First Northern Trip

Discussion in 'Touring Northern Thailand - Trip Reports Forum' started by Kyle, Apr 26, 2005.

  1. Kyle

    Kyle Active Member

    Jan 1, 2004
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    NORTHERN RUN : 10 days on the roads on Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Nan provinces
    April 7- 16, 2005

    Prologue: If I'm going to submit a trip report I figure it might as well not repeat the type of information already out there. If you want detailed kilometers between towns or precise distances then buy David's fine book. I won't bother to copy the information others have done better. This will read long, but gives you some of the reasons to come to the North--Roads and well as People and Scenes.

    Some background is necessary as I am a 'beginner' biker, riding everyday in Thailand on a Honda Super 4. This trip report is best for other beginners sitting at home wondering if the North is possible for them based on time, skill are some of the high white notes of the North. Before I rode north many experienced bikers warned me they had ridden in Europe or America for 10-20 years before attempting Chiang Mai roads and found them difficult. Some of my Thai riding pals also frightened me with their tales. Basically the scared the hell out of me. BUT I can tell you now that anyone can ride the north, and on a variety of bikes as long as you're willing to take your time, know your limits and respect the roads. I am not a dirt rider so this is street oriented. There are some good dirt paths I took the Super 4 down but I didn't even get close to up hill climbs on a Super 4 so stayed off of David's recommended dirt roads. A lighter bike like a Super 4 is fine. Actually the only bikes that would be difficult in the north for me would be bigger sport bikes I have ridden like the Super Blackbirds, R1, 900 Hondas, etc on the tight uphill hairpins.

    Reading David's book and this website, I was worried what the words "experienced rider" meant. I can say I did most of the major routes in the north without difficulty. If you are thinking about going north, just get riding up and there and don't be intimidated. David's book (which was surpisingly hard to find in Chiang Mai, at least around Tha Phe) and this website were instrumental for me. Thanks to David and others. I bought the book for 400 baht and used it hard for 1 week. Sold it back to Tha Phe Gate bookstore if anyone is looking for a copy now (I have to return to America or I would have kept it).

    RENTAL: Didn't waste time and went right to Mr. Mechanic. Pim is a sweet lady and the staff is friendly. Pi Lek himself (Mr. Mechanic) is a nice, understanding man. I speak good Thai so chatted them up while I waited. I wanted a Super 4 and talked them down to 500 baht/day. I called several times from the road and told them I would be out longer with no problems. Also, they filled up brake fluids, oil, adjusted the handle bars, gave me bungee cords and tools for free. Deposit is of course your passport. After my short experience in the mountains, I can say you really need to check the brake fluids and pads and well as shocks/forks. My Super 4 had old, cracked fork seals, resulting in poorer handling as oil streaked up the forks.

    Comment: I tried out Jaguar bikes, as well as BEER and some others. Jaguar's Super 4 was better than Mr. Mechanic's but the old man had some serious attitude. Service pays. If you are caught out there, Mr. Mechanic will come save you or pay you back if you have a recipt for repars done on the road. I have rented in Pattaya a few times and though some bikes are in quite bad shape (and not ridden same as Chiang Mai bikes) I was disappointed at the selection in CM. They weren't in good shape and there wasn't much to choose from during this holiday period. Basically Honda Wave (100-125cc), Honda Phantom (200cc cruiser), Honda Super 4's (400 cc sport standard), Honda Bajas (250cc dirt bike), and a few Ax-1 dual sports. Mr. Mechanic also has a fleet of old gray 750cc Honda CBs and a few Degrees, a smaller dirt/dual Honda 250cc (good for shorter riders). I had thought about bringing my own bike--it would have been the smarter move.

    My Super 4 was weak. I ride one everyday in Chonburi so can easily compare. Sometimes it was struggling to do 90 or 100km/h and overtaking was near impossible. I returned and they gave me a black one (both '93-94) and it was no better. Tail light didnt' work, brakes were awful. They gave it to me for the night and said they would work on the maroon one. I am no mechanic but think it had a fuel line problem. Anyway, they put up with all my polite nagging. Next day gave me maroon one back. It was not any better after 1 day (comments later) but when I came back to Chiang Mai they did give me a Honda Dream for free for more than 3 days to get around the city. Learn some Thai and these people will take care of you. It is smarter if you can rent in the evening, save time in the morning. If you're lucky Doi Sutep will be empty in the evening--take the bike up there for a test. Not so close to Moon Muang but the only way you can evaluate your ride. Looping around the moat in daytime traffic won't tell you anything.

    IN CHIANG MAI: Stayed at Daret's GH, near Ta Phe Gate: dumpy place but good prices on good food, can sit off the street, 100 baht/night fan room with cold water. Recommend Riverside for music (actually best band I've heard in Thailand) and food, Good View for food. I would recommend staying over there across the river, many small GH near Riverside restuarant.

    Day 1: Arrived in CM from Chonburi, via Bangkok. 9 hr bus from BKK. Met Jonathan, my riding partner who I met by posting on GT-rider website. Went out for drinks and worked out some plans. Fellow New Yorker, JD was a great partner as things would turn out as our riding style, safety and interests were pretty much the same. All rental shops close at 6pm and I arrived near 8pm so no luck.

