Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The trip continues..... Chiang Mai

(Click here to read about the trip from the start.)

It's February 12 and Day 6 of the road trip begins. We spent an extra day in Chiang Rai and now it's time to go. Nothing particularly exciting to report during the ride except for some great coffee and a menu that has lost quite a bit in translation, as you'll see. The repairs to the motorcycle cost 1000 baht, about 33 bucks, and included a new air cleaner and the fork seals. The missing under load, which occurs most often when climbing a hill, is unchanged. The only other thing that could be causing this problem is ignition; a bad plug wire or a bad coil. We decide it's foolish to spend any more money on this rental and so I suffer on the hills and struggle to keep up with the other guys. I had a great time in Chiang Rai but the place we're heading to next has a big reputation and I look forward with pleasure to spending at least a couple of days there as well. Pai has long been known as the place to be in northern Thailand. Many expats live there, the climate is mild, the food good and cheap. But before we get to Pai, I need to talk about our coffee stop, a stop we made somewhere on Rte 118 at a place called Coffee Friend. We stood at the counter for a moment and eventually a tiny young woman emerged from the rear. She couldn't have been 5 ft tall. She was very pleasant and had a big smile for us as she wrote down what we wanted. We ordered  3 Americanos and a latte, the latter for me. Then we went to the front to take seats near the sidewalk and she went to work. It took quite a while for the first drinks to appear but they looked good and had a nice layer of crema on top. After taking their first sips the boys reported that they tasted good. And when I got my latte it was very good indeed, I'd go so far as to say it was excellent. The best coffee I've had since leaving Homer and KBay Caffe four months ago. Here's a photo of me with Phon:

We stopped for lunch in small town a bit later and I photographed this menu. It's interesting that it had any English text at all because this town isn't exactly a big tourist destination but the translations are hilarious. I wanted to try the item named "the shrimp cooks whore dust" but ended up with chicken and cashews thanks to Al's help in requesting it.

We arived in Pai at about, as we say, beer o'thirty, about 5:30. I had read on the Internet about how things have changed since Pai got "discovered" by both falangs and vacationing Thais from Bangkok. We talked to a couple of college girls from Bangkok that had traveled 10 hours by bus to Chiang Mai and then another 5 hours to get to Pai. And they only have a four-day weekend holiday. It's much more crowded now than in the past. The streets were thronged with people at night, most of them falangs like us. Al told me over dinner that night, "This place used to be cool. Now it's too crowded and things have changed for the worse," thereby echoing the sentiments I had seen on the Internet. We had a great dinner at a restaurant named Na's and had a couple of beers in a little grocery before turning in for the night. During dinner we revisited our plan to stay two nights in Pai deciding instead to head directly to Mae Hong Son next day.  (Below are three shots of the scenery along Rte 1095 enroute to Mae Hong Son.)


I've been on the road with these guys for almost a week by now and I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit road weary. The pace has been fairly relaxed but driving a motorcycle 6 hours a day under these conditions is somewhat nerve wracking. As each day begins I feel as though I have to relearn how to set up for and make the thousands of turns this trip entails. In order to take a sharp turn at normal speeds on a motorcycle you must lean your body into it just right. The faster you move the more you've got to lean. If the turn you're negotiating has another turn following it going in the other direction you must quickly rearrange yourself to lean the opposite way. A skilled rider knows all this without having to think about it and can handle these quick switches easily. I, on the other hand, must more or less will my body to do what's required. I'm not always completely successful. A few times I've crossed into the other lane when I've suddenly  realized I'm going a tad too fast or the curve is getting tighter than it was at the beginning and rather than leaning even harder I just chicken out and give up and cross the centerline. On several occasions I've hit a bump in the road while leaning hard in a turn and my footpeg has touched the pavement. All riders experience this once in a while. The footpegs are attached to the frame with pivots or hinges. They fold up so they won't grab the pavement and cause the bike to lurch in this situation. But that said, it's still unnerving to hear and feel that peg scraping the pavement.

I like these guys a lot but the constant conversation is about motorcycles and women, not necessarily in that order. They've been  coming to Thailand for years and have girlfriends scattered all over the country so the talk invariably turns to someone wanting to see so and so in Pattaya again, or, someone else wanting to visit so and so in Chiang Mai. Al is heading back to a job in Alaska soon so he needs to start preparing to exit the country. Andy too must go to Cambodia for a visit with friends and family and to renew his visa extension. DC will be here almost the whole time I'm here so I will see him later and do some more riding with him. But in the meantime he is wanting to visit a friend in some other town so he will be leaving the group as well. Inevitably, we will soon go our separate ways and I'll be on my own. That's both good and bad because I have had a great introduction to the country, have hit almost all of the major cities in the north, have had a bike trip that I could never have pulled off, or even planned, by myself and have had the benefit of their many years of experience while doing it. In addition, my understanding of Thai language is practically nil and I'm traveling on a rented motorcycle that is in need of some major repairs. And I'm two to three days away from Udon Thani, where I must go in order to return the bike and pick up my suitcase. So traveling alone is a daunting proposition. But the notion of setting my own pace and being independent is very attractive. I'm sure I'll make it just fine once I get going. Nevertheless, I declined to raise the idea of splitting up.

