The Mae Hong Son Loop is a fairly well traveled path through northern Thailand. Basically there are two roads that connect Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. One from the south and one from the north. Together they make a big 600km circle. There are tons of little villages, a couple small towns, a few national parks, dozens of awesome waterfalls, about 2000 marked, incredibly sharp turns, and an infinite amount of rice paddies and mountains and awesome views. It's a beautiful journey.
Many times it reminded me of driving through the back roads of Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. The mountains aren't huge or rocky sharp, and they are covered in lush forest. These mountains are the very foothills of the Himalayan Range, and if you took away the rice paddies and banana trees, they look like the southern Appalachian Range. When the mountains got a little bigger and it was cloudy and foggy, these mountains could be mistaken for the Smokies from a distance. Reminded me of home a bit. It was nice.
Renting the motorbike was easy, almost too easy. I have no experience on with a bike that has a motor, but I do have lots of experience with a bicycle. I think that helped a bit. I was just happy to drive away from the shop without immediately falling over. It's heavier than it looks. After just a couple turns I got the hang of it, and it became so much fun to drive. Chiang Mai is a good place to rent your first motorbike because the streets are not too crowded and people don't drive as crazy as they do in other parts of Southeast Asia. Always wear a helmet!
I left Chiang Mai early with Mae Sariang as my final destination for the night. The road today took me through Doi Inthanon National Park, the home of the highest point in Thailand. I could feel the air get chillier as I climbed higher and higher up the mountain. The top of the mountain was covered in a thick, wet forest so there wasn't a view up top except for the monument to an old king who loved this mountain long ago. The park is also home to some crazy beautiful waterfalls. This was definitely my greatest waterfall day ever. I saw maybe four or five waterfalls, and they were all incredibly impressive. Huge and powerful. The whole park was great. The drive alone is worth the trip. So many great views and fun turns.
One thing I failed to realize was how little range you have on a small motorbike. It does get great gas mileage, but it only holds about a gallon of gas so you can't go too far without refueling. I noticed my gas situation when I was in the national park and there was no fuel to be found. I was on empty and I was still going up the mountain. I figured as long as I could make it over the mountain, it was all down hill to the town of Mae Chaem from there. I coasted downhill for about 20km refusing to look at the fuel gauge because I knew it would tell me I was an idiot for not get fuel sooner. Made it to town just in time for gas and lunch.
I reached the quiet town of Mae Sariang easily enough. It's a small town on the banks of a river in the valley of the surrounding mountains. I really liked it here. I even stayed two nights, although that was mostly an accident. I had a nice room with a balcony overlooking the river. I went out and got a couple beers to enjoy the only entertainment in town - watching the sunset over the river. And that suited me just fine.
I had an ambitious plan the next morning. I wanted to get to the little town of Mae Sam Laep on the Thailand - Myanmar border. It was in the opposite direction that I needed to go so I wanted to get there and back by noon. It was only supposed to be two hours away. I left about 6:30am. The morning was beautiful. It was great to see rural Thailand, everyday small town life. As I rode through town and into the surrounding fields there were kids in their uniform waiting for the truck to pick them up for school, there were monks making their daily walk about town and people giving alms, there were farmers already out tending their rice paddies.
They drive started out beautiful. A small road through remote jungle mountains. Eventually the nice paved road ran out and was replaced by a dirt road full of muddy potholes. By this point I felt like an expert motorbike rider and I was weaving around all the potholes easily. I started going down the mountain a little bit and things got a little slipperier. There were a couple long stretches of muddy road with no way around. I made it through a couple of these stretches with my street bike that was definitely not made for this situation. I finally came across a patch that I couldn't handle. It was the longest one yet and about halfway through it the bike started fishtailing and I went down. Literally face first into mud. Sticky, dirt orange, wet mud. The entire right side of my body and my beard were covered in mud. My bike seemed to be okay. Although it was covered in mud too. I pushed myself and my bike out of the mud pit and tried to clean up the best I could. A couple locals drove by and I just waved with my not as muddy left hand.
As I tried to clean myself off, eventually I reached a point where I wasn't going to get any cleaner so I hopped on my bike and continued on. Another local came up behind me and looked at me laughing. He motioned to follow him so I did. We stopped at his house and he let me rinse off as much as I could while he sprayed my bike down. He didn't speak a word of English, but I tried to tell him what happened and I'm pretty sure he got the picture from the look of the whole thing and we had a good laugh.
About 100 meters after leaving his house I can across an even bigger mud pit that I knew for sure I couldn't get across with my bike and I definitely didn't want to go back to this guy's house and rinse off AGAIN. So I left my bike on the side of the road and started hiking. I knew I was only a couple miles away from the border, and there was no way I was not going to get there after this fiasco. I know I looked pretty crazy. Like something out of Rambo. I was wearing boots, green pants, brown long sleeve shirt, and a bandana. I was covered in mud from head to toe (I seriously found mud in my beard for days after this) and I was walking through the remote jungle of Northern Thailand. All the locals along the way just stared at me. I don't think they see many foreigners and certainly none covered in mud coming through on foot. The little kids are the funniest. They looked at me in total amazement and confusion.
