For over six months now, since we left Armenia, our motorcycling has been handicapped by one form of restriction or other. In Iran we needed a guide to pass through. In Dubai, as non-residents, we couldn’t get bike insurance with severe penalties likely if caught riding without. In India we needed more than one pair of eyes in the back of our heads to survive the crazy driving there, where every ride involved crazy combat to survive the roads and Myanmar required what proved to be a final flurry of guides. We left Myanmar with their big Water Festival party in full flow and suddenly found ourselves at the end of an easy-going border transaction in a new land that was at once a pool of calm, order and tranquility, a place we could at last ride free of all these bindings: Thailand. They even drive on the left here, just like at home and just like they’re supposed to in India (but everyone drives where they like).
With free and painless border transactions concluded quickly, we tottered into the city of Mae Sot, greeted by a huge Tesco store, the first supermarket we’ve seen since Dubai nearly six months ago, and checked in to a small hotel to plan the next portion of our ride east… Our biggest problem lies in the fact that our arrival into South East Asia, coincides with that of the monsoon season with its potentially calamitous rains. While it will not rain everywhere all the time, there are certain places that need to be avoided at peak rainy season so we needed some time to plan accordingly. Looking at the maps a tour of North Thailand, followed by an excursion into Laos, then Vietnam (if we can access on our bikes without a guide) followed by Cambodia and then a run through southern Thailand would take us to Malaysia and from there, Indonesia…
So, with outline planning complete, first stop on this new leg of our journey; Northern Thailand. I expect you’ll be wondering what the numbers in the title of this posting are all about and I will explain all that in a minute so please bear with me. Our first port of call was a visit to the ancient ruins at Sukhothai and we checked in to the Thai, Thai, Sukhothai guesthouse, a delightful accommodation offering outstanding hospitality, where we took a couple of bicycles to explore the nearby archaeology. Whilst not so grand or extensive as those in Bagan in Mynamar, they were nonetheless glorious; a collection of ancient Wats (temples) set in luscious parkland, the whole set being devoid of any other tourists given the lateness of the season. Sukhothai was also our first real introduction to Thai night markets (it is too hot to hold these during the day) where we were blown away by the mouthwatering platters of food on offer for not a lot of money.
Our arrival in Thailand coincided with rising temperatures, a precursor to the monsoon. We have grown accustomed to living under sunny blue skies with 30°C+ showing on the mercury, more or less since leaving home last July but in Myanmar the thermometer began creeping towards the high end of the thirties. Now in Thailand it climbed into the mid-forties. In fact Sukhothai would reach 47°C making it the 10th hottest city on the planet. Factor in humidity and that is damned hot. We’ve ridden in Southern Europe and the Americas in high summer where it feels like a hair-dryer is blowing in your face. Now in Thailand the heat blast felt like we were riding into the mouth of an open furnace. This required us to modify our daily routine, to rise at 5:30 and get any riding or sightseeing over before early afternoon when a nap in a chill room is in order to escape the most vicious heat of the day followed by another foray in the early evening before a slightly later dinner.
From Sukhothai we took a short ride north to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city. Most of the highlights are contained within the old walled city making it a lovely place to wander around with some beautiful Wats, all so different again from our Myanmar experience. We took a day-trip out on a breathtaking twisty road to visit Wat Doi Suthep, set high on a forested mountain overlooking the city. Whilst the views were obscured by haze, the ride was amazing yet it was but a ‘single olive’ for an appetizer for the star motorcycling attraction in Northern Thailand; the Mae Hong Song Loop. Starting in Chiang Mai ‘the Loop’ is a series of winding, twisting roads that roll and frolic for some 375-miles through a handful of highlands circling around northwest Thailand. There are two roads; Highway 108 running from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang and on to Mae Hong Song itself and, from that point, the 1095 that runs to the hippy-chic mountain town of Pai and on back into Chiang Mai.
We dumped a lot of our kit at our Chiang Mai hotel to lighten the bikes and set off for a five-day wonder ride that goes down as one of the top rides on the planet! 375-miles? Sounds like you could run it in a single day? Factor in that scorching heat (albeit tempered now by a little dose of altitude) and then the sheer number of curves on these roller coaster roads and it is at this point where those numbers in the title of this posting come into the equation… From Mae Hong Song to Pai alone there are 1864 bends in the road. 762? The number of bends from Pai to Chiang Mai and this is all verified, not by us counting them as we rode them, but from the T-Shirts we bought along the way proudly announcing these tremendous tallies that don’t even consider the first two days on the ride to Mai Sariang and on from there to Mae Hong Song on highways that sport similar statistics.
These numbers equally tally the number of grins experienced by a rider encountering such a nirvana. The icing on the cake was the fact that we were off-season so the roads were empty. The substrate is excellent too, a few pot holes here and there but not enough to spoil play. All of this taken amidst a world of jungle whizzing by with explosions of banana trees, monster bamboos and giant tree ferns lining the way like supporters waving and cheering you on through a mental green grand-prix. And the influx of all that green… it certainly fires happiness receptors in the brain and at the end of each day we arrived at our destinations in a state of mild euphoria, elated and sated by the ride, knowing that tomorrow would probably be even better.
