Saturday, December 19, 2015

Winter comes to Thailand

At long last it's here.

I've been waiting for the cold weather to arrive since August. This past summer was insufferably hot and lasted way too long. A Thailand winter is quite a bit friendlier than those in my home state of Alaska, very subtle, and that's why I appreciate it so much. Some signs of what Thais unwittingly call the cold season are: I can leave butter out on the table without it melting; the honey is difficult to squeeze into my morning tea; I need to wear a jacket outside and slippers in the house, and we can unplug and put aside the ever present floor fans for a while. And not to forget, we will be sleeping under blankets for a few weeks. Wonderful.

Motorcycle travel is especially inviting during this season as well because the air is clear and cool and I can dress properly for riding. In the summer heat I just cannot force myself wear heavy, hot, but safe motorcycling gear. I had a plan for a trip in the back of my mind that involved repeating parts of a delightful ride I'd had last spring. I wanted to revisit Mae Sariang at the southwestern corner of the famous Mae Hong Son Loop, where Thailand's Route 108 coming from Hot in the east turns sharply north to Mae Hong Son and Pai. I had only recently "discovered" Mae Sariang and enjoyed it so much I wanted to return and show it to my friends. And I wanted to follow Thailand 1099, first to Omkoi and then to its southern end in the hamlet of Ban Mae Tuen. I wanted to spend a day or two there to explore the general area while gathering data for my mapping addiction. That was the plan I laid out for my traveling buddies, none of whom had ever been anywhere in that region, and they approved it enthusiastically. My inspiration for the Mae Tuen visit came from Nut who, in the end, had childcare duties that we couldn't farm out. So it was only Bruce & Kathleen, expats from Montana, our good neighbor Daniel, and I that set out for points south last Sunday while Nut was forced by circumstances to stay home.

The first part of the MHS Loop and of our ride goes south from Chiang Mai to Hot on the 108— it's a boring run over a big 4-lane highway — but the drive west from Hot to Mae Sariang is a wonderful ride on a motorcycle.  The 2-lane between Hot and Mae Sariang is another of Thailand's many fine motorcycle roads and offers the rider plenty of twisties as it follows the Mae Chaem River while gradually ascending to 3700 feet above sea level at the junction of the 1099, the road we'd be taking for our trek south a couple of days later. The air temperature up there had dropped to a decidedly brisk 65-70 degrees so we took a break to put on our extra jackets.  We'd be returning here later in the trip but for now continued our westerly course. Still ahead was another 30 miles of winding scenic highway cutting through thick pine woods that scent the air with a resinous fragrance that never fails to remind me of the Adirondacks of New York. Eventually the road descends to the Yuan River valley and the little town of Mae Sariang. We rode on a Sunday so traffic was light making our ride through the woods especially sweet.

Rest stop along the 108

Riding the 108

Sunset from the balcony at River Bank GH (N18.16332° E97.93116°)
My plan was to stay somewhere in Ban Mae Tuen but after Googling around for a while and checking the Thailand riders' forums my search for a hotel had turned up nothing. So I decided to make reservations at a little resort I visited last year in the town of Omkoi, which is on the 1099 at roughly the half way point. It was a smart move in the end because we had good accommodations in a beautiful setting — the Omkoi Resort lies in a shady grove alongside the Mae Tuen River — and shortened what would have been in hindsight quite a long ride to a much easier one. We made the 100 mile round trip to Ban Mae Tuen the next day after a tasty meal at the resort and a good night's sleep. Omkoi is 2700 feet above sea level so it experiences morning temperatures of 55-60 degrees. While that may sound balmy to you northern types, keep in mind that no hotel room, or private residence for that matter, in Thailand has heat — we were able to sleep comfortably but we needed the thick comforters our resort hosts provided.

We rode the pine tree lined 1099 into Omkoi

Sunset at Ban Dong Reservoir - Omkoi
Next day we ate khao tom, a traditional Thai breakfast of boiled rice with pork bits and assorted spices, in front of a campfire. Yep, a genuine campfire. We definitely appreciated having a crackling-hot fire to fend off the morning chill. After putting away a big bowl of khao tom and a couple tall cups of coffee we took off. The ride from Omkoi south was unexpectedly delightful. The 1099 north of Omkoi is a sweet ride but this southern leg has it all — it's a smooth road full of curves, sweeping panoramic views, quaint little towns, forests of mixed pine and hardwood, and enough clouds to make dramatic photos — the works!

The 1099 - good pavement, great views

Farm road

Ban Mae Tuen is a sleepy little town and is where the 1099 and the pavement ends. There are several rough tracks through the forested mountains that lead south to the Mae Sot area or west to the 105 from here but those are not something I can deal with on a road bike. There are some Chiang Mai based dirt bike enthusiasts who write reports about back country travel in the region that you can check out here and here if you're interested.

We did not find a place to stay during our brief visit to the town — no resort, guesthouse or home stay accommodations were apparent. However you can always find food anywhere in Thailand. We stopped at a tiny little restaurant (17.4023, 98.4573) that was serving up a tasty gaeng hang lay (recipe), which is one of my favorite Thai dishes, and then for dessert had an iced latte at the tiny Mae Tuen Cafe on the north side of town (17.4054295, 98.4555356). After the latte we saddled up and turned back to Omkoi. Recounting our day over dinner that evening we gushed over our awesome ride on what has got to be one of the prettiest highways in Thailand, the 1099.

The 1099 northbound to Omkoi from Ban Mae Tuen


Our equipment: Bruce & Kathleen ride a Honda Forza, a super scooter with 300cc engine, comfy seating for two, and automatic transmission. Danny drives a Honda PCX, a medium size scooter with a 150cc engine and automatic transmission. My bike is a Honda CB500X, a full-size touring motorcycle with a 6-speed manual transmission and 500cc engine.

Trees: The pines we encounter on our jaunts into the high country are probably a variety known as Khaysa or Khasi pine (sp. Pinus kesiya). According to Wikipedia they are native to India and SE Asia and the Royal Thai Forestry Department has planted thousands of them in reforestation projects in Chiang Mai and other northern provinces. Another possible candidate is Caribbean or pitch pine, (sp. Pinus caribaea), which is common in parts of the U.S. and was my first guess as to which species we were seeing. One of the references I located gives the Thai name chuang to the Khaysa pine (my transliteration is: ชวง or ช่วง) but I'm not sure if either is correct. If anybody reading this can help identify this species please leave a comment.

GPX file: Ban Mae Tuen day trip

Click on the file link and select Download from beneath the cleverly hidden "More" menu (those three blue dots), at the top right of the resulting page, browse to a folder or your desktop where you want to place the file and click on the Save button. You can open it with Google Earth or any other application that can display GPX files.