I finally made it to the little village on the Salawin River, which is the border between the two countries. Here I met a couple friendly locals who I told about my adventure that morning through hand motions and sound effects. We all laughed. I bought some snacks from people selling delicious curry filled pastries out of their homes and made the trek back. Still covered in mud.
I was cutting it close to making it back by checkout time. And then it started pouring rain. It helped with the mud at least. When I arrived soaking wet right at check out time, it was still storming outside and there was no way I was going to continue another three or four hours to the next town. I don't think I physically could have. It was impossible to see when it was raining so hard. And the view of the river during a storm from inside a cozy hotel room was a nice sight. So I washed the mud off all my clothes, that took quite a while, and took a nap, which also took a while.
The next day was a long drive to Pai. I had to make up for lost time. My first stop was Mae Hong Son, the loop's namesake. Here I had my favorite meal in Thailand - Khao Soi. It is actually a Burmese dish, but it has been adopted by northern Thailand. I could describe it, but I'm not totally sure of all the ingredients. I will figure it out and be making it when I get back to the states though. Generally it's a curry with noodles and chicken and pickled greens. I had it again for dinner that night in Pai. And a couple times when I got back to Chiang Mai too.
Next stop was Sop Pong and Tham Lod. Sop Pong is a town, and Tham Lod is a cave just for clarification. During the rainy season only one of the three main caverns are open in Tham Lod due to high water. So I just took a short tour of the largest cavern. You had to take a bamboo raft over some water to get to the entrance, and the guide carried an old school lantern. That was pretty neat. It was a really big cave with tall ceilings. There were some cool formations, and my favorite was a huge column that you know must have taken a billion years to create. Apparently a million bats live deeper in the cave and come out at dusk, but since I still had an hour drive on a winding mountain road, I couldn't wait that long. Plus it looked like it was about to start raining. After a quick watermelon shake with a couple of Kiwis I met in the cave, I was on my way - in the rain.
Pai rivals Gili Trawangan in Indonesia as the ultimate hippy destination. Quite a contrast to my previous three days in small, rural towns. Pai isn't a big place but it's busy. There are lots of restaurants serving western food, and they really cater toward tourists. There's not much Thai in Pai. As I said, the hippy crowd is very present. During breakfast at a cafe you will overhear people making tough decisions such as when would be the best time to take those shrooms. Or celebrating the amazing decision to smoke that joint before getting that noodle bowl for lunch. I'm sure it did tastes really, really good.
What Pai does, it does well. Accommodations are cheap and nice. Bungalows and hammocks everywhere. The western food is pretty good with lots of pizzerias, kebab stands, and coffee shops. It's in a beautiful river valley that you can explore on a bike. And the weather is pretty mild. If you are looking for a place to chill and have a good time for a couple days or weeks, it's a great spot.
While I was here I explore the Pai Canyon, a couple different waterfalls, climbed the temple to the White Buddha overlooking the town, and just explored around the area on my motorbike. And I ate. Of course.
The last day of my motorbike trip was the ride back to Chiang Mai and a stop at the last waterfall on the loop - Bua Thong waterfall. An unique waterfall with little tourists, it's the most fun I've had at a waterfall with my clothes on. The Bua Thong waterfall is known as the Sticky Waterfall. There's something going on with the rocks that the water is cascading down at these falls that allows them to be "sticky". I don't know the science behind it, but it is so weird to experience. Most waterfalls, and any flowing water really, is surrounded with slippery algae covered rocks. Not only is there no algae but the rocks are either covered with or are made of a porous, cushiony material that allows you to grip on with your bare skin so easily. It makes you feel like Spider-Man for real.
This isn't a small waterfall either. It is a three-tiered waterfall, and each tier has a height of at least 40 feet or so. But you can clean mob straight up the thing! It's at a nice incline and there are lots of good stepping stones that makes the climb not too difficult. It's just the counter intuitive nature of the whole thing that blows your mind. You are just standing halfway up a waterfall on rocks with a large volume of water flowing down on top of you and all around you. It is just a place where you shouldn't be able to be. And those are the best places to be, aren't they?
Before getting back to Chiang Mai I did a quick check of my bike. I had to turn it in today and wanted to make it look as good as possible. Or at least not like I crashed it in a mud hole. I cleaned it up, I bent back the mirror that had been at the wrong angle since the incident, tried to make the scrapes and scratches look older, and tried to make the new crack in the plastic cup holder area as unnoticeable as possible, which was really not possible. I figured my best bet to not have to pay an extra in damages was to return the bike while it was raining and as close to closing time as I could. To my surprise it actually worked. There were only two women working when I pulled up and parked the bike in the rain. I just smiled, talked a lot, and spoke English really quickly. They didn't even look at the bike before giving me my passport back and saying goodbye! I just waved and went to go look for more Khao Soi.