    Day 2: Doi Inthanon: Late start waiting on a bike. Loaded Super 4 with tent and we headed to Doi Inthanon National Park. Hot, steamy April day getting out of the city all geared up. Down 108 highway, crowded, boring and plain riding but then straightens into long blasts you could make time on with a good bike. 1269 into Doi Inthanon. JD pays 220 baht and I pay 40 (20 baht motorcycle, 20 baht entrance). Doi Inthanon is a great place to start a northern run. Practically empty this Thursday. JD had rented a Honda Degree 250cc dirt bike so fuel/speed were quite different.

    Stopped at first waterfall on the left side, shady parking lot. Refreshing, there was actually water for April. Rested on rocks in the cool spray and really began to talk for the first time. John is 39, half Chinese-Italian New Yorker, a teacher in Korea. Good guy. After waterfall took the road that heads right to the next check point. Good curves, nobody there. Scenery really opened up on the right side over a wide green valley, the hills up high. Went through checkpoint for more good, solid riding, winding sweeps uphill. John had tied his rental helmet onto the back of his bike and lost it, bungee cord snapped. I couldn't find the helmet anywhere so we had a good laugh. Stopped back near main road for lunch at Hmong village on basil-chicken rice and fried Mama. They had a big, nice church there and I talked with the waitress who was a Christian. (I am a Christian missionary) She told me they had 400 Christians, so we talked about this. Then mounted up to ride to the summit. Amazingly cool at 4pm. Great ride up, some tight but all steep, lovely roads. You can really turn back the throttle going up with some sections fresh black pavement, so smooth. Looked at chedi on mountaintop but they wanted another 20 baht. Passed it up and rode to summit. Fresh, cool air. At top near 5pm and the coffee shop was closed. Walked the tiny trail and enjoyed the Highest Point in Thailand then down to market (maybe Lahu or Akha?). We wanted hot coffee but none here. Back to chedi but there coffee shop was also closed. So back down the sweeps to the viewpoint over the concrete railing (park your bike and crawl over concrete wall, climb up on right hand side going down). 360 degree views. Breathed in and talked.

    Sun was going down and we had no place to stay. I stopped to ask several people for camping areas and lodging (JD wasn't high on tents at this time). Stopped at park HQ and they told me 1,000 baht---really crazy. The lady pointed up the road to a 300 baht bungalow place. Stopped when I saw sign for Eco Lodge. Down steep concrete slab road to very natural, thatch-roofed cottages, with outdoor bathrooms. Looked like the quiet, good place we were searching out for the night. Helmets off, we were greeted by 30+ American students and their teachers, all pretty loose on beer. There was nothing quiet about the place tonight. I found the manager and also found out all places were booked. I thought he was a Karen (hill tribe) and he said he was. I said the few words of Karen I know and we were sudden pals. He told me there was room up in the village. JD wasn't high on this idea. I talked him into taking a look. I left the Super 4 there and JD took his bike and I rode with Chalie up the rugged village road past water buffalo, chickens, villagers returning home while the sun got low. We were running out of daylight I was trying to get JD to stay. He smiled though as our long search for fresh coffee ended as we had lucked into a Karen village filled in coffee trees, Arabica and Robusta. They do the whole process alone and sell to Japanese companies, Starbucks, Black Canyon and Birdy. Somsak, the boss is a real coffee aficianado. He spoke excellent Thai and we spent a while talking coffee as he smiled widely telling me how much fun his work is and how content he is in the heart working in his village, with his people. Ah, God provides. I kept stalling to get JD to stay. They poured us steaming fresh cups of the fine roast as the sun disappeared. They encouraged us to stay for dinner and JD looked over the rooms and agreed it was cool. No lights in the village, no electicity. So as they lit up candles and rolled out local tobacco, I translated and shared my experiences working with the Karen in Tak and we were one family, 5 guys sitting in the dark drinking strong coffee and smoking stronger cigarettes. Dinner was served in the boss' house, his wife cooking over the indoor fire good meal as Somsack returned to check on the students. Turned in early: no fans, no air con but slept in jeans under several heavy blankets as the night was that fine and cool. And this was April.

    DAY 3: Doi Inthanon, Mae Chem and back to Chiang Mai: Next morning up at 7am for fresh coffee and Karen breakfast at the house and then down to do some riding. Left heavy gear in the office and rode onto Mae Chem. 22km of tight, concentrated hills, bends, climbs. Heavy on the brakes for me coming down the slopes, low traffic though and my first test of the CM trial: Concentrate on the road or the scenery? Take this road if you are in Doi Inthanon.

    Stopped at the end near police checkpoint. Not much to eat. Had only grilled pork and sticky rice with watermelon on the menu. Mounted up and did the road again. Some under good canopy but blazing hot. Great, wide views. Uphill back was even more fun. Stopped to talk with locals, some speaking unclear Thai but teenagers were good for information.
    Back to the Eco Lodge and another fresh coffee with Somsak as JD napped. Somsak is so proud of his heritage that he has a mini Karen museum on his property that also houses strawberry and rice fields in addition to the coffee. He invited me back and said we were friends now. Felt more like genuine family. He didn't want to take my money but gave him 400 baht all the same. Then he gave us 2 big bags of his coffee to take with us. God bless the Karen.

