After a brief visit with friends and family, and a bit of R&R (Research and Resupply), we boarded our first of three flights this morning to head to the other side of the world. We should arrive by midnight local time tomorrow night. Yes, it’s a lot of time in airports and on planes. We could have saved about eight hours by spending a lot more money, but that money instead will buy us about twenty nights of hotels (yes, they are cheap where we’re going).
By Monday we should be back on two wheels and making new friends, despite the language barrier.
When I first started getting serious about riding a motorcycle around the world in 2014, I began by laying out a general route and doing some research, beginning with weather patterns. I wanted to try to stay in what was typically late Spring or early Fall weather — not too hot and not too cold — but also avoid the “monsoon season” or other periods of heavy precipitation.
Based on this, I made a plan to leave home and ride south to the bottom of South America, then ship the bike to South Africa and ride north to Europe. From there I would head east into Asia, crossing Mongolia. At that point I had a couple of options: the first was to continue to Vladivostok, on the eastern seaboard of Russia, where I could take a ferry to Japan and spend a few weeks there before shipping on to South Korea and eventually Thailand.
The second, and at least in my opinion, more interesting option was to hire a guide and ride through China to Thailand. This can be expensive, but overland motorcyclists had figured out that they could coordinate and meet up at the border, sharing a guide and splitting the costs.
From Thailand, my plan was to continue south through Malaysia and Indonesia, working my way down to Australia.
In 2015 and 2016 I completed the first part of my plan, including South America, Africa, and Europe. After twelve months I took a hiatus from the ride and returned to work, intending to pick up again where I left off — at the Russian border — at a later date.
That was Round-The-World 1.0, a different world than today. Much has changed since 2016, some of it obvious to everyone and other parts only obvious to the motorcycle traveler.
Covid changed everything of course. It closed borders, shut down non-necessary shipping (including recreational motorcycles), and impacted the world economy. When we could finally resume the trip, shipping the bike by air from the US to Europe had gone from around $2400 to $10,000. Shipping containers for sea freight had become scarce, and so had shippers willing to deal with an individual that wanted to ship one motorcycle.
Then came the Russia-Ukraine war. This obviously had a detrimental effect on a US couple with a US motorcycle entering Ukraine and Russia. It can still be done, but the headaches and concerns had me questioning the sensibility of it. Some things I would have done as a solo rider I won’t do with my wife on the bike with me. In addition, there’s not only the logistics but the ethical or moral issues I have with spending my money in Russia right now.
Then there’s Thailand. About the time I stopped my ride in 2016, Thailand was introducing new rules, making it incredibly difficult if not impossible to bring your own motorcycle into the country. If I couldn’t enter Thailand from China or pass through Thailand to Malaysia and continue south, then my whole route would have to change.
So while we consider the options for riding across Asia from Europe on the bike that is currently stored in Spain, we’re going to approach Asia from the other side. We’ve rented a smaller bike in Thailand and another in Vietnam, and we plan to spend the next couple of months doing some exploring. We’ve already accepted that this isn’t nearly enough time to experience these incredible countries, and we want to see Laos and Cambodia as well if possible, so we already know we’ll have to return. But for now we plan to take in as much of the local culture, people, food, and scenery as we can.
We’re on the plane to Narita airport in Tokyo as I write this. We’ll then change planes and head to Bangkok for a few days to play tourist before picking the bike up in Chiang Mai. We’ve packed very light for this trip: basically sharing one backpack and a small tail bag on the bike. One thing we did pack was rain gear. It may not be the height of the rainy season, but it still rains in SE Asia regardless.
Note: Since we’re traveling light, all blog posts are being created on my phone, which takes a lot longer. So I apologize in advance for the delays and quality. Also, I won’t be able to edit together a good overall video until I have laptop access, but there should be some videos available on our Instagram. Updated note Nov 15, 2022: We’ve been in electronics Hell for several days. First WordPress did a system update that locked me out of posting to the blog; then our tracker quit sending location for several days. And now I guess the bike got jealous and decided to join in with its’ own electronic gremlins, refusing to start randomly.
We’re slowly getting some of them sorted, and as of now I can post again, so I’ll start trying to catch up.)
