We made it safely back to Chiang Mai from a four day, 750-mile motorcycle adventure on a decidedly secondhand bike with a very well-worn suspension (the left forkleg disgorged its entire oily contents in the first 30 miles of the journey) and seat (it did have good tires, though). Within the the initial hour of the trip we felt the first rain since Cat Ba Island in Vietnam. Fortunately, it was just a minor drizzle and ended shortly. Our trip took us northwest through the town of Pai, a bit of a hippie enclave, where Colin started channelling John Belushi's character in Animal House when he spied two separate dread-locked guys riding bicycles with guitars on their back. We made it through to Mae Hong Son, a scenic mountain city, without incident to anyone, to find that there were no rooms at the inns (at least the ones catering to miserly..er.. thrifty foreigners). We did find accomodations at a clean, quiet hotel after searching farther off the tourist track and referring to the phrasebook alot, since the nice, young woman behind the counter spoke no English, and in fact, wrote the room specifics on a piece of paper for me in Thai. I am actually rather proud of the whole transaction, because not only did I score us a decent room, but I also got us an extra sheet (many places here have fitted sheets and blanket but no top sheet) and a DISCOUNT!
Day two, we got up, had a delicious breakfast of rice noodle soup with pork and headed onward. The first stop was Tham Plaa, aka the fish cave. It's basically a crevice in the rocks where thousands of fish swim up an underground stream. The people who look after fish believe the mountain's spirit protects the fish, so they never catch them (there are some BIG ones). The park is really beautifully landscaped and peaceful (except when you feed the fish- then the river roils). We got back on the incredibly twisty road (literally thousands of turns) with huge elevation changes and pavement that resembles either I-80 through Youngstown after the spring thaw or the moon's surface. The scenery is spectacular; we rode through fields of wild sunflowers in bloom, tons of fruit plantantions and rice fields, past mountains that reminded me of the islands in Halong Bay. We also passed probably two hundred saffron-robed monks of all ages walking along the roadside in one several mile stretch. I don't have a clue where they were going, but it was a long walk from anywhere. Our last sightseeing stop of the day was a calcite cave with at least five chambers, each different and more impressive than the previous one (no photos allowed, so sorry, no pictures of the "farkling" walls).
Day three involved more road twisties, tall, lush mountain scenery along the Thai-Burmese border and a whole lot of butt-burn (we're both out of long-distance riding shape). As we neared our destination for the night, Mae Sot, we saw what looked like a remote village of bamboo houses, but it kept going and going up the mountain from the road, and along the road for a couple of miles. From the signs we gathered that it is a camp for Karen tribe refugees from Burma. They cross into Thailand to escape their options at home: forced labor or persecution for rebellion against the government. They live in limbo, since they can't get ID cards from the Thai government so they can't travel beyond the immediate area or hold regular jobs, and they can't go home. Mae Sot was full of westerners who work for the NGOs helping refugees, and it had an interesting energy about it. We both would have liked to stay there longer, but we had to return the motorcycle the following day.
The next morning we got up and left Thailand and crossed into Burma (it's unfortunately the easiest way to extend one's stay in Thailand). We nervously left our passports in the hands of the Burmese officials and wandered into the city of Myawaddy. While we felt safe enough, it was really a different world, between the men in sarongs, betel nut spit all over everywhere, scabby looking dogs, and whirling dust clouds. Our impression from our brief, 30-minute stay is that it is much wilder than Thailand. We reentered Thailand and got back on the motorcycle and returned to Chiang Mai, unscathed but with really sore bottoms.
We took the train to Lopburi yesterday and are planning our next moves. Our new visas expire on December 9, after which we'll be heading for Cambodia for awhile. Hopefully the next week will involve a trip to an island somewhere along the Gulf of Thailand. Colin uploaded a bunch more photos to smugmug. Happy trails!