    If you are interested in staying in his village, bungalows or special group camping on top of the mountains (they bring you water, dinner, breakfast and tents) you can contact him or his partner Chalie at 06-193-6464, 01-960-8856. They also have expert bird watching guides, home stays, campfires, and fresh coffee.

    I returned to Mr. Mechanic and they gave me a black Super 4 and worked on my maroon one. I tried one at Beer rental too but not much better and Mr. Mechanic already had my money. I tried an XR250 at Mr. Mechanic too but didn't like it at all. Tried desperately to find some music in CM, but pals preferred the Pattaya-esque bars alone Moon Muang where Isaan girls grope the tourists. They do have football there though and we watched Champs League games and drank, it was almost 4am when we finished eating and returned home. I always wondered why people's trip reports from CM start in the I know.

    DAY 4: Chiang Dao: Mr. Mechanic phoned at 10am and said my bike was finished. They suggested I take it up Doi Sutep. I did. Low traffic, amazing big bike road though short obviously. Nothing scary and scenery isn't there--just pure uphill blasts on steady, good pavement. Bike felt more powerful. Met JD back at Daret's for BLT and coconut shake and ready to do Phrae Loop but clockwise. Planned to find the Hill Tribe side road and meet up near Phrae as JD wanted to hit the dirt. I would take 1150 instead. 107 to Mae Rim was steady, hot traffic. Lots of construction oustide CM, long sections missing pavement, oncoming traffic often in your lane, no markers. A dusty mess. Later road tames and had to wave off kids constantly wanting to soak me (my mistake for coming during Songkhran festival, but there was no other time). Who needs water in your face at 100km +? Stopped at Mae Taeng for water. Skipped other routes and ran onto Chiang Dao. Road up there is real nice as 107 turns into good views, green scenery up the hillsides and a stunning road. Not tight or steep like Mae Chem but wider and faster, can really open up. Little traffic and some spots for easy overtaking. There is a real fun spot running for about 20km.

    At CD I asked several people but couldn't find "Hill Tribe road" as listed in David's book. I even flagged down a guy on a Wave because I saw his Karen bag. Everyone gave us different answers. David's book says turn east (right) at major CD intersection. I saw nothing but a blinking yellow light. Went back instead to cave road. Great country, quick road that runs into the mountain cave, smooth asphalt with only a few cracks of dirt. Cave was 10 baht each, very cool inside so a needed escape from burning sun. Inside the Buddha is carved or placed in stone everywhere and you can hire a guide for 100 baht to take you on 20-60min lantern-led tour. No time. Drank some tea instead and rode back to the yellow flashing intersection. Housing, concrete and this was not THE road. Somehow I was reading this book wrong. But JD found an interesting dirt trail through field. I worried he was trespassing but locals just watched him go. Said I would meet up at 4pm at intersection. I turned back and tried the other direction across 107 (west). Rough, straight/flat dirt, rock and gravel path with some sandy spots but amazing views of Chiang Dao cave mountain and farms. Turns into rutted, red clay. At 20km/h even a Super 4 can do it though. Chickens, dogs, cows in the path back to a few villages. I stopped for a Coke and to write in my journal. Old, old Thai women inside shop thought I was a kind alien and they spoke northern Thai as I tried to keep up. They told me there was no Hill Tribe village here. Bought a pack of local cigarettes for 2 baht (2 handmade, leaf rolled smokes, a box of matches and mint to wipe some of the stink off) The old woman was shocked. "You liket that?" she asked. Then she goes and pulls out her rolling box, fixing me a long paper-wrapped smoke filled with the local tobacco. Fine, tight roller, she ended up making me 5 more for free and prepared fresh coconut juice over ice. She wanted to know a lot about Chonburi and my work and home and we had a good conversation smoking together while I studied the map.

    4pm already so rode back down the rough, slow road. Wondered if JD was ok. Riding together means you help one another, but it can also mean someone gets in the way of your riding if they have an accident, go too slow, etc. But I ran the same danger for him. He wasn't at the intersection. I was 15 mins late so really wondered. Bought fried chicken legs and sticky rice, telling myself he must be OK. Then I saw him. He had crashed down some dirt path 8km away on the opposite side of 107 he had started from. I found a local Honda shop and had to convince them to come (they got scared when I said it was bigger than 125cc). After the persuading in Thai, mechanic and pal followed us; JD on the back of the Super 4 back down 107 and then into a long, really rough dirt trail. I parked and they went down the tinier side path to the bike. Clutch lever was snapped off completey with bike in gear. Bike wouldn't start but mechanic then got it going pushing it uphill and jumping on, his little body looking like he was riding a horse and not a motorbike. He was amazing though and got it through the gears and back to the shop. Grinded a lever down to fit roughly. 150 baht. Forks were bent though and it was tough shifting. I screwed down the fairing and fit the rear light back on. A beer down 107 to calm JD. Then back down good section of 107, even better this time for me. Near the elephant camps looked up to see 15 of the giants grazing on the hillside as the sun lowered behind them. Unreal, beautiful scene. Then hit the nastiness of construction again, in dusk and dust. Those were a hard 80kms back from CD. Ate right away at GH. John had two decent scratches on him.