After 21 hours of plane time and another eight or so hours of layovers we landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok at midnight Wednesday night. Less than two hours later we were in our hotel room and quickly tried to fall asleep, as we had a busy day starting in just a few hours.
Our hotel is not in the hub of tourist central, but it is in the middle of Bobae Market, a huge textile market area. The Prince Palace Hotel is an older hotel but fairly well kept up, with several restaurants, a nice pool area on the 11th floor, and a rooftop bar. We ended up with a corner suite room on the 16th floor. It’s about the size of three Hampton Inn rooms. The huge and very good breakfast buffet is included (although the first morning we had to do battle with several hundred convention goers…plenty of food but tables were scarce even though the buffet is in a ballroom area. Because it’s Bangkok, this is one of the most expensive places we’ll stay: our large suite with breakfast buffet is about $50 a night.
By 7am we were in a tuk-tuk headed for River City Plaza to meet Mina, our tour guide. After a short water taxi ride up the Chao Phraya River, we arrived at the Grand Palace.
Taking a water taxi up the Chao Phraya River to the Grand Palace
Entering the Grand Palace
Monkeys and demons stand side by side in many places,guarding the temples and Palace
There’s a dress code you must follow before you can enter the temples. Basically it says @no uncovered ahoulders and no uncovered knees. However, it turns out that “dress modestly” also means no leggings here. They sell “elephant pants” and “elephant skirts” at the entrance to solve these issues.
The monkeys are the ones without shoes. Here, it’s the white one.
The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. It is a 54 acre collection of impressive buildings, including the royal chapel which holds the Emerald Buddha, a 19 inch wide by 26 inch high carving of green stone (not Emerald) created around 43 BC. While the King no longer resides here, it is still the center of ceremony for the monarchy.
Not a great photo, but this is the Emerald Buddha. About a week ago, they changed his clothing to symbolize winter. The King changed Buddha’s hat, then workers did the rest.
After touring the Grand Palace grounds we took a short ferry across the river to Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn.
Before crossing the river, we stopped at a street food vendor and bought sticky rice with coconut milk and mangoes. It was very good and around $1.50
This location was the capital of Thonburi before the capital was moved across the river to what is now Bangkok (being surrounded by temples, there was not enough room to expand at Wat Arun, so King Rama I moved the Palace to the other side of the river in 1782).
Later, King Rama II ordered Wat Arun’s main prang to be expanded to 70 meters high in order to be the highest at that time.
Wat Arun’s main prang is over 200 feet high.
At many of the temples, there are nearby shops that rent traditional Thai dress to tourists for photos.
We then returned across the river to Wat Po to view the Reclining Buddha.
It’s hard to capture the enormity of the reclining Buddha. His head is over 50 feet tall.
It’s hard to grasp the size of this monument. The Buddha is 50 feet tall and 150 feet long. The reclining position represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of reincarnation.
Note that all ten of Buddha’s toes are identical in size and length. It’s said this is to show his perfect form.
Wat Po has the largest collection of Buddhas in Thailand at over one thousand spread over nearly 20 acres.
Rows of Buddhas at Wat Po.
Occasionally we would see a cat curled up and sleeping, while crowds moved past. Nothing seemed to bother them.
Mina, our tour guide.
After a couple hour nap, we headed back to the river for a dinner cruise. The buffet was huge and there was a duo who performed (mostly in English but occasionally in Thai and Chinese). The city looks and feels very different from the river at night… less hectic, more relaxed and very pretty.
Our last tour before heading north and back on two wheels.
We boarded a van for a two hour drive north of Bangkok to the ruins of Ayutthaya.
Built in 1350, Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam. It was a huge development of temples and monasteries and included a hydraulic water supply system that was extremely advanced for its time.
It was attacked and burned to the ground in 1767 by the Burmese army, and never rebuilt. The capital of Siam was later moved to Bangkok.
Wat Chaiwatthainaram consisted of five pagodas, with the main prang in the middle the other four spires at the corners of the cloister.
Main Pagoda or Prang
When the Burmese Army attacked Ayutthaya, they chopped the heads and hands off of all of the Buddhas. In some cases they also dug below them looking for hidden treasure.
A colony of bats lives in this corner pagoda.
Two women wearing rented costumes pose in front of the ruins.
Another large reclining Buddha. This one was originally in a wooden building which deteriorated over time. UNESCO chose not to reconstruct the building.
