Deep in the Golden Triangle – Northern Thailand

Day One – Friday Mar 20th – arrived in Chiang Mai at 8 pm, having left Wellington at 7 am that morning – so in elapsed time that’s 19 hours. Only drama was me having severe stomach cramps in the airport at Bangkok which thankfully passed so I could make it to the flight for Chiang Mai. Was as though my intestine got twisted.

Day 2 – Saturday March 21st  – Arrive Chiang Mai, pick up bikes from storage at Ian Rutler’s X Games complex 17 kms out of town. All good, both bikes started so no dramas. Then get new tyres (Metzler Tourance) fitted by Ng at the Piston Shop in town – he supplied fronts, we brought the rears over from NZ. All ok but both my and Jo’s bikes need new rear bearings (Jo was carrying spares) and mine needed a rear sprocket bearing as well (jo had one of them aboard also). So all in all some maintenance to avoid dramas. At 14,000 kms each bike (since Karachi start of the Top of the World section) the time for renewing bearings and sprockets is with us.

Day 3 – Sunday Mar 22nd – bit of indecision whether to stay with Plan A and do the Mae Hong Son Loop from Chiang Mai – a 650 km loop to the west which borders Myanmar and takes in some National Parks. Phil at Riders Corner has suggested we do a direct trail west to Mae Hong Son, but I can’t really get it on the GPS and the thought of 7 hours plus in this heat on trails in the bush isn’t appealing anyway, certainly not with tip top navigation tools. We are a day behind on the schedule already as I hadn’t allowed for a day in Chiang Mai to prepare bikes. Had thought they would be good to go on the Saturday morning. After a bit of overnight angst the decision was made to stick to Plan A and head south to Hot and then west and north to Mae Hong Son – a 368 km leg. We left by 7 am as we know the days for this trip are going to get really hot. We arrived at 2.30 pm with the last 2 hours being quite uncomfortably hot. So tomorrow we will aim to leave by 6.15 am.

The road south to Hot was that boring Thai dual carriageway type that we had ridden up from Mae Sot to Chiang Mai at the end of the Kipling’s Asia section. So it was a relief to get off that at Hot and on to a two way with far less traffic and development along the way. This I presume is the equivalent of Myanmar’s more isolated parts – the big difference in Thailand being the road is still excellent condition blacktop. The countryside has all been burnt off as is the custom through Asia every winter. The skies are thick with haze and you can’t see across the valleys. We’re expecting this for the whole trip so it’s a far cry from the green and lush Asia we rode last November when the rice was almost ready to harvest.

Day 4 – Monday Mar 23rd – Finished the Mae Hong Son loop today – great ride, heaps of tight corners and switchbacks. Back on the north/south H107 tonight at Chiang Dao. 230kms to Chiang Rai tomorrow. After a 6.30am start had breakfast in Pai, seems a nice little town and base for treks. Off the bikes by 1.30 pm which was good because it was hot. Riding through the burnoffs and smoke was all a bit surreal. Chiang Dao, our overnight stop is a small agricultural servicing town reminding me of Louis Eduardo on the Cerrado in Brazil. We eat in a modest café, the best in town but just one up from the subsistence stalls that litter the roadside.

Day 5 –  Tuesday Mar 24th – Rained overnight so slippery road to the north end of the 107 before turning southeast to Chiang Rai crossing another mountain range (800m). Because of rain it’s cooler and another cloudburst once we settled in Chiang Rai confirms a climate change from the Chiang Mai area. All the hillsides burnt off, despite signs saying farmers shouldn’t do this for a higher quality of life.

Brunch was in a country café about 15 kms east of the turnoff from the 107 south of Fang. It was notable for the close call Joanne had as she pulled across the road and another motorbike speeding around the corner almost collected her from behind but managed a swerve and avoidance. As I was watching the whole thing unfold – while Joanne was oblivious – it was me most in shock as we dismounted. Dave too saw it and agreed it would have been a horrible smash. As it happened we had seen the aftermath of one just 30 minutes earlier – in the form of a bus that had rolled off the road.  Lots of onlookers and ambulances in attendance, but we didn’t linger.

Our hotel in Chiang Rai is a cheapie at $16 – but a total class above the $20 one we’d had last night in Chiang Dao. The cheapness of Thailand will be one of the lasting memories – while it’s pretty developed on the Asian scale, lots of Toyota HiLux and Izuzu SUVs attest to the fact there is a middle class here, the price of food, cabs and accoms is very, very cheap. No wonder there’s such a large Western expat population residing here – albeit mainly males with younger Thai women.

Hope this weather shift stays with us – suddenly we’re not so desperate for aircon which makes it easier.

Day 6, Wednesday Mar 25th –
north to the border with Myanmar for morning tea – dual carriageway so boring – but nice to peer back into the Kingdom again. And then southeast along the Mekong (reuniting for the first time since Tibet) to the Golden Triangle point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos borders intersect. Then finally across the Friendship Bridge No 4 between Chiang Chiang Kong and the Laos river town of Houay Xay where we stop for the night. Immediately the change is apparent from the Americanised style of Thailand to the Chinese-sponsored state of Laos. A lower standard of living. Our exit from Thailand is soured a little by the impost of a NZD400 fine per bike for “overstaying” the legal limit of 1 month. We knew of course this would be the case but had hoped we’d be able to talk our way out of it. We failed. Further, we were disappointed to learn we could have called into Customs in Chiang Mai and got an extension.

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