Thursday, April 8, 2010

To Pai and back

Wat near Night Market, Chiang Mai

Mile marker Rte 1095
Sunday, March 30: I'm back in Chiang Mai after a fabulous weekend with Ainara in Pai. And the ride up there and back on the rented Phantom was the best fun I've had riding yet: perfect weather, a short, 100 mile distance, plenty of time for photography and side trips, plenty of easy curves, the kind that tempt you to push a little harder near the tail end, virtually no traffic, and when you stop for a break there's birdsong all around you. Route 1095 has got to be one of the world's best motorcycle rides. The blow-by-blow follows.

The route
Banyan tree
Friday, March 26: I left Chiang Mai this morning at about 10 pm and went through its North Gate heading north on Rte 107 to the junction of 1095 where I hung a left into the good riding. As I said above, Route 1095 is a terrific biking road: it climbs to about 4600 feet to cross a ridge and offers plenty of curves and ups and downs, beautiful forests, and mellow surroundings. I never went faster than about 80 km/hr and when I saw something I wanted to photograph I merely pulled over and took a picture.  At one point I pulled over took out the pinner that an Alaska friend had given me in Bangkok the night I was with Joe, and took a few small hits. From that point on I really slowed down and enjoyed the ride. When I was here earlier during the big motorcycle trip, the guys were always pushing ahead to get to our next destination. Today, after realizing that Pai is at most a 3 hour trip from Chiang Mai, I slowed way down and took in the sights. I have some good photos of a huge and spectacular banyan tree that I want to work on in Photoshop later. I took a side trip to the Pongduet Hotsprings and against my better judgment paid 225 baht to enter but after I walked in I realized that I was almost the only person in the entire park.
Pongduet Hotsprings geyser
Bamboo thicket
 I took photos of the geyser, laid myself down on the ground and listened to the wind and the birdsong, thoroughly enjoying the peace and quiet. I reckon I’m still feeling fairly blissed out. The dope helped, thoughts of what might be ahead with Nut helped, thoughts of my good fortune helpedbut whatever the causes, I was really digging the ride. The road climbed to about 4600 feet during the trip and up there it was so cool and refreshing I wished I could stay and set up camp.
A flower at the Hotsprings

Along the road to Pongduet Hotsprings

Walkway at Pongduet Hotsprings

My cabin at Rim Pai Cottages
Friday, March 26th, 6 pm:  It's evening now and I’m sipping a Singha on my quiet deck watching the sky darken and wondering how it will go with Nut when I return to Bangkok. I feel a strong attraction for her and apparently, she feels the same for me, although obviously we know nothing much one another as yet. We exchange sweet little text messages every day and chat too but the language barrier coupled with poor cell phone acoustics keep us from having a very long conversation. How could we really get together given our massively different realities? Yet the attraction is strong. Although I hesitated to voice this except in my own mind, at some level I had hoped I might find a Thai lover during this trip. Maybe that’s the biggest reason we’re headed into this as yet undefined relationship.

Saturday, March 27, 2010 8 am Rim Pai Cottages

I'm up much too early after not getting to bed until late last night. Ainara and I didn’t meet until about 10 pm even though she arrived in town just before 8 o'clock. Ah well, she's Spanish after all and was perhaps still going on Bilbao time ;-) When she spotted me she yelled, Daaaaaave!  ran over and gave me a huge bear-hug.  It was damn good to see her again. She’s a beautiful lady with tons of vivacious energy. I asked how things were going, and about a job interview she’d had in Chiang Mai earlier in the day but she said, "It was only okaybut no worries, things will work out eventually.  I have enough money to stay here for a while and if nothing turns up I’ll head to Australia and find something there." She had hooked up with some folks who she brought to our get together, Luka, an Italian traveler, and two Israelis, Elia and Edan, a couple on tour after their army gig was up.  We had a good time exchanging stories and eating the great curries at Na’s. Then we adjourned to the Bamboo Bar on the river and stayed there until about 3 am.
Ainara, Luca, Edan and Elia starting the evening at Na's
I’m up because we’re all going to meet at 9:30 for breakfast and a moto trip to the waterfalls up the road. Ainara is reluctant to drive a moto herself so she will ride with me on the Phantom while the others have their own bikes. I’m not sure where else we can go because 1095 is hilly as the blazes in both directions and it’s the only road out. The Pongduet Hotsprings would be one choice but that’s quite far, maybe 80 miles round trip. In the other direction, the Baan CafĂ© is only 26 miles up the road. Maybe they’d be up for that, I’m not sure.

My cottage here is pretty nice but it’s not available tonight which means I’ll have to move somewhere. Maybe back to the Noon Guesthouse (where I stayed last month with the boys) or over where Ainara is, only a stone’s throw from here. But I need to pack my meager belongings up and get over there soon. I wish I had gotten more sleep. After our ride a big nap opportunity will present itself and I’ll take it for sure.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 10:30 am:
I'm writing this from the Chiang Mai airport. I have a couple of hours to kill and will take the opportunity to catch up on my Journal writing. 

Ainara and I riding the Phantom near Pai

Saturday was a very lovely day. When I saw where Ainara was staying and learned what she was paying per night I quickly signed up for a room there myself. The Golden Hut Guesthouse is right on the river, my room quite nice, and at 300 baht it's the cheapest accommodation I've had yet.

