I woke before dawn and noticed that Aileen was already awake. “I’ve been thinking about our ride” she said. My immediate thought was that she’d say she was too scared to continue or that I’d have to promise to ride more slowly. “OK” I said, “What’s on your mind?” She surprised me. “I want to earn my ton-up patch on this trip”. “Honey, we are riding the Mae Hong Son loop, the legendary road of 1864 turns and that doesn’t leave much space for straight stretches where we can wind it out to 100 mph, but if an opportunity presents itself then just hold on tight”.
The first 10 or so miles the road is gently undulating. The road then crosses a ridge that involves a steep climb with many hairpin bends. Riding up is the easier part. You need first gear to exit many of these turns and you need to downshift before you enter them. This involves a bit of revving on the downshifts to keep things smooth. There’s no need for brakes. You need to take these bends wide as the road is particularly steep on the inside and there’s a risk of lifting the front wheel or even flipping the bike, particularly when riding 2 up with luggage. You definitely don’t want to stop dead in these turns as there is a big gap between how far you can extend your feet and where the road surface is on the inside of the turn. Downhill is exhilarating but hard work as your weight is borne by your arms, especially when braking hard. I use some of that force to apply counter-steer.
We settle into a flow with the continuously winding road. Go out wide prior to a right-hander, cross the yellow line if there’s no oncoming traffic, exit near the left side of the road, then a quick flip to head over the the center and a flip to the left for the left hander, repeat… It is somewhat like gliding over a dance floor. The art is getting good lines, well executed turns and doing it with speed and fluidity. Like a dance it exists only in the moment and leaves only memories behind it. Aileen I can tell is starting to really enjoy it. She is leaning into a turn every bit as much as I am and I sometimes have to counteract it.
There is a long steep climb to the view point at Soppong. It is still only around 7am when we get there and the roadside stalls are still closed. Aileen sits in a sala near the mountain edge to meditate and I head back to the bike. I sit and watch and listen. About every 5 minutes I hear a motorcycle coming up the mountain and sometimes a truck. Women arrive and start to open their stalls. Most sell hand crafts things that you see in most markets and tourist areas.
When I rode down from Soppong towards Pai 4 months earlier I had just joined in with a group of riders I had met on the mountain top. They said they were fast riders and most were riding Ducatis. As they set off I didn’t realize that they ride in 2 groups – fast and ridiculously fast. Unwittingly I left with the ridiculously fast group. For a while I was riding at the edge of my comfort zone as there was no way I was going to let them get way from me. After a while my comfort zone expanded and some of those riders were having a hard time keeping up with me. I was braking hard at the last possible moment, using my momentum to apply counter steer and getting my knee down on the many downhill hairpin bends. At the end of that ride some of the riders asked if I was an ex-racer. “No” I replied, “but some of my riding buddies are. I’m just a crazy farang grandmother”. This time though I’m taking time to take in the view and share the moment with Aileen. About 5 km outside of Pai the road flattens out and I see a straight ahead of me that is enticing me to go faster. I drop down to 4th and gun it, winding it out to about 10,000 rpm. Did I mention that there are effectively no speed limits in Thailand? We reach Pai and head for a restaurant. “How did you enjoy that part of the ride?” I ask. “Great!” she says, “It was exciting”. She delivers a huge beaming smile when I tell her “You just earned your ton-up patch”.
From Pai we rode into Chiang Mai where things were gearing up for Songkran.