Due to its’ condition and location, you are allowed to touch the feet of Buddha in order to make a wish. Pretty sure she wished for shade and/or air conditioning.
At our lunch stop we saw these tourists on an elephant. While this is no longer encouraged it is apparently still allowed on a limited basis.
I also saw this Yamaha R1 at our lunch stop. This is very unusual here in Thailand, where the most common motorcycle is the 125cc Honda Wave scooter.
At our last stop, Wat Maha That, we saw the famous Buddha head in the tree. The head was laying loose at the base of this tree which then began growing around it.
The tree has begun to lift the head as it grows.
Tomorrow we fly to Chiang Mai to pick up our wheels for the rest of our Thai travels.
The population of Bangkok is just under eleven million people. Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, is around 1.2 million. The difference is immediately noticeable as you enter Chiang Mai. You can feel the slower pace of life.
The constant frenzy of Bangkok traffic doesn’t exist in Chiang Mai. Yes, there is traffic, but it is more controlled, orderly, spread out, and calm. It’s amazing to me that-there aren’t many many more accidents in Bangkok, as pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, tuktuks, cars, trucks and buses all scramble and fight for the same space. The lane markings are truly nothing but suggestions as cars split lanes between cars, Tuktuks split lanes between cars, and scooters split lanes between tuktuks and cars, all at speed (at least when possible). Turns into and across traffic occur at will, and occasionally a scooter will slowly come down the left shoulder in the wrong direction rather than go around the block. Yet with all of this chaos, vehicles mostly complete this dance with inches to spare and no honking of horns, obscenities, etc.
I could feel myself relax in Chiang Mai. Watching the traffic, I felt a new reassurance that riding into this traffic on a motorcycle could be safely accomplished. “Safe” being a relative term of course.
We spent two nights at Rider’s Corner, a bar/restaurant/B&B/motorcycle rental place. We had originally planned to rent a Honda CRF250L, but a CB500X came available and we opted for it as it had a little more room for us, a little more power, and a lot more storage space.
Rider’s Corner was a good base in Chiang Mai. It was close to several good restaurants, markets, etc, and made for an easy departure out of the city.
Inside Rider’s Corner.
Our ride for the next two weeks. We didn’t plan to have this much storage space, and since we packed light we actually have room left. But not enough for “souvenirs”!
After plastering a 2 Ride The Globe Sticker on the wall and loading up, we headed out. Rider’s Corner is on the northeast corner of the inner ring, a road that runs counterclockwise just inside the old city walls. The outer ring is just outside the wall and runs clockwise. So we had to go about 300 meters on the inner ring before we could cross to the outer ring and head back in the other direction. And about 400 meters later we were pulled over by the National Police. We hadn’t been on the bike five minutes! They asked to see our passports and International Driving Permit. In nearly 50 countries and 50,000 or so miles, this is only the second time anyone has ever asked to see the IDP (the first time was in Namibia). We got off the bike and I pulled our document bag out of the backpack. Before I could even pull the IDP out of the bag, the officer saw it and his demeanor immediately changed. He no longer wanted the passports and was almost apologetic. I think he was truly surprised that we had an International Driving Permit. There are so many tourists and backpackers in Chiang Mai that rent scooters and have no idea that an IDP is required in Thailand. It’s easy fishing for a cop: just find the Farang on the rental bike and probably 8 or 9 times out of 10 it’s payday.
The officers were very nice and even joking once they saw we had the correct documents and they saluted us and wished us a good time in Thailand.
We headed out of Chiang Mai for about an hour on the main road west, then turned off and headed north up the mountain to Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand. We were both looking forward to some cooler temperatures and this was our chance.
The summit at Doi Inthanon.
Everywhere we go we see tourists doing their poses for their social media photos, so I’ve decided it’s time to join them. This is my new “look at me!” pose.
The summit at Doi Inthanon is 8421 feet above sea level. And the permanent sign here also said it was 9 degrees Celsius, or 48F. The sign is screwed in with rusty screws and the numbers aren’t changeable, so I’m not sure when it’s 9C, but I’m sure it’s right occasionally. It was closer to 16 when we were there, which is still a welcome change from the heat and humidity at the lower elevations.
Buddha shrine at the top of the overlook.