Back to the ride. We went first to a nice waterfall about 6 or7 miles west of Pai. We took a dip, sat in the sun, watched the Thai kids having a blast on the rocky slides, and chatted. It was comfy even in the sun up there. Actually Pai at 1600 ft is quite a bit cooler than Chiang Mai (1000 ft) or Bangkok all the time. The nights especially are quite pleasant. 
Ainara, my good buddy from Bilbao
Elia and Edan

Ainara at Pai Canyon
Next we drove over to Pai Canyon. It was hot and I got sweaty by the time we reached the top of the small hill overlooking the canyon. It was a surprisingly scenic place and before long, thanks to the dry breeze, I cooled down and dried off. We all took some photos, hiked around a bit, and then headed back to our hotels for nap time. Later we got together and had dinner, at Na’s again.  Afterward Ainara and I joined some other friends for a drink and I had a chance to talk with her about her plans. She’s feeling a little scared about what to do for money, and in the long term, what to do with her life. She's very earnest in her desire to help the local peoplemostly Burmese immigrant children in Mae Sotget recognized and get an education. But she’s been frustrated because the NGOs in the area are competing for funds. Moreover, much of their management is on the take and raking money off the top, money meant for the schools and those children, so that the schools are always operating in the red and are consequently chronically shorthanded.  To make matters worse, the Burmese children are not Thais and hence are do not really have a claim on any aid from the Thai government, which looks the other way when it comes to helping them.  They are foreign nationals, not Thais. It’s a mess and Ainara is caught in the middle somewhere.  I encouraged her as much as I could but felt sort of powerless to really help. But we had a great talk and strengthened our developing friendship. I hope we'll be friends for life and that we will see each other often in our future travels. This is one fantastic woman and I love her as I do Joe and Naroa, Ainara's best friend and my host in Bilbao, because they are wonderful friends and have treated me so damn well.

Below is a view from my deck at Golden Hut Guesthouse. Pai is a hugely popular tourist destination and the entire Pai River valley is built up with hotel after hotel, much of it new construction.

Rose bush along Rte 1095
The motorcycle trip back was as pleasant as the trip out. I took a few more tokes off that pinner I had left from the ride in and, as before, took the rest of the ride at an easy, safe pace. I took a few of the smoother, juicier turns briskly but mostly I just hung back, stopping to take a photo now and again, and enjoyed the feelings of being on my own, riding a motorcycle in such a wonderful place, and loving Thailand and its people. Did another side trip too, this time to the Mork Fa Waterfall, and once again I found an utterly empty park. It looks as though if there’s a fee involved, even the modest 120 baht fee I paid here, you will be pretty much alone. It’s a fantastic place. I took  a few photos, relaxed for a half hour and then moved on.

Mork-Fa Waterfall 
Here are a few scenes from the ride back:

Along Route 1095

Temple on Route 1095

Sign at Mork-Fa - This is no joke. OSHA would go nuts in Thailand!
I did my last moto ride of the trip out of Chiang Mai yesterday. The rental period on my bike was not up until 3:30 so I had resolved Sunday afternoon to do a ride early the next day. I had plans to attend the huge Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, but in the event, I couldn’t enjoy the market because when checking my saved emails from AirAsia, I mistakenly concluded that I’d set up my return to Bangkok for 23:50, almost midnight. I promptly got on Skype and tried to get an earlier arrival time but AirAsia will only allow one change per ticket and I had already re-booked my flight when I decided to return earlier to Bangkok.  I was prepared to sacrifice that last ride to go to the AirAsia office near Tha Phae Gate in the morning to buy a completely new ticket with an earlier arrival time. I did not want to lose Tuesday with Nut, especially as she was taking the day off to be with me.

I was in bed fairly early and slept well until I bolted awake at 5 am thinking:  wait a minute, the lady I spoke with when I first changed my itinerary had told me my flight’s departure time——it was something like 12:25, and I had it written down on a slip of paper in my wallet! I quickly dug out my wallet. Sure enough, there it was——departing Chiang Mai at 12:25, March 30. I quickly logged in to AirAsia on the Internet and checked “My Bookings”. Yep, it was there, just as it should have been. I returned to my slumbers much relieved.

I had spent much of Sunday night in a panic but I had made a careless error. I had looked at my original itinerary, not the updated one. How I could have missed the original April 3rd departure date is, now, quite beyond me. I was booked to return by about 1:30 and I should be with Nut by no later than 3 pm.  The trouble I cause myself in these cases is just ridiculous. Once panic sets in things go downhill in a hurry.

Anyway, the ride was phenomenal. Route 1004 to Doi Pui is another motorcycling dream. Nice smooth highway with enough of an altitude gain to make for very pleasant biking as the ride progresses and the air cools, many places to stop for food or refreshment with your choice of several side trips to scenic places (waterfalls, quiet creek-sides), if you have the time to take them in. I would ride it often if I lived in Chiang Mai.

Butterfly: at a waterfall near Chiang Mai
Butterfly: at a waterfall near Chiang Mai

Contented traveler

Quiet stream off of Route 1004
Butterfly: at a waterfall near Chiang Mai