While traveling in Thailand I found myself in Chiang Mai. Typically the way I travel on my own, is very whimsical, I don't plan much that way I can go where the wind blows me and be open to adventures that come my way. But sometimes the fates don't give you a direction and you have to go looking.
I had already been in Chiang Mai for a few days and I was getting wanderlust so I asked a few people about some good places to go. One recommendation was the Mae Hong Song loop on motor bike. What it is, is a 360 mile loop of road through the north west part of Thailand going from Chiang Mai to Pai to Maehong song to Ban Pae then back to Chiang Mai the trip takes about 4-5 days depending how much time you take in each city and on the way. The person who recommended the loop to me, worked at the place I was staying. He recommended that I take a Mini bus to Pai, because it was the most treacherous stretch of road, consisting of jungle high mountains and Thai drivers that will pass slower cars around blind corners (more on that in a minute). What he recommended is take a mini bus to Pai then rent a motor bike in Pai and drive the loop the rest of the way and return the motor bike in Chiang Mai (this being one of the few places in Thailand where you can return your motor bike in another city). This sounded like a good plan to me, it had a bit of adventure to it as well as plenty of opportunity to see the country-side. All I had to do was get to the bus station and catch the bus going to Pai in the morning.
The next day I checked out of my Hostel and decided to have some breakfast with a friend Zhen from China that I had met there. We went off on a search for a delicious Thai breakfast, which we found (don't go to Thailand if you don't like Thai food). After we were done and walking to find a Tuk Tuk driver to take me to the bus station we passed a motor bike rental. Now I should start out by saying everything in Thailand is cheap, food cost 30-90 baht ($1-3) for a decent meal tuk tuks (taxis) are like 90-150 ($3-5) Hostls are 300 Baht ($10). Even-though things are so cheap that doesn't keep you from searching and haggling for the lowest price. And one of those moments just presented itself as we were walking to get a tuk tuk we passed a motor bike rental advertising motor bikes for 250 baht ($7) per day. I did a little calculation in my head, 100 baht for the tuk tuk to the bus station, and another 250 baht for the bus ticket to Pai (around 12 dollars total). I asked myself why would I get a bus to Pai when it was cheaper (about $3) to drive there myself. I would also have the opportunity to go at my own pace, stop wherever I pleased, and take pictures, that was after-all the whole reason I was in Thailand in the first place.
Change of plan, I am driving myself to Pai. We go into the motor bike rental place and I start to do all of the necessary paper-work and bike inspection etc. Normally they ask for a passport as a deposit, and I have heard countless horror stories about scooter rental places and their deception and I in no way wanted to have them be in control of my freedom. I explained to them I was doing the Mae hong song loop (which goes really close to the border of Burma and Lao) and that I would most likely be stopped by the authorities at some point, and it was absolutely necessary that I had my passport. We came to an agreement where I would leave a cash deposit 3000 Baht ($100)(basically for the value of the motor bike).
I had to go get the cash at a ATM, so I took the scooter to test it out, while Zhen stayed behind and waited. As I was driving to the ATM which was a few blocks away, I was getting increasingly nervous about the prospect of taking a motor bike, on my own, to some really isolated parts of Thailand for several days. As this is all going through my head I am concentrating on staying on the right side of the road and when I say right I really mean left because they drive on the opposite side as they do in the US. I find the ATM get my money, and start to drive back. As I am driving, my thoughts are still on how crazy this idea of driving alone is, I hit some fine sand on the pavement. The bike starts to slide, "shit" I think to myself "I haven't even started yet and I am already crashing". I hit the break (bad move) it starts to go right out from under me. I manage to put my foot down and my hand out, my foot takes most of the weight of the scooter and keeps it from grinding too bad on the ground the rest of the force goes to my hand. My hand got some scratches but my wrist is what got really hurt, (to this day my wrist still hurts with a dull pain, who knows how long that will take to go away). So there I am with a motor bike on the ground and my pride down there with it. I am definitely thinking to myself "what the hell are you doing?" "you need an accomplice". I pick up the bike inspect it no major damage, a few scratches but they were place where someones else had dropped the bike, so I was fine there (Scratched scooters, another Thailand motor bike rental con game for for another article). I make it back without further incident. I go up to Zhen, trying to sound really casual, and say "you should come with me, it will be fun". He was planning on staying in Chiang Mai for a few days taking the tours, he thinks it over and with a few more reassuring words from me and promises of adventure he agrees, "oh thank god" I say to myself. At least there will be someone there to drag my mangled body off of the road if something happens. We rent another motor bike for Zhen without problem. And take a few before pictures, and are off.