Accommodations and food in Thailand are some of the best (and cheapest) we’ve had to date on this ride east and the best of the best were to be found in Chiang Rai, our next destination on our exploration of Northern Thailand. The ride out from Chiang Mai on newly serviced bikes following our jungle GP was made remarkable by the flowers we saw along the way. Now I’m not talking your humble garden flora nor indeed even a hedgerow in full bloom. I’m talking huge flowering trees the likes of which we’ve never beheld, canopies of colour resplendently forming a gorgeous topiary of tunnels along the highway. There were blushes of pinks and purples dangling from trees I haven’t yet identified and then the eye-catching drapes of yellow cascading from Cassia Fistula, also known as the ‘Golden Shower Tree’, whose blossom we learned is the national flower of Thailand. But what really stole the show (and made everything else look positively ordinary) were the many and fine examples of Delonix Regia or ‘Flame Trees’ so called from the gushy conflagration of vivid red blooms cascading from every limb that set the landscape alight with their colour.
Chiang Rai is home to the utterly spectacular Wat Rong Khun or ‘White Temple’. This is a modern temple built by a local artist called Chalermchai Kositpipat. He funded the project entirely with his own money to build a complex for learning and meditation such that all people might gain benefit from Buddhist teachings. In return he hopes that the project will grant him immortal life. It is an ongoing project that was recently hampered when a lot of the structures were damaged by an earthquake in 2014. The current estimated completion date is now 2070.
The complex is centred on a huge temple, the Ubosot, a stark-white building frosted with fragments of mirrored glass embedded in the exterior surfaces. It has a typical Thai temple roof with upswept ridgelines and it all has a somewhat Disneyesque appearance like a stage set for a live version of ‘Frozen’. The approach is no less amazing; a pool of grey outstretched hands, including animal and alien claws, that are supposed to represent the flaws of desire and appear as a sort of purgatorial holding tank that must be crossed to gain a fine crystalline bridge that leads on to the Ubosot itself, set on a small lake. Other jaw-droppingly beautiful white buildings populate the ground interspersed with several golden edifices, the largest of which is a representation of worldly desires and wealth, material possessions and property. It is in fact the most ornate toilet you are ever likely to see! In amongst all of this are images from modern sci-fi movies including a Terminator, half a Predator and a sort of Transformer robot character sat on a park bench inviting you to have your photo taken in the empty seat beside him. It might sound like it has the potential to be just so tacky if the concept wasn’t so brilliantly executed and we both ended our visit astonished that artists can still make something so beautiful in these modern times.
We parted Chiang Rai for a short ride to see the ‘Golden Triangle’, nowadays the area at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers and the place where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all come together. Up to the end of the 20th Century the area was infamous as the place of origin for the majority of the world’s heroin. This is mostly a thing of the past as anti-drugs campaigns, especially in Thailand and Myanmar have severely reduced the opium poppy trade in the area, which is instead being cultivated as a tourist destination. From Chiang Saen, our last stop in Northern Thailand, we visited the nearby ‘Hall of Opium’ a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of Opium from its first uses as a local herbal tonic and pain-killer to the modern cash-crop basis for refined illegal products that have been the scourge of our modern society. The museum was built as part of the rejuvenation of the area and was sponsored by the king of Thailand’s late mother in an attempt to explain the biology, history and legacy of the opium trade. Opium is an unusual subject and slightly uncomfortable one for a museum but a fascinating story well told and one that needs more telling so we can understand where some of our modern problems originated.
It’s hard to contemplate how the want of a simple cup of tea could have put one of the largest nations on earth into the grip of a lethal drug habit but in a nutshell that is the story of how opium took it’s place in world history. By the mid-1800’s tea drinking had become all the rage and the demand generated a huge trade. The problem was that all of the tea at that time came from one place; China and the sources were heavily protected to maintain a monopoly on the trade. The East India Company realised that they had an abundance of a commodity that the Chinese desperately wanted; opium, grown in India and hence a lucrative trade network was established selling opium for tea. The effect on the Chinese populace was horrific. Statistics in the museum told how in this heyday one in every 30 people in China was an opium addict! In time this would lead to the famous Opium Wars with China as leaders there tried to banish the import of the drug. But the English wanted their cuppas, the East India Company wanted balanced books so gunboats were sent in to enforce the trade in a black episode of the story of British colonialism. In the end tea plants were found in Assam and Darjeeling and buds were allegedly stolen from China to establish other plantations in places like Ceylon so the trade moved on. The museum also told the history of opium since then and the refinement of heroin and the massive impact this has had on all societies with many harrowing stories to underline this.
The clock was ticking on our first Thai visas and it was time to cross the mighty Mekong for the next installment of out travels in SE Asia… Laos; would we love it or loathe it?
For the photogallery for this post please click on the following link: Northern Thailand