Road trip time. A phrase that normally puts a smile on my face – time with friends, out in the big wide world, laughing and joking and usually going somewhere fun.
All the above applies here, but this wasn’t a comfortable swanny down the M1 to Alton Towers in the car. It wasn’t even going to be in a proper chair. Infact, it didn’t even involve four wheels. There were two. And an engine. And a seat that I keep sliding down on. For five hours.
The furthest I’ve ever travelled on a motorbike before was down a coast road in Cyprus for 10 minutes with my brother on the back. This was a whole new ball game. Pai is a small town in the northern mountains, pretty much as close to Burma as I can get before the authorities kick me back into Thailand for being a journalist. Its 150km away from Chiang Mai, where I’m renting my little Honda scooter for the princely sum of £4 a day. I say little, but its actually 150cc – hardly a Harley, but for a novice like me, it half fills me with fear, half with excitement.
I didn’t sell my ticket to Bangkok. My hand scrawled ad on the blackboard winks at me as I walk past with all my rucksack and belongings that were to stay in Chiang Mai on their own for a few days. We’d grabbed a few changes of clothes and found all manner of ways to cram them in and around the scooters, and at 1pm, we were ready to leave.
There were three bikes to go in convoy – the North American alliance of Canadian Bryce and American Erin on one, Australian duo Krys and Liz on another – Liz who had only arrived the night before and somehow got talked into joining us on the crazy trip – and lonely me who was to fly solo for the journey.
With routes checked and cross-checked on our Iphones, it was fairly simple. Straight on at the big lights, go for a kilometre or so, turn left at the hospital. We managed the ‘straight on at the big lights’ bit, but then it all went wrong. Mainly as Krys was in the lead and shot straight past the left turn near the hospital. I headed left. Bryce and Erin shot off into the distance in pursuit of the wayward Aussies.
Thankfully Bryce and I have Thai phones, so we co-ordinated a rendezvous point and after about half an hour, we were back on our way.
It was my first proper experience of riding a motorbike, and despite all the worries, concerns, advice to be careful, thoughts of expensive medical bills and various encounters with people covered in scars and scabs from motorbike mishaps, I was finding it a lot of fun.
We’d rented some pretty decent scooters. They were good quality, relatively new and rode really well. After carefully starting off and winding my way through the traffic near the hostel, the roads opened up and we cruised along at a steady 45 to 50kmh. Eventually we met a turn off we needed north, the roads got quieter, and all of our confidence was picking up. Even Krys, who somehow wobbled his way out of the city without missing any more turns.
Bryce set himself out as a pace setter, leading the way and generally looking much cooler on a bike with Erin than I ever will. Nevertheless, I had a weight advantage, and on a particularly long, open, empty downhill part of the road, decided it was time to see exactly what the scooter could do. It’s a similar thing to what you always do when you get a new car – wait for a relatively safe bit of road, and then open up the engine. In much the same way that puts a smile on your face, so did this, and I shot past them both, feeling a very cheesey grin on my face, and loving the feeling of the warm wind in my face as the sun was beating down on us. It was great fun, and much easier than I anticipated.
As we were all riding along at different speeds, and due to traffic through the many villages we passed through, we’d all get split up from time to time. Every half an hour whoever was in front would stop and wait for the others. After a couple of hours, our heads were sore from the helmets, and our backsides were numb, so we stopped for a while in a little village at the foot of the mountains we were about to climb. We knew we had to reach Pai by nightfall, mainly as the town is in a valley and we’d been warned to be off the mountain before it gets dark. We’d worked out that it was already 4pm and cutting it fine. The sun would be setting in an hour and a half, and we were still at least two hours away. Then along came a familiar face – it was Kit, one of the guys who runs the Spicy Thai hostel in Chiang Mai, and he was on his motorbike heading to Pai and the sister hostel with some supplies.
Kit said he’d show us the way to the hostel, but said we’d need to fill up with fuel as the mountains can catch you out. He also said we needed to hurry up – so we asked one of the locals to fill us up with her roadside pump. I say pump, it was just a barrel of petrol with a measuring bottle attached which then lets the gas run into the nozzle. After paying just over £1 each, we were all topped up and on our way, winding our way up through the dozens of hairpin bends, looking down over huge swathes of jungle, watching the sun set and feeling the temperature plummet the higher we got.
Eventually we reached an army checkpoint at the top of the mountain. By now, it was getting dark and increasingly cold – our teeth were starting to chatter as the much cooler wind blew into our faces. While a change of clothes had helped, it still wasn’t enough.