We head out of Chiang Mai, only stopping three or four time to make sure we are heading in the right direction. Which is an adventure in itself there are not a lot of people that speak English in Thailand outside of tourist areas. Any communication is though hand gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, smiles and bows. The first couple of hours of driving were pretty level road/ highway going north. Eventually you have to turn and head north west on a smaller road and head into the mountains and that is where things start to get more interesting. Now most of the roads in Thailand are not great, they are okay but sometimes there are huge ruts and cracks and sand. Which are all fine as long as you are cautious, they can be avoided. What you really have to look out for are the drivers in Thailand the drivers are pretty wreckless they drive at really fast speeds on these two lane roads passing you any side they can anywhere they can. Zhen learned the hard way you have to be careful going around any corners because you don't know what is going to be coming around the other way at you. As we were about 3 hours into out drive we are taking turns leading the other up and down mountains, around twists and turns through the jungle of Thailand. Zhen was out in front coming to a sharp turn when suddenly coming the opposite direction are two trucks side by side (one trying to pass the other) bombing down both lanes of the road at Zhen. Now for Zhen it was awful situation, for me I saw it in slow motion. The trucks come around the corner right at Zhen they see him he see them, shit. The passing truck speeds up to finish passing Zhen tries to go left hard to avoid the oncoming truck he turns he handle bars a little too hard the bike goes over and starts to slide on the road with Zhen going toward the truck. The truck still in the wrong lane, is out in barely front of the other truck by now, cranks it hard to his lane missing Zhen by about a foot (who is still sliding) and keeps on driving. He doesn't even pull over or slow down. I stop my bike, run and check on Zhen he looks fine, get him and his bike out of the road. We look Zhen over he is fine, a few scratches on his arm and leg, some road rash. His bike took most of the damage but even that wasn't too bad, he did break his camera lens which was in his bag. So I know what you are thinking I am a bad friend, this wouldn't have happened if I hadn't persuaded him. In my defense I did promise adventure.
After Zhen dusted himself off we continued on our way, this time much more cautious around the corners. We had some more hair raising moments but nothing too crazy. We drove and drove around twists and turns going up and up. Now normally the higher up you go the better the views are. But this time of year, before the rains, they burn the jungles. I don't know why, I still haven't been giving a convincing answer to this; some say it is to prevent big fires, others say it is to give clear areas for hunting, others say it is for agricultural reasons. I don't know which one is right maybe all, maybe, some men just want to watch the world burn. What I do know it makes for pretty shitty vistas. As we reached the top of the mountain I could tell that there was an absolutely amazing view, but there was smoke everywhere limiting viability to about half a mile. It was really too bad, it would have been nice to see, but photographically no big deal, I prefer shooting people.
As we are heading down the mountain on our way to Pai we were passed by the Mini bus that I would have been on had I gone with my original plan, so I am right on schedule. We drive some more and we come across a jungle fire just off the side of the road, we stop to take pictures. It wasn't a huge fire, there wasn't any danger. The fire was only burning the dead leaves and shrubs on the ground, it was more smokey than anything.
I started taking pictures, I had Zhen stand close to the fire and I took pictures of him with a thumbs up. Just as we were about to leave some "fire fighters" showed up to take control of the fire. Now when I say fire fighters they weren't like the guys you see in the US with helmets and protective gear and high pressure hoses or even shovels. No, these guys were in t-shirts, armed with nothing but a machete and one of those small 2 gallon pump tanks for spraying weed killer. Despite what they had these guys just dove in, hacking away putting out the fire like a boss. And I was followed in right after them taking pictures. I even melted the bottoms of my shoes trying to get the perfect shot. That was fun, it was the first thing that I had shot that day I felt really good about.
We said good bye to the fire fighters and drove on down the road continuing downhill. After a bit we ran into some stopped traffic, now this was a pretty remote section of road it seemed like an odd place for a traffic jam. Since we had out bikes we drove past all of the waiting cars to see what was causing this. As we rounded the corner it became very apparent. right there in front of us was the mini bus. Wrecked. It had lost control on a turn, flew through/over the guard rail hitting a big tree taking off the whole roof like a sardine can and then rolled down the hill. Three people died, and more were injured. This was the bus, the bus I would have taken had I not found the cheaper motor bike. I took a few photos, but felt strange about it. As we watched them take the injured away just leaving the dead. It made me realize that no matter what path you take, sometimes the safer bet is not. We made it to Pai that day, feeling pretty glad to be alive and read for the next adventure tomorrow.