Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mae Hong Son Loop

The week has been incredible thus far, and I'm just processing all that has happened.

After my last post, Sunday morning, I had intended to take the day easy. But as usual, I hopped on my bike to head for lunch, and soon, I found myself motoring through the steep mountain forests of Doi Suthep, the largest mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It was a wet, rainy ride, that only got wetter as I ascended into the clouds that shrouded the mountain. Catching glimpses of the city far below as I ascended curves steeped in clouds made for an atmospheric afternoon.

My cousin Naj arrived on Monday morning, via a flight from Bangkok. Naj and I met only a few months ago, but got along easily, and since we had both been planning on traveling, it was a natural choice to make this trip together. Immediately after he arrived, we got another motor bike, and headed out on a day trip, to the Mae Sa valley, a pretty area of gentle rolling hills 50km west of Chiang Mai. To unwind, we enjoyed Thai massages from two little old ladies back in the city; I was amazed by how strong these women were, as neither could've weighed more than 90lbs. Easily, the best massage I've ever had (Naj was so mellowed out, he fell down the steps on our way out).

Chiang Mai Day Trips

Tuesday morning, we shelved our larger packs in favor of mini-packs, and hit the road to Mae Hong Song. The Mae Hong Song Loop is a legendary 600km motorcycle ride through Thailand's most rugged landscapes. 80% of Mae Hong Son province is on a 45 degree incline, and by the time our journey is complete, we will have navigated almost 2000 hairpin bends (many also at 45 degree inclines/declines). Needless to say, it's been a wild ride.

Tuesday afternoon, we cruised into Doi Inthanon national park, a sprawling mountain reserve that is home to over 300 bird species, and Doi Inthanon, a specatuclar peak overlooking the region. Lunch by a waterfall was followed by a two hour hike around the summit, which included cutting through a cloud forest (again, we spent a good deal of time inside monsoon clouds). Our day went long, and we found ourselves racing the fading daylight to Mae Chaem, a village where we intended to stay for the night. Little did we know what was in store for the night.

On our way to Mae Chaem, we paused to take some photos of the sunset splashing brilliant hues across a peaceful farming valley. While doing so, a Thai man, in a dirty white t-shirt, and worn jeans, motored up to us on his bike, rattling off something in Thai. Puzzled, Naj and I exchanged quizzical glances; finally, he started miming "barn," and "sleep." I figured he was a tout trying to earn commission by taking us to a guest house, but thought, "What the hell, let's give it a try." We followed him through a tiny hamlet, on to increasingly rougher roads. Anxious thoughts crossed my mind....would there be a gang of Thai thugs waiting for us around the next corner? Was I being completely naive following him? It was getting dark, and we were well beyond the point where I could find my way back to the main road.

Our fears were misplaced, and we were to happen on one of the most embarrassingly warm acts of random kindness I've ever experienced. We followed our random host, Buen-Choi, as I would learn, to his ramshackle barn, where he insisted we stay the night. Later, I relaxed, but still assumed he was trying to earn a buck. I only realized that he was giving freely of his time, energy, and home, when he sat us down in the midst of the family, and served us dinner. Buen-choi had two adorable kids, a daughter of about eight, and a son of three, in addition to his elderly parents, and a brother my age. Amongst this cast of country Thais, he sat us down, and he fed us dinner, serving us in the only bowl he owned.

Dinner was interesting, consisting of a spicy dish of rubbery texture, and a vegetable curry, complemented by sticky rice. I ate blankly, stunned by the randomness of it all, watching Buen-choi's son play with a bucket full of pet frogs. It took about twenty minutes before it clicked. The frogs weren't pets....they were dinner, the rubbery dish.

As we ate, it became apparent that Buen-choi knew very little English, so I broke out my Thai phrase book, and started a stuttering conversation in phrase book Thai. One of the first things I figured out, flushing with embarrassment when I did, was that he refused to accept any money, for the dinner or the stay. He was doing it purely out of kindness. Later, I learned how old he was (thirty), the names of his kids (which I've forgotten), what his mother was making (she was in the back spinning cotton for blankets), and that he had a brother.

After dinner, we took family photos (we would later make prints for the family), and our host took us from the main house, where his parents and children slept, to the "barn" (an elevated wooden house where we would spend the night). Buen-choi made us instant coffee, boiling water over a wood fire, and we shared freshly rolled tobacco cigars while continuing a broken conversation. My phrase book turned out to be hilariously bizarre, as the largest section is devoted to "romance." A sample exchange in the phrase book:

Person 1: "That girl is very cute"
Person 2: "That's not a girl. He's a lady-boy."
Person 1: "He's very cute just the same"

even better yet:

Person 1: "Does that woman have a boyfriend...."
Person 2: "I don't know! Why do you ask?"
Person 1: "I suspect that he's handsome. I'm sure that he is tall and thin"
Person 2: "No. He's fatter than an elephant."

best of all:

Person 1: "Why didn't you kiss her?
Person 2: "Because I kissed the lady boy that was sitting next to her"
Person 1: "Why did you kiss him"
Person 2: "Because he was cuter than the girl" (frighteningly true in some cases)

Using the "romance" section, we learned that Buen-choi's wife had been cheating on him, and had run off with another man to Chiang Mai. It was heartbreakingly funny to see him mime "jealous," "lonely" and "I want to shoot him."

After coffee, both of us were practically passing out (it was only 9:30), so we politely took our leave of Buen-choi's company, and retreated to our "room" (We slept in the opposite corner of the room from Buen-choi and his brother). The night was unlike any other, the darkness all encompassing, penetrated only by the pinpoint glow of amorous fireflies and the melodic croak of tokays (alarmingly large, ~35cm, but harmless lizards).

In the morning, after an invigoratingly cold bucket shower in a corner of the barn, we ate breakfast in town, assembled a small care package for Buen-choi (whisky, cigarettes, candy for his kids, and a huge pack of instant coffee), and set off on our way. The man left our lives as quietly as he entered them, but I will never forget meeting him; easily one of the most humbling acts of random kindness I've ever experienced, rendered particularly significant by his poverty.

From Mae Chaem, we embarked on a hair-raising, bone-rattling ride to Mae La Noi, 120km away. Our journey took us on roads that coursed through mountains and valleys, and many times, over sheer precipices where mountains gave way to clouds. In Mae La Noi, we stayed in a sprawling country villa, the only place we could find in the tiny town (not actually a common stop on the loop).

Yesterday, we made the ride from Mae La Noi, to Mae Hong Son, the capital city of the same province, another crazy journey, at times, replete with hairpin turns and speeding trucks, but mostly, just deserted country roads winding past life-changing scenery.

The trip is roughly half over, but what a trip it has been! The sheer liberation of a motorcycle paired with the landscape of Mae Hong Son....a perfect complement, the travel equivalent of wine and cheese. It's reputation as a classic ride is richly deserved. Today, we ride to the hippy, new-agey town of Pai, for our last night. Tomorrow, we wake up before dawn, to see the sun rise over clouds from the mountains around just keeps getting better.

Mae Hong Son Loop Photos

1 comment:

Nusayr said...

Lyrical description to match the photo's of the wonderful country! It doesn't look like anyone drives with lights on? Also wonder if that is Buen-Choi's farm with horses? A bike, farm, solid house, and horses probably make him solidly middle-class. At least in the rural areas...