April 10, 2014. Maehongson to Chiang Mai

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.

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Aileen’s mountain-top morning meditation

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Our Kawasaki er6-n – a parallel twin 650 naked sportsbike.

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”.

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Aileen on hearing that we just hit 100 mph on the road into Pai.

From Pai we rode into Chiang Mai where things were gearing up for Songkran.

 

Early Morning in Mae Hong Son

Friday April 4

Monday April 7.

We picked up the rented motorcycle (Kawasaki 650 ER-n) in Chiang Mai on Monday morning. I had rented one of these on my trip here four months earlier.  We left our luggage at the rental place and took a ride up Doi Suthep to Wat Phra That. Aileen was nervous on the hairpin bends but bravely leaned in the right direction when needed.  After her meditation we headed back down the mountain. I took it slowly as she needed time to gain confidence in me, the bike and herself. We then loaded up the bike and headed towards Mae Sariang on rt 108 which was a 4 lane highway for the first hour or so (boring). We got to the town of Hot and stopped for a while to hydrate and rest. We were jet lagged and neither of us had got much sleep the night before. We were fending off fatigue and we had just 90 minutes of daylight left. The road from Hot to Mae Sariang is magnificent and has to be one of the world’s best motorcycling roads.  We rode through a river valley and then ascended into the mountains. The air got quite a bit cooler but since it had been 100+ Fahrenheit at the lower elevations the cooling was quite welcome.  I rode with exuberance and Aileen was remarkably calm. Just 2 weeks before we had ridden up the Palisades Parkway to West Point and she had closed her eyes for the whole way up there and needed to stop at the State Line rest area to deal with her anxiety.

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Aileen’s panic break at the State Line when heading up the Palisades.

She had come a long way in those 2 weeks. Riding at dusk was (I know, I use this a lot when talking about Thailand) enchanting. We rode between silhouetted mountains into Mae Sariang. We arrived there just before nightfall and got a room with a balcony that almost overhung the Salaway River. The next day after a breakfast of sticky rice with coconut we headed to the morning market.

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Breakfast of sticky rice on the guest house balcony.

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IMG_5351 Mae Sariang morning market.

We then loaded up and headed north on 108 toward Mae Hong Son. With the exception of one straight of about a mile the road to Mae Hong Son is a continuous string of curves and undulations.  Unpleasant if you are driving but shear joy for motorcyclists. After checking into our bungalow we headed up Doi Kong Mu to view the sunset.

 

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Sunset from Doi Kong Mu, Maehongson

 

Wednesday April 9th. Mae Hong Son

We’re still jet lagged and I woke at 5 am. Aileen heard me moving about the bungalow and got up. We stepped out to view the dawn and watch and listen as the town slowly woke up. It was quiet except for roosters (quite a few of them) and the occasional whir of a small motorcycle. After a short walk around the lake we saw the mountains emerge from the lightening sky. There were delicate colors. The lake was still.

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Dawn breaks over Jong Kham Lake in Maehongson

Monks heading out to seek daily alms.

Monks heading out to seek daily alms.

Each day soon after dawn the monks head out to seek alms. I saw some young boys and their robes were quite new. The Poi Sang Long festival completed just 2 days ago during which a lot of Shan boys became monks for the first time. Mae Hong Son is the epicenter of Shan culture in Thailand. We spent the entire day in Mae Hong Son getting over jetlag. We walked about the town late in the afternoon and made arrangements with the resort management for us to check out at first light the next day. Next stop will be Pai and a magnificent stretch of highway 1095.