Diana taking a photo of the above shrine. In the background you can see… nothing. The fog was so thick at the top that there was no view. It’s probably a distant stretch of mountains on a clear day.
As we headed back down the mountain we turned and took a back road across to pick up Highway 108 again. The smaller road was rough in places and full of potholes. It was obvious that the rainy season had not been kind to this road. There were many mudslides and downed power poles along the road, and occasionally we would come upon a place where the road had washed away, leaving little more than one lane.
We eventually made our way back to 108, a huge improvement in pavement, and considerably less dogs and chickens in the road. From here the road begins to curve and wind its way through the hills, and there is rarely a straight section of road. The average speed is around 30 to 35 mph (50 to 60 kph), and every now and then you can get up to 80kph.
We made our way to Mae Sariang and found our hotel for the evening: a nice bungalow with a shower and A/C.
People often make fun of me for using GPS coodinates instead of addresses when planning routes. I even give my home address to other travelers in the form of GPS coordinates. And here’s a good reason to use them: the sign in the photo is our hotel. Try typing that into Google Maps.
We ate dinner at a roadside stand just down the road from our hotel. We were the only non-locals at the place, and the menu was in Thai only and no accompanying pictures. We’re far enough out of Chiang Mai that there is very little English now. I used Google Translate’s camera function on my phone with some small amount of success and was able to order two plates of food and a large Singha beer. We’re still not sure exactly what the food was, but it was delicious.
Menu. Use Google Translate camera, get maybe three or four words to pop up but they change constantly. One second it says “chicken” and a second later it changes to “disloyal agent” or something similar that means nothing. Point at item that you think is somewhat identifiable. Roll dice.
Beef. Looks and tastes like skirt steak or beef fajitas. Very good. Dipping sauce is spicy, somewhere between “Need a sip of beer now” and “My lips are on fire”.
Fried seafood. Unsure what kind; possibly a combination of local fish and calamari. Also very good. There was a lot more on both plates, but we were so hungry we forgot to take photos before eating most of it.
Today was one of the longest days we’ll do in Thailand, at 160 miles. It felt great to be back on two wheels. Most of the next couple of weeks will be between thirty and eighty miles a day. Most people do the Mae Hong Son Loop in three to four days. At four days you can see a lot of the scenery, but not much of the people and culture. It will likely take us closer to twelve days, and we’re already moving too fast.
We left our hotel in Mae Sariang, returned to the 108 road and continued north. The road is nice, and the traffic is fairly light, consisting of a few cars, some Toyota pickups with large cargo walls made of steel pipes and carrying farm staples: crops such as rice, bananas, papayas, or hay; and the steady stream of locals on scooters.
Thailand is sometimes referred to as the “World Capital of Scooters” and the “Land of One Million Scooters”, and it’s true. More than 80% of Thai households own a motorbike. Many have been modified to pull a trailer or have a sidecar attached. Some of the sidecars are actually the Thai version of a pop-up food truck. Some of the scooters are fully functional and some run enough to get by, but may not be roadworthy or registered. Thai police turn a blind eye to these locals for the most part. Of course it’s a different story if you’re a tourist on an unregistered scooter.
The scooters are very intent about riding only on the far left side of the lane (traffic here drives on the left, like in the UK). The scooters only leave the left edge of the road to pass another scooter or to turn right, and sometimes even then they stop on the left edge and wait for a break in traffic to turn right.
It’s not uncommon to see a family of three or four on a scooter. In the US, motorcyclists scoff at “small” motorcycles of less than 250cc and eapecially at mopeds and scooters. They think these are vehicles for children and only good for distances of a few blocks at a time. Here, they are the workhorses of the people, and adding a sidecar full of equipment and three more people to a 125cc machine is normal.
As we head north we are rarely out of sight of a scooter regardless of how far out in “the country” we are. I try to be vigilant of traffic behind me as I pull out to pass scooters; the approaching cars behind us sometimes assume we are another scooter and not capable of passing the other scooters at speed, so they don’t expect us to pull to the right to pass.
Just north of Khun Yuam we turn right onto a side road and begin climbing to the Thung Bua Tong fields at Doi Mae U Kho. We ride through miles and miles of rice paddies and a few small villages before suddenly emerging into the fields.
This seemingly random area atop these hills is covered in large sunflowers.