    Showered, internet to check if money transfer came in for Karens in Tak yet, and then a Thai massage near Ta Phe Gate. First though I ran into a cheeky mobile bar playing Bob Marley out of a VW can converted into a rolling pub. Cocktails! Had to. Jim Beam and one of the Chiang Dao smokes. Gave John my Betadine. Take care of cuts in the tropics, nurse Darlene says. Found massage for 150 baht/hour. All chatty Isaan girls right past Elephant Cafe. Found JD at soccer bar finishing his beer with Jasper. Early night as we were home by 12. Tomorrow we would set off for the longer jounery, thinking 4-5 days on the road.

    DAY 5: The road leads to Doi Ang Khang : This time it was JD's turn to make us late as he waited on the Degree to get repaired. It would take too long to fix the forks and he took a Phantom. That would end up working out nicely.

    Left CM at 11:30 through hot Sunday traffic. We were on closer speed/fuel levels with JD's silver Phantom. To avoid construction and repetition, skipped 107 for 1001 towards Phrao. Great smooth road, really scenic country pass and quiet, fast. Averaged over 100km/h here even on the sluggish Super 4. Feeling bad my Super 4 can't outrun a damn Phantom. There are some interesting sections of this road, actually would call them pretty. Then 1150 going west to Chiang Dao, so we missed all we'd already done. Then north to Fang. Before Fang we reached turnoff for 1249 to Doi Ang Khang. This was on my sure list of places to go and camp. After longish Coke and orange break it was already 4pm and still amazingly hot. I've ridden a lot in Thailand but this April sun was taking a lot out of both of us. Sign said 25 kms to Doi Ang Khang. We made a good move to stay here and not try to push going onto Fang for the night.

    Road 1249 needs its own paragraph but it is also one of those rare, good things that neither words nor photographs capture wholly and you must go and experience it for yourself. You will end up without the right words either, I am sure. 1249 rides you through the mountains right up to Burmese borderlands. First 5 kms through basic towns, villages. Kids lined up to kill us with water, slow riding and waving off the streams. Avoid chickens and dogs on the thin road. After the town, road widens a little and then shoots up and up. Views open up on all sides when you begin climbing past the orange and tea trees as the air freshens and cools. I had to pop open the visor and ease the throttle to take this in. Who knows when you will be back. So soak it in and climb. The mountain sides are dotted in clean rows of rows of bushes, long lines of green patterning the landscapes like a Seurat painting. Then northern side (right) opens up to stunning countryside laid flat and green below in farms. Last 15kms are tight, steep and concentrated riding. These are the kinds of uphill left hairpins that to stay in your lane means you almost fall over, but to skip into the right challenges any pickup truck flying down. No traffic today. The best riding road so far. Had to stop and take in the view several times.

    Near the top of the rise there are a few pine-needle floor campsites but nobody was home. Rode on and down the sharp hills into the town saw a horse walking alone up the road. The road here dead ends into parking lot filled with Akha women selling bracelets and Thais selling preserved fruit and tea. There is a school and small village (you can camp on the school grounds) and there are accomodations inside the Royal Project garden (they were full already). Take the rutty dirt road to the right of the red restaurant at the parking lot down and then uphill and it will lead you up to a guesthouse with chalet-like bungalows. 800baht and 400 baht rooms. I asked around about tents and the kind Thai owner Pong produced one for JD and told us we could camp on the high roof of his building where there was a grass and fire pit like a small campground. Great views of the mountains hemmed us in. When JD went down to move his bike the owner and his workers already set up his tent and then went on helping me set mine up which was funny because the ground was too hard to drive stakes deep into. We got creative and they gave us thick blankets and 2 pillows each, opened the shower/bathroom just for us. Only charge was 100 baht for the tent. Pong is a good man, went on telling me about Doi Ang Khang and the Palong and other interesting news. He also recommended I stay at Apple's in Tha Ton, a friend of his.

    After quick shower the night was coming on cool as the sun set over the ridges. Walked through the small, one lane market to buy Burmese smokes and rice cakes then ate at the very good red Chinese restaurant (you can't miss it, giant for the town). We were the only diners. Black Chinese tea, yunan beef, stir fried mushrooms in oyster sauce. Walked back to market to buy 2 bottles of strong rice whiskey and 2 cokes. We sat under the bright, clear stars smoking and drinking and really talking. Good time. Turned in early for a cool, windy sleep. The longest sleep we had yet. This is what I came north for--sleeping in the cool outdoors under the white stars. Things were unfolding though even better than expected.

    Day 6: Tha Ton/Fang : Enjoyed joke rice pooridge at another shop along with fresh coffee and bananas. JD had wanted a hike since Inthanon where the trails were pretty weak. I asked about the ridge behind us but the man warned me there were often Burmese soldiers roaming just at the top. He made it sound pretty bad. On the way up there are several military post and Doi Ang Khang has bases and helicopter pads. From my experience along the Tak/Burma border I knew better than to risk it even on rumor. Instead we found a bird/mountain bike trail just outside of town, down the hill on the left side if you were exiting the way you came in. Long, long hot walk in motorcycle boots and jeans but great and sweaty at 9am. Large mounds of elephant dung but no sightings. Plenty of birds though, even large hawks. At the top there are some good views and a white chedi holding some relics of Lord Buddha.

