This was one of my earliest motorcycle tour magazine articles. It appeared in Hong Kong in the South China Morning Post Asia Magazine as well as Motoplayer. And it also appeared in Motorcycle Tour & Travel in the U.S.A. This motorcycle tour was directly responsible with my love affair with Thailand, which has subsequently become my country of residence.
This article is also thought to be the beginning of the world’s interest in motorcycle touring in Asia.
“License optional, insurance nil” mused John Hirst, my traveling companion, as he read aloud from our motorcycle rental agreement for two 250 cc trail bikes 50,000 kilometers beyond their better days. This foreboding clause gave us only a seconds’ pause before we John Hancocked the contract and officially started our impromptu motorcycle tour out of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Little did we know that we would be venturing into motorcycle Nirvana, two wheeled Eden, and dirt-riding Heaven all rolled into one.
We were justifiably nervous before heading out into the wilds of the Golden Triangle. All the guide books we read had long lists of “Don’t do this’es” and “Don’t do that’s”, ranging from warnings about gorilla armies operating in the border areas, to the usual cautions about eating raw vegetables, fruits, and ice. The topper was mention of an incurable form of malaria. We realized we weren’t going for a Sunday romp in the park. But our trip proved every guidebook admonishment wrong as we dove wholeheartedly right into the swing of the local Thai life-style. As Nike exhorts, “Just Do It!”, and We Did!
But now that this fabulous trip is over, I have some problems that must be overcome. How can I possible convince you that the very first road we drove on in the Golden Triangle was the “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROAD IN THE WORLD” and that over the next 3,500 kilometers the next road, somehow, someway, always got better, always became the newest “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROAD IN THE WORLD”? The riding was so fantastic that three times I reschedule my departing flight–I just couldn’t tear myself away from such fabulous biking.
And how can I possibly describe all the adventures we experienced over the next thirty-five days in this allotted space? When each half of a day can be a separate manuscript unto itself?
If I tell you about the Thai kick boxing matches at a local carnival, then I won’t have space for my meeting with the oldest hilltribe man in Thailand, a 100 year old Hmong man and his 94 year old wife who together are responsible for over 50 progeny. Or, if I write about when we were guaranteed passage to heaven during our visit to Doi Tong Temple, I’ll have to leave out the part when we visited the Padong “Long Neck” hill tribe village, hard on the Burma border. This is the hill tribe where the women have their necks stretched by wearing up to twenty brass rings stacked around their throats.
Or, if I describe some incredible Thai cuisine, as hot as a brush fire, the smells of fried chilies, garlic, lemon grass and just-picked produce, the simple breakfasts at the morning market of heated soya milk with jungle honey and a raw egg mixed inside can hardly be mentioned, even though it was equally as delicious and satisfying.
The best approach is to recount the highlights that keep flashing before my mind’s eye no matter how much I try to get back into the swing of living in the industrial rat race again. Re-running this trip over and over in my brain, some experiences were so outstanding, so beyond my catalogue of experiences, that even 50 years from now, I’ll be able to remember every small detail as if I was there again. These are the episodes that I must share. But since this is a story about a motorcycle trip, and a motorcycle was responsible for every sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch on this tour, the roads are as good place as any to start this chronicle.
Northern Thailand has the “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROAD IN THE WORLD” because of a whole slew of reasons. The overriding reason, though, is that the Golden Triangle area sits in the foothills of the Himalayas, the mother of all mountain ranges. The roads here cut across, around, up and down, over and through a wild and convoluted terrain. A straight line doesn’t exist in these parts and there’s nothing that an avid biker loves more then curves, curves ad infinitum.
The logging industry added to the fun by tapping into the riches of the mountains. They have graciously cut roads to places in the jungle and forest where no road has a right to go, where no people have a reason to go. Except for bikers.
Then there are the scattered hill tribe people living a life based on subsistence farming in the remotest of places, often perched on the very tops of mountains and ridges. To each and every village leads a road, usually a dirt foot path best suited for horses, cattle, and of course dirt-bikes.
We must also thank the Buddhist monks for many of the “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROAD IN THE WORLD”. They have a drive as insatiable as the salmon who fight up river. It’s a passion to build their glorious temples on top of the highest and most inaccessible mountain peaks or in places of the most magnificent natural beauty. And they built roads for their adherents to get there.