Here are a few photos from a nice cafe we stopped at for a coffee break, the Baan Cafe on Rte 1095. Beautiful gardens, high-end bungalows, good coffee, and situated on a clean water stream. But we are moving ahead....

As you may have gathered from the photos above, the road to Mae Hong Son is another curvaceous son-of-a-gun. We hit a couple of nice spots as much of the road was at an elevation where some sort of evergreens were growing. The air was cool and resin scented, reminiscent of areas in the eastern states. I took a photo of us before a sign that says in essence "Curve No. 1548." Someone said he'd heard there are well over 2,000 curves on this road and others speak of "The Road of 10,000 Curves".  Yep...

Mae Hong Son is a lovely town. It's fairly rural and our hostel, the Palm House, is close to a little lake in the center of town. We ate dinner at a nice place right on the lake shore, the Sunflower Restaurant. I had fried fish, some sort of fresh water fish, a tilapia perhaps. It had a crispy, sweet-sour coating with a bit of heat thrown in for good measure. It was a fantastic meal. Next day I again thought to myself, maybe this is a place I could hang out for a while. Maybe I should stay. During morning coffee with DC he told me he had decided to head down to Phitsanulok to see a friend. Then Al decided to head directly back to Udon to prepare his bike for storage and then spend a week or so in Pattaya before catching his flight back to Alaska later this month. Al had already spent a week in Chiang Mai last fall but he encouraged me to go there saying it was a great city and that he was sure I'd like it. Plus, I knew Albert (another good friend from Homer) was in Chiang Mai and seeing as that city was on my list of places I wanted to visit I decided to head over that way. Andy volunteered to ride with me to the hotel district where Albert was staying near the Thapae Gate. So that's how it came to pass that our ride together came to its graceful conclusion. We would ride with Al to Mae Chaem where we would say our goodbyes to him.

February 14: The trip this day was a pretty one and the air was relatively clear so I took a few photos from an overlook on Route 1263. The first one (below) is the view north, the second a view to the south that give you a look at the many twists and turns this road offers to the biking "enthusiast". Most of the days during the ride have been hazy and not particularly good for photography. The haze results from a combination of smoke from burning fields of stubble and weeds and the fact that this is the dry season. The Thais practice slash and burn agriculture so we saw many fires and a lot of smoke during the ride.

It was on Rte 1263 that we had the scariest experience so far. I was riding last and as I proceeded down a fairly steep grade I noticed with horror a ridge of asphalt, a bump, running completely across the highway. There was no time to hit the brakes so I did what I'd learned to do while riding my old Honda CL-350 in the dirt -- I stood up on the footpegs in preparation for the hit. The Phantom and I went completely airborne for one, maybe two frightening seconds. As they say, I "caught some air." Everyone made it through alright but it was quite the topic of conversation when we stopped to collect ourselves. We don't travel all that fast on these roads with these bikes but still, I was going probably 50-55 mph when I hit that  bump. It was very fortunate that I was able to hang onto the handlebars through the whole thing. The experience shook me up for quite a while.

We ate our poorest lunch of the trip in Mae Chaem, a variety of junk foods from the 7-11 store because we couldn't find a restaurant there. After lunch we gassed up the bikes and shook hands all around. We wished one another safe rides and farewells until we meet up next week in Udon. Then Al turned south and Andy and I turned back north toward Chiang Mai. We proceeded along some more very nice roads before hitting the main highway into Chiang Mai. The pleasant country continued to treat us to good views, some demanding riding on very twisty roads, and refreshingly cool weather conditions. DC called us on his cellphone to let us know he was doing fine but had made a wrong turn and was spending the night in the little town of Hot, many miles short of his goal. We all carry cellphones and use them constantly to stay in touch. It makes things so much easier when you can simply call your friends no matter where they are in Thailand.

After an especially fine day of riding We arrived in Chiang Mai and met Albert just in time for the famous Sunday night market. He was staying in a very cheap hotel right near the ThaPae Gate-- 200 baht per night -- about 6 bucks. It had no Internet or TV or air conditioning but of course one doesn't need aircon in the north and Internet is available for cheap across the street so I went ahead and checked in to a room just down the hall from Albert. Andy knew of a place he liked from previous visits so he went over there to check in and shower. We agreed to meet up after showers to do the market. By this time I've visited several night markets and I wondered just how different this one could possibly be from the others I've enjoyed. It was pretty special--tons of craft offerings and a multitude of interesting and tasty foods--many more choices than in the others. We wandered around for a while sampling the foods and making a few purchases. I ate some great coconut concoctions that were vaguely reminiscent of coconut macaroons but softer and much better, especially as they were offered hot off the grill. We ate fresh strawberries and watermelon, chicken satae and some little cooked eggs, quail eggs perhaps, octopus sushi, and shish-ka-bobs, etc. There were goups doing music of various types including a drum and dance performance that was unique and very enjoyable. Quite a treat all around. Below is a screenshot from Google Earth of this last day's ride with the magenta color. You can see a portion of an earlier ride in yellow above.