"Ajarn" is the Thai title that means "teacher," and for the next twelve months, I will be Ajarn Steven to the students of Satree High School in Phang Nga Town, Thailand.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Road of 1,864 Bends

Pictured above is a map of Thailand's most Northwest province, Mae Hong Son. It is directly west of Chiang Mai. The highlighted area is known in the world of motorcycling as the Mae Hong Son loop, an approximately 700-800 kilometer circle starting and ending in Chiang Mai. If you are in that world, which I cannot say that I am, you would also know that the Mae Hong Son loop,with its picturesque mountain roads, is one of the top ten rated motorcycle trips in the world. Often called the road of 1,864 bends, it is known as a technical route.

On Monday, Khem told me that I did not have to proctor my exams for the week - it was exam week - so, I should go on a vacation. I thought that was an excellent idea. Somehow on Monday night, I came across the Mae Hong Son loop on the internet. I drove Bertha to the Phuket airport Tuesday morning while the sun was coming up, and bought a cheap flight to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in the country, located in the North. I was in the center of the city by 1 PM.

"The 100 cc motorbikes are 200 baht a day," said Big Tony of Tony's Big Bikes.
"I'm not too sure," I said. "What else you got?"
"How bout this baby?" said Tony.
"Now, that's more like it."

And so the journey began. Within a half hour, I had left the brown and gray streets of Chiang Mai. On the road.

I finally made it to the mountains. A coffee bar - a real coffee bar, not the instant mix you get in Phang Gna - was at the first crest. Little did I know that these would be scattered everywhere and that there would be many better mountaintops, but at the time, I didn't know what lay ahead. I stopped for some mental refueling.

Yes, this was a good cup of coffee.

But, then I took off. Up and down throughout the mountains, higher and higher.

Three hours from when I had set out from Chiang Mai, I had reached a little town in the Mae Hong Son Province called Pai. Cameras in Pai were strictly forbidden during nightfall (aka I left mine in the room), so I only took pictures the next day when I was leaving. This was a live music Rasta bar. I walked in the previous night and met an Aussie, a Parisian anthropologist, and a recent university graduate from Cork. We ended up having a pretty silly night because the Thai bartender closed down shop early and took us across the river to a Thai party.
I asked the Irishman how long he had been in Pai.
"I came for two nights," he said.
"I'm just here for the night," I said.
"That was six weeks ago."

Apparently that was a trend in Pai. The local bookshop owner was a mid-thirty Californian. He had come across Pai when he was backpacking Southeast Asia. He came for the weekend and has been there ten years running.
Another American, from Alaska, had the same story. He opened up a restaurant that sells the only decent burger in Thailand. Real cheese and beef from Australia. Trust me, you have no idea how good that cheeseburger was. It had been awhile.

However, I did not share their fate and after only a night in Pai, I hit the road. Northwest heading towards Myanmar.

The rice country around Pai was surreal.

But, the mountains beckoned. I continued to climb.

Somewhere between a top and bottom of one such peak, I saw a sign on the side of the road for a waterfall. It was still early afternoon, and I felt like waterfall.

There are hundreds of signs for hundreds of waterfalls. Some are big; some are short. Some are spectacular; most are okay at best.
I got lucky.

Back to the endless road.

The wet season is in full force. It rains almost everyday, if only for an hour, but mostly more. Luckily, the Thais have built little shelters along the road.
Keep dry, read a book, and wait it out.

On the second night, I arrived at Mae Hong Son the capital of the province. It is famous for Wat Jung Khum that is lit up at night over the small Jong Kham Lake.

Mae Hong Song is anything but touristy. It's just a bustling Thai town that dies at night. My first reaction was that it is like a Phang Nga of the North.

There may have been no night life, but I was restless from a day on the road. I found the local bar, and lost a couple beers to the local bartender in pool. I like to consider it a night devoted to learning Thai.

The next morning while going over the map before I began my journey, I saw a little town thirty kilometers away near the Myanmar border.
I asked about it and was informed that it was a town for the Padaung, refugees from Myanmar who have lived in exile in Thailand for the past twelve years.
It is not the only town of its kind on the border between Myanmar and Thailand. They have gained a certain amount of notoriety as the "long-neck" tribes and many of the towns have become large tourist attractions.
The Padaung rely on tourist donations to subsist due to the fact that they cannot legally work in Thailand.

I paid my 250 baht and snapped some pictures.

It felt good to be back on the road.

So good that I thought it was about time I pose for a picture.

. . .And I think Phang Nga is a small town.

I could get used to this scenery.

The sun was setting as I pulled into my final overnight stop in Mae Sarieng, a small river town in the southwest of the Mae Hong Son Province.

I was tired and needed to chill out.