As quickly as they appear, they are gone again as we descend the other side of the hill. Just a few kilometers down the road we find Posaho Café and stop for a coffee and an iced Thai Green Tea.
Not Starbucks. What Starbucks should be.
Overlooking the fields from the deck at Posaho Café.
No mechanical farm equipment here. Everything is done by hand.
As we remounted to leave, the bike wouldn’t start. We’d been having this problem on occasion and I had narrowed it down to either the key switch of the engine stop switch. I had Diana try to push me and bump-start the bike (resulting in a burst of giggles from the children at the cafe, but no success). It became more clear that the problem was in the stop switch when, after flipping it on and off several times, I could suddenly hear the fuel pump start running. At that point the bike fired up and we were on our way.
About one kilometer down the road I had just begun to tell Diana over the intercom “I think it’s going to rain”, when half way through the sentence the skies opened. There was no reason at that point to stop and put on our rain gear as we were already soaked. Combined with the cooler temperatures at higher elevation, it quickly became quite chilly. The road quickly turned to a river of flowing red mud in places. We continued like this for about ten minutes until the sun broke out of the clouds. By the time we arrived at our hotel in Khun Yuam we had mostly dried out.
Our hotel for the night. Even the nicer places such as this are cheaper than camp sites in Europe and the US.
The owner of the hotel, like all Thai people we’ve met, was very nice. When she asked if we wanted a room in the main building or a bungalow for the same price, I asked which was nicer. Her response: she looked at me and said “The main building is not so far to walk.” Ouch. I hate getting old.
Our mileage per day has decreased significantly. The past couple of days we rode about 40 miles per day. Today will be more like fifteen. Most of the next week we will move slowly; no more than 80 miles maximum per day. This allows us to see and experience more.
Yesterday we left Khun Yuam and continued towards Mae Hong Son. An hour or so into the ride we pulled off at a “scenic viewpoint” sign.
It is pretty scenic.
There was a small shop advertising strawberry smoothies, so we decided to give it a try. Unfortunately they were out of strawberries and only had lemons, so we had two lemon smoothies.
There were a number of traveler stickers on the wall at the smoothie shop — mostly Thai bikers — so we added a 2RTG sticker.
The smoothie shop also sold stickers, so we bought a couple of Mae Hong Son Loop stickers to add to the collection.
“Tail of The Dragon”, eat your heart out…Four thousand curves and counting. Of course this is over a few hundred miles, but it’s still a fun, twisty road.
”Thirty thousand Baht and Ninety Six kilometers do not make you a biker.”
This sticker wasn’t for sale. It was stuck to the window at the roadside stop. But it speaks volumes. Not five minutes after taking this photo, I walked out to the parking lot to find a tourist trying to pick up a rented Suzuki V-Strom that was laying in a heap behind some parked cars.
Just south of Mae Hong Son we turned off and continued another seven miles down a small side road, the last of it dirt, until the road ended at a fast flowing river. We parked the bike and paid a guy in a boat 20 baht (about 60 cents) to take us across the river to the tiny village of Huay Pu Keng. This is one of three Kayan (or “Karen”) tribal villages near Mae Hong Son.
The village of Huay Pu Keng sits isolated across the Pai River in a section of carved out jungle.
The Kayan villages are often referred to as “Longneck” villages, for obvious reason. They welcome visitors (for a fee) and sell their wares, from scarves and blankets to musical instruments and carvings.
It was incredibly hot and humid at the village (okay, yes, I am from Texas, but this is a different level of humidity. And it’s winter! So I accept that I am a weather wimp.) After our return trip across the Pai we made the seven mile ride back to the main road and turned back south for a short distance to our guest house at Pha Bong. We had hopes to eat dinner at a place our host suggested that was only about one kilometer from our room, but we weren’t able to find it, even with directions from our host, Google Maps, and the army officers at the checkpoint near Pha Bong and two out of three of those dorections even agreed!). So we eventually gave up and rode into Mae Hong Son, and settled into a roadside restaurant for a plate of Chicken Pad Thai, a plate of Chicken Fried Rice with vegetables, some soup, and a large Singha beer, all for under four dollars.
While we had some good meals in Europe last summer, I am certainly not missing the price of dining out in Europe or the States. I’ll take these prices any day, and the fresh food is great too.