    Hiked back down and rode bikes up through the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang. 30 baht entrance fee if on motorcycles. Not much riding to do inside. I walked through the pretty gardens in the heat and a Thai man turned and asked me how the rice whiskey was last night. How did you know? Hard not to stick out when you're the 2 white folks in town. In the garden areas you can see the orchards that take advantage of the cooler northern climate to grow non-Thai flowers and fruits like kiwi, peach, pear, raspberry, Japanese apricot as well as bonsais and roses. I bought some preserved apples and then Akha bracelets for my sister and friends. Akha there speak Thai as far as numbers go but awfully unclear.

    Broke down the tents and showered, packed up the bike and headed back down the mountain. JD rode ahead and I stopped a lot to photograph. 1pm haze isn't the best time for this. Easy ride up 107 into Fang. Followed the 107 side road that shoots off west (left) at the sign for Tha Ton Rafting Pier. This road is a long straight blast that ends in a T intersection. Left is Mai Ai and Tha Ton, right goes into downtown Fang. If you need internet, or some semblance of a bar scene go to Fang. If not, Tha Ton is a 20 km ride back to the Kok River and border. 1089 leads to Tha Ton and onto Doi Mae Salong. Tha Ton is not much of a town really, just a a few shops before and after the bridge going over the river and a big temple. I tried for an hour to buy shorts to go swimming and there was nothing. This town has a river running through it? I rode past Apple Guest House and thought I had the wrong place. Many people had recommended this place but it looked like a real dump and I am a guy who prefers cheap, dirty places or tents while on the road. Tried some closer to river but were awfully pricey resorts. Baan Suan is a homey feeling Lanna deal where 500 baht gets you a nice aircon room with a balcony. 300 is a fan. The smallish resort sits around a garden and restaurant on a nice bend of the river. Akha merchants are everywhere. I really feel for the Hill Tribe people as many don't have many options for earning, for several complicated reasons. I have devoted a lot of my time to helping/working for the Karen tribe and yet found myself getting unusually annoyed with all of the Akha constantly harrassing me as soon as I took off my helmet. I did have have a funny time talking with a trio of sixth grade Akha girls in Thai, and bought two bracelets.

    Walked around the corner and discovered small open huts sitting in the river like I had seen in Kanchanaburi before. This was the first moment I was actually pleased we came on the road during Songkran as the place was filled up in happily drunk younger Thais and playful families coasting down the river on intertubes. Ordered up rice dishes and the coldest bottle of Chang they had. JD then hit the river and I went exploring. Found the pier where a daily boat runs to Chiang Rai for 250 baht at 12:30pm or you can charter long tail boats.

    Looking for shorts I found another road. I saw only one sign. Great, winding, hilly road with smooth asphalt. I stopped not too far along the rode and walked up to a hill tribe village. Found out they were Hmong from the one teenager I found who could speak Thai. 200 people in the small, dusty village set up the hillside, while the pigs grazed the mountainside below. I gave my preserved apples from Doi Ang Khang to the group of little boys and girls. They looked scared to try but I told the older one in Thai what it was and they ate it hungrily, sharing with each other and smiling widely.

    Back down at the river without shorts, I jumped in with my jeans on. The festive, drunk atmosphere was still up high and I talked with several families and played in the water with kids, happy to be wet and not on my bike. Then the sun set and candles were lit under the huts while we drank a bottle of 100. It was down to us and 2 local girls. They said they knew of some good spots up the road. Soon as we left Tha Ton it poured down bullets of rain. Went to some low-tech tech. We wanted to see that Monkee Bar roadhouse of a joint we laughed at in the afternoon back in Fang. It was our mission to get there for a beer and laugh. Disappointment though as the roadhouse was closed before 12am! Back to Tha Ton, and goodbye, goodnight.

    Day 7: Doi Mae Salong, Chiang Saen, Golden Triangle. JD went hiking and I sat in the restaurant at the hotel writing my journal and enjoying breakfast as a cool breeze blew up off the clear-brown winding river. Didn't want to move but today was Doi Salong, Mai Sai and Chiang Saen for destinations. Wasn't hard to talk JD into taking this mystery road for a joy ride even though it surely wasn't going our way. 1314 is a necessity. A long loop (50+ kms if I remember) back to Mai Ai and 1089 that runs right up to the Burmese border. Clean, open asphalt for most of the road, dotted in Hill Tribe villages. The Thai military really keeps some of these border roads in perfect shape. Head away from the river in Tha Ton back to the school and turn right onto 1314. This is the only sign on the whole road. High winding ribbon on a road cutting across the mountains where villages sit perched high on the hillsides.

    We stopped along the way for a few breaks to talk to Hill Tribe boys fishing. One section near the end of the loop turns into thin, overgrown road and loose stones and choppy gravel going down hill, with a steep grade to a cement bridge. We stopped on the bridge and didn't know how much more of this rough road was left and how many kilometers there were total to get back to the main road. Suddenly this loop seemed like a bad idea if we had to backtrack to avoid these really rough stretches. A girl came riding from the direction we were heading on her Wave. I asked her how much longer to the main road. 9km. After the bridge the road actually flattens out, relatively speaking and is easy. 1314 became my new favorite for its "very out there" vibe, the whole road one long stretch of scenery and twists.