Maybe the primary reason for all these “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROADS IN THE WORLD” is the region’s unstable political and social situation. Fortunately (for motorcyclists only), Laos, Burma, and Thailand historically have not been the best of friends. For self defense, Thailand built arteries capable of moving an army swiftly to each distant corner of their country at the first inkling of trouble. In addition, the Golden Triangle outside of Thailand is still home to many private armies. They range from old Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) units to Karen rebel forces escaping from Burmese government control. Several drug warlords control large tracts of the region and will furiously fight anyone trying to destroy their poppy plants or amphetamine factories. All these armies, and more unmentioned, are a continual headache for Thailand. As Thailand exerts their defense against these forces, they need to go ever deeper into the wild and more and more roads have to be built to flush them out.
Putting icing on the cake is Uncle Sam. In America’s battle against the drug trade, they have poured billions of dollars in aid into Thailand and the rest of this region to help them combat the opium industry by trying to eliminate poppy production. A lot of this money was spent on building even more wonderful roads and upgrading the existing ones.
All these roads have little or no traffic. Since most of the roads go to places with hardly any population, hardly anyone uses them. It’s “crowded” if you pass 15 oncoming vehicles an hour. The few drivers that you do see are courteous, which is the Thai way, unlike the kamikaze driving tactics found most everywhere else in Asia. The roads are well marked with kilometer markers giving route numbers and distances. Town names are printed in English. It’s not easy to get lost.
Our first foray out of Chiang Mai was westward towards the Thai-Burma border. This part of Thailand has the most impressive forest cover and the least population. Not only was the road simply awesome and ridiculously free of other traffic, but the entire forest was going through fall foliage. Whole mountain sides were turning orange, purple, yellow, crimson flecked with gold, under a brilliant cloudless cobalt sky.
Our first roadside stop was at Mokfa Waterfalls, just one of the innumerable spectacular cascades in the area. Grinning like idiots, John and I both agreed that our very first road was, for both of us, the greatest motorcycle road either one of us had ever been on.
A few miles further on we found a side road up to a radio tower on top of a mountain peak. It was an 11-kilometer, extremely steep, very narrow, roller coaster of a ride, with fantastic views from the summit. At the top, I requested of John to please pinch me to see if I was dreaming or if this was all for real. This “pinch me please” became shortened to “pinch time” for the rest of our trip. I would extend my arm out to him on particularly lovely stretches, even while riding, and he knew what this meant. The riding was beyond anything I ever imagined and I’ve been riding motorcycles for 25 years.
We quickly discovered the paradox of our motorcycle tour; that even if we were riding on the “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROAD IN THE WORLD” and the next “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROAD IN THE WORLD” beckoned, this trip was not about piling as much miles as we could on our odometers. There were so many competing attractions off of our bikes that we were actually better amused and more entertained the less time we spent in the saddle!
On the ride to our first night’s lodging in the town of Pai, we could have stopped about every 10 miles to explore a temple, cave, hill tribe village, or elephant camp. But the roads we were driving on were so magnificent, so perfect that we only stopped for lunch, which was delicious as well as cheap, as was every subsequent meal on our entire trip. Which brings us to our second major discovery; you can not find a lousy meal in Northern Thailand. Each and every meal was fantastic. I could have eaten my every meal from the ubiquitous food carts. I had trouble passing even one of them by. The aromas would nail me like an electric shock, as my twitching nostrils zeroed onto the source of the wafting scents.
The first job when pulling into a town for the night was to pick one of the numerous guest houses to bed down in. Every evening was pot luck as the quality of the guest houses varied enormously. Only the larger towns had anything approaching Western hotel standards.
Most of the guest houses conformed to a similar formula. They were usually a complex of small bungalows or huts, typically cheap and Spartan, but we did discover a few places that were simply magic. Prices were always reasonable. The cost was dependent upon amenities associated with the lavatory, such as a private or shared bathroom, heated or unheated water, toilet bowl (sitter) or “bomb sight” (squatter–the Asian-style, porcelain-framed hole in the floor), fan–no fan–or air conditioning, and satellite TV or no TV.
We were always guaranteed a bed, blanket, a small towel capable of drying half your body, a piece of soap thinner then the paper it came wrapped in, and a pre-dawn rooster wake-up call. We were not guaranteed electricity, closets, pillows, or even a full size bed. Often I had to sleep diagonally, but then I’m 6′ 3″. We found that sharing a bottle of the local Mekong whisky before retiring helped sleep time arrive unimpeded by any discomfitures.