We’ve finally gotten far enough north that we can slow down… a lot. So our day from Mae Hong Son to Cave Lodge just north of Soppong was a total of about fifty miles and just under two hours.
On the way, we stopped at this scenic overlook.
The mountains in the distance are Myanmar.
While we were there, a Thai guy pulled up on a Harley. Aside from a few large BMW GS adventure bikes, this was the largest bike I had seen in Thailand.
Across the road from the acenic overlook is a large strip of market stalls operated by Lahu Na, or Black Lahu women. The Lahu are an ethnic people from China and Mainland Southeast Asia. The color (in this case black) refers to their dress color. They were selling local fruits and vegetables, handmade crafts, and more.
About six miles north of the small village of Soppong is the even tinier village of Ban Tham Lod. This is where John Spies, an Australian native, and his local Shan wife Nang settled in the mid-1980s, and began building what is now known as Cave Lodge, a basecamp of bungalows for adventure tourism, mostly involving hiking, kayaking, and caving.
The entrance to Cave Lodge.
Hanging out in the large common area at Cave Lodge. This is where meals are served, and there is a ton of information here about available caving and kayak trips that all start from here.
Our bungalow. Queen size bed, private bath, A/C, fridge, and a small porch off the back. $19 a night.
John is a fascinating guy. Over the past forty years or so he has explored northern Thailand extensively, and discovered many large cave systems. He is extremely knowledgeable about the geological makeup of the area, the flora and fauna that is found here, as well as the history of local people. Some of the caves he has discovered hold teak log coffins that are as much as two thousand years old.
We signed up for a kayak trip to a nearby cave that John had found called Susa Cave. Our day began with a forty minute ride in the back of a pickup truck to a location on the forest-lined Khong River, where we launched the inflatable kayaks and proceeded downriver for about fourteen kilometers.
Kayaking the Khong River. It had rained a bit the last few days so the river was muddier than usual.
We stopped to have lunch about half way down the river. The lodge provided fried noodles with vegetables, a hard boiled egg, and a muffin.
After beaching the kayaks, we waded across the river and hiked about a kilometer up through the forest to the mouth of the cave.
Our group consisted of a family from British Columbia and two brothers from Denmark, one of which has been living with his wife and kids in Bangkok for the past four years. And of course, us…”the old people”, as usual.
While it never got more than about waist deep, crossing the river was a bit more tricky than it looks. There were large rocks that you couldn’t see, and the current was fairly strong.
The cave is well hidden and deep into the forest. It took our guide a couple of tries and some hacking away at bamboo to find it.
Making our way down into the mouth of the cave.
Entrance to Susa Cave.
We walked through two large rooms in the cave. Each was probably 60 to 70 feet high and a hundred feet across. There was a small river in the cave, well below the level we were at. It was a bit eerie being in such a strange place with nothing but headlamps and a large light the guide brought. For some reason everyone felt the need to talk quietly, as if speaking at a normal level might disturb the spirits living in the cave.
Looking back out as we climbed back up out of the cave.
These falls flow out of the caves in the mountain and into the river just downstream of where we waded across.
After leaving the cave and wading back across the river, the truck picked us up and took us back to Cave Lodge just before sunset. It was a long tiring day but worth it to see a spectacular cave that few people even know about.
The next morning we were up early to hike about forty minutes to the back side, or exit, of the Tham Lod Cave. This large cave is a popular tourist spot. Guides lead tours through the cave by lantern, and you board a bamboo raft to ride the river through and out of the cave.
But we weren’t here for the cave tour. We had come to the exit of the cave, where the river flows out, at sunrise to watch 300,000 swifts leave the cave on their daily feeding ritual. The loud noise this huge flock of birds makes sounds like a very loud continuous screeching of a home smoke alarm.
Our early morning walk took us through the local village, where even the dogs felt it was too early to move.
Crossing the river on a bamboo bridge to get to the back side of Tham Lod Cave.
We passed several monks on the trail. One was carrying two walking sticks, and handed one of them to Diana just before a slippery muddy uphill bend in the trail. At the top of the hill, we met another older monk going down, and Diana handed the walking stick to him. Karma.
Looking out from just inside Tham Lod Cave. It was all but impossible to avoid getting hit by bird poop as hundreds of thousands of swifts circled and left the cave.