    Hit Mai Ai and rode 1089 past Tha Ton and onto Mae Salong, the sky high Chinese village. 1089 was a good country road past Tha Ton. Constant trouble with Songkran kids. The joke and smiles of it all had turned sour a long time ago. Driving through on a big bike though is a like riding a unicorn. They don't have time to understand you're not a regular horse. And explaining to drunk Thai merrymaker kids why water is a bad idea on a bigger bike is a waste of time. I actually stopped to warn some groups in case other bikers would be coming through. But I gave this up shortly as I hadn't seen one other biker on the road.

    At the police checkpoint made the left for the 13kms up to Doi Mae Salong. This is a great, must-take road winding up the mountain for big scenery that keeps coming the whole way up. Many sections are brand new black pavement with no lines and without one gaurd rail the whole run. Very fun road. At top is the Chinese village and more Akha merchants to completely surround you as you slow your bike. Ate at an expensive but nice Chinese restaurant with a gaurd to watch the bikes/gear and sitting up off the street and splashing noise up in the garden. Good mushroom dishes and fine Chinese teas. After lunch we walked around for almost an hour, exploring and stretching and taking in the scenery.

    The ride after the main town is an exhilirating stretch through gorgeous tea plantations, small towns where men are drying leaves on the road and deep valley drops where the road looks like a single thread tied between far flung trees. The ground falls away into an ungaurded line of road uphill with deep, deep valley on either side and lush green views hemming you in. There was one campsite along this way.

    Continued on to 1016 to Chiang Saen. In Chiang Saen there is a national musuem and what at first looks like another Thai town opens up to old, Sukhothai-era looking chedis and orange broken brick walls. Very beautiful. Rode on up 1290 towards Mae Sai with the Mekong River riding alongside us. Stopped about 15kms from Chiang Saen at the Golden Triangle where the three countries meet and you can look into Laos. Looked like one big market though and kinda tacky. Wasn't interested in Mai Sai if it would look like this, so rode back to Chiang Saen to find some place to sleep. Stopped first at a small bungalow on the side of the road. I wanted to stay there, right on the Mekong in very natural setting and classic bamboo bungalows. JD wasn't having it. We did stop for beers at another place though and drank up the cold Chang while the sun disappeared and the Mekong went black. Chiang Saen became a mess as it was burning hot and there were no air rooms and even the fan rooms were real dumps. Songkran is a seller's market in the town and one old Chinese man was awfully funny when we wouldn't take his room with a single bed for us 2 men. So back up to Golden Triangle town and the Golden Home GH for 300 baht air-con room with fridge. By 9pm we had showered and the whole town was closed up. Found food at one tiny look-tueng bar and then searched for internet but it was closed. Whole town was dark and black. I have never seen a Thai town this lonely. When you are in the mountains you cherish towns like this but down here when you expect a town it is a new gray depression. JD was going home and I found one sleepy looking massage place. Same price as Chonburi at 200 baht for 2 hrs. Burmese women working there. Room was hot but good massage after the ride. The older Burmese woman even gave me a ride on her Wave back to the street of my GH.

    Day 8: Chiang Rai, Pu Chi Fa: Phoned Mr. Mechanic again to tell him we would be out a few more days. Didn't have time to run the whole border roads I wanted like 1129. Instead 1016 back to R1 onto Mae Chan and Chiang Rai. After some Mama noodels at 7-11 in Chiang Rai, we hit 1020 towards Chiang Kham. And then (I think) it was 1021 to 1155 towards Pu Chi Fa where you hit 1093.

    Pu Chi Fa was a good stop and should be done with enough time to hike up the mountain for the sunset or wake up early enough to see the sunrise. The road in was an easy but fun, hilly tight mountain road. Heavy gravel in some corners. As you rise up the mountain a heavy fog envelops the valley as a sudden coolness comes on. No one was in town when we reached the top. No tourists. There are some Thai army checkposts looking into Laos. Even in the early evening there was an amazing, heavy fog set over the town and down into the deep valley. There are several bungalow/GH up the hill but the best place is the only one set on the other side of the road, the Pu Chi Fa Inn which has a lit bridge and wooden path leading some way down the mountainside. 300 baht/night bungalow style with giant bed for 3, hot water heater. I gave JD 100 baht for blankets and pillow and use of the shower as I planned to tent. Found an amazing spot for the tent down the mountainside.

    Then we ate a hungry-starved dinner on the street still sweaty hot from the ride up. After the sticky rice and som tam we hiked up the Pu Chi Fa mountain to the distinctive lookout cliff that peers over a long sea of misty mountain tops that roll into Laos. Spectacular climb up the hillside. We poured sweat even through the chilly wind blowing during the 2km hike. Sun was going down as we neared the summit. Nearly black dark by the time I got to the top minutes before 7pm. Unusual, intensesly beautiful scenery there as the wind howled and the rocky viewscapes looked like Lord of the Rings or Ireland and not Thailand. Strange feeling as you see all the firelights sparkling up the black, fogged mountainsides in Laos and wondering how many people are there staring at this side. Then the sky went purple in a crack of lightning as thunder and light rain rolled across the peaks. We rushed back through the blackness, down the rough rocks as the wind blew sharply and the rain started to fall in cool mist then harder, solid rain. Lightening was cracking down just over the ridge. Worth every sweaty minute though, that true rush of a climb like a good ride in the mountains.

