During a family trip to Michigan many years ago, my grandmother took myself, my brothers and my cousins go-karting. There was only one condition that we had to agree to:
“But what if I do?” I kept asking my Grandmother, unable to wrap my head around such a concrete, black-and-white rule.
“Just don’t,” she’d told me.
“But what if I do?”
“But what if I do?”
Well, I did. When it came to the end of the ride, I smashed that go-kart into the mass of other parked go-karts because (I distinctly remember) I was simultaneously holding down the brake and the gas.
My first time driving a motorbike in Thailand went a little something like that. Jimmy finally coaxed me out of my nervousness and we switched spots so that I could give it a go. The first thing I did was simultaneously hold down the brake and the gas and I teetered speedily along the edge of the road, nearly losing control.
Thankfully, I did not crash.
After that initial practice round, we rented two more powerful motorbikes and embarked on a 7 night motorbike journey along the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 600km loop connecting Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand. The roads wind through farming villages and traverse mountainous, rollercoaster terrain with spellbinding curves and lush forest and valley scenery – a motorcyclist’s dream, surely!
Our first stop? Doi Inthanon, home of Thailand’s highest mountain.
Why did we choose this mode of transportation?
Before we departed for Thailand, Jimmy and I had discussions about how we defined “slow travel” and ways through which to achieve this sort of status for our journey. For us, “slow travel” isn’t merely about speed; the term encompasses a fluid, mindful point of view that entails absorbing a surrounding culture, learning to pay attention to and appreciate its similarities and differences, and engaging with it in a participatory manner while also paying heed to environmental sustainability. The second we arrived in Thailand, it became clear that motorbikes are a primary form of transportation for urban and rural Thais alike: not only did it look like fun, but we felt that it would permit us to witness and experience Thai culture in a particularly unique way. We considered the fact that a bicycle trip would obviously have less environmental impact, but we concluded that a motorbike trip harmonized with some of our other goals in a more balanced fashion.
About 60km. Entrance fee: 300 TBH per foreigner! ($8.40)
Doi Inthanon, at 2565m, is the tallest point in Thailand (that’s 8,415 feet in elevation.) The Doi Inthanon National Park is inhabited by members of the Karen and Hmong hill-tribes as well as other Thais who reside and work in the area like any other town. The road is paved all the way to the top, curving upwards flanked by waterfalls and steep, hill-side agricultural projects and cropland.
Camping in Doi Inthanon National Park
Jimmy and I chose to camp in the park, although there are other accommodations available. It’s clear that camping is not hugely popular in Thailand. If you ever end up here, you’d want to first erase your notions of American camping (backcountry or car camping) and prepare for a unique version of what we often depict as the American summer dream.
For 325TBH (about $9) Jimmy and I rented: 1 three person tent, two sleeping bags, and two sleeping pads (pillows would have been 10TBH a piece). To acquire a camping pass and rentals, you must check into the park headquarters. They asked to hold onto one of our passports for insurance. Generally I try to avoid this but I was okay with it for one night!
As it began to drizzle outside, Jimmy and I attached our sleeping bags/pads to our motorbikes (somewhat precariously) and drove the short distance through a nearby village to the actual camp ground, where the camouflage tents were already set up. The language barrier between us and the camp security caused a small amount of obscurity, so we showed up, parked our bikes, and chose an empty tent, not sure if we’d been assigned to a particular tent or not. As soon as we arrived, it began to rain. We clamored inside, trying to avoid the puddle in the corner. It would continue to rain for most of the afternoon, but we find that drinking rum with strangers over spring rolls spicy curry soup is a great way to pass the time. Around 3am the next morning, nearby village roosters decided it was time for us to wake the hell up.
The Twin Chedis and the Summit
On the way to the summit the next morning, the twin chedis dominated our attention. These are two gorgeously structured temples built by the Royal Thai Air Force to honor the 60th birthdays of the king and queen (1987 and 1992, respectively.) The King has recently passed away, and mourning will officially last a year.
The roosters turned out to be an annoying-as-heck blessing in disguise: because of our early start, we had the place virtually to ourselves save for a couple other visitors, and we were able to enjoy the spectacular mountain views in peace without having to elbow anyone just to take a gander. The heat hadn’t set in yet and we were able to peacefully wander the tidy garden situated behind the chedis.
After that, we drove to the top of Doi Inthanon, just to say we did. There is no real view from the summit (in fact, most of the summit is predominately blocked off for some sort of military operation; camouflage-sporting Thai men wielding large guns patrolled about, guarding a giant radio tower).
There is a lovely Buddhist shrine at the official highest point, however, sentried by little stone elephants, colorfully decorated, and laden with floral and food offerings from visitors. In my opinion, it’s worth the trip just for this, even though the real views are from the Twin Chedis. There are also a couple coffee/food options at the top, in addition to a small gift shop that boasts a poster of Tom Cruise from Top Gun.
Onward to Mae Sariang
Once we’d fed ourselves and packed up, Jimmy and I began our second leg of the journey: Because we’d driven to the top of Doi Inthanon, this would turn out to be a 180km day to Mae Sariang, our next destination.
As we began to drive down from the campground, backpacks on or strapped to our bikes, it began to pour.
We did not bring raincoats.