From Chiang Mai I had a week before needing to be at the Mae Sot border to cross into Myanmar. The Mae Hong Son loop (route 8) is a ride in the very northwest of the country and is always talked about as one of the best trips to do in Thailand on a motorcycle. It was a good way to spend my last week in the country and see an area new to me. It consists of 1864 curves over 349 km.
From Chiang Mae you head north and gradually to the west twisting up into higher elevations. The hair-pin turns seem to never end, but just when you’re getting tired of them you reach Pai. It’s on the well beaten path of Thailand and full of hippies. Some people don’t like how it’s gotten all full of travelers, but boohoo. The thing is, all you have to do is go across the rickety bamboo bridge to the other side of the river and you can find peace and a perfect new home. There are many bungalows for all tastes and styles. My style ended me up at Kong’s Bungalows, which had the most basic bungalows you can find, but more than enough for me. I have a love of simple bungalows built with wood, bamboo, leaves, and whatever else is handy. A couple small windows, a bed on the floor, and a hammock on the porch is all you need. I would rather stay in one of these than a fancy hotel room. In the night candles give it a warm inviting energy and it feels like a natural environment to live in. Instead of feeling sealed in a box at a hotel, you have the sounds of life around you.
I always end up staying somewhere longer if I find one of these, and they’re always cheap at around five dollars a night. My little hammock porch on the pond held me for 3 days. In the mornings a group of kids would come and fish, laugh, and play around. Such a simple way to grow up and be a kid. Up the hill next to town is a temple with stairs that lead up to a huge buddha statue overlooking the valley. It’s a perfect place to watch the sunset.
Even after doing all the work on my bike and trying to go over everything I still missed something. The exhaust had been sounding loud and then on the way up to Pai it really got loud (I liked the loud rumble of it though). Going down hills I was backfiring a bunch. To my surprise, when I took a look in Pai I had lost both nuts that hold the exhaust bracket in place against the engine. Crazy that two big main nuts like that could both vibrate and shake their way off. Being constantly on the move and having brief times in places leads to many short term friendships. It’s way different than making a new friend back home. A couple hours after meeting someone you might know their life story. Also, it’s easy to make friends since there are so many people like you. Most of the travelers share a love of being on the road and have boat loads of stories to share with each other. Usually a little beer is involved so the shells come off easy and people can be themselves. Each time I stop for any reasonable amount of time, I end up with some of these short term friends. Sometimes you will never see them again, some will become your facebook friend, others you will cross paths with a couple more times randomly, and then there are the few who end up being lifelong close friends. Whichever one they will become doesn’t matter and is all about enjoying the little bit of time your lives crossed paths. It can wear on you a little bit over time. It’s a constant parade of goodbyes, which are bitter sweet. It can be sad for a time to be over. All these years of traveling have filled my brain with so many faces that I hallucinate knowing people all the time. I swear almost everyone looks familiar. I’m constantly twisting back for a second look of someone who has to be from my past. In a way I think I’ve become addicted to the life of short term relationships. Nothing ever gets complicated, or at least doesn’t have time too. From Pai, the loop continues northwest, then west, and then curves to the south towards the town of Mae Hong Son. The place is fairly small and has a nice mellow vibe to it. In the center of town is a large temple next to a small lake.
There’s cheap guesthouse right around the lake. Sunset and sunrise are beautiful with all the flowers and reflections on the water.
Locals take strolls around the path, do Thai Chi, and eat from the food stalls. Another temple up on the hilltop next to town gives you a view out over the town and all the surrounding area.
To do the entire loop, route 108 eventually curves back to the east and goes back to Chiang Mai, but I was heading farther south. There’s a junction where the 108 breaks away to the left and continuing south is route 105. From this point the road leads over the hills to the border with Myanmar and then continues right along it. A small river and some limestone cliffs are all that separate you. The drive over the hill was probably the first bad roads I’d found in Thailand, but great scenery.
It was pretty chunked up, gravely, sandy, and filled with potholes, but after a short time bouncing my way through this it returned to perfect smooth blacktop. The road along the border is beautiful. I got there as the sun was going down and had some bright colors peaking over from the other side of the river.
That night I drove until it was pretty dark and then stopped in a tiny little village along the road. There was a little restaurant and thats all that mattered. As long as I can fill my belly, I can sleep anywhere. The couple that ran the place were really sweet and kind. His tiny little legs cracked me up. She cooked me up a delicious meal and brought me a couple little treats on the house. When I asked about camping they thought hard and talked with each other. They were trying to think of a nice place for me not realizing that I’m happy to put it up anywhere. Eventually they understood and were more than happy to let me camp in front of the restaurant.
They were actually a bit excited about it and moved their truck so that I could have the spot under the large mango tree. It was a great camping spot and the best thing about camping at a restaurant is waking up to breakfast a stumble away. I hung out for a couple hours in the morning before taking off. Everyone in that place was full of good energy and welcomed me right in. Kai, the guy, wanted to take me over into Myanmar and show me around for the day. I would have done it for sure, but I was entering into Myanmar the next day and had to get going to the border. For me Thailand was definitely the best place in SE Asia for camping. The people were very receptive to it.
I knew it was the last time I would camp for awhile so it was a little sad. In Myanmar the hotels are included in the tour I have to do to cross, and in India there won’t be much camping. My back is already very happy about no camping. Before leaving I drove down to the river and saw where the small boats are taking people between Thailand and Myanmar. There’s absolutely no security, immigration, police, military, checkpoint, or anyone to give you a hard time. It would be very simple to get in. It was the best border crossing I’ve ever been to.
Kids played in the boats, the hills reflected off the river, and the men were busy at work. I met a couple guys who were going across to Myanmar and were super friendly. They told me they were soldiers and talked about rocket launchers and stuff like that. Bit hard to understand if they were talking about being part of the actual military or fighting against them. We had a chat in very broken english before they look off with a enthusiastic goodbye.
I passed by a huge refuge camp a while before Mae sot. It wasn’t the type of camp that you imagine. It looks like a very large village that goes on for awhile all along the base of the cliffs. You would drive by thinking it was just an ordinary place if it wasn’t for the barbed wire and police/security posts every 100 meters or so along the road. It’s a camp for refuges that have fled Myanmar.
My northern Thailand adventure ended in Mae Sot, which is the town where the Myanmar border crossing is. Myanmar is SE Asia, but it felt like my time in the region was coming to an end. The final pages of the chapter were being turned and a whole new chapter was on my doorstep. Very exciting, but also very sad that this part of the world is over. It was good to me.