    Back down at the inn, my tent was getting soaked as the sky over the valley became a light show as the lightning shot out in fantastic bursts through the fog, small red then orange electron-like flames lighting up the sky. I never saw anything like this. We just sat there in the rain and watched the show drinking Sang Som on ice and getting wet. Then the only other tourists, an extended family from Bangkok invited us up to their crowded porch over which they had spread tarps to block the now hard pounding rain. My tent idea seemed hopeless. They were a good group and we sat outside with the 3 men and ate their grilled fish, steak and fresh mangos. They had a big chest of ice and several bottles of Whytehall from India. I had to go put on my riding jacket it was so cool. Good, strong cheer with the men and me translating. Electicity went out and the men fired up lanterns. Rain finally stopped but electricity never came back. I had to check my tent though they all said I was a sure nut to think I was sleeping down there. It was dry inside though. They gave me a lantern with fresh batteries, I grabbed a blanket and pillow and walked down the mountainside in the dark wetness, sleeping in my jacket and pants, wrapped in the cool post-storm calm. Good sleep.

    Day 9: Pu Chi Fa joyride, Nan & THE ROAD, Doi Pukha: Woke up at 7am. Electricity was still knocked out. Took joy ride with JD on 1093 towards Chiang Khong. Still don't know why exactly but this seemed to me then as perhaps the best ride yet. True the scenery was stunning but there was something about the cool (50's F I think) weather, surreal fog over the roads and across the mountains. I wore two shirts and my jacket, gloves, helmet and still felt chilled. Just a slow, spectacular ride. Stopped to photograph hill children herding cattle up the road and some proud farmers heading off to work. Several landslides along this road. Stopped at another Hmong village to roll a cigarette and talekd with the locals. Simple, 24kms round trip joyride. This is what riding the north became to me.

    We were mounted up and gone by 11:30am. Bungee cords became a priority for me as mine were getting shredded over the rear wheel. Down mountain again onto Chiang Kham. Lunch stop for two plates each of food and I found a general store for socks and a stockpile of bungee cords to tie the pack down. Maybe it was our lazy joyride that set us off but netiher of us was feeling very good--strangely sluggish. Not "up". Maybe we were mountain drunk, too much too fast. And now we were about to set off on what I read dubbed as "THE ROAD", 1148. We got up for it soon enough and were off.

    I learned to believe very little of what you read. Especially on this trip. I had read too much perhaps about the north. It all becomes mystic, supernatural and overhyped when you read too much. People can get talking about roads like they are religious experiences. They are just roads.

    Yet, those next 105 kms down 1148 were the longest, most intense kilometers I had ever scene. Pure adrenaline. Scenery is full on and all around as you race through browns and greens, hills, tree lines, valleys, and climbing mountains into the clouds as emerald wraps around brighter greens and dusty, pale browns set it all together. And yet both eyeballs must stay on the road if you want to push yourself and ride this strange twisty rollercoaster as it should be. This is still just a road, true. But it is a damn fine one. It just never ends. Before today I thought 20kms of roads like this were unreal joys. Multiply the road to Mae Chem by five and juice up the scenery around faster turns and you have some idea of 1148. I was wishing for a better bike in alternating turns that thanked God for limiting my speed with this terrible Super 4. Maybe God was trying to save me for a little longer?

    I met JD at gas station where 1148 dead ends at Tha Wang Pha. He was a bit confused about where we were. Seems I misled him a bit to do this road. He had no idea we couldn't make it back to Chiang Mai. He was running low on money if we were going to do Laos on motorbike as his Korean ATM would't work in Thailand. At this point in the day though it was either go to Nan to sleep or head further into the hills at Doi Pukha. Pua was a Songkran nightmare and the internet wasn't working.

    In Pua found 1256, a straight shot into the hills. Very steep sections, up and up with mountains hemming in the road. It was all starting to turn into a blur at this point though. The road rose steadily until you reached Doi Pukha National Park. Only 20 baht each with no foreigner hassles. Guard said they were full, only tent spaces. There was no going back at this point. Only other place was a home-stay type village we saw back down the hills. At the office though I found out they did have room. Intersting looking bird-house of a bungalow, very natural with grass roofs. Tiny but doable for two men with good community showers and toilets. 300 baht seemed steep but I was even too tired to set up my tent.

    There is only one restaurant and it has only one cook. Doi Pukha was absolutely full now, with big Thai families crowding into the simple restuarant space. Met 2 Californians who work as professors in Chiang Mai. They were the first and only people on bikes we ran into the whole trip. They had rented a 400cc Steed from Mr. Mechanic to escape the Songkran madness in the city. We talked about Laos and they told us how much they loved it and its people. After a long, long, long time my food came and we finished talking as the restaurant closed and the tiny store locked its doors. They were out of bottled water, beer and anything liquid. The kind waitress sold me bottles of water from her own stash and one of the workers sold me 4 cans of his beer at cost.

    John and I talked outside our bungalow as a Thai family danced around a campfire and sang country songs. We sipped beer in the coolness, smoking and thinking together about the next move. Slept peacefully. Very cool. No fan, no air-con needed. I was spoiled on mountain air and never wanted to return to Nan, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or anywhere there was concrete.