My biggest problem on this trip was with the squatting toilets. I was potty trained in Brooklyn, New York, and somehow avoided having to use a squatting toilet for my entire life, including all my years living in Asia. Until this trip. I’m as flexible as a cigar store Indian and just can not squat and balance for more than a couple of seconds. And I’m also in the habit of reading a magazine or book during my morning constitution. I hate the squatters. For the first time in my adult life, defecating, and the scheduling of it, became a conscious and overriding daily decision, often depending upon how fiery our previous nights’ meal was. I quickly learned power-control of my sphincter muscles until we came upon a town with a proper, sit-down toilet bowl. But every time I gave thought of complaining, I would remind myself that this slight inconvenience only lasted a few minutes per day.
The absolute worst guest house on this trip was high up on a cliff above the Laotian border in Poo Chee Fah, which in Thai means “where the betel nut leaves touch the sky”. Arriving under a darkening sky after a long dirt road ride, we had no choice but to stay there since this was the only accommodation within a two hours’ radius. We were given a four-room private house that looked great from the outside, but inside there was not a single stick of furniture except for one wooden sleeping platform and, of all things, a bar, with two tree stumps for bar stools. Nothing else. Not a shelf nor a closet, not a single nail for hanging up clothing, no electricity, candles, or mattress. At least it had a cement floor. The only decorative touch was an ominous, bleached ox skull nailed to the front gate. I was seriously deciding whether I would try sleeping outside on the straw and dirt in the front yard until lines of red ants convinced me otherwise.
THE EVENING PROGRAM
Each night on the road a standardized program developed. After checking into a guest house. We would grab a snack and cold beer, followed by a shower, hot if we were lucky. Then we would arrange for a two-hour traditional Thai massage, the bigger the woman, the better. One night my masseuse could have been a lady sumo wrestler. I only outweighed her by a few pounds but I was half a yard taller. When she walked on by back or dug her elbows into my thigh, no knot stayed kinked. It was the perfect anecdote for a day on a highly vibrating motorcycle. John, on the other hand, couldn’t understand the pleasures of Thai massage, or ‘paying for pain’ as he put it, as he alternately screamed or laughed (he was very “dickly” the Thai word for ticklish) during each of his sessions.
After our bodies were pounded into relaxation, we would then dine on absolutely delicious local fare straight from the fields we passed only hours before.
One of our most memorable dinners was at a lovely guest house in Chiang Kham on the banks of the Mekong River, the largest one in S.E. Asia. As we waited for our order, we sipped ice cold beers under the setting orange sun, the evening mists rising from the cooling waters, listening to classical Thai music, looking across at Laos where no one looking back at us because that side was virtually bereft of people and totally undeveloped.
Our simple fare of fried rice and stir-fried vegetables arrived. We looked at each other incredulously. Each rice grain glistened and each piece of vegetable sparkled in a light cloud of fragrant steam mixing with the sweet river breeze. One whiff told us before a morsel went into our mouths that this will be the best we’ve ever tasted. We feast on it with our eyes before spooning it into our mouths. How can anything so mundane be transformed into a taste so heavenly? The accompanying country sausage salad and fish cakes were the equal in gastronomic pleasure.
After dinner the program continues with a visit to a hostess bar, which, in almost every town in the Golden Triangle, is as close as the nearest palm tree.
Thailand is famous for their beautiful women, and the most glorious of all these lovelies come from the north. Before you can finish your first drink, you are the focus of attention of one, if not two of these darlings. One evening, one of the girls gave me an unrequested manicure. After she finished trimming my last finger, I took off my shoes and socks to see what would happen next. Without any hesitation she had my feet nestled in her warm lap and she gave me a pedicure as well. Pinch time! A sobering statistic is that one in four of these girls is supposedly HIV positive. Like playing Russian Roulette. These forbidden fruits are tempting in the extreme none the less.
THAI KICK BOXING
After our scrumptious meal in Chiang Khong I bought a bottle of Mekong whisky and sent it to a table of young lads. This is a sure fire way to meet and mix with the locals. I was soon invited to their table, after which I was willingly dragged to a local night carnival. Game booths, food stalls, a Ferris wheel, a sepak takraw tournament (Asian foot volleyball), and a large outdoor disco was set up in an empty field. In the center of this all was a ring and seats set up for kick boxing matches. A front row seat cost me 20 cents. You’ve never seen anyone earn a living until you watch two kick boxers at work. They earn every penny as they take toes to the throat and elbows to the kidneys. Every appendage is a weapon and every part of the body is fair game. They box to shrilling Thai war music blaring from the PA system.
MAE SAM LAP
Our fourth day found us in Mae Sarieng and still on a profound motorcycling high. Unable to stomach much more sustained bliss, John and I decided to try a dirt road for a change of pace. The town of Mae Sam Lap on the Salween river was 48 kilometers due west and is an important Burma border trading town. To get there we took a logging road that went over a high mountain pass. The only other road users were scattered herds of water buffalo and their keepers. At one point the main dirt road was closed so we had to take a secondary dirt road that cut across several streams.