Much of the last leg, thankfully, was downhill, although parts of the road were broken up or washed away by heavy rains. In the distance, the twinkly lights of Pai, and all four bikes rode in convoy up the gravel path to the Spicy Pai hostel. We’d made it – it took hours of riding, but what an adventure. It certainly beats the bus, along with all its relaxing chairs and air conditioned comfort – and it made us all feel like we’d achieved something. Taking our helmets off and checking in, we were the latest ‘pilgrims’ to make it to Pai on motorbikes, and there were some very familiar faces waiting to say hello to us in the dorms who we’d met in Chiang Mai. It meant we already felt at home – and what a strange home it was.
My first reaction got a laugh:
“Where are the walls?!” I said, searching for the last remaining spare bed in the dorm.
“It gets bloody cold at night,” came a voice from behind a mosquito net.
It was effectively a barn – an open one at that – but at least it had a roof of sorts made from leaves. Outside, raised bamboo walkways lead you to the toilet block (open to the elements) the communal area (open to the elements) and a neighbouring dorm (open…yep, you get the picture)
All around was running water. We were in the middle of a paddy field, and I was in a bed that was a bit like being in a tree house. As bizarre as it was, it was just as exciting to stay in, and knew the next few days would be a good laugh. Bryce and Erin managed to bag a luxury villa. It had walls and everything. Amazing what luxuries you can live without if you put your mind to it – but for about £1.80 a night, I wasn’t complaining!
We headed out for dinner at the Curry Shack and met up with Laura, a lovely girl from Birmingham who’s travelling for a while. She’d left Spicy Thai just before us and was part of the group who went to the zoo together. The Curry Shack was exactly that – one bloke, one shack, some herbs and spices and far from enough pots and pans. So much so, he came to tell us he couldn’t make anything for a while as he’d used all his pans and plates up.
Bryce and I set out on a hunter-gatherer mission, in a vain search for popadoms. Instead we found samosas on a street stall, so stocked up and took them to the waiting table with a few large Chang’s from a local shop. Curry Shack man wasn’t happy – we thought he’d given us the nod to go sort ourselves out for a while before he cooked for us, but the noise of our beers hitting the table from elsewhere I think put his nose out a little. It turned out the samosas were filled with some sort of weird sweet filling anyway, and we made up for our faux pas by tipping him really well – and it put a huge smile on his face. After all, the curry was incredible, despite the fact he also ran out of rice, and incredibly cheap.
That night, it was “bloody cold”. I slept in my oversized hoody, jeans, two blankets, and still I was freezing. The morning walk along the bamboo path, jumping over muddy patches and being careful not to fall into the paddy field water on the way to the toilet block was definitely different! I met Erin and Bryce in the communal area. Apparently they were cold at night too. And they had walls and a solid roof.
The beauty of having transport is that you can really explore the area you’re in. After breakfast in the main street, we headed off on the scooters to find waterfalls. Pai is located in a near picture perfect valley. You wake up with mountains all around – it’s a bit like a ski resort town, but in the sun and without the ski lifts. There’s plenty of water too, and at Pambok Waterfalls we enjoyed cooling off in the crystal clear water along with the obligatory photo opportunity.
We headed off back to the hostel as the sun was setting, and already the temperature was dropping. The altitude of the town, along with the fact we were quite far north, means that the moment the sun goes its time to reach for a jumper. I wasn’t expecting to have to wear jeans and a hoody in Thailand, but I was glad I’d taken the advice of people at Spicy Thai and packed them.
It was still cold the following morning, and I woke up to see fog everywhere. We’d booked an elephant trek through the countryside, and I was worried we’d only see as far as a huge elephant backside in front if the fog didn’t lift. Thankfully it did, and we arrived at Thoms elephant home to find four elephants happily chewing on bananas and sugar cane. I’ve seen elephants in zoos as a kid, but its something else to be up so close and personal to one. One of the staff gave me a bunch of bananas and told me to hold them behind my back, and as I moved closer to the animal, its huge trunk wrapped around me as he went in search of the fruit in my hand.
They are incredibly huge, but surprisingly gentle. Its easy to be wary at first, as it feels so strange to be up so close to something so big, so heavy, and to the untrained eye, so unpredictable. Its massive feet could do some serious damage if you got in the wrong place, but I could tell these were amazingly intelligent animals too. I could see their eyes moving and watching me as I moved closer with yet another bunch of cane leaves. Beautiful.
