Aussie who moved there in the 70s, Spies runs Cave Lodge, a legendary hillside bungalow surrounded by pristine rivers, hidden tunnels and huge caverns full of batshit. He’s been responsible for mapping out the area’s archeologically-significant caves and is still finding new sites. Nearby he has discovered teak coffins more than 2000 years old, burial caves which pre-date the Thai civilization. Combine this with 30 years of hellraising on the border and well, he’s an interesting bloke to have a beer with.

James took this on the G12 at Soppong. It captures that hazy lazy late-arvo feel so perfectly.


Big bamboo near the border.