After three hours of dirt riding we finally arrived in Mae Sam Lap and I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. I could only blink my eyes speechlessly, looking at a scene unchanged from prehistory. The first thing I noticed was that everything was brown; the wooden huts with roofs made from dried teak leaves, the dirt streets, the towering forest and dense underbrush, the leaf litter, the river bank rocks. The people were cocoa colored wearing dirt-soiled clothes. The brilliant mid-day sun threw deep black shadows over everything. The muddy Salween river in the background poked out from between the tight-grouped row of ramshackle huts built high upon the river bank. Burma on the opposite shore. And here we are, blown in from another century, sitting on bright red, white, and blue dirt bikes in the middle of town and no one paid us much mind, except for the children.
From out of one of the shacks pops Werner Hellwagner from Germany and his Thai guide Noi. During our first three days on the road we kept playing leapfrog with this other pair of motorcyclists. They told us one of the families invited them to spend the night in their hut.
We all strolled down to the flat, treeless river bank where the trading market was set up. Two 100 yard rows of huts stood facing each other selling a dizzying array of goods, mostly produce, spices, gems, clothing materials, and house supplies. River traders from as far away as Bangladesh come by boat to make deals for both Thai and Burmese products.
Several cafes were sprinkled in the bazaar and we had a lunch of delicious samosas (25 for $1!), fried chicken livers, and warm soft drinks. Signs of western civilization were visible even in this remote outpost of commerce, as posters of Michael Jackson and Arnold Schwatznegger adorned the rough-hewn plank walls, and their radio played Hotel California and Like A Virgin.
We hired a longtail boat to take us and our four bikes upriver to the next town, from where we would ride back into the 21st century, 42 kilometers away. We cruised past working elephants on the Burma shore pushing teak logs with their foreheads down to the river . The few small villages on both sides went through their daily routines of washing clothes, bathing, and fishing. Naked children played in the shallows. We watched river life unchanged for eons.
When we disembarked at Mae Kong Kha a slight wisp of a man wearing a loin cloth and a turban strolled down from the forest, squatted on a log, and silently watched us unload the bikes. The ride back to Mae Sariang through 4′ deep dust, deep ruts, and steep slopes made the driving extremely tricky. Sharp drops over the cliffs made me wonder if this was the day I was going to die. In the lowlands we had to make 70 stream crossings (yes, I counted). Sometimes we had to ride up-river several hundred yards before we could find the dirt road again. I had absolutely no experience with dirt riding, but after negotiating this trail without falling, I now consider myself an expert. Four and a half hours later we emerge onto a sealed road and back in civilization. This type of riding was very hard work, but it was the most fun I had in many years. A day to remember forever.
Leaving the Burmese town of Tha Khi Lek, we decided to take a back road to our next destination that was more convoluted than a tape worm’s tape worm. This became our newest “GREATEST MOTORCYCLE ROAD IN THE WORLD” as it climbed a steep and narrow mountain ridge. We follow the footprints left in the thick dust by barefoot monks on their pilgrimage up to the mountain top temple of Doi Tong. Eagles soaring in the thermal updrafts are shoulder height to the ridge we are riding on. The sparkling clear views from the spine were to the Burmese mountains on our right or down upon the huge central valley sprawling way below us to our left.
Just as I was thinking that this finally had to be the ultimate road in Thailand, that no road could possible be any greater or more beautiful, that absolutely nothing could improve this ride, we come around a turn and the whole mountain side is ablaze in purple-leafed trees. While down in the valleys, fields of elephant grass shimmer in silver waves in the sunlight. Pinch time!
We arrive at Doi Tong Temple once again speechless after another awesome ride and then find out we have arrived at a renown gateway to Paradise. One of the monks, seeing how bewildered we looked, told us that if we want to be assured entry into Paradise, all we have to do is ring each of the hundreds of bells surrounding the temple. This was an offer too good to refuse. John and I both selected two well worn wooden clangers and made our plea to Buddha to accept us into heaven, but later on, please?
Believe it or not, the back road down from Doi Tong was even better then the one going up. It was a brand new highway, again with no other traffic. It was a downhill Formula 1 race track with series of 340 degree s-turns. We used the whole road, both lanes and both shoulders, to carve our turns as we quickly shed altitude. This road was so smooth it made our old beat-up dirt bikes feel like magic carpets.