I hiked a ways into the cave and climbed to a point to get a better look at the birds exiting the cave. Here is a short video of them and all the noise they make. They’re still a bit hard to see in the video.
After walking back to Cave Lodge, we loaded up and hit the toad again for our next big ride: 27 miles to Pai.
Pai is a small town of about 2,200 people in Northern Thailand. Once situated in the “Golden Triangle” of opium production, its’ main focus has shifted to tourism over the past 20 or more years.
Pai is mostly known these days as a laid-back destination for backpackers and hippies. The town’s main street, known as the Pai Walking Street, is lined with bars and clubs, and each night comes alive with vendors selling food, drinks, and clothing. Mixed in, you’ll find shops and street vendors selling many varieties of weed. Much if not most of the crowd is straight out of a hippie scene: young, dreadlocks, peasant-style clothing, flip-flips or barefoot. Some truly look and fit the part. Others look like they just got off the plane or minibus (which they likely did) and are trying way too hard. If you’ve come to Thailand to experience the local cultures and the real people of Northern Thailand, this isn’t the place for you. Yes, there is still some authenticity here, but you have to look hard through the fog of Farangs to find it.
Pai in the daytime: mostly just another Northern Thailand town with a scooter problem, except about half the scooters here are being ridden by tourists.
A Yamaha 100cc streetbike. But in Pai it is re-labeled a “420” in a reference to the weed culture.
A bit hard to read but this is the menu outside The Alchemist, one of the boutique weed bars in town.
Neon in the window at Cheese Madness is similar to many of the wine bars and coffee shops.
Pai has become such a tourist attraction — not just for caucasian tourists but for Thai and other Asian people as well — that there are now more than 350 different places for tourists to stay in this small town, from a backpacker hostel at about $8 a night, to high end boutique hotels at hundreds of dollars a night.
I had read a couple of different times on the internet that Pai was a place that tourists “come for two days, and stay for two weeks”. On our first day here I would have disagreed with that, based on my anti-tourist preference for places I prefer to visit. But after a couple of days I started to see some of the positive aspects of Pai.
For one, it’s a mountain town, so the weather is a bit more pleasant, with cooler temperatures and less humidity. The locals seem to have adapted to the tourism industry and accepted the downsides that come with the economic upsides. Everyone we met (locals) were very friendly and welcoming, despite some of the less-than-friendly entitled farangs.
I love this permanent sign on the side of the road that says “Accident A Head”. I guess it’s cheaper than putting in a traffic light at the intersection. And besides, it’s typically just a bunch of foreign tourists on scooters crashing into each other anyway, so no great loss.
The streets are filled with tattoo parlors and massage parlors. Nearly all of the massage parlors here are legitimate Thai-style massage therapists. But since the town’s clientele are mostly entitled white tourists, the masseuses sadly have to put signs up that say “No Special. Only real massage”. Sad.
Tonight we walked the Pai Walking Street night market, and ate dinner in a “food crawl” through several street vendors. Here’s what we had for dinner:
6 Gyoza dumplings, assorted (2 pork, 2 shrimp, and 2 vegetable)
2 skewers of vegetables; one with duck and one with chicken
4 spring rolls; 2 pork and 2 vegetable
6 pieces of sushi
1 grilled cheese sandwich of feta and mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and black olives
Total price: 285 baht, or about $7.90
The night market is several blocks long.
We bought duck and chicken skewers from this street food vendor for 20 baht a skewer (about 55 cents).
A sign on the walking street advertising the Pai Enduro. Looks interesting.
Our accommodation was fantastic. It looked like what I would expect a small village of bungalows in Tahiti or Bali to be like, without the beautiful water of course.
Super comfortable bungalow with a bed and hammock on the front porch for relaxing.
This cat came and hung out with us at breakfast.
I’m not going to be negative about Pai, but I am going to state my opinion. And it is just that: my opinion. Everyone has their own, and should experience these places in their own way. All in all, we enjoyed Pai, and would return, but similar to Vilcabamba, Ecuador, I felt a bit guilty at the destruction of local culture that the hippies have forced on this village, and that’s really not our way of traveling. We don’t want or intend to change the landscape, and Pai has definitely been changed. I guess it’s up to the locals to decide if it is for better or worse.