I was allocated Ot, a 30 year old female, and Liz was also to ride with me. The first problem was trying to get on, especially for those who were a bit more vertically challenged than I am. Laura struggled a little, but it was amazing to watch how the elephant would lift its leg to form a step for her to stand on. Next it was my turn, and it felt strange being told to hang onto Ot’s ear and then pull myself up with a rope holding the matting onto her back. Ot moved her leg into a step position for me, I stood on it and with a bit of effort, managed to haul myself onboard.
First impressions – prickly, and incredibly boney!
There was a huge lump at the back, part of Ot’s spine, that sticks up right in the place where I was to sit for the two hour trek. I pulled Liz up too, and she sat in front of me, and with a shout from the mahout, Ot took her first lurching step out towards the road.
With every step, the huge lump underneath me moved. Its far different to riding a horse – your legs are forced much wider apart, almost uncomfortably so – the elephant’s skin is hard and covered with prickly hairs that rub on your legs. But it was a great experience, and the scenery as the sun came out was fantastic.
We walked along a trail into the countryside. Every now and then, one of the elephants would spot something it wanted to eat at the side of the trail, grab it with its trunk and pull it out of the ground. Sometimes they’d spend too long trying to eat, and get a shout from the mahout riding on top. It was usually with a smile, and eventually we arrived at a river. We knew we were getting close, as the elephants got excited and started to walk faster. It was obviously a part of their day they loved.
We clung onto the rope and the matting as Ot stepped into the water before lowering herself down. Then, with a big swing of her trunk, she flung water all over us. It was brilliant – and a much needed cooling off for us and her as the sun started to burn.
Next the mahout shouted something, and suddenly Ot turned into a bucking bronco. Liz went straight away, down into the water below, while I managed to cling on. Then, with a particularly strong shake, I couldn’t hold on any longer and got thrown into the river. I swear when I resurfaced I looked into her eye and there was a cheeky glint in it!
Ot was swishing her trunk around trying to cover herself with more water, so Liz and I gave her a hand, splashing and pouring water all over her head and back and giving her a rub and a bath. It was clear Ot loved it, blowing bubbles in the flowing river and treating us to a spray of our own with her trunk every minute or so.
The mahout beckoned me back on, and as soon as I was back on, there was more trunk spraying and shaking off. I think it was as much fun for us as it was for the animals.
After 20 minutes of playing with the elephants in the river, it was time to head back. We treated Ot to more handfuls of bananas and cane leaves when we got back, while we got treated to chicken and rice as we watched the elephants have their lunch.
We met a couple from Singapore who were touring southeast Asia on a motorbike – they seemed amazed that we’d tackled such a long trip on mopeds, and we swapped traveller tales over lunch.
That afternoon, as part of the day, we had a bamboo raft ride along the river for a few hours, before heading back to the elephant camp and saying our farewells to the animals. It had been a great day out, and we finished it off by watching the sun set over a nearby canyon.
That night was our last night together as a group. Laura was heading off to nearby Laos the following day, so we decided to head into town for dinner.
About halfway along the 15 minute walk, we were spotted and followed by Scruffy, a dog who had become a regular sight around the hostel. Nobody seemed to know whether he lived there or not, but he had a collar and he was called Scruffy for obvious reasons.
Most of the time he could be found relaxing around the paddy field or seeking strokes and attention in the communal area from fellow travellers, but somehow he would recognise the people he knew in the middle of the town. We’d been followed by him a couple of times, and he’d happily sit by us as we all ate before walking with us back to the hostel. A few little bits of chicken off a plate thrown in his direction every now and then kept him more than happy.
Suddenly, halfway down the main walking street, all hell breaks lose. A black and white dog appears from nowhere, attacks Scruffy and his mate, and somehow Scruffy came off worse. We saw him limping away. Erin was upset, and I felt sad that perhaps he’d followed us too far, into another dog’s territory, and got hurt.
We ordered dinner but we were slightly muted. I think we all had a bit of concern for poor old Scruffy, when suddenly Erin spots a familiar sight outside the restaurant. It was him – and somehow he knew where we were and was waiting for us! Erin went to see him and he followed her back in, complete with his limp. We treated him to a full plate of sausages, and he sat with us and walked with us for the rest of the night.
Scruffy even watched as we set off two Chinese lanterns into the night sky. It was a bit of a celebration of the brilliant week we’d all had together. We’d gone from complete strangers to being really close friends in such a short space of time, and it was sad that soon our time together would end.
We said a few words and wished each other well for our onward travels as the lanterns rose high into the brilliantly dark night sky. And as the lanterns rose, we saw shooting stars everywhere. There was a meteor shower that night, and we had perfect conditions to see it. Every few moments we’d all see another bright light streak across the sky, as our lanterns disappeared high above us. It was almost magical.