Opium was once the cash cow of North Thailand, and is still being grown clandestinely today. To the indigenous hill tribe people, opium is part of their social structure and heritage. A pipe full of opium in the evening is as normal to them as is a Frenchman’s mealtime glass of wine. I’ll try almost anything once and opium falls under the category of almost anything.
At this point in my trip, John had flown back to HK and I hooked up with Noi, the guide I met in Mae Sam Lap several days before. At Poo Chee Fah we met some of the locals at a canteen and, after another gift bottle of Mekong, they invited us to smoke opium with them in one of their huts higher up the cliff face. We all settled around a large sleeping platform where the elaborate opium smoking preparations took place. It is a long, drawn out process where the raw poppy paste is mixed with a little water and slowly melted down over a candle into finger sized chunks. It took around an hour as I watched fascinated in the flickering light as the preparer scraped and kneaded the paste into a smokeable consistency. The smell was thickly sweet and cloying, slightly nut-like, and pleasant.
I became nervous when I saw pistols poking out of my new friends’ belts until Noi told me that they were the head of security for the area and another was an army officer. No wonder attempts to wipe out this traffic is futile when the very people in charge of enforcement carry a slug of opium in their own pocket. Their hearts aren’t really into eradication and they just go through the motions.
First I watched two smokers take their turn before I tried it. Like in all the old paintings and photos, when you smoke opium you lie down on your side with the pipe parallel to the floor and the bowl of the pipe held over the candle. As the heats up, the opium inside it melts and starts to sizzle, then smoke. You draw the smoke into your lungs and hold it inside for as long as you can. Three bowls is all one needs. After the smoking session, I seemed to float back down to my guest house in the total darkness. I couldn’t even feel my feet touching the ground, let alone see them. When I arrived at our house, the exertion and concentration of the walk had burned right through my high and I was nearly straight again.
Several encounters with these beasts were interesting. The first time I saw one I was coming around a curve on a dirt road and one lumbered down from the mountain side, plodded across the road in front of me, then down the slope on the other side. I didn’t have time to get my camera out before it disappeared into the underbrush. I repositioned my camera for the rest of the trip.
You can smell when elephants are in an area. One day riding around on some valley dirt roads, our biggest hazards were elephant turds the size of butterball turkeys and the pizza-sized leaf litter hiding them.
We stopped in an Akha hill tribe village canteen for a drink when an elephant and mahout sauntered by. The elephant stuck his head into the hut and the mahout sitting behind his ears asked a question or two, then strolled silently away. I told the group of trekkers having a snack with us to watch their bananas.
Further along in another village, an elephant filled the road in front of me so I did the natural thing. I stopped. He ambled over to a big bamboo tank of water, stuck his trunk in the water, and proceeded to give himself, and me, a snout shower.
HILL TRIBE WEDDING
After some more trail riding, we came into a Meo hill tribe village called Buek Chan Me. Buek Chan Me is one of the poorer villages encompassing 75 huts and 500 people. The women tend the fields and the men toil for the Thai government doing forestry work at $2 per day.
Today there was a wedding and we were invited. Hill tribe people marry quite early, as young as 13, but this particular couple had been living together for 12 years and had four babies together with a fifth soon due. It took them all this time to save up enough for the wedding ceremony and to pay the bride price of one pig. The wedding feast was boiled pig meat, pig intestines, and cabbage all cooked in a huge wok. It was served with rice and accompanied by the latest vintage of homemade rice wine.
The men ate first, then the women, after which the girls are finished with the ceremony and leave. The men re-enter the hut and decide, after elaborate discussions, who sits where, positioning depending upon their village status. Toasts are proposed and formal speeches pronounced. Then the groom and best man face the table and they’re made to kneel down and rise up dozens of times, and each time they must drink a cup of wine while the shaman chants a prayer. This continues until the groom literally passes out and the party continues without him.
By this time I am quite tipsy ourselves and still have a long and difficult dirt road to navigate. I give everyone in the hut a bunch of Burmese cigars and off we go, feeling no pain.
I could go on and on with more episodes, but space is imposing its’ limits. I’ll leave it to you to discover your own adventures in this most marvelous country. If you don’t visit here soon you may miss the last generation to wear native clothing because the children now favor jeans, Reeboks, and baseball caps. Deforestation is a major problem and the jungles shrink daily. At any time, the army or police can close whole areas of the country if future problems arise.
A motorcycle took me and my several traveling companions to places where in a hundred years I never would have crossed paths with. As much as I saw and experienced, I left many more things untried, such as rafting trips, jungle treks, hot springs, antiquities and historical ruins. I will return. More wonders await. THE END.