Thousands of photos.
Stray dogs, mountain roads, stunning vistas, lumpy beds, sore butts, amazing sunsets, no tourists.
One amazing road trip around northern Thailand.
“If you’re about and up for a bit of a ride, keep it in mind.”
So ended the typically laconic message from my mate Stuart when he mentioned late last year that he would be in town for a while.
I was going to be about, and I was definitely up for a bit of a ride.
And so it was that one warm January morning, loaded up with a couple of small packs and a full tank of gas, we headed north on the road out of Chiang Mai. Like the trip to Pai several weeks ago I had Lauren on the back, but unlike that trip we had a bike that actually worked properly. That would come in handy.
Highway 107 was busy as far as the Pai turn-off, but the mayhem subsided a little once all of the minivans stuffed with nauseous backpackers had careened off towards the mountains.
The original plan had been to grab a leisurely lunch in Chiang Dao and continue east in the afternoon, but the idyllic setting and full bellies led to a swift change of plans. Well, you don’t want to overdo things on the first day … right?
Even in the middle of the day it had been surprisingly cold riding in the shade – Chiang Dao is a mountain town after all – and once the sun went down it became positively freezing. Thailand has a well-deserved reputation for beaches and sunburn, but as we huddled in our jackets and watched the steam rise from dinner it became a little difficult to remember why.
Distance travelled: 78km
Stayed at: Mallee Guesthouse, Chiang Dao, in an over-priced 850 baht/night bungalow with fan and bathroom.
If sitting around eating dinner the night before was cold it had nothing on barrelling through the mountains shortly after 8am the next morning. With teeth chattering and nose running furiously it was hard to decide whether to ride slower to reduce the wind chill or faster to get the agony over faster, so in the end we opted for a completely unsatisfactory middle ground that left us still stamping the chill from our feet in the midday sun several hours later.
We must have looked ridiculous bundled up in several layers of clothing as the mercury continued to climb, but damn it had been cold.
Traffic was light that early in the morning, but once we turned onto route 1150 it pretty much disappeared. Down out of the mountains we swept, with just the occasional slow scooter or belching old pickup sharing the road. Even with frozen fingers and an aching butt I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. This was the side of northern Thailand that I had come to see, so different to the beaches and buckets of the southern islands or the glorious chaos of Bangkok. Most farang never come here, and that is truly their loss.
Blazing through the rice paddies around Phrao we eventually found Doi Farang resort (signposts optional) and pulled up for a surprisingly good coffee. No time to waste, however – we still had over 150km to go and of the many great things about riding scooters on mountain roads, a fast pace is not one of them.
Rolling into the pretty lakeside town of Phayao late afternoon it was definitely time for a break. A few quiet whiskeys and mouth-searingly hot food soon put the world to rights, relaxing as the sun fell behind the mountains and darkness swiftly descended. Another incredible day on the road.
Distance travelled: 215km
Stayed at: Jumjai Homestay, Phayao, a lovely wood-panelled guesthouse one block back from the lake with air conditioning and private bathroom for 600 baht/night.
The colours of the first part of the trip are what sticks with me the most. Muted greens and browns of the forests giving way to the iridescent glow of rice paddies ready for harvest. Hazy grey morning mist burning off to the deep blue afternoon skies. Burning orange sun dropping below the horizon, leaving only the light of thousands of stars to illuminate the landscape.
I had thought I had a reasonable grasp of northern Thailand after spending a few months here, but after only two days on the road I realised just how much more there was to see.
And there was still another week to go…
Continue on to part two of this epic road trip!