It’s the journey, not the destination, stupid.
J. and I just got back from an epic motorbike journey to Pai. This small town is about 134km northwest of Chiang Mai, situated in a verdant valley of farms and hut bungalows. In normal conditions, we could have made it there in under 4 hours.
The route. We took the black line southwestern roads there, and came back on the grey line road to the north. The brown line indicates the dirt road.
But Wednesday didn’t go according to plan. We were gassed and on the road around 10:30 in the morning. Our intended route was to head north on Highway 107 and turn left on a shortcut to Highway 1095. But we turned west too early and ended up driving along another valley past Mae Sa Elephant Camp and Doi Suthep Pui National Park. This wasn’t a problem, as the scenery was very pretty and there was a junction to a road heading back to 1095. But for some reason, we missed this junction and kept driving west into smaller and smaller towns. We stopped and ate lunch at a restaurant that was deserted. The two female staff seemed confused to be seeing westerners.
Truck loaded with rice sacks.
Valley with bell pepper farms.
Amazing views on our right for one section of road.
Farms were perched on hillsides.
Cabbage truck getting loaded.
Sacks of garlic.
Me at our roadside lunch break.
Driving after lunch, we came to a junction that we thought was the correct one, and we turned right. The road meandered uphill, turning into paving stones, and then just dirt. We assumed that the dirt road was just getting prepared for repaving, so we keep heading along. The conditions were pretty hilarious: muddy ruts and bumpy stone stretches. Going through mud ruts on a two-up motorbike is no walk in the park on level ground, but I had to do this going both up and down hills. The rear wheel of the bike would slip and slide, fishtailing and thrashing. Somehow (Cough. Amazing Skillz.) I manage to make it through. Only twice did my foot have to go down, and only once did the front tire get bogged down, sending J. smashing into me. But we kept on keeping on.
The junction where we became lost.
The start of the paving stone road.
A neat shelter hidden above a bend in the road. We ate a snack here and enjoyed the cool breezes and good view.
We took a detour down a small road just to see where it went. Answer: into the woods.
The muddy road.
Look, more mud.
And more, this time with pooled water.
It was starting to drizzle when we reached a government building in the middle of nowhere. Three guards were smiling at us from their shelter by the gate. I walked over and we tried to figure out where we were. Each town that was supposed to be on the road we were following kept getting pointed to in the valley to our right. Eventually, we mentioned Wat Chan, and they pointed ahead. According to the map, we were on what was and has always been a dirt road between Pang Ma-o and Wat Chan. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was a nice 60km of muddy mountain road.
We had already gone too far to turn back, and we figured we could get to the main road again by late afternoon. More slipping and sliding. For hours, I had the bike inching clumsily along at 10km an hour. There was never a moment of easy terrain, and a few sections got so ridiculously bad that J. would have to walk it to make balancing easier. I’d never felt to focused in my driving before, or as tuned to the road. It felt like my bike was a stylus playing a record. To make things more interesting, it was also raining off and on and getting darker.
Stopping to collect our breath.
This mountain road passed through cabbage country.
Cabbage farm shelter.
We stopped to pee near the farmer’s shelter pictured above when it started pouring rain. We pulled the bike off the road, and clambered over the fence to go inside. The fence had very large ants on it. We were about to eat some chips when a small old man dressed in colorful farmer’s clothes came running up to seek shelter also. He seemed confused but also joyful to find two weirdly dressed foreigners sharing shelter in the middle of nowhere. He tried talking to me in Thai, but I told him I didn’t know much. When he asked “bai nai?” or “where are you going?”, I had trouble answering because Pai is pronounced “bai” meaning my answer would be “rao bai bai” which makes no sense if the tones were wrong (which when I talk, they are). Instead, I told him we were going to Pai River. After a pause to listen to the rain, I pointed to the valley and said that “here is beautiful.” He nodded in agreement.
When the rain died down, he mumbled something and disappeared over the fence. Goodbye little man.
J scouting out the muddy road ahead after a brief downpour.
The isolated town of Ban Maew Dong Sam Mun.
J. and I got back on the bike and continued, mostly downhill, as the sun lowered in the sky. We were running low on gas when we reached a beautiful town called Ban Maew Dong Sam Mun. We rolled into town like in the wild west. Everyone was looking at us with the expression of “WTF?” on their faces. There didn’t seem to be electricity as far as I could tell, and it seemed like all of the residents were either farmers or in possession of a few wandering cows. We found an unmarked gas station that was basically a shed with manual pumps and a tube. I gave the man in the shed a thumbs up when the tank was full and he cut the pressure.
I felt weird taking a photo of the man and the pumps, but it basically looked like this. Photo is from here.
The gas pumper told us it was only 10km to Wat Chan, another hour in the slop. We reached the Wat town around 7:30. It was dark, but now the roads were paved. The next 50km were just us alone on winding mountain roads. There were no lights, no civilization, only a steady stream of bugs smashing to my visor and chest. J. was on duty as a cow spotter, as cows lingered in herds on the road and came up suddenly in the darkness. Each mountain bend was at risk of revealing surprise cows, which if not seen could make for a pretty bad and memorable accident. This last part of the drive was haunting, like I was motoring through a tear in space.
It was 10PM when we rolled into Pai, almost 12 hours after we started the journey. Our detour had taken us 8 extra hours, 6 of which were on the dirt road. I had trouble falling asleep that night because my mind kept driving in the mud.
The bike after the drive.
Pai is a beautiful town, but new construction is going up everywhere. Some people say that the town is already ruined, but I regard it at the threshold. There is plenty of charm left, and as long as all the beautiful farms don’t get converted to bungalows everything will be okay. Hopefully, the residents have sense enough to realize that the farms are what make the valley beautiful. And though a guesthouse may be more profitable than a rice field, you need the rice to draw people there.
Our first day there, J. and I went wandering around the valley on foot.
Road into the farmland.
Workers in the grass.
Man with a motorized rice paddy tiller.
Snake that was mere inches from J.’s face when she was reading a sign.
Path along the river.
View of the valley.
Rice to meet you.
A panorama of Pai valley from Wat Phra That Mae Yen. Click for fullsize.
Thursday night we ate dinner by the river and hung out at a coffee shop playing cards. I lost horribly. We went back to the guesthouse to eat mangos, drink banana shakes, and play cards. I lost horribly again. That night the power went out and the room became very stuffy.
A dark, restful evening of banana shakes in sacks.
On Friday, we departed for Chiang Mai in the morning drizzle. Most of the route through the mountains was punctuated by power line construction crews, passing vehicles, and downpours. There were regular wooden huts along the road for shelter and we stopped during the heavier rain. Luckily, I brought a plastic sack to put over my camera bag, and putting the package between me and J. provided extra protection.
The journey home took 5 hours, 3 hours of which was in the rain. We were soaked. It was a very unmemorable journey that hasn’t made me sarcastic.