We left Pai and continued on Northern Thailand’s version of the Gringo Trail: the Mae Hong Son Loop.
About eight kilometers out of Pai we stopped at the World War Two Memorial Bridge. During the war, Japanese troops advancing through Thailand toward Burma recruited local Thai people to build a bridge across the Pai River.
The original bridge was burned as the Japanese army retreated from Thailand, cutting off Pai from Chiang Mai. The locals eventually rebuilt the bridge, and in the 1970s a new Memorial Bridge was constructed.
While stopped at the bridge, I saw this sticker on the rear window of a mini-bus. It translates to something like “Love life…Don’t fight wife.”
An hour or so later we stopped at a roadside coffee bar called Witch’s House.
The whole place is covered in Halloween-style witches and pumpkins.
When we pulled in, the parking area was full of large adventure touring bikes, all belonging to Thai nationals.
We decided to have lunch here so we sat on the back patio and ordered some Pad Thai. Not long after finishing lunch, about fifteen guys pulled up on rental Yamaha scooters, all wearing Yamaha Malaysia shirts. It turns out they were Yamaha dealers in Malaysia, joined by the General Manager of Marketing from Hong Leung, the Malaysian Yamaha importer. I told them I had recently retired from Yamaha US, and we had a great conversation.
“Yamaha US and Malaysia Meet in Thailand”. Great fun running into Tim and the Yamaha dealers from Malaysia.
Back on the road, we said goodbye to the Mae Hong Son Loop as we turned north again and headed toward Chiang Dao.
We stopped at the Mok Fa waterfall.
Watch out! In my prior life, we referred to these not-quite-correct interpretations as “Jenglish”, or “Japanese English”. Here I guess it’s “Thenglish”
Amazing, amusing, and a bit confusing to see these monks, who (I thought) have given up earthly possessions, suddenly produce an iPhone from somewhere in their robes, and take photos of one another at the falls.
Safety rules if swimming at Mok Fa.
#4 is especially important.
Continuing north, it was becoming increasingly clear that we had left the Farang Trail. We didn’t see another white person the rest of the day, and English subtitles had faded from most signs. We pulled into our lodging at MonChom Doi and walked to dinner nearby.
Our lodging for the night.
Our hosts. As usual, extremely friendly and helpful, even with no English on her end and no Thai on ours.
This seems like a good time to mention that I’ve been dealing with a language problem since we boarded the plane to Bangkok. Actually, way earlier than that. But I’m a slow learner.
Diana is more hesitant to speak when she feels she won’t be understood, regardless of whether it’s in English or Thai. Not me. I’ll try either, and usually fail spectacularly. She is good about just pointing to menu items or pictures. Not me. I’ll say it.
So I’ll point out that way back in Italy about a dozen years ago we were in a gelato shop and the owner told me that my “English is very poor” in a heavy Italian accent. That should have been a clue.
On the plane to Bangkok, Diana ordered the pasta dinner by pointing at the menu. I said “I’ll have the salmon.” I got beef. Then I ordered white wine. I got water. Then I ordered coffee. I got water. She got exactly what she pointed at on the menu. That should have been a clue.
When we got to Bangkok, we jumped in a Tuktuk. The driver asked “Where are you going?”
“River City”, I replied (a large shopping center).
“”Where?”, he asked again.
He still didn’t understand. He motioned for me to get out of the Tuktuk. We walked a block down the street to a market stall. The owner spoke English. They had a quick conversation and then the stall owner asked me, “Where are you going?”
“River City”, I said again.
He turned to the Tuktuk driver and said “River City”, in an accent that sounded (to me at least) exactly like mine: American.
“Ahhh! River City!”, the driver replied. We walked back to the Tuktuk and the driver took us straight to River City.
That should have been a clue. But I’m still at a loss as to what I would have done differently in that case.
At dinner in Chiang Dao, my communication skills continued to falter. When I ordered two Tom Yum soup dinners, I pointed to the menu (I’m a slow learner, but I can still learn), then showed the waiter two fingers. In my feeble mind, that translates to “times two” or two orders. But here, it means “one order for the two of us; we’ll share.” Which it turns out was a good thing, as the soup bowl was big. As if to confirm this, the same thing happened when I tried to order two beers: two fingers = one bottle, two glasses.