Mae Sarieng at first appearance seemed like it would be the quietest stop on the trip, but the one bar in town proved to be a farang magnet. I started talking with two Norwegian brothers (to the right and left of me) and then the two French guys on either side of them showed up. The younger Norwegian worked as a "rough necker" on an oil rig. He informed me several times that it wasn't that rough because in Norway they had strict regulations, something that did not exist in America. On an American rig, apparently, the name had more meaning. His brother was a socio-anthropologist that had been living in Thailand the past two years since he had written his thesis. He lived half the time in Chiang Mai and half in a village near Mae Sarieng with a host family, studying rice farming. The French guy on the right was a banker from Paris that had married a Thai woman and was visiting her in-laws. Apparently, his father-in-law was the patriarchal and Buddhist leader of the village and he had to make sure he was perfectly behaved in Thailand as not to mar the family's reputation. The other French guy on the left was a bit of an enigma, and I'm not really sure what he did.
As the beers kept coming, the night quickly turned into a four-on-one argument about America's international failings, a subject I was more than happy to clarify for the non-believers.
I'm not sure I rectified America's perception in their eyes, but we at least made peace with each others' obstinacy

Sad to leave my new friends behind, I longed again for the road and began the final stretch back to Chiang Mai.
I almost crashed into this wild herd of cattle searching for food. When I circled around to get a picture they formed a circle and looked as if they were gonna charge, so I didn't get too close.

Descent down the final mountain road before the long stretch of highway to Chiang Mai.

I stayed in Chiang Mai for two nights. Feeling guilty that I had neglected the majority of the wats (Buddhist temples) on my road trip, I decided to visit one of the most famous ones in the country, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. It's about 20 kilometers outside of the city on a mountaintop.

This was an upper-level monk in one of the auxiliary temples at Doi Suthep. He was basically emaciated. Many of the monks who become very serious late in their life eat only one vegetarian meal a day to practice self-control. He also did not move or even seem breathe while I was in the room. The only movement that broke up his blank stare into some other world was an occasional blink.
I'm not sure why he was dressed in red rather than the usual orange robes given to a monk.

Chiang Mai and Doi Suthep were fun, but to be honest, I miss the motorcycle.

Monday, August 9, 2010


The last weekend in July is a national Buddhist holiday. In other words, the last weekend in July is a four day weekend.
It had been a solid three weeks without adventure, so I was itching to take Bertha on a road trip. After school on Friday, I packed my backpack with a bathing suit and a toothbrush, filled up her gas tank, and headed the 100 km southeast to Ao Nang, a beach / tourist town in Krabi Province.

Ao Nang is not much of a beach as far as Thai beaches go, and even if it was, the rainy season is now in full force. As you can see it certainly is not sunny; however, Ao Nang's main use is not a final beach destination but a port to the nearby islands. So, with a light drizzle dampening my clothes but not my spirits, I hopped on a long-tail boat for a twenty minute ride to Railay Beach.

Unfortunately, the rain was coming down with purpose by the time I reached Railay, so I don't have a picture of the beautiful beach that welcomed me. I didn't see it again anyway until I left. Railay is divided into two parts: beautiful and rugged. The beautiful side consists of top-end resorts and the like. . . no thank you.
I made the five minute trek through the jungle to the other side of the island.

Not much beach here. Just limestone cliffs and mangrove trees.

When the tide is up, there isn't even a beach. Even if there were, the water is muddy. This ain't Phi Phi.

I found a very cheap bungalow with the essential hammock a minute or so walk from the coast. It even had it's own bathroom with a shower!

And, this is the reason I'm here!
Next to my bungalow was the rock climbing school. Railay beach is one of the best places in the world to go rock climbing. They have hundreds of different routes, and I was set on conquering them all.

My partner in crime, Eve.
Being as how it's late July and it rains every afternoon and barely gets very sunny, I received a good price on equipment and instructor. The best part was that I had the instructor all to myself. He ended up being a great guy and we spent basically the entire day together from sunup on the cliffs to sundown playing pool at the bar. Although, he's Muslim so he doesn't drink.

He taught me how to tie the knots and safety precautions and technique. I took a three-day course, so now I can get my own equipment and do everything without the instructor standing over my shoulder, making sure I don't kill myself. Still, whenever you climb you always need two people. One to climb, and one to belay (The safety guy holding on to the other end of the rope. If you fall, you're not coming all the way down).

The scariest / best part of the course is lead climbing. In lead climbing you attach the rope to clips on the wall as you go up, so if you fall, it's most likely a long fall. You won't die, but you probably will injure yourself, perhaps seriously because you will pick up speed and slam into the cliff. You climb meticulously with purpose.

Unfortunately, I only have pictures of one climb. This is the beginning of a top-rope climb.


And higher.

Whatever you do, don't look down.

This was a picture taken from my last climb on the last day. It was by far the hardest. I am trying to smile and pose, but I was so dead and my forearms were so burnt that I had trouble pressing the button to take the picture. I am about 40 meters up in a little cave that looks out over Railay. It was incredible. . .too bad I was too tired to really care about the view.

On the rock climbing side of the island, there are a few coffee places with real coffee! (Note: Phang Nga only has instant coffee)

Get a cup of coffee, read a book, have a conversation, chill out.
Everyone's beat from a long day on the cliffs.

This is where I spent my evenings.

The guitarist who played each night was a thirty-year-old Thai who specialized in Neil Young and the Beatles. I swear he sounded exactly like Paul McCartney.
Sorry, no picture. . .