    Day 10: Enjoying Doi Pukha and onto Nan: We had already decided to stay another day at Doi Pukha. It was a good move. I thought best to stay here and make a late afternoon start to do the 80 or so kms to Nan to break up the 400kms back to Chiang Mai. Too much riding too fast up here makes your journey a green mountain blur. And though we hadn't really rushed or felt pushed by darkness or time to get to destinations, the pace had started to wear us down. I think we were doing 200-250 kms a day. I had never done that much consistently. The park was cool, even still at 11am and I was happy we stayed. JD went hiking and I rode up to the big balcony viewpoint to sit and read the Bible for the first real time the whole trip. Going with the partner was a smart move on several levels. Not only was there comraderie but sure safety. Some spots we ran through are isolated and deserted. If you broke down or had an accident there might not be passing traffic for a long, long time. But riding with a partner also means little thinking, alone time. I soaked up this opportunity to write my journal and read, praying for a long time and enjoying the local tobacco as I stared off into the mountains. I don't understand how people can look at scenery like this--lush emerald on top of grass greens and brighter, yellowed green and not praise God. It is that beautiful.

    Later we did the hot kilomters into Nan, a simple, plain town along the river. The way down the mountain was really beautiful in the late afteroon with the sun streaming through the trees. The mountains looked beautiful this time and not oppressive. A good rest will do that to the senses. This was a fun ride. No rush and we stopped a few times just to breathe it down before hitting the flatlands. Down below on 1080 we stopped along the way to enjoy the river and in one town I bought some of the local tobacco while a drunk man talked to me about the Laos communist guerillas in the nearby hills up to only 20 years ago. Another drunk man groped us as we mounted our bikes and I had to get a police officer to get him away. And these men were getting into pickup trucks ahead and behind us onto Nan. Closer to Nan we stopped and walked to the river as mothers washed clothes and children bathed in the clean brown river. A woman led her cattle across the river as we watched and looked up overhead to the strange suspension bridge where Honda Waves and Dreams rolled through the sky. We wondered if our bikes could do it. Walked across the bridge instead...

    In Nan we stayed at the Nan Fa Hotel. Very distinct feel, polished but old wooden floors and rooms. Classic feel to the place, right next to the modern hotel. Two rooms this time and some air conditining. Found a suan aharn garden restaurant outside town for some seafood. Then to a tiny bar on the same road back towards Nan city where I had stopped earlier to ask for directions. Cute, small Thai girl asked me to come back when she pointed out the restaurant. She had just opened this little bar 6 days ago. The interesting part is she rode a 600cc Steed parked out front. Used to live in Pattaya and ride with the Devils, now back in her hometown. Drank several beers together with JD and then whiskey. She can roll the local cigarettes much better than I do. She told me there were several good roads around Nan. I thought it would be fun to go riding together...never ridden alongside a girl. The place turned into the local hangout for Thai chopper riders, many Steeds and one disguised as a Shadow. Talked on with Oil for a while as JD returned sleepily to his room. Still confused over what happened with Oil, but anyway all I wanted was to go riding the next day. Told her I would call her in the morning but she was too tired and busy she said. Anyway, best to go back to Chiang Mai.

    Day 11: Chiang Mai: Started off from Nan around 11am. Out too late the night before. Knew it would be a long day too. Put on my walkman for the first time this trip. Don't know the exact kilometers (check David's book if you want to know). 300 plus and it ended up taking us way longer than I ever expected even though we didn't have a lunch stop. We stopped only for some for water in the pouring, pounding heat and ate yogurt for lunch at a 7-11.

    101/1 to Lampang and then 11 up to Lamphun and into Chiang Mai. Some parts of this are very nice through the hills on big roads. 101 is a single lane each way through the country and once outside of the towns it is a nice run. 11 is better pass through the mountains. Lots of overtaking pickups and cars and wishing this Super 4 had more power. I was really cursing the machine at this point. Exhausting to not be able to pass low end Thai pickups going uphill in spots. Then got stuck behind a BMW through twisties who held up a line of cars going 50 km/h. Frustrating but later the road opens in the hills around Chiang Mai to fast stretches winding through concrete walls. The right bike could have made a lot more time here.

    Back into Chiang Mai at 5pm and all the water throwing madness had subsided thankfully. Bike back to Mr. Mechanic and a talk with Pim who then gave me the Honda Dream for the next 3+ days, for free. Ate some terrible food at the Kafe (sorry David, I just didn't like this place, but did try!). Back to Daret's and out to Riverside while we waited on JD's money to come in from New York before Laos.

    Waiting around Chiang Mai, I changed my mind about Laos. Maybe I'll be regretting this if JD makes a good trip report and shows me stunning pics of Laos. For the money I had left I could only afford 5 days or so. Better to head back to Chonburi, rent a bike in Pattaya and go camping...Laos will have to wait.

    I met a girl at Riverside who said her father sells and rents bigger sport bikes in Fang. I called him the next day but he said they were only selling now. The addiction to those northern roads had set in but I wasn't into riding a weak Super 4 any longer. Went out for a fun night with that girl and friends anyway and then to Mandalay and dancing and their Red Label and then missionary meetings over lunch and a long bus back to Bangkok.

    You basically can't go wrong choosing roads through Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai or Nan. If I had more time and money I would have done Nan longer and gone to Mae Hong Son.
  2. Kyle

    Kyle Active Member

    